‘Our travel difficulties haven’t been well-understood by the Government’: life as an MP from the smaller opposition parties during the pandemic

Parliament has been forced to adapt its procedures and practices to the new environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, Louise Thompson and Alexandra Meakin outline how smaller parties have been disproportionately affected by the decisions that the government has made about how parliament should operate during the pandemic.

Legislatures across the world have had to adjust to new ways of working during the coronavirus pandemic, and the UK parliament is no different. All 650 MPs have seen their role transformed as they have adjusted to virtual and then hybrid proceedings in the House of Commons, remote and then proxy voting, the loss of the informal spaces for chats and networking, and moving constituency surgeries and meetings online. For a particular subsection of MPs, however, the last year has brought even more challenge and complexity. We argue that the changes to proceedings and operation of the Commons since March 2020 have disproportionately affected MPs from the smaller opposition parties, highlighting a failure in the decision-making structure to sufficiently take into account the circumstances of these MPs. This failure, we contend, risks delegitimising the Westminster parliament in the eyes of people living in the devolved nations.

The typical view of the House of Commons, with the government on one side and the official opposition on the other, reflects the traditional two-party dominance on the green benches. But if you look to the opposition benches, you will see a growing number of MPs representing smaller parties. Some 73 constituencies (that’s 11% in total) are now represented by parties outside this duality. The smaller parties range in size, from the 47 SNP MPs, to the sole representatives of the Alliance Party and Green Party. They differ politically too: the pro-EU Lib Dems and the Brexiteer Democratic Unionist Party share the same small-party benches. But regardless of size or ideology, all small parties and their MPs must deal with an institution designed, both physically and in its rulebook, with an emphasis on the two larger parties, something that this last year has demonstrated well.

The constituencies represented by the 73 small-party MPs are overwhelmingly concentrated outside of England, with 89% located in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Even in normal times, travelling to Westminster for these MPs almost invariably involves far longer and more complex journeys than for members representing English constituencies. The pandemic has exacerbated this, with public transport (literally the only option for MPs in Northern Ireland or the Scottish islands) cut drastically. In June 2020 the number of flights from Belfast to London, for example, fell from 12 a day to just one. Virtual participation in the Commons at this time was severely restricted, but the timing of the flights and difficulties securing tickets meant that MPs from Northern Irish constituencies were often unable to be present in the Commons chamber for the first items of business on a Monday or stay for business on Thursdays without being stuck in London (and away from their families and caring responsibilities) all weekend. For one Urgent Question on abortion in Northern Ireland, Alliance MP Stephen Farry had to ask another MP (the Scottish Liberal Democrat, Wendy Chamberlain) to speak on his behalf as he was unable to travel to Westminster at short notice (at this date, no virtual participation was allowed).

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Taking back control: why the House of Commons should govern its own time

Various high-profile tensions between parliament and government – including over Brexit and COVID-19 – have focused on what the House of Commons can discuss and when. In a major new report published today, Meg Russell and Daniel Gover highlight the problems that result from the government’s default control over the Commons agenda, and make proposals for reform. They argue that the fundamental principle guiding House of Commons functioning should be majority decision-making, not government control. 

The last few years have been turbulent ones in the House of Commons. First over Brexit, then over COVID-19, tensions between government and parliament have sometimes run exceptionally high. This was perhaps predictable during 2017-19 under minority government, but has remained the case subsequently despite Boris Johnson’s 80-seat Commons majority.

A common theme throughout this period – as highlighted in a major new report, published today – has been frustration about the extent to which the government decides what MPs can discuss and when. Brexit saw headlines about MPs ‘seizing control’ of the Commons agenda (some suggesting that this marked the ‘end of politics as we know it’), followed by worldwide media attention on the government’s attempt to prorogue parliament (ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court). During the COVID-19 pandemic, complaints have focused on parliament’s limited opportunities to scrutinise ‘lockdown’ restrictions, and ministers’ resistance to MPs’ ability to participate in the Commons virtually. On all of these matters, MPs have struggled to secure debates on their own priorities at key moments – despite the Commons’ status as the senior chamber in a supposedly ‘sovereign’ parliament. Even when lacking a Commons majority, ministers have generally been able to exercise agenda control.

Controversies about government control of the House of Commons are nothing new. At one level, they are part of a tussle for dominance that dates back centuries. In more recent times, they were a key focus of the Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons (generally referred to as the ‘Wright Committee’) which reported in 2009. It recognised ‘a feeling that the House of Commons, as a representative and democratic institution, needs to wrest control back over its own decisions’, and made a series of recommendations to achieve this. Some – including the election of select committee members and chairs, and establishment of the Backbench Business Committee – were implemented. But others were not. The failure to resolve these issues helped fuel the tensions of recent years.

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The hybrid House of Commons: the problems of government control

For much of last year, the government resisted MPs’ calls for full reinstatement of virtual participation in House of Commons proceedings. In this post, Daniel Gover and Lisa James review the development of the ‘hybrid Commons’. They argue that full virtual participation, including remote voting, must now be reinstated, and that recent events reveal broader problems of government control over the Commons agenda.

Last spring, the House of Commons adapted quickly and successfully to the challenges presented by COVID-19. The so-called ‘hybrid Commons’ – combining in-person proceedings with simultaneous virtual participation – was one of the first responses of its type globally, and widely praised. But within weeks, the government unilaterally abandoned the virtual element, provoking anger amongst backbench MPs and violating the core parliamentary principle of the equality of all members. It was only on 30 December – well over six months later – that virtual participation in key debates was reinstated, while even now ministers refuse to restore remote electronic voting.

At the start of a new year, the UK’s public health crisis is at least as serious as it was at the beginning of the pandemic, and this will continue to restrict physical participation at Westminster. It is therefore essential that MPs be enabled to participate virtually in as wide a range of Commons proceedings as possible – including in remote divisions. The fact that ministers have been able to block this until now also reveals deeper problems with the House of Commons’ governance, and where power lies, which should urgently be addressed.

The development and collapse of hybrid arrangements

In March and April, consensus between the parties produced rapid adoption of new systems to enable parliament to perform its essential functions. The Commons first authorised its select committees to meet virtually, followed by hybrid arrangements for the Commons chamber itself – initially for ‘scrutiny’ proceedings (questions and statements), followed by ’substantive’ business (motions and bills). Soon after, intensive work began on an electronic voting system, with the first ever online Commons division held in mid-May.

Yet these arrangements began to unravel shortly before the late-May Whitsun recess, barely a week after the first online vote. Despite significant anger from backbench and opposition MPs, ministers refused to facilitate a decision to extend the time-limited orders that had enabled virtual participation in the chamber, and as a result the rules simply lapsed.

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MPs are right. Parliament has been sidelined

Backbench rebellion over parliament’s sidelining during the COVID-19 pandemic seems set to reach a critical point this week. Meg Russell and Lisa James argue that parliament’s crisis-era marginalisation is real, and part of a longer-running trend. So while government concessions now look likely, MPs should accept them only if they are genuine and comprehensive.

Backbench unease over the government’s treatment of parliament during the COVID-19 pandemic is coming to a head. On Wednesday, MPs will debate a motion to renew the government’s powers under the Coronavirus Act. But Conservative MPs’ frustration over the government’s handling of the crisis, and particularly its tendency to bypass parliamentary scrutiny, is increasingly evident. 

Earlier this month Charles Walker, joint Vice Chair of the 1922 Committee and former Chair of the Commons Procedure Committee, accused the government of treating its backbenchers like dogs. Similar concerns have appeared in the Telegraph and the Times. Now more than 40 Tory MPs have signed an amendment proposed by 1922 Committee Chair Graham Brady to Wednesday’s motion. This would make continuation of ministerial powers conditional on MPs getting a vote on any future coronavirus-related restrictions – whether made under the Coronavirus Act itself or other legislation (such as the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984). The amendment may have no formal legal force, and for procedural reasons might ultimately not be voted upon; but its political significance is clear.

Parliament has been sidelined

MPs have genuine cause for complaint: parliament has been consistently sidelined during the pandemic. The most frequent criticism is over the government’s use of delegated legislation. Numerous coronavirus restrictions have been imposed through regulations subject to limited parliamentary oversight, with debate often scheduled long after the restrictions themselves were announced or came into force. A critical report from the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) noted how the requirement to wear masks on public transport was announced in a Downing Street press conference on 4 June, coming into force 11 days later; yet it wasn’t debated in the Commons until 6 July. Only yesterday regulations on self-isolation were published, coming into effect just seven hours later, and imposing potential £10,000 fines; yet, despite media briefings 8 days previously, these were not debated in parliament. Such cases raise clear political questions, but also legal ones: as the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law points out, the underlying legislation allows ministers to bypass parliament only if a measure is so urgent that there is no time for debate.

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Requiring MPs to vote in person during coronavirus places the institution of parliament at risk. It’s time to bring remote divisions back and to plan for continued restrictions

Today, the House of Commons will decide whether or not MPs should be allowed to continue to vote by proxy. Karen Bradley, Chair of the Commons Procedure Commmittee, sets out her views on how voting should take place, calling on MPs to support her amendment, which would require the government to bring alternative proposals for conducting divisions to the House for debate and decision. Those proposals, she argues, ought to include the reinstatement of remote divisions. 

Shortly after the Commons summer recess the Procedure Committee published the report of its review of pilot arrangements for proxy voting in the House.

Our work fell into two distinct sections – an evaluation of the pilot of proxy voting for baby leave, and consideration of the use of proxies to manage absences arising as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consensus on the first was easily found; the second raises more challenging issues. Today the House will take a decision on each.

Proxy voting for parental absence: a successful pilot

In the first, we evaluated how proxy voting for parental absence had worked in practice. This initiative, started by Harriet Harman, Maria Miller and others and brought to the Commons by Andrea Leadsom as Leader of the House, has been piloted over the last 20 months. It has been so successful that many have not realised that it is still in the pilot stage. 

Pairing arrangements for colleagues on parental absence did not work badly, in the main, but they deprived new mothers in the House of the opportunity to record their votes on key issues. In the 2017 parliament, when voting records were scrutinised as never before and voting behaviour increasingly analysed and presented to the public via algorithm, this put those MPs at a huge disadvantage. Breaches of pairing arrangements, however inadvertent, did the House’s reputation no good. 

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