Coronavirus: Radical changes could be introduced to how parliament operates

Non-essential visits to Westminister banned due to virus outbreak

Tuesday 17 March 2020 11:15 GMT

Radical changes to the way parliament operates may be adopted to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus.

Rules requiring at least 40 MPs to be present for a vote to be valid could be set aside, and whips could vote on behalf of their entire party, under a series of options under consideration.

The proposals were set out as visitor access to the Palace of Westminster was banned, with only passholders and those on essential parliamentary business allowed to enter.

Announcing the visitor ban, Commons speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle urged all MPs who are pregnant, aged over 70 or have underlying medical conditions to “pay particular attention” to health advice about avoiding public gatherings.

The speaker made clear that parliament was not shutting its doors, though arrangements are being kept “under constant review”.

Sir Lindsay said: “As the prime minister stated, we are now involved in a national fightback against the coronavirus, which means we need to restrict certain aspects of our everyday life to prevent the risk of exposure.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is 70, has already indicated he intends to continue fulfilling his public duties, but there are a number of other older MPs who may stay away during the crisis.

In a memo to the House of Commons procedure committee, the clerk of the House, John Benger, set out a number of options for reducing the need for MPs and parliamentary staff to come into close contact, some of which would require approval by a Commons vote.

Non-essential business could be delayed and parties could agree among themselves to be represented by a proportion of their members in line with the overall balance of the Commons, he said.

To avoid forcing MPs to walk together through the crowded division lobbies, more non-contentious business could be “nodded through” or decided by MPs shouting “aye” or “no” from the benches.

The Commons could adopt the practice of the House of Lords of allowing one MP to ask questions on behalf of others, in order to reduce numbers required to be physically present in the chamber.

And the House could vote to set aside rules requiring 40 MPs to be present to pass a vote or secure an emergency debate.

Committees, which scrutinise government activities in lengthy inquiries, could take evidence from witnesses by video link, rather than requiring them to attend in person. And committee members could also take part electronically, with only the chair actually taking his or her seat in the inquiry room.

Procedure committee chair Karen Bradley said the committee was “examining the appropriate and responsible steps to take to ensure that the core work of the House continues in a responsible manner” and would give advice to the Commons on the basis of the clerk’s suggestions.

But she said that the implementation of any changes to the way the House functions was a matter for the speaker or the Commons as a whole, in consultation with the government and parliamentary authorities.

Announcing new restrictions on visits to Westminster being imposed from Tuesday, a parliamentary spokesman said: “In line with the latest government advice and guidance from Public Health England, all visitor access to the parliamentary estate will stop. Access will be restricted to passholders and those on essential parliamentary business.

“The viewing galleries, used by visitors to watch proceedings in the chambers, will be closed, and democratic access tours of parliament will cease, along with commercial tours. The Education Centre will be closed, and school tours will also pause.

“MPs, peers, parliamentary staff and other members of the parliamentary community will continue to be able to work on the estate where necessary. There will, in addition, be a reduction of catering facilities across the estate.

“These steps are necessary to allow parliament to continue to fulfil its constitutional duties and will be kept under constant review. They have been taken by the speakers of both Houses, in consultation with Public Health England and according to government advice. The steps are supported by the clerks of both Houses and parliamentary authorities.”

The Electoral Reform Society warned that the current crisis should not be used to "entrench" the centralisation of the UK's democracy.

Instead of giving whips the power to vote on behalf of self-isolating MPs, remote electronic voting should be introduced, said the pressure group's director Willie Sullivan.

"The need for scrutiny at a time of national crisis increases, not the opposite," said Mr Sullivan. "It is vital that parliament responds to the need for MPs to self-isolate in a modern, democratic way.

"Rather than handing all the power to the party whips, this should be an opportunity for parliament to modernise and introduce remote voting - with MPs feeding in their views electronically or directly to the clerks.

"Westminster's set-up is already one of the most centralised, undemocratic systems among advanced democracies: This crisis must not further entrench that.

"Rather than silencing backbenchers and proper debate, let's bring Westminster into the 21st century."

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