It is common among British armchair constitutionalists to advocate for Parliament to be moved away from Westminster and plonked elsewhere – usually the North or the Midlands. A less explored candidate is cyberspace. But that was before the pandemic.
A virtual home for parliamentary business is mooted in a new paper by the Study of Parliament Group (SPG) which looks at the impact of the pandemic on the functioning of legislatures in Britain and elsewhere. While the paper does not advocate a wholesale abandoning of the Palace of Westminster, it suggests that more online legislating would be good.
Among the benefits cited are virtual committees, which the SPG says “are here to stay”, at least in hybrid form. Holding committees online is felt to attract more diverse voices, especially geographically, and detract from the theatrics associated with committees that meet in person.
Developing this point, the paper adds that technology could help MPs balance work in their constituencies and in the legislature, and make it easier for them to handle their extra-curricular responsibilities. The group’s main warning is that effective scrutiny could be hampered by more remote working, suggesting that committees should have the power to compel ministerial attendance in person as a remedy.
The SPG is also in favour of remote voting, noting that “it would represent a considerable efficiency for time-poor members” and is preferable to proxy voting. “Although the use of proxies is a well-intentioned alternative, its adoption on a large scale risks handing too much power to party managers,” the paper said.
It has long been known that the Palace of Westminster is in dire need of a refurb, which will probably cost billions of pounds. As such it’s relevant that the SPG notes that remote working could save money by economising on office space.
“We do not necessarily need ever-expanding estates to accommodate our legislators in one place,” it said. “Parliaments could become more pervasively present throughout the jurisdictions they represent. Reductions in capital expenditure on more and bigger buildings could be used to fund better buildings.”
Arguably Parliament has just had the same realisation of many other workplaces: telecommuting has upsides. The fact that the Palace of Westminster is a particularly fusty and conservative workplace with many arcane procedures has likely made the potential benefits that much greater.
Many parliamentarians have contrastingly complained that the pandemic has allowed the government to sideline them and evade scrutiny. I suspect this has less to do with remote working and more to do with Parliament’s lack of control of its own schedule, among other things. The legislature should allow MPs to use computers to be better at their jobs – just as Bill Gates intended.