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

Coronavirus: how Europe’s monarchs stepped up as their nations faced the crisis

bob_morris_163x122.jpgprofessor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgLast Sunday, the Queen spoke to the nation in a rare televised address. The speech was widely praised, and several other European monarchs have made similar attempts to connect with the public. Bob Morris and Robert Hazell argue that her intervention demonstrates the value of an apolitical head of state that remains compatible with modern democracy. 

The British Queen’s address to the nation on Sunday, April 5 evoked huge interest, respect and widespread appreciation. Nearly 24 million people in the UK watched her deliver the four-minute speech, which paid tribute to National Health Service and other key workers, thanked people for following government rules to stay at home and promised ‘we’ll meet again’.

Her words were greeted with almost universal praise from politicians, press and the public alike. But what made it so special? Who advises the Queen on such occasions? And what does it tell us about the monarchy – what can monarchs do that political leaders cannot?

It was special because of its rarity – this was only the fourth occasion on which Elizabeth II has addressed the nation other than in her annual Christmas message. All have marked particular national moments: war in Iraq, the deaths of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother, her thanks for the celebrations for her diamond jubilee. In different ways they bring the nation together – her heartfelt address before Diana’s funeral was especially effective in bringing her people to understand why she had prioritised consoling her bereaved young grandchildren.

The coronavirus speech – a little over 500 words – came invested with the authority of someone able to draw on long personal experience of the country’s trials. Instancing her own message as a 14 year-old to child evacuees wrenched from their families in 1940 was but one way of giving the speech a depth of field to which no politician could aspire. 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

How would Emmanuel Macron govern without a parliamentary majority?

An Emmanuel Macron presidency would not represent quite the political earthquake of a Marine Le Pen presidency, but in some respects it would nonetheless take France’s political system into uncharted territory. Macron’s En Marche! movement currently has no MPs and, even if it performs well at the parliamentary election in June, it is highly unlikely to win a majority. Andrew Knapp explains what this could mean for a Macron presidency, suggesting that the most likely possibility is the formation of a minority government relying on different majorities on different issues.

Emmanuel Macron could still lose to Marine Le Pen at the second round of France’s presidential election on 7 May. If he continues to behave as if he has already won – which he mostly has since his first-round victory on 23 April – voters could return the favour and stay at home for the run-off. Or he could perform disastrously at the debate with Le Pen set for 3 May. Or a particularly fruity scandal could break over his head (his declaration of his own net worth, for example, looks suspiciously modest when set alongside his earnings when a banker with Rothschild’s). Barring these eventualities, however, Macron will become the eighth President of the Fifth Republic: the margin of victory suggested by current polls (62 per cent to Le Pen’s 38), very much greater than that expected for the Remain vote in the UK, or for Hilary Clinton in the United States, could well be reduced, but is unlikely to be reversed. Macron would also be the Fifth Republic’s youngest president by a margin of nine years (the current record-holder is Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, elected in 1974 at age 48).

What then? Would President Macron govern, or merely reign? To categorise the Fifth Republic as a semi-presidential system, which it broadly is, does not take us very far towards an answer, because semi-presidential systems vary so widely among themselves. France’s President is clearly the EU’s most powerful head of state, which is why he (not, so far, she), and not the Prime Minister, represents France at the European Council. But is he also the most powerful head of the political executive of any EU state? That is more debatable. The formal powers vested in the President by the Constitution of the Fifth Republic are considerable, but quite insufficient to govern as he chooses. To do that, he needs the backing of a parliamentary majority. The chances of Macron getting that, in the legislative elections to be held on 11 and 18 June, are very uncertain.

Untangling those presidential powers that stem from the constitutional text from those that depend on circumstance is a favourite pastime of students of French politics. And the Macron case offers a new terrain for speculation in this area because his victory on 7 May would, in certain respects, take France’s political system into uncharted territory.

Continue reading