Would the UK be better served by an Online Parliament?

A couple of weeks ago I happened to catch some of the debate in Parliament about how that institution is moving to hosting its business online during Coronavirus Lockdown. I found the whole thing immensely depressing. The first thing to note was that the MPs were having to debate this in the House of Commons Chamber, although all duly socially distanced from each other. The second point that struck me was how every speaker I heard went to great pains to stress that any new measures introduced would be strictly temporary. A number of MPs (from all sides of the House) waxed lyrical about what a wonderful place Parliament was, and how it would be impossible to do their jobs if they weren’t there every day.

Now I agree that the Houses of Parliament is a wonderful place. I’ve been there numerous times, and I never fail to be impressed by the grandeur and history of the place, although a lot of that grandeur and history is false as the majority of the buildings were actually constructed in the mid nineteenth century to a faux medieval design. But it’s an awe-inspiring place, and it must take a while to get used to it if you work there. But, is sending thousands of people (I’m including all those who work there, not just MPs and Lords) to an out-dated building in the most expensive part of the country a good use of our resources? And is it the best way of ensuring our interests are represented? From my point of view a lot of the reasons MPs gave in the debate for needing to be in the physical institution are not necessarily healthy. There was talk of bumping into Ministers in the corridor, and chatting to officials in the tea rooms, all valid ways of getting things done in the Palace of Westminster. But are they the best ways of practising democracy? Do they lead to open decision making? Or do they give potentially unfair advantages to those who can play those kinds of games over those who can’t? 

I think it is undeniable that moving Parliament’s workings to a largely online operation would amount to huge cost savings. It’s equally undeniable that a lot would be lost in this process. But could anyone logically argue that the things we would lose are (a) essential and (b) value for money? If we were inventing Parliamentary democracy from scratch today, would we design it as it exists in the UK now? Could it be better for democracy if MPs spent nearly all their time in their constituencies with a few hours each day on video calls with each other and Ministers, and maybe a day a week attending a physical Parliament? 

The coronavirus lockdown has revealed quite a few things our society has shied away from until it has to confront them. One of these facts is that it is a lot easier to work from home than a lot of people, particularly, employers, had envisaged. The rise in popularity of Zoom has also introduced people to the concept of live-streamed online meetings to a much greater extent than before. Parliament is, belatedly, taking advantage of these developments; but it appears to be doing so reluctantly, and with big caveats about this all being a temporary move. I think questions need to be asked about the costs associated with running Parliament as a totally physical entity. These questions are particularly pertinent because we know we are heading to a period when Parliament will need to relocate so that the Palace of Westminster can be brought up to modern standards. I think that the very least we should be asking for is that plans for an expensive temporary replication of current Westminster arrangements be scrapped and that members be required to work from home during this time. That will provide a further interval during which they will be able to get more used to remote arrangements and more skilled in using them. After that, I can’t see how we could possibly go back to how things were before March 2020.

What do you think? Please let me know in the comments below.


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