I’m worried about what a Zoom parliament really means for proper debate and scrutiny

I am not a traditionalist: you would think that I would be relishing this time of Zoomed-in parliamentary questions and remote voting. And yet, I am not. I hate it

Jess Phillips
Thursday 07 May 2020 12:35 BST
Matt Hancock fails to commit to 100,000 daily coronavirus tests

Absence, in the case of parliament, does not make the heart grow fonder.

I do not miss travelling to London each week: in lots of ways I feel as if my ability to do actual, hands-on-a-keyboard, creating output work is vastly improved without the travel and even more hours of running around the labyrinthine of parliament just to show your face at meeting after meeting. My step count is down, but my productivity is definitely up.

No one could describe me as a traditionalist. Since entering parliament I have worked with others to smash nonsense workplace practices such as, God forbid, allowing parents of new babies the opportunity to vote via a proxy so they can have a bit of time off after pushing a human out of their bodies. I fought to relax the rules for men not to have to wear a tie to ask a question, and – surprise surprise – the quality of the questions hasn’t taken a hit. I never scuttle down to the Lords to watch the Queen’s speech, and I balk at most of the pomp and ceremony. If anything, you would think that I would be relishing this time of Zoomed-in parliamentary questions and remote voting.

And yet, I am not. I hate it.

I understand all of the reasons why this digital parliament has to happen and I support them. The speaker and the parliamentary authorities have done all they can to give it a chance. However I cannot help the niggling feeling that the level of scrutiny currently afforded by these very time-limited sessions of questions and statements from ministers is accidentally convenient for the government.

The back and forth of debate has completely gone. I have only spent one day in parliament since lockdown began, for the second reading of the Domestic Abuse Bill. Even in a debate where we all largely agree, there were moments when MPs zooming in on the big screens above my head said things that were either wilfully wrong or misunderstanding of the reality. Normally I would be able to leap to my feet and intervene to correct or challenge what was being said. Ministers are now able to speak in debates where they offer very little substance and face no intervention or challenge from members either in the chamber or in their own carefully curated chambers at home. It feels incredibly flat, perfunctory and there is no sense that behind the screens we are discussing people’s lives and livelihoods.

It turns out the drama of two people facing each other in the chamber of the mother of parliaments matters much more than I thought it did. A minister having to stare into the whites of a person’s eyes as they deliver a weak line or even a great one is the lifeblood of our democracy. That became very clear this week when Matt Hancock sat across from Rosena Allin-Khan, a shadow health minister by day and A&E doctor by night. He didn’t like her question about testing of NHS staff, which was delivered with complete professionalism, and so he sniped back and told her to watch her tone. Face to face with a capable woman able to communicate without the jittery broadband connection distorting her voice, or the distraction of what was on the bookshelf behind her, stumped him. He couldn’t just look away from the screen and say whatever he had planned to say regardless of the question: he had to face her and he was found wanting.

Landing a blow on a minister in the chamber is a delicious thing, but that in and of itself is not the goal. The goal is for scrutiny, to make better decisions for the country. The goal is for the ministers to worry about the flaws in their plans because they know they will be pointed out, so they iron them out first. This should be done by consensus when that is possible and, to be fair, that happens much more than people realise when parliament and all its committees are functioning properly. But when it can’t, the blows and trip-ups parliament can deliver do matter.

I never thought I would see the day when I longed for the traditional knock about, but I guess like everything in this crisis you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Let’s hope we can trust the government in this crisis not to use this opportunity to push things through without proper scrutiny – after all, they have never done anything like unlawfully closing parliament to suggest that they don’t want parliamentary scrutiny before. Oh…

Jess Phillips is Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley and shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in