Working to make government more effective


Devolved legislatures: how are they working in the coronavirus lockdown?

During the coronavirus pandemic, the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd and Northern Ireland assembly have all adapted their practices and procedures.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd and Northern Ireland assembly have all adapted their practices and procedures to allow them to fulfil their legislative and scrutiny functions effectively while abiding by social distancing requirements.

This explainer describes and compares how the three devolved legislatures have responded to the challenge of operating during the pandemic.


How are the legislatures meeting?

How are members questioning ministers?

How are members voting?

How are committees working?

Scottish Parliament

Hybrid, with a maximum of 70 in the chamber at once

Scottish Parliament has held virtual leaders’ questions and virtual members’ questions. First ministers questions held as normal in the chamber.

Votes take using a new digital voting system.  

Most formal meetings held online. Creation of a Covid-19 Committee.

Northern Ireland assembly

In person, with social distancing. Maximum of 22 in the chamber.

Normal question procedure was initially suspended and an ad hoc committee was set up to allow questioning of ministers instead. Now largely returned to normal.

Voting by proxy in the lobbies.

Non-urgent committee business was suspended initially, but has nw resumed. Committees are taking evidence by telephone and videolink.

Welsh Senedd

Virtually, and with some hybrid proceedings.

Topical questions taking place online. Members can question ministers on Covid-19 response following their statements.

Digital voting in party blocs until 8 July, when standing orders were amended to allow members to vote electronically from home.

Committees met digitally from 4 May, with some hybrid committees from 2 October.

House of Commons (ended on 2 June)

Hybrid with a maximum of 50 in the chamber

PMQs and ministerial questions taking place in a hybrid form

Fully digital votes

Committees took evidence digitally from 25 March, and meetings were conducted fully online from the 8 April.

House of Lords

Virtually and in person. Hybrid meetings from 8 June.

Questions taking place virtually and in hybrid form from 8 June.

Remote voting from 15 June.

Mostly virtual, with some meetings in person. Creation of a specialist COVID-19 committee.

How are the legislatures meeting?

The Welsh parliament was the first legislature in the UK to conduct a full (plenary) meeting via video conference. In so doing, it also had to incorporate simultaneous translation. It met digitally for the first time on 1 April with 16 (out of a total of 60) members present to hear ministerial statements on the Welsh government’s coronavirus response. In its second digital meeting, capacity increased to 28 members and those taking part were weighted by party. From the 8 July, the Senedd has held hybrid meetings, with some members dialling in from home, and up to 20 present in the chamber.

Scotland has adopted a hybrid model similar to that of the House of Commons. Plenary meetings are still held in person, but with social distancing a maximum of 70 (out of 129) MSPs can be present in the chamber at once. Other members can join the debate online. Standing Order 2.7.1, has been suspended and replaced with different rules to allow meetings to take place either in the chamber or remotely, or a combination of the two.[1] The first meeting of the parliament held entirely remotely was on 15 October 2020. After a review on the 29 September, the presiding officer extended new coronavirus procedures, including the hybrid model, until the 24 December.

In Northern Ireland, parliamentary meetings have continued to be held in person, but with social distancing maintained, meaning that a maximum of 22 (out of 90) members can be in the chamber at any time. The Northern Ireland assembly has extended its coronavirus procedures until the end of January 2021.

How are members questioning ministers?

The three devolved legislatures have adopted different approaches to putting questions to ministers.

In Scotland, the Scottish parliament held informal virtual ‘leaders’ questions” on the 9 April, where opposition party leaders asked the first minister about her coronavirus response. On the 17 April, the Scottish parliament adapted this technology to allow 19 MSPs, weighted by party representation, to question the four ministers most involved in the virus response. Since then portfolio questions, where members question ministers on their performance, have taken place both entirely online and in hybrid form. Scottish first minister’s questions is held as normal in the chamber on Wednesdays, with social distancing in place. 

In March, the Welsh parliament introduced Standing Order 34.18 which gives the presiding officer the power to ‘disapply’ the requirement that time be made available each week for oral questions to the first minister. Topical questions, which relate to a matter of national importance and urgency, still take place virtually. Members of the Senedd can also question ministers after they make oral statements about the government’s coronavirus response.

In Northern Ireland, the Speaker asked Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), on 18 March to cease tabling written questions to the Executive, effectively suspending the normal question procedure.[2] Instead the Assembly created an Ad Hoc COVID-19 Response Committee made up of all MLAs, which met for the first time on 7 April. Standing Order 50.3 states that Ad Hoc committees are set up  ‘from time to time to deal with any specific time-bounded’ issues.[3] By November 2020, this Ad Hoc committee was no longer meeting regularly and the normal questions procedure has resumed.

How are members voting?

In normal times, the division (voting) process differs between the Northern Ireland assembly, where members walk through lobbies to register their votes in the same way as MPs in the Commons, and the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, where voting is done electronically. In all three however, representatives must be present in the chamber to participate in votes.

As fewer members are meeting in person, and a growing share of parliamentary business is being conducted online, the devolved legislatures have amended their procedures to allow votes to still take place.

The Welsh parliament’s second online meeting, on 8 April, ended in a vote on the Local Government (Elections) (Wales) Bill. The vote was conducted in party blocs, with one representative from each party casting votes on behalf of all their party’s members. New Standing Orders 34.10 and 34.11 allow members to nominate one member of their political group to ‘carry the same number of votes as there are members of the group’ and require four members of different political groups to be present for online votes to be valid. This system was used until 8 July when standing orders 34.14A-D were introduced to allow Welsh Senedd members to vote electronically from home.

The Northern Ireland assembly introduced temporary Standing Order 112 on 31 March, which creates a similar method of proxy voting, where MLAs nominate a proxy to vote for them. It rules that ‘A member may vote in person or by proxy’ and that any member ‘who wishes to vote by proxy must give notice in writing to the Speaker’. In this case, the proxies have to physically walk through the lobbies to cast their votes. The first vote to take place using this new procedure was the Private Tenancies (Coronavirus Modifications) Bill took place using this procedure on the 28 April and votes continue to be taken in this way. In October, the Northern Ireland assembly passed a motion to extend the use of this temporary standing order until January 2021.

In April, the Scottish Parliament altered the wording to Standing Order 11.7.1 to prepare for the introduction of a new digital system. Previously the rules stated that votes must be taken using ‘the electronic voting system’, meaning the electronic voting buttons within the chamber. Now the rules refer to the use of ‘an electronic voting system’ meaning that a new remote system could also be used. On the 12 August, the Scottish Parliament used a new remote voting system for the first time. There have been several teething problems so far, with several members being unable to access the software, which led to Labour MSP Neil Findlay making a statement in parliament on the 9 September in which he said: ‘the confidence in this voting system is ebbing away every single day we come here’.

How are committees working?

Scottish parliament committees met informally via video link throughout the spring recess, taken from the 4 to 19 April. Following the return of the parliament on 20 April, Standing Order 12.3.2 was amended to say that Scottish parliament committees can now either meet ‘in Scotland at such a place as it may decide’ or ‘remotely by video conference’. However, there have been limits on how many committees can meet simultaneously, although the parliament has expanded its capacity to enable more sessions to take place. Now, some committees are meeting in person, or in hybrid form, depending on whether numbers and space in committee rooms allow for sufficient social distancing.

The Scottish Parliament also created a new committee, set up specifically to scrutinise the Scottish government’s response to the pandemic. The Covid-19 committee met for the first time on 24 April and has nine members, including representatives of all five political parties in the Scottish Parliament. Four members are SNP MSPs but the convener and deputy convener are from opposition parties – the Conservatives and Labour respectively. Since its first meeting, the Covid-19 committee has scrutinised several rounds of coronavirus regulations as well as taking evidence from the public about what the easing of lockdown in Scotland should look like.

Welsh parliament committees were suspended on 23 March. Following this, the Welsh parliament made it a priority to ensure that plenary rather than committee meetings could recommence virtually. Since the committees play a role in the legislative process, certain responsibilities held by committees, such as the role of the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee in scrutinising secondary legislation, were transferred to the plenary. Previously, Standing Order 12.2 required that ‘a responsible committee must consider all statutory instruments…to be laid before the Assembly’. Between May and October, Welsh Senedd committees met formally online and from 2 October, hybrid committee meetings were trialled, with hybrid proceedings being extended to all committees from the second half of October.

In Northern Ireland, after consultation between the speaker and party whips, it was agreed that ‘the work of the Assembly…should be focussed on the public health crisis’[5]. This meant that non urgent committee business was suspended but committees continued to take coronavirus-related evidence and hearing evidence over telephone or via videoconference. By November 2020, committee business had largely returned to normal. Temporary Standing Order 115 allows committees to meet and vote either in person or remotely, which ensures that the quorum of five required for a committee decision (or four if no decision is taken) can still be met when committees meet online.

Could any of these changes be made permanent?

If social distancing remains in place for several months to come, then these changes may become a normal part of parliamentary procedure. Even when strict lockdown measures have been lifted, some members may have to shield to protect themselves or members of their families against the virus, so continued online working could enable them to continue to contribute to the work of their legislature.

More widely, increasing accessibility remains a priority for devolved legislatures. The Welsh Parliament committee on Senedd electoral reform launched an inquiry in December 2019 looking at how to elect a more diverse Senedd. In 2017, the Scottish Commission on Parliamentary Reform recognised that the Scottish Parliament aimed to be ‘a beacon of best practice’ in terms of workplace accessibility. Some MSPs, including Gail Ross MSP and Gillian Martin MSP, who are both members for constituencies that are far from Edinburgh, have suggested that making digital working a permanent feature of the Scottish Parliament could further this goal. Permanently adopting some of the lockdown adaptations would make it easier for representatives from remote constituencies, older and disabled representatives to participate in parliamentary work.

A counterargument is that important informal aspects of parliamentary work are lost when scrutiny moves online. The conversations that take place in hallways and outside committee rooms may prove impossible to replicate via digital technologies. This cautionary point has been made[6] in the debate about virtual working at Westminster. On 20 May, Westminster held a debate on an urgent question relating to their digital working procedure, in which the government defended their position that parliament can only fulfil its scrutiny role effectively when all MPs are present in the chamber. As a result, the virtual working arrangements in the Commons came to an end on 2 June.


  1. Scottish Parliament, Official Report, ‘Meeting of the parliament, 21 April 2020, col. 79, retrieved 21 May 2020,
  2. Maskey, Alex, MLA, Letter from the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly to all MLAs, 18 March 2020, retrieved 21 May 2020,
  3. Northern Ireland Assembly, Standing Orders, 31 March 2020, retrieved 21 May 2020,
  4. Welsh Parliament, Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, May 2020, retrieved 21 May 2020,
  5. Maskey, Alex, MLA, Letter from the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly to all MLAs, 18 March 2020, retrieved 21 May 2020,
  6. The Constitution Unit, Can analogue politics work in an era of digital scrutiny? The negative effect of COVID-19 on the informal politics of Westminster, 22 April 2020,

Related content

06 MAY 2020 Report

A four-nation exit strategy

The UK’s four-nation lockdown exit strategy could create confusion amongst the public and lead to non-compliance of guidance and rules.