Coronavirus: Pandemic Ends 700 Years Tradition After Virtual Parliament Approval

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Plan for a virtual parliament has been approved, breaking a 700 year tradition of law makers conducting business in the same room

The Houses of Parliament has approved a “virtual parliament plan’ that will allow members of parliament to scrutinise government ministers during the Coronavirus pandemic.

The virtual plan, approved by Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle, will see only 50 MPs allowed into the chamber where they must practice “strict social distancing rules”, Sky News has reported.

Another 150 MPs will be able to dial in via the controversial Zoom app, to ask questions.

Parliament Government London © anshar Shutterstock 2012

Virtual parliament

Sky News pointed out that the plan for a virtual parliament breaks a 700 year old tradition for British lawmakers.

Sir Lindsay Hoyle was quoted as saying that the hybrid solution will let MPs “stay close to their communities” and continue “their important work scrutinising the government” during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sir Lindsay reportedly explained he did not want MPs or the thousands of staff who work on the Westminster estate “putting themselves at risk” as the country remains in lockdown.

“By working virtually, this is our contribution to the guidance of stay home, protect the NHS and save lives,” Sir Lindsay added.

The plan will need to be formally approved by MPs themselves when recess ends on Tuesday 21 April.

There are some rules for those using Zoom however, which will still allow them to take part in Prime Minister’s Questions and any urgent questions or statements within the first two hours of proceedings starting.

It seems that MPs using Zoom will not be allowed to display or draw attention to any objects to illustrate their remarks or make any interventions or points of order.

In the main chamber itself, screens will be placed where the MPs typically debate, so Sir Lindsay and those in the room can see who is present virtually, with MPs able to be called later in proceedings if they “cannot be heard or seen for technological reasons”.

The Commons also reportedl said it is up to MPs to decide if they want to change the rules on voting, which remain that each politician has to physically walk through one of two voting lobbies.

And in an effort to stave off fears over the security of Zoom, the National Cyber Security Centre has advised it thinks the video service’s use is “appropriate” for public parliamentary business.

Zoom worries

The conferencing tech from Zoom Video Communications has seen a spike in usage since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, rising from a previous high of 10 million daily users to more than 200 million per day.

For example, the British government held its first-ever video-conferenced Cabinet meeting a couple of weeks ago, and even the Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted a photo of himself using the application, in which a meeting ID was visible.

Image credit: UK Government/Twitter
Image credit: UK Government/Twitter

The British government also pushed back amid criticism from some quarters over its use of Zoom. It said Zoom was used as many ministers were self-isolating at home, with no access to official government video conferencing systems.

Last week the US Senate advised senators not to use Zoom due to security concerns.

The company also faces a class-action lawsuit over its security practices, with concerns including sending data through servers in China and the lack of end-to-end encryption.

In response, Zoom recently said it was freezing the app’s existing features and would devote 90 days solely to improving security.

The company has also brought in former Facebook security chief Alex Stamos as an adviser.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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