Speaker urges ‘virtual’ Parliament to keep up scrutiny
Release by the House of Commons on 1 April 2020
Parliament should be able to operate ‘virtually’ if the UK ‘is still in the grip of the coronavirus crisis’ at the time the House is due to return on 21 April, Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle has insisted.
MPs should still be able to take part in Prime Minister’s questions, oral questions to government departments, to ask urgent questions and to hear statements being made – especially if it is ‘not appropriate’ for them to be present in the House of Commons, he said.
He argued that a trial of virtual Select Committee hearings had already been successful – and he has now asked officials ‘to investigate how they would apply similar technology’ for use in the Chamber.
In a letter to the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Speaker asked if he would ‘make representations to Government’ to enable the House to legislate, scrutinise and represent constituents in this way.
He also urged the Leader to indicate ‘as early as feasibly possible’ if the House will return after its longer Easter recess on 21 April – or whether it will be extended further.
Sir Lindsay said he had been compelled to write after ‘numerous’ MPs had raised issues about how Parliamentary scrutiny could continue during the crisis.
‘Once the House returns, if we are still in the grip of the crisis where the physical presence of Members, or too many Members, in the Palace is not appropriate, I am keen that they should be able to participate in key parliamentary proceedings virtually, for example, oral questions, urgent questions, statements,’ he said.
‘Of course, the House would have to authorise any changes to such arrangements, via consideration of a motion set down by Government, as I cannot do so under my own authority.
‘The House Service has already trialled some virtual select committee evidence sessions with witnesses – and I have asked officials to investigate how they would apply similar technology to the types of business listed above.’
Sir Lindsay said ‘it would be extremely helpful in the planning of the running of the House’ if it knew when it is set to return, ‘given the growing scale of staff absence whether through social isolation or illness’.
‘Knowledge of this timeframe will greatly assist the House Service in workforce planning and the delivery of any technical solutions which are deemed appropriate,’ he said.
The Speaker also asked if it would be possible for the Government to set up a forum of MPs during this recess, possibly via select committee chairs, who could quiz senior Government representatives at set times on different days ‘about how things work and how they can be improved’.
‘MPs are being swamped right now with questions and case work from distressed constituents who need answers,’ he said. ‘Responses cannot wait for the House to sit again.’
Sir Lindsay noted that this was ‘an incredibly busy time for all of us as we navigate the Coronavirus pandemic and the impact it has for Government, the House and its Members and staff’.
He added: ‘I know we will continue to work tirelessly and constructively to develop solutions which enable the House to legislate, scrutinise and represent constituents.’
Mr Speaker also contacted the Clerk of the House, John Benger, in a separate letter to ask him for an update on progress made to connect MPs and Parliament remotely.