Boris Johnson must face ‘virtual PMQs’ to stop him escaping scrutiny, MPs say

Rob Merrick
AFP

Boris Johnson must face a “virtual Prime Minister’s Questions”, MPs have said, amid fears that he is escaping scrutiny of his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

With parliament shut down for four weeks, and with no guarantee it will return on 21 April as planned, pressure is growing for officials to set up a form of remote oversight.

About 200 MPs, most of whom are Labour or SNP, wrote to the House of Commons clerk, urging him to act. The issue is being explored by the Procedure Committee.

Ed Davey, the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “If it wasn’t a dangerous infectious virus but a major emergency, parliament would have been recalled. We wouldn’t have gone on recess.

“We’ve shown opposition parties are prepared to behave responsibly. I think we can find a way to get things cracking and get an online virtual parliament to serve the nation.”

Chi Onwurah, the Labour MP who organised the letter, said: “People up and down the country have made huge behavioural changes in a matter of days and we must show we are capable of it too.”

Darren Hughes, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said: “Ministers and public officials must be held to account by those with a full suite of powers to call evidence, witnesses and use the full clout of parliament.”

The calls come after the cabinet staged its first ever remote meeting, prompting questions about why Mr Johnson cannot face questions by video as well.

Fears have grown that ministers are being allowed to dodge tough questions, after the planned Easter recess was hurriedly brought forward last week in order to stop MPs infecting each other and staff.

Meanwhile, ministers have been accused of serious failings over coronavirus testing and shortages of vital personal protection equipment in hospitals.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons, did not guarantee when the house would return if the crisis worsens, and the prime minister said only that MPs would be “kept informed” about his actions.

Some Commons committees have continued to question officials and organisations responsible for dealing with the coronavirus outbreak, but many MPs fear this does not go far enough.

Last week, Mr Rees-Mogg said ministers were exploring how scrutiny could be maintained, insisting: “Parliament is not being closed down; the date for returning has been set.”

When MPs return to the Commons, they are expected to pass the finance bill that is required to enact the Budget, and make progress on immigration changes after Brexit.

However, parliamentary authorities are believed to be exploring a system where MPs sit for just two days a week – probably Tuesday and Wednesday – with a limit on numbers in the chamber at any one time.

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