The hybrid House of Commons: the problems of government control

For much of last year, the government resisted MPs’ calls for full reinstatement of virtual participation in House of Commons proceedings. In this post, Daniel Gover and Lisa James review the development of the ‘hybrid Commons’. They argue that full virtual participation, including remote voting, must now be reinstated, and that recent events reveal broader problems of government control over the Commons agenda.

Last spring, the House of Commons adapted quickly and successfully to the challenges presented by COVID-19. The so-called ‘hybrid Commons’ – combining in-person proceedings with simultaneous virtual participation – was one of the first responses of its type globally, and widely praised. But within weeks, the government unilaterally abandoned the virtual element, provoking anger amongst backbench MPs and violating the core parliamentary principle of the equality of all members. It was only on 30 December – well over six months later – that virtual participation in key debates was reinstated, while even now ministers refuse to restore remote electronic voting.

At the start of a new year, the UK’s public health crisis is at least as serious as it was at the beginning of the pandemic, and this will continue to restrict physical participation at Westminster. It is therefore essential that MPs be enabled to participate virtually in as wide a range of Commons proceedings as possible – including in remote divisions. The fact that ministers have been able to block this until now also reveals deeper problems with the House of Commons’ governance, and where power lies, which should urgently be addressed.

The development and collapse of hybrid arrangements

In March and April, consensus between the parties produced rapid adoption of new systems to enable parliament to perform its essential functions. The Commons first authorised its select committees to meet virtually, followed by hybrid arrangements for the Commons chamber itself – initially for ‘scrutiny’ proceedings (questions and statements), followed by ’substantive’ business (motions and bills). Soon after, intensive work began on an electronic voting system, with the first ever online Commons division held in mid-May.

Yet these arrangements began to unravel shortly before the late-May Whitsun recess, barely a week after the first online vote. Despite significant anger from backbench and opposition MPs, ministers refused to facilitate a decision to extend the time-limited orders that had enabled virtual participation in the chamber, and as a result the rules simply lapsed.

When MPs returned from recess on 2 June, the government tabled a formal endorsement of the return to physical-only proceedings. This provoked complaints from some MPs that they had effectively been barred from participation, while the Procedure Committee also urged the government to rethink. Karen Bradley, the Conservative chair of that committee, put forward a cross-party amendment to restore remote voting. This was rejected by a majority of 57, but more than 200 MPs did not take part in the vote. Because the government had facilitated this vote only after hybrid arrangements had lapsed, many of those directly affected had been unable to participate in a vote that ultimately disenfranchised them.

For the rest of the year, the government continued to drag its feet on necessary change. While ministers quickly conceded that MPs could again participate virtually in ‘scrutiny’ proceedings, these MPs remained excluded from ‘substantive’ business. Despite frequent and increasingly bitter protest from MPs, including repeated calls from the Procedure Committee, the government refused to let MPs vote on this. It was only in November, following public outrage about the treatment of Tracey Crouch – an MP whose breast cancer treatment prevented her from travelling safely to Westminster, and who was therefore barred from taking part in a debate about breast cancer – that the government agreed to extend participation to ‘substantive’ proceedings. Even then, ministers proposed only to allow MPs who were themselves ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ to participate – rather than, as MPs and the Procedure Committee had demanded, including those unable to attend for any reason connected to the pandemic (such as those self-isolating or protecting a vulnerable family member).

When the government finally brought in a motion to implement this change, some MPs therefore sought to amend it to extend virtual participation more widely. But when the government’s motion came before the Commons, ministers manipulated the day’s schedule to start the debate much earlier than expected. While the precise effects were complex, in effect the government exploited its power over the Commons agenda to stymie a reform which might otherwise have commanded a Commons majority. The Procedure Committee subsequently concluded (paragraphs 51-57) that the government had acted with ‘apparent disregard’ for the Commons, and Karen Bradley wrote that the government’s behaviour had breached the ‘fundamental principle of fair play which should underpin our proceedings’. It was only on 30 December – when the government wanted MPs to be able to debate its Brexit deal legislation – that this change was finally made.

The remaining priority: restoration of remote voting

While virtual participation in Commons debates has now been expanded, ministers have continued to prevent MPs from restoring remote online voting – again, despite further calls from the Procedure Committee. To enable those not present to participate, the government instead favoured a massive expansion of the proxy voting system – which allows MPs to nominate another to cast their vote on their behalf. Initially this was restricted to those unable to come to Westminster, but from November (due to growing concerns about the safety of physical voting) extended to those on the parliamentary estate. By the 30 December debate, almost 600 out of 650 MPs had nominated a proxy – with over 90% of proxy votes held by party whips. Even then, ministers insisted that remote divisions should not be reintroduced.

Mass proxy voting offers few, if any, benefits over remote online voting – which successfully operated in the Commons in May, and has continued to run almost entirely smoothly in the House of Lords. One of the central objections made by the Commons Leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg, is that remote voting does not do justice to the sanctity and seriousness of ‘voting on things that have a major effect on people’s lives’. Yet the mass transfer of votes in advance to party whips seems even less acceptable in this respect. One of Rees-Mogg’s frequent objections to virtual participation in debate was that MPs must be able to interrogate ministers in real time, something that was until recently difficult to achieve through online technology. This has never been an adequate justification for excluding some MPs from participation altogether. But it is surely a powerful argument for MPs to have the freedom to change their vote in response to the evolution of a debate. The use of mass proxies makes this much harder. At the very least, ministers should allow MPs themselves to decide whether they find the government’s arguments persuasive, or whether they wish to return to full online voting.

The problems of government control

The failure to allow virtual participation by MPs in as much Commons business as is technologically possible is a clear violation of one of the core principles that underpins parliaments: that all members should be able to participate. The systematic exclusion of clinically vulnerable MPs is not only discriminatory, and something that would be unacceptable in any other workplace. It also left large parts of the country unrepresented by their MP in key parliamentary debates, at precisely the moment when the pandemic was forcing major restrictions on people’s lives. And it did so by eliminating the contributions of some of the MPs who had personally been most affected by the pandemic – thus preventing them from expressing perspectives shared by many citizens in similar circumstances across the country. Moreover, this happened in the face of frequent and vehement protest from MPs and the Procedure Committee.

A significant cause of this outcome was the government’s determination to block the proposals of others from reaching the agenda and being voted on by all MPs. Under the Commons’ usual procedures, the chamber’s agenda for debate is heavily controlled by the government – meaning that ministers can often prevent MPs from debating and deciding on proposals against the government’s wishes. Had MPs had the opportunity to extend hybrid arrangements before they lapsed in May, they would probably have done so. Had the Procedure Committee later had the opportunity to initiate a debate and vote on the extension of virtual participation, it might have done so. And when the government did schedule a vote on the extension of virtual participation in November, its control over the agenda again enabled it to manipulate the debate to limit MPs’ options.

Looking to the future

Whatever the problems of virtual participation in debates and votes, the downsides are far outweighed by the advantages of maximum inclusion. As the UK enters what looks to be a further period of extended severe restrictions, it is essential that the Commons reverts to the fullest possible opportunities for virtual participation, including the restoration of remote voting, as soon as possible.

But the events of recent months also highlight the much deeper and longer-term problem of the extent of government agenda control in the House of Commons. Once the pandemic is over, it will be necessary for the Commons to review its procedural response. Many of the recent innovations are necessary for now, but unlikely to survive longer term; others, such as the use of video conferencing for select committee evidence sessions, seem more likely to be retained. As part of these debates, government control of the Commons agenda should be properly revisited. It is now over a decade since the Wright Committee proposed that the House should take greater control over its own time. The events of 2020 have demonstrated that heeding its call is now long overdue.

This is the first in a short blog series about MPs’ control of parliamentary processes. The second, which is a summary of a new Constitution report on control of parliamentary business, is available here. The third, on the role of the Backbench Business Committee, can be accessed here.

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About the authors

Dr Daniel Gover is a Lecturer in British Politics at Queen Mary University of London and co-author (with Unit Director Meg Russell) of Legislation at Westminster: Parliamentary Actors and Influence in the Making of British Law (Oxford University Press, 2017).

Lisa James is a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit working on The UK In A Changing Europe-funded ‘Brexit, Parliament and the Constitution’ project.