The House of Lords started using ‘post-pandemic’ procedures in September 2021. In doing so, it has taken a significant step away from the ‘virtual’ and ‘hybrid’ proceedings which were introduced in April 2020 and had become normal practice, but it has not made a simple return to pre-pandemic procedures. Pandemic arrangements seem set to have lasting effects.
Trustee, Hansard Society
Sir David Beamish
Trustee, Hansard Society
David served as the Clerk of the Parliaments, the most senior official in the House of Lords, between 2011 and 2017. His career in the House included stints as Clerk of the Journals, Clerk of Committees and Clerk of the Overseas Office. For several years, on secondment to the Cabinet Office, he served as Private Secretary to the Leader of the House of Lords and Government Chief Whip. Following his retirement, he was appointed as an honorary Senior Research Associate of the Constitution Unit at UCL. He is also a member of the Southwark Diocesan Synod and secretary of the Dulwich Deanery Synod. In 1988 he was the winner of BBC Mastermind; the life and career of Nancy Astor was his specialist subject.
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The House of Lords arrangements that are now in place are based on the First Report of the 2021-22 parliamentary session from the House of Lords Procedure and Privileges Committee. The report described the effect of the changes as being to return “from hybrid proceedings to something close to the House’s normal procedures while retaining a few changes for the benefit of the House”.
Initially, proceedings in the Lords were mostly ‘virtual’, with only a few brief items of business taken in the Chamber; but from 8 June 2020 proceedings in the Chamber were mainly ‘hybrid’, with Members having the option to speak either in the Chamber (subject to a limit on numbers present) or via video link (initially using Microsoft Teams, later Zoom).
From 15 June 2020 divisions were wholly ‘remote’, with Members using an app (‘PeerHub’) to vote. Unsurprisingly, this led to a significant increase in numbers voting.
Grand Committees (proceedings normally held in a large committee room, with any Member eligible to participate) and Select Committees met virtually.
Sitting times were altered from the start of the ‘lockdown’ in March 2020, eventually becoming fixed at 1.00pm on Mondays, 12.00 noon on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and 11.00am on Fridays. Before the pandemic, there had usually been Friday sittings about once a month; after it arrived, there were none in April, May or June 2020, but then there were three in July and three more in September, before a reversion to the usual pattern.
Perhaps more striking than any of these changes were the procedural adjustments to enable debates to take place in a ‘virtual’ or ‘hybrid’ form. The asking of supplementary oral questions became subject to the use of speakers’ lists, and debates on amendments to Bills similarly required Members to sign up in advance. For those debates which had previously had lists of speakers, the deadline for signing up was brought forward from the previous evening to a day earlier; and the latest time for tabling amendments to Bills was also brought forward.
The change to procedures for debates had some clear benefits: for example, Members who had preferred not to have to adopt a ‘pushy’ style in order to ask a question fared better than before, as did wheelchair users, whose wish to ask a question was previously likely to pass unnoticed.
However, there were also drawbacks. Before the pandemic, the House had long prided itself on not having a Speaker with power to control proceedings, and on allowing all Members to speak in any debate or on any oral question. Under pandemic procedures, it remained the case that a Member could speak in any debate, or have an amendment to a Bill debated, but the ‘Usual Channels’ – essentially the party Whips – produced ordered lists of Members wishing to ask supplementary questions, with a limit on numbers, and of Members wishing to speak on amendments to Bills, thus eliminating much of the scope for spontaneity.
The effect of the pandemic changes to procedures was that the ‘self-regulation’ which had been a feature of the House of Lords’ operation became all but invisible.
On the basis of the Procedure and Privileges Committee’s First Report, published on 7 July 2021, the House of Lords agreed new ‘post-pandemic’ procedures on 13 July, to take effect from its return after the summer recess on 6 September. The short September sitting provided a first, brief, opportunity to observe the new arrangements in action. (Unlike the House of Commons, the House of Lords sat for only two weeks in September, retaining the practice of adjourning over the week of the Liberal Democrat party conference.)
In one respect, at least, the House has fully reverted to its pre-pandemic practice: sittings now begin at 2.30pm on Mondays and Tuesdays, 3.00pm on Wednesdays, 11.00am on Thursdays, and 10.00am on Fridays. (When it agreed the motion backing the Procedure and Privileges Committee report on 13 July, the House rejected by 296 to 234 a proposed amendment that it should sit at 1.00pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.)
There are no longer limits on numbers in the Chamber (limits were ended in July, a week before the House rose for the summer recess). Now, only “eligible disabled members who cannot attend the House” may participate virtually. Five members have so far taken advantage of this provision – notably Baroness Brinton, who participated virtually on all nine sitting days in September (and twice on one of those days).
Nevertheless, question time in the Chamber has looked strikingly different from the time before the pandemic. The benches are far from crowded, and most Members in all parts of the House wear a face covering when not speaking (in contrast to the House of Commons, where few Conservative MPs have been wearing face coverings).
Doubtless a significant factor in the lack of crowding is that Members can no longer intervene spontaneously to ask a supplementary question during question times, but are required to sign up two days previously, with a list being issued by the Government Whips’ Office (comprising a maximum of 10 Lords, in addition to the Peer tabling the question). This issue of speakers’ lists for oral questions was the subject of a consultation in early July, in which 551 Members participated, with 324 voting in favour of speakers’ lists and 227 voting against. In its report, the Procedure and Privileges Committee said that it “will keep the operation of speakers’ lists for these questions under active review”. When it took its decisions on 13 July, the House rejected by 376 to 112 a proposed amendment asserting “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”.
For debates on amendments to Bills, the use of speakers’ lists has now ceased.
Other provisions in the Procedure and Privileges Committee’s report recommended retaining various changes introduced during the pandemic, such as earlier deadlines for tabling amendments to Bills, and the use of a ballot for the opportunity to table an oral question (replacing a queue outside the Table Office).
Divisions continue to be conducted using the PeerHub app, pending development of a pass-reader system for voting (the system that the Commons has adopted). But, other than disabled Members authorised to participate virtually, Members are now required to be “in a place of work on the Parliamentary Estate” in order to vote, and will be in breach of the Code of Conduct if they are not. Unsurprisingly, this change has brought down the numbers voting.
The average number of Members voting in the 166 remote House of Lords divisions held between June 2020 and April 2021 was 495. In the 16 divisions held in September 2021 (all but one a government defeat), the average was 337.
For the most part, Committee meetings (other than Grand Committees and Joint Committees of both Houses) are still taking place ‘virtually’ or in ‘hybrid’ format. As of 8 October, the latest issue of House of Lords Business lists 20 upcoming meetings, of which six are listed as ‘virtual’ and one (a Joint Committee) ‘hybrid’; the document also states that “Meetings are hybrid where a Committee Room is listed”, which covers a further seven meetings.
On 13 July the House also agreed to revert to a system of allowances similar to that in effect before the introduction of virtual and hybrid sittings. The daily allowance of £323 applies to attendance “(a) at a sitting of [the] House, (b) at a meeting or virtual meeting of a Committee of [the] House, or (c) on such other Parliamentary business as may be determined by the House of Lords Commission”.
It remains to be seen how far the House might revert in due course to something closer to its pre-pandemic arrangements. However, it already seems clear that the pandemic will have a lasting effect, in particular in much greater stage management of proceedings, especially for questions.
‘Virtual’ and ‘hybrid’ committee meetings seem likely to continue, with obvious benefits in allowing witnesses from overseas to contribute much more easily. Although before the pandemic there was no formal rule against hearing from witnesses virtually, there was an assumption that oral evidence would be given in person, and an aversion to taking evidence remotely, that it has taken the pandemic to dispel.
These changes are likely to have a significant impact on the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. Whereas before the pandemic it was generally assumed that the arrangements for doing business in the Palace would need to be more-or-less replicated elsewhere when Members moved out, the experience of ‘virtual’ and ‘hybrid’ proceedings means that alternatives can be contemplated which previously would have been considered unacceptable. Potentially this could yield a substantial reduction in the cost of the project to taxpayers.
Beamish, D., The House of Lords after the pandemic, (London: Hansard Society), 8 October 2021