Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: virtual participation in debate Contents

3Facilitating virtual participation in debate

Technical capacity

The limitations of the hybrid model

23.When we reported at the end of May on the Government’s proposals to discontinue all remote participation, we recognised that the ‘hybrid proceedings’ model which governed House business between 21 April and 20 May had shortcomings.24 The model had been developed very rapidly over the Easter adjournment to provide a means for the House to meet and transact business under the lockdown conditions which then prevailed with as many Members as possible given the opportunity to participate.

24.The hybrid model was developed in line with what was known to be possible, in technological and security terms, at the time, and on the basis of the minimum viable product. When implemented it was widely welcomed as a means of allowing core House business to continue, and Government business to be taken, under the extraordinary conditions of a national lockdown, on a basis which allowed every Member to participate. Academic experts have told us that the model was world-leading in its scope, its inclusiveness and the business it facilitated.25

25.The model had a number of acknowledged shortcomings, largely brought about by limitations on operator capacity and staff support. Under the model as it operated in April, the Commons day was divided up into three blocks of two hours each, with half-hour breaks between each block of time to allow for equipment to be reset and Members participating virtually to be brought online. The first block was dedicated to scrutiny proceedings and the second and third were reserved for substantive proceedings. By the time that the hybrid arrangements were allowed to lapse in late May the model had been improved in the light of experience, with longer blocks of time for questions, statements and debate and shorter suspensions between them.

Moving on from the hybrid model: mixed participation

26.The hybrid model supporting physical and virtual proceedings in the House, introduced in April 2020, represented the minimum of what was viable to be achieved by the House Service, the Parliamentary Digital Service and the Parliamentary audio-visual team, working in partnership with outside broadcast specialists. As the Clerk of the House reminded us, the technical challenges involved were extremely difficult: the House was the first in the world to engage in hybrid proceedings of any scale, let alone full participation by all Members.26

27.Since the discontinuation of the hybrid model on 20 May, the teams engaged in this work have been reworking and developing the capacity and resilience of the hardware and the operating model supporting virtual participation in the Commons and in the Lords. Dr Benger confirmed to us that this development work had eliminated many of the technical limitations which constrained hybrid proceedings in April and May:

We have a lot more technical resource now than we did then. [ … ] [I]f you did extend virtual participation to other proceedings, the sorts of constraints that the House had to operate under back in April and May would not now apply. [ … ] [W]e would not now say, “This is limited to two hours and we need half an hour in between. You cannot do this and you cannot do that”. Far more is possible now than was possible then.27

28.Matthew Hamlyn, the Strategic Director, Chamber Business Team, confirmed that the resilience of the broadcasting hub on the Estate had been substantially improved and augmented with additional offsite capacity. As a consequence, the suspensions and time restrictions on hybrid proceedings could now be dispensed with. Giving evidence on 12 October, he described the benefits to be realised from this project:

It would make it easier if the House said, “We would like to run hybrid proceedings all day.” It is now a question of making sure we have enough people to do the engagement with Members, the setting up of calls and all the rest of it. But in practical terms [ … ] we could do it. There is no conceptual problem in doing that if the House voted next week. Give us a bit of lead-in time.28

29.The substantial work undertaken by the Parliamentary audio-visual service since the discontinuation of hybrid proceedings in May 2020 has resulted in a more resilient broadcast infrastructure, with the capacity to facilitate virtual contributions to debate without artificial suspensions or other restrictions. We commend the House Service and the broadcasters for having put these arrangements in place.

Implementation of mixed participation

30.While the technical support for uninterrupted mixed proceedings is now in place, we recognise that it cannot be given immediate effect: as Matthew Hamlyn indicated, some lead-in time will be required. A detailed operating model to meet the House’s requirements is expected to be developed, along the lines of the operating model developed for hybrid proceedings in April 2020.

31.As we observed above, the House Service approach to the introduction of hybrid proceedings was based on the minimum viable product. This was a sensible approach, and no doubt contributed substantially to the successful delivery of those proceedings in a highly unfamiliar environment. We would expect a similarly measured approach to be taken to the introduction of mixed virtual and physical participation in debate in this case.

32.Allowing virtual participation in debates in the Chamber without making corresponding provision for virtual participation in debates in Westminster Hall may increase pressure on the scheduling of business in the Chamber, and will doubtless be a factor for the Backbench Business Committee in its determination of business to be taken on backbench days in the Chamber and during backbench time on Thursdays in Westminster Hall. We consider this issue further below.

33.The Clerk of the House has confirmed that the infrastructure necessary to support mixed physical and virtual contributions to debate has been put in place in anticipation of a future requirement. Detailed work on an operating model to support the House’s specific requirements was quite understandably not undertaken while there was no immediate prospect of implementation.

34.Many Members affected by coronavirus restrictions who have hitherto not been able to participate in debates will of course wish to use any new facilities approved by the House as quickly as possible. While we expect the House Service to make every effort to facilitate participation by all those eligible to do so, we recognise the merits of a measured approach to the detailed implementation of these new arrangements. In our view, it would be prudent if, in the first instance, a quota were placed on the number of Members able to contribute virtually in any one debate, to ensure that successful delivery is not put at risk by a sudden surge in demand.

35.We recommend that the Speaker, in consultation with the House Service, arrange for the phased introduction of mixed virtual and physical participation in debate, proceeding initially on the basis of minimum viability. Arrangements to include Members participating virtually on call lists for debates on motions and on legislation should be determined by the Speaker, in consultation with his Deputies, to achieve the most appropriate balance between virtual and physical participation in each debate, taking into account the development of the operating model.

Additional features

36.As we have noted above, the Leader of the House has repeatedly expressed his concerns about the potential effect of virtual participation on the quality of debate. In particular, he is concerned that interventions are at present not possible by, or on, Members participating virtually:

With debates, we need to have the proper holding to account of Ministers, which is the purpose of the debates, and to have the interventions that make a debate, rather than a series of statements.29

37.News that the House Service is in a position to develop a facility for interventions is therefore very welcome. Matthew Hamlyn confirmed that a conceptual framework had been developed to facilitate greater spontaneity in debate, enabling virtual interventions on physical contributions, and vice versa, in mixed proceedings and enabling points of order to be raised by Members participating virtually. The cost involved meant that the commitment to development could not be made until the House had demonstrated that it would be desirable.30

38.We share the Leader’s concerns about the impact on the quality of debate in the Chamber if too many contributions are read into the record without the challenge and engagement which interventions often provide. Facilitating interventions by, and on, virtual participants in debates is clearly desirable. To delay the implementation of virtual participation in order to complete this work would clearly be to make the best the enemy of the good: but in our view there is a strong case for the development work envisaged to be undertaken as soon as resources allow.

39.We recommend that the House Service and the audio-visual team proceed with development of the proposed arrangements to facilitate interventions and points of order in respect of virtual contributions: we look forward to discussing how such arrangements might best be implemented.

Virtual participation in Westminster Hall proceedings

40.No physical infrastructure has been installed in Westminster Hall to allow virtual participation in debates, and as far as we are aware no work has been undertaken to configure audiovisual arrangements so as to support virtual participation.

41.Extending virtual participation to Westminster Hall would significantly extend the requirement on the audiovisual service to facilitate such proceedings. Of the 16 hours of a Westminster Hall sitting in a typical week, there are only four hours when there are no concurrent proceedings in the Chamber.31 Although Westminster Hall sittings are suspended for three hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays once the House sits, to allow Members to participate in scrutiny proceedings, there are then three hours on each sitting day except Fridays when proceedings in the House and Westminster Hall run concurrently.32

42.In principle it would be desirable to extend virtual proceedings to Westminster Hall: many of the colleagues who submitted evidence to us are in favour of this development. In practice, we recognise that support for virtual proceedings under current conditions is not limitless and that choices have to be made about the forms of House activity which can reasonably be supported under pandemic conditions. Extending virtual proceedings to Westminster Hall might, for instance, substantially limit the resource presently available to select committees, without which they are unable to meet in public and take evidence.

43.Allowing virtual participation in debate in the Chamber has consequences for the scheduling of Westminster Hall debates for as long as participation in those debates is limited to physical participation only. The Chair of the Petitions Committee has asked us to consider whether virtual participation in Westminster Hall should be facilitated.33 We expect that all others responsible for scheduling business in Westminster Hall—the Chairman of Ways and Means, the Backbench Business Committee and the Liaison—will also have a view on whether virtual participation in the business they schedule is desirable under present constraints.

44.The Chair of the Petitions Committee has described to us the innovative e-petition public sessions which the Committee facilitated to allow petitions in effect to be debated in a public forum while sittings in Westminster Hall were suspended.34 This initiative, in which Ministers and Opposition frontbenchers participated, allowed Members unable to be present at Westminster to participate in debate using the virtual facilities available to select committees.

45.Virtual participation in Westminster Hall debates is in principle desirable. We recognise that it cannot be achieved immediately in current circumstances, and that if it is to be achieved in the future the House may have to accept a reduction in support for virtual participation elsewhere. We therefore do not recommend the immediate extension of virtual participation to Westminster Hall debates.

46.There is nevertheless a business resilience case for developing an operating model to support virtual participation in Westminster Hall alongside virtual participation in the Chamber. The case for developing such a model will be strengthened should pandemic conditions persist into 2021 so as to require the present coronavirus restrictions to be continued beyond the end of March 2021.

47.In the absence of facilities for virtual participation in Westminster Hall debates, there may be scope for business normally taken in Westminster Hall to be taken in the Chamber on Monday mornings, or between 9am and 11am on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, to allow for virtual participation using the Chamber’s existing facilities. This would work especially well for 30-minute debates, where interventions are fewer and typically only one backbench Member participates.

48.We recommend that, as soon as resources allow, the House Service undertake scoping work to ascertain the additional resource and expenditure required to support concurrent virtual participation in proceedings in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall.

24 Procedure Committee, Third Report of Session 2019–21, Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: the Government’s proposal to discontinue remote participation, HC 392, para 32

25 Q225 [Dr Ruth Fox, Director and Head of Research, Hansard Society]

29 HC Deb, 12 November 2020, col. 1071

30 Ibid.

31 Between 9.30 and 11.30 am each Tuesday and Wednesday.

32 Between 4.30 and 7.30 pm on Mondays, 2.30 and 5.30 pm on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and 1.30 pm and 4.30 pm on Thursdays.

33 Catherine McKinnell (CVR 0118)

34 Ibid.

Published: 18 November 2020 Site information    Accessibility statement