On 22 July 2021, the provisions that allowed MPs to participate virtually in the House of Commons Chamber and Select Committees lapsed.

Like other workplaces during the pandemic, the House of Commons changed the way it conducts business. This involved temporary ‘hybrid’ participation, where MPs could take part in proceedings online and in person. The Prime Minister participated virtually in PMQs most recently on 21 July 2021 as he was self-isolating. These provisions ended on 22 July.

The recall of the House on the 18 August, to debate the situation in Afghanistan, marked the first full in-person session since 2 June 2020, and MPs have returned to Parliament this week in person.

This Insight looks back at the adaptations made by the Commons to its procedures since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Social distancing in the Chamber

The first nationwide lockdown came into force on 23 March 2020. Before the lockdown on 18 March 2020 informal measures were introduced to reduce participation in the Chamber with only MPs on the Order Paper required to attend.

The Speaker began publishing ‘call lists’ in March 2020 to enable social distancing and facilitate the operation of virtual participation. These remained in place until July 2021, including during June to December 2020 when virtual participation in debates temporarily ceased.

The Speaker also set limits on the number on MPs in the Chamber. From March 2020 up to 50 MPs could participate in the Chamber at any one time, with up to 120 MPs participating remotely. The in-person participation was reduced to 33 in January 2021, due to the increased risk from a new Covid variant, and then increased to 64 in May 2021.

When the Commons returned from Easter Recess on 21 April 2020, MPs agreed to introduce ‘hybrid proceedings’, that allowed MPs to participate remotely in oral questions, urgent questions and ministerial statements. This was limited to urgent business at first and, for the first few weeks, agreed without any divisions. The House met only on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays for five weeks in April and May 2020.

Virtual participation and votes

On 22 April 2020 the House agreed to extend hybrid proceedings to some debates and legislation, and to provide for remote voting. The first remote division took place on 12 May 2020.

The temporary Standing Orders agreed in April 2020 to allow hybrid proceedings and remote voting lapsed when the House rose for the Whitsun recess on 20 May 2020.

Return to part-hybrid proceedings

On 2 June 2020, the House reverted to pre-pandemic procedures, and voted against an amendment that would have allowed remote voting to continue. This meant a return to physical proceedings and only those able to attend or with proxy votes could take part in the divisions.

On 4 June 2020, MPs agreed new temporary orders to allow those unable to attend Westminster for pandemic-related medical or public health reasons to participate virtually in scrutiny business. Participation in debates was still limited to those physically present. Two pass readers were installed in the Aye and No division lobbies in June, enabling four socially distanced people to vote at once.

From 3 November 2020, MPs within the Palace could apply for proxy votes to reduce the pressure on the division lobbies.

Extension of hybrid proceedings

When the House was recalled on 30 December 2020 the Government tabled a motion to provide for virtual participation in debate. This provision remained in place when the House was recalled to approve strengthening Tier 4 restrictions on 6 January 2021.

By the December recall, almost 600 MPs had nominated a proxy, with over 90% of proxy votes held by party whips.

The temporary arrangements that enabled MPs to participate virtually (2 and 4 June 2020) and vote via a proxy (3 November 2020) were extended in March 2021 and then again in June 2021 until 22 July 2021.

Back to normal?

The Orders allowing for remote participation expired on 22 July 2021 when the House rose for the summer recess. There have been calls for some aspects of Covid procedure to be retained but the Government has stated the procedures were temporary.

The Procedure Committee’s report in March 2020, Procedures after coronavirus restrictions, recommended that “the House reverts to all aspects of its pre-pandemic practice and procedure”. However it also recommended the Commission give the House Service an explicit mandate “to extend the scope of its development of hybrid proceedings” as part of the “House’s business continuity plans or as part of preparations for Restoration and Renewal”. It also announced a review of Standing Orders (SOs) in the next session.

Two adaptations in response to the pandemic have been retained:

  • The suspension of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) in April 2020 was made permanent on 13 July 2021. See the Library Briefing prepared for the debate on rescinding EVEL Standing Orders.
  • The use of Card Readers in the division lobbies are generally agreed to be an improvement and have been retained. This is not governed by SOs but arranged by the Speaker and the House authorities.

Select Committees

Select Committees have long been able to take evidence remotely from vulnerable witnesses or witnesses based overseas. A temporary order on Select Committees (Participation and Reporting) agreed on 24 March 2020 allowed Select Committee members to conduct their business remotely. This order gave the Speaker powers to extend it as necessary, and was rescinded in the Order of 16 June 2021. The ability of Select Committee to meet virtually lapsed on 22 July 2021, although witnesses may still appear virtually when necessary.

Further reading: Coronavirus timeline: Measures taken by the House of Commons.

About the author: Sarah Priddy is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, covering parliamentary procedure.

Image: Afghanistan Update from the Prime Minister ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor, (CC BY 3.0)

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