The restrictions introduced to limit the spread of recent strains of coronavirus, and to reduce the incidence of COVID-19 disease in the population, have had an impact on all aspects of public and private life in the UK. Their impact on the way the House of Commons conducts its business has already been considerable. Additional restrictions introduced on public health grounds pose a substantial challenge to the House’s traditional way of working.
The Procedure Committee has considered the proposals developed by the House of Commons Service to enable a form of remote participation in House proceedings. The Committee’s report is intended to inform the House’s consideration of motions to be proposed by the Leader of the House to facilitate a ‘virtual Parliament’, with Members participating in proceedings via videoconferencing technology on the same basis as those Members who are able to be present in the Commons chamber.
The proposals have been brought forward in the recognition that the present pandemic, and measures taken to control it, affect Members in a variety of different ways. Some are obliged to self-isolate and cannot leave their homes; several are heavily restricted in their ability to travel to Westminster from their constituencies, and many consider that they ought to set an example by following the Government’s guidance to work from home where possible. Others consider that their duty is to attend the House in person to represent their constituents. Social distancing norms have drastically reduced the capacity of the Chamber, which can now accommodate no more than fifty Members in safety. The proposals which have been made to facilitate remote working seek to establish equality of treatment between all Members in terms of their access to proceedings.
The Committee has considered in detail the procedural modifications necessary to allow questions to Ministers, urgent questions and statements to take place as ‘hybrid proceedings’ where virtual and physical participation are both possible. The Committee endorses the arrangements and the approach taken to their implementation, and recommends the rapid extension of hybrid proceedings to other categories of business, such as debates on motions and proceedings on legislation. The Speaker ought to have a reserve power to make amendments to arrangements for hybrid proceedings in order to achieve the overall aims for Member participation set out by the House: he will of course wish to consult widely before making any such changes.
Any measures introduced to facilitate virtual participation ought to be strictly temporary, with the sole purpose of allowing the House to continue to function during this unprecedented national emergency. Any measures will also reflect the specific nature of this national emergency and the restrictions that are in place to deal with the coronavirus. They are designed, and will be refined, to allow the most effective scrutiny of Government as is possible in the circumstances. But the Committee recognises that the combination of measures introduced will be sub-optimal and will not allow for the same level of debate and interaction that Members are used to and which they value.
The rapid roll out of mechanisms to enable virtual participation in proceedings poses a number of technical challenges. Ideally there would be a full programme of testing and evaluation before such arrangements were introduced. The present emergency demands that the participation of all Members is facilitated as soon as possible: in this context, the Committee considers the risk of technical hitches in the course of virtual proceedings to be a risk worth taking. The efforts of the House Service, the Parliamentary Digital Service, broadcasting specialists and all others involved in developing the virtual participation model are to be thoroughly commended.
The Committee considers that in the first instance the business before the House ought to be prioritised to enable the Government’s response to the pandemic to be scrutinised and to enable the essential functions of government to continue. Business on which there is a high degree of consensus is likely to be suitable for hybrid proceedings at this stage, but business which is contentious ought to be postponed in the first instance. The Committee considers that, given the present circumstances, it is prudent for the House Service to examine options for remote voting, as a means to allow Members to test the will of the House on contentious propositions. Any system which facilitates absentee voting ought to be subject to detailed consideration, and ought to be available for a strictly time-limited period in line with the package of temporary procedural measures being introduced to enable the House to operate during the pandemic.
Proposals to enable remote balloting of Members in elections to vacant posts for select committee chairs have already been developed, following an earlier recommendation by the Committee. The Committee commends the work undertaken and is content for remote balloting of this nature to take place while the House is operating under coronavirus restrictions.
Published: 21 April 2020