Last week I took part in the first session of the House of Commons ever to be held virtually, by video.
It was essential to get the House sitting again immediately after the Easter recess. Too often, minsters were not responding to MPs’ emailed comments even if we were mostly being constructive as we face the national crisis together.
Equally though, we cannot pack over six hundred MPs tightly into a chamber that Winston Churchill deliberately designed to be small to generate a closeness and intensity of debate.
So, MPs have been asked to attend in person only if absolutely necessary, and the seats have been marked out so that we spread around the chamber and practise social distancing.
The first business to be done remotely was questions to the Wales department. Whether it’s transport, jobs or the environment, lots of Chester residents have an interest in matters just over the border so I always apply for a question.
The process is still the same. You put your name into the hat using an internal web page, saying what question you want to ask, and then the names are drawn out at random.
I asked about support for businesses during the CV-19 crisis and was drawn at Number 2.
After that the process changed. I was contacted by Mr Speaker’s office to confirm that I would be joining by videolink. Then the night before the questions, I was contacted by the Parliamentary IT department and we did a dry run to check my computer video conferencing worked. And give me the security codes to connect my computer for that sitting.
And having spent the last three or four weeks at home wearing casual clothes, it was back into a suit and tie: this may be parliament by video, but all the other rules are the same.
In fact, as far it goes, the new system worked well. So, for the businesses and public organisations that have rapidly shifted to this new technology I think this is an exciting new era that has the potential to re-align work-life balance and reduce the carbon in our atmosphere for example. But politics is a human endeavour and some aspects of Parliament need to be in person and not by video.
I miss the personal contact with colleagues, the chats outside the chamber or in the tearoom. The sharing of experiences, finding problems that exist across the country – and solutions too. The quiet chat with ministers.
So much of how Parliament works is not the formal sittings in the Chamber or committee room – vital and central as they are – but the informal work, behind the scenes and often cross party.
Like my colleagues – and in the spirit of Winston Churchill’s vision for Parliament – I look forward to holding the government to account in person again. The sooner we can safely get back to this the better.