Parliamentary 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