Current Affairs Digest: Constitution

Catch up on articles you may have missed about the constitution, government and parliament from April 2020. Articles this month look at types of governance, and the virtual running of parliament in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Centralised or Decentralised Government?

Jen Gaskell and Gerry Stoker examine the strengths and weaknesses of centralised and decentralised systems of government in dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak. Writing for the LSE British Politics and Policy blog, the authors compare a highly centralised system (the UK), to a more decentralised state (Switzerland). Switzerland, they claim, was able to use its three levels of governance to effectively “mobilise different resources” to tackle the outbreak. Communes (county or city councils), issued their own specific guidance in line with Federal and Cantonal (regional) policy. This allowed local government the “freedom to undertake what they felt was needed for their communities”. The authors use the example of the Commune of Bovernier, where every household with a resident over the age of 65 was contacted to arrange food and medicine deliveries.  

In contrast, the article cites the relationship between central and local government in the UK as sometimes confused during emergencies. While the centralised nature of the UK allowed for “rapid and decisive action” early in the pandemic, changes of policy and the contradictory nature of some guidance led to some “confusion in how to implement central government’s orders in various sectors” on a local level.  

Read the full article: Jen Gaskell and Gerry Stoker, ‘Centralised or Multi-Level: Which governance systems are having a ‘good’ pandemic‘, LSE British Politics and Policy Blog, 16 April 2020.

A Virtual Parliament?

Writing for UCL’s Constitution Unit blog, Ruth Fox and Meg Russell examine the case for the virtual running of Parliament during the Covid-19 crisis. In the face of increased emergency powers for the government, as well as the speed at which ministers are taking decisions, the authors agree that Parliament should continue to operate. The authors also state that social distancing measures and the spread of the virus means that running Parliament ‘virtually’, to some extent, is the only option. To help this, the authors believe parliament should prioritise essential business. While acknowledging that allowing non-coronavirus business to take a backseat is accompanied by its own risks, the authors point to France, Germany and Norway as examples of legislatures focusing almost solely on urgent, Covid-19 related business.  

The authors believe that Parliament’s role in holding ministers to account is of particular importance. Parliamentary involvement, they argue, adds “democratic accountability, opposition and backbench voices, and the relaying of constituents’ experiences.” Parliamentary approval also helps establish trust and confidence in the government’s pandemic strategy. To enhance this accountability, the authors argue for increased use of urgent questions (UQs) in the Commons and private notice questions (PNQs) in the Lords. They suggest a regular, hour long session could be introduced, consisting of three or four UQs or PNQs. In the Commons, as UQs are at the Speaker’s discretion, the authors believe this could be introduced without a change in the standing orders. The article also considers other challenges, such as how essential bills could be passed in a virtual chamber, and how divisions could work digitally.  

Read the full article: Ruth Fox and Meg Russell, ‘Proposals for a ‘virtual parliament’: how should parliamentary procedure and practices adapt during the coronavirus pandemic?‘, The Constitution Unit, 14 April 2020.