Constitutional Amendment Bill – Speech by Leon Perera

Constitution Amendment Bill 2020

Mr Speaker sir, the Constitution Amendment Bill before the House today proposes to make changes to the Constitution so as to allow Parliament to sit at two or more places, rather than all in one location. This is what the Bill refers to as “continuity arrangements.”

The Bill empowers the majority of members to give notice that “it is or will be impossible, unsafe or inexpedient for Parliament to sit and meet in one place” – this is the language used in what will be the new Article 64.

The letter sent by the Leader of the House to members on 27th April regarding this Bill makes clear that the government believes that there is no immediate need for such continuity arrangements but that it is appropriate to put this mechanism in place in case the need arises in future.

I agree with the government that it is appropriate to do so now. The current Covid-19 pandemic could take a turn for the worse. It behoves us as members of this House to prepare for that eventuality by putting in place a mechanism now. In that light, the Workers’ Party supports the Bill. I will devote the remainder of my speech to clarifications and suggestions.

Firstly, the Leader’s letter made reference to the UK Parliament’s experiment using video-conferencing amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, allowing members to take part in Parliament sittings from home. I would like to clarify if the current amendment would allow for that to happen in future should that become necessary.

The language of the new Article 64A (2) reads that continuity arrangements “may be made for Parliament and its committees to sit, meet and dispatch business with Members of Parliament being present at two or more appointed places and in contemporaneous communication with one another”. Notwithstanding the advice from the Leader of the House in her letter of 27th April that the government does not wish to adopt this approach right now, would this Bill thus allow Parliament to adopt the UK’s video-conferencing approach or something similar if it deems necessary to do so, with members calling in from home? This practice would appear to be consistent with the language of the new Article 64A (2) since each member’s home could be deemed to be an appointed place and the video-call technology would allow members to be in contemporaneous communication with one another.

To be sure, I am not calling for this to be done now. But the possibility that our Covid-19 situation gets much worse cannot be ruled out. Also, we cannot rule out the future possibility of an even worse pandemic or some other national security crisis which would necessitate MPs calling from home or other locations.

Next I would like to revisit the issue of live streaming of Parliamentary proceedings. When this was discussed in this House in November 2017, the answer given by the government for why we do not have full live streaming for all Parliament sittings is that it is not in great demand, as based on past experience only a small fraction of persons watch certain Parliamentary proceedings like the Budget speech live compared to the number that watch delayed telecasts or clips online.

If Parliament adopts continuity arrangements and sits in more than one location, arrangements would need to be made to live-stream the proceedings between two or more locations. The investment to do that would need to be made. One can assume that taking the additional step of then making that live stream between the locations available online would be relatively inexpensive. However if cost is an impediment, these costs could and should be discussed.

I recently moderated a webinar for the Workers’ Party Youth Wing. Four panellists dialled in via a video-conferencing service, Zoom. We were able to livestream the panel discussion on social media, namely Facebook, such that people who did not sign up to the video-call were still able to watch the panel discussion live on Facebook. The whole process was relatively simple to run and very cost-effective. Many groups and individuals with few resources have live-streamed events in this way.

If we adopt Parliamentary continuity arrangements in future, my suggestion is that we could use that as an occasion to experiment with livestreaming all Parliamentary proceedings under continuity arrangements to the public to test this hypothesis about how much demand there is.

Demand is not a static thing. Demand for livestreaming may have been low on previous occasions when this was tried, like for certain debates and certain speeches. But if we adopt consistent livestreaming of all proceedings, over time there is the possibility that more people, knowing that this resources is available every time Parliament sits, would use it. If this happens, it would be a good thing for our democracy and our society. It would probably increase the public knowledge of Parliamentary proceedings, of how debates turn and how issues are discussed and decided based on arguments made. This in turn is likely to increase the public appetite for participating in Parliamentary processes by providing feedback to MPs, by participating in public debate on issues that are close to their hearts and so on.

Of course, one could argue – why can’t such engagement happen by the public consuming delayed telecast clips? For the same reason that there is an audience for live debates, live political speeches, live sports and other events, as opposed to there being no audience for such live and real-time events. The sense of engagement that comes from watching something live and being the first to know is different from watching a delayed clip; it is different from first hearing about something through media reports before you even see the clip.

To be sure, even if demand is low and provided that the cost is not prohibitive which it is unlikely to be, I would still argue that the members of the public have the right to see live-stream of Parliament, even if only a minority choose to exercise that right at any given point in time. Live-streaming of Parliament is common in other developed countries.

But having said that, continuity arrangements would provide a good opportunity to proceed with this, for the reasons I have mentioned.

Thank you.