Isolation diary: Proceeding digitally

Social distancing in the House of Commons

Yesterday the House of Commons reconvened after the Easter recess. It agreed an unprecedented motion (Hybrid scrutiny proceedings) so it could carry on meeting through the pandemic, offering MPs the option of joining the debates remotely. Today they have been discussing options for remote voting.

In fact, select committees have been holding virtual meetings all month, without any security problems reported.

During the debate yesterday Jacob Rees Mogg said:

In 1349, when the black death affected this country, Parliament could not and did not sit; the Session was cancelled. Thanks to modern technology, even I have moved on from 1349, and I am glad to say that we can sit to carry out these fundamental constitutional functions.

Which reminds me that MPs in the chamber will observe social distancing rules using the length of one reclining Rees Mogg as a handy measure.

The term ‘hybrid’ refers to the fact that some MPs – around 50 at a time – will still be present in the House, while others will join it remotely using Zoom or similar.

Really? Zoom? The motion does not specify the conferencing system that will be used but there is a widespread assumption that it will be Zoom. In parallel, Microsoft Teams is being trialled by the House of Lords.

There have been many reports of security problems with Zoom, ranging from hacking into confidential meetings, to infiltration by uninvited participants (including some displaying porn). The former might not be so much of a problem, since the platform is being used for public not private meetings, but the latter could bring some extra colour to parliamentary proceedings.

My own experience of Zoom is that the first 20 minutes of any meeting is spent sorting out the technology – “Can’t hear you”, “We can only see the top of your head”, “Waiting for X to join us, just texting her to see if she needs help” – or discussing what is on the wall behind each participant.

Similar approaches to remote working are being tested in local government as well. The Government has, temporarily at least, removed the requirement for local Councils to hold public meetings in person. The Local Government Association has issued some guidance on this. During lockdown up to now senior Council officers, in conjunction with the Leader/elected Mayor and lead councillors, will have been taking decisions under urgency procedures. They can now return to democratic decision-making and scrutiny.

In spite of the hitches, all this has been music to my ears. Back in 2006 I was appointed as Chair of the National Project for Local e-Democracy. Our brief was to develop and trial digital systems that improved democratic processes and accountability in local government. We had many successes (more of that later) but the requirement to meet in person meant we were unable to explore remote meetings with online voting. It is good to see that now being implemented and I do hope that the option will remain once we are past this emergency. It could be particularly useful in large rural council areas, or for councillors who cannot attend meetings easily for reasons of health or disability.

In the meantime I look forward to watching the new look Parliament in session. As it happens Ed Davey was one of the first to ask a question from his home during Prime Minister’s Questions today.



Please note

We have been in full self-isolation since 16th March to protect my husband whose immune system is compromised.

If you are in self-isolation then join the Lib Dems in self-isolation Facebook group.

You can find my previous Isolation diaries here.


* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • We should clearly adopt the Rees-Mogg as a handly measure of distance:
    5 Rees-Moggs = 1 London Bus (the Routemaster, of course)
    10 London Buses = 1 Football Pitch
    1,800 Football Pitches between London and Birmingham
    Thus 90,000 Rees-Moggs laid end to end would stretch approximately from London to Birminham – not that any of them would want to go there.

  • From the various informed sources, it does seem that this is a serious evaluation of Teams and Zoom.
    However, I doubt, given the politics of government IT, other solutions such as the 8×8 UK Ltd service that is built on the Open-Source Jitsi video conference software suite (and could be hosted within the secure government IT environment), will get a look in.

    >My own experience of Zoom is that the first 20 minutes of any meeting is spent sorting out the technology
    I would agree, this is the case with new and infrequent users, however, one client who has gone from zero to full remote working within a week, have largely got over this by having daily meetings; and enabled people to get familiar with whats involved.

  • suzanne fletcher 23rd Apr '20 - 1:17pm

    Like you – about time too. I was struck by Daisy Cooper saying it was the first PM Q time she could see and not be embarrassed about with all the silly school boy antics.
    re zoom, Mark Pack did an article about security, that was simple to read ( anything I can manage is simple!).
    With non political hats I am using Zoom locally on asylum and refugee issues. Very kindly, and sensibly, the person setting it up offered a one to one with anyone who hadn’t used it before – I found that helpful and reassuring as she showed me the buttons and how to use “share a document” which is really useful. So to anyone setting one up – offer a one to one and you don’t lose 10 mins sorting who can hear who!

  • suzanne fletcher 23rd Apr '20 - 1:22pm

    much is being said about not being able to watch the Lords in action, and I can see why, but don’t forget you can get it in Hansard, and I follow various peers on “They work for you”. But to put in context I am trying to write the story of Brass Crosby. the London Mayor who came from Stockton, who in 1771 won the right of the press to record the sayings of parliament in their papers. A hard won battle, he was sent to the Tower for his pains, but won it was an from then on proceedings can be reported verbatim. it was a few years later that Hansard was begun.
    ( I say trying to write, too much to do even though “retired” and self isolating because of age. A lot happening and campaigning in the asylum and refugee sector!)

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