Earlier this week, Jacob Rees-Mogg told Jack Blanchard that so-called ‘hybrid debates’ – which see MPs calling in to the House of Commons via Zoom – may not be entirely phased out with the pandemic.
The Leader of the House suggested, plausibly enough, that such arrangements might prove more cost-effective than creating an entire temporary chamber as and when the renovations to the Palace of Westminster finally go ahead.
He won’t be pleased. Virtual debates have exacerbated the decaying quality of debate in the Commons
Ever since Tony Blair brought in shorter sitting hours and programme motions, MPs who wish to speak in popular debates have been subject to time restrictions. Readers who have tuned in to the Commons may have seen the Speaker announcing that contributions would be cut to four minutes… three minutes… two minutes…
This is scarcely enough to make a substantive contribution, and certainly not to respond to points raised by other MPs. Members often end up simply reading out pre-prepared contributions, creating clips for social media and clocking up their score on They Work for You.
Even before the pandemic it was proving difficult to get some MPs to observe the courtesy of remaining in the Chamber after speaking. Zoom has apparently made this even worse: spared the need to sit in the Chamber for a while before speaking – or to come into work at all – more MPs than ever are putting in to speak, but less indication than ever that they’re listening to their colleagues.
Some traditionalists are concerned that MPs will get attached to this convenience – after all, like the shorter hours introduced by Blair it can be dressed up as ‘family friendly’ – and the deliberative dimension of the Commons’ work will suffer yet further.
Even if they can be weaned off it, the question remains of how to start pushing back against truncated speeches, especially with Parliament taking back responsibilities from the European Union and expanding its activity in devolved areas.
One option being considered by senior parliamentarians is moving towards something like the system used in the House of Lords, where peers are allocated a certain number of proper contributions. Instead of slashing the time limits for speeches, the Speaker would instead protect speech lengths at the expense of reducing the number of people who get to speak. The hope is that as social media opportunities are missed and They Work for You stats suffer, it might create backbench pressure for longer debates – so long as the Commons authorities hold their nerve.