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

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

Parliament and COVID-19: the Coronavirus Bill and beyond

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgThe Coronavirus Bill introduced by the government last week will be debated by parliament in circumstances where it is harder for both Houses to meet, scrutinise and vote than at any time in recent memory. How should parliament respond to both the legislation and the crisis that prompted it? Former Clerk of the Commons David Natzler outlines the key issues facing MPs and peers as they consider how parliament should function in the coming months.

Just as the dust is settling on the first phase of the Brexit marathon, and the Constitution Unit and others are examining the role played by Parliament over the past three years, COVID-19 presents itself wholly unexpectedly as a challenge to all the nation’s institutions. Parliament was settling in for five years of single-party majority government and it looked as if, Brexit deal aside, it would be relatively smooth sailing. Now parliament faces the challenge of fulfilling its role in a COVID-19 environment.

The Coronavirus Bill

The government published its Coronavirus Bill on Thursday 19 March, having already revealed the policy proposals to which it gives effect in its Action Plan (published on 3 March) and a more detailed prospectus (published on 17 March). The bill has 87 clauses and 27 Schedules, totalling 321 pages of legislative text. The Explanatory Notes run to 73 pages, and there is a 31-page long memorandum on the implications for human rights.

Commons scrutiny

The bill is to be debated in the House of Commons on Monday 23 March for a maximum of six hours: up to four hours on second reading and two hours for committee of the whole House and remaining stages. The House decided on 18 March to disapply the EVEL Standing Orders in relation to the bill, so it will be spared the rigmarole of forming a Legislative Grand Committee.

It has been possible to table amendments since the bill was introduced. Four amendments and four new clauses were tabled on the day of its publication, and more may be expected in so-called ‘manuscript’ form on the day. They mainly address the issue of for how long the Act will be in force. The bill establishes that its provisions will apply for two years, with provisions for individual powers to be ‘sunsetted’ earlier or indeed revived if it falls due to a sunset clause. It also provides for a general debate in both Houses after one year. Both the official opposition and a cross-party group are proposing systems of six-monthly debate and renewal only if the House so decides. It is perhaps significant that the Irish parliament last week passed a similar bill and as a result of amendment decided that it should last for one year. This is an area where some change is likely; both the Scottish Government, and independent human rights organisations such as Liberty, have expressed concerns about the sunset and scrutiny provisions as currently drafted. Continue reading

An ‘extraordinary scandal’: looking back at the 2009 MPs’ expenses crisis and its consequences

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More than ten years on from the 2009 expenses scandal, Andrew Walker and Emma Crewe have published a book that seeks to offer fresh insight into the origins and legacy of the crisis. David Natzler, a former Clerk of the Commons, offers his own take on the book, and the crisis it seeks to shed light on.

Over a decade has passed since the Westminster expenses scandal of 2009. It is widely regarded as one of the factors, together with the banking crisis and the absence of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which led to popular contempt for the political class, the growth of UKIP, and thus the outcome of the 2016 referendum. There have been useful books and articles on the scandal’s effect as well as accounts by the journalists involved, and last year there were several TV and radio programmes looking back to what seemed at the time to be a momentous series of events. 

Now there is a book by Emma Crewe and Andrew Walker, An Extraordinary Scandal: the Westminster Expenses Crisis and Why it Still Matters, published late in 2019 by Haus. Andrew Walker was the senior Commons official responsible for the administration of the expenses regime; Emma Crewe is an academic anthropologist who has specialised recently in looking at parliamentary culture. I should declare an interest as it was at my suggestion that Andrew approached Emma with the prospect of working together on this project.

The basic story is familiar. A disc (or discs) containing at least a million documents was bought by the Daily Telegraph, who through May and June 2009 published daily exposés of the claims made by MPs. The information was on the discs in preparation for the major clerical task of responding to a court ruling under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 requiring the publication by the House of Commons of much more detailed information than hitherto on payments made to members under the expenses scheme. The Act’s final incarnation included within its statutory ambit both ‘the House of Commons’ and ‘the House of Lords’, although neither appeared in the bill as first drafted. Jack Straw, the minister in charge of the bill, added them to the list of public authorities in Schedule 1 to the Act, and is said to have regretted it ever since. Individual MPs and peers were not then – and are not now – regarded as public authorities. But the House authorities were subject to the Act, and since they administered the expenses system and held the information on MPs’ claims, it became disclosable.

The Act did not come into force until 2005, giving anybody that would be affected five years to prepare. One obligation was to prepare ‘schemes of publication’, which would list what information would be published proactively. The House of Commons made similar preparations to other public authorities: they appointed specialist staff to oversee the effort and discussed what they would proactively publish. The House of Commons eventually decided in late 2004 to publish details of MPs’ expenses broken down into several headings, for each of the previous three years, and to then issue quarterly updates. Crewe and Walker recount the vain attempt to prevent the press from creating ‘league tables’ of MPs by publishing only a locked pdf, which the press had little difficulty in cracking. Various MPs were appalled and angry at being ‘exposed’ as the UK’s or Lancashire’s most expensive MP. One external PR adviser had to resign when it emerged that he had been secretly encouraging one party to make more of a meal of the other party’s record. Continue reading

175 not out: the new edition of Erskine May and eight years of constitutional change

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgIn March, Sir David Natzler retired as Clerk of the Commons after over 40 years in the House. Now, he is the co-editor of Erskine May, the 25th edition of which is the first new edition in eight years, and is freely available to the public: a significant change. Here, Sir David discusses some of the key changes to the text after what can only be described as an eventful eight years for the Commons. 

The years since the last edition of Erskine May in 2011 have been pretty turbulent by any standards. We have had three types – coalition, majority and minority – of government, two general elections, three national referendums and numerous constitutional statutes of real significance. So it was plainly time for a new edition of this timeless work, which is often referred to but rarely read.

The new Erskine May is exciting to me because, as its co-editor, I had the happy task of reading through the chapters as they emerged from the efforts of many of my former colleagues. We all had to ask ourselves: is this a clear and honest account of parliamentary procedure and practice, and if not, how far can we go in recasting it? It is not a new book; but nor is it merely a historical text with minor amendments for the benefit of a modern audience. New content has been added, but nothing has been asserted without due authority, and we also recognise that some assertions of the past are too precious to be excised. Paragraph 21.4 on the rule against reading of speeches is as good an example as any: the principle remains valued by some MPs but it would be idle to pretend that it is rigorously observed in practice. There has to be some wishful thinking.

Who is this edition of Erskine May for? Plainly for practitioners, meaning the occupants of the Chair (such as the Speaker and Deputy Speakers), those who advise them, MPs and officials. But it is not just for them. Recent controversy over decisions by the Speaker on procedural issues related to Brexit and threats of early or extended prorogation by some candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party have served to remind all of us that parliamentary procedures are not some sort of secret masonic ritual to be understood only by a priestly caste of clerks and a handful of others, but are as integral to a parliamentary democracy as electoral rules. And it is not just for Westminster: one of my great pleasures as Clerk was to receive emails from colleagues around the Commonwealth seeking elucidation of a procedural – and usually political – issue where their knowledge of what was said in Erskine May was far in advance of my own!

Fortunately this edition has been preceded by two very different works which help set it in context. In 2018 the Commons authorities published a Guide to Procedure which is intended to help those involved in its day to day work, set out in plain English. It is of course available online. And secondly, at the end of 2017 Hart Publishing produced a book of essays – edited by current Clerk of Committees Paul Evans, entitled Essays on the History of Parliamentary Procedure: In Honour of Thomas Erskine May, to mark the great man’s 200th birthday in 2015. 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

Proxy voting in the House of Commons: how could it work in practice?

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In February, the House of Commons passed by acclamation a motion to permit a system of voting by proxy for Members of Parliament who have recently adopted or given birth to a child. Ahead of the Procedure Committee’s report on the matter, former Clerk of Committees Andrew Kennon offers his view on how a system of proxy voting might work, and some of the problems its designers will have to consider.

On 1 February 2018 the House of Commons debated and passed this motion moved by Harriet Harman MP:

That this House believes that it would be to the benefit of the functioning of parliamentary democracy that honourable Members who have had a baby or adopted a child should for a period of time be entitled, but not required, to discharge their responsibilities to vote in this House by proxy (emphasis added).

The Procedure Committee has conducted a short inquiry into this matter and is expected to report in May. 

Close votes

This would be less of an issue if the government had a clear majority. Normally, pairing arrangements between the whips of the main parties accommodate absences due to illness, family responsibilities, or other duties. Such understandings cannot always bear the pressure of really close votes in a hung parliament.

On such occasions, the reputation of the House is not enhanced by mothers of very small babies having to carry them through the division lobbies. Nor was it improved by very sick Members being brought by ambulance onto the precincts so their vote could be counted by being ‘nodding through’ the lobby by a whip. I remember it well from my early days as a clerk in the late 1970s. Continue reading