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Ending of the hybrid House of Commons breached fundamental democratic principles

Professor Meg Russell, Director, Constitution Unit, UCL
Dr Ruth Fox, Director, Hansard Society
Professor Michael Keating FBA and Professor Nicola McEwen, Co-Directors, Centre on Constitutional Change, Universities of Edinburgh and Aberdeen
Professor John Garry, Director, Democracy Unit, Queen’s University Belfast
Professor Graham Smith, Director, Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster
Professor Cristina Leston-Bandeira, Co-Director, Centre for Democratic Engagement, University of Leeds
Tim Hughes, Director, The Involve Foundation (Involve)
Anthony Zacharzewski, President, The Democratic Society 

This blog piece was originally posted on The Constitution Unit website at UCL:

Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg has demanded the end of ‘hybrid’ arrangements allowing MPs to participate and vote remotely during the COVID-19 crisis. In this open letter, a group of senior democracy specialists – including Professor John Garry, Director of the Democracy Unit in HAPP – point out this breached the fundamental democratic principle of equality in decision-making, because the MPs most benefiting from remote participation (e.g. due to ‘shielding’) were excluded from the vote. They urge the Leader of the House to reinstate procedures allowing all MPs to participate fully in all Commons business.

Dear Mr Rees-Mogg

We write to express our very grave concerns about the way in which the ‘hybrid’ House of Commons was suspended. As specialists in the principles and practice of democracy it is clear to us that these actions breached fundamental democratic principles.

The ‘hybrid’ arrangements, allowing for a mix of virtual and in-person participation in parliamentary proceedings were brought about by necessity, to enable the House of Commons to continue to fulfil its essential functions of scrutiny and representation during the coronavirus crisis. Parliamentary accountability is crucial at any time, but more crucial than ever when ministers have taken unprecedented emergency powers, and the broadest possible public consent for health measures, and restrictions on citizens’ usual freedoms, is needed.

At the initial stages of the crisis there were troubling suggestions that parliament might close down completely for up to five months (as reported in The Times on 5 March). Thankfully, attention soon moved on from this drastic (and fundamentally anti-democratic) suggestion, to exploring how parliament could keep working through the crisis.

Parliamentary staff have worked tirelessly to devise innovative technological solutions to allow MPs to contribute virtually, and online select committee meetings began during the Easter recess. The Speaker, and the House of Commons Commission, offered admirable leadership, with essential additional input from the Procedure Committee. At the early stages there was a clear commitment to working on a cross-party basis to ensure that the Commons could continue to function in a way which maintained essential representation and accountability, while protecting public health. The motions on 21 and 22 April to enable members to participate and vote remotely were warmly supported by opposition parties and unanimously agreed. This consultative, cross-party approach was exactly what was needed when bringing about such far-reaching changes to the functioning of our democratic process. It showed inclusivity and maximised the chances of maintaining public trust and support.

The attempt to dismantle the hybrid arrangements has, unfortunately, followed the reverse approach. Through a lack of consultation and cross-party decision-making it has sown unnecessary division. Furthermore, it has breached the fundamental democratic and parliamentary principle of equality in decision-making, excluding many MPs from the choice about how to run their own institution. It has done so to the detriment of some of those who are most vulnerable in this crisis.

Your refusal prior to the Whitsun recess to renew the temporary orders facilitating the hybrid parliament was met with widespread criticism across the House, including from the Labour Shadow Leader of the House, and her counterpart from the SNP. At this point it was clear that the cross-party approach facilitated through the House of Commons Commission had broken down. Despite appeals that the hybrid arrangements should continue in order to protect the health of both members and the wider public, the government used its power over the House of Commons agenda to prevent the renewal of the temporary orders being discussed and decided upon. As a consequence, members’ ability to vote remotely – including those members who are ‘shielding’ due to age or serious health conditions, or who are living with others in this position – lapsed.

On the return of the House on 2 June, you proposed a motion that confirmed the ending of the hybrid arrangements. This was opposed by all opposition parties, and also by the Conservative chair of the Procedure Committee, Karen Bradley, who laid amendments which were signed by 15 other select committee chairs. Due to the government’s timing, it was clear that those members most affected by the crisis, and therefore those most dependent on the facility to participate remotely, had been excluded from the debate and from the vote. This was demonstrated by the fact that only 427 members participated in the division on Karen Bradley’s amendment to restore remote voting. Although 31 Conservative members – along with all opposition party members – supported the amendment, it was defeated. But there were over 200 MPs absent from Westminster, including 90 Conservatives, many of whom were prevented from attending for age or health-related reasons. Many of them had publicly stated that they opposed the ending of the hybrid parliament. Had the absent voters divided in the same proportion as those present, the Bradley amendment would have been only very narrowly defeated. However, it is far more likely that those absent would have supported the amendment, as it promised to restore their participation rights. 

In other words, the government only brought about the ending of the hybrid parliament through disenfranchising the very MPs that it was there to support.

You have indicated that you wished to end virtual participation in order to return to the necessary scrutiny of government legislation particularly in public bill committees. However, there has been no barrier to bill committees meeting in socially distant form at Westminster since 21 April. Had the government wished to do so, the Commons could also have run hybrid or virtual bill committees, as is now happening in the House of Lords.

Given that many MPs are unable to attend under medical advice, while others – particularly those representing areas furthest from London – are reluctant for fear of spreading the virus through travelling between Westminster and their constituencies, it remains unclear why the government has been so determined to end the hybrid arrangements. It certainly does not ‘set an example’ for employers, who would likely be subject to legal proceedings if they treated staff with serious health conditions in this way. In fact, the ending of online participation is even problematic for those members who attend: the time-consuming nature of the new voting arrangements (about which some also have health concerns) cuts into much-needed time for debate and scrutiny. Images of these arrangements have been widely shared in the UK and international media, causing much derision, and risking reputational damage to government and parliament alike.

During the debate on your proposals, and subsequently in Prime Minister’s Questions, you and the PM announced several adjustments to your original plans. These adjustments, approved by the House on 4 June, mean that MPs who are unable to travel to Westminster may continue to participate in questions and statements virtually and MPs classed as clinically vulnerable will be eligible to apply for a proxy vote. However, they will still be excluded from participation in legislative proceedings and those who are unable to travel to Westminster due to lockdown restrictions, shielding or caring responsibilities will be ineligible to vote by proxy. You have suggested pairing as a solution, but this requires MPs to be recorded as absent, and assumes that they would have followed the party line. In short, these compromise measures are far from acceptable solutions.

As you yourself repeatedly emphasised in winding up the second reading debate on the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill on Tuesday evening, democracy rests on the principle of equality. Our parliamentary democracy requires that all voters and all parts of the country be equally represented in the House of Commons by their MP. The hybrid arrangements were introduced in order to maintain that principle in exceptional times. Ending those arrangements now, when many MPs’ movements remain restricted, clearly violates the principle. We urge you to think again and reintroduce arrangements that allow all members to participate in the full range of Commons business.

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