Mechanisms of COVID-19 Review: Westminster

In Westminster, there are three main routes by which the Government may be held to account by Parliament, as set out below. Notably, when Parliament is open as usual, oral proceedings take place within the physical space of the Palace of Westminster. However, during the pandemic much of Parliament’s work has taken place within the ‘Virtual Parliament’. Under this model, parliamentarians have been able to provide oral questions over video calls, and only a maximum of 50 MPs may be physically present in the House of Commons.

1. Parliamentary Questions

There are five main parliamentary questioning procedures that enable parliamentarians to ask questions of the Government regarding its tackling of COVID-19. The first is ‘Prime Minister’s Questions’ (PMQs), in which MPs may question the Prime Minister. The Leader of the Opposition has six question slots reserved for them, while the Scottish National’s Party’s Westminster Leader has two questions slots reserved. PMQs take place every sitting Wednesday from 12pm to 12.30pm and may be watched live on ‘Parliament TV’.

The second questioning procedure is the House of Commons oral questions, in which Parliament also has the opportunity every week to question particular Ministers on the activities of their government department according to a rota referred to as the ‘Order of Oral Questions’. These questions must be tabled by MPs at least three days in advance of the Minister appearing before the Commons.

There is also a procedure for MPs to ask ‘Urgent Questions’ (UQs). An urgent question requires a government minister to come to the House of Commons and give an instant answer without prior notice. An MP can apply to the Speaker for an UQ if they think a matter is urgent and important, and may not be raised another way in the House. If the Speaker agrees, the UQ is asked at the end of that day’s question time.

Questioning procedures also exist in the House of Lords. These take place on a weekly basis. The Lords may table questions to be asked anywhere between one month and twenty-four hours in advance. Unlike in the Commons, the questions are addressed to the Government as a whole rather than to particular government departments or individual ministers.

Lastly, parliamentarians may also provide the Government with written questions, which are sent to the relevant government department and recorded on a Parliamentary database. Ministers from the relevant government department, not necessarily the Secretary of State, respond to the question. These answers are then posted on the database for the public to see.

2. Debates

Another mechanism by which parliamentarians can hold the UK Government to account for its management of the COVID-19 pandemic is through parliamentary debate. Parliamentary debates are formal discussions of particular proposals, in which parliamentarians take it turns to speak. In carrying out this formal discussion, debates must follow a number of rules and conventions. For example, debates are governed by ‘Standing Orders’, the written rules that regulate the proceedings of each House, and by various customs and traditions.

Usually, to begin a debate a parliamentarian will put forward a proposal for debate by ‘moving a motion’. A motion can be substantive such as “I beg to move, that the Coronavirus Bill 2021 is given its second reading”, or it could be general and expressed in neutral terms such as ‘That this House has considered providing extra financial support for those disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic’. The motion is then put to Parliament (either the House of Commons or the House of Lords), and parliamentarians take it in turns to comment on it.

At the end of a debate in both the Commons and the Lords the Chair ‘puts the question’ to the House, which parliamentarians will respond to by calling out either ‘Aye’ (meaning ‘yes’) or ‘No’. If there is no clear result from the call-out, a ‘division’ is called, in which Parliamentarians must vote by leaving their Chamber, through the ‘Aye’ corridor or ‘No’ corridor.

3. Committees

Parliamentary Committees are the third way in which Parliament can scrutinise the Government’s response to the pandemic, and hold it to account for such activities. The committees are made up of  groups of parliamentarians responsible for examining a particular issue in detail. This issue will be of relevance for Government policy. Usually this takes place by way of the Committee calling an ‘inquiry’, carried out on the basis of a set of questions the Committee would like to consider (often referred to as the ‘terms of reference’ of an inquiry). Committees have wide-ranging powers to collect information for the purpose of scrutinising such issues. For example, they may call for Government officials to stand before them and offer evidence in the form of information about a particular Government activity. Committees may also call on experts, including from the general public and civil society, to offer their perspectives on issues relevant for considering the Government’s approach to the issue under consideration.

There are number of different kinds of Parliamentary Committees, including ‘Joint Committees’ (i.e. committees made up both MPs and Lords), and ‘Select Committees’ (i.e. made up of parliamentarians chosen from the House of Commons). Select Committee Chairs are appointed through elections  that take place at the start of a Parliament. The Chair will lead the inquiries considered by the Committee and manage how each inquiry is carried out. Commons’ Select Committees usually mirror government departments, and focus on ‘policy, expenditure and administration’ (see Standing Order 152 (1)). Lords’ committees do not mirror government departments, but organise themselves along broader policy areas and are fewer in number. The Chairs and members of the Lords’ committees are negotiated by whips through a process that is less formalised than in the Commons.