‘Hybrid’ virtual parliament plans to be put to MPs next week | Politics

MPs are expected to be asked to approve plans for a “hybrid parliament” when the Easter recess is over next week, but not a move to full “digital democracy”.

The new procedures are likely to involve many MPs submitting questions to ministers via video conference during departmental questions, statements and urgent questions.

But MPs who have been involved in talks on how parliament can adapt its proceedings to the need for social distancing do not think the Commons could become fully virtual, and they have found it harder to imagine how legislation could be debated and voted on without MPs attending the chamber.

The details of the plans are still being worked on this week. The House of Commons commission, the cross-party body in charge of Commons administration, is due to meet on Thursday to consider options, and it is expected that MPs will be asked to vote in favour of the new procedures when they return to Westminster next Tuesday.

According to one MP familiar with the commission’s discussions, what is being proposed will amount to a hybrid parliament. He explained: “There will be some members in the chamber, and there will be some members who will be contributing digitally.”

Throughout the recess, parliament’s digital services team has been putting in place technology that would allow this to work and now insiders are confident that question sessions in the Commons, such as PMQs, could involve many MPs participating by submitting questions electronically, using video conferencing technology.

“We will have very, very slimmed-down proceedings – with just a skeleton group of ministers and MPs in the house,” said another commission source.

Opposition parties are comfortable with these plans, although there is far less agreement about how the Commons can continue to debate and vote on legislation in an era of physical distancing. Commons debates normally involve speakers taking spontaneous interventions from MPs, which would be hard to facilitate via video conferencing, and MPs have always resisted attempts to get them to vote electronicall instead of in person in the division lobbies.

Before the Easter recess the parties agreed to limit the number of divisions they called on legislation and Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons Speaker, proposed getting MPs to vote in smaller groups, which would have meant a division taking up to 40 minutes, not 15 minutes as now.

But these are not seen as long-term solutions to the problems created by coronavirus. In a letter to the Speaker sent last week, Karen Bradley, the chair of the Commons procedure committee, said her committee did not view these plans to limit the number of divisions as sustainable.

She said: “Every colleague is entitled to express an opinion … in debate and in the lobbies. Members of the committee have expressed concerns that the time taken in divisions under the social distancing procedures which you have announced will inhibit colleagues from testing the will of the house as they are entitled to do.”

Bradley also said in her letter to Hoyle that, although some MPs agreed that they should be staying away from parliament to set an example, others thought that much of what happened in the chamber “cannot be replicated by virtual means” and that it was necessary for MPs to continue to visit their workplace “in the same way as other key workers”.

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