Let’s build on the virtues of virtual proceedings
We need experience of hybrid proceedings in normal conditions before deciding how to proceed in the long term.
National emergencies are accelerators of technical change. The conversion of the House of Lords into a largely virtual assembly has transformed the working of an institution that even its closest friends would not have described as technologically advanced. As the emergency subsides, it is time to honour the staff who made that happen, not only by our profound thanks, but by retaining and building on their achievements.
Moving from a traditional select committee to one created only in April 2020 certainly opened my eyes. The obstacles of distance vanished, as evidence proved as easy to obtain from Belfast or Madrid as from London. Ministers were quizzed by Zoom, their reactions just as visible as they would have been from the other end of a horseshoe table.
Virtual speakers respond just as well as physical ones to what they have heard in debate
Simultaneous Teams chats allowed supplementary questions to be proposed, refined and allocated as evidence was given. By the autumn, peers who had never physically met had developed an unexpected esprit de corps. It was no surprise when the Lords Constitution Committee recommended that the virtual functioning of committees should be allowed to continue.
In the Chamber, speakers appearing remotely are clearly seen and heard: as a bonus, one is never reduced to looking at the backs of their heads. The Upper House may not be renowned for spontaneity, but virtual speakers respond just as well as physical ones to what they have heard in debate. The daily tally of spoken contributions, after rising at first, is back at 2019 levels, but with a significantly higher number of daily speakers. That sounds like good news on two counts: more horses are running, but increasingly on courses to which they are suited. Crucially, hybrid working eases the participation of peers who are geographically distant, have disabilities or cannot be present for domestic or professional reasons – each of them unavoidable in an unremunerated House.
How effective has the Lords been as a revising Chamber? Though a metric for this would be hard to devise, its recent achievements have been considerable. Part 5 of the Internal Market Bill was regretted and then removed on some of the biggest turnouts seen since the 1999 reforms. In recent weeks, major changes were made as a result of Lords initiatives on Bills ranging from Domestic Abuse to Overseas Operations. Vigorous ping pong attended the final stages of the Trade Bill (genocide) and Fire Safety Bill (cladding).
None of this could have happened without the extensive personal and informal contacts, and the access to Ministers for discussions, whose importance is rightly stressed by defenders of our traditional ways. Such contacts took place by Zoom, by phone, by text and by WhatsApp: less enjoyable perhaps (save for the glimpses of other people’s houses) but just as effective and considerably more time-efficient, especially for non-Londoners.
None of us knows, of course, how the physical/virtual balance will play out once the masks are off. We need experience of hybrid proceedings in normal conditions before deciding how to proceed in the long term. For that very reason, the Lords should not follow the Commons down the road, suggested by the government in its response to the Commons Procedure Committee, of reverting to its old procedures before deciding what if anything to change. That may be right for them; it does not make sense for us.
Useful technical refinements may yet emerge – for example, as the Constitution Committee heard, to facilitate interventions on speakers in debate. We should adopt them if so. In other respects, let us continue as we are until we have the evidence to decide – on the excellent voting app PeerHub – the optimum procedure for our revising Chamber in a non-pandemic world.
Lord Anderson is a crossbench member of the House of Lords.