What is happening in the House of Lords?
The House of Lords will hold 'virtual' debates and oral questions using Microsoft Teams
As the Houses of Parliament move ‘virtual’, Georgina Bailey talks to some of the leading figures in the Lords about why their approach is different – and when we can see them on the TV again
Despite meeting in chambers just two minutes’ walk from each other, the House of Commons and the House of Lords have operated under different rules and expectations for centuries.
As Parliament moves online due to the current coronavirus crisis, this is no different. The Commons has gone for a ‘hybrid’ model, with the Mace (the symbol of royal authority, without which neither House can meet or pass laws) and some MPs in place in the Chamber, and others dialling in via Zoom – all livestreamed. The Lords, however, will start with questions and statements taking place over Microsoft Teams, with the Hansard written records available within a few hours, but not broadcast on TV for the first few weeks. These ‘virtual’ proceedings will not be full meetings of the Lords as the Mace will not be present in the chamber – although some behaviour rules and parliamentary privilege still apply. For any formal or legislative requirements, a “sprinkling” of peers will need to be present in the physical chamber, complete with the Mace.
So why is the approach different in the Lords? According to leader of the House, Baroness Evans, it is mainly due to technological limitations, and the need to prioritise the Commons in the face of that. “It’s been an incredible amount of work, with everybody and the technical expertise and the building of systems needed,” she explains. “The Commons, as the elected House, are the starting off with the broadcast, but by the third week we’re back we’ll be up and running on Parliament.tv… We wanted to come back when we were due to on 21 April, so we’ve done a two-stage approach.” The age demographic of the upper chamber also played a role in considerations. “It was actually easier and we through more effective to do our sessions virtually rather than a hybrid situation,” says Evans.
Leaders of the different groupings in the Lords have been working together with the House Authorities and Parliamentary Digital Services. There have, unsurprisingly, been challenges. “You have to remember we’re trying to change the way a centuries old system has been working in a few weeks,” Lord Fowler, the Lord Speaker, laughs down the phone from his home on the Isle of Wight.
The 82- year old former secretary withdrew from the Lords ahead of Easter recess, following the Government’s more stringent social distancing advice for over 70s – a decision he found “difficult”. “It’s all frankly easier if you’re round a table, so I’m working harder down here than I would be in the office. We’ve had an enormous amount of issues come up… it isn’t quite as smooth as it was back in the office.” However, he is sure that, like his team, peers will recognise the necessity of the temporary arrangement and adjust to the new ways of working (with technical support from the parliamentary services if necessary). Baroness Smith, leader of the Opposition in the Lords, agrees: “My view has been we have to be back on April 21 come what may – even if there’s a few bumps and we get better as we go along.”
For Baroness Smith, constructive scrutiny of the Government will be crucial in the next few weeks. “It’s never been more important to have that scrutiny and challenge done in a responsible way, not to score political points, but just to get the right decisions being taken, and follow up, and right implementation of those decisions.”
In usual times, four peers day are granted oral questions to ministers on a range of topics – these are published in advance, and peers present in the chamber can ask supplementary questions. This key scrutinising function will all be done virtually now, although peers will need to apply to ask supplementary questions in advance too.
As peers currently have to inform the speaker in advance that they want to speak in debates, with the Lord Speaker then drawing up an ordered list, the principle of this practice isn’t unfamiliar. Interventions on debates (impossible in either virtual system currently) are also less common in the Lords than they are in the Commons, so may not be missed too much. Indeed, the Lords being the more disciplined and self-regulating of the two chambers, the Lord Speaker thinks it may be more suited to the virtual system than its elected kin.
One of the challenges has been the extent to which technology should be found fit existing procedure, procedure should be changed to meet the technological capacity – the result has been somewhere in the middle.
“Everything has to be done in a more structured way to allow everybody to participate… people will have to sign up by deadlines, there will be a lot of work going on behind the scenes,” Baroness Evans explains, paying particular tribute to her principal private secretary, Victoria Warren, and the House Authorities for the “huge amount of work” done to make a virtual Lords possible. “I and the House of Lords owe her an enormous debt of gratitude.”
As well as getting broadcast of proceedings up and running, there may be other changes in the future. Although the Lords vote less often than the Commons, if the lockdown continues then voting measures may need to be introduced. Leaders are clear that they’re not against the current virtual procedures being adapted or new measures introduced as the kinks in the system worked out.
But for now, balancing being able to hold the government to account with prioritising public health (and setting an example to the rest of the country) comes first for the Lords leadership – and the perfect must not become the enemy of the good. “We’re no different really to millions of people up and down the country who are all having to adapt at the moments. And doubtless there are difficulties in doing that, but we’re no different in this,” the Lord Speaker explains.
“Of course, there is awkwardness about this system, but in the list of priorities, health comes number one, it seems to me,” he adds. “Preserving life must take precedence over everything else.”