Coronavirus and the hybrid parliament: how the government moved the Commons backwards on remote participation

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Image Credit: Return of the House of Commons rehearsal (CC BY 3.0) by UK Parliament

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgIn recent weeks, the government has taken the Commons from an acceptable hybrid system to the current confused regime of limited virtual participation and proxy voting. As David Natzler has outlined in previous posts, during the coronavirus lockdown the Commons moved with surprising speed and unity to create a hybrid parliament in which MPs could participate remotely, with the same speaking and voting rights as members present in the chamber. Here David outlines how the Commons moved so fast and so far backwards on virtual involvement for MPs. 

In this blog I intend to summarise the confusing developments in the past three weeks in the regime for doing parliamentary business in the House of Commons, and to analyse some of the reasons for the almost daily change of regime and the emergence of a new temporary hybrid regime. 

The first regime of virtual participation: 21 April to 20 May

On 21 and 22 April, on its return from the Easter recess, the House agreed to several government motions which established a temporary regime allowing for virtual participation by members in hybrid scrutiny and substantive proceedings, and for remote voting, to endure until 12 May. The regime was founded on a resolution of general principles also agreed on 21 April, including a requirement for parity of treatment between members participating virtually and those participating in person. Virtual select committee proceedings had already been established under a separate and longer-lasting order. On 12 May the House agreed to extend the debating and voting regimes until 20 May. 

Non-renewal of the regime

This regime operated successfully for the best part of a month, until the House rose on 20 May for the Whitsun recess, at which point the detailed operative Orders agreed on 21 and 22 April, but not the resolution setting out the founding principles, lapsed. It became known on 11 and 12 May through the government strategy statement and remarks by the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, that the government had no intention of renewing the regime of virtual participation, on the grounds that it was time for parliament to ‘get back to business’. But the government offered no opportunity over the next few days, before the House rose on 20 May, for the Commons to give its positive assent for letting the regime lapse. Continue reading

How has the House of Lords adapted to the coronavirus crisis?

beamish.jpg (1)Since the passage of the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the UK ‘lockdown’, there has been much debate on this blog and elsewhere about how the House of Commons should function during a period of ‘shielding’ and ‘social distancing’. Little attention has been paid, by contrast, to the procedures and practices adopted by the House of Lords. As David Beamish explains, the Commons has tried to return to ‘normality’, whereas the Lords has embraced hybrid proceedings and remote voting in a way that may leave it irrevocably altered.

On 9 March the House of Commons Commission and House of Lords Commission issued a short joint statement following a meeting ‘to discuss Parliament’s response to Coronavirus’. On 11 March the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, and on 13 March the Speakers of the two Houses, Lindsay Hoyle and Lord (Norman) Fowler, sent a joint letter to all members about restrictions on parliamentary travel and visitors to the parliamentary estate in order to reduce the risk of infection from COVID-19. They sent another joint letter on 17 March, announcing more stringent restrictions on access to the estate. Since then, however, the approaches taken by the two Houses have diverged significantly. The Commons initially introduced hybrid proceedings in April, while the Lords introduced a mix of virtual-only and physical-only proceedings, subsequently moving to a hybrid model only this month – just as the Commons ended its own hybrid arrangements. David Natzler’s blog post of 13 May set out what the House of Commons had done to enable MPs to operate remotely, and the dismantling of those arrangements has since caused significant controversy. This post looks at what has been happening in the House of Lords, which has attracted far less public attention. As things stand, the Lords seems to have now instituted the very kinds of proceedings that many MPs are pressing to see reinstated.

The Lord Speaker works from home

On 19 March the 82-year-old Lord Speaker made a personal statement, announcing that he would ‘withdraw from the House for the time being’, and that he would be ‘working from home’ – with his Woolsack duties to be carried out by his deputies.

The average age of the Speaker and his 23 deputies was at that point 76, with only four aged under 70. So it was unsurprising that on 23 March the House agreed to a motion that ‘until 21 July 2020, and notwithstanding the normal practice of the House, any member of the House may perform the duties of a Deputy Chairman without further motion’. Five additional members took on this role, and on 21 April were formally appointed, at once reducing the average age of the panel by over three years.

Initial restrictions on business in the chamber

On Thursday 25 March, before the House adjourned for an extended Easter recess (which had been due to start at the close of business on 1 April), it agreed to a business motion restricting until 21 May (the start of the Whitsun recess) the kinds of business which could be taken: there would be no Private Members’ Bills, balloted debates or Questions for Short Debate. In moving this motion the Leader of the House (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) announced that for the first three weeks after the return of the House on 21 April it would sit only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. On Tuesdays it would meet at 1pm (instead of 2.30pm) and on Wednesdays at 11am (instead of 3pm); Thursday sittings would begin at 11am as usual. She also announced ‘that a working group of senior officials from both Houses and the Parliamentary Digital Service has been set up to develop effective remote collaboration and videoconferencing’.

When the House returned at 1pm on Tuesday 21 April, the scene in the chamber was strikingly different from normal, with only about a dozen ‘socially distanced’ members physically present. The first business was the introduction of two new life peers, Lord Grimstone of Boscobel and Lord Greenhalgh, who had quietly been appointed ministers in March. They did not wear robes and did not have the usual two supporters. Continue reading

Coronavirus and the Commons: how the hybrid parliament has enabled MPs to operate remotely

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It has now been three weeks since the House of Commons agreed to operate on a hybrid basis, with many MPs contributing remotely and the Commons holding its first remote votes. Former Commons clerk David Natzler assesses how the virtual parliament has been operating, and asks if and when the Commons will return to its pre-hybrid state.

The three weeks since the return of parliament from the Easter break have seen the rapid emergence of a virtual parliament, but asymmetrically between the two houses. The Lords has followed a twin track: ordinary chamber proceedings whenever a decision of the House is required, and ‘Virtual Proceedings’ for questions, statements and debates where participation is restricted to those peers not in the chamber. In separate orders agreed on 21 and 22 April the Commons decided that both scrutiny (questioning) and substantive (decisive) proceedings would be ‘hybrid’, meaning that members could take part whether in the chamber or not, and that each group would be treated with strict equality. All categories of business can now at least in theory be dealt with. For example, the report stage of the Agriculture Bill is scheduled for 13 May. On 11 May two pieces of internal business were dealt with: a personal statement from Greg Hands was made remotely, and Conor Burns was suspended from the Commons for seven days, both following reports from the Committee on Standards: evidence that the House has still been able to exercise its powers during these unusual times.

Lists of questioners are compiled and published in advance, on the parliamentary website, indicating whether the member intends to attend in person or remotely. Virtual contributions are denoted in Hansard with a ‘V’ by the speaker’s name. That all is proceeding smoothly is due not only to the staff of the House but also to its political leadership, which has created a broad consensus in a way that seemed unlikely a few weeks ago. The Westminster parliament is now something of a market leader: the senior official overseeing the changes, Matthew Hamlyn, gave evidence on 30 April to the Canadian House of Commons Procedure and House Affairs Committee, along with representatives of other parliaments, on the new arrangements.

Who still attends in the Commons – and why?

The lead minister responsible for the department answering questions,  making a statement or introducing legislation generally, but by no means always, attends. Indeed, the first minister to answer departmental questions, Simon Hart, the Secretary of State for Wales, participated remotely. Junior ministers often attend physically if they have more than one question to answer. The presence in the chamber of the answering minister does give general confidence that their replies will be audible whatever minor gremlins get into Zoom. Most but not all opposition frontbenchers attend in person, although Lisa Nandy and Ellie Reeves both made their frontbench debuts remotely

By now the overwhelming majority of backbenchers participate remotely. A handful of members choose to attend in person, some travelling from far away; but as the new temporary regime has developed the numbers seem to be dropping. In the short debate on a pension enrolment instrument on 4 May there were no participating members physically present. By contrast debates on some specific local or sensitive topics seem to have more physical participants. Mark Garnier said that he had made a 300-mile round trip by car ‘to speak here in person’ on a harrowing case of domestic abuse, during the second reading debate on the Domestic Abuse Bill. Some members may still feel that a 10-minute speech in an important debate carries more weight if delivered in the chamber, while a 30 second question can be posed remotely without loss of impact. That said, Sara Britcliffe made the first virtual maiden speech remotely from Lancashire. But there is no prospect of Lancashire’s proud son in the Speaker’s chair presiding from Chorley. Continue reading

Can analogue politics work in an era of digital scrutiny? The negative effect of COVID-19 on the informal politics of Westminster

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This week the House of Commons approved measures to conduct business in a semi-virtual form. These were necessary to ensure parliament can function during the coronavirus crisis, but as Greg Power explains, they will also involve the loss of some of the key elements of parliamentary life that enable effective scrutiny and party management. 

Parliament finally returned in semi-virtual form this week. While initial coverage has inevitably focused on the novel use of digital technology in the most analogue of institutions, underlying this are more important questions about whether parliament will be able to exert the same political pressure on government when its members are not physically present. 

Westminster is not alone in this task. Every other legislature around the world is looking for ways to meet and decide things when MPs cannot be in the same room, most of which seem destined to further increase the share price of Zoom. Yet, as most parliaments are finding, whilst adapting the formal procedures is a relatively easy task, the politics is more complex.

For example, Brazil moved swiftly to change its rules to allow fully virtual plenary sessions, South Africa has introduced new systems for electronic submission of questions to ministers and many parliamentary committees have quickly moved to remote meetings. Other countries, like France, Ireland, Norway and Germany have reduced both the amount of business, and the number of people allowed in the plenary at any one time, along with other provisions for remote deliberations and questions. 

The UK has ended up with a similar combination of measures, but spats have already emerged in other countries about the politics of such changes. Reducing the number of MPs in the chamber at any one time for questions seems appropriate, provided those numbers reflect the party balance. But who decides which MPs get to turn up? And if parliamentary business is being reduced, what takes priority? This is the traditional territory of the party whips, who will relish the ability to further influence the tone and contents of such public debates. 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

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

Which MPs are responsible for failing to ‘get Brexit done’?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgToday Boris Johnson will give his leader’s speech at Conservative Party conference, doubtless with a central argument about the need to ‘get Brexit done’. MPs have been blamed for the failure to achieve this. But which MPs precisely are responsible? Meg Russell argues that opposition parties cannot normally be expected to deliver government policy. Instead, government backbenchers usually have that role. It is resistance from Conservative backbenchers – including Johnson himself and others promoted to his Cabinet – to supporting Theresa May’s deal that provides the most obvious reason for Brexit not having been agreed.

The slogan for this year’s Conservative Party conference, under the leadership of the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, is to ‘get Brexit done’. Immediately following the Supreme Court ruling against the government last week, ill-tempered exchanges in the House of Commons saw the Prime Minister repeatedly blaming parliamentarians for failing to deliver Brexit. For example, Boris Johnson commented thatPoliticians of all parties promised the public that they would honour the result. Sadly, many have since done all they can to abandon those promises and to overturn that democratic vote’. In contrast he pledged thatWe will not betray the people who sent us here; we will not’, adding that ‘That is what the Opposition want to do’. Far stronger words, characteristically, have been ascribed to his chief adviser Dominic Cummings in blaming parliament for the Brexit impasse. Several papers have reported Cummings as suggesting that it was ‘not surprising’ that people are angry with MPs, as they have failed in their duty to get Brexit done. Given the risks that such comments further stoke such public anger against our democratic institutions, it seems important to consider exactly which MPs primarily bear responsibility for the failure to agree a Brexit plan.

First, a quick recap on what happened in the months before Johnson took office. His predecessor, Theresa May, pursued a lengthy negotiation with the EU27 – resulting in a withdrawal agreement that was signed off on 25 November 2018. Under the terms of Section 13 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, this deal was then put to an initial ‘meaningful vote’ in the House of Commons on 15 January 2019. However, it was defeated by MPs by a whopping 432 to 202 votes. The Prime Minister subsequently brought the deal back for a second such attempt on 12 March. By this point various MPs had been brought round to supporting the deal; but it was nonetheless still heavily defeated, by 391 votes to 242. A third and final attempt at getting the House of Commons to agree the deal then occurred on the originally-planned Brexit day, of 29 March 2019. This was not a ‘meaningful vote’ under the terms of the Act, as Speaker John Bercow had hinted that such a move could be ruled out of order – on the basis that MPs cannot just repeatedly be asked to vote upon the same proposition – but it was again an in-principle vote on the deal. Again the gap between supporters and opponents narrowed, but the government was defeated by 344 votes to 286 – a margin of 58. Hence a further 30 MPs would have needed to switch from opposing to supporting the deal in order for it to be clearly approved. Continue reading

This prorogation is improper: the government should reverse it

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgalan.jfif (1)professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgBoris Johnson’s prorogation announcement has generated widespread criticism, and will be hotly debated when MPs return today from their summer break. Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Robert Hazell argue that the decision to suspend parliament for five weeks was an improper use of executive power, sets dangerous precedents, and undermines fundamental principles of our constitution. It should therefore not proceed. MPs may seek to block it, and so may the courts, but the preferable route would be for the government to recognise its mistake and reverse it.

MPs return to Westminster today after the five-week summer recess in deeply unusual and worrying circumstances. Last week Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has faced just one day of parliamentary scrutiny since taking office on 24 July, triggered a prorogation of parliament, set to last another five weeks. Particularly given the Brexit deadline of 31 October, this has caused widespread consternation: among opposition parties, senior Conservatives (such as former Prime Minister Sir John Major, and Lord Young of Cookham who served for 24 of the last 40 years on the frontbench under a succession of Conservative leaders), plus constitutional experts, and the wider public. MPs must now decide how to respond, and meanwhile the action is being challenged in the courts. In this piece we argue that the prorogation was improper, that it sets dangerous precedents, that it is contrary to our constitutional traditions, and that there is still time for the government to defuse the crisis by reversing it.

The rights and wrongs of prorogation

At one level, parliamentary prorogation is entirely uncontroversial. By routine, a short prorogation usually occurs each year between the end of one parliamentary session and the start of the next – ahead of a new Queen’s speech. In addition, a short prorogation often occurs before parliament is dissolved for a general election, in order to regulate the timing and ensure that election day takes place on a Thursday. The recent practice and procedure of prorogation is set out clearly in an excellent briefing from the House of Commons Library.

Discussion of potentially more sinister uses of prorogation began during the Conservative leadership contest, when Dominic Raab (now Foreign Secretary) refused to rule out proroguing parliament to force through a ‘no deal’ Brexit in the face of opposition by MPs. This was roundly condemned by others in the race at the time: being described by Sajid Javid (now Chancellor of the Exchequer) as ‘trashing democracy’, and Michael Gove (now effective Deputy Prime Minister) as ‘a terrible thing’. Andrea Leadsom (now Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) commented that ‘I don’t think prorogation is the right thing to do and I don’t think that a Prime Minister would choose to do that’.

Following Johnson’s prorogation announcement, ministers have instead suggested that this is absolutely standard procedure. On Thursday’s Today programme, the Leader of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, claimed that it was more or less what happened every year, and that it was ‘because of the 3 ½ weeks of conference recess [that] it is five weeks in total’. Hence Rees-Mogg accused critics of the move of expressing ‘confected anger’.

But such suggestions of normality are disingenuous, seeking to exploit public confusion between the different means by which it can be decided that the Commons will not sit. It is important to distinguish between the following three things:

Prorogation brings all parliamentary business to a complete stop. Unless rescued by a government motion, bills that are before parliament fall and must start their passage again. Importantly, the decision to prorogue lies wholly in the hands of the government – through issuing advice to the Queen, which she is duty bound to accept. Usually a prorogation lasts for just a few days. Research by the House of Lords Library shows that a five-week prorogation will be the longest since 1930.  

Parliamentary recess is very different. Recess occurs periodically throughout the year, to accommodate holidays and, usually, a break for the party conferences. However, the decision to adjourn for recess lies with MPs. The motion for the 2019 conference recess had not yet been laid, and the looming Brexit deadline meant that there was increasing pressure from MPs to cancel or cut this recess short. Crucially, it is also possible for some parliamentary business – such as meetings of select committees – to continue during recess, and the progress of bills is not halted.

Dissolution of parliament in contrast occurs before a general election. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the decision to dissolve parliament again lies with MPs themselves – and is taken by a parliamentary vote. Dissolution does not simply suspend parliament: as the name suggests, it dissolves parliament in preparation for the creation of a new one through a general election.

Hence either recess or dissolution, sometimes combined with a short prorogation, frequently result in parliamentary breaks which last a number of weeks. But in both of these cases MPs take the decision to break themselves. Had ministers genuinely wanted to hold a ‘routine’ prorogation to facilitate a Queen’s speech, as they claim, they could easily have proposed one lasting a few days, and left the decision to MPs regarding whether to take the conference recess. Instead, they have proposed the longest prorogation for 90 years, using executive power to shut down parliament in the midst of a crisis – seemingly to avoid the risk that MPs would veto the conference recess, and perhaps use the time available defeat the government on other things. As suggested in the previous comments of Conservative leadership contenders, that represents an improper use of executive power. Continue reading