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Procedure Committee publishes report on the Government’s plans to end the ‘virtual Parliament’

30 May 2020

The House of Commons Procedure Committee today publishes a report on the Government's proposal to discontinue arrangements for virtual participation in Commons debates. The report forms part of the Committee's ongoing inquiry into procedure under coronavirus restrictions, as the House of Commons continues to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic.

The Procedure Committee's report comes as the Government recalls the House of Commons to Westminster on 2 June to address the issues arising from the lapsing of the "virtual Parliament" temporary measures on 20 May.

The Committee's report recommends that a form of virtual participation should be allowed to continue while coronavirus restrictions are in place, to allow MPs who are not able to come to Westminster because of the continuing restrictions caused by the pandemic to contribute to debates and represent their constituents. The strict parity rule which restricted debates in the Commons chamber should be dropped.

The Committee considers in detail the new challenges posed by physical proceedings in a socially-distanced House of Commons chamber. Following the announcement on Thursday 28 May by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Rt Hon Lindsay Hoyle MP, that the division lobbies are unsafe to use for voting, the Committee looks at the proposed alternative system for physical voting. The Committee has identified "significant deficiencies" in the system currently suggested, and has serious concerns about how it would work in practice. It proposes that remote voting should continue for a time-limited period, with Members who want to be able to vote in person having their votes recorded in the Chamber.

The full interim report, "Procedure under coronavirus restrictions: the Government's proposal to discontinue remote participation", sets out issues for the House to consider urgently when it is recalled on Tuesday 2 June. Some of the key findings from the report include:

  • The House should allow virtual participation in its proceedings for MPs who, for coronavirus-related reasons, are unable to travel to Westminster for as long as the pandemic continues
  • The strict principle of parity of treatment between physical and virtual participants should be dropped, to allow a far more flexible operating model to be developed to allow a from of virtual participation
  • The House’s resolution of 21 April governing proceedings during the pandemic should not be rescinded before the pandemic has ceased. The resolution should be amended to make provision for:
    o Recognition of the House’s continuing responsibilities in respect of scrutiny, legislation and representation
    o A commitment to balance these responsibilities with observance of the restrictions imposed by Public Health England and the restrictions placed on all UK citizens
    o A commitment that the House will allow virtual participation in its proceedings by Members who are prevented from attending the House in person due to coronavirus issues
    o Explicit recognition that House and Digital Service staff who support it in its discharge of its responsibilities ought to be facilitated to work from home wherever possible in line with continuing public health guidance
  • The Chamber voting system proposed for use when the House returns appears to have significant deficiencies as opposed to the double-lobby division system: urgent consideration must be given to an alternative.
  • In the absence of a form of physical voting that the House is prepared to accept, hybrid arrangements for remote and Chamber-based voting should be introduced as a matter of urgency
  • The Committee encourages Public Bill Committees to take every opportunity to use new videoconferencing facilities to hear evidence from witnesses who are unable to attend in person
  • The Committee will continue to review the impact of coronavirus restrictions on the work of the House in light of decisions the House makes on 2 June and will make further recommendations as appropriate
  • The Committee will continue to seek the views of all Members on proceedings, particularly where colleagues believe procedure and practice can be improved during the pandemic

Chair's comments

Rt Hon Karen Bradley MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"The Procedure Committee report, published today, highlights the concerns of the Committee in allowing a full return to physical proceedings in the House while the coronavirus pandemic is ongoing.

The hybrid House of Commons was an excellent achievement, and the Procedure Committee worked closely with officials to ensure that hybrid proceedings were as effective as possible under the circumstances MPs were faced with in April.  
 
While hybrid proceedings could never replace the spontaneity and cut and thrust of debate in the Commons Chamber, they were the best possible option under the conditions in place.

The view of the Procedure Committee is that some form of continued virtual participation continues to be the best option to enable all Members, including those unable to travel to Westminster, to represent their constituents. Dropping the principle of strict parity will allow this to happen, while restoring as much spontaneity as possible to the House's questioning and debate.

We have serious concerns about how the proposed system for divisions in the Chamber will work in practice. The House ought to be made aware of the detail of the arrangements before it decides on temporary division arrangements on Tuesday. If the proposed arrangements cannot be made to work, the remote voting system used in May, paired with voting in the Chamber, could be a workable alternative.

Colleagues ought to realise that the House of Commons they will return to on Tuesday will not be able to operate as before. My Committee will continue to monitor House procedure and practice under coronavirus conditions, as those conditions develop, taking further evidence as appropriate and reporting to the House where necessary."

The Procedure Committee inquiry into procedure under coronavirus restrictions continues, and is currently still accepting evidence submission until Thursday 4 June. More information can be found on the Procedure Committee website here.

Further information

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