The marginalisation of the House of Commons under Covid has been shocking; a year on, parliament’s role must urgently be restored

A year ago today, the House of Commons returned from Easter transformed by Covid. Since then, accountability for far-reaching government policy and spending has often been limited, many MPs have been excluded from key virtual proceedings, and whips now hold over 500 proxy votes. Meg Russell, Ruth Fox, Ronan Cormacain and Joe Tomlinson argue that the combined effect in terms of parliament’s marginalisation has been shocking, and that there are risks of government becoming too comfortable with decision-making which evades proper parliamentary scrutiny. One year on, more robust parliamentary accountability must urgently be restored.

A year ago today, the House of Commons returned to business transformed by Covid. Since March 2020, the public has lived under some of the UK’s most restrictive peacetime laws, and to support the economy public money has been spent on a vast scale. Yet parliamentary accountability for, and control over, these decisions has diminished to a degree that would have been unthinkable prior to the pandemic. One year on, with lockdown easing, the restoration of parliamentary control and functioning is now an urgent priority.

This post highlights five ways in which the government’s approach to the House of Commons during Covid has marginalised MPs. In a parliamentary democracy, government accountability to parliament is a core constitutional principle. But in a national emergency, when time for normal process is short, the gravity of the situation can require that parliamentary scrutiny be temporarily sacrificed in exchange for broader accountability. Yet the government has failed to keep its side of the bargain. Too frequently, announcements have been made at press conferences, or briefed privately to the media, rather than presented for democratic scrutiny and questioning by MPs. Ministers have sought extraordinary powers while consistently excluding both the House of Commons as a whole, and certain MPs, from participating in proper oversight.

In the early days of the pandemic necessity arguably justified this approach. But a year on, a real risk exists of damaging precedents being set. This is magnified by the fact that some recent developments have accelerated negative trends predating the pandemic. Unless MPs collectively take a stand against parliament’s continued marginalisation by ministers, what was once extraordinary risks becoming the norm.

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Online harms to democracy: the government’s change of approach

Two years after the publication of the government’s Online Harms white paper, the government has published its final consultation response. Its commitment in the white paper to legislate to prevent online harms to democracy has disappeared, to the frustration of many inside and outside parliament. Alex Walker reflects on the government’s decision to ‘abandon the field’ and argues that a laissez-faire approach could lead to negative consequences.

It is expected that the Queen’s Speech on 11 May will include the government’s long-awaited Online Safety Bill. This will be a major piece of legislation with significant implications for the regulation of digital technology companies in the UK. However, when it is introduced it now seems highly unlikely that it will encompass measures to prevent harms to democracy, as was initially indicated.

The Online Harms white paper published in April 2019 set out a position that recognised the dangers that digital technology could pose to democracy and proposed measures to tackle them. This was followed by an initial consultation response in February 2020 and a full response in December. In the course of the policy’s development, the democracy aspect of the proposals has disappeared. The government now points instead to other areas of activity. This represents a shift away from the ambition of the white paper, which promised to address online harms ‘in a single and coherent way.’

Online Harms white paper: April 2019

The white paper first put forward the government’s intention for a statutory duty of care that would make companies responsible for harms caused on their platforms. This would include illegal harmful content, such as child abuse and terrorist material, but also some forms of harmful but legal content, including disinformation and misinformation. The white paper explicitly framed some of its proposals for tackling online harms in relation to the consequences for democracy. It detailed some of the harms that can be caused, including the manipulation of individual voters through micro-targeting, deepfakes, and concerted disinformation campaigns. It concluded that online platforms are ‘inherently vulnerable to the efforts of a few to manipulate and confuse the information environment for nefarious purposes, including undermining trust’. It recognised that there is a distinction to be drawn between legitimate influence and illegitimate manipulation.

The white paper also set out what the government expected to be in the regulators’ Code of Practice, and what would be required to fulfil the duty of care. This included: using fact-checking services, particularly during election periods; limiting the visibility of disputed content; promoting authoritative news sources and diverse news content; and processes to tackle those who misrepresent their identity to spread disinformation. It stated that action is needed to combat the spread of false and misleading information in part because it can ‘damage our trust in our democratic institutions, including Parliament.’

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FTPA Joint Committee lays down marker for the future

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 placed a legal obligation on the Prime Minister to make arrangements for a committee to review the legislation before the end of 2020. That committee was duly created, and published its report last month. Robert Hazell and Meg Russell offer a summary of the committee’s report, which was rightly critical of the government’s draft repeal bill, but argue that the committee ‘ignored’ the weight of the evidence in some key areas.

On 24 March the parliamentary Joint Committee to review the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) published its report. The committee was established last November under section 7 of the FTPA, which required the Prime Minister in 2020 to make arrangements for a committee to review the operation of the Act, and if appropriate to make recommendations for its amendment or repeal. The review was carried out by a Joint Committee composed of 14 MPs and six members of the House of Lords, and chaired by former Conservative Chief Whip Lord (Patrick) McLoughlin.

The government pre-empted the review by publishing a draft FTPA (Repeal) Bill a week after the committee was established. The Conservative and Labour manifestos in 2019 had both contained a commitment to get rid of the FTPA. As a result the committee focused a lot of attention on the government’s draft repeal bill. But the report devotes almost equal space to the FTPA and how it might be amended, in case parliament prefers to go down that route, now or in the future.

There was clear interest in the committee for retaining but improving the FTPA. The government had a bare partisan majority (11 out of 20 members), and not all Conservative members supported the government line. But the committee managed to avoid any formal votes, instead referring in parts of the report to the majority or minority view. On some key issues the majority view went against the weight of evidence received.

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Northern Ireland on the brink, again: the responsibility of London

As political tensions rise and riots erupt, or are provoked, on the streets of Belfast, the suggestion is now widely heard that the Northern Ireland institutions may again collapse before long. But London appears at present to have a limited grip of the Northern Ireland situation, suggests Alan Whysall, and if it does not change its approach markedly, it – and others – may face great grief soon.

Lessons of history

London governments were hands off in Northern Ireland until the late 1960s. Meanwhile conditions developed there that provoked protest, which was then hijacked by terrorism. Over several decades they painfully learned again about Ireland, the need to give its affairs at times a degree of priority, and the importance of working with Dublin. That approach led to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and an intensive cooperative effort between the governments to implement it and keep it on the road.

Since 2016, matters have changed. In settling the UK’s approach to Brexit, it has generally been regarded as a side issue, to be resolved once the grand lines of the withdrawal plan were settled. The May government, under much pressure from Brussels, Belfast and Dublin, eventually recognised that the architecture of Brexit must accommodate Northern Ireland concerns. In 2019, however, policy shifted from the May backstop to the Johnson Protocol, and there is a strong perception that Northern Ireland has chiefly been valued as a battleground for the government’s trench warfare with the EU.

The build-up to the recent violence

Brexit is of course not the sole cause of what is now going wrong. In various ways, the underpinnings of the Agreement have been weakening for eight or nine years; and a number of factors led to the Executive collapsing in early 2017. But the tensions that Brexit has provoked, and the necessity to create a border somewhere – across the island, around the two islands, or between Great Britain and Ireland (the inevitable choice, because the other two are unfeasible) have seriously envenomed matters.

Nevertheless, Julian Smith, the last Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, developed a strong rapport with all the main Northern Ireland parties, and the Irish government, and was able to reach the New Decade, New Approach agreement to bring the institutions back early last year. But he was promptly sacked, apparently for having offended Number 10, a step widely seen in Northern Ireland as indicating the government’s general lack of concern for its affairs. He was replaced by Brandon Lewis.

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COVID-19 and Commons procedure: back to the future?

Last week the House of Commons extended the temporary procedural arrangements designed to facilitate business during the pandemic, but did not debate the issue separately, and it is not clear if another opportunity to debate the measures will present itself. Former Clerk of the Commons David Natzler argues here that MPs are entitled to an opportunity to determine all significant aspects of its future procedures before the current arrangements expire.

On Thursday 25 March the House of Commons decided to extend for a further three months its temporary procedural arrangements in response to COVID-19, a year on from the first national lockdown. During that period there have been substantial innovations in the way the House works. Some of these have been controversial, in particular new arrangements for members to take part ‘virtually’ in questions and debates and committees, and new rules on voting, including remote electronic voting. Equally controversial has been the issue of how the decisions to continue, change or terminate these arrangements have been made and who has the power to decide: in other words, who really controls the workings of the House of Commons. Such controversy is not new. The problem was discussed at length in the Unit’s January report Taking Back Control. But the past year has given them new urgency.

The Procedure Committee published a report on 14 March, entitled Back to the Future? Procedure after coronavirus restrictions. Having given an account of developments since the autumn, the committee recommended an extension of the temporary orders until the beginning of stage 4 (currently 21 June), which was agreed by the House on 25 March. But the report also recommends that ‘the House reverts to all aspects of its pre-pandemic practice and procedure’. That reflects an amendment made to the chair’s original draft by most of the Conservative majority on the committee, led by William Wragg – who also chairs the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. The same group of members removed a proposal that the committee should mount a further inquiry into the process of making procedural change (see the committee’s Formal Minutes).  

On Thursday 25 March the motion to renew the orders until 21 June was debated as part of a much wider debate on coronavirus regulations and the six-monthly renewal of the Coronavirus Act. The issue of the House’s procedures was naturally overshadowed and there was little reference to them other than in a speech by the chair of the Procedure Committee (see below). There can be no certainty that there will be another chance to consider the arrangements, and every possibility that they will be allowed to lapse on 21 June without further debate or vote. 

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