‘Digital parliament’ details unveiled: MPs to ask questions by Zoom

No more than 50 MPs to attend the chamber in person, while up to 120 will be allowed to take part on large video screens

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Thursday 16 April 2020 14:40 BST
Journey through London's empty streets during coronavirus lockdown

MPs are to ask questions of ministers in the chamber of the House of Commons by video link for the first time, under emergency plans for “virtual sittings” agreed by parliamentary authorities.

Up to 120 MPs at a time will be able to take part virtually in parliamentary proceedings, while 50 could attend the chamber of the Commons in person, observing strict social-distancing rules.

It is the first time in the 700-year history of the Commons that MPs will be able to quiz the government without being physically present in the building.

The arrangements, which were agreed by the House of Commons Commission on Thursday, must be approved by MPs when they return from their extended Easter break on 21 April.

If they give the green light, large video screens will be installed in the chamber to allow MPs to take part remotely in the weekly session of prime minister’s questions, as well as any urgent questions and statements, from 22 April onwards.

The use of the commercial teleconferencing system Zoom is certain to raise questions about security, after reports of hackers disrupting virtual meetings.

A US congressman recently complained of “Zoom-bombing” of a House Oversight Committee briefing in Washington by individuals who were not invited to take part.

The Commons Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, who chairs the commission and instigated the measures, said: “By initiating a hybrid solution, with steps towards an entirely virtual parliament, we are enabling members to stay close to their communities, while continuing their important work scrutinising the government.

“I do not want members and house staff putting themselves at risk. By working virtually, this is our contribution to the guidance of stay home, protect the NHS and save lives.”

Also on the commission are the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg; his shadow counterpart, Labour MP Valerie Vaz; and a representative of the Scottish National Party.

To maintain parliamentary standards, MPs dialling in from their living rooms or home offices will be told not to display or draw attention to objects around them while they are onscreen.

Virtual hearings have already been conducted by Commons select committees during the Easter recess, and if they work for questions and statements, the model is expected to be extended to cover debates on motions and legislation.

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