Motion to Agree
My Lords, the report before your Lordships covers three distinct issues. Before I move to the recommendations on the conduct of Divisions, I will cover the committee’s other recommendations.
The Standing Order on sessional committees is straightforward and the report sets out the committee’s position.
On our recommendation for Oral Statements and the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, on 1 December, we debated the committee’s fourth report. This report recommended that the practice of speakers’ list for Oral Questions, which was adopted as part of our hybrid House procedures and retained after we returned largely to business as usual in September, be discontinued. Since that time, the House has been essentially self-regulating during Question Time and the Leader has brought in eligible Members who wish to participate remotely, following consultation with the usual channels. The committee’s sense is that this change has worked well and, for that reason, we now recommend it be extended to Oral Statements and repeated Urgent Questions.
I am well aware that some noble Lords believe the Lord Speaker, not the Leader, should undertake this role. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, tabled an amendment to this effect last December, which she ultimately withdrew. The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, is in a similar vein, seeking to provide for the Lord Speaker to call on virtual participants during Questions, Oral Statements and repeated Urgent Questions, rather than the Leader of the House. While the noble Lord’s proposal would represent a change to the procedures of the House, it also raises practical considerations, such as the configuration of the House, which would need further consideration by the Procedure and Privileges Committee before any change could be implemented. With all due deference, this is the third time this Session that we have had a debate on this issue, but I am, as always, in the hands of the House.
I now turn to the recommendations relating to the conduct of Divisions, which we debated at some length on 25 October. As noble Lords are aware, last summer, the two Houses jointly launched a project to introduce pass readers in their respective Division Lobbies to replace the clerks who, before the pandemic, would take down the names of those voting in Divisions. The pass readers were installed last October, but it was clear from our debate on 25 October that our original proposal for how to use them, which would have involved the provision of two pass readers in Prince’s Chamber and the abolition of Tellers, did not find favour.
I said to your Lordships then that the Procedure and Privileges Committee would reflect further, and we have now done so. I believe that our revised proposal meets many of the concerns expressed last October while securing the key benefits of pass readers. Under the procedure we have proposed, which is reflected in the proposed amendment to Standing Orders 52, 53 and 54, Tellers will be appointed and, if they are not appointed within three minutes, the Division will be cancelled. Noble Lords will vote in the Lobbies but will do so by presenting their security pass to one of the pass readers. They will then leave the Lobbies, as before the pandemic, by passing the Tellers.
I will not detain the House by explaining the process in more detail, as there is a very clear summary in the report, but I should comment briefly on the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, which would require the House to return to the system of conducting Divisions that operated before the pandemic, without the use of pass readers, except with regard to disabled Members who have been deemed eligible to vote remotely under Standing Order 24A. Again, this is of course a matter for the House, but I underline that your Lordships’ committee was unanimous in its support for pass reader voting and for the procedure described in the report before the House today.
We have already modelled that procedure as far as possible on that which operated before the pandemic. Our proposals retain Tellers and would see voting taking place in the Division Lobbies. However, the committee has also sought to embrace innovation through the deployment of pass readers, rather than requiring clerks to record names manually, as was the case before the pandemic. I can assure your Lordships that the system will be tested fully and staff will provide whatever support is needed to noble Lords as we introduce the new system, if that is the House’s wish. I should emphasise that the Procedure and Privileges Committee will keep the new system under review, but I am confident that the introduction of pass readers will deliver significant benefits. The recording of the names of noble Lords will be faster, more reliable and more accurate, and the results will be delivered more quickly.
The experience in the other place gives me confidence in offering these assurances. Since pass readers were introduced, there have been 73 Divisions in the other place with, on average, around 450 MPs voting per Division—a total of more than 33,000 votes cast. On no occasion has the pass reader failed to record Members’ names correctly. Moreover, the system has allowed voting lists to be published online with unprecedented speed, within two to five minutes of Divisions ending.
I believe that these benefits are worth securing. As a committee, we have thought carefully about the issues raised by noble Lords last October. Our view, as reflected in our recommendations, is clear. I hope that the noble Lord will feel able not to press his amendment, particularly with the assurance I have given that we will keep the operation of the new system under review. I believe that the committee’s report—it is your committee, my Lords—deserves your Lordships’ endorsement and support. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
As an amendment to the first Motion in the name of the Senior Deputy Speaker, at the end insert “but that this House believes that the Lord Speaker should call remote participants during questions, oral statements, and repeated urgent questions, rather than the Leader of the House”.
My Lords, I thank the Senior Deputy Speaker for the courteous way in which he has dealt with these issues, both formally and informally. I am most grateful to him for discussing them with me.
First, I emphasise that I think it is crucial that we have an efficient and fair system to allow our remote disabled colleagues to participate as much as possible. Secondly, I approve the extension of their ability to participate. The only issue before us is who calls them to speak, and that brings me to my amendment.
Let me say what my amendment is not. It is not a party-political issue in any way whatever. It does not in any way compare us with the other place because the other place does not have an arrangement to allow disabled people to participate remotely; in fact, yet again the other place is not as enlightened as we are in this House, just as we were first with televising the House and on many other innovations. And it is not a beauty contest; I think we would lose right away if it were.
So why am I proposing this amendment? First, the chair of all the meetings I have ever been to has been the moderator of the debate. That applies to committees of this House, where the chair calls people to speak. Secondly, the Leader of the House has many other responsibilities. Even today, just before this debate, she dealt with an important Covid Statement, and later today, she will give a Statement on the crucial issue of Ukraine. She is a member of the Cabinet, and has many other responsibilities. Why should we require her to do this, when we have a perfectly competent Lord Speaker and, if I may say so, an equally competent Senior Deputy Speaker, as well as many other Deputy Speakers who stand in and carry out that responsibility very well? In fact, we saw a perfect example of this earlier today, when my noble friend Lady McIntosh of Hudnall called the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, to speak remotely on the previous Statement. She did it with skill and effectiveness. Among everything else, with due respect to the Senior Deputy Speaker, she proved that the configuration of the House, which was his main argument, is not a problem. She was able to deal with it perfectly.
I would be interested to hear colleagues’ views before I decide whether or not to press this amendment, but I now have the pleasure of moving what I think is just a simple but very important amendment.
I am grateful to my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. I was expecting my amendment to be called from the Woolsack, but I am glad to speak now. I begin in a similar vein to my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, because another friend—although he is no longer technically my noble friend—the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, the Senior Deputy Speaker, is the very embodiment of courtesy. None of us could ever criticise him for not listening carefully and seeking to understand what we are saying.
There is a danger that we will make a permanent change to our procedures this afternoon. When electronic voting and pass reading were first talked of, it was the height of the Covid crisis and this was another way of helping. The original proposal was that, at a suitable moment, we would all vote within the Parliamentary Estate and pass readers would be installed, both in the Lobbies and the Prince’s Chamber. There was even talk of having readers in the Royal Gallery. One understands why: it would have enabled people to keep socially distancing and still discharge their duties where they should be discharged—on the premises.
There have been a few changes since then, not the least of which was announced this afternoon. When we had that debate on 25 October, my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach, who sits in front of me now and I hope will contribute to this debate, made one of the most perceptive interventions when he talked about the crucial role of the teller. That, for some reason, had been ignored by the committee. The noble Lord, Lord Gardiner of Kimble, kindly did not press the Motion that afternoon. He withdrew it and said he would take it back to the committee, and he acknowledged the force of the argument on tellers. Now he comes back with a revised version.
First, this is not something to deal with Covid anymore. It is a permanent change to our voting arrangements. He says it will be reviewed, and I hope it will, carefully and thoroughly, taking account of the views of Members in all parts. I believe we owe that to those who have joined your Lordships’ House in the last two years who, until September last year, had no idea what a proper Question Time is like. Many of them, for entirely understandable reasons, liked the idea of the printed Question list, which we had. I was always against it, as were many noble Lords who have been here for a long time, but I have lost count of the number of newer colleagues who have come to me, since we reverted to spontaneity, and said, “You and your friends were right—it is better this way”. I would like those newer Members, who have no experience of the old system of voting, to experience it, because then they will have something to measure against. That would be entirely fair and reasonable.
I would like us to go back to voting as it was at the beginning of March, two years ago. Noble Lords who were there then know the system. There is a certain conviviality in the Division Lobbies, which can be positively helpful. Of course, we are talking of voting in the Division Lobbies; this is no longer a Covid-related change.
My noble friend referred to the other place. I have a great affection for the other place; I spent 40 years there. But in many procedural ways I prefer this one. It was possibly not entirely appropriate for him to quote the figures he did, bearing in mind that in the other place the Whips control somewhere between 60% and 80% of the votes by proxy. I hope that is not going to persist and I hope it will not ever be introduced here —I have not heard any suggestion it will be, and sincerely hope it will not be. Although, as my noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean said, I can see the Chief Whip pricking up his ears and thinking how much more interesting and desirable it might be if he could press 80 buttons—but I digress.
There is another point—it may be a simple point, and some might dismiss it. The report says:
“To cast a vote, a member must present a valid security pass to one of the pass-readers located in the division lobbies, except as otherwise provided for in Standing Orders 24A and 53.”
Those standing orders deal with the disabled, to which my noble friend referred when he introduced this. It continues:
“Having voted, a member should pass the Tellers as they leave the lobby”.
When we receive our Writ of Summons to serve in your Lordships’ House, we do not receive it with an instruction to vote electronically—or to do anything else electronically for that matter. I believe to say that a Member—because this, without amendment, is what it says—may only vote if they have a pass is a step too far. This on its own is a reason why the committee should keep this matter under the most constant review.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, I want to listen to the debate. and I will decide whether or not to seek to divide the House. But it was important to bring this matter to the attention of the House and to realise that we are being asked to make a permanent change to our voting procedures and practices in your Lordships’ House. I do not believe the case has been made for that. The Covid reason—one of the buzzwords of the age—has now gone. It may come back, but it has gone for the time being as far as our practices are concerned. That is perfectly clear. I very much hope that careful thought will be given to this because to make a permanent change of this sort is a very serious step to take. In the context of Covid and Ukraine later today, this is a domestic debate. But how we conduct ourselves is of real national importance and I will listen with great care to what others have to say.
My Lords, this is not the first time we have had this debate and it will not surprise many people that I agree wholeheartedly with the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Foulkes. I think it is time, maybe at the conclusion of this debate, to test the opinion of the House.
I want to put this in some kind of context. It has been 17 years since we established the position of Lord Speaker. It was highly controversial. The main concern expressed by those opposed to the inauguration of a Lord Speaker was that they feared we would end up with a Speaker like in the House of Commons. I had a great deal of sympathy for that view, but surely we can reach the conclusion now, after 17 years, that there has been at no stage the slightest evidence of the Lord Speaker here becoming like a Speaker in the House of Commons—adjudicating on points of order and the rest. We can say categorically that the Lord Speaker’s position in this House is not like the Speaker in the House of Commons and there is no remote possibility of that happening. I hope we can put that particular scare story to bed.
I also point out that, slowly over these 17 years—things do not happen quickly in this place—there has been a movement of responsibilities towards the Lord Speaker. Every one of those movements, small and slight at each stage, has seemed to be absolute common sense as soon as they have been introduced. The most recent, of course, is that the Lord Speaker now introduces the business, as opposed to the clerk sitting at the Table—for example, announcing when a Statement is to be made and what it is about. They were all common-sense proposals that the person in the chair does those things.
Does anyone listening to this short debate think that the sensible thing now would be to move the clock backwards and reinstate those responsibilities wherever they existed before—in part with the Clerk at the Table and, more significantly, with the Leader of the House? I do not think anyone does, and I am certain that, if we made the very small change that my noble friend is proposing, we would think it was common sense to go back to it after an experimental period of six months. So I hope the House will make a decision on this. I always try to understand opposing views, but I really cannot see a case for it remaining with the Leader of the House—not least, of course, because the Lord Speaker is the same person there every day. There is continuity, predictability and common sense.
I will speak briefly on the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. Again, I am very inclined to support the case he makes, for this reason: I think these pass readers are, in a sense, a solution to a problem that does not exist. I was a Teller on numerous votes over a long period when there were several ties—we had lots of excitement in those days; the tension built up and all the rest of it—and there were lots of Divisions won or lost by two, three or four votes. I cannot remember a single instance when there was a problem with the telling system that existed and we needed a recount. It worked perfectly well. The Senior Deputy Speaker said that we must move with the times—well, by all means, although we tend not to do that with any great haste normally in this Chamber. The truth is, there is no problem to be resolved—unless he can demonstrate it to me. If people can do it well enough, do we really need a machine to do the job? I am not convinced, and I await the rest of the debate to see whether I can be.
I will make one final brief plea to the Senior Deputy Speaker. He said on 13 July that the question of the sitting hours of this House would be reviewed by his committee. I would like an update, please, on how that review is going and when he expects to bring a suggestion to the House.
My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with my noble friend Lord Gardiner. He listened to the debate, and he and his committee have come back with a perfectly reasonable solution. The issue that concerned us most was the role of the Tellers, and that has been sorted.
Having said that, I am concerned about the constitutional position. We get a Writ of Summons which entitles us to come here and vote. During the period of the previous Clerk of the Parliaments, when we could not get in here because of people gluing themselves to the pavement, blocking the road and everything else, I went to see him and said, “What has happened to the Sessional Orders that we pass every year?” He said, “They’re really decorative. They don’t really matter”. They matter immensely, because it means that a mob could actually prevent us voting and, more importantly, people in the other place voting—
Indeed, as my noble friend says, as in the Capitol.
So, I am just a bit concerned that, in order to cast my vote, I need a document issued by the House bureaucracy. Noble Lords may say that the House bureaucracy will never take their vote away—but I noted what happened to the previous Lord Speaker, who had her right to come and have a drink or cup of tea here taken away because she had not done the Valuing Everyone training as she had been ill. I noted also that, just before Christmas, on our very last day, those of us who use the House of Commons underground car park—I have used it twice in 22 years—were sent an email telling us that our pass would no longer work to give us access to the underground car park; this was without any consultation whatever.
So I would say to my noble friend that, if he wants to have a gadget and an electronic voting system because he thinks somehow that Tellers cannot count and clerks cannot tick off people’s names on a computer, fine, but I do worry that, in order to vote, I have to have this document. I change my suit when I come down from Scotland, noble Lords will be pleased to hear, and, sometimes, I leave my pass in my pocket and discover that I do not have it. Okay, I can get past the policeman by showing him my driving licence or something of that kind, and I am told that I can go downstairs and get another pass—but why should we have to get another pass in order to vote? If people have forgotten their pass, surely the Tellers can—
Of course you can get in without a pass; surely the noble Lord knows that perfectly well. You say to the policeman, “I am a Member of the House”, and you show him your driving licence or some other form of identification. If this is where we are moving—to a situation where our ability to come here and vote is decided by the rules of the Administration—that is an undesirable development. The way around this is simply to say that, if you do not have your pass, you can still vote by going to see the Teller. My noble friend here tells me that he has not registered for PeerHub, but he can go to the Table Office and he will be able to vote if there is a Division this afternoon. So I just think that it should not be conditional.
The other thing that I will say will probably make me very unpopular indeed. I do understand why we want to allow remote voting for those people who are not able to come to this House; I get that. I think that the numbers need to be limited and the reasons need to be genuine for that to work effectively. But I do not understand how it is possible for people to be eligible to vote remotely while also appearing in this House from time to time; I find that a bit confusing.
More importantly, one thing that really irritates me about the coverage of this House is that I read regularly how we get paid more than £300 a day. We get £300 a day to cover our expenses, overnight accommodation and whatever else is required to be able to attend this place. When we were not able to attend because of Covid, we were given half a day’s allowance if we operated remotely—but those people who appear remotely at the present time get a full day’s allowance. I believe that undermines the ability to defend the system, which is about paying that £300 or whatever it is per day to cover the expenses of attending here, and I think that should be looked at. I am sorry if I sound like Gradgrind, but we are talking here about spending public money and we need to be able to justify why it is being done.
So I say to my noble friend that I will support him but that he should think about the point made so eloquently by my noble friend Lord Cormack. There should not be an absolute requirement to have a pass in order to vote in the Division Lobbies of this House.
My Lords, I will not follow the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, in everything that he said, but I would like to register my absolute support for the point he made about the Sessional Order and the importance of gaining access to this House, particularly when there are difficulties outside. On other issues, I am extremely diffident about commenting on the powers of the Lord Speakership, for reasons that the House will understand, but, having had more than a decade since I left office, I feel that I might be allowed a little leeway on the subject.
I find the opposition to the suggestion that the person sitting on the Woolsack should, in those limited circumstances, announce that the person who is going to speak remotely is about to do so bizarre and difficult to understand. I do not need to have explained to me the neuralgia there is in parts of the House and in the usual channels to anything that suggests decision-making by the person on the Woolsack. For that reason, on interventions at Question Time and when people are competing to speak, I believe that the person on the Woolsack could, at a lower temperature, give advice to the House in circumstances where there is dispute. We all know that the Leader of the House is the leader of the whole House and speaks for the whole House, but in highly charged situations where people feel strongly, the fact that the Leader is also a Member of the Government is pertinent. However, that is not what we are debating today, and it is not what I am suggesting.
I find bizarre the idea that it is perfectly in order for the person on the Woolsack to name and call the mover of an amendment—the configuration of the House does not seem to impede them in doing that—but not when the decision about who should speak has already been stitched up between the usual channels and there is no element of choice or decision. It is simply a matter of process, which, as has been described, is much more comprehensible for anyone watching the proceedings, and which much more logically lies with the person in the chair at the time. Why should we not have this miniscule change and addition to the role of the Lord Speaker? I do not think the House as we know it would collapse; it would be a small but useful change, and I certainly support the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, in his amendment.
My Lords, I sympathise with the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on the issue he raised about the pass reader. It seems to me that the reason that we are continuing with it is for the convenience of the administration and not for any other reason. I say to the Senior Deputy Speaker that there is a sense in which a more proactive administration is seeking to manage Members of this House in a number of ways. I caution him and the commission that we may reach a point where Members say that this is unacceptable. I think we are getting close to that point. At the end of the day, it is for Members of this House to make these decisions and not the professional administration, much as I admire the work that it does.
In relation to the Speakership, my noble friend’s amendment is so miniscule that surely the Senior Deputy Speaker will agree to it. He mentioned technical issues. I do not know whether it is that the Lord Speaker cannot see a screen from the Woolsack, but it is perfectly possible to put a screen where the book rest is—in fact, there is a screen there. Secondly, he said in the introduction that this was the third time this Session that issues have been raised about the Speakership. I put this point to him: surely it would be possible for us to have a more general review of the role of the Speaker, and then to allow us to have a proper debate.
Clearly, this has been a controversial area for many years. The House has always been keen to champion self-regulation, and page 47 of the Companion, on the conduct of the House, makes it clear that it is for Members of the House themselves to ensure the preservation of order but that it is also the role of the Leader and other Members on the Government Front Bench to advise the House.
All I would say is that while I welcome, like the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, the return to Question Time as we now do it rather than having a speakers’ list—because that was clearly killing the thing off—nonetheless, self-regulation is not working. Essentially, it worked when Members were prepared to give way gracefully—I am afraid that that is not happening and I sense a reluctance of the Front Bench to intervene. I simply do not believe it is working. Surely it is time for a more fundamental review, alongside, I would certainly hope, acceptance—and I hope that my noble friend Lord Foulkes will put it to the vote—of my noble friend’s amendment today.
My Lords, I very much support the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, because I do not really buy in to this idea of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that we are all agreed that we do not want to have a Commons-type Speaker. There are many on his side of the House who precisely want a Commons-type Speaker. Let us face it: any extra powers that we give to the Lord Speaker merely move us closer to that. We have to be a little bit wary, and it is absolutely right, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said, that we should have a serious debate about what sort of Lord Speaker we actually want, and try to establish how many powers he should have and how many he should not.
I did not really understand the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that the Leader of the House is constantly leaping to her feet to call people to contribute remotely. As far as I can see, it is the Chief Whip who is doing that a lot of the time, and I do not think that the onerous duties on the Leader of the House are that great when the Chief Whip can deputise for her.
I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. He talked about not giving any extension to the power of the Lord Speaker. The point I was trying to make was that this would not be giving any power to the Lord Speaker. There would be no element of choice about who was speaking; it would be giving a miniscule duty to the Lord Speaker. I do not think we should see it as part of a slippery slope towards a Commons-type Speaker at all. We should see it as a simple improvement in process in the House.
I stand corrected by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman. Clearly, we are not talking about powers being given to the Lord Speaker but, as she says, about duties. As you impose more duties on the Lord Speaker, obviously the role that he or she plays in the House gets greater than it was before.
I turn now to my noble friend Lord Cormack’s amendment, which basically wants us to go back to the status quo. Here, I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. We have to ask ourselves: in having these pass readers, what are we actually achieving? I will try to help my noble friend the Senior Deputy Speaker by suggesting that perhaps this is to save money. If it is, perhaps he can tell us how much money he thinks he is going to save by doing this, because then we could get the whole thing into perspective. Otherwise, there does not seem to me to be any seriously pressing argument as to why we should change rather than go back to the original system that we had before this pandemic started, which seemed to have worked extremely efficiently. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that the onus is on the Senior Deputy Speaker to say why we should change, when it seemed to work so very efficiently before we ever started all this.
My noble friend Lord Foulkes asked us to give our views, particularly on the role of the Speaker. I take a different view from what has been expressed by my colleagues. It is interesting to note that only two contributors to this debate have not been ex-MPs. I have been in the House for 25 years this year, and I have seen the House change from when Labour came in in 1997 and we had hundreds and hundreds of hereditaries; it was a different Chamber entirely. I then saw the change after they had left. I sense the House was probably at its best between 2000 and 2010.
We had a very good Government then, but it was nothing to do with the Government. From 2010 onwards, we had a big influx of new Peers coming in, and we have this odd situation in which we have so many on the Lib Dem Benches compared with their weight in the country—but this is the House; we are different from the Commons. I have sensed that as more and more MPs have come into this Chamber, they have exercised more and more influence and played a bigger part. I am in love with them all, so there is nothing wrong with that.
The conduct of the House has changed. My noble friend Lord Hunt put his finger on it about self-regulation. I am a radical. If we have a debate on anything, I would say we should have a debate on the composition of the House. That is what the country will require us to engage in at some stage, but we are not there. So what are we now? We are a House whose Members have respected each other, regardless of party, to a very fair degree; where the Whips have played a lesser role in the past than you find down at the other end; and where, particularly in our committees, we have worked so well. We come together and try to produce something for the common good.
When I came in here, this Chamber was about the common good and was not as political. In a sense it was, because the Tories had all the seats, but the hereditaries tempered it to a degree in that they looked for the good right across the board. I believe in self-regulation while the House continues to function and to have representatives put in it as at the moment. If we go to a different scene entirely, I think we have to look for a different type of Speaker.
With respect to my good friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, I think she is perfectly right but I do not believe it would rest there. There is a push and a change taking place that would require the Lord Speaker to take on more and more responsibilities in different ways to that which we are currently talking about. I am reluctant to embrace a change that puts power with the Speaker, in a Chamber that needs fundamental change. My noble friends are normally in favour of fundamental change to the way the House is composed.
I hope we will support the report before us and not embark on what I believe is a change—a foot in the door—that would lead to even bigger changes, without a fuller debate on it than we have had to date. I hope we will back the recommendations from the committee.
My Lords, I am not sure it is to my advantage to follow my noble friend’s speech, in view of some of the matters he raised. I accept the invitation of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who said he hoped to hear some of the voices of people who are new. When we debated the matter in October, I was very new; now I am just a little less new. When I appeared on my first day, of course, I did not have PeerHub. I voted by going to the Table and asking for my name to be written on a scrap of paper; I took it that that would be sufficient to have my vote recorded.
Pass readers are clearly a matter of great convenience, as my noble friend Lord Hunt said. I was never one of those who welcomed the speakers’ list, even when I arrived and was new, but the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is quite right to say that we are talking about something that will change for ever, so it is an important point to discuss.
On my noble friend’s amendment, I take the view that change in your Lordships’ House is very small and incremental. This is one of the smallest and most incremental that I have come across but, if it is pushed to a vote, my small and incremental vote will be in favour of it.
I want to raise one question with the noble Lord, the Senior Deputy Speaker. Paragraph 5 of the report says that pass readers will be the authoritative figure for a vote. Although we will restore the role of Tellers, I must gently ask: what would happen if there was a discrepancy between the two? I hope that is not a frivolous question. With the “Hear, hears” ringing in my ears, I will sit down. I will be grateful for an answer.
My Lords, I have nothing against pass readers. There is a great deal to be said for them. However, my noble friend Lord Forsyth is utterly right. What happens if people do not have a pass or have forgotten it? In those circumstances, it would be extremely helpful if there could be a default position by which noble Lords could vote in the Table Office to meet that circumstance.
My Lords, I speak tentatively, as a new Member, particularly in relation to the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.
I shivered when I heard the justification for the changes to voting, and that “It was time to move with the times.” As a relatively new Member, I think that there is quite a lot that could change if that was the guiding principle of this House. One of the things that I have struggled with is learning the variety of rules and traditions. I am not criticising or complaining, but simply asking whether “move with the times” is a new slogan. If so, the pass readers are the least of the problems that this House is likely to encounter.
Also, I do not like, inside or outside this House, the way that technology can be used to suggest more profound changes as though they were a fait accompli. The way it runs is, “It’s just technology: there’s nothing to see here; don’t worry about it; we’re just collecting your data; show your papers or your pass”, wherever it may be, including outside of here, but it is often presented as though anyone who objects is a bit of a Luddite who does not get modern times. There is a point about this change that is political, and not simply one of technology, of which I am sure that we are all supportive. I need clarification on whether it would become permanent. Trials are one thing, but there is a broader point that the Covid period has led to us having to accept the new normal because we are not going back to the status quo. My view on this, and regarding the rest of society as well, is that we go back to the old normal, and if we want to change to the new normal, we have a democratic vote, either in here or outside of here, to decide whether that is what we want, rather than being told, “It is all too late for that: we’ve lived through Covid; put up with it—this is the new normal.” I do not like that.
Also, in relation to the pass readers in particular, the justification that it is convenient does not seem justifiable. I do not understand why noble Lords want to change it anyway, to be frank, but it surely should not be changed for convenience. There are lots of things in this House which are inconvenient to me all the time, as I am sure that there are to other people, but that is because it is a different place. That is the point, is it not? It has different rules and conventions. I am concerned that we are being bumped into it— steamrollered into it. If there is to be a change, I would not mind it being trialled, piloted or whatever it is, but the idea that something becomes permanent as a fait accompli I find disconcerting. Even in an undemocratic House, there must be some democratic spirit remaining, surely.
My Lords, I am pleased to speak in this debate. It arises, really, from a debate on 25 October in which I played a part. I understand a lot of what is being said. I am a traditionalist by instinct. I thank my noble friend, and I hope I can be forgiven the solecism of calling the Senior Deputy Speaker my noble friend, because I think he is a friend of the House in the way he is trying to get some viable arrangement for us to conduct our affairs. I thank him very much.
There was a ridiculously short time between the publication of proposals and our first debate on 25 October, and my noble friend immediately listened to what we were saying and withdrew the report. Within a matter of days, the pass readers had disappeared out of the Prince’s Chamber, the Pugin tables were back and we felt we had been listened to. Sometimes, I feel the concern of Members of this House is that they are not being listened to and decisions are being made without the consultation they would like to be a part of.
We have had some good speeches today. We have had quite good points made. I, personally, am of the view that we ought to give the proposals now before us in this report a try. But I am concerned that it may work out more difficult in practice than we suppose. The technology is fine, but we do not want to be hamstrung by a decision we make to approve this report and find ourselves going through the Lobbies with pass readers. I think we are unanimously agreed on Tellers within the House, but we are not quite sure how they are going to coexist with pass readers.
I suggest to my noble friend that he acknowledges that there is some concern about the way we will be proceeding in practice and perhaps agree that, if we accept the report before us today, we should have an opportunity, and he himself would be prepared, to initiate procedural change to match the terms of the report he has presented to us.
My Lords, I rise very briefly to support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Foulkes and also to speak about what I see as a creeping managerial control that the authorities sometimes seem to put on us when we come here. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, said that we have a Writ of Summons and we come here with our security passes, but Peers’ Entrance is the only way you can get in without showing one. Everywhere else, you have to have one. If you have not got yours, you can show your driving licence or something and you can get in. I saw about a year ago that we were encouraged to put our pass on the reader just inside the Peers’ Entrance. I thought that was the creeping control that was going to stop us coming in completely if we did not have our pass.
I had another example two weeks ago—I am very grateful to the Senior Deputy Speaker for the help he has given me on this—to do with electric bikes, of which I have one. One Sunday, I and maybe other colleagues got an email from the fire and safety people here saying I could not bring lithium-ion batteries into the building on my bike—maybe on wheelchairs or scooters—because they might set the building on fire. I am sure they had some good advice, because they took the advice from London Underground—and misinterpreted it, I think, but that is beside the point.
There were a couple of policemen outside who told me that they commute here by electric bike. They come on the train, cycle across London and park their bikes here. One of them said: “I got given a grant to buy one of these expensive bikes, and I cannot use it any more, because I cannot bring it here.” I thought, “Who has made the decision that we are not allowed to bring the bikes here.” The Senior Deputy Speaker is going to arrange a meeting for me to talk about this later in the week, but it is just another example. My question is: who is in charge? Anything like that, I would have suggested, should have come before the relevant committee and then, if necessary, been discussed in the House.
My Lords, I apologise for detaining the House. I will not apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, for intervening while I was seated; I know that he does it himself. The point I was trying to make is that Peers should not come into this House without a security pass and they should wear their security pass whenever they are here, for security reasons. This proposal assumes that, whenever we are in the House, there will be a facility to get another pass if we lose ours; that is important. In fact, if noble Lords go and look at the exhibition in the Royal Gallery, they will find a proposal that they will not be able to get in through Peers’ Entrance without a pass—quite right too, in my view, but that is another argument for another day.
Does the noble Lord not realise, in saying, “You can’t come into this House unless you have a security pass”, that that is the very reason why some of us are concerned about this issue? This is a House of Parliament. It is not an office building.
I thought we had this argument some time ago. You can go to Black Rod’s Garden Entrance and get a temporary pass if you need it. There should be a rule for everybody that you cannot get into this building without a pass, but that is an argument for another day; I thought that we had this argument some time ago and won it, but let us move on to the debate now.
I am a member of the Procedure Committee. I support the committee’s proposals in the report, as far as they go, but I have a point of dissent because the commission made the original decision to have pass readers. I have never agreed with that as such but, if we are to have pass readers, I agree with the rules and procedures that have been agreed. In my view, the reason for having pass readers is that it will speed up the process of voting. I cannot tell noble Lords how many times, with my name—Lord Stoneham—I have been confused with the noble Lord, Lord Stone, in the Lobby when I give my name to the clerk. We have had similar problems when the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, is given to the clerk because there are two Lady Bakewells. It happens; we get mistakes. I have no doubt that the process will be quicker. I am happy that, if we have pass readers instead of Tellers, as we agreed in the procedures, it will be fine. It will increase the speed of voting in time, I am sure, once everybody gets used to it.
However, I want to make another point. At every meeting of the usual channels that I go to, what is normally being discussed is a complaint that the Government do not have enough time to get their legislation through this House and we are having far too many late nights. I just want to make the argument—the last stand, if you like—for virtual voting because it has worked amazingly well. We are talking about problems with pass readers but look what we have been through over the past two years with virtual voting. It has worked incredibly well. A minority are still having difficulties with phones, but I am sure that this could be dealt with if we put our minds to it.
I hope that we will look at the possibility of virtual voting because, if we did, it would enable us to go back to shorter times for votes. We could do them in seven or eight minutes, whereas when we go through the Lobbies, the long votes take 20 to 25 minutes. There should be a real drive to get everybody involved in the virtual voting system through their mobile phones. It is incredibly convenient. Noble Lords can vote anywhere they like in this building: in the Chamber, even in the Lobbies if they want to, but anywhere in the parliamentary building. It means that noble Lords can vote in Millbank House as well, so it overcomes the argument that we should have a post there. It also involves minimal interruption to Select Committees; indeed, it is convenient for attendance at all the other meetings we have to have in Parliament.
I therefore think that, if we put our minds to it, we would find that it is a much quicker and more convenient way of voting, and one that we have already proved can work. It will involve the actual votes being much quicker. If we are not going to have a vote before we make the final decision on the posts, I hope that in time we will at least look at this for the future, because we already have two years of experience when it has, I think, worked remarkably well and improved the convenience of the House.
I obviously do not support the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, but I would like to say a little about the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. I have tremendous admiration for the noble Lord and am normally on his side on every single argument; I am certainly on his side in terms of giving the Lord Speaker greater powers for calling Members at Questions. But there is a practical difficulty. If you allow the Government Front Bench, either the Leader or the Chief Whip, to decide and adjudicate when there is a dispute as to whose turn it is to ask a question, you cannot then leave to the Lord Speaker the decision on calling somebody virtually. It would add tremendous confusion, I am afraid.
Well, I accept that there is an argument there, because introducing the virtual speaker is done by the Lord Speaker in other proceedings. But this is a particular difficulty in Questions, with the pace of Question Time. You have a decision being made on the Front Bench—I do not agree with that; I think it should be made by the Lord Speaker—and then another decision being made by the Lord Speaker on the Woolsack. There is a distance between them, so there is a practical problem.
I think we should look at it and I certainly support the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that we should look at this in the round and look at the powers of the Lord Speaker. We actually had a vote on it; that is the only difficulty we have had. Maybe we should look at it again and have another vote—but I think there are difficulties with this particular proposal. Apart from that, having made my point in favour of the virtual voting system, I am supportive of the report as to where we are.
My Lords, this has certainly been an intriguing debate, and I am not surprised. One of the things that I consider is that it is impossible to satisfy all your Lordships. I could go from A to Z with the perfectly respectable arguments that have been deployed, but I think the best I can seek to do is try to answer some of the conundrums raised, as I am indeed in the House’s hands.
First, I want to be very clear that I stand here on behalf of your Lordships. There was a question about the administration. The undoubtedly important and essential work it does on our behalf is absolutely clear to me, but it is this House, this Chamber and the work of your Lordships that is the raison d’être for us all. I am very clear that these proposals are all designed to help your Lordships flourish; that is their purpose.
I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that we want a fair system. One of the points raised relates to the intricacies of this. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, can of course—as do all exemplary Deputy Speakers—get up when the virtual eligible speaker is the very first Member to contribute and always the very first; it is a very easy option to get up at the very beginning and call whoever it may be. What this part of the report before your Lordships seeks to do is precisely to bring Statements and Urgent Questions in line with other aspects where the eligible Member is not automatically the first Peer to have the opportunity to contribute. I have to say that some eligible Peers have expressed to me that they feel uncomfortable being asked to be the first noble Lord to speak. In the intricacy of the proposal before your Lordships, that is precisely the point.
I want also to say something about permanent change. I understand there has been a good knockabout in terms of the speed with which your Lordships and this House propose change. I do not see that what is proposed here is always about permanent change. I said in my opening remarks, particularly in the case of the pass readers, that the committee has a responsibility, as with everything, to keep these matters under review. If this does not work and if there are problems, I will be the very first to want to come back to your Lordships and say, with the deepest of regret, that I do not think this is working for the House. I put that on record, as I did at the beginning, and say it now. I can give the absolute assurance that the committee will be looking to see how this prospers if your Lordships wish it to proceed. I should also say, just to correct the record, that proxy voting in the other place has not operated since pass readers were introduced there.
I very much hope that noble Lords who have arrived here will see the House pre pandemic in so many respects in terms of that dynamic and that discourse. We are proposing changing an iPad to a pass reader. We were giving our names to a clerk with an iPad, but one of the problems that the clerks have all mentioned to me privately is that, in their experience, there has been what I would call “rider error” with the iPads. Indeed, when I was a Whip I could not work out how one of my flock who I knew simply never came to the House suddenly appeared. It was because there had been rider error in terms of the Division. Lord Hayhoe and Baroness Heyhoe Flint both had a hey-ho about them, but they did not have anything else in common. All of these things relate to the accuracy and the speed that the noble Lord referred to.
I think we have all done remarkably in terms of using PeerHub and all of those matters. I am not a great machine man myself, but nearly 30 Peers will often appear in the Table Office having difficulty in using PeerHub. That is one of the reasons why many Divisions actually take longer and why the result does take and has taken longer. So all our proposals have been designed to create accuracy and speed; it has not been about cost. It has been about seeing whether there are ways in which we can assist the House. That is the background to it.
On the issue that the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and other noble Lords spoke about—indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, raised this—my recall is that on 13 July last year the House divided on the matter of the regulation by the Woolsack. The House voted 376 to 112. That is not 17 years. As I say, we have had this discourse on three occasions in this Session. I do not think that that suggests that these matters have not been aired and put to your Lordships.
The other point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was that the same person would be on the Woolsack. Well, we all know that we have a roster. The Lord Speaker will not be on the Woolsack for all Statements—quite rightly when one has exemplary Deputy Speakers. There was a slight suggestion that I used a strange word in mentioning the “configuration” of the usual channels. However, compared with the other place we have a very isolated person on the Woolsack and part of the dynamic is ensuring going round the House in this self-regulation. It is the dynamic of, as we have all noticed, noble Lords and Baronesses in this part of the House. So when I use the word “configuration” I mean that none of these things are impossible, but they are some of the practical issues that I raised in my opening remarks but perhaps did not explain so carefully or fully.
As a matter of fact, the amendment my noble friend Lord Foulkes put forward relates to the circumstances during Oral Questions, in that the job can be done from the Woolsack and not the Front Bench. I think I was right, rather than the noble Lord, in referring to the fact that the Lord Speaker is there during that period, with very rare exceptions, and not a Deputy Speaker.
My Lords, we have before us the consideration of Statements. Yes, the noble Lord refers in his amendment to Questions as well, but the change in the report relates to Statements. That is included in the amendment. My point is that, although the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, said that it is the same person, that is not strictly the case—whoever is on the Woolsack will have the task of deciding when to call the eligible Member and from which part of the House in the rotation of taking turns. That is why, although I am in the hands of the House, I think it is more intricate than saying that the Lord Speaker or whoever is on the Woolsack could easily do this. I do not think it is quite as straightforward as that.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, asked me about sitting times. I assure him that I have just seen the paper that will come before the Procedure Committee at its next meeting. We will give it very thorough consideration, because it is a very important point which has been made to me by noble Lords.
On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, and others about administration members, I reaffirm what I said at the beginning. I genuinely think we have responsibilities here; it is really important. I emphasise that my task is to support your Lordships, working with the administration, for the best interests of the House.
On the importance of having Tellers and recording the numbers passing, I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, that that is part of the essential proposal that came forward following the 25 October debate, when so many of your Lordships, on all sides of the House, said that, to have the probity of Divisions that many wanted, we must have Tellers. The committee took that fully on board. I know that some hold the view that Tellers are unnecessary, but it was understood from that debate, looking as I did across the House, that this belief was strongly held because Divisions are a key part of making the laws of the land and we need, in my view and that of the House, the rigour of coming together in passing those laws.
The point about the pass reader and its authority is that it will clearly identify every single Member who has voted, by name; as is important, we will know with speed how noble Lords have voted, but also the Teller will come back with the number and it will be presented at the Table alongside what is on the readers. It will be for the Teller to go up to whichever noble Lord is on the Woolsack to present the result. The whole essence of the pass reader is to ensure that we get it absolutely correct for all noble Lords, which I think everyone would want, for the reasons I have described. Occasionally we have had a problem, with the wrong names being ascribed to varying noble Lords.
On the very important issue of forgetting the pass or the changing of a suit, which the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, raised, a key feature was added precisely so that, if and when the Pass Office is closed, at Peers’ Entrance there will be passes available which will immediately be activated to enable a noble Lord to vote if they have come in without one.
Today, I do not want to go into the issue of whether we should be wearing passes. I feel that the House has taken a view that we should wear passes—a view taken not only for our security but for the general security of the Palace of Westminster. I understand the Writ of Summons, which goes back a very long way to previous times, when some of us might have arrived by horse to this House, but we now arrive in different manners and respects. We should let this pass reader system see how we do. If we cannot actually present a pass to a pass reader then, my goodness me, we might be in difficulties. This is not, as I say, a denial of our history—
I apologise to my noble friend, but I think he is rather trivialising this issue. It is not about whether we wear a pass or not but whether having a pass enables us to vote or not.
I will give an example: it is perfectly possible, if you keep your mobile phone and credit cards together, for you to find that your credit card has been wiped out. You could be in the Lobby and find that your pass was not actually activating the reader. I have had this experience at the pass reader as you come in from the Underground. What would we do in those circumstances? I asked my noble friend specifically. I said I would support him and his recommendations, provided there was an opportunity for someone who had a problem to be able to go to the Tellers and say, “Look, my pass didn’t work and I tried to get a pass downstairs; there is a fault”. You would not get 30 people in that situation, as in the Table Office. So could he give an undertaking that there will be a failsafe arrangement in those exceptional circumstances?
That is a very reasonable point. If, for any reason, any noble Lord’s pass did not work, I can put the assurance that clearly that would need to be addressed by going to the Teller and saying, “I can’t work this”. We would need to look into it, but the Peer would be recorded by the Teller if that was the case. It is perfectly possible that there may be a problem with the system. As I say, there has not been a problem in the other place, but if there were, we would have to undertake a manuscript arrangement, as it were. We would need to do that if the system failed. So far as the practicalities of it, I think it is reasonable to ask noble Lords to use the pass which can be obtained at the Pass Office or at Peers’ Entrance. This is not in any way offensive to the importance of either the Writ of Summons or access to the Palace.
Obviously, I am in the hands of noble Lords. I hope that, following 25 October, I have taken back the points raised and the suggestion that Statements should be under the same arrangement that we have. In my view, everything should be kept under review. We should see how these matters go and flourish. Interestingly, I have been told that Question Time has flowed much better. In point of fact, quite a lot more noble Lords—I do not have the statistics in front of me—have been able to pose questions because of the dynamic of this flow. Those are the sorts of things that I am tuned into to see how it is going.
I ask noble Lords is to support the report, mindful that the committee and I will always want to keep anything under review. If noble Lords are unhappy about something, then we will need to look at it and come back to your Lordships. With all those remarks, I am in the hands of the House.
My Lords, we have had a very good debate on both topics. I am grateful again to the Senior Deputy Speaker. However, I do not think we are dealing with whether the person coming in remotely is first. As I understand it, there is usually an understanding within the usual channels about which of the relatively small number of seriously disabled people should be allowed in remotely. Who should come in and when is usually accepted; all I am talking about is who should call them. I think implementing the decision to call them is better coming from the Chair.
As a number of noble Lords will confirm, I have been asked, again and again, whether I will press this to a vote. I said, “I have not made up my mind; I am going to consult with as many people as possible”. I have discussed it. My noble friend the shadow Chief Whip has been very helpful, I had a chat with the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, the former Lord Speaker, and I have taken advice about it from others. The general advice was to listen to the debate and then decide. I have very much listened to the debate and what was said by the noble Lords, Lord Berkeley, Lord Hunt and Lord Grocott, the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, and particularly—I hope this does not sound patronising, in any way—the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, with her extensive experience as Lord Speaker. She said it has been quite a while since she did it, so she is impartial as a result. On the basis of what they said, I would like to test the House in relation to what I was going to describe as a modest amendment, but others have described as minuscule.
[The votes of one noble Lord in each Lobby were not included in the original figures.]
My Lords, what an exciting note on which to get up, and how tempting it is. I thank all of those who spoke favourably to my amendment. I also thank those colleagues—a dozen or so—who sent me notes or texts to say that if I put this to a Division they would be voting for it. But I listened extremely carefully to what my noble friend Lord Gardiner said, and I would like to ask him for clarification: would he consider that a reasonable time would be six months before reviewing this? Could he give me some idea of when he expects the experiment to start, and what measures he is putting in place to make it as carefully monitored as possible?
I am most grateful to the noble Lord for giving me this opportunity because, as stated in the report, the recommendation is:
“To mandate the House of Lords Commission, once the pass-reader system is ready”.
We need to get the passes system up and running and, as I said, be absolutely clear with a number of trials, not only for your Lordships, but for the doorkeepers and the Administration, so that all will flow well. I cannot give a precise date because we obviously also need to take into account any prevailing public health situation issues. What I can say is that six months from the time of operation of a voting system beginning is a very reasonable time, during which we would consider as a committee how it is working. I hope that is helpful to the noble Lord and your Lordships.
I am most grateful to my noble friend because that is helpful. There is an air of suspicion in the House at the moment; one has only to look at the exhibition of what is proposed of our entrance. I urge all colleagues to do that—it is an architectural abomination. Everything that my noble friend is doing to win and reinforce the trust of the House can only be to the benefit of us all. On the basis of what he has just said, I intend not to move my amendment.
Lord Cormack’s amendment to the Motion not moved.
I beg to move the Motion, as amended, standing in my name on the Order Paper.
The Question is that this Motion be agreed to—however, I am slightly concerned about the effect of the last vote on this Motion.
That is why I specifically said “as amended”.
In which case, I will read out the wording I have: “The Question is that this Motion be agreed to, only insofar as it relates to Standing Order 63, and excluding the reference to Standing Orders 52 to 54”—no?
I think the Standing Order issues would relate to the situation if the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, had moved his amendment.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Chief Whip for making to help me, but I realise that I have failed to notice that it was only in respect of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. That is entirely my mistake, and I apologise. Therefore, the Question is that this Motion, as amended, be agreed to.
Motion, as amended, agreed.