Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Voting over Skype shouldn't be a remote possibility

When Louise Mensch resigned this week as an MP, she said she wanted to keep her family together. This is a choice that relationships across distances tend sooner or later to demand, and - old-fashioned though it seems - it still tends to be the woman who moves.

For MPs representing constituencies outside London, an MP's life requires enough commuting; Mensch concluded that adding another home, on another continent, was one too far.

But should an MP, in this day and age, have to make such a choice? The people of Corby might feel short-changed if Mensch were to spend her whole time in New York, but she was already spending much of the week in London.

Most MPs face this dilemma. They represent a constituency, which is their reason for being in Parliament, but spend, at best, a long weekend among their voters.

Parliamentary hours are more family-friendly than they were. But it's the living in two places that is the killer. And that is so, whether it is the MP or the taxpayer who foots the bill.

So why can't MPs make their constituency home their main residence and travel to London only when really necessary - actually to pass laws, in a bunch, say, once a month?

The rest of the time they could take part in debates and committees in the modern mode, via Skype and webcam. The rows of empty benches show that many MPs already spend much of their time out of the Chamber, following proceedings on CCTV from their offices, ready to rush to the lobbies if a division is called.

They might as well be in their constituencies, for all the direct part they are taking. If they had to vote from there, they could do so on a secure computer connection.

But, you might object, electronic voting can be abused. Indeed it can. In foreign parliaments with press-button voting, MPs brazenly cover up for absent neighbours. In fact, voting remotely might be more reliable.

An added advantage - though party high-ups might not agree - is that it could be harder to "whip" a vote. The hobnobbing, cajoling and strong-arming that goes on in the eating and drinking establishments within the precinct would be reduced - as might the subsidised excesses that go with it.

There is already a precedent for remote participation at a high level of public life. To the displeasure of some, David Blanchflower remained in the US for much of his tenure on the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, taking part by conference call. Would they have done a worse job if he had been there in person?

Adam Posen, currently on the MPC, is based in the UK but, like many academics, holds a fellowship elsewhere. If the Bank of England and universities can make it work, surely Parliament can. And - dare one mention it - the civil service. I doubt they have been missed, as they work from home through the Olympics.

I would say the reverse is true - although whether it is because they are working from home or not working at all, might be a question worth asking once they are back.

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