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Virtual Parliament under preparation for return from Easter recess

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Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House of Commons, has said that planning for the return of the Commons via video link is “progressing well”.

With MPs due to return on April 21 following their Easter recess, planning is underway to facilitate a 'virtual Parliament' so that opposition MPs may continue to scrutinise the government whilst maintaining the necessary social distancing rules in place due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the proposed arrangements for continuing some Commons business MPs will be able to take part in Prime Minister’s Questions, urgent questions, and statements via video link. The proceedings will be broadcast and livestreamed. Once the arrangement is judged “satisfactory and sustainable”, the House of Commons will consider extending it to debates on motions and consideration of legislation.

“Planning for certain parts of House business to be taken virtually is progressing well,” Sir Lindsay wrote in a letter to MPs. “The main aspect of the proposal will allow oral questions, including PMQs, urgent questions and statements to take place at the beginning of each sitting day by video link.”

He said that while the scale of the challenge meant that things would not always go smoothly, technology would allow MPs to hold the government to account while observing social distancing. He has asked the House Service and Parliamentary Digital Service to “undertake preparatory work as a matter of urgency on a system of remote voting in divisions of the House”.

He has already approved a “draft operating model”, which will now be reviewed by the government and major opposition parties. Sir Lindsay said that it would be up to the House of Commons to decide on any further changes.

The government is expected to set out its own approach for Parliament’s return later this week. The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson commented: “It’s hugely important that parliamentarians have the opportunity to properly scrutinise ministers.”

In response to questioning about whether responding to parliamentary questions would add extra strain to ministers, he said: “Ministers fully understand the need for parliamentary scrutiny and they will of course cooperate with any inquiries that take place. I’m sure Parliament itself will be very aware of the challenges faced by the government as we respond to what is an unprecedented health threat.”

Calls for a virtual or 'digital Parliament' have been spearheaded largely by Chi Onwurah, the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central and a former engineer. Onwurah drew up proposals for MPs to continue doing their parliamentary work via video conferencing, qualifying that this would not require MPs to appear in a “650-way split screen”.

The Welsh Assembly was the first major democratic body in the UK to meet remotely, with proportionate numbers of members of each party using the Zoom teleconference web app to hear statements and ask questions about the response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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