Building a ‘virtual parliament’: how our democratic institutions can function during the coronavirus

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgSince David Natzler last wrote for this blog on the options available to parliament when it returns this week, the Commons and Lords have been making their arrangements for a ‘virtual parliament’. In this post, David discusses the plans put forward so far and the obstacles to their implementation. He argues that the most difficult question, if a virtual parliament is approved, is how MPs and peers will vote.

In the first part of this blog I want to record three particular aspects of the way in which proposals for virtual parliamentary sittings have developed since my blog of Sunday 5 April. In the second part, I look ahead at likely and desirable outcomes. I conclude with some further thoughts on voting.  

The expanded role of the House of Commons Commission

The House of Commons Commission held virtual meetings on Monday 6 and Thursday 16 April. At its 6 April meeting it warned that any special arrangements for the House’s return on 21 April would need to start in the preceding week. At its 16 April meeting the Commission endorsed plans for the use of Zoom to allow up to 120 members to take part in interrogatory virtual proceedings, and for up to 50 members to take part in the Chamber. This hybrid arrangement will need the approval of the House on 21 April.

The Commission is a statutory body which employs the staff of the House and oversees its expenditure. Its assent is required for new services, including digital services and equipment, such as new screens for the Commons chamber or new software. It has no authority to determine how the proceedings of the House should be conducted. But it fills a vacuum in the House of Commons, bringing together for formal decision making the Speaker, who chairs the Commission, the Leader of the House, the Shadow Leader of the House and a senior SNP member, Pete Wishart. These members can be expected to represent their parties, so if the Commission is willing to fund and support the preparatory work for a scheme of virtual participation, and set out in considerable detail how it should work in practice, then it must be assumed that the party leaders support it, at least in outline. As the Clerk of the House and the Director General are also members of the Commission, its proposals can be expected to be capable of implementation. To that extent the Commission has been acting as a substitute for what is missing at Westminster, a House Business Committee or Bureau, as is common in many parliaments and was recommended by the Wright Committee in 2009. Continue reading

Crisis, headache, or sideshow: how should the UK government respond to the Scottish parliament’s decision to withhold consent for the Withdrawal Bill?

 

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Different political actors have responded to the decision by the Scottish Parliament to withhold its consent for the UK government’s showpiece EU (Withdrawal) Bill in very different ways. Professor Nicola McEwen discusses the options open to both the Scottish and UK governments. 

After much deliberation, the Scottish Parliament voted by 93-30 to withhold consent for the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, the main piece of UK legislation paving the way for Brexit. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens accepted the SNP government’s charge that the Bill undermines the devolution settlement and the principles on which it was founded. On the same day, the National Assembly for Wales voted by 46-9 to grant consent for the Bill, with the Welsh government arguing that the amended clause 15 (formerly clause 11) and the agreement they reached with the UK government ‘defended and entrenched’ devolution. Only Plaid Cymru disagreed.

Consent was sought from both legislatures following the convention (usually referred to as the Sewel convention) that the UK parliament will not normally legislate in devolved areas, or alter devolved powers, without their agreement. The Withdrawal Bill alters the devolution settlements by placing a new constraint on devolved legislatures and ministers to avoid acting incompatibly with ‘retained EU law’, even in policy fields which otherwise fall within their remit. In its original form, this constraint was placed upon all retained EU law, with provision to release the constraint once it was agreed that there was no need to preserve a common UK legislative or regulatory framework. In its amended form, the Bill requires the UK government to specify in regulations the areas to which the restriction will apply. It introduced a time limit – UK ministers have two years from Brexit day to bring forward new regulations, and these would last for no more than five years. The amendment also places a duty on UK ministers to await a ‘consent decision’ before tabling the regulations, but herein lies the controversy. Whereas the Sewel convention assumes that consent means agreement, Clause 15 empowers UK ministers to proceed even if the ‘consent decision’ is to withhold consent. Continue reading

Monitor 68: A constitution in flux

The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, was published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past four months, a period that has seen the EU (Withdrawal) Bill pass from the Commons to the Lords; the failure of talks in Northern Ireland; and a significant government reshuffle. Abroad, Ireland is considering a permanent constitutional change and Japan has seen a constitutional first as its current emperor confirmed he is to abdicate. This post is the opening article from Monitor 68. The full edition can be found on our website. 

The UK is experiencing a period of deep constitutional uncertainty. In at least four key areas, structures of power and governance are in flux. Screenshot_20180308.210141 (1)

The first of these, of course, is the nature of the UK’s future relationship with the European Union, to which the Brexit negotiations will shortly turn. The degree to which the UK continues to pool its sovereignty with other European countries depends on the form of that relationship: how far, and on what issues, the UK continues to adhere to EU rules, align closely with them, or follow its own separate path. Theresa May set out her most detailed proposals yet in a speech at Mansion House on 2 March, advocating close alignment outside the structures of the EU Single Market and Customs Union. On 7 March, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, published draft guidelines for the EU’s position. As before, this emphasises ‘that the four freedoms of the Single Market are indivisible and that there can be no “cherry picking.”’ What deal will emerge from the negotiations is entirely unclear.

The government’s preferred path will face stiff resistance in parliament too. In late February Jeremy Corbyn signalled that Labour wants a UK–EU customs union (an issue also central to the conclusions reached by the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit). Consequently the government now risks defeat on an amendment to the Trade Bill pursuing the same objective, tabled by Conservative backbencher Anna Soubry. Beyond that, an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill passed in the House of Commons in December guarantees that the deal between the UK and the EU agreed through the Brexit negotiations will need to be endorsed by an Act of Parliament in the UK. Brexit’s opponents are increasingly vocal and organised, and occupy a strong position in Westminster. The odds remain that Brexit will happen, but that isn’t guaranteed. Continue reading