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Coronavirus: How do we keep democracy running in a time of crisis?

Coronavirus: How do we keep democracy running in a time of crisis?
12 min read

These unprecedented times have not diminished MPs’ desire to hold the Government to account. But as the coronavirus spreads, and the operations of the Palace of Westminster becomes more complicated, parliamentary scrutiny will have to adapt. Sebastian Whale reports

Shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday 18 March, Tory MPs received a message from Stuart Andrew, the Government’s deputy chief whip. “In order to ensure that we follow the advice being given to the public, it has been decided that only people on the Order Paper should be in the Chamber for Prime Minister’s Questions,” he wrote. “We respectfully ask you to adhere to this message.”

Labour MPs received similar instructions. “The Government are trying to avoid crowding the Chamber at question time on the Conservative side. Can we do the same,” they were told. “If you are not on the Order Paper or seeking to get called could you please not come into the Chamber. If you are in the Chamber could you please space yourselves out.” Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the Commons, confirmed the move. “We are all doing our best to keep parliament sitting and to follow Public Health England’s guidance,” he told MPs.

For some, this was a welcome change, albeit a tad overdue. Despite the Prime Minister advising the public to work from home where possible and avoid all non-essential social contact to help limit the spread of coronavirus, MPs had continued to congregate close together in the Chamber. “There has been an asymmetry in all of this,” a Conservative backbencher told me. “Outsiders are not allowed in but in our constituencies we still meet hundreds of people. Then we all come and sit together in the Chamber. That’s all slightly odd.” 

Labour’s Lucy Powell had gone into the Commons for a statement on Monday from Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary. “I couldn’t believe how busy it was,” she explains. “Everybody was crammed in, there wasn’t a single seat to sit on. I left straight away; I thought I’m not putting myself in that position only to travel back to Manchester later on or the next day to spread that around elsewhere.” 

Powell, the MP for Manchester Central, is working from home in her constituency. “My intention for myself would be to not go to London at all,” she says. In part, Powell has taken the step because her husband is a leading A&E consultant. Rather than return from the capital – the most infected region of the country – and potentially force her partner to self-isolate for two weeks, she is taking precautionary measures. “I also need to be the one picking up stuff at home a bit more than usual. All our childcare is based on grandparents’ support and things like that,” she explains. 

Currently, there is no guidance for MPs on how to approach their casework. A Tory MP says they have contacted constituents about a change of approach to normal Friday sessions. “I have offered all of my appointments to be a telephone call instead, and about half of them said yes and the other half wanted to still come and see me. I imagine lots of colleagues are doing something similar. It is important that we’re available. There is holding the Government to account here and there’s knowing what the public thinks about what the Government is doing.”

Soon after Boris Johnson updated the public on the new advice, Speaker Hoyle set out a series of measures for the parliamentary estate. All non-essential access to the building would stop, with the Public Gallery inaccessible and tours for constituents ceased. The education centre would close, alongside an end to all school visits. Parliamentarians that have underlying health conditions, are pregnant or are over 70 were encouraged to pay attention to the advice provided by Public Health England. Internal catering facilities would be scaled back. 

The House authorities have been meeting regularly to review how to keep democracy alive in a period of profound uncertainty. At time of writing, 25 MPs are self-isolating, and three have announced that they have the virus. 

Like the rest of British public, MPs have one eye on their own health and that of their families. Given the approach of other nations, and the rising number of cases in London, representatives based outside of the capital dread being caught in any potential lockdown, which would also prevent them from meeting constituents. “I live in fear of being isolated here because I’d rather be at home. But there is no perfect solution in this circumstance,” says a Labour MP. Simultaneously, politicians know they have a job to do to hold the Government to account at such a crucial time.

With these competing components in play, how can democracy continue at a time of such crisis?

Speaker Hoyle rose to make a statement. Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who was due to update the House, had earlier announced to the media a £330bn package of measures to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus outbreak on the UK economy. Unamused, the Speaker wished to reassert some fundamental values.

“I turned down requests for urgent questions to the Chancellor that I would otherwise have granted. I wanted to ensure that elected Members had the first opportunity to question the Chancellor,” he said. “I am deeply disappointed that what I understood to be a commitment has not been honoured.”

A senior Tory backbencher comments: “While a lot of newer Tory MPs did not quite know what to think, there was a huge amount of support on our benches for a Speaker seeking to impose the proper rules, which all too often have just gone by the wayside.” They add: “Whatever some people might have speculated about the House of Commons being sent away for several months, you can take it as implicit that the Speaker certainly takes the view that it’s essential that we should be here, essential that the Government ought to be putting things to the House first, and essential, therefore, that the House can take a judgment on it.”

Although there is broad consensus that partisanship should be parked in favour of unity, MPs do not want government decisions to go unchecked. “The important thing is that the House is here to keep an eye on the Government and to approve or not approve what it’s doing, particularly with the unprecedented splurge of public money and loan guarantees and such like,” says a Tory MP. “The Government is spending more than any peacetime government has ever spent. It makes the banking crisis look like a tea party.” 

While many are sympathetic to a government dealing with such issues, giving ministers free reign over decision making is certainly not under consideration. MPs represent different communities with varying demands, from rural to urban areas, and can be the link between voters and ministers. Sir Peter Bottomley, the Father of the House, told the Today programme: “We are the community telephone exchange; we can put forward ideas.”

One Labour backbencher says: “There has been nothing about multigenerational living. No health advice has been given out about people who live with children and grandparents in the same house.” They add: “In many of its approaches, Whitehall still just doesn’t seem to be understanding the reality of people’s lives. I still think there is a huge element of groupthink going on in the people who are making the decisions. That deeply worries me.” The MP suggests that a government of national unity, “bringing in a diverse group of politicians from different areas and different backgrounds”, could provide a solution.

Though there is a desire for Westminster to remain up and running, many MPs are unsure why more rudimentary parliamentary activities are taking place. “Everybody can see that there is a mismatch between what we’re saying to the public about a dire emergency that needs a profound change in the way people live their lives, whereas you’re still asking MPs to turn up to do non-essential business as well as the really important stuff,” says a Tory MP.

In a letter to the Procedure Committee, John Benger, the Clerk of the Commons, set out a number of potential changes to procedures and practices of the Commons in response to the coronavirus. These included proposals that would require changes to Standing Orders, such as limiting the number of written questions that a Member could table each day, should staff numbers reduce as a result of needing to work from home or being unwell. He also highlighted measures such as suspending “non-essential business” to minimise prolonged periods of close contact. The current system of proxy voting, he noted, is designed for use by a limited group of individuals and could not, as currently constituted and without change, readily operate in place of pairing, the system by which MPs cancel out each other’s vote if they are absent. Benger did cite examples in the Commonwealth where whips operate as proxies for all members of their parties, though this would require changes to standing orders to do so.

The news prompted the Electoral Reform Society to call for MPs to be able to vote remotely via clerks or the tellers. “Westminster’s set-up is already one of the most centralised, undemocratic systems among advanced democracies: this crisis must not further entrench that,” said Willie Sullivan, senior director of campaigns. “Cooperation and scrutiny go hand in hand. Without proper scrutiny of these incredibly life-changing decisions, we risk lunging into ill-considered decisions.”

One Tory MP pushes back at the idea. “It would set a precedent for a move to remote voting. Members of Parliament who know how this place functions know that that is a very, very bad idea because it’s the route to not being able to get hold of government ministers in person. The fact that we can nab the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the division lobby is worth an awful lot. I think that would be a huge mistake.” A Labour MP says: “I back all of those measures, but what we cannot allow is for those measures to breed a lack of scrutiny. That isn’t scrutiny led by bad faith, that is scrutiny that is needed because of a wealth of experience.”

Sullivan tells me: “It is our full intention to keep a microscope on what’s happening and we see it as our job to take on any diminution of democracy.”

Such is the fluid nature of the crisis that the guidance for Parliament will be updated continually. Lucy Powell says focus should now be on working from home. “We’re going to have to find a way for people to do some of the usual things that they would do in parliament, in the Chamber, online,” she says. A member of the Education Select Committee, she proposes holding sessions over online conference calls. “It is not beyond the realms of the authorities to make some of these things happen in the way that they would normally happen, but doing it online,” she says.

John Mann, the crossbench peer and former Labour MP, believes parliament will shut early next week. “I think Tuesday will be the last day, I’m very confident on that, with the legislation going through,” he says, in reference to the emergency measures being introduced by the Government. The Coronavirus Bill, when enacted, will be in place for two years. Among its sweeping measures include the ability to allow retired NHS and social workers to return to work; enabling the death management system to deal with increased demand for its services; and the ability to close borders. 

To continue parliamentary scrutiny, Mann says parliamentarians should be able to put written questions during the upcoming recess, and for ministers to hold teleconferences (a senior Conservative is also supportive of such moves). He has been “shocked” that the House of Lords has continued to operate despite a high number of peers being at greater risk from the coronavirus as a result of their age. “I’ve been in debates this week where the majority are over 70, and nearly a majority are over 80. It’s reckless and it’s dangerous because the message that gives out is very mixed across the country,” he says. Lord Fowler, the Lord Speaker who is 82-years-old, has taken the decision to return to the Isle of Wight in light of the Government’s guidance. 

Though the situation is unlike anything many have experienced before, MPs are not prepared to cede ground over the fundamental tenets of the UK’s democracy. Parliamentary scrutiny must continue to ensure ministers make the best possible decisions in the worst of circumstances. But what is becoming increasingly clear is that the means by which this is achieved may look somewhat different.

“Parliament has got an essential role to play in the time that we’re in, but these unprecedented times and the advice that has been given require us to have more quickly come up with unprecedented ways of being able to do that,” says Lucy Powell. “All cramming together, sitting cheek by jowl in the Chamber, on the parliamentary estate, in the tearooms, hopping on and off trains going up and down the country, especially given that central London seems to be part of the epicentre of this in the UK, I think is really quite a bad look to the public.”

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