There are growing calls for the UK Parliament to return to business so government ministers can face questions over their handling of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Parliament closed early for recess due to fears over the virus spreading – this explainer looks at whether Parliament could soon reopen, in what form and what role it could play.
Why is Parliament closed?
Parliament has been closed for recess since 25 March and is due to remain in recess until 21 April, however, concerns have been raised that Parliament may be unable to reopen due to the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic.
Parliament would usually close for recess over the Easter period, however, it closed a week early this year due to fears over the spread of the Coronavirus. A number of MPs have tested positive for the virus, while others have experienced symptoms. Key figures in government including Health Secretary Matt Hancock have contracted the virus, while the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been in hospital during the last week after his condition worsened after he contracted the virus.
What are the calls for Parliament to reopen?
There have been a growing number of calls for Parliament to return after Easter so ministers can face questions over their handling of the Coronavirus pandemic – even if it has to be done over webcam and digital technologies.
New Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer has demanded urgent talks to ensure Parliament can return – writing to the leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg, Sir Keir said the UK was facing a ‘national crisis’. He said:
“If parliament is not sitting or functioning effectively that cannot happen.”
“I accept that it is difficult for parliament to return to business as usual at the moment, but there are clear examples around the world of parliaments operating effectively by using new technologies and different models.”
At the end of March, more than 100 MPs signed an open letter calling for the creation of a digital Parliament.
What steps are being taken to ensure the return of Parliament?
A spokeswoman for the leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg has said that ‘technological solutions’ are being prepared for consideration in the coming week. She said that Parliament would “fulfil its essential constitutional functions” during “unprecedented times”, adding “it is important that we have a comprehensive solution that does not inadvertently exclude any members”
During the Coronavirus pandemic, some select committees have been taking evidence remotely and working with social distancing measures in place. The House of Commons said at the end of March that extra IT capacity would be made available to help select committees continue their work while Parliament was not officially sitting.
How feasible is a digital Parliament?
Much of the country has been getting to grips with working from home over recent weeks, and many would hope that the UK Parliament would be able to do the same. There have been examples of Parliaments around the world holding sessions digitally, and the National Assembly for Wales held its first virtual session on 1 April 2020. Government cabinet meetings have also been held digitally in recent weeks.
However, there are challenges to overcome to achieve a working digital Parliament. MPs are based around the country with varying access to secure and high-speed technologies which has raised concerns and the House of Commons itself, parts of which date back to the Middle Ages, has its own issues with internet connectivity.
What role can Parliament play during the Coronavirus pandemic?
While meeting and moving through the voting lobbies may be logistically difficult during the current pandemic, the UK Parliament has a key role to play. MPs will be keen to hold the government and its ministers to account for their handling of the virus pandemic, and will likely want to ask urgent questions about its approach.
Legislation has already been passed in relation to the Coronavirus to help the government respond, however, further legislation or amendments may be needed that MPs may need to vote through.
During the pandemic and during the recess, MPs can still respond to and help their constituents, many of which will be concerned about the virus outbreak.