The scale of the coronavirus challenge is almost unprecedented in modern Britain. It also presents enormous new challenges for how democracy operates amid a pandemic.
This week, the Cabinet met for the first time without a single member being in the same room. Parliament – now in recess – will also have to rapidly adapt. But how?
Following calls from the ERS last month, Parliament agreed that select committees, tasked with undertaking this government scrutiny, will meet remotely during the pandemic.
But while the suspension of Parliament is the right thing to do to reduce the spread of the virus, voters need to know that the government is being held accountable for huge decisions and legislative proposals that will emerge in the coming weeks – particularly with local elections pushed back until 2021.
As the ERS have repeatedly made clear, at times of national crisis, we need more scrutiny, not less. Parliament must now take the urgent steps to bring Westminster into the modern age, to ensure the safety of both MPs and our democracy – and quickly.
The last week saw sweeping new emergency powers pushed through. But without parliament meeting to hold the use of those powers to account, we’re in uncharted territory.
So how are other parliaments responding to the challenge?
Whilst several countries have taken steps such as lowering the quorum for members for plenary and committee sittings or taken steps to reduce the number of members present in the chamber others have taken steps to move the work of elected representatives online.
In New Zealand, MPs have set up a new select committee, chaired by the Leader of the Opposition, that will meet multiple times a week via video link to scrutinise government decisions, while parliament there is dissolved.
Closer to home, while many of the European Union’s meetings have been cancelled, the EU College of Commissioners have now begun weekly meetings by teleconference, with the 27 heads of state and government on the European Council also meeting by videoconference on Thursday 26 March. It is also temporarily allowing electronic voting by email until 31st July.
In fact, here in the UK, following last week’s virtual emergency meeting the Welsh Senedd is today holding its weekly Plenary using video conferencing.
And although nearly all Parliamentary work apart from that relating to the coronavirus has been stopped, Spain is also allowing representatives to vote remotely. This was previously limited only to deputies in certain circumstances, including pregnancy or serious illness. It’s a contrast to the UK, where numbers attending Parliament collapsed in the final two weeks – but authorities carried on almost as if nothing had changed (simply allowing longer for a much smaller rump of MPs to march through the lobbies).
In Germany, lawmakers brought in a requirement reducing the number of MPs needing to be present at a vote, while in France its two-chamber parliament voted largely by proxy (i.e. members letting other representatives vote on their behalf) for its declaration of a health emergency.
Proxy voting has also been proposed in the US House of Representatives, where absent members give a present member their proxy to cast their vote for them – as had already been already implemented in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania legislature.
While it should not have to take a global pandemic for parliaments around the world to ensure that democratic processes are fit for purpose, this may be the first steps to modernising the way we do politics.
Indeed, the costs of not having suitable checks and balances in a time of crisis are incredibly high. For example, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has pushed through permanent legislation – using an unearned parliamentary majority – that will grant him enormous powers to rule the country for an extended period.
Such defiance of democracy cannot be allowed to happen in the UK. Whether this is through e-voting, proxy voting or digital meetings, the government must be held accountable for its actions during this crisis. We have already seen concerns raised over how the emergency powers are being implemented – but with few mechanisms to hold excessive actions to account, there is a risk to our rights.
Among all the challenges that coronavirus has placed on both the government and wider society, scrutiny of the government’s actions is now more vital. Life-changing decisions are being made that need discussing. Let’s not throw good governance out the window when we need it most.