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Explainer

The UK parliament and coronavirus

Since the coronavirus pandemic began to worsen in the UK, both Houses of the UK parliament have had to adapt their ways of working.

 

Since the coronavirus pandemic began to worsen in the UK, both Houses of the UK parliament have had to adapt their ways of working.

Currently, the House of Lords is operating on a hybrid basis with a mixture of (socially distanced) in-person and virtual participation. Any formal votes are taking place remotely. By contrast, the House of Commons is working largely on a (socially-distanced) in-person basis, with MPs who are unable to attend parliament able to participate remotely in some limited forms of business and vote by proxy.

The worsening of the pandemic, and the imposition of a second national lockdown beginning on 5 November, have led some MPs and unions to call for a return to remote proceedings.

Why does the coronavirus pose challenges for parliament?

The Palace of Westminster, home to the UK parliament, is a workplace as well as a cornerstone of the nation’s democracy. There are 650 MPs in the House of Commons, over 800 peers in the adjacent House of Lords, and 3,000 parliamentary staff serving both – as well as the staff employed by individual members. This means that there are large numbers of people in and around the parliamentary estate every day – all of whom could potentially be affected by or accelerate the spread of the virus.

As with the general population, some members and staff will have underlying medical conditions (such as asthma or diabetes), and a significant number of peers are aged over 70. According to government advice, this puts them in higher risk categories.

Since March all workplaces in the UK have needed to adapt their ways of working in response to the coronavirus. For parliament, the situation is complicated by its constitutional role, and the need to ensure that both Houses can continue to pass laws and hold the government to account.

  A further complication is the fact that most parliamentary processes assume that MPs and peers will physically be present, for example:

  • Most votes (with the exception of deferred divisions, which are done on paper) require MPs and peers to physically walk through the division lobbies to cast their vote. Since 2019, MPs on parental leave have been able to nominate another MP to vote as their proxy.
  • Debates, including on legislation, take place in person in both chambers.
  • Daily opportunities to ask questions of ministers in the Commons, including Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), also take place in person, although there is also an established system for asking written questions.
  • Select committees meet and hold evidence sessions in person.

But the nature of the current pandemic means that meeting and working in person carries health risks. This is different to other historic challenges that the UK parliament has faced. For example, although the Commons experienced bomb damage during WWII, this necessitated changes to the venue of its meetings, rather than making the actual nature of its meetings risky. Multiple MPs – including the prime minister – have either been diagnosed with the coronavirus, or had to self-isolate, over the past eight months, highlighting the need for parliament to adapt its usual ways of working.

How has parliament adapted in response to the coronavirus pandemic?

Since March, the Commons and the Lords have made a number of changes to their ways of working. The two Houses have done this separately, as they each have their own rules and processes. In both Houses, this has involved the rapid development of new systems and technologies by parliamentary staff.

The Commons

In March 2020, as the pandemic worsened across the UK, the Commons adopted some practical measures, such as barring visitors. It also rose a few days early for its planned Easter recess.

After the Commons returned from its Easter recess in mid-April, MPs agreed to adopt temporary ‘hybrid’ proceedings, in which MPs could take part in oral questions and statements – including Urgent Questions – virtually or in person. MPs were also able to participate virtually or in person in substantive proceedings under these temporary arrangements. Work was undertaken to ensure that social distancing could be maintained in the Commons chamber. These moves reflected the severity of the pandemic in the spring. Some divisions were held remotely, using virtual technology, for the first time in the Commons’ history.

However, before the Commons’ May recess, the government decided not to extend these temporary arrangements, meaning that they lapsed on 20 May. MPs then returned to the Commons, after their recess, on 2 June. The House agreed to allow MPs unable to attend parliament for medical reasons to participate remotely in questions and statements – though they cannot participate remotely in debates on legislation.

The government’s reluctance to move back to hybrid proceedings, combined with the continued need for social distancing, meant that that divisions had to take place in the chamber, with MPs forming a long queue through the parliamentary estate to vote. Many MPs were angry about this – as well as about the inability of MPs to vote remotely if they were unable to attend the House in person. Eventually, on 10 June, the proxy voting system was expanded to include MPs unable to attend the House for medical or public health reasons. Around 170 MPs have made use of proxies. There is still no provision for MPs unable to attend the chamber for medical reasons to take part in debates on legislation.

These arrangements were subsequently renewed in July, September, and October – and are due to remain in place until 30 March 2021.

Outside of the main chamber, Commons select committees have also been conducting their business, including evidence sessions, through a mixture of in-person and remote working. This has made it easier for committees to meet during recesses.

The Lords

As in the Commons, the Lords rose earlier than planned for its Easter recess in March. By this point, the House had also acted to bar visitors, and the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, had announced his intention to work remotely. On 25 March, the House also decided to reduced its sittings to Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and to delay certain kinds of business until at least late May.

Throughout the Easter recess, in late March and early April, authorities in the Lords worked to enable some kinds of business, such as oral questions, to be done virtually. Peers were also encouraged to work from home where possible.

The House returned from recess on 21 April and decided to enable virtual proceedings beginning on the same day. Within a few days, all forms of business were being carried out virtually (though they were not broadcast live until 28 April, for technical reasons). Throughout April and May, more forms of business were conducted remotely, including debates on primary and secondary legislation. Peers also agreed to temporarily change their allowances, so that peers speaking in a virtual debate can claim £162 a day (roughly half the usual daily allowance).

In June, the House decided to move to hybrid proceedings, with up to 30 peers being allowed in the chamber at any one time. At the same time, remote voting was introduced, with the first remote vote taking place on 15 June. On 30 September, remote divisions had to briefly be cancelled, due to failure of the online voting system.

Outside of the chamber, many Lords committees have been conducting hybrid or remote evidence sessions.

Could parliament be shut due to the coronavirus?

This is very unlikely. At no point so far has parliament closed due to the pandemic. Although both Houses did take a slightly extended Easter recess in March, parliament has otherwise continued to undertake its work.

The bigger question facing the government, parliamentary authorities, MPs, and peers is how to ensure that both Houses can continue to play their role in a safe and effective way.    

In their decision making, the government and parliamentary authorities are balancing a number of factors, including the health of all those in parliament; parliament’s role in ensuring government accountability and facilitating debate; and the need to pass or renew specific legislation, including on emergency measures relating to the coronavirus.

What are some of the benefits and drawbacks of hybrid and virtual proceedings?

In responding to the pandemic, MPs and peers are having to consider a range of factors: the health and safety of members and staff; the ability of parliament to effectively fulfil its constitutional role; and the ability of all MPs and peers to contribute. Consequently, there has been some disagreement about different ways of working. In-person, virtual, and hybrid systems all have benefits and drawbacks.

Operating solely in person runs the risk of spreading the virus throughout members and staff. This might also prevent members and staff with serious underlying health conditions from doing their job, meaning that some constituents could go unrepresented. Even if social distancing guidelines were adhered to, this would limit the number of MPs and peers able to participate at any one time in proceedings, and mean that votes would take much longer than usual. At the same time, some argue that the quality of debate and scrutiny during in-person proceedings is greater, because there is a more natural back-and-forth between members, and less interruption due to technological problems. A further benefit of parliament meeting in person is the ability of MPs and peers to hold informal conversations around the parliamentary estate, which can be an important means of raising issues.

Entirely virtual proceedings have the benefit of not risking health or safety, and ensuring that all MPs and peers can participate in parliamentary business (unless they are in an area that has poor broadband). They can also prevent travel between Westminster and constituencies, reducing the risk that MPs might help to spread Covid-19. At the same time, there are some drawbacks. There can be technological issues that hold up proceedings—including votes, for example when the Lords had to briefly suspend votes on 30 September following a problem with the remote voting system. Technological constraints may also limit the number of different kinds of business that can take place at any one time. The quality of debate might also re reduced, as there is less opportunity for spontaneity or intervention, which can be important ways through which details are teased out and ministers held to account.

Hybrid proceedings offer a middle ground. Under the current system in the Commons, MPs unable to attend the House can still participate in oral questions and ministerial statements, as well as vote via proxy – but they are unable to participate in debates over legislation, limiting their ability to shape the law and represent their constituents.

The Institute for Government has previously argued that while the Commons’ initial hybrid proceedings were not ideal, they did ensure that all MPs could continue to fulfil their functions. But in the current system, some MPs are prevented from engaging in certain forms of business – such as debates over legislation – meaning that they are unable to fully fulfil their role.

 

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