On the 21 April 2020, the House returned from Easter recess and approved the introduction of remote technology in key items of business, namely questions, urgent questions and ministerial statements.
Following the successful introduction of hybrid proceedings, MPs approved a motion to extend this to further House business, including legislation. This will allows MPs to debate key legislative business, including the Finance Bill, Domestic Abuse Bill and the Fire Safety Bill.
Crucially, MPs have also approved a motion to bring in remote voting. Rigorous testing has taken place and guidance given to MPs on how to use the system.
This week will see the virtual select committee chair elections for the BEIS and Standards Committee, with nominations opening Monday 27 April 2020 and closing Monday 4 May 2020.
I am pleased that Parliament is continuing its business and that it is evolving a way to do so that enables scrutiny of the legislature at this incredibly difficult time.
I am not in Westminster but have already chaired a select committee remotely and will take part in the proceedings of the House from Harrogate. My inbox is very full and my team and I are dealing with many hundreds of emails and letters every day. I have also been talking to supermarket managers, care homes and businesses about the problems they are encountering and offered to personally deliver leaflets and food to vulnerable households through the Harrogate Easier Living Project.
So while I am pleased Parliament is beginning to operate using technology I think there is some way to go before this can be as effective as the vibrant and robust debating chamber we are used to. I am not sure, in fact, if that position can ever be reached as only a part of parliamentary activities are related to the chamber itself. But my focus remains the issues facing my constituents, community organisations and local businesses.
The proceedings on Tuesday and Wednesday will be broadcast on Parliamentlive.tv and BBC Parliament.
What will the new ‘hybrid’ proceedings look like?
- The proposed models allows a maximum of around 50 Members of Parliament to be present in the Chamber (under social distancing measures).
- Up to 120 Members will be able to participate remotely during these ‘hybrid’ proceedings.
- The Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, plans to Chair proceedings from Westminster assuming he can be in London. The Mace will be present in the Chamber and at the Table for all sittings of the House.
- Members will need to notify the House Service in advance and a list of participants in the planned sequence will then be published.
- The list for backbench participation will as usual be drawn at random from those applying to participate and will also reflect the usual arrangements for alternation between the two sides of the House.
For this initial phase, divisions are not covered by the hybrid proceedings. At the request of the Speaker, the Parliamentary Digital Service is working to produce a secure system to facilitate remote divisions, but any change to existing arrangements would have to be agreed by the House. Any divisions that take place for the time being would be carried out in a way that ensures social distancing, as already announced by the Speaker.
A number of screens have been placed in the Chamber to allow the Speaker and any other Members present to be able to see their ‘virtual’ colleagues.
Social distancing measures are in place across the Parliament and they have recently installed signage ato ensure everyone observes social distancing guidelines.
The following social distancing measures will be in place in the Chamber:
- Doors to the Chamber will be permanently held open to reduce contact and maintain social distancing for doorkeepers
- Measures will be in place to ensure that Members sit 2 metres (6 ft) apart on the benches
- Members will be asked not to pass any notes in the Chamber
The Procedure Committee are preparing a report on these temporary procedures under coronavirus restrictions, and will be uploading this to their website once published See https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/126/procedure-committee/
All images by ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor