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02 Apr 2020

Constitution

pandemic

The UK Parliament has taken measures to restrict parliamentary activity, due to the coronavirus pandemic. For instance, Debates in Westminster Hall, the Commons’ parallel debating chamber, have been suspended until further notice.

But Westminster is by no means alone. As both the House of Commons Library Briefing Paper, Coronavirus: Changes to practice and procedure in other parliaments, and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU)’s “Parliaments in a time of pandemic” show, legislatures across the world are wrestling with how to scrutinise governments’ handling of coronavirus whilst protecting MPs, their staff and officials, who usually all work in very close proximity to each other.

Like the UK Parliament, many have decided to lengthen their Easter recesses; and many are exploring alternative ways of working, either remotely or in ways that involve many fewer people than usual.

The Folketing (Danish Parliament), for example, has agreed that while essential parliamentary work continues, discussion of non-essential proposals will be deferred in plenary and committee. Written questions can continue to be asked.

The New Zealand Parliament adjourned on 25 March for four weeks because the country was under a high level alert due to coronavirus. But before doing so it appointed a new committee to scrutinise the government’s response to the epidemic. This Epidemic Response Committee  is able to meet whilst the House is not sitting and its first meeting was held on 31 March.

In the Riksdag (Sweden) and in the Dail (Ireland), attendance in plenary sessions was reduced as a result of an agreement between parties and/or the Speaker – something that also happened in the House of Commons. The German Bundestag has reduced the required quorum for business.

And in Australia, before emergency legislation was considered, the government and opposition agreed to reduce the numbers of their members present. The sitting arrangements in House of Representatives were also altered to ensure members were sufficiently far apart.

Sitting arrangements, of course, are one thing, but decision-making is quite another. In legislatures where agreement has been reached to reduce attendance, steps have been taken to ensure proportionality so governments still command majorities. But then there are the detailed practicalities to consider.

In the UK’s House of Commons, at least 40 MPs have to be present, if a decision is decided on a division. Yet on most occasions, many more MPs are crammed into the division lobbies.

On 23 March, however, the Speaker announced that more time would be allowed for divisions to enable smaller groups of MPs to vote at the same time. Meanwhile, the Chairman of Ways and Means announced that decisions in Committee of the whole House would be taken without divisions where possible, saying there would be a ‘high bar’ before she called one.

In other parliaments there is, of course, a system of electronic voting; but this doesn’t completely solve all their problems. Take the Danish Folketing: voting buttons are on MPs’ desks, meaning that, because there is a ban on gatherings of more than ten people, MPs need to queue to enter the Chamber to vote.

In the House of Commons, procedures have been agreed (and confirmed by the Speaker) to allow select committee members to participate in proceedings through email, conference calls, and digital conferencing subject to certain conditions.

Some House of Commons committees are recording their virtual evidence sessions and posting them online afterwards others are broadcasting live. The German Bundestag has also permitted the remote participation of committee members in committee proceedings.

On 1 April, the National Assembly for Wales held its first virtual parliamentary session (see the broadcast). In line with arrangements for an Emergency Senedd agreed the previous week, only four members were needed for votes at plenary meetings to be valid and a reduced attendance was agreed by the parties.

As to what the Commons will look like when it returns from the Easter recess, The Times has reported that Prime Minister’s Questions could take place by video link. Select committees are likely to continue to work remotely as they have during the recess.

Over 100 MPs have signed a letter from Chi Onwurah calling for “a digital Parliament in which all members can participate”. The Speaker has now written to the Government requesting that the House of Commons should be able to operate virtually, as well as to the House administration, seeking an update on the progress made to connect MPs and Parliament remotely.

For those looking for a model, perhaps the Downing Street press conferences, the Cabinet meeting on 31 March or select committee remote hearings could provide a practical solution in a plenary situation?  Watch this space.

By Richard Kelly, researcher in the Parliament and Constitution Centre, House of Commons Library

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