There is still much to be learnt about the coronavirus, but it is clear that transmission is efficient in crowded, enclosed spaces. On that basis a full House of Commons is unsafe.
That is why “hybrid scrutiny” was introduced, with most MPs contributing to debates remotely. It is an imperfect system but also a vital experiment in technological adaption by an institution that is slow to embrace modernity.
So it is a shame that Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the house, wants to bring the experiment to a close at the end of this month. Mr Rees-Mogg’s view is that MPs should “lead by example”, encouraging people back to work by appearing in Westminster’s most famous workplace. Regulations that permit digital participation might not be extended. MPs would be corralled back into the chamber or forfeit the ability to perform their democratic duties.
It is true, as Mr Rees-Mogg also asserts, that constituents expect their representatives to work, but more revealing that he thinks the only way they can do so is standing on the Commons stage. That is the aspect of the job he values. Other MPs want to know whether government guidance on the return to work is coherent and responsible when the virus is still prevalent. Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, challenged Mr Rees-Mogg on that point on Wednesday.
Parliament is more than the sum of its members. It employs many people in supporting roles. As in any workplace emerging from lockdown, there will be questions about childcare, vulnerability from underlying health problems, and the wisdom of using public transport. Government guidance encourages those who can work from home to do so and MPs have that facility.
Hybrid scrutiny has serious flaws. The conference call is not great for challenging ministers. There is also an upside in the silencing of braying that obstructs reasonable debate and alienate audiences. It is too early to say what aspects of digitisation are successful, but it has worked well enough to prove that modernisation was overdue.
That is one reason why Mr Rees-Mogg wants it suffocated. The leader of the house is the champion of the Conservative faction that venerates parliament as the symbolic pinnacle of British democracy, while abhorring any exercise of legislative power in opposition to their ideological demands. The hypocrisy was displayed constantly over Brexit, culminating in Mr Rees-Mogg’s connivance in a cynical prorogation that was then ruled unlawful by the supreme court.
It is imperative that parliament exercise its powers at full capacity during this crisis, and hybrid scrutiny is problematic. But that is not why the experiment is in peril. If the government were serious about parliamentary sovereignty, MPs would be given a vote on extending or amending the regulations in light of what has been learned. Instead, the decision to switch off the digital parliament is in the hands of the executive, regardless of the Speaker’s reservations.
The reason is not better scrutiny but public relations to serve the government – to symbolise normality returning, regardless of whether sufficient progress has been made against Covid-19. It is the prioritisation of theatre over policy and archaic ritual over reality. This is Mr Rees-Mogg’s creed. It is no way to run a modern democracy.