Coronavirus is forcing Britain’s Parliament to finally embrace virtual work

Empty benches are a good thing, epidemiologically-speaking.
Empty benches are a good thing, epidemiologically-speaking.
Image: Jessica Taylor/Handout via REUTERS
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Britain’s Parliament made history today. The 700-year-old institution—very much an analogue one—approved a new measure that will allow some business to be done remotely.

Starting Wednesday (April 22), up to 120 MPs can quiz government ministers via the video conferencing platform Zoom. An additional 50 or so will be allowed to physically attend the chamber, as part of a “hybrid” approach that Commons speaker Lindsay Hoyle said is a first step toward a completely virtual Parliament. Those present will be guided by markings to stay six feet apart from one another, and can tune into screens that display live feeds of those dialing in.

The now-temporary measure comes amid growing pressure to rethink how MPs carry out their duties during the coronavirus pandemic. Last month, Labour’s Chi Onwurah drafted an open letter—signed by more than 100 of her colleagues—that argued Parliament is no longer a safe working space.

“I am sure there are going to be hiccups on Wednesday and we have further to go—we should be able to make spontaneous interventions rather than pre-submitted questions,” Onwurah told The Guardian. “But it is a huge step forward. We have gone from the 17th century to the 21st century in three weeks.”

In some respects, Parliament has a tradition of embracing digital technology and adapting with the times. As the Institute for Government think tank notes, there’s already a CommonsVotes app that shows how MPs vote on any given piece of legislation, and a separate one called HousePapers that tracks parliamentary business.

Much more recently, core government functions have gone digital. Since Parliament went on recess on March 25, committees have been using video conferencing to interview witnesses. MPs have also been granted permission to expense up to £10,000 in additional costs related to working from home. (This has angered some voters.)

But moving the most important aspect of Parliament—the business of making laws—will be harder. Any MP in Britain who wants to introduce legislation must first sign their name in a large book. When it comes to voting, each member must then physically walk through the “aye” or “noe” corridors before shuffling into the chamber. The process is so cumbersome that Hoyle has doubled the amount of allocated time—to 40 minutes—to go through the motions.

Fortunately, there are workarounds. Party whips are already allowed to cast ballots on behalf of MPs in the case of parental leave, and “proxy voting” could in theory be granted to everyone.

But because MPs typically vote on draft legislation on multiple occasions, in order to scrutinize all stages, that wouldn’t be the best solution. Allowing them to register their votes digitally might solve the issue—and MPs said in Parliament today it’s under consideration.