THE creation of a “virtual Parliament” at Westminster, which will see Prime Minister’s Questions and ministerial statements taking place by video-link, is progressing well, according to Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Commons Speaker.

MPs from all parties have been pressing for the parliamentary authorities to ensure that full scrutiny of the UK Government can continue through the pandemic, allowing MPs to access debates, question-times and statements remotely and even voting on legislation online.

After discussions with the Government, Sir Lindsay explained that a virtual Parliament can now partially be delivered with its proceedings broadcast and webcast live.

Initially, the new online system will cover PMQs, urgent questions and statements but once this is deemed to be satisfactory, the plan is to extend the virtual Parliament to debates on motions and legislation. MPs will also decide on extending it even further to “remote voting”.

While a “draft operating model” developed by the House Service for how these arrangements will work in the Chamber in practice has been approved by the Speaker, it is now with the Government and main Opposition parties for review.  A virtual meeting of the Procedure Committee will consider this model on Wednesday.

“I recognise the urgent need to put new arrangements in place and will do everything I can to ensure the House is presented with the opportunity to take a decision on this matter sooner rather than later, giving the House as much advance notice as I am able to do in these exceptional circumstances,” said Sir Lindsay. 

“I will send out more detailed information about the proposals after the Commission meeting on Thursday April 16 but I must reiterate it is for the House to decide, in accordance with existing processes, the way forward once it returns from April 21.”   

Earlier, Ian Blackford for the SNP called for Westminster to use technology to hold the Government to account and to lower the risk of infection due to MPs travelling backwards and forwards to the Commons.

"I can have a perfectly agreeable discussion on Skype. MPs can hold the Government to account from their home. We need to get away from the view that everyone has to be in London at this time of crisis. No, we don't. We can actually be in our constituencies,” Mr Blackford told Sky News.

"When we are encouraging other people to work from home, it would be slightly disingenuous if parliamentarians weren't doing what they are asking other people to do," he added.

Meanwhile, constitutional experts Professor Meg Russell, from University College London, and Dr Ruth Fox, from the Hansard Society think- tank, also called for the creation of a virtual Parliament but stressed that any changes must be temporary and should not be used to shift power away from Parliament to the Government.

Prof Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit at UCL, and Dr Fox suggested "as far as possible" MPs should stay away from Westminster "in the interests of safety and to set a national example".

Their suggestions include:

*the introduction of electronic voting;

*the ability to have three or four urgent questions, lasting up to 15 minutes each, every sitting day;

*giving MPs the chance to ask follow-up questions at PMQs;

*an increased frequency in appearances by Boris Johnson or whoever is deputising for him as he recovers from coronavirus before the Liaison Committee, which is made up of chairmen and women of all the committees, and

*the possible introduction of a Coronavirus Committee.

The experts acknowledged that a shift to a virtual Parliament could present difficulties for media coverage.

But they argued that "if live broadcast is temporarily compromised, that may be a necessary price to pay, and committees have already experimented with delayed broadcasts and video clips".

Prof Russell said: "There is clearly a widespread desire to get Parliament up and running again, and members will be keen to co-operate and will hopefully be flexible, accepting that virtual working will require some compromises.

"But it's really, really important that the Government does not just present members with a fait accompli - there needs to be proper consultation, and any changes should be strictly time-limited, with opportunities for feedback and regular review."

Dr Fox added: "Adversarial party politics rightly takes a back seat in a time of national crisis, but Parliament's collective responsibility to hold the executive to account is enduring. Extraordinary arrangements are needed if Parliament is to go fully 'virtual'.

"But any new arrangements must ensure fair representation for all members and parties; and the crisis and Parliament's response to it should not become a pretext to shift power even further towards the executive."