University of Southampton: Keeping Parliament virtual could increase number of women MPs

Parliament could lose its best chance to improve diversity amongst its MPs if it scraps the virtual working approaches brought in during the COVID-19 pandemic according to a new report, authored by Dr Jessica C. Smith from the University of Southampton.

The Remotely Representative House report, launched today by the Centenary Action Group, advocates for the new ways of working, which has helped MPs to participate while balancing health, home, travel or constituency responsibilities, to be retained when needed.

Since the first wave of the pandemic MPs have been allowed to take part remotely in House of Commons proceedings to advocate on behalf of their constituents. At impressive speed the House of Commons put in place new ways of working that included asking oral questions of Ministers and the Prime Minister, participating in Select Committee meetings and report writing, and for a short period of time, voting remotely on legislation. The Prime Minister even attended PMQs virtually whilst isolating at home.

This new report makes recommendations on how Parliament can build on the benefits of remote working practices it adopted through lockdown to improve diversity amongst its members and staff, including:

flexibility if personal circumstances alter due to ill-health, pregnancy, caring responsibilities or travel problems
better working arrangements that open the field for more under represented candidates – women, Black, Asian and ethnic minority and those who identify as having a disability – to stand for election
improvements in public perceptions of parliamentarians who are now, more than ever, seen as people like us – juggling home, work and caring responsibilities from their kitchen tables.
It also argues that unless the ‘Hybrid Parliament’ is kept the House will fall short of the best international standards of parliamentary practice.

Dr Jessica C. Smith, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Southampton, said: “With vaccinations offering hope in 2021, The Remotely Representative House, asks the timely question: What lessons can be learnt from these new ways of parliamentary working? The virtues of continuing virtual participation in Parliament hold beyond this time of crisis.

“The Hybrid Parliament has shown it is possible to accommodate MPs’ need for more modern ways of working. Not only does this have benefits for currently sitting MPs but has the potential to diversity who sits in our Parliament and to transform perceptions – and indeed the reality – of how MPs’ work can be done and by whom. What began as necessary in 2020 is in fact preferable for the future.”

The authors warn that sweeping away parliament-by-zoom next month and replacing it with the traditional binary choice – come to Westminster or do not take part in democratic proceedings – would be a stepping backwards after the steps forward it has made over the last year.

Helen Pankhurst, Centenary Action Group Convenor said: “It’s hard to believe that while the rest of the country is embracing new ways of working through screens, mobiles and laptops Parliament is considering turning its back on the technological innovations ushered in during the pandemic.

‘Recently Tracey Crouch was excluded in the debate on Breast Cancer, precisely because she was at home shielding due to having breast cancer herself. This is not something we should ever have to witness in a 21st so-called democracy – she should have been allowed to contribute from the security of her own front room’.

‘We are not advocating that virtual proceedings should take the place of in-person parliamentary business. But this country desperately needs a more diverse and responsive Parliament and it’s a step back to the dark ages if the measures are now abolished’ she added.

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