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

Looking forward, looking back: an evening with Sir David Natzler

IMG.2771On 19 March, the Unit held an event: ‘Challenges for Parliament: Looking Back, Looking Forward’, at which Sir David Natzler – who retired as Clerk of the House of Commons in February – spoke to Professor Meg Russell about his 40-year career in parliament. The discussion was both entertaining and informative; Dave Busfield-Birch summarises the key points.

Early days

Sir David first started working in the House of Commons in 1975, at what he called an ‘exciting time’, just two years after the UK had joined what was then known as the European Communities. His first assignment was as clerk to the European Legislation Committee, which was facing the novel challenge of sifting through the legislation passed by an unelected Council of Ministers sitting in the capital city of another country, and recommending which measures should be debated.

Parliament was unsurprisingly a very different place in the early years of Sir David’s Commons career. Talking of the key differences, he first spoke of how ‘expectations’ had changed significantly since then. For example, there were no limits on how long a Member could speak in those days. Whereas the Speaker (or one of the Deputy Speakers) can now impose relatively short time limits for MPs wishing to speak, that was not the case in 1975. Sir David considered this ‘almost one of the biggest changes’ of the past two or three centuries; that speaking for a long time can no longer be used to ‘destroy business’.

One of the other key differences between then and now is that the House of Commons lacked fiscal independence when he first started working there. It was instead reliant on the government for finance, thereby limiting its ability to take crucial decisions such as whether or not to recruit more staff. The Treasury hence had control of the Commons until the establishment of the House of Commons Commission in 1978, at which point the Commons became fiscally independent. Continue reading

The Speaker election row tells us two important things about parliament

Meg-Russell

On 26 March, its final sitting day, the House of Commons rejected government proposals to reform how the Speaker is elected at the start of the new parliament. Here Meg Russell reflects on what this teaches us about parliament, suggesting it holds two lessons. First, that the 2010 House of Commons was more resistant than its predecessors to government dominance; but second, that further reform is still needed to reduce that dominance.

Two weeks ago the House of Commons met for the last time before the general election. A debate had been scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee to allow retiring MPs to make short valedictory speeches. This might have served as the highpoint of the day – a dignified and nonpartisan moment before election hostilities began. But instead the day was hijacked by a completely unexpected and high-profile row, when Commons Leader William Hague brought forward a motion to change the procedure that the new parliament would follow to elect its Speaker. This was widely viewed as an ill-disguised attempt to unseat Speaker Bercow, sprung in a completely underhand manner. In the event, the motion was defeated by 228 votes to 202. This brought an ignominious end to Hague’s own otherwise distinguished Commons career, and saw the Commons break up with an air of bitterness. Nonetheless there was also something to celebrate in terms of the defiant independence shown by Commons backbenchers, which rounded off nicely the independent 2010-15 parliament. Yet these events also pointed towards a reform agenda for its successor parliament.

Continue reading

MAKING TIME TO REFORM PARLIAMENTARY TIME

14th May 2013

All this talk of draft bills and Loyal Address amendments about an EU referendum raises several vital democratic issues of parliamentary process, not least that of the ways in which MPs, individually or collectively, can initiate debate or legislation on important topics of the moment.  At its heart, as always, lurks the core problem of Government control of House of Commons business and time.

Supporters of the ‘conventional wisdom’ parliamentary reform agenda over the last half century have justified the pace and route of reform as being incremental, evolutionary and practical, being the only way to achieve change in the face of the Government’s dominant position in the House of Commons.  Those more sceptical may choose to describe it more negatively, as being ad hoc, piecemeal, reactive, incoherent and devoid of any consistent guiding principle.

Some changes come not directly from demands from MPs or even the public, but from the initiative of the Government itself, and these, though dressed up as parliamentary reform to strengthen Parliament, often result in making life easier for Ministers.  Richard Crossman in the 1960s said there was a difference between parliamentary reform and modernisation, when he was distinguishing practical updating in infrastructure and facilities from procedural changes.  In the modern context, too often ‘modernisation’ has been the catchword for changes which assist the Government, or which can be absorbed by Ministers without serious inconvenience, whereas genuine ‘reform’, to make Parliament itself more powerful and effective, especially in relation to the Executive, has to take a back seat, awaiting Government permission and, worse, facilitation.

So it is with ‘parliamentary time’ and the control and order of business.  There have been some changes, especially to the scope for debate not initiated by Ministers, such as Westminster Hall.  There has been the innovation of the Backbench Business Committee, but that has been hobbled by the albatross of the Government’s e-petition wheeze around its shoulders.  Some ever-optimistic souls are still waiting in hope for the emergence of Government proposals for a ‘House Business Committee’ of some sort, originally promised for this year.

But we also wait in vain for fundamental change to issues like the current antiquated arrangements for backbench legislative initiative.  How different would the current ‘discussions’ of EU referendum legislation opportunities be if we didn’t have to rely on the various existing ‘private members bill’ processes, with its random ballot and limited scope for genuine progress of controversial bills, but if there were clear and efficient arrangements for the allocation of time for all types of parliamentary business, including scope for debates and legislative initiative by non-Governmental sources, such as backbenchers – getting rid of the unhelpful term ‘private member’ would be a small but symbolic reform – and committees.

The current confused mess – which may, in many ways, be helpful to Ministers – further undermines the Commons’ reputation with the public as an effective, responsive and accountable representative assembly, able to address coherently important issues of public interest.  Time for real, principled and all-embracing reform!

The Wright Way to Infantilise the Commons

The short Commons debate on Monday 12 March on procedural changes to the Backbench Business Committee (BBBC) provided further proof that Government (and front benches generally) has no intention of ceding its dominance over the parliamentary agenda in any fundamental way, and will permit ‘reform’ only on its own terms and in its own good time.

What a pity that the vast legions of the ‘conventional wisdom’ – in academe, media and inside Westminster itself – will no doubt ignore this, as they have all clear signs in the last few years that the alleged empowering of Parliament, through the reforms proposed by the Wright Committee, is being skewed and diluted by ministers and their allies. The Backbench Business Committee is hailed as the battering ram which is breaching Government control of Commons business (what is discussed and when etc.), leading to the ultimate prize of a ‘full’ House Business Committee in the coming year.

I have blogged on all this, both in this Blog and elsewhere (eg here, and here), arguing for genuine Commons control (on behalf of the public they represent) of their own House and its operation, especially in respect of its business.  Monday’s debate is a good example of a government (any government) unilaterally deciding to propose its own changes to a select committee – and the one which is supposed to determine Backbench business! – at a time of its own choosing, and, according the BBBC’s chair and others, not only without consulting that committee in advance but also in the middle of a Procedure Committee review of the BBBC.  Because Ministers control time, all backbenchers can do is complain about it, or try to prevent it through amendments, when surely in any mature parliament worthy of the name, the timing of such a debate and the content of any proposed motions would be a matter for the House itself – through some form of genuine Business Committee.

The standard ministerial excuse is that all Government is doing is ‘providing an opportunity’ for debate and ‘facilitating’ discussion through its agenda-setting.  Note, in passing, that this debate was held alongside ‘sexier’ ones on MPs standards, guaranteed to monolopolise the limited available political and media interest.  Even worse, the minister putting all this through was  David Heath, Deputy Leader of the House (and my local MP) – the same David Heath who, when in opposition, demanded “An Everest of reform … to bring this House and our politics generally up to speed – into the 21st century – and make it fit for purpose” and declared that “It should not be for the Leader of the House – or the shadow Leader of the House, or me – to determine what will happen. It should not be for anyone to dictate to the House how we are to conduct our business.” Oh, I forgot, he’s now only ‘providing opportunities for debate and decision ….

Mr Heath is learning all the front bench business manager tricks. For example, he said on Monday that “Wright is not holy writ and should not be treated as such, not least because there are internal contradictions in the Wright report, just as there are sometimes in holy writ.”  In other words, we in Government can cherry-pick what we want out of the Wright reform blueprint, and ignore or change what we dont like.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that the best – indeed, only – sensible strategy for acheiving reform is to go along with the Government (as has been done over the Government’s own unilateral e-petitions system being dropped into the BBBC mix) and to try and ‘save’ as much of the Wright blueprint as possible.  We can argue how radical Wright really was, in that glorious window of opportunity provided fleetingly by the expenses scandal of 2009.  What the incrementalists and trimmers have to demonstrate now is that when (perhaps, if) they actually can claim success over a full House Business Committee, it will be one worth having, and that the arrangement of Commons business will have really shifted decisively from the Government (and front benches more generally) to the House collectively on behalf of the people.

Monday’s debate confirms that the omens are not good.  But there may just be time for those who profess to seek genuine radical reform to act before it is too late, and try to overcome the House’s self-defeating acquiescence to government initiative over parliamentary reform.  After all, it was the Wright Committee itself which rightly asserted, in unequivocal terms, that “Time in the House belongs to the House,” and warned that  Government control of parliamentary time “infantilises Members.”  Time to grow up!