Soon after the Houses of Parliament returned after Easter recess on April 22, 2020, both installed a ‘hybrid’ system allowing participation in the respective chambers (Commons or Lords) as well as online via videoconference.

The House of Lords was operating entirely remotely, as Lord Fowler led proceedings from his home in the Isle of Wight.

As most of the British public were still working from home, MPs and Lords took the decision to set a good example by doing so themselves.

I’m not sure what is happening with the Lords, but, on Wednesday, May 20, the Commons voted against renewing the ‘hybrid’ system on their return after Whitsun (Pentecost) recess on Tuesday, June 2.

The technical teams and associated staff from the Palace of Westminster did an excellent job of setting up both Houses with their hybrid systems of holding debates, which ended up being short speeches rather than exchanges of points of view.

Below are two photos of what the House of Commons looked like: sparsely populated, to say the least.

As Britain begins to return to work in stages after lockdown, the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, would also like more MPs in the chamber.

This did not go down well with MPs in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Scotland is still in lockdown, and transport to and from Northern Ireland is difficult during the coronavirus crisis.

Rees-Mogg said that arrangements would be made for MPs who still had to work from home. He did not give details but said that more information would be forthcoming during Whitsun recess.

Rees-Mogg brought up the unsatisfactory, yet necessary, nature of the hybrid system the preceding Wednesday, May 13. Hansard records what he said then in response to the Shadow Leader of the House, Valerie Vaz (Labour), excerpted below (emphases mine):

I want to answer what the right hon. Lady says about Parliament, because what she says is important and fundamental to us as a democracy. The Government’s advice is clear: work from home if you can. As you have made clear, Mr Speaker, many members of the House staff will be able to continue to work from home, even with the House of Commons operating in physical form. Indeed, very few additional Clerks will need to be present on the premises, Members’ staff will be able to continue to work from home, and the overwhelming majority of the House community will be able to continue to work from home—the exception being Members of Parliament themselves. Why is that? It is because the Government’s advice is that if you need to go to work, you must go to work.

We see in this Parliament—in this House today—the ineffectiveness of scrutiny in comparison to when the House is operating in the normal way. We have no flexibility of questions. The questions are all listed in advance, with no ability for people to bob, to come in and to join in the debate; no cross-cutting of debate; and no ability to advance arguments or take them forward. We simply have a series of prepared statements made one after another. That is not the House of Commons doing its proper duty and playing its proper role of scrutiny of the Government.

Then there is the other side of it: where are the Bill Committees? How are Bills progressing? What is happening to the legislative agenda that the Government were elected on in December? Or do we just ignore our constituents, ignore the voters and not get on with a proper democratic parliamentary system? The idea that our democratic system is not an essential one—is not the lifeblood of our nation and is not how the Government are held to account at a time of crisis—is one that is surprising. It is extraordinary that it should be held by Opposition Members; that they should not wish to be here, challenging the Government and holding them to account; and that they wish to hide behind a veneer of virtual Parliament, so that legislation is not progressed with. We have heard it from the Scottish shadow spokesman, when he says that a virtual Parliament is a second-rate Parliament. He wants us all to be second rate, whereas I want us all to be first rate—to get back to being a proper Parliament because democracy is essential. What we do is essential. Holding the Government to account is essential and delivering on manifesto promises is also essential, and that is what I hope we shall be able to do after we come back from the Whitsun recess, in line with what is happening in other parts of the country.

Aye, there lies the rub: delivering on manifesto promises. Can anyone say Brexit? Nearly everyone opposing a return to the Commons is a Remainer.

Social distancing will still be in place when MPs return, as Rees-Mogg said on May 13:

The Chamber is marked out for social distancing. We can get 50 people into this Chamber, which, it has to be said, is often as many as are here for an ordinary debate. It is only on high days and holidays and Prime Minister’s questions that the Chamber is bursting at the seams.

As you so rightly said in your statement, Mr Speaker, there is no change to the social distancing advice. There is no change to the advice to Members’ staff to continue to work from home. The numbers coming into this estate are a fraction of what they normally are, because we have no tours, we have no commercial banqueting and we do not have the thousands—sometimes, tens of thousands—of people who come in every day.

On Wednesday, May 20, this is what the House of Commons looked like during Prime Minister’s Questions. Boris Johnson is at the despatch box. Labour leader Keir Starmer is sitting opposite:

That meeting must have been contentious, because Karen Bradley, the Conservative MP who chairs the Procedure Committee, spoke remotely in/to the Commons on Wednesday afternoon:

She did not look happy. Nor did Valerie Vaz.

This is a fuller view of the Commons during coronavirus lockdown:

Guido Fawkes reported on the May 20 vote (emphases in the original):

MPs have just voted 350:258 in favour of abolishing the virtual parliament on the June 2nd. A majority of 92…

UPDATE: Some of Guido’s more pernickety proceduralists are taking umbrage, so he is happy to specify that whilst MPs did not directly vote in favour of abolishing the virtual parliament, that was the effect of how they voted.

This division was, in fact, a Labour amendment to a motion of the house to try and allow a vote on whether to keep the hybrid parliament. MPs rejected the vote meaning the Government will now be able to proceed as they wish without a vote. Thus the hybrid/virtual parliament fades into the history books…

At least for now, anyway.

Rees-Mogg also said that social distancing would be in place for voting (i.e. divisions):

Regardless of the outcome, hats off to all those who worked so hard and so quickly behind the scenes to get MPs — and Lords — connected to each other from their own homes. This was an historic first and, even with remote voting, worked well as a temporary measure.