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3 April 2020

It’s time to virtually recall parliament with a Covid-19 committee

Just as parliament has changed in the past, it must continue to adapt to circumstances.

By Ed Davey

One year ago, MPs of all parties were locked in what felt like mortal combat over Brexit, with the Commons split down the middle. One year on, we are in a real mortal fight against a virus that pays no heed to political persuasion.

In the face of this threat, it has been remarkable how quickly old barriers have come down and a more constructive politics has emerged. 

I’m proud of how all opposition parties, including the Liberal Democrats, have worked with the government to tackle the coronavirus and to try to manage its social and economic consequences.

But part of that work must be to scrutinise, and to ask the difficult questions. For there remain major questions unanswered about the government’s approach, from its management of the NHS, to the late response to helping self-employed people, to its lethargy in scaling up testing and getting personal protective equipment to front-line health and care workers.

Only by raising such issues directly with ministers can we properly represent the most vulnerable in our society. But just at the time when this scrutiny is needed more than ever, parliament remains in recess, with MPs less able to fulfil our constitutional duty. And with talk of extending recess, and of the problems in online scrutiny, we are seeing the idea take off in other parliaments as well.

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As an institution, the British parliament is rooted in centuries of tradition and is a beacon for democracy. We should value that. However, tradition must not be used to justify any further delay in proper democratic questioning, particularly at a time of national crisis.

Just as parliament has changed in the past, it must continue to adapt to circumstances to ensure that MPs can continue to represent their constituents by any means possible – even if that means working remotely.  

That is why the Liberal Democrats are calling for the government to create a new, remotely-working coronavirus select committee, made up of MPs from across the house and chaired by the leader of the opposition, to focus on all aspects of the epidemic.  

The precedent for this has already been set in New Zealand, in a parliament and democracy largely based on our Westminster model. This could in turn now act as a model for the UK. Such a system would ensure continued parliamentary scrutiny of government decisions, albeit in a reduced format.

This could be established within a few days, and parliament could be “virtually recalled” with the first sitting of this new select committee.

In fact, we could go even further before the end of the recess: Liberal Democrats would wholeheartedly support proposals to set up ministerial questions through video-link technology, while retaining the traditional ballot system to select MPs for the Order Paper. By mixing existing tradition with new technology, we can find a way of working that respects convention while adapting for the current context.

There can be no doubt that the technology exists to make this possible. We have already seen cabinet meetings hosted on Zoom and the Prime Minister using video conferencing to attend Cobra meetings. Thousands of companies are using technology to maintain “business as usual”. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot use such technology to enable MPs from across the House to question ministers.

None of us can accurately predict how long the crisis will last. We hope and pray that we will soon turn a corner. Yet there is no guarantee that social distancing measures will be relaxed any time soon. There is even less guarantee that MPs will be permitted to travel the length and breadth of the UK on a weekly basis in order to take their seats in the House of Commons.

The scale and gravity of the crisis provides the strongest possible justification for urgent change. Unless we act quickly to establish new systems, then opposition parties will be left without a voice, their constituents without effective representation and the government without proper scrutiny.

Opposition MPs have shown great willingness to cooperate. Supporting the Coronavirus Bill, which brought in extraordinary incursions into our normal lives, was not easy for those of us who champion civil liberties and human rights. The quid pro quo now must be an urgent return to proper parliamentary questioning.

The current situation must not become our new normal – either for parliament or for the powers given to ministers and the police. Instead we must all work together to bring in a new model for remote parliamentary scrutiny in the time of coronavirus, so that together we can fight this threat to our country, and restore our freedoms as soon as possible.

Ed Davey is acting co-leader of the Liberal Democrats