Ensuring Legislative Activities During COVID-19

4 May 2020, 10:30 a.m.

(Disponible en français : Assurer les activités législatives pendant la pandémie de la COVID-19)

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, legislatures around the world have had to suspend most of their activities, but many have adopted or are contemplating measures to continue their legislative work.

This HillNote provides an overview of some of the recent measures implemented internationally and domestically. The measures listed here are not exhaustive and are rapidly evolving.

Measures Implemented Internationally

Legislatures around the world have had to adjust the way they debate, pass legislation and scrutinize government activity.

Remote chamber sittings

In the United Kingdom, the House of Commons adopted a motion allowing for the introduction of “hybrid proceedings.” This model permits up to 120 Members of Parliament (MPs) to participate in virtual proceedings via Zoom, and up to 50 MPs to participate in the Chamber at Westminster under strict social distancing rules. Similar measures are being implemented in the House of Lords with daily oral questions being held in a virtual session.

In Brazil, the Chamber of Deputies passed a resolution on 17 March 2020 that permits virtual sittings and voting. The Chamber held its first virtual plenary on 25 March 2020, and continues to sit regularly. Session participants communicate using audio and video through the Zoom videoconference platform.

The European Parliament (EP) has also moved to virtual plenary sittings. A few members are permitted to be physically present in the chamber, while most members participate via a videoconference system. Of the EP’s 705 members, only group leaders and Council and Commission representatives may intervene remotely during plenary sessions. Interpretation continues to be provided in the 24 official languages of the EP.

Some legislatures have begun to accept electronic submissions for official documents. For example, on 7 April 2020, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives announced that bills, resolutions and other submissions by Members to the Congressional Record may be temporarily accepted in electronic format.

Remote committee meetings

Many legislatures around the world are holding committee meetings via video and/or teleconference. In New Zealand, Australia and the United Kingdom, committees have been authorized to meet remotely. For such meetings, members and witnesses must have the capacity to participate by video or teleconference.

For Select House Committees in the UK, specific measures must be met for a remote meeting to be held, including:

  • All members must confirm a form of electronic communication
  • Any written communication must be copied to the Committee clerk
  • All members must be able to hear witnesses clearly and pose questions directly
  • All members can hear and contribute to Committee deliberations
  • Parliamentary staff have the capacity to support committee meetings.

Other countries holding remote committee meetings include Norway, France and the Netherlands.

Electronic voting

The European Parliament has agreed to an alternative voting procedure that will permit Members to discuss and vote remotely in committee and plenary sessions. For a vote, members receive an electronic ballot, which they must complete and return from an official EP email address.

In Spain, previously established measures permitted parliamentarians to vote remotely for specific reasons including pregnancy, maternity and paternity leave, and serious illness. The Spanish Parliament has extended these circumstances to allow all parliamentarians to vote remotely during plenary sessions held during the COVID-19 crisis.

Reduced Format and Changes to Quorum

When physical presence is necessary, many legislatures have put measures in place to avoid close contact. On 23 March 2020, the Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives announced special seating arrangements to provide more space in the Chamber. On 17 March 2020, the French Conference of Presidents adopted a reduced format for sittings, providing that during questions for the government, only the authors of the questions and presidents of political groups can attend.

On 25 March 2020, the Rules of Procedures of the Bundestag (German parliament) were amended to reduce quorum from 50 to 25 percent of members required to be present in the Chamber and in committee meetings.

Proxy Votes

Some legislatures are considering changing their procedural rules to allow or facilitate proxy votes. A proxy vote by a member authorizes another member to cast a vote or record abstention on that member’s behalf.

New Zealand’s Business Committee changed the House’s proxy voting rules by temporarily waiving the existing limit that provides that proxy votes may not exceed 25 percent of a party’s total membership in the House. The French Conference of Presidents announced that measures would be implemented to enable presidents of political groups to cast votes on behalf of all the members of their group. However, it should be noted that the French Constitution of October 4, 1958 (Article 27) only allows proxy votes in “exceptional cases,” and provides that no member shall be given more than one proxy.

Measures Adopted Domestically

In Canada, measures have also been implemented to ensure continued legislative activities during the pandemic. In the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, two standing committees held virtual meetings (audio) in April 2020 to address matters not limited to the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual committee meetings (video) took place on 24 April 2020 in the Assemblée nationale du Québec to provide opportunities for members to put questions to the Government regarding COVID-19. The Standing Committee on Accountability and Oversight of the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly has continued to meet several times a week to discuss the impact of COVID-19 across the territory. During emergency COVID-19-related sittings of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, a limited number of members were present in the Chamber, using special seating arrangements.

In Parliament, following the adjournment of the Senate and the House of Commons on 13 March 2020, senators and members attended subsequent sittings in limited numbers and adopted special seating arrangements to pass urgent legislation. A limited number of committees are holding meetings via teleconference and videoconference, marking the first time in Parliament’s history that committees meet entirely virtually. On 24 April 2020, the House of Commons announced that a Special Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic composed of all members of the House will meet every Wednesday in the Chamber, and every Tuesday and Thursday by videoconference.

As time passes and physical distancing requirements continue, the House of Commons is exploring ways to make its sittings virtual and has mandated the Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs to study ways in which members of Parliament can fulfill their parliamentary duties while the House stands adjourned.

Additional Resources

European Parliament, Remote voting in the European Parliament and national parliaments, 25 March 2020.

House of Commons Library (UK), Coronavirus: Changes to practice and procedure in other parliaments.

Inter-Parliamentary Union, Parliaments in a time of pandemic.

Inter-Parliamentary Union, Country compilation of parliamentary responses to the pandemic.

Library of Congress, Continuity of Legislative Activities during Emergency Situations.

Authors: Isabelle Brideau and Erin Virgint, Library of Parliament

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