House of Lords
Thursday 20 May 2021
The House met in a hybrid proceeding.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Birmingham.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, the Hybrid Sitting of the House will now begin. Some Members are here in the Chamber, and others are participating remotely, but all Members will be treated equally. I ask all Members to respect social distancing. In doing so, I also remind Members that today the capacity for Members to participate in proceedings in the Chamber, while maintaining social distancing in compliance with Public Health England advice, has increased from 30 to 53, plus the two seats on the Judges’ Woolsack and myself or a Deputy Speaker. Members are reminded that with the new reduced social distancing in the Chamber, face coverings should be worn unless speaking. If the capacity of the Chamber is exceeded, I will immediately adjourn the House.
Oral Questions will now commence. Please will those asking supplementary questions keep them no longer than 30 seconds and confined to two points? I ask that Ministers’ answers are also brief.
Biomass Electricity Subsidies: Deforestation
My Lords, the UK supports only biomass which complies with strict sustainability criteria, and electricity generators receive subsidies only for compliant biomass. The criteria ensure that the carbon stock and area of the forest is not decreased, irrespective of its location. The sustainability criteria require that biomass fuels are sourced from forest waste wood and residues from commercial forestry operations, and that the forest owner adheres to the relevant legal requirements to protect biodiversity and the environment.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his reply and congratulate the Government on their commitment to renewable energy. However, as he is probably aware, the UK is now the top subsidiser of bioenergy in Europe. It spent more than £1.9 billion in 2019 on bioenergy subsidies, primarily to burn wood imported from overseas forests at Drax power station. Despite what he said, I have serious concerns that the wood pellets supplied for burning come from primary forest in both the US and Europe. This has a potentially devastating effect on important bird species and biodiversity in general. Does he agree that we should be cutting carbon, not chopping down carbon-reducing forests?
I understand my noble friend’s concern about this and know he takes a close interest in birds and wildlife, but I emphasise once again that the UK supports only biomass that complies with strict sustainability criteria, which take into account impact on the biodiversity of the forests. I refer him back to the Answer I gave earlier: biodiversity is top of our list of priorities.
My Lords, Drax in the United States is subsidised by the Government until 2027 to supply biomass energy to the UK. In view of this, will the Minister confirm what discussions have taken place with Drax about its dependence on biomass, which puts some of the world’s ecologically valuable forests at risk and impacts on our environment through higher levels of greenhouse gas emissions?
I really do not think the noble Baroness is correct about this. Let me make the point once again that our sustainability criteria, which are some of the most stringent in the world, also take into account the greenhouse gas emissions from collecting, transporting and turning the biomass, which predominantly comes from waste products from the forest, into a viable energy source to deliver a carbon saving compared to fossil fuels.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Randall is absolutely right: virgin forests are being cut down. How is this being policed? Other countries are cutting down woodland, and what penalties are there on firms, such as Drax, which breach these conditions, if they are discovered to be in the wrong?
My Lords, I declare my interests as recorded in the register. This is a contested topic with opposing views. The devil is in the detail, and rigorous scientific analysis is crucial. In this context, is the Minister aware of the independent analysis published in March 2021 by Resources for the Future showing that, in the south-eastern United States, demand for forest products such as biomass is associated with an increase in the area of forest in the region, as well as with a 30% increase in carbon storage in those forests over the past few decades?
Indeed. The noble Lord is an expert on this topic and is of course correct. He is also correct to say that this is an area of ongoing debate among the scientific community, and it is one that my department is following very closely by gathering the evidence. The latest scientific data will form part of our forthcoming biomass strategy.
My Lords, the Minister has confirmed that the Government accept the principle that a scheme designed to reduce emissions needs to account fully for all emissions generated by it and must not cause environmental destruction, and therefore a loss of biodiversity. As there appears to be credible evidence to the contrary, and as he has assured your Lordships’ House that UK production of biomass meets that standard, will he publish the evidence, including the data that supports the assessment that he just made?
Many of these studies are published and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, referred to a previous study that supports the assertion that forest is actually increasing in the area. But yes, the noble Lord, Lord Browne, is quite right—we need to act on the basis of proper, validated scientific evidence and our forthcoming biomass strategy will explore that further.
Instead of razing American forests would it not be a better use of our subsidies to stimulate the development of a coppice harvesting service in the southern UK? Coppiced woodlands are rich ecologies that need regular felling but they are not getting it because there is currently no economic outlet for the timber.
My noble friend makes a good suggestion. We did try that, of course. Subsidies have been available for more than a decade but we have seen a lack of uptake because they cannot compete with the use of waste products in huge commercial forestries in the US.
My Lords, we await a biomass strategy due in 2022 and the Minister can confirm that this will assess the link between biomass electricity subsidies and deforestation. The Drax plant is investing in carbon capture in order to be a “carbon-negative company” by 2030. Does he think that that is achievable? When will the Government decide on a development consent order for Drax?
My Lords, given the need to rapidly decarbonise and the impact of pellet production on forests, will the Government review the decision to class biomass as carbon-neutral under the UK ETS and stop subsidising new biomass projects? I should say here that I own a biomass boiler.
I hate to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, but my reading of the science is that it is uncertain. There is little science looking at the impact of biomass extraction in Europe, particularly in Estonia. In America and Estonia, we have clear evidence of declining numbers in protected species and biodiversity. Is the Minister aware that 500 scientists have written to protest to President Biden and the European Commission about those continued activities? Does he agree that the comparison between biomass electricity generation and other technologies should be made not with fossil fuels, which we know are poor in their performance, but with other green technologies?
The different contributions from noble Lords in this debate have illustrated that this is a contentious subject. There is much debate in the scientific community. The noble Baroness referred to the 500 scientists who have written to the US Administration. Other scientists take different points of view. That is part of the nature of the debate but it is our view that biomass, when compared to fossil fuels, is considered to be a renewable, low-carbon energy source. The carbon released from the organic material was sequestered recently from the atmosphere, compared to fossil fuels where the carbon was sequestered hundreds of millions of years ago. We will continue to follow this debate and explore the issues further in the biomass strategy. If we continue with policies supporting biomass—it is an if—we will take all these factors into account. We want to make sure that there are genuine carbon savings, that biomass is sustainable and that there is no long-term damage to the areas referred to.
Digital Identification Protocol
My Lords, in 2020, the Government committed to creating a framework of standards, governance and legislation to enable a UK digital identity market. The DCMS published a draft trust framework in February this year setting out the Government’s vision for the rules governing the future use of digital identities. A next iteration is expected to be published this summer and we are expecting to consult on digital identity legislation during this year.
My Lords, which specific sectors do the Government believe are best to run proofs of concepts in when it comes to digital ID? Further, does my noble friend agree with the analysis from McKinsey that suggests an additional 13% in UK GDP if we get digital identity effectively deployed? That is a prize certainly worth prioritising.
I absolutely agree with my noble friend that this is a prize worth prioritising—although I cannot comment on the specific McKinsey data. On his question about areas for pilots, we are working with a number of sectors and are eager to look into pilots in healthcare, tourism, housing, conveyancing and insurance—but all of this is of course subject to spending review outcomes.
It is increasingly important for all of us as citizens to be able to simply and securely verify our identity to others and, likewise, that we can always have confidence that the person with whom we are engaged in a transaction is who they say they are. Yet there have been 11 wasted years since the Government scrapped the previous proposals for a secure identity system. Why has there been that waste of time? Can the Minister assure us, the public, that our personal identity data will be secure and not exploited for profit by these new private sector solutions?
I cannot comment on the delay to which the noble Lord refers. What I can say is that we are working at pace and have made considerable progress since our response to the call for evidence in September. As he is aware—the clue is in the name—a fundamental of the “trust framework” is that citizens can trust how their digital ID will be used.
My Lords, identity theft is a major, growing crime in this country and many people, particularly the elderly, are commonly relieved of their life savings. In the digital, financial and communications world, we all use fingerprint, facial and iris recognition applications to access our personal and financial information. They also safeguard travellers at airports. Unique DNA data has revolutionised crime investigation, resulting in serious historical crimes being detected. Does the noble Baroness agree that proof of identity brings welcome security to most people living in the modern world? However, for it to be trusted, we need to capture this biometric data, verify its authenticity and digitise it securely.
My Lords, I remind the House of my interest as chair of the Proof of Age Standards Scheme board. I congratulate my noble friend and welcome the moves that the Government are making in this direction. However, mindful of the fact that digital identity verification is fiendishly complicated, I urge the Government to consult as widely as they can, to embrace the consequences for rural as well as urban areas and to ensure that any such framework is fit for purpose and will, as my noble friend says, be used safely and appropriately.
My noble friend makes an important point on which I absolutely agree. That is why we have taken this very transparent approach with the publication of the trust framework alpha. A second iteration will be published this summer and then, as I mentioned, further work towards legislation later this year.
My Lords, the Government Digital Service is hiring a new head of design with the statement:
“Our vision is that citizens will be able to use one login for all government services.”
But we have already spent £200 million on Verify without notable success. Despite what seemed to be the intention in the call for evidence response of creating an open marketplace for verifiable credentials, are the Government really planning to reinvent Verify?
We are not planning to reinvent anything. We will continue to run the Verify system, plan for its retirement and the offboarding of services, while working closely with departments, including my own, to develop a viable long-term digital identity solution for all government, which will be called “One Login for Government”.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Holmes on his persistence on this important subject. Does the Minister agree that we have to introduce a unified digital ID protocol for many reasons, not least the IT benefits for people’s well-being, which will require building equal digital opportunities, widespread digital literacy and strong digital security? For this to succeed, the Government need to introduce their own digital ID protocol as soon as possible and use that opportunity to consider launching further widespread digital literacy education campaigns.
I thank my noble friend for highlighting another opportunity for digital ID. The Government are committed to realising the benefits of these technologies, albeit without creating ID cards. My honourable friend the Minister for Digital Infrastructure and the Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office are working closely together, as both the trust framework and the single sign-on system for government are needed, so that users can control their data in line with the principles that we published in our response to the 2019 call for evidence.
My Lords, anonymity online has encouraged people to say things that are rude, hurtful, untrue and, sometimes, murderous. This does huge damage to society and individuals, so could the Minister undertake that any move towards a distributed digital identity protocol would include an examination of how it might be used to prevent people hiding behind pseudonyms on social media?
The noble Baroness will know that issues around anonymity on social media are extremely complex. She rightly raises instances where anonymity is abused, but we also know that some people use anonymity and pseudonyms for their own protection. I will take her remarks back to the department.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Holmes of Richmond, on pursuing this issue so doggedly, and I challenge the Minister’s assertion that the Government are moving at pace on this. But it is crucial that our economy and public services move with the times. Bodies such as the Financial Action Task Force acknowledge the existence of risks if digital ID is not properly implemented. So how do the Government intend to strike the right balance between risk and reward in this important area?
The Minister rightly stresses the importance of building public trust in all this. Given increasing concerns about the partisan fashion of so many recent public appointments, what are the Government doing to build broad support for forthcoming key appointments in this field, such as the new Information Commissioner, the new chair of the board at the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, and others?
My Lords, live automated recognition technology is currently on trial by the police, under the supervision and care of the Surveillance Commissioner. Is it envisaged that digitised identity will similarly be subject to the remit of the commissioner, or will they be run as completely separate issues of digitisation?
I welcome the noble and learned Lord to his place and thank him for his question. My understanding is that there will be a need for co-operation between different regulatory authorities. As he will be aware, we have not yet established the governance structure for digital identity—but if there is further information to share, I will write to the noble and learned Lord.
Rent Arrears: Covid-19
I declare my residential and commercial property interests as set out in the register. The Government have provided an unprecedented £352 billion support package, keeping millions in work and temporarily bolstering the welfare safety net by more than £1,000 a year for families most in need. Financial support from private rented sector tenants remains in place. The job retention scheme and universal credit uplift are available until the end of September. For renters who require additional support, £140 million of discretionary housing payments are available.
I thank the Minister for his response, but the recent housing resilience survey suggested that the proportion of private renters in arrears increased from 3% in 2019 to 9% in 2020. Will the Minister accept that allowing arrears to grow in this way is not sustainable for tenants or landlords? The Budget announced a pilot no-interest loan scheme to help vulnerable consumers who would benefit from affordable short-term credit to meet unexpected costs. Will the Minister consider a similar loan scheme to support tenants who are now in arrears but do not claim benefit support?
My Lords, I point out that two-thirds of the tenants identified in the survey have two months or less of rent arrears. We have preferred to avoid encouraging further debt, instead providing non-repayable financial support through furlough and the welfare system.
My Lords, in the debate in Grand Committee on 22 April on poverty and mass evictions I asked my noble friend whether his department would do a quick review of the schemes in Wales and Scotland of grants and loans that prevent evictions to see whether any lessons might be learned for England. He replied:
“I will encourage my officials to look at what we can learn from the devolved Administrations”.—[Official Report, 22/4/21; col. GC 402.]
What was the outcome of that review?
My noble friend is quite right. I have asked my department to do that. My officials carefully studied the Scottish and Welsh schemes to support tenants with rent arrears. I understand that a relatively small number of loans have been made by these schemes. Indeed, the Government continue to believe that it is right to provide non-repayable financial support rather than encouraging further debt.
My Lords, I declare my housing interests as on the register. Has the noble Lord’s ministry been able to study the outcomes of the tenant loan scheme operating in Spain? Has this enabled tenants to pay off Covid-related arrears successfully and avoid the traumas and cost of widespread evictions? If the scheme is working well in Spain, why not here?
My Lords, we continue to review other examples of support, including that in Spain, as well as those in the devolved Administrations in the United Kingdom. We will consider what impact they might have, but we will continue with the policy we have about not encouraging further debt.
My Lords, I refer the House to my interests as set out in the register. Right now, an estimated 353,000 private renters are in arrears. Rent arrears have doubled since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Government promised that no renter would lose their home due to the pandemic. Is it not time for the Government to accept the need for a Covid rent debt fund to clear Covid arrears for the most financially destitute renters, who are at severe risk of homelessness? If not, with the ban on evictions that has been in place during lockdown being lifted next month, how will the Government stop evictions because of Covid rent debt?
My Lords, we are aware of the exhortations from many organisations, but we consider that the increase in rent arrears is not statistically significant between the two surveys. It went from 7% to 9%. We also recognise that we have provided a substantial package of support for renters during the pandemic, including legislative protections and unprecedented financial support.
Does the Minister accept that loosening restrictions when 353,000 private renters are in arrears risks making families homeless, particularly while no-fault evictions are still in use? Even at this late stage, will he agree to meet Generation Rent to discuss a Covid rent debt fund, enabling renters to clear their debts and landlords to claim up to 80% of income lost, all at a fraction of the current subsidies for home owners?
My Lords, I am always very happy to meet Generation Rent and hear its proposals. I point out that we continue to provide support even at this stage. We lifted the local housing allowance rates to the 30th percentile of local rents in April 2020. That has provided 1.5 million claimants with around £500 more housing support per year. We have announced that local housing rates will be maintained at the increased level in cash terms in 2021-22.
My Lords, financial assistance to renters finds its way straight into the pockets of landlords, but rents have fallen during the pandemic, not least in London. Does my noble friend agree that any scheme designed for this purpose should ensure that landlords do not receive returns greater than they would have received in market circumstances?
My noble friend is right that we have seen rents reduce as a result of the pandemic. All the schemes that we have designed cover rent at the level presented by the landlord. Obviously, schemes that we have provided to support renters will reduce as a consequence of reducing rents.
My Lords, although the excellent furlough scheme has helped to reduce some financial suffering during the pandemic, the reduced incomes of individuals and households have led to increased arrears for many tenants. If we are to avoid the hardships of a rise in homelessness with the ban on evictions due to end this summer, will the Minister consider loans to be used exclusively to clear rent arrears, as has been mentioned by many speakers?
My Lords, I restate the Government’s position that we are not looking to encourage further debt. I also point to the statistics regarding homelessness. We have seen a 40% decrease in homelessness duty owed in the period between October 2020 and the same period in 2019. We are not seeing that massive spike in homelessness that has been alluded to.
My Lords, before the pandemic it was taking a median of 42 weeks for court cases to reach repossession. The mean length was nearer a year. Analysis suggests that the small number that are being processed now are taking nearly twice as long. The courts cannot cope with the likely flood, and the delays will greatly increase the stress, suffering and uncertainty for private tenants, and difficulty for landlords. Does the Minister agree that the pile-up of repossession cases in the courts is another argument for a grant scheme, ideally, or at least a loan scheme to rescue people from unpayable arrears, provide certainty and prevent delays?
My Lords, I am not aware of a pile-up in the courts. Indeed, we have actually seen a massive drop in the number of repossession cases. It decreased to 262 repossessions in January to March 2021—a reduction of some 96%—and 214 local authorities had no landlord repossessions at all.
Given that the number of tenants in arrears on low incomes who have been impacted by Covid has more than doubled, have the Government conducted an impact assessment of the change to allow evictions once more? If so, will they make that available to Members of the House?
My Lords, we continue to survey this very carefully indeed. As I pointed out, although we have seen an increase, according to the survey, in the number of renters in arrears, the vast majority of them—some two-thirds—have arrears of no greater than two months.
My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. Can the Minister comment on what plans the Government have to assist small and medium landlords who are unable to recover Covid-related rent arrears and face potential enforcement action by their mortgage providers? Might the Government persuade mortgage providers to extend their overall repayment period in these cases, instead of seeking to enforce the mortgage?
My noble friend will be pleased to know that, to support landlords, mortgage lenders have agreed to offer payment holidays of up to six months, including for buy-to-let mortgages. Although that is available only until July 2021, from 1 April 2021 there have been moves to enable forbearance options tailored to the individual landlord.
Nepal: Covid-19 Vaccine Request
My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear that equitable access is an integral part of the UK’s approach to vaccine distribution. The United Kingdom has provided £548 million to COVAX, which has already delivered over 59 million doses across three continents. This includes 348,000 doses to Nepal. In total, COVAX has allocated almost 2 million doses to Nepal, which will be delivered free of charge. We will share the majority of any future domestic vaccine surplus with COVAX.
My Lords, there can be no greater champion in the Government for Nepal than my noble friend the Minister, in part because he understands, as your Lordships’ House understands, the great bond that exists between our two countries. For over 200 years, through every conflict and crisis that our nation has faced, the brave men of Nepal have fought and died for the Crown. Now, as Covid spreads across the north Indian plain, Nepal faces a crisis of its own. Can my noble friend reassure us, as the air corridor opens this evening, that the enduring comradeship that has stretched across the centuries will result in us doing everything that we possibly can to support our ally?
My Lords, I return the compliment by paying tribute to my noble friend for his work and his advocacy for Nepal. I can also further assure him that this morning I met with the Minister for the Armed Forces, and the MoD is standing up a military, medical and advisory team on the ground to assess. They will be leaving early next week to assess the requirements on the ground. I am directly engaging with the Government of Nepal. Indeed, I had a very constructive meeting with the Foreign Minister yesterday, establishing exactly what the key requirements are, and later this afternoon I will be meeting the Nepalese ambassador to the Court of St James to further discuss issues of logistics. We have already extended support, including funding an oxygen generation plant at the Nepal Police Hospital, and we are working on the ground through our embassy, and with officials within the FCDO and the MoD, to see what further support can be extended at the earliest opportunity.
My Lords, despite the work of COVAX, is not the absence of an effective international vaccine manufacturing and distribution system that meets world demand perfectly illustrated by Nepal’s reported difficulties, particularly when the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest manufacturer, is situated in Pune, in the state of Maharashtra in India, next door to Nepal? With an 8 billion world population at risk and potentially only a 4 billion worldwide double -dosage manufacturing capacity, as yet unrealised, how can world demand be met?
The challenges—the noble Lord mentioned the Serum Institute of India, which I know well as the Minister for India, and the challenges in India in terms of the current wave sweeping across the country—are well known. We have seen a stepping up in terms of manufacturing and collaboration, and the United Kingdom’s structured approach to the COVAX facility demonstrates the importance, as the noble Lord himself acknowledges, of a global supply chain which guarantees the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines across the world.
This disastrous surge in cases has now, unsurprisingly, spread to Nepal. We are likely to see this pattern replicated worldwide, yet it is reported that the UK stopped adding to the global vaccination efforts when we cut aid. How can we claim, as we have, that we will be leading the world at the G7 in recovery from the pandemic if we cannot even do that?
My Lords, that is just not the case. We are leading the efforts, along with other key partners, on vaccines, and again, as I said in my original Answer, any surplus vaccines in the United Kingdom will be distributed through the COVAX scheme.
My Lords, Nepal and the United Kingdom have one of the oldest diplomatic relationships within south Asia, a friendship represented by generations of Gurkha soldiers and mountaineers. Can my noble friend the Minister outline what other steps are being taken to engage with the Nepalese Government to better understand their needs and to ensure that human care and support are provided in the most effective way possible?
My Lords, I have already alluded to the cross-government approach and the structured approach. We are engaging with the Nepalese Government directly, both in Kathmandu and in the UK. We are sending experts in technical support and assisting Nepal’s Ministry of Health in its responses. We will continue with a very active dialogue both in Kathmandu and in London.
My Lords, this is an emergency on the scale of Nepal’s civil war or the 2015 earthquake. Is the UK responding adequately, especially to the local demand for vaccines and oxygen? The Minister will be aware of the current fragility of government and of rural health services, but there are also many experienced NGOs supporting clinics there—both Nepalese and international—with safe supply lines. Are we making full use of those?
My Lords, yesterday in the Queen’s Speech debate, I argued for the utilisation and expansion of local manufacturing capacity in low and middle-income countries. Today, Labour has put forward a 10-point plan to transform the volume of vaccine production worldwide, including a global register of potential production facilities. Will the Government support this vital initiative?
My Lords, I have not yet seen the 10-point plan, but I look forward to it. On this occasion, I must disappoint the noble Lord—I have not seen his tweet—but I will certainly reflect on the important points. In all seriousness, we need to co-operate globally to ensure the best and most effective response to meeting the challenges not only of the current pandemic but of future pandemics as well.
My Lords, while we have to await the outcome of the current census, the current estimate of the population of the United Kingdom with Nepalese roots is between 80,000 and 100,000. May I therefore urge the Minister to treat this request for support as not just a foreign policy issue but a domestic issue, and to ensure that we keep in close touch with the local communities to reassure them that we are supporting their families?
My Lords, I can give the noble Baroness that assurance. Our experience of the support we have extended to India lends to the strength of our diaspora communities. I have asked my office to set up a meeting with private sector representatives to see what we can do in strengthening the diaspora’s response to the needs of Nepal.
My Lords, I declare that I am the founder and chairman of the UK-Nepal Trade and Investment Forum and vice-chair of the APPG on Nepal. The situation in Nepal is dire: it needs our immediate help. I have received representations from the Nepalese diaspora and have had several discussions with His Excellency the Nepalese ambassador. The country needs ICU ventilators, oxygen cylinders and concentrators, oxygen plants, ICU beds, test kits and, of course, vaccines. I have written to the Minister on this matter and am waiting for an answer. Also, I am galvanising Muslim charities to provide aid in Nepal immediately.
My Lords, I have received my noble friend’s letter and I will be responding to him. The list is well known to me, and I have already talked about engaging with the diaspora. I will be in touch with my noble friend to convene a meeting so we can address the direct needs.
My Lords, I fully support the UK Government and indeed applaud them for providing vaccines to Nepal and other developing countries. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government yet know whether we will need booster jabs for our UK frail and elderly in the autumn and, if so, whether vaccines for developing countries will take priority over booster jabs for the frail and elderly in this country?
My Lords, I know our Prime Minister. I worked with our Prime Minister when he was Foreign Secretary. I have seen a side to our Prime Minister that perhaps other noble Lords have not seen. This is a Prime Minister who went through the challenge of Covid-19 himself and when he returned to the office—the noble Lord shakes his head, but it is important—we saw it, we heard it and we delivered on it. The first priority, the first thing he spearheaded, was the response to the Covid-19 challenge, not just in the UK but across the world. He was instrumental in setting up the COVAX facility, which is benefiting more than 92 developing countries around the world. That is the fact. I know our Prime Minister personally and well, and he has led from the front on this agenda.
Covid-19 Internal Review
Private Notice Question
My Lords, I start by welcoming the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, to the Bench; I am very much looking forward to working with her in the months ahead. The Prime Minister confirmed on 12 May that a public inquiry will be established on a statutory basis to consider the Covid-19 pandemic, including the Government’s handling of it. I can confirm that while DHSC officials carried out a routine internal ways-of-working review, this was absolutely for the purpose of providing advice to Ministers only.
My Lords, the National Audit Office report published yesterday both highlighted the need for the Government to learn lessons at speed and advocated greater transparency. Publishing an already completed internal review of the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis would support a plan to contain the threat of new variants, and I urge the Government to do so. I am interested to know whether the Minister can come to agree with me on this. With experts, including SAGE, warning that it is very much in the balance as to whether further restrictions will be lifted in June, given the dramatic rise in Indian Covid-19 variant cases, will the Government learn the lessons and urgently review travel and quarantine arrangements?
My Lords, I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness that we are at a pivotal moment in the pandemic; matters are on a knife-edge. There is so much good news about the effect of the vaccine that we should celebrate, but there is enormous jeopardy in the threat posed by variants. That is why we are very much focused on dealing with the pandemic before us. The inquiry promised by the Prime Minister is for spring next year, and until then we will continue to be focused on today’s pandemic.
My Lords, Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of SAGE, this morning said that he thinks we are now at the start of the third wave and that more generalised measures will be needed. As an adviser to government is saying that we need to act and plan now, what generalised measures are the Government planning and when will they be announced, so that people and businesses do not have just 24 hours to plan?
My Lords, we are enormously grateful for the advice of SAGE, which, as the noble Lord will know, is a very large collection of scientists, many of whom have many different views. The JBC takes their advice into account, and we are absolutely monitoring the situation as closely as we possibly can. We celebrate the transparency with which the very large amount of surveillance data is handled and published for public analysis. Measures are in place on testing, therapeutics and social distancing, but the number one measure is the vaccine. The rollout of the vaccine is what will give this country the protection it needs.
My Lords, I reiterate my congratulations to the Government and all those involved in the fantastic success of the vaccine development and rollout programme. This inquiry does not need to be long and drawn out. Will my noble friend confirm that it will look into the accuracy of—and contradictory nature of some of—the scientific advice received over the last year, the appalling scaremongering of some of the media, the validity of political decisions such as lockdowns, and whether the government reaction to the pandemic, and the reaction overall, has been proportionate?
My Lords, the Prime Minister promised on 12 May that there will be a statutory inquiry beginning in spring 2022, as my noble friend alluded to. Its chair and terms of reference will be announced before spring 2022, and it will be for the terms of reference and the chair to determine exactly what subjects are looked at.
My Lords, I ask the Minister to return to the first Question asked by my noble friend—she asked two—which he overlooked. Does the Minister agree that publishing the internal review could strengthen the strategic plan to contain new variants? Does he agree with me that it would certainly raise public trust and that, because of the inordinate delay until next year in starting the public inquiry, it surely makes sense? Even if this is not a public-facing review, it is of such public interest that he should publish the internal review.
My Lords, as I said before, there was an internal ways-of-working review into the department’s early response to the pandemic, way before the threat of variants was on the horizon. None the less, it is our commitment to focus on the pandemic and the threat presented to us by its future evolution. That is why we are focused on today’s measures. We will leave reflection on the past to the inquiry.
Does the Minister see that we will keep on having variants of this virus and, to an extent, will have to learn to live with it? I am sure people would be much happier if we were to downscale the amount of advice that we get from a variety of often dubious sources. The sooner we can publish an inquiry into it, the better. We must recognise that the Government faced an enormous challenge. Overall, they have come out of it pretty well, and we should not carp.
My Lords, I am enormously grateful to my noble friend for his comments. I know he has been a vocal critic of some things, and I take his comments in very good measure. On his point on guidance, this is not how the public have presented things to us. They want clear, easy-to-understand guidance. We have learned the importance of publishing in many languages and now regularly publish in 10 spoken languages. The public are in fact hungry for detailed guidance, which is why we have published more than 400 pieces of guidance on GOV.UK, covering everything from funerals, care homes and schools right through to smokers, vapers, houseboat dwellers and singing with children. That is because the public would like to have this kind of advice and recommendation.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, on how professionally he handles his responsibilities in the Lords. I am sure he will support the Prime Minister’s announcement that a full inquiry will be held next year, beginning in the spring, which will place the state’s actions under the microscope. The existing internal lessons-learned review was an informal exercise, not a public-facing work, which I believe will not be published. It would be wrong to publish it. While there have inevitably been some mistakes, I congratulate the Government and the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, on having got Covid-19 vaccinations moving significantly faster than the EU. I hope he will exceed the speed limit even more.
I am enormously grateful for my noble friend’s kind comments. On his point on vaccines, I emphasise the enormous contribution of the whole union behind the vaccine project. It has been a union project to deploy vaccines to every person in the UK at amazing speed and with consistency right across all parts of the union. For that we should be enormously grateful.
My Lords, while we all here respect that health is a devolved responsibility, does the Minister not agree with me that one of the problems that arose was the confusion arising from different rules in different parts of the United Kingdom and different messages throughout the United Kingdom? In the inquiry, will the United Kingdom Government talk with the devolved Administrations to make sure that, in future, there is a more co-ordinated response? The virus knows no boundaries.
My Lords, the Prime Minister will define the terms of reference and the chair will define how the inquiry deports itself. On the noble Lord’s point about the rules and the suggestion of confusion, I agree that there was a lot of heat and smoke around differences but the truth is that 99% of everything that we did between the different parts of the union was exactly the same. There was a lot of focus on very small differences, but what I celebrate is how much common ground there was in our responses.
My Lords, I echo the congratulations to my noble friend on his dedication to his role, and I welcome the noble Baroness opposite to her position. I join other colleagues in congratulating the Government on their successful rollout of the vaccine, which, from what we can see so far, deals with the variants that have arisen and allows us to open our country back up again after the extraordinary efforts that have been made in connection with the vaccine. In connection with any review, will there be an urgent announcement of an investigation into the way that social care was handled, particularly at the beginning of this, for those people who are so reliant on home care or care homes for their very survival?
My Lords, I do not think I need to speculate on this matter; of course social care will form part of the inquiry. It has been an incredibly important part of our response, and we have come a long way in the last 14 or 15 months. I pay tribute to all the people who work in social care, and their leadership, who have done an enormous amount to protect those who live in social care or are supported by it. We as a country have learned a huge amount about how to protect those who are vulnerable and those who are elderly. I also pay enormous tribute to the public, who have made huge sacrifices to protect and save the lives of those who live in social care.
My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, to her position and look forward to hearing from her. I too pay tribute to the Minister and the Government, including my friend in the other place, Nadhim Zahawi, who has led this very effectively. It is so pleasing to see the uptake of vaccines in all parts of our countries and communities. While we are not privy to any internal findings of the report, does the Minister accept that any current or future review must address the detrimental economic impact on women, people with disabilities and those communities of minority heritage that suffered significant loss of life in the early days? Will such a report also therefore consider whether the lessons of the first wave were learned, and unnecessary deaths and infections subsequently prevented?
My Lords, it is not for me to define exactly what the scope of the inquiry will be but the noble Baroness’s points are extremely well made. I emphasise the importance of women. We are in the midst of consultation on the women’s health strategy. It is proving to be an incredibly impactful process and events are being held almost daily. I encourage all noble Lords to submit evidence to the health strategy on any issues that they feel strongly about. This could be a really impactful turning point in the way in which the health of women in this country is massively improved.
Does my noble friend agree that publishing an internal review right now would do nothing less than risking a dodgy dossier, of the sort we have seen before which shed far more confusion than light? Does he not think that the most important use of time right now would be in getting to grips with the anti-vaxxers who are spreading vicious lies, so that we can get on with vaccinating as many people as possible and bringing this country together as quickly as possible?
I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for his comments. He is entirely right. The battle against anti-vaxxers has been very successful. We have used a spirit of dialogue with people who have very personal and legitimate questions about a vaccine that requires an injection of fluids into their body. People quite reasonably have detailed questions about its impact. I applaud officials and partners of the Government who have been so effective at conveying the message on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. It really has demonstrated the power of government and NHS communications at their best.
My Lords, I join the chorus of welcome to the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, who referred, as have other Peers, to the National Audit Office report on the handling of the pandemic. Commenting on that, Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, stressed the need to “learn lessons at speed”. The Minister has often expressed how useful and informative he has found the contributions in your Lordships’ House. Would those contributions not be better informed if Members could absorb and reflect on the findings of the internal review as the country and the world continue to deal with what is, certainly on the global level, a raging and deeply dangerous pandemic?
I am enormously grateful to the NAO for the powerful report that it has published. It said many complimentary things about the Government’s handling of the pandemic. I am grateful to noble Lords for the counsel and challenge that they have given here in this Chamber. I point out the vast amount of data and information that we have published, which is at the disposal of the public and parliamentarians. However, confidential advice from officials to Ministers on a means-of-working review is not the kind of thing that I think adds to this sort of debate, and for that reason it is most appropriately kept confidential.
My Lords, I do not think that is correct. The noble Baroness is right to ask the question because we should always challenge our systems, but track and trace has really delivered for the country when it comes to the containment of the variants. We were extremely concerned about the Manaus variant. That was why we instigated Project Eagle, an intense application of testing in communities on a very large scale and forensic tracing, putting huge resources into tracking down the movements of those who tested positive with a VOC. We then had the South African variant, which has been successfully contained. We could not have imagined that an Indian VOC of this kind could make its way into this country with such high transmissibility, and I pay tribute to those working in track and trace who have bought us an enormous amount of time so that we can bring in surge testing and surge vaccination to contain and minimise the spread of this variant.
My Lords, all supplementary questions have been asked and answered.
Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill [HL]
A Bill to make provision for a public consultation to inform a set of national wellbeing goals; to require public bodies to act in pursuit of the United Kingdom’s environmental, social, economic and cultural wellbeing by meeting wellbeing objectives, publishing future generations impact assessments and accounting for preventative spending; to establish a futures and forecasting report; to establish a Commission for Future Generations for the United Kingdom; to extend the duty of the Office for Budget Responsibility to consider wellbeing and the future generations principle in their work; to add on to a Minister in each government department’s portfolio a duty to promote the future generations principle across government policy; to establish a Joint Parliamentary Committee on Future Generations; and for connected purposes.
The Bill was introduced by Lord Bird, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Office of the Whistleblower Bill [HL]
A Bill to make provision for an Office of the Whistleblower.
The Bill was introduced by Baroness Kramer, read a first time and ordered to be printed.
Deputy Chairmen of Committees
That, as proposed by the Committee of Selection, the following members be appointed as the panel of members to act as Deputy Chairmen of Committees for this session:
Alderdice, L, Ashton of Hyde, L, Barker, B, Brougham and Vaux, L, Caine, L, Dear, L, Duncan of Springbank, L, Faulkner of Worcester, L, Finlay of Llandaff, B, Fookes, B, Garden of Frognal, B, Geddes, L, Haskel, L, Healy of Primrose Hill, B, Henig, B, Kinnoull, E, Lexden, L, McAvoy, L, McIntosh of Hudnall, B, McNicol of West Kilbride, L, Morris of Bolton, B, Newlove, B, Palmer of Childs Hill, L, Pitkeathley, B, Rogan, L, Russell of Liverpool, L, Simon, V, Stoneham of Droxford, L, Watkins of Tavistock, B.
Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 (Coronavirus) (Extension of the Relevant Period) Regulations 2021
Warm Home Discount (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2021
Air Quality (Legislative Functions) (Amendment) Regulations 2021
Food and Drink (Miscellaneous Amendments Relating to Food and Wine Composition, Information and Labelling) Regulations 2021
Electricity Trading (Development of Technical Procedures) (Day-Ahead Market Timeframe) Regulations 2021
Combined Heat and Power Quality Assurance (Temporary Modifications) Regulations 2021
Mobile Homes (Requirement for Manager of Site to be Fit and Proper Person) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2021
Motions to Approve
Israel and Gaza
Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Wednesday 19 May.
“Since I was last at the Dispatch Box on 13 May, we have sadly seen further violence and more civilian deaths. I am sure the House will join me in offering condolences to all the families of those civilians who have been killed or injured across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Mr Speaker, with your permission I will set out to the House the work that the Government are doing, along with others, to bring about a peaceful resolution. We are urging the parties to work with mediators towards an immediate ceasefire to prevent further loss of life and a worsening humanitarian situation. We are supporting United Nations, Egyptian and Qatari efforts to that end, and we work closely with the United States.
We are also prioritising our own diplomatic efforts through both bilateral and multilateral channels. The Foreign Secretary and I, with the support of our diplomats on the ground, have been working to progress the conditions needed for an immediate ceasefire. The Foreign Secretary has spoken in recent days with the Israeli Foreign Minister and the Palestinian Prime Minister; he reinforced our clear message of de-escalation and our desire to work together to end the violence. I delivered similar messages to the Israeli ambassador and the Palestinian head of mission in London.
We have also engaged regional partners at ministerial level. The Foreign Secretary spoke with the Foreign Minister of Jordan on 17 May and just this morning I spoke with a number of ambassadors from Arab states to reiterate the need for an immediate ceasefire, and I underlined our shared goal of a peaceful two-state solution. We are playing a leadership role in the United Nations Security Council, where we are calling for measures by all sides to reduce further violence. We will participate in the emergency UN General Assembly session later this week.
The UK unequivocally condemns the firing of rockets at Jerusalem and other locations within Israel. We strongly condemn these acts of terrorism by Hamas and other terrorist groups, which must permanently end their incitement and rocket fire against Israel. There is no justification for the targeting of civilians.
Israel has a legitimate right to self-defence and to defend its citizens from attack. In doing so, it is vital that all actions are proportionate, in line with international humanitarian law and make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. We are aware of medical institutions, a number of schools and many homes in Gaza that have been destroyed or seriously damaged, and we are concerned that buildings housing media and humanitarian organisations such as Qatar Red Crescent have been destroyed. We call on Israel to adhere to the principles of necessity and proportionality when defending its legitimate security interests.
We are also concerned by reports that Hamas is once again using civilian infrastructure and populations as a cover for its military operations. Humanitarian access is essential, and we urge all parties to allow the unimpeded entry of vital humanitarian supplies. Hamas and other terrorist groups must cease their mortar attacks on these crossings. We urge all parties to work together to reduce tensions in the West Bank, including east Jerusalem. The UK is clear that the historic status quo in Jerusalem must be respected. Violence against peaceful worshippers of any faith is unacceptable.
The UK position on evictions, demolitions and settlements is clear and long-standing: we oppose these activities. We urge the Government of Israel to cease their policies related to settlement expansion immediately and instead work towards a two-state solution. The UK will continue our intensive diplomatic efforts in the region focused on securing a ceasefire and creating the conditions for a sustainable peace.”
My Lords, last week we called for concerted action at the United Nations Security Council to halt the violence, so it is welcome that France has put forward proposals, with the support of Egypt and Jordan, together with yesterday’s news that President Biden is encouraging the Israeli Government to facilitate a ceasefire. Such a move will not only allow moderate voices on all sides to be heard but will address the urgent need for humanitarian access to Gaza. Can the Minister detail what steps our representatives at the UN are taking to support the ceasefire initiative, and what steps the Government are taking to help facilitate urgent humanitarian support into Gaza?
My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point, I have been engaging directly with our ambassador to the United Nations and we are working with other key colleagues to ensure first and foremost that a ceasefire is guaranteed, both through the UN and bilaterally. We have taken other urgent steps as well. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has engaged directly with both the Israeli Foreign Minister and the Palestinian Prime Minister over the last few days to ensure that there is an immediate ceasefire, and on the important point the noble Lord made about guaranteeing access for humanitarian relief, particularly into Gaza.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that the international community failed to address the underlying causes and grievances following earlier wars on Gaza, and this time a simple ceasefire—though absolutely necessary—is just not sufficient for the benefit of Israelis and Palestinians? I also point out that in the past a group of aid agencies working in Gaza, including Oxfam, Save the Children, and the Quakers, had regular meetings with his department. Can I ask him to make sure that these are reinstated?
My Lords, it is certainly my firm belief that, in the tragedy of this ongoing conflict, we all know what the ultimate sustainable solution is: a secure, safe Israel next door to a sustainable Palestinian state. I assure the noble Baroness of my good offices in ensuring that we do not lose the momentum behind this challenge. In response to her second point, if it is within scope to meet directly, I will—otherwise the appropriate Minister will engage directly.
My Lords, the longer this cycle of violence continues, the more challenging it will be to reach the objective of two states living side by side in peace. Does my noble friend the Minister not agree that, unless this conflict is soon brought to a close, it could result in increased radicalisation and extremism for the whole region? Therefore, could he tell me what steps the UK is taking to join the International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, alongside the United States?
My Lords, we must engage directly with all initiatives which seek to bring peace to the region. This conflict has gone on for far too long. We know what the ultimate goal should be and should ensure we exercise all opportunities in achievement of that goal. We have taken immediate steps, as I have already indicated. On the issue of extremism and radicalisation, I agree with the noble Baroness; we have to ensure that the whole ideological base and the hijacking of the agenda by extremist and terrorist organisations are put to rest. The best way to do that is to bring together voices that want to see progress on this most important issue.
My Lords, perhaps I could press the Minister a little further on some of his earlier answers. Could he say whether, in the meetings of the Security Council between 16 and 19 May, our representative gave full support to the call by the UN Secretary-General for an early ceasefire? If the answer if not unambiguously “yes”, why not? Does he not agree that, as I think he has said, we have now seen beyond demonstrable doubt that the policy of neglecting the Palestine-Israel negotiations over recent years is neither producing security for Israel nor generating well-being for the Palestinians?
Some of your Lordships may be aware that I returned from Jerusalem yesterday evening, where I attended the very joyful installation of the new Anglican archbishop there. From an earlier answer given by the Minister, I take it he agrees that, until the underlying causes that gave rise to the clashes on Temple Mount, in the Al-Aqsa Mosque and in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood where I was staying, and the conflict between Hamas and Israel, are addressed, Israelis and Palestinians will not enjoy security, experience justice or build a relationship of mutual respect and regard? Does the Minister agree that, for violence to permanently end, Israel’s occupation must also end?
My Lords, I agree with the right reverend Prelate and have already indicated what the sustainable solution is, which is clear and in front of us. It goes back to the importance of a viable two-state solution, which the Government have repeatedly stated. On the points he made about the importance of Jerusalem and other holy places across the Holy Land, speaking as a Muslim who has visited Israel—Jerusalem and other holy sites—I say that we have been enriched by the essence of faith, the Abrahamic faiths, which bring people together. The faith community has had an important role to play in the healing, reconciliation and building through progressive steps towards the two-state solution.
My Lords, it looks like a ceasefire is imminent, but that is not the issue now. This conflict was completely unprovoked and started by Hamas terrorists for pure political expediency at a horrific and terrible cost, not least to their own people. Does my noble friend agree with me that the issue now is that we ensure that Hamas cannot and does not call this conflict a win in any way, and that it does not get access to more lethal and dangerous arms, as it will undoubtedly seek to, from countries such as Iran?
My Lords, I agree with my noble friend: Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people. We have seen interview upon interview with innocent residents of Gaza who have been impacted by the actions of Hamas and the missiles and rockets that have been seen over Israel. Equally, it has also caused not only destruction to buildings but loss of life. The response has also caused a major loss of life in Gaza. We need an immediate ceasefire, but Hamas is an organisation that does not believe in peace. What we need is progressive voices on both sides to build to the ultimate sustainable solution of two viable states.
My Lords, beyond an immediate ceasefire, does the Minister agree that, until last week, there seemed to be no chance of reviving the Middle East peace process? However, now, in part because of concern in Israel about a possible civil war, there is at least the prospect of opening serious talks, brokered by the United States and Arab states, with our support. Of course, Iran is acting as a spoiler, still supplying rockets to Hamas in Gaza.
My Lords, as I have already indicated, through the tragedy of the current conflict, there is ironically a sense of both attention and momentum, and therein lies an opportunity to revive the peace process, in the interests of not just the Palestinian people but Israel and, indeed, the wider region.
My Lords, I am very concerned at the loss of life and violent activities on both sides. I have been to Gaza as well as Israel, and I ask that we actively pursue securing the ceasefire immediately. However, I will refer to a question that I raised in your Lordships’ House yesterday but did not get a reply to. Like many Muslims in the world, I was very disturbed by the Israeli attacks on the al-Aqsa mosque; to us Muslims, it is the third holiest place in the world. I have visited and prayed there three times. It is sacred, and I believe that what has happened is sacrilege. Can my noble friend the Minister comment on what has happened and perhaps try to ensure that it does not happen again?
My Lords, my apologies; I was certainly writing to answer my noble friend’s question. I too have worshipped at the al-Aqsa mosque; it is a sacred site for Muslims. Equally, as we have heard from the right reverend Prelate, the whole essence of Jerusalem is important to all three Abrahamic faiths. Respect for the historic status quo in the holy sites in Jerusalem is also valid. Any violent action, particularly that which was taken on the eve of Laylat al-Qadr, is extremely tragic to see unfolding in a mosque, which is a place of peace. We need to ensure that the sanctity of places of worship is sustained.
My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I apologise to the noble Baronesses, Lady Deech and Lady Ramsay, that there was not time to hear their questions.
House of Lords: Remote Participation and Hybrid Sittings
Motion to Take Note
My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing on the Order Paper in the name of my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal. As we meet today, we are still in the grip of a global pandemic that has significantly impacted all our lives and the working of our Parliament. The first national lockdown began on 23 March 2020. Two days later, when our House adjourned early for the Easter Recess, it was far from clear to anybody how or when we would return. That we were able to return after Easter, as scheduled, on 21 April was thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the staff of the House.
However, it was clear from the outset that those early virtual sittings would need to serve as a stepping-stone to a more sophisticated system.
A little over a month later our hybrid House, as we now know it, was up and running, and shortly after that we started voting remotely. These changes were developed and implemented in a matter of weeks. While they have worked well in their own terms, we all knew they were never going to be perfect or a proper substitute for our normal arrangements. There have been unintended consequences and opportunity costs as well as frustrations. Nevertheless, we have continued to meet and to scrutinise, revise and pass legislation, which is our primary duty, and—albeit not in an ideal fashion—your Lordships have continued to hold the Government to account.
The hybrid House arrangements have seen us through this unprecedented time, which has included two further nationwide lockdowns and all the social distancing and shielding measures in between. Notwithstanding that, we have always perceived these measures to be a temporary fix to a temporary problem; and that is the basis on which we proposed the changes to the commission and to the Procedure and Privileges Committee.
Before we get into the debate, I want to clarify what we mean when referring to the “hybrid House”. I suggest that there should be three separate and very distinct elements to it, which are often wrongly conflated. The first element is remote participation in business that would previously have required all participating Members to be present in person. The second element is remote voting. The third element, which can be separated from the other two, consists of all the procedural changes which have been made independently of, or are not dependent on, remote participation in the Chamber or Grand Committee or remote voting. This includes things like the increased time allocated for Oral Questions each day, the taking of evidence from witnesses remotely in Select Committee meetings, and the selection of Oral Questions by ballot rather than first come, first served.
The Leader, the Chief Whip and I have always been consistent in our position on remote participation and remote voting. We believe that, once the social distancing guidance allows it, the House should return to its full physical capacity, and remote participation in the Chamber and Grand Committee should cease, as should remote voting. A parliamentarian’s place is in Parliament. This is not just a sentimental view; it is a practical view of how the innumerable interactions between Ministers, Peers, officials and staff all contribute to the way that Parliament should work. That is what Zoom, for all its technical wizardry, cannot provide.
I do not intend to go into full detail about all the practical implications of retaining remote participation or remote voting, but certain considerations are important to mention to set the context of this debate. First, keeping any remote participation in the Chamber or Grand Committee, even if only in exceptional circumstances, would have significant implications for our ability to return to the House as we knew it before and would entail continued costs of just over £90,000 a month for the extensive broadcasting team. Even if we enabled only a small number of Members to contribute in this way, the bulk of this monthly cost would still be incurred.
Secondly, we are a House of Peers. An important element of the hybrid system has been the principle of maintaining general parity of treatment between physical and remote speakers. Unless in some way or to some degree we take steps to remove that parity and introduce procedural limitations for those noble Lords who are not physically present when speaking, the consequences would be an inability to return to interaction and interventions in the Chamber for all participants equally.
Remote participation, to however limited a degree, necessarily brings with it procedural millstones: advance notice and pre-planning of speakers’ lists; allowing time for Members to sign up; allowing further time for broadcasters to organise the necessary connectivity; and retaining time limits for items of business that did not have them before. Even if no virtual speakers sign up for a particular piece of business, we would still be left with wasted time because of the need to plan the order of business in advance, just in case. Let none of us think that just having a few people taking part in our debates remotely would allow us to return to the flexibility that this House once enjoyed and took for granted.
While the matter of remote voting may be more a matter of principle than practicality, it is significant to note that since we introduced remote voting more Members are voting and Divisions are more frequent. During the 2017-19 Session, there was an average of one Division every three days. Since remote voting, we have had an average of one Division every day—a threefold increase. This has had practical implications for the timing, scheduling and progress of business.
I make a plea for the Government. With no in-built government majority in the Lords, Ministers work hard to make their case and try to win the argument to win Divisions. Is it not right that Members are here to listen and give them a fair hearing before casting their votes? That aside, with the rest of the country coming back to work physically, how could we credibly defend parliamentarians doing something different?
Our present arrangements have allowed us to carry on to the best of our abilities within unprecedented limitations. However, they have added little or no value to our pre-existing procedures. From a ministerial viewpoint, we fully appreciate that the technical constraints have made the Opposition and Back-Benchers feel that their ability to scrutinise the Government effectively has been restricted. At the same time, the Government have found their ability to progress legislation more difficult and this House’s unique self-regulating nature has been curtailed. Indeed, at times it has felt as if the House has had one hand tied behind its back.
I have heard it said that, with remote participation, our debates are a shadow of what they once were. “Sensing the mood of the House” is a phrase that is now almost devoid of meaning. There is simply no way of determining who the House wants to hear from or for how long and, without the interaction that comes with a physical House, speeches are increasingly disconnected from one another and can often be tiresomely repetitive.
It is interesting that our hybrid arrangements have not increased average daily attendance. The difference that noble Lords may have noticed is that a great many more Members than before are speaking in our main items of business. As we are all painfully aware, the result of that has been to restrict speaking times to one or two minutes. I am the first to acknowledge that that renders any attempt at healthy debate and scrutiny almost impossible. Members with genuine expertise and experience, whom the House would benefit hearing from at greater length, are crowded out. There is frustration all round.
I do not believe that I am alone in holding the view that there is immeasurable value to be gained from noble Lords participating physically in Parliament. Virtual proceedings cannot replace or adequately substitute for the interactive dynamic of the Chamber, conversations in the corridors or face-to-face engagement on important legislation and matters of the day. When voting on legislation, Members benefit immensely from being in the House to follow the debate, listening to the responses and voting among colleagues in the Division Lobbies. This communication between Back-Benchers and Ministers, Government and Opposition, friends and colleagues, is, I believe, our bread and butter and vital to the proper functioning of this House. This building is our Parliament. It is where we all belong and it does not work as it should without us being here, in person, together.
As I said at the start, at the outset of the pandemic we viewed remote participation and voting as a temporary solution to a temporary problem. This House has evolved its procedures and practices over many years and it is not in our nature to permanently alter or curtail them as a result of decisions made very rapidly out of temporary necessity. Having said all that, where smaller changes do not impact on the practicalities or principles of our traditional ways of working or our ability to participate and vote physically, we perhaps need to be more open-minded. These are the procedural changes I mentioned a moment ago as the third element of our hybrid House. I am thinking of things such as the time allocated for Oral Questions, the elimination of reading out Statements and the way in which Select Committees decide to hear from witnesses. There may well be good arguments for holding on to these changes on a long-term basis.
These should perhaps be viewed as second-order issues because we think it important for the House to return to normality before considering whether any of these sorts of procedural changes should be retained in the long term. However, if there is a genuine and thought-through demand for one or more of them, the Leader, Chief Whip and I stand ready to take forward discussions, as appropriate.
My task today has been to make the Government’s position on remote participation and the Hybrid Sittings of the House clear, which I hope I have done. However, I do need to emphasise that this is not a matter for the Government to decide upon; it is a matter for the House. The Leader, the Chief Whip and I felt it was right to facilitate the debate today, so that all noble Lords would have the opportunity to air their views. While I am sure that my noble friend Lord Cormack will speak persuasively to his amending Motion, we also believe that the main aim of this debate should be for views to be expressed, and not for binding decisions to be made. Our intention was, and is, for the views of noble Lords as expressed today to be synthesised in a careful and nuanced way to enable your Lordships’ commission to make appropriate recommendations to the House. My noble friend the Leader, alongside other members of the commission, are here to listen. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is a very great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Howe. He has spoken clearly and persuasively and there is hardly anything he said with which I would disagree. I tabled this resolution because a number of colleagues, particularly those who have been attending regularly, have spoken to me and discussed these things. We thought it might be a good idea to have a resolution before your Lordships to give a little more point and purpose to the debate. I reserve the right to divide the House, but I shall listen very carefully indeed—as will others. Whether there will be a Division at the end of this debate or not, I genuinely do not know, but I certainly accept that there is a great deal of good sense in what my noble friend Lord Howe said a few moments ago.
The period since 23 March last year has been one of the most remarkable in our long parliamentary history. To those who made possible first the virtual and then the hybrid House, we all owe a great deal, as my noble friend said. As someone new to the technology, I would like to add a very personal thank you to the digital support team, who have been truly remarkable in the 24/7 service that they have offered. It would be very easy to be seduced into the comfortable way forward: to continue to speak from our homes and even to vote from our beds, as I understand some have done. It would be easy, but it would be wrong—emphatically wrong—for the House we have at the moment is one dimensional. As the Constitution Committee has made plain in its latest valuable report, the first of this Session, there is no opportunity for spontaneity or intervention and no real opportunity for human contact between colleagues, without which no institution can work effectively.
Parliament, and that means both Houses, must be at the centre of any thriving democracy. Good governance means that the Government must be held effectively to account, both formally in the Chamber, in committee and, as my noble friend touched on, informally, in conversation and personal meetings. One of the great deficiencies of the present system is that statutory instruments pile up—the Constitution Committee referred to this in its report—leading to retrospective legislation and to confusing the public by blurring the difference between legislation and guidance. That is thoroughly undesirable. As my noble friend also touched on, debates without opportunity for challenge and intervention become a series of written statements, delivered without any reference to others. They are a series of personal utterances, not a debate; there is no cut and thrust. There is not even the opportunity to know how what one is saying is going down with one’s colleagues. As for the voting system, it is far too easy and remote in every way.
Our Constitution Committee is wise to say that we will need to assess our former normal working methods, but I agree emphatically with my noble friend: first of all, we need to get back to those methods. After all, a significant number of Peers have had little or no experience of our normal methods: those who have been ennobled in the last two years. Some have had no experience whatever of our normal working day. I believe that we need to get back to where we were in mid-March 2020 before assessing what, if any, changes should be made to the working of our self-regulating House. The only practice that we should maintain is that of allowing distant witnesses to appear remotely when giving evidence, but before a proper committee, assembled in a proper Committee Room.
The Commons, we are told, will return on 22 June. The longer after that that we delay the move, the more irrelevant this House will become. Ideally, the changes should be concurrent in both Houses, but I put 6 September as the latest possible date in case there is a general wish to take just a little longer in your Lordships’ House. I hope that there will not be, but it would have the added advantage of making sure that everyone was able to have a vaccination.
Before I finish, I want to give a warning. When we decamp during restoration and renewal, we must not look at the virtual and hybrid House as something we should return to. That would be totally wrong. We would merely deserve the riposte that, if that is the case, what point and purpose is there in a second Chamber? If those greybeards cannot transmit their wisdom other than via Zoom, would the nation not be better served by another television channel? We need to be here—or wherever Parliament is sitting—or we will become an irrelevance, tweeting and twittering into the twilight.
I have just been reading the diary of Alan Don, who was rector of St Margaret’s and subdean during the war years; I commend it to your Lordships. He talks about this House and the other place sitting in Church House, the Robing Room and the Royal Gallery, and the Commons moving here, but meeting all the time during the Second World War—never, never giving up. This has been a very difficult period, but it has been nowhere near as difficult as the Second World War, when the bombs were falling on both Houses. If they could do it then, we can and should do it now.
My Lords, during a long career in theatre, I supported many understudies. As they shook in their shoes waiting to go on, there were only ever two notes worth giving them: “Remember your lines” and “Try not to bump into the furniture”. So far, so good. I have been a Back-Bencher all my political life, so it is a huge and, frankly, unexpected privilege to be asked to understudy my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon, who is unavoidably absent on personal business today. She is a star in your Lordships’ House and I know my place, but I hope that my recent membership of the House of Lords Commission, my current membership of the Procedure and Privileges Committee and my service as Deputy Speaker, as well as my experience on the Back Benches, will give me just enough credibility to take the edge off your Lordships’ disappointment that my noble friend is, as we say in the theatre, “off”.
I start by adding my thanks to those already given by the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, to our many staff colleagues who have worked so hard, first to invent the virtual House and then to create the hybrid House and keep it going. It is an extraordinary achievement and we owe them a huge debt of gratitude. As a result of their patient efforts—as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has already alluded to—lots of us have even become modestly competent users of technology that we had never heard of a year ago.
This is an important debate, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, have made clear. The noble Earl has set out the Government’s position very clearly and unambiguously. While I do not disagree with everything that he said, or indeed much of it, there may be some additional points to make. After a challenging year, the House is faced with some critical choices. Fortunately, last week’s excellent report from the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House, which has already been mentioned, sets out the issues very clearly and concisely—including, by the way, some trenchant comments on the current state of play with restoration and renewal. I do not propose to dwell on that but hope that someone else will. The whole House will be grateful to my noble friend Lady Taylor and her colleagues; they have certainly made our job today easier. I agree wholeheartedly with their conclusion that the House needs to reflect on its experiences before deciding next steps.
Today’s debate is the essential first stage in that process. Each Member’s experience of the hybrid House has been different and we shall hear a wide range of views this afternoon. Everyone with some part to play in considering what the House should do next must, first and foremost, as the noble Earl said, keep an open mind —and listen. That is why I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, to whom I listened closely and for whom I have a very high regard, as I think he knows, will not press his Motion to a vote. Today should be for considering, not for deciding.
For me, the key observation of the Constitution Committee’s report comes in its summary, where it says that
“changes to House of Lords procedures as a result of hybrid proceedings … has resulted in Parliament’s essential scrutiny role becoming less effective, including its capacity to hold the Government to account. This presents significant problems for both members and ministers.”
The University College London Constitution Unit recently warned that
“parliamentary accountability and control over decisions have diminished to a degree that would have been unthinkable before COVID-19”.
I think there are few who would disagree. The constraints that have particularly affected your Lordships’ House—including the lack of spontaneous intervention, the absence of informal contacts and the restrictions on speakers’ lists and speaking times—are discussed in detail. I am sure that we shall be hearing much more about these issues as the debate unfolds.
However, the Constitution Committee’s report also points out that there have been benefits to the hybrid model, especially for Members for whom, for example, coming regularly to Westminster presents difficulties. It reminds us that our pre-pandemic procedures had shortcomings and frustrations, too. For example, our traditions of self-regulation, to which reference has already been made and which are treasured and jealously guarded by many of us, can be quite intimidating for others. The introduction of speakers’ lists for most business and the calling of speakers from the Woolsack of course has been difficult, but it may have advantages which we must properly evaluate.
Our goal must be to make the House the most effective it can be in its role of scrutinising and revising legislation and holding the Government to account. That, in my view, does not necessarily mean going back to exactly how things were. We should bear in mind, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has already reminded us, that the House has welcomed many new Members in the past year. Most have become impressively active participants in our work, but they have only ever known the House as it is today. This is their normal. I am glad to see that several will be speaking later; their perspective will be particularly valuable.
I would like to highlight a couple of other points. The first concerns Select Committees, which have been operating very successfully in hybrid mode; the Constitution Committee recommends that they should be allowed to continue to do so. Having served on two Select Committees in the past year, I agree that this way of working has been particularly helpful, especially in the ability to attract a more diverse range of witnesses.
The second is electronic voting, to which reference has of course already been made. I believe that PeerHub is an excellent innovation that we should retain and develop. Personally, like the noble Earl and the Government, I would not be in favour of continuing with the remote element of the present voting arrangements once we are fully back in Westminster. But maintaining the electronic system for use on the Estate may have benefits, which I hope we will consider.
I note that the Constitution Committee report does not comment on the earlier start to business that we have become used to in the past year. While I think that, for some, there has been an upside to the current arrangements, it may be outweighed by the additional pressure created, particularly for Front-Bench colleagues, by reduced time available for preparation and for other business. Earlier starts are also less convenient, obviously, for Members who live at a distance from Westminster. None the less, it is a matter we should consider carefully to see if any adjustments to our previous arrangements would be helpful to the House.
Finally, a word on the social aspects—if I may put it that way—of life in the House of Lords. One might include chance meetings in the corridors, being able to invite guests in, or congenial conversations in the Bishops’ Bar. If we are honest, that is probably what many of us have missed the most, not least because these informal contacts, as has been said, help to oil the wheels of the political machine. Let us hope that we can enjoy them again soon. But, as we do, we should remember the many staff colleagues who we depend on and whose circumstances may be very different from our own. We have a responsibility to ensure that their needs are understood and respected.
However hard we try, we cannot erase the impact of the pandemic. It has affected all of us individually and profoundly changed how we live and work together, perhaps for ever. While the idea of reverting wholesale to the old normal is attractive, I am not sure that it is desirable, or even possible. The House has invested a lot of time and money in creating some genuinely innovative systems of which we can be proud, and we have adapted our procedures imaginatively. There have also been strikingly high levels of participation while we have been in hybrid mode. Although the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, have indicated that there are some downsides to that, it is something that we should note. It would be perverse—would it not?—to set all that experience aside.
We should especially heed the wise words of the Constitution Committee on the importance of applying what we have learned to strengthening the longer-term resilience and business continuity that we must expect to have. We must, I believe, embrace and value the capacity of the House to work differently, because there is no knowing when it may need to do so again. I look forward to the rest of the debate.
My Lords, 15 months ago, we could not have imagined that your Lordships’ House would be discussing the extent to which it retained—not introduced —a range of ways of working that, at the time, would have seemed impossible, both politically and technically. So I, like other noble Lords who have spoken, begin by expressing my thanks to the staff who have worked so hard to implement the very widespread changes that we are debating today. I also acknowledge that many Members of your Lordships’ House now have a proficiency in new technologies that, 15 months ago, they would have thought impossible.
I had Covid in March and I therefore decided that, as soon as the House started meeting again, I was at less risk than my colleagues and that I would come. I have attended virtually every day since the House resumed, probably more than any other Member of your Lordships’ House. I have therefore seen at first hand, from in here, what it has been like as we have changed our procedures. As members of various committees know, I have chafed at the restrictions—many of which I have thought to be petty and overdone—with which we have had to put up over the last year.
As the country returns to normal, we now face the challenge that many other organisations are facing: how far should we simply revert to the ways we have done things in the past, and how far should we make permanent the changes that have been introduced, in an emergency, during a crisis? In making the decision, we have to begin by acknowledging the particular characteristics of Parliament, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, have set out so eloquently. It is a place for debate, for weighing the strength of argument, for exerting influence over colleagues, and, particularly in your Lordships’ House, for working together across parties on a daily basis. The conventional wisdom, which I support, is that this is best done face to face. It is undoubtedly the case that it is impossible to adequately hold Ministers to account through the sanitised environment of Zoom.
Against this, hybrid working allows those who cannot be present physically, because of either health conditions, work commitments elsewhere or problematic travel arrangements, to participate in our deliberations where otherwise they would not have been able to do so. This obviously allows a greater number of participants and a broader range of views. In a parliament, that is a good thing. The easiest option would simply be to turn the clock back and do everything as we did it before. That obviously has the benefit of simplicity, but it implies that the way we did things before cannot be improved upon, or at least cannot be improved upon by any of the innovations of the last year. Surely nobody can really believe that.
As we have more fundamental reform of your Lordships’ House, there is a disparity of view on the desirability of retaining virtually every aspect of the changes we have already made. In order to get a sense of balance among those views, we circulated a questionnaire among Members of the Liberal Democrat group to see what people thought. I thought it might be helpful if, instead of simply expressing my own view, I set out the headline views of my group.
First, while there is unanimity on virtually nothing, there is strong majority support for the following: that participation in the amending stages of Bills be restricted to those who can attend in person; that electronic voting should be retained in some form; that committees should be able to operate in a hybrid manner; and that each committee should decide for itself what degree of hybridity it thinks is most appropriate.
There was also support, by smaller majorities, for retaining a degree of hybridity for Oral Questions, Statements, Second Reading debates, SI debates, and party and general debates, as well as for retaining our earlier starting times from Tuesday to Thursday but reverting to 2.30 pm on Monday to allow those travelling long distances to arrive for the start of business. There was also a recognition that because some people would not be able to easily attend the House in person for some time after 21 June, mainly for health reasons, there should be a transition to whatever final arrangements were made to a point in the autumn, when, all being well, all significant Covid-related barriers to attendance would have lifted.
The only two glosses I put on those general findings, from my personal perspective, are these. First, while I do believe electronic voting should be retained, I accept that very many believe it should be restricted to those on the precincts. There is a good argument for retaining the current system, albeit without voting continuing to qualify for an allowance. But if, as I suspect, this is not a majority view, I hope that at the very least we allow electronic voting on the premises. Spending many hours a year shuffling at glacial speed through the Lobbies should surely be a thing of the past.
I also believe there is a strong case for allowing those who have a disability that makes attending the House difficult to retain the option to participate virtually on a permanent basis. The truth is that the House will not be able to benefit fully from the wisdom and experience of all its Members unless such an approach is adopted, and we will all be poorer as a result. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, says this is not an acceptable way forward, not least because people who participate virtually would not do so on the same basis, so there would not be parity. I do not know how many disabled Members of your Lordships’ House he has spoken to, but I can tell him that, from those I have spoken to, that would be a very small price to pay to have a continued ability to participate in the work of the House.
There are many more detailed aspects of the way we do things—for example, whether we retain speakers’ lists for Questions, or whether we repeat ministerial Statements made in the Commons on the same day here—on which I know Members of your Lordships’ House have strong and differing views. We should proceed with the maximum degree of consensus. This argues for not necessarily deciding on all the changes by 21 June—assuming that the next phase of easing happens on 21 June.
My principal plea, as we return to normality, is not to discard anything that we have done for the first time in the past 15 months simply for the sake of returning to normal. No other organisation is doing that. The noble Earl says that everybody is going back to the office, but, in my experience, virtually no organisation that has a large number of staff is going back on the same terms. People are working part-time and different methods of operation are being undertaken. This is happening everywhere else. It would be bizarre if your Lordships’ House was the one place that did not look to see where it could improve its efficiency and effectiveness by continuing changes it is already undertaking. Surely we want a new normality to embed those changes that have helped your Lordships’ House to undertake its core functions of scrutinising legislation, holding Ministers to account and leading a public debate. The Government want the country to build back better. We should aim to do the same.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Leader of the House and her colleagues around the House for arranging today’s debate. It is a privilege to be the first of around 80 Back-Bench speakers contributing to the debate on the Motions before the House. We can already hear that there will be strong and divergent views expressed today. I do not want in my contribution to set out my own personal prescription for the way forward for the House. What is important is that this is part of a process in which people listen to each other.
I very much support the recommendations by the Constitution Committee that any draft proposals that it or the Commission or the Procedure Committee make for change should go out to consultation before any firm recommendations are put to the House for decision. I would add my own prescription that provision should be made for review, so that we go step by step with the changes. In our considerations, I suggest that we follow the prescription from Albert Einstein, which we were reminded about in the House earlier this week. He said that if given an hour to solve a problem, he would spend 55 minutes looking at the problem and only five minutes looking at the solution.
I hope that we can find common ground—and it has emerged from speeches already today. The essential problem we have collectively to solve is how we ensure that the Lords functions at the highest standards and as effectively as it can in its essential tasks of scrutinising and improving legislation, utilising the expertise and experience of its Members through committee work, and, above all, and centrally, holding the Government to account.
That ability has been degraded and our capacity to fulfil our role has been downplayed. The ways in which this has happened have already been spoken about, and they are set out in the report of this House’s Constitution Committee and in the Government’s response to the House of Commons Procedure Committee report, which included the words
“the quality of debate and scrutiny has undoubtedly suffered … scrutiny of Government has been less effective with fewer opportunities for interventions; debates have been reduced to a succession of pre-prepared speeches read out one after the other; MPs have had fewer opportunities for collegiate cooperation to hold government to account … there has been less spontaneity and flexibility and backbenchers have had reduced access to ministers.”
All that is true and is of great concern. It is the problem we need to put right, but the challenge is to do so: to remedy the deficiencies, but not to assume that we can go back.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said that we should beware of “the comfortable way”—the comfort of working from home, the ease of contributing remotely. I agree with him about that, but there is a comfortable way of thinking that the status quo ante is what we need and that there are no challenges at all. As others have said, we were not doing our job perfectly before Covid, and we need to look very carefully to see whether there are things that we can learn, or imagine, from remote and digital working that could, in future, enhance the performance of the House as a whole. I have to say to the noble Earl, Lord Howe, that while I agreed with a great deal of what he said, I thought his list of possible things that might, perhaps, a little bit, be considered for doing things better in the future was slightly minimalist. I think there is real opportunity to do better and to talk about the sorts of things that the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, mentioned, in terms of self-regulation.
I am unashamedly a sentimentalist about Parliament. I have been much happier this week, participating here, than remotely. Politics is a people business, but we live in a world that is ever more digital and changing and we need to find a way forward that understands both those truths.
My Lords, I share, from these Benches, our gratitude for all those who have worked so hard, with agility and rapidity, both the staff that serve the House and those who manage the business of the House, in a very challenging and, in fact, a unique time, as has been referred to several times already.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, said that every aspect of life has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Even churches have become hybrid. Families have been separated and have kept in touch by Zoom. Employers and employees are now negotiating home and back-to-work settings. Online parents’ evenings at schools have become more popular than ever. As has been said already, I join those who are at a moment of learning lessons from what has happened to us, unexpected and unprepared, over the past 15 months. This great disruption means that we will face further change, not just here but in society as a whole. The decisions we have to make are about what to keep that has been beneficial, or surprisingly new and advantageous, and what to go back to, as what works well for our purpose today. We do so in the context of an uncertain journey ahead, on the road map, and also with the priority to keep everyone safe and well in this terrible time of virus, as I believe we have tried to do in this House.
I have no doubt that your Lordships will want to do this learning on the basis of the principles of our primary purpose. As was said in Question Time on Tuesday, I think, structures follow purpose—it has been well articulated here, and I do not have to go through the details—but this, I believe, is best fulfilled in person. Yet, at the same time I agree with those who have said we should not simply stop and revert without attending to what we have experienced in some detail and to see what might be beneficial in the months and years ahead.
Let me just reflect for a moment on the experience of the Lords spiritual in our purpose of scrutiny. One of my colleagues has been quite clear that this has been stifled by the medium of Zoom. Then we come on to the whole business of accountability, our major passion in this House, to allow the Government—whatever kind of Government—to be held to account in the rush and tumble of our current way of doing things. Colleagues would say that it has been harder to press the Government to accountability, not least at this time when we have had to make lots of decisions by secondary legislation or, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, by statutory instruments.
Of course, there is the important matter of legislation itself: our role as part of the Parliament, the legislature in our organisation, especially at a time when there is tension and a contested power struggle between legislature, Executive and judiciary. This is much better done in person rather than remotely. The Lords spiritual is a distinctive group in your Lordships’ House—when writs are issued, it is done in the name of the Lords spiritual and temporal—bringing with us our regional experience and our responsibilities from all around the country. As has been mentioned, we have found it to be positive that committees, in the way they operate, have an advantage, in part, in their proceedings by having remote access, particularly when witnesses are being called. There is a much better reach, even internationally.
Electronic voting and the PeerHub have been mentioned. We love the PeerHub. Electronic voting has been used by the General Synod of the Church of England for several years, although some of my noble colleagues find it difficult to remember which of the three options, including abstaining, to press at the right time, which means that electronic life requires us to concentrate even more on the business of the day. Less easy, of course, has been the business of intervening when it comes to the very difficult task—I do not underestimate this—of forming the lists when ballots are involved. Colleagues on this Bench find that the custom of the House to allow an intervention in person is much more effective and easier than just being part of a ballot for which we cannot actually get in. I am sure that as we emerge from the next stage of the pandemic, decisions about rules and practices—comments have already been made about the detailed work that may need to be done in our lessons learned—will include the interests of everyone in the House.
In summary, we on this side of the House feel that it is preferable to be present in person. We express, as has been mentioned, our full humanity, our ability as this extraordinary part of the created order, when we engage with one another by sight—if we have sight—by hearing, by touch, by listening and getting the mood of what is happening. Of course, this is using all the advantages of politics as has been practised over the centuries and I hope will go on being practised in the centuries ahead—although not all of us may be here to experience that when it comes. The same applies in church: we may well go on with hybrid. I am getting a nod and I am going to sit down. Please, may we work together in order to make the lessons learned really important. My final word is a word from the streets of Birmingham to the elders of the city: “If you’re not on Instagram, you don’t exist.”
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham, and I agree with much of what he says. I associate myself with the thanks so many people have already expressed to the staff who have made this remote Parliament possible. I also agree with the right reverend Prelate about the importance of being here in person.
I also congratulate the commission which has, in advance of this debate, anticipated what we were going to say by relaxing the rules today. I make that point partly as a criticism, because I would have thought it would be better to wait for the debate before deciding what relaxation should be considered—but then I am old-fashioned; I have this idea that we are a self-regulating Chamber.
Let us face it: the experience of this virtual Parliament has not made this House look particularly good in the eyes of the outside world. We have been subject to a degree of mockery. The clue really is in the name: Parliament—“parley”. It is about being able to parley and engage with each other, and remote operations have certainly not enabled us to do so. If this House thinks that the other Chamber can relax its rules and go back to normal and that we should do nothing, it is on the way to extinction, in my view. I will not repeat the points made by my noble friend Lord Howe in opening this debate, but I will say that, probably for the first time, I agree with every word that has come from the Front Bench today—except, perhaps, the last sentence, where my noble friend suggested that it was for the commission to come forward with its views. It is for this House to come forward with its views.
I think we should have a care for the Government, who have the duty to carry forward the legislative programme. My noble friend Lord Howe mentioned the sudden increase in the number of Divisions. I am a believer in markets and, therefore, I am not surprised that we have seen a large increase in the number of people participating in voting and in the proceedings of our House when the incentives are such—but perhaps I am rather cynical.
For those who say, “Well, actually, we have to make allowances for people who cannot come to this House”, I will give one little anecdote. In her latter years, when she was very frail, the late Baroness Thatcher would ring my office—I worked for JP Morgan at the time—to say, “I am thinking of going into the House this afternoon; would you come along and support me?” So I would cancel all my meetings and go. This was happening quite frequently, so I said, “You know, Margaret, you have been Prime Minister. You have saved our country—you don’t need to come as often as you do”—at which point there was an explosion. She said, “Michael, when we were appointed to this House, it was our duty to turn up and participate in these proceedings. And, by the way, how often do you come when I am not coming?” I think that is an important point: we do have a duty to participate, and if we feel that we are not able to do so, or do not want to do so, we should make way for those people who are.
In introducing this debate, my noble friend talked about the temporary nature of the changes made—and they were temporary. However, listening to some of the speakers opposite, I am beginning to think that they are about as temporary as the introduction of income tax. They were temporary because there was an emergency, so the starting point should be that we return to normal. Yes, if we want to make changes, fine—but let us not delude ourselves that what we had before worked perfectly well.
On the issue of committees, I chair the Economic Affairs Committee. In our current inquiry on quantitative easing, we have been able to talk to and have as witnesses central bankers from all over the world and some very distinguished people—who, incidentally, seem to be flattered to be asked to give evidence to our House. That is great, but we could always do that; we could always have witnesses remotely. Of course, we also have the committees sitting virtually. I do not know whether it works well for members of the committee. It is great if you are chairman, because you are in complete control—but you have no interaction. People can put their hands up, but you do not have the same degree of interaction. So I say to those who argue that we should continue our committees in this way that I think we would lose a very great deal.
Of course, we need to think about the staff, as the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, pointed out. I believe that the operation of Parliament is central to the future of our country. Therefore, those people who support us in carrying out our work, and those people in the other place, are essential workers. Why do we not have the courage to stand up and ensure that all of them are able to get vaccines if they wish to do so? That would completely change things. The answer is that we are afraid of the tabloids. Well, let us just take it on the chin from the tabloids, because many of them are no friends of this place.
On the issue of holding Ministers to account, what they say from that Dispatch Box is important. If a Minister says that travelling is dangerous, it affects hundreds of thousands of people throughout our country. We should be able to challenge those statements, and we are unable to do so. It is central to our entire purpose and, if we fail to do that, I am afraid that we will disappear.
Finally, on the impact of this virtual Parliament, we have people reading speeches to a computer screen, unable to interact. Reading speeches actually used to be banned—in the old days, people would start saying, “Reading!” We lose that interaction between us.
So I want us to go back to where we were. If people want to propose changes for improvement as a result of this experience, let them do so. But let us not delay making this Chamber—this Parliament—effective, because that is what the people of this country expect.
My Lords, I start by offering my congratulations to my noble friend Lady McIntosh on her debut performance. I hope that she might get a taste for speaking from the Front Bench. I also join others in sincerely thanking those in the House who have made the changes to our proceedings work, despite all the difficulties.
The Queen’s Speech last week contained one phrase that is very relevant to this debate:
“My Government will … restore the balance … between the executive”
and the legislature. I am not sure that my version of that balance will be the same as Ministers’, but I mention this because we should not assume that everything—especially in respect of that balance—was right with our proceedings pre Covid. It was not. In looking ahead, we should absolutely consider first of all what procedures and practices this House needs to allow us to fulfil our obligations to properly scrutinise legislation and fully hold the Government to account, because we have not been able to do either of those things as we should in recent months. I do not think, as some others have suggested, that we can simply press a reset button and assume that all will be well. It is neither practical nor desirable to do that.
The Constitution Committee, which I chair, has produced a report. Some colleagues have referred to it, and I hope it has been of help to the House. We listened, we took evidence, and we had information from officeholders, Members, Back-Benchers, Front-Benchers and Cross-Benchers. In our report, we not only outline the narrative of what has happened over the last 15 months but set out the advantages and disadvantages of the changes introduced to our procedures. As has been mentioned, different individuals have different priorities and experiences of the Chamber and our proceedings.
I was hoping that we could agree that we should not rush to judgment, but I think some people want to do that. The reason we should not make any snap decisions or set a specific date is threefold. First, we do not know what the next turn of the pandemic might be. Noble Lords only have to look at my home town of Bolton to see that there is a need for caution, because we do not know what might hit us next or what the next challenge might be. There is also the fact that many of us—most of us—in the House have had second vaccinations, and many of us will be expecting boosters in the autumn. That is not the case for our staff, many of whom are so much younger and have not had their first jab. But there is also the issue that, if we make decisions now, we may have to go back on them because we may get them wrong. That is why the Constitution Committee recommended a staged approach: that we should have a debate of this kind and then the Procedure Committee should draw up draft proposals —we emphasise, “draft” proposals—that the House could look at again. The committee could then amend them in light of that debate, and we could have a full, proper debate before we accept any changes.
I turn to the specific issues raised. My personal view is that we are a Parliament, as others have said. In normal circumstances, we should rely primarily on being present in person. However, we must acknowledge that some Members have exceptional difficulties. We cannot just dismiss this. We have to look at further potential arrangements for helping in those circumstances.
Many Members feel that the battle to be heard at Question Time is intimidating. They prefer a list system. Not everybody agrees. Maybe we should look at some form of compromise; there could be scope for the first three Questions to be listed and then having a more open situation. We must be willing to consider tweaking or modifying our arrangements in some respects.
As has been mentioned before, the major problem with the current arrangements is the total lack of spontaneity. This is a real and serious cause for concern. It curtails the scope for the will of the House to be felt by Ministers, for which there is no substitute. One Minister has said to me privately that the current arrangements are much easier for Ministers. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, disagrees, but I thought that the noble Earl, in opening the debate, was hinting that this might be the case. The lack of atmosphere in the House helps Ministers and lets them off the hook too often. This is not just about having a lively Chamber or a lively debate. The loss of spontaneity is very significant, particularly when it comes to the Committee or Report stages of legislation. At that point, constructive dialogue across the Chamber between Members can lead to real improvements in legislation. This has to be in everyone’s interests, including those of Ministers. The tweaks that have been made to our virtual proceedings to try to improve the situation have not worked. Preparations for any future emergency will need to take this into account.
Time limits on speeches is a vexed question. We have seen some ridiculous situations where Members with vast, relevant experience have been limited to one minute. This is just not on. We need a system where we have no less than five minutes in major debates, and perhaps three minutes in others. If this limits the number of us who can speak on every occasion, I am afraid that we may have to live with it.
I do not think that we can retain the present system of remote voting in the long term. We have to keep it until everyone feels safe coming to Westminster in person. Having card reader facilities around the Chamber would help everybody.
Mention has been made of committees. They work well and should be allowed to develop hybrid proceedings. However, my committee thought that the business continuity plan of the House did not cover the circumstances of the pandemic. The House may well face other problems or emergencies—especially during restoration and renewal, if the Government get their way and delay this further. We need to ensure that we have a business continuity plan which covers every contingency. This would stand the House in good stead. We can thereby learn the lessons of our experiences during the last 15 months.
My Lords, I have it easy: I live in London and I do not have to look after anyone else, with travel and caring two of the issues that face many noble Lords. As well as appreciating the work that has gone on—and still goes on—into enabling the House to function, I appreciate how our current way of working has meant colleagues who had had to make considerable efforts to attend, given illness or disability, could continue to do so. I say “appreciate” because their contributions are valuable. I am sure that they would be the first to acknowledge that accepting a peerage involves a commitment to contribute which they wish to fulfil. I want to see those colleagues enabled to continue to do so. Having been forced to be creative, the House should continue to innovate—quite apart from the moral, if not legal, duty to make reasonable adjustments. I mean sensible innovation in any and every aspect.
We are able to make our views known. I should be interested to know how the House is actively consulting the staff about ways of working. Our considerations are not necessarily theirs. They may have views about the effectiveness of hybrid proceedings.
I want to focus on remote working for committees. I am chairing one of the House’s new Select Committees and confess that I have not consulted anyone about what I shall say, so this is personal. Until Easter, I was a member of two committees whose chairs and staff made them productive. My strong view is that fully remote working is second best. A lot is being written about the psychology and operation of groups in the light of recent experience, I am sure. I think that a committee develops a personality of its own; it is more than the sum of its parts. A sometimes disparate collection of individuals makes up a team—not necessarily with the same views or approach, but able to operate as an entity. This is particularly true of scrutiny—everyone is interested in the workability of a policy, if for different reasons.
Noble Lords are masters of impassivity. Reactions can be very subtle. A comment to that effect was made by David Natzler in evidence to the Constitution Committee in its excellent work. That subtlety and those non-verbal communications are lost when members are not in the same physical space. They are quite different from messages in a chat function. Sometimes it is about how members react to what witnesses are saying, or how witnesses themselves react to questions and to one another. Sometimes it is about a Minister’s reactions and how at ease they are. How are all witnesses —including Ministers who are in the same room as other people—responding or not responding to one another? One can best observe these things if they are all in the same space, not dependent on the clues available according to the broadcasters’ edit. Observation is one of our scrutiny tools. It supports spontaneity. The process itself is an important part of scrutiny. It is an outcome in itself, additional to a report. My analysis of personal interaction is similar to that of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, although it does not take me to the same conclusions. Let us not forget the water-cooler moments before a meeting—the discussion, chat and gossip that make for team-building and good, collaborative functioning.
Remote participation must have been very difficult for members—and sometimes for witnesses—who had to join by phone or had low bandwidth. Parity of treatment probably means different things to different people, but everyone being online does not necessarily produce parity. Committees could surely remain hybrid if that would enable everyone to take part.
We could not have functioned during the last few months had we not been able to take evidence remotely. With some witnesses—academics, for instance—I do not think that we have been disadvantaged. We have been able to hear from some who would have had to make a disproportionate effort to come to Westminster. I trust that, now that we have the gear and the experience, we can regard this as an additional facility, but we should not assume that online suits every witness or works on every occasion. Experts by experience of certain situations may be more relaxed if they are communicating with people they can see properly. I guess we all regard ourselves as experts by experience now. I hope there are common threads to be extracted from our debate today.
My Lords, the sole criterion for assessing the hybrid proceedings should not be whether they have proved popular or convenient to Members, but whether they have facilitated—indeed, enhanced—the capacity of the House to fulfil its functions, primarily those of scrutinising legislation and calling the Government to account for their actions and policies.
The fact that we have managed all-Hybrid Sittings is, as we have heard, a tribute to those responsible for the technical delivery of proceedings. Without their work, the bottle of parliamentary scrutiny would be near empty. As it is, it is a quarter or a half full. Some Members of the House have generalised on the basis of it being half full. The fact that the House has been able to achieve some changes to legislation and even prevent certain provisions being pursued does not make the case for a continuation of Hybrid Sittings. When one compares performance during the pandemic with the period before, we are falling short, and by a considerable margin.
The capacity of the House to engage in detailed scrutiny has diminished as the use of prerogative and order-making powers by Ministers has expanded massively. The UCL Constitution Unit, along with other bodies, has produced a damning analysis of the situation in the other place. We are in a not dissimilar position, as is clear from the report of the Constitution Committee published on 13 May. As the committee identified, the problem is not just the sheer number of statutory instruments laid before Parliament but the use of fast-track legislative procedures and inadequate explanatory material. Scrutinising Bills and ministerial actions is made difficult by procedural limitations, by the prohibition on interventions and by our inability not only to be present in numbers in the Chamber to challenge Ministers but to meet informally outside the Chamber—essential for lobbying and information exchange. We are operating, but at a sub-par level.
The way forward, as the Constitution Committee recommends, is to engage in lesson-drawing: are there features of the Hybrid Sittings that have enhanced the capacity of the House to fulfil its functions and that may therefore be worth utilising in future? I suggest that we undertake four lesson-drawing exercises rather than one. The first is to identify any features that merit being retained when we resume meeting physically. That is the most pressing inquiry. The second is to identify features that may be utilised when we decant the Palace in preparation for the restoration and renewal programme. The third is to identify features that may be utilised as part of the R&R programme and be integral when we return to the Palace. The fourth, as the Constitution Committee identifies, is to consider how we cope if there is a future crisis and we are unable to meet physically. How can we enhance current facilities, should we need ever again to have Hybrid, or purely Virtual, Sittings?
There are thus several lesson-drawing exercises. Committees may wish to continue to utilise the power they already have to take evidence online. The ability to take evidence virtually may be built into the R&R programme. Remote working by staff may be utilised more extensively, but temporarily, during the period of decant. In all our reflections, there must be one overriding consideration: the need to restore and, if possible, enhance our capacity to scrutinise legislation and call government to account. That is how we add value to the political process; that is how we complement the elected Chamber.
My Lords, I start with some of the things which I believe have worked really well and should be on the list of things we should retain.
Number one on my list is the listing of speakers for Questions and Ministerial Statements and the calling of their names from the Woolsack. Casting my mind back to how things used to be, it fell to me when I was the Convenor to try to ensure that the Cross-Benchers got their fair share of the opportunities to come in within the time allowed. This was not easy under the free-for-all system we used to have. Those who had the loudest voices tended to outplay those who had real contributions to make but who were too hesitant, or whose voices were less easy to hear.
I could usually judge who it was among the Cross-Benchers who should be, and wanted to be, heard on each occasion. My job then was to try to make contact with the then Government Chief Whip, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, who sat almost within arm’s length of where I was sitting as Convenor. This was because it was then generally understood among the usual channels that he should decide whose turn it was to come next, as the Lord Speaker did not yet have that function. It usually worked, although for obvious reasons it was controversial. But, if the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham will forgive me for saying so, there were occasions when the careful arrangements we had made broke down when a right reverend Prelate stood up, as the convention was that a Lord Spiritual should have always have priority over everyone else. Things were not much better when the Lord Speaker took over from the Government Chief Whip, and of course I was no longer within arm’s length of the controller.
The listing system we have developed has eliminated the disadvantages of the old system and produced real benefits in return. The opportunity to speak is being distributed in a fairer and more orderly manner among the groups, and among the members within each group and the non-aligned. Extending the time allowed from seven minutes to 10 has allowed more people to come in who might otherwise not have been able to. The list has tended to instil a greater awareness of the need to keep questions and answers short. I suggest that we should keep this system, including the timings, when normal sittings are resumed.
Number two on my list is the use of the virtual, or remote, system for meetings of Select Committees. I chaired the HS2 committee in the very early days when we were just starting to resume work after the lockdown. Our main task was to take evidence from petitioners. Some of our meetings were attended by everyone, including the petitioners, in person, but we also had to have hybrid meetings, with some of our Members and some witnesses participating remotely. The imbalance that this created between the various participants was noticeable and uncomfortable, and it did not work very well, so I am not much in favour of hybrid committee sittings.
On the other hand, it has been a pleasure to take part in the virtual meetings of the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee and the Constitution Committee— thanks, of course, to the noble Baronesses, Lady Andrews and Lady Taylor of Bolton, who have been chairing our meetings with such great skill. My impression is that it has been easier for us to discuss our business among ourselves in the informal setting of Teams or Zoom than in the large Committee Rooms we have, where we are all so spaced out from each other and it is sometimes not easy to hear what everyone is saying. Taking evidence remotely from witnesses in all parts of the United Kingdom, as we have been doing frequently in the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee, has been so much more convenient for them, at least. There will be occasions when Select Committees will want to meet in person, and of course I very much favour that, but I suggest that the facility to enable them to meet virtually if they wish should be retained. That would be a virtual meeting of everyone, not a hybrid meeting, which I found so unattractive.
There is time for me to mention only a few other points. I welcome the way in which each item of business is being announced and handled from the Woolsack for the better information of the public. That has been a great advance on which we can continue to build. As for remote voting, there is value in the PeerHub system because it saves so much time. If we can combine that with the need for Members to vote from within the premises, so much the better. But I hope very much, in sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has been saying, that we can go back to list-free discussion of legislation through all its stages.
Finally, perhaps I may add my own words of deep appreciation for the work of all those behind the scenes who have made remote participation possible and enabled it to work so well.
My Lords, the joy of this debate has been hearing my noble friend Lord Forsyth congratulating the Government. It is a rare event and I only wish that I could have seen the faces on the Front Bench—but there we are.
I hope that this House will give full support to returning to normal as soon as possible. We should resume our usual proceedings at the earliest possible opportunity. It is inconceivable that those who aspire to take part in the governing of this nation should not make the effort to attend Parliament, whatever the difficulties. Before the pandemic, facilities were made available so that those with disabilities could attend. There is no reason to suppose that this will not go on just as before.
There have been calls to continue with remote voting. I am sure that good reasons can be produced as to why it would be simpler and easier to have remote voting but, in the main, they are excuses for an easier life. I repeat that if one aspires to govern the nation, one should attend Parliament, and that includes voting and going through the Lobby.
There are those who think that the public considers that this House is too large and should be smaller. The size of the House is not of any interest to anyone outside the navel-gazing Westminster bubble. What the public finds of interest and a source of complete contempt is the idea of being paid to sit at home or on holiday drinking cocktails while receiving £163 for voting. The idea is shocking, embarrassing and demeaning, and the longer it goes on the more the media will focus on it. It should cease. I hope that this House will show some character, return to normal and end remote voting forthwith.
My Lords, the report from the Constitution Committee is helpful but the important paper of 21 April, headed “The marginalisation of the House of Commons under Covid has been shocking”, by the Hansard Society and others, is more worrying. I shall refer to it as the Hansard report.
So far as the Constitution Committee report is concerned, paragraphs 42, 54, 81 and 89 are references to the fact that all was not well in the House of Lords before the pandemic with regard to accountability, scrutiny and adherence to the Ministerial Code. The hybrid working of the House benefits those in poor health, which prevents them attending in person, but it only works if those Members are sworn in after a general election. To be sworn in, one has to do it in person. That is a statutory requirement and it needs to be looked at if the system is to be retained.
My experience during Covid covers Oral Questions, Statements, Second Reading, Committee and Report. For years, I have not been at all certain why we bother with Second Reading debates. We do not vote on Second Readings and would never reject a Bill sent from the Commons for scrutiny. Second Reading debates here add nothing to a Bill. However, the Committee stage is crucial in more ways than Report. There is the ability to speak more than once and interact with Ministers and departments to receive the mood of the House. I know that, having been on both sides of the House. Departments get the mood of the House back. Those interactions should be restored as soon as possible. Assuming a that degree of hybridity continues, there is no reason to continue with equal treatment. Those in the Chamber should be able to intervene and, indeed, do so on behalf of remote Members, according to my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, who I received a message from.
As for secondary legislation, paragraph 48 of the committee’s report highlights obvious defects that should be addressed because some of them are pre-pandemic. Two aspects are of concern. As the Hansard report states, the use of the made-affirmative procedure can be addictive for the Government. The other aspect is their casual scheduling of debates, meaning that SIs are in force for weeks before MPs and Peers get to scrutinise them.
I like having the lists for Oral Questions. It stops the bullies shouting for a place. What would really help, though, would be to dilute the Front-Bench control of that list. The Lord Speaker should be able to choose four out of the 10 supplementaries. The conclusion in paragraph 85 is worth further work. I could agree to a limit on numbers of speakers and minimum times for business, but only if the Front Benches are not controlling the list.
I cannot speak about committees. Given that I was not sworn in until June last year due to illness, I could not participate and am, disappointingly, not currently a member of any committee.
On voting, we need to get back to as near normal as possible. I always defended the system in the Commons and Lords as being useful for back-benchers. Perhaps that day has gone, but votes should be limited to those in Parliament—I repeat, in Parliament—either remotely or using pass readers.
We are part of Parliament and not a legal symposium, which is what we will get from some of the lawyers later on. We need to be able to challenge Ministers and other speakers. Efficiency should not necessarily be the watchword in procedure; it is Parliament’s ability to be the inquest of the nation, scrutinise the Government of the day and watch how the money is spent.
The Hansard report concentrates on the House of Commons but creates questions for this House. We are here to revise the Commons’ work; it always has the last word. The Hansard report identifies five areas that lead to the erosion of parliamentary control: emergency legislation, regulations, money, the denial of MPs’ equal participation rights and the wholesale and unnecessary use of proxy votes. Individually, each of those five is shocking. Collectively, they amount to a fundamental undermining and exclusion of Parliament and its elected Members from crucial decisions on policy, spending and the management of the Commons itself, so my question is this. If the Commons does not reassert itself and prioritise the full restoration of parliamentary democracy and MPs’ rights to participation, what is the role of this House in helping the Commons achieve those ends?
My Lords, there are two main reasons why I wish to speak in this debate. The first is that, due to some truly appalling experiences very early on during the teething problems of introducing the new system, I, my noble friend Lord Clement-Jones and Members from all Benches came together in a rather insurrectionary way to gather the experiences of Peers of the new virtual system and, subsequently, the hybrid system. Since then, we have continued to engage as a group, particularly with the technical staff of the House who are responsible for the digital systems. It has been extremely helpful for the staff and certainly for the Members. It is on that basis that I want to talk about some of the things that we have identified.
It is absolutely clear from the Constitution Committee report that the hybrid system is not as good as having an entirely real-life setting, but we can take some things from the experience of the past year. We should not mischaracterise what has happened during it. In the midst of a crisis, we worked with the tech companies on systems that were never designed for a Parliament but for a commercial setting. While I agree with those who talk about the distinctions of a Parliament, and of this Parliament and this House in particular, we are not the only democratic organisation in the world having to deal with the new reality. I would stress that we are pre-eminently placed to work with tech companies to develop what will, in future, have to become more participatory and democratic systems. In order to do that, we should continue to work with them.
Over the past few weeks, through the IPU, I have taken part in discussions with women parliamentarians all across the world in different circumstances. It is interesting that there were an awful lot of prejudicial views about how remote working might help women to be participants in parliaments. In some ways, remote working was good and beneficial—in some cases it made it physically safer for women to participate in politics—but there were other respects in which it was not, and women found themselves having to take on even more domestic duties while they tried to fulfil their professional duties.
My plea in all this—particularly to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack—is that we proceed not on the basis of prejudice but on the basis of informed evidence about an evolving situation. I have taken part in several training courses which have been run by our digital staff. I am one of the very few Members of this House who has done so. I did it because when somebody offers me free training, I want to learn, and I go along. There is much about the new systems, and many benefits to them, that noble Lords simply do not know about. Take Zoom, for instance. We had a technical session provided to us by Zoom itself—that shows what ability we have as a House to call upon the providers of these services and to shape them. It is now possible for Members of the House of Commons, not for us, to convene meetings of up to 500 people in their constituency and ask Ministers to come along and be interrogated by them. That is opening up democracy. It may not be as satisfactory as having the poor Minister stand in front of constituents quaking as people call for their blood, but it none the less has a potential benefit.
My one point in this debate is that the staff, technical staff and Members of the House have done things with the best of intentions and to the best of their ability, but it has all been very piecemeal. There is no strategic body in place which has the job and the resources to make informed decisions about how we develop things in future in order to do the unique thing that we have to do, which is to scrutinise government. I hope noble Lords will have taken to heart what my noble friend Lord Newby said about dealing with different stages of legislation in different ways. I hope that noble Lords will also understand and appreciate that much of the work that many of us do in Parliament, while contingent upon us being Members of this House and on what we do in the Chamber, is done elsewhere. When we are building systems for our debates in this House, we have to take that into account.
This is probably the biggest transition this House has faced since the move from quills and parchment to pen and paper. All I am asking is that we approach it in a way that is informed, is not built upon prejudice, and sees change as something of which we do not have to be fearful and as necessary. The rest of the world out there is going through these changes too, and if we do not, we will be left behind.
My Lords, the facility to participate in the House of Lords remotely has proved invaluable during the pandemic and while its effects peter out, particularly the prescription to keep one’s distance. However, we cannot gloss over the considerable disadvantages of hybrid working in order to maintain the convenience and easy access it has facilitated.
Virtual or hybrid working makes it impossible to take the temperature of the House and almost kills spontaneity, as we have already heard, and the ability to interact informally and to comprehensively understand each other when we speak in proceedings. Non-verbal communication is disastrously dampened when someone contributes by Zoom. Put simply, 55% of communication is body language, 38% is tone of voice and 7% is the actual words spoken. If one’s camera is turned off and there are any bandwidth or other technical problems which distort tone of voice, sometimes all that is left is the attenuated influence of disembodied words. I profoundly disagree that the principle of equal participation should be fundamental or guiding when it so profoundly depletes the effectiveness of in-person interaction. It is another example of extending the logic of equality beyond reason.
Moreover, parliamentary process must serve not our convenience but the common good of the people affected by the laws we pass and the policies we influence through debate, committees and questions. In this chronically divided society, considered and courteous debate is more important than ever, and the House of Lords is one of the few places where it can happen. We hold the Government of the day to account through scrutiny, revision and amendment, and through interaction with each other and Members of the other place. The ability of the House of Lords to fulfil these criteria should fundamentally guide our course, not the self-serving principle that every Member must be able to contribute equally.
Processes were far from perfect pre-pandemic but, as the Constitution Committee’s report Covid-19 and Parliament, which was published last week, points out, hybrid proceedings may have actually aggravated their downsides. Oversubscribed debates, which are more likely when one can just dial in, mean Members with significant subject expertise have risibly short speaking times. Similarly, voting has become ridiculously easy. I am aware of one Peer who has voted from the seat of his lawn-mower. Our being turned into voting machines from home advantages the Whips, particularly those of the Opposition, who can easily organise rebellions. The privilege of voting should be the preserve of those who are willing to turn up. I welcome the benefits of remote proceedings for Members with disabilities, health concerns, caring responsibilities or long journeys to London, but such benefits belong to these unprecedented times and should not become business as usual.
The pandemic may not be fully behind us for a little while, especially in global terms, but once we have all had two doses of vaccine and society opens properly, we have to get back to the primacy of presence. If Members of the House of Commons are all coming back, then so should we. To be candid, for the sake of the public who are paying our way, personal infirmity should not provide grounds for exemption from normality. Parliamentary participation is for those able to bring vitality to proceedings. This is neither ageist nor dismissive of those with disabilities. It is my observation that many disabled Peers have actually been very good attenders during Covid, and we can all think of nonagenarians whose contributions in this place make us sit up and take note—I hope eventually perhaps to be one of them. But the public is already impatient with the high average age of this House, and if infirmities of mind or body make that vital contribution impossible, any permanently lowered bar to participation serves Peers’ interests, not those of the public. The previous norm should be reinstated: those of us who cannot come to the House cannot contribute.
My Lords, I shall be upfront and confess that I am a fan of remote participation. The capacity to join in remotely has swept away many of the barriers that some of us encounter daily—and not just disabled people. Many colleagues adjusted to a hybrid House quickly, while others found it difficult, if not impossible. As we emerge from lockdown and look to the restoration of the parliamentary estate, it is important to learn from our virtual experience. We do not have to go back entirely to the old ways. I believe that we can fuse the best of both, to create a richer and more progressive democracy.
I have no doubt that remote working made it much harder to scrutinise and to hold the Government to account—without spontaneous interventions, as the Constitution Committee identified in its report. I also understand that some Members thrive on the cut and thrust of political debates, the hustle and bustle of the voting Lobby, and midnight sittings. They have felt isolated and detached. I understand that, but many struggle with those practices and find virtual working a lot easier.
Some of our parliamentary conventions can be inadvertently discriminatory. Having to be present at the start and end of a long debate in the Chamber can be an enormous challenge, especially if it ends at midnight. Asking the Chief Whip for permission to leave early is akin to a trip to the headmaster’s office. For me, it was a relief to watch debates at home on my night-time ventilator and to vote. It improved my focus, decision-making and health. As a result, I worked harder, longer and more effectively than ever I had done before the pandemic. Yes, I did my duty better. Surely remote working should at least be seen as a “reasonable adjustment” under the Equality Act.
I was bowled over by the speed at which Parliament set up virtual working, and great praise is due to everyone involved. It has helped not only those with a disability but others with short-term health conditions and those who live far away or have caring duties. But while I support the virtual world and have experienced its great benefits, it is not, on its own, the solution. Virtual working has discouraged those uncomfortable with technology from participating; Parliament must work for all its Members. Networking in the corridors or the tea rooms oils the wheels of parliamentary collaboration. Some of the most creative ideas spring from informal discussion with colleagues and are shaped into policy and legislation. I look forward to returning to play my part in that, but let us not throw the baby out with the bath-water. Some benefits of remote working should be retained; it is simply fairer.
Times are changing and we must respond to the demands of modern practices. We must not be left behind. Many businesses and public services now use hybrid ways of operating. Outside our Westminster bubble, members of the public have engaged virtually in all-party groups and given evidence to our committees. Only on Tuesday I held a webinar with 40 members of the public, many of whom would not have been able to attend Westminster. It has boosted our parliamentary democracy, relevance and inclusivity. Let us embrace the best aspects of our hybrid model as we look to the future. I stand ready to help at every step of the way.
My Lords, I could not help but be very moved by that speech, as I think we probably all were.
I am a member of the House’s Covid-19 Committee, and on 21 April we published our first report, Beyond Digital: Planning for a Hybrid World. It shows that the pandemic massively accelerated a trend towards simultaneous actual and virtual, physical and online, living. The future of our society will be hybrid for working, shopping, learning, caring, receiving health advice, and social and family interaction—almost every part of our lives. We as a House have prefigured this new future over the past year with our own hybrid proceedings. We have been able to participate, to speak, to amend, to scrutinise, to revise, and to vote remarkably successfully, our staff performing amazingly.
According to figures from the Library, the average number of Members voting per Division, which had been pretty constant over the three preceding parliamentary Sessions 2015–16 to 2017–19 at 360, rose to 496 after the introduction of remote voting—a leap of nearly 40%. Surely it is healthy to have greater democratic involvement in amending and improving legislation, which, after all, along with scrutiny is our main function as a Chamber.
I desperately hope that we can return to what people call “normal” as much as anybody else does. The chemistry of debate, the palpable groans and “Hear, hears” greeting speeches bad or good, intervening, especially to hold Ministers to account, the informal face-to-face part of politics—all these are vital ingredients of a lively parliamentary democracy, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, so eloquently explained. Our legislative Chambers are nothing like as potent in the rather antiseptic culture of remote participation.
I will give an example. When I moved a manuscript amendment prior to the Dissolution of the House in 2019 to force the Government to complete the remaining stages of the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Bill, the Government Whips resisted, initially with the help of our Whips. But the feeling of the packed House was absolutely unanimous. That amendment was carried without Division and the legislation completed its course. That would not have happened in a virtual or a hybrid House.
But is that at all possible in the foreseeable future, with new Covid variants and the pandemic spreading in other parts of the world such as India and directly impacting on us in Britain? Is it not the case that there will be no return to what we once knew as “normal”? The future is likely to be one of more or less effectively managing the Covid pandemic and whatever other pandemics or mutations follow it, because scientists warn that there will be more and different ones. In retrospect, maybe HIV/AIDS, SARS and Ebola were all dress rehearsals for a new and immensely more difficult future interaction with nature. If that is the case, then surely the future of parliamentary democracies, and therefore this House, will be hybrid—not necessarily everything we do all the time, but certainly part of what we do some of the time, and conceivably bits of what we do all of the time?
The first thing we need to do is to maintain and upgrade the technological, skills and physical infrastructure of the hybrid House. It would be unwise to dismantle it when the future is so uncertain, especially since many staff, who are generally younger, have not yet been vaccinated and may come a far second with booster jabs in future. Surely staff safety is imperative.
Secondly, we should maintain remote voting on our smartphones. Especially given the age profile of Members, is it really prudent to squeeze into poorly ventilated voting Lobbies? The noble Earl, Lord Howe, seemed to think that it was an offence that we were voting more often; I think that it is a sign of democracy.
Thirdly, we should enable the option of remote speaking for those who find it easier or safer, not least to avoid cramming into London underground trains or buses, but perhaps with new limits, particularly on Member numbers speaking to amendments, where debates have been far too long and Members have spoken to multiple amendments—sometimes consecutively—far too often. Debates have lasted long into the night, which they never would have done with the same frequency in the physical past.
Fourthly, we should keep the current 10-Member lists for Questions, which are an improvement on bobbing up and down, which favours muscular, loud males.
Fifthly, we should encourage committees to meet virtually, as has occurred very successfully when taking online evidence from all over the country and even the world.
The future is hybrid, and the question is how best to adapt our procedures to that, while retaining the essence of the physical parliamentary cut and thrust important to all democracies.
My Lords, I begin by making a small practical suggestion. Since the start of lockdown, payment for goods and services has been by card only and I believe that has been a great success. Peers and staff have not had to handle filthy coins and notes. There must be savings on accounting and banking. Accounts are paid instantly. The only downside I see is that my monthly bank statement has become lengthy, with every 49p et cetera itemised. That is not my problem, but may be one for the bank. I just hope that it becomes a permanent fixture here.
I add my tribute to the staff, who have made it possible for the House to operate—in a manner of speaking—for the past 14 months. Devising and producing a truly professional broadcasting unit has been brilliant and deserves the highest praise.
When each one of us was introduced to the House, we took the oath of allegiance, having listened to the clerk read the document signed by Her Majesty the Queen, so we knew what was expected of us. It is an enormous privilege to become a Peer and serve our country. We knew, on that day, that the work of Parliament took place in Parliament and that our contributions would be made in Parliament. It is essential that we all return to this place as soon as possible.
There have never been so many speeches as during lockdown and, I am afraid, one of the reasons for this expansion of contributions is about finance. Paying Members to vote and speak from home is not acceptable as we return to a more normal life. We often hear, “The noble Lord is on mute”, or “Please unmute yourself”. Speeches made virtually may seem to have conviction and feeling to the speaker at home but, with very few exceptions, come over on the 10 screens around the Chamber—with some sound distortion—as lacking in emotion and rather sterile. I believe that speakers need the atmosphere of the Chamber to arouse passion and fervour, and find that virtual speeches emphasise well-known quotes from lobbying material, which makes them difficult to listen to. We need the cut and thrust of the House to hold the Government to account. It may be more convenient for us to vote wherever we happen to be, but no institution can be organised in that manner. It is not a come-as-you-please operation.
I know that some Peers, including me, would find a return to the days before lockdown difficult, because of the long hours of the House. If we are unable to fulfil our commitment, we should not forget that legislation was passed in 2014 that enables us to retire with dignity and privileges, and to maintain our friendships in the House, when we visit from time to time. I know I will hate it when the time comes, but we owe it to the House we love. It is important that the House of Lords is not seen as a place full of elderly people but as an active, thriving institution, playing its right and proper role in the constitution.
My Lords, I echo the thanks to all the staff who managed to adapt our proceedings, especially the technical team and clerks for making the actual proceedings run so smoothly, and all beyond that who have had to change the way they work over these last 15 months. I thank them, and the commission for doing its best to respond to the unprecedented circumstances of Covid-19 and the need to find alternative ways of working, and to change those as circumstances in the country changed too.
The Constitution Committee’s very helpful report and the contribution from my leader and noble friend Lord Newby set out the difficulties of the hybrid system, with which I agree, and possible routes back that do not set hard dates, way ahead of our knowledge of the spread of coronavirus. I also echo the comments of many speakers that a way of electronic voting in the future, even if on the parliamentary estate, seems sensible. We waste hours of our time in Divisions, queuing in the Lobbies.
The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, spoke of Parliament being to “parley”, to come together. He is half-right. The word “parliament” comes from the Old French verb “parler”, in its indicative form: “parlement”, or speaking. I assert that the one achievement of the last year is that we have all been speaking, but using the technology of the 21st century. All the other details of how we work, spoken of by many so far, especially the Constitution Committee, have suffered. Despite what I will say next, I welcome the return, in due course, of the entire business of the House being physically in the Chamber. Stronger than that, I long to be there and part of it.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Seccombe, that we have achieved real progress with Bills during this year. Things may not have been perfect, but the contributions, scrutiny and challenge during the Domestic Abuse Bill have shown that it can work. It is not perfect, but it can work.
The noble Earl, Lord Howe, talked about “a temporary solution to a temporary problem”, but are the Government, as well as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and his supporters, confident that that temporary problem is at an end? The Prime Minister, Ministers and SAGE do not yet agree. We have all been told to expect more different variants that will get round large numbers of people having been vaccinated. The World Health Organization and Ministers say that we are not safe until everyone is safe and we are reaping the lessons, at the moment, of moving India to the red list too late. Although there are hopes that it will not affect those already vaccinated, it is certainly infecting younger people. With the higher level of transmissibility, cases are increasing in more than 100 different areas. We have been warned to expect more variants to do this in the next few months.
I declare my interest in this matter. I am one of those irritating people who are classified as clinically extremely vulnerable; there are a number in your Lordships’ House. That is not because I am sick at the moment, but because of the immunosuppressant drugs that I need to take to manage the autoimmune disease that has left me disabled. On 1 May this year, the Government reiterated their advice to the clinically vulnerable: always socially distance; remove yourself from any environment where social distancing is breached by others; work from home, if at all possible and, if not, ensure that your employer makes your workplace safe for you. I am not one of those lucky grandparents who have been able to hug their grandchildren or children, for 15 months now.
We do not yet know how quickly Covid antibodies will dissipate after two vaccinations other than for the clinically vulnerable, for whom they believe that protection will not be reliable. Yesterday, the Government invested £90 million in booster vaccine research, ready to go again with more doses in the autumn, hence the advice of caution, caution, caution. This is a warning word, as caution must be everything to all of us, not just those who think they are covered because they have had two doses of the vaccine.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, spoke of remote working as a “comfortable way forward”. It is not comfortable for those of us who are ordered not to be with noble Lords. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman: I too am unashamedly sentimentalist about Parliament and want us to return to as much in-person contribution as possible. I am not alone in being desperate to rejoin a physical Lordships’ House, but I cannot.
The noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, made an important point about the duties of an organisation in regard to disability discrimination, which I am sure that the commission and House authorities have heard, even if the noble Lord, Lord Farmer, dismisses us for being of unsound body or mind and, therefore, not worthy of a place in your Lordships’ House. I am grateful to those who seek to enable some way for us to contribute. Without it, the words of the Queen at the introduction of a Peer become somewhat meaningless.
My Lords, I find myself trying to rediscover my voice in this place. I hope I will be forgiven. I am using some notes; in the past I used rather to wing it, which I prefer. The dialogue that this House engenders is really what this place is about. I find myself very much in agreement with the introduction made by my noble friend the Deputy Leader of the House, the noble Earl, Lord Howe. They say that timing is everything in politics, and this debate—in government time—is very timely and very much to the benefit of this House.
Despite the chill and gloom of the weather we have had during this past month or so, with others I have a sense of optimism that we are getting out of some of the temporary measures we have had to live with over the past few months. There is a feeling that we will be able to return, with some care—that will be necessary—but with confidence to a House in which we should and will be able to debate in the Chamber and vote in the Lobbies.
Before I go on, I join others in thanking those who made it possible to alter this House, giving us continuity of constitutional practice by creating the virtual House and the hybrid House. I particularly thank those usual channels I abandoned, unknowingly lumbering those I left behind and my successor with the task of trying to make this place work in this difficult time. The House owes them a great debt of gratitude.
I hope it is understood that when we eventually turn our backs on this time, we do so with thanks for everything we have to enable us to maintain our constitutional role. But good government needs a strong and robust Parliament. Some noble Lords will be surprised that, as a former Government Chief Whip, I should say such a thing—but I do. I love this place. I love my home, but I love what this House can be and should be. It has been but a shadow of its former self during this difficult time.
I believe that, although we quite rightly spend much time worrying about the building we work in, this House is about people, not the building. This House is about debate, not speeches. It is about assertion and dissent, disagreement and accord, give and take, argument, dialogue, emotion, humour and wit. It is about mood and atmosphere. Noble Lords will know that this interaction and intervention have been impossible to express in a virtual world.
This has been reinforced for the increased number of us who have been here for the few days since the gracious Speech and have experienced the remarkable change in the mood of the House. It is no longer a morgue. There are people about. Already today this Chamber has nearly doubled the number of Peers able to be seated here. What a difference a modest change such as this has made. The Dining Room, the Long Room and the Bishops’ Bar have become alive again. There is chatter, conversation and—I do not exaggerate—a sense of a new beginning. I hope my noble friend the Leader of the House will give us her views on passholders, spouses, partners and visitors in general soon being able to be admitted to this building.
I understand the caution, hesitation and uncertainty but, as I said before, our Parliament is about people. There is a real need and a real impatience to have our Parliament back.
I first add my thanks to the staff and clerks, who have provided such an amazing technical solution to the problems of the pandemic. We ought to praise ourselves; we in this House have been among the leading legislatures across the world in showing that you can carry on in these difficult times. That is because the staff and clerks have seized upon the huge advances in technology driven by the pandemic. Real congratulations and praise are due to them. We ought to sing of our success in this respect.
Having said that, it is important that we test what we should do next by one criterion alone: what makes this House most effective in carrying out its constitutional duties? I think the answer is clear. In the vast bulk of the work the House does—holding Ministers to account by asking questions; debates; the scrutiny of legislation—there can be no doubt that being present in the Chamber must be the right solution. I say that for three reasons.
First, on occasions you need the pressure of the room. I use that phrase because you get the pressure of support if people are for you—you do not get that when you speak remotely—and you get the pressure of people laughing at you if you say something idiotic, fail to answer a question or try to emulate Sir Humphrey. That is critical. Secondly, there is spontaneity: the ability then and there to make a point that can be devastating either in support or to the contrary. Thirdly, there is what people outside this place call “work in the margins of the House”—in other words, all the rooms and the chats. In my view, those three reasons all make it absolutely essential that we return to a House that does the bulk of its legislative business and holding to account in the Chamber.
However, there are three other matters that we ought at least to consider. The first is the work of the committees. I could not add a single word to the description given by my noble and learned friend Lord Hope of Craighead. He is absolutely right, for two reasons. First, although we have always had the power to hear witnesses remotely, the technology was awful. It has changed, and we really ought to seize that and do much more. Secondly, as I have found when hearing litigation, you can get good answers out of a witness much more easily in a question-and-answer session on a video link than you can when unable to follow up on something a Minister might or might not say. It is effective, and that has been shown in the courts. You can also have good dialogue—that works as well—so I hope we will look at committees in a new light and not merely say, “We have always been able to do that.” It is not so; technology has made a difference.
Secondly, I very much hope that we can look at some of the things that have happened in the modern world—for example, the ability to put on screen the clause or amendment you are debating. This works in the real world and is something on which huge progress has been made.
Thirdly and finally, there is the very real issue of disability. We must do something to address that as well.
My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to debate these matters and I fully agree with the approach of my noble friend Lord Howe. I join noble Lords in expressing gratitude to the staff and the administration for making remote working possible and so effective.
Recently, I was looking at my old prep school reports. I was not surprised to read that I was an academic disaster area—I was a very late developer and suffered badly with what we now know as dyslexia. The surprise was when the headmaster started regularly observing my citizenship and desire to help others for no direct reward. This may explain why I am not a very good businessman. Most of us agree that our role in the House of Lords is to revise legislation, to be an additional check on the Executive and, most importantly, to be a source of expertise. My expertise is broadly as a logistician, combined with practical engineering knowledge. I venture to suggest that very few Members of either House can match my practical experience of road transport operations or military logistics. Many other noble Lords have deep expertise in their own fields. We combine our own knowledge with our interpersonal skills to be effective parliamentarians.
The system of allowances has allowed me to undertake my parliamentary duties since 1992, albeit with a modest standard of living, and I have been content. There is of course, as the late Earl Onslow delicately put it, an element of hypocrisy with the system, but it works. Apart from my pay as a reserve officer, I have not been renumerated or otherwise influenced by anyone. My personal finances were at one point predicated on sitting for about 140 days per year, for about £300 per day. I have acted on my personal honour and addressed issues on which I have expertise. Of course, I ranged more widely when on the Front Bench
However, since 2010, Conservative Prime Ministers have been stuffing this House with as many Peers as possible, largely from London and the Home Counties, ostensibly to refresh the Benches but, I believe, to make full reform unavoidable. We all know that it is hard to devise something that will work better which is not accompanied by unacceptable risks. As a result, the House is becoming increasingly subject to adverse comments, which the leadership appears to do nothing to rebut. Worse still, our system of allowance has been altered, so that only Select Committee attendance, voting or speaking in debate is recognised. All the other, and arguably more important, work that we do is not recognised, whether it takes place on a sitting day or on other days.
Most of my parliamentary work is done driving a desk or attending meetings, whether formal or informal. I am not so foolish as to claim £162 for pressing a button to vote or for making a short speech. As a result of this bizarre system, I have not made any claims since 10 March last year, and I do not undertake much parliamentary work unless there is an overriding public interest in doing so. Nevertheless, I have had parliamentary effect, including in persuading DfT Ministers to undertake a policy review which they had not originally intended to do.
There are numerous serious adverse effects of this system of allowances. Noble Lords are putting their names down to speak in debates where they are not known to have any particular expertise, thus crowding out the genuine experts, as observed by my noble friend Lord Howe. He also drew attention to the increased number of Divisions. Despite my considerable relevant experience, including in both the military and overseas aid operations, I made no contribution to the overseas operations Bill, because I would not have been rewarded for doing so. Altruism goes only so far. Instead, since March last year, I have been engaged in other highly commendable pro bono activities, some of which, directly or indirectly, support the defence of the United Kingdom.
My plan to glide past retirement is going well, although I might advance it a bit. However, we should spare a thought for those who are subject to the moral outrage of being unpaid Ministers but who are not known to be fabulously wealthy. Even more serious is the position of some newer Members of the House who have altered their personal arrangements in accordance with the modest income stream that I have referred to but now find it largely cut off through no fault of their own. In this regard, I look forward to hearing from my noble friend Lord Shinkwin.
My Lords, I welcome the chance to participate in today’s debate and to add my views on the way that the House has adapted to the challenges of Covid. In addition, as a recently appointed Back-Bench Member of the Procedure and Privileges Committee, which will be considering the outcome of today’s debate, I am keen to listen and to learn from all the views that are being expressed. Like others, I give thanks for how our staff have responded to the new and unforeseen circumstances in which they have had to work. They cannot be praised enough. If we as Members have had to acquire new skills, many of our staff have had to not only acquire them but to do so faster than us in order to assist us in carrying out our roles.
I was somewhat puzzled by the words of the Minister in his introductory speech, when he talked about many places now getting back to work and how it would somehow be a bad example if we did not follow the path that we had previously trod and pick up our old ways of doing things. But it seems to me that workplaces across the whole country are doing exactly as many of us are today: evaluating the new ways of working and seeing what lessons can be learned, with working practices changed for the long term in a beneficial way. For that reason, we must reflect, and I do not support the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that we should simply go back to where we were before. I hope that he does not press his Motion to a vote at this stage.
I very much welcome the report of the Constitution Committee, which I feel strikes the right balance in recognising both the strengths and the weaknesses of remote and virtual working. Paragraph 86 of the report makes clear that remote proceedings have brought benefits for Members with disabilities, health concerns or caring responsibilities, and those who are geographically distant. I very much agreed with, and was impressed by, the contributions on this from the noble Baronesses, Lady Campbell of Surbiton and Lady Brinton. The issue of geographical distance resonates with me, perhaps because, over a long parliamentary career, I have travelled, week-in, week-out, from the north-east of England to London. I own up that I have benefitted from being at home while continuing to be active in your Lordships’ House, but I reject the idea that somehow working at home is not really working—which seemed implicit in some of the comments. You have to do your preparation and your background reading, and virtually everything else that you must do if you are present physically. Working from home is exactly that: working from home.
We also have a duty to evaluate the environmental effect of everything that we do these days, which can include such things as cutting down on non-essential journeys, which the hybrid House has allowed many of us to take advantage of.
Our House has huge strengths, but one of its weaknesses is that London and the south-east is overrepresented, as the studies have shown, and yet most of us want to see a second Chamber that contains the voices of all regions and nations, as well as more closely representing the diverse nation that is the UK today.
The big loss in the hybrid House has been spontaneity, and on this I recognise many of the concerns that have been articulated today. That spontaneity is particularly lost in interventions—not being able to intervene on colleagues to insert one’s comments and views on what they have said, and in particular, not being able to intervene on Ministers during their Statements and concluding remarks on Bills.
However, I do not think that spontaneity has been lost at Question Time in the same way. I am certainly not keen on us simply returning to the old way of conducting Question Time. As others have said, there are failures under the old system, particularly when there is noisy competition between members of the same group to ask a supplementary. Many people have made the point to me that they have felt that if they do not have a big physical presence or a booming voice then they simply lose out, to the point where they are dissuaded from asking supplementaries at all.
This issue could be tackled by retaining a list or part-list system. I hope we will continue with the number of 10 Members asking a question, for example; I think that is beneficial. Or it could also be tackled by the Lord Speaker having the power to call the names of supplementary questioners, as happens in the House of Commons. That is one good example of Commons procedure. Spontaneity is still possible under the list system. If you are lower down in the list then there is nothing to stop you raising a matter that has not been properly dealt with in earlier questions. You certainly do not have to stick to a particular script.
I see that I am now running out of time so, with those comments, I want to say how much I am looking forward to listening to the rest of the debate.
My Lords, I add my thanks to those who have made hybrid proceedings possible.
I am supportive of a return to business as usual as soon as possible, but some noble Lords whose contributions are valued by this House may decide not to participate if virtual contributions are no longer permitted, for genuine and understandable reasons. Some, like me, are being hindered from attending physically because of Covid restrictions, as my noble friend Lady Brinton has said. We should not be deciding to return to normal until Covid restrictions are lifted to enable us all to return to normal. In light of the uncertainty surrounding the variant first identified in India, I believe that setting a target date for the end of virtual proceedings today would be premature, despite noble Lords’ earnest desire to return to normality.
I want to challenge and refute one of the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. There is no evidence that I can see that statutory instruments are being delayed as a result of hybrid proceedings. It is the sheer quantity of them as a result of the pandemic and EU exit that is the main problem. Indeed, I have just received an email from a government Minister citing these as reasons for the pressures on Parliament. So, no, this is not just a series of speeches with no account taken of what others have said.
I am married to a Norwegian who lives in Oslo, and he cannot work remotely for reasons of national security. In normal times when the House is sitting, I commute between Oslo and London every other weekend, spending most of my time in London and rarely missing a sitting day. Currently, Norway is on the amber list for foreign travel. As the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, has mentioned, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, told this House earlier this week that foreign travel is dangerous; the Prime Minister said yesterday that travel to amber-list countries should be only for extreme reasons; and the Transport Secretary said this morning that people should go to countries on the amber list only in exceptional circumstances. If we ignore what the Environment Secretary said, the message is clear: I should not be travelling between the UK and Norway. I very much regret having to choose between being with my family and being physically present in this House but, after almost 37 years of public service in the police and in this House, despite my love for all your Lordships, I am choosing to be with my husband at this time. In short, I would love to return to normal working but, if virtual proceedings end before restrictions on foreign travel are lifted, I may be forced to take a leave of absence, and I am sure that I am not alone, not because we want to but because we have little choice in the current circumstances.
Other noble Lords who have far more valuable contributions to make than I may be considering their future in the House, having experienced virtual proceedings unrelated to Covid restrictions. The House needs to consider how valuable these contributions are and whether those who would find it very difficult or impossible to attend in person, for genuine and understandable reasons, should be allowed to continue to make their highly valued contributions virtually. I accept that some additional costs would be incurred were this to continue, but I am not convinced that they would be as high as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, has estimated.
This pandemic has introduced us to what is possible with modern technology. The House should carefully consider how the use of technology can enhance the working of this House, and how the use of technology might in other ways detract from it. Still, as the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, has said, this House should not throw the baby out with the bath-water.
My Lords, what this House and its staff achieved in March and April 2020 was truly remarkable and utterly brilliant in that this House in essence was able to continue its work, although it missed out a lot of what we had before. My noble friend Lord Howe said in his opening address that these were temporary measures. I very much support that view and the one that has been expressed throughout the House during this debate: that we should go back to where we were as soon as possible.
It is especially remarkable that the Government should take the view that they have because noble Lords have also commented on how many of these measures have actually suited the Government extremely well by reducing the level of scrutiny that we give them and letting them introduce all sorts of measures that have not been properly debated. So I very much thank and congratulate my noble friend—and, no doubt, the Leader of the House later on—when they say they want to get back to normal as quickly as possible.
There are some key issues that need to be considered. First, the time allowed for Questions should go back to half an hour, and we should scrap lists for Questions. Secondly, PNQs have become a sort of ungovernable monster every afternoon. We have starred questions, Topical Questions, Urgent Questions and PNQs, and we have to leave the Chamber between most of them. That really is not what this House is for, which is to look at legislation in detail. If we return to sitting at 2.30 pm, which I hope we do, then the House will sit later and later. PNQs really are very precious things. In the hands of the Lord Speaker to decide, they should be the most urgent type of questions, largely to do with this House rather than more generally. I understand why they have been put to such use during this emergency period, but as we come out of it I hope we can go back to where we were.
There is another reason why we need spontaneity. I accept what the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, said earlier, but it is about not just spontaneity but intervention. It is about cross-examining and making whoever has said whatever they have said more accountable.
There is another reason, which is ministerial time. Ministers have been able to devote time to this House at a level that they were unable to do so prior to the emergency. When we go back, they will be undertaking visits and real meetings, which they have been unable to do. It would be quite wrong to expect Ministers to turn up to your Lordships’ House the whole time.
My last point is about voting, particularly remote voting. Similarly to some who have spoken, including the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, I live in the south-west of Scotland, and on many occasions it has been extremely convenient to whip out my phone and support the Government in the way that I so loyally do. However, Parliament should not exist for my convenience or for anyone else’s. We need to come here to listen to the debate and be part of the collective argument that takes place. I understand that there may be some special cases where voting off-site, virtually or remotely, is required, and I hope that those are fully debated in the committees before they are brought to this House for its decision. However, for the overwhelming generality you need to be in the House to vote in order for it to count.
I very much hope my noble friend Lord Cormack will not push his Motion to a vote, but I think this has been an extremely valuable debate that shows just how many noble Lords care very deeply about how this House is managed.
Technically, the hybrid House has been terrific, and the technical staff warmly deserve the thanks they are getting from all around the House. Professionally, it has been acutely frustrating. The nadir for me was when we all had two minutes each to give our verdict on the treaty which now governs relations with our nearest neighbours, although I guess that the limitation may have suited the Government rather well.
That is the trouble. Like the Constitution Committee in its important report, I do not believe that we have been holding the Executive to account as well as we should and as well as we normally do. Hearing the arguments tested in debate really matters for a Cross-Bencher such as me, by definition knowledgeable on only a small minority of the issues that the House has to tackle and not helped by the kindly tutelage of any Whip. The constraints of the hybrid House preclude the spontaneous to and fro, interventions and give and take of genuine debate. Set-piece speeches help me a bit, but not much, in making up my mind; it is the real debate that counts, so the sooner we can all get back, the better for me and, I think, for the effectiveness of the House.
I would retain two innovations. First, electronic voting works well, and it is astonishing that the Leader in the other place spurns it, insisting instead on proxy voting. The UCL Constitution Unit in its admirable recent report revealed the astonishing fact that, on the last sitting day before Easter, the Government Whip in the other place cast 329 votes. That is, as the chair of the Procedure Committee in the other place delicately put it, “open to abuse”. I am with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and the noble Lord, Lord Hain, for the reasons they gave. Instantaneous electronic voting is now common in legislatures. Ambulant voting, as in our Lobbies, is beginning to look a little archaic. I would phase in the change, permitting those who want to stretch their legs still to do so—I do not believe many would. It think that it would rapidly be possible to reduce the time Divisions take, perhaps to three or four minutes.
Secondly, I would retain remote participation, but only in a severely limited form. Yesterday, I took part in a hugely valuable committee hearing with witnesses in New York, Sydney and Singapore. I agree with the Constitution Committee that that should go on being possible.
However, for the business in the Chamber, participating and voting remotely should be permitted only exceptionally for those unable, for reasons of distance or disability, to get here. It should not be permitted for those who could get here but choose not to do so. We signed up to be here; that is our job, and I think we do it better when we are here. I therefore warmly endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said today—I would add that I greatly admired the way he supported Lady Thatcher in the House in her latter days; it did him enormous credit.
Finally, I would make any decision to participate remotely irrevocable for a Session and not changeable from day to day, whereas we should all be free to choose, Division by Division, whether to cast an archaic ambulant vote or a daringly 21st-century electronic one.
My Lords, this is proving to be an elegant and most useful debate—the sort of debate, frankly, that I have missed. We have been kept apart too long. Like my noble friend, and roommate, Lord Forsyth, I believe that Parliament is an essential service, but we are told that we could not come back earlier because we were too old. Now it seems that we cannot come back fully because our staff are too young. It is about time that we sorted ourselves out.
I do not accept all the statistics thrown at us about how many votes we have had and how well they show we have done. Virtual participation and voting have become largely meaningless and they have left us open to lots of abuse. I quote:
“Peers vote in droves … Peers claimed almost £1m in taxpayer-funded ‘attendance’ allowances while working from home.”
So says the Times. It continues:
“Since the rules were changed … participation has soared to record levels.”
The Times does not like us, nor does the Daily Mail. It says:
“Lords a-leaping to vote from home after being allowed to claim £162-per day.”
Not even the Telegraph likes us, one headline stating:
“Lords up their voting as they claim virtual attendance rates.”
These accusations are incredibly damaging. We do not have many friends left, and we need friends. I cannot think that Downing Street looks on us with much favour, not after the House’s extravagant show of belligerence over Brexit. We have lost many former friends in the House of Commons too. Where shall we find the friends whom in these turbulent times we desperately need?
The press attack us constantly:
“Drunk as Lords. House of Lords spend nearly £2million on booze in the past five years”
screamed the Sun recently. There have been references to
“the same old snouts in the trough”
“The unelected House of Lords is a corrupting influence at the heart of Westminster”—
that is what people have read in the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, and I have not even got close to the Guardian and the Mirror.
We have become a laughing stock in many eyes, and perhaps deservedly so when it comes to the wretched “Valuing Everyone” training. Is it not about time we started valuing ourselves? When are we going to stand up and say that we believe we do an incredibly important job and do it well? If we lurk in the shadows, as we have been doing, we will simply wither away.
As my noble friend Lord Howe and many others have said, we need to return to full physical debate and physical voting. We keep hearing that this is a business. It is not a business. We are not employed. This place is unique, and it is important.
I know that there will be many claims for exemption on the grounds of individual hardship. I listened carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell of Surbiton, as I always do, and we need to consider very carefully what she has said, but I still have ringing in my ears the accusations that we are being paid for voting from the comfort of our own homes and gardens. Whatever else we do, we must bring an end to these accusations of “deckchair Divisions”.
Being a Peer is a huge privilege. It carries with it some pretty unselfish responsibilities. We are here to serve this House—not the other way around. It is on that basis that I believe we should move forward.
My Lords, I congratulate the staff on supporting the functioning of the House throughout the pandemic.
I was hoping to take part in this debate physically. However, having been present for the adjourned gracious Speech debate until 9.30 pm on Monday, and with briefings and statutory instruments on Tuesday and Wednesday, I knew that I would not be able to sit in the Chamber until 10 pm today, for a fourth day. The Benches, which were designed and built for men, do my arthritis no favours at all.
I have found the hybrid arrangements during lockdown and working from home to be a mixed blessing. I have been able to participate in Questions without being shouted down—nearly always by male Peers—and managed to contain my contributions to roughly 70 words and 30 seconds 90% of the time. Participation in statutory instruments has been extensive, but most have managed contributions within the timeframe. I have used the mornings for research and speech writing, as I am sure have other Peers. The Agriculture Bill was managed reasonably well, although, on the days when we finished at 11 pm or midnight, I had great difficulty getting up from my desk, having become extremely stiff.
Many of your Lordships have felt the time constraints on speeches to have been too short. However, they do help to focus the mind considerably, with unnecessary verbiage cut out. This also assists the listeners not to lose the plot. I fear that some in the House have come to expect that everyone who wants to can take part in any debate. I fear that today’s debate may fall into the category where everything will be said early on but not everyone will have said it by the end.
What I did miss during lockdown was the chance to chat with colleagues over coffee or a glass of wine—but the whole country was similarly restricted and missing social interaction with family, friends and colleagues. When I returned, I was shocked to find just how few spaces for Peers there were in the Chamber. On the Tube, on the bus, in the supermarket, on pavements et cetera, we were all much closer to one another, even while wearing masks and keeping two metres apart. However, the layout of the Chamber gave what seemed like an excess of space.
If there were no seats in the Chamber, we were invited to go up to the Gallery. I did this twice—it took quite a while. We are not a House of young, agile Members—quite the opposite. I cannot be the only Peer with arthritis and mobility problems that mean that steps and stairs are becoming completely impossible. Unless we were on one of the sparse seats on the Benches or in the Gallery at the start of debates, we could not speak. “Rules are rules”, I hear many of you say; however, the pandemic has given us a golden opportunity to modernise some of our practices and bring the Chamber into the 21st century.
I urge your Lordships to think very carefully about the way forward. Rushing back to the old ways is somewhat like donning an old favourite suit. When it was first made, of finest-quality worsted wool, it looked amazing. It is still comfortable but is now very misshapen, baggy and shiny, and has seen better days. It no longer fits, has moth holes and needs replacing. This is the upper Chamber of a world-famous parliamentary system. There is no room for sentimentality in clinging to outdated practices. I recommend that we review and move forward with courage.
I read with interest the report of the Select Committee on the Constitution and agreed with many of the comments. Electronic voting has been a godsend: struggling over from the fifth floor of Millbank House in the pouring rain, negotiating cyclists who ignore both crossings and traffic lights, fighting with the door at Chancellor’s Gate and then waiting for the lift to take me up to the Principal Floor to vote was never a great experience. No doubt those Peers whose offices are above the Chamber cannot wait to get back to queueing up in the Lobbies. I suggest that remote voting is so easy that reducing the time allowed for it to take place would not be out of the way and would assist in speeding up the business of the House.
I have one negative comment to make about what is contained in paragraph 94 of the report. In the opinion of the noble Lord, Lord Norton, Members have
“a moral obligation to contribute to the work of the House”.
I agree with this. However, he and others feel that being present in the Palace is everything. I have been here for seven and a half years and have seen Peers in the Palace having coffee, tea, wine, lunch and dinner—oh, and popping into the Chamber for five minutes during Questions, but rarely speaking. It is insulting in the extreme to imply that Peers who are not in the Palace are not contributing to the work of the House; this is quite clearly not the case, as this debate demonstrates.
My Lords, pace the noble Earl the Deputy Leader, I hope that I will not be thought too tiresomely repetitive if I start by adding my thanks to the staff of the House, who have worked so hard and to such good effect, putting in place, maintaining and operating the systems and processes that have enabled us to continue to function over the past year. Their ingenuity and perseverance have been remarkable.
However, for all their efforts, we should not imagine that our current modus operandi is anything other than a necessary but uncomfortably restrictive contingency. “Why should this be so?”, some ask. “Surely, in the second decade of the 21st century, we should be updating our processes to take account of new technology. Is this not what is happening in other fields?” Well, to some degree.
Many enterprises are indeed allowing, and will continue to allow, a degree of remote working—but this is not the same as holding virtual meetings. These do of course take place; I have had experience of them over many years. They can bring considerable benefits: most importantly, the ability to annihilate space and bring people together virtually when they cannot be present physically is particularly useful.
Nevertheless, it has also been my experience that, even in the wider world, virtual meetings have significant drawbacks. They are very good for the passing of information—for delivering reports and briefings—but, when it comes to the consideration and debate of difficult issues, their utility tends to decline significantly. They do not permit the to and fro of discussion that is crucial to a thorough examination of issues and views, and they tend to mute, if not eliminate, body language. Watching the reactions of listeners can be most instructive—if any noble Lords doubt that, I recommend looking around this Chamber some time.
Nor should we underestimate the impact of personal presence. I see many instances where the benefits of virtual proceedings have had to be abandoned because personal contact has been necessary to resolve difficult issues. Human interactions go beyond things that can be transmitted electronically—so technology can be a boon, but it can also severely hamper communication.
I formed these conclusions several years ago, but they have only been strengthened by my experience of the past 12 months. Yes, we have been able to sustain wide involvement in the proceedings of the House—but those proceedings have lost the spark of spontaneity. Yes, we have been able to make our views heard—but we have not debated. Yes, we have been able to follow pre-planned paths of discussion—but we have not been able to challenge assertions or explore newly opened vistas, and this has been true in Questions as well as in debate.
The noble Earl the Deputy Leader mentioned another unfortunate consequence: it has become harder for the Government Front Bench to assess the mood of the House. This is not just about numbers: there is something a little remote about dissenting views expressed on screen, no matter how strongly they are put. But a Minister facing a Chamber well peopled with noble Lords expressing their opposition, not just in individual speeches but in the atmosphere they generate, is left in no doubt of the position—as indeed many have acknowledged in the past.
Committee work too has become more difficult. The lack of agility that online hearings have imposed on us has, in my view, made it harder to interrogate witnesses satisfactorily or discuss their evidence in a properly dialectic way. However, I acknowledge the benefit of hearing from witnesses who are too distant to be able to participate in person—not least those from overseas.
Like other noble Lords, I believe that remote participation has led to a diminution in the power of Parliament as against that of the Executive. The demands of the current crisis have of course been the main driver behind this trend, but remote participation has made the problem worse. If we are to slow, let alone reverse, this unwelcome process, we need to return as quickly as possible to more normal proceedings.
There is still the question of whether some aspects of the present system might be retained in the longer term in order to improve efficiency. Well, it is difficult to see much scope for this if we are to adhere to the principle that all participants are to be treated equally. For my part, I rather like the system of electronic, as opposed to remote, voting, although I understand that many noble Lords are opposed to continuing with it. However, this is one innovation that would fit neatly into our previous practices.
We should be grateful for hybrid proceedings and for the way that they have allowed us to continue our work—after a fashion. But I strongly believe that the health of our parliamentary system requires a return to physical presence in your Lordships’ Chamber and in committees as soon as possible.
My Lords, nothing that has been said or will be said today detracts from brilliant work of all those who have helped to make hybrid and virtual proceedings work in this House and have enabled us to continue working through the emergency. We are immensely grateful. However, in considering whether we continue with what were temporary measures, it is about one question and one question alone: “Is Parliament sufficiently holding the Government to account?” I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that we must move as the world moves—but I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, that we are not just a business and it cannot be simply a question of efficiency.
There are some aspects of the new procedures that we may wish to continue: submitting questions by email rather than queueing in a draughty corridor seems long overdue. Improvement may also come from more time for Questions. Many will also favour keeping lists for Questions, rather than the bear garden that we dignify with the term “self-regulation”. However, the main questions cannot be divorced from social distancing, and until that has resolved it will be difficult to return to full normality. A House of Lords with social distancing cannot operate as a House of Lords.
Paradoxically, I am speaking remotely but I wish to argue against both remote participation and remote voting. I am speaking remotely because I cannot be present physically in the Chamber for the Leader’s wind-up tonight, and so the convention is that I should not participate in the House. I am sure that remote participation is not a satisfactory mode and it will be illustrated, I am sure, by my speech. Our Writ of Summons commands us to attend at Westminster. A Parliament where people are not physically present is not a Parliament at all. A lot of talking heads on screens suspended from the ceiling may make a good TV programme, but it is no substitute for a lively debate where people argue face to face with each other. What sort of debate is it where people cannot interrupt the wind-up of a Minister who has failed to answer the questions raised in the debate?
As has been said many times in this debate, and I apologise for repeating it, it is necessary to judge the mood of the House to decide whether to force a Division, as my noble friend Lord Cormack is going to have to decide later. But where there is no coughing with boredom, no muttering and no quiet laughter, there is no mood of the House to judge. The House of Lords is very polite House, possibly too polite, but with remote proceedings the politeness has become the stillness of the graveyard. We may not yet have bored ourselves rigid, but we are beginning to bore the public. The number of viewers of House of Lords proceedings on Parliamentlive.tv declined in 2020 compared with the previous year.
How we vote should not be a matter of convenience; it is a question of commitment. Remote voting requires hardly any interruption to whatever a person is doing. Mind you, I suppose in theory that remote voting could be the answer to the numbers problem in the House of Lords. We could have a House of 2,000, with no pressure on the facilities of the Chamber. Of course, that would be ridiculous, but remote voting and being paid for it is going to seem a lot more than ridiculous to the general public. The public will be outraged if life returns to normal and we continue to be paid to vote from the comfort of our own homes.
The noble Lord, Lord Hain, thought that the increase in voting was a sign of democracy that should be welcomed. I fear it may have other causes. Our temporary procedures have distorted behaviour. Speaking lists have become longer, requiring speeches to be ludicrously short. Sometimes the most distinguished people with the most to contribute have not been able to contribute very much. To squeeze more people in for Questions, Ministers are asked to be very brief with replies. Some of the replies would be recognised by Lloyd George, who used to tell the story of how once he got lost in his car when driving in Snowdonia. He stopped and asked a passer-by where he was. The passer-by replied, “You are in Wales”. Lloyd George always said that this was the perfect parliamentary answer: it was brief, it was true, and it told no one anything of any use. That is true of too many of the ministerial replies that we have had under our new procedures.
We agreed our procedures as temporary to cope with an emergency. As the country returns to normality, without doubt we must return to the procedures that were before. Parliament is not holding the Government to account and that is what the public expect us to do.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow that fine speech from the noble Lord, Lord Lamont—which, of course, was delivered remotely. It has been a very strong debate and I have enjoyed listening to the speeches. I join everyone else in thanking the staff for having made the hybrid proceedings possible and effective.
I guess it is possible to characterise this debate as having something of a false dichotomy between those who want to keep things exactly as they are now and those who want them to go back to exactly how they were before the pandemic. I detect in pretty much every speaker that they are somewhere on the spectrum between a little bit of change and quite a lot of change —but no one is going to either of the extremes. I am more towards the end of the spectrum of my noble friends Lord Hain and Lady Quin, rather than the end preferred by the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Dobbs—respectful though I was of their contributions.
Of course, I had a bit of quandary. Where was I going to speak? Should I come in? Should I make a non-essential journey? I am doing the rest of my work from this room, which I am very pleased to welcome noble Lords into. Or should I come into the Chamber where, of course, I am going to be so much more engaging and will be able to benefit from all the interaction? I may not be able to make anywhere near as good a speech, but I have childcare responsibilities today, so I am not able to come in.
There is so much that I have missed about the way that we used to do things. Like everybody else, I miss the social interaction. The Lords is at its strongest when we are working together, across party in many cases. It has been impossible to have those relationships across party during this period of the pandemic, and it has been impossible also to get to know new Members. I hugely miss that. Of course, like everybody else, I miss the scrutiny, principally brought about by the spontaneity of being there face to face. So, of course, as soon as we are safely able to, we have to get back to those arrangements.
However, I have also really enjoyed the flexibility. I used to think I was one of the younger Members. I certainly was when I joined 11 years ago. I have to do other work and I now do all of that from this room. To have been able to do that alongside being able to contribute in the House has been really helpful. On occasions, I have enjoyed looking inside other people’s houses—but not so much looking up their noses if they have got the camera angle wrong.
I think the PeerHub has worked really well, as my noble friend Lady McIntosh said in her wonderful opening. I have enjoyed the equity of balloted lists for Oral Questions. I have really enjoyed the way we have been able to be more inclusive of a wider range of witnesses, geographically, through Select Committees—again, as other noble Lords have said.
So I am a strong advocate of reflecting and hanging on to the changes. Pretty much everyone has said that longer Oral Questions should be retained. I am certainly one who advocates keeping the list generated by ballot and the fairness of that. I, too, support retaining remote voting, but only on the Parliamentary Estate. I am one of those with an office in Millbank House. I am perfectly agile and able to come over—I am not yet at the point where I am struggling, like the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell. But I would like to be able to carry on working in my office at times, rather than schlepping all the way over to vote.
We had a great meeting yesterday of the National Plan for Sport and Recreation Committee, and I am absolutely sure that the witnesses were more comfortable sat in their own settings than the intimidating scenario of coming into a committee. If we want to hear from diverse and disadvantaged voices, we need to be able to hang on to that practice. When we do so, it is worth noting that you get better equity when everybody is joining remotely rather than the committee being in a room looking at three or four witnesses on screens and trying to interact that way.
I agree that we should have speeches in the Chamber, but if the reason for that is so we can have more interventions, then can we have more interventions? Can we move on from a culture of not really intervening in Second Reading debates and QSDs, because then we can have real debates? That is a really good reason to carry on and return to the Chamber; otherwise, I would not rule out returning to hybrid debates.
The world of work has changed. We are not a business, as the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has said, but everyone is reflecting on how we are going to have to change as a result of what we have learned from the pandemic. I see today, with the modestly titled Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, that we are having flexible season tickets, so even the Department for Transport is reflecting. We should do the same and we should have some version of a hybrid model in future.