Jersey’s States Assembly was the first legislature in the Commonwealth to hold a full virtual meeting, with all members able to participate, in order to get around the limitations imposed by the Covid-19 crisis. Mark Egan, Greffier of the States, describes how this was achieved and suggests that some of the States Assembly’s Covid-19 innovations may stick.
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has posed a significant challenge to parliamentary bodies large and small. Legislatures are places where people come together to debate with each other and to vote on the questions put before them. Never before have parliamentary bodies been required to function in circumstances where people are required – or at least strongly advised – not to meet, on public health grounds. Legislatures have had to adapt, at considerable pace, or be sidelined by governments exercising emergency powers and determining how, if at all, their actions will be scrutinised.
The Covid-19 challenge in Jersey
The crisis hit Jersey in mid-March. Jersey is an autonomous Crown Dependency, historically loyal to the British crown but not part of the United Kingdom. It has its own government and unicameral legislature, known as the States Assembly. Primary legislation must be approved by the Privy Council before it can come into force; the UK Parliament can legislate for Jersey only with the consent of the States Assembly.
The 49-member Assembly has a high quorum: primary legislation requires that at least one-half of States members must be present for the Assembly to be “lawfully constituted”. The Assembly determines who is present at each sitting by a roll call (conducted in French, of course). If fewer than 25 members are present at the roll call, the Assembly cannot meet.
It became clear during the week of 9 March that if Jersey were badly hit by the pandemic, a significant number of Assembly members might fall ill or be required to self-isolate because of their medical conditions or those of the people they live with.
A new standing order was quickly crafted to permit members to declare that they are present in the meeting using “electronic communication” and also to speak and vote in that way. The order was agreed on 18 March, although it was far from clear how it would work in practice. Social distancing guidance was beginning to bite and on 24 March the Assembly relocated from its cosy 19th century chamber to a giant sports hall, where desks could be spaced two metres apart. A hybrid sitting was trialled, with some members contributing as normal from the rigged-up chamber and others submitting comments and votes from a screen using Microsoft Teams. However, the public health guidance moved on and on 27 March our equivalent of the Leader of the House announced that the next sitting, one week later, would take place entirely using Teams.
Going virtual in a week
Looking back, what followed was something of a blur.
We worked with our IT support staff to switch on the livestreaming facility in Teams – it went live two hours before we sat on 2 April, so we started our sitting without having had the chance to test it. The members’ trial on 1 April (no joke) almost descended into chaos until we realised that Teams Live doesn’t work fully for users of tablets. That evening was spent driving around the Island dishing out laptops, including personal ones, to members so that they could get into the meeting. We had problems with the broadcast output, now mostly resolved, which meant that the camera stayed firmly on the presiding officer for the entire first day’s proceedings.
Voting was also a challenge. We tried to use the chat facility to gather in votes, but it took too long and was confusing. We considered calling the roll for each vote, but our friends at Digital Jersey – a government-backed body promoting the digital sector, who have supported us throughout this period – suggested using Forms, another Office 365 product. Despite a few teething problems, this works well. (As an aside, members vote electronically in the Assembly, so votes are quick: any solution also had to be quick. The Assembly will not stand for votes lasting as long as they do in some other jurisdictions.)
Since its first virtual meeting on 2 April, the Assembly has now held eight full sittings using Teams.
During this time more than 20 pieces of emergency legislation, including some introducing restrictions on personal freedom last seen during the Nazi occupation of the Island, have been scrutinised and debated by the Assembly. If we had failed to use technology to keep the Assembly functioning, that legislation would have been adopted by means of executive order, untested by amendments or challenge from the majority of members who are not part of the government.
The Assembly has also held major debates on the government’s strategy on responding to Covid-19 and on economic recovery, both of which have generated considerable public interest.
All of our committees have met using Teams since March.
What a virtual Parliament misses
Members have missed the personal interaction which is often at the heart of practical politics. Video technology does not easily provide visual clues as to how a member’s question or speech has been received, and nor are there opportunities for quiet conversations in the corridors around the chamber which often help smooth out difficulties arising in formal proceedings.
We will in due course move back to the Chamber and resume business as usual.
However, we have demonstrated our resilience and shown how a parliamentary body can meet and function fully without a physical gathering.
Covid-19 changes to be kept?
Some of the changes we have made may well persist. I would be surprised if members did not explore how a form of hybrid proceeding could be used in future to ensure that members absent because of caring responsibilities, for example, are able to make their contribution. We have introduced numerous procedural innovations – such as hour-long periods of questions without notice to all ministers – which may well be a blueprint for future reform. And we have shown how to operate effectively without paper.
This crisis could be a defining moment for parliamentary bodies across the globe, and I am pleased to say that in Jersey we have strengthened our parliamentary system by rising to the Covid-19 challenge.
Banner image: Virtual sitting of the States Assembly in Jersey. © Digital Jersey
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