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MPs take part in first live test of remote voting during Covid-19 debate

MPs will use phones and computers to vote from their homes in a House of Commons debate today in the biggest change in parliamentary procedure for 150 years

MPs across the country are to use mobile phones and computers to vote at in a House of Commons debate in what is described as a “historic first” for Parliament.

The government plans to use a debate this afternoon on the Covid-19 pandemic to conduct a live test of remote voting technology developed by the Parliamentary Digital Service (PDS).

The move comes as the UK prepares for an extended recovery period from the coronavirus, with the death toll passing 40,000 today.

The House of Commons has approved the technology, which replicates the Commons’ existing divisions voting system as a temporary measure during the pandemic.

However, some MPs have raised concerns about the security of the system, which lacks biometric or fingerprint identification, potentially allowing MPs’ wives, children or researchers to vote on legislation.

More than 600 MPs will use the system – the most significant change to voting in the Commons since 1863 – to vote after this afternoon’s Covid-19 debate.

They will also vote on renewing hybrid voting procedures, which allow MPs to either vote remotely or in the Commons chamber.

The Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, is expected to move on to other business to allow time for the voting results to be collated, because counting takes longer than in traditional voting procedures.

The Commons introduced remote voting and video calling after more 100 MPs signed a letter written by Chi Onwurah calling for Parliament to take a lead in using digital technology for remote working during the pandemic.

Software engineers developed the technology to allow MPs to vote from their homes or on the move using a mobile phone, in four weeks.

The PDS adapted the MemberHub website, which is used by members and their staff to table questions and written motions, to allow MPs to vote “Aye” or “No” following a division.

MPs receive alerts by text or email when a division is about to take place. The PDS is also developing the ParliamentNow website to sound a division bell on any device running the website in the background.

The website aims to ensure that MPs don’t miss votes if, for example, they are taking a phone call on the mobile they use to cast their vote.

The technology went through several test iterations, with software engineers working weekends to overcome difficulties, such as ensuring the system was compatible with Parliament’s network security.

MPs took part in live tests on 30 April, 1 May and 4 May. The first live test identified a problem with Parliament’s firewall preventing some MPs from accessing the system, which has now been fixed.

According to the PDS, a 3G mobile phone signal is sufficient to access the system.

The Commons has created a fall-back system that allows MPs who cannot get mobile or internet access or face other technical problems, to text or email a helpline, which will call them back to allow them to register their vote.

Staff from the Public Bill Office will check the votes for any anomalies before the results are passed to the Speaker of the House.

‘Suboptimal’ security can be used during pandemic

The House of Commons amended its procedures on 21 April to allow MPs to take part in questions to ministers, urgent questions and ministerial statements either through videoconferencing or being physically present.

The Speaker has power to suspend a remote division if there are technical problems, or to order a vote to be re-run if it is disrupted by technical problems.

MPs use multifactor authentication, a user name and password to verify their identities on the voting system, which was developed with advice from GCHQ.

The House of Commons records the IP address of every voter, but there are no geographical checks to ensure the MP is in the UK.

The votes are encrypted and stored, so they can be checked with MPs if necessary.

The House of Commons Procedure Committee described the arrangement as “sub-optimal” in a report on 8 May, but found that the technology could be used to record MPs’ votes temporarily during the coronavirus pandemic.

The committee said in its report that the temporary purpose of the system did not justify the extra work and cost of developing technology that would require biometric or facial recognition that would work across a wide range of devices.

“The committee’s opinion on the suitability of the remote voting system over MemberHub is given on the basis that the system is designed for temporary use during the Covid pandemic and has not been designed for permanent use,” it said.

The committee said significant extra resources and expenditure would be required if the House of Commons wanted a system to allow remote voting permanently, and has asked MPs to submit evidence about developing a permanent remote voting system.

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