COVID-19 and Commons procedure: back to the future?

Last week the House of Commons extended the temporary procedural arrangements designed to facilitate business during the pandemic, but did not debate the issue separately, and it is not clear if another opportunity to debate the measures will present itself. Former Clerk of the Commons David Natzler argues here that MPs are entitled to an opportunity to determine all significant aspects of its future procedures before the current arrangements expire.

On Thursday 25 March the House of Commons decided to extend for a further three months its temporary procedural arrangements in response to COVID-19, a year on from the first national lockdown. During that period there have been substantial innovations in the way the House works. Some of these have been controversial, in particular new arrangements for members to take part ‘virtually’ in questions and debates and committees, and new rules on voting, including remote electronic voting. Equally controversial has been the issue of how the decisions to continue, change or terminate these arrangements have been made and who has the power to decide: in other words, who really controls the workings of the House of Commons. Such controversy is not new. The problem was discussed at length in the Unit’s January report Taking Back Control. But the past year has given them new urgency.

The Procedure Committee published a report on 14 March, entitled Back to the Future? Procedure after coronavirus restrictions. Having given an account of developments since the autumn, the committee recommended an extension of the temporary orders until the beginning of stage 4 (currently 21 June), which was agreed by the House on 25 March. But the report also recommends that ‘the House reverts to all aspects of its pre-pandemic practice and procedure’. That reflects an amendment made to the chair’s original draft by most of the Conservative majority on the committee, led by William Wragg – who also chairs the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. The same group of members removed a proposal that the committee should mount a further inquiry into the process of making procedural change (see the committee’s Formal Minutes).  

On Thursday 25 March the motion to renew the orders until 21 June was debated as part of a much wider debate on coronavirus regulations and the six-monthly renewal of the Coronavirus Act. The issue of the House’s procedures was naturally overshadowed and there was little reference to them other than in a speech by the chair of the Procedure Committee (see below). There can be no certainty that there will be another chance to consider the arrangements, and every possibility that they will be allowed to lapse on 21 June without further debate or vote. 

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Parliaments and the pandemic

Earlier this year, the Study of Parliament Group published a collection of 25 essays on how parliaments across the UK and further afield have responded to the pandemic. They consider not only aspects of the response in the two Houses at Westminster, but also in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Crown Dependencies, New Zealand and other international comparisons, including case studies of the Maldives and Bahrain. Paul Evans summarises some of the themes here.

Executive assertion and parliamentary compliance

As the full scale of the threat posed by COVID-19 began to be recognised, governments wanted to take powers and parliaments were for the most part initially willing to cede them, with little protest when the normal procedures were abrogated. In most cases the legislatures, initially at least, willingly handed over very extensive powers to their governments to make emergency legislation and this was generally done with unusual expedition and, as a result, scant scrutiny.

The problem was perhaps most acute in the area of delegated legislation, resulting in government more or less by decree, as Tom Hickman sets out in his contribution to the volume. At the best of times, the scrutiny of this at Westminster – particularly in the Commons – is open to, and regularly receives, criticism. When actions were first taken to control the pandemic, it was widely suspected that the UK government was deliberately reducing the level of potential parliamentary scrutiny. This suspicion applied to a lesser extent to other executives, which introduced a large number of instruments which took effect in advance of being approved by the legislature.

However, as all the examples, domestic and international, demonstrate, there is an eternal conflict in the procedures underpinning democratic systems between a diversity of voices and a unity of purpose, between efficiency and accountability, between deliberation and decisiveness, and between consent and control. The pandemic, like any national emergency tends to, dramatically highlighted these tensions. In one essay in the volume, Paul Seaward notes that the extent of the use of emergency powers seen in the UK parliament in 2020 is unprecedented in peacetime .

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‘Our travel difficulties haven’t been well-understood by the Government’: life as an MP from the smaller opposition parties during the pandemic

Parliament has been forced to adapt its procedures and practices to the new environment created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, Louise Thompson and Alexandra Meakin outline how smaller parties have been disproportionately affected by the decisions that the government has made about how parliament should operate during the pandemic.

Legislatures across the world have had to adjust to new ways of working during the coronavirus pandemic, and the UK parliament is no different. All 650 MPs have seen their role transformed as they have adjusted to virtual and then hybrid proceedings in the House of Commons, remote and then proxy voting, the loss of the informal spaces for chats and networking, and moving constituency surgeries and meetings online. For a particular subsection of MPs, however, the last year has brought even more challenge and complexity. We argue that the changes to proceedings and operation of the Commons since March 2020 have disproportionately affected MPs from the smaller opposition parties, highlighting a failure in the decision-making structure to sufficiently take into account the circumstances of these MPs. This failure, we contend, risks delegitimising the Westminster parliament in the eyes of people living in the devolved nations.

The typical view of the House of Commons, with the government on one side and the official opposition on the other, reflects the traditional two-party dominance on the green benches. But if you look to the opposition benches, you will see a growing number of MPs representing smaller parties. Some 73 constituencies (that’s 11% in total) are now represented by parties outside this duality. The smaller parties range in size, from the 47 SNP MPs, to the sole representatives of the Alliance Party and Green Party. They differ politically too: the pro-EU Lib Dems and the Brexiteer Democratic Unionist Party share the same small-party benches. But regardless of size or ideology, all small parties and their MPs must deal with an institution designed, both physically and in its rulebook, with an emphasis on the two larger parties, something that this last year has demonstrated well.

The constituencies represented by the 73 small-party MPs are overwhelmingly concentrated outside of England, with 89% located in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Even in normal times, travelling to Westminster for these MPs almost invariably involves far longer and more complex journeys than for members representing English constituencies. The pandemic has exacerbated this, with public transport (literally the only option for MPs in Northern Ireland or the Scottish islands) cut drastically. In June 2020 the number of flights from Belfast to London, for example, fell from 12 a day to just one. Virtual participation in the Commons at this time was severely restricted, but the timing of the flights and difficulties securing tickets meant that MPs from Northern Irish constituencies were often unable to be present in the Commons chamber for the first items of business on a Monday or stay for business on Thursdays without being stuck in London (and away from their families and caring responsibilities) all weekend. For one Urgent Question on abortion in Northern Ireland, Alliance MP Stephen Farry had to ask another MP (the Scottish Liberal Democrat, Wendy Chamberlain) to speak on his behalf as he was unable to travel to Westminster at short notice (at this date, no virtual participation was allowed).

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Taking back control: why the House of Commons should govern its own time

Various high-profile tensions between parliament and government – including over Brexit and COVID-19 – have focused on what the House of Commons can discuss and when. In a major new report published today, Meg Russell and Daniel Gover highlight the problems that result from the government’s default control over the Commons agenda, and make proposals for reform. They argue that the fundamental principle guiding House of Commons functioning should be majority decision-making, not government control. 

The last few years have been turbulent ones in the House of Commons. First over Brexit, then over COVID-19, tensions between government and parliament have sometimes run exceptionally high. This was perhaps predictable during 2017-19 under minority government, but has remained the case subsequently despite Boris Johnson’s 80-seat Commons majority.

A common theme throughout this period – as highlighted in a major new report, published today – has been frustration about the extent to which the government decides what MPs can discuss and when. Brexit saw headlines about MPs ‘seizing control’ of the Commons agenda (some suggesting that this marked the ‘end of politics as we know it’), followed by worldwide media attention on the government’s attempt to prorogue parliament (ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court). During the COVID-19 pandemic, complaints have focused on parliament’s limited opportunities to scrutinise ‘lockdown’ restrictions, and ministers’ resistance to MPs’ ability to participate in the Commons virtually. On all of these matters, MPs have struggled to secure debates on their own priorities at key moments – despite the Commons’ status as the senior chamber in a supposedly ‘sovereign’ parliament. Even when lacking a Commons majority, ministers have generally been able to exercise agenda control.

Controversies about government control of the House of Commons are nothing new. At one level, they are part of a tussle for dominance that dates back centuries. In more recent times, they were a key focus of the Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons (generally referred to as the ‘Wright Committee’) which reported in 2009. It recognised ‘a feeling that the House of Commons, as a representative and democratic institution, needs to wrest control back over its own decisions’, and made a series of recommendations to achieve this. Some – including the election of select committee members and chairs, and establishment of the Backbench Business Committee – were implemented. But others were not. The failure to resolve these issues helped fuel the tensions of recent years.

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The hybrid House of Commons: the problems of government control

For much of last year, the government resisted MPs’ calls for full reinstatement of virtual participation in House of Commons proceedings. In this post, Daniel Gover and Lisa James review the development of the ‘hybrid Commons’. They argue that full virtual participation, including remote voting, must now be reinstated, and that recent events reveal broader problems of government control over the Commons agenda.

Last spring, the House of Commons adapted quickly and successfully to the challenges presented by COVID-19. The so-called ‘hybrid Commons’ – combining in-person proceedings with simultaneous virtual participation – was one of the first responses of its type globally, and widely praised. But within weeks, the government unilaterally abandoned the virtual element, provoking anger amongst backbench MPs and violating the core parliamentary principle of the equality of all members. It was only on 30 December – well over six months later – that virtual participation in key debates was reinstated, while even now ministers refuse to restore remote electronic voting.

At the start of a new year, the UK’s public health crisis is at least as serious as it was at the beginning of the pandemic, and this will continue to restrict physical participation at Westminster. It is therefore essential that MPs be enabled to participate virtually in as wide a range of Commons proceedings as possible – including in remote divisions. The fact that ministers have been able to block this until now also reveals deeper problems with the House of Commons’ governance, and where power lies, which should urgently be addressed.

The development and collapse of hybrid arrangements

In March and April, consensus between the parties produced rapid adoption of new systems to enable parliament to perform its essential functions. The Commons first authorised its select committees to meet virtually, followed by hybrid arrangements for the Commons chamber itself – initially for ‘scrutiny’ proceedings (questions and statements), followed by ’substantive’ business (motions and bills). Soon after, intensive work began on an electronic voting system, with the first ever online Commons division held in mid-May.

Yet these arrangements began to unravel shortly before the late-May Whitsun recess, barely a week after the first online vote. Despite significant anger from backbench and opposition MPs, ministers refused to facilitate a decision to extend the time-limited orders that had enabled virtual participation in the chamber, and as a result the rules simply lapsed.

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