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I. Overview on Operation of Parliament under Emergency Measures
There do not appear to be any specific laws that provide or deny Parliament the authority to continue its responsibilities if it cannot meet due to an event or emergency situation, although votes may be taken only with a quorum of 40 members of Parliament (MPs). Despite this restriction, the number of MPs present cannot formally be counted; however, there are a number of ways a quorum can be ascertained, notably through a division, when the votes of all members present are registered. If a quorum is not met, the business before the House stands over to another sitting, and the House proceeds to the next item of business.
The main focus of parliamentary planning for emergency situations is ensuring that it has a place to meet.
II. Arrangements for an “Emergency Parliament”
There does not appear to be any legislation, orders, or publicly published information that designates a subgroup of MPs to form an emergency parliament with devolved powers from the whole parliament to address crisis situations. Provided that Parliament has not been prorogued, suspended, or adjourned, it may continue to sit and vote on issues if the minimum quorum of 40 is met. This was seen during World War II, when Parliament continued to sit, despite many seats being left vacant due to the involvement of MPs in government services or as active members of the armed forces.
III. Current Arrangements for the Legislature to Work during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Parliament is continuing to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the oldest member of the House of Commons stating: “If the House of Commons were empty people would say, ‘Why aren’t we there?’ We should be reducing contact by degree but we shouldn’t panic and disappear.”
While parliamentary business continues, it is not business as usual. Travel for parliamentary reasons to other countries has been strongly discouraged by the Clerk of the House. All Westminster Hall debates, which occur on general debate motions, have been suspended after March 19, 2020. Only front bench MPs and those listed on the order paper for each day may enter into the Commons and they are required to follow social distancing requirements and stay two meters apart (approximately 6.5 feet). The procedure for divisions (votes) has been varied to stagger the entry of MPs into the lobbies, where they were forced by the design of the area to stand in close proximity to one another. The new procedure enables MPs to maintain an appropriate social distance. The speaker has also requested MPs to consider carefully before submitting written questions, noting that it is taking time away from civil servants that they could use to work on the response to COVID-19.
A Parliamentary Notice, issued on March 23, 2020, stated that “[m]any Members are now working away from the Estate.” While this may be possible for some work of MPs, Parliament is not currently set up for most of its work to occur remotely. The majority of business requires MPs to be physically present in Westminster as absentee or electronic voting is not currently permitted. A spokesperson from the House of Commons has been reported as stating:“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.”
The Clerk of the House of Commons is working with the House Procedure Committee to consider temporary changes to the practices of the House of Commons committees to make sure they can continue to operate if remote meetings would be required. On March 16, 2020, the Clerk of the House of Commons sent a memorandum on possible changes to House operating procedures during the pandemic. While proposing several measures, the Clerk noted that
there are many adjustments that could be made to the way Members work which could be achieved through political agreement (and in some circumstances the discretion of the Speaker and Deputy Speakers) rather than by motions on the floor of the House.
Such political agreement could extend to an informal way that many MPs have used to ensure their votes were not lost during any absence through a system known as “pairing.” This system involves an MP forming an agreement with an MP of an opposing party to be absent at the same time and,
[b]y this mutual agreement, a vote is neutralized on each side of a question, and the actual size of the majority is not affected. The practice of pairing is not official recognized in the procedures of the House; it is therefore conducted privately by individual Members, or arranged by the Whips of the respective parties. The Speaker has ruled that agreements to pair are private arrangements between Members and in no sense matters in which either the Chair or the House can intervene.
In a recent letter, the Speaker stated that he was assured the House authorities could publish lists of paired Members, if the parties could come to a procedural agreement.
On March 18, 2020, the chair of the Procedure Committee submitted a draft motion in a letter that, if acted upon, would enable all committee work to be done remotely via methods approved by the Speaker of the House. The extension of proxy voting is also being considered. All proposals are designed to “keep Parliament running during this difficult time as it responds to the Coronavirus pandemic, whilst mitigating the risk of Covid-19 being spread among those on the Parliamentary Estate.”
In the House of Lords, whose peers have an average age higher than members of the House of Commons, the Lord Speaker stated: “I would like to emphasize one point: no-one should consider it is their duty to be here in these circumstances. As Parliamentarians we also have a duty to show leadership and heed the advice of the public health experts.” Due to the recommendations from Public Health England, the Lord Speaker withdrew from the House, continuing the work he is able to do from home, and increased the number of deputies who may carry out his duties that require an in person appearance in the House of Lords.
The government has taken other measures to help ensure that the coronavirus does not spread through Parliament. Visitor access to the Parliamentary Estate was restricted on March 17, 2020, including to the public gallery, tours of the House, and committee meetings. Only individuals with a parliamentary pass and others on essential business may access the Parliamentary Estate. The government is encouraging these individuals, which include MPs, peers, and parliamentary staff, to work from home where possible and has closed on-site staff service from both parliamentary libraries and moved to taking questions via the telephone or email. Catering facilities no longer accept cash, the use of personal cups and mugs is prohibited, and the fee for disposable cups is being waived. The Westminster gym has been closed, and certain on-site restaurants have been closed.
Prepared by Clare Feikert-Ahalt
Senior Foreign Law Specialist
41.–(1) If it should appear that fewer than forty Members (including the occupant of the chair and the tellers) have taken part in a division, the business under consideration shall stand over until the next sitting of the House and the next business shall be taken.
(2) The House shall not be counted at any time.
 Id.Standing Order No. 41(2).
 A division is the way the House “ascertains the number of Members for and against a proposition when the Chair’s opinion as to which side is in the majority on a Question is challenged.” Paul Evans, Handbook of House of Commons Procedure 196 (1st ed., 1997).
 House of Commons Standing Order No. 41(1).
 Jennifer Tanfield, In Parliament 1939–50: The Effect of the War on the Palace of Westminster 9 (House of Commons Library Document No. 20, 1991).
 Peck, supra note 6.
 Parliamentary Notice, Coronavirus Update: Services and Facilities (Mar. 23, 2020) (copy on file with author).
 Erskine May Parliamentary Practice ¶ 20.87 (David Natzler et al. eds., 25th ed. 2019) https://perma.cc/CD83-3XBT.
 Letter from the Speaker of the House, supra note 18.
 Parliamentary Notice, supra note 13.
Last Updated: 12/30/2020