Proceedings during the pandemic

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17.7AOn 21 April 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic the House resolved to permit virtual participation in its proceedings to ‘ensure the participation of all Members’, and further to ensure ‘that its rules and procedures are adapted to permit as far as possible parity of treatment between Members participating virtually and Members participating in person’.1 The House then proceeded to agree temporary Orders relating to ‘Hybrid scrutiny proceedings’. ‘Scrutiny proceedings’ were defined as comprising questions to Ministers, urgent questions and ministerial statements. The House would sit for three days each week, with sittings commencing at 2.30 pm on Mondays, and 11.30 am on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

The following day the House agreed temporary Orders relating to ‘Hybrid substantive proceedings’, which amended the Orders agreed to the previous day and broadened the scope of proceedings in which virtual participation was permitted.2 The House then agreed temporary Orders relating to remote divisions and their conduct, under which the Speaker determined whether a remote division was required and any questions put on which the Speaker’s opinion was challenged would not be decided before the House proceeded to the next business.3

During this period, each day’s business was set out in a separate Business of the House motion, with sittings divided into blocks of up to two hours separated by suspensions.4 On 12 May the House agreed without division to the extension of the temporary Orders made on 21 and 22 April to last until 20 May. At the conclusion of business on 20 May, the temporary Orders expired.

The House was recalled from the Whitsun recess to meet at the earlier time of 11.30 am on 2 June rather than 2.30 pm. The House rescinded its resolution of 21 April (Proceedings during the pandemic ) and agreed a new temporary Order (Proceedings during the pandemic (No. 2) ), under which the requirement of physical presence to participate in a division was reimposed. The order was to last until 7 July.5 On 4 June, the House reintroduced virtual participation in questions, urgent questions and statements for Members self-certifying their inability to participate physically for ‘medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic’.6 The House also amended the temporary Standing Order relating to proxy voting to permit Members who were either ‘clinically vulnerable’ or ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ to cast their vote by proxy. These criteria were broadened on 10 June to match the criteria for Members participating virtually.7

The Orders of 2 June and 4 June relating to proceedings and virtual participation respectively were extended on 1 July to have effect until 2 September,8 and again on 2 September until 3 November.9 On 23 September, the House created a new Standing Order No 39A ‘Voting by Proxy’, which it immediately amended to include the broad category of Members unable to attend Westminster due to medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic until 3 November.10 On 22 October, the temporary Orders relating to proceedings, virtual participation and proxy voting during the pandemic were extended until 30 March 2021.11

On 24 November the House debated a motion moved by the Leader of the House which would have permitted Members ‘certified by a medical practitioner as clinically extremely vulnerable’ to take part in debates virtually. The debate did not reach a conclusion and was interrupted at 7.00 pm.12 On 30 December the distinction between ‘scrutiny’ and ‘substantive’ proceedings was abandoned and virtual participation was permitted by all Members without qualifying criteria.13 On 25 March 2021 the House extended the Orders relating to proceedings, virtual participation and proxy voting to 21 June 2021,14 and on 16 June the Orders were extended to 22 July 2021.15

Sittings in Westminster Hall were suspended from 20 March 2020.16 The House agreed to their resumption on 23 September 2020, and sittings began on 5 October 2020 with limitations on attendance and published call lists.17 Sittings were once again suspended from 14 January 2021,18 resuming on 8 March 2021,19 with Members having the option of virtual participation in addition to participation in the physical sittings which took place in the Boothroyd Room in Portcullis House. The Order of 25 February was subsequently extended on 25 March to mirror the extension of motions relating to proceedings, virtual participation and proxy voting.20

Footnotes

  1. 1. Votes and Proceedings, 21 April 2020.
  2. 2. Votes and Proceedings, 22 April 2020.
  3. 3. Ibid.
  4. 4. The suspensions were required while technical and broadcast capacity was still increasing to accommodate longer sittings. Suspensions remained but were shorter and for the purposes of cleaning and facilitating social distancing.
  5. 5. Votes and Proceedings, 2 June 2020.
  6. 6. Votes and Proceedings, 4 June 2020.
  7. 7. Votes and Proceedings, 10 June 2020.
  8. 8. Votes and Proceedings, 1 July 2020.
  9. 9. Votes and Proceedings, 2 September.
  10. 10. Votes and Proceedings, 23 September 2020.
  11. 11. Votes and Proceedings, 22 October 2020.
  12. 12. Votes and Proceedings, 24 November 2020.
  13. 13. Votes and Proceedings, 30 December 2020.
  14. 14. Votes and Proceedings, 25 March 2021.
  15. 15. Votes and Proceedings, 16 June 2021.
  16. 16. Votes and Proceedings, 19 March 2020.
  17. 17. Votes and Proceedings, 23 September 2020.
  18. 18. Votes and Proceedings, 13 January 2021.
  19. 19. Votes and Proceedings, 25 February 2021.
  20. 20. Votes and Proceedings, 25 March 2021.