Unit Director Meg Russell analyses the challenges and opportunities for reform facing parliaments during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has raised complex questions about how to balance the different functions of parliaments and their need to operate effectively.
In the UK and around the world parliaments have had to adjust their practices to the unexpected new environment of COVID-19. This has brought major challenges but, some suggest, also opportunities in terms of suggesting future means for parliaments to adapt. This post starts from the core principles of parliamentary functioning, briefly reviews practice under COVID-19, and considers the primary opportunities and challenges presented. It concludes that the future lessons from this unique period reinforce some familiar themes; but they also raise significant conundrums and trade-offs between the different essential principles of what parliaments are there to do.
Stripping back to the basics, what are parliaments for? Legislative studies scholars have suggested various overlapping lists of functions. For example in the Oxford Handbook of Legislative Studies, Amie Kreppel provides a list of four, which I will boil down to three:
- Representation takes many forms, often including – as is central to the UK House of Commons – geographic representation. Numerous, diverse, individuals participate in the legislature, underpinned by a crucial democratic principle of equality, where each ultimately has an equal vote.
- Linkage is closely connected to this – as parliamentarians provide a voice in parliament to their voters, and remain accountable to them.
- Policy-making – for example through approving bills – is perhaps what parliaments are best known for. Connectedly, they have a control function in holding executives to account. For simplicity, I treat these two functions together.
Other terms often mentioned in such classifications include deliberation –much of which takes place publicly – and legitimation, meaning all of parliaments’ functions help them generate broad public support for policy.
It is easy to see how the circumstances of COVID-19 have challenged some of these principles.
The threats to representation were pretty immediate and obvious. With limits on travel, requirements for social distancing, and heightened risks for people with certain health conditions, parliamentarians gathering from all over the country immediately became a problem. Some legislatures responded by limiting the number who could participate – with those decisions often taken by leaders and whips. Others moved their proceedings online. The UK House of Commons initially did the latter, but then rolled this back in a quite problematic way which breached principles of equal participation.Continue reading