Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: proposals for remote participation Contents

2Proposed arrangements for oral questions, urgent questions and statements

27.The Leader of the House is expected to bring forward motions to facilitate ‘virtual’ participation—participation via video and audio—by Members in certain House proceedings. Videoconferencing software is to be used to enable an audio and video feed from Members working remotely to appear on screens installed on the parapet walls of the side galleries in the Chamber. The technical arrangements were authorised by the House of Commons Commission at its meeting of 16 April.13

28.The Chamber Business Team has produced a detailed operating model to govern physical and virtual participation in these proceedings. Initially the proceedings subject to the operating model are expected to be those which facilitate the accountability of Ministers to the House—namely oral questions to Ministers, urgent questions and Ministerial statements. These proceedings typically take place at the start of each sitting Monday to Thursday, before any orders of the day and notices of motion are taken.

29.The Committee considered a draft of the operating model at its meeting of 15 April. We gave our strong support in principle to the implementation of the model. Certain observations were communicated to the Commission by the Chair at its meeting of 16 April, where the model was also endorsed.

30.We support the proposed operating model for virtual and physical participation in the House’s initial proceedings. In particular we endorse the arrangements proposed in the model to ensure equality of treatment between Members present in the Chamber and participating virtually.

31.It is essential that the House be facilitated to continue its scrutiny of Ministers as soon as possible. We therefore recommend that the Leader of the House be permitted, exceptionally, to move motions to authorise the new arrangements at the first available opportunity. In this unique instance the practice of the House requiring notice of such motions ought to be dispensed with.

32.We set out below our view of the procedural and practical modifications entailed by the operating model.

Timing and arrangement of initial proceedings

33.Initial proceedings—comprising oral questions, urgent questions and Ministerial statements—are expected to occupy a two-hour timeslot at the beginning of each sitting day. This reflects the normal time at which such proceedings are taken.

34.The types of business to be taken are as follows:

35.The standing orders which provide for Members to reserve and retain their seats at the start of the sitting day by means of ‘prayer cards’ are expected to be suspended for as long as social distancing measures are in effect in the Chamber.15

36.Standing Order No. 21 (Time for taking questions) is expected to be suspended, and Standing Order No. 22 (Notices of questions, motions and amendments), which empowers the Speaker to set notice periods for the submission of oral questions and to make arrangements for the random ‘shuffle’, is expected to be amended to require the Speaker to observe party balance in the ordering of questions to Ministers.16

37.A rota to establish the days on which departmental Ministers answer oral questions is expected to be drawn up by the Government, in consultation with the Speaker, to replace the published rota. This will take account of possible variations in the days the House is expected to sit. The rota will need to be confirmed at least two working days before each question slot.

38.Where unable to be present in the Chamber, Ministers will be able to participate virtually to answer questions in the same way as backbenchers, and opposition frontbenchers, who are participating virtually. The Speaker will have discretion to group questions by answering Minister,

39.Members drawn to ask oral questions, whether in the Chamber or participating virtually, will have their question called formally by the Speaker. The answering Minister will give the answer to the substantive question listed on the Order Paper, and the Member will then be called to ask a supplementary question. No spontaneous supplementary questions will be permitted.

40.The Speaker is expected to set notice periods for applications for urgent questions and notice of statements to enable Members to make applications to participate in those proceedings in advance. Spontaneous participation in proceedings (for instance, intervention in the Chamber) will not be possible. In exceptional circumstances the Speaker may accept late notice of an urgent question or statement, which may then have to displace the last scheduled item in the two-hour slot: arrangements to establish a speaking list and to contact and set up virtual participants will have to be rapid and will require the active cooperation of all Members.

41.The Speaker is expected to be given discretion to vary the timing and order of items of business within the two hours allocated to initial proceedings. This reserve power might be used to ensure the most effective use of the House’s time and to take account of Ministerial availability.

42.The ability of Members to raise points of order spontaneously by necessity has to be restricted. But we believe that it should continue to be possible for points of order to be raised when sufficient notice has been given to the Speaker. Points of order must remain available to Members as the last resort when they consider that the Executive is treating the House of Commons in a high-handed way.

43.Some modification to the disciplinary powers of the Chair will be required during hybrid proceedings, to take account of the fact that the procedure for ‘naming’ a Member for disregarding the Speaker’s authority or persistently and wilfully abusing the rules of the House cannot readily be operated during such proceedings.

44.The initial restriction of two hours for these hybrid proceedings reflects an estimate of the current technical capacity for setting up Members for virtual participation in such proceedings. The total number of Members able to participate in such proceedings, whether in the Chamber or remotely, is initially to be limited by technical constraints to 120. Once the arrangements can be shown to be delivered reliably and consistently, it may be possible to extend the time allocated to initial proceedings and to allow greater participation.

45.We consider that the arrangements proposed made for hybrid participation in initial proceedings are an appropriate response to the present conditions. They are sufficiently flexible to give all Members the opportunity to hold Ministers to account for the Government’s response to the emergency. The discretion to be given to the Speaker in the arrangement of proceedings is welcome and appropriate: we anticipate that he will consult widely on its use.

46.Circumstances may arise in which it is necessary to amend the detail of temporary orders in order to achieve any overall aims set by the House for the operation of hybrid proceedings. To facilitate such changes it may be appropriate for the House to confer a reserve power on the Speaker to make amendments to temporary orders: such a power might be used to extend their effect for a strictly defined period. While the Speaker will of course wish to consult before exercising such a power, we do not consider it appropriate to give the Government any form of veto over its use.

Arrangements for questions for written answer

47.The House’s arrangements for the accountability of Ministers were not reviewed before the Government proposed the early adjournment of the House for Easter. At present, questions to Ministers for written answer are not tabled during adjournments (recesses): questions sent in by Members during an adjournment are typically not printed and sent to Departments for answer until the weekday before the House returns.

48.The Committee considers that this practice ought to be changed, at the very least for the duration of the present emergency in instances where the House is adjourned for a week or more. Standing Order No. 22B, in abeyance since the House adopted September sittings, provides one model for how this might be achieved, with days for the printing and answering of questions determined in advance. Ministers would naturally have to ensure that their departments were adequately resourced to answer questions from Members, and expectations about the timeliness of answers during adjournments would have to be clearly set.

49.We recommend that proposals to allow questions for written answer to be tabled and to be answered on specified days during any periodic adjournment ought to be brought to the House as soon as is practicable. Such arrangements ought to be put in place before any further proposals to vary recess dates from those already adopted are put to the House.

50.Of more immediate importance are the implications arising from any decision that the House should only sit on three days a week for the foreseeable future. This will severely hamper the opportunities for backbenchers to hold the Government to account unless there is a relaxation of the current restrictions on the maximum number of five priority written questions that can be tabled on any sitting day. We will be monitoring the performance of departments in responding to written questions in the course of our usual work in this area. We will review the impact of any reduction in sitting days on the performance of Departments: should the ability of Members to receive timely responses to their questions be reduced, we will not hesitate to recommend changes to the mechanism for prioritising written questions.

13 Record of House of Commons Commission decisions taken on 16 April 2020

14 To be taken by the First Secretary of State in the Prime Minister’s absence

15 Standing Order No. 7 (Seats not to be taken before prayers) and No. 8 (Seats secured at prayers).

16 The Speaker typically ensures that any imbalance in the results of the shuffle is rectified in the way in which he calls spontaneous supplementary questions in the Chamber: this adjustment is not possible for as long as additional supplementary questions cannot be called.

Published: 21 April 2020