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Business of the House

Volume 803: debated on Thursday 4 June 2020

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That with effect from 8 June all previous motions relating to Virtual Proceedings shall cease to have effect, that until further Order members may participate remotely as well as physically in sittings of the House (“hybrid House”), and that for the purposes of sittings of the hybrid House:

1. The procedure shall follow, so far as practical, procedure in the House save that–

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

(b) speakers shall be called by the Chair, and

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

2. The time allotted for each Oral Question shall be 10 minutes.

3. The time allotted for each Private Notice Question shall be 15 minutes.

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

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

6. Notwithstanding Standing Order 40(5) legislation shall have precedence over other business on Thursdays.

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

8. Notwithstanding Standing Order 30(1)(c), leave may not be granted to a member to speak more than once to an amendment (other than in Committee) to explain themselves in some material point of their speech.

9. Notwithstanding Standing Order 41(2) and (3), messages between the Houses may be sent and received, and a bill sent from the Commons may be read a first time, irrespective of the sitting of the House.

10. A member may table one Topical Question for Written Answer on a sitting day in each week during which the House sits, and it is expected that it will be answered within five working days.

11. With effect from 15 June:

(a) the provisions of Standing Orders 53 (Divisions), 54 (Votes counted in the House) and 55 (Voting in wrong lobby) shall not apply; and

(b) members may only cast their votes through the House of Lords remote voting system, in accordance with guidance to be issued from time to time by the Procedure and Privileges Committee.

12. Notwithstanding Standing Order 62, the Chair may preside over a Committee of the whole House from the Woolsack.

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

My Lords, on 22 May the House of Lords Commission and the Procedure Committee agreed in principle that the House should begin hybrid proceedings from Monday 8 June. This Motion, which was agreed by the Procedure Committee yesterday afternoon, gives effect to that decision.

From Monday, noble Lords will be able to participate in our proceedings both remotely and, to a limited extent, from the Chamber. To allow social distancing, 30 Members will be able to take part from the Chamber at any one time. Only noble Lords participating physically in proceedings will be able to sit in the Chamber, although a small number of Members will also be able to observe from the Gallery on a first come, first seated basis.

In practice there will be few differences from how we have worked over the past few weeks. Noble Lords will still need to sign up in advance to take part in all items of business, including Oral Questions, Statements and the amending stages of Bills. As I mentioned earlier, noble Lords will be able to speak from the Chamber only if they have signed up in advance and their name appears on the speakers’ list. It will be assumed that Members will continue to take part in proceedings remotely unless they indicate otherwise, so, once they have signed up to speak, noble Lords must let the Government Whips’ Office know if they wish to be physically present. It will be for the individual parties and groups to reduce their number of speakers if more Members wish to speak from the Chamber than there are spaces.

The Procedure Committee will issue full guidance later today, and I urge all noble Lords to read it before Monday. The committee will keep the guidance under review as we make the transition and will of course update it if and when necessary.

I stress that, as more Members start returning to the House, it is imperative that our proceedings remain compatible with the public health guidance, particularly in respect of social distancing. This is not just for our benefit but for that of the staff who support us, many of whom will be coming into work from next week to support our move to a hybrid House.

I am pleased to tell the House that good progress is being made in developing our remote voting system. Training will be rolled out to Members next week and there will be full tests of the system. I ask noble Lords to please keep their eyes out for any information relating to remote voting, so we can help ensure that everyone can use the system once it goes live on 15 June.

I put on record my thanks to the Clerk of the Parliaments and the staff of the House for all the work they have done, including through two consecutive recesses, to ensure the House has been able to function as well as it has. It has not been easy at times, but we are all very grateful for their hard work. I also personally thank Victoria Warren, Ben Burgess and Anishaa Aubeeluck in the Government Whips’ Office for their incredible work over the past few weeks. We all owe them a debt of gratitude for helping to ensure our proceedings have run smoothly. I beg to move.

I start by thanking the noble Baroness for introducing this and ask her to pass on our good wishes for a speedy recovery to her Cabinet colleague, the Business Secretary, who we just hope does not have the virus. Even the thought of that is testimony to the good sense of the Leader’s Motion and the work behind it, which will enable this House to continue to function with all our Members able to participate, whether or not they are having to shield or isolate for any reason. It is vital for the work of Parliament. As I know the noble Baroness agrees, it really would not be fair to exclude any Peer on the basis that their age, their caring or other responsibilities, their or their family’s disability or other risk factors or the demands of public transport made it difficult or dangerous for them. In fact, maybe we have a lesson for the Commons in this respect.

Of course, the hybrid system cannot match our normal practice. That is one of the many fallouts from the virus, though less serious in its effects than others. In particular, we will miss spontaneous interventions—that might perhaps be a relief to Ministers—which is why, I am afraid, I have a specific plea to make to the Leader of the House.

As it will not be possible to press a Minister who has failed to respond to a point, there is an extra responsibility on every Minister to respond to the points made—something, I am sad to say, we have not always seen of late. Perhaps because there will be no comeback, we have seen some Ministers brush aside questions or concerns in a way that undermines our scrutiny function. Perhaps the noble Baroness could use her good offices to ensure that Ministers always address the points made or, if they really cannot at that moment, follow up with a letter—as indeed some Ministers do. It is a time of national crisis and we have seen information given to journalists, before Parliament and sometimes even straight to camera with no chance for questions. That is not a healthy way to proceed and, vitally at this time, does not make for good decisions. That is why what we do here remains of great importance.

We welcome the Motion and the ability to vote as well as speak remotely. I hope that the spirit of debate, accountability and questioning will be welcomed by the Government and that Ministers will take their responsibility to the House seriously.

Finally, I take this opportunity to thank the staff, and the Peers on the committees mentioned who have been involved in these changes, for all their work in making it possible. It seems they have thought of everything, even remembering to allow a Speaker to take Committee from the Woolsack rather than having to move—I love that level of detail. Careful marshalling is going on outside the Chamber in the walkways and facilities. All that does not happen by accident; it takes planning, but it also takes boots on the ground. I am very conscious that the staff I have seen here this morning—from the cleaning and facilities staff to the clerks and the PPO—have to travel by public transport to come here in order that we can continue to meet. Our thanks are due to them all and to the Government Whips’ Office, as the noble Baroness mentioned. I hope our thanks can be passed on to them all.

My Lords, I also thank the Leader of the House for moving the Motion. There are lots of details in it, but I want to make just four general points. First, I join other noble Lords who have spoken in thanking the staff for their work in getting us to this position. Change in your Lordships’ House is not readily embraced as a matter of principle, but over the last couple of months the degree of change has been phenomenal. That has been possible only because a large number of staff have worked extraordinarily hard, not least during the recesses, and I pay tribute to them for that.

I also thank them for their customary good humour in dealing with the frustrations that Members have sometimes felt about the way things have worked, which have sometimes boiled over on to them. It has been very much welcomed by me and everyone else. It has been a stressful time for a lot of people, not least for Members who are at home with the peculiar stresses of not being able to go out and desperately keen to play their normal role in your Lordships’ House.

This brings me to my second point. Having got this hybrid system up and running—which I am sure will be done smoothly—I hope that we retain it until all noble Lords who wish to attend can attend and are no longer subject to advice that, for health reasons, they should remain at home. Obviously, given the age profile of your Lordships’ House, there are more people in that category here than in another place, but it should be a matter of principle that all noble Lords who wish to participate can participate, and that we have a system that enables them to do so, even if, in some cases, they cannot be here for a considerable number of months.

Thirdly, the rules that we are agreeing today are extremely tight and prescriptive. That is inevitable, because we need a system that we can make work from next week. However, I suspect that as we use it—just as has happened a bit with Oral Questions—we can ease some of these restrictions so that we can get back to a position where debate in your Lordships’ House takes place in a relatively flexible manner. The obvious thing about this is the circumstances in which people can make interventions. Obviously, it is not going to be possible to have the normal interventions when you have tens of people watching distantly, but I hope that we can begin to move, in the light of experience, towards a slightly less rigid approach, because that is the essence of debate, and until we do, we will still be suffering some constraints.

Finally, the one outstanding issue which must be resolved is that of allowances, which I realise is an extremely vexed question. The only point I wish to make is that it is unacceptable to me that we should have a system which leads to a position whereby only those with resources, those who are retired and those who live in London can regularly come to your Lordships’ House. I think that this is common ground, but getting back to a system in which people are paid an allowance that allows everybody to participate fully is a top priority. We have agreed in the commission to come forward with revised proposals on allowances. We are beginning those discussions and have said that we will do so by the end of the month. Given that Members are already asking on what basis they will come if they are travelling several hundred miles, I hope that we can get a resolution to that question well before the end of the month, so that we can give a degree of certainty to Peers on what basis they can participate. Having said that, I repeat that I support these proposals, and I thank the staff and all those involved in getting us to this position so speedily.

My Lords, I will make three preliminary remarks before coming to the Motion itself.

First, I echo what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, the Leader of the House, and my noble friend Lady Hayter, in respect of the staff of the House, who have done a magnificent job. Also, I know that he does not like this, but I want to mention the Clerk of the Parliaments, who has presided over a really impressive operation. His letter to noble Lords, which he has been sending out—we are now on the third edition—is very welcome. It is important when we are going through fundamental changes like this that we keep an information flow, and his regular updates have helped noble Lords understand what is going on, and have made it easier for them to have input, in terms of improvements.

Secondly, I welcome the fact that the Government in this House have not politicised the arrangements for moving towards a hybrid House. Obviously, the Minister cannot comment on this, but there is a feeling that there has been politicisation in the House of Commons. The scenes of voting in the House of Commons two days ago the public regarded, frankly, as not only disgraceful but also totally unnecessary. If there had been a hybrid voting system, as the House of Commons had in place before, it would not have been necessary. It is important that our focus, relentlessly in dealing with these matters, is on our public duty in dealing with the crisis and our role as parliamentarians in keeping Parliament going during it, and not making rather cheap party points, as has happened elsewhere.

Thirdly, there is now a consensus that we should have a hybrid House, and therefore I am not going to oppose the Motion here, but it is becoming clear that a philosophical issue underlies the arrangements for the hybrid House, which will underlie the further points I wish to make. Is the hybrid House conceived of as one House where the lowest common denominator applies and therefore, because it is not possible for Members participating remotely to intervene or engage in any spontaneous activity of any kind, nobody should be permitted to so? Or, should we, as I believe, do the maximum that we possibly can in terms of performing our parliamentary duties within the new arrangements? It seems palpably absurd that, by instilling these rules, which I suspect may end up being broken, noble Lords in the Chamber will not be allowed to intervene or press Ministers on the Floor of the House as they normally would.

I look forward to seeing what will happen. Maybe we will have an imposition of order from the Woolsack, which has never happened in the House before. When noble Lords try to perform their duties, will they be in some way restrained from rising, intervening and asking Ministers questions? It is absurd to do so. I do not like the idea, and I want to press the Minister more: even with a limited physical presence, there will be a restriction on people participating in debate. As I said when we first debated these arrangements, the restriction on noble Lords participating in debate is a fundamental undermining of the traditions of this House which go back centuries. We should be very wary of allowing these restrictions unless they are technologically imperative, because once they are in, they will be continued. That always happens with arrangements of this kind, and they will mark a fundamental movement of power away from noble Lords to party whips and party leaderships, which is not how this House should behave.

My specific question, which goes to the heart of this, is that we have restrictions on debates at the moment because of the technological requirement not to have more than 50 people online, but will there be restrictions when noble Lords are able to attend in the Chamber too? The Minister mentioned that we are having a Second Reading next Tuesday. Will there be restrictions on the numbers who can participate in that, even though it is possible to participate in the Chamber? If so, that will be the first time in the history of this House that noble Lords have been prevented from speaking on the passage of legislation, and that is a whole order more serious an issue than participating in debates, because we are first and foremost a legislative Chamber; we make the law, partly by votes but also, crucially, by deliberation and debate. Although it is not possible to contest these arrangements today, I put on record that if noble Lords are going to be prevented from speaking in debates on legislation, that will be not only unpopular in the House, but also a very serious and grave move that is not justified in the circumstances when it is possible for noble Lords to participate in the Chamber as well as virtually.

This leads to my final point, which concerns the need to keep these arrangements under review and to learn pretty swiftly from practice in the next week or two in making changes. The Motion itself is not time limited. It says that the new arrangements apply until further order. How will these proposals be kept under review, and how can noble Lords who are not members of the Procedure Committee have input?

Given that these rules apply until further order, the great problem is that they then become the status quo. That is the big problem that we will be wrestling against. It is very hard, particularly in this place, to change the status quo. I would very much welcome anything that the noble Baroness can say about the process for review and the timescale in which concerns raised by noble Lords can be formally responded to and acted on.

As a final point, we have two duties in conducting the business of the House in this crisis. The first and overriding duty of course is to perform to the best of our ability our parliamentary functions in the framework of the crisis that we face. Therefore, the social distancing and other changes that we have made are clearly important. But within that we have a second duty, which is to continue to maximise the role that we play on behalf of the public. My concern is that these arrangements, like the previous ones, have not gone to the fullest extent of allowing us to perform our role within the physical and technological constraints that we have. While that might have been acceptable as an emergency for a matter of weeks, if these arrangements will be in place for some months there will be pushback from noble Lords if they will be restricted from participating in debates, particularly on legislation.

My Lords, as a representative of the usual channels, I also join in congratulating the staff on all the work they have done to get us to where we will be next week. It has been an amazing effort and has exceeded most of our expectations about what was achievable in the time. I thank them.

It is very important not only that the House moves forward to normality as soon as it can, but that we have the possibility of retreat if the virus strikes again in London. The role of the Lords in the next few months will be very important: not only do we have scrutiny of all the legislation coming through as a result of the crisis, we then have an important period when all the legislation associated with the end of the transition period—when our final retreat from the EU will take place—comes to the House. It could not be a worse time for this country to be standing alone, without accountability of the Government on the arrangements for which they will be responsible.

The Lords has moved in the past month from sitting from three days to four days and we are now sitting from 11 am until 7 pm pretty much normally, so terrific progress has been made in returning this House to normality so that we are now almost fully engaged in the proper legislative process. The usual channels accept that the Government are under extreme pressure to get legislation through, not only in time for the end of the year, but on their whole general election programme. I therefore join in the remarks that my noble friend Lord Newby made on allowances, because the House is not yet operating fully effectively. One reason for that is the distortions of the interim allowance system. Too many people are speaking because that is the only way that they can earn their allowance. We have a ridiculous situation today when there is an important debate on the implications of the coronavirus and we are limited to two minutes. There is another debate that is almost as important on Hong Kong and noble Lords are limited to one minute. That is ridiculous and a denial of the scrutiny role that we should have in this House. This is not the first time; it has been going on for a number of weeks. As a result, with such extreme time limits, far too many good people are not bothering to speak, so we are not hearing their contributions. We must address this.

There is also a PR problem. Each time we make minor changes to the interim system, we get even more criticism, which undermines the House’s reputation. It will get worse unless we resolve it. We have had nearly three months of an interim system and we need to address it. It is important to do that so that we value the work that we are doing in this House and it is recognised. We must deal with the financial problems that we are creating for a small number of people and with the implication that the House is brought into disrepute every time we make a minor adjustment.

Although we obviously support the hybrid Parliament and all the moves that have been taken today, we fear that unless the allowance system is dealt with, some of this good work will be undermined. We need to have that top of the agenda for the commission in the next couple of weeks so that we can reform the interim system before the end of this month.

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for her statement and I associate myself with colleagues from all the other parties’ praise for the staff and the way they have reorganised the facilities in the building. However, I find it rather difficult walking around the Corridors getting lost and being told to keep to the left all the time. Politically, that sends a funny message to me, coming from Northern Ireland.

I have one brief question about the voting system. I can understand that those who are participating in Virtual Proceedings and will vote remotely, what about those colleagues who are here in the House, personally, in hybrid sessions? Will they vote in the normal, traditional manner?

I thank noble Lords for their contributions, and I thank the noble Baroness for her best wishes to my right honourable friend. Like her, I hope very much that he has bad hay fever as opposed to anything else. I also assure her that I will reiterate to the Front Bench the importance of addressing points put to them. I know they all take their responsibilities extremely seriously and I thank them for all their hard work and the dedication they have shown over the difficult few weeks we have had.

Noble Lords asked various questions about the hybrid House. The Procedure Committee will meet regularly to keep the processes under review and will of course update guidance when necessary. During this whole process, noble Lords have been putting ideas to the Procedure Committee, which are also passed on through the relevant party groups. We all welcome that. During Procedure Committee meetings a number of suggestions have been made by Back-Bench Peers about how to improve processes. I continue to encourage noble Lords across the House to do that.

I hope that we have shown our ability to adapt and improve proceedings. Although they are by no means perfect, things have improved over time and I think that we finish our solely virtual proceedings in a much better state than when we started. Indeed, our move from virtual to hybrid is another example of where we are adapting and moving forward. As public health guidance changes and we can look to move our processes forward we are doing so. I certainly hope that we have shown that we can adapt and will continue to do so. Having said that, as I said earlier, we have to remain compliant with public health guidance. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, pointed that out. We will keep things under review and keep trying to move things forward, since I know we all want to return to real normality as and when that is safely possible.

The noble Lord asked about interventions. This was discussed at the Procedure Committee and it was decided that, for hybrid proceedings, there should be parity between Members who take part remotely and those who take part physically. As the noble Baroness rightly said, Members have got used to our Virtual Proceedings, so I think that as we get more used to the hybrid proceedings and see how they work, we will all become more comfortable with them. This issue has certainly been raised by Members across the House, and I am sure it is something to which we will return, to see how we can do it within the confines of the broadcasting and administrative help and support that we need.

The noble Lord also asked about participant numbers. We will be able to increase the number of participants for things such as Second Readings because we will retain the limit of 50 Members participating virtually and there will be a limit of up to 30 Members in the physical proceedings; the number of contributors will therefore increase to 80.

Again, I thank all staff and the Clerk of the Parliaments, and I stress that there are restraints on what we are doing. This is not an attempt to stop Members participating fully, but we have to recognise the incredible work that is going on, and the very long hours that are being put in, to help us do what we are doing. We are—I am sure the Clerk of the Parliaments does not need to nod—pushing the boundaries in what we are asking to be done, but we have to appreciate and understand that there are real constraints. This is not about shutting things down; this is about practicalities. As the noble Lord said, the letters from the Clerk of the Parliaments try to explain the nuts and bolts of what is going on, and I hope that reassures him that that is the situation we are in.

On remote voting, all voting will be done remotely whether noble Lords are virtual or within the House. Next week, everyone will be trained. We will make sure that a lot of information is available, but all voting will be done remotely, as that is the simplest system. It also means that staff do not have to be in the Division Lobbies. That is the decision that has been made for the foreseeable future.

I thank noble Lords for their contributions. I know people are finding it frustrating—we all are—but I genuinely think that we are doing a good job. We are doing our best in the circumstances. I am very grateful for the constructive work that we have done across the House through the usual channels, the House of Lords Commission and the Procedure Committee. We want to return to normal life when we can, but I hope noble Lords will agree that, despite the frustrations, we are getting our job done and doing business for this country. I beg to move.

Motion agreed.