How can the Commons meet during coronavirus?
MPs practice social distancing in the House of Commons | UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
As preparations for a virtual Parliament get underway, what are the options for socially-distanced parliamentary scrutiny?
As the House of Commons rose early for recess on Wednesday 25 March, the chamber was almost unrecognisable. In line with public health advice on the Covid-19 crisis, Parliament was social distancing. In an extended PMQs earlier that day, there had been two shifts, with MPs sat two metres apart from each other and switching over halfway through to question the prime minister. Any member not on the order paper was asked to stay away, and the standing orders had been amended to allow select committees to meet virtually as many MPs stayed in their homes.
However, as the lockdown looks certain to continue up to and beyond Parliament’s planned return on the 21 April, questions remain about how MPs can scrutinise Government effectively and safely during the pandemic.
Despite reduced numbers due to illness and self-isolation, the Parliamentary Digital Service and House Service staff continue their work to rapidly facilitate mass remote working and online options. In a letter to MPs on 3 April, Commons clerk John Benger confirmed that a parliamentary version of video conferencing service Zoom will be rolled out to all Members, and that from 20 April, a normal volume of select committee sessions (20) will be able to take place virtually and streamed live.
Over recess, several committees including the Home Affairs, Treasury and Transport committees have held virtual evidence sessions. In scenes familiar to the many office workers around the country transitioning to videoconferencing for workplace meetings, there have been technological glitches. Mel Stride MP, chair of the Treasury Committee, dropped out for a few minutes at the beginning of a session questioning HMRC officials and Tory colleague Steve Baker had to step unplanned into the chair role. Having watched the video back, Baker believes “we dealt with it okay”, but that having a contingency for the chair’s connection dropping is a lesson that other committees should learn, as well as the importance of remaining on mute when not asking questions.
Despite a few time delays and crackly feeds, overall the sense seems to be that while it may not be perfect, virtual select committees are functioning well enough given the circumstances. “Inevitably, it’s harder to be as effective [in questioning witnesses] when you’re talking to the webcam or to your computer,” Baker concedes. “It’s been hard work for the staff, it’s been hard work for committee members, but providing we’ve all got working internet connections, it seems to work well for us and the witnesses.”
But in a dramatic expansion of its digital offering, the House of Commons Commission also announced on the 6 April that preparations are being made for the full Commons to return with a virtual chamber on the 21 April if needed. While changes to parliamentary procedure are often met with scepticism by MPs, Harriet Harman believes now is not the time for such resistance. “If the Government takes the view that we’re better off not travelling on public transport when we could do it remotely, then I think we should support that view. It’s a bit odd if we tell everyone else to work remotely but don’t appear willing to do it ourselves,” says the long-standing Labour MP.
Other legislatures have already successfully moved to virtual meetings, including the Welsh Parliament in Cardiff, which has now held two plenary sessions, including a vote, over Zoom. Elin Jones, the Llywydd (Presiding Officer) of the Senedd, regards the changes as essential for continuing scrutiny while obeying public health guidance. “It has to be recognised as a different way of doing things, but it is certainly a better way than not doing anything at all.”
“It’s a different Senedd,” Jones, who has been the Llywydd since 2016, explains. “It requires a different discipline… Questions from members need to be as succinct and to the point as possible.” Members were able to indicate to her that they wanted to speak in the debate using Zoom’s chat feature, or by emailing a pre-agreed address – and she was even able to remove a member for livestreaming the proceedings on Facebook. However, Jones concedes they “haven’t quite cracked” how to allow interventions, as members are muted en masse unless called. The Senedd, which already used e-voting in the chamber, has also made provisions for weighted voting by party size, via a video roll call of pre-agreed party representatives.
Currently, there is no way for any member of the Senedd to rebel against their party, as it hasn't seemed necessary. “The usual norms of political and party-political life don’t seem to be as relevant in times of crisis such as this,” Jones explains.
The Senedd is much smaller than the Commons, with only 60 members, but has been giving advice to Parliaments around the world about moving online. The House of Commons Commission has announced that it will be developing provisions for virtual departmental questions, urgent questions and ministerial statements via video before 21 April to see whether these could work for the chamber’s return. It has not publicly discussed holding full debates or voting on legislation.
Acting Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey is supportive of the Commission’s phased approach, believing “we need to check and get the technology right.”
However, The House understands that plans are more advanced, with parliamentary authorities aiming to have remote voting arrangements in place by the end of recess. Asked for comment, leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP tells us they are “considering every technological solution available” to ensure that “Parliament’s role of scrutinising government, authorising spending and making laws” is fulfilled “in these unprecedented times”.
Opinion is divided among MPs on how well a virtual chamber would work, and whether Westminster could or should be vacated entirely. In a letter to the Speaker on 6 April, the chair of the Procedure Committee Karen Bradley gave her support for temporary measures to enable Members who have to be away from the Chamber to participate as fully as possible through virtual means; although not “to the disadvantage of Members who are able to be present in the Chamber”.
“I can’t really see how [everyone dialling into the Chamber] works properly,” one sceptical senior Conservative backbencher says. “If you were going to have virtual debates, I just don’t see how they would be debates”. Steve Baker, former chair of the European Research Group, agrees: “I don’t think it will work very well. I think at best it will be a sufferable path forward.”
To get support across the House, the parliamentary authorities will have to be clear that any changes are temporary, limited to the duration of the Covid-19 crisis only. Of particular concern to traditionalists is any permanent move to remote and/or electronic voting. Members find the opportunity to grab ministers in the voting lobby too attractive (and effective) to give up in the long run.
But there is also concern that allowing MPs to be away from the chamber for prolonged periods and still participate in votes would “probably be the next big thing to kill off any real debate in Parliament,” according to one MP.
Another major concern is the security of electronic voting systems. Baker, a software engineer by profession, believes that remote electronic voting “is fraught with difficulties and dangers” but, with the right engineers, a secure system is definitely possible. “The last thing we want is allegations after a vote that someone’s vote was cast in a different way than they intended it to be cast,” he says. “But what we can’t have is a complete failure to legislate [during the Covid-19 crisis].”
As it currently stands, the second readings of two major pieces of Government legislation are due in the first two weeks back after recess, both of which would normally require divisions. Plans were put in place in March to allow for extended voting divisions, with members called to vote alphabetically and “airline style boarding” to get into the voting lobbies. However, Baker believes that “realistically, while the country is in this kind of lockdown, we’re going to have to have some form of remote voting” to prevent "rule by fear". “The Government must be given lawful powers,” he says. “If Government needs new powers, Parliament must vote to give it to them.” Ed Davey agrees. “A lot depends on whether or not we’ll need legislation,” he says of plans for a virtual Parliament. “I can’t believe there won’t be some requirement for some legislation.”
For Davey, however, action to better scrutinise the Government’s actions cannot wait for Parliament’s return. He is calling for a specific Covid-19 select committee, chaired by Labour leader Keir Starmer, to question ministers. “I personally think we need this a soon as possible… Effectively, a recall of a very streamlined virtual Parliament”. He envisages such a committee including representatives of all parties in Parliament, including Labour frontbenchers and senior Conservative backbenchers. It would be up to parties to put forward their own representatives, but Davey believes Jeremy Hunt would be an obvious person to have on the committee from the Tory benches. Some flexibility and innovation would be required to get it set up, “but this is a crisis,” the former coalition Cabinet member says. “We can’t allow Erskine May from the 19th century get in the way of sensible decisions.” Baker, however, calls the proposal a “power grab”, creating unnecessary extra work for “already extremely busy” ministers.
Another option under discussion is the re-establishment of the Liaison Committee – made up of the chairs of all select committees. Harriet Harman, the chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, has called on fellow chairs to act to set up a Liaison Committee and choose a chair before the end of recess.
As with most changes to the way the House of Commons functions, selecting a Liaison Committee chair, establishing a new Covid-19 committee, or amending the standing orders to allow for a virtual chamber or remote voting would all normally require the House to sit to approve them. While the Commons remains in recess and the prime minister remains in hospital, it seems we’ll have to wait until 21 April to see whether Parliament can effectively function in a pandemic.