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

Remote sittings for Ireland’s parliament: questionable constitutional objections

david_kenny_02.jpg_resized.jpg (1)As a result of the temporary measures taken by the UK House of Commons, MPs as far away from London as Orkney have been able to contribute to parliamentary proceedings remotely. The same has not been true of Ireland, where legal objections have been raised. David Kenny argues that those objections can be easily overcome and that there is no good reason why Ireland’s elected representatives should not be able to attend the Oireachtas remotely. 

Ireland’s recent general election, as well as producing deep political uncertainty, has produced several fascinating and strange constitutional questions: what happens when a candidate dies (not, it turns out, what the law clearly required). Can the Seanad (Senate) legislate when no Taoiseach (Prime Minister) has been appointed to nominate 11 of its members? What are the limits of the accountability of acting ministers?

The strange circumstances of the pandemic have thrown up yet another constitutional issue, one which is arising around the world: where and how can the legislature sit? With social distancing in a parliamentary chamber or committee room difficult, this has a profound effect on how the legislature can function at a time where the agglomeration of executive power in response to the crisis requires acute parliamentary oversight. 

At present, despite emergency legislation giving sweeping powers to the executive to combat COVID-19, neither house of the Irish parliament is meeting in anything other than the most limited form. For limited purposes, such as attempting to nominate a Taoiseach, a very large space such as Dublin’s Convention Centre can be rented to allow socially distant attendance from all 160 members of the Dáil (the equivalent of the UK’s House of Commons). But this is not intended to be a regular arrangement, and is not planned for other parliamentary activities, such as committee meetings. There are limited sittings in the Dáil Chamber, with a select groups of members in attendance, and meetings of a special COVID-19 Committee in the chamber also. It would seem that virtual/remote meetings would be essential to allow sufficient parliamentary oversight in these circumstances. But constitutional objections to this have been raised. 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

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