Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: virtual participation in debate Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

The Government’s proposal to reintroduce virtual participation in debate

1.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. (Paragraph 6)

2.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. (Paragraph 7)

Facilitating virtual participation in debate

3.The substantial work undertaken by the Parliamentary audio-visual service since the discontinuation of hybrid proceedings in May 2020 has resulted in a more resilient broadcast infrastructure, with the capacity to facilitate virtual contributions to debate without artificial suspensions or other restrictions. We commend the House Service and the broadcasters for having put these arrangements in place. (Paragraph 29)

4.The Clerk of the House has confirmed that the infrastructure necessary to support mixed physical and virtual contributions to debate has been put in place in anticipation of a future requirement. Detailed work on an operating model to support the House’s specific requirements was quite understandably not undertaken while there was no immediate prospect of implementation. (Paragraph 33)

5.Many Members affected by coronavirus restrictions who have hitherto not been able to participate in debates will of course wish to use any new facilities approved by the House as quickly as possible. While we expect the House Service to make every effort to facilitate participation by all those eligible to do so, we recognise the merits of a measured approach to the detailed implementation of these new arrangements. In our view, it would be prudent if, in the first instance, a quota were placed on the number of Members able to contribute virtually in any one debate, to ensure that successful delivery is not put at risk by a sudden surge in demand. (Paragraph 34)

6.We recommend that the Speaker, in consultation with the House Service, arrange for the phased introduction of mixed virtual and physical participation in debate, proceeding initially on the basis of minimum viability. Arrangements to include Members participating virtually on call lists for debates on motions and on legislation should be determined by the Speaker, in consultation with his Deputies, to achieve the most appropriate balance between virtual and physical participation in each debate, taking into account the development of the operating model. (Paragraph 35)

7.We recommend that the House Service and the audio-visual team proceed with development of the proposed arrangements to facilitate interventions and points of order in respect of virtual contributions: we look forward to discussing how such arrangements might best be implemented. (Paragraph 39)

8.Virtual participation in Westminster Hall debates is in principle desirable. We recognise that it cannot be achieved immediately in current circumstances, and that if it is to be achieved in the future the House may have to accept a reduction in support for virtual participation elsewhere. We therefore do not recommend the immediate extension of virtual participation to Westminster Hall debates. (Paragraph 45)

9.We recommend that, as soon as resources allow, the House Service undertake scoping work to ascertain the additional resource and expenditure required to support concurrent virtual participation in proceedings in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall. (Paragraph 48)

Eligibility for virtual participation in debate

10.The Leader’s proposal to restrict participation in debate to a subset of Members identified by reference to their clinical vulnerability runs directly counter to our general recommendations, and to a principle which the House appears hitherto to have accepted. A requirement to disclose extreme clinical vulnerability to a disease in order to be eligible to participate in a debate appears to us to be an invasion of privacy. (Paragraph 52)

11.In our view it is understandable if the number of virtual participants in a debate is limited from the outset, in the manner we have described above, until the House Service is confident about the capacity of the system in practice. But it is not appropriate to limit participation on the basis the Leader proposes. (Paragraph 57)

12.We do not consider that there is a justifiable case for eligibility for virtual participation in debate to be determined by reference to clinical vulnerability, Nor do we consider it appropriate to determine eligibility on a basis different from that for virtual participation in scrutiny proceedings. We therefore recommend that the criteria for eligibility for virtual participation in all House proceedings be made uniform at the earliest opportunity. (Paragraph 58)

13.Should the Government not be prepared to put our general recommendation in paragraph 58 above to the House, we alternatively recommend that a Member having received notification to self-isolate should also be permitted to contribute virtually to all House proceedings during their period of self-isolation. (Paragraph 59)

14.A Member’s self-certification for any form of virtual participation on any sitting day ought to preclude attendance on the Estate that day. Attendance in the House when the dispensation is active flies in the face of the undertaking formally given to the Speaker when self-certifying. We again encourage all colleagues participating in self-certifying arrangements to familiarise themselves thoroughly with the obligations entailed in self-certification.3839(Paragraph 60)

15.We recommend that the operation of the system supporting mixed virtual and physical participation in debates be reviewed by the Speaker not later than the week of 14 December, and that the Speaker should subsequently communicate his findings to the House. (Paragraph 62)

16.We further recommend that the Leader should make time available, as soon as possible after the House returns from the Christmas and New Year adjournment, for a debate on the arrangements for virtual participation, to arise on a substantive motion. This would give the House the opportunity to confirm or amend the arrangements as appropriate. The motion should self-evidently be treated as House business. (Paragraph 63)

3938 See a similar statement made in the Committee’s Fourth Report, Proxy voting: review of pilot arrangements, HC 392, para 87

Published: 18 November 2020 Site information    Accessibility statement