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Speaker joins calls for ‘digital Parliament’

The Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, has formally requested that Parliament continues to operate “virtually” if the UK remains under lockdown when it is due to reconvene.

MPs have left Parliament for an extended Easter recess and are due to return to Westminster on April 21.

While it is impossible to tell how long the UK will need to continue to enforce social distancing – ruling out mass gatherings such as Prime Minister’s Questions, during which there is no realistic way to keep MPs at least two metres apart – it is highly unlikely that the rules will be relaxed by the time Parliament reopens.

Chi Onwurah, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, has been leading calls for the Commons to return as a “digital Parliament” while the pandemic rages.

Onwurah, who worked in engineering before entering politics, has drawn up proposals for MPs to continue holding debates and meetings via video conferencing. She qualified that the work of representing constituents and holding government to account would not require all MPs to appear in a “650-way split screen”.

In a letter to Dr John Benger, the Clerk of the House of Commons, Onwurah wrote: “With the help of our many ethical and innovative tech sector organisations we can deliver a digital Parliament which, through secure digital conferencing, can maintain our democratic traditions in accordance with social distancing.”

The letter was signed by more than 100 of her fellow MPs.

Now, Sir Lindsay has joined these calls, writing to Jacob Rees-Mogg, Leader of the Commons, and the Clerk of the Commons to request that MPs continue to be able to do their work of holding the government to account through “virtual” Parliamentary operations should the UK remain “in the grip of the coronavirus crisis”.

Sir Lindsay requested that MPs continue to take part in Prime Minister’s Questions; oral questions to government departments; other urgent question sessions, and continue hearing government statements.

Sir Lindsay pointed to a successful trial of virtual select committee hearings and asked government officials to “investigate how they would apply similar technology” in the Commons chamber.

Rees-Mogg has been urged to indicate “as early as feasibly possible” if the Commons will return after its extended recess or whether the recess will be lengthened further.

Rees-Mogg commented: “Parliament’s role of scrutinising government, authorising spending and making laws must be fulfilled and in these unprecedented times that means considering every technological solution available. We are exploring options with the parliamentary authorities in readiness for Parliament’s return.”

The Welsh Assembly became the first major UK democratic body to meet remotely this week, with members of the Senedd using the popular but contentious video conferencing app Zoom to continue business. While the entire Assembly did not attend, proportionate numbers of representatives from each party attended. They heard statements on the coronavirus pandemic from three ministers, followed by a question session chaired by the Llywydd (Speaker) Elin Jones.

Nick Coleman, co-chair of the IET's Digital Panel, commented: “It is essentialy that the engineering and technology community support the development and application of technology that will enable Parliament to continue to operate safely and securely during this unprecedented time.”

“A digital Parliament is novel in terms of engineering and addressing new ways of digital working, but we are confident that this is achievable with the right use of today’s technology.”

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