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Business of the House (Virtual Proceedings relating to the Committee stage of public bills and to Messages and First Readings)

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 6 May 2020

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That, further to the resolution of the House of 21 April, until further Order—

1. Committee stages of public bills may take place in Virtual Committee.

2. Such Proceedings shall follow, so far as practical, procedure in Grand Committee as modified by any guidance issued by the Procedure Committee.

3. A Virtual Committee is empowered to amend a bill, stand part its Clauses and Schedules, agree its Title and report it to the House.

4. No amendments may be tabled after the deadline prescribed by the Procedure Committee for consideration in Virtual Committee.

5. For the purposes of Standing Order 47(2) (Commitment of Bills) any motion to discharge an order of commitment is to be moved at a convenient point in physical proceedings, and Virtual Committee may be cancelled without motion if no amendments have been set down before the deadline for production of the Marshalled List.

6. Notwithstanding Standing Order 41(2) and (3), messages between the Houses may be sent and received, and a bill sent from the Commons may be read a first time, irrespective of the sitting of the House.

7. 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, from next Wednesday we will begin taking the Committee stages of public Bills virtually. These virtual Committees will constitute the Committee stages of these Bills in the same way a Grand Committee would in normal times and will be able to take decisions in the same way. I make it clear from the outset that while virtual Committee sittings will be time-limited, Committee stages will not: we do not time-limit the consideration of primary legislation and will not start now. More time will be found for any virtual Committees that take longer than expected, following discussions between the usual channels. This is the same process that has previously been followed when Bills are taken in the Chamber or the Moses Room.

Last Thursday, the Procedure Committee agreed the new temporary virtual procedures and has subsequently issued detailed guidance on how Committee stages will work. The guidance, including this Motion, was issued on Monday. I urge all noble Lords to familiarise themselves with the guidance. Notice of the first virtual Committee, due to take place next Wednesday, was given via last week’s Forthcoming Business. Subject to the overall cap I shall now set out, any Member of the House may take part in a virtual Committee. However, as with all our business at the moment, Members will need to sign up in advance to take part, and only those who do so will be able to participate in proceedings. Those taking part will also be asked to indicate in advance which amendment or groups of amendments they wish to speak to, in order for the digital service to ensure that Peers can be part of the broadcast proceedings. Those Members who table or add their names to amendments will be signed up automatically.

The deadline for tabling amendments for virtual Committees will be one day earlier than normal: 5 pm three working days before a virtual Committee is due to take place, or 4 pm if that day is a Friday or in recess. It will not be possible to table amendments once the deadline has passed, so that groupings can be agreed and Members signed up to participate in good time. Since the House returned on 21 April, we have steadily increased the amount and type of business we take virtually. Our Virtual Proceedings have become smoother as we have become used to them and they are now being broadcast to the public in the same way our physical proceedings are. It is necessary for Members to sign up in advance of Virtual Proceedings, so that the digital service and broadcasting team know which Members are taking part and can support them properly, as I am sure all noble Lords who have taken part in the proceedings so far have seen as they get ready to take part. Noble Lords who are not able to take part are, of course, able to view the proceedings, and the Procedure Committee, not the Government, has set the deadlines for signing up, as is right and proper.

I know that questions were raised in the previous discussion about time limits and caps on the numbers of Members who can participate. These are not arbitrary rules; there are reasons linked to the administrative and broadcast capabilities of the House. The House authorities, the digital service and the broadcast team are already working at maximum capacity. Staff across the House are working long hours, working in reduced teams so they can do their jobs while respecting social distancing, and travelling on public transport to get to the House to allow us to participate virtually. They are here. I am sure noble Lords all appreciate the huge effort they are putting in on our behalf, but we have to be mindful of the demands we put on them and make sure they are giving them the space and ability to do their jobs to the best of their ability, which is absolutely what they are doing. I place on record again my thanks to all those who have worked so hard, and continue to do so, to support us. I beg to move.

Amendment to the Motion

Moved by

To insert at the end:

“8. All bills considered in a Virtual Committee shall be recommitted to a Committee of the Whole House for consideration in the Chamber.

9. This Order shall expire on 30 June 2020, or earlier if the House shall so order.”

My Lords, the first part of the amendment provides that:

“All bills considered in a Virtual Committee shall be recommitted to a Committee of the Whole House for consideration in the Chamber.”

It may be convenient for the House if I speak to the second part of the amendment too, which is that this order—the arrangements that the Leader has just proposed for virtual Committees—

“shall expire on 30 June 2020, or earlier if the House shall so order.”

First, I echo every word the Leader said about the staff of the House. We pay tribute to them and recognise the great sacrifices they have been making and the intense pressure they have been working under. We fully accept that—in so far as Virtual Proceedings need to take place, which is the key proviso in this respect—special arrangements need to be put in place. I in no way question what the Leader said in that regard. The point that goes to the heart of the matter on Committee stages—and the reason Committee stages are so important—is that this is the House’s role in making the law, which is the most important function we undertake on behalf of the people.

The key issue is how far we need to consider Bills in these virtual Committee stages anyway. We are in a crisis. The overwhelming object of our public duties should be focusing on resolving the crisis. Looking at the legislation it is proposed that we take in Committee next week, it is not clear to me why any of this needs to be considered until the crisis is over. We are considering this legislation at the Government’s behest. The Government are imposing these requirements on the House, not the House itself.

The House’s duty is this. If the Government believe that legislation needs to be considered during the crisis—it is the Government’s decision that the legislation should be considered—our job as parliamentarians is to put in place proper arrangements to see that parliamentary scrutiny takes place in accordance with our constitutional requirements. The problem with the virtual Committees as currently proposed is that this is not the case. The Leader said that Members can take part, but in order to take part—as she said in her remarks—they have to give advance notice of the specific amendments they wish to participate in. This is a radical breach from the House’s normal procedures. Members cannot vote in Committee; there are no arrangements for voting. There are no arrangements at all for spontaneous contributions, and at the moment there is no automatic procedure for recommittal.

I therefore press the Leader: what will happen to these Bills after their virtual consideration? What is the procedure, if noble Lords are dissatisfied with the consideration that has taken place in virtual Committee, for recommitting? My understanding—the Leader can correct me—is that the House itself has to vote for recommittal; it is not an automatic procedure. In this amendment I propose an automatic procedure of recommittal to a Committee of the whole House, which would be either the House itself or the hybrid House, if by then we have the hybrid House. It will not otherwise happen. I would be grateful if the Leader could confirm what the arrangements are in respect of recommittal. If noble Lords are dissatisfied with the consideration that has taken place in virtual Committee, what arrangements will there be for recommittal? If they are not adequate, will she accept my amendment?

The other point of great importance is the temporary nature of these proceedings. If they are to be temporary, the Government should accept a sunset clause. That is the reason I have included the second part of the amendment—that these arrangements for virtual consideration will

“expire on 30 June 2020, or earlier if the House shall so order.”

I would like to press the Leader on one or two specific points. She said that the detailed arrangements for Committee stage were published on Monday. I confess that I have not had a chance to read them, so maybe they are in there. It is not easy to find a lot of the documents being referred to at the moment unless they are pointed up from the Front Bench. Currently, because it is not possible to vote in Grand Committee and decisions can be taken only by unanimity, if noble Lords are not content with proceedings they can object to decisions being taken—I have myself—and they are therefore returned to the House.

In a Committee stage, if a noble Lord online objects to a clause standing part, what happens? Does the clause stand part or not? This is a fairly fundamental constitutional issue. If it stands part, it means that the proceedings in the virtual Committee are of no account, because noble Lords have expressed dissatisfaction and are not prepared to agree to the proceedings, yet the proceedings are still deemed to be agreed. That would be an extreme departure from acceptable parliamentary practice. If Members are allowed to object to clauses standing part, what happens if they so object and the relevant clause is not deemed to be agreed by the virtual Committee? The only solution to that issue I can see is that those clauses are then remitted for reconsideration of the Bill by a Committee of the House.

I would be grateful if the Leader could answer my specific questions. Will she tell us of the Government’s willingness to see Bills recommitted after virtual Committee if there are concerns, what the procedure would be and whether she would be prepared to accept a sunset clause so that for only a very few Bills in these emergency conditions are we expected to undergo this very substandard scrutiny which in no other circumstance but this crisis would your Lordships think acceptable? I beg to move.

My Lords, I want to say a few words on this, because the issue of Committees is important and I hope that the noble Baroness can say a bit more about it. It is my understanding that if an amendment is debated in Committee but not voted on, the same amendment can be re-tabled on Report. If noble Lords are dissatisfied with any debate, considering it inadequate or wishing to contribute, they will have the opportunity to do so. That means that our proceedings could be much longer in order to get to that point—it emphasises how superior Chamber proceedings are to Virtual Proceedings.

Committees normally meet on two days a week, Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday. It is therefore imperative that the House moves to a proper four-day working week as a matter of urgency—I think that is scheduled from Monday 18 May. Can the Leader confirm that there will be a normal four-day working week for your Lordships’ House from then? That is important for our overall business.

I also understand the issue about capacity; the point has been well made. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, said how much we appreciate the work that has been done to get the Virtual Proceedings running in the way they are—I think that most of us have found them better than we anticipated. I take some responsibility for them not being broadcast over the first few days after the recess because I said that, come what may and even if we were not being broadcast, we had to be back, with the opportunity to question the Government. I was pleased that that lasted for only a few days, but it was important that, whatever the situation, we returned on 21 April to fulfil our responsibilities—even if it was inadequate, we had to do so. It has steadily improved since then and we pay tribute to those responsible.

There is an issue of capacity with Committees. We currently have gaps between business that we would not normally have. Will the Leader keep under consideration sitting on a Friday? If we cannot undertake the work that we have on those four days, is it possible to use a Friday? For example, if Committees were not able to meet because the House was sitting or a debate was taking longer, we could have that open as an extra sitting day in the same way as we have sometimes had sitting Fridays.

The noble Baroness should take some pride, and I press her again to pay tribute to those who have wanted to take part in the proceedings—I think she missed that out. I say that in respect of her own Front Bench, of mine and of all those working on the Back Benches and across the House. They wish to engage because they value the work of this House. We have only to look at how the work of this House is regarded outside. I received numerous representations about the debate on the PNQ last week on child protection, even though it was brief, recognising that, across the board and in all parties, this was the House taking that issue very seriously. If we cannot do our business in the four days—and I ask the Leader to confirm that there will be a solid four days as soon as possible—we should keep open the possibility of Friday sittings.

I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. I had of course made a note to thank all Peers across all Benches, including the Opposition Front Bench, and of course I thank my Ministers as well for everything they have done to contribute to these proceedings. I apologise for having failed to say that in my response last time, but I wholeheartedly support the words of the noble Baroness.

I will address some comments. Yes, we will be returning on Mondays. I think that was the correct date—I do not know all the dates in May off the top of my head. That will be published in Forthcoming Business and we will move towards four-day weeks from then. The usual channels will always keep business under review to make sure that we are doing everything we can. Obviously we will have to see how Committee stages work in virtual proceedings, but we want to balance scrutiny of government with making sure that legislation comes through, and those conversations will continue in the constructive way they always do.

Quite a lot of the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, are mentioned in the guidance, which will be circulated to all Peers. It probably has not been done yet, because we did not want to assume that this Motion would be passed, but as soon as it has been, the guidance will be published. If any noble Lords have further questions, please get in touch and we will clarify them. We have attempted to consider most issues, but I accept that we may not have considered some things. However, I can say to the noble Lord that, as the noble Baroness rightly said, post Committee we will move on to Report, and we have amended the rules to allow amendments in Committee to be brought back on Report if there is not unanimous support; so we are having a bit of flexibility and recognising the virtual proceedings.

The same rules apply to Virtual Proceedings as to Grand Committee, and we feel that there will be ample time for scrutiny. As I said, the noble Lord will see that the sessions for Committees are in one-and-a-half-hour slots, again for all the procedural reasons. Regarding Committee stage as a whole, we normally have various days in which to look at Bills in Committee, and that will continue. So while the sessions themselves may be time limited, that does not mean that Committee stage as such is time limited.

As I say, we are also looking at Report. Members of the commission will know that work is ongoing to build a remote voting function, which needs to be built now that the Commons have, I believe, got their system up and running and are planning to start using it. Some of the gremlins they faced have now been sorted out, and we will be building a similar system so that we will be able to vote as well.

I hope that that deals with all the issues but, as I say, guidance is being published, and if that does not answer all the questions, we will be happy to provide more detail. I beg to move.

The big question raised by what the Leader said—I will come back on one of the other points in a moment—is what will happen on Report. Can she give to the House an undertaking that there will be no Report on a Bill until we have a hybrid House, so we do not face the same issues on Report as she has just outlined in Committee about noble Lords needing to indicate in advance that they can participate? That is an absolutely crucial issue.

I am afraid that I cannot make a commitment on a hybrid House, because I do not know when we are going to move to it or what the guidance will be. We are working towards facilities for a hybrid House at the moment, which we are all committed to, but I am afraid that I cannot make promises about how practical it will be, or anything on that basis. However, we will ensure that when Members wish to vote on proceedings on Report, we will have a system up and running to ensure that they can do that.

But it would be unacceptable at the moment unless we could have some other discussions. My instinct is that Report stage of proceedings as a virtual Chamber would be rather unsatisfactory, so let us keep this under discussion and review. It would be extraordinarily difficult to do it in a way that would satisfy your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, the Leader has left me more concerned after her remarks than I was before, for precisely the reason that my noble friend the Leader of the Opposition has mentioned. It seems that the only way in which these virtual Committee proceedings would be tolerable to the House is if the House meets at Report stage, so that we can have the proper give and take that we accept as part of our proceedings, people do not have to give advance notice of their desire to participate, and we are not forced to make a really significant trade-off in the quality of our scrutiny when making the law. I put on record, which is all that we can do at the moment, my extreme dissatisfaction. That is not just on my part; I have spoken to many noble Lords who cannot be present today about these arrangements and there is very widespread dissatisfaction.

Since the Procedure Committee has not done a very good job so far of taking account of the concerns of the House, the only way that one can send it a message as to the gravity of these concerns—I understand it is meeting on Monday—is to say that, if it were to come forward with any proposal for the fully virtual consideration of Bills on Report, there would be a very significant backlash from all parts of the House on any such arrangement. I am extremely concerned that the Leader of the House has not been able to give an undertaking today that that will not happen.

I may be able to satisfy my noble friend in some way by saying that this would not be discussed by just the Procedure Committee—the usual channels would also discuss it. I have to say that I have grave concerns. Until we have a fully functioning House or an interim stage of it is hybrid, we may be unable to take Report stages, so we have to have those discussions quite urgently.

My Lords, I am very grateful to my noble friend, who has reinforced exactly what I have been saying. As far as I can tell, the great majority of your Lordships would not regard it as acceptable to have a fully virtual Report stage. We obviously have no alternative but to agree to these proposals, but this is done very clearly on that understanding.

To reiterate, it is not clear to me who makes these decisions—I am even more confused after these debates about where the Procedure Committee, the House of Lords Commission and the usual channels come in—but whichever of the various bodies and shadowy institutions it is, I hope that they take account of the remarks made in the House today and that we are not placed in a position in a fortnight’s time of having a resolution tabled which would lead to a fully virtual Report stage. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw my amendment.

Amendment to the Motion withdrawn.

Motion agreed.