I call this meeting to order. Welcome to meeting number 21 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs.
The committee is meeting on the study of parliamentary duties and the COVID-19 pandemic. Pursuant to the motion adopted by the House on May 26, the committee may continue to sit virtually until Monday, September 21, to consider matters related to COVID-19 and other matters. Certain limitations on virtual committee meetings held until now are now removed. As just mentioned, the committee is now able to consider other matters, and in addition to receiving evidence, the committee may also consider motions as we normally do.
As stipulated in the latest order of reference from the House, all motions shall be decided by way of a recorded vote. Finally, the House has also authorized our committee to conduct some of our proceedings in camera, specifically for the purpose of considering draft reports or the selection of witnesses. On this point, the Clerk of the House has informed the whips that, until the House administration finalizes a process to switch between public and in camera proceedings within the same meeting, all virtual meetings that begin in public must remain in public until the end, and all virtual meetings that begin in camera must remain in camera until the end.
Today’s meeting is taking place by video conference and the proceedings will be made available via the House of Commons website. We are in public. So that you are aware, the webcast will always show the person speaking rather than the entirety of the committee as you see it in gallery view on your screen.
To ensure an orderly meeting, I would like to outline a few rules to follow. Interpretation in this video conference will work very much like in a regular committee meeting. You have the choice, at the bottom of your screen, of floor, English or French.
As you are speaking, if you plan to alternate from one language to the other, you will need to also switch the interpretation channel so that it aligns with the language you are speaking. You may want to allow for a short pause when switching languages.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you are ready to speak, you can click on the microphone icon to activate your mike.
As a reminder, all comments by members and witnesses should be addressed through the chair.
Should members need to request the floor outside of their designated time for questions, they should activate their mike and state that they have a point of order. If the member wishes to intervene on a point of order that has been raised by another member, they should use the “Raise Hand” function in the “Participants” toolbar. This will signal to the chair your interest to speak. In order to do so, you should click on “Participants” at the bottom of the screen. When the list pops up, next to your name there's a “Raise Hand” function.
When speaking, please speak slowly and clearly. When you are not speaking, your mike should be on mute. Headsets are strongly encouraged.
Should any technical challenges arise, as I mentioned before, please bring them up with the chair immediately and the technical team can help you resolve those issues so that all members can participate fully.
During this meeting we will follow the same rules that usually apply to opening statements and the questioning of witnesses. The witnesses will have seven minutes for their opening statements.
Just as we usually would in a regular committee meeting, we will suspend in between panels in order to allow the first group of witnesses to depart and for the next panel to join the meeting.
Before we get started, I would ask everyone to click on the top right-hand corner of their screen and ensure they are in gallery view. With this view you should be able to view all the participants in a grid format so all the participants can see one another.
I would now like to welcome our witnesses.
We have from the House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Right Honourable Karen Bradley, who is also the chair of the procedure committee. We're glad you were able to join us, Ms. Bradley. We were getting a little worried and wondering whether we'd be able to have you here today. I'm glad you were able to make it.
Next we have Mr. Simon Burton from the House of Lords of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He is the assistant clerk.
From the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we have Matt Stutely, director of software engineering, parliamentary digital service.
Welcome to all of you. We will start with the Right Honourable Karen Bradley for a seven-minute statement, please.
In that case, I will read it out. It's probably easier if I read it rather than try to summarize it.
First, let me give you a word about the committee I chair. I was elected to chair the committee in a contested election, which involves all members of the House of Commons. It's not a party political thing. This is a House committee, and the chair is elected by all members. The election in this Parliament happened in January this year. Although the election was then, we weren't able to formally constitute the committee until Monday, March 2. I then took up my position and all members of the committee were appointed. Our first meeting was on March 4 this year. It was clear to us at that point that the COVID situation would require some substantial amendments to House practice.
The procedure committee is a committee of backbench MPs. We do not have members of the executive as part of our committee. We have no executive role. Our remit is “to consider the practice and procedure of the House in the conduct of public business, and to make recommendations”. We do not have a remit to consider House administration alongside House procedure, as your committee does. My colleague Sir Charles Walker, with whom I think you've also been in contact, chairs a separate committee, the administration committee, which oversees the services provided to members. Then we have the House of Commons Commission, which is a statutory body chaired by the Speaker. That sets the strategic direction for the House service. It is often the forum in which high-level political agreement on certain issues will be found.
My committee can consider issues proposed by committee members, other members of the House, members of the public, the Speaker and even ministers. We are not constrained in the recommendations we make, except in the means of their implementation. That's where changes to House procedure and practice are typically made by the House itself, but the motions on which the House decides are brought forward by the government, by the leader of the House of Commons. He is the minister with responsibilities in the House of Commons, most similar, I think, to those of the leader of the government in yours. The reality is that if we make recommendations about changes to House procedure, they have to be supported by the government before they can be implemented.
In terms of the pandemic, there have been a number of changes, very significant changes, to the way in which House business has been conducted over the last few months. The changes have fallen into three phases.
The first phase involved ad hoc adaptations. Before we rose for the Easter recess, the period from the beginning of March to around March 23 or 24, we made ad hoc adaptations. We didn't make large-scale procedural changes. Instead, we reached agreement between the parties. For example, we didn't have any physical divisions at the House of Commons in that period to avoid the fact that, due to the way in which divisions took place, members would have to be very close together, and we managed to do significant items of business. For example, our budget resolutions were passed on the nod, effectively, with no division happening. We also moved into having social distancing within the chamber. Although we didn't have any formal blocking out of seats, we had to limit the number of members to 50 for showpiece events like Prime Minister's questions, which I'm sure you're all aware of.
After we came back from the Easter recess, we moved into what we called fully hybrid proceedings with parity, which meant that we allowed virtual participation. We developed a system of remote voting. We have no differentiation between members who were there physically in person and members who attended virtually. I can go into more details about hybrid proceedings later; I'm conscious of the time.
Since our return from the Whitsun recess, which was only last week, we moved to a different form of proceedings, which we're calling limited virtual participation, for a much more active chamber. Although there are still only 50 people allowed in the chamber, we do allow virtual participation for questions—questions during statements and urgent questions—but not for substantive legislative business, such as second reading debates and other debates.
We also have just announced that we will extend the proxy voting system that we've only previously used for paternity leave to those members who are unable to attend the House due to shielding on the government advice, or because they cannot attend the House due to the restrictions that the coronavirus has imposed.
The new provisions we have in place will last until July 7.
Hopefully that gives you a brief update on where we are.
Thank you very much indeed, Madam Chair, and to the committee for this invitation. I am delighted to be here representing the House of Lords, on behalf of our Clerk, and for the invitation from your Clerk, Charles Robert, who is a great friend and a colleague we all admire across the world, particularly in his relationships with other senior colleagues.
I'll start with a couple of small facts about the House of Lords because they are relevant to how we have responded to this pandemic.
The House is large. We have 789 members. There is also no government majority; only 244 of those 789 are on the government benches.
The House is self-regulating. The power of the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker is traditionally very limited, and indeed there are limited tools the government controls, like programming motions, etc. As Ms. Bradley said, it's important that the decision-making processes behind the scenes are linked into that concept of self-regulation. In the Lords our procedure committee and our commission—the procedure committee oversees procedure; the commission oversees the administration at a strategic level—both include the leaders of all the main parties in the Lords, as well as the Speaker, the Lord Speaker and the Deputy Speaker, so there are two decision-making bodies that bring people together.
Another factor that is very relevant in the current circumstances is the demographic profile of the House of Lords, with 54% of our members over 70 years of age, which in the U.K. is a threshold for particular attention to people's health and their vulnerability.
Also importantly, unlike some other bicameral parliaments, we're very fortunate to share our building with our friends and colleagues in the Commons. Not only the building, but many services are also jointly shared and run and administered, including the digital service, which our colleague Matt works with colleagues there. These shared bicameral services are an important feature of what we've managed to achieve in the last few weeks.
You are interested in the modifications the Lords have made to accommodate public health measures. As soon as the Prime Minister's announcement was made in March, in the Commons as Ms. Bradley has said, some physical measures were introduced immediately with some social distancing, and we've built on that in the last weeks and months. Now the whole Palace of Westminster, the chamber of the Lords, all the rooms around the Lords, all the corridors, the lifts, the staircases, everything is now controlled in a way to maximize social distancing and to minimize exposure.
Also, from the beginning the House has encouraged its members to participate remotely. As in the Commons, members come from across the U.K., as is the case in Canada. Remote participation has been important, particularly for the elderly members for whom transport isn't necessarily particularly straightforward.
Both Houses also restricted access for visitors very early on.
In the Lords the decision to move to virtual proceedings was taken in March, but we had our Easter recess and we returned on April 21. We spent two weeks with the House sitting in a purely virtual form using Microsoft Teams and then we moved to Zoom, the platform that we're using today, and the House met in Zoom. It was only yesterday the House moved to the hybrid format with some members present in the chamber, but the overwhelming majority continue to participate via Zoom.
Every Parliament is different. The infrastructure and the technology we use is different, but in our case Zoom is the platform that works best for public broadcasting, and the Lords is very keen that their contributions continue to be accountable and open to the public.
In terms of procedural changes, first the House passed a resolution to allow our procedure committee to issue guidance, which has the same force as guidance approved by the procedure committee through a resolution of the House. This is an important development because in the fast-moving circumstances of a pandemic, having the ability to adapt procedures and guidance in this way has been very helpful.
Second, the House has agreed to a much more structured management of debates with more time limits on debates and on individual speeches.
Third, the House asserted very early on that parliamentary privilege applies to remote proceedings as it does to proceedings in the chamber, although we have advised members that if they are participating remotely in a different jurisdiction, obviously the jurisdiction of that country or that state or that nation may have a view of that, but certainly privilege applies to remote proceedings as they do to physical.
Virtual proceedings do not have the power to decide matters. Only a sitting of the House can decide things. When we were meeting in our virtual format, we did also have small, short physical sittings, but decisions were taken so far without a vote. The hybrid sitting, as we had as of yesterday, not only can debate, but also it can decide things.
There are a few other features of the hybrid House. The chair has absolute power to adjourn the House if it becomes overcrowded. There is no sign of this so far, but the size of our chamber means that to respect social distancing—people staying two metres apart—we cannot accommodate more than 30 members in our chamber. Were that number to be exceeded and were members not able to leave, the chair does have the power to suspend the sitting until it is sorted out.
We also have electronic voting which we are introducing. Matt is leading us on that. Thank you very much, Matt, for your work on that. That is coming in on Monday of next week.
I have a couple of quick insights to round off.
First, after observing the last few weeks, I would say that communication has been key. Our Lord Speaker, our Senior Deputy Speaker and the Clerk of the Parliaments have communicated with members and staff to make sure that everyone knows what's going on.
Second, we've used Teams. While Zoom has been the platform of choice in the hybrid House, we continue to use Teams for conversations and chats between officials and members, and that has been absolutely vital.
I would observe that this isn't quite within the customs of the House, but proceedings have had to become much more structured and managed than they are traditionally in order to cope with a hybrid setting.
The House has also agreed that there should be parity of treatment. Members should be treated the same, whether participating virtually or in person, in the hybrid sitting. That's very important.
There are a couple of practical points to end on. First, cybersecurity has been very much in our minds as we've developed our systems, and many different staff across many teams have worked together and, indeed, have done much new work in order to deliver.
As we look ahead to the future, much of what we've learned in the last few weeks will help us on the journey to restoring and renewing the Palace of Westminster in due course, but that is perhaps for another day.
Exactly. I do apologize to them for that.
Thank you very much for indulging me and not making me send you notes.
I'm going to talk about five specific points around the remote voting solution we built for the Commons and are now putting in place for the Lords. At the end, I guess you can ask me questions, as you wish.
The first area is the rationale for the approach we took. Obviously, there are a lot of solutions out there in the marketplace that deliver voting for various different mechanisms. However, we decided to build it in-house as a bespoke development for two reasons. One was around building on software that we already had. Our voting solution in both Houses is already electronic, to the point where it's recorded on tablet devices and collated at the end of the division. The results are published to our website and in Hansard and other such places. We wanted to make sure we built on top of what we already had.
We also wanted to make sure that what we were delivering was familiar to House staff. Obviously, they have a lot of change, a huge amount of change, going on. It's a completely new world for them. Trying to keep some familiarity for them was important.
Equally as important was some familiarity for members. On the Commons site, we have a system for members, called “MemberHub”, which members have had for about three years now. It is used for tabling oral and written questions and for signing motions. Again, it was logical to us that at a time of immense change, when members were working in a completely different way and were obviously under a lot of pressure, we would keep something familiar for them as well.
That's why we didn't go off and try to buy a completely different product off the shelf and customize it. We wanted to build on top of what we had now so that we knew it would work. The integrations would work and take minimal effort for those who have to look after them. As well, members wouldn't be asked to learn another set of log-ins, or have to log in to a different system that worked or behaved in a slightly different way from other things that they were used to. That was the reason we went down that path.
Next, for those who are interested, everything is built on a Microsoft technology stack. It's Microsoft .NET with SQL server databases behind it. Everything communicates over straightforward Internet protocols, but everything is secure. It's all https—the thing with a little padlock, for those of you who are familiar with using a web browser—but everything is secure and sent over the Internet and then web traffic so we can control the pipeline we're operating the system over.
We built the system, which took us about four weeks from beginning to end. We were asked by the Clerk of the House to put together a solution on April 6, and I think the first vote was pretty much five weeks after that. We rolled it out for live testing pretty much four weeks to the day from the day we were asked to start building it. We were asked to start building it before it had been formally agreed, obviously, by the procedure committee, because we wouldn't have wanted to wait until the House was ready. They'd have asked us for a solution, to which we'd have said we needed another four weeks to build it. We wanted the House to be able to use it once they decided they wanted it.
We went through the build process. Whilst we were building it, we were running it and testing it internally first, with our own staff pretending to be members. Then we did a number of demonstrations to various members across various committees. Ms. Bradley and her committee had a demonstration. Some members of the administration committee had a demonstration, as did the leader of the House and the chief whip. So a number of the sort of.... I'll say the wrong thing now and say the “key stakeholders”, but the sort of key stakeholders have been making recommendations about how this should go forward. We're all taking them through the system so that they understand it.
As part of that, we took on board quite a lot of feedback as well. There were ideas which at the beginning sounded very sensible, but it was logical to ask the technical people who were building it about, for example, the ability to let members change their vote during the division. Within a 15-minute window for a division that took place, if a member made a mistake, they could go back and correct it. Having run through this process and received feedback from those who administer this and would have to work with it, we were asked to take that away and instead move to a process of double confirmation, i.e., “Please cast your vote. Are you sure this is the vote you wish to cast?” After that, the vote is locked in. Obviously, that's in line with how it works in the real world. There were lots of little pieces of feedback like that.
The main information that came back—I'm sure you want to ask about this yourselves—was around security. I didn't talk about it too much at the beginning. We have a single sign-on process for members to log in to their parliamentary accounts, to log in to their emails and to log in to their laptops, always with the same password. We built a system with that in mind, so we have the same password, and we have a multifactorial authentication process to double-check that they are who they say they are.
From the point of view of security, it's pretty much the same as you would use for online banking. It's the same concept as that. You have to have your password and a device with a number that you type into the system to confirm it's you.
Once we'd finished the testing, we had to roll the system out. We had two systems in place already, as I say, one for recording the votes and one for the members to interact with. That was rolled out onto those two platforms, and then we ran a second test. This time members took part in pretend divisions on key and interesting questions like, “Does one put tea in the cup before the milk?” and such vital questions of the day, just to engage people. We kept it very non-political because we didn't want to bring anything political around the voting system. That's a completely separate thing, so we wanted to keep it very stand-alone.
Those tests highlighted some issues, as I'm sure we'd expect them to. There were two issues we came up with. The first one was around the performance of the system. A lot of the feedback we had then was, “Well, I can't believe that with 650 MPs you could have a performance problem in your system.”
Because of the way the House works, however, and the many rules and processes around divisions, what's actually going on behind the scenes are a lot of checks to make sure the division is active, that it hasn't been stopped and that the member hasn't voted on another device. There are lots of things going on behind the scenes to ensure the security of the vote taking place. A lot is going on actually when 600 people are logging in. The first time we tried it, the system slowed down quite a lot, so we did a lot of work to improve that.
The second issue we had was around security. We had over-secured our network, and members who were using their parliamentary devices supplied by the digital service were able to vote in our test divisions without any problems, but those who were using their personal devices were being blocked. Basically, our network was responding with, “We don't recognize this device. Go away.”
Again, the reason for doing all that testing up front was to learn all of that and correct all of that before the first live division happened. Once that was all done, we rolled out live divisions, and then the House voted, I think, 10 or 11 times in the first couple of weeks of using it.
Yes, of course. The normal way we vote is we have two rooms on either side of the chamber that you can't see, but they are behind the chamber. One is behind where the Prime Minister and the government MPs sit, and the other is behind where the opposition MPs sit. They are called the division lobbies. The aye lobby is on the government side. The no lobby is on the opposition side.
When a division is called, members of Parliament have eight minutes to get into one of those two rooms. The bell rings. It's like an old-fashioned school bell. Members then have eight minutes to get into either the aye lobby or the no lobby. You can imagine, with the size of Parliament, the size of our building, that can be quite time pressuring for people, but on the whole, members are very good at being able to get into the right division lobby at the right time.
Then what we do is congregate within that lobby. We go to three desks at the end of the lobby by our surnames. There's one A to F, I think it is, and G to L or whatever, and you have your name crossed off by the clerk. There's a clerk at each desk who then records that you voted, but the vote is the voice when we shout aye or no. The actual count happens as you leave the lobby.
The problem with our system is that the doors of the division lobby are reduced in size so only one person can get out at any one time. I would be delighted to give you a demonstration if you could ever get to the United Kingdom when we're allowed to do this. Then there are two people who stand on either side of the door, the tellers, and they count you.
Quite clearly the problem you have is that with only one person coming through at one time and two people standing right next to them, you cannot maintain social distancing between the tellers who do the counting, between members and the clerks who are crossing the names off and between the members themselves, because you get a bottleneck as people try to get through these lobbies. Bear in mind that for a division, you would probably have over 300 members in one lobby and around 250 to 260 in the other lobby. That would be the normal sorts of figures.
You can imagine that in eight minutes you congregate with everybody in a room that is the length of the chamber, but not as wide, and you are squashed in there. It's quite unpleasant in the summer, but it's a very good opportunity to see your colleagues. It is your chance to meet ministers. It is your chance to doorstep those people you need to speak to about matters, so it's very valued by colleagues. Members do not want to give up voting in the division lobby because of the access it gives them to colleagues. Clearly, in this pandemic with this situation, that kind of voting is simply not possible.
We looked at having staggered voting times, where perhaps we would have 10 minutes for each set of surnames to go through each lobby. We looked at other ways to do it, but it simply wasn't possible, and the public health advice was that this was congregating, and getting through this tiny gap to come out was the bit that causes a problem, so we then had to look at other ways to do it.
Of course, the original proposals made were that we would have remote electronic voting, which Matt and his team developed so fantastically. If you have seen the report my committee made on April 8, we said we didn't believe it was possible to have any form of remote electronic voting in place within four weeks. Not only did we have it but we were carrying out live divisions.
We still, of course, have a problem because we have now given up on the remote voting, and we are now having to vote in person. You will probably see the queues that have caused some of the problems with that.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you to our guests for joining us today.
As you are all aware, the committee also has been tasked to look at potentially modifying some standing orders for the duration of the pandemic and look at ways we can make hybrid sittings of the House work and also look at enacting remote voting. We are really looking at how we can make this happen.
I think one thing that all parliamentarians can certainly agree on is that being here in person is really our preference when we can get to Ottawa, but during a pandemic, we certainly know that changes have to be made, and sometimes we have to look at things differently.
I think also, when we look at this situation, protecting the health and safety of our MPs and also our staff is a paramount priority. We need to look at that, but I also truly believe that all members of Parliament also want to make sure that we can protect the fundamental rights of members of Parliament in ensuring that we can continue to do our work either remotely or in person, and our constituents certainly expect that of us.
My first question is directed to Mr. Stutely.
Do you feel the measures that have been put in place right now allow you to securely practise hybrid sittings and also remote or electronic voting?
I can only really talk about the voting, because that's the piece that I've been involved in.
The way we built it, we know it is secure. Mr. Burton mentioned this a bit beforehand. We worked quite closely with our own cybersecurity team, but we also had the system verified by the National Cyber Security Centre. We had them look over the architecture of the system and point out any concerns they had for us to address. Their concerns, in the end, didn't turn out; the system architecture wasn't a concern for them at all. They were more worried about other things.
I'll give one example. We send out an SMS message to members telling them a division is taking place. When we started the process, we'd send out a URL link to the member hub system, saying, “A division has begun. Please cast your vote and click on this link.” They didn't like that because it encourages people to click on links in text, which is how bad cyber-actors get you to start clicking on things you shouldn't and start stealing your details. They asked us to change that, but it was the only really substantial thing they wanted evolved.
We had them review the system and write up a report, which was sent to our manager and director of the clerks of the House. Obviously no cyber-team is going to say a system is perfect, but they said they were not concerned about the risk of tampering with a vote or members' being spoofed or anything like that. We got that reassurance from a central government body, basically.
There were actually changes to the procedure in the House of Commons and a temporary motion was laid by the government on April 22 that enabled there to be remote electronic voting.
Now if I would have a criticism of that motion, it would be that it only allowed for remote electronic voting and it didn't allow us to test any other systems. I think that perhaps having not had the ability to test, for example, extending proxy voting, which is what we are now doing, we are trying to do some things without having been through the proper processes, which I think we should do to gather the evidence and make sure members are happy.
You're quite right to say that when that motion was tabled, there was no division in the House. It was agreed by the chief whips of the main parties and what we call the usual channels, which is our terminology for it, so that it went through without there being the need for division. There was a temporary change in procedure that expired by default on May 12, I think it was, and then was renewed to expire on May 20. When we came back on June 2, that motion was no longer there and we were back to only being able to vote physically in the chamber, which is where we've created these problems for ourselves.
I suppose the obvious point is that the decisions were made primarily by other people. The clerks—we don't have any Commons clerks, unfortunately, on this call—who kind of run the division business know who the key stakeholder members are. The most obvious people were those on the Procedure Committee, because they are responsible for making recommendations to the House about what they should do. So the Procedure Committee was the first and most obvious group to show it to.
What we did first was to pick a couple of members—the chair and a couple of others—from that committee, just to have a little look to see where things were, to get kind of an initial view, I suppose both to take away the fear of what is possible and have some reassurance that something was being done and that it was moving forward, and also to get their initial feedback. It was kind of leaning on—perhaps not the right term—a number of clerks to say to us, “And these are the other people..”.
The thing that's kind of missed, as I said earlier, and that was really key to the success of this project, was our partnership with the senior clerks on the Commons side who are responsible for running divisions. There were a couple of them who were heavily involved in this. It was a real, proper, full-on partnership of the procedural side and the technical side coming together to come up with a solution that would work for members. The clerks' involvement was really key to our getting the right people involved.
As well as the Procedure Committee, as I said, we talked to the Administration Committee. We talked to the chief whip and the leader of the House. We also spoke to a number of government ministers.
The other part of this was speaking to some government ministers, whose job it is to get legislation through Parliament. That was a view that we hadn't understood in detail. Say I'm a minister and I'm trying to move this bill through the House, what would I be doing? Because in this virtual world, my whip isn't here saying, right, these people are going to be here at this time.... It was understanding from them what they might need, what are they to understand...because they know how to get their business through.
I guess the answer to the question is that it was reaching out to as many people as possible to give them relatively small personal demos, and giving a more detailed demo at least once to the Procedure Committee. Then we ran drop-in sessions, for want of a better word, on Microsoft Teams, much like a Zoom call. We opened up the invitation to all members to drop in between the hours of 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. We would take their details, call them back and give them a one-to-one demonstration.
So taking it through the key stakeholders, we gave all members the opportunity, if they wanted, to call up and have somebody take them through the system and show them how it worked. It was to build that familiarization, because even though it's familiar, it's challenging and different.
Basically, what happens is that members will receive a text message when the division begins. The division is kicked off, they receive a text message and they get an email as well. They can choose to receive that email in a second mailbox. They get one sent to their parliamentary account and they can choose to send an email to another account. As I'm sure is the same with all of you, members can get huge amounts of constituency and parliamentary business and things going into their main mailbox, and they might miss something. So members can choose to send it to a personal or a staff mailbox, just so that they know a division is happening.
Once that is received, it tells them to log on to the system to cast their vote. If I could share my screen with you, I could show you what that looks like. It's very straightforward. In the MemberHub system, a big banner appears along the top of the screen that tells a member that a division is in progress and they have x minutes to vote. A little countdown tells them how long they have.
When you as a member press the button to cast your vote, basically a pop-up appears: “This is division 1 on such-and-such bill, amendment 2.” Then you cast your vote. There are two big boxes. One says aye and one says no. You click aye: “You're going to vote aye. Press next.” You press next: “You're about to vote aye. Once you have cast your vote for aye, you cannot change it. Are you sure?”
If you hadn't meant to vote aye, you can press “back” and change your vote to no: “You are going to vote no. Are you sure?” Then it takes you to the final page: “You're going to vote no.” Once you say that's correct, you are told, “Right. We've received your vote. Thank you very much.”
At that point, to reassure the member and to reinforce the fact that the House has received their vote, we send the member a text and an email: “We are in receipt of your aye vote. It was received at 2:18 p.m. Thank you very much.” That kind of finishes it.
With virtual proceedings, not all members are watching it live at the time it's happening, so when the division is finished and the Speaker has read out the result in the House, every member who voted will receive a text: “The vote for this division was ayes 201, noes 100. The ayes have it.”
So they also get the results, and are fully engaged in the process all the way through.
Welcome back, everyone.
Could everyone please click on the top right-hand corner of their screen to ensure that you are on gallery view. With this view you should be able to see all of the participants in the committee meeting in a grid format.
I would like to make a few comments for the benefit of the new witnesses before us.
Before speaking, please wait until I recognize you by name. When you are ready to speak, you can click on the microphone to activate your mike. I remind you that all comments should be addressed through the chair. Interpretation in this video conference will work very much like it does in a regular committee meeting. You will have a choice at the bottom of your screen of French, English or the floor. Please select the language that you will be speaking in. If at any point you are alternating between languages, please be sure to switch your language preference at the bottom of the screen to the language you are speaking, and try to pause briefly in between. That should help things go smoothly. Please speak slowly and clearly. You should make sure that your mike is on mute when you are not speaking. Headsets are of course strongly encouraged.
In the case of Ms. Cuevas, I did hear that she doesn't have a mike. I recommend that you speak as clearly and as slowly as possible, and our interpreters will try to do their best.
Welcome to all of the witnesses. This is the second panel of meeting number 21 of the procedure and House affairs committee. We are studying having a virtual Parliament in the case of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before us right now we have Global Partners Governance, with Greg Power and Sue Griffiths. Then we have the president of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Ms. Cuevas.
Thank you to all of the witnesses for being here today. Could we please have seven minutes of opening remarks from Global Partners Governance, with Mr. Greg Power.
Thank you for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be with you. I'll try to be as brief as possible. If I can, I'll do it under seven minutes.
By way of a very brief introduction, as you mentioned, my name is Greg Power. I'm the founder and the board chair of an organization called Global Partners Governance, which I set up in 2005. We work with parliaments, political parties and ministers in various parts of the world.
My own background is in British politics, having worked on parliamentary reform in the think tank and civil society world during the 1990s. I was then a special adviser to the leader of the House of Commons in the British Parliament, Robin Cook and then Peter Hain, where I had to try to implement a lot of the reforms that I was writing about from the think tank world. What looked very obvious, easy and straightforward from the luxury of the think tank world suddenly became much more complex when you're in government and trying to mediate between government and Parliament.
That's part of the theme of what I was going to say in relation to these comments. I'll make five broad comments about the transition to trying to implement virtual parliaments. A lot of this is based on a paper that my colleague Sue Griffiths, director of GPG, wrote that was specifically commissioned by the Mongolian Parliament as part of some work for the Asia Foundation, but we've looked at parliaments around the world in relation to this challenge.
These are the five broad points.
The first point is that in all parliaments, the obvious priority is the technological challenge. How do you do this? We've seen lots of parliaments all around the world trying to understand the practical implications of bringing this technology into parliamentary chambers that perhaps aren't that suited to the use of technology. Also, what does this do to parliamentary business? Most parliaments have had to prioritize. You can't get through the same amount of business that you were able to when the Parliament was sitting in physical form. How do you choose those priorities? Who gets to decide those questions? Who decides which business takes priority? That's the first set of challenges.
The second point is the political implications of this. The fact that you suddenly have to do your business in a slightly different way, and that you will not be able to get through as much business, will have subtle changes on the balance of power.
I think there are three things worth mentioning in relation to that.
Number one, as many parliaments have found, if you're going to do hybrid sittings, which combine both virtual and physical presence of parliamentarians, who gets to decide who's in the chamber and who's Zooming in virtually?
Number two is the way in which this changes the dynamics. We've seen this most obviously, certainly from our point of view, in the British Parliament. I'm slightly disappointed we didn't get to hear what the representatives of the Houses of Parliament in the U.K. said to you. The dynamics of the debates in the British Parliament have changed fundamentally. The ability to manage a very rowdy floor full of politicians is a political skill, which has both made and broken ministerial careers in the U.K. You see it most obviously in our own Prime Minister's questions when the Prime Minister clearly benefits from having an audience for his style of speaking to Parliament, whereas the Leader of the Opposition perhaps has a more austere, forensic style, which is more suited to not having an audience, or at least he certainly doesn't need it as much as the Prime Minister does to get his points across. It changes the dynamic, and you can see that in a whole range of debates in Parliament.
Number three is what the lack of physical presence does for the organization of politics, and the ability to whip a party is very different when you're not physically in the same space.
The third point has to do with public communication. What does the move to a virtual parliament do to the ability of the public to access parliamentary proceedings? If they had been physically able to get into the building, how do they access knowledge, information on what Parliament is doing and who decides what sort of information they get.
The fourth point is logistics and resources. Again, looking at the U.K. as an example, one of the big issues that hit the news was the fact that Parliament had to provide all MPs with enough resources to be able to work virtually, including the provision of laptops. This became a news story because, in a time when the economy is not moving, why on earth should MPs get all this extra money when everybody else is suffering. That was the way it was portrayed in the news, but there is an issue there around making sure that politicians and staff have the ability and the skills to participate remotely.
The final point, then, is just about what the lasting impact of moving to virtual proceedings is. The short answer is none of us know. There will be a lasting impact. I think we've all gotten used to this sort of meeting, and it's likely to provide a feature of parliamentary proceedings in all business for some time into the future.
In other parliaments you have seen the use of emergency powers during this period, and the insertion of sunset clauses through a lot of the hybrid and the virtual Parliament rules that have come in.
Just by way of conclusion, I think the issue here is that this has changed politics, both practically and politically in the way that it's done. I think there has been a lot of focus on countries like Hungary, where Prime Minister Orbán has used the pandemic as an excuse to extend the powers of the government.
I think the real risk for most parliaments is not that head-on assault to democracy, but a slow erosion and a subtle shift in the balance of power that we don't actually notice at the time, but that does change the ability of a parliament to hold government to account.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair. Thank you to all of my parliamentary colleagues.
At the Inter-Parliamentary Union, we are collecting the parliamentary responses to COVID-19, and how parliaments are adapting to these new and highly unfortunate circumstances.
There are different practices. Allow me to start with a terrible number: Almost two billion people in the world have had suspended or reduced parliaments. As we know the importance of our responsibilities, we also know that when it happens, when parliaments are suspended or reduced, our capacity to promote legislation, for example, emergency legislation, to adopt budgets or even to exercise our responsibility of overseeing the government is also reduced. It is affected, and that also affects democracy.
I would like to review a little of what IPU has been receiving from the national parliaments. First are the remote working methods in parliament. The current pandemic has caused significant disruption to parliaments around the world, but with it has come a wave of unexpected innovation. Committee meetings, just like yours, have proven to be more adaptable and, perhaps, better suited to the digital tools available. Forty per cent of parliaments report using a remote model for their committees and only 6% report holding no committee meetings.
Ten per cent of parliaments have opted for a technology-based solution in their plenaries, using digital tools to operate a remote parliament or a hybrid chamber. In the hybrid model, a number of members and officials are present in the chamber, and others are able to participate remotely via video conferencing tools. Twenty per cent of parliaments had held no meetings of their plenary, and two-fifths were holding face-to-face plenaries but with reduced numbers and special conditions applying.
I would like to recall what Greg was saying. In this case, it's not only about having meetings. In most of the cases, the rules of the parliament are not allowing these virtual meetings to be a mandatory decision for the parliament. That's the case in my own country of Mexico. We have committee meetings, but we are going to vote everything hopefully in September, when we can go back to the parliament.
We know this is creating the opportunity to accelerate parliamentary innovation and to develop new working methods. Surely, we are going to need to adapt our roles as soon as possible, and I think this will happen around the world.
In terms of procedure, before parliaments can operate in a remote or hybrid manner, they must identify, as I was just explaining, the legal and procedural barriers to doing so. It has proven to be the case that many parliamentary systems have been legally or procedurally defined in such a way that it is either explicit or implicit that they must meet in person and that decisions are ratified by a vote of those members present. For example, we have a quorum rule for most of our parliaments, or even for parliamentary organizations. Many parliaments have reviewed their legislative framework and brought forward amendments. Spain, Brazil, Finland and Latvia are such examples. The U.K. House of Commons and the New Zealand House of Representatives have formally amended parliamentary Standing Orders to allow for remote sittings.
There is also the issue of the availability of staff and members. Of course, if we are asking people for social distancing and to work from home, this applies to the secretariat, the staff, the people who are helping us in our parliaments, and this also translates to the national parliaments. For example, the European Parliament expects its IT team to be working remotely until at least September. Remote working requires secure access to the systems used in parliament, and it is clear that parliaments that have invested in remote access and cloud-based solutions prior to the pandemic are at an advantage here. Another example is the parliament of the Maldives, which is an excellent example of how prior investment in strategic planning and IT has made it easier for them to respond to the current circumstances.
We also have different working modalities. Greg was mentioning some of them, so I will go very quickly. When a parliament operates virtually, not only the formal procedure but also the practical process changes. Members need to have access to a sufficiently reliable—we are experiencing that—and high-speed Internet connection. That can be very difficult in remote or rural areas. For example, for the Inter-Parliamentary Union, when we're trying to convene a long, important, big meeting of the IPU, there is also a need to adapt to the different time zones. That's not easy. We also need to be open and to adapt to these circumstances. For example, Angola has used regional public buildings, where an MP can attend if their home-based connection is not sufficient. Again, we have different examples.
When it comes to technology, there are two clear favourites in terms of video conferencing. Zoom and Microsoft Teams are the two solutions being chosen by most parliaments for plenaries, committees and internal meetings. Other options include Cisco Webex, Google, Jitsi and Kudo, which is particularly suited to multilingual parliaments.
We also mentioned the physical distancing in parliament. We have a lot of different experiences. Perhaps I can go further during the questions and answers.
I think we are also going to get very important lessons, in a very positive way, out of this highly unfortunate situation. In terms of using technology, yes, we are going to need more tools for more inclusive and dynamic work in parliaments. We also need more IT people in our parliaments and also in other parliamentary organizations. That's a lesson for the Inter-Parliamentary Union, for example. This could also be a great opportunity for greater transparency, more open parliament practices, communication with society and inclusion.
Perhaps I am optimistic here, but I believe that, in the end, parliaments are going to need these very positive lessons in order to survive in society. We are facing very important criticisms from our constituencies and these kinds of tools, I am sure, are going to become very popular tools to get closer to our constituencies.
Thank you very much again, Madam Chair.
There are very different examples, a huge variety. If you allow me, I would like to link your question, Mr. Turnbull, to the previous discussion.
This pandemic is forcing all of us to improve technologies, connectivity and also our rules and practices. We have some successful examples. For example, the Senate of Paraguay has been able to conduct plenaries virtually.
For example, just yesterday, I think it was—I'm sorry. I'm not sure what day I am living now, and seeing your faces I think I am not the only one—they changed their directive board and elected a new president of the Senate completely virtually, so there are some parliaments that are very good examples.
Some others are selecting some members from each party to make up a mini-plenary, but I am not a strong advocate of those practices. I don't like that kind of practice because I believe that independent voices are being left aside. If the head of the party or the Speaker is entitled to choose those members, they are going to select the most loyal. I don't like that because I do believe that each voice is important.
Some other countries are using very interesting measures by cleaning everything and adopting the basic recommendations that we are hearing. For example, when it comes to physical distancing in parliaments, some parliaments are meeting either with physical distancing, virtually, or a mix of both. This includes Argentina, Brazil, Bhutan, Croatia, France and New Zealand, among others. As virtual meetings become the new normal, there are several other parliaments that are meeting in person as well while applying social distancing and sanitation guidelines.
I think some of them, because they are also big territories—not as big as Canada, but they are also big—need some kind of transportation.
In Azerbaijan, MPs and staff members are using masks, gloves and hand sanitizers. Members of the Milli Majlis age 65 and above are not attending sessions. Similar sanitation measures have been adopted in Croatia, Italy, Paraguay and Cambodia. Also, in the Parliament of Cambodia, staff and visitors are required to wear masks, and their temperatures are checked at the entrance to the building, as they are in DRC, Malaysia and Serbia.
The Serbian constitution or its rules and procedures do not allow for remote meetings, so they adopted practices to comply with hygiene and safety recommendations, but if I am not mistaken, they also reduced the number of parliamentarians.
I thank all of you for being here with us today. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the testimony.
I think all parliaments across this planet have to be very considered in thinking about this process and what the outcomes could be in the long term.
I'm from the western part of British Columbia, and there are aspects that I really miss about being in the House. One of the things that I've found very helpful during this period, when I'm not seeing people that I work with as often, are the relationships that I've built with members across parties. I think that one of the parts that would be missing in a virtual Parliament is the inability to build those relationships, to get to know one another.
When I speak in the House, I know that if there are other parliamentarians who experience the same thing in their riding or hear similar stories from their constituents, it leads to conversations that could mean collaboration and working on issues together. I think that is fundamental to democracy and a big challenge in a virtual setting.
Maybe I could start with Ms. Griffiths on this. I'm just wondering how other parliaments are addressing these issues. I know there was a discussion about having sunset clauses—and I think an incremental approach makes sense—and also the ability of all recognized parties to have a voice in what change has happened, so that we can see a balance of power.
Well, I think that this has been a very interesting piece of work that we've done in looking at the different responses from other parliaments. I would say as well that the website of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, IPU, is an excellent resource, which they are constantly updating, to see what the different parliaments are doing. It is a moving picture, and there are new innovations all the time.
In one way, you can see complete diversity, but in another way, you can see certain trends emerging. Parliaments generally are starting with what they have already and the processes that they have already, and then building from there. For example, with block voting, where the leader of your party might vote on all the members' behalf, certain parliaments think that is the normal way of proceeding, and therefore it's not strange for them to use that mechanism when there's a crisis. Other parliaments, I think, perhaps Westminster included, would find that quite unconventional, or it wouldn't be part of the culture and the way that they work. It's important that each member be able to record their vote individually in ways that they would like to.
Greg mentioned earlier this concept of delegating powers to a committee, a bureau or a smaller set of members. There's been some interesting evidence emerging about levels of representation when that happens, particularly in terms of gender: Are women the ones who miss out when people are nominated to smaller committees? It's not quite clear yet, but more and more evidence is coming in as more and more parliaments experiment with those kinds of procedures.
Thank you very much, Ms. Blaney.
I will be absolutely honest, transparent and politically incorrect.
We receive the reports that the national parliaments want us to receive. We receive beautiful news from most parliaments.
The IPU study has a bias, to be honest. If I review the notes I have received, some very authoritarian countries are saying they have lovely parliaments, and we all know that is not true.
First, the measures that governments are taking must be based on their constitution.
Second, those measures must be proportional to the emergency because emergencies are not the same in all countries.
The measures must be temporary. We cannot think that this state of emergency is going to be there forever and some parliaments are facing that authoritarian temptation.
For example, there seems to be another challenge that I think we must legislate urgently because authoritarian regimes are never going to legislate [Editor—Inaudible], but democratic governments are apparently afraid of legislating about technology.
Let me go to an example. There was a very good article by Yuval Noah Harari of the Financial Times about two months ago when he was explaining how technology and the technology about COVID monitoring can also be used for monitoring our feelings when we are listening to, for example, a politician's speech.
For authoritarian regimes, it's going to be very easy to use our cellphones to see if we love or hate the politicians when they make their speeches.
We need to prevent those situations. Canada has a very strong democracy. I am not saying this because of Canada, but clearly there are countries that are using the people's fears to restrict liberties and freedoms, and of course restricting parliaments.
Again, I can tell you about a lot of different experiences, but those cases are the reports we receive from the same actors. We don't have an independent study at the IPU.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
First, I have a comment to Mr. Power.
A lot of the examples Mr. Richards gave you—and he cited five or six—are examples from Canada and some of the things the current government has tried to impose or implement during this crisis. I'll remind you we're in a Westminster parliamentary system, similar to Great Britain, and we are in a minority situation.
Perhaps a suggestion, Mr. Power, is that Canada would be a great case study for your next blog on how governments try to impose their will on a parliamentary democracy.
My question to you pivots to the issue of Standing Orders. One of the things we heard in the last panel, including the chair of the British PROC system, is the changes to the Standing Orders, and the fact that now at the height of a pandemic is not the time to look at any permanent changes with respect to the COVID-19 crisis as it relates to changing the Standing Orders in Parliament. Perhaps under normal circumstances that would be the time.
Would that be your assessment, Mr. Power?
I had worked out as the questions went on that this was an allusion to what was going on in Canada.
In response to Mr. Richards' questions, I'd make the same point again, which is that I think any change to standing orders that takes place now has to be regarded carefully because of the long-term implications of this. As I was saying, the risk for most parliaments—and I include the British Parliament and indeed the vast majority of democratic parliaments in this—is the slow erosion of parliamentary accountability, because each time the rules change, whether it's temporary or permanent, politicians will learn how to interpret the rules.
We work a lot with parliaments right around the world, mostly parliaments in the early stages of their formation. There is a process that all political institutions or parliaments go through. The first phase is agreeing what the rules are and trying to establish the basis from which you can run the institution. The second phase, which is an ongoing phase that takes decades if not centuries, is working out what the rules actually mean.
It's one thing to establish the rules of the game; it's another to establish the games within the rules, how politics actually functions. I think the risk here is that those games within the rules shift as well and change the balance of power in the process. Sorry, it's a long answer to a short question. By making changes to the Standing Orders in a period now, which are permanent, I think there is inevitably a risk to this.
There are a lot of issues in that question, I think. I'll try to be brief.
One of the initial questions about legitimacy I think has been covered earlier by saying, “What is your legal basis for having a virtual parliament at all?” That will vary from country to country, whether there needs to be some kind of resolution or legal change to enable that to happen, but once it does, I think a big concern in a lot of parliaments has been that fair representation among different MPs should be achieved. We're talking about whether you have a hybrid system, where certain people are there in person and others are there virtually.
I know that this has been a big issue in the U.K, which was covered in your earlier session. How do you ensure that both of those types of members can have an equal input, which in theory they should have, if they are both full members of Parliament? Then, are you disproportionately disadvantaging certain sectors, such as older people or people with health conditions? Because they are probably the ones who can't come in person.
On the second part of your question about the kind of public image, if you like, of parliaments, it's gone in different ways in different countries. Some countries have seen parliaments meeting virtually as a kind public example of “don't come into work, this is not what we should be doing now, we should be staying at home, we should be making sure that we're not leaving the house”. Others, particularly as the situation has kind of eased a bit in most countries, do take the view that now we should be back at work and everyone should be seen to be coming in, and in solidarity, if you like, with normal people who are doing normal jobs. I think it varies a lot depending on the context.
Just as we did last time, we do have a little bit of time. We may have 15 minutes of leeway, so let's see how much of the work plan we can get through today. If not, I have some backup plans for us. I know there were some issues that were being raised last time.
Committee, we've been agreeing on our witnesses day by day. On our next panel, which will be on Thursday, we will have our security witnesses. I know that all of the parties were very interested from a security aspect in making sure that we have witnesses to speak to that. I'm wondering if everyone is okay with the way Thursday's meeting is laid out at this time.
If you are okay with Thursday's meeting, the only other issue we have about witnesses is with the interpreters. We have not been able to slot them in anywhere. There are some international witnesses as well who said they wished to appear before us. We had them on our witness list, but due to conflicts in scheduling we weren't able to have them on today's panel. That's why there weren't as many witnesses as we originally thought there'd be for today's meeting.
I just want some feedback from the committee as to whether you still would like to see the interpreters in a future meeting, whether you think there is a need. We did hear from them in our last study, but it is up to you. Do you think there's a need for any more of the international witnesses in another meeting, or are you good with what the schedule looks like? That would just leave Thursday for the IT and security witnesses.
Hello, Mr. Turnbull and Madam Chair.
Some of the international witnesses we approached indicated a scheduling conflict, as the chair indicated a little earlier. Among them was one of the other ones from the United Kingdom, Charles Walker, who was the chair of the House of Commons administration committee. We can endeavour to get back to him to see if he is available. However, the problem right now is that the committee has not yet identified a meeting slot as to when we can invite these witnesses to come back.
There are some others. For example, Lord McFall, the chair of the procedure committee in the House of Lords, declined.
With Ms. Harriet Harman it was also a scheduling conflict, although she did indicate a willingness to return. However, as we know, she is also from the British Parliament.
As for the president of the European Parliament, many attempts were made to contact them to elicit their interest in appearing. Right now we have zero response from them, so obviously that remains a question mark.
Finally, the president of the Congress of People's Deputies of the Kingdom of Spain has also indicated a conflict.
Obviously, depending on what meeting we could schedule them for and, again, depending on the availability, they may be open to appear.
I'm still trying to understand what the rush is. Obviously, there's been an indication here that there are witnesses who can't be slotted in, and it sounds to me like it's mostly just because we're trying to rush this. Parliament isn't scheduled to sit again until mid-September or whatever the date is.
There's obviously going to be a huge potential change in where things are by that point. I'm just struggling to understand the rush here, based on that. If there's time needed to study this further, why wouldn't we do that, or why wouldn't we have the ability to have the knowledge of what happens over the course of the next little while as well, as provinces are starting to relaunch and things like that?
I would hope that someone on the government side could give us some indication as to what the big rush is. I'd love to hear feedback from the other opposition parties as well, as to what their thoughts are on this. I know there is a requirement to report back by June 23, I believe it is. There's nothing that would prevent us from writing a report today that simply says we think that this should be given more time. That could be done as an interim report. It could be done in 10 seconds. It would fulfill that requirement. Then we would have the benefit of the time that's needed to properly look at this and see how things play out as we get closer to the time that Parliament would be scheduled to return.
As we all know, things are incredibly different now from what they were a couple of months ago. In the middle of March, things were incredibly different from what they had been a couple of weeks prior to that. They can change quite considerably over the next few months as well. I'm just struggling to understand what the rush is and why we don't look at doing that. Then we have the time to properly study and hear from those we need to hear from.
We'd love to hear comments from the government members as to why the rush, and we'd love to hear some thoughts from the other opposition parties on what they think on this point.
One of the questions that I do have is around the extra dates. Maybe I missed that; I was pulled away from my desk a few moments ago. However, we did discuss having a few extra dates to do some of this work.
I agree that I want to get as much work done as possible. I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm certainly being invited out to a lot more constituency events. Things are changing here in B.C. Some of the events are virtual, but some of them are in person, although there is a lot of amazing work being done by community organizations around appropriate distancing and whatnot. I want to make sure that I have all the time I can have for my constituents during this very important time in our country.
I certainly do not want to do another eight-hour session. I thought that was very disruptive. The other thing that I will say is that I would like time with the report when I'm writing whatever I'm writing to add to that. This last cycle that we went through, of course, was very fast. We were writing reports and were not even able to look at the finished products, which I did have some serious concerns about.
I think we need to continue this, but for me, one of the questions is this: Do we have the space for those extra meeting times? I know that the House will be shutting down between June 24 and July 3 to do some important technological work that has to be put in place, so that's something we need to be mindful of.
I think the other part is this: I appreciate what Mr. Richards is saying about not rushing, but what I'm not getting clarity on is how long we are thinking this study should go. Is there any guidance on that? It's sort of wide open.
One of the things that I'm definitely looking forward to watching is what happens in the B.C. legislature when it starts to open toward the end of the month. It might be best to have a recommendation that encourages us to come back maybe right before Parliament starts again to look at the work that has been done and review it with our committee. However, I don't know that we should be going through the whole summer doing this study.
I would like some clarity on those two issues.
Madam Chair, I do want to say that I am sympathetic to what Ms. Blaney said.
First, I think we should, in good faith, try to meet the deadline. If we realize that we need an extra week or two because of the report writing or witnesses that couldn't accommodate our schedule, we can discuss that. My concern with what Mr. Richards is proposing is exactly what Ms. Blaney has mentioned. I don't know what he's suggesting the timeline would be. As Mr. Turnbull has said, first of all, the House mandated us by a motion passed by the House to meet the deadline.
Second, I think the administration wants to hear from us so they can start preparing the technical infrastructure for what direction we take. From my point of view, I don't know if the Conservatives are hoping that maybe by September when the House resumes we won't need any of this and that we'll go back to normal, so why risk putting out some recommendations if they're not going to be implemented. I would love nothing better than that. I would love to know that by September we're going to go back to normal and we won't need any of these restrictions. However, we would be irresponsible if we did not prepare a plan in case that's not the case. If that does not happen, if by September the House of Commons still cannot fully function with 338 MPs on site, what is the House going to do?
I agree with the Conservatives that we want the House of Commons to be fully functional. We need to give the administration the tools and the advice they're asking us for so they can prepare the work for that. If September comes along and public health lifts their advisory and says that there are no more restrictions because COVID is under control, then we don't need to use any of these measures, and we don't need to pass any of those tools. But it's important that we do our homework and do our due diligence and that we be thoughtful and responsible in doing so.
Madam Chair, most of the comments have been said. I can appreciate that Mr. Richards certainly doesn't want to rush through this study. I don't think anyone does, but I'm just going to use my example here in New Brunswick. I really hope, as do most of you, that in September we can all meet back in Ottawa because I certainly miss seeing all of you personally.
I am looking at New Brunswick right now, and two weeks ago the House started physically sitting in the province of New Brunswick for a few days, and because we had a provincial outbreak, they have all been sent back home. Now they are struggling to see what the plan is going to be.
I think, just to be safe and to be responsible, we need to make sure we have a plan in place, and that's what this study is all about. Let's hope that we don't have to use that plan, but let's be leaders and make sure that all of our i's are dotted and our t's are crossed and that whatever infrastructure is going to be needed is in place.
I have to say, at this point in time with our study, I feel we have a lot of really good information on how to proceed. I'm even struggling a bit sometimes to ask questions because I feel we are hearing the same feedback over and over again.
I'm very comfortable that we truly have enough time to proceed with making some solid recommendations. Let's hope we don't have to use this, but if we do, we'll have a plan in place.
Madam Chair, I have to say to my friend Mr. Gerretsen working nights with others.... I had to chuckle at what the common denominators in some of the yelling matches have been, but anyway, I digress.
I will just say on the timeline and in good faith that we have heard from witnesses. I agree with what Ms. Petitpas Taylor said on the witness perspective. What we're hearing this week and next week will give us a good idea and a foundation.
On the point of not rushing it, one of things a couple of us alluded to today is that we're making recommendations based on what the situation will be in September. We're hearing from the witnesses. Hearing the background is good now. I'm in favour of having a report back to Parliament and wrapping this up as a committee. Perhaps we could look at something where we hear from the witnesses, then come back later in the summer. We would not meet all summer. I think we would all not favour meeting in the summer, and we wouldn't favour another eight-hour meeting to go over everything again. We could look at what the lay of the land may be, say, in mid-August and see what the situation is and give a report back in a reasonable time so that when we come back on September 21 we have the most recent lay of the land.
I also think one of the things that is important with this—and I say this as a new member—is that our committee is a great committee, but we are a limited number of 338 members. I think the caucus consultation going back and forth.... I just know some of my colleagues, and I think all parties, would want to see what the situation is like in September when we get a bit closer to September.
I would propose continuing hearing from some witnesses for maybe a couple of weeks. We could wrap up with a meeting at a high level of where we're all at, but come back in a good amount of time, say mid-August, have a few weeks to finish the report and then give the House administration, whatever the decision may be, a few weeks to figure things out. That could be a fair compromise. Make sure we get something, and make sure that we can accurately see what the lay of the land is for recommendations.
Thanks for the chance to speak.
Thank you for that proposal.
I think we're getting somewhere. We do have the option, the clerk has informed me, of having a one-hour committee business meeting tomorrow if you would like to hash this out further, but I do think we've made some progress.
It seems that we want to have more time. Many have raised that, but then the concerns with that are that people still want to see an end date to that time, not an unlimited amount of time.
Some proposals have come forward about perhaps the end of June, which Mr. Alghabra has just said.
Right now, I guess the first question that I should have, because we can schedule more committee business meetings, is this: Would you like me to schedule another committee business meeting for tomorrow, or do you think we can move forward with Thursday's witnesses and agree today as to when you would like that end date to be?