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

A case for publishing select committee legal advice

g_appleby_headshot.jpg.pngIn May, we posted a blog entitled ‘The politics of publishing select committee advice’ in which the authors discussed the potential negative implications of making public the legal advice given to parliamentary committees. Here, Gabrielle Appleby argues that there are in fact benefits to publishing such advice, and that it could be advantageous to parliamentarians and the public if it was done as a matter of course. 

The work that has been done by Ben Yong, Greg Davies and Cristina Leston-Bandeira, (as explained in their recent post, ‘The politics of publishing select committee advice,’ and in more detail in their publication in the Law and Society Journal), with their focus on parliamentarians, clerks and parliamentary lawyers, is an important contribution to understanding under-studied constitutional actors. Their work provides more than doctrinal examination or theoretical musing on the work of these actors. It is informed by a rich empirical insight into the phenomenon of the release by parliamentary select committees of in-house legal advice that might have been provided to them to inform their deliberations, which they say is increasing in a concerning manner. 

I welcome their general conclusion, that there is a need for ‘written guidance in order to improve consistency’ around the publication of such advice. However, I write to proffer a version of that guidance that is not just more permissive of publication than that alluded to by the authors, but, indeed, actively encourages it.

How should parliamentary committees use legal advice?

As I have written with my colleague Anna Olijnyk, I support a framework in which  parliamentary deliberations are informed by legal advice (including the deliberation of parliamentary committees) and that advice should be released as a matter of course. 

To justify my position I must first explain my starting point. Like Yong, Davies and Leston-Bandeira, I hold concerns about the juridification of politics, and, more specifically, about the over-reliance on legal advice to inhibit the legitimate development of policies and laws. Responding to that concern in the context of constitutional limits (coming as we do in Australia from a tradition of a written constitution), Olijnyk and I have developed a normative framework for executive and legislative deliberation, which tries to balance the tug of the rule of law towards legally enforced rules and norms against the need for flexibility and innovation in political decision-making. We propose a framework in which the legal position must inform political decision-making, and in some cases will be determinative. But, in many cases of ambiguity and indeterminacy, it will inform without dictating the outcome. Continue reading