Unit Director Meg Russell analyses the challenges and opportunities for reform facing parliaments during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has raised complex questions about how to balance the different functions of parliaments and their need to operate effectively.
In the UK and around the world parliaments have had to adjust their practices to the unexpected new environment of COVID-19. This has brought major challenges but, some suggest, also opportunities in terms of suggesting future means for parliaments to adapt. This post starts from the core principles of parliamentary functioning, briefly reviews practice under COVID-19, and considers the primary opportunities and challenges presented. It concludes that the future lessons from this unique period reinforce some familiar themes; but they also raise significant conundrums and trade-offs between the different essential principles of what parliaments are there to do.
Stripping back to the basics, what are parliaments for? Legislative studies scholars have suggested various overlapping lists of functions. For example in the Oxford Handbook of Legislative Studies, Amie Kreppel provides a list of four, which I will boil down to three:
- Representation takes many forms, often including – as is central to the UK House of Commons – geographic representation. Numerous, diverse, individuals participate in the legislature, underpinned by a crucial democratic principle of equality, where each ultimately has an equal vote.
- Linkage is closely connected to this – as parliamentarians provide a voice in parliament to their voters, and remain accountable to them.
- Policy-making – for example through approving bills – is perhaps what parliaments are best known for. Connectedly, they have a control function in holding executives to account. For simplicity, I treat these two functions together.
Other terms often mentioned in such classifications include deliberation –much of which takes place publicly – and legitimation, meaning all of parliaments’ functions help them generate broad public support for policy.
It is easy to see how the circumstances of COVID-19 have challenged some of these principles.
The threats to representation were pretty immediate and obvious. With limits on travel, requirements for social distancing, and heightened risks for people with certain health conditions, parliamentarians gathering from all over the country immediately became a problem. Some legislatures responded by limiting the number who could participate – with those decisions often taken by leaders and whips. Others moved their proceedings online. The UK House of Commons initially did the latter, but then rolled this back in a quite problematic way which breached principles of equal participation.
Effects on linkage were perhaps less dramatic, but the pandemic has clearly made it more difficult for MPs to meet their constituents, and others, face-to-face.
With respect to policy-making there has been concern in the UK and many other countries about the extent of emergency powers granted to executives to deal with the crisis, and the limits on parliamentary oversight. That’s the most obvious effect. But there have also been others. In some legislatures (including initially the House of Commons) limits were applied to ‘non-urgent’ business, such as private members’ bills. This raises questions about who decides what’s urgent. In addition, there are clear interactions between these different effects – if the mode of representation is impacted, that will affect policy-making as well, as discussed below.
It may be counterintuitive to see opportunities in such a difficult situation, but the hasty move to virtual proceedings in many parliaments has demonstrated that there may be positive lessons to learn.
These primarily affect representation. Remote working, where available, has facilitated continued participation for parliamentarians with caring responsibilities, or health conditions, or who may not be able to travel. This has raised questions about whether such modes of working could help, longer term, in supporting more diverse legislators. For example the Centenary Action Group, which promotes enhanced women’s representation, has a campaign ‘to promote the benefits of virtual parliament measures for women and minority groups and encourage the continued use of technological advances’.
Although they remain largely untested during the pandemic, changes to greater virtual working could also have important impacts on linkage. If MPs work more frequently from home, this could facilitate greater local presence and local work. If available, such options would surely be taken up – particularly by MPs with more distant constituencies. But this would raise familiar conundrums about the extent to which constituency work compromises the effectiveness of MPs’ policy work in parliament.
In terms of that policy-making function, most of the impacts have been negative (see below). But clearly there would be benefits in more diverse participation – not just by parliamentarians, but for example by witnesses to parliamentary committees being able to give evidence remotely.
Unsurprisingly, the list of challenges is longer. If MPs are shut out (as remains the case in the Commons, despite repeated complaints), that obviously damages representation. At one level this might just be considered a UK quirk, but it highlights the first of many problems with COVID-19 and policy-making.
The Commons is famously an executive-dominated institution, particularly with respect to setting the agenda – Standing Order No. 14 guarantees default government control. In May ministers chose not to renew the temporary order facilitating virtual participation, causing this to lapse – despite opposition by the chamber’s Procedure Committee. This illustrates how, if parliaments do not control their own agendas, this creates opportunities for government (and sometimes opposition) leaders to centralise power.
Similar centralisation is seen in the emergency powers taken by governments to tackle the pandemic. In the UK, MPs often felt shut out – with numerous statutory instruments published at short notice and brought into effect without parliamentary oversight. It was six months before backbenchers forced concessions out of government via a threatened rebellion on renewal of the Coronavirus Act, gaining promises of future votes.
But the challenges for policy-making go much further, and some are far more subtle. While formal proceedings – for example questions, committees and scrutiny of legislation – have been maintained as far as possible during the crisis, much of legislatures’ most crucial influence normally goes on informally and behind-the-scenes. Meetings between parliamentarians (both within and across parties), between them and party leaders or ministers, and between all of these groups and journalists, facilitate crucial informal communication. Some of this is planned, but much depends on chance ‘corridor conversations’. In addition to lacking these communications, ministers, whips and others find it difficult to ‘read the mood’ when the chamber and corridors are largely empty, and some members are logging in over Zoom.
Summing up the lessons
Some of the lessons from the crisis are obvious, and reinforce things that legislative studies scholars already knew. For example, the government’s control of the House of Commons agenda is problematic; extensive policy-making via delegated legislation is undesirable, and scrutiny mechanisms badly need improvement; much of parliament’s power is exerted informally and behind the scenes.
Where it gets difficult, however, is that the potential benefits of virtual participation for parliaments’ representative functions, and possibly linkage functions, become threats when considering impacts on their policy-making functions. The crucial role of informal and behind-the-scenes communications mean that parliamentary effectiveness will greatly suffer if many members are not physically present. In the UK, in the middle of a continuing pandemic, arguments for maximal virtual participation remain principled ones, to restore parliamentarians’ equal rights. But longer term, this isn’t just an argument about tradition versus modernity – it raises complex questions about how to balance the different functions of parliaments and their needs to operate effectively.
This post originally appeared on the PSA Parliaments blog. It is the latest in a continuing 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
Professor Meg Russell FBA is Director of the Constitution Unit. Her books include The Contemporary House of Lords (Oxford University Press, 2013) and Legislation at Westminster (Oxford University Press, 2017). She is currently a Senior Fellow with the UK in a Changing Europe, working on ‘Brexit, Parliament and the Constitution’.