Westminster Diary: Moving towards a virtual Parliament
PUBLISHED: 10:00 27 April 2020
It was a week of flux; a week of uncertainty; a week where some dared to speculate whether or not we had turned the corner. Some called for an exit strategy to be outlined, others said it was too soon. The number of COVID19 patients in hospital beds was going down, but the number of deaths continued to rise. Behind the scenes, MPs - hungry to hold the government to account - waited eagerly for instructions on how a new virtual Parliament might work.
By the end of the week, the Speaker finally announced steps towards a ‘hybrid House.’ MPs would be able to take part in urgent questions and statements via video link for the first two hours of each sitting day; only if it worked well, would the model be extended to debates on legislation and other motions.
We would also be able to take part in Prime Minister’s questions, with plans for a number of screens to be placed around the chamber to allow the Speaker and the maximum 150 MPs allowed in the chamber, to be able to see their ‘virtual’ colleagues.
The Speaker pre-emptively warned all MPs who might dial-in, that they were “expected not to display or draw attention to objects,” meaning, no funny posters or rude statues on the wall or sideboard behind you.
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As a bit of subversive Friday fun, I asked my team to suggest posters I could hang up behind me; their equally subversive suggestions were: Emmeline Pankhurst, RuPaul, or more pointedly, a massive warning sign saying “TEST, TEST, TEST!”
With constituency issues waiting for answers, MPs are chomping at the bit to quiz Ministers.
Without the pomp and ceremony, the booing and jeering, no-one knows whether it will lead to better or worse scrutiny or more or less respectful exchanges.
Who knows, PMQs might even become bearable for the public to watch.
The history books may mark this time as a historic moment: the first time that MPs will be able to quiz ministers via Zoom for the first time in the House of Commons 700-year history.
But with the current crisis, this could not come a day too soon.
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