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Business of the House

Volume 805: debated on Tuesday 28 July 2020

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That with effect from 2 September until further Order members may participate remotely as well as physically in sittings of the Grand Committee (“hybrid Grand Committee”), and that for the purposes of sittings of the hybrid Grand Committee:

1. The procedure shall follow, so far as practical, procedure in Grand Committee save that—

a) no member may participate unless they have signed up to the Speakers’ List,

b) speakers shall be called by the Chair, and

c) sittings may be adjourned between items or classes of business at the discretion of the Chair.

2. Debates on motions relating to statutory instruments and measures in the hybrid Grand Committee (including related instruments debated together) shall be time-limited to 1 or 1½ hours, and this time limit may be varied in accordance with this paragraph with the unanimous agreement of members taking part in the hybrid Grand Committee at the commencement of that sitting.

3. Motions for general debate shall be time limited to 3 hours and this time limit may be varied with the unanimous agreement of the members taking part at the commencement of proceedings;

4. No amendments to bills may be tabled after the deadline prescribed by the Procedure and Privileges Committee.

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

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.

My Lords, I take this opportunity to express my thanks to the staff and to the Government and Opposition Whips for their remarkable patience and advice throughout this challenging period. I salute all those in the incredible digital support team for their guidance in helping us to steer through the new adventures of Zoom and Teams.

There has been a Parliament-wide acknowledgement of the impact of Covid on people’s emotional, physical, psychological and financial well-being. Some noble Lords have lost loved ones, while a number have found the new ways of working to be frustrating and challenging in equal measure, as I have—I put my hand up to that—as has been described so eloquently in this Chamber by the noble Lords, Lord Shinkwin and Lord McConnell.

Our work is underpinned by our giving service to our country and promoting people’s well-being to the best of our abilities. I believe fervently that each of us has done just that by contributing to the work of Parliament based on our knowledge, experience and expertise. My question is simple: where do Members go should they need advice, guidance and counsel? I assume that the House provides comprehensive access to advice and counselling services for staff, should they require them, so will the noble Lord ask the noble Baroness the Leader of the House whether she will consider working across all political parties to facilitate, even on a temporary basis, a form of one-stop hub for Members as the House is opened up again for increased physical participation?

My Lords, I will not delay your Lordships. I regret very much the need for hybrid arrangements both in your Lordships’ House and now, as we are to decide shortly, in Grand Committee. I think that we have all been given to understand that the hybrid arrangements will end when the two-metre requirement goes and I look forward to that very much indeed. In the meantime, would it not be possible to provide more accommodation for your Lordships in, for example, the Royal Gallery, in the Robing Room or perhaps in the galleries around the Chamber?

I want particularly to ask about the voting arrangements during the hybrid proceedings. Is it not possible for noble Lords to cast their vote here in the Chamber, or perhaps in Grand Committee, by, for example, handing their vote to the clerk? I have been told that doing so is possible in special circumstances but not routinely, but I hope that that can be changed. So far as the hybrid voting arrangements are concerned, I am not keen on the idea of allowing anyone situated remotely anywhere in the world to do so. That is surely not a satisfactory position. I express the hope again that your Lordships’ House will return to normal as soon as possible.

My Lords, I will resist the temptation to go into the wider issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. There are points that need to be debated about the hybrid system and the voting system and it is unfortunate that we have not had the chance to do so over these weeks, when we could easily have spared an hour or so for that discussion.

I want to raise two specific issues in relation to the Motion before us. The first concerns the timings. I wonder if the noble Lord the Government Chief Whip could outline whether those involved in the discussions on the arrangements for September have given any consideration at all to the fact that, when we meet at one o’clock on a Monday afternoon, it is physically impossible for Members who have to travel from north of Glasgow and Edinburgh to attend the Chamber. That is fundamentally and perhaps even constitutionally wrong. Given that nine years ago your Lordships’ House withdrew the potential for reimbursement on an overnight basis, a Member would have to incur the costs and make the arrangements to travel down on a Sunday to take part in proceedings at one o’clock on a Monday. At the moment, the first train that I can take out of Stirling is at 6.40 am. I can make the connection to the 8 am train from Edinburgh, which gets into London at 12 40 pm, but there would be a significant risk in trying to get to this place from the train station for one o’clock. A similar problem exists at the end of the week, but I understand that that may be impossible to avoid because of the fact that, because so many train services are not running at the moment, it is not possible to return home after the last debate on a Thursday. I understand that that is the situation at the moment and it is something that we need to live with.

If the Grand Committee is to meet on a Monday, has any consideration been given to the Grand Committee or your Lordships’ Chamber, or both, meeting later than one o’clock on a Monday, so that everyone can take part? On that issue of taking part, we are all willing to be flexible and we understand that there had to be some arrangement between the four groups or blocs in your Lordships’ House when it came to speaking lists and the selection of Members to ask questions, which I appreciate had to be done for a short time through the party Whips. However, if there is any justification for an unelected House in this Parliament, it is because people bring their individual experience, judgment and knowledge to their contributions to Questions and debates, so it cannot be right over the long term for the final selection of those who can speak to be made on a party basis by the Whips. What consideration have the Government given to reviewing that system if, for example, we are in a situation where the number of Peers who will be able to take part in the new Grand Committee proceedings will be so small that they will need to be selected by the party Whips under the system as it currently stands?

My Lords, following on from my noble friend, can the Chief Whip tell us precisely how many noble Lords will be able to take part physically in the Grand Committee proceedings?

I want also to raise an issue on procedure. We all understand the need for accommodation to be made in respect of hybrid proceedings and, for as long as there are safety considerations, that will need to continue. However, there is a fundamental contradiction between the first and the second line in the Motion before the House. The first line states:

“The procedure shall follow, so far as practical, procedure in Grand Committee”.

However, the second line states that

“no member may participate unless they have signed up to the Speakers’ List”.

It is stark staring obvious that Members do not need to have signed up to the speakers’ list in order to participate in person. That is not true in the Chamber, nor is it true in Grand Committee. This is a particular issue in respect of Committee stages, which of course is what the Grand Committee largely exists for, although some other debates can take place, because of the give and take in Committee. At the moment, we now have the utter absurdity that in order to intervene after the Minister, if you are in the Chamber, you need to email the clerk who will email the Lord Chairman sitting on the Woolsack, who will then call you. If, as I found once, you do not get your email in fast enough, you cannot be called after the Minister even though you are actually in the Chamber and you can catch the eye of the Lord Chairman. This is palpably absurd. The reason for it is the levelling-down mentality that nothing that cannot be done in the virtual House should be done in the physical House.

We are all trying to make the best of these procedures and I even had some sympathy for that concept when only a handful of Members were participating in the Chamber and it might have been thought unfair that noble Lords who were taking part virtually would not have the same opportunities as those who were present in the House. However, now that we are encouraging Members to come back to the House where they can and we will have Members physically present in the Grand Committee, it seems utterly absurd and contrary to good practice to deprive noble Lords of their rights in the Chamber and in Grand Committee because of the understandable need to bring other noble Lords in remotely.

The Chief Whip cannot change procedures in response to this debate, but I do not think that the arrangements that have been proposed are either correct or sustainable. It is regrettable that they have been replicated in the arrangements being made for the Grand Committee proceedings from September, so I hope that the noble Lord may be able to give us an undertaking that this issue will be considered further—perhaps even before the beginning of September.

On that note, I wish him a happy holiday. I say to him and to the staff of the Clerk of the Parliaments that we are all enormously appreciative of the work that they have done to make the House operate as well as it has over recent months. It is the aim of us all to make it work better and not to take away in any way from the phenomenal contribution that those who have enabled us to continue working during this time of crisis as we have.

My Lords, I entirely endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, just said about my noble friend the Chief Whip and others in the usual channels and elsewhere who have enabled us to function through some extraordinarily difficult times.

However, having said that, I believe that we have to move on. We have to try to get back to as near to normality as possible, as soon as possible. That means encouraging noble Lords in all parts of the House to regard it as the normal thing to be here and the exceptional thing to participate virtually. I must confess that I had never used a computer before. I was determined that I was not going to be excluded from your Lordships’ House, so I made what my noble friend the Chief Whip would probably say were far too many interventions via virtual participation. But I hate it. It is a horrible thing talking into a screen, not being able to see your colleagues and not being able to sense the reaction of the House. We must get back to that and to a self-regulating House as soon as possible.

With these lists, all spontaneity has gone. The Government cannot be held adequately to account because the Minister, whoever he or she may be, can get away with whatever he or she wants. There is not the opportunity to question them save in the very artificial form to which the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, referred in respect of Committee, when you have to send an email and get another email back and then you can ask a question. Some noble Lords, particularly those participating virtually, have abused that system by making a speech that they should have made on the amendment concerned or even at Second Reading. I am glad to see noble Lords on the other side of the House assenting to some of these points, because they are important.

I know that there is a fundamental problem about numbers, which will perhaps remain for a very long time. I therefore put to the House what I have put privately to the Clerk of Parliaments and others: we should give serious consideration to moving the Chamber to the Royal Gallery. In 1983, that happened. The late Manny Shinwell, who had just celebrated his 100th birthday, was nearly killed by a bit of timber falling from the ceiling. Thank God it was not the end of an illustrious career, but, because of that, this Chamber had to be vacated for restoration and, for a time, noble Lords met in the Royal Gallery. As a Member of the other place for nearly 20 years by then, I found this very interesting and in sharp contrast to the war years, when of course—I remembered it because my noble friend Lord Trefgarne was here in 1947 for the first time —the Lords met in the Robing Room. That would be completely impossible, but it would be possible to have more people, physically distanced, in the Royal Gallery. I know that there are problems, but they have been overcome in the past and they should be overcome now. We could have noble Lords sitting on individual seats, or the Benches could be put in and augmented. It could be tiered, as it is for the State Opening of Parliament every year. It is a serious suggestion that I commend to your Lordships for serious consideration.

One or two other things would help edge us back towards normality. We are brilliantly served by our staff in this House, but I find it very sad to go into the Library and find not a single clerk on duty. Surely there could be a rota system—again, I am glad to see noble Lords assenting—because that Library is of fundamental importance to every Member of your Lordships’ House, and there should be clerks on duty so that Members can consult them. I hope that that can be the case, whether we are serving in Grand Committee or on the Floor of the House, when we come back in September.

I have another suggestion which may not command such universal assent. We are brilliantly served by the Clerk of the Parliaments and all the clerks, but, in edging towards normality, although none of them could ever be accused of being anything other than impeccably dressed, it would be nice to see them properly dressed when we come back in September. Again, it would make the place a little more normal and a little more like the House of Lords that we know and most of us love.

I am grateful to my noble friend for introducing this Motion. I wish him success. I wish him a restful and happy summer—no one deserves it more—but when we come back, let there be more of us and let us be functioning in a more normal way.

My Lords, I want to ask my noble friend on the Front Bench to pay particular note to what the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, said about travel. He lives in the tropics compared to where some people in Scotland live. I remember that when I was appointed to a committee that sat on a Monday afternoon, I had to give up serving on it because I could not get down from Caithness in time. Indeed, I sat on a Back-Bench committee with the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, which looked at the whole problem of better servicing people who live far away from the Chamber and giving them a fairer opportunity to speak and participate in this House.

I thoroughly agree with what my noble friend Lord Cormack said about the Library. One cannot even use a computer in the Library at the moment; this morning, I came in to do some work and found that I was totally unable to do so.

On voting, I agree with my noble friend Lord Trefgarne. I hope that my noble friend on the Front Bench will give consideration to the idea that, in future, the only people who can vote will be those who are physically here in the Chamber.

My Lords, my first point is this: I wish we could make a clearer rule as to what the arrangements are here. I have got in thanks to the kindness of the Deputy Speaker, but I was told that we had to put our names down to ask questions. I was not clear about it; if that is the system, I think we need a note of guidance.

I agree totally with what was said by my good and noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. I agree with a lot of what other people said, but in particular with those two noble Lords.

I have two questions. First, the order will have effect from 2 September until a further order is made. Can the Chief Whip give us some indication as to when this procedure will be reviewed—in other words, when a further order might come up? Secondly, I want to put on record that one of the great difficulties I find when dealing with SIs, and with amendments to Bills, is the inability to get up when the Minister is answering and say, “I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t think you’ve understood my point”, or to intervene at the point where it is absolutely relevant. You cannot then send an email to the clerk to ask to get up afterwards. I therefore ask that this be looked at.

I will not speak again, but on the next Motion the Chief Whip is going to tell us why Topical Questions are no longer to be tabled, and I can well understand why that is. However, I ask that attention be given to the quality of Answers and to the length of time that we are kept waiting, not only for Answers to Written Questions but for answers to letters. Perhaps I can remind Ministers that a letter from a Member of this House to a Minister should not normally, as has happened to me, be replied to by a civil servant who tells me that the Minister is busy. It does not take very long to scribble a signature, and one of the few advantages we have in this House is to be able to call Ministers to account. I was even more annoyed that the answer was totally irrelevant to the letter that I had written in the first place. That did not help; had it been a relevant letter, I might have excused it, but it almost totally missed the point of the questions I had asked. I thank the House for indulging me.

My Lords, I was not quite expecting so many questions on this Motion, but I am delighted to reply. I thank noble Lords for their thanks to the staff of the House; I reiterate and endorse every word of that. A fantastic job has been done, not only by the Clerk of the Parliaments and his staff but by the Government Whips’ Office staff, whose workload has increased dramatically thanks to some of the issues we have talked about, first in the virtual proceedings and then in the hybrid House. I am not sure that all noble Lords realise quite what goes into putting the day together and getting ready the Speaker’s brief and the speaking lists and so on. I will come on to some of that later, but I appreciate and echo the words of noble Lords.

Having thanked the staff and the Whips, the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, asked about the facilities that will be available in September to Members of the House, both physically and in the area of counselling and things such as that. On the physical facilities, the Clerk of the Parliaments will write today to all Members before they go away for the summer to explain the arrangements that will be made when we come back. I echo many of the comments about how we want to come back as soon as we can and in as great numbers as we can. However, we have to respect the medical advice from Public Health England and the Government’s own advice in respect of social distancing, and we will continue to do that.

I think that noble Lords will be reassured by the thought that has gone into coming back. Obviously, we will have to keep a watching brief on that and review it before we come back and when we are back. If there is to be a spike in the infection rate, it is likely to be towards the autumn and winter, so we will have to do that.

Even if we come back completely in a physical sense, which we would all like to do, we will have to keep the facility to have a hybrid House as a contingency measure if necessary. We are able to do that, and in a much smoother way than has been done. Despite some of the criticisms that noble Lords have made, which I will come to, it has been remarkable, and we must not take for granted the work that has been done. If we think back to where we were before the crisis happened and the way we have managed to vote and participate, albeit in a different way, it is remarkable that 780-odd Members of this House have been able to do that from all over the country, and indeed sometimes from abroad. Therefore, as I said, the Clerk of the Parliaments will write about offices, working spaces and things such as catering, which will be available.

The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, and my noble friend Lord Caithness brought up some things which they have mentioned before, in particular the starting time. Obviously, the starting time is a balance of interests —sometimes competing interests. We have to take into account the interests of Members, the administrative staff, the Government Whips’ Office, the broadcasters, and committees. I take the point the noble Lord makes, and we will keep that under review. However, the good news is that, due to the hybrid nature of the House and the remote voting, Members are able to take part from wherever they live. The point the noble Lord makes relates in particular to when he wishes to come physically to the House in time for, say, votes, but at the moment, they can be done remotely. However, I take his point.

Therefore, there is partly some good news about the virtual proceedings, and allowances will go back in September broadly to what they were before, albeit some of the problems the noble Lord mentioned were the result of changes made nine years ago but not of those made because of the Covid crisis.

My noble friends Lord Trefgarne and Lord Cormack explained how they do not like the hybrid system. I can assure them that we are extremely keen to go back to normal as far as possible, subject to the constraints I mentioned. I think there is some unanimity on this on all sides of the House. It may be for different reasons. The Opposition may be more interested in spontaneity and being able to hold the Government to account. From my and the Government’s point of view, the flexibility has gone in dealing with government business, and for all of us it is very difficult to have a self-governing House when there is no House to self-govern. Some of the problems that have been talked about regarding Committee stages are partly as a result of the fact that the majority of noble Lords are dispersed and so the mood of the House is much more difficult to understand, and the House itself is not able to regulate some Members who speak too long or irrelevantly. That will get better as more of us come back.

My noble friend Lord Trefgarne also talked about voting. The Procedure Committee is clear on this. It was decided when remote voting was brought in that there should be parity between all Members, whether participating virtually or physically, and that voting would be done remotely. The only exception to that was Members who had technological problems, who could talk to the Clerk at the Table. However, the Procedure Committee has been clear that all voting should be done remotely. I am glad to see that despite what he said, my noble friend has managed to vote remotely 18 out of 22 times, so obviously he has mastered the technology.

My noble friend Lord Cormack said that we should encourage noble Lords to come into the House, and I agree with that. The difference between then and now is that before, we encouraged Members to stay away and to attend only if they wanted to. In September, subject to the virus situation not changing, we want to encourage Members to come but to stay away if they have underlying health conditions or indeed if they do not want to attend.

The Royal Gallery was considered. There is no current digital audio or video connectivity in there, it does not have heating and cooling systems, which are required for sustained use, and in September we will use the Royal Gallery for the Printed Paper Office and seating. Therefore, together with the new Grand Committee room, there will be many more opportunities for Members to attend, and the galleries will be used for Members to be observers as well, which will count as being in the Chamber.

The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, talked about the allocation of speakers’ lists. I do not know how the Opposition do this, but the Whips’ Office has been keen to be fair, and we have had discussions in the usual channels to make it as fair as possible across the parties. We have done it largely in proportion to the size of the different groups in the House; within that, it is up to each party and group how they wish to allocate within the slots that are available. It is not true to say that the Whips have decided who has spoken; if your Lordships listen to some of the speeches, they will see that that is borne out. The Convenor and Government Whips have some discretion but, certainly in our case, it has been limited in its use.

My noble friend Lord Cormack also mentioned how the clerks dress. On the issue of wigs in particular, he used the word “normal”; I do not know whether that was normal clothing. However, I take his point. The reason was that many more clerks were needed to sit at the Table who did not have the clerical garb and wigs, which have to be individually fitted. However, when we come back to the normal House, that will be reviewed as well.

In addition to thanking staff, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, asked about the capacity of the Grand Committee. That will be 50 Members virtually plus 28 physically. Interestingly, looking at the statistics on the use of the Grand Committee in its normal form, that is as many Members as went into it before. Therefore, using the mitigations we have of 28, the physical numbers in Grand Committee will be at least as good as what we had. It will be different: there will be screens around Members and they will be sitting down, and we have to wear masks as we go in and out because we will be in close proximity. However, there will be more capacity.

Turning to the speakers’ list, the way the Committees work and how we intervene, the problem is largely because of something that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, is very keen on: the broadcasting element of Parliament. If we have an outside broadcasting unit sitting in Millbank, the broadcasters have to know which Peer is speaking next so they can feed them into the broadcast feed. They therefore have to know in what order they are going to come. That makes interventions very difficult. The method of putting in an email and being able to speak after the Minister in Committee was a crude attempt—and I admit that it was crude—of the Procedure Committee to try to bring in some intervention-type process so that if the Minister did not answer satisfactorily or a Member needed some elucidation, then they could do that. Nobody is suggesting that it has the spontaneity of the physical Chamber, but that was the reason why it was done. A lot of the difficulties of the hybrid Chamber have been connected with how the broadcasters—the outside broadcasting unit—were able to manage the combination of the virtual House and the physical House.

My noble friend Lord Balfe asked about the arrangements. The arrangements are clear: Members do not have to put their name down for a Business of the House Motion, which is an entirely physical Motion. They do have to put their name down for hybrid business for the reasons I have mentioned. He also asked about the phrase “until further Order” from 2 September. The reason for that is that we constantly keep these issues under review, so this Business of the House Motion is in force until changed by another order. There is no suggestion at the moment that there will be another order, but there might be, so that is why that is there.

On my noble friend’s point about Topical Questions and the quality of the Answers, I hope that the quality of my answer been satisfactory. I agree with him about Ministers answering Members’ letters. If a Member of Parliament in either House writes to a Minister, the Minister should reply and take responsibility for that answer. I hope that is satisfactory and I beg to move.

Motion agreed.