The marginalisation of the House of Commons under Covid has been shocking; a year on, parliament’s role must urgently be restored

A year ago today, the House of Commons returned from Easter transformed by Covid. Since then, accountability for far-reaching government policy and spending has often been limited, many MPs have been excluded from key virtual proceedings, and whips now hold over 500 proxy votes. Meg Russell, Ruth Fox, Ronan Cormacain and Joe Tomlinson argue that the combined effect in terms of parliament’s marginalisation has been shocking, and that there are risks of government becoming too comfortable with decision-making which evades proper parliamentary scrutiny. One year on, more robust parliamentary accountability must urgently be restored.

A year ago today, the House of Commons returned to business transformed by Covid. Since March 2020, the public has lived under some of the UK’s most restrictive peacetime laws, and to support the economy public money has been spent on a vast scale. Yet parliamentary accountability for, and control over, these decisions has diminished to a degree that would have been unthinkable prior to the pandemic. One year on, with lockdown easing, the restoration of parliamentary control and functioning is now an urgent priority.

This post highlights five ways in which the government’s approach to the House of Commons during Covid has marginalised MPs. In a parliamentary democracy, government accountability to parliament is a core constitutional principle. But in a national emergency, when time for normal process is short, the gravity of the situation can require that parliamentary scrutiny be temporarily sacrificed in exchange for broader accountability. Yet the government has failed to keep its side of the bargain. Too frequently, announcements have been made at press conferences, or briefed privately to the media, rather than presented for democratic scrutiny and questioning by MPs. Ministers have sought extraordinary powers while consistently excluding both the House of Commons as a whole, and certain MPs, from participating in proper oversight.

In the early days of the pandemic necessity arguably justified this approach. But a year on, a real risk exists of damaging precedents being set. This is magnified by the fact that some recent developments have accelerated negative trends predating the pandemic. Unless MPs collectively take a stand against parliament’s continued marginalisation by ministers, what was once extraordinary risks becoming the norm.

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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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‘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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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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Parliaments and COVID-19: principles and practice; challenges and opportunities

Unit Director Meg Russell analyses the challenges and opportunities for reform facing parliaments during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has raised complex questions about how to balance the different functions of parliaments and their need to operate effectively.

In the UK and around the world parliaments have had to adjust their practices to the unexpected new environment of COVID-19. This has brought major challenges but, some suggest, also opportunities in terms of suggesting future means for parliaments to adapt. This post starts from the core principles of parliamentary functioning, briefly reviews practice under COVID-19, and considers the primary opportunities and challenges presented. It concludes that the future lessons from this unique period reinforce some familiar themes; but they also raise significant conundrums and trade-offs between the different essential principles of what parliaments are there to do.

Principles

Stripping back to the basics, what are parliaments for? Legislative studies scholars have suggested various overlapping lists of functions. For example in the Oxford Handbook of Legislative Studies, Amie Kreppel provides a list of four, which I will boil down to three: 

  • Representation takes many forms, often including – as is central to the UK House of Commons – geographic representation. Numerous, diverse, individuals participate in the legislature, underpinned by a crucial democratic principle of equality, where each ultimately has an equal vote.
  • Linkage is closely connected to this – as parliamentarians provide a voice in parliament to their voters, and remain accountable to them.
  • Policy-making – for example through approving bills – is perhaps what parliaments are best known for. Connectedly, they have a control function in holding executives to account. For simplicity, I treat these two functions together.

Other terms often mentioned in such classifications include deliberation –much of which takes place publicly – and legitimation, meaning all of parliaments’ functions help them generate broad public support for policy.

Practice

It is easy to see how the circumstances of COVID-19 have challenged some of these principles.

The threats to representation were pretty immediate and obvious. With limits on travel, requirements for social distancing, and heightened risks for people with certain health conditions, parliamentarians gathering from all over the country immediately became a problem. Some legislatures responded by limiting the number who could participate – with those decisions often taken by leaders and whips. Others moved their proceedings online. The UK House of Commons initially did the latter, but then rolled this back in a quite problematic way which breached principles of equal participation.

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