Covid may encourage calls for House of Commons to modernise
Houses of Parliament, London | Alamy
The pandemic has undoubtedly changed parliament, but will the institution revert to type post-Covid?
Boris Johnson’s lockdown exit plan has raised the prospect that the Covid-19 limits on the number of MPs that can attend parliament could be lifted within weeks, allowing the House of Commons chamber to get back to its usual rambunctious nature. But the pandemic has shown that the famously archaic institution of Westminster can move with the times and may be more open in future to modernising its working procedures.
In April 2020, shortly after the start of the first lockdown, the House of Commons Commission announced that, for the first time in its 700-year history, MPs would be able to take part in parliamentary sessions virtually to limit the risk of infection. A maximum of 50 MPs would be allowed in the chamber at any one time under strict social distancing rules, and up to 120 MPs could take part in proceedings virtually. Meanwhile, select committees have been nearly completely virtual since March 2020.
The unprecedented move to a so-called hybrid House of Commons was initially only meant to last a few weeks. But, as the nation was forced to work remotely for longer than expected, so too were MPs. Over time the hybrid arrangements have developed to include the roll-out of firstly electronic, and then proxy voting measures.
However, the system has not been without its limitations, and throughout the course of the pandemic some MPs have argued that the hybrid arrangements, which are scheduled to expire at the end of March, have not gone far enough.
While MPs can take part in oral and ministerial statements virtually, they were unable to participate in debates over legislation until December last year. Westminster Hall debates were suspended during parts of last year and again in January, prompting three parliamentary Select Committee chairs to write a joint letter to Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, calling for the sessions to resume in hybrid form.
Plans last June to end virtual participation completely were scuppered after a campaign by shielding and disabled MPs, with Conservative Robert Halfon branding the plan discriminatory and creating a class of “parliamentary eunuchs”. The government’s partial U-turn, which forced the majority of MPs back into the Commons until the November lockdown, was indicative of a stop-start approach to participation which continued for the rest of the year.
The Covid-19 changes enacted in the House of Lords have been less disruptive. Initially conducting business completely virtually, the upper chamber began to operate a hybrid system in June last year and is expected to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.
By contrast, the government has said it believes the House of Commons best serves the public when MPs are present in Westminster. Rees-Mogg has pushed for the MPs to return to physical participation in the chamber as soon as possible, calling the virtual proceedings a “second-rate way of conducting debate”.
At a virtual appearance in front of the Procedure Committee on 1 February, Rees-Mogg argued: “The quality of debate has declined and the spontaneity has declined, and therefore the scrutiny of the government is less. This is not a good way to run parliament, and the sooner we are back to physical, safely, the better.” A known traditionalist, Rees-Mogg said that the hybrid proceedings ministers able to duck questions and MPs unable to read the mood of the Chamber. Others have pointed to the lack of line-by-line scrutiny that would usually take place at public bill committees. On Thursday, during his announcement of forthcoming House business, Rees-Mogg said that if nightclubs are able to reopen on June 21, then “for heaven’s sake, the House of Commons should be open properly.”
Given this, although the hybrid arrangements may well be extended beyond March so they are in line with the timetable for the easing of national lockdown restrictions, it appears it will only be a matter of time before MPs are given the green light to return to parliament en masse.
The House of Commons has shown on previous occasions that it can move with the times, for example by allowing proxy voting for MPs on paternity and maternity leave or caring for an infant. However, the Covid-19 crisis has prompted some to call for it to modernise further.
In recent days, the Centenary Action Group, which works to improve women’s participation in politics, called for the remote parliament arrangements to continue to allow MPs to balance their health, home, travel, and constituency responsibilities. Liberal Democrat MP Daisy Cooper has also said making virtual parliament a permanent option for those who need it would open up Westminster to more disabled politicians.
One report has indicated Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House, is working on a plan to discuss with the Commission that would enable parliament to keep some of the “bonuses” of remote working while dropping some of the tougher restrictions. As businesses across the country reassess the way they will operate after lockdown, calls for parliament to become more flexible and inclusive are likely to continue to grow.
Megan Macdougall is Dods UK political content manager