ERS say that new processes must be adopted to allow proper scrutiny of legislation remotely by MPs and peers.
- Statement from the Electoral Reform Society for immediate release, Tuesday 23 March 2020
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The Electoral Reform Society have called on parliamentary authorities to commit to urgent reform to allow MPs and peers to scrutinise emergency legislation to tackle COVID-19 .
In a letter sent to Commons Speaker Sir Lindsey Hoyle and Lords Speaker, Lord Fowler, the ERS are calling for parliament to adopt remote voting to allow lawmakers to contribute to parliamentary business from outside Westminster – and resist proposals to hand voting power to party whips instead.
The call comes as the government seeks to fast-track new emergency legislation granting sweeping powers to deal with the coronavirus pandemic today. Many MPs and peers are absent from Westminster in line with self-isolation and social distancing recommendations .
The ERS are urging parliament’s speakers to implement changes to allow the opportunity for MPs and peers to scrutinise the emergency legislation and contribute to debates – giving all lawmakers the chance to hold this, and future legislation, up to proper scrutiny remotely.
The ERS are also calling for an extension of written questions to replace oral questions in the chamber, and for video-conferencing technology to be used by committees to allow hearings to continue without members needing to be present in Westminster.
Willie Sullivan, Senior Director (Campaigns) said:
“The 300+ page COVID-19 emergency powers bill is to be debated in the House of Commons today – but it is unlikely to get the attention it deserves. Most MPs won’t be able to attend, and with no way for those isolating to input, scrutiny could suffer.
“At times of national crisis, the need for scrutiny increases, not decreases.
“While it is vital the government are able to take the actions needed to respond to coronavirus, MPs and peers must be able to feed into the legislative process remotely in this time of crisis.
“Talk of granting powers to whips to vote on members’ behalves, though well-intentioned, could damage democratic accountability. If enacted, there must be safeguards and guarantees to ensure these are strictly time-limited.
“We urge the House authorities to allow MPs to fulfil their legislative duties in safety at home. Parliament must take the urgent steps necessary to ensure that any response to COVID-19 receives the scrutiny needed during this unprecedented time. Parliament must be not be hampered in its duties in this crucial time.”
Notes to Editors
 Letter to Commons and Lords Speaker below:
Dear [Commons/Lords Speakers],
I am writing to you as parliament debates emergency legislation to strengthen the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Clearly these are extraordinary times and it is only right that the government takes every action it can to respond to this crisis and to do so as quickly as possible.
However, with life-changing legislation on the parliamentary agenda – and understandably few parliamentarians around to scrutinise it – it is more important than ever that Parliament takes steps to change the way it operates to make sure MP scrutiny can take place, even if members are unable to make it to Westminster.
While it is welcome that parties have been working together on this legislation, voters will want to know their MPs are properly looking at any emergency powers and their ramifications and it is essential that backbenchers get the chance to hold this, and all legislation, up to proper scrutiny.
The Electoral Reform Society believe it is vital that all MPs and civil society are given the opportunity to analyse the bill and its effects in depth and that provisions must be made for MPs to be able to contribute to Parliamentary votes remotely, to cope with the understandable fall in numbers attending. This same technology can be used to conduct committee hearings via videolink.
There should also be an extension of written questions over oral questions and no moves to allow whips to vote on behalf of MPs in their absence.
At times of national crisis, the need for scrutiny increases, not decreases and we hope that parliament will take the urgent steps necessary to ensure that any response to COVID-19 receives the scrutiny needed.
Best wishes and thanks
Senior Director (Campaigns), Electoral Reform Society