Parliament week 2020: Showcasing the new normal for Parliament
The House of Lords recently launched a virtual programme called “Learn with the Lords”, meeting pupils from three different schools remotely, writes Baroness Fookes. | PA Images
Parliament Week, which starts today, is a festival designed to showcase what Parliament does and to explore what it means to people from across the UK.
“Celebrate Parliament Week? Haven’t we got enough to worry about with the wretched pandemic?” I hear the proverbial man on the Clapham Omnibus muttering with irritable incredulity. My answer is a resounding, “Yes, we should!”
Parliament, with its centuries’ old history, is still a vital part of our national life. However, for Parliament to work effectively it needs individuals to understand how it operates and how to influence it. For this reason, I am a keen supporter of important outreach programmes, such as the Education Centre. Sadly, at the current time it stands empty, unable to give school pupils exciting lessons or tours of the historic buildings.
Even during these unprecedented times, Parliament has continued to reach out and engage with people across the country. Parliament Week, which starts today, is a festival designed to showcase what Parliament does and to explore what it means to people from across the UK. The week will involve thousands of community groups and local organisations all running activities tailor made to appeal to their individual circumstances.
Nothing daunted by the Pandemic, the House of Lords also recently launched a virtual programme called “Learn with the Lords”, for which I have been an early participant, meeting pupils from three different schools remotely. I fondly recall one Welsh Primary School whose children greeted me in Welsh and whose sensible questions put many of their elders to shame. I would very much like to see the expansion of this new initiative, though as a former teacher, this is perhaps expected!
In record time, the House of Lords set up remote working, and soon after a hybrid form – with online voting rolled out for the first time in Parliament’s history.
We should also celebrate the fact that both Houses have continued their vital work despite the pandemic. In record time, the House of Lords set up remote working, and soon after a hybrid form – with online voting rolled out for the first time in Parliament’s history. This is less surprising when recalling that the Lords pioneered the use of television long before the Commons. None the less, it has been a steep learning curve for peers battling with new platforms, devices and ways of working, much like the rest of the country.
These changes have allowed the Lords to work flat out on a heavy legislative programme, with no half term recess. In fact, is now widely accepted that the Lords go through the details of Bills far more thoroughly than the Commons.
As a Deputy Speaker in the Lords it has also been necessary to adapt to successive changes in procedure. The strangest change is in the appearance of the Grand Committee now occupying two rooms instead of the rather dreary splendour of the Moses Room. All peers are seated in booths and it rather resembles a language laboratory. An unusual part of my role now involves reminding Peers to sanitise their desks and chairs, a far cry from the days when as Deputy to the first woman Speaker, Lady Boothroyd, I undertook the task of keeping the House of Commons in order with the familiar cry “Order, order!”.
Another feature of parliamentary life that has continued full steam ahead is the work of Select Committees. Going into depth about the chosen subject has been one of the most satisfactory features of political life. I am currently serving on the Constitution Committee with some extremely experienced peers, recently having before us the Lord Chancellor himself. We have just produced an excoriating Report on the UK Internal Market Bill, which is being used during the detailed examination of the bill in the House.
For me and indeed the Lord Speaker there is another cause for celebration in 2020 – we both became young MPs in 1970, so we have fifty years of service under our respective belts and are still enjoying political life. Would I do it all again? You bet I would - though I wish I knew then what I have learnt since, but you still cannot put an old head on young shoulders!
Baroness Fookes is a Conservative member of the House of Lords, deputy speaker and deputy chairman of Committees.
Parliament Week, involving thousands of activities across the UK to foster closer engagement between the public and their UK parliament, runs until 6 November.