Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: proposals for remote participation Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

The impact of coronavirus on the work of the House

1.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. (Paragraph 11)

2.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. (Paragraph 18)

3.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. (Paragraph 20)

4.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. (Paragraph 22)

5.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. (Paragraph 25)

6.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. (Paragraph 26)

Proposed arrangements for oral questions, urgent questions and statements

7.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. (Paragraph 30)

8.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. (Paragraph 31)

9.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. (Paragraph 42)

10.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. (Paragraph 45)

11.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. (Paragraph 46)

12.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. (Paragraph 49)

13.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. (Paragraph 50)

Arrangements to facilitate debate on motions and consideration of legislation

14.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. (Paragraph 53)

15.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. (Paragraph 60)

16.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. (Paragraph 62)

17.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. (Paragraph 66)

18.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. (Paragraph 67)

Participation in elections to positions in the House

19.Under the present conditions it is clearly necessary to arrange for remote balloting for elections to select committee chair posts, to enable as many Members as possible to participate and to reduce the incentive for Members to attend the House simply to vote in these elections. (Paragraph 71)

20.The Committee commends the work which has been undertaken to arrange remote balloting for elections to fill two select committee chair vacancies. We recommend that the House make a temporary order to enable the ballots to be held as planned. As with other temporary modifications to procedure, the order must be strictly time-limited. (Paragraph 72)

Published: 21 April 2020