In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the House of Commons adopted a temporary hybrid model for proceedings following its Easter break. Some MPs appeared in the Commons Chamber, while others dialled in remotely.
There was some speculation that the new model could benefit or possibly disadvantage women MPs.
This Insight looks at the data to see if there was any difference in how much men and women MPs took part in Question Time (PMQs and ministerial questions) and debates. It takes a closer look at one specific debate: the Second Reading of the Domestic Abuse Bill.
A note of caution
Hybrid proceedings were only adopted last month (21 April), with reduced sitting hours. This means there is only 13 days’ worth of data (22 April – 20 May). Any pattern this data shows may not predict what might happen in the longer term, if hybrid proceedings continued.
Who spoke in the hybrid Commons?
MPs made 4,132 contributions to Question Time and debates during the month of hybrid proceedings.
Some of these were very short and others much longer (in line with varying time limits accorded to frontbench and backbench MPs). To get a better idea of how much men and women MPs contributed to proceedings, we can look at the number and proportions of words spoken.
The table below shows the number and proportion of words used by men and women MPs, the number of men and women MPs who spoke, and men and women as a proportion of all speakers. To contextualise this data, the table also shows the number and proportion of all men and women MPs currently sitting in the House of Commons.
Speaking virtually or physically?
For the first time, Parliament has published call lists for debates. These show the order in which MPs will be called to speak or ask a question in advance. The lists also show the way in which MPs chose to make their contribution: virtually or physically.
The chart below shows the proportion of call list entries for men and women MPs classed as virtual and physical. Note that the same MP may appear on more than one call list and may switch between different modes of speaking. If men or women MPs as a group prefer one mode of speaking, this will show in the aggregate data.
The chart shows that both men and women MPs were more likely to participate remotely, although men were more likely than women to choose to speak physically. Looking at individual MPs, there were 163 women MPs who had at least one virtual call list entry and 48 women MPs who were down to speak in the Chamber at least once. Among men MPs, 274 had at least one virtual, and 91 at least one physical call list entry.
So how is this different from ‘normal’ times?
It is difficult to compare how much men and women MPs spoke in the hybrid Commons with how much they ‘normally’ speak in the Chamber. This is because it is difficult to establish a baseline to compare from.
There are other variables that mean we can’t expect a simple relationship between the gender of MPs and their participation in the Chamber. For example, Government Ministers tend to speak more than backbench MPs, and there are more male MPs than female MPs in the current cabinet. MPs in governing parties may speak more than those in opposition parties, and proportionally as well as numerically, there are more male MPs in the Conservative Party than in the Labour Party.
Bearing this in mind, we can attempt a cautious comparison by looking at the same period (22 April – 20 May) in the past five years, excluding 2015 and 2017, when this was a pre-election period. The chart below shows the proportion of words spoken in the Commons Chamber and Westminster Hall by women MPs, and the proportion of speakers who were women.
The chart shows there were slightly more women MPs participating in proceedings this year than in previous years. This is in line with expectations: the 2020 Parliament has more women MPs than previous Parliaments did.
The proportion of words spoken by women was lower than in the most recent years, which suggests that women spoke for less long than men. A possible explanation could be that they were less likely to be in frontbench roles.
A closer look: The Domestic Abuse Bill
Another way of comparing the current situation to previous debates is to look in detail at a particular debate. The following table compares the Second Reading debates of the Domestic Abuse Bill on 2 October 2019 (normal proceedings) and on 28 April 2020 (hybrid proceedings).
It will be obvious that the shape of the debate was very different: MPs have very strict speaking time limits and interventions are not allowed in the hybrid setting. Reflecting on the hybrid debate on the Domestic Abuse Bill 2019-21, Jess Phillips MP said: “The back and forth of debate has completely gone.”
The number of men and women MPs contributing to this debate, however, was exactly the same in both settings (excluding interruptions and interventions).
Although it is difficult to draw any definitive conclusions for reasons mentioned above, it appears that the model of hybrid proceedings used by the House of Commons in April-May 2020 has not had a strong impact on the amount men and women MPs contribute to Question Time and debates.
About the author: Elise Uberoi specialises in social and general statistics and Richard Kelly specialises in parliamentary procedure at the House of Commons Library.