Rolling back hybrid Parliament risks undermining representation say panel of cross-party MPs

With measures to allow MPs to attend Parliamentary business virtually under review, cross-party campaigning group Centenary Action Group has produced a report highlighting the benefits of virtual working, and what can be done to make Parliament more accessible to all social groups.

At an event organised with Big Tent Ideas, female MPs from the Liberal Democrats, Labour and the Conservative Party shared their experiences of Parliament, arguing against a return to the previous normal.

The event was chaired by Hannah White, Deputy Director at The Institute for Government, who set the scene by describing how many MPs were unable to participate fully in parliamentary affairs at the initial stage of the pandemic, making the adoption of conferencing technology imperative to them being able to represent their constituents:

“The virus meant that MPs who were clinically vulnerable, disabled or had caring responsibilities were not able to come in.”

“Technology can’t just help us with practicalities but enable our politics in the longer term to be more representative of society.”

Dr Jessica Smith, a lecturer in politics at the University of Southampton who co-authored the report, followed up on White’s remarks by critiquing various aspects of previous Parliamentary procedures, saying “We’ve known for a long time that Parliament’s old ways of working has been inadequate.”

Through her research, Smith has come to the conclusion that the use of video conferencing technology in both chambers needs to be kept in place, and that leaders need to continue to adopt the institutions’ ways of working going forward:

“It can open up the Commons to more diverse candidates in the future. It can demystify the job.”

“Good Parliaments don’t just happen, leaders need to act to make them come about.”

Daisy Cooper MP, who was elected to parliament for the Liberal Democrats in the 2019 elections, has been vocal about the obstacles facing MPs with health conditions and disabilities. Copper, who has Crohn’s Disease, explained how barriers in place prior to the pandemic were removed due to virtual participation. She shared a personal example of this from her first day in Parliament, when she was not allowed to bring her water bottle into the chamber, even if her condition causes dehydration:

“On my very first day in the job I was faced with someone saying I couldn’t have the one thing I need to stay safe during the day with me.”

“If you have a condition where you have to plan your eating or medication it is incredibly hard to plan out your day. You end up having to either self-sensor and not take part or you put yourself through an endurance test.”

Being able to participate from home had clear benefits for the St Albans MP, who said she has found it “utterly liberating” and wishes for aspects of the current system to remain in place post-pandemic:

“Remote participation should continue for those who want to use it as an option. It would make it a more welcome and inclusive parliament.”

Labour MP Abena Oppong-Asare, also elected to the House of Commons in 2019, spoke about how a hybrid Parliament can ensure better representation:

“When women’s voices are absent, it means bills without their input are going through that cover issues in which women are most effected.”

She also spoke about her experience of prejudice and racism since being elected, with people unable to tell the difference between her and some of her black colleagues, and why many members in her own community decide not to run for public office:

“It’s not just about barriers. I know people that are put off from going into public office due to the abuse on social media.”

The event was also attended by Karen Bradley MP, who chairs the House of Commons Procedure Committee and highlighted how quickly Parliament was in fact able to adapt to the pandemic:

“Things have moved incredibly quickly and we must remember what parliament was able to achieve in the first few months of the crisis.”

She also gave a more nuanced picture of hybrid Parliament, arguing that there were not only benefits with the current system:

“It’s made Parliament more accessible, but also merged more of private and public lives. We have got to accept that whilst there are benefits, it also has an impact on MPs private lives and mental health.”

“There are an awful lot of my colleagues who do not know what normal Parliament is like. I worry about how we’re going to manage and how we’ll support people.”

Big Tent Ideas Festival

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