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House of Commons reports progress on virtual Parliament

Plans to take certain proceedings online are on track but ‘bumps along the way’ are expected, according to the Speaker of the House of Commons

The House of Commons is making good progress in the preparations around taking some parts of parliamentary business online, according to the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle MP.

The plan is to get the infrastructure ready to enable MPs to take part in Prime Minister’s Questions, urgent questions and statements remotely via video conferencing when the House of Commons returns on 21 April 2020.

Planning for these activities to be taken online follows calls from more than 150 MPs to allow Parliament to lead by example in the coronavirus crisis and ensure social distancing. Hoyle then responded by asking the Parliamentary Digital Service (PDS) emergency plan to introduce a parliamentary online environment, involving actors such as the BBC.

According to Hoyle, proceedings will be broadcast live and if the outcome is judged as “satisfactory and sustainable”, it is possible that the model will be extended to debates on motions and legislation. He noted that it is up to MPs to decide in any change to “a system of remote voting in divisions of the House.”

“I recognise the urgent need to put new arrangements in place and will do everything I can to ensure the House is presented with the opportunity to take a decision on this matter sooner rather than later – giving the House as much advance notice as I am able to do in these exceptional circumstances,” Hoyle said.

He noted that although progress has been made around the preparations for virtual Parliament and use of technology will be important in allowing MPs to continue to work, the “scale of the challenge means there are bound to be bumps along the way”.

He then thanked the team involved in setting up the online arrangements, particularly the Broadcasting Team and PDS, for adapting current technology and bringing in new ways to operate remotely.

A draft version of the operation model for the remote set-up has been approved by the Speaker, but he noted that this is now with the government and main opposition parties for review, with a virtual meeting for the procedure taking place on 15 April 2020.

If the House of Commons Commission gives its approval the day after the meeting, the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, following consultation with the parties, will need to put forward motions setting out any temporary arrangements for MPs to consider the way forward, in a traditional fashion, upon the return of activities later in the month.

Labour MP and shadow digital minister Chi Onwurah, who led the initial calls to digitally enable Parliament, said MPs must be able to show they can make democracy work while social distancing.

“It is so important that we hold government to account and ask the questions constituents are raising. I want to see this in place for Parliament’s return next Tuesday so MPs aren’t having to choose between representing their constituents, and travelling sometimes hundreds of miles to London under lockdown. The technology is there, and the Speaker has made it clear it is possible,” she said.

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