The Remotely Representative House?
Lesson learning from the hybrid Commons
Dr Jessica C. Smith with Professor Sarah Childs
In Spring 2020, like Parliaments across the globe, the UK House of Commons was forced to adapt in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. Like many workplaces, it turned to technology. At an impressive speed, the House was able to put in place new ways of working. In what became known as the ‘Hybrid Parliament’ changes were made to allow for MPs to ‘virtually’ participate. The Commons was widely acknowledged to have established world-leading procedures.
The Hybrid Parliament allowed MPs who couldn’t be physically present – due to caring responsibilities, travel restrictions, shielding themselves or a family member – to carry on representing their constituents from home in many, but not all, Parliamentary activities. These included asking oral questions of Ministers and the Prime Minister, participating in Select Committee meetings and report writing, and most radically, albeit for a very short period of time, voting remotely on legislation. We even saw the Prime Minister attend PMQs virtually whilst isolating at home. The report highlights:
- 21% of MPs in the survey have not attended Parliament physically since April 2020. 9 of these 11 MPs cited caring responsibilities or shielding themselves or a family member as a reason for nonattendance.
- 22% of MP respondents to a Procedure Committee survey said they were not attending Westminster in person at the moment.
The marginalization and effective exclusion of some MPs from parliamentary business is not unique to the pandemic; though it is magnified by it. Old ways of working at Westminster have in recent years been starkly revealed as inadequate, highlighting long-standing barriers to equal participation for both sitting MPs and possible future ones. Consider the contrasting images of Tulip Siddiq MP in the pre-pandemic Parliament voting in a wheelchair after delaying the birth of her child, to Jonathan Gullis MP calmly cradling his new-born baby whilst participating virtually in a Select Committee meeting during the Hybrid Parliament.
The Hybrid Parliament has shown it is possible to accommodate MPs’ need for more modern ways of working. Not only does this have benefits for currently sitting MPs – such as Jamie Stone MP who has spoken about caring for his wife during the pandemic – but it has the potential to open up the Commons to a more diverse slate of candidates in future elections. The images of MPs representing their constituents remotely, sitting in front of their microwaves at home for example, normalises and demystifies the job of an MP. Combined with the knowledge that when needed, they would be able to participate remotely, a transformation in who considers themselves able to fulfil the job of an MP could take place.
The Remotely Representative House makes 21 recommendations. Building on the style of The Good Parliament Report each recommendation is made the responsibility of particular individuals or groups within the House, detailing the necessary steps to be taken. Together our recommendations would see an effective virtual Commons that compliments rather than detracts from the physical one.
RECOMMENDATIONS LEADER OF THE HOUSE
- The Leader of the House should move a Motion giving effect to any recommendation of the Procedure or Liaison Committees on hybridity, giving the House time for debate and allowing for a free vote.
- Continue publishing ‘call lists’ and advanced notice and timing of Urgent Questions and Statements.
- Commission research into how comparable parliaments enable ‘spontaneity’ in virtual and/or hybrid debate proceedings; identify and publish international ‘best practice’.
- Continue with a comprehensive scheme of virtual participation in Chamber debates, based on international ‘best practice’ (allowing for intervention, for example).
- Systematically and comprehensively monitor and report the speeches and interventions in debates, questions, private members’ bills and other parliamentary activities by MPs’ sex/gender and other major social characteristics – and, where hybridity continues by physical and remote participation.
- Establish a new Reference Group to lead on the Diversity Sensitive Parliaments agenda.
- When the UK Parliament (Commons and Lords) next undertakes its Inter-Parliamentary Union Gender Sensitive Parliaments Audit, include The Remotely Representative House’s recommendations.
HOUSE OF COMMONS COMMISSION
- Restate the House’s collective responsibility for enhancing representation and inclusion by endorsing the new Reference Group and formally acknowledging The Remotely Representative House.
- Endorse an ‘online first’ principle for ‘everyday’ practices.
- Following the permanent change to Standing Orders relating to Baby leave, recommend the extension of proxy voting to other categories of Member: inter alia, those suffering from serious illness, those with caring responsibilities, and those who are bereaved.
- As part of its post-pandemic review of proxy voting, reconsider the introduction of remote voting for all qualifying Members (including those who may become entitled to a proxy in the future).
- As part of its post-Covid ‘general review of House practices’, determine the viability of hybrid General Committees.
- Invite the participation of the Women and Equalities Committee as the Procedure Committee reviews the extension of proxy voting and undertakes its general review of parliamentary practices post-Covid.
- Until all Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, press the Leader of the House to act on their recommendation to reintroduce remote voting for all members, combining both on-estate and off-estate remote voting.
- Recommend that individual members of Select Committees may participate remotely and press the Leader of the House to so act.
- Recommend that Select Committees (under its purview) may meet fully virtually, by agreement of the Committee.
- Select Committees should be supported in the continuation of the more extensive remote participation of witnesses practised during Covid-19.
- Research should be undertaken either (a) in-house or (b) through the commissioning of independent research, to assess the relative effectiveness of virtual, hybrid and in-person Select Committees, including the effect on witness diversity, Committee cohesion, committee efficiency, and scrutiny and impact.
WOMEN AND EQUALITIES COMMITTEE
- Work with the Procedure Committee in its two Covid-related reviews (Recommendation 13).
WIP APPG, WOMEN’S PLP; CONSERVATIVE WOMEN’S CAUCUS, AND ALL WOMEN MPs
- Establish a formal Parliamentary Women’s Caucus to lead on the gender sensitive House of Commons agenda and support a new Reference Group and the diversity sensitive parliaments agenda.
RESTORATION AND RENEWAL (R&R) BODY
- During R&R, provide remote voting for all Members and centre hybrid and remote participation in all planning for a restored House of Commons.
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