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

Parliament, spin and the accurate reporting of Brexit

lisa.james.resized.staff.webpage.jpg (1).pngmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliament has been the site of many of the key Brexit battles, and political journalists play a vital role in reporting such developments and holding politicians to account. But unfamiliarity with the workings of parliament can leave them vulnerable to spin. Lisa James and Meg Russell argue that when it comes to key aspects of parliamentary procedure, the present climate of anonymous briefings and counter-briefings may make reporters’ traditional sources less trustworthy than usual. But there are other sources to which they can, and should, be turning.

Parliamentary reporting has rarely been more exciting or important. From the ‘meaningful votes’ on Theresa May’s Brexit deal to the first Saturday sitting since 1982, parliament has been the site of ever-more suspenseful Brexit episodes. These have been narrated and analysed by reporters in real time – and followed by record audiences.

Recent weeks have seen a growing chorus of concern about the relationship between the Johnson government and the media, with the perceived misuse of anonymous briefing and spin coming under pointed criticism from senior journalists and former Conservative MPs. In this environment, parliamentary battles and controversies pose particular challenges for journalists. The more politics is played out in parliament, rather than around the cabinet table or in TV studios, the more important an understanding of parliamentary procedure becomes.

Raw politics of course is important in driving parliamentary outcomes. But parliamentary procedure sets the framework within which political questions are negotiated and resolved. It can determine which actors will have most influence and when. Hence if journalists misunderstand procedure, or are deliberately misled, they risk misrepresenting which political outcomes are likely to happen, and indeed which are even possible. Continue reading

Representation in Britain: Learning about parliamentary candidates and their experiences

Photo.001On 18 June, the Constitution Unit and the Hansard Society co-hosted an event in parliament marking the launch of Representation in Britain, a four-year ESRC funded study of parliamentary candidates standing in the 2015 and 2017 general elections by the Representative Audit of Britain (RAB) team. Lotte Hargrave offers a summary of what was said. 

The event shared research and insights into key questions around selection, campaigning, and representation in Britain: who are our parliamentary candidates; what motivates them to stand; how much does it cost to run; and are candidates representative of the constituents they serve? The event was chaired by Dr Jennifer Hudson, with presentations from Professor Rosie Campbell, Dr Sofia Collignon Delmar, Dr Stefanie Reher, Dr Javier Sajuria, Professor Maria Sobolewska, and Lord Hayward, the last of whom served on the Political Polling and Digital Media Committee. In this blog, we summarise key insights from RAB research on a range of topics.

Professor Rosie Campbell,  Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London

Professor Campbell began by introducing the motivation for the study, citing the need for a reliable source of data on the profiles, motivations, and opinions of parliamentary candidates. The RAB began as a study of candidates standing in the 2015 general election, however following Theresa May’s decision to instigate a snap election, the team also surveyed candidates standing in 2017. Campbell noted the survey’s response rates – 57% in 2015 and 51% in 2017 – figures comparable with, and in some cases higher than, previous candidate studies. Alongside the survey, in 2015, 44 qualitative interviews were carried out that proved invaluable for reinforcing the robust nature of the quantitative data. Campbell highlighted that the purpose of the Audit was not to offer policy recommendations to parties or parliament, but to provide an independent and reliable source of data on the attitudes and experiences of UK parliamentary hopefuls. Continue reading

Amendments are needed to strengthen the Withdrawal Bill’s provisions for scrutiny of Statutory Instruments

5GMFtvPS_reasonably_smallToday saw the start of two days of report stage debate in the House of Commons on the content of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. At committee stage, amendments were made that created a new sifting committee for statutory instruments related to Brexit. Joel Blackwell, of The Hansard Society, argues below that the current proposals are insufficient to guarantee proper scrutiny and makes several recommendations for changes that can be made before the bill passes to the House of Lords.

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which returned to the House of Commons for its report stage today, was successfully amended at committee stage in December 2017 to create a mechanism which will allow MPs, via a new European Statutory Instruments sifting committee, to consider statutory instruments (SIs) made under the Bill’s widest delegated powers and recommend an upgrade in the level of scrutiny of those about which they have most concern.

This new scrutiny mechanism, incorporated through a series of amendments tabled by Procedure Committee Chair Charles Walker, is intended to constrain the wide Henry VIII powers the government will use to make changes to retained EU law via SIs (under clauses 7, 8 and 9 of the Bill).

But if MPs are serious about scrutinising the changes arising from Brexit, these amendments, and the related proposals to amend Standing Orders will, as currently drafted, offer only limited help. If MPs are not happy with what the government wants to do, they will still be unable to exercise any real influence on the substance of a Brexit SI.

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Trade Bill highlights parliament’s weak international treaty role

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On 9 January, the Trade Bill successfully passed its second reading stage in the House of Commons. Intended to regulate the implementation of international trade agreements after Britain leaves the EU, it is one of the most important pieces of Brexit-related legislation currently going through parliament. In this post, which originally appeared on the website of the Hansard Society, Dr. Brigid Fowler argues that the role of parliament in influencing the drafting and agreement of British trade treaties has the potential to be weakened, not strengthened by Brexit should this bill become law.

The Trade Bill, which had its second reading debate on Tuesday, is one of the most important pieces of Brexit legislation. It is a framework Bill enabling the UK to implement the non-tariff elements of future international trade agreements, where those agreements are with states with which the EU has signed a trade agreement by the date the UK leaves.

For non-tariff issues, the Bill is aimed at addressing the domestic legislative aspect of one of the most urgent Brexit questions: how to save, in less than 15 months, the preferential trade arrangements that the UK has through the EU with, according to the Bill’s impact assessment, at least 88 countries and territories, covered by perhaps 40-plus agreements.

The Bill’s broad aim is the same as that of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill – which has its report stage consideration in the House of Commons on 16–17 January – and indeed of the government’s overall Brexit approach: to minimise the disruption to business and consumers at the moment when the UK leaves the EU on 29 March 2019.

But, as regards trade agreements, the EU (Withdrawal) Bill on its own cannot do the job, because capturing the provisions of trade agreements that the EU might sign right up to Brexit day may require domestic implementing powers that last beyond those in that Bill.

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