The government’s move to return the Commons to its usual ways of working when it returns from recess, is deeply concerning.
This report warns that abandoning virtual proceedings from 2 June will reduce parliament’s ability to scrutinise the government. And it will mean abandoning the principle of equality of participation for all MPs, which has underpinned ‘hybrid’ sittings in the Commons.
Social distancing will continue to be enforced when parliament returns. This will limit the numbers of MPs and peers able to participate in parliamentary activities, and could potentially exclude MPs who are shielding, whose families are shielding, who have caring responsibilities, or who would currently find it difficult to travel long distances to Westminster.
The government has indicated it is seeking to find a solution for MPs who are shielding, but has not yet provided any details. It must set out its plans for allowing MPs unable to travel to Westminster to continue to participate in parliamentary proceedings.
The UK parliament’s virtual proceedings – some of the most wide-ranging changes it has made to its ways of working in its history – created better opportunities to scrutinise the government’s response to coronavirus than have been available to most other legislatures in the world.
Working virtually enhanced the ability of select committees to hold the government to account, as remote meetings were easier for MPs to attend during a recess and could reach a broader range of witnesses. MPs could ask questions of ministers, respond to ministerial statements, and debate and vote on legislation. Crucially, no MP was disadvantaged by participating remotely rather than in person.
The quality of debate – especially on legislation – was constrained, and there was less opportunity for free-flowing, back-and-forth discussion that challenges ministers and tests their thinking. But these imperfect but inclusive virtual proceedings are preferable to returning to heavily restricted ‘business as usual’ which will limit the ability of some parliamentarians to fulfil their democratic role.