Challenging times: How to get a virtual Parliament up and running during the coronavirus pandemic

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Challenging times: How to get a virtual Parliament up and running during the coronavirus pandemic

April 29th, 2020

By Sir Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the UK House of Commons and Patron of Westminster Foundation for Democracy

The House of Commons has been operating in more or less the same way for more than 700 years – so it is quite incredible that we have been able to change our modus operandi within a few weeks.

From the moment the Prime Minister announced that we all needed to “stay home, protect our NHS and save lives,” our House authorities have been working around the clock to find an alternative to us meeting, physically, in Westminster.

Our first move was to stop all non-passholders from visiting the estate, cancelling school visits, tours, cutting the number of catering outlets and entrances to the palace, enforcing social distancing in and out of the Chamber – and encouraging all staff who could do so to work remotely.

I wanted to ensure our Members, House staff and MPs’ staff did not put themselves at risk, when the clear advice from Public Health England has been to reduce contact and keep a distance from each other.

Secondly, and with great ingenuity, our Broadcasting Unit, Parliamentary Digital Service, and in-House facilities colleagues worked at great speed to establish ‘virtual’ select committee meetings. They then came up with a solution to the need for Members to meet in person: a hybrid House, whereby most MPs join our proceedings by video link, meaning very few need to be present in the Chamber.

On Wednesday, 22 April, we made history when we trialed this for the first time – and it was by and large a success. Instead of hundreds of MPs packing the Commons for the first Prime Minister’s Question time after the Easter recess, we had up to 120 MPs joining us virtually via Zoom.

A handful exercised their constitutional right to sit in the Chamber – but they had no advantage over their ‘virtual’ colleagues, because only people on my list were called.

Getting to this point has not been without its challenges. What sort of technology would we use to host what is effectively a giant video conference? Would it be secure? Would Members accept it? What sort of business would we be able to include?

Thankfully, necessity truly is the mother of invention. Not only were we able to answer all these requirements, thanks to the hard work of our talented in-house team, but we had the backing of the majority of MPs to meet in this way.

To create some resilience in the system, we decided to start small, by operating the hybrid House for two hours at the beginning of each sitting day, which the Government has reduced to Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

As part of this first wave, scrutiny was limited to PMQs, Urgent Questions, departmental questions and statements. This week, we extended the remit to include the Second Reading of Bills – and in time we hope to have a system of remote voting, if the House agrees.

Welsh Secretary Simon Hart made parliamentary history last Wednesday when he took questions from his virtual despatch box at home in Pembrokeshire.

He was followed by PMQs, which was answered by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab – in the absence of PM Boris Johnson, who returned to work this week on his recovery from coronavirus – with Keir Starmer, making his debut as the new leader of the Labour Party.

It is true there wasn’t the roar of support for these two politicians as they entered the Chamber – instead, it was eerily quiet. Rather than cameras panning to Members on the green benches, we were beamed into the front rooms, studies, and bedrooms of ‘virtual’ Members taking part.

From the eight screens dotted around the Chamber, we could witness the home furnishings of our colleagues – from patterned curtains and chandeliers, to books, paintings and ornaments.

But there were no children, pets or partners wandering in – unlike my cat, Patrick, who jumped in through the window, in the middle of the House of Commons Commission meeting that I recently chaired from home via Skype.

There was less of the spontaneity of our proceedings – no quick intervention, Points of Order, or supplementary questions. But we managed to move through the list fairly swiftly and with only minor signal break-ups on a couple of occasions.

In the Chamber, the few people present were seated in marked-out places, a socially distanced two metres apart – and unlike previous conventions, they were encouraged to leave soon after asking their question.

In the end, this will never make up for the Chamber sitting as we know it. It is just a new way of working, to get us through this difficult time.

Normal service will be resumed, once this crisis is over. But in the meantime, our virtual Parliament showcases the innate ability of our staff to overcome what life throws at them, with innovation, grit, and connectivity at its very best.

Image: Jessica Taylor / UK Parliament.

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