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House of Lords: Proceedings

Volume 809: debated on Thursday 4 February 2021


Asked by

To ask the Senior Deputy Speaker what plans there are for proceedings in the House of Lords to revert to physical only proceedings once the restrictions in place to address the Covid-19 pandemic are lifted.

My Lords, at the moment, it is not yet clear when Covid-related restrictions will be lifted, so the point at which we will be able to remove the restrictions on the number of those who can be in the Chamber at once is not yet known. It follows, therefore, that we assume that we will need to continue to work in hybrid proceedings for at least the next few months.

My Lords, we are all indebted to the noble Lord, including for his diligent, well-executed review of committees. Iron sharpens iron far more effectively when we share physical space. This is vital to proper scrutiny of government and to the stimulation and spontaneity of debate. Clearly, there is a very high interest in this Question. What discussions has the noble Lord had with the Government Chief Whip and usual channels about a Chamber debate on the future of hybrid proceedings?

I thank the noble Lord for his Question and comments. As I think his Question acknowledges, I am not in a position to offer time on the Floor of the House, but I know that the Chief Whip will have heard his request. He is correct that we, as a House, need to find a way to talk through what has worked and what has not and any features of hybrid working we may want to retain beyond the current pandemic. I believe that the House would benefit from the experiences and ideas of the noble Lord and others across the House. For my part, I will reflect on how Members’ views might best be sought.

My Lords, none of us enjoy working remotely. The noble Lord, Lord Farmer, is right that it does not allow the House to work at its best, although thanks to our remarkable digital teams and staff across the House we have been able to do so much more effectively than some thought was possible. However, we long for a return to normality. As the vaccine is rolled out, those who receive it have protection but can still transmit the virus. Restrictions therefore remain vital to protect colleagues and our staff who have not yet been vaccinated. Our return to normality cannot be ad hoc; it has to be properly planned. Will the Senior Deputy Speaker confirm that, working with Public Health England, we should now start that planning process in the interests of the work of the House and all those who work here?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question, the kernel of which is: will we instigate a route back to normal? I anticipate deliberation of that at the commission and, thereafter, as appropriate, at the committee dealing with procedural aspects. As she says, we have to be informed by the best advice of Public Health England alongside the representations and views of Members of the House, while taking into consideration staff views and interests. The noble Baroness makes an excellent point about a route back to normal and I am sure that we will take that up at the commission as a first step.

My Lords, I first express disappointment at those Members of the House who continue to move around the building without wearing reasonably requested masks. At this stage, I do not want to change social distancing in the Chamber. However, by 15 February some 50% of all Members of this House will have had their first jab. It is therefore reasonable that the House should give serious consideration to, post-recess, our eating and meeting on a reasonably socially distanced basis at tables alongside each other, and not separated at a distance as now.

I thank the noble Lord for his question. As I mentioned in my answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, when taking up this issue in the commission, points such as those should be taken into consideration. The current public health advice is that those who are vaccinated should continue to follow all existing social distancing measures. This is because, although many Members will have received one dose of the vaccine, most staff will not and we do not yet have certainty on whether the vaccines prevent transmission. Therefore, I urge all responsible Members to follow the measures in place on the Estate in order to protect other Members and the staff who support the House. From my point of view, if I see someone with a mask, I take that as a visible act of generosity and solidarity with others. After all, no one is safe until all are safe.

My Lords, I support the idea of a plan to see how quickly and safely we can return to normal working in the House, recognising that we have lost a great deal in terms of the quality if not the quantity of the work we have done over the past year. May I suggest to the Senior Deputy Speaker that, as well as a debate on the Floor of the House, it would be good if a group looked in detail at and evaluated the changes to our processes and procedures, taking into account evidence from people throughout your Lordships’ House, which would help to inform the work of the commission and the Procedure Committee when we do return?

The hybrid House has worked very well and we have been commended for that, within and outwith the House, including by the media. It is extremely important to evaluate what has happened, because the pace and significance of the change in working practices has been unprecedented. We have been at the forefront of adapting, with not much time for reflection, so that at all points we have been able to continue to do our important job. As the noble Baroness says, there has to come a time for reflection when we can step back and think about what we want to keep and what we do not. Such matters will fall to be considered by the commission and the Procedure Committee in the first instance. Following the suggestion from the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, we hope to start that process in the commission and welcome noble Lords’ views as we develop them.

While congratulating the noble Lord, Lord McFall, on his great care in making sure that we do not put at risk the health of Members of the House of Lords and all our wonderful staff, I do not agree that we have a great deal of improvements that we could use. In many ways, for example, Question Time is now a disaster. We no longer debate issues and we cannot come to the Speaker very easily with supplementaries. People are reading their speeches and are unable to debate any more. If we are to be a powerful House with influence, we need to preserve that. I urge the Senior Deputy Speaker to consider how we might return to proper working as soon as possible.

In terms of what we have done in the hybrid House, I would point to the committees, which have been an excellent and innovative success. In other areas, the debates are stilted, as the noble Lord points out. The Procedure Committee has sought to improve the spontaneity of proceedings—for example, by introducing a way for noble Lords to email the clerk to ask to speak after the Minister to ask questions of elucidation on some business. We are actively considering whether there is more we can do. We also know that ensuring virtual participation can contribute to live proceedings. It takes more stage management than in the past, without which our proceedings might be confusing and chaotic, given the number of noble Lords taking part. We agree with the noble Lord’s main point that proceedings are stilted and there is no substitute for human engagement and getting back to normal. The Procedure Committee is alive to that.

Will the Senior Deputy Speaker reflect on how the hybrid House enables noble Lords to contribute remotely to proceedings when they might otherwise be prevented from doing so through disability, caring responsibilities or duties elsewhere?

That is a very valid question, for which I thank the noble Lord. As I mentioned, the Procedure Committee will be meeting soon and I will bring his and other Members’ comments to its attention.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed, and I apologise to the noble Lords it was not possible to call. We now come to the fourth Oral Question.