ERS Response to the Commons Procedure Committee’s consultation on Procedure under Coronavirus Restrictions

Posted on the 16th July 2020

How Parliament can learn from the pandemic to strengthen scrutiny: Electoral Reform Society, July 2020. 

Call for evidence available here.

Key proposals

  • Reinstate remote voting for the duration of the pandemic, and consult on making this change permanent for those who need it.
  • Develop a clear, transparent framework for Parliamentary procedures to prepare for future times of crisis.
  • Decentralise power across all levels of government, to allow more rapid and dynamic responses to emergencies
  • Establish Citizens’ Assemblies or Citizens’ Juries that can feed into the government’s crisis response in a transparent manner, improving public trust in decision-making at these crucial times.
  • Move to a Single Transferable Vote electoral system for the Commons to instil a more pluralistic and collaborative political culture, reducing the threat of ‘elective dictatorship’.

Background

  1. The Electoral Reform Society welcomes this consultation, and commends the Committee’s work on virtual proceedings. The Society supports many of the changes made to procedures in the House of Commons during the pandemic, and believes they offer useful lessons on how Parliament can adapt when necessary.
  2. While these measures are currently only temporary, we believe there is merit in the continuation of this more flexible ‘hybrid’ model of Parliament for the duration of the pandemic, and potentially making some of the measures permanent, as we discuss below.
  3. The pandemic has highlighted just how quickly changes can be made to our system, and such reforms could help make Westminster a more accessible and inclusive workplace – with, for example, pregnant MPs, MPs with disabilities and MPs who’s constituencies are far away from London all potentially benefiting from the continuation of a hybrid model.
  4. However, there are considerable improvements that can be made to these ad hoc measures to ensure that they allow the level of scrutiny needed and a full return of all normal Parliamentary activity.
  5. While Parliament has shown that it can indeed make rapid changes when required, these changes were made under the pressure of a looming global pandemic and more consideration needs to be given to how this can be achieved in a way that improves democracy, promotes trust and scrutiny and decentralises power and decision making. Moreover, such processes should be clearly laid out and transparently decided to prepare for any future disruptions.
  6. Below we set out our assessment of the virtual Parliament arrangements, and some proposals for ways of bolstering Parliamentary scrutiny and citizens’ voices in the event of future crises.

Remote Voting

  1. We welcomed the move to remote voting in the Commons during the pandemic. However, we believe that this was brought to an end prematurely. This was a clearly contentious decision, highlighted by the eventual u-turn to accommodate those MPs who are actively shielding. We would urge the Committee to assess whether remote voting could be extended, replacing the current situation where large numbers of votes are handed to party whips via proxy votes, with potentially adverse implications for MPs feeling able to vote freely.
  2. There has been clear support from the British public for online voting and remote working to continue among MPs, with a recent poll by YouGov showing that 76% of British people think MPs should be allowed to continue working remotely. It is vitally important that our democratic systems do not penalise MPs for ill health, baby leave or any other reason that they may not be able to attend the Commons in person to vote. If we want an accessible and representative Parliament then we need to take important steps toward the permanent availability of remote voting for those who need it.
  3. Under the temporary remote voting system concerns over MPs no longer being able to engage with ministers in the lobbies were raised. However, under the new socially-distant in-person voting system this is still the case, and therefore it is still worth trialling new ways for backbenchers to engage with ministers. The ERS has referred to this in our response to the Commons Procedures Committee consultation on proxy voting. These measures could include for example, virtual one-to-ones or online surgeries with relevant ministers.
  4. While not directly in the scope of this inquiry, it is worth noting that the House of Lords was particularly slow to adapt and modernise procedures in the wake of the virus. This is problematic given its role as ‘the’ scrutiny chamber, alongside the fact that the average age of the peers is 70 – putting them in the ‘clinically vulnerable’ category and limiting what activities they could take part in during the pandemic. Quoracy is particularly low in the Lords, meaning that important votes could have come down to the arbitrary few who could still attend in person. Online voting finally came into force for the first time on the 15th June, almost three months after lockdown restrictions were announced. There could be greater cooperation between the Houses to avoid another ‘vacuum of scrutiny’ in future.

Executive Dominance

  1. Westminster’s winner-takes-all electoral system, combined with a lack of robust scrutiny mechanisms from the outset of this global pandemic has highlighted Britain’s democratic vulnerabilities. The highly centralised nature of decision-making has arguably hampered both scrutiny and Britain’s wider response to the pandemic.
  2. While the Emergency Powers Bill came into effect with cross-party support, it is worth noting that this was not in fact required. Such legislation, which hands extensive powers to the UK government, could have been pushed through solely on the back of the government’s unearned majority, due to our First Past The Post system. The pandemic has highlighted that there are very few in-built safeguards or scrutiny mechanisms to ensure that these powers were and continue to be used and monitored effectively. Increased powers should always go hand in hand with increased scrutiny. However, the latter has not happened. Instead, Parliament was adjourned early, and the normal levers of accountability were suspended.
  3. One way of ensuring scrutiny would be to enable the establishment of a rapid-response Select Committee, alongside guaranteeing that existing bodies such as the Liaison Committee are able to appoint their own chairs without being stalled by disputes with government. Alongside a clear plan for remote voting and virtual participation – including giving a cross-party committee determination of how long this should continue – this will prepare Parliament well should another crisis arise.
  4. We need clearer Parliamentary principles and protocols to prepare for times of crisis – to guarantee robust scrutiny. This is particularly pertinent when decisions are being made that infringe on people’s lives and civil liberties, however justified. A Speaker’s Commission could set out best practice for future scenarios, drawing on Parliament’s experience from this pandemic, and international evidence.
  5. The United Kingdom represents one of the most highly centralised and undemocratic forms of governance among advanced democracies. The sweeping executive powers and reduced scrutiny granted during this pandemic must not further entrench that.
  6. The crisis has highlighted that many problems are best tackled by the authorities closest to them, and thus we should be strengthening all of the non-Westminster levels of government, from the devolved Parliaments to local councils. Such decentralising of power could allow a faster and potentially more robust response to a future crisis like Covid-19.
  7. The recent ‘Democracy in the Age of Pandemic’ report from Fair Vote UK highlighted several opportunities to counteract these democractic shortcomings, including decentralisation of power, proportional representation and increased public participation in the democratic process.
  8. Analysis of the crisis response from governments across the globe has suggested a pattern between the governance arrangements and public trust in the actions taken. Governments who have come across as transparent, accountable and empathetic have performed well. As noted by Prof Kate Maclean in a recent article: “These nations….have electoral and party-political systems which adopt elements of proportional representation. Such systems frequently give rise to coalition governments and hence necessitate collaborative leadership.”

Deliberative Democracy and Public Participation

  1. The ERS has long campaigned for greater public participation in the democratic process. Increased engagement increases trust in the political process and is a useful tool to combat the political apathy currently seen in the UK and across many nations. The not only centralised, but often also single-party response to the pandemic has caused widespread friction already, particularly around issues such as ending remote voting for most MPs. The decision to end these procedures was made in-person, which as the Constitution Unite has noted, violates core democratic principles.
  2. The weakness of our system, which results in parties having artificial majorities could be countered, at least in part through encouraging select committees or the government as a whole to establish Citizens’ Assemblies or Citizens’ Juries that can feed into executive’s crisis response in a transparent manner. This could be even more important as we emerge from the crisis and have to make important and complex political decisions on our priorities as a society moving forward. Such ‘pop up’ methods of citizen involvement could improve public trust in decision-making at these crucial times.
  3. In practice, an assembly or jury (composed of a representative sample of the population) could review legislation or emergency powers, and thus act as an extra-Parliamentary check. Executive powers have already been massively extended as a result of the crisis further widening the gap between the government and the electorate. In this regard, remote citizens’ assemblies seem especially well suited to the particularities of the current challenge. The Climate Assembly has demonstrated that this works well – including remotely – and Select Committees now have valuable lessons for how to recreate this approach.
  4. A clear way to empower the electorate in the long-term is to move away from the Commons’ undemocratic and out-dated winner-takes-all electoral system. This system leaves millions of ordinary people effectively locked out of the debate through their votes not counting. A voting system based on proportional representation would not only mean that every vote counts equally, but would also instil a more pluralistic and collaborative political culture. Around 70% of voters in December’s general election failed to contribute towards the local result.
  5. The ERS would advocate for a combined approach: empowering citizens’ both at the ballot box through a move to a Single Transferable Vote system, and more continuous democratic engagement through citizens’ assemblies, and clearer protocols for Parliamentary scrutiny at times of crisis which would all shift the balance firmly in voters’ favour.

About the Electoral Reform Society

  1. The Electoral Reform Society is the UK’s leading voice for democratic reform. We work with everyone – from political parties, civil society groups and academics to our own members and supporters and the wider public – to campaign for a better democracy in the UK.
  2. Our vision is of a democracy that is fit for the 21st century, where every voice is heard, every vote is valued equally, and every citizen is empowered to take part. We make the case for lasting political reforms, we seek to embed democracy into the heart of public debate, and we foster the democratic spaces which encourage active citizenship.

ENDS

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