The Procedure Committee, in its role of scrutinising the conduct of public business, has considered the temporary measures that have been introduced by the House of Commons to allow for remote participation in its proceedings. There are understandable concerns that have been expressed by Members of the Committee and Members more generally, about how these temporary measures are functioning and whether they allow for the most effective scrutiny of the Government by Members. The Committee accepted that these measures would be highly likely to be sub-optimal and unlikely to improve upon the presence of all Members being physically present in the House. However, the alternative to allowing for virtual participation would be much more limited participation and scrutiny than is available under the present temporary arrangements.
This report focuses on the use of remote divisions. There are a number of other improvements and changes that the Committee would wish to see introduced, including longer than two hours for oral questions, urgent questions s and statements and shorter call lists for questions. We appreciate that there are technical limitations and that there is a desire all round to see improvements.
On 12 May the House will be invited to renew the temporary coronavirus procedures. The Committee recommends that any renewal should be to a date not later than Wednesday 3 June. During that period the operating model underlying the procedures ought to be reviewed, with a view to enabling many more Members present in the House and participating virtually to contribute to the House’s proceedings.
It is important to note that any changes to House procedures must be agreed to by the House itself. If Members are not happy with procedure, it is within the power of Members to propose amendments and to vote against arrangements which they consider undesirable. The Speaker, as a servant of the House, has been clear that he will act in accordance with the will of the House.
On 22 April the House agreed to a Government proposal that divisions in the House ought to be conducted through a system of remote voting. The Government proposal would allow divisions to take place during all stages of Government bills, and on freestanding Government motions, during the period that temporary procedures of the House are in place under the extraordinary conditions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Leader of the House gave an undertaking that he would not designate any item of business as subject to remote voting until the Procedure Committee had given its view on the proposed system. The Committee has evaluated the robustness of the system and its likely operation, through demonstration tests and discussions with the officials of the House Service and Parliamentary Digital Service involved in its development and planned deployment. The Committee was not asked to evaluate any other system for conducting divisions during the pandemic, and does not at this stage propose any alternative.
On 5 May the Chair of the Committee wrote to the Speaker and to the Leader of the House to give the Committee’s view on the proposed system. She reported that the Committee was satisfied that the proposed system was suitable for use by the House in recording the votes of Members in remote divisions under the arrangements agreed to by the House on 22 April, but only for as long as those temporary arrangements had effect. On 6 May the Speaker announced that he was authorising the system for use: later that day the Leader of the House announced that some Government business scheduled for the week of 11 May was likely to be designated as subject to remote division.
The Committee is now reporting to the House its observations on the remote division system. The system represents the first wholly remote proceeding authorised by the House, and the most substantial change to division practice since the introduction of double-lobby voting in 1836.
The Committee notes that the House has given the Speaker considerable power over the operation of the system. Should issues arise with the system’s operation, the Speaker has the power to interrupt and suspend a remote division and to declare a division result null and void and order a re-run. His leave is required before any business may be subject to a remote division, and he is able to determine in advance of any vote whether it is necessary to be conducted by remote division. His authorisation of the system may be rescinded at any time.
The Committee has been given suitable assurances over the robustness and security of the system, which is based on an existing platform already used by Members for the tabling of questions and motions. Access to the system is through a single sign-on, validated by multi-factor authentication. The bicameral Information Authority has taken advice from the National Cyber Security Council on the system and has confirmed that it is content with its information security.
The integrity of the system depends on Members and the care they take over their access to the system. The remote voting system is not as secure as the present arrangements for divisions, which rely on a Member presenting in a division lobby in person. Until a reliable form of biometric authentication can be introduced over all devices likely to be used for remote voting, the present system is unlikely to be suitable as a replacement for lobby voting.
Any attempt to facilitate a non-Member to cast a vote over the remote voting system is likely to constitute a serious breach of privilege and a contempt of the House. It is similarly likely to constitute a breach of the Code of Conduct for Members. Such breaches are likely to be dealt with severely by the relevant committees of the House and by the House itself.
Arrangements are in place to monitor the performance of the system during each division: if issues are detected, they will be reported to the Chair, who has the power to suspend a division in such circumstances and to void and re-run a division if system issues have compromised the result. Arrangements are also in place for Members experiencing connectivity issues to contact House staff to have a vote recorded manually. The Committee recommends continuous evaluation of the system’s performance, and a system of active feedback to assist in identifying any underlying issues in the system which may arise after deployment.
When the Speaker authorised the system, all but 37 Members had participated in live trials, and a dozen Members had yet to register on the system. The House Service is striving to ensure that all Members are registered on the system before it is used for the first time in a remote division. The Committee recommends that the Speaker should receive a report on the number of Members not registered on the system before he gives leave for the first business to be designated as subject to a remote division.
There are continuing concerns over the way Members may be alerted to the fact a division is taking place when away from Westminster. Several messaging options have been developed for use on the variety of devices Members may use to access the system. The Committee has recommended an accelerated launch of the ParliamentNow site, presently in development, which will replicate the content carried on the House’s annunciator channel and will provide a distinctive alert for divisions taking place. Given the present format of hybrid substantive proceedings, the time of divisions is in any case likely to be known well in advance, and party whips will have an important role in reminding Members to vote.
Proxy voting for parental absence is available under the remote voting system, though Members eligible for a proxy vote may now choose to vote remotely instead. The Committee is evaluating the overall proxy voting system, and considers that in the event that lockdown conditions are eased it may be feasible to replace a system of remote voting with a system of proxy voting for those Members who are required to self-isolate for the duration of the pandemic. Should the lifting of lockdown conditions be varied in different areas of the United Kingdom we expect procedural adaptations to be made to enable all Members to continue to contribute to the House’s proceedings.
Published: 8 May 2020