Although the pandemic has raised significant challenges for the normal operation of the three devolved legislatures at Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Senedd and Northern Ireland Assembly have introduced changes to their standing orders to continue to operate in a hybrid environment. Broadly speaking, these changes have enabled MSPs, MSs and MLAs to participate in Chamber debates and committee meetings either in person or through video link, as well as to vote by proxy and/or by electronic means.
The devolved legislatures, therefore, have continued discharging their function of holding devolved executives to account for their policies and legislative proposals. In terms of COVID-19 measures, aside from the cases where devolved governments have passed legislation to deal with the pandemic, the key mechanisms of COVID-19 review have been questions, parliamentary debates and inquiries performed by select committees.
- Parliamentary Questions
There are various opportunities to put questions to government ministers.
Firstly, First Minister Questions (FMQs), which provides an opportunity to put questions to the FM. In both Scotland and Wales, FMQs take place on a weekly basis. In Scotland, it normally takes place on Thursdays, for up to 45 minutes (although it may run for longer). In Wales, it is normally on Tuesdays for a period of up to 60 minutes (Standing Order 12.56 (i)). Finally, in Northern Ireland, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister take questions every other week. According to Standing Order 20 (1), that may be either on Monday or Tuesday between 2pm and 3.30pm.
Secondly, Ministers can be subject to oral questioning. Welsh ministers must be available for questions at least once every four weeks, for a maximum of 45 minutes (Standing Order 12.56 (ii)). In Northern Ireland, MLAs can ask oral questions to Ministers, and for those purposes Standing Order 20 (1) provides that these questions can take place between 2pm and 3.30pm on Mondays and Tuesdays. In Scotland, MSPs can put questions to the Scottish Government for answer in Parliament (Standing Order 13.3). Unless those questions concern a matter for which the First Minister is alone responsible or a question concerning the system of criminal prosecution and investigation of deaths in Scotland, the answer may be provided by any member of the Scottish Government or a junior Scottish Minister (Standing Order 13.7 A3 (1)). In addition to this, in each of these devolved legislatures, members may ask written questions to ministers, and their standing orders also provide for urgent questions.
Thirdly, First Ministers and other Ministers shall make oral statements before devolved legislatures. In the three legislatures, these statements are followed up by time for questions (Northern Ireland Assembly Standing Order 18A; Welsh Senedd Standing Order 12.50-51; Scottish Parliament Standing Order 13.3). Statements have been quite relevant during the pandemic, and have been employed by devolved government even in times of parliamentary recess, to announce stringent emergency measures, or COVID-19 related policy responses.
Members of the three parliaments can move motions, which are discussed and then voted in the Chamber. Motions may be moved by Ministers or parliamentarians. The member who puts the motion forward may speak in support of it, and then other members shall intervene (Scottish Parliament Standing Order 8; Welsh Senedd Standing Orders 12.20 and 12/43-49; Northern Ireland Assembly Standing Orders 12 and 17).
COVID-19 related motions have dealt with a variety of subject matters. For instance, the devolved legislatures have approved motions relating to Regulations contained in subordinate legislation in response to the health emergency, either under the made affirmative, affirmative or negative procedures, motions relating to Legislative Consent of the Coronavirus Bill, motions on amending the Standings Orders to provide for the hybrid workings of Parliament, and motions on policy matters relating to coronavirus.
- Select committees
Last, but not least, select committees at the three devolved legislatures have also performed a relevant role in reviewing government’s responses to the health emergency.
By contrast to the House of Commons’ select committees, committees at devolved legislatures not only scrutinise policy, administration and expenditure, but are also involved in the legislative process. Hence, devolved committees may scrutinise COVID-related primary and secondary legislation, and may report on Legislative Consent Motions on COVID-related primary legislation at Westminster Parliament.
There are some differences in the regulation of select committees across the three devolved nations. Scottish select committees are regulated in Standing Order 6. There are mandatory committees, but MSPs may create new subject committees. They are composed of between 5 and 15 members. Whilst many committees mirror government departments, some are cross-cutting, drawing on the successful experience of thematic committees in the House of Lords (for example the Lords European Union and Delegated Powers and Legislative Reform Committees).
The structure of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s committees is more complex and heavily regulated. Statutory Committees, according to S. 29 (1)(a) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, shall advise and assist (i) the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in the formulation of policy with respect to matters within their responsibilities as Ministers jointly in charge of the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, and (ii) each Northern Ireland minister in the formulation of policy with respect to matters within his/her responsibilities as a minister. The Northern Ireland Assembly’s Standing Orders also provide for the following Standing Committees: Business Committee (SO 55), Public Accounts Committee (SO 56), Committee on Standards and Privileges (SO 57), Audit Committee (SO 58), Assembly and Executive Review Committee (SO 59) and an Ad Hoc Committee on Conformity with Equality Requirements (SO 60).
Finally, in sharp contrast, in Wales there is a less prescriptive approach. The Senedd’s Standing Orders do not pre-determine a list of select committees; rather, the Senedd has freedom to design a committee structure that reflects its priorities.
In terms of holding devolved government to account for their response to the pandemic, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, various committees have held inquiries on COVID-19-related matters within their respective remits. These inquiries have enabled select committees in the three devolved legislatures to gather information, question ministers, hear the voices and perspectives of relevant stakeholders, and hear from wider civil society.
It is also worth noting that both the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly set up ad hoc COVID-19-related committees. The Scottish one is composed of nine members. Its work has addressed and will continue to cover a number of issues, such as legislative scrutiny of primary legislation and subordinated legislation, as well as various inquiries on cross-cutting issues to avoid duplication of work with other subject committees.
The Northern Ireland Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response, by contrast, is a different kettle of fish. The Northern Ireland Assembly has, according to Standing Order 53, discretion to create ad hoc committees to deal with a specific and time-bounded issue, and to decide on its terms of reference, membership and methods of operation. The Ad Hoc Committee was appointed “to receive oral statements from Ministers on matters relating to the COVID-19 response and to question Ministers on such statements”. Given its very nature, the Assembly decided that all MLAs are members of this committee. The Ad Hoc Committee does not conduct inquiries. Despite this, neither Statutory nor Standing Committees have been active in pursuing COVID-19 related inquiries.