Hybrid Proceedings (Extension of Temporary Orders)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:16 pm on 12th May 2020.

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Photo of Tommy Sheppard Tommy Sheppard Shadow SNP Leader of the House of Commons 6:16 pm, 12th May 2020

I begin by acknowledging the efforts of our staff in digital services and elsewhere. They have worked tirelessly—[Inaudible.] But let us not pretend that these things are ideal, or that we have made the fullest use of the technology available to us.

As I have said before—[Inaudible]—this gives Parliament the opportunity for Members to join remotely, if they can. The entire enterprise is centred on a meeting in the House of Commons Chamber, which means that whether we like it or not there is a division between those who are present and those who are not. This creates two classes of Members and it disadvantages those who join remotely. This is, of course, compounded by the fact that the final link in the digital chain is a domestic broadband connection that often fails, leaving Members unable to participate fully or at all. The way around this would be to take proceedings wholly online and to have a virtual meeting, as has happened in many other legislatures, including the national Parliament in Scotland. This creates a level playing field with everyone getting the same access, so I cannot understand why there is such resistance even to trying it on a pilot basis while we have the technology in situ.

The fact that things are not working as well as they might should provide an impetus for improvement, innovation and development. Sadly, though, there are some who experience schadenfreude at the imperfections of the current system. Their conclusion is to abandon it altogether. The constant insistence that these measures are only temporary and the hankering after getting back to how things used to be undermine the efforts of those who are trying to live in the 21st century.

I, too, hope that the public health emergency is temporary, but I want to see what part of these necessary arrangements can be used to improve our procedures in the long term. One of these is the process of voting. It seems that we have now perfected the technology to allow Members to vote in a manner that is safe, simple and secure, yet there are those who insist that we must be allowed to vote in the way that they always have, by queueing in a Lobby corridor and manually being counted by a Clerk. They want to do this no matter if it puts themselves, their colleagues and their staff at unnecessary risk. They think they are defending the right to vote, but in fact they are making a fetish out of a 19th century tradition rather than a democratic principle.

I say let us look at this through the other end of the telescope. If electronic voting works, why can it not be available to Members even when the emergency is over? Providing they sign in to the Estate, why not vote from their offices? Why not group votes together at the end of a session, making it quicker so that MPs have more time to discuss their constituents’ concerns rather than idling in corridors.

We should also change how we hold the Government to account. Today, our business comprises two statements, one urgent question and one debate, but all about the same thing. This is the way things used to be: different Departments doing different things, a multitude of concerns and each with their allotted slot. But everything has now changed. Now there is only one issue. All Departments are focused on the pandemic. Everything we do and say from now is conditioned by that reality, and it is time that we had a more ambitious approach to reforming how we discuss these things.

Finally, I note that we are being asked to agree this extension for one week, and I see later on the Order Paper that the Government intend to go ahead with the Whitsun recess.  I ask the Government to consider the wisdom of this and how it will look to the public. If Ministers are encouraging people to go back to work, is this really the best time for MPs to have a holiday?