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

Proposals for a ‘virtual parliament’: how should parliamentary procedure and practices adapt during the coronavirus pandemic?

RuthFox.084_square.1.jpgmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgParliamentary 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

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

Farewell to the Commons: Reflections on parliamentary change over 40 years

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On 4 March Jack Straw and Sir George Young spoke at a Constitution Unit valedictory event where they considered how parliament has changed since the 1970s. Sam Sharp offers an overview of the discussion.

Jack Straw and Sir George Young have 77 years of parliamentary experience between them – Straw was first elected in 1979, and Young in 1974. With both set to retire in May, they reflected on how parliament has changed since they joined in the seventies. The event was chaired by Tony Wright, while Meg Russell provided a ‘myth busting’ role. Both speakers described a parliament that has changed for the better, in both its culture and efficiency.

For Jack Straw one of the biggest changes has been in the atmosphere of the House of Commons. He remembered previously having to ‘swim through thick clouds of smoke’, with the chamber itself being the only complete escape. Alcohol abuse was also prevalent and Tony Wright recalled actually once carrying a passed out member through the division lobby. In general, parliament was very white and male with a Gentleman’s Club culture and the few women present were very much made to feel like outsiders. Straw argued that the change in the gender balance, although ‘not far enough’, has ‘actually changed how the House feels’.

Continue reading