Since the introduction of social distancing, lawmakers across the globe have struggled to achieve a balance between scrutiny and safety within their procedures and processes. Such has been particularly difficult in these uncertain times of needing to pass emergency laws and motions.
Amongst these debates, the UK House of Commons has been especially problematic. Regular viewers of parliamentary proceedings will be accustomed to watching up-to 650 MPs cram into the Chamber. With only seating space for 437 MPs, and tightly packed standing areas during key votes, every foot of space within the House of Commons comes at a premium. The traditions and customs of both debates and voting lobbies within the UK Parliament were evidently incompatible with the COVID-19 measures.
At the start of the month, Sir Lindsay Hoyle MP, Speaker of the House of Commons, led the call to allow for “virtual sittings” of Parliament. However, unlike the 21st Century buildings that house the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments (both of which, with their modern infrastructure, were amongst the first internationally to adopt virtual sittings), it is well documented that the 19th Century Palace of Westminster has a “lack of decent wi-fi and mobile signal across the Parliamentary Estate.” With no tried-and-tested initiatives to follow, embracing technological innovation for a “virtual Westminster Parliament” was always going to have to be improvised- but has since proved not to be impossible.
A historical development for the house of Commons
History was made on the 21st April 2020, with MPs ‘approving’ (without the need for a vote) a new motion that allowed them to participate in questions (including PMQs), urgent questions, and ministerial statements, via video weblink.
The motion permits members to participate either virtually or physically in the Chamber. The House continues to meet at its usual sitting times, but with a restriction of no more than 50 MPs to be present in the Chamber at any one time, in order to comply with distancing guidelines.
The motion also imposes a restriction of a maximum of 120 MPs to be able to take part remotely over the course of any “hybrid-proceeding,” which will constitute the first two hours of each sitting.
So constitutionally, why is such so important?
Historically Westminster has been resistant to change and slow to modernise. Such practices made the headlines under the previous Parliament in relation to its operational voting practices. In 2018 Brandon Lewis MP had to publicly apologise to Jo Swinson MP for reneging on a pairing deal during a Brexit vote, at a time when she was caring for her new-born baby.
Similarly, in 2019 Tulip Siddiq MP delayed giving birth to her son by caesarean in order to vote against the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal. The scenes in the Commons of Siddiq using a wheelchair in order to attend Parliament and pass through the voting lobby before heading straight to hospital, led to accusations that Parliament’s practices were widely outdated and not fit for a place of work in the 21st Century.
Following these criticisms, the House of Commons approved, in January 2019, a new proxy voting system for expectant and new mothers. As part of this year long trial, MPs can apply for a proxy vote for all major parliamentary votes, apart from those needed to initiate an early General Election under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011.
Whilst the force majeure development of virtual parliamentary sittings are in response to a global pandemic, alongside events in 2018 and 2019, such is indicative of a culture of change within Westminster in recent years.
These developments evidence that the House of Commons has an ability to adapt and change its constitutional practices in order to modernise its working, and depart from its historical ‘conventions and traditions’ procedural approaches.
Towards a new way of working?
Having observed a week of these new types of virtual hybrid-sittings, it appears that the Orders of Business are being worked through more quickly than normal. This is most probably owing to the reduction in the number of individuals in the Chamber. But also, probably, owing to a notable reduction in the theatrics and heckling that is synonymous with the Commons; as well as a notable absence of requests to ‘give way.’
Some may pose legitimate questions as to whether the restrictions have limited the democratic function of Parliament in holding the Government to account, particularly in restricting the voice of MPs to the other end of a video-call.
However, the changes have allowed Members representing remote constituencies to ask questions of Ministers and the Government at a time when travelling to London is just not feasible, workable or practically achievable (whilst also focussing on their constituency work).
So why can’t such practices continue for those representing constituencies in the remotest corners of the United Kingdom? Given the efficiencies Parliament has been able to achieve over the last week with remote working, post-pandemic it is appropriate that Westminster should utilise this opportunity to further review the extent to which it is able to embrace technological innovation in its permanent 21st Century way of working.
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Published on the 29th April 2020.