The Constitution Unit


Meg Russell makes recommendations for how a ‘virtual’ parliament should operate

15 April 2020

In a new joint blogpost, Unit Director Prof Meg Russell and Director of the Hansard Society Dr Ruth Fox set out ideas for how parliament might move to 'virtual' working for a limited time during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Meg Russell makes recommendations for how a ‘virtual’ parliament should operate

There have been many calls for parliament to become 'virtual' during the current ‘lockdown’, using remote working to ensure proper scrutiny of government during the crisis. But how should a virtual parliament operate? This post identifies the broad issues that must be addressed, and explores the challenges and trade-offs parliament might face while transitioning to ‘virtual’ working.  

The authors recommend that

  • Parliament should operate virtually as far as possible, rather than seeking to accommodate any continued physical presence by MPs and Peers at Westminster.
  • Parliament should not pursue ‘business as usual’ but should identify and prioritise essential business, while allowing other proceedings to lapse temporarily.
  • In the Commons, the crisis arrangements should be informed by as wide and transparent a consultation and decision-making process as possible. (By necessity, this already happens in the House of Lords, where, partly due to its ‘hung’ nature, consultation and more consensual cross-party decision-making is routine.)  Proposals should be subject to 'sunset' clauses and ongoing review to show that new arrangements are temporary and create no automatic precedent for the post-crisis era.

The authors propose short-term procedural changes to facilitate a 'virtual' parliament including:  

  • Remote voting by digital means, partnered with the adoption of a 'deferred division' model whereby several votes are taken together at the end of the day. There is no need for a move to block voting by party whips.
  • Modifications to 'urgent questions' (UQs) in the House of Commons to guarantee time for up to 3-4 UQs each sitting day for up to 15 minutes each, rather than each UQ lasting for up to 45 minutes.
  • The introduction of follow-up questions at Prime Minister's Questions, and an increase in the number of appearances by the Prime Minister before the Liaison Committee (made up of select committee chairs).
  • The possible introduction of a Coronavirus Select Committee in the Commons and / or the Lords.
  • Changes to the committee stage for scrutiny of public bills and the process for approving Statutory Instruments.
  • Temporary deferral of some Commons business including: Private Members’ Bills (on allotted Fridays), Ten Minute Rule Bills, Chamber debates nominated by the Backbench Business Committee, and end-of-day adjournment debates. In the House of Lords a decision has already been taken to suspend Private Members’ Bills and certain non-legislative debates.

Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit said:

There is clearly a widespread desire to get parliament up and running again, and members will be keen to cooperate and will hopefully be flexible, accepting that virtual working will require some compromises. But it's really, really important that the government does not just present members with a 'fait accompli’: there needs to be proper consultation; and any changes should be strictly time-limited, with opportunities for feedback and regular review.

Ruth Fox, Director of the Hansard Society said:

Adversarial party politics rightly takes a back seat in a time of national crisis, but parliament's collective responsibility to hold the executive to account is enduring. Extraordinary arrangements are needed if parliament is to go fully 'virtual'. But any new arrangements must ensure fair representation for all Members and parties; and the crisis and parliament's response to it should not become a pretext to shift power even further towards the executive.


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