Parliament goes virtual

Holly Johal

Holly Johal, an Account Executive in MHP’s public affairs team, explores how Parliament can ‘virtually’ resume business as usual in times of crisis.

Parliament and technology have not always been natural bedfellows, but the Transport Select Committee, led by Chair Huw Merriman sought to blend the two by running an Oral Evidence Session on ‘Coronavirus: implications for transport’ over Zoom. Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle has suggested a “virtual Parliament” when it returns on April 21st, and the success of such Select Committee sessions will potentially have significant implications for how Parliament will “Keep Calm and Carry On” during the COVID-19 crisis.

At first glance the session appeared to be the same as any other. MPs and ministers focused on the task at hand, treating it with the expected seriousness that such an evidence session typically warrants and with the Chair urging members to be mindful of time, it could be forgiven if you thought it was a normal televised hearing in Portcullis House. Tell-tale signs that this was not a regular Select Committee hearing, such as the occasional drop in signal or the natural urge to peer inside members’ homes were the only things which gave it away.

With the Select Committee being able to effectively fulfil its role in scrutinising the work of the Department for Transport, Parliament has shown an unexpected willingness and importantly ability to adapt. The Transport Select Committee showcased the possible future for legislators, at least for the time being. With only the Chair and Clerk needed in parliament, for broadcasting purposes, the work of parliamentarians in holding the Government to account can continue while following guidance to social distance and work from home if you can.

Trying to turn this successful hearing into a viable option for the long-term running of Parliament as a whole seems less likely. Even with current renovations under way, there is concern that the Palace lacks ubiquitous Wi-Fi and mobile signals to accommodate such a dramatic shift in procedure.

The success of the daily COVID briefing proves that an element of accountability can be delivered remotely but the reality of having high numbers of MPs and Peers attempting to participate in online debates, committee hearings or ministerial questions without a high capacity for technical support seems unlikely, although not impossible.

Another pertinent issue is how Parliament could adopt remote voting, which it does not have the resources to support, as MPs are currently only able to pass legislation by queuing in the voting lobbies. While scrutiny of the government could continue using the methods outlined above, there does not seem to be an immediate solution to allow legislation to be passed while parliamentarians are social distancing. The security concerns also raised by remote voting epitomise the wider worries shared by legislators worldwide as they attempt to navigate the new reality of online government and the security risks that come with it. Boris Johnson’s tweet of a Zoom meeting last week, which had a meeting ID visible, prompted calls for more secure systems to be put in place to protect conversations regarding national security.

The success of the Transport Select Committee session is an important step as legislators navigate the new normal, and we should expect Select Committee hearings to carry on in this manner as the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold. It will require participants to prepare and engage differently, and to master news skills of presentation and communication. Giving evidence from the comfort of your home, without the pressure of travelling through Westminster may seem initially appealing, but the levels of team preparation and personal briefing will pose new challenges all round. This is a change MPs will not be making alone. Whether this could be expanded to create Hoyle’s vision of a “virtual Parliament” remains to be seen, but just as many of us are finding solutions while working from home so are our representatives.