Westminster Diary: New ways of participating in a debate

Welcome to my Westminster diary. Each week, I’ll be giving a behind-the-scenes take on what life is really like as a new MP. From jeering and bobbing, procedures and prayers, I’ll be lifting the lid on the mother of all Parliaments. Think ‘The Thick of It’ not ‘House of Cards’! - Daisy Cooper, St Albans MP

This week, the “hybrid” Parliament – part physical, part virtual – cleared the next hurdle. Building on Prime Minister’s questions last week, MPs quizzed Ministers, took part in debates, and even had a practice run at online voting.

I asked Ministers about the membership of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, and about extending financial support for more pubs and music venues. I also took part in the debate on the Fire Safety Bill, which responds to the Grenfell disaster and which is also relevant to some of our new-build blocks here in St Albans.

Some things weren’t very different at all: the answers I received to my questions were pretty evasive. And, as is often the case, I will have to try another way of getting to the bottom of things.

But some things were markedly different. For the parliamentary debates, there was a list, published in advance, with time slots for each speaker. Hardly revolutionary, you might think.

What normally happens however is that MPs email the Speaker’s office and ask to speak in a debate. The Speaker then creates a list and an order for who should speak when but the list isn’t published, it’s kept secret.

The result is two-fold. First, because you don’t know where you are on the list, an MP might end up sitting in the Chamber for four or more hours, not realising that they’re so far down they’ll never get called at all before debating time runs out. Second, the list isn’t fixed. An MP is allowed to ‘bob’ (meaning, jump up and down) to intervene during someone else’s allotted time. The MP might do this if they think they’re too far down the list to get called… but the Speaker might move you further down the list if he thinks you have been bobbing too much! It’s all a bit whimsical and inefficient but none of that is a problem under this new, transparent and sensible system.

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Finally, MPs had a trial run of online voting, with the simple motion, “This House prefers spring to autumn”. There were some glitches on the first run but at the second attempt, the Ayes had it.

You can contact Daisy at daisy.cooper.mp@parliament.uk