Current Affairs Digest: Constitution

Catch up on articles about the constitution, government and parliament you may have missed from May and June 2020. Articles this month take a look at the development of virtual parliaments during the Covid-19 pandemic.

A Brave New World

Writing for the Political Insight journal, Andy Williamson looks at how parliaments around the world have dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Only one-in-ten parliaments were operating as normal at the end of April. The majority of parliaments who were forced to change their everyday practices introduced some elements of virtual proceedings. For example, forty percent held committee meetings using digital means. However, far fewer parliaments were able to host their chamber proceedings in a wholly virtual manner.

Williamson states that the complex nature of a parliament’s work, coupled with a large and sudden increase in offsite working for support staff, made a rapid switch to virtual proceedings technically challenging. However, some parliaments had existing technology they were able to put into use at short notice. Spain’s Congress of Deputies were able to use a voting app developed seven years previously to allow those who were sick or on maternity leave to vote. The UK Parliament’s response required the rapid adoption of new technologies, with the Commons and Lords initially using Zoom and Microsoft Teams respectively to run their digital proceedings. The Lords subsequently adopted Zoom too.

Williamson acknowledges the difficulties of such a dramatic change in working practices. He concludes by urging parliaments to “remain transparent and accountable” and to ensure that their new virtual systems are secure.

Read the full article: Andy Williamson, ‘Virtual Members: Parliaments During the Pandemic‘, Political Insight, 27 May 2020.

Virtual Lords

Former Clerk of the Parliaments David Beamish looks at how the House of Lords has adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic in this piece for UCL’s Constitution Unit blog.

David Beamish covers events in chronological order, starting with the Lord Speaker’s announcement on 19 March that he would be working from home until further notice, and the motion on 23 March that “until 21 July 2020, and notwithstanding the normal practice of the House, any member of the House may perform the duties of a Deputy Chairman without further motion”.

Following the motion on 21 April allowing for virtual proceedings, 17 subsequent sittings of the House were virtual, with 11 of these being wholly virtual. David Beamish notes the change in the nature of proceedings, with the tradition of self-regulation giving way to “a much less flexible regime, with significant new power in the hands of the party machines”. He also reflects on the House of Lords Commission’s decision that a reduced allowance of £162 would be available only to Members who speak in proceedings. This was passed in a motion on 6 May.

Finally, David Beamish examines the decision on 4 June to introduce a ‘hybrid House’, beginning on 8 June, with the number of Members allowed in the Chamber at any one time limited to 30. He states that the decision to run a hybrid House is to be “warmly welcomed”, and notes that it could have a “lasting effect on its operation and atmosphere”. Increased acceptance of remote working could also have an impact on the need for temporary accommodation if the Restoration and Renewal project goes ahead as planned.

Read the full article: David Beamish, ‘How has the House of Lords adapted to the coronavirus crisis?‘, Constitution Unit, 12 June 2020.