Coronavirus and the Commons: how the hybrid parliament has enabled MPs to operate remotely

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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. 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

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

The Sewel convention and Brexit

mcewen-e1527685912390In March, the Constitution Unit co-published a new report, Parliament and Brexit, in which some of the UK’s leading academics examine how parliament has managed Brexit to date, and how it might seek to handle the issue in future. Here, Nicola McEwen discusses how the Sewel convention, which regulates the relationship between the UK Parliament and its devolved counterparts, was put under strain by Brexit.

There are four legislatures in the UK, but only one of these is sovereign. The sovereignty of the Westminster parliament remains one of the most important principles of the UK constitution. Each of the devolution statutes made clear that conferral of law-making powers on the devolved institutions ‘does not affect the power of the Parliament of the United Kingdom to make laws’ for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – including in areas of devolved competence. But Westminster’s parliamentary sovereignty is offset by the constitutional convention that it will not normally legislate in areas of devolved competence, or alter the competences of the devolved institutions, without their consent.

That convention, commonly known as the Sewel convention, has become an important principle underpinning UK devolution. It represents a tacit understanding that the devolved institutions, each of which was founded on popular consent in a referendum, have primary democratic and political authority over laws within their areas of competence.

From the outset, the scope of the Sewel convention was ambiguous. The UK and devolved governments have frequently disagreed on the extent to which UK legislation necessitates legislative consent from the devolved institutions. When tasked with determining its status following its inclusion in the Scotland Act 2016 and the Wales Act 2017, the Supreme Court in Miller I concluded that it remained a convention rather than a legal rule, therefore ‘the policing of its scope and the manner of its operation does not lie within the constitutional remit of the judiciary’. The Court thus left it to politicians and parliament to determine the operation and interpretation of the convention. Continue reading

Democracy and the coronavirus: how might parliament adapt?

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgParliament is currently in recess but its work continues, with select committees moving to remote hearings, and the Speaker promising to move, if only temporarily, towards a ‘virtual parliament’. David Natzler, who spent almost 40 years working in the House of Commons, draws on his experience to suggest how issues relating to the remote conduct of oral questions, voting, committees, and other key matters, might be resolved before parliament returns in late April.

In my blog of 23 March, I suggested that parliament would be judged on how well it had dealt with COVID-19. Over the past fortnight parliament has passed the Coronavirus Act and Commons select committees have held several hearings (see below) in procedurally unique circumstances. Developments in other parliaments and institutions have given an indication of how Westminster might adapt in the coming months. And there have been growing calls for business – in  some radically different form – to be resumed well before 21 April, when parliament is due to reassemble following its standard, if slightly extended, Easter break. The proceedings in both Houses on 23-25 March are of course available to read in Hansard. They do not seem to have been widely reported in the press, save for the observation that there were no votes. 

Speaker’s letter of 27 March: Chamber proceedings 

On 27 March the Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, wrote a letter to all members of the House of Commons. The letter confirmed that he would be considering several practical measures to enable the number of members present in the Commons chamber at any one time to be reduced. These measures included advance publication of the order of speaking in debate, which the Chair has hitherto not revealed, thus requiring members to attend the debate and wait until called. In the past it has been suggested that the draft list be published, as it is in many other parliaments; this already happens in the House of Lords. If this were introduced it could take some persuasion to return to the existing practice, which allows the Chair to show some flexibility in response to debate.

Oral and written questions and statements

The Speaker’s letter also envisages possible adaptations of the oral question regime, conceivably allowing for questions and supplementary questions to be posed remotely by absent members. Advance submission by MPs of their desire to be called to ask a supplementary question following a statement or urgent question is also canvassed as a possible change. And the Speaker gave a strong signal that he would expect the government to allow for answers to written questions to be given during any future extended period of adjournment, much as happened in the mid-2000s when September sittings were abandoned for several years (see Standing Order 22B and Erskine May 22.4, footnote 3). This was repeated in his letter to the Leader of the Commons on 2 April. Continue reading

Brexit and parliament: treaties beyond the EU

In the latest extract from our joint report on Parliament and Brexit, Jill Barrett argues that the need for effective scrutiny of post-Brexit trade deals is high, and that parliament needs to develop mechanisms to better scrutinise the deals made by the government.

Leaving the EU means the UK is not only leaving the EU trading bloc and negotiating a new future relationship with the EU, but also leaving its global network of trade treaties – which consists of 41 trade agreements covering 72 countries. All of these will cease to apply to the UK at the end of the transition period (31 December 2020, unless extended by agreement). The UK’s trade with other World Trade Organization (WTO) member countries will then take place on WTO terms, except where there is a new trade agreement in place.

The UK government is seeking to ‘roll over’ the 41 existing EU agreements, by negotiating similar new agreements with the third states concerned. So far, only 19 replacement agreements have been signed and a further 16 are ‘still in discussion’. In some cases, notably Japan, the other state is not willing simply to replicate the terms that it has with the EU, but is seeking further concessions from the UK. Achieving a deal in all cases by the end of 2020 will be extremely challenging, and some may well take considerably longer.

Now the UK has an independent trade policy it can also seek new trade relationships with states that are outside of the EU’s treaty network. The government has announced that its priority is to negotiate bilateral trade treaties with the USA, Australia and New Zealand, and one may expect the next phase to include negotiations with major emerging economies such as China and India. All of these will raise matters of intense interest to parliament and the public.

What is parliament’s role in relation to the making of treaties? Treaties are negotiated, adopted, signed and ratified by the government using royal prerogative (executive) powers. In legal terms, parliament has two distinct roles. First, the government is obliged to lay a new treaty before parliament for 21 sitting days prior to ratification, under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRAG). In theory, this gives parliament the opportunity to scrutinise the treaty and object to ratification, by passing a resolution. An objection by the House of Commons (but not by the Lords) would block ratification. Secondly, if implementation of the treaty requires new legislation, parliament has the power to pass or defeat that legislation (or amend it, if it is a statute). If essential implementing legislation is blocked, this would normally stop the government ratifying the treaty. Continue reading

Parliament and Brexit: what do the public think?

IMG_20181213_223144Almost four years have passed since the 2016 EU referendum delivered a mandate for Brexit. However, as John Curtice explains in the latest extract from our joint report on Parliament and Brexit, the views of the public on the role of referendums in the Brexit process is heavily influenced by their views on whether Britain should leave the European Union or remain a member.

Though they have been used various times on constitutional matters in the UK, referendums are often thought to challenge traditional notions of representative parliamentary democracy. In the UK’s version of such a democracy, MPs are sent to Westminster to deliberate and exercise their judgement on their constituents’ behalf. Referendums seemingly usurp this traditional role, in an attempt to ascertain ‘the will of the people’.

Nonetheless, survey research has long suggested that referendums are popular with voters – as indeed was the June 2016 EU referendum. A fortnight beforehand, 52% told YouGov that David Cameron was right to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, and only 32% said he was wrong. On the very eve of polling, Ipsos MORI reported that 66% of voters felt the Prime Minister was right to hold a ballot, while only 24% reckoned he was wrong.

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Yet, underneath the surface there were already important differences of opinion. As the first chart shows, Leave and Remain backers had rather different views. According to YouGov, 83% of Leave supporters supported Cameron’s decision, and only 9% thought it wrong. In contrast, 60% of likely Remain voters disliked the decision and only 26% approved. Of course, in calling the referendum Cameron had opened up the possibility that the UK might indeed leave the EU, a prospect that Leave voters were more likely to
embrace. Continue reading

Commons select committees and Brexit

wager.150x150This week, the Constitution Unit co-published a new report, Parliament and Brexitin which some of the UK’s leading academics look at how parliament has managed Brexit to date, and how it might seek to handle the issue in future. Here, Alan Wager argues that select committees in the Commons proved their worth at a time when the public perception of parliament was at a low point, but that future Brexit challenges will see them come under pressure.

The House of Commons select committee system is a parliamentary success story. But it is a success story about to come under a period of sustained pressure. The influence and public profile of the committee system has been boosted by a reputation as a generator of agenda-setting policy discussion, and a vehicle for genuine cross-party scrutiny. The new political environment since the 2019 general election provides a test of whether these factors can be sustained. In an environment where the government is explicitly setting out to reduce the level of parliamentary scrutiny around Brexit and its consequences, select committees face the challenge of maintaining the levels of influence they enjoyed during the 2017-19 parliament.

Some government decisions that inhibited select committee scrutiny at the start of Boris Johnson’s tenure are temporary. The attempted prorogation, actual prorogation, dissolution and the slow start after the general election, combined with the distraction of the Labour leadership contest, have disrupted committee activity. The Liaison Committee has yet to question Boris Johnson, who cancelled an agreed appearance in October, having postponed twice previously. All this at a critical time when negotiating mandates and opening positions are being fleshed out.

Yet there are other substantive and long-term problems for scrutiny, resulting directly from government decisions, which will continue to impact throughout the transition period. As discussed in Lisa James’ contribution to the Parliament and Brexit report, government revisions to the post-election EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill (WAB) reduced MPs’ ability to scrutinise the next steps on Brexit on the floor of the House of Commons – including the negotiating mandate and updates on negotiations. This means that MPs (and watchers of BBC Parliament) will be denied those pinch points of high drama – and, more importantly, high scrutiny – that shaped government strategy throughout the last parliament. The question is whether select committees – with their proven capacity to generate moments of scrutiny and expose the government of the day – can partly fill the gap. Continue reading

Parliament, politics and anti-politics

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgThis week, the Constitution Unit and UK in a Changing Europe publish a new report, Parliament and Brexit, which contains expert analysis how parliament has handled Brexit in the near four-year period since the 2016 referendum victory for the Leave campaign. It also includes discussion of parliament’s future scrutiny functions, as Brexit continues to take shape in increasingly difficult political times. In this, the first excerpt from the report to appear on our blog, Unit Director Meg Russell outlines how the tussle between parliament and government over Brexit harmed the former’s reputation, to the detriment of our parliamentary democracy.

Parliament sits at the heart of the UK’s democracy, with core functions of holding the government to account, scrutinising and legitimising its actions. Through local representation and the representation of political parties, it links citizens to the key political decisions that are taken in their name.

In all democracies parliaments are central – it’s impossible to be a democracy without a parliament. But this centrality is particularly so in the UK, for two fundamental reasons. First, as a ‘parliamentary’ (rather than presidential) democracy the government ultimately depends on the confidence of the House of Commons for its survival. Second, the UK puts the principle of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ at the core of its constitution (as discussed in Barnard and Young’s contribution to the report). Challenges to the authority of parliament are thus challenges to UK democracy, and potentially to our constitution itself. Yet such challenges occurred, increasingly, during the Brexit process.

That process saw unprecedented levels of conflict between government and parliament, and perceived conflicts between ‘parliament and people’, precipitated by a unique chain of events. The 2016 referendum handed voters the in-principle decision over the UK’s membership of the EU, at a time when most MPs supported Remain (see contributions in the report from Philip Lynch and Richard Whitaker). This already promised tensions, given that parliament and government were left to navigate the more detailed questions about the form that Brexit should take. The Conservatives were highly divided on Brexit, while most Labour MPs instinctively opposed it. Delivering such a controversial policy with the narrow parliamentary majority that Theresa May inherited from David Cameron looked risky, so she gambled on a general election in 2017 to improve matters; but this resulted in an even weaker minority government. Her authority was undermined, and parliament more divided than before. Continue reading