Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: proposals for remote participation Contents

1The impact of coronavirus on the work of the House

1.The development and spread of the strains of coronavirus causing COVID-19 disease have had the most profound impact on all sectors of the economy and society in virtually every nation. The public health measures put in place by the UK Government and the devolved administrations to limit the spread of the virus, and to moderate its impact on the NHS and on other vital public services, have affected all aspects of public and private life in the UK.

2.Every UK institution and public body has had to conduct an urgent reassessment of the way in which it works following the rapid introduction of two prevailing norms: the requirement for self-isolation for those with COVID-19 symptoms and those most at risk from the effects of the disease, and the requirement for social distancing in all activities to inhibit onward transmission.

3.It is paramount that Parliament is able to hold the government to account, but under these conditions the work of the House cannot continue as normal. Nor should it. The coronavirus pandemic is a national emergency, and the work of the House ought to reflect this. In this report we examine proposals for temporary modifications to House procedures to support this work in the face of the uniquely challenging conditions which face all representative institutions at present.

The effect of coronavirus restrictions on participation in proceedings

4.A basic principle of the House’s procedure and practice is that a Member is required to be present in the Chamber in order to participate in any proceeding of the House. The right of Members to attend the House without obstruction, in order to participate in its proceedings, is an ancient and unchallenged privilege of the House.1 While some ancillary elements of participation, such as the tabling of questions and motions or of amendments to bills, have long taken place outside the Chamber for administrative convenience, a Member has to be present in the chamber to present a bill, to put an oral question to a Minister and to participate in a debate. Only very recently has the House consented to a pilot scheme whereby new parents are able to vote by proxy in divisions.2

5.Coronavirus restrictions which inhibit the ability of people to move and to associate freely therefore have a considerable impact on the House’s practice. The impact is threefold:

Presence at Westminster and equality of treatment

6.As a consequence, many Members are unable, because of self-isolation conditions or travel limitations, to be physically present at Westminster. Even before the introduction of lockdown measures on 26 March, the policy of both Houses, in line with public health guidance, was to advise Members and staff who were not already self-isolation “to work remotely where possible”.5 Many Members consider that they should in any case observe the restrictions placed on their constituents and not travel to work where it is reasonably possible to work from home. Several find it impossible to travel to Westminster without taking public transport, which carries an evident risk of infection. Long-distance travel has been restricted to the extent that many Members from constituencies distant from London now find it impossible or impractical to travel under current circumstances.

7.Many colleagues thus have no choice but to be absent from Westminster while restrictions continue. Of those who do have the choice, many believe they ought to undertake their duties to the best of their abilities while following the restrictions which are being applied across the country, since to do other than to observe the restrictions imposed on the general public could have a negative impact on the reputation of the House and might undermine attempts to promote ‘stay at home’ and social distancing messages. Members working from home are being supported by the equipment and software provided through the Parliamentary Digital Service and by the temporary changes to arrangements for funding their office operations made by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.

8.Others consider that they ought to be seen to be present in the Chamber, thereby demonstrating to their constituents that the work of the House on their behalf and on behalf of the nation continues despite the extraordinary conditions which all are experiencing. This entirely understandable view ought to be balanced by consideration of the effect on the House Service by the attendance of Members in person. The provision of support to the functions of the House and to Members continue to require the attendance of staff to provide essential services which cannot be provided remotely. The Speaker and the Commission have repeatedly expressed their concern about the potential impact of the pandemic on House staff, together with the effect on core House services should the number of staff available for work be reduced through illness or the requirement to self-isolate.

9.Social distancing measures introduced by the Speaker with effect from 18 March have substantially changed the conditions under which Members can be present in the Chamber. It is estimated that, to comply with the public health requirement for persons to keep at least 2 metres distance, the Chamber can hold no more than 50 Members seated in their places. As the Chamber is continually in the public eye while the House is sitting, it is essential that the social distancing norms in effect in all places outside the home should be observed, and seen to be observed, throughout each sitting. The measures introduced by the Speaker on 23 March to facilitate social distancing in the taking of divisions substantially lengthen the likely time taken to complete a single division.6

10.In practical terms, the attendance of a Member in the House on a sitting day when Government business is to be taken is influenced not only by their schedule of engagements and meetings, together with commitments to participate in the Chamber and in committees, but also by the directions of party business managers. Whips rely on the presence of Members in the House to attend in the Chamber when required, to participate in questioning and in debate, to attend committees on legislation, and, most crucially, to participate in divisions. In practice these requirements change in line with the schedule of business proposed by the Government following discussion in the usual channels. Agreement that the business to be taken will not result in divisions significantly reduces party requirements on Members to attend, although it should also be recognised that agreement cannot always be guaranteed. Whips can play a significant and influential role in managing the burden on House services by indicating to Members that their presence is not required.

11.Our approach to the procedural changes required under coronavirus restrictions is based on equality of treatment. We recognise that many Members find it incredibly challenging to travel to Westminster to participate in proceedings under current conditions. Of those able to travel, some will feel obliged to: equally, others will feel obliged to participate from home. The form of proceedings should not incentivise physical over virtual participation, or vice versa: no Member ought to be disadvantaged in their ability to participate in House proceedings under any temporary procedural modification made in consequence of coronavirus restrictions.

The Procedure Committee’s work on coronavirus impact

12.The Procedure Committee was nominated on 2 March 2020. Since its first meeting of this Parliament, on 4 March 2020, the Committee has been continuously engaged in evaluating the potential impact of coronavirus restrictions on the procedure and practice of the House.

13.On 6 April the Chair wrote to the Speaker with the Committee’s observations on his letter to all Members of 27 March. In that letter the Speaker set out the measures already taken in response to the pandemic and the measures being contemplated for introduction upon the return of the House from its Easter adjournment.11 The Speaker responded to the Chair’s letter on 14 April, and also wrote to Members to update them on the progress of plans to introduce remote virtual participation into House proceedings.12

The scope of this report

14.While individual Departments have made ad hoc arrangements for Ministers to discuss particular concerns with Members, there has been no opportunity to question Ministers in public on their departmental responsibilities, nor on any statements of Government policy, since the House resolved on 25 March to adjourn until 21 April—a decision which extended the Easter adjournment by four sitting days. The introduction of mechanisms to allow every backbench colleague the opportunity to question Ministers on the very significant policy decisions being taken daily in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in addition to the routine implementation of Government policy, is clearly an urgent priority.

15.The Committee has considered detailed proposals drawn up by the House Service for introduction of virtual participation into certain categories of the House’s proceedings. These proposals, developed from an initial brief set out by the Speaker, relate only to the initial proceedings of the House on each sitting day apart from Friday—that is, oral questions to Ministers, urgent questions and Ministerial statements. In his letter to all Members of 14 April the Speaker indicated that

once these proceedings have been judged to be delivered in a satisfactory and sustainable way, both from a technological and participatory point of view, then the House can consider extending the model to other proceedings such as debates on motions and consideration of legislation.

Separately, the Speaker indicated that, in response to interest expressed by several Members, he had asked the House Service and the Parliamentary Digital Service “to undertake preparatory work as a matter of urgency on a system of remote voting in divisions of the House”. He made clear that the introduction of remote voting by such means would have to be agreed to by the House before it was introduced.

16.The Committee has evaluated the proposals insofar as they relate to the procedure and practice of the House in its initial proceedings. Following the Committee’s meeting on 15 April, where the proposals were extensively discussed, the Chair attended the meeting of the House of Commons Commission at which the proposals were endorsed. The Leader of the House is expected to bring motions to the House which, if passed, would make the temporary variations necessary to standing orders and the practice of the House sufficient to enable the proposals to be implemented for a strictly limited period.

17.The proposed operating model envisages that the initial proceedings of the house will be ‘hybrid proceedings’—that is, proceedings in which Members physically present in the Chamber to speak and Members at a remote location using agreed technology may participate equally, as far as is practicable. This will entail certain limitations on normal practice in tabling questions and indicating a wish to ask supplementary questions on urgent questions and statements. Hybrid proceedings will lose the spontaneity of typical exchanges in the Chamber. While regrettable, this is necessary to ensure that as many Members can participate as possible under the same conditions.

18.We make this report to the House to inform its consideration of initial proposals for temporary procedural change, which we expect to be in place for no longer than is strictly necessary. We have examined in detail the proposals which will enable questioning of Ministers in the Chamber to continue under the extraordinary conditions brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

19.While the Committee fully supports the decision to prioritise procedural changes related to Ministerial accountability, we realise that the current conditions make it impossible for many backbench colleagues to participate in other key House business, such as debate on motions related to Government policy and scrutiny and the passage of Government bills and secondary legislation.

20.We recommend that proposals to facilitate virtual participation in further categories of House proceeding be developed for implementation as soon as is practicable. We report below on the potential implications of such developments for the House’s procedure and practice. We will keep the operation of all systems for virtual participation under regular review.

21.The House faces a challenge to its operation unlike, but equal to, any other in its long history. House staff at every level have had to show imagination and resilience to adapt to rapidly-changing circumstances. The nature of the coronavirus strain means that all staff put themselves at risk by travelling to the House to support its work.

22.The Committee would like to record its sincere appreciation of the work of all staff of the House Service, the broadcasters and the Parliamentary Digital Service, whether present at Westminster or working remotely, in supporting the work of the House and its committees in uniquely challenging conditions. We thoroughly commend the work undertaken to date to enable House proceedings to continue with the active participation of as many Members as possible, and we wholeheartedly support the work of the House Service in developing further options to extend the scope of virtual proceedings.

Duration of temporary procedural changes

23.The procedural modifications described in this report are an exceptional response, designed in order to allow the House to function in exceptional conditions. Nobody wishes, or expects, the exceptional conditions introduced to inhibit the transmission of coronavirus to be in place for any longer than is absolutely necessary. Similarly, the exceptional procedural arrangements necessary for the House to function under coronavirus conditions are not expected to be kept in place once the coronavirus restrictions are relaxed.

24.The new ways of working forced upon the House by the pandemic may lead to a reassessment of certain aspects of the conduct of the House’s business. An evaluation in due course of the benefits and drawbacks of the temporary procedures introduced would be worthwhile. The experience gained in the operation of the procedures will be invaluable in developing future resilience plans.

25.We strongly recommend that any changes to House procedures introduced in response to the coronavirus pandemic should be strictly time-limited: a period of no longer than six weeks would be appropriate in the first instance. This period should be extended only by express agreement of the House and after consideration by the Procedure Committee.

26.Notwithstanding the work the Committee generally undertakes to review the operation of the House’s procedure and practice, the Committee wishes to make clear that the present package of modifications is proposed in the context of an unprecedented national emergency and is not to be seen as a basis or precedent for changes to procedure and practice outwith this situation.

1 For a more detailed discussion of the House’s claim to the privilege see Procedure Committee, Notification of the arrest of Members, Second Report of Session 2015–16, HC (2015–16) 649, paras 3–10.

2 The scheme to allow proxy voting for parental absence for a 12-month pilot period was authorised by the House on 29 January 2019: on 16 January 2020 the House extended the pilot for a further six months.

3 The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 (SI 2020/350), regulation 6(1).

4 Ibid., regulation 6(2)(f)

5 Speaker’s Statement, 23 March 2020: Official Report, 23 March 2020, col. 23.

6 Speaker’s Statement, 23 March 2020: Official Report, 23 March 2020, col. 24.

8 Letter from the Chair of the Committee to the Speaker dated 11 March 2020, and the Speaker’s response of 13 March 2020

9 Letter from the Chair of the Committee to the Government Chief Whip dated 18 March 2020

10 Votes and Proceedings, Tuesday 24 March 2020

11 Letter from the Chair of the Committee to the Speaker dated 6 April 2020

12 Letter from the Speaker to the Chair of the Committee dated 14 April 2020

Published: 21 April 2020