Coronavirus and constituents: working for an MP during a pandemic

IMG_20200430_150419.jpgAfter it was announced that IPSA had made an additional £10,000 available to MPs to support their office costs to help adapt to the ‘new normal’ of working from home with an increasing workload, there was much confusion and some misinformation about what this money was for. Emma Salisbury explains what MPs’ offices do, where that money might go, and what it has been like working for an MP as the UK has experienced a change in the way we live and work of a type that few (if any) people have experienced before.

The headlines were stark – MPs given £10,000 bonus to work from home! The news prompted criticism from political commentators and on social media, resulting in a petition (signed by 250,000 people) to reverse the decision. This wave of headlines prompted Lindsay Hoyle, Speaker of the House of Commons, to make a statement on the matter. Misinformation such as that put out about this issue has been one of the many democratic challenges of the coronavirus crisis, as the Unit’s Deputy Director, Alan Renwick, and Michela Palese have discussed elsewhere on this blog.

The truth is less exciting, and results in fewer sales and clicks. MPs pay for their offices and staff via the expenses system administered by IPSA, a body set up after the 2009 expenses scandal (for a summary of the 2009 scandal, see this recent blogpost by former Commons clerk Sir David Natzler). Each MP has budgets for their necessities: accommodation, travel, staffing, and office costs. The latter of these is how we pay for the boring things we need to run an office, everything from paperclips to envelopes to printer ink. In order to help support us during the pandemic, IPSA raised the cap on this budget by £10,000 to make sure that every MP’s office had the capacity, if needed, to buy whatever was necessary to make the transition to home working; if the MP or one of their staff does not have access to a computer or printer at home, for example, the budget can cover acquiring this equipment. 

All purchases reimbursed through IPSA need to be claimed for with a receipt and an explanation of why it was necessary, and the conditions of these new funds are no different. If IPSA decides that a claim for an item is not reasonable, then it can refuse to reimburse the MP for that expense, meaning it would have to come out of the MP’s own pocket. The extra amount is a cap, not a target: many MPs will not need to claim for the maximum additional amount. No matter how much of the budget MPs end up spending, this £10,000 is certainly not a lump sum gift to them or their staff.  Continue reading

What the RHI Inquiry tells us about the ‘chilling effect’ of freedom of information laws

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The report into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme provided an insight into the functioning of government in Northern Ireland. Ben Worthy examines the extent to which it revealed that freedom of information laws have produced a ‘chilling effect’ and affected the completeness of the public record when it comes to ministerial discussions and decisions.

One of the biggest fears for transparency campaigners is that Freedom of Information (FOI) laws could create an incentive to hide instead of open up. Could the presence of such laws lead to officials and politicians trying to hide from them, or even fight them? The particular concern is that laws designed to increase transparency might instead empty out the official record, so that meetings go un-minuted, conversations go unrecorded and that important audit trails simply disappear. Even where it goes on, this so-called ‘chilling effect’ is notoriously hard to prove. 

This was one of the many concerns raised as a consequence of scrutiny of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme in Northern Ireland. The alleged mishandling of the scheme partially led to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2017 and prompted an official inquiry, which reported last month. Back in March 2018, giving evidence to the RHI Inquiry, the Head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service, David Sterling, admitted that ‘the practice of taking minutes had “lapsed” after devolution’ and mentioned FOI specifically as a factor. Continue reading

Can analogue politics work in an era of digital scrutiny? The negative effect of COVID-19 on the informal politics of Westminster

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This week the House of Commons approved measures to conduct business in a semi-virtual form. These were necessary to ensure parliament can function during the coronavirus crisis, but as Greg Power explains, they will also involve the loss of some of the key elements of parliamentary life that enable effective scrutiny and party management. 

Parliament finally returned in semi-virtual form this week. While initial coverage has inevitably focused on the novel use of digital technology in the most analogue of institutions, underlying this are more important questions about whether parliament will be able to exert the same political pressure on government when its members are not physically present. 

Westminster is not alone in this task. Every other legislature around the world is looking for ways to meet and decide things when MPs cannot be in the same room, most of which seem destined to further increase the share price of Zoom. Yet, as most parliaments are finding, whilst adapting the formal procedures is a relatively easy task, the politics is more complex.

For example, Brazil moved swiftly to change its rules to allow fully virtual plenary sessions, South Africa has introduced new systems for electronic submission of questions to ministers and many parliamentary committees have quickly moved to remote meetings. Other countries, like France, Ireland, Norway and Germany have reduced both the amount of business, and the number of people allowed in the plenary at any one time, along with other provisions for remote deliberations and questions. 

The UK has ended up with a similar combination of measures, but spats have already emerged in other countries about the politics of such changes. Reducing the number of MPs in the chamber at any one time for questions seems appropriate, provided those numbers reflect the party balance. But who decides which MPs get to turn up? And if parliamentary business is being reduced, what takes priority? This is the traditional territory of the party whips, who will relish the ability to further influence the tone and contents of such public debates. Continue reading

Building a ‘virtual parliament’: how our democratic institutions can function during the coronavirus

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgSince David Natzler last wrote for this blog on the options available to parliament when it returns this week, the Commons and Lords have been making their arrangements for a ‘virtual parliament’. In this post, David discusses the plans put forward so far and the obstacles to their implementation. He argues that the most difficult question, if a virtual parliament is approved, is how MPs and peers will vote.

In the first part of this blog I want to record three particular aspects of the way in which proposals for virtual parliamentary sittings have developed since my blog of Sunday 5 April. In the second part, I look ahead at likely and desirable outcomes. I conclude with some further thoughts on voting.  

The expanded role of the House of Commons Commission

The House of Commons Commission held virtual meetings on Monday 6 and Thursday 16 April. At its 6 April meeting it warned that any special arrangements for the House’s return on 21 April would need to start in the preceding week. At its 16 April meeting the Commission endorsed plans for the use of Zoom to allow up to 120 members to take part in interrogatory virtual proceedings, and for up to 50 members to take part in the Chamber. This hybrid arrangement will need the approval of the House on 21 April.

The Commission is a statutory body which employs the staff of the House and oversees its expenditure. Its assent is required for new services, including digital services and equipment, such as new screens for the Commons chamber or new software. It has no authority to determine how the proceedings of the House should be conducted. But it fills a vacuum in the House of Commons, bringing together for formal decision making the Speaker, who chairs the Commission, the Leader of the House, the Shadow Leader of the House and a senior SNP member, Pete Wishart. These members can be expected to represent their parties, so if the Commission is willing to fund and support the preparatory work for a scheme of virtual participation, and set out in considerable detail how it should work in practice, then it must be assumed that the party leaders support it, at least in outline. As the Clerk of the House and the Director General are also members of the Commission, its proposals can be expected to be capable of implementation. To that extent the Commission has been acting as a substitute for what is missing at Westminster, a House Business Committee or Bureau, as is common in many parliaments and was recommended by the Wright Committee in 2009. Continue reading

Responding to the coronavirus ‘infodemic’: some lessons in tackling misinformation

Michela.Palese (1)alan.jfif (1)The proliferation of false, misleading and harmful information about the coronavirus has been described as an ‘infodemic’ by the World Health Organisation. Government, social media companies, and others have taken concerted action against it. Michela Palese and Alan Renwick here examine these responses and consider potential lessons for tackling online misinformation more broadly.

COVID-19 is rightly dominating the international agenda. Besides the crucial health, economic, and social dimensions, considerable attention is being paid to the information on COVID-19 that is circulating online. 

Ever since the virus emerged, false, misleading and/or harmful information has spread, especially online. Newsguard, which ranks websites by trustworthiness, found that, in the 90 days to 3 March, 75 US websites publishing coronavirus misinformation received ‘more than 142 times the engagement of the two major public health institutions providing information about the outbreak’. Ofcom found that ‘[a]lmost half of UK online adults came across false or misleading information about the coronavirus’ in the last week of March. The World Health Organisation (WHO) described the misinformation as an ‘infodemic – an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.’

The capacity of social media and 24/7 news to proliferate misinformation was already manifest. But this is the first time the potentially nefarious effects of an unregulated online space have combined with a global pandemic. As Conservative MP Damian Collins put it, this is the ‘first major public health crisis of the social media age’.

Governments and tech companies across the globe are responding. In this post, we highlight key steps and consider lessons for dealing with misinformation in general. Continue reading

Proposals for a ‘virtual parliament’: how should parliamentary procedure and practices adapt during the coronavirus pandemic?

RuthFox.084_square.1.jpgmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliamentary scrutiny is essential to checking and legitimising government decisions. But the coronavirus crisis, during which government has been granted unprecedented powers, creates obvious challenges for parliament. Ruth Fox and Meg Russell argue that parliamentary change during the crisis must follow three core principles: first, parliament should go virtual insofar as possible; second, it should adapt its procedures accordingly, prioritising the most critical business; third, decisions about these changes should be open and consultative — to avoid the risk of a government power grab — should be strictly time-limited, and be kept under regular review.

Parliament has an essential role as the guardian of our democracy. But the coronavirus pandemic poses a huge and unprecedented challenge: how can parliamentarians conduct their core constitutional duties of holding the government to account, assenting to finance, passing legislation, and representing their constituents, when we are all required to adopt rigorous social distancing and, wherever possible, work from home? 

At a time when the government has been granted emergency powers of a kind unparalleled in peacetime, and ministers are taking rapid decisions that could shape our economy and society for a generation, democratic oversight is vital. Adversarial party politics take a back seat in a time of national crisis, but parliament’s collective responsibility to hold the executive to account remains. Hence the many calls – from both within and without parliament – for a ‘virtual’ legislature to ensure adequate scrutiny of the government’s decisions, and to maintain other essential time-sensitive work, while complying with public health requirements. 

As yet, however, there has been little detailed debate about how a ‘virtual parliament’ should operate. Parliament cannot work as normal, so what broad issues must it address in deciding how to work differently? 

This post identifies and argues for three core principles:

  • In the interests of safety, and to set a national example, parliament should operate as far as possible virtually, rather than accommodating continued physical presence at Westminster.
  • Parliament should not pursue ‘business as usual’ but should make more radical changes, identifying and prioritising essential business. 
  • Parliament’s crisis arrangements should be based on wide and transparent consultation with members to maximise support. ‘Sunsetting’ should be used to make clear that they are temporary and create no automatic precedent for the post-crisis era. 

In the UK, the government already has much greater control of the way parliament – particularly the House of Commons – operates than in many other countries. Any crisis arrangements must ensure fair representation for all members and parties; and the crisis and parliament’s response to it should not become a pretext to shift power further towards the executive and party managers.   Continue reading

Coronavirus: how Europe’s monarchs stepped up as their nations faced the crisis

bob_morris_163x122.jpgprofessor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgLast Sunday, the Queen spoke to the nation in a rare televised address. The speech was widely praised, and several other European monarchs have made similar attempts to connect with the public. Bob Morris and Robert Hazell argue that her intervention demonstrates the value of an apolitical head of state that remains compatible with modern democracy. 

The British Queen’s address to the nation on Sunday, April 5 evoked huge interest, respect and widespread appreciation. Nearly 24 million people in the UK watched her deliver the four-minute speech, which paid tribute to National Health Service and other key workers, thanked people for following government rules to stay at home and promised ‘we’ll meet again’.

Her words were greeted with almost universal praise from politicians, press and the public alike. But what made it so special? Who advises the Queen on such occasions? And what does it tell us about the monarchy – what can monarchs do that political leaders cannot?

It was special because of its rarity – this was only the fourth occasion on which Elizabeth II has addressed the nation other than in her annual Christmas message. All have marked particular national moments: war in Iraq, the deaths of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother, her thanks for the celebrations for her diamond jubilee. In different ways they bring the nation together – her heartfelt address before Diana’s funeral was especially effective in bringing her people to understand why she had prioritised consoling her bereaved young grandchildren.

The coronavirus speech – a little over 500 words – came invested with the authority of someone able to draw on long personal experience of the country’s trials. Instancing her own message as a 14 year-old to child evacuees wrenched from their families in 1940 was but one way of giving the speech a depth of field to which no politician could aspire. Continue reading