UK to set up virtual parliament during coronavirus shutdown

The government is to set up a virtual parliament to allow MPs to scrutinise its response to the coronavirus crisis following demands from the Commons Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, and opposition parties.

The move was announced on Wednesday night amid mounting concerns that the government has failed to get a grip on the crisis, with claims that health workers’ lives are at risk because of a lack of protective equipment and a shortage of tests for the virus.

Rajeev Syal

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, announced the move in a statement that said the government and parliament hoped appropriate technology would be in place by 21 April, when MPs are due to return to Westminster.

He said: “Parliament’s role of scrutinising government, authorising spending and making laws must be fulfilled and in these unprecedented times that means considering every technological solution available. We are exploring options with the parliamentary authorities in readiness for parliament’s return.”

A source said the plan would be in place by the end of the month. There have been calls from across the political spectrum for MPs to be allowed to scrutinise the government remotely at a time of enormous social upheaval and as freedom of movement is being curtailed by new laws to encourage physical distancing and self-isolation.

The government came under pressure to set up a virtual parliament after an unusual intervention by Hoyle on Wednesday. In a letter to Rees-Mogg, the Speaker said MPs should still be able to take part in prime minister’s questions, and put questions to government departments and ministers even if they could not return to Westminster as scheduled on 21 April.

Hoyle argued that a trial of virtual select committee hearings had already been successful and he had asked officials to investigate how they would apply similar technology for use in the Commons chamber.

Hoyle wrote: “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.

“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.”

The Speaker also asked if it would be possible for the government to set up a forum of MPs during the recess, possibly via select committee chairs, who could quiz senior government representatives at set times on different days.

“MPs are being swamped right now with questions and casework from distressed constituents who need answers,” he said. “Responses cannot wait for the house to sit again.”

A hundred MPs from Labour, the Scottish National party and the Green party wrote a letter last week to the Commons clerk, John Benger, asking for his support in setting up a form of digital parliament.

Parliament broke for recess a week early as the number of cases of Covid-19 around Westminster increased. MPs are due back on 21 April.