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Parliament in the age of pandemic

Parliament is not immune to the havoc and terrible destruction wreaked by Covid-19.

Today, the House of Commons passed a motion in the name of the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, snappily titled ‘Hybrid scrutiny proceedings’.

This motion, drafted in response to Covid-19 and the need for social distancing, was necessary to facilitate MPs participating virtually, as well as in the flesh, in future Parliamentary proceedings.

The speed with which these changes are being rolled out is striking in a Parliament in which reform often progresses with the rapidity of a snail crawling through treacle.

What is hard to quantify at present is what effect Covid-19, its impact on public finances, and the establishment of a temporary hi-tech Parliament will have on the multi-billion pound Palace of Westminster restoration and renewal project.

The original brief for the scheme was, amongst other things, to restore and re-provide a chamber for the House of Commons, as close as possible to the 1950 design (with some allowance for improved access).

It was decided after years of deliberation (and bouts of indecision) that a full decant of the Palace – Commons and Lords – providing builders with unfettered access for around five years, was the best way to build this new chamber and tackle the other extensive works required to safeguard the estate for the future.

I sincerely hope that, notwithstanding the historic levels of public debt Covid-19 will build up, there will be no further delay. The risks to both the occupants and the structures in the World Heritage site are simply too great.

However, given the duration of the project, there is still time for some of the innovations made for a temporary virtual chamber to be incorporated into the real thing. Electronic and remote voting, greater use of technology for virtual meetings, and more screens in the chamber could be made features of the new chamber and associated office space. This could be either for permanent use or, if Parliament so wished, to provide contingency arrangements should son of Covid-19 ever strike.

By rushing through these virtual procedures, Parliament is showing uncharacteristic flexibility. Adopting these working practices permanently would underline the fact that Parliament can adapt to the modern world, even without the pressure exerted by a pandemic. Will it fail the test?

The Rt Hon Tom Brake was Deputy Leader of the House of Commons in 2012-15 and spokesperson for on the Restoration & Renewal of Parliament programme for the House of Commons Commission in 2015-19. He was the MP for Carshalton and Wallington for 22 years and now offers political advisory services.

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