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

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

Notre Dame: A wake-up call for the Palace of Westminster?

images.001download.001News reports suggest that the long-delayed Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster will be accelerated in response to the devastating fire at Notre Dame. Alexandra Meakin and Alexandra Anderson discuss why progress has been slow and the need for action to address the fire risk in Parliament.

The devastation at Notre Dame in April 2019 is a stark reminder of the dangerously high fire risk facing the Palace of Westminster. The home of the UK Parliament has been very lucky to escape its own catastrophe, with ‘sixty-six incidents that had the potential to cause a serious fire’ since 2008. Wardens have been patrolling the Palace 24 hours a day in order to mitigate the major fire risks and to address the inadequate fire alarm systems. Part of the problem is due to the very structure of the building, as after the devastating fire which destroyed the old building in 1834, the rebuilt Palace included an extensive ventilation system that ‘unintentionally create[d] ideal conditions for fire and smoke to spread through the building’.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday 25 April, the Labour MP Chris Bryant highlighted the Notre Dame fire in order to call attention to the urgent need for the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster (R&R) to be carried forward as soon as possible. Bryant, a long-running campaigner for rebuilding the Palace of Westminster (and potential candidate for Speaker should a vacancy arise during the current parliament), noted that while the fire in Paris had caused unimaginable destruction, there had been no fatalities. It would, he warned, be very different if such a fire was to take hold in the Palace of Westminster, where 9,000 people work every day and one million people visit each year.

The fire risk in Westminster has been well-known for years. A 2012 report set out the need for the major refurbishment programme in order to address the fire and flooding risk caused by the buildings’ dilapidated infrastructure that is decades past its expected lifespan. Four years later, the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster emphasised the growing risk to the building, warning that:

‘there is a substantial and growing risk of either a single, catastrophic event, such as a major fire, or a succession of incremental failures in essential systems which would lead to Parliament no longer being able to occupy the Palace.’

The Committee called for action without further delay, to ‘restore and renew this historic building for the future, and to ensure that the Palace of Westminster is preserved for future generations’. Continue reading

Leaving the European Union, leaving the Palace of Westminster: Brexit and the Restoration and Renewal Programme

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A year after the House of Lords backed a major refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster, Alexandra Meakin discusses the relationship between the UK’s upcoming departure from the EU and the plans for MPs and peers to temporarily move out of their current home.

Anna Soubry: ‘We have to grasp this, do the right thing, and – I cannot believe I am going to say this – but in this instance, in supporting amendment (b), absolutely everybody vote leave.’

Over the past few months parliamentary proceedings have taken centre stage in our nation’s consciousness. The legislative and political machinations surrounding the UK’s planned exit from the European Union have turned the Palace of Westminster into a theatre offering endless drama and occasional farce. Indeed, the wider area around the Palace has been absorbed into the set: the pro and anti-Brexit protests in Parliament Square; the broadcasters’ gazebo village on College Green; and even the steps outside St Stephen’s entrance, which hosted an impromptu press conference. The audience following every scene, however, couldn’t fail to observe the scaffolding covering the set, the external sign of a dilapidated building, where the infrastructure is decades past its expected lifespan. Alongside the preparations for departing the EU, MPs and peers are also planning for a further departure: leaving the Palace of Westminster to enable a major refurbishment programme.

After decades of neglect, the scale of the problem inside Parliament was outlined in a 2012 report, which noted ‘if the Palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild’. On receipt of the report the governing bodies in the Commons and Lords agreed that ‘doing nothing was not an option’. They ruled out the construction of a new parliamentary building, and committed instead to further analysis of the options for repairs, and specifically whether the work could be carried out while both Houses continued to sit in the Palace. Continue reading