LONDON — British democracy is digitizing in response to the coronavirus crisis — but many MPs say it’s not working well enough.
With the U.K. parliament taking an extended break, and fears it may not be able to return again as scheduled on April 21 amid a rising COVID-19 death toll, MPs from across the political divide are increasingly concerned about how they are going to respond to the thousands of constituents seeking help during the crisis.
From proposals for a digital parliament to calls for a daily question session with ministers, there is a growing push for Britain’s democracy to digitize further and emulate many workplaces that have found ways to operate during the lockdown.
House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle on Wednesday called for parliament to operate “virtually” if MPs are unable to return as normal after the extended Easter break. In a letter to Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg and Clerk of the House of Commons John Benger, Hoyle said MPs should still be able to question the prime minister once a week and submit questions for government departments.
Opposition Labour MP Emma Lewell-Buck said it was “frustrating” not to be able to ask the government questions on behalf of her constituents.
Conservative MP Peter Aldous warned that if parliament did not return on April 21 “the whole mechanism of government could come under real strain.”
“Journalists are allowed to ask questions at these [daily] press conferences but MPs who are representing thousands of people who are desperate on the phone to us crying, begging for help, we are not allowed to ask directly or hold anyone to account for that,” she said.
“Myself and my team and MPs across the country are getting bombarded with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of queries [about the government’s response to the pandemic] and the detail isn’t there, and it is so frustrating. It is hard [to get hold of departments]. It is logjammed,” she said.
‘Gaps in the system’
Like millions of employees, MPs are already putting videoconferencing into use, including the U.K. Cabinet, which made history this week when it conducted its first entirely virtual meeting over Zoom.
MPs have been set up with equipment for home-working, and parliamentary committees have, for the first time, been allowed to continue to operate virtually during the extended Easter break. There are restrictions on the number of so-called virtual evidence sessions, with the parliamentary authorities still working to increase capacity.
But many backbench MPs say such moves are not enough and warn the closure of parliament for recess has shut off vital routes for MPs to obtain the information needed to answer questions from concerned constituents.
Backbench Conservative MP Peter Aldous said he has seen “gaps in the system” when it comes to clarifying how lockdown and bailout measures will operate.
He said he has found that contact with parliamentary private secretaries — MPs appointed as aides to ministers — is the best way to contact departments, citing Foreign Office aides who had been helpful in registering the most serious cases of constituents stranded abroad.
Ministers have also been holding daily calls with MPs across the political divide who want to raise local issues.
“We are only a few days in and it is working OK so far,” Aldous said, “but I think there may well be issues arising where the system really will get strained. The obvious one is the government’s mechanism for getting money into people’s bank accounts. Over the next few days and weeks that will come under an awful lot of pressure as people will want that money. I am starting to see that with [the welfare payments system] Universal Credit, with people not able to get through, and not able to register,” he said.
He warned that if parliament did not return on April 21 “the whole mechanism of government could come under real strain.”
“How do you fully call the government to account and have that scrutiny? There will only be so much we can do remotely,” he said.
If the U.K. has not reached its peak infection rate by April 21 “there is no chance of coming back because it is against government medical advice,” Labour MP Darren Jones said.
He is among more than 100 MPs who signed a letter to the House of Commons clerk John Benger, spearheaded by fellow Labour MP Chi Onwurah, calling for a “digital” House of Commons during the pandemic.
More radical changes can only be made with the support of the House of Commons itself following advice from the parliament’s procedure committee.
The committee chair, Karen Bradley, said in a statement on Tuesday she strongly supported the temporary measures already introduced, which she said would be “subject to regular review, in line with developing public health guidance and the official advice on social distancing and self-isolation.”
Calls for parliamentary reform are not new, particularly among MPs who believe Westminster should be more family friendly. Advocates say MPs shouldn’t have to physically walk through special rooms — known as lobbies — in Westminster in order to vote, for example.
Those deciding on immediate reforms also have one eye on the future.
Lewell-Buck said electronic voting systems seen in other parliaments, like the European Parliament, would help in the current circumstances.
Jones, who has been a strong proponent of reforming the system so MPs are able to vote while on parental leave, said: “Whilst we are in the pandemic we absolutely ought to be providing a digital parliament, I don’t think there is any kind of debate about not doing that because the prospect of MPs traveling from around the country to parliament is against government advice potentially, and it makes us look like we don’t get it when we are telling everybody else to do it.”
But while Aldous acknowledged the need to make changes to voting to allow social distancing “in the short term,” he said that “from a backbench MP’s perspective” he still values the traditional method of voting in the lobby as a way for backbench MPs to engage with ministers.
“The best way is to wait in the lobby, collar them and talk the issue through,” he said.
One parliamentary official involved in discussions said there are MPs with strong views on both sides of the debate — “those who are keen to come back physically, and those who are not.”
Those deciding on immediate reforms also have one eye on the future.
Hoyle has promised he will establish a Speaker’s Working Group after the crisis to “analyze the lessons we can learn and establish what solutions are needed (technologically, procedurally and logistically) to make us more robust in the future.”
While Bradley said the experience of some of the temporary measures would “indicate some areas where our procedures, and services to MPs and the public, can be improved.”
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