Business of the House - Motion to Agree

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:30 pm on 28th July 2020.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 1:30 pm, 28th July 2020

My Lords, I entirely endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, just said about my noble friend the Chief Whip and others in the usual channels and elsewhere who have enabled us to function through some extraordinarily difficult times.

However, having said that, I believe that we have to move on. We have to try to get back to as near to normality as possible, as soon as possible. That means encouraging noble Lords in all parts of the House to regard it as the normal thing to be here and the exceptional thing to participate virtually. I must confess that I had never used a computer before. I was determined that I was not going to be excluded from your Lordships’ House, so I made what my noble friend the Chief Whip would probably say were far too many interventions via virtual participation. But I hate it. It is a horrible thing talking into a screen, not being able to see your colleagues and not being able to sense the reaction of the House. We must get back to that and to a self-regulating House as soon as possible.

With these lists, all spontaneity has gone. The Government cannot be held adequately to account because the Minister, whoever he or she may be, can get away with whatever he or she wants. There is not the opportunity to question them save in the very artificial form to which the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, referred in respect of Committee, when you have to send an email and get another email back and then you can ask a question. Some noble Lords, particularly those participating virtually, have abused that system by making a speech that they should have made on the amendment concerned or even at Second Reading. I am glad to see noble Lords on the other side of the House assenting to some of these points, because they are important.

I know that there is a fundamental problem about numbers, which will perhaps remain for a very long time. I therefore put to the House what I have put privately to the Clerk of Parliaments and others: we should give serious consideration to moving the Chamber to the Royal Gallery. In 1983, that happened. The late Manny Shinwell, who had just celebrated his 100th birthday, was nearly killed by a bit of timber falling from the ceiling. Thank God it was not the end of an illustrious career, but, because of that, this Chamber had to be vacated for restoration and, for a time, noble Lords met in the Royal Gallery. As a Member of the other place for nearly 20 years by then, I found this very interesting and in sharp contrast to the war years, when of course—I remembered it because my noble friend Lord Trefgarne was here in 1947 for the first time —the Lords met in the Robing Room. That would be completely impossible, but it would be possible to have more people, physically distanced, in the Royal Gallery. I know that there are problems, but they have been overcome in the past and they should be overcome now. We could have noble Lords sitting on individual seats, or the Benches could be put in and augmented. It could be tiered, as it is for the State Opening of Parliament every year. It is a serious suggestion that I commend to your Lordships for serious consideration.

One or two other things would help edge us back towards normality. We are brilliantly served by our staff in this House, but I find it very sad to go into the Library and find not a single clerk on duty. Surely there could be a rota system—again, I am glad to see noble Lords assenting—because that Library is of fundamental importance to every Member of your Lordships’ House, and there should be clerks on duty so that Members can consult them. I hope that that can be the case, whether we are serving in Grand Committee or on the Floor of the House, when we come back in September.

I have another suggestion which may not command such universal assent. We are brilliantly served by the Clerk of the Parliaments and all the clerks, but, in edging towards normality, although none of them could ever be accused of being anything other than impeccably dressed, it would be nice to see them properly dressed when we come back in September. Again, it would make the place a little more normal and a little more like the House of Lords that we know and most of us love.

I am grateful to my noble friend for introducing this Motion. I wish him success. I wish him a restful and happy summer—no one deserves it more—but when we come back, let there be more of us and let us be functioning in a more normal way.