UK Parliament committee wants virtual options for participation to continue

PTI London | Updated on May 31, 2020 Published on May 31, 2020

A UK parliamentary committee conducting an inquiry into House of Commons procedures has concluded that some form of virtual participation should be allowed to continue while coronavirus restrictions are in place.

The House of Commons Procedure Committee concluded in a report on Saturday that provisions should remain in place for MPs to participate in proceedings remotely if they are unable to travel to the Houses of Parliament in London during the lockdown.

British MPs are set to resume Commons sittings from Tuesday, when they are to decide on a new method of voting on parliamentary legislation.

“We do not think it is reasonable for Members, and by extension the constituents they represent, to be excluded from proceedings of the House because they choose or have been advised to follow government advice on how to protect their health during a pandemic,” the inquiry report notes.

“We, therefore, recommend that the House make provision for virtual participation in its proceedings for those Members who consider themselves unable to travel to Westminster for as long as the pandemic persists,” it says.

The temporary facilities for virtual participation in the proceedings of the House, and for a wholly remote voting system, lapsed on May 20. The committee expressed regret at this lapse because several of the coronavirus social distancing conditions, which threatened to hamper the effective operation of the House in the weeks before the Easter adjournment last month, will still be in place when the sitting resumes next week.

“We make this interim report to the House before its return to inform Members about the continued effect of coronavirus conditions on House procedure and practice, and to assist the House in coming to a view on the procedures under which it should operate while coronavirus restrictions continue to affect its work,” notes the interim report.

Former Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley, chair of the Commons Procedure Committee, said preventing MPs from taking part remotely will exclude members with underlying health conditions, who are unable to travel to Westminster.

The committee wants the Commons to continue remote voting as it commended the hybrid arrangements in place during the course of this month, which allowed MPs to participate and vote in proceedings remotely.

“We are still going to have only 50 members in the chamber. We are still not going to have that cut and thrust of interventions,” said Bradley, in reference to the social distancing norms in place for the Commons.

“With only 50 members in the chamber, with only those that are able to be there physically because they have not got underlying health conditions, or for other reasons, we are disenfranchising a great swathe of members and their constituents,” she warned.

The Opposition Labour Party has also called for remote arrangements to continue and the Commons Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, is supportive of the hybrid solution used over the previous weeks of the coronavirus lockdown.

“I still believe that we ought to be looking at hybrid for those people who are shielding, those people with an age profile, he told ‘The Times’.”

“And there may be MPs who are really struggling because they have nobody to look after their children. Other businesses would try to accommodate that. The fact is I’m very, very worried about somebody coming in who may be infected and before we know it, that has been passed round,” he said.

The procedure committee has expressed serious concerns over plans for crowded Commons lobbies during physical votes. Those concerns were shared by Public Health England, which has advised it would not be safe for MPs to vote in the traditional way of filing into division lobbies, despite measures such as perspex booths being put in place.

Published on May 31, 2020
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