Motion to Agree
That the Report from the Select Committee Virtual participation in Grand Committee; Divisions: pass-readers; Leave of Absence (3rd Report, HL Paper 81) be agreed to.
My Lords, I shall listen very carefully to the forthcoming debate. I am happy to answer questions on all matters related to virtual participation in Grand Committee but I will focus my opening remarks on pass-reader voting and leave of absence, and address the amendments tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, Lord Rooker, Lord Cormack and Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, which all relate to these matters.
On voting, noble Lords will be aware of the background. In June last year we introduced a remote voting system, which we know as PeerHub, as part of our response to the pandemic. We continue to use that system, although since September, as we have returned to conducting proceedings predominantly here in this Chamber, noble Lords have been required to confirm when using the remote voting system that they are in a place of work on the Parliamentary Estate.
The logical next step, as we return even more closely to normality, is to reintroduce a system which requires noble Lords to cast their votes in person in or near the Chamber, as they did up to and until March 2020, but instead of clerks recording Members’ names the system recommended by the Procedure and Privileges Committee, which the House endorsed in July, is to use pass readers. That will require physical presence, as noble Lords will have to present a valid pass to the readers, but it also allows us some flexibility in where the pass readers are located. This means we will not be confined to the Lobbies, particularly while Covid remains a major public health concern.
Your Lordships’ committee has recommended what we believe to be a workable solution. As noble Lords may have seen, there are four pass readers in each Division Lobby, allowing those who wish to return to the Lobbies to vote to do so. But there are also two readers in Prince’s Chamber, giving those noble Lords who have continuing concerns the option of voting without entering the Chamber or the Lobbies.
The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, raises some particularly important points, starting with the location of the pass readers. As I have outlined, we have sought to reconcile some noble Lords’ desire to return to the Lobbies with others’ desire to maintain some degree of social distancing; hence our recommendation to install two pass readers in Prince’s Chamber. This has unavoidable procedural consequences. The roll of a Teller is to tell the votes—to count them. That will not be possible if noble Lords vote in different locations, with some in the Lobbies and others in Prince’s Chamber, so if we accept different locations as our starting point the role of Teller will cease. That is the logic of the proposal we have brought forward.
If, however, we take as our starting point the proposition of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, that Tellers should be retained, other consequences will follow. First, there can be no pass readers in Prince’s Chamber. To preserve the role of Tellers, all noble Lords, other than the handful of Members with long-term disabilities who are eligible to vote remotely, will have to go through the Lobbies. Not only that, but for up to three minutes until Tellers are in place, noble Lords will have to wait in crowded Division Lobbies. Only when the Tellers have arrived and started to count the votes will it be possible to unlock the doors leading out of the Lobbies.
The noble Lord’s amendment refers to congestion. I submit that what the committee has proposed—allowing noble Lords to vote in different locations around the Chamber as soon as a Division is called, then immediately to disperse—is the best way to avoid congestion. I emphasise that our proposals for conducting Divisions are not set in stone. We have not at this stage proposed amendments to the Standing Orders governing the conduct of Divisions. Instead, to preserve as much flexibility as possible, we have proposed that initially we rely on guidance. That guidance can be revisited and updated with a minimal delay.
Secondly, as the report makes clear, we are committed to conducting a full review of the pass-reader voting system
“no later than January 2022”.
I assure the House that all noble Lords, once they have had some experience of pass-reader voting, will have an opportunity to offer their reflections and influence the final shape of Divisions. I can also undertake that the results of that review will be set out in a report which the House will have an opportunity to consider, and that we will defer bringing forward amendments to Standing Orders relating to Divisions until this review has taken place.
I turn to the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I hope that what I have said about the planned review will also reassure him. I note his regret that pass readers have been positioned outside the Lobbies, and of course the location of pass readers, along with the data on the actual use made of each pass reader, will be important elements within that review. I am grateful to the noble Lord for his amendment, and I hope he too will accept my confirmation as to the rigour of the review.
The amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, would, at some point in the future when all Covid restrictions have been lifted, restore the arrangements for Divisions to how they operated before the pandemic. This means that we would have to remove pass readers not just from Prince’s Chamber but from the Lobbies. Instead of pass readers, which record Members’ names quickly and accurately, we would revert to having two clerks in each Lobby recording Members’ names on tablet devices. I have huge respect for the skills of the clerks, but this would be slower, less accurate and a less reliable system. I understand the noble Lord’s sentiments and I hope he will consider that the best time for the House to consider these matters will be after the review, when we can assess how the pass-reader system has worked for your Lordships.
I turn to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean. The committee’s proposed amendment to Standing Order 21 on leave of absence would reflect a principle which the House agreed as long ago as 2016 should be incorporated in the Guide to the Code of Conduct. This principle is that, if a noble Lord seeks to take a leave of absence to avoid either an investigation into their conduct or a potential sanction, or if, having taken leave of absence they refuse to co-operate with an investigation, then that leave of absence could be either refused or terminated. While the principle itself is well established, the process for putting it into effect has yet to be reflected in the Standing Order on leave of absence. That is what we have sought to do in our report to achieve internal consistency between the rules in the code and those in the Standing Orders.
The noble Lord seeks to replace “shall” with “may”. I must emphasise the sensitivity of the issues that can arise in such cases. These are active and often acutely sensitive investigations that proceed in strict confidence. Both complainants and noble Lords who are subject to complaints have a right to privacy, and the idea that ongoing investigations should be publicly debated would, I believe, be highly inappropriate.
I also underline that the proposed new Standing Order states that the House will only terminate or refuse a leave of absence where this is “necessary” to enable the codes on conduct to be enforced. This is already a high bar, and I do not think that changing “shall” to “may” makes it any higher.
This is not a draconian new restriction. Such an application would only be made in the unlikely event that a noble Lord refused to co-operate in an investigation, which they are required to do under the code, and used the leave of absence scheme as cover. In fact, no such case has arisen since 2016, and I hope that it never does.
As I have said, I am looking forward to the debate, and I shall listen with very considerable care. With respect to Divisions and pass readers, the committee’s proposals have merits. This has involved a very considerable amount of work, but I am also conscious of the contributions that noble Lords will bring to these matters in the forthcoming debate. I clearly want to ensure that we can achieve as much consensus as possible in what we perhaps all would agree are imperfect circumstances.
Having had the privilege of chairing the Procedure and Privileges Committee, I say to all noble Lords that every Member is seeking to do the best for the House. The committee reflects a divergence of views, but we have all worked in the common interest of the best interests of the House. I emphasise that because I sometimes get an impression that there is a consideration that committees spin in their own orbits without taking into account the feelings of the House. My view is that, from my experience, all Members have worked extremely effectively and diligently and are reflecting those.
I admit that I suspect there will be diverging views across the House. I seek an acceptable compromise that is practical in the circumstances I have outlined, that keeps us all—by “us” I mean not only noble Lords but everyone who works in the House of Lords —as safe as possible and, of course, primarily, enables noble Lords to fulfil their responsibilities. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
At the end insert “with the exception of the recommendations relating to the conduct of divisions which should be reconsidered by the Committee because this House regrets that the proposals would (1) remove tellers from the process of divisions, (2) end any oversight of the process by Members of the House, and (3) lead to congestion through the voting lobbies and in Prince’s Chamber; considers that the Report takes insufficient account of the importance of securing tellers for votes and having votes counted in the lobbies; regrets that the process of making changes to the established processes of conducting divisions has been rushed; and believes that the implications of no longer requiring (a) the Lord on the Woolsack to repeat the Question and take the voices after three minutes, and (b) the appointment of tellers, need further consideration”.
My Lords, it is well known that I am a consensualist too. It is no pleasure at all to speak against a report of a committee chaired by the Senior Deputy Speaker, my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble. It is no secret that he is one of my closest friends in this House. But my purpose is simple: to seek the withdrawal of the section on Divisions and pass readers so that it can be reconsidered by his committee, following consultation with all corners of the House.
I do not need to tell noble Lords that last week was a difficult one for Parliament, but that was no excuse for the rush we are now part of. This report was considered by the committee on Tuesday, printed on Wednesday, available on Thursday and posted online in the parliamentary notices on Friday—and here we are, on Monday, considering it. It is to be implemented next Monday. Why the rush?
Members of the committee have had no time to explain. Indeed, the chairman of the committee has only now had an opportunity to explain to noble Lords the purpose of his committee’s report. There has been no time to sell or to explain. The number of amendments and the time that is likely to be given to this debate indicate that I am not alone in my anxiety.
Three members of the committee expressed their concern to me on Thursday afternoon, fairly soon after picking up the report. I hope that others who feel as I do will speak fearlessly and cover some of the items.
I have a particular concern about the last five recommendations that the committee makes, which are about the conduct of Divisions within this House, because they exclude Members of the House from acting as Tellers and, with that, the responsibility for and supervision of a Division. To my mind, returning to normal, which is, after all, the subtext of what we are trying to achieve today, includes, and does not exclude, telling.
I point to my interests as a former Whip in this House, particularly as Government Chief Whip; there are a number in that category present today. Noble Lords will know that I do not speak in a partisan way. Usual channels need to be open and able to see beyond the sectional interest of government and opposition. This is the way in which the daily exercise of our duty here is made both tolerable and tolerant, particularly when we have to deal with difficult and divisive issues. This is the tradition which is carried on in all four corners of this House. In usual channels, the dialogue and common desire to serve the House applies to them all.
I understand quite readily the problem with introducing pass readers. If, as we have been told by my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker today, some have to be outside the voting Lobbies, it makes telling pretty well impossible, hence the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. However, noble Lords will know that, rather than introduce Lobby voting without Tellers, we have a tried-and-tested PeerHub system. The report makes it clear that, at least for the time being, PeerHub is to be kept functioning for those wishing to vote at home and to be used as a back-up. Like many noble Lords, I participated in a trial vote this morning—I am sure that a number of noble Lords here did so. What is the problem we are trying to solve if we cannot use the Lobbies properly? If it ain’t bust, don’t fix it.
The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, wants to be assured that pass readers in the Peers’ Lobby are a temporary measure. I too would like that assurance from the Senior Deputy Speaker. When Lobby voting returns as our sole method of voting in Divisions, can I be reassured that Tellers will return and that Divisions will be timed and organised as before? Lobby pass readers there may be, and I have activated mine, but getting back to normal will be the rule.
I spoke in our debate of 20 May about getting back to normal, to recreate the spirit of this place. I am very much of the view that the Tellers’ presence in the Lobby assists the authority of the ballot and the sense of collective involvement of Peers in the democratic process.
I hope that my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker will reassure us that, rather than proceed today and implement next Monday, he and his committee will consider, consult and consider again, and report back when they are sure they have the mood of the House. I fear they may not have it at the present time. Above all, he should give himself, his committee and the House time, which this House has been denied so far. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have two quick, minor points. First, I am not looking for crowded Lobbies. Like many other Peers, I have gone through health problems that have left me vulnerable and shielding in the recent past, so I do not think we have to have crowded Lobbies. I am also not looking to take two minutes off the time of a Division. We have not come down to debating that, surely. What does it matter if we have to take a little bit longer? Furthermore, I have no criticism of any of the officials who have worked on these schemes.
I have been a Member of your Lordships’ House for 20 years, but I have never found out who runs this place. I feel continually bounced. It is as though they have been to the Barnes Wallis bouncing school to get things through your Lordships’ House. This is a classic example. Take Question Time: look at today. We were bounced into the system. There were seven and a half minutes when nobody could participate. Seven and a half minutes was the time for a Question before Covid, so we are wasting the time for scrutiny. Today was a classic example: I could not have planned it better when I saw the Order Paper today.
Voting should be a serious matter in a legislature. It is not an administrative convenience, or something where you tick the box, it is absolutely serious, both for us and the other place. Having served in the other place for nearly three decades, I have always defended the system of voting, going through the Lobbies, and I still do so on the Peers in Schools programme. I say to people, there is a big advantage, probably more so for Government Back-Benchers than for Opposition Back-Benchers, in that the Ministers cannot escape. That is quite a serious issue, believe you me. It is less important here, but it is the case that we have Ministers here who cannot wait to get out of the Chamber, and having discourse and conversation with Ministers is crucial. There are no civil servants present, no praetorian guard; it is a better system, it works, and my experience is that I am prepared to defend it.
If I had seen my noble friend’s amendment, I probably would not have put mine down, but I just thought this is going too far, too fast. I am not seeking to turn the clock back or seeking crowded Lobbies, but we do not have to rush this today. There is a better way of doing it, so I support the noble Lord.
My Lords, I agree with a very great deal—almost all—of what both my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said. There is a real seething feeling within your Lordships’ House that we are being confronted with decisions in which we have had absolutely no opportunity to participate. We should have had this debate before the committee deliberated, then it could have listened to what had been said and come up with a report that would have reflected much of that—or one hopes it would have. Because I believe that we are on that slippery slope that was referred to on Friday, perhaps inaccurately, when it comes to conducting the affairs of your Lordships’ House.
Suddenly, as we go back to normal, the clerks appear without any wigs or official garb. That might reflect the view of the House, but it does not because we have had no opportunity to comment on it. It is wrong that there have been significant changes in the way we conduct our business and the way our business is conducted by those erudite officials who sit at the Table; it is important that we have an opportunity to comment. Frankly, there is no such opportunity. Although the committees are there—I pay due respect to them—they are not elected as Select Committees in the other place are. I believe it is very important that we do not continue to put the cart before the horse.
On the matter we are discussing today, a portion of my noble friend Lord Gardiner’s speech disturbed me. He spoke about voting being “more accurate” if it was electronic rather than being counted by clerks. This House has survived a few centuries without having electronic counting. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach were right in talking about the advantages of being able to vote, to nobble Ministers and all the rest of it.
I completely accept that we are still living in very strange and potentially dangerous times. That is why my amendment says that we go back to where we were when the Covid crisis is completely under control or over. I am not proposing that we go into the Lobbies next Monday or the Monday of any early forthcoming week. However, I am saying that it is a tried and tested system that has worked well and enabled the House to be collegiate—it has enabled us to talk to each other and to Ministers and shadow Ministers in the Lobbies as we have cast our votes.
I really believe it would be wrong for us to be stampeded by any committee or Senior Deputy Speaker this afternoon. This House has a right to have its say; its say must not be interpreted as a rubber stamp on proposals we have not had a chance to contribute to. I therefore beg my noble friend Lord Gardiner to take this away and talk to his committee and, if the sense of the House during the debate is roughly in line with what my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and I are saying, to think again and come back with a system that can work. It is a temporary system; I have nothing in principle against using the readers, but where they are positioned and how long they are to be used are important. I do not want change by stealth or sloth to take over the running of your Lordships’ House. I beg to move.
My Lords, I will start in what is probably a pretty unusual way, by questioning the procedures of the Procedure Committee. I realise that the committee comprises the great and the good, and that by opposing them in this way I may be jeopardising my future career prospects, but I think they have not served the House as well as they might in how this policy has been developed.
As far as I can find from the third report of the Procedure Committee in this Session, the authority for all that has been done derives from its first report. It sat in July, when we were sitting remotely, and its first report said:
“The House of Lords Commission agreed on 15 June that a pass-reader system for voting should be developed … We anticipate putting proposals to the House in the autumn to take decisions over implementing any new system.”
I suggest to the House that what we are facing today is miles beyond taking decisions about implementing a new system to the House. As far as I can see, in all but name, the system has been virtually implemented already. The readers have been positioned in the Division Lobbies and elsewhere. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, spelt out very accurately the speed with which we will have reached this decision, if we do make it today, which I clearly hope we do not. This is a bit of a behaviour pattern with the Procedure Committee. I could cite one or two other examples, but time is short so I will leave that for another occasion.
Not only have these readers been established but this appears from the current report to be not a temporary arrangement but to have all the trappings of a permanent arrangement. The wording almost gives it away. Paragraph 4 of the report which we are asked to approve today—I hope we will not approve it in its present form—says that:
“In July the House agreed the recommendation of this Committee that PeerHub should remain in use following the resumption of physical sittings in September 2021, as an interim solution pending the rollout of a new voting system involving pass-readers.”
If PeerHub is an interim solution, according to my understanding of the term, by definition, what replaces it will be a permanent solution. That is what we have been presented with, as is reinforced by another part of the report. Paragraph 7 talks about resilience and says of the pass-reading system that:
“The Lords and Commons systems will … be interchangeable, so that if either House temporarily has to sit in the other House’s Chamber, it will be possible to conduct divisions in the other House’s division lobbies without significant disruption.”
Could someone give me a timescale for when it is expected that the other House will sit in here or we will sit in the other House? I am not ready to call it a day yet, but I doubt that this will happen in my lifetime. We are therefore establishing a system which is not interim and, by definition of the wording in the report itself, is something which will be with us for a very long time.
Like my noble friend Lord Rooker and the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, I think Divisions in their previous, pre-pandemic form played a very important role in this House. As far as I can see, there are only two occasions on a normal sitting day when the House comes together. The first is with a Division. Quite often people sit here while the wind-ups take place—there is a small element of drama involved—and it is an occasion during the day when the collegiate operation of the House is demonstrated and when the House is generally relatively full.
The other occasion—I am so glad my noble friend Lord Rooker mentioned this—which is a collegiate part of the day, normally well attended and listened to, is Question Time. This has been eviscerated, basically. It is a spectator sport for 90% of the House. If we continue with it in its present form, it should happen in a small committee room somewhere. The only people who can participate are the named people on the list—the full quota is filled up, and none of us are allowed to intervene in the 10 minutes allocated. What is the point of being in Parliament if you are just a spectator? What is the point of being a Member? You might as well sit in the Public Gallery—you are not a participant; you are just part of the audience. The sooner that gets changed, the better.
I also have to say that we again come back to the procedures of the Procedure Committee. This is digging my own grave, I know, but the Procedure Committee adopted a completely bizarre mechanism to bounce the House—I use my noble friend Lord Rooker’s phrase—into adopting the new system. As the House will recall, every Member was asked by email to vote on whether there should be speakers’ lists in place. Of course, when someone is just replying to an email, you go bang bang bang, if there are only two options—as there were. That is a very flawed system but, most of all, it is flawed because it means that, contrary to the normal rules of debate, if not common sense, the vote took place before the debate. In all the debates I have been to in local government, the other House or here, you tend to have the debate before you have the vote. What happened in this case with the Procedure Committee was that the House was bounced into it. It is very difficult to argue against. When the Procedure Committee can proudly announce, “Seven hundred people have participated in this survey that we have done”, how can you say no to it? I am absolutely confident of this: if the Procedure Committee had done what it should have done—what it has always done in the past, in my experience, when there is a division of opinion on the committee—and simply brought the matter to the House for the House to decide, I very much doubt that those here on the day, listening to the debate would have voted for these ridiculous speakers’ lists. I do not make many predictions in politics or anything else with any colossal confidence, but I predict with a high level of confidence that when this comes back to the House—and I should like the Senior Deputy Speaker to tell us that this will be very soon indeed—the decision will be reversed.
I hope that in future the Procedure Committee will continue with traditional methods, which is not to make irrevocable decisions before the House has had a chance to consider them, and that decisions will be made by votes not by email. I hope that those two conditions will be observed, and, above all, that either the House decides to support all three amendments—I should happily vote for all three—or, perhaps most sensibly, the Senior Deputy Speaker will tell us before very long that a mistake has been made and that this should be reconsidered.
My Lords, I am very happy to jump into the grave of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, on this matter. As my noble friend said, it is quite extraordinary. I tabled an amendment; I really had to struggle to do so and to read the papers because we were having the debate in this timescale. It is not the first time that this has happened, and one gets the impression that there is a bureaucracy running this place that thinks that the Members of this House are a necessary inconvenience. It is not just on centrally important matters such as voting. On a range of matters—dress, the Bishops’ Bar, catering services and so on—which we are not encouraged to discuss because it leads to a certain amount of mockery outside, one gets the impression that decisions are being taken by people who perhaps do not have a feel for this House and what it stands for.
As someone who has been in both the House of Commons and here, I say that the issue of Divisions and Tellers is fundamental. It means that the supervision of the vote is done on a bipartisan basis. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, pointed out, in the old days in the House of Commons, when there was always a 10 o’clock vote, if you got the runaround from officials in the Minister’s department you said, “I will see your Minister at the 10 o’clock vote”, and suddenly they were available. Perhaps in a less threatening way, the opportunity to discuss issues with colleagues, knowing that they will be there, is central.
Of course, we are now in this ghastly Covid period. I understand why we do not want people crowding through the Lobbies, but we have the PeerHub system, which works perfectly well. The proposals coming from my noble friend are that we should keep the PeerHub system working and keep the video system working for 10 or so Members, and that we should have this other system working as well. Why? The answer is: because it is not a temporary system at all but a permanent one.
I have been reading the minutes of some of these committees. They make for fascinating reading. For example, I discovered that the House of Lords Commission has responsibility for the strategic and political direction of this House. I discovered that the House of Lords Commission is considering putting its own position on a statutory basis. Good luck with that; I do not think that it will get many votes.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was critical of the Procedure and Privileges Committee, but here is an extract from agenda item 10 in the minutes of the House of Lords Services Committee, dated 21 October and entitled “Pass-reader Voting Enabling Works”:
“The Lords Commission has asked for a pass-reader voting solution to be developed in line with the Commons’ development of an improved system. This technical solution is also needed for a Commons Business Continuity Planning Scenario in which the Commons Chamber became inoperable and relevant approval was given to relocate to the Lords Chamber. The technical details for the pass-reader voting stations are currently being finalised and cabling was installed in the Division Lobbies in the Conference recess.”
Then this sentence is the important bit:
“The Procedure and Privileges Committee will give final sign off.”
In other words, it is a fait accompli, not just for us but for that committee.
This simply is not good enough. These are vital things. The use of Tellers enables Divisions to be negatived. It means that, if anyone wants to create a Division, they can, but they need at least two people to support them. So, it will be possible for an individual to call Division after Division after Division—and, apparently, according to the committee, this will save time. That is what seems to be happening in this House, under the cover of Covid. I will just say that the officials and those responsible for our committees have done a magnificent job in keeping the House going during Covid, but it should not be used as a cloak behind which to dismantle our established and cherished procedures, and the facilities that enable us to operate as a collegiate House.
So I hope that my noble friend will withdraw this report and go back to the drawing board. I also hope that we will look at the governance of this House and the way in which policy is determined to ensure that, in future, there is more involvement with the Members of this House, not committees and outsiders. I see that the Lords Commission has now taken away our Writing Room to provide extra staff accommodation. Expensive staff are being hired while, at the same time, we are told that we can no longer continue to support our traditional dress on state occasions. This really is not good enough. We should of course look for economies, but we should also look to maintain the long-established traditions of this place. The funny little ways in which we do things are part of our constitution and should not be interfered with by minorities.
My Lords, I wonder whether I might be allowed to speak. I am sticking my head above the parapet a bit here, as a member of the Procedure Committee. I do not anticipate that many other members of the committee, apart from the Senior Deputy Speaker, will particularly want to participate in this debate because it is a recipe for getting, as it were, a sharp slap. However, there are a couple of things about which I want to remind the House and which the Senior Deputy Speaker himself put forward in his opening remarks.
First, this proposition will be subject to review quite soon—soon enough for many of the issues that have been raised today to be taken into account. It seems unfair—I hesitate to say that, but I am feeling it slightly in that way—to accuse members of the committee and of the House administration and others of, in effect, acting in bad faith. That is the tone of some of the remarks that have been made this afternoon. I cannot see what possible benefit there is to either the committee or the people who support it in putting forward a proposal of this kind in relation to the voting which serves only their interests. What interests do they have apart from their wish to serve the House? With great respect to both my noble friends Lord Grocott and Lord Rooker, I feel it is quite wrong to suggest that all the decisions that have been taken by the Procedure Committee and then brought before the House have been a form of bouncing the House into taking decisions.
In particular, notwithstanding the fact that in respect of the matter of Questions I entirely agree—100%—with the analysis that my noble friend Lord Grocott put before your Lordships, what happened could hardly be described as bouncing. Every single Member of the House was invited to share their view. In my view the view that the House took through that entirely democratic method was somewhat misguided—but, none the less, that was the view it took and that was the decision that was implemented.
I just want Members today here in the Chamber to listen to what the Senior Deputy Speaker has said and what he will say before getting—frankly—carried away with a sense of righteous indignation and taking a misguided decision.
My Lords, as another member of the Procedure and Privileges Committee, I believe that the PeerHub system has worked very well. I am very grateful to all the officials who have been involved in its development and I thank them very much for that. The pass-reader system, as referred to in the report from the noble Lord, is the next logical step in returning the House to its procedure before the pandemic. That process must be part of the review, as we have heard here already, and we will take those steps carefully. I want the House to go back to having a system of Tellers in place. In that sense, I am in agreement with the comments that have been made by a number of Members here.
I am also supportive of the remarks made by the Senior Deputy Speaker. We are fortunate in that the Senior Deputy Speaker is respected by all sides of the House; I am sure that he will listen very carefully to today’s debate and take the action necessary.
On the comments made by my noble friend Lord Rooker about Questions—although Questions are not addressed today—I think that the whole House now wants to go back to the old system of Questions. I certainly do. But it is fair to note that we did get a vote, like it or not—but I want us to go back as soon as possible to the old system.
I am not sure I will ever be part of the great and the good in this House; I have been here for only 11 years and I do not know who runs this place. It certainly has nothing to do with me, but I make my views heard if I can, and I am very happy to do that. As part of the usual channels, I take my responsibilities very seriously as Opposition Chief Whip, to ensure that the House can express its views whether the Government like it or not, and I will continue to do that.
I should also say that the members of the committee work very hard on this and they are trying to get it right. Maybe there are things we need to go back and look at again, and we can do that, but the committee members here work hard and are trying to ensure that the House gets back to its old ways as soon as it can, as well as carefully and safely.
I want to make a short point. I do not personally feel “bounced”, but putting in this new system is in danger of being rushed. I walked through a Lobby coming here today and I am concerned about it not working properly, because we know that no technology is perfect. If no one checks on who is voting, the danger we may find is that some people lose their votes.
My Lords, I recall, when I was Chairman of Ways and Means and Deputy Speaker in the other place, a number of colleagues seeing me early in my appointment with some suggestions for changing the Maastricht treaty. Thankfully, the advice I was given was to take my time over it. I say to my noble friend on the Front Bench that two days is totally inadequate for any form of consultation. I hope he bears that in mind so that, in future, unless there is an emergency, there is a minimum of a full working month.
My Lords, I will just make a short intervention. When I heard about this, I raised the exact point on which the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, finished. I was a Whip for a long time and, if you do not have Tellers, two people must be prepared to second you or you could have one person calling repeated Divisions in the House. Monitoring that Division may be a Motion about which we could argue, but the idea that one person can divide the House again and again, without having at least two people to back them up, is one that somebody will eventually use. We have all seen that pressure. Of all the issues in front of us, that concerns me most. We must try to address this or at least get some guarantee of some control. We must think twice about this.
My Lords, something has clearly gone wrong here, despite all the excellent work of the Procedure and Privileges Committee and the staff in the last year or so during these dramatic and difficult circumstances. This is a time to think more carefully. The outward, visible sign of a rather sudden change is the sweeping away of the Pugin furniture in the Prince’s Chamber, which is, after all, an iconic space in the Palace of Westminster. It is not to be treated like a furniture store, where you can just push things aside, but that is of less importance.
Of more importance is what my noble friends Lord Taylor and Lord Forsyth, and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, are rightly saying. Question Time has clearly been gutted, as was demonstrated vividly today by the wasted space and time. This is not the kind of scrutiny that your Lordships’ House or the other place should be applying—indeed, it is not scrutiny at all. The scrutiny of this House has really passed to the committees for the moment, because the Chamber cannot organise the right kind of questioning and pressing that people expect and we should be performing.
This is supposed to be a collegiate place. I have been here for longer than some—25 years—and its collegiate quality is precious, particularly now, in an age when everything is becoming extreme, with divisiveness, bitterness, casual cutting comments and no feeling of understanding and compromise. At this time, the collegiate spirit here is vital and anything we do to undermine it will cost us dearly and be greatly regretted. These are divisive times, so let us do our best to counter them and give an example to those outside the Chamber and to the nation that we can work together.
My Lords, I hope that any reservations expressed about the report are not taken as an aspersion on the good faith of the committee—quite the reverse—and I hope the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh of Hudnall, accepts them as such. I find myself very much on all fours with what my noble friend Lord Cormack said, not for the first time and probably not for the last. I hanker for the halcyon days, the many decades when we went through the Division Lobbies, squaring, taking people by the elbow, having our own elbows taken. Those days will return.
On a serious note, and here I echo what was briefly alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, a number of noble Lords will have received letters since the start of the pandemic from the Department of Health saying that they are thought to be clinically extremely vulnerable and at highest risk of becoming very unwell if they catch Covid-19. They are advised to avoid large numbers of people in enclosed spaces. That clearly rules out the Division Lobbies and queueing up in the Prince’s Chamber with some noble Lords who do not wear face masks, or even if they did. I therefore find myself in agreement with those who have said that we ought to postpone doing any of this until Covid is well behind us and stick to the well-tried PeerHub system.
My Lords, I would like to make a short point that I hope will be helpful to the House. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, referred to the question that many of us have asked over many years—I have been here nearly 24 years—which is: who is running this place? Some of that is answered to some degree in a report published on 27 January called House of Lords External Management Review. This report followed a review by individuals who are not Members of this House who spoke to Members of your Lordships’ House and others beyond.
I urge all noble Lords to read this report. It has sat on a shelf, but I think the commission has collectively chosen to cherry pick its recommendations and move ahead with them without any consultation with the House. I have felt really unhappy since I read the report. Some aspects of it are good but an awful lot of it simply does not understand this place. I love this House, but it is being diminished, without noble Lords being given the opportunity to reflect and consider.
Change is not always bad; sometimes change is good. But some of the changes proposed in this report I believe destroy what noble Lords have talked about today about this being a collegiate place. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker, talked about the collective spirit. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is always upbeat about the possibilities of what this House can do and achieve. But sometimes I just do not want to be here anymore. I cannot believe that I am actually saying that in your Lordships’ House. It is a sad thing.
My noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker, along with officials, is doing a really difficult and challenging job, particularly in this climate. Whatever the outcome of today, I beg him to consider letting us have in the very near future—but not too quickly; I want all noble Lords to have the opportunity to read and digest this report, which I believe contains recommendations that are being carried out without any reference to us—a proper debate on the report’s recommendations, so that we think about possible changes and take note of some changes that have already been made. I gather we have already employed a chief operating officer. We also need to take note that this report says that it finds the commission itself wanting in a number of ways. Why are those ways not being fixed before the commission makes decisions as a result of the report? It is all a bit back to front.
I urge noble Lords to support my suggestion that we have a debate in the near future so that we can move forward together and all continue to feel that this, as Garter said to me when I came to this House all those years ago, is our second home. I should be able to treat it as such, feel that I am part of it and that we are all working together.
My Lords, I, too, am a member of the committee, but one of those who has thought for some while that we were rushing too quickly away from the virtual voting system, particularly when the virus is not under control. Therefore, I am pleased that people are saying today that we should continue with that system until we have a proper system to replace it. In that sense, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. When we started this debate, I thought that trying to do this before Christmas was slightly mad, in that the situation was not under control. As has happened, we have annoyed the House in doing so, as we have appeared to rush it and put in another interim system, when one thing that people do not like is a whole series of partial changes. The Senior Deputy Speaker has proposed the solution of taking this back so that we can have a fuller consultation and take our time. In the circumstances of where we are with the virus, that will be a very good thing.
My Lords, I remind the House that one precious feature of your Lordships’ House is that we are self-regulating. During the Covid pandemic, we had to do a lot of things where that went a little bit to the side lines. Now that we are operating nearly normally, we must look again at the extent to which we are a self-regulating House. We cannot be a self-regulating House if a report is produced at the back end of a week, we are notified on a Friday that a Motion will be on the Order Paper for Monday and an important change to our procedures is just pushed through that quickly. An element of being a self-regulating House is that we have a proper debate, not only in this Chamber but also in all those informal exchanges among colleagues across the House that we are accustomed to. We must find that essence of our House again. I hope that we do not divide today, although I would be inclined to support any amendment against this Motion. I hope that the Senior Deputy Speaker takes these proposals away and brings them back in a way that demonstrates that we are a self-regulating House in charge of our own destiny.
My Lords, I am a new Member of the House. The noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe, said that she had been here for 24 years; I am not sure that I have yet been here for 24 days. Nevertheless, even as a new Member, I hope that your Lordships will forgive me an opinion. My noble friend Lord Grocott said that it was career-ending to speak in this debate. Heaven knows what it might do for my chances.
Procedure matters. I am aware that it is not germane to some of the amendments on the Order Paper, but the way in which speakers’ lists have been introduced and retained robs the House of an element of spontaneity that many Members on all sides of the House would like to recapture.
Also, I have often met newly-elected Members of another place who say, “What a waste of time going through the Division Lobby is. What can’t I just take my swipe card, sit in my office and save myself the trouble?” These are the remarks of new Members. Those of your Lordships who have been in another place, if you look back that far, perhaps shared that view. However, Divisions matter because you meet people. I strongly endorse the remarks of my noble friend Lord Rooker that the ability to meet together on all sides of the House—as the noble Baroness said, to confer across the House—is important and worth keeping and should not be compromised.
I am sure that the Senior Deputy Speaker and his Committee have done a good job. I am so new that I have not been here to see what they have done. However, today I detect a nervousness that changes might be made without Members having the ability to discuss them fully. I am not here to cause a Division, even if in the future one person may be able to do so, but I hope that the House does not mind my saying that, in the interests of collegiate progress, we should perhaps have a bit more time to get a more settled view. I thank your Lordships for allowing me the temerity of expressing a view.
My Lords, while the pandemic has been a difficult time for all of us, one of the few benefits has been the move to embrace, or at least to consider embracing, some of the technologies that we have. This House should be proud of the way it adapted to the crisis in 2020 and continued to conduct its important business online, including holding remote Divisions through the PeerHub. I think that I am biased because I have been unwell, so it has been beneficial for me to have access to the technology, but it is sad that so many people have spoken against it without considering how some use of technology could be important and benefit us all. I have huge respect for the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, but we have a different view on this. I believe firmly that we should consider embracing certain aspects of technology, because returning totally to pre-pandemic ways of working would be to miss an important opportunity.
My Lords, we are ostensibly debating the report of the Procedure and Privileges Committee. Three subjects are on the front page of that report. I do not think that any noble Lord has touched on the first one:
“Virtual participation in Grand Committee”.
I suspect that that is because nobody would object to it; it a simple proposal and I think that the House will probably agree to it. That is one of the difficulties: we have three subjects to discuss, one of which I think everybody agrees with and the other two rather less so.
The second subject before us, “Divisions: pass-readers”, is, as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, well explained to the House, about slightly more than pass readers. The issue around the role of Tellers and Divisions is in many ways more important than the pass readers themselves. I think that moving from having a clerk ticking us off as we go through the Lobbies to being able to use our passes electronically is probably a perfectly reasonable modernisation, but that is not the same as abolishing Tellers, removing the call for voices at three minutes and the other things that go with it, which are hugely important parts of the process that are disguised within that subject. That creates a difficulty for the House.
The final subject in the report is “Leave of Absence”, which is the subject of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Forsyth. That gives me huge concern. I am a member of the Procedure and Privileges Committee and it gave me concern at the time. By this recommendation we are delegating a further power to the Commissioner for Standards and the Conduct Committee, a power which this House previously had. It is a small power. We have never really used it because it has never needed to be used, but nevertheless it makes me unhappy that we should give a further power away by saying that we will agree to any request made by the commissioner or the Conduct Committee in relation to a leave of absence, not that we may agree. I am in favour of “may”. We probably would accept that advice and agree to that request, but this House should retain the ability to say no if it wishes to. I personally do not know the commissioner. I am sure that he or she is an excellent person in many ways, but I do not know who he or she is and he or she is not a Member of this House. I do not think that we should give somebody like that a power that for very good reasons has been retained by this House until now.
That is my view on the three issues. However, during the course of the debate we have moved on from the three issues that make up the subject matter of this report. We have revealed that, whether we like it or not, there is now a crisis of confidence in the governance of this House by its Members. We are unhappy. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, said, we are going too far, too fast. That is what it is about and that has caused our confidence to be cracked in an unfortunate way.
I take the point of the noble Baroness Lady McIntosh, but I do not think that anybody is being bounced; I think everybody is agreeing that they are mildly unhappy. We collectively agree that things are not absolutely right. Nobody is being blamed; neither the Conduct Committee nor officials, nor anybody else, but we do have a new Lord Speaker, a new Senior Deputy Speaker and a new Clerk of the Parliaments. I suspect that all noble Lords will join me in wishing them well, but we need them to start well and what we have seen today is not a good start.
I hope, therefore, that my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker will take the advice offered from all sides of the House to take away this rather muddled report, quietly go through it again and bring it back in rather better form.
My Lords, I have been both an Opposition Whip and a Government Whip on and off for about 17 years, since 1997. I am extremely supportive of my noble friend Lord Taylor’s amendment to the Motion; I believe that the proposals in the report are a recipe for disaster and unintended consequences. I sincerely hope that my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker will come to the Dispatch Box right now and tell us that he will withdraw his Motion.
My Lords, before he does, could I just have my say? It is an honour to be a Member of this House and I am one of the newer Members, but I have been here a little longer than 24 days. My point is—my noble friend Lord Taylor was right—that the rush is doing nothing for our reputation. The general public are watching us from the outside, and I repeat: this is doing nothing for our reputation as a House.
I hope that the Senior Deputy Speaker will end this now and take the message, which is clear from all of us, to revise the report. This is such an important place to be, and I do hope he will now get it right.
My Lords, I promised I would listen very—
I strongly agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said—and thus terminally end his expectations of advancement.
As a very young man, I worked in the Moscow embassy trying to find out what was going on in the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Soviet Union. It was difficult, but it is as hard to find out in advance what is going to happen in the Procedure and Privileges Committee of this House. If it is necessary to take immediate decisions—in this case, it is clear that it is not—it ought to be possible to publish the agenda in some way so that those who would like to influence the committee could have a chance to do so.
My Lords, I support the amendments tabled by my noble friends Lord Cormack, Lord Taylor and Lord Forsyth, and by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I wish to say just a few words urging the Senior Deputy Speaker to withdraw his Motion on behalf of a totally different subject than anybody has mentioned today, but which is in the report: heritage. It is a totally different angle, and it is a serious side of this debate.
English Heritage objected to the voting in the Royal Gallery. Perhaps it should object as well to the Prince’s Chamber, which is just as important as the Royal Gallery. I see that the preparations for this new voting chamber have already been erected as an ugly pair of gallows looking like they are ready to hang your Lordships, rather than vote. Forgive me.
Poor Pugin, who dedicated a major part of his life to the Palace of Westminster, with all the details and craftsmanship, would be horrified by the suggestions and the way they have been so thoughtlessly done. Even last week, I am afraid, a chrome lavatory bin with plastic bags hanging out of it appeared by the clerk’s desk in this Chamber, and only recently Pugin door handles have disappeared from the doors because they were being replaced as fire doors.
Voting terminals in the Division Lobbies are surely sufficient. Social distancing has already been abandoned in the Chamber, the Cholmondeley Room, the shop and other parts. Either we are back or not. Most importantly, as my noble friend Lady Noakes said very clearly, this is a self-regulating House. It is being seriously challenged by bureaucracy in the form of the Commission.
I recommend masks, as in an operating theatre the surgeons and nurses always wear masks, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, knows. If they can wear them, we can wear them.
The better to know who is making the mistakes.
I support the noble Lords’ amendments and urge my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble, the Senior Deputy Speaker, who I know appreciates the aesthetic and beauty of this Palace of Westminster, to withdraw his Motion.
My Lords, I think it would be helpful to the House if I replied, because I said I would listen with particular care, and I have. On matters such as this, we need to try to proceed with some form of consensus, knowing that pleasing everyone is not a human condition, in my view. We should try to find a consensus that commands the approval of the broad sense and mood of the House.
I have heard and noted the significant concerns, which go beyond this report. Perhaps I should not say that some of the comments made by way of questions I myself have asked. As far as I am concerned, I am the servant of this House. My task as a non-affiliated Peer is to work with everyone, knowing that I will not please everyone. My duty is to the House and to ensure that the House flourishes.
I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe—we have known each other a very long time—that it is essential that we are proud of coming here. We know that we have a duty to fulfil and that our responsibilities are considerable. As we move forward, I will very much look to see how we can work to ensure that this House is perhaps a little more contented—after this afternoon, perhaps I should say “very much more contented”.
I will say one or two things before I get to the main point. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, made some serious remarks but with moments of jocularity; he questioned the part about the two Houses and said this seemed strange. I am advised that there are of course contingency plans—I am sure the noble Lord would have known this from his time in the other place—for both Houses in case one Chamber is unusable because of flood or fire. These are obviously important matters that we need to reflect on and consider.
I would like to say something to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about accuracy. I made my very clear remarks about the clerks and my respect for them, remembering that we now average about 400 in a Division. Because I was a Whip, I remember full well looking at my flock, as I do, and finding that a Peer who did not come had been recorded in place of a Peer who did vote but did not appear on the Division list. This was because they had the same name, but one had “of” somewhere. I have laboured this point, but the point about the accuracy of presenting this card is the point that the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, made, and is important.
Whatever I say from here on, it is important that we continue to test and trial these pass readers. Some 500 noble Lords have already registered. Noble Lords have referred to being “bounced” and said that this is too soon, but one of the ways in which I can best take this forward is if we start to have these tests and trials so that, among other things, they can demystify and change some of the points of concern.
I have taken on board a lot of what has been said today. I accept that further time needs to be taken now to reflect on the views expressed. I should say, and I am going to say it, that I expect members of the committee to express their views in the committee rather than in the Chamber. I think that is more helpful—
My Lords, if there are concerns, surely they should be raised first in the committee so that the committee can know of them in coming forward to the House. The point that I am making, which I think is entirely respectable, is that the work of the committee means that we have to hear from your Lordships. That is why it is not just about the usual channels; there are Back-Benchers on that committee to bring forward concerns and ideas when we come forward with proposals for the House.
I have decided to reflect on these matters. I certainly hope that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, will be willing to withdraw his amendment and that other noble Lords will not move theirs. I will then seek to withdraw the Motion to agree the report and refer these matters back to the Procedure and Privileges Committee for further consideration and consultation.
The other point that I should make is that there are two Motions in my name to amend Standing Orders. I do not think any noble Lord has expressed concern regarding the proposed amendment to allow virtual participation in Grand Committee by eligible Members with long-term disabilities. This is now time-critical, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, for raising it, because I understand that this provision may well be needed this week. My hope, therefore, is that the House will agree that the circumstances for this particular change are exceptional and will allow me to move the amendment to Standing Order 24A when we get to it. As the amendment to Standing Order 21 on leave of absence is not time-critical, I propose not to move that Motion, assuming that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, does not move his amendment to the committee’s report.
This debate has been useful and illuminating. I have taken points made about Questions, for instance, which have been very helpful. Perhaps this will not please the usual channels but we may be able to find ways to discuss some of these matters and debate them without rancour, to see how best we can make this House flourish. How do we make sure that the nation sees the value of this House? That has been the purpose of the work of the committee. On reflection, I think the time would have been better spent by me meeting people and explaining the purposes of what we have brought forward.
To conclude, the committee and the House are dealing with an imperfect set of circumstances. We are trying to return to normal as best we can while we continue to have Covid with us. How do we best keep everyone safe but retain the vibrancy of the House? That is no easy task.
Sometimes, if I may say so, some are rather too keen to find fault rather than finding how to make the best of what is sometimes quite a difficult set of cards. I say to noble Lords that we need to deal with this matter in good faith and without rancour, while understanding, if I may say so, that all the members of the committee are doing their best for your Lordships. Obviously, we now need to do some work with your Lordships and within the committee and to bring back further proposals. That is my reflection on this debate for today.
Before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I might ask for a point of information. First, does he no longer intend for us to change our system of voting on 1 November? Secondly, can we have some reassurance that he has taken on board the comments made about the Lobbies, telling and timings of Divisions for the future, when it is considered by the House that it is sensible for us to use the Lobbies in full?
My Lords, of course, by withdrawing this part of the report, the House will continue as it is. We have no sanction to bring to the House for that decision, so I can absolutely confirm to the noble Lord that how we vote now is how we will continue to, until the House chooses to change the current arrangements.
As to the further detail, obviously I think it is very important that, in the consultations and consideration that now need to take place, we have a broad reflection on this matter. It would be unwise, at this moment, to start to rule anything in or out. Today’s debate has shown me that we need to look at this matter and come back to the House, having picked up all the points that have been made today, as well as some further reflections. My door is always proverbially open, and I am very interested in hearing—indeed, I am going to speak at the ACP on Wednesday—and working with other noble Lords from other groups so that we can come to a reasonable consensus and find ourselves in a less difficult place.
My Lords, will the noble Lord just consider one thing, which I put forward as a constructive idea: having, at least once a quarter, a session for two or three hours in the Moses Room that he would preside over and to which all Members would be able to come? He could bring us up to speed on things that were under discussion. Members would genuinely feel that they were being consulted, which is terribly important.
My Lords, I am interested in that concept because, obviously, I need to think about ways to ensure that we do not have a similar debate to today’s. This is not because I do not welcome the fact that noble Lords have expressed themselves strongly—they should. To all noble Lords concerned about progress, I say: the very essence of this place is that we are brave and say things that we believe in. That is very important. I will take that back. I will need to ensure that I have the facility of whatever room it is. I welcome noble Lords coming to see not only me but, on other occasions, others so that we can work together constructively and feel that we are doing things for, rather than to, the House, which is probably the impression that I have gained from today.
My Lords, I can think of no finer phrase to sum up the noble Lord’s intentions. In light of him agreeing to take the report back for more consultation and consideration, which is all that I asked for at the beginning of my speech, I am very happy to withdraw my amendment, and I thank the noble Lord for the way in which he has dealt with the issues.
Lord Taylor of Holbeach’s amendment to the Motion withdrawn.
Amendment to the Motion
At the end insert, “but regrets that pass readers have been positioned outside the division lobbies, and believes this should be reviewed in three months”.
Lord Rooker’s amendment to the Motion not moved.
Amendment to the Motion
At the end insert, “but that when all the COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted the arrangements for conducting divisions will return to the way they operated before the pandemic”.
Lord Cormack’s amendment to the Motion not moved.
Amendment to the Motion
At the end insert, “but considers that the word ‘shall’ in proposed new Standing Order 21(7A) should be replaced with ‘may’”.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean’s amendment to the Motion not moved.
My Lords, as signalled, I withdraw my Motion that the third report of the Procedure and Privileges Committee be agreed to.