Coronavirus: How are parliaments worldwide working during the pandemic?
Boris Johnson chairing a Cabinet meeting by video conference. | PA Images
In the face of Covid-19, how are parliaments across the world using technology to continue government scrutiny and parliamentary procedure?
Parliaments across the world are adapting to the new realities resulting from the Covid-19 outbreak. They are changing the way they vote, conduct committee hearings, plenary sessions (the business of making and scrutinising laws) and question governments.
This Insight looks at how parliamentarians are adapting globally to keep working through the pandemic.
Parliamentary buildings close for some
A common theme among nearly all legislatures across the globe is that they have closed their parliamentary estates to all but essential visitors.
Parliaments that have continued to sit, for example in France and the Netherlands, have asked only essential staff to remain on their estates, with the rest working from home where possible.
Sweden and Estonia have asked staff to stay at home only if they feel unwell or have symptoms.
Several countries such as Turkey, Romania, Poland, Luxembourg and Italy are using thermal imaging to measure the temperatures of Members and staff as they enter parliamentary buildings.
How are committees working?
Many countries have introduced video conferencing in place of in-person committee meetings, for example in Germany, Lithuania, and Norway. Committees usually scrutinise governments’ policies.
Cyprus and Luxembourg have suspended parliamentary committees for the time being.
France’s Assemblée Nationale has suspended committee meetings that do not relate to Covid-19 matters. While French committees can meet and debate remotely when required, there is no legal basis at present for voting remotely.
The committees of the US’s Congress can meet remotely, but also lack procedures for virtual voting.
How are parliaments meeting, debating and voting?
After cross-party discussions, Canada’s House of Commons agreed to adjourn for five weeks in early March, until 20 April. The chamber was already due to be in recess for three of these weeks. However, the House was recalled on 23 March to implement emergency economic measures. It then adjourned again.
In the United States, both chambers of Congress have resisted substantively changing their ways of working.
The House of Representatives tried to pass an economic stimulus package – the Care Act – in late March without an in-person vote, as the bill had cross-party consensus.
Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Representative objected to this method and travelled to Washington to try and force a vote. House leaders managed to thwart recalling the whole chamber, but still had to assemble a quorum of Members to pass the bill by voice vote.
State legislatures in states such as Pennsylvania, Vermont, New Jersey and California, have been experimenting with remote meetings and voting.
Making the most of technology
The use of this technology has thrown up problems that people adapting to working from home will likely be familiar with. During its first remote session, the New Jersey Assembly reportedly had to deal with background noises that included barking dogs, children chorusing votes of “yes,” and the sound of a blender as someone made a smoothie.
Closer to home, Tynwald, the parliament of the Isle of Man has been using video-conferencing software to conduct meetings.
Within the software, MPs used the ‘chat box’ to indicate to the Presiding Officer that they wished to speak, call a division or interject. The Speaker said this helped maintain the discipline of one person speaking at a time.
That notwithstanding, with the Tynwald’s two chambers having 24 and 11 members respectively, it makes things a little easier to organise.
Voting during sessions is now also done by typing ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the chat box.
Some parliaments have made the switch to online plenary sessions. These include Romania and France’s Assemblée Nationale (though in France the chamber is only considering business related to Covid-19). The European Parliament is allowing remote participation for MEPs who can’t/don’t wish to attend in person.
Some voting continues in-person
In Ireland, Dáil Éireann has arranged to meet with only 48 Teachta Dála (MPs)– around a third of its total.
The TDs will be split proportionately along party lines depending on seat numbers. The Speaker also asked all members to maintain a minimum safe distance from one another.
In the Australian House of Representatives, the despatch boxes were moved further down the table, so that ministers and shadow ministers could remain the recommended distance from the table clerks.
Switzerland has moved its sittings of parliament to a Bern conference centre to ensure minimum distancing between MPs can be maintained.
The German Bundestag has reduced the minimum number of MPs needed for plenary sessions and committees from half to a quarter.
In New Zealand, rules on proxy voting have changed. The current limit of 25% of each party’s MPs voting by proxy has been waived temporarily.
The Polish Sejm has changed its procedures to allow MPs who are quarantined to vote remotely. There will, however, be a limited number of MPs in the chamber, who have been delegated by their parties to speak on their behalf.
How are parliaments ensuring scrutiny continues?
Ireland’s Dáil has temporarily suspended parliamentary questions for the time being, to relieve the pressure on Government ministers.
New Zealand’s House of Representatives has increased the time limit for the government to respond to written questions from MPs from six to 10 days. It has also given the government more time to respond to select committee reports.
New Zealand has suspended its House of Representatives while the country remains on the highest level of alert. To ensure parliamentary oversight continues, it has set up a new select committee – the Epidemic Response Committee –chaired by the leader of the Opposition. Six of the 11 Members are from the opposition. No bills can be passed while the House is not sitting.
The House is due to sit again on 28 April, but its Business Committee has been given powers to adjust that date if required.
Hungary rules by decree
The Hungarian Parliament has perhaps gone furthest in granting the government emergency powers. It passed a law that allows prime minister Viktor Orbán to rule the country by decree. This means no consultation with MPs is required. There is no time limit on how long these emergency powers can last.
Mr Orbán can use these decrees to suspend existing laws being enacted, depart from statutory regulations and implement additional extraordinary measures.
The Hungarian Parliament also decided not to meet for the foreseeable future, after it implemented the emergency legislation.
The emergency powers do require Orbán’s government to inform the parliament’s Speaker and party leaders what it is doing to tackle the pandemic.
The emergency legislation is clear, however, that the parliament may not act to counter any emergency measures taken by the government.
Parliamentary scrutiny in a time of pandemic, The UK in a Changing Europe.
Coronavirus: Changes to practice and procedure in the UK and other parliaments, The House of Commons Library.
Country compilation of parliamentary responses to the pandemic, Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Orban’s Emergency, verfassungsblog.
This insight was written by John Curtis and Richard Kelly, researchers at the House of Commons Library. John specialises in international affairs and defence and Richard specialises in parliamentary procedure.