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Remote select committee evidence-taking is a Coronavirus change that should be kept

7 May 2020
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The extensive take-up of remote evidence-taking by House of Commons select committees during the Easter recess is a significant Coronavirus-induced change of practice. It shows how procedural and technological change can help support scrutiny.

Dr Brigid Fowler, Senior Researcher, Hansard Society
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Senior Researcher, Hansard Society

Dr Brigid Fowler

Dr Brigid Fowler
Senior Researcher, Hansard Society

Brigid joined the Hansard Society in December 2016 to lead its work on Parliament and Brexit, as well as contribute to its ongoing research on the legislative process, parliamentary procedure and scrutiny, and public political engagement. From 2007 to 2014 she was a Committee Specialist for the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, where she led on the Committee’s EU-related work. In the first six months of 2016 she was on the research team of Britain Stronger in Europe. She has also worked as assistant to an MEP in Brussels and as an analyst and researcher on EU and European affairs in the private sector and at the University of Birmingham and King’s College London.

After completing BA and MPhil degrees at the University of Oxford in PPE and European Politics, respectively, she spent the first part of her career focusing on the politics of post-communist transition and EU accession in Central Europe, and completed her PhD at the University of Birmingham on the case of Hungary. She has given media comment, appeared before select committees and published several journal articles and book contributions.

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In procedural terms, many House of Commons select committees have been able for decades to meet during recesses (that is, to meet on days “notwithstanding any adjournment of the House”), including to take oral evidence.

However, until 24 March 2020, use of this provision required a select committee to meet physically in one place. This did not have to be Westminster: select committees have also long had the power to “adjourn from place to place” (that is, to meet anywhere). But, for a committee to meet, a quorum of MPs did have to be physically together. During recesses, when MPs would normally be dispersed in their constituencies or elsewhere, around the country or the world, this meant them travelling potentially long distances to a meeting.

On 24 March 2020, the House temporarily changed its procedures to allow select committee meetings – including the taking of evidence – to take place remotely. The House agreed an Order that, among other things:

“members of any select committee to which this Order applies may participate in select committee proceedings through such electronic means of communication as have been approved by the Speaker”.

The new Order was the first of four that have temporarily made remote participation possible for a progressively lengthening list of House of Commons business. This is in order to allow the most important Commons business to continue while the House also observes the law and official guidance against unnecessary travel and in favour of ‘social distancing’ during the Coronavirus outbreak.

What difference has this procedural change, to allow remote working, made to select committee evidence-taking during recess?

Select committees which take oral or written evidence during a recess report it to the House (under Standing Order No. 137), and the records of all such reporting during any one recess are published together in the official record of the House’s first sitting day after the break. This record – the edition of House of Commons Votes and Proceedings for the first sitting day after a recess – is therefore the best source of data on the extent and nature of committee evidence-taking during recesses, and is the source used for this analysis (which therefore rests on its reliability).

Written evidence, which select committees routinely receive and report during recesses, is in practice unaffected by the new remote working provisions. The Order of 24 March makes a difference only to the taking of oral evidence, which is therefore the only type considered here.

The House went into an early Easter recess on 25 March, the day after it agreed the new temporary Order allowing remote select committee working.

House of Commons Votes and Proceedings for the first sitting day after the break, 21 April, show that select committees took oral evidence on 12 occasions during the Easter recess.

These 12 occasions were generated across nine different days during the recess, and by seven Commons-only committees and one joint committee. All the committees which took oral evidence during the recess did so for a single Coronavirus-related inquiry each.

Analysis of Votes and Proceedings for the first sitting days after previous recesses shows that House of Commons select committees have taken oral evidence during recesses on 51 occasions since 2000.

(For the analysis in this post, oral evidence-taking occasions were counted per day and per inquiry. A committee taking oral evidence for two different inquiries on a single recess day was counted as two occasions. A committee hearing from multiple panels of witnesses for a single inquiry on a single recess day was counted as one occasion.)

The Easter 2020 recess therefore saw 24% of all oral evidence-taking by House of Commons select committees during recesses so far this century.

Much of the oral evidence-taking in recesses during the period since 2000 took place before the September sitting was introduced in 2010, with committees taking evidence in September in the latter part of what was often a three-month summer break. If only the period since 2010 is considered, the Easter 2020 recess accounted for 48% of all recess oral evidence-taking occasions (12 of 25).

This level of select committee activity belies widespread media reporting that Parliament was 'shut down' over Easter during the Coronavirus crisis.

The Coronavirus crisis brought about this surge in recess evidence-taking partly because of the scale and range of its effects in the country, and partly because of the specific bar it introduced to the holding of physical meetings and the way in which this forced the introduction of remote working provisions.

It is hard to disentangle the two effects.

If physical committee meetings had remained possible, and remote ones were not, a crisis of this scale might have caused at least some select committees to meet physically over the Easter recess to hear from ministers or other witnesses.

On the other hand, if normal physical meetings had remained possible, the Easter recess might well have seen a recall of the House. This would have allowed debate and/or questioning of ministers by the whole House, and might thereby have reduced the demand for committee scrutiny.

As it was, while the House has moved at speed to enable ‘hybrid’, semi-remote Chamber proceedings, it did not do so before the Easter break. This left select committees, whose remote working Order was agreed before Easter, as the only vehicle for scrutiny.

With remote working a possibility, there is a striking contrast between the extent of select committee evidence-taking during the Easter 2020 recess, and in recesses during earlier crises. The table below summarises such activity for a selection of crises since 2000 which affected the economy, and/or movement within or to and from the UK.

In none of these cases did select committees face one potential obstacle to taking evidence – namely, in a new Parliament, a failure to get select committees re-established in a timely fashion (as occurred, for example, over summer 2017). But most of these cases came before the Wright reforms of 2010 and the arrival of select committee chairs elected by, and with a mandate from, the whole House. The extent of select committee activity over Easter probably reflects not only procedural and technical innovation and the nature of the Coronavirus crisis, but also a decade of rising select committee profiles and expectations.

House of Commons select committee evidence-taking in recesses during selected crises since 2000

EventRecess(es) at/around the timeWas there a recall of the House?Did select committees take oral evidence during the relevant recess?
Fuel strike, September 2000SummerNoYes; 1 occasion, but not on the crisis (Home Affairs Committee)
Foot and mouth outbreak, Feb-Sep 2001Easter, SummerNoNo
September 11 attacks, 2001SummerYesNo
London bombings, July 2005SummerNo (the House had not yet risen for the Summer when the attacks occurred)Yes; 1 occasion, on the attacks: Home Affairs Committee evidence from the Home Secretary, in September
Run on Northern Rock, Sep 2007SummerNoYes; 4 occasions, of which 1 was on the crisis: Treasury Committee had a regular Inflation Report session with the Bank of England in September which was repurposed to cover the bank run (others were European Scrutiny Committee; Foreign Affairs Committee; and Joint Committee on Human Rights)
Financial crash, Sep-Oct 2008SummerNoYes; 2 occasions, but neither was on the crash (Children, Schools and Families Committee; and Treasury Committee, which had a regular Inflation Report session with the Bank of England in September, before Lehman Brothers went bust)
August 2011 riots SummerYesNo

Sources: for recall instances: Erskine May, para 8.13, and House of Commons Library Briefing Paper No. 1186, 13 January 2020; for select committee evidence-taking: House of Commons Votes and Proceedings and House of Commons Journal

The temporary Standing Order allowing remote select committee working is due to expire on 30 June, unless the Speaker notifies the House at least a week in advance that he is extending it.

It could be that, by then, committees are still unable to meet normally, or the official advice remains against unnecessary travel to work, in which case the Speaker will presumably extend the Order without major controversy.

However, if and when the House has the possibility of returning to its pre-Coronavirus normal, the option of remote select committee meetings to take oral evidence, including during recesses, is a Coronavirus reform that should be retained.

This is not an argument in favour of select committees holding remote evidence sessions during recesses unnecessarily or routinely, or for the sake of it – whatever the temptation might be to try to counter ‘MPs on holiday again’-type stories in the media.

Remote evidence sessions are at least as demanding on Commons staff resources as physical ones in Westminster (although practice will presumably lessen the load somewhat). Committee staff are now allowed to take annual leave during Commons sitting periods, but many still rely on recesses to be able to do so; and recesses can also provide valuable time without committee meetings to undertake background research and inquiry preparation. And there are already grounds to wonder whether Commons select committees are doing too much and spreading themselves too thinly, to the detriment of effective scrutiny.

In any case, as Home Affairs Committee Chair Yvette Cooper made clear to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Week in Westminster’ on 2 May, remote evidence sessions constitute a less satisfactory and effective form of scrutiny than physical meetings.

Remote evidence sessions during recesses should therefore remain the exception, not the norm, and committees should exercise the option only with care.

But the current temporary provision for remote select committee evidence sessions is only an option. As such, it adds a further element of flexibility to the toolkit that select committees can bring to bear on an issue, and it is worth retaining for that reason.

The option of a remote evidence session during a recess could come in useful, most obviously, during any future crisis – especially if the government does not wish to have the House recalled.

But it is also possible to imagine, for example, a remote evidence session during a recess making the difference between taking evidence, or not, from a critical witness – perhaps especially in circumstances where delay would be particularly problematic.

In these sorts of situations during recess, compared to a physical meeting a remote evidence session would be better for the environment, presumably less costly, and potentially more accessible to MPs from all locations and domestic situations.

It is also notable that half a dozen of the recess evidence-taking occasions identified in this analysis took place on the first day of a recess, including in at least one case when the break started earlier than had been expected. In such circumstances, the option of a remote evidence session might avoid either an already-planned evidence session being cancelled, or MPs having to remain away from home despite Chamber business having finished.

It is even possible to imagine a remote evidence session being a useful exceptional option outside recesses, on a non-sitting Friday, if MPs could fit it between their constituency commitments, and if the alternative were a poorly-attended session at Westminster on a Tuesday or Wednesday which clashed with Chamber business or MPs' legislative committee work.

It is notable that while the House has had a reduced, Monday-to-Wednesday-only sitting week since its return after Easter, select committees have already taken oral evidence on 11 occasions on Thursdays and Fridays – and not only on Coronavirus.

Overall, therefore, to keep this flexibility, the option of select committees meeting remotely to take evidence is a Coronavirus reform that should be retained.

Fowler, B. (2020), Remote select committee evidence-taking is a Coronavirus change that should be kept (London: Hansard Society)