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28 April 2020

Opposition parties fear lack of scrutiny in digital parliament

MPs from five parties have demanded a Covid-19 select committee amid fears they could be frozen out by ministers.

By Patrick Maguire

Opposition parties are demanding a new coronavirus select committee and changes to parliamentary procedures amid concerns that MPs are being frozen out in the new “hybrid” Commons. Representatives of five parties have written to Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House of Commons, with proposals for a raft of measures to help ensure the opposition is heard during the pandemic.

Led by Wendy Chamberlain, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, the parties are demanding a new Covid-19 select committee be established to ensure scrutiny of ministers continues for as long as parliamentary business as usual is disrupted.

Modelled on the Brexit select committee and chaired by the leader of the opposition, the new body would have a larger membership than usual, so as to ensure representatives of smaller parties were able to grill representatives of the government. Similar committees have been established in New Zealand and Scotland.

While existing select committees have proven the most resilient – and digitally adaptable – component parts of the Commons system since parliament resumed sitting after the extended Easter recess, they are dominated by Conservative and Labour MPs.

Chamberlain told the New Statesman: “This is the only way to guarantee smaller parties from across the political spectrum the opportunity to scrutinise and ask questions of Ministers at this critical time.”

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With the ability of opposition MPs to question ministers in the chamber already constrained, there are concerns that smaller and regional parties would suffer in the event that a new committee was not set up to redress the balance.

Beyond the select committee, the group, which alongside Chamberlain includes MPs from Plaid Cymru, SDLP, Alliance Party and Greens, proposes ministerial question sessions – which see government representatives quizzed in the Commons chamber and via Zoom – be extended from the current two hours to three hours to allow more MPs to participate.

Smaller parties also want the right to determine what business goes before Parliament as long as it operates in its hybrid form. At present, only the Conservatives, Labour and SNP need to agree.

Longer deadlines for submitting parliamentary questions are also on the agenda. Truncated sitting hours and earlier finishing times mean MPs have less time to submit questions, which if tabled on a Wednesday can take as long as five days to reach the Commons order paper.

Neither Labour nor the SNP put their name to the letter. Both enjoy significant privileges, guaranteed questions and select committee seats by dint of their status as the official opposition. The NS revealed last week that Keir Starmer has made a concerted effort to ensure that opposition initiatives are coordinated via the Labour frontbench, rather than on a cross-party basis.