Last week Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg demanded the end of ‘hybrid’ arrangements allowing MPs to participate and vote remotely during the COVID-19 crisis. In this open letter, a group of senior democracy specialists point out this breached the fundamental democratic principle of equality in decision-making, because the MPs most benefiting from remote participation (e.g. due to ‘shielding’) were excluded from the vote. They urge the Leader of the House to reinstate procedures allowing all MPs to participate fully in all Commons business.
MPs queue to vote on Tuesday. Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of parliament.
Dear Mr Rees-Mogg
We write to express our very grave concerns about the way in which the ‘hybrid’ House of Commons was suspended. As specialists in the principles and practice of democracy it is clear to us that these actions breached fundamental democratic principles.
The ‘hybrid’ arrangements, allowing for a mix of virtual and in-person participation in parliamentary proceedings were brought about by necessity, to enable the House of Commons to continue to fulfil its essential functions of scrutiny and representation during the coronavirus crisis. Parliamentary accountability is crucial at any time, but more crucial than ever when ministers have taken unprecedented emergency powers, and the broadest possible public consent for health measures, and restrictions on citizens’ usual freedoms, is needed.
At the initial stages of the crisis there were troubling suggestions that parliament might close down completely for up to five months (as reported in The Times on 5 March). Thankfully, attention soon moved on from this drastic (and fundamentally anti-democratic) suggestion, to exploring how parliament could keep working through the crisis.
Parliamentary staff have worked tirelessly to devise innovative technological solutions to allow MPs to contribute virtually, and online select committee meetings began during the Easter recess. The Speaker, and the House of Commons Commission, offered admirable leadership, with essential additional input from the Procedure Committee. At the early stages there was a clear commitment to working on a cross-party basis to ensure that the Commons could continue to function in a way which maintained essential representation and accountability, while protecting public health. The motions on 21 and 22 April to enable members to participate and vote remotely were warmly supported by opposition parties and unanimously agreed. This consultative, cross-party approach was exactly what was needed when bringing about such far-reaching changes to the functioning of our democratic process. It showed inclusivity and maximised the chances of maintaining public trust and support.
The attempt to dismantle the hybrid arrangements has, unfortunately, followed the reverse approach. Through a lack of consultation and cross-party decision-making it has sown unnecessary division. Furthermore, it has breached the fundamental democratic and parliamentary principle of equality in decision-making, excluding many MPs from the choice about how to run their own institution. It has done so to the detriment of some of those who are most vulnerable in this crisis. Continue reading