Two MPs are self-isolating as a result of Conservative health minister Nadine Dorries testing positive for the novel coronavirus, and – given the interconnected way in which MPs work – it seems likely more people working in and around parliament will have to do so. A leaked WhatsApp message, seen by Sky News’ Beth Rigby, hints that one of Dorries’ parliamentary staff members may also have contracted the disease, while Labour MP Rachel Maskell has voluntarily self-quarantined for safety for having had contacts with Dorries.
There are murmurings from the same WhatsApp group that parliament as a whole might be shut in order to stave off the spread of Covid-19 among MPs and staffers. It’s the second time there have been suggestions parliament could be shut down in as many weeks. Can it be done? And what would the effect of a parliamentary shutdown be on our daily lives, and our democracy?
Luckily, any closure of parliament would be temporary – and while the timing of the Covid-19 outbreak in the UK is an issue for our health service, it could be advantageous in terms of keeping the country running politically. Parliament is already scheduled to go on recess in April, and any closure due to the coronavirus would simply bring that forward a few weeks.
“It would certainly have negative effects: delayed legislation, reduced scrutiny for a limited period of time, and in particular reduced constituency casework,” says Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester. “But that’s not the end of democracy: it’s disruptive, but it’s not the end of the world.” Politicians have suggested emergency legislation, including measures to keep courts running and to protect volunteers’ jobs. It is likely these and any other measures related to coronavirus would be passed before any decision on closing parliament would be taken.
There are obvious reasons why parliament would decide to close: in order to vote, MPs must walk into voting lobbies in close proximity to each other, which constitutes a clear risk of spreading the illness. The UK parliament provides no alternative: absentee or electronic votes are not allowed, and MPs who have been ill have to ask their colleagues to get MPs on the opposite side on any vote to abstain from voting in order to cancel out their absence. At present, there’s no way to pass legislation other than physically being in the House.
That could cause trouble. The parliamentary timetable is already harried, with lots of important legislation – not least relating to the UK’s future relationship with the European Union – coming up in the next few weeks. “The legislative calendar is usually quite busy, especially for new governments like this one, so losing a lot of time may have an impact,” says Ford.
Parliament is also in a dual, complicating position. It’s a workplace, yes, but it’s also more than that. “We are talking about schools and universities possibly closing, and you may close factories. But to me parliament is an essential service – it is central to our democracy,” says Meg Russell, a senior fellow at the think tank UK in a Changing Europe and director of the Constitution Unit at the University College London. “We clearly aren’t talking about closing supermarkets or hospitals, or even government departments. It should be an absolute last resort to consider closing parliament down.”
In other parts of the world, parliaments are doing all they can to avoid shutting down entirely. In locked-down Italy, where 14 MPs have been asked not to attend proceedings due to potentially having the coronavirus, votes will be held on only one day per week – Wednesday – and all MPs are required to sit one metre apart from each other.
The European parliament has also been caught unawares, and is taking measures to contain the spread of coronavirus among its representatives. The parliamentary calendar has been rejigged to try and prevent the bunching of people at the peak of the virus’s spread, although a spokesperson for the European parliament said that closure was not currently on the cards.
The EU parliament is considering how to put in place technical support to allow MEPs to participate in meetings remotely, and is gradually putting them in place. Getting MEPs to vote remotely would be more difficult, as the parliament’s rules do not provide for that scenario. “The decisions are taken out of a duty of care, but at the same time ensure continuity of the functions of the European Parliament and allow the democratic process to carry on, in line with our treaty obligation,” a spokesperson says.
This is something the parliament has had to grapple with before: in August 2008, following a partial collapse of the ceiling of the Chamber in Strasbourg, two plenary sessions were moved to Brussels. And in April 2010, due to a huge volcanic ash cloud affecting European air travel, the European parliamentary session was shortened and votes were cancelled.
While the UK parliament is frequently suspended as part of a schedule that provides for holidays, stopping proceedings unexpectedly is rare. The most recent example was in the aftermath of the 2017 terror attack on the parliamentary estate, where a policeman was killed. MPs returned to work the next day.
According to a parliamentary spokesperson, sessions were not suspended during either world war or the outbreak of the Spanish Flu – which is why MPs are eager to try and avoid leaving the chamber. We understand separately that parliament is considering options such as staggering votes, only allowing a small number of MPs into the voting lobbies at any given time to prevent the spread of the virus, and there is discussion about changing seating to space out MPs.
One thing that won’t be happening any time soon is electronic or remote voting – at least, not without significant changes. “This would be a matter for the House to decide,” says a House of Commons spokesperson. “The Government could propose procedural changes to allow other ways of working but the House would have to approve them. There is no standard procedure for running Parliament remotely and MPs cannot currently vote on motions electronically.”
Those options may well be preferred to outright closure by those in parliament – and those outside the legislature, too. There are no established procedures for parliament to sit remotely, and while Erskine May, the book of parliamentary rules and conventions has a number of rules around what to do when parliament is broken up, it doesn’t have provisions for such a closure. (Its author, Baron Thomas Erskine May, died in 1886, long before the invention of video conferencing.)
“The government certainly has not created this crisis but I’m a little bit dismayed by how quickly we’re moving on to discuss parliament being suspended,” says Russell. “We need to think about these things with enormous care. In the middle of a health crisis, all sorts of other policy matters, and negotiations over the EU, it would be a major problem for there to be no parliamentary accountability.”
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