Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: virtual participation in debate Contents

1The Government’s proposal to reintroduce virtual participation in debate

1.On Monday 16 November the Leader of the House announced, in response to an Urgent Question,1 that the Government “should seek to do more to support additional virtual participation in the Commons Chamber” and that the Government should work with the House authorities to find a solution to the issue. He announced that he planned to bring a motion before the House to facilitate additional virtual participation.

2.The Leader tabled a motion to give effect to his proposals on Tuesday 17 November, for decision by the House on Wednesday 18 November should the Government choose to move it. No provision has been made for a debate on the motion: if opposed after 7pm it cannot be proceeded with.

3.The text of the motion tabled by the Government is as follows:

That the Order of 4 June 2020 (Virtual participation in proceedings during the pandemic (Temporary Orders)), as amended on 22 October, be further amended by adding at the end the following paragraphs:

( ) The Speaker shall draw up and publish a scheme to permit Members who are certified by a medical practitioner as clinically extremely vulnerable (or equivalent) according to relevant official public health guidance issued in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, to participate virtually in such debates as are designated for virtual participation by the Speaker.

( ) The scheme drawn up by the Speaker shall include:

(a) arrangements for demonstrating and registering eligibility for virtual participation in designated debates;

(b) any other provisions the Speaker considers necessary to secure the effective implementation of this Order.

4.When endorsing preparations for the introduction of hybrid proceedings, the House of Commons Commission agreed that any new arrangements “would be kept under regular review, including by the Procedure Committee.”2 We have kept all such arrangements under review since their introduction.3 We report below on the Leader’s proposals to reintroduce virtual participation in debate, on the assumption that the House will agree to the motion set out above.

5.The change in approach taken by the Leader of the House is welcome, insofar as the Government is now prepared to allow some virtual participation in debate. We nevertheless regret that the approach was not planned in a more measured way so as to enable the fullest possible participation by Members subject to coronavirus restrictions from 5 November, when the present lockdown restrictions affecting travel to and from Westminster were brought into effect.

6.We consider that Members unable to attend the House because of coronavirus restrictions should be facilitated to participate in debate as soon as possible. For that reason we do not intend to oppose the motion tabled for decision by the Leader of the House on 18 November.

7.We nevertheless consider that, on a matter of such importance to the House, the Government should have facilitated a debate and a decision on the proposal before the House in a way which would have allowed Members to test the House’s support for alternative approaches.

Virtual participation in House proceedings to date

8.Virtual participation in House proceedings, as a means to facilitate participation despite the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, was first authorised by the House on 21 April this year, when it passed a resolution providing for parity of treatment between physical and virtual participation and made a temporary order applying these “hybrid” arrangements to scrutiny proceedings (oral questions, urgent questions and Ministerial statements).4 The following day the House made a further temporary order applying the arrangements to proceedings on motions and legislation.

9.The temporary orders were initially set to expire on 12 May. Their effect was subsequently extended until 20 May, the day the House resolved to adjourn for the Whitsun recess, whereupon they were allowed to lapse. As part of the Government’s COVID-19 recovery plan adopted by the Cabinet on 11 May, Parliament was to “set a national example of how business can continue in this new normal”, and was expected to move, “in step with public health guidance, to get back to business as part of this next step [in the recovery], including a move towards further physical proceedings in the House of Commons.”5

10.Upon the House’s return from the Whitsun adjournment on 2 June, the Government proposed that the resolution providing for parity of treatment be rescinded, and proposed a revised procedural framework proposed by the Leader of the House.6 The framework takes into account the substantial restrictions on the use of the Chamber and the division lobbies introduced by the Speaker on the advice of Public Health England. The arrangements were initially given effect until 7 July 2020: their effect has since been extended in duration, first to 3 September 2020 and subsequently to 3 November 2020 and to 30 March 2021.7

11.The Government considered the proposals to be Government business, and whipped accordingly. Amendments to the Government’s motions were tabled by the Chair of this Committee and divided upon by those Members who were in a position to attend the House. The Government’s proposals passed unamended.

12.On 4 June the Leader brought a further proposal to the House, for a temporary order to facilitate virtual participation in scrutiny proceedings by Members who had self-certified that they were “unable to attend at Westminster for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic.”.8 The proposal was passed without debate and virtual participation in scrutiny proceedings recommenced on 8 June.9

The change in Government policy

13.Until his tweet of Sunday 15 November, the Leader of the House had, despite repeated requests, given little indication that the Government was in practice prepared to contemplate any form of virtual participation in debate. When we questioned the Leader about extending virtual participation on 8 June,10 and again on 1 July,11 he indicated that in principle he had no objection to allowing virtual participation in debates, if his concerns could be satisfied:

[H]ow do you make a debate flow, with interventions, when you have people participating remotely? How does the technology work, bearing in mind that it had to be reset every two hours, and Second Reading can be scheduled for six hours? Would you need to have those interruptions? How would the flow of business be affected? How effectively would Ministers be able to respond to interventions that were coming in remotely? It is a question of whether those points can be answered in order to ensure effective debate and proceeding with business, or not.12

14.Nevertheless, the day after the House agreed to extend the temporary coronavirus procedures until March 2021, he appeared to rule out any prospect of returning to the hybrid model used for the conduct of debates in April and May 2020.13

15.Several colleagues have expressed concern, in oral evidence,14 written submissions15 and in responses to a short online survey,16 as well as on the floor of the House, that they or their colleagues have been unable to participate in debates on motions and legislation because of obligations to stay away from Westminster for reasons solely related to the pandemic.

16.A Member currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer was unable to participate in a backbench business debate on breast cancer scheduled for 12 November in Westminster Hall because her condition has placed her into the “clinically extremely vulnerable” category: those in that category have been advised by NHS England to work from home and not to attend their place of work.17 She was able to draw the House’s attention to the anomaly at Business Questions on 12 November, but was not able to participate in the debate itself.18 It was this intervention which appears to have persuaded the Government that its policy on virtual participation, ostensibly under continuous review, ought to be changed.

1 HC Deb, 16 November 2020, col. 24. The question was prompted by an announcement, issued from the personal Twitter account of the Leader on the evening of Sunday 15 November, that a change in the Government’s policy was under consideration:

2 House of Commons Commission decisions of 16 April 2020, item 1

3 The inquiry into Procedure under coronavirus restrictions was opened on 10 April. All inquiry material is published on the Committee’s website:

4 Votes and Proceedings, 21 April 2020

5 Our plan to rebuild: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy, CP 239, May 2020, p 29

6 Votes and Proceedings, 2 June 2020

7 Orders of 1 July, 2 September and 22 October 2020.

8 Votes and Proceedings, 4 June 2020, item 8

9 HC Deb, 8 June 2020, col. 2

10 Q61 (8 June 2020)

11 Q138 (1 July 2020)

12 Ibid.

13 Letter from the Leader of the House to the Chair of the Liaison Committee dated 23 October 2020, published by the Liaison Committee on 4 November 2020:

14 Q325 [Dr Philippa Whitford MP]; Q339 [Barbara Keeley MP]

15 For instance Mrs Sharon Hodgson MP (CVR 095) and Vicky Foxcroft MP (CVR 105)

16 The detailed responses to a short survey of Members undertaken online between 14 and 18 October will be published as an annex to the Committee’s subsequent report on aspects of participation in debate under coronavirus restrictions.

17 Under the official guidance issued by the NHS in England, those in this category are strongly advised to work from home: If they cannot work from home, they should not attend work for the duration of the lockdown restrictions in England introduced on 5 November.
The guidance issued to the clinically vulnerable is available at the link below (version of 13 November 2020):

18 HC Deb, 12 November 2020, cols. 1070–71 [Tracey Crouch MP]

Published: 18 November 2020 Site information    Accessibility statement