The working practices of Westminster and government have often been accused of failing to adapt to the modern age, and this rings true during the pandemic.
Technology is available and used by other parliaments, including the EU, which has moved to email voting. Similarly, the government has begun e-communicating with journalists in their press conferences and the Parliamentary Labour Party conducted their meeting earlier this week on Zoom. There is nothing to stop us holding a significant element of politics online.
Easter recess has been brought forward, from Wednesday 25th March until the 21st of April. Whilst we welcome closing the buildings that bring MPs together from across the country and therefore reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus, the recess must not mean that the government is no longer held to account by MPs. At a time of crisis, we need continued leadership and debate, but we should meet in a virtual environment and set an example to our constituents.
Today, parliament is a shadow of its former self as many MPs are sick, self-isolating, staying away to avoid contagion or can’t travel. But we still need a fully functioning parliament right now as we must do everything possible to protect the health and financial circumstances of every person across the UK.
While we should have been voting on the Coronavirus Bill to improve it, votes have been avoided to safeguard health. Had we been online, we all could have participated, and made the Bill even stronger.
Robust questioning, debates and votes must continue, but by a different means. Prolonging the voting time from the normal eight minutes up to 40 minutes is simply not enough. How about the practicalities? Will we always be six feet away from other MPs or staff members? And how democratic is it when most MPs will not be present to vote? At a press of a button, we could all take part. Other parliaments do this, and so should we.
In the meantime, not only are MPs and their constituents at increased risk, but also the staff at Westminster are vulnerable. They too have to make the daily journey on London’s transport to come to work. It isn’t just security staff and key clerks who enable business to function. Catering staff and cleaners are also being asked to work, as if asking an MP to make their own sandwich for lunch is out of the question!
Parliament is a cauldron for infections to spread. For the House of Lords in particular, it could be lethal, as there are more people who are in at-risk groups and have underlying health conditions.
Parliament must lead by example. It is not.
A near empty Chamber hardly provides the pressure cooker we need to force government to amend legislation. We need a vibrant democracy. There are enough systems already available to secure a digital parliament right now. This would include ministers receiving and answering questions on screen instead of in person, debates where everyone can participate and online voting. Just imagine how much more inclusive this way of working will be.
After the recess, this global crisis demands that government be held to account and a virtual parliament be established. Parliament would simply be beamed from the 650 constituencies in the country, and not only from Westminster. This gives us a new opportunity to demonstrate how we should be living and working at such a time — instead of MPs contradicting the very messages that they are trying to impose on others. By showing this kind of leadership, more lives will be saved.
Dawn Butler is Labour’s shadow equalities secretary and Rachael Maskell is Labour’s shadow employment rights secretary