Coronavirus: How have parliaments adapted?

Parliaments across the world are having to adapt their procedures and processes to comply with social distancing requirements, implemented to help combat the spread of coronavirus.

Before the House of Lords adjourned for recess on 25 March 2020, the Leader of the House, Baroness Evans of Bowes Park, made a statement on potential changes to the running of business when the House returns.

She stated:

We will have to look carefully at what sensible adjustments can be made to our working practices and procedures. We will continue to work with the usual channels and the House authorities on these issues, but I can tell the House that a working group of senior officials from both Houses and the Parliamentary Digital Service has been set up to develop effective remote collaboration and videoconferencing. The Parliamentary Digital Authority is doing all it can to enable rollout to Members as soon as possible.

About committees and their procedures, she further stated:

It is up to select committees to decide how to conduct their business, and they can work remotely if they wish. That is for select committee chairmen and their committees to decide.

How have other parliaments across the world adapted to the need to restrict numbers of people meeting in one place?

Wales – National Assembly

On 1 April, the National Assembly for Wales held its first ‘virtual’ parliamentary session. Changes were agreed between the party leaders to limit the number of its 60 members in attendance: there were six Labour members, three Conservative members, two Plaid Cymru members and one Brexit Party member, as well as independent members, at the virtual session. On 25 March, it was announced that the standing orders had been amended so that only four members were needed for a valid vote to be held during Plenary meetings.

Assembly committees have suspended all non-time-critical business for the time being.

France – Sénat

The standing orders for the upper chamber of the French parliament do not allow for electronic voting. Debate, hearings or deliberation can be held over videoconference, but no formal votes can be taken.

However, the French Senate can use an extensive proxy voting system in which a full vote can be held with only ten senators present. Under this system, one senator can cast the votes of their whole political group, as long as the leader of the political group agrees. This is both for sittings of the whole House and for votes in committee. There are currently eight political groups in the Sénat.

At this time, parliamentary business has been restricted to only urgent matters related to the coronavirus outbreak, or issues necessitating urgent attention. Parliamentary staff have been told to work from home.

Spain

In the Spanish parliament, the standing orders of the Congress and the Senate allow for remote electronic voting in exceptional cases such as: pregnancy, maternity, paternity or serious sickness.

On 12 March, the Congress announced that remote voting would be extended to all deputies. On 17 March, the Senate announced that all senators had been able to use telematic voting in an urgent sitting, with only five senators physically present in the Senate.

European Parliament

The European Parliament has adapted in various ways to help stop the spread of coronavirus. Its plenary session was due to be held over four days in Strasbourg. Instead, all business was dealt with on one day (Thursday 26 March) in Brussels, with many MEPs contributing and voting remotely.

The European Parliament continued to use remote meeting for its committee business on 2 April, but members who could attend were allowed to, whilst maintaining social distancing.

It is the first time that the European Parliament has used remote videoconferencing and voting. It has outlined that votes will be carried out as follows:

Members will receive a voting paper by e-mail, to be returned completed (with a simple yes or no vote, and their signature) and scanned or photographed, from their official (European Parliament) e-mail address to a specific European Parliament functional mailbox. The president, assisted by parliament’s secretariat will then establish the result of the vote, which will be recorded in the minutes and published.

New Zealand

Proxy voting is also used in New Zealand. An MP can cast the vote of another MP or for the party. In the case of a party vote however, 75% of members of the party have to be present at Parliament, though not necessarily in the chamber, for the whole party’s vote to be counted.

As reported by RNZ’s The House, it is thought that this rule might be relaxed by the Business Committee so votes can take place with as few members present as possible. In addition, the Business Committee has been given powers to meet and vote remotely. Other committees can be granted this capability by the speaker, when necessary.

On 25 March, the New Zealand parliament agreed to adjourn until 28 April 2020. Prior to this, it set up a special Epidemic Response Committee, chaired by the leader of the opposition. The Epidemic Response Committee will hold meetings via teleconference and is intended to scrutinise the government’s response to coronavirus whilst parliament is in recess.

Italy – Senato della Repubblica

The Italian parliament has not yet introduced any measures to hold debates or votes electronically or by proxy. Instead, senators have been issued with gloves and facemasks and can be tested at parliament if they display even mild symptoms.

Measures have been taken in the Senate to allow members to maintain social distancing and to vote in smaller groups. Committee meetings are held to deal with urgent matters related to coronavirus. These are being conducted in larger rooms to ensure all members can be spread out.

Parliamentary staff are expected to work from home, for example Parliament’s research service is operating entirely remotely.

Note: The House of Lords Library is a member of a network of European Parliamentary Research Services (ECPRD). Information for this blog has been collected from responses to a request made about coronavirus on the ECPRD network, and from additional sources (hyperlinked).

Image by Adam Derewecki from Pixabay