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

The Good Parliament: what kind of Speaker do we need?

image_preview.jpgIt has been three years since The Good Parliament report made its recommendations on how to make parliament more diversity sensitive. Since then, the Cox report in the Commons has emphasised that reform of parliament and its internal processes remains necessary. In this post, the author of The Good Parliament, Sarah Childs, examines how the next Speaker could improve upon the work of their predecessor.

The next Speaker of the House of Commons will be elected on 4 November. The procedure involves a secret ballot of MPs, with successive ballots ‘until either a candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, or only one candidate remains’. The election comes at a time of political and, possibly institutional, crisis. Parliament is beset by swirling questions about its constitutional role and about what it means to hold elected office in the UK. On this blog, Dr Mark Bennister has drawn attention to the context, one marked by the politics of Brexit, parliamentary sovereignty, Speaker impartiality, institutional trust, backbenchers’ ‘rights’, and the building’s restoration and renewal. The question of the bullying and harassment of staff on the parliamentary estate and the Commons’ wider culture are also rightly part of this. 

The culture of the Commons was one of the three dimensions identified in The Good Parliament, a report published back in 2016. While only looking at Members, the report laid bare the extensiveness of diversity insensitivities at Westminster. Together with redressing inequalities of participation in the House and discriminatory and exclusionary parliamentary infrastructure, the report identified 43 recommendations that would transform the Commons into the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s ‘truly representative, transparent, accessible, accountable and effective parliament’.

Much has been achieved since then via the Speaker’s Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion, which was set up and chaired by John Bercow. It comprised male and female MPs with an established interest in equalities from across the parties, and included longstanding and newer MPs. Some dozen recommendations have been implemented in full, with another good handful still in train. Its most high profile successes include in 2017 the permanent establishment of the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC), which is chaired by Maria Miller, and in 2019 – working with the Mother of the House, Harriet Harman – the introduction of proxy voting for MPs on baby leave. The new EU SI Committee is required to be gender balanced because of an amendment tabled by members of the Reference Group; the diversity of Committee witnesses is now monitored by the administration and is a key concern of the Liaison Committee; and in a first for an established democracy, the IPU undertook a Gender Sensitive Parliament Audit (on which WEC was taking evidence at the time of prorogation). Continue reading

175 not out: the new edition of Erskine May and eight years of constitutional change

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgIn March, Sir David Natzler retired as Clerk of the Commons after over 40 years in the House. Now, he is the co-editor of Erskine May, the 25th edition of which is the first new edition in eight years, and is freely available to the public: a significant change. Here, Sir David discusses some of the key changes to the text after what can only be described as an eventful eight years for the Commons. 

The years since the last edition of Erskine May in 2011 have been pretty turbulent by any standards. We have had three types – coalition, majority and minority – of government, two general elections, three national referendums and numerous constitutional statutes of real significance. So it was plainly time for a new edition of this timeless work, which is often referred to but rarely read.

The new Erskine May is exciting to me because, as its co-editor, I had the happy task of reading through the chapters as they emerged from the efforts of many of my former colleagues. We all had to ask ourselves: is this a clear and honest account of parliamentary procedure and practice, and if not, how far can we go in recasting it? It is not a new book; but nor is it merely a historical text with minor amendments for the benefit of a modern audience. New content has been added, but nothing has been asserted without due authority, and we also recognise that some assertions of the past are too precious to be excised. Paragraph 21.4 on the rule against reading of speeches is as good an example as any: the principle remains valued by some MPs but it would be idle to pretend that it is rigorously observed in practice. There has to be some wishful thinking.

Who is this edition of Erskine May for? Plainly for practitioners, meaning the occupants of the Chair (such as the Speaker and Deputy Speakers), those who advise them, MPs and officials. But it is not just for them. Recent controversy over decisions by the Speaker on procedural issues related to Brexit and threats of early or extended prorogation by some candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party have served to remind all of us that parliamentary procedures are not some sort of secret masonic ritual to be understood only by a priestly caste of clerks and a handful of others, but are as integral to a parliamentary democracy as electoral rules. And it is not just for Westminster: one of my great pleasures as Clerk was to receive emails from colleagues around the Commonwealth seeking elucidation of a procedural – and usually political – issue where their knowledge of what was said in Erskine May was far in advance of my own!

Fortunately this edition has been preceded by two very different works which help set it in context. In 2018 the Commons authorities published a Guide to Procedure which is intended to help those involved in its day to day work, set out in plain English. It is of course available online. And secondly, at the end of 2017 Hart Publishing produced a book of essays – edited by current Clerk of Committees Paul Evans, entitled Essays on the History of Parliamentary Procedure: In Honour of Thomas Erskine May, to mark the great man’s 200th birthday in 2015. Continue reading

Proxy voting in the House of Commons: how could it work in practice?

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In February, the House of Commons passed by acclamation a motion to permit a system of voting by proxy for Members of Parliament who have recently adopted or given birth to a child. Ahead of the Procedure Committee’s report on the matter, former Clerk of Committees Andrew Kennon offers his view on how a system of proxy voting might work, and some of the problems its designers will have to consider.

On 1 February 2018 the House of Commons debated and passed this motion moved by Harriet Harman MP:

That this House believes that it would be to the benefit of the functioning of parliamentary democracy that honourable Members who have had a baby or adopted a child should for a period of time be entitled, but not required, to discharge their responsibilities to vote in this House by proxy (emphasis added).

The Procedure Committee has conducted a short inquiry into this matter and is expected to report in May. 

Close votes

This would be less of an issue if the government had a clear majority. Normally, pairing arrangements between the whips of the main parties accommodate absences due to illness, family responsibilities, or other duties. Such understandings cannot always bear the pressure of really close votes in a hung parliament.

On such occasions, the reputation of the House is not enhanced by mothers of very small babies having to carry them through the division lobbies. Nor was it improved by very sick Members being brought by ambulance onto the precincts so their vote could be counted by being ‘nodding through’ the lobby by a whip. I remember it well from my early days as a clerk in the late 1970s. Continue reading