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House of Lords: Remote Proceedings

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 21 April 2020


Asked by

To ask the Senior Deputy Speaker what plans have been made to enable peers to take part in the proceedings of the House of Lords remotely.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, earlier today in the Chamber, a Motion was agreed to enable certain items of business, including Oral Questions such as this one, to be held virtually. The Procedure Committee met last week to agree and publish guidance on how these Virtual Proceedings will work in stage one. The committee will meet again next week to discuss proposals for moving to more extensive Virtual Proceedings in stage two.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Senior Deputy Speaker, his colleagues and the staff of the House for everything they have done to make this possible. I hope it means that never again will Parliament be silenced for so long during such a critical time for our country. On the further work that is to be undertaken, it is perfectly possible that many Members of your Lordships’ House will be excluded from attending Parliament for quite a long time into the future. If that is so, will the further work look at the possibility of Members being able to vote in Divisions online? It would be wrong if people were excluded from taking a full part in the work of your Lordships’ House because in the public interest they were remaining at home.

This is an issue for the Procedure Committee. It will be informed by the views of members of the committee and the usual channels. However, I can say with confidence that the aim of having a virtual Chamber is for everyone to participate in Parliament, which is very important. If we have that as a primary objective, I am sure that noble Lords’ views and comments will be in accordance with those of the Procedure Committee.

Is this is a means to an end or an end in itself? Is it a means to ensuring that all Members, wherever they live and whatever their circumstances, can continue to participate, rather than a Cromwellian move to have a lockout where Parliament does not function at all as a Chamber for the foreseeable future? Will the Senior Deputy Speaker be kind enough to reassure me that consideration will be given in stage 2 to developing a hybrid system so that we can move gradually out of the lockdown without ending up with a lockout?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. He has already been in touch with me this week on this issue. I mentioned to him then, and reassure him today, that this is a temporary measure. Our primary aim at the moment is to have a virtual Chamber so as to ensure that every Member of the House is able to participate to the same extent if they wish. The Procedure Committee met last week; it will meet again next week. As chairman of the committee, I can assure the noble Lord that we will meet as and when. The views of Members are important to me and to the committee. I look forward to constant engagement with Members so that we get this right. The primary aim is to get the virtual Chamber in place now and then to review it as we go along, informed by the views of Members and the usual channels.

Thank you, Lord Speaker. That is one aspect of the question that I was about to ask. I want to emphasise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that remote voting is already done in other places. Given the advances into virtual sittings that we have made in the past two weeks, I think that remote voting has to come to ensure that there is a democratic aspect to the legislation that we pass.

There is a formula for the allocation of Questions and supplementary questions. I am sure that your Lordships know that the two Greens in the House are very enthusiastic participants in almost its every aspect. I would hate to think that we were excluded because of some weird allocation of Questions. Is that something the committee can look into?

On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, the House of Commons authorities are developing the functionality for remote voting, but use of it would need to be approved by that House. The House of Lords could develop a similar platform if it desired, but due to the demands on the Parliamentary Digital Service, this would be at the expense of other work. Because of the differences in the technical platforms used by each House, such functionality would take a number of weeks to develop. I am open to the noble Baroness and others keeping in touch with me on this issue.

On the second point raised by the noble Baroness, I am aware from my conversations with her in the past that she wishes for Greens and non-affiliated Members to get their fair share of Questions and other business in this Chamber. I will ensure that they get that. There is not much in the guidance at the moment, but as a first step, I will bring her point to the Procedure Committee.

My Lords, many congratulations to the team that has made this technological advance available. It is an historic day because we have shown that you can hold a Government to account not necessarily by being physically present in a Chamber in London. Whatever happens to our House, this will have some future in it.

The really exciting time is now Questions because here we are, 35 MPs, participating together. There is no other event envisaged where I can see that happening again in the technological future of the House. However, that means that 800 people have not had a chance to ask a question. Therefore, the number of Questions should be doubled to eight so that more Questions are asked and more Peers can get involved. Virtually, Question Time becomes much more important than it is physically.

I agree with the noble Lord on Questions and scrutiny; given the environment today, scrutiny is extremely important for both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. His suggestion of doubling the number of Questions to eight could be considered by the Procedure Committee. At our meeting next week, I will re-emphasise his point; if I meet him informally, he will no doubt give me some more advice on what initiatives we can take in this area.

My Lords, it is already clear from the questions asked that we will go into a long period during which a number of noble Lords will not be able to attend the Lords in person. I therefore reiterate my support for some of the suggestions already made, such as on a hybrid House and voting remotely. Can the Senior Deputy Speaker have as one of his principal aims to bring us into line with what the Commons do so that we are on the same digital platform and so that, as the Commons moves to virtual voting—it is likely to do that more quickly than us anyway—we follow in its footsteps?

I agree entirely with the noble Lord. I have been privy to some of his views on this issue. The technical solutions that have been developed have been designed to meet the different requirements of each House, as the noble Lord is aware. I will certainly keep it as a primary aim to ensure that the points he has made here and in his communications with the Administration and the Procedure Committee are kept to the fore. I reiterate: the Procedure Committee will continue to meet as and when because this is a fast-developing situation.

First, I congratulate everybody concerned with this effort to set up virtual TV for us. Can anything further be done to aid those Peers and Peeresses who are unable to join the virtual proceedings due to technical or broadband deficiencies in the places where they are locked down?

I thank the noble Lord for that question. He will be aware that there are two stages to this process. The first—stage 1—is limited to 50 Peers, as we know. Stage 2, which we hope to implement on 5 May, will ensure a wider range of facilities, including live broadcasting. As the technology allows and as time passes, we will enhance the facilities available to Members to ensure, as I mentioned earlier, that every Member has the same opportunity to participate in the House.

My Lords, is the Senior Deputy Speaker aware that the Foreign Office language school has used Zoom to deliver its language classes since the lockdown began? As one of its language students, I found it very easy to participate—much easier than being on Teams. What have the security, or other, concerns been around this House using Zoom from the start when it appears to be acceptable to both the Foreign Office and the House of Commons?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. She may have heard me explain earlier that the House of Commons has precedence in taking up Zoom, so we have been behind on that issue. We have been advised by the experts that there are certain questions of security. I will not go through them now but I am happy to write to the noble Baroness on this issue. She may have heard the Lord Speaker on the “Today” programme this morning, where he presented the House of Commons case very well indeed and mentioned that we will hopefully move to Zoom eventually in stage 2.

My Lords, I regret that the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. I very much apologise to those who have been cut out by that time division.