Parliamentary Response to Crisis: Committees and Coronavirus

Adapting to the situation we are left in due to the Covid-19 crisis is crucial for companies across the globe. GPG is intending to extend and expand what we have always done by continuing communication, providing advice, guidance and mentoring to our partners whether we are in-country or not.  Our Parliamentary Response to Crisis series is designed to gather together the thoughts and experience of parliamentary experts on the current Covid-19 pandemic, the response of governments and what comes next. 

The current crisis situation arising from the Coronavirus Covid-19 has changed the world in ways which would have seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago. Most of all, this crisis is about people and preventing ill-health and loss of life and caring for and supporting those who are affected.

But the implications of the crisis reach far beyond the immediate and pressing medical and social care emergency. Covid-19 will have short- medium- and long-term impacts in areas such as the economy, business, and employment, welfare benefits and taxation, health provision and future readiness and indeed almost every aspect of public policy.

The Political and Parliamentary Response to Covid-19: It is for this reason that the political and governmental process should respond effectively to the critical issues and pressing problems that have arisen. A central element of this response should involve Parliaments. They should use their unique position as the representative institution of the people to hear and address the public’s concerns, debate and consider the implications of the crisis and help to provide consensual and practical solutions.

The Role of Parliamentary Committees: The most effective way that Parliament can look closely at specific subjects is through the use of Scrutiny or Oversight Committees. Their most notable oversight function is to make the Executive accountable for its policies and laws, for the way it runs public services and the way that it spends the public’s money. This oversight work is usually in the form of an inquiry or policy review. This policy review will lead to a written report which contains the committee’s conclusions and, where necessary, makes recommendations for change and improvement.

Once the initial stage of the crisis has passed, Committees should therefore focus their work to determine how Governments and individual Ministries and public bodies have dealt with the crisis and conclude whether lessons should be learned.

Of course, oversight need not solely be about identifying failure and the allocation of blame. Sometimes it is important to ascertain where public policy and services have worked well so that praise can be given and that the good practices identified can be shared and adopted more widely.

Committee inquiries or reviews also can look to the future by suggesting solutions and making recommendations for action and seek to ensure that the consequences of the crisis are dealt with in the most efficient, practical and humane manner possible.

Representing the Public, Hearing Views and Experience: Everyone will be affected in some way by the Covid-19 crisis. Committees can provide a channel for information into the political and parliamentary process, including from:

  • Representatives of civil society organisations.
  • Subject specialist experts or groups.
  • Academics, research institutes and professional bodies; Private sector business and employee bodies.
  • Members of the public, including people and groups from different localities and social communities, with gender and age balance, to gain perspective on how different people have been affected.

Nine Stages of Committee Inquiries: Global Partners Governance has published a Guide to Parliaments which looks in detail at how committees undertake oversight inquiries and policy reviews and produce reports based on their findings and conclusions. The Guide provides step-by-step guidance to the main stages of an oversight inquiry:

  • Stage 1: Deciding to Hold an Inquiry
  • Stage 2: Agreeing Terms of Reference
  • Stage 3: Devising a Timetable for the Inquiry
  • Stage 4: Collecting Written Evidence and Factual Material
  • Stage 5: Holding Hearings
  • Stage 6: Collating and Analysing the Evidence
  • Stage 7: Drafting the Report
  • Stage 8: Final Report Publication and Dissemination
  • Stage 9: Undertaking Follow-Up.

Further information and material on the ways that parliamentary committees undertake effective inquiries can be found in the Global Partners Governance Guide to Parliaments Number 10, Parliamentary Committees and Oversight Inquiries at the following link:

https://www.gpgovernance.net/publication/paper-10-holding-government-to-account-parliamentary-committees-and-oversight-inquiries/

Committee Oversight during Covid-19: At present, because of social distancing and lockdown measures, many Parliaments are not sitting formally or have gone into recess. There have been some initiatives for virtual Parliaments, using video-conferencing, to scrutinise government responses to the Coronavirus. For example, a special select committee has been established in New Zealand to consider the government’s response to and management of COVID-19. It is named the Epidemic Response Committee and is a cross-party committee, chaired by the Leader of the Opposition. The Committee meets remotely via video-conference. For further information see  https://www.parliament.nz/en/get-involved/features/covid-19-what-is-the-epidemic-response-committee/

In the United Kingdom House of Commons some oversight committees are still operating, by using remote and virtual technology. https://www.parliament.uk/business/news/2020/april1/select-committees-continue-to-scrutinise-remotely/  At time of writing, the Speaker of the House of Commons is looking at the possibility of establishing a ‘virtual parliament and virtual select committees. ‘

The Inter-Parliamentary Union site, Parliament in a Time of Pandemic, is collecting information about the impact of Covid-19 on parliaments and on initiatives to respond to the crisis.  https://www.ipu.org/parliaments-in-time-pandemic

Conclusion: Politics may have paused in many cases, but public policy issues have certainly not gone away. There has rarely been an occasion in modern times when the political and parliamentary process should reflect, address and act upon the concerns of the public.

One central way of doing this is through parliamentary oversight, which can shine a light on the workings of government and can help to ensure that policies and laws are implemented in a well-run and responsible manner. Oversight can improve the quality of governance by enhancing transparency and is central to the democratic system of government.

Parliaments should continue with their oversight function wherever possible, if necessary, by using remote technology or virtual committees. One aspect would involve monitoring and collecting information about what is actually happening.

Once normal political and parliamentary work is resumed, Parliaments should prioritise oversight inquiries to look at the many impacts of Covid-19 on society, the economy and all aspects of public policy.  Hopefully this return to normality will not be too far away.

Alex Brazier is an Associate at Global Partners Governance. He was formerly Director of the Parliament and Government Programme, Hansard Society and previously a Committee Specialist to a House of Commons Select Committee.