Has Parliament gone digital?


With Covid-19 digitizing the workplace, Gracie Daw looks at whether it's time for Parliament to go digital and introduce electronic voting.

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By Gracie Daw

Over the past year, there has been a large increase in people working from home or working digitally. This is no different for our MPs who have been engaging in business electronically throughout the pandemic. Screens are now a regular feature of the House of Commons as MPs are asking questions over Zoom and, during the first lockdown, they even voted electronically. Although Parliament generally seems antiquated and relatively ancient in its practices, MPs have experienced a digital revolution over the past year.

From April to June, MPs engaged in business exclusively online, however this was limited to emergency legislation. They used Zoom to question the Prime Minister at the Liaison Committee, scrutinise legislation, and engage in some debate, although this was limited. They also tried electronic voting in this period, however that also had limited success, with MPs reporting that they were unable to access the system. In one vote, Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak voted against the government whip, showing some of the difficulties experienced.

There have been some evolutions in the Commons’ voting procedure in the recent past. Initially, there was the idea of ‘nodding through’ an MP if they were too ill to be in the voting lobbies, however they had to be on the Parliamentary estate for their vote to be counted. Another old procedure was the idea of pairing MPs, when two MPs from opposite sides both decided not to vote, often because they are unable to, which meant that the vote outcome was not affected.

A more recent development has been proxy voting, where an MP can nominate another MP to vote for them when they are unable to vote. This development came after former MP, Jo Swinson, thought that her vote had been successfully paired with a Conservative MP’s vote but found that they still voted anyway. This showed the weakness of the pairing system as it was very much a gentleman’s agreement. Then Tulip Siddiq, MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, chose to vote on the Brexit withdrawal bill rather than having a C-section. She did not trust the pairing system after Swinson’s experience and therefore chose to vote despite endangering both herself and her child as she was suffering from gestational diabetes. This has led to the introduction of the proxy vote system. These developments have all made Parliamentary voting more accessible. The next step in this process is most likely electronic voting.

Since June, Parliament has remained hybrid. However there are limitations. as MPs can only take part digitally in ministerial statements and when asking questions, but are unable to engage in debates online. This has been widely criticised, including by former Minister, Tracey Crouch, who was unable to contribute to the debate about cancer because she was at home recovering from breast cancer. Furthermore, Parliament’s Procedure Committee published a report last week which recommended that all MPs should be able to take part in Parliamentary activities online. They stated that it was an ‘invasion of privacy’ for MPs to divulge medical information to be able to participate online, and therefore that all MPs should have the option to work from home.

Whilst electronic voting seems like a logical and convenient step as it would speed up voting and allow MPs to vote from anywhere, it is largely opposed by MPs. Many MPs like the tradition of walking through the aye or the noe lobby. Furthermore, whips would also lose a majority of their power as they would not be present when MPs vote, meaning it would be a lot easier for an MP to defy their whip. Finally, it would prevent MPs from having informal meetings with other MPs and ministers. The voting lobbies present an opportunity for MPs to speak to their own front bench or other MPs without an appointment and without the press present as they all must stand there for an allotted amount of time.

There is also government reluctance for electronic voting. The Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, was very quick to push Parliament back into in-person business. This was partly to set an example to the country that working in person was possible again after the first lockdown. This meant that it took 46 minutes for MPs to vote in the first in-person vote in June because of social distancing requirements. Throughout the past year the government has continually whipped its MPs to vote for activities to be as in person as possible., Electronic voting is therefore not likely to be introduced by this government and it is also unlikely that they will be willing to drastically increase digital business either.

This debate is set to continue as a motion over whether to extend Parliament digitally will be debated on 25 November. Whilst electronic voting would seem a logical next step to some, it appears unlikely in the near future because of the reluctance of Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg to digitise Parliament and the lack of a widespread push for it from MPs.