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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Has parliament just got boring? Five conclusions from the passage of the EU Withdrawal Agreement Act

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The 2019 parliament has passed its first statute: the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. Unusually for a major constitutional bill it was approved unamended. Does this demonstrate the shape of things to come, with an enfeebled parliament under Johnson’s majority government? Lisa James and Meg Russell argue that the WAB was not a typical bill, and the circumstances were far from normal. Even under majority government parliament is far from powerless, and the full dynamics of the new situation may take some time to play out.

1. The Act passed easily – but the circumstances were unusual

The EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 (the WAA or – before it gained Royal Assent – the WAB) passed with remarkable ease and speed. A 100-page bill implementing the Withdrawal Agreement, it was packed with detailed provisions on everything from citizens’ rights to the operation of the Joint Committee. Nonetheless, following just 11 days’ scrutiny, it passed wholly unamended: five government defeats in the Lords were swiftly overturned when the Bill returned to the Commons.

Comparison with a key previous piece of Brexit legislation – illustrated in the table below – shows how uneventful the WAB’s passage was in relative terms. The EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 was similar in scope and complexity, but had a far rockier passage. During 36 days’ scrutiny the government was defeated 16 times, including a rare defeat in the Commons. By the time it passed, it had been so heavily amended – by backbenchers, opposition parliamentarians and ministers themselves – that it was 63% longer than when first introduced.

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The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit Revisited: Questions for the New Parliament

A further referendum on Brexit is central to many parties’ general election pledges. Today, the Constitution Unit launches a new report examining how such a vote might come about and what form it might take. This updates previous work conducted last year. In this post, adapted from the report’s final chapter, Alan Renwick, Meg Russell, Lisa James and Jess Sargeant sum up the key conclusions. They find that, though it would not be without difficulties, a vote on Johnson’s deal may be the quickest option and the one most likely to command public legitimacy. 

The Constitution Unit’s latest report, The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit Revisited: Questions for the New Parliament, is published today. It significantly updates our previous analysis of the mechanics of a further Brexit referendum, exploring the circumstances that might lead to a further referendum on Brexit, and the form that such a referendum might take. The report does not advocate for or against a referendum, or assess the broader impact that such a vote might have. Rather, it explores the practical implications of the different options: in terms of the processes to bring a referendum about, the standards that it should meet, the options for reforming regulation, and, crucially, the timetable.

The minimum timetable from the point at which parliament decides in principle to hold a referendum to the date on which that referendum is held is roughly 22 weeks – or five months. Claims that organising a referendum would take a year or more are therefore overstated. However, very clearly, a decision to proceed with a referendum would require a further extension to the Article 50 period, which currently expires on 31 January 2020. And there are various factors that could put pressure on the minimum timetable, requiring a somewhat longer period of planning and preparation. This post (adapted from the report’s final chapter) considers how the pieces fit together, and what the overall timetable would likely be. The most obvious implication of this is for the length of Article 50 extension which a future government should request if seeking to hold a referendum.

The report considers the factors which could impinge on the timetable in detail, but in brief they include the following:

  • Is the referendum to be held on a pre-existing Brexit deal, or is time required (as Labour’s policy implies) for further renegotiation before proceeding to a referendum?
  • How contentious would the referendum bill be in parliament? This depends partly on the constellation of parties and groups in the House of Commons after the general election, and also on the content of the bill.
  • What form would the referendum question take? This may be one of the points of contention in parliament. We conclude that a three-option referendum is unlikely. Moving to such a format would slow down the process.
  • To what extent would campaign regulation be tightened up and updated via the referendum bill? Some updating is essential, and could be incorporated within the 22-week timetable. Other more major changes might be desirable, but in the interests of speed would likely be set aside.
  • Would the referendum result be made legally binding? This is not essential, but would be beneficial to provide clarity and certainty for voters. Preparing for a fully legally binding referendum would be likely to take slightly more time.

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