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Business of the House (Virtual Proceedings and Topical Questions for Written Answer)

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 21 April 2020

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That, until further Order–

1. The following proceedings of the House may take place as Virtual Proceedings: Oral Questions, Private Notice Questions, Ministerial Statements, debates (but not decisions) on Statutory Instruments, Questions for Short Debate and motions for debate;

2. The procedure in Virtual Proceedings shall follow, so far as practical, procedure in the House save that–

(a) no member may participate unless admitted to the Virtual Proceedings;

(b) the order of speaking in Virtual Proceedings shall be facilitated by the Chair;

(c) the time allotted for Oral Questions shall be extended to 40 minutes to allow up to 10 minutes for each Oral Question;

(d) the time allotted to business in Virtual Proceedings may be varied by unanimous agreement of members taking part in the Virtual Proceedings; and

(e) Virtual Proceedings may be adjourned between items or classes of business at the discretion of the Chair;

3. A Virtual Proceeding may take place irrespective of whether the House is sitting that day;

4. A member may table one Topical Question for Written Answer in each week during which the House sits, and it is expected that it will be answered within five working days;

5. The provisions of this Order shall be applied in accordance with guidance issued under the authority of the Procedure Committee from time to time, which may vary the provisions of the Companion to the Standing Orders insofar as they apply to Virtual Proceedings.

My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend the Leader of the House, I beg to move the first Motion standing in her name on the Order Paper.

When the House last met, my noble friend the Leader of the House set out a number of changes to the way our business would be organised. She also said that work would be done over Easter to look at how our practices and procedures could be adapted to allow noble Lords to take part in our business while not attending the House.

While we have been away, a huge amount of work has been undertaken to enable some of our proceedings to take place virtually from today onwards. I pay tribute to the House administration, the parliamentary IT professionals and the usual channels, who have been working very hard to achieve a lot in a short space of time. In particular, I mention the leaders and my private secretary, Victoria Warren, who has also done an enormous amount to make this possible. Members of the House owe a huge debt of gratitude for the work that all these people have undertaken to allow us to do our work.

Connecting some 780 Members who have varying degrees of technical ability, who are distributed around the country and who cannot be visited to be given help, with little time for testing and using off-the-shelf technology, is not a trivial problem. At the end of last week, the Procedure Committee met virtually and agreed to the package of measures before the House today. If this Motion is agreed to, from today Oral Questions, Statements, UQ repeats, PNQs, Thursday debates and topical QSDs will all take place virtually. Noble Lords will not be able to participate in them from the Chamber.

Your Lordships will be used to signing up in advance to speak in debates and QSDs but will now need to do so for Questions, Statements, UQs and PNQs as well. The same system that we have used for many years to sign up to speak in debates will now be used for all these types of business, although the deadlines for signing up will be a bit earlier. The Procedure Committee has published guidance to help noble Lords navigate the system that we will use. All noble Lords signed up to take part in a Virtual Proceeding will be sent instructions on how to join that proceeding. I ask all noble Lords taking part in one of the early Virtual Proceedings to familiarise themselves with the guidance that has been produced and to ask for assistance if they need it. Noble Lords not taking part will also be sent a link so that they can watch what is going on.

We will also need to continue taking some legislative business in the Chamber. That is because our new Virtual Proceedings will not be empowered to take decisions on behalf of the House as a whole, and at the moment that is quite right. When this House considers legislation, it is considering proposed changes to the law. We have to be sure that the House’s decision-making ability is not restricted or impaired by the use of remote working, but it is of course something that we can keep under review. In the meantime, I will endeavour to keep Chamber sittings to a minimum.

Finally, the Procedure Committee has agreed to the introduction of a new category of Written Question to allow Members of this House to get faster Answers from Ministers on topical matters. When they ask Questions in this new category, noble Lords will get their Answers in half the normal time.

I know that the system that has been devised will not entirely satisfy each and every noble Lord. It will not exactly mirror our normal proceedings, but in my view it provides a credible way for the House to continue holding the Government to account. Its operation will be kept under review and will be revised if necessary. I urge noble Lords to be patient if glitches occur. The staff of the House will do everything they can to help us adapt and we should probably thank them in advance for their forbearance.

My Lords, in supporting this Motion, I shall say two things. The first is that the seriousness of this issue was brought home to us by the loss of one of our own, my noble friend Lord Gordon of Strathblane, last month, but many others have lost family and friends and some of us have lost icons. Everyone is aware of the dedication and care of the NHS, and also of those in food supply and transport who enable life to continue, and we would be remiss if we did not pay tribute to them.

As the Minister said, at 3 pm we will see, we hope, the introduction of a wholly new and innovative way of working to meet the needs of Parliament to question the Government, pass legislation and continue with our democratic role. It is important that that continues. The work that there has been to enable us to achieve that is extraordinary and our thanks are due to the Chief Whip, the Lord Speaker, the party leaders, the Members on the Cross Benches and the Bishops who have been involved, and particularly to the technical and procedural staff, those in the Chamber and the cleaning staff who have done everything to get us here. It may not be perfect and there may be more to do, but, astonishingly, it is here and we are happy to support it.

My Lords, I join the Chief Whip and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, in thanking all those who have worked so hard to make this possible. A number of them will know that I have been quite impatient about some of the changes and in some cases do not feel that they have necessarily gone far enough—but, frankly, if we look at where we were a fortnight ago and compare it to where we are today, which is that from next week we will be having a wholly virtual House of Lords, it is by most tests, and certainly by House of Lords tests, a very quick rate of progress. We have achieved a position in which every Member will be able to continue to participate in the business of your Lordships’ House, however vulnerable they might be in terms of their health, and that is very welcome.

I, too, thank everybody who has made all this possible. It is a work in progress to a certain extent. Those of us who have been participating in practices for various bits of virtual activity later in the day know that it will not go totally smoothly on the first day—but I am sure it will do so quite quickly, so I again thank all those involved.

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Newby, and my noble friend Lady Hayter in paying tribute to the officials of the House for the enormous amount of hard work that has gone in to making virtual proceedings a reality. Of course we welcome that, and I also very much associate myself with my noble friend’s remarks about our noble friend Lord Gordon of Strathblane.

Obviously this is work in progress, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby said, but some elements of the arrangements are causing acute concern, not just to noble Lords but to the public at large. The one that causes most concern is the fact that the virtual proceedings will not be broadcast and that until at least two weeks’ time it will not be possible for the public to observe what is going on, which is a breach of all precedent in parliamentary proceedings and a matter of very great concern. Will the Chief Whip tell the House the intention of the Government and the Procedure Committee in respect of the publication and broadcast of the virtual proceedings?

I assume, although it does not feature in what are effectively the new Standing Orders, that all proceedings of the virtual House will be published in Hansard in the normal way the following day. Will the Chief Whip clarify that that will be the case? Will he also say whether it is the case that the reason why the proceedings cannot be broadcast at the start of the virtual House in two hours’ time is that we are using Microsoft Teams rather than Zoom, and that if we were using Zoom, as the House of Commons is doing, it would be possible to broadcast the proceedings? If that is the case, what is the mechanism by which broadcasting will be possible in a fortnight’s time, assuming that that is the intention? Does the Chief Whip agree that for anything other than a very short period while technical difficulties are sorted out, it is absolutely unacceptable that the proceedings of this House are not broadcast and are not open to members of the public at the time that they take place?

My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the staff, in particular, who are operating under such difficult conditions, as we know the whole of society is at the moment, and also Members of your Lordships’ House who have worked very hard on this. I particularly applaud the arrival of the new topical Written Questions. That is an excellent innovation that I hope will continue into the future.

I am sure that over the recess most noble Lords have, like me, been learning a whole new alphabet soup of videoconferencing technologies. I have been holding a great many meetings with local Green parties, explaining the work of the House of Lords. One of the things I explain when I do that is that, although they might not know it, the House of Lords is actually an anarchist collective. I am of course referring to the fact that when we are conducting Oral Questions and Private Notice Questions it is not a chair who decides who speaks; the whole House makes the decision collectively. That brings me to two points that I would perhaps have tabled as amendments under different circumstances. That is obviously not practical today, but I would like to put them on record.

The Green group and the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, who cannot be here today, have jointly put forward proposals for the allocation of Oral Questions. It is obvious that we cannot operate in the same manner as we do in the House, but it would maintain some of the democratic nature of traditional Oral Questions if those asking supplementaries were voted for by the whole House, rather than being selected by the usual channels—the term “usual channels” is one we might want to reflect on. That is something we might look at in our new procedures.

The other thing I wanted to raise is of particular concern to the Green group, although I suspect that it is an issue for other groups, too. On Oral Questions, the guidance says that for each session:

“Non-affiliated peers and Bishops will be allocated 1 question”.

I clarified with the Whips Office that “each session” refers to each Question. Can that be confirmed?

Secondly, I point to the rather odd grouping, even within the traditions of your Lordships’ House, of Lords spiritual and temporal together. Your Lordships’ House often enjoys the benefits of hearing from the spiritual Lords, whatever I might think of their presence here, but if they come in on an Oral Statement, that leaves no space for the Green group, for Plaid or for other non-aligned Peers. That is a problem that those changing our future procedures should take a look at.

I thank everyone for their work. It is a work in progress and I ask that we consult widely to make sure that what we have is as democratic as possible and that we do not see the coronavirus taking away what democracy we have in this House.

My Lords, I support the Motion and join in the thanks to all the staff who have made it possible. I particularly want to raise that at the end of the previous sitting I was quite distressed when some Members of the House felt that closing early and looking to the future was not necessarily the best thing. I said at the time that we were at the beginning of a public health crisis that we could not imagine. In the last three weeks our imagination has become reality.

The fact is that we will be modelling to the rest of society that we are trying to do our jobs, and fulfil our roles and our responsibilities, in the best way we can. While I would like it to be more public in the next two weeks, I think our duty in public health terms is illustrated today. It will be an incrementalist approach that we can improve as we go along, but I wholeheartedly add my thanks to those who have made it possible, and in particular to staff in care homes and the NHS, who need our support at this time.

My Lords, as seemingly the first who got through the virus, I add to the tributes to Lord Gordon of Strathblane. I was so sad to hear of his death, which is a terrible reminder of the threat of this disease.

I note that the Commons will be hybrid and we will be virtual—two different systems. I hope we will shortly adopt the same system. I also note the opportunity of this terrible circumstance. For example, I have had the privilege of joining meetings across the world that I have not had before and in a way that did not occur before. That is a huge benefit. There are new ways of working that I hope we will learn from in this circumstance.

My Lords, as a non-affiliated Peer, I wholeheartedly support the arrangements, including the ability of all Members of the House to participate. They seem thought out, fair and reasonable, and should not be altered. On broadcasting, in the dim and distant past I once tendered for the contract for this place. With that knowledge base, I ask whether audio, as opposed to visual, has been considered. One of the great dangers that I am sure we will be able to discuss virtually over the next few weeks is overreliance on the screen, perhaps to the detriment of other senses. The era of radio is re-emerging and, in my view, audio would be preferable to visual—not at all times, which is perhaps a little too radical, but I would be very happy if that were the case in the short term.

My Lords, I add my thanks not just to the leadership of the House and the usual channels but to all the staff and everyone who has made it possible for us to commence some of our work. I add one small question to the Minister. Some comments have been made in the press and elsewhere, in social media, about access for people with disabilities—such as the hard of hearing—who are not necessarily able to access the important public information during this crisis. What are the Government doing to ensure that we tackle that issue as soon as possible?

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for their support, especially their support—unanimous, I think—for the House authorities, the Parliamentary Digital Service and others, who have worked very hard. I am grateful to the Front Benches for their support on this. There were some very reasonable questions, and I will do my best to answer them.

I said at some stage that this will not be an exact mirror of what we have in our normal proceedings, and it may well be that as we progress we will try to emulate nearer our normal proceedings, but there will be some key differences. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said, we will have to start slowly and move on, but the key thing that we have tried to do and have done unanimously with the other party leaders and the Convenor of the Cross Benches is to focus, to begin with, on holding the Government to account. That is what we have tried to do today.

I take seriously what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said about not broadcasting. I agree with him that it would have been nice if we had been able to. He asked a specific question about Hansard. Hansard will report Virtual Proceedings in the normal way, so there will be a written record. As for broadcasting in the House of Commons and not here, it is true that it is using Zoom, a different system. The focus has been on using for our purposes something that is available now and secure. The Parliamentary Digital Service has only a limited amount of resource and is—I think it is fair to say— concentrating on the House of Commons, which is able to broadcast. In the absence of as many resources as we want, it is reasonable that we should focus on the elected House.

As far as the noble Lord’s question about broadcasting is concerned, we hope we will be able to do that soon. We would like to broadcast and if that requires Zoom, we will move to Zoom if that is the technological solution. But we will move to Zoom only when it is secure, when we know it works and when we have the resources available to implement it correctly, which I hope will be reasonably soon.

I appreciate the thanks of the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, for the topical Written Question, which will be an interesting development. She also raised the system of selection for Questions. I have tried very hard, with the other usual channels, to make that as fair as possible. Of course, we will not have the give and take that we have in our normal Questions session. I am aware that she has been very successful in getting in, not only at Questions but in other means of debate in this House. It may be true that if we do it strictly in proportion to her party’s percentage of the House, she may not have quite as much participation, but we have tried to make sure that all sections of the House have at least as much as their proportional representation. In fact, the only party that does not apply to is the Conservatives, which has slightly less.

I should also say to the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that we have agreed to review the system; we will make it fair. I have noticed that her party has at least two Questions down and is ready to participate in debates as well. I think she will continue to have a disproportionate share of debates.

The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, distinguished between the hybrid method that the House of Commons is using and our entirely virtual one. Our method of proceeding is slightly different, as we are less centrally controlled by the Speaker. However, she made a good point: not only in the Chamber, but in doing our business outside the House, this will allow us to learn lessons, just as we have managed, in the last three weeks, to learn a huge amount by using remote working.

The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, talked about access for those with disabilities. My responsibility in answering today is on decisions regarding the Business of the House. For those who have disabilities, whether sight or audio, we are working as hard as we can to ensure that they are included. I know that some Members will try to participate today and that extra work has been done. I am not saying that it is perfect at the moment.

That brings me to the noble Lord, Lord Mann. Some partially sighted Members will be included on an audio basis because the current system may not be suitable for using touch screens and such things. I am not saying that it is perfect, but we are trying to take account of people with disabilities. As far as the Government’s message is concerned, that is a very good point and I will make sure that it is taken away.

My Lords, the House will be very encouraged by the Minister’s response. He has said that it would be “nice” to have the proceedings of the House broadcast, but I think that most people would consider it to be imperative that those proceedings are broadcast. Can he give a commitment that they will not be kept secret for longer than the next two weeks?

I can give a commitment that they will not be kept secret at all because they will be reported in Hansard. However, I agree that this is more than “nice”; it is important and indeed imperative, if you like. We are doing our best to make sure that, when we have a suitable system, the proceedings will be broadcast simultaneously with the Virtual Proceedings, although I think that there will be a 10-second gap. In the meantime, I beg to move.

Motion agreed.