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House of Commons commits to digital Parliament

Temporary arrangements will be in place to allow MPs to work remotely, with a project involving the BBC set to implement a more robust solution

Calls for a digital Parliament have taken effect as the clerk of the House of Commons has committed to finding a solution that allows MPs to work remotely.

House of Commons clerk John Benger has written to Labour MP Chi Onwurah in response to her letter sent last week and co-signed by 153 MPs calling for a digital Parliament to be put in place by the time the house returns on 21 April 2020.

According to Onwurah, Parliament should “lead by example” and “urgently deliver” a setup which would allow activities to continue via video conferencing to ensure social distancing.

Benger pointed out that the government is keen to enable remote working and that virtual committees have already taken place successfully. He noted that the setup introduced by the Parliamentary Digital Service (PDS) has meant that the number of virtual sessions can be increased, with as many as 20 virtual committees taking place weekly.

“We have also been finding new ways to enable MPs to carry out other key aspects of their work remotely,” Benger said. “We appreciate the huge pressure that constituency MPs are under and the constraints you are operating within while performing your roles.”

Benger noted that the Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle, has requested that a temporary video conferencing solution is found while a more robust option is developed and a parliamentary version of Zoom, which meets “some basic legal, security and privacy requirements” will be offered to all MPs.

“This version of Zoom is closely aligned to that used within government and is therefore more secure than Zoom’s consumer offerings, which many MPs are currently relying on,” he said.

In addition, the managing director of PDS is leading an exercise to identify and deliver a platform to enable MPs to carry out Parliamentary business remotely, Benger said.

External partners including the BBC are supporting the project, and other assemblies such as the National Assembly for Wales, which held its virtual session on 1 April 2020, are being contacted to share their experiences. But Benger noted there are hurdles associated with the project.

“There are challenges to be overcome, not just technological, but also relating to information security and cyber security,” he said. “We will also need to work out what adjustments need to be made to our usual practices and procedure to ensure the new arrangements work as smoothly as possible.”

However, Benger said that MPs would have to convene to approve remote working. This, he said, raises clear issues as to how this can be achieved while respecting social distancing rules currently in place to slow the spread of coronavirus.

The House has already shown than it is willing to change how it works in response to the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, and the recent successful work – done at great speed – to enable virtual committee meetings to take place shows the ingenuity and commitment of my colleagues in many parts of the House service,” Benger said.

“I am confident they will display the same level of commitment in delivering new, virtual ways for ministers to keep the House informed and for MPs to discharge their vital function of holding the executive to account,” he added.

Commenting on the letter by the House of Commons clerk, Onwurah welcomed the Parliament’s commitment to changing in the current circumstances ,and that progress has already been made.

“We already see in Brazil and some US states digital parliaments being put in place, and the UK must enable democracy to continue during the coronavirus outbreak,” she said. “The country is adapting to social distancing, so must Parliament.”

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