Select committees are adapting swiftly to the new reality – and will continue to be the lifeblood of parliamentary scrutiny
We must lead the way, follow the best medical advice and continue our work away from Westminster
Temporary workarounds to ensure ministers are held to account are necessary during this time of crisis
The agenda I proposed for the Procedure Committee in The House magazine a few weeks ago has been swept aside by the immediate threat that coronavirus has presented, not just to the nation but to the institutions of Parliament itself.
The question of how the House should adapt its procedures and practices in the light of the challenges which coronavirus has posed for all colleagues, and the restrictions which now affect each and every citizen, has dominated our work since our first meeting on 4 March. I am determined that our committee, in accordance with its remit, should be at the forefront in advising the House on measures to keep the House’s core democratic functions in operation.
At the same time the House has a responsibility to keep colleagues, their staff and House staff safe: like every other public authority it must be responsive to developing public health and Government advice.
Parliament has had to close its doors to non-essential visitors, and staff who are not in business-critical roles are being facilitated to work from home. MPs must still debate essential legislation and scrutinise the Government’s actions: the passage of the Coronavirus Bill, amended heavily in Committee following representations from colleagues, is a prime example. How to ensure this balance is no easy task but it is essential we get it right.
Already, putting aside partisanship, parties across the House have, through discussions between whips, come to informal agreements on how to reduce numbers in the Commons chamber wherever possible, aiming to reduce risk and not overcrowd the green benches. The House also agreed to start the Easter recess four sitting days earlier than previously planned, as soon as the essential coronavirus legislation was on the statute book. Colleagues have told their staff to work from home where they can, and the House Service has done the same.
At the same time, the legislation before the House is crucially important. Huge sums of money are to be spent on fighting the coronavirus threat and keeping the economy afloat, while the Government is taking sweeping new powers. MPs must make sure that these measures are properly examined and, where appropriate, robustly challenged.
One of the key ways MPs can do this is through the select committee system. Committees have been swift in responding to the new realities, and the Health and Social Care, Science and Technology, Work and Pensions, Business and Treasury Committees have been in the forefront of examining policy, assessing its effect on the public and demanding answers. While they lack the high drama of pre-coronavirus PMQs, they are the lifeblood of parliamentary scrutiny.
Last week the Procedure Committee, on advice from the Clerk of the House and his senior team, looked at ways to facilitate the work of committees where many colleagues are being obliged to work remotely. I wrote to the Government to propose some effective temporary measures which allow committee business to be conducted remotely and digitally. I am delighted that the Leader of the House agreed to put these measures to the House: they were approved this week and will last until the end of June, with an option for renewal.
These changes mean that select committee members are now able to participate in formal committee proceedings by electronic means which have been approved by the Speaker, and that a committee chair, having consulted members and secured agreement from a majority, can issue a committee report.
This facility will give MPs the capacity to do their committee work and continue representing their constituents even where they cannot be present at Westminster, and will ensure that committees continue to undertake effective scrutiny. There will be initial constraints on the number of evidence sessions which can be held by video link, but the parliamentary broadcasting service has made increasing this capacity a top priority.
Parliament is not just a prestigious building, not just a workplace or an institution – though it is all of these things – but it is also a symbol for the country to look to. Colleagues come here to make laws and to represent their communities.
None of us would willingly give up these sacred duties, but we must also recognise that to meet the challenge of this dreadful virus we must lead the way, follow the best medical advice and continue our work away from Westminster. That is why these sensible, moderate measures are now necessary on a temporary basis only.