As Covid-19 began to change all aspects of daily life, the House of Commons was no exception. The pandemic meant changes to parliamentary procedures, such as divisions, and ‘hybrid proceedings’ required most MPs to attend the Chamber via Zoom.
While some practical changes could be made quickly, others required new technology and ways of working, such as secure electronic voting.
Our full coronavirus timeline (below) sets out the Commons’ response to the pandemic, including key ‘lock down’ dates, changes to the way parliamentarians worked, and the first MPs to encounter connection difficulties.
It includes links to the relevant debates in Hansard, Speaker’s Statements, Procedure Committee reports, the ‘Members’ Guide to hybrid proceedings’ and correspondence on proceedings during the pandemic.
Here are some of the most significant moments…
In early March, the World Health Organization declared the spread of coronavirus a pandemic and the Prime Minister announced measures on social distancing.
The Speaker made statements to the House of Commons on measures to reduce the risk of exposure to the virus, including cancelling non-essential access to the Parliamentary Estate and shutting down MPs’ tours for constituents and education visits. The Speaker also referred MPs who may be pregnant, over 70, or with underlying health conditions to the advice of Public Health England.
Sittings were suspended in Westminster Hall; debates on Private Members’ Bills, Opposition Motions and Backbench business were put on hold.
On 18 March, the Procedure Committee outlined proposals to keep select committees running remotely and the Chair wrote to the Chief Whip asking the Government to table a temporary order to allow for virtual meetings. The House agreed to the order on 24 March and virtual committee meetings began the next day.
Arrangements for divisions were introduced on 23 March to facilitate social distancing with staggered entry times for MPs. This lengthened the time for divisions from around 12 minutes to 30 or 40 minutes.
On the same day, the Speaker made a statement advising MPs and staff to work remotely where possible. The House rose early for Easter recess on 25 March. During the recess a one-way system was put in place across the Parliamentary Estate.
The House goes online
On 21 April, the House of Commons instituted a virtual ‘hybrid system’ allowing MPs to participate physically or remotely in scrutiny proceedings (questions and statements) and moved to a three-day week (Mondays to Wednesdays). This hybrid model was expanded to include substantive proceedings (debates and legislation) on 22 April. These arrangements were later extended to 20 May, when the House rose for the Whitsun recess.
The number of MPs inside the chamber was restricted to 50 with up to 120 MPs appearing in debates via screens mounted around the Chamber.
Virtual question time, maiden speeches and voting
The first ministerial question time under the hybrid model took place on 22 April with questions to the Secretary of State for Wales followed by Prime Minister’s Questions. For the first time, call lists were published (noting ‘virtual’ or ‘physical’ attendance by MPs’ names) and MPs were reminded by the Speaker not rise in their seats to catch his eye, but to wait to be called.
The first MP to ask a question virtually was Marco Longhi. The first MP to experience connection difficulties was Kevin Brennan, although the Secretary of State for Wales, also speaking remotely, was still able to provide a response based on the start of his question.
The Speaker allowed 45 minutes for questions to the Prime Minister (rather than the usual 30 minutes). The First Secretary of State, Dominic Raab, stood in for the Prime Minister who was recovering from the coronavirus. One MP, David Mundell, missed his question because he was unable to connect remotely.
Orders to allow remote voting were agreed on 22 April and the first remote division took place on 12 May following a general debate on Covid-19. Motions on general debates are not normally put to a vote but this was the first live test of the new voting system.
On 27 April, for the first time a daily business motion was agreed by the business managers and party whips of the Government, the Labour Party and the SNP. Business is normally decided by the Government on a weekly basis.
This outlined the timings of any business subject to a vote. Under the terms of the ‘motion on hybrid substantive proceedings’, the motion was not put to the House but was deemed to be agreed to by the Speaker.
After Whitsun recess
On its return on 2 June after the Whitsun recess, the Commons was recalled three hours early to debate a motion on a return to physical proceedings. The House agreed to return but with social distancing. On 4 June, the House agreed to allow MPs who were unable to physically attend to take part in scrutiny proceedings remotely. This was later extended to 2 September.
Following the summer recess, on the 2 September the House agreed that these arrangements would continue until 3 November 2020.
The order for remote voting lapsed on 20 May. This meant MPs were unable to vote remotely when they returned after the Whitsun recess to consider the motion on physical proceedings.
A new system of voting was devised that involved MPs lining up in socially-distanced queues to declare their vote at the despatch boxes. This was broadcast and the public could watch MPs voting live for the first time.
About the author: Sarah Priddy is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, covering parliamentary procedure.