It has now been three weeks since the House of Commons agreed to operate on a hybrid basis, with many MPs contributing remotely and the Commons holding its first remote votes. Former Commons clerk David Natzler assesses how the virtual parliament has been operating, and asks if and when the Commons will return to its pre-hybrid state.
The three weeks since the return of parliament from the Easter break have seen the rapid emergence of a virtual parliament, but asymmetrically between the two houses. The Lords has followed a twin track: ordinary chamber proceedings whenever a decision of the House is required, and ‘Virtual Proceedings’ for questions, statements and debates where participation is restricted to those peers not in the chamber. In separate orders agreed on 21 and 22 April the Commons decided that both scrutiny (questioning) and substantive (decisive) proceedings would be ‘hybrid’, meaning that members could take part whether in the chamber or not, and that each group would be treated with strict equality. All categories of business can now at least in theory be dealt with. For example, the report stage of the Agriculture Bill is scheduled for 13 May. On 11 May two pieces of internal business were dealt with: a personal statement from Greg Hands was made remotely, and Conor Burns was suspended from the Commons for seven days, both following reports from the Committee on Standards: evidence that the House has still been able to exercise its powers during these unusual times.
Lists of questioners are compiled and published in advance, on the parliamentary website, indicating whether the member intends to attend in person or remotely. Virtual contributions are denoted in Hansard with a ‘V’ by the speaker’s name. That all is proceeding smoothly is due not only to the staff of the House but also to its political leadership, which has created a broad consensus in a way that seemed unlikely a few weeks ago. The Westminster parliament is now something of a market leader: the senior official overseeing the changes, Matthew Hamlyn, gave evidence on 30 April to the Canadian House of Commons Procedure and House Affairs Committee, along with representatives of other parliaments, on the new arrangements.
Who still attends in the Commons – and why?
The lead minister responsible for the department answering questions, making a statement or introducing legislation generally, but by no means always, attends. Indeed, the first minister to answer departmental questions, Simon Hart, the Secretary of State for Wales, participated remotely. Junior ministers often attend physically if they have more than one question to answer. The presence in the chamber of the answering minister does give general confidence that their replies will be audible whatever minor gremlins get into Zoom. Most but not all opposition frontbenchers attend in person, although Lisa Nandy and Ellie Reeves both made their frontbench debuts remotely
By now the overwhelming majority of backbenchers participate remotely. A handful of members choose to attend in person, some travelling from far away; but as the new temporary regime has developed the numbers seem to be dropping. In the short debate on a pension enrolment instrument on 4 May there were no participating members physically present. By contrast debates on some specific local or sensitive topics seem to have more physical participants. Mark Garnier said that he had made a 300-mile round trip by car ‘to speak here in person’ on a harrowing case of domestic abuse, during the second reading debate on the Domestic Abuse Bill. Some members may still feel that a 10-minute speech in an important debate carries more weight if delivered in the chamber, while a 30 second question can be posed remotely without loss of impact. That said, Sara Britcliffe made the first virtual maiden speech remotely from Lancashire. But there is no prospect of Lancashire’s proud son in the Speaker’s chair presiding from Chorley.
What has changed procedurally?
There have been several significant changes in Commons practice and procedure as a result of the move to hybrid proceedings. One is the suspension of topical questions – those where the member can ask the ministerial team whatever they wish without notice, as happens with Prime Minister’s Questions every week. The rationale for this is not obvious, especially since in recent years some members wondered whether the system of substantive questions with notice might not be better replaced altogether. Others on this blog have suggested that the current circumstances merit an increase rather than a reduction in topical questions. But such questions may pose problems for the answering ministerial team in determining which of them will answer each question.
A second change is the compression of the rota of answering departments, so that each of the three sitting days there are now two departments answering, including the Prime Minister on Wednesdays. That means five departments a week, not in fact much more than in a standard four-day cycle. But it may well be that when these arrangements end members will prefer a more frequent, if shorter, slot for major departments. A third change is that frontbench speeches are now subject to a formal time limit, hitherto a little used power because generous additional time had to be allowed for interventions. As many feared, the absence of interventions makes for rather lacklustre debates.
The rules for hybrid substantive proceedings agreed on 22 April gave the Speaker unprecedented powers not only to make the necessary arrangements but also to change the rules agreed by the House, with the consent of the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg. These are in effect Henry VIII powers for the Speaker over the operation of the temporary Order. Perhaps more drastic is the provision that a motion tabled by the three largest parties – in practice Rees-Mogg, Valerie Vaz as Shadow Leader and Tommy Sheppard for the SNP – setting out how a day’s substantive business is to be organised is treated as having been agreed to without needing the House’s assent. This is necessary for practical purposes so that timings can be known well in advance of each day and cannot be unexpectedly disagreed to or amended. In essence the House has adopted a Bureau-like organisation of business, similar to that in the Scottish and many other parliaments, but involving only the three largest parties and no backbench voice, with the government still left to fix the agenda, without requiring even the formal assent of the House. These enhanced powers for frontbenchers are not good precedents for retention once the current emergency is over.
What has not yet happened?
There are some categories of business not yet submitted to hybrid virtuality, notably in the sphere of legislation. The first Friday for Private Members’ bills, already put off once to 15 May, is now to be delayed again. The introduction of remote voting notably changes the dynamic of such proceedings, since the usual procedural hurdle of persuading 100 members to attend on a Friday lunchtime and force a closure on second reading should no longer be a problem. This means ministers and backbenchers may have to find other ways of opposing popular legislative initiatives which they do not like. And public bill committees will have to get underway soon, probably in physical form – without the possibility of remote participation. The nature of debate, unplanned interventions seeking important clarification of legislative text, and unscheduled voting in these committees would pose political and technical challenges were they to be hybrid proceedings. But insisting on exclusively physical proceedings has been delayed again and may play badly with some of the members expected to attend.
The historic 12 May remote vote
The slow but steady march towards near-universal, if sometimes grudging, recognition that there was no alternative to remote voting reached its conclusion on 12 May when the House used this new procedure to approve the essentially meaningless government motion that the House had considered the matter of COVID-19, by 363 to 248. It was by way of a live experiment, as the Leader of the House had indicated would be the case on 29 April at Business Questions. He had promised on 22 April that there would be no motion designated for remote voting until the Procedure Committee had reported its views on the adequacy of the system, which it duly did in a letter of 5 May, expanded on in its report of 8 May. The committee described the change as the most substantial since the introduction of double lobby voting in 1836.
The Procedure Committee’s tone is understandably sceptical. It warns that in the absence of the sort of reliable biometric authentication now deployed in Brazil, remote voting would be unlikely to be a suitable replacement for lobby voting, and foresees an extension of proxy voting as the medium-term solution once some of the current restrictions are lifted. Implementation has not been quite as easy as some suggested: 10% of members were not even connected to the Members Hub and right up to the 12 May vote there were a handful still in doubt. But the fact is that the House of Commons – likely soon to be followed by the Lords – has had a proper full remote vote: something which seemed to some commentators inconceivable a few weeks ago.
A virtual committee corridor?
Virtual meetings of select committees, whether in private to deliberate or in public to hear evidence, are now commonplace: indeed there are no non-virtual meetings. There are some concerns of course: for example how far members taking part in a private meeting can be sure that it is indeed private. There are clearly advantages in allowing witnesses, whether in the UK or overseas, to give evidence remotely and there is already pressure to retain this practice. Allowing members to take part remotely on a routine basis would be a further step. The advantages of being able to meet other than in the crowded midweek days suggest that at least some committee meetings may continue to be virtual in the years ahead. And that would be helpful in view of the restrictions on committee room availability once Restoration and Renewal kicks in.
On 6 May two new committee chairs were elected by a digital ballot conducted by Civica Election Services, with Chris Bryant elected to chair the Committee on Standards and Darren Jones to chair the BEIS Committee. The turnout was 83%: surprisingly enough slightly below the 88% turnout in the conventional ballot paper in January 2020 for deputy speakerships, which also involved candidates from only one party. The remaining vacancy, of a chair of the Liaison Committee, still hangs fire: the government wishes the House to agree to Bernard Jenkin taking the chair, but most opposition committee chairs have tabled an amendment to the motion to provide for the committee to elect its own chair from among its members. The use of remote voting in a secret ballot is one innovation which could properly prove lasting; there is no magic in having to go in the course of a day to a committee room to complete a ballot paper.
Is this all here to stay? Why should members come to Westminster if they can speak and vote from their offices or homes or even on the move around not only their constituencies but the country or abroad on parliamentary business? Members who have to travel repeatedly from the extremities of the United Kingdom, from the far north of Scotland, the deep south-west of England, Northern Ireland, or mid-Wales may find the prospect attractive of being able to take part in at least some proceedings remotely. Greg Power gave one powerful answer to that in his blog of 22 April. Politics is not chess or bridge: it is a contact sport. It thrives on informal meeting, talking, listening and negotiating. But there will plainly be cultural consequences for parliamentary life. The blog by Emma Salisbury on the work of members’ staff also suggests that there may be unreversed changes in how members and their staff interact with constituents. Will constituents now expect their member to be there in person all through the week rather than only over the extended weekend? And will experience of remote voting mean that in future anybody not voting in any sort of division will need to have a good reason why, beyond merely asserting that they were paired?
What happens in the next phase?
Immediately after the historic first remote vote on 12 May, the House agreed following a 30-minute debate to renew the 21 and 22 April temporary standing orders, but only until 20 May, when the House goes into recess. The Leader of the House said that he did not expect to have to renew them again. This means that on 2 June when the House resumes after the Whitsun break it will be operating under standard practices and procedures, including lobby voting and without remote participation in chamber proceedings. It was noticeable that six of the nine participants in this brief debate attended in person. The expression of a desire to return to purely physical proceedings was firmly expressed in the government’s Plan to Rebuild, published on 11 May. It included a short paragraph calling on parliament to ‘set a national example of how business can continue in this new normal’ and to ‘get back to business as part of this next step, including a move towards further physical proceedings in the House of Commons’. There are unanswered questions as to how in practice the House can simply resume as it was, given the varying circumstances many members face as a result of the pandemic. It will therefore be interesting to see if the giant screens in the chamber are removed.
This is the latest in a series of blogs in response to the constitutional challenges posed by the coronavirus. To see past blogs in the series, click here. To be notified of future blogs as they go live, sign up for updates in the left sidebar.
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About the author
Sir David Natzler is a former Clerk of the House of Commons (i.e. the chamber’s chief official) and co-editor of the 25th edition of Erskine May: Parliamentary Practice. He is a Senior Research Associate at the Constitution Unit.