Democracy experts set out key tests for ‘virtual’ sittings as Parliament returns

Posted on the 20th April 2020

  • Statement from the Electoral Reform Society for immediate release, 20th April 2020
  • Contact [email protected] / 07717211630

The Electoral Reform Society have set out pressing democratic challenges facing Parliament when it returns tomorrow (Tuesday 21st April) [1].

The Commons expected to pass new arrangements [2] to deal with the coronavirus crisis, while the Lords have also set out [3] how virtual arrangements will work there.

Both chambers have opted for a ‘hybrid’ approach between physical and virtual sittings – with MPs and peers still able to attend, but discouraged from doing so. Debates and oral questions will take place remotely.

However, all votes and legislative stages – as things stand – will still have to be done in person, potentially limiting voters’ representation by leaving power solely in the hands of whips and the few legislators able to turn up.

Moreover, numbers ‘attending’ the virtual debates will be limited, while business in both houses will be significantly scaled back.

In a move criticised by the ERS, Lords proceedings – unlike the Commons – are not expected to be broadcast until May 5th, leaving around two weeks without live proceedings available to the public.

Key points from Darren Hughes, ERS Chief Executive:
What weaknesses in democratic processes has COVID-19 highlighted?

The current crisis has shown just how vulnerable Britain’s scrutiny mechanisms are to disruption, with much democratic accountability set ‘on government terms’. But the scale and scope of decisions being made daily has also made clear the increased importance of robust scrutiny at times of national crisis.

Though authorities should be commended for working quickly on adaptations, Parliament’s 19th century procedures were initially unable to cope. Work will need to be done to enshrine any improvements and ensure Parliament is prepared for all eventualities.

For the safety of MPs, their staff, and for voters’ representation, both Houses should rapidly move towards a ‘virtual Parliament’ set up. We need a modern, democratic response to this crisis. Voters need to know that these powers and major, life-changing decisions will be held up to the light. Any ‘hybrid’ (virtual/physical) model must reduce all pressure on parliamentarians to travel in, allowing members to engage and vote fully remotely.

Moreover, the delay to the local elections means there’s an 18-month gap between December’s election and a proper test of the government’s mandate. Proper checks and balances should be bolstered, not torn down.

Democratic vulnerabilities

  1. Suspending Parliament: Power to adjourn and recall Parliament lies with the executive. The early adjournment of Parliament – while potentially necessary – reflected the fact that Parliament did not yet have the mechanisms ready to work remotely/digitally. Parliamentary scrutiny was therefore hampered when enormous life-changing decisions were to be made each day. Being a prerogative power, calls for an early ‘virtual’ recall of Parliament could go ignored.
  2. Emergency powers: While the Emergency Powers Bill did have cross-party support, it should be noted this was not necessary due to the government’s unearned majority, under winner-takes-all results. There were few in-built safeguards or scrutiny mechanisms to ensure the emergency powers were used and monitored effectively – leading to (sometimes post-publication) concerns from civil liberties, disability, and mental health groups. These were unable to be addressed during the early recess
  3. Voting: The lack of effective proxy voting mechanisms (except for parental leave) meant many MPs may have initially felt pressured to attend Parliament when it was unsafe to do so. The Procedures Committee should endorse a roll-out of proxy voting for reasons of health/safety. Digital or remote voting should also be made possible for the duration of this crisis, as has been adopted in other Parliaments
  4. Select Committees: The row over chairing of the Liaison Committee hindered a potentially vital forum for holding ministers to account during recess. Parliament should consider setting up a dedicated Coronavirus Response Select Committee for guaranteed, high-profile scrutiny. Press conferences are simply not enough. The number of Committee hearings understandable appears to have dropped, but all efforts should now be made to continue their vital work
  5. Lords: The situation in the Lords has not been examined fully, but given its ostensible role as ‘the’ scrutiny chamber, it too must modernise very rapidly. The average age of members (70) means it is particularly vulnerable during this crisis. Quoracy is particularly low in the Lords,  meaning votes may come down to the arbitrary few who can still attend, unless voting mechanisms are not digitised.

Proposals on how to address democratic shortcomings exposed by the impact of COVID-19

Parliament has to modernise very rapidly – allowing MPs and peers to vote, debate and contribute remotely to the democratic process if they are unable to be physically present in parliament. ‘Virtual Parliament’ processes must be comprehensive to ensure members and their staff are safe, while maintaining robust scrutiny.

  1. Voting: Rather than handing all the power to the party whips, MPs should be able to vote electronically – e.g. via video-link or a secure online system with verbal confirmation.
  2. Coronavirus Response Select Committee: If the Liaison Committee is not operating very soon, an opposition-led Coronavirus Response Select Committee should be launched with full parliamentary powers, to hold government and officials to account across the UK.
  3. Working across nations: There should be effective cross-border collaboration on important issues, which has not always been the case as part of the response to COVID-19 (e.g. lack of clarity as to the applicability of decisions taken by the UK government to the devolved nations). Westminster’s set-up is already one of the most centralised, undemocratic systems among advanced democracies: this crisis must not further entrench that. For more information on intergovernmental cooperation, see here
  4. Citizens’ involvement: Consideration should be given to involving members of the public in responding to these democratic shortcomings. A citizens’ assembly or jury, composed of a representative sample of the population, could be established to periodically review legislation or emergency powers, and thus act as a further check on executive powers, as suggested by Stuart White.
  1. Representation: Many councils handling the crisis at a local level are effectively ‘one-party states’, limiting their legitimacy and potentially sidelining the diverse concerns of citizens. This is a factor of the zero-sum voting system in English/Welsh councils and at Westminster.
    • Local: Randomly-selected ‘citizens’ panels’ could be rolled out to scrutinise local responses. We must also see a move to proportional representation to ensure a stronger connection between voters and councils.
    • National: There will be many major public policy decisions to be made after this crisis – including how to pay for the response, the status of various sectors in the economy and so on. However, by rendering swathes of the country ‘safe seats’ and wasting millions of votes, First Past the Post locks out millions of ordinary people from the debate (over 70% of votes went ignored in the 2019 GE). We must see a long-term shift to a more cooperative politics – not just during the crisis –  and a political system that fosters that through proportional representation.

ENDS

Notes to Editors

[1] New pandemic meets old politics? ERS response to FairVote consultation: https://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/latest-news-and-research/parliamentary-briefings/new-pandemic-meets-old-politics-fairvote-consultation-response-april-2020/

[2] https://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2020/april1/speaker-outlines-virtual-chamber-plans/

[3] https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/191/procedure-committee-lords/news/145918/procedure-committee-issues-guidance-on-virtual-proceedings/

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