It is easy to find comments about our need to respond to the latest UK position of COVID-19 and depending who is writing or speaking about them we either need to stay in acute lockdown, return to more or less a normal arrangement or find somewhere in between them. Rather tragically the way in which the Government speaks to us about this is as if all variants are what is being called for at the same time. However Parliament itself also needs to be changed and sadly the people who are in charge are the Government and the powerful backbenchers which means that they are ignoring a great deal of issues that many other people outside Parliament have constructive and strong views about. The big question is how can we demand a difference from these men and women who are very happy to tell us what to do, and who often claim they are accountable to their constituents, but what that means in reality is that for about 2 minutes every 5 years when we get a chance to vote for one of them (which represents a local MP, not the leading Party or the Prime Minister). In reality if Parliament is to gain any credibility at the moment this is one of the aspects that needs to change. Indeed if 2 minutes takes place every five years it will take most people the whole of their lives to get 20 – 30 minutes of accountability from their MPs who will of course change every 4 to 10 minutes in most cases.
So despite the information above showing the recesses which is currently on the Parliamentary website, the May recess did not take place and the Conference recess, let alone the Summer or Whitsun recess are not needed in my view. One of the reasons for this is that in the break from 25th March to 21st April it was decided that there would be 50 MPs allowed into the debate Chamber at any one time and then another relatively small group (I read somewhere it could be up to 150 MPs) who could participate via video conferencing facilities from outside of the Chamber during any of the debates. When the MPs did return on 21st and 22nd April to agree to such proposals it was decided that they would only work for a small number of hours each day and that they would only work for 3 days each week outside of their recesses. Yesterday they started at 11.30am and ended at 6.30pm so the longest number of hours each week is currently 21 hours and although the 650 MPs can all take their turn, at any one point in those 21 hours, there will be a maximum of 200 MPs participating in any of the discussions so 31% of our workforce. As I wrote a few weeks ago, whilst these current limits may be too restricted there are several very positive aspects of this sort of approach compared to the behaviour of Parliament in the last 30 or so years and indeed one could argue that we are moving Parliament forward by 300 years, as long as the changes that are currently happening are made part of the future arrangements.
One beneficial aspect is that MPs are usually spread between their Constituency and a Westminster Office and apart from the limited number of MPs who are based in or near Central London, this can involve a lot of travelling and the cost of two homes which the public help to provide. Indeed it can take over an hour to travel into Westminster from another London setting. The travelling and separation from the constituency takes up a lot of time and so a video based system, providing it can be extended to cover all 650 MPs irrespective of where they are based would help to give a very positive result. The reality is that most MPs have to stretch their time and even though their local voters may want to speak to them, their lockup into Westminster acts as a barrier for such a requirement.
Another aspect and indeed one of the reasons why MPs who are pregnant or ill can be placed in very difficult places is that up until yesterday there has never been a digital vote, even though many millions of people vote digitally in a whole set of arrangements every week. The tragedy for a lack of digital voting is bad enough for 650 MPs, some of whom end up getting drunk or eating too much while they wait for a vote in a debate they cannot be bothered to attend is that currently demands that they walk through an Aye or Noe doorway. However providing digital votes are arranged for MPs on a permanent basis we could also see a digital arrangement for our elections which would then provide a form of technology that could be used to gather our opinions on a number of matters that would no doubt be very challenging when it comes to some themes, but could be very significant when it comes to others. The cost of each General Election or referendum is about £100m which is why at the present time, we only get to vote every 5 years.
Another matter is the recesses, it of course makes sense when MPs are expected to travel into Westminster and work there for 4 long days (usually ending at about 10pm) each week and some Fridays as well although they end much earlier, that they have very little opportunity to engage with their constituents when they are in Parliament and so this takes place amongst the MPs who are the most responsive over the weekends and much more often during recess periods. However if most MPs could work and vote from their constituencies most of the time apart from when they were physically in Parliament, they could spend much more time with their constituents and so they would not need long breaks like they get at present. Also it would mean that people wanting to visit Parliament to talk to a number of MPs would not need to do so as they could also use the video conferencing technology which would also reduce the need for travel and it would prevent certain people from being able to spend too long with MPs that they are trying to snuggle up to while groups of them spend too much time getting drunk or eating while waiting for a vote to take place.
My view is that despite the argument made by some MPs over the last few hours, that we need to prevent things reversing back to what has worked very questionably for many years, just because it was set out several hundred years ago when matters were very different on so many levels. This first speech comes from Jacob Rees-Mogg:
I beg to move, That the Orders of 21 April (Hybrid scrutiny proceedings (Temporary Orders)) and 22 April (Hybrid substantive proceedings (Temporary Orders) and Remote voting (Temporary Orders)) shall have effect until 20 May 2020. The motion extends the decisions of the House on 21 and 22 April to allow the continuation of remote participation in proceedings of the House and remote voting until the Whitsun recess on 20 May. I shall not dwell on the detail of those motions, but rather use my time to explain, briefly, the reason for their extension. The current arrangements have allowed scrutiny of the Government to continue and, remarkably, remote voting to be carried out for the first time today. The motion allows the House to agree a short extension to the current arrangements. The Government have been consistent in saying that the arrangements are temporary. As yesterday’s Command Paper set out, it is only right that Parliament has set a national example of how businesses can continue in these circumstances. We have done so admirably, thanks to the patience and commitment of both staff and Members, and will continue to do so until the Whitsun recess, but it is clear that soon Parliament must set an example for how we move back, gradually, to a fully functioning country again. Our constituents would expect nothing less. Although we must move in step with public health guidance, it is vital that when we are asking other people to work and to go to their places of work if they cannot do so from home, we should not be the ones who are exempt from that. Indeed, we should be leading by example. It is my expectation that I will not have to renew the temporary Standing Orders again. I am grateful to the House for developing the temporary procedures, and for the immense amount of work by staff here to make the arrangements work. However, it is my belief that this House cannot be as effective in carrying out its constitutional duties without Members being present. Debates are inevitably stilted; they lack interventions. I cannot think of any previous occasion when I have spoken for so long without receiving any interventions. I begin to fear that I am boring the House, and I can think of no greater sin.
So this new arrangement has been working since the 27th April and yesterday was the first digital vote taking place on the 8th working day which represented about the 55th hour of their attempt to work differently. That would be the equivalent of one and a quarter weeks of working time which is not very long to get used to a totally new way of working. Also the suggestion that Jacob Rees-Moggs constituents, let alone the constituents across the rest of the nation would expect their MPs to work from away from their location and given that the Prime Minister has said everyone who can do so should work from home, that would make a strong case for MPs and Ministers to demonstrate that they are finding new ways of working. As for our MPs constitutional duties, to assume that we need them to leave the constitution is very concerning. The other speech I spotted came from Graham Brady who is the Chair of the 1922 Committee which is the dominant Tory backbench group. I have only reproduced part of it:
The virtual proceedings have served a purpose during the most acute stage of the crisis, but as the nation gradually returns towards normal life, as the Leader of the House rightly said, it is important that this place moves back towards normality at least at the same pace. The amendment of my hon. Friend Mr Wragg, which was not selected for technical reasons, sought to bring in hybrid voting mechanisms, and I thought that it was also an important recognition that we ought to be able to return gradually. Not only is this about the leadership that this House owes to the country; it is also, as has been said by both the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, about the quality of scrutiny and the effectiveness of Parliament. So much of what we do here depends on personal contact—however socially distant—and on the ability of Ministers to sense the strength of feeling.
Of course things will have to change to make the current arrangements work in an effective manner, but the gain would be huge and now is clearly the time for us to see change take place in our Parliament, irrespective of this being what Rees-Mogg and Brady would like to avoid!