Response to FairVote on Parliamentary Responses to the Coronavirus Crisis

Posted on the 20th April 2020

  • ERS Response to FairVote‘s consultation on parliamentary responses to the coronavirus crisis. April 2020. For more information contact [email protected] / 07717211630

Question 1: 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. This should include the ability to vote, to meaningfully process legislation and to continue the vital work of all committees.

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.

Question 2: Are you aware of any good articles/publications/studies on this subject? Or of any countries/regions that have put in place mediating practices that insulate it from the social distancing effects of COVID-19?

Several countries have taken steps in response to COVID-19, such as lowering the quorum required for plenary and committee sittings, or reduced the number of members present in the chamber, while 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, which will meet multiples times a week online, with full powers to scrutinise the government and call witnesses during the parliamentary recess.

We have set out some examples here and below.

In Brazil, the Parliament passed a new resolution which enables Parliamentarians and parliamentary staff to work remotely during the current global health emergency using video-conferencing and virtual management tools. The system allows Members of Parliament to register to a session and shows all phases of the legislative process including the bill under discussion, amendments, the results of each voting round, speeches, and committee agendas. The first remote plenary session took place on 20 March 2020 and was livecast to the public through the Parliament’s media and digital platforms.

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.

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 video-conference on Thursday 26 March. It is also temporarily allowing electronic voting by email until 31st July.

In the UK, the Welsh Senedd has already held two weekly plenary sessions using video conferencing. It allowed for statements from multiple Ministers and questions from backbench members across the chamber. Members also virtually voted on the first stage of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill, which was the first virtual vote on legislation for the Senedd since the coronavirus crisis forced decision-makers to seek online solutions to upholding scrutiny.

In Scotland, the first virtual Leaders’ Question Time took place on 9 April, with party leaders being able to question the First Minister on the Scottish Government’s ongoing response to the Covid-19 outbreak. The Scottish parliament’s presiding officer stated that the Parliamentary Bureau would continue to take stock of ongoing developments and would consider whether to put in place further virtual scrutiny arrangements involving other Members.

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.

Articles/reports 

  • The Inter-Parliamentary Union has also compiled a database of parliamentary responses to COVID-19
  • The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has produced a toolkit on the measures and recommendations that can be adopted by both parliaments and parliamentarians in order to continue to deliver on the legislatures’ role of scrutinising legislation and delivering democracy during a global pandemic.
  • The Institute for Government have published a report on options for a ‘virtual Parliament’
  • Academics Toby James and Alistair Clark have written separately about the impact of COVID-19 on the local elections scheduled for May 2020 which now have been postponed, see:
    • Alistair Clark: It was right to delay England’s local elections, but we must consider the wider impact of Covid-19 on electoral administration
    • Erik Asplund and Toby James: Elections and Covid-19: making democracy work in uncertain times
  • There is also a recent International IDEA Technical Paper on elections and COVID-19, available here
  • The House of Commons Commission, the Speaker’s Office, and the Procedure Committee have published extensive correspondence on steps towards a ‘virtual Parliament’ which shows good progress and cross-party agreement. The Lords has also published guidance on how the virtual sittings will work

Question 3: Do you have any ideas 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

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