Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: proposals for remote participation Contents

3Arrangements to facilitate debate on motions and consideration of legislation

51.The operating model for hybrid proceedings on questions, urgent questions and statements was developed as the minimum viable product to allow virtual participation in proceedings. The model is potentially capable of being extended to other House proceedings, in particular to debates on motions and the consideration of legislation.

52.In the normal course of events, it would be prudent to allow hybrid proceedings to operate as specified for a period, to enable a robust assessment to be made of the capacity to support such proceedings, to allow necessary adjustments to be made and to inform detailed planning for the extension of hybrid proceeding to additional categories of business. Under the initial proposals, it was expected that, following the conclusion of the two-hour period for initial proceedings each sitting day, the House would be suspended for 15 minutes to allow for a switch to physical-only proceedings, and the remainder of the House’s business wold be conducted with the participation of Members present in the Chamber only.

53.There is a pressing requirement to facilitate as many Members as possible to participate in further categories of House business under the hybrid proceedings model which has been developed. In the circumstances of the present emergency, priority must be given to extending hybrid proceedings at pace. There is an evident risk that technical faults in the operating model, which would normally be identified and addressed during development, will manifest themselves in live proceedings, leading to possible interruptions and suspensions. In our view the benefits from the rapid extension of hybrid proceedings far outweigh the reputational risk to the House from potential faults.

Procedural considerations

54.Given the urgent requirement to extend hybrid proceedings to further categories of business, we do not expect to have the opportunity to comment substantively on proposals for their extension before facilitating motions are put to the House. We set out below some of the temporary modifications to procedure and practice which we expect could be made to allow virtual participation or to dispense with existing requirements to be present in the Chamber. We will keep the implementation of any such modifications under review.

55.Government and House business to which hybrid proceedings might be extended could include the following:

Proposals to add categories of business to this list—for instance, opposition days or backbench business—could be made by any Member, though motions to add categories to the list would in practice fall to be made by Ministers.

56.The present arrangements governing the time at which the House sits, the length of the sitting day and the point beyond which opposed business may not normally be taken, contained in Standing Order No. 9 (Sittings of the House) may prove to be impractical under current conditions, and may have to be replaced by temporary arrangements which give similar certainty about the timing of the House’s sittings.

57.Arrangements to apply to participate in debates will have to be modified, in accordance with the principle of equality of treatment, and it will in practice be necessary to establish some form of speakers’ list. Interventions on contributions to debate will not be possible.

Prioritisation of business

58.We observed above that the business of the House cannot continue as usual during the pandemic, and nor should it. To date, cooperation between the parties through the usual channels to facilitate the conduct of business under coronavirus conditions has been exceptional. Agreement was reached not to divide the House on the motions for the Chancellor’s Budget resolutions on 17 March: similarly the Coronavirus Bill passed all its Commons stages on 23 March without a division, though several amendments were made in Committee as a consequence of negotiation on the Bill’s provisions.

59.The overriding priorities for the House at present are to examine the Government’s actions in the conduct of the response to the pandemic; to consider further proposals for legislation, where necessary to supplement the measures in the Coronavirus Act 2020; to consider the retrospective approvals required for secondary coronavirus legislation made during the adjournment; and to consider the business which is essential to the Government’s continued functioning, such as authorisation for expenditure and ratification of the provisional authorisation for collecting taxation given after the Budget. Business on which there is a high degree of consensus between the parties, and where attempts to divide the House are unlikely, should also be prioritised.

60.These types of business are likely to be suitable for hybrid proceedings, where Members can participate physically and virtually but without the spontaneity which characterises physical-only proceedings in the Chamber. Hybrid proceedings do not lend themselves to the conduct of contentious business. In our view it would not be desirable for such business, if not directly related to the coronavirus emergency, to be prioritised by Ministers while temporary coronavirus procedures are in effect.

61.Among the urgent coronavirus-related business which requires the House’s attention are the public health regulations made under delegated powers during the adjournment, which have imposed the most drastic restrictions on personal liberty and economic activity seen in peacetime. The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 were signed into law and brought into force by the Secretary of State for Health at 1pm on Thursday 26 March, the day after the House adjourned. The Regulations are subject to review by the Secretary of State every 21 days following their entry into force: the first such review took place on Thursday 16 April. Any regulation nor requirement may be terminated at any time by Ministerial direction. Unless approved by both Houses within 28 days of the date they are made—not counting periods when both Houses are adjourned for more than four days—the Regulations cease to have effect: assuming that upon their return both Houses do not simultaneously adjourn for more than four days, the latest date on which approval must be secured is 15 May.

62.The regulations imposing lockdown restrictions across the country were made and brought into force under delegated powers and without prior parliamentary approval. It is essential that these measures, the application of which has been highly contentious, are considered by the House as soon as possible, and certainly before the latest date of the next Ministerial review. We recommend that the Government make urgent arrangements for debate on a motion to give retrospective approval to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) Regulations 2020 on the basis that all Members will be able to participate virtually and that there will be no requirement for physical participation in what could be a very highly subscribed debate. Should the restrictions continue in whole or in part past the date of the next review, we expect Ministers to give urgent consideration to a mechanism for explicit parliamentary approval for their renewal.

Arrangements for divisions

63.Divisions on questions put from the Chair most often arise on highly contentious business, where there are significant differences between the Government and one or more opposition parties on proposed legislation or the conduct of policy. The House has not divided since the report stage of the Telecommunications (Leasehold Property) Bill on 10 March.

64.On 23 March the Speaker announced revised arrangements for divisions, to take into account public health advice on social distancing:

The entry of Members will be staggered, with entry at separate times for three alphabetical groups. Members will be able to record their names at any of the desks. A Division may take between 30 and 40 minutes to conduct in that way.17

These arrangements remain in effect, though in practice, under current coronavirus restrictions, it is unlikely that attempts will be made to divide the House in the near future, especially if government business is prioritised as described above and Whips continue not to require the attendance of Members at Westminster.

65.Should contentious business be brought before the House before current coronavirus restrictions are eased, it is likely that alternative arrangements for divisions will have to be considered. Large-scale pairing of absent Members is possible, and will reduce the time taken to vote in divisions, though it will tend to disadvantage smaller opposition parties with absent members unable to be paired. We recognise that pairing arrangements are not recorded in any way and that the voting intentions of paired Members are simply not noted. We have previously proposed the use of deferred division procedures on certain single questions, to reduce the time potentially taken in the lobbies, though this solution is based on attendance at Westminster.

66.The Speaker has asked the House Service and the Parliamentary Digital Service to examine potential options for remote digital voting in divisions. The introduction of remote voting would be a fundamental change to the way that the House has conducted its business: with the recent exception of new parents, the House has always required Members to be present in order to vote.

67.The Committee recognises that developing systems to facilitate remote voting is a priority, and supports the House Service in the work being undertaken in this respect. We will wish to give detailed consideration to any system developed to supplement or to replace existing mechanisms for divisions, where such a system will which enable absentee voting. Any such system ought to be introduced for a strictly time-limited period only, in line with the temporary procedural changes to be introduced.

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

Published: 21 April 2020