There’s a contradiction at times of crisis like this. The need for scrutiny increases, as crucial measures are pushed through that affect all our lives. Yet the time for scrutiny is understandably limited.
That means our institutions have to adapt to the circumstances. Unfortunately, Parliament started from a position of weakness on this front.
On Monday, MPs debated the 300+ page emergency powers bill to tackle the coronavirus crisis in one afternoon. Supported across parties, it was a welcome example of cooperation in difficult circumstances.
While the legislation is likely to be vital in many ways, only 60-odd MPs could attend at one point, due to the need to keep a two-metre distance between them.
With no way for MPs not present to intervene in the debate, or vote remotely, the vast majority of our representatives are being excluded.
That’s why we’ve written to the Speakers of both Houses – including Lords Speaker Lord Fowler, who is self-isolating – to call for MPs and Peers to be able to contribute to debates and voting from home.
As noted in an important piece from former Commons clerk David Natzler, the idea of extending ‘proxy voting’ (where one MP votes on another’s behalf) was raised in recent correspondence with the Speaker. The recently elected chair of the Procedure Committee, Karen Bradley, said it was important to ensure MPs can feed into the Bill remotely.
Bradley also suggested select committees could operate in a more ‘virtual’ environment, “including…members participating remotely, a power to report a committee’s opinion without it having to meet, and greater use of video-conferencing”. All seem sensible suggestions to deal with this time of crisis while ensuring democracy continues and voters’ voices are heard.
The emergency powers bill has been an interesting test case. As Natzler points out: “Both Houses normally benefit from the reports of the expert Lords committees on the Constitution and on Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform, and from the Joint Committee on Human Rights” – something that is not possible with this legislation. So we need to look at how to hold this law and others up to the light in the weeks and months to come.
Numbers attending the chamber have rightly reduced significantly, so it is important MPs and Peers are able to work from home effectively and still contribute to Parliamentary scrutiny. While Parliament breaks soon for recess, Parliament must adapt now to ensure voters are heard both now and when the Commons returns.
Because it’s not just about this important (and most likely necessary) coronavirus bill. With an unearned majority for the governing party, the risks of an over-bearing executive pushing through other controversial legislation with little options for opposition is always present.
That’s even more pertinent when the scrutineers are unable to turn up at all. The average age of Lords is 70, meaning numbers attending have understandably dropped significantly in the past week – and may continue to drop until Parliament can’t properly function. The same counts for MPs – it seems likely that it will be MPs from outside London unable to attend right now (due to the risk of transmission while travelling) – again skewing political debate towards London. All this makes it essential to quickly modernise how Parliament works, including expanding proxy/remote voting.
Voters will want to know their MPs can properly look at any new powers and their ramifications. There is a positive opportunity for Parliament here to make changes that expand participation.
The alternative? Numbers continue to fall, and scrutiny falls off a cliff.
We can do better, with a few vital, simple changes to how Parliament operates. Let’s keep democracy alive, even in a time of turmoil. In fact, especially in a time of turmoil.