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 Ashton of Hyde Lord Ashton of Hyde Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (HM Household) (Chief Whip, House of Lords), Deputy Chairman of Committees 1:30 pm, 28th July 2020

My Lords, I was not quite expecting so many questions on this Motion, but I am delighted to reply. I thank noble Lords for their thanks to the staff of the House; I reiterate and endorse every word of that. A fantastic job has been done, not only by the Clerk of the Parliaments and his staff but by the Government Whips Office staff, whose workload has increased dramatically thanks to some of the issues we have talked about, first in the Virtual Proceedings and then in the hybrid House. I am not sure that all noble Lords realise quite what goes into putting the day together and getting ready the Speaker’s brief and the speaking lists and so on. I will come on to some of that later, but I appreciate and echo the words of noble Lords.

Having thanked the staff and the Whips, the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, asked about the facilities that will be available in September to Members of the House, both physically and in the area of counselling and things such as that. On the physical facilities, the Clerk of the Parliaments will write today to all Members before they go away for the summer to explain the arrangements that will be made when we come back. I echo many of the comments about how we want to come back as soon as we can and in as great numbers as we can. However, we have to respect the medical advice from Public Health England and the Government’s own advice in respect of social distancing, and we will continue to do that.

I think that noble Lords will be reassured by the thought that has gone into coming back. Obviously, we will have to keep a watching brief on that and review it before we come back and when we are back. If there is to be a spike in the infection rate, it is likely to be towards the autumn and winter, so we will have to do that.

Even if we come back completely in a physical sense, which we would all like to do, we will have to keep the facility to have a hybrid House as a contingency measure if necessary. We are able to do that, and in a much smoother way than has been done. Despite some of the criticisms that noble Lords have made, which I will come to, it has been remarkable, and we must not take for granted the work that has been done. If we think back to where we were before the crisis happened and the way we have managed to vote and participate, albeit in a different way, it is remarkable that 780-odd Members of this House have been able to do that from all over the country, and indeed sometimes from abroad. Therefore, as I said, the Clerk of the Parliaments will write about offices, working spaces and things such as catering, which will be available.

The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, and my noble friend Lord Caithness, brought up some things which they have mentioned before, in particular the starting time. Obviously, the starting time is a balance of interests —sometimes competing interests. We have to take into account the interests of Members, the administrative staff, the Government Whips Office, the broadcasters, and committees. I take the point the noble Lord makes, and we will keep that under review. However, the good news is that, due to the hybrid nature of the House and the remote voting, Members are able to take part from wherever they live. The point the noble Lord makes relates in particular to when he wishes to come physically to the House in time for, say, votes, but at the moment, they can be done remotely. However, I take his point.

Therefore, there is partly some good news about the Virtual Proceedings, and allowances will go back in September broadly to what they were before, albeit some of the problems the noble Lord mentioned were the result of changes made nine years ago but not of those made because of the Covid crisis.

My noble friends Lord Trefgarne and Lord Cormack explained how they do not like the hybrid system. I can assure them that we are extremely keen to go back to normal as far as possible, subject to the constraints I mentioned. I think there is some unanimity on this on all sides of the House. It may be for different reasons. The Opposition may be more interested in spontaneity and being able to hold the Government to account. From my and the Government’s point of view, the flexibility has gone in dealing with government business, and for all of us it is very difficult to have a self-governing House when there is no House to self-govern. Some of the problems that have been talked about regarding Committee stages are partly as a result of the fact that the majority of noble Lords are dispersed and so the mood of the House is much more difficult to understand, and the House itself is not able to regulate some Members who speak too long or irrelevantly. That will get better as more of us come back.

My noble friend Lord Trefgarne also talked about voting. The Procedure Committee is clear on this. It was decided when remote voting was brought in that there should be parity between all Members, whether participating virtually or physically, and that voting would be done remotely. The only exception to that was Members who had technological problems, who could talk to the Clerk at the Table. However, the Procedure Committee has been clear that all voting should be done remotely. I am glad to see that despite what he said, my noble friend has managed to vote remotely 18 out of 22 times, so obviously he has mastered the technology.

My noble friend Lord Cormack said that we should encourage noble Lords to come into the House, and I agree with that. The difference between then and now is that before, we encouraged Members to stay away and to attend only if they wanted to. In September, subject to the virus situation not changing, we want to encourage Members to come but to stay away if they have underlying health conditions or indeed if they do not want to attend.

The Royal Gallery was considered. There is no current digital audio or video connectivity in there, it does not have heating and cooling systems, which are required for sustained use, and in September we will use the Royal Gallery for the Printed Paper Office and seating. Therefore, together with the new Grand Committee room, there will be many more opportunities for Members to attend, and the galleries will be used for Members to be observers as well, which will count as being in the Chamber.

The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, talked about the allocation of speakers’ lists. I do not know how the Opposition do this, but the Whips’ Office has been keen to be fair, and we have had discussions in the usual channels to make it as fair as possible across the parties. We have done it largely in proportion to the size of the different groups in the House; within that, it is up to each party and group how they wish to allocate within the slots that are available. It is not true to say that the Whips have decided who has spoken; if your Lordships listen to some of the speeches, they will see that that is borne out. The Convener and Government Whips have some discretion but, certainly in our case, it has been limited in its use.

My noble friend Lord Cormack also mentioned how the clerks dress. On the issue of wigs in particular, he used the word “normal”; I do not know whether that was normal clothing. However, I take his point. The reason was that many more clerks were needed to sit at the Table who did not have the clerical garb and wigs, which have to be individually fitted. However, when we come back to the normal House, that will be reviewed as well.

In addition to thanking staff, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, asked about the capacity of the Grand Committee. That will be 50 Members virtually plus 28 physically. Interestingly, looking at the statistics on the use of the Grand Committee in its normal form, that is as many Members as went into it before. Therefore, using the mitigations we have of 28, the physical numbers in Grand Committee will be at least as good as what we had. It will be different: there will be screens around Members and they will be sitting down, and we have to wear masks as we go in and out because we will be in close proximity. However, there will be more capacity.

Turning to the speakers’ list, the way the Committees work and how we intervene, the problem is largely because of something that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, is very keen on: the broadcasting element of Parliament. If we have an outside broadcasting unit sitting in Millbank, the broadcasters have to know which Peer is speaking next so they can feed them into the broadcast feed. They therefore have to know in what order they are going to come. That makes interventions very difficult. The method of putting in an email and being able to speak after the Minister in Committee was a crude attempt—and I admit that it was crude—of the Procedure Committee to try to bring in some intervention-type process so that if the Minister did not answer satisfactorily or a Member needed some elucidation, then they could do that. Nobody is suggesting that it has the spontaneity of the physical Chamber, but that was the reason why it was done. A lot of the difficulties of the hybrid Chamber have been connected with how the broadcasters—the outside broadcasting unit—were able to manage the combination of the virtual House and the physical House.

My noble friend Lord Balfe asked about the arrangements. The arrangements are clear: Members do not have to put their name down for a Business of the House Motion, which is an entirely physical Motion. They do have to put their name down for hybrid business for the reasons I have mentioned. He also asked about the phrase “until further Order” from 2 September. The reason for that is that we constantly keep these issues under review, so this Business of the House Motion is in force until changed by another order. There is no suggestion at the moment that there will be another order, but there might be, so that is why that is there.

On my noble friend’s point about Topical Questions and the quality of the Answers, I hope that the quality of my answer been satisfactory. I agree with him about Ministers answering Members’ letters. If a Member of Parliament in either House writes to a Minister, the Minister should reply and take responsibility for that answer. I hope that is satisfactory and I beg to move.

Motion agreed.