Motion to Agree
That the Report from the Select Committee Procedural adaptations arising from the hybrid House; Interim option of voting using PeerHub; Ongoing virtual participation by disabled members (1st Report, HL Paper 41) be agreed to.
My Lords, I speak to the Motions standing in my name and in the name of the Senior Deputy Speaker. As the Lord Speaker said, this Motion is being debated alongside a Business of the House Motion and a Motion on allowances, both of which are in my name, which is why I am opening this debate.
Before I go any further, I once again put on record my thanks to the staff of the House for all of the work they have done to support us over the past 16 months. I also thank the Chief Whip, the Front Bench and all the fantastic people who work in our offices, specifically some unsung heroes—many of your Lordships will have relied on them for support during our hybrid proceedings but you may not fully appreciate the role they have played. Jane Burfoot, Leann Twinley, Matt Taylor, Hannah-Louise Gadsby, Charlotte Johnson and James Anoom have all patiently assisted noble Lords from across the House with the myriad speakers’ and participants’ lists and so much more. On behalf of us all, thank you.
The virtual then hybrid systems we have been using for the last 16 months have served their purpose: they allowed the House to continue to meet through three national lockdowns and to carry on scrutinising legislation and holding the Government to account. Despite the unprecedented and challenging circumstances, in the last Session 55 Bills were passed and, when added together, 341 Statements, UQ repeats and PNQs were debated.
Although I agree with the Constitution Committee, which concluded that our hybrid scrutiny has been “less effective”, no one can say we did not do our job as best we could in the most difficult of circumstances. Throughout the pandemic we have worked hard to ensure that our practices and procedures have remained compatible with the public health situation, and that will not change.
All the proposals before noble Lords today have been informed by the debate that took place on Thursday 20 May, by representations from across the House and by an informal consultation exercise carried out last week via PeerHub. They give effect to a series of measures agreed and proposed by the commission and the Procedure and Privileges Committee in respect of the working practices of the House from 6 September onwards, after the remaining public health restrictions have been lifted and ensuring time for the House authorities to implement them.
Subject to the agreement of the House today, the hybrid system and remote voting will come to an end at this point, after the Summer Recess. There will be no more speakers’ lists for the amending stages of Bills; Grand Committee will return to the Moses Room; and interventions, which noble Lords across the House have said they have missed most, will once again be possible. Statements, Urgent Questions and Private Notice Questions will go back to being taken at the earliest convenience and without speakers’ lists.
We all know the limitations of the hybrid system, and I am pleased that the package before the House will return the vast majority of our working practices to what they were before the pandemic. However, we have learned from the experience of the last year and are therefore recommending that the House keeps some of the changes that we believe have made our processes more effective and efficient.
If these Motions were agreed to, Private Notice Questions, which were extended at the beginning of the pandemic, would continue to last for up to 15 minutes, rather than go back to 10. Speakers’ lists, for the business that will still need them, would continue to close two working days before a debate or Question takes place, rather than the night before. The legislation tabling deadline would stay at 4 pm and the Table Office tabling deadline at 5 pm—both one hour earlier than their pre-pandemic cut-offs. A ballot would continue to be held for Questions for Short Debate to be taken in Grand Committee once every five weeks. This would be in addition to the return of balloted general debates, balloted topical QSDs and dinner break business. The Companion would be updated to discourage the late degrouping of amendments before the amending stages of Bills. The requirement to convene a Reasons Committee would cease; a standard Reason would be given instead when the Lords disagree with a Commons proposition without proposing an alternative.
There would also be changes to the arrangements for Oral Questions. The extension of Question Time to 40 minutes and Secretary of State’s Questions to 30 minutes would be retained, so each Question would have up to 10 minutes rather than revert to the pre-pandemic seven and a half. Oral Questions would continue to be allocated by ballot, removing the need for noble Lords to queue up for hours on end outside the Table Office in the hope of securing one. The wording of Oral Questions would not be able to be changed with less than 48 hours’ notice, and a speakers’ list for Oral Questions would continue to be used. Because we were all aware that opinion across the House was—and remains—divided on this issue, the Procedure Committee decided to ask the opinion of your Lordships. It was subject to a vote via PeerHub in which the whole House was invited to take part. Of the 551 Members who responded, 59% voted in favour of keeping speakers’ lists for Oral Questions, hence the proposal before your Lordships today.
I can see from the Order Paper that this decision is not universally popular but, as with all measures, the Procedure and Privileges Committee will keep it under review from September. Of course, if the House agrees to these Motions, Members will be able to contrast having lists for Oral Questions with having Statements, UQs and PNQs without them once we return.
One of the great achievements of the past 16 months was the work done to rapidly adapt the House of Commons system, MemberHub, for use in this House as PeerHub. It proved a secure and mostly reliable way for noble Lords to vote remotely. We would not have been able to continue scrutinising legislation without it and, once again, I put on record my thanks to the digital team that worked so hard to both build PeerHub and support our use of it. However, the commission has decided—again, subject to your Lordships’ agreement —that remote voting should cease from September and that the relationship between attendance at Parliament and casting a vote in a Division should be restored. Voting is at the core of what being a legislator is, and we believe that it should be done in the House. In the longer term, voting will take place using pass readers, and we will bring proposals on this to the House in the autumn. However, while that system is being developed, PeerHub will continue to be used as an interim measure. From September, noble Lords will be asked before they vote whether they are in a place of work on the estate and will not be able to vote if they answer “no”.
Finally, it has been proposed that a small number of Members who may be unable physically to attend the House on the grounds of long-term disability should continue to be able to take part in our business remotely. Eligible Members would be free to choose their mode of participation and take part either physically or remotely. The commission has decided that requests to become an eligible Member should be considered by an additional support group chaired by the Senior Deputy Speaker. If the package before the House is agreed, further details on how a request can be made will be circulated.
Eligible Members who choose to participate remotely will not have the parity with physical speakers that we have seen throughout the hybrid House. Nor will remote participation be immediately available in the Moses Room for technical reasons; a solution is being worked on, but it will take some time. But, by giving sufficient notice, eligible Members will be able to take part remotely in all business in the Chamber. Eligible Members would also be exempt from having to declare that they are present on the estate when voting. Of course, making the Chamber and House as accessible as possible remains a key priority and we will look to make improvements where we can to ensure that Members can participate physically in the House if and when they wish to do so.
I stress again that the Procedure and Privileges Committee and the commission will keep all these adaptations under review and consider them further if necessary. But I hope that, for the most part, your Lordships will be satisfied with the progress we are hoping to make to get our House back to how it should be. I look forward to hearing noble Lords’ contributions on these matters today and returning to a fuller, livelier and more effective House in September. I beg to move.
Amendment to the Motion
At end insert “but that this House believes it should sit from 1pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.”
My Lords, I first thank the noble Baroness for her introduction. She quite rightly paid tribute to the staff of the House, and we all pay tribute to them too, but it is fitting that we also pay tribute to the Leader of the House herself for the way she has guided us through these very turbulent times over the last 15 months. She has proved very sensitive to the feelings of the House, and we are very grateful to her. Thanks should also be extended to my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon, who has done an excellent job as leader of my party, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, in respect of the Cross-Benchers. The House has shown itself in a very commendable light in the way it has adapted to this great public health emergency we have had to deal with.
The Leader said that we are seeking to keep some of the changes we have adopted over the last year that we generally agree are worthwhile. I suggest to your Lordships that one of the changes we should consider keeping is meeting earlier. My proposition this afternoon is that, just as we have been meeting earlier on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays throughout the pandemic, we should continue to meet earlier on the basis that we also adjourn earlier and have a new equilibrium of meeting earlier and adjourning earlier.
There are two reasons why this is particularly important, which are partly to do with when we do our business but also how we do it. In terms of when we do our business, it is only because of custom and practice from time immemorial that the House started its business mid-afternoon—and indeed, going back 50 years or so, in the late afternoon. Almost every other parliamentary assembly in the world has started meeting earlier in the day as it has adapted to modern conditions. The House of Commons now meets earlier than us on every day of the week.
The arguments for meeting later are now superseded. It used to be said that we had to juggle the demands of holding other full-time jobs with membership of the House. I am very sympathetic to noble Lords who work in banks, in the City, as lawyers and in other professions that carry on until the late afternoon, but the biggest second job that almost all of us have is as members of families—as parents and carers who need to be available in the evenings, which, by definition, you cannot be if the House is sitting in the evenings.
Of course, no set of arrangements suits everybody. I am fully aware that meeting earlier and adjourning earlier would inconvenience some Members. But from the many conversations I have had on this issue over the last few days, and over many months while we have been meeting in this way, I think the generality of your Lordships think that meeting at 1 pm—which, after all, is the middle of the day, so we are not exactly taking over the whole working day—and adjourning at 7 pm or 8 pm, as a normal practice, is a great improvement on the conditions in which we have worked, which have simply been inherited from time immemorial.
I am aware this poses a particular issue in respect of Monday for noble Lords who come from the north of Scotland, which has been put to me. If this amendment is passed today, I would recommend that the Procedure Committee look at whether the precise arrangements for Monday should be further reviewed. Maybe 2 pm on a Monday, rather than 1 pm, would be better for noble Lords coming substantial distances.
As for how we do our business, though, which is as important as when we do it, it seems absolutely imperative that we look at meeting earlier. The practical effect of beginning our proceedings in the middle of the afternoon, as all noble Lords who have conducted the business of the House know, is that we essentially have two House of Lords sittings. We have a Sitting where there is a full House, which is roughly from 2 pm or 3 pm to about 7 pm, then we have a residual House from 7 pm, made up of only those die-hard Members actually conducting the business in the Chamber, and it goes through to the end at 10 pm.
I once conducted the Committee stage of a Bill from where the noble Baroness sits with four Members of the House for three hours while we got to the end of a Bill. This is perfectly common after your Lordships come into the House after dinner. This suits the Government very well indeed. I see a Chief Whip on one side and a former Chief Whip on the other. There is nothing that suits the Government better than that the business of the House should be conducted with nobody present. This limits the opportunities for debate and intervention and, in particular, it removes the potential for votes. Everyone knows that in the normal course of events, with normal voting, you cannot have votes after 7.30 pm because you simply cannot conduct a House. You have only a narrow window, which will become narrower, because we have just agreed to extend Question Time, and we now have Private Notice Questions almost as a matter of course. There will be only a very narrow window, of about two and a half hours in most sittings, when it is practically possible to conduct votes in the House.
Walter Bagehot, in his famous book on the English constitution from 150 years ago, said:
“An assembly—a revising assembly especially—which does not assemble … is defective in a main political ingredient.”
A fundamental problem with the House of Lords, if we revert to our previous arrangements, is that for about half our sittings, we essentially do not assemble. Only a tiny subset of your Lordships assembles. It is not possible for most Members, because of their other responsibilities, to take part in these sittings in the late evening—or it is not their desire to do so, and it is not possible to have votes. Whereas, if we conduct our business like every other institution in the country does, in prime time, then from 1 pm until 7 pm or 8 pm, almost all Members will be available. We will be far more inclusive in our conduct of the business, and it will be possible to conduct votes throughout that period. For those Members of the House who are not in the Government, which includes the generality of Members on both sides, our conduct of business would be improved.
Just one final remark: we are a self-regulating assembly. When we set up the office of the Lord Speaker, which was very controversial at the time, I remember the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who I am delighted to see is speaking later, told us frequently through many hours of debates that the Government’s proposal should not be accepted, in respect of the abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor and the creation of the Lord Speaker, because we are self-regulating and should make these decisions ourselves. We are a self-regulating House, but that does mean that we should regulate ourselves. We should not shy away from making these decisions about the conduct of our own business. Meeting earlier and adjourning earlier is an idea whose time has come. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am delighted to take part in this debate. I begin echoing the well-deserved tribute from my noble friend the Leader of the House to all those who have made it possible for us to continue during these difficult times. I should like to make a particular vote of thanks to the digital support team. As one who had not used a computer before, I have been able to take part in your Lordships’ House when I have not been present—although I have been present most of the time—entirely because of the team’s patient tuition. The team has been marvellous.
I must begin on a note of dissent from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. He made a persuasive case, but I am afraid I think it was a superficial one. It did not take sufficient account of the fact that we always almost boast about our expertise, and one of the reasons we can do that is that a significant number of Members of your Lordships’ House do other things before they come in at 2 pm. There is also the important point that there is a clash with committees—both party committees and Select Committees, which we should prize. I also say to the noble Lord that—although perhaps he does not eat as many luncheons as I do; it does not look as though he does—to lunch with people before we sit at 2.30 pm can be extremely helpful.
It is for the convenience of a large number of Members of your Lordships’ House that we revert, as the committee is proposing, to sitting at 2.30 pm on Mondays and Tuesdays, 3 pm on Wednesdays, 11 am on Thursdays and, if we sit, 10 am on Fridays. Therefore, I cannot support that amendment. When the noble Lord generously invited me to support it, I let him know that I could not.
I want to concentrate my remarks on Questions. I am delighted to know that UQs, Statements and PNQs will be taken in the old way. But I do not think it is a good idea to have a printed list for the main Question Time of the day. It destroys spontaneity. Often, I have come into your Lordships’ House—and I know this applies to others because I have discussed it—not thinking I would take part in a particular Question, but I am provoked to do so by some ministerial or other remark with which I could not associate myself, or to give support to a colleague who has had an unsatisfactory answer from the Minister. I believe that spontaneity is a tremendously important part of your Lordships’ House’s proceedings. Therefore, I strongly urge that we discard the list.
I know it was done for the best possible reasons but I was a little troubled by the fact that we had an opinion poll. A lot of people did not know about it. I spoke to two Members of your Lordships’ House with whom I keep in regular touch, and I do not mind mentioning them: the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy. Until I warned them that this opinion poll was being taken on PeerHub, they had not heard of it. There are others I have discovered since. It was also a pity that it was a binary question, because there are other ways of doing this, as my noble friend Lord Balfe will point out when he speaks to his amendment to the Motion in a few minutes’ time.
I come back to spontaneity, which is a very important part of our proceedings. It is crucial that we hold the Government to account. This has not happened over the last 16 months. That is no one’s fault—but it has not happened, and the Government have been the beneficiaries. We have not been able to intervene on a Minister or to get up and challenge a ministerial statement. As I say, I blame no one, but the sooner we can get back to that, the better, because your Lordships’ House, a House of scrutiny and of holding to account, wishes to be able to fulfil those functions to the full. It is truly important that we are able to do that and at the moment, under this printed list system, we are not able to. So I am urging, in my amendment, that by 31 October at the very latest this is reviewed, because I think we are going to lose a very great deal.
I shall end on a very different note. The committee that has been looking at these things has been reviewing our procedures. It has said that it will continue to review our procedures, and one of the procedures I hope it will continue to review—I mention it today because there is no chance of debating it next week—is Standing Order 68, under which, on Wednesday next week, without any debate or discussion, this House that wants to value everybody is not going to value three of our colleagues by voting to half-suspend them from the facilities of the House. I think that is shameful and I hope that my noble friend will take this message back to her committee, and that high on the agenda when it next comes to review our proceedings will be reviewing Standing Order 68. For a man or a woman to be condemned without any opportunity to explain, or have his or her colleagues explain, is a denial of natural justice.
My Lords, I begin by associating myself with the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Adonis and Lord Cormack, thanking the Leader and the staff and the Leaders of the other parties here for the way in which we have managed to get ourselves through the last year. Before I move on to my amendment, I will offer support to the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for his. He mentioned people coming down to London on a Monday and said we might need to look at it. That is exactly why we need to start earlier, certainly on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday—because most Members do not have other jobs. Most Members, if the House is not sitting and they are from outside London, are basically just kicking around, looking at the newspapers, et cetera. I think they would be much better employed if the House was sitting, and I hope that serious consideration will be given to the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Adonis.
Much has been said about the dignity of the House. My contention is that the least dignified part of the House used to be the scramble at Question Time, with people shouting against each other and generally trying to get in to a debate, without anyone regulating it at all until, if it got totally out of order, the Government Whip would get up and say, “It’s the Cross-Benchers’ turn” or something like that. It was totally undignified. People watching on television or in the Gallery could not understand what was going on. When I first came here, the advice I was given was, “Sit as near to the front as you can and carry on shouting. Pretend you do not know there is anyone else behind you and you will probably get in.” This is not the way to conduct a Question Time.
I am sorry to put extra work on to my good friend the Lord Speaker, but I think that having the Lord Speaker choosing people to ask supplementaries as the debate goes along does combine spontaneity with being able to share the questions around the House. No one, I think, is suggesting that the House of Commons does not have a reasonably fair Question Time. There, the Speaker provides this service, and I think it is a most important service to provide. I also think that those of us who have not been in the House of Commons feel somewhat at a disadvantage at the way in which Commons procedures such as that are used in this House—not that that is a complete Commons procedure. So I advise and hope that we will ask the committee to look at the matter and report by 31 October.
My amendment does not say that it should start now, because I appreciate that there will be points that have to be looked at. There will have to be guidance and discussion as to how Question Time should be structured, with the Lord Speaker or one of his deputies calling the person to ask a question—but it will, in my view, enable a certain amount of spontaneity, governed by a certain amount of discipline and the ability to give people the opportunity to ask a question and spread it around the House, not only between Members but between different types of Members. I very much hope that we will look at that.
This is not to denigrate what has gone before, but I have to say I always thought Question Time was the least dignified part of the proceedings of this House and that, if we are a self-regulating body, one thing we surely should regulate is good manners in the Chamber. Shouting against each other does not conform to my definition of good manners, so I ask Members to look favourably on this. We are asking the Procedure and Privileges Committee to report by 31 October; we are not taking a decision but offering a guide that I hope Members will feel able to issue to this committee. It may, of course, come back and say it does not work—in which case we would have to think again. But I think that, if it can find a way of making it work, we will have a more dignified and better House.
My Lords, for the last year your Lordships’ House has moved forward in its processes and has even joined the 21st century by using Zoom, Teams and electronic voting, in the Chamber and remotely. The decision to move to hybrid working was necessary and it is important to say a big “thank you” to all those who have made it possible. So I echo the thanks of the previous speakers, but I want to mention the commission, the clerks, all the Whips’ offices and the myriad invisible staff who have come to our aid to make it work. I especially thank the broadcasting teams, who onboard us with patience and courtesy, and help problem-solve when things do not quite work. Above all, I thank everybody who has made this work across the House.
We have to learn the lessons of what worked well for us and what we can change to improve our future ways of working, and this report proposes some of those. I think that retaining the extended time for Questions, and, indeed, speakers’ lists, are sensible. For those such as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who want us to return to bobbing, I say that there are some who always find it difficult to get in over noisy colleagues, and for those of us who cannot stand there is immense frustration that we are invisible to the rest of your Lordships at Question Time and too often spoken over. The proposals of the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Balfe, do not quite address the problem that we wheelchair users face.
On voting, keeping the principle of electronic voting is good, but forcing Members on to the main Parliamentary Estate to use it seems somewhat short-sighted. As a disabled Peer, I know that the most suitable offices for wheelchairs are in Millbank, but it is not possible to reliably get out of the building, across the road and into Parliament in time to vote. The reality is that people just do not see wheelchairs. They do not give way in lifts; cars do not give way on crossings; and at bottlenecks coming into Parliament, wheelchairs always seem to be pushed to the back. That means we have to stay in the main building, often in offices unsuitable for wheelchair users. Having these stands to tap in would be very helpful.
My main focus today is to thank the commission, its sub-committee and especially the Lord Speaker for listening to the disabled Members of your Lordships’ House. To say we were distressed by some of the comments from the Benches opposite during the previous debate in May is an understatement. We felt devalued and excluded by other noble Lords, to be told that if we could not physically come in, we did not deserve our place in your Lordships’ House. Some Members opposite even suggested that we should retire because we were “frail and elderly”. We are not; we are disabled, and, under the law of this land, all organisations are required to make reasonable adjustments for disabled people to help them overcome the barriers they face. These proposals are a start and, I believe, a trailblazer for disabled parliamentarians in Westminster. I hope that the commission will keep the practical working of these proposals under review. As an opposition Front-Bencher, I am not quite sure how some of these proposals will work in the heat of debate on a Bill, but I believe that the House authorities are prepared to help Members like me give it a go.
I would like to restate something I said in the previous debate: I am desperate to return to the Chamber, and I will as soon as it is safe for me to do so. But, as I mentioned in that debate, there are some other Members of your Lordships’ House who are excluded from these proposals but who cannot come to Parliament for the foreseeable future. I refer to the clinically extremely vulnerable, who were told yesterday by the Government in revised formal guidance that, from next Monday, because all other restrictions will be lifted and because of the large surge in Covid cases, they must keep themselves safe and not meet people inside, not come into contact with unvaccinated people, and ensure that they keep socially distant from others, whether inside or outside. I believe that this makes it impossible for them to resume their seats in the physical Chamber. Some of these clinically extremely vulnerable people are disabled, but not long-term. Others may not define themselves as disabled, and they are not the “frail elderly” referred to by noble Lords opposite in our previous debate. But, under these arrangements, they are to be excluded from your Lordships’ House, despite Ministers and these people’s hospital consultants saying that they should not come to London and to Parliament because it is not safe for them. I do hope that the commission will reconsider this small group of people.
Finally, can the Leader of the House say what will happen if further restrictions need to be imposed in the future? Can hybrid facilities be reinstated if necessary? I hope, with every single other Member of this House, that it will absolutely not be necessary—but, as Israel and the Netherlands have recently discovered, the virus and its variants may have further shocks for us all.
My Lords, in an earlier debate on reform, I remember saying that in a race I would always back the tortoise rather than the hare when it came to reforming your Lordships’ House. The hare is constantly being shot at; I think the tortoise at the moment is hovering on the finishing line. At least we have seen some movement towards change and modernisation, which is extremely welcome. I add my thanks to all those who have been mentioned so far. In particular, I emphasise what the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said in relation to the Whips, who have had the most horrendous task in keeping us in some sort of order while keeping fairness.
I will make one or two observations on the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, relating to timing. As I have already said to him, so he knows I feel this, I am extremely sympathetic to what he has put forward in relation to Tuesday and Wednesday—and, by the way, there are committees on a Thursday, so the idea that we infringe on committees on a Thursday but not on a Tuesday and Wednesday is a little odd, to say the least. Although the way in which we have conducted ourselves has been extremely impressive in the circumstances, as the Leader of the House spelled out, we have actually been working much longer hours than the House of Commons. We have seen the House sitting very late, and I fear that, with the level of business that is likely to be presented to us, we will end up in the worst of all worlds: we will start later and end much later, but we will expect people to be around for votes much later.
So there is a great deal in it, other than on a Monday, when those who live in Scotland, the north, parts of Wales and the West Country would have a hell of a job getting here for lunchtime. In my days as a Cabinet Minister, having to come down on a Sunday meant that, by the time I had done other duties, I had virtually no weekend at all, and I am certainly not keen to go back to that. So, if we could ask the Leader of the House, with the Procedure and Privileges Committee, to bring forward an alteration to that, I would be in favour and I would vote for the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis.
The lesson of the past 16 months has been more than just how people have stepped up and been extremely helpful—the comment made about the broadcast team is particularly apposite. But I think it has had another effect: more of the staff of this House, and indeed Members, have understood some of the challenges for those who have a variety of disabilities—not being able to get off mute is one of the least of them. People have discovered that they really need help and support. While I am in favour of very limited external connectivity for those with severe disabilities, I make another appeal: those of us who want to be here on a regular basis, and can be because of the nature of our special needs, would welcome a bit more understanding and support, including continuity of support for assistance. There is no point in telling people that they should be here and then getting snooty, which has happened in the past. It happened in the Commons when I first entered it, and it does happen here. Some people really do not understand what the challenge is, because, like a good goalkeeper—I will not mention anything to do with Sunday night—when you save easily, it looks easy, but actually it is often very difficult indeed.
Finally, I welcome the changes very much, but I hope that in the future we will review perhaps how we can blend in, on the remaining business of Bills and Statements, the ability of Members to be named. It is extremely helpful for me to know, as it was just now, that it was my turn. I can count and quite often I can hear who the previous speaker was, but guessing that you have got it right is not too clever. The modest changes that I hope we will agree to today will take us a further step towards self-regulation that is underpinned by decency and common sense. If we get that right, we will have a greater degree of respect and a much better reputation outside this House.
The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, has withdrawn, so I call the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.
My Lords, it is a great privilege to speak after the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, whose career I have followed with great interest for many years. I wish him continued attendance in the House; he is always welcome.
I begin by thanking the Leader of the House and all those who have been concerned with helping us during this pandemic to reasonably participate in the responsibility of helping the Government to get through legislation that is satisfactory and attempting to stop legislation that we do not always consider to be completely satisfactory. In the period of tremendous trouble that we have just come through, which has not necessarily finished, we have been able to do what I regard as a pretty good job.
Before I speak briefly about the three amendments, I want to say that I very much support the need for disabled people to be able to participate as much as possible in the affairs of this House. I regard their point of view, which I have considerable experience of hearing, to be extremely valuable in deciding not only what is relevant for disabled people but other matters where they have a special point of view.
I join the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, in mentioning the leaders, and I would like to add the Lord Bishops as another group that has been extremely helpful when participating in the previous time.
I must say that I am fairly attracted to the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, but it has been fundamental that this is a part-time House that includes people who have full-time work. From the House’s point of view, the value of that is that they bring expertise to legislation in particular but also to other aspects of the House’s business. Therefore, the times at which we start is a very balanced question. I came from Edinburgh this morning, so it is not all that difficult, but it does require a fairly early start.
On the second point, made by my noble friend Lord Cormack, I agree with my noble friend Lord Balfe that Question Time before the pandemic was not always the most dignified aspect of the House’s activities. Not many of us worked on the assumption that one should in honour prefer one another. It is important that Question Time is more organised than it was, and the idea of having a list is satisfactory in that respect. But it may be wise to reduce the total time allowed for the listed questions in order to enable the asking of supplementary questions that may arise, to be dealt with at the discretion of the Lord Speaker or whoever is on the Woolsack. We have experience of listening to Question Time when the Minister’s Answer, short as it may be, does not always fully meet the point that the main Question has put, and an opportunity to raise that kind of question would be rather useful. In the vote that has been referred to, I voted to have the list, but there was no option to vote for something such as that—but I did take the opportunity to make that point in discussion after the vote.
It seems to me that voting is now a matter of some importance. We should be willing to give our attention, if we can, to being here to vote, and the restriction on voting is satisfactory. On the other hand, those who are disabled should be exempt.
I have overstayed my time and I would like to conclude.
My Lords, one of the things that was really noteworthy about the Procedure Committee report was this entirely novel way, as far as I can make out, of the House reaching decisions—that is, to have a kind of opinion poll before we reach our decisions. Under the normal procedures of the House, whether it is a Bill, a debate or anything else, you have the debate and then test the opinion of the House. In this system, it seems that you test the opinion of the House and then have the debate. That seems to me—well, I can think of some of rude ways of referring to it—to stand procedures on their head, and I am not sure that I like it. No doubt the Senior Deputy Speaker will be able to refer to this when he sums up.
But I will say this: if we are to have this kind of system in the future, my word, we need some ground rules—they certainly do not come out in the Procedure Committee’s report—about what kinds of decisions we test opinion on before the debate, and what kinds we do not. There are two contrasting examples of very important decisions that I can refer to: one is whether to have a speakers’ list for Oral Questions and the second is whether to change our sitting times, as my noble friend Lord Adonis referred to. The Procedure Committee dismisses the question of the House’s sitting times in just a sentence. The only justification it gives for testing the opinion of the House in the way that it has on speakers’ lists is because of “the divergent views” on the subject—but there are divergent views on every conceivable subject that ever comes before this House. If that is the only ground the Procedure Committee has to offer for having this system, it is a pretty poor basis.
There is a real problem with this way of making decisions, which the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, touched on. By the way, I very much sympathise with the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Adonis. In the five sitting days of the week—Monday to Friday—we have four different starting times, and the only two days that are the same are Monday and Tuesday. I cannot think of any other public-facing organisation that has four different kick-off times in five working days.
However, the other problem with having these kinds of pre-debate opinion polls is that most of these questions do not lend themselves to a binary decision—they are not a simple “this or that” question. I will be frank with the House: on the question of speakers’ lists, I do not like the system that was in operation prior to the Covid crisis. I have said so many times; I initiated a debate on it five years ago to say that the Lord Speaker should be the person to play a role in that. But I certainly do not like the idea of the lists being published in advance and continuing with that method. I would love that idea if I was still on the Government Front Bench. When you are there to answer questions at Question Time, it is an absolute joy if you know exactly who is going to ask them. You can generally, with reasonable accuracy, anticipate precisely what question they will ask. If you know the subject and the person asking the question, you know what the question will be, so it is a great benefit to the Government Front Bench.
Perhaps I should be more sympathetic to the other group to whom it is a great benefit, having been a Chief Whip: it is great news for the Whips. If it is not the Lord Speaker or randomness deciding, the party groups, one way or another, have to find a mechanism for determining who the questioners should be. When I was Chief Whip, I would have loved to have decided who among our side was going to ask the questions; quite a few would have been waiting quite a while for that opportunity. So, this system hands power to the Government Front Bench—to Ministers—in particular, and to Whips in general.
I do not like that system either but, of course, there is a third way—to coin a phrase—which is the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe: we do the same as pretty much every assembly across the planet with procedures anything like our own does, and give some authority to the Lord Speaker. That authority has slowly accrued over the years since the post was established, to more or less universal agreement. We now actually have the Lord Speaker announcing business, and we have had, as my noble friend Lord Blunkett said, the Lord Speaker announcing who is going to speak next. I do not want there to be Stalinist control, but light-touch control from the Woolsack seems the best way of dealing with things. This was neither of the options on the ballot paper, if I can put it in those terms, when the House was consulted. I certainly support that amendment, and I really hope that the House can think again about the idea of a rigid speakers’ list.
One final point: a rigid speakers’ list is a huge change in our procedures. Since I have been here, every other major change in our procedures has always been introduced initially for a trial period, usually for six months, to test the water. If the House decides to go ahead with this system without accepting the amendment, which I hope does not happen, I feel very strongly that, after six months of operating with rigid speakers’ lists, we should have the opportunity to decide whether we want to make this permanent.
I advise noble Lords that the speaking time is about five minutes.
My Lords, my right reverend friend the Bishop of Birmingham, who is our convenor, regrets that he cannot attend today’s debate. As Bishop on duty, I offer some thoughts on behalf of these Benches. On behalf of my right reverend friends, I thank the Leader of the House and the leaders of the parties, and especially all the staff who have seen us through this extremely challenging time. All of us have a particular debt of gratitude to those in the digital and technical spheres, which many of us struggle with. I noted earlier that it has enabled some of my right reverend friends to share with the House the interior of their splendid cathedrals, so that has been great. I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, for his recognition that being present in the House is also a very important contribution on our behalf.
I speak as a relative newcomer to your Lordships’ House, and as one of those Members, found on all sides of the House, who combines their service here with a significant full-time outside commitment. It is one of the strengths of this House that it gives space for this, so that membership is not just for what might be described as the full-time, professional politician. The assessment of any change to our procedure should not only test efficiency in our working practices and the capacity for inclusion in them but demonstrate how it will enable those who are not full-time to participate as fully as possible to bring into the debate and scrutiny this House exercises the wide range of experience that they bring.
We also need to be wary of the impact any change might bring to our working culture and how we embody the principle of being self-regulating. In this House, I believe it is possible for fairness, courtesy and inclusion to animate even the most robust moments in the handling of Oral Questions, which we saw prior to the introduction of speakers’ lists.
Though no Bishop serves on the Procedure and Privileges Committee, I can say with confidence that, if invited, one of us would gladly take part and wish to contribute to its work. I am grateful to the committee for this report, which suggests removing barriers to participation in some key respects. Keeping some aspects of the hybrid House in place to help our colleagues with disabilities take a more active part is a very welcome step indeed, as is the end of in-person queuing outside the Table Office for putting Oral Questions, which has prevented many of us finding space on the Order Paper. I also welcome the decision to retain Questions for Short Debate.
For those of us who attend less frequently the opportunity to vote remotely has been an incentive to pay much more detailed attention to the business of the House, so the move away from that is not entirely positive. However, I welcome the transition to voting here by electronic means. It is something we have been doing for some time in the Church of England in the General Synod.
Where I have most concern—this comes back to the point about culture and self-regulation—is having speaking lists for Oral Questions every day. Prior to Covid, Oral Questions so often revealed, at their best, the forensic, persistent and responsive aspects of this House. It might not have been a perfectly regulated system, or to everyone’s taste, but there is a risk that, in streamlining our processes, we might trade away something central to the function of this place, which is about close and effective scrutiny of government. In this, as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, spontaneity is an important element. Many of your Lordships will understand when I say that when the spirit moves, it does not always give two days’ working notice.
Therefore, I welcome the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on speakers’ lists. I hope we can agree an extension to a review of this, so that more consultation with Members can take place. I also welcome the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, about not putting the cart before the horse, which is perhaps a polite way of interpreting his comments. I hope that the cumulative effect of reforms, as we now return from the Covid arrangements, will ensure that they are not simply playing to the needs of business managers and for the benefit of the Government —which, again, the noble Lord, Lord Grocott drew our attention to.
I find it difficult to support the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, where I fear there could be unhelpful politicisation of the Speaker’s role. However, I welcome the comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, in his amendment. Apart from the question about Monday, I think that the earlier starting times are something we would welcome.
My Lord, I hope not to detain your Lordships for very long. Largely, I support the proposals in the main Motion.
There is really only one point on which I want to speak, which arises under chapter 2 on page 8 of the report: the interim option of voting using PeerHub. In my view, this is clearly a sensible option to allow us to continue voting by PeerHub until the technology is in place to enable us to move, as is planned, to swipe cards. I also support the proposal that to vote by PeerHub the Member should have to be on the Parliamentary Estate, which I hope includes Millbank so that those such as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, can continue to vote. Among the benefits, I hope, of being on the estate is that it may reduce the number of occasions when Members get in a muddle and misunderstand precisely what they are voting for, and, as a result, vote the wrong way, contrary to what they intended. One knows of several cases, in recent times, where that has happened.
My central point, however, is that there is a real problem—and to my mind little or no advantage—in stipulating not only that the Member must be on the estate but that he or she must also be in “a place of work”. That expression is not defined. To my mind, it is incapable of being given a useful definition in this context. What is intended to be encompassed? What is intended to be excluded and why? Clearly, it has to include places such as the Library, Lobbies, the Royal Gallery and so forth, where Members actually often work at desks. Presumably it would, and should, include corridors and other common space where Members meet and discuss parliamentary business and so forth.
I have heard it suggested that the reason for including this requirement is to safeguard the House from possible reputational damage if a Member were to vote by PeerHub in restaurants or bars, but work may very well be done even there. I have written speeches in the Bishops’ Bar myself. In any event, the most that could be required would be that the Member briefly wanders into the corridor in order to press a button. Who would be advantaged by that? Because there is so little point in excluding places of refreshment—and if it were necessary it could be done explicitly—it is difficult to give any cogent definition of what constitutes a place of work.
I am on the Conduct Committee, under the excellent chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mance. For some years before that, I had the honour of chairing the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Conduct. It is against that background that I am troubled by the veiled threat underlying this additional requirement. In this context, we are reminded of our obligation to act always on our personal honour, but it seems wrong to threaten a breach of the code without a clear, positive idea of just where we are allowed to vote and where we are not. This provision does nothing to advance Members’ faith and confidence in the disciplinary process and the concept of personal honour. If anything, it risks bringing that out of favour.
We would never allow this degree of imprecision, this manifest uncertainty, if we were scrutinising legislation, so I suggest we should not do so here either. I invite the Senior Deputy Speaker, when he winds up, to say it that is only if a Member is in a place of refreshment on the estate—if it is thought necessary to exclude that —that they cannot properly confirm, when voting, that they are at a place of work on the estate.
My Lords, tempting as it is to dive straight into the minutiae of the committee’s report and the associated Motions, I will spend my allotted time on the wider issues facing your Lordships’ House. What is the context in which we are taking these decisions? There are two crucial issues we have to address before we get too absorbed in the detail.
First, it is not good enough simply to revert to the way we operated pre-pandemic. We were not doing a perfect job then and pretending that we were, and trying to repeat the way we operated, will not be good enough. We have a chance to do better. I will look in a little detail at one area crying out for improvement, in a moment.
Secondly, we would be foolish and myopic not to acknowledge, and welcome, the notable silver linings there have been to the awful clouds of Covid. Most significantly, the House has found new ways to communicate, engage and listen, thanks to the remarkable efforts of all those who have helped us develop technical solutions to the problems we did not have 18 months ago—as several Members have referred to. This is so obvious that I do not need to say much more on that score, but it is important that we recognise that the recommendations before us are clearly transitory, cautiously tentative and in no way future-proofed for the further technical evolution that may take place. Perhaps we will have to wait for the full restoration and renewal programme to roll out before we can begin to appreciate the potential improvement in the way that the whole of Parliament can work.
Meanwhile, there are specific issues that were not addressed effectively before the pandemic and which our current ongoing review should address. In the interests of brevity, I will concentrate on the scrutiny of secondary legislation. I know from personal experience how effective the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform and Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committees are and, equally, how relatively weak and haphazard the Commons system is. But that is not where the problem lies. Despite all the meticulous examination and advice from the DPRRC and SLSC, a farcical false choice faces the House as a whole, bringing the whole process into disrepute. The current options are to approve an SI without incorporating the necessary improvements recommended by those committee colleagues, on the one hand, or to refuse point blank to do so, on the other. As a result, we hardly ever do the latter, and have to fall back on pathetic regret Motions, which Ministers blithely ignore.
Ever since the report of the 2006 Joint Committee on Conventions, whose recommendations both Houses approved in toto, there has been pressure to find more practical and positive ways forward. Should there be a middle way? Should we have an amendment possibility for SIs? Should we have a specified delay of implementation while Ministers have to consider amendment? Should we be able to have a Motion that sets out reservations and invites the Minister to reconsider, or some mixture of those alternatives? I know that the Hansard Society, the Institute for Government and the UCL Constitution Unit have been thinking through possible improvements. We should invite them to advise us, as we go forward.
Meanwhile, tinkering is not enough. Extending Grand Committee sittings from four hours to five, as suggested by the report before us today, is surely pointless if the outcome of the SI debates itself remains pointless. It is also true that the Commons would naturally need the same alterative processes. With secondary legislation, we are not in competition with them, since the proposal comes to each House directly from the Government. This is not intra-parliamentary, but a direct exchange between the Executive and the legislature. What is certain is that the experience of the last 18 months means that we cannot simply revert to previous practice.
In the 2006 committee, I recall with enthusiasm the vigorous defence of your Lordships’ House to exercise its right—indeed, responsibility—to refuse to accept inadequate SIs, notably then from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, Leader of the Conservative Opposition. The clear theme was to assert that there was no point in having a second Chamber if it could not occasionally say no. I wish he had been so forthright when we were faced with clearly inappropriate secondary legislation, under both Covid and Brexit, in more recent months.
I am struck by the extent to which Members of both Houses seem to have become conditioned to accept this major fault in our scrutiny system. MPs and Peers who have arrived since December 2019 may think that this is both normal and immutable. They have known nothing else. Certainly, Henry VIII powers seem to have become dangerously habit-forming for Ministers, and all too many scrutineers, in either House, may have succumbed to that addiction too. The Leader of the House implicitly acknowledged this today.
The failure of Parliament to do its duty with the hugely significant Brexit and Covid secondary legislation, under the inevitably difficult constraints of the last 18 months, is just one of the lessons to be learned. But hoping to revert to the previous system would be insufficient and a clear dereliction of duty. There is no room for complacency. I hope all concerned acknowledge that today’s Motions, and the debate on them, comprise only a temporary and limited step towards more effective analysis of our shortcomings and opportunities for improvement.
My Lords, I join all those, especially the Leader of the House, who gave fulsome congratulations to the House authorities, IT department and the leadership of the House itself, who effectively put in all the changes to this House since March 2020.
Having said that, and nothing I say takes away from it, the hybrid House we have at the moment is considerably worse than the House we had before. There is a matter of process and essential principle in this, which the committee report we are now discussing has avoided; namely, that when emergency measures were introduced with minimum debate, for reasons we all understand, the first job of the Procedure Committee should have been to say that, when the House returns in September, all the emergency measures will be dumped and we will go back to where we were.
That does not mean that there is no case for, for instance, tabling Questions or amendments electronically —of course there is—but it would be better if the committee were to start the process of change, which many Peers have discussed, by making the individual case and therefore having a debate. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, has a perfect example of that: sitting times is a very good question, but he forgot to mention the role of Ministers. We rely on Government Ministers being well briefed and understanding the questions they are dealing with. The fact is that, if we sat very much sooner than we do, they would not have the opportunity to be briefed or carry out their job. The noble Lord was a distinguished Secretary of State in the House of Lords, which is something we all support. I hope he agrees that Ministers play an important role in this House and that we need to give them time.
The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, used to talk about the “emotional geography” of the House. It is hard to define, but we know it when we feel it: that sense that we have gone on for too long, a sense that we should not be talking or a desire to have one speaker rather than another. These are important matters and we should not lose sight of what we are all here to do: to hold the Government to account, to provide scrutiny and revision of legislation in detail, and to hold general debates on which Members of this House are particularly expert.
The main issue with this report is on Oral Questions. Here, I have to agree with my noble friend Lord Cormack. First, there is the question of timing: 40 minutes. It is not so long ago that Lord Williams of Mostyn, a very distinguished Leader of this House—I think he may have been noble and learned—introduced in a Leader’s Group the idea of having five Questions in 40 minutes. It seemed like a good idea at the time but was an unmitigated disaster. We dropped it after a bit because the House does not, or did not then, have the patience to continue Questions much beyond 30 minutes. The House that I joined originally had only 20 minutes for Questions, which was far better. This is an example of where less is more.
Secondly, there is the question of lists. Imagine a situation where we all come back in September, the House is full and the Back-Benchers suddenly realise that they are here not as participants but as spectators because the list had been decided days ago. I take nothing away from what my noble friend Lord Cormack said but I really hope that the Senior Deputy Speaker will reflect on it again.
Thirdly, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, spoke extremely effectively about those in wheelchairs. More thought needs to be given to that process. At Question Time, the House is very good at picking up Lord Bishops and making sure that they speak; it is perhaps true that people in wheelchairs do not catch the eye of the Front-Benchers or the Back-Benchers as much as they should.
My final point is on PNQs. I understand why the Lord Speaker and his predecessor wanted to have more PNQs but, now that the emergency has gone, when we come back in September, please can we go back to the normal practice of having very few PNQs? After all, what is the difference between a PNQ and an Urgent Question? We already have provision for Urgent Questions. PNQs should be reserved for rare and special occasions, often affecting your Lordships’ House, rather than on general matters.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I echo entirely his endorsement of the various thanks that were spoken so well by the Leader at the beginning of this debate.
I have attended the House in person pretty consistently since early June last year. Having been a strong advocate for a full lockdown in early March, I made a conscious decision that, if people were having to work in shops, on public transport, in schools, in hospitals and in health services, if possible—and if willing—Members of Parliament should be in attendance in the Chamber. I have done that consistently over the past 13 months, so I warmly welcome the fact that the House will return in full in September. I strongly support the principle that, apart from for those Members who are exempt, voting should take place on the Parliamentary Estate. That is right for the second Chamber of the United Kingdom Parliament, and will enhance our business and reputation.
However, I have some concerns about the proposals before us today. Last week, in the opinion poll—as it has been described—on the future of speaking lists, I reluctantly voted in favour of continuing with them. I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament from when it gained its full legislative responsibility on 1 July 1999. One of the mistakes that was made early on in the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood was instituting a system of speaking lists for Questions to Ministers. I tried to change it after I became First Minister; ever since, I have advocated for change when I have occasionally had the chance to speak about it. It did not just take the spontaneity away from the questioning of Ministers; it constantly let Ministers off the hook and reduced accountability rather than enhancing it. This regulation of Questions also made the whole session significantly less interesting for members of the public, whether they were in the gallery or watching through the media. It was a mistake in Holyrood and it would be a mistake to continue with this system indefinitely here.
However, I voted for it because I support the proposal from the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, in principle. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, explained, having a list that is then enhanced by the occasional spontaneous question to follow up on a non-answer would be worth trying in your Lordships’ House in those circumstances. I hope that the Procedure Committee will continue to discuss this and not simply close off any further review as a result of the opinion poll that took place last Monday.
I also have some sympathy with the proposals from my noble friend Lord Adonis on starting times. I would vote without hesitation for earlier starting times—probably even earlier than my noble friend is proposing—for the House on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The leaders are aware of this but I was dismayed last year when the decision was made, for what I understand were technical and practical reasons, to move the starting time of the House on Mondays to an earlier time. At that time, because of the number of trains and other forms of transport that were available—not just from where I live in Stirling but from many miles north of that and from Northern Ireland too—some Members were not able to be here at 1 pm on a Monday. It was physically impossible for them, as it was for me and many other noble Lords who were further away and were therefore unable even to apply to be on the speakers’ list for a Question for the Monday 1 pm session.
I do not think that I will vote for my noble friend Lord Adonis’s amendment today but I implore the Procedure Committee and those responsible to look at this issue. It is possible to move the starting times further forward on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, but I want the Procedure Committee and the other administrative committees of this House to take more account of the fact that many of us do not live in the metropolitan area around London. They need to take account of that in their decision-making and remember it, because participation in this House should be based on the principle of equality for all Members, with all Members able to take part on the same basis. We are rightly making provision for that today in terms of those Members who have long-term disabilities, but we should also take into account those who live far away. This should be true in relation to allowances as well.
I will not divide the House on the fourth Motion in front of us and I will not speak for long about it, but we have shown over the past 15 months that we can amend the allowances system when there is an absolutely proper need to make a change. It is fundamentally wrong that this House continues with an allowances system that, since 2011, has resulted in those Members who have property in London and the surrounding area and are therefore able to commute into London benefiting to the tune of nearly £300,000. Before 2011, the daily allowance was £86.50. It was changed overnight to £300. In general, the allowances that could be claimed by Members who lived outwith London, including the overnight allowance, were reduced by £34.50. This discrimination has now been taking place for a full decade. It is fundamentally wrong. It discriminates institutionally against Members who do not have property in London. It is time to change it. This Motion reinstitutes the position as it was before, builds in the annual uprating and does not make the change necessary to make this House equal. It is time that it did.
My Lords, there are many ways in which this hybrid way of working allows great freedom—possibly too much freedom —where people can vote from their beds. However, importantly, it allows participation from those who are physically limited, whether they are disabled or find it hard to travel, so I am very pleased that the House authorities are enacting new roles for those limited in their movement. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, who follows me, will speak about this.
I commend much of the speech made by the Leader of the House. She is an excellent figurehead at the prow of our vessel. As a broadcaster, I congratulate the broad- cast team, who allow me, in mid-Wales, to speak today. Given that they have enabled me to speak like this, why does the hybrid system somehow leave me so profoundly dissatisfied? Why do I feel that this way of contributing remotely is indeed remote? I sat in your Lordships’ Chamber last week and still felt that, for all its technical accomplishment, the proceedings were, by virtue of disembodied screens, oddly removed, so I absolutely concur with a return in early September to where we were.
I was discussing these feelings with a senior colleague in the Lords, who summed it up perfectly when he simply asked me: “Should we be considering our convenience or how best to scrutinise legislation and hold the Government to account?” That is the vital point. It brings me neatly to the importance of our physical presence in Westminster and our ability to intervene, and so to Oral Questions and speakers’ lists. My concern is that, as we have heard, the inability to intervene can become stultifying. Like the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, I used to enjoy sitting in the Chamber for Oral Questions. It was too rowdy sometimes, but now if I heard something that seemed ill informed, I could no longer seek amplification or correction. We have heard various ideas on this, which is why this debate has been extremely useful.
The speakers’ lists preclude spontaneous intervention and correction. Furthermore, the increasing habit of Ministers to prepare answers to solicited questions can sometimes be sensible, for instance when complicated figures are needed, but on other occasions has all too often led to a stock reply that does not really answer the point and, as I just said, there is no way of pushing for more information. We should be here—or rather, there—to listen and then to vote.
I endorse the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. I am one of those who has another job—two, in fact—so I am a little nervous of the timetable suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, along the lines expressed by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. Yet I feel that this is selfish in some ways and that I should simply practise what I preach and bow to the wishes of the House on this.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley of Knighton. I will confine my remarks to the impact of the Select Committee’s proposals relating to participation by disabled Members of your Lordships’ House.
For me, these proposals are best summed up by the assertion in paragraph 45 of the Select Committee’s report that:
“The contribution disabled members make to the House’s debates and decisions is integral to the work of the House”.
The measures proposed will, as my noble friend the Leader of the House made clear, give effect to that very welcome affirmation. It is an affirmation not just of the disabled Members of your Lordships’ House but of the collective expertise and experience that, together, the House brings to the legislative and scrutiny process of this diverse United Kingdom.
I agree with those noble Lords who rightly feel passionate about the ability of your Lordships’ House to subject the Government to effective scrutiny, which is of course essential for the exercise of parliamentary democracy. It is no less essential that we recognise that if it is to the exclusion of diversity—in this case disability—scrutiny is less effective because it fails to draw on the breadth of lived experience of all noble Lords to which my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern alluded. For a House which prides itself on that unique combination of expertise and experience not to accommodate the needs of its disabled Members, for example, to be able to contribute remotely, particularly for disability-related reasons, does not make sense.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, I was dismayed to hear some of the comments made when the House last debated these issues. While this may not have been the intention, as a disabled Member of the House, I was left feeling not only that I and other disabled Members did not add value to our proceedings and debates but that the very validity of our contributions was in question.
We are fortunate to command a wealth of wisdom because of the range of expertise and experience that other noble Lords have referred to. It is also an inescapable fact that many noble Lords are wealthy to a disproportionate extent relative to the general population. I begrudge no one their wealth, but with wealth comes responsibility—a responsibility to ensure that it cannot be used as a stick with which our detractors can beat your Lordships’ House. We urgently need to become more representative and more diverse, especially in relation to disability, because diversity is our best defence against such attacks. The measures under consideration today, and the way they have been developed in meaningful consultation with disabled Members, recognise that and enable it to happen.
I close with this observation. It gives me no pleasure to say that the way in which we are addressing this need, particularly regarding how disabled Members have been listened to and meaningfully involved in developing these proposals, is in marked contrast to the unfortunate way in which I fear that the DWP has traduced the Prime Minister’s promise of
“the most ambitious and transformative disability plan in a generation”
to mere rhetoric. The cynicism with which the DWP has treated disabled people in the development of the national disability strategy, which is apparently due to be bounced on us next week, is staggering. I thank the Lord Speaker, the Clerk of the Parliaments and the Procedure and Privileges Committee for taking a very different approach. I urge noble Lords to support these proposals.
My Lords, I suspect that many of us are largely unaware of the thought and work that went into the adaptation, so I too add my thanks. I appreciate that there is no satisfying everyone, so thanks are also due to those who have been wrestling with these proposals. I very much support what my noble friend Lady Brinton had to say and what I think that my noble friend Lady Tyler of Enfield will say, and we have just heard a powerful speech from the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin.
I am sympathetic to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for the reasons he gave and because what we do should not be a test of stamina. Sitting at 10 pm or 11 pm is better than the 2 am sessions to which I became accustomed when I was first a Member of your Lordships’ House, but it should not be any indication of being feeble to admit that one probably does one’s best work earlier in the day. I admire those who think that they can be as productive very late at night as earlier.
However, I really want to refer to a couple of issues which I appreciate are relatively narrow. The first is on groupings of amendments, or rather their degrouping. I do not disagree with the recommendation that degrouping should be discouraged after publication of the groupings, provided that “discouraged” is applied to mean just that. I well understand the tangles one can get into if one’s notes have to be reorganised at the last minute. I find it as difficult as anyone when we receive briefings which can be described only as arriving after the last minute. But just occasionally, it becomes clear during debate early on a Bill that an issue will get a full airing only if it is considered separately, so “discouraged” should not mean precluded. I make this point because there are occasions—not today—when an advisory speaking time is treated as if it is a hard stop or firm cut-off.
More importantly, perhaps, I also want to mention two aspects of voting mechanisms. As we have heard, there is a recommendation that, in the interim, PeerHub should be used in “a place of work” on the estate. We should take very serious note of so senior a lawyer as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, and his observation that the term is incapable of construction. Every part of the estate is used as a place of work, even if that is not its primary function. We are so short of places to meet people who want to discuss a current issue, or other Members to discuss legislation—there are any number of work-related reasons. Because we are short of places to work, we make use of the refreshment facilities. Those of us who have desks are often in rooms shared with several other people where there is no space for a visitor’s chair, quite apart from the disturbance that would be caused to colleagues if we had meetings there. A meeting in a place where coffee is served may be accompanied by a cup of coffee, but that is a courtesy and not the purpose of the get-together.
If I may briefly look further ahead, if we are to use pass readers—I have some reservations about that, given that we have PeerHub, but perhaps that is for another day—I hope they will be readily accessible. If they are placed only around the Chamber, one wonders about the benefit. For instance, Members of the House come and go from Portcullis House and there are often votes during meetings there, which can be very disruptive and physically difficult for a number of noble Lords. If we have to have that new technology, let us make it work for us to the maximum. That applies to the immediate issue and for the future.
My Lords, I begin with my thanks all round to everybody who has been involved in making this place work. I have had 12 months of the hybrid system, not 16, and I have had massive help in operating remotely. In fact, other than a year ago when I had to come in person to be sworn in—because that is the only way you can do it—I think I have turned up on four or five occasions in the last couple of months. I found the Chamber eerie and uncomfortable in some ways, yet I love the Chamber and want to get it back as near to normal as possible as quickly as possible. In fact, other than on the merchant shipping Motion later on, this will probably be my last Zoom contribution.
In some ways, I much agree on the oral ballots. After I became a Back-Bencher and realised how to get a Question tabled, on occasion I spent a couple or three hours on that because, once I had determined that I wanted a date, the only way I could guarantee to get it was to turn up outside the office with books and papers by about 10 am or 11 am and sit there until 2 pm. That way, I would get my date. In the ballots I have not had much trouble getting an Oral Question—although it is true that I put in one Question on life expectancy for 23 consecutive days before it came out in the ballot. Nevertheless, it came out.
On the lists for Questions issue, by the way, I did not vote because I refused to accept the stark conditions of one or the other. I had said so in the debate as well, but decided that I would not vote. If the amendments today are pushed to a vote, I will vote for all three of them because I agree with bits of them all. I am not saying I agree with every part of them, but the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, certainly has my support.
The possibility of instant reaction in the House is pretty crucial, but not under the old bearpit system. It was a bearpit and, while I will not embarrass them by naming them, we have some Members with exceptionally foghorn voices who were verbal bullies at getting their way. I used to notice this because, at one time when I was a Minister, I served as deputy to my noble friend Lady Amos for two years. I was then saddled—that was the word, in a way—with the regulation of Question Time when things went wrong. It was not an easy time, but the fact is that it was a bearpit. Many people were put off, so they can see the benefit of the speaker system, but a complete speaker system is controlled by the Front Bench. I agree with my noble friend Lord Grocott on this: the Front Benches on both sides should not really be involved in choosing the questioners.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, made a very fair point: are Members going to come back in their large numbers in September as participants or spectators? I know which I would prefer: as participants. Coming back just to watch people on speakers’ lists is not really effective, although it would be cushy for the Minister. To go back to my time as a Minister, it was easy to work out who the questioners would be. You could more or less guess with your staff the issues they would raise, because you would cross-check what they had done in that field in other areas, including debates and other Questions. It should not be like that. My view on the speakers is that it is probably impossible to have four on a list and maybe six chosen by the chair. I can see the impracticality of that. Nevertheless, there is merit in having a bit of precision to start with.
The right reverend Prelate made a point. I do not wish to be critical, but the Bishops are not in the same position as everybody else because, under the old bearpit system, the minute one of them stood up, everybody shouted “Bishop! Bishop!” and the right reverend Prelate got to speak. They did not really have to get involved in the bearpit; they just had to stand up.
Some issues need looking at again. I do not deny that I would prefer to avoid the bearpit but to have some precision. It is therefore about the chair, and the chair has to be trusted. I know people say, “You want to make this place like the House of Commons”. Well, in some ways, including in this respect, the House of Commons is better organised than we are; there are other aspects where we are better organised than the Commons. We do not have to mirror each other but, for heaven’s sake, if the Commons does something really well and it is organised with satisfactory conditions, we could adopt that here.
I know that we tried it in the past and had a vote, with people saying, “We’re self-regulating and don’t want to give the chair any powers”, but it is time to trust the chair. That would not put politics into the chair because we can all work it out: the chair will take advice—that is where the clerks are in the wrong place, of course, which is another issue of making the Lords like the Commons. The fact of the matter is that today’s debate is not an open and shut one. There will still have to be some flexibility on changes after we get back in September. We cannot carry on as did.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to be involved in this debate, but I am going to struggle not to argue with all the previous speakers I have disagreed with.
On behalf of the Green group, I welcome the report from the Procedure and Privileges Committee and its proposals, and I give a huge thank you to the staff who have been able to keep us going through the hybrid times. I am too short-sighted to see the clock up on the wall, so perhaps the Chief Whip can give me a signal when he is ready to stop me talking—at five minutes, not before.
While the Green Party would like to see the wholesale reform of parliamentary practice—not least the replacement of your Lordships’ House with an elected upper Chamber—we are happy that some of the best bits of the hybrid House are being retained. One of the issues is accessibility for people with disabilities, which is something that we have to take seriously; it is ridiculous that someone who cannot walk or cannot hear as well cannot participate as much as everyone else.
I am very pleased that electronic voting will continue. The old system of noble Lords shuffling through the corridors was ridiculous. What a waste of valuable time. Please do not tell me that there were lots of good conversations; I was there and I heard them. I hope that the Procedure Committee will continue to seek ways to improve the voting system so that we can become a more efficient and modern institution.
On the issue of interventions, the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, knows that I have a soft spot for him, unlike the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, for whom I do not have a soft spot, but in this case the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, is absolutely right. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, calls him superficial but quite honestly, when he then defends starting late because it enables lunch with friends, he reaches heights of superficiality that no one else has so far.
I found the previous system of interventions very bullying. The right reverend Prelate described the spirit moving people. What spirit is that? The bullying spirit? The spirit that prevents women standing up because they feel threatened by the behaviour of the House? Having this system may not be ideal. I am slightly swayed towards the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, which I was not before, by the comments from the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. It would be a fine system if one got on with the Lord Speaker, but one cannot guarantee that—I especially feel that I cannot guarantee it—so I might vote for that but I might not. I definitely will not vote for the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack.
I hate to disagree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, but he describes this as a “part-time House”—well, tell that to those of us who were here at 11.50 pm last night. For many of us it is a full-time job. Quite honestly, if other people have jobs that they have to go to, let them stay away. The rest of us will carry on scrutinising the Government, which I think we have done extremely well under the hybrid House system.
I have a speech prepared but I have not actually used any of it yet. We are losing an opportunity not to use more of the hybrid systems that we put in place. We have a chance to move on and not be—I was going to say “such dinosaurs”, but actually dinosaurs were incredibly successful for millions of years—so old-fashioned. There was nothing magical about the way the House was run before. We could take this opportunity to be more modern. It has happened in wider society that people are reluctant to go to their jobs in office buildings and so on. Why can we not reflect that and accept that remote voting and remote participation are part of what we do?
It is good that we are accommodating people with disabilities, but there are people who have other needs and demands on them—for example, caring responsibilities. There are people with partners or children who might perhaps benefit from being part of debates but cannot actually come into the House.
While we are thinking about modernising, we really should put in processes for maternity and paternity leave—they have sort of done that in the other House but not properly—and breastfeeding. We really ought to think about these issues. Greens lead the way, let us not forget; your Lordships are all 40 years behind the Green Party at the moment, particularly on the other side of the Chamber. The Chief Whip is signalling me to stop. Let us think about issues that are not the issue of individuals so that they can be a general thought, and let us make sure that we are a little more progressive than we have been.
I have said before that I will not take interventions from now on. I think they are rude and shows a loss of self-control by the people who get up and shout. We have always had the option of coming in after the Minister, and that could be retained. You need not lose your temper, bluster and shout someone down to get in and make an intervention; you can just do it in a civilised way.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, on a start time for the House of 1 pm, for all the reasons that he has laid out. The last year has suggested, to me at least, that 1 pm on a Monday is a fairly civilised—one might say laid- back—time to start, but in a good way, giving Members enough time to get here if they have far to travel and carry out any morning business. However, a 2.30 pm start time now seems positively lazy. I support the noble Lord’s amendment and will vote for it.
On the issue of a speakers list for Oral Questions, I understand the arguments for it, but I support the amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. The House may be packed at Question Time at first but I believe that, following the lifting of restrictions, people would drift away. Previously there was always the possibility that anyone could intervene on Oral Questions, and therefore it has been a time that involved everyone in the House. In the end it depends on what the House wants, of course, but we should be clear that Question Time would not be the exciting focus of the day any more if it remained in the current form. Instead it would be—as indeed it already is—more akin to a procession of Written Questions and Written Answers spoken out loud than a vital conversation.
Most of us on speakers’ lists have had emails from the relevant department asking what our question is. Pre-Covid, of course, those emails were sent only to the original questioner. Those who would benefit most are Ministers, who would have significantly greater control over sessions. To me, that does not feel properly like holding a Government to account. However, I hear the suggestions of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, for additional supplementaries, although that might make Question Time rather complicated.
The other issue with speakers’ lists is that there is quite a lot of wasted effort involved, not least by the one, two or more speakers who drop off the list because of a lack of time. Even if they get in, if they are some way down the list—I know from talking to colleagues that this is not an uncommon practice—they might prepare a number of questions in addition to the one that they really wanted to ask, since a repetition of that question may not feel appropriate.
That does not mean that the House could not be more disciplined in the way that it has traditionally operated at Question Time. The practice of going clockwise around the House, with a question from each grouping when volunteered, worked well until it got ignored. If we returned to the previous system, there is no reason why that practice could not be reaffirmed, though it would need to be spelled out to all Members as the accepted way of doing things.
With regard to the hybrid House, it is right that disabled Members can still participate virtually and vote remotely. I am glad that we are continuing in some form with electronic voting. One thing to consider is that electronic voting would allow for abstentions to be recorded. Whether they are party abstentions announced or not announced by Front-Bench spokespeople or decisions made by individual Members, they are a fact. They are real decisions, and Members in the Chamber at the time when a vote takes place will be aware of these decisions. It seems wholly wrong to me that something as fundamental as the way in which Members vote should be privileged information. The public have a right to know. Most other modern parliaments record abstentions, and we should do the same.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to discuss the commission’s proposal for procedures for the workings of the House of Lords from 6 September. We, as a Government and a country, are moving forward as global Britain with modern ideas for the future.
I have enjoyed working with the hybrid system. I have had no difficulties and any small problems were quickly remedied. The technical team is excellent. What is the rush for us to come back fully in September? Many companies, whether FTSE 100, FTSE 350 or large family firms, are offering their staff to come back in their own way or not to come back at all. I am not suggesting that, however.
The Prime Minister recently said:
“We’re removing the Government instruction to work from home where you can but we don’t expect that the whole country will return to their desk as one … We’re setting out guidance for business for a gradual return to work”.
This is why I question yet again the rush for us to come back.
Further, what does the committee mean by “disability”? A number of members of staff and many Members of this House are extremely vulnerable or having treatment, or have compromised immune systems. The Prime Minister urged us to think of others and to consider the risk. I ask noble Lords to consider the risk to ourselves and to the staff and gradually, over the next 12 months, to keep the hybrid model.
This model could be improved even further. The wi-fi on the estate is not up to speed or to the standard of many firms or other institutions. Will we invest more in wi-fi and further connections to the estate? In certain parts of the estate the wi-fi does not work at all. Trying to vote on your phone in the House is impossible. It is impossible to make a phone call. Wi-fi may work for a small number of colleagues, but we know from experience that the function declines with more people in. What is being done to improve it? We have been asking for a number of years but nothing has happened.
Card readers do not always function well when it comes to opening doors. They need to be looked at again and a fuller report given.
How are we going to circulate and filter the air in the Chamber, Committee Rooms and other rooms? Will further work be done on that? It is almost impossible to open windows. Is the House being fitted with proper air ducts to ensure safety for Members, staff and those who come in to give evidence? Social distancing should still be paramount, in particular in the Chamber and Committee Rooms. I can see Members looking very bored with this, but we have to do it. Social distancing is vital, as we know.
Experts warn of the inherent risks of rushing back. I will vote this afternoon in favour of the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Adonis about starting earlier. We have to give further consideration to our working practices and we should not rush back on 6 September and throw everything away.
The noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, has scratched, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Elder.
My Lords, I will make three points. First, I strongly support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and I am hugely sympathetic to the proposal put forward by my noble friend Lord Adonis. We need a degree of flexibility. I am not sure that it is entirely worked out, but an earlier start on Tuesday and Wednesday would seem sensible and rational, and could bring a good deal of scope for the proceedings of the House.
Secondly, I will say something about committees. It is not clear to me what the outcome of this is. Most people seem to think that Zoom has worked very well in committees. I beg to differ. The committees I have been on since I came into the House worked most effectively when there was a lot of discussion between Members outside the committee. Chatting to people in the quarter of an hour before the committee started was enormously useful. Going for a coffee with someone afterwards was enormously useful to see whether edges could be smoothed over and whether agreement could be reached. Zooming does not do that. It seems to me that Zoom has put a great deal more power and control in the hands of the chair and the secretary, and diminished the contribution of Members. We should look very carefully at what we are doing about committees. Committees were one of the strongest elements of the House and that is slipping away from us, in the way that the views of some committees are now being largely dismissed. We must be very careful where we go on this.
Thirdly, I back very strongly the points made by my noble friend Lord McConnell. Ten years ago, before the new system of allowances was introduced, the daily allowance for someone staying outside London was higher in cash terms than it is now. For people in London it is about twice what it was in cash terms. The effect has been to make a tremendous difference to the importance of London and the south-east as there is now a disincentive for people from far away to come here.
We must find a way to have something closer to equality. My way of doing that would be to say, in exactly the same way as we do with travel, “Claim for accommodation in London and produce receipts.” It would put a little more work on the accountants department but it would get us closer to equality. At the moment, if you live in London and have no additional expenses the daily allowance goes straight into your bank account, but if you live outside London you are paying for accommodation, travel—you do not get free travel, even if you are of the age at which you get it in this part of the country—and all your food: you have to eat out, as you are not able to go through to the kitchen and make yourself breakfast. That is the kind of equality that you get—if I may say so—in Animal Farm: all Peers are created equal, but some, on expenses, are much more equal than others. We must try to do something about that as a matter of urgency.
I am sorry to have to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, who is normally a fount of wisdom, but I associate myself with his remarks about the suspension, or part suspension, of some Members because they did not take the Valuing Everyone course. That course is insultingly inappropriate. I have taken it twice. The entire message could be put on a postcard. The Procedure and Privileges Committee’s report mounts a rather feeble defence of it, which I do not accept.
I also associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Elder. Londoners do not know how much it costs to rent even a modest hotel room in London if one comes from outside London.
I also thank the staff and others who have achieved a miraculous adaptation of our debates and committee meetings to the virtual platform. Not only have there been very few glitches, but they dealt patiently and courteously with Peers’ lack of expertise and they have made the word “unmute” as familiar a word in our proceedings as “order” used to be. The effect of our adaptation to lockdown has been to precipitate the workings of this House much further into the 21st century. Indeed, given the snail-like pace of the restoration and renewal building programme, we will soon have modern practices in a building scarcely able to accommodate them. Having chaired a review of the law relating to disabled people in 2016, I would have appreciated then the ability for our disabled witnesses to appear virtually and to have been spared the journey and, in some cases, the challenges of access and speaking. Future committee witnesses will be greatly advantaged and their scope widened by the ability to give evidence remotely.
I intend to address Questions. Certainly allocation by ballot is much to be preferred to the queue with sandwiches outside the Table Office. Speakers’ lists are also an improvement on the previous situation when those with the loudest voices and thickest skins prevailed, and quite frequently precious minutes were wasted in the embarrassing scenario of several noble Lords shouting to attract simultaneously until the Leader of the House sorted it out. It was also hard to see why we all had to give way to the right reverend Prelates. A mixture of listed and spontaneous interventions is well worth considering. We should also get rid of the pointless “My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question” et cetera and instead have the questioner voice the Question so that watchers and listeners know what it is.
The criteria that should apply to lists for Questions or, in the alternative, spontaneity are those that underlying the purpose of Question Time. In my view they are: holding the Government to account by compelling answers to questions and extracting commitments and dates; seeking information that is not otherwise forthcoming; allowing all Members of the House a chance to ask questions in pursuit of their interest, not just those best placed with Ministers; and injecting an element of surprise that forces Ministers to prepare for every possible question without knowing in advance who will question them or on what aspect.
Holding the Government to account is equally well achieved by lists, providing that the questioners are fairly chosen by the leaders of their groups. That choice, over which some may have doubts, is at least as fair as giving the Floor to the loudest interveners, often the same few people under the old system. Under both the old system and the speakers’ list system, Ministers can and do avoid answering the question directly and can be brought back to it by subsequent interveners, so 10 minutes per Question is welcome; one wishes it were longer. Seeking information is equally well achieved by either system, backed up by Questions for Written Answer.
Do all Members of the House get a look-in? My own calculations show that women Members have enjoyed 34% higher participation than before, even allowing for the extension to 10 minutes. It was not so much that women interveners were underrepresented numerically under the old system; it was more that the same few formidable women with the strongest voices and the least hesitancy dominated the women’s team. It is now more varied.
The element of surprise is lost in having a speakers’ list, or rather, it may be that the Minister’s team knows in advance or researches the particular angle a Member is likely to pursue. This is an even greater drawback if, as appears to be a growing practice, the Minister’s staff ask the Member in advance what they are going to ask. This practice should be discouraged. For that reason, were it practical, a slot or two reserved for interveners who have not signed up would be of benefit. Therefore, I see much in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe.
My Lords, I shall be fairly brief, but to the point. I very much look forward to your Lordships’ House returning to some normality in September. This has indeed been a difficult time, but I would like to heap as much praise as I possibly can on to all those behind the scenes who have allowed the House to continue to function so smoothly since the introduction of hybrid proceedings. I am in no doubt that much has been learned and that, in many respects, our working practices have moved forward in a very positive and modernising way from an IT perspective.
I do not intend to go through the Procedure and Privileges Committee report paragraph by paragraph, but I will make the following brief observations. On the issue of speakers’ lists for Questions, I was interested to see that a good majority of the House voted to retain such lists. There is no doubt in my mind that previously, the situation could be quite intimidating for some noble Lords. I note from the House of Lords Library paper that since changes were made to the way supplementary oral questions are selected during hybrid proceedings, more female Members are taking part. Since March 2020, the proportion of supplementary questions asked by female Members has been higher, on average, each month when compared to previous years. This must be a very positive move in the right direction. I therefore wholeheartedly support the recommendation that there should be speakers’ lists for normal and topical Oral Questions and Questions to Lords Ministers who are members of the Cabinet.
On the issue of time allocated to Oral Questions and Private Notice Questions, I again support the recommendation that total question time for normal and topical Oral Questions be 40 minutes, and that the time allocated to Lords Ministers who are full Cabinet members be 30 minutes.
When one finds oneself last on the list of speakers, it is particularly frustrating to have to miss out on participating due to other noble Lords having over- stretched the time limit on their question. I therefore wonder whether some sort of rigid cut-off mechanism could be introduced which would enable a fairer allocation of time for each question.
I look forward to the return of voting in person, an essential ingredient of procedures in the House—a point made well by my noble friend Lord Lamont, who argued against allowing Members to continue to vote remotely, saying that it enabled some Members to claim that they were participating without interacting meaningfully with the business in the Chamber—excepting, of course, the arrangements for disabled Members.
On start times, I cannot for the life of me see why we are proposing to start so late on a Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. My personal preference is to keep the current hours. From a selfish point of view—and I know this applies to others—it would allow those of us who have to travel substantial distances to make our way home to our families without having to stay an extra evening in London. Without going into it, I share the view on expenses of the noble Lord, Lord Elder.
Save for the issues that I have mentioned, I largely welcome the report’s recommendations. I will certainly be supporting the amendments in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and my noble friend Lord Balfe.
My Lords, I came into this House during the hybrid measures, so for me, this has been normal. Despite the nightmare descriptions of bullying, bear-pit Question Time—although I am not sure why the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, thinks that women are always the victims of this—I do not want the hybrid House, however ingeniously conceived or executed by the wonderful staff, to ever become the new normal again, because it is bad for democratic accountability.
I have attended physically as much as possible. As I have been focusing on apprenticeships in preparation for the skills Bill, it has reminded me that no matter how much you study the theory or the rules, it is best to learn on the job. May I take this opportunity—it is cheating, I know—to say that as an apprentice Peer, I have made every mistake in the book? I have stood at the wrong times, faced the wrong way during Prayers, made Second Reading speeches in Committee, confused Committee stage with Report, missed my supplementary questions and voted against my intentions by pressing the incorrect button. I apologise, and noble Lords might think that I would be glad to cover my embarrassment by having a near-empty Chamber, but actually it was the graciousness of those physically here in person—Peers, clerks and doorkeepers—who took me to one side and gently corrected me, that helped me get the hang of it; slowly. My point is that through real-life interactions, you can learn the ropes. Zoom will never replace the pressure of human interactions or the importance of informal chats.
This is perhaps a clue as to why, if you want to encourage Valuing Everyone—or, indeed, anyone—mandating a tick-box online training course is a shoddy substitute for creating an offline culture of open discussions about difficult and challenging behaviour. By the way, whoever thought that the punishment for non-attendance of a course allegedly designed to improve relations with staff should be to ban those Peers from all face-to-face communications with the same staff perhaps needs to attend a course in valuing common sense. Crucially, the fact that the controversies about Valuing Everyone and the punitive and unfair responses to non-attendance have not been fully debated or argued about in this House feels like the epitome of what has been lacking here in recent months.
In a scathing article in the Times, Iain Martin wrote of a “ghost Parliament”. He quoted one MP who talked of Chambers “full of negative energy” or “drained of energy”. I agreed with the article’s critique that some were too keen to treat Parliament as a normal workplace and not keen enough, even now, to return to normal. If ever there was a good excuse for an “us versus them” rule exemption, surely it would have been to honour the public by ensuring scrutiny and pushback against the Government removing people’s liberties so easily. I therefore wish that the proceedings had been less hybrid and that these Chambers had been packed.
At the very time when the Executive needed to be prodded, probed and interrogated over the 457 statutory instruments controlling every aspect of public life, Parliament was reduced to stultifying and formulaic set speeches read out—and, yes, I am reading mine out; it is a bad habit—often non-sequiturs, with no ability to push each other for clarity or to dig deeply into Ministers’ answers or explanations. What has been lost is the meaningful, interactive spontaneity that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and so many other noble Lords have discussed. That has been a loss for democracy. In that, we need to change. Even now, I worry about a slothful return to spontaneity and normal. Should not these Benches be packed to the gunnels on 19 July, rather than waiting until September? Even in that last week, surely there are plenty of worrying developments that need our fullest attention, with renewed talk of vaccine certification via security data collection and surprise votes on mandatory vaccines for care workers.
Do we not need to be here—all of us—to hold the Government’s feet to the fire on all this? Surely, it would be a real show of leadership in encouraging a full-time return to work among the public if we led by example.
Finally, speaking of the public, I relish the return to the estate of the banished public. Both Houses need to feel the presence and pressure of hordes of lobbyists—not the paid variety but the constituents, lobbying MPs and Peers on matters of urgency, and the grass-roots activists denied the right to look parliamentarians in the eye and challenge them to account for decisions. I look forward to filling the place up with groups of sixth-formers, full of awkward-squad teenagers stroppily asking why the House of Lords should not be abolished —a fair enough question—and activists from across the country and across political divides demanding answers and actions. Without the public valuably putting both Houses under pressure, Parliament is denied its lifeblood and raison d’être. We owe it to the public to resume normal business as urgently as possible on their behalf.
My Lords, first, I support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Adonis. I am also in favour of speakers’ lists for Questions, having discussed the matter with noble friends who have more experience than me. However, there are two other matters I want to raise: allowances and ballots for Oral Questions.
The issue of allowances is clearly germane to this debate. Whatever your view of remote participation and its effect on the work of the House, it has been of benefit by facilitating the participation of those who live some distance outside London. The return to the physical House will mean a big change for them, not least in the additional costs for accommodation that they will now have to bear. The unfortunate but inevitable effect is that it will limit their participation. The conclusion I draw, as argued forcefully by my noble friends Lord McConnell and Lord Elder, is that the current system of allowances needs to change to maintain the wider geographical participation that I am sure we all want to see. As someone who lives within walking distance of the House—or a short trip using my freedom pass —I have no personal interest in any change. I know nothing of how the present system is arrived at, although I appreciate the sensitivity of the issue. But, as a newcomer, it looks manifestly unfair. The return to physical sittings is the appropriate time for it to be reviewed. I am unclear whose responsibility this is, but I ask that the matter be given some genuine thought.
Then there is the issue of ballots for Oral Questions. I will focus on ballots for Oral Questions, but my remarks apply to all ballots. I am in favour of ballots rather than queues, but I suggest that the system of ballots needs to be improved. Virtually all the Members I have spoken to about the ballot system believe that they are discriminated against, even though the system is properly random. They feel that their Questions never get chosen, while others’ get chosen many times. This is inevitably determined in large part by how many Questions you ask, but the truth is that you can be randomly discriminated against. Luck may simply not be on your side. My suggestion is that in place of the present system, which is random selection with replacement, we move to random selection without replacement—at least for a specified period. In other words, those who get selected in one ballot will have less chance of being selected in those that follow. There are a number of ways by which this could be achieved, but at this stage I simply want the principle to be given some consideration.
I join others in congratulating the House authorities and all those involved in making this hybrid virtual Parliament work over the past 16 months. I also congratulate the leadership of the House. My noble friend the Leader of the House should take this as a compliment. She does not get many from me; I give her one—and others involved, as well.
These virtual hybrid sittings have been a lot better than nothing—they have allowed us to continue our work—but this has not been a parliamentary assembly. I agree with much that is in this report. I agree also with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who sadly is no longer in his place, on the business of opinion polls, which seem to me to be exactly the wrong way to go forward in the way we did. I note the lucidity of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay. Some people say there should be a retirement age in this House; I do not agree. Should I be spared and get into my 90s, like my noble and learned friend, I hope I have some element of the lucidity that he showed in his excellent speech.
I turn to the delicate subject, which people are particularly unhappy to discuss, of exemptions for disabled people. I listened intently to my noble friend Lord Shinkwin, who obviously has a personal and very good understanding of this. I can see that we can do an awful lot better. I, too, appreciate the excellent contributions of some of the disabled Peers here, who add enormously to our diversity and help us understand. I have had four hip operations, which is quite a lot, but I am not disabled. While appreciating that—and I see that we can do better—I quote the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, who said that the House authorities can help. I think the House authorities could probably help more. It is a question of looking at what help there can be. We should look again, for instance, at part 17 of the financial support document entitled Additional Financial Support Available to Members with a Disability. Of course, people who find it more difficult should have all the support they can. We should show all these people real respect. They make incredibly valuable contributions.
However, we should be cautious about how we view attendance. This is a parliamentary assembly—to take part, you need to assemble. It is about emotional geography, which my noble friend Lord Strathclyde referred to, apparently quoting the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy: talking to people, understanding the mood of the House—which noble Lords have referred to—and understanding the point of view of others. This, too, is important: disabled people who bring benefit to this House also need the assembly. They need the informal discussion and the spontaneity, which has been referred to. Therefore, we should be extremely cautious about how we proceed on that line.
Finally, as a former Deputy Chief Whip in the other place, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who said that there is a particular value to the Front Bench in listing speakers. For that reason, I do not agree with it. By so doing, there would be no spontaneity, as my noble friend Lord Cormack said, and no difficult questions. That is why I shall support my noble friend Lord Cormack in the Division.
I welcome some of the relatively modest procedural changes being proposed today, such as retaining lists for Oral Questions and changing our working hours to make them more family-friendly, argued very cogently by the noble Lord, Lord Adonis.
However, my main purpose today is, first, to register my deep disappointment that a real opportunity has been missed to overhaul and modernise our working practices, many of which were designed for a very different age, despite the many voices calling for change in our debate on 20 May, which seem to have been ignored. Secondly, while strongly welcoming the proposed new arrangements for those with long-term disabilities—I found the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, particularly poignant—I draw specific attention to the plight of those Members with long-term health conditions, the clinically extremely vulnerable, those with shorter-term disabilities and those with caring responsibilities, for whom no provision is being made after remote participation finishes.
My starting point in our debate in May was that the ability to participate remotely, while developed to deal with the pandemic, should continue in certain forms to give everyone in your Lordships’ House an equal chance to participate. I was not alone in voicing those sentiments.
We are taking decisions today on the future working practices of the House at the same time as the Government have decided—recklessly, in my view—to scrap all measures introduced to keep us safe in the face of rapidly rising infection rates driven by a far more transmissible variant. This has real consequences for those for whom leaving home to take public transport and entering public buildings, such as Parliament, will become impossible if they cannot guarantee that others will be wearing face coverings after that ceases to be a legal requirement. That includes Members of this House who are clinically extremely vulnerable, as well as those living with family members who fall into this category.
Parliament, as we all know, with its many small and narrow corridors, its very crowded areas around the Chamber and its really tightly packed Division Lobbies, is an extremely difficult building to make Covid-secure. So I ask the Leader of the House whether, in September, we will be following the Chief Medical Officer’s advice to continue to wear masks in crowded indoor spaces, of which this Chamber is clearly one? What assurances can she give me that concerns about overcrowding will be taken into account when new proposals to vote in person using pass readers are put to the House in the autumn?
For me, this is personal. Having had two knee operations in the last nine months, my mobility has been severely impaired, making me effectively housebound for much of the period. Using the Tube has been pretty much impossible for me. Participating remotely, which I have done continuously during this period, has been my only real means of participating and contributing. In brief, I have had a short-term disability. So yesterday I sought some advice from employment law experts on how the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 to provide reasonable adjustments applies to people who may not have a long-term disability, as defined in the Act, but nevertheless have an impairment which impacts on their ability to perform day-to-day activities. I was advised that any good employer would be expected to make reasonable adjustments in these circumstances. I was also advised that, if someone had caring responsibilities that required them, for example, to be present at a prescribed time to supervise medication, it would be considered discrimination by association not to make reasonable adjustments to allow them to do so, if the means existed—which they clearly do; the system for remote participation is up and running.
So will the Leader say what legal advice has been sought on how removing the ability to participate remotely for those relatively few noble Lords with real and genuine needs to do so complies with the Equality Act? Will she also explain why there was no consultation about the new arrangements for people like myself with shorter-term disabilities—those with post-operative restrictions, the clinically vulnerable, and so on—and why the definition of “disability” has been drawn so tightly?
Finally, I make a heartfelt plea that the House of Lords Commission, which will be overseeing the process for deciding who will be eligible for continued remote participation, will look again at the issues I have raised, in the hope that good sense and common decency will prevail.
My Lords, I join in thanking the staff for the very helpful way in which they have supported us during the last 16 or 18 months of the pandemic.
When we had the opinion poll, as described by my noble friend Lord Grocott, I voted in favour of lists, not because I like lists but because I feared that, if we rejected lists, we would go back to a situation of no change under any circumstances. My preferred choice would be to have the Lord Speaker choosing people to ask supplementaries. After my time in the Commons, I was absolutely shocked at Questions in our House. There are many things about our House that are better than in the Commons, but Question Time is certainly not one of them. I found it intimidating, I found that I was easily bullied—I still am—and there was no chance to be spontaneous; it was a matter of whether one had any chance at all of getting in.
By the way, I mean no disrespect to the right reverend Prelate when I say that the House gives way to the Bishops’ Bench. They have a better chance, so I do not think he should vote in support of the amendment to the Motion suggesting that we should have lists. My preference is absolutely to have a Lord Speaker doing the selection of Members to ask supplementaries, so I shall certainly support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe. I remember the days of the queues, not so long ago, to try to get a Question, sitting outside the Table Office. One had to sit sometimes for two hours in advance. It was totally ludicrous. Passers-by said, “Whatever are you doing here?” Two hours of your time, maybe even longer if you wanted to be certain, and then the undignified bearpit process of trying to get in on a supplementary.
Of course we need flexibility. I believe in the Lord Speaker choosing people. I am sure the Lord Speaker would be pretty fair to those with disabilities; would be fair in terms of choosing people specialising in the subject, rather than anybody; and would be fair in terms of timing if he or she had some flexibility in terms of giving more time to one question than to another. All that, to my mind, would be a matter of spontaneity, so I shall support with enthusiasm the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe.
As regards voting on the estate, of course there have to be exceptions and we have to define what a “place of work” is, but I think that, unless people have disabilities, all people should vote on the estate. I did not quite follow the excellent speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, in one respect, about Millbank House, because, under the proposed system, as I understand it, she would be able to vote from Millbank House. I am in Millbank House myself and I am bound to say that, while I move pretty quickly—or I did before the pandemic—I found sometimes that getting to a vote from Millbank House when a Division was called took some time because of traffic at the pedestrian crossing and so on. As for Portcullis House, coming over for a Division takes some doing. I know Members of our House who never go to meetings in Portcullis House because, if there were to be a Division, they simply would not get back in time.
While we are on this, I support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Adonis. I remember when we used to sit very late, which might still be the case this autumn, and I had to make sure I knew the timing: my last Tube home was at 12.35 am and I would race to get the last Tube to save a £40 or £50 taxi fare. So I understand the difficulties and I am well aware that I can move quickly and Members of this House who are not able to move so quickly, or who are disabled and can hardly move at all, should have better provision made for them than is the case now.
To conclude, I support my noble friend Lord Adonis in his suggestion of different timings. I am on the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and we always meet on a Wednesday afternoon. One has to forgo either the Select Committee or what is going on in the Chamber. This is quite possible and it is normal to have to juggle timings a bit, so that one can decide whether one is in a Select Committee or whether one is in the Chamber. As I said earlier, I very firmly support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe. I do not believe we can go on with the present system, or that the list system will be able to continue. Surely it is not a breach of our traditions of being a self-governing House if we stop the bearpit that characterised Question Time up to the pandemic.
My Lords, when I entered the House of Lords 21 years ago, I never imagined that one day I would be moving and debating amendments to government legislation remotely from my dining room table. Much of the technology that we have come to use every day did not exist at that time. Had this pandemic happened even a few years earlier than it did, I am not sure how Parliament would have coped. As Covid-19 restrictions ease and the world starts to open, it makes sense that increasingly Members return to the Chamber.
I note the moves by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and others to restore the normal working practices of the House to what they were prior to the pandemic. While I understand this desire to uphold the traditions of the place, it would in my view be a mistake not to embrace the various changes and improvements that have happened during this time—in particular, the use of technology, which we now have an opportunity to incorporate into normal practice going forward.
I welcome moves to allow those with a long-term disability to continue to work remotely. My personal experience of participating remotely at the start was very mixed, as, like many of us, I struggled with using this technology at first. However, as things turned out, it was very fortunate for me that Parliament was working remotely. In October last year, I was diagnosed with advanced cancer and over the next six months I went through a course of intensive chemotherapy. During this time, the Domestic Abuse Bill came to the Lords and, due to remote participation, I was able to table and speak on amendments aiming to prevent the abuse of older people, which I have continued to do. Had it not been for remote proceedings, my involvement in this and other legislation during this time would have been significantly less or nil. Also, were it not for remote Divisions, I would have struggled to vote on this and other important legislation. For Members who have health or disability issues, the hybrid proceedings model is very good and removes barriers to participating.
I also welcome and fully support the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, proposing that the House meets at 1 pm on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, rather than at 2.30 pm to 3 pm, as the Government propose. As the noble Lord outlined, starting later means less time for questions and debates, and means Divisions happening later in the evening, when potentially fewer Peers will vote.
I will not, however, support the amendments in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Balfe. For those concerned with the traditions of this place, I would argue that, in implementing hybrid proceedings and remote Divisions over the last year, the Lords have in fact upheld one of the greatest traditions of the world’s oldest Parliament. During this crisis, the House showed resilience and agility by finding a way to uphold its important constitutional role in challenging times, as it has done so often in our nation’s past. The House of Lords, often perceived as stuffy and old fashioned, has in fact shown the world how a modern Parliament can embrace technology and change—something it has done much better, in my view, than the other place.
My Lords, I will not detain your Lordships for more than a little while. First, I share the tributes paid by almost every noble Lord who has spoken to the staff and supporters of the House, who have kept us operating in a hybrid manner since these difficulties arose a year or more ago.
First, I am afraid I do not agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, is proposing in his amendment to the Motion. I believe that we should sit rather later in the day than we do at present because, as several noble Lords have said, it will allow experts in other fields to practise their profession before they come here. That is sometimes very important.
Secondly, I agree with what my noble friend Lord Cormack is proposing. I speak with some experience in this matter: I think I still hold the record for having answered more questions from the government Dispatch Box than any Minister, ever. I have perhaps been overtaken by my noble friend Lord Bethell more recently, but I think at one point I had answered 900 questions, so I can claim some knowledge and experience. It is right that Ministers should be properly answerable when they face questions, and I am therefore not in favour of a pre-printed list of speakers and hope that we will not proceed with that.
Finally, on the amendment proposed by my noble friend Lord Balfe, I am not necessarily against the idea of the noble Lord the Lord Speaker calling questioners, but we would need to provide some guidance for him if that is to be implemented, in which case I might not necessarily oppose it.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in paying tribute to the amazing efforts of our superb staff.
I have found the debate today fascinating and of a high order. However, it is a pity that it is taking place after the committee has agreed its report and not before. I suspect that is the reason that the committee seems to have combined the worst aspects of how we worked pre Covid with the worst aspects of our current working. As a result, we risk ending up with a House out of kilter with modern working practices, anaesthetised debate and further control exercised by the Government and party Whips. My noble friend Lord Grocott gave a very good illustration of that.
Why are we not allowing flexible working to continue? Up and down the country, employers are adjusting to what we have learned during the pandemic—that more flexible working suits employees and employers. Yet here we are insisting that we all must return to the old way of working. The Government even want us to return to outdated working hours. As my noble friend Lord Adonis has argued, working late into the evening is not conducive to effective working. Only the Government gain from the House starting its business in the middle of the afternoon, leaving far less time for questions, debates and, mostly crucially of all, votes in prime time, before attendance drops off rapidly after 6 pm. Why should we be so destructive of family life?
My second concern, which I share with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is about the recommendation to keep speakers’ lists for Oral Questions. Oral Questions should provide the pivotal moment for the House. In normal circumstances, the House is full, and Ministers are on their mettle as questions come at them from all sides—questions which, at their best, are short, spontaneous and follow the debate, rather than pre-packaged. Sadly, Oral Questions during Covid have been anything but. Even with the extension of 10 minutes, not everyone on the full list of speakers always gets in. This is due to long-winded questions followed by often pre-ordained questions read out by some Members seemingly oblivious to what the Minister has said or to the debate that has gone before. Frankly, it has become a bore, where Ministers get away with much and often answer in kind with their own long and laboured responses. I appreciate that there has been a vote on this, and I understand that some Members did not like the unruly nature of Oral Questions before the pandemic, but surely my noble friend Lord Grocott was right about the binary nature of the question. I ask the Senior Deputy Speaker: why were we not asked about the timings of the House? Why are we not allowed to discuss and vote on whether we should have a proper Speaker?
If we are to have 10 minutes and a speakers’ list for each Question, surely, if Members know in advance that they are going to be on the list, it is not asking too much of them to stick to the advisory time limit for their words. If they do not, why can they not be pulled up immediately? This is not happening because, of course, the Lord Speaker is not able to call order. Those who argue against the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, say that it is the end of self-regulation. Well, I am afraid that self-regulation is not working. When I first came to the House in 1997, it did—Members gladly gave way to others, but that no longer pertains. The current role of the Leader in assisting the House does not seem to be working. I do not think there is any substitute for us having a Speaker who can ensure that some of the issues raised today about the difficulties of, say, disabled Members getting in, can be dealt with. It would retain the essential spontaneity that we need.
I will vote for all three amendments, but I appeal to the Senior Deputy Speaker to reflect hard on this debate, go back to his committee and, over the Recess, work on a new scheme to put to us in the autumn. At the least, he should agree to an extensive review of our procedures in the autumn, taking full account of Members’ views and allowing us to become the modern and effective Chamber we all want to be.
My Lords, I fully support the Procedure and Privileges Committee’s report and the decision for the House to return to as normal as possible with your Lordships being present in the House, except, of course, severely disabled Members. It is also important that we return to the practice that your Lordships should be physically in the—[Inaudible.]
Could my noble friend the Minister clarify whether Members of your Lordships’ House are obliged to attend Select Committee meetings physically or whether they will still be able to continue attending online? I am not talking about anyone who is giving evidence. Will it still be illegal to attend any meeting from a car or train if we continue to be able to participate remotely?
Legislation was passed during the Covid lockdown without any debate in your Lordships’ House and without any votes. This diktat is considered legal as it is included now in the Standing Orders. This point does not—[Inaudible.] I wonder whether it could be clarified by the Minister for your Lordships.
The noble Baroness keeps cutting out so it is probably best that we move to the next speaker.
Yes, the next speaker is the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, who is present.
Do not cut out!
My Lords, I will try not to. Just about everything that can be said in this debate has been said, so I am going to say a bit more. I ask noble Lords to notice that I am speaking just before the wind-up speeches from the leaders of the two main opposition parties. I underline that the Cross-Benchers are not a party or group. I see the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is not in his place, but could somebody remind him that I have said that? I am speaking on behalf of myself and nobody else.
I support the Senior Deputy Speaker’s report, but then I would, would I not? I am a member of the commission and of the Procedure and Privileges Committee. There are so many committees that I am a member of, I can probably speak for every single committee in this House.
I think we are envisaging a return to a pre-pandemic normal but one that is enlightened by some of what we have learned in dealing with the pandemic. There are a number of matters I could draw to noble Lords’ attention. We have discussed disability. I am so glad about that; the Cross-Benchers raised it almost at the very outset. There was an absolute unanimity of view that we had to use our new technological skills to ensure that disabled people could continue to play their part in the House. I am absolutely delighted that that is going to happen.
I do not support the amendments but I respect them. I am one of those larks: I love getting up in the morning and there was a time when I actually used to enjoy getting up for work in the morning. I am not an owl, so I am attracted to earlier starts—though 1 pm is not that early. But before we agree to that amendment, could we check that we would not be reducing the contribution made to this House by experts who continue to use their expertise outside this House?
Some noble Lords referred to the grand people, the doctors and the lawyers, but what about the engineers, teachers, university professors and—if I may say so to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones—the environmentalists, who are still at work? They have a contribution to make and we need to be very careful that we do not adjust the times and lose their contributions. I am not saying that it will happen, but it is not something that we should plunge into.
I am also a little concerned about the work of Select Committees. We now have many more Select Committees. We do not have the proper facilities for all of them: a facilities room with audio, broadcasting facilities, facilities to work in a hybrid fashion. We need to check that, if we have an earlier time, we will not make it more difficult for members of committees to attend the Chamber. They have an invaluable contribution to make and should not be disqualified because they are simply following their duties as members of a committee.
I have great sympathy with the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack; I was one of those in the minority when the ballot took place. I believe—and continue to believe notwithstanding the result of the ballot—that speakers’ lists for Oral Questions have been disadvantageous to everybody except Ministers. Ministers have got away with obfuscation for 18 months now. We are not doing anything about it if we have a speakers’ list. However, the House took a different view: a view which I respect and do not share. We have to abide by it, at any rate for the time being.
We have to be careful not to get carried away about how discourteous everybody is during Oral Questions. Yes, there are some people who behave badly; most of us do not. I think it is also very bad behaviour for people to go on asking questions at great length so that numbers eight, nine and 10 on the list do not get reached. It is a different form of discourtesy, but it is discourtesy nevertheless.
As for the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, there is a very important principle involved. We need to consider whether we rewrite the way in which the House conducts its business in relation to the principle of self-regulation. It is a principle; chapter 4 of the Companion to the Standing Orders is absolutely clear about it, and there is a lot of chapter 4. The Lord Speaker
“observes the same formalities as any other member of the House, addressing the House as a whole, and not an individual member”.
There is much to be discussed in the noble Lord’s amendment but it is appropriate for examination in a single-issue debate, not as an add-on to this debate, because it has some very fundamental questions to answer about the way the House does its business. Let us return to the enlightened normality.
I will add one word recognising one speech in particular: did not the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, speak a great deal of sense about government control of the way we do our work?
My Lords, I echo the comments of the Leader of the House and others about the way in which the staff rose to the challenge of introducing a century and a half of change into your Lordships’ House in about three weeks. That was most impressive, and they deserve all our thanks.
I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who I am rather distressed to see is not in his place, who said that we should return as if there had been no pandemic and then think about whether we want to make any changes. No organisation does that. That seems to be the worst of all worlds, whatever changes you then decide to make. I am very pleased we have not adopted that approach.
Of the changes that are being proposed, which take account of a changed ability to do things, the two most significant are: first, the continuing support we are going to give to disabled people; and, secondly, electronic voting. As far as allowing disabled people to participate in your Lordships’ House virtually in future goes, this is a tremendous improvement to the way we do things. Over a long period, we have said that we are very keen that your Lordships’ House should have disabled Members, but then made it impossible, in effect, for them to participate in many cases. Allowing them to participate in all cases where they are physically able to do so from their own homes is clearly an advantage.
The only wrinkle I put on what has already been agreed is that I hope that when the group that looks at these things does so, it will adopt a pretty wide definition of what is allowable for people who are disabled to continue to participate. In today’s debate two particular categories of people have been mentioned, beyond those who are already covered by the disability scheme.
The first is those who are clinically extremely vulnerable as we come out of the worst effects of Covid but have not left it. It would seem perverse if people who are clinically extremely vulnerable now, but do not have a long-term disability and have been able to participate for the last 18 months, should be denied that ability for a few months until they are allowed to come back.
I also think we should look further at the suggestion made by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, about short-term disability. She gave an example of her own case. Another case might be if a noble Lord on the Government Front Bench broke their leg in the middle of a Bill. Why should that Minister not be able to participate from home when they are still perfectly capable intellectually but have a short-term disability? We need to look at that as part of what is, in general terms, a very welcome change.
Secondly, on electronic voting, it is a huge improvement to be contemplating not voting through the Lobbies. Many of us have spent many of the happiest hours of our lives chatting to chums shuffling through the Lobbies, but the alleged benefits of being able to nobble Ministers and others going through the Lobbies is, frankly, greatly overdone. Having the continuing use of modern technology to vote, thus saving time, is a great boon.
I hope, though, that we will allow voting to take place in Millbank House, for the reasons my noble friend Lady Brinton and others gave. I hope we will allow people to use their passes and pass readers in the Committee Corridor so that we do not have a whole corridor of people traipsing down from a committee, sometimes several times during the committee, then traipsing back up again. It will save a lot of time.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, made a suggestion I had not heard before but has a lot to recommend it: that we should be able to vote in Portcullis House. It is quite difficult getting back from Portcullis House anyway, but many Members of your Lordships’ House go there for meetings of all-party groups and party groups, and other meetings. It would make our lives easier without undermining any principle of being on the estate at the point at which votes are taken.
I note the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, about the problems we might have in defining working areas in September and sanctions relating to that. I would just point out to him that we are talking about a couple of weeks, we hope, during which this system will operate. I would not have thought it would cause too many problems.
I had a lot of sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, when he said we might have missed one or two tricks in what we are planning to do. Personally, I think there is a lot to recommend the proposals made during our debate on 20 May to allow people who live several hours away to participate in non-legislative business. Again, it would broaden the number of people that could speak and I do not think it would undermine any principle of democracy that your Lordships’ House rightly holds dear. We have had that debate, however, in the commission and elsewhere. I think the case simply has not been won, but that is a pity.
On the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, my interest is to return to spontaneity because, as a leader, if I get up I can certainly trump people behind me, as I have found out to their fury in the past. Therefore, I have no personal benefit in having a speakers’ list. I should also say, without going too far into the substance of this, that the idea that Ministers have been obfuscating in their answers just over the last 18 months is, to put it mildly, stretching the point.
The important thing about what we do next is that we have asked people what they think. The noble Lords, Lord Cormack and Lord Grocott, described this as an opinion poll. It is as though you had a general election and, instead of having a vote, you had an opinion poll in which 40 million people voted, because over 500 people voted in this opinion poll. As to whether they knew what they were doing or whether we debated or thought about it, I remind your Lordships that we had had a full day’s debate on 20 May in which this issue was discussed at some length, among many others. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, probably remembers it.
We have also had 15 months of actually operating the system. It is not a new system. People are not wondering how it might work; we know how it has worked up until now. People have formed a view about whether they think it was beneficial. In my view, this is a perfectly valid ballot of Members. I agree that it is contentious, but that is why the Procedure Committee decided to have the ballot in the first place—because opinion was sharply divided in that committee and probably more evenly balanced than in your Lordships’ House as a whole. It is slightly odd that Members of your Lordships’ House object to being asked their views on something, rather than allowing a committee to push something forward on its evenly balanced view.
The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, also talked about the report from the Procedure Committee. We will debate that at some length next week, and there is certainly no question of issues not being debated in your Lordships’ House. But the one thing I really took issue with the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about was the suggestion that, in some way, the operation of that committee is a denial of natural justice. I just do not believe that is the case. If anybody who sat through the debate on the case of Lord Lester of Herne Hill believes that was natural justice and what we have now is not, then I am afraid their definition of natural justice is very different from mine.
There are questions about what exactly we do with Question Time. The proposal from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, for example, was really interesting and one we should consider.
The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, falls if you accept that the ballot we had stands, so I do not intend to discuss that.
The final amendment was from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis. I have considerable sympathy with the view that we start somewhat earlier, for the reasons he gave. However, his amendment does only part of the job. I would support it to a greater extend if it were coupled with a firm proposal that the House finish earlier as a matter of course if we start earlier. At present, we sit early but, as last night’s midnight finish demonstrated, we are sitting longer and still at ridiculously late hours. However, this is a live and important issue, and I hope, given the concerns that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and others expressed, that this is something that the Procedure Committee will return to after the summer, whatever the outcome of the vote we have this afternoon.
That principle of returning to things applies to everything else. Nothing is set in stone. We must continue to evolve, as we have done in recent months, by experience. By accepting the proposals before us, we are taking the best of what we have done differently over recent months without closing the door to further improvements. I commend the report to the House.
My Lords, this has been a long and interesting debate. It shows the challenges the Procedure Committee faces: just because a Member of the House thinks one thing, it does not mean there is an automatic cohort of others that agree on that point. There are a lot of crossed interests and different views, which strikes to the heart of the issue. When we looked at the different issues, it was felt that fundamental and significant change could not be proposed by the Procedure Committee unless there was widespread agreement on it and these were things we would return to on another day. I will come back to that.
I concur with all the comments that have been made about the staff of the House and the way they responded to our demands. When we initially had to become remote and then hybrid there was no blueprint and no equipment; we were starting absolutely from scratch. The Leader of the House, the leaders of other groups and the Convenor will recall the many meetings over many days and long hours when they were contacting us and serving us well to ensure we could operate. I think that the noble Baroness said that they served their purpose, and they did, because we have been able to function as a House, albeit not in the way we would genuinely wish to.
It is worth reflecting on the past 16 months. I have to say, 16 months ago, I thought that Zoom was an ice lolly, I had never heard of Teams and the words “Can you unmute?” were not ones that came easily. We have all learned a lot. Last Tuesday, I celebrated an important personal milestone of the pandemic: in addition to being in the Chamber, I had seven meetings, none of which took place over Zoom. They were all physical meetings because they were small groups in larger rooms. It was a much better experience with better outcomes and was not so exhausting.
Few, I think, would argue that conducting all the proceedings remotely or in a hybrid way is ideal. It has not been easy. There were the doubters who said that we would never cope with it. As we have heard today, we have had our moments, including asking “Can you hear me?” and “Can you unmute?” and having people drop out. However, if it were not for the people who made that happen—I pay particular tribute to the staff who developed and managed the Peers’ hub; it has been an excellent innovation and I hope that we keep it to a very large extent—we would not have done something that others doubted we could do. We have excelled ourselves. I still think that our Peers’ hub remote voting is significantly better than the nonsense we have seen at the other end of the building, with a conga to go and vote, then proxy voting. I would never be comfortable with somebody voting on my behalf; I would much rather do it myself.
However, we also have to look at the deficiencies. Too often, our debates have taken much longer. Yesterday was a prime example: the House sat from noon—lunchtime—until two minutes to 12 last night. We know the difficulties. It is easy enough to make a speech or make a point remotely, but it is far harder to debate, discuss and engage. We have managed it, but not in the way we would like.
The committee’s report has my support, which is not to say that it is not a compromise. The decision on electronic voting came from the debate on 20 May when more than 70 Members of your Lordships’ House took part. There was strong support for retaining the Peers’ hub or some form of electronic voting but views were divided, although they were mainly in support of voting on the premises, not remotely, in view of the fact that voting is quite a collective activity. I think one noble Lord admitted that they got it wrong because they were not with colleagues. I am agnostic on where the voting terminals should be when we move to voting without the Peers’ hub. We must look at what will benefit the House and our debates. Voting is a political activity and when we are together we engage in that political debate, which is important.
A few noble Lords said that this is the wrong way round and that we are having the vote on the Peers’ hub and the decision on the committee’s report before we have had the debate. There was a debate on 20 May to which the Procedure Committee and noble Lords listened carefully before proceeding with a way forward. However, as I have said, it was also felt that, where there was fundamental and significant change—I have no doubt that there will be further change—it should done by agreement and having the opportunity, when the House returns physically and is not just working remotely or in a hybrid way, to consider some of these matters further.
I welcome what the report said about disabilities. I was initially concerned—I expressed this to your Lordships’ House—that it was saying that, for Members with disabilities, we should offer the opportunity to work remotely. First and foremost, we want to ensure that we do as much as we possibly can as a House to ensure that those with disabilities can participate fully in the work of the House. If part of that is through remote working, it should be undertaken, but it should never be the default position that somebody with a disability is asked to work remotely, unless it is in their interests and they wish to do so.
In many ways, I am slightly disappointed that so much of the debate concerned Oral Questions; I suppose it is because of the ballot we had through the Peers’ hub. To me, the most important thing that this House does—that is not to demean the role of Questions and Statements—is our legislative work and the role we play in legislation which, to me, has been the hardest part to undertake in a hybrid way. Those who have been engaged in legislation have often done so until very late at night; we talked about the Environment Bill last night, but when we were considering the Fisheries Bill and other legislation, the House regularly sat until midnight. The point was made my noble friend Lord Adonis and others that we are not at our best when we are starting at 12 pm and finishing at 12 am. I hope that more physical debates on legislation will ensure that we do not have those very long sittings. They were not helpful to anybody and often became exchanges of speeches that sometimes do not relate to other speeches that were made earlier when we had had a proper debate on legislation in the Chamber.
I want to look at the amendments in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Balfe and Lord Cormack. I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that I concur with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Newby: whether we agree or not—although I did not vote, I would have voted the other way, to remove the speakers’ lists—the House took a decision. When we discussed this with the Procedure Committee, it was decided that we would review it at a later date because Members may feel differently when we are back physically and there should be the opportunity to look at all these decisions then. However, it is not fair to say, “I don’t like this decision. I therefore want to change it”, so I cannot support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. It will be reviewed by the committee, as the committee agreed; it is right that we should do that because, when we return physically, we may have a different view.
There has not been a golden age of Ministers answering questions fully or us having proper scrutiny of those Ministers, but I do think that Questions are conducted better without lists. However, it is the choice of the House, and I think that it was possibly a majority of the members of the Procedure Committee who preferred to keep the lists. We felt that, because there was a difference of view across the House, the House should take that decision, rather than the usual channels or the Procedure Committee. It will be reviewed when we return.
I say the same as the Lord Speaker: I have some sympathy with this. The House does not cover itself in glory when Members get shouted down. I wince when it is regarded as an issue for female Members of the House—I have never had great difficulty in making myself heard—but it can be for inexperienced Members who are perhaps not used to a political setting and find it uncomfortable. However, again, for me, that matter comes under the more fundamental change that, when the House sits physically, the Members who are here can consider. So I cannot support the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on this point either.
We have an opportunity in the next few months. My noble friend Lord Grocott mentioned six months; in fact, that was the timescale I put to the Senior Deputy Speaker and the Leader in terms of reviewing matters. When we are back physically and have done things in a certain way for six months, we will have a sense of what works and what does not. We will have such an opportunity with Questions. Oral Questions and UQs will have a list but Statements and PNQs will not, so we will have an opportunity to compare the two and see which the House prefers. That is a good way to take this forward. I hope that noble Lords will not press their amendments to a vote tonight but instead accept that these matters will be reviewed.
I always listen to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, with great respect. However, I take issue with one thing he said today: that this is a part-time House. It is not a part-time House. We are a full-time House. We actually sit longer than the House of Commons. We do have part-time Members; this House has never expected all its Members to be full-time Members. Saying that this is a part-time House misunderstands and misrepresents the scale of the work that we do and the issues that we raise. Racism in football, for example, has not been addressed by the other House yet but it was addressed in this House today through a PNQ. I am sure that the noble and learned Lord did not mean to, but we should not demean the role of this House.
I have great sympathy with my noble friend Lord Adonis, who spoke very powerfully. Indeed, his speech mirrored something that I raised with members of the Procedure Committee and the Leader early on: not that we should start earlier and finish earlier, but that we should examine that. A number of committees take place and a number of issues are raised. Many Members of the House are engaged not just in outside activities but in activities in your Lordships’ House, such as meetings with Ministers and working on Bills. Some also have to travel. Those who work on legislation play quite a detailed role in getting ready for that day’s work. This is something that we should discuss.
However, the worst reason I have ever heard for opposing my noble friend’s amendment was the comment from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. I regret to say this to the noble Lord, but the idea that we should sit later because it is helpful to have lunch with people does a great disservice to the many Members of this House working internally and externally, getting ready for legislation and Bills, and preparing speeches to ensure that they are fully prepared when they come to your Lordships’ House. I hope he will reflect on that comment as we move forward.
However—call me a cynic—my noble friend’s amendment is one side of the equation but not the other. I am nervous: knowing the battles that my noble friend Lord Kennedy, and previously my noble friend Lord McAvoy, had in trying to get the Government not to sit too late into the night but to have proceedings end at a reasonable time, like 10 pm, I am really concerned that, if his amendment was accepted as it stands on the Order Paper today, we would find ourselves sitting at 1 pm and going later and later. If we change the hours, there should be a debate in this House, and full consideration of the impact across the House, on having an earlier start time and just moving the day forward. I would accept that, but that is not what his amendment does. I hope he will reflect on that. I think it is something the Procedure Committee will reflect on, take soundings on and come back to, but I do not think passing an amendment today that just says we will sit at 1 pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays really makes the point or addresses the issues in the way we would wish to. I regret to say to my noble friend that I would not be able to vote for that amendment, although I would very much like to revisit the hours at which the House sits as we move forward.
I have two further brief points to make. When the commissioners met, we predicated all these things on when the House returns physically, which we expect to be on 6 September. There has to be some doubt, with the rise in infections, that this will be the case. The delta, or Johnson, variant is actually quite rampant now. I hope it is the case; I certainly am longing to return to our physical proceedings. But I hope the noble Baroness can make a commitment that the commission will meet prior to that to confirm or, only if essential, delay in the light of prevailing circumstances.
Secondly, the Government have said that they will stop the free tests. If that is the case, and the Covid tests are not made available, I hope that your Lordships’ House will continue to provide a testing regime for those who work in the Palace.
My Lords, I respect all the points made this afternoon. It has been a very thought-provoking debate. I have no doubt that my words will not satisfy most in all regards, other than that I think we all recognise how much we have gained from the experiences we have gone through but want better times ahead. In the words of the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, the package of proposals before your Lordships is designed to facilitate a return to “a fuller, livelier and more effective House” when we return in September.
Of course, I join the noble Baroness, as almost all noble Lords who spoke did, in thanking everyone. In my turn, I thank all noble Lords and particularly all members of staff for working together. This is a very important point: we have all worked together on these matters in rising to the challenges presented to us by the pandemic. It has been a period of innovation and exceptionally hard work. Again, I want to emphasise, because there have been words about this, that I identify the House I have had the privilege to be in for 11 years with hard work. I think noble Lords work extremely hard, as do the people who come to work here as well as us. These efforts meant that, working at an unprecedented pace, the House was able to find ways to continue its work despite the constraints. In recognising how much has been achieved, we all also understand that we have lost some of the character and spontaneity of our proceedings. The proposals before your Lordships today represent seeking to return to that character but incorporate elements of the practices we have adopted during the pandemic which the committee believes have worked well. I say also to all noble Lords that the committee—and indeed the commission—considered with all seriousness the points made in the debate of 20 May, but also much discussion on all these matters.
Turning to the amendments before your Lordships, that in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, invites us to set the House’s start time at 1 pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. As mentioned in the report of the Procedure and Privileges Committee, the House would otherwise revert—should the report and the Leader of the House’s Business of the House Motion be agreed to—to the pre-existing sitting times of 2.30 pm on Mondays and Tuesdays and 3 pm on Wednesdays. As has always been the case, the diversity of the membership of this House and the range of commitments that noble Lords maintain mean that it is not possible to find times that suit everyone. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, generously raised that as part of his speech. For some Members, earlier sitting times would undoubtedly be more convenient, potentially allowing for an earlier finish—although the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, suggested that there have not always been early finishes as well. However, I am particularly mindful of other noble Lords who come from across the United Kingdom and the importance of ensuring that all Peers from all parts of the United Kingdom can attend this House in reasonable time. Earlier sittings would undoubtedly be difficult to accommodate on certain days of the week, and this is what I picked up from Peers from across the United Kingdom. As referred to, there are others who may have significant commitments outside the House, but from whom we want to hear the essential contributions that they make in afternoon and later proceedings.
Having taken on this post, I am also mindful of the immense work that your Lordships undertake in Select Committees and other bodies, which tend to make full use of mornings in particular for meetings. I refer particularly to Wednesdays, because the later start enables some group meetings which do not conflict with Select Committees to be convened before the House sits. The sitting times have evolved over the years. While I will, I am afraid, ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment, I have no doubt that the points raised are very pertinent, and we will want to keep them under review. In other words, to do a very quick flick, as it were, to 1 pm would have consequences that I would not advise going into at this juncture. But I think we want to consider all these points because, after all, our purpose is the smooth running of the House.
The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, regrets the proposal from the committee to have speakers’ lists for Oral Questions and Questions to Lords Ministers who are full members of Cabinet, and it asks the committee to reconsider this point by 31 October. The committee recognised in our deliberations that there were good arguments on both sides of the matter over speakers’ lists for Questions. On the one hand, there are those who value principally the spontaneity of unlisted questions. On the other, there are those who value the scope for lists to enable what has been a wider range of noble Lords to ask questions and—I wrestle with how to put this—perhaps a less boisterous atmosphere in which to ask a question.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, in particular led the charge of complaint about this consultation. I understand that many of your Lordships did not like the fact that a majority of noble Lords voted in the way that they did. I would say to the noble Lord and to others that it is surprising the number of noble Lords who have come to me and said, “How refreshing to be consulted in this way; what an innovation. It hasn’t happened quite this way before. Are you sure you’re not going to turn into a radical Senior Deputy Speaker?”
I thought that might amuse a few.
We did genuinely want to hear—and I say the word “genuinely” very seriously—what the feel of the House was. One of the things we have all missed is distinguishing the mood of the House. What are the shrill voices with a pet subject? What is the general context in which the mood of the House gathers as we try to do things well?
The number of noble Lords who took part in the consultation on this question was 551. A clear majority favoured having lists, and that majority informed the committee’s decision about what to propose to the House. I hope this is very clear: it is, of course, a decision for the House itself to take. As a committee, we took a responsible line. There were so many different views at the debate on 20 May and we wanted your Lordships to express a view so that, in our mind, we could be responsible in bringing something back that we thought might meet the mood of the House at the moment, and I stress the words “at the moment”.
As I have said, the effect of the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is to mandate a review of this decision by 31 October. I respectfully suggest that the amendment is not necessary, given that the committee is committed to reviewing this and other arrangements after we have had some experience of their operation. Only five sitting weeks are likely to have taken place by the noble Lord’s deadline, within which I assume the committee would also need to have conducted its review. With a majority of 97, the result of the consultation—I repeat that it was a consultation—was clear, but the committee’s report states that the operation of speakers’ lists will be kept under review. I say particularly to the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, that we can gauge the effect of operating lists, noting of course that lists will not extend to Private Notice Questions, Urgent Question repeats and Statement repeats, so we will all be able to compare and contrast within the dynamics of the House meeting in person.
The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, would ask the committee to produce proposals for a Commons-style Question Time, with the Lord Speaker given the role of selecting and calling noble Lords to ask questions, rather than operating on either self-regulation or the list system as proposed by the committee. As with the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, the committee would be charged with presenting the alternative by 31 October. The noble Lord’s proposal is a fundamental one: moving your Lordships’ House from self-regulation to what, in effect, would be regulation by the Woolsack. Today’s Motions are about the return from the hybrid House, alongside the changes that the committee recommends should be retained. Before we take any further steps, I suggest to your Lordships that we should see how the House responds to the list system for some Questions and self-regulation for Urgent Questions, PNQs and Statements. I believe that is a good basis on which we can make some sound consideration.
As well as the constitutional and procedural dimension to the proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, there are some important practical aspects that I believe I should pose. Our Chamber is not the same as that in the other place. The position of the Table places the clerks at a considerable distance from the Woolsack, unlike in the Commons where they sit in front of the Speaker’s Chair, for accessing officials’ advice. Even with the wonders of instant messaging technology, this would be more challenging without work to reorganise our Chamber. The Lord Speaker sitting on the Woolsack is also, with no disrespect, much less well placed to see noble Lords in all corners of the Chamber than is Mr Speaker from his raised position in the Chair. None of these points would be insurmountable, but I do not want the House to consider that making the change proposed by the noble Lord is simple or straightforward. My view is that we should first look at how we return to the House, and see how the House fares, before we make decisions such as that.
A number of other very important points were made by noble Lords, in particular the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton, Lady Goudie and Lady Tyler of Enfield. We will continue to follow public health rules and guidance. The important question of eligibility for virtual participation has been under consideration by the commission. It has been agreed that requests should be considered by the additional support group. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, that this was a group established by the commission last year to decide on requests for additional financial support from Members with disabilities. It was felt that this group would be well placed to consider requests for virtual participation as well. I will chair that group alongside the three Chief Whips and the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers. I understand that some Peers may wish to avail themselves of this eligibility in readiness for 6 September. We will make sure we circulate details for requests for continued remote participation very shortly, in the next day or so.
I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who I was delighted to meet 10 days ago. He made a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, made as well. The noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, also raised this in terms of the integral nature of all Members of this House and the work they undertake. If we are not doing this as well as we should—and there is always room for improvement—we need to find ways of ensuring that all Members, particularly those with long-term disabilities, see coming to the House as a natural way of engaging. At no point do any of us want the message to be that remote voting is the option for those noble Lords. We gain so much from their presence in this House, but we also recognise that we need to ensure that when their disability is such that they cannot attend, they are in a position not only to vote but to participate wherever that is possible.
Further work is being done on ventilation. The main ventilation in committees is fresh air—an interesting point to make in London. The level of ventilation in the Chamber and a selection of Lords Committee Rooms has been assessed by the monitoring as satisfactory, but it was a well-made point that it is something we should always consider.
On the point the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, raised about degrouping, we deliberately used the word “discourage”. For the assistance of the House and of all noble Lords, in particular the Opposition Front Bench—which perhaps does not have some of the support mechanisms that the Government Front Bench has—degrouping is unreasonable unless there is a really strong reason for it. That is why we brought that forward. Again, it is for the smooth running of the House and the certainty of your Lordships.
On the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, we deliberately said that all noble Lords voting using PeerHub will be asked by the system to confirm that they are voting from a place of work on the Parliamentary Estate. They will be able to proceed to cast their vote only if they confirm that they are. I would be remiss if I did not draw all noble Lords’ attention to the existing requirement in the code for us all to act on our
“personal honour in the performance of”
our “parliamentary duties and activities”.
We should all be mindful, clearly, that we are voting for the laws of this land. This needs to be an event that we take with due seriousness. I think noble Lords should, with respect to the noble and learned Lord, understand that a place of work means, overwhelmingly, as it says, on the Parliamentary Estate. That is what we decided was the best way of defining this. I know it is not precise, but we thought this was the most pragmatic way for this interim system. Committees are in a position to decide for themselves when they meet, and remote witnesses have undoubtedly worked very well.
I am reminded by the Whip that I should conclude. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate and assure your Lordships that the Procedure and Privileges Committee will continue to reflect on the points made about how the House works. My purpose and that of the committee is to enable your Lordships and our work to flourish. Following the debate on 20 May and many discussions, we have sought to bring forward a series of Motions that we believe will be helpful to the House—not just to noble Lords but to our excellent staff. The Motions in my name and that of the Lord Privy Seal return the House, as from 6 September, to its original procedures, with some important innovations. We have responded, rightly, to the request that Peers with a long-term disability should have the opportunity to participate remotely when they wish.
I seek noble Lords’ approval, constantly mindful that we should always consider where we might do things better. That is why we will need to reflect on and consider many of the points made by noble Lords. Your Lordships’ committee seeks noble Lords’ approval in our joint endeavours to assist your Lordships in fulfilling their vital role in the national discourse and their constitutional duties. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, to withdraw his amendment and invite your Lordships to support the Motions tabled in my name and that of the Lord Privy Seal.
My Lords, there is a great deal of support in the House for the idea of meeting and adjourning earlier, so I am going to press this amendment. I urge colleagues who support that principle, even if they have somewhat refined ways of doing it, to vote for this, because it is a complete delusion to think that an alternative proposal will come forward any time soon. Perfect moments for reform of the House of Lords come forward about once a century so, if noble Lords pass this opportunity by, it may be that their grandchildren have an opportunity to vote on a new proposal. If a noble Lord is a hereditary Peer and the hereditary Peer by-elections continue, they may even be able to participate in that decision, but the likelihood is that none of us will be able to.
Nothing was further from my thoughts than that I would be denying the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, his lunch. I will take an opportunity after the debate to introduce the noble Lord to the concept of the sandwich. It has a long aristocratic pedigree; it was invented 300 years ago by an Earl. It is not quite as old as Lincoln Cathedral—about a third as old, by my calculations. It enables one to reconcile lunch with fulfilling one’s duties in the House in the early afternoon.
Amendment to the Motion
At end insert “but that this House regrets the recommendation to have speakers’ lists for oral questions and believes further consideration should be given to this matter by 31 October at the latest.”
My Lords, I am rather gratified by that result, but not for the reasons that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, indicated. I feel that one thing that will now survive is the Long Table. One of the greatest features of your Lordships’ House is its collegiate spirit, and nowhere is that better exemplified—and nowhere is there better conversation, which often influences many people—than at the Long Table.
I listened very carefully to the debate and, like many of your Lordships, I heard every speech, and I am persuaded that, because we will have Statements and Urgent Questions taken in the old manner, there will be a proper opportunity for the House to compare and contrast. I accept the assurances given by both the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, and my noble friend Lord Gardiner of Kimble that this will be kept under review.
I accept the good reasons why the opinion poll, as I called it, was taken. It was not a decision of the House, but I think that it would be more sensible not to press this amendment to a Division today and to allow the review to take place. I very much hope that this will show that Questions are not the bear pit that some have suggested and that it is possible to run them in a very civilised and sensible way, as they normally were, although they occasionally got out of hand. I therefore will not move my amendment.
Lord Cormack’s amendment to the Motion not moved.
Amendment to the Motion
At end insert “but that this House believes that the Lord Speaker should call members during oral questions, in a manner similar to that which pertains in the House of Commons; and calls on the Procedure and Privileges Committee to consider this matter and report by 31 October at the latest.”
I am afraid I am not going to be as helpful as my noble friend Lord Cormack. Some interesting points have been made during this debate. One of the most interesting is the fact that this proposal has been around for many years; indeed, I understand it was considered in 2006, when it was decided that it would not be quite this much of a regulated House.
I tabled a very reasoned amendment, which gives until 31 October for the points to be sorted out. The amendment
“calls on the Procedure and Privileges Committee to consider this matter and report”—
not to agree it but to consider it—because I think we need to consider the way forward for this House. I am gratified that a number of noble Lords have indicated their support and, on their behalf as much as mine, I would like to test the opinion of the House on this quite fundamental way of us going forward.
The question will be decided by a remote Division. I instruct the clerk to start a remote Division.
The remote voting period is now open. Members are now invited to record their votes using the remote voting system. Members will have 10 minutes to record their votes. I will make an announcement when the remote voting period has ended. Clear the Bar.
My Lords, as noble Lords are aware, there were technical problems with the Division system, but I am told it is now functioning so I will extend the Division by three minutes.
Can I just check with the Lord Speaker: if people have already voted, is that taken as a vote? Is there a way of putting the extension on the screen, and extending it for more than three minutes, as a number of Members have left the Chamber thinking they were unable to vote? I am not convinced that an extra three minutes is long enough.
The votes of those who have voted will be recorded. Why do we not go for 10 minutes? Is that okay? Very good.
Can a message be put on the screen that the vote is still open for the next 10 minutes, please?