How has the House of Lords adapted to the coronavirus crisis?

beamish.jpg (1)Since the passage of the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the UK ‘lockdown’, there has been much debate on this blog and elsewhere about how the House of Commons should function during a period of ‘shielding’ and ‘social distancing’. Little attention has been paid, by contrast, to the procedures and practices adopted by the House of Lords. As David Beamish explains, the Commons has tried to return to ‘normality’, whereas the Lords has embraced hybrid proceedings and remote voting in a way that may leave it irrevocably altered.

On 9 March the House of Commons Commission and House of Lords Commission issued a short joint statement following a meeting ‘to discuss Parliament’s response to Coronavirus’. On 11 March the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, and on 13 March the Speakers of the two Houses, Lindsay Hoyle and Lord (Norman) Fowler, sent a joint letter to all members about restrictions on parliamentary travel and visitors to the parliamentary estate in order to reduce the risk of infection from COVID-19. They sent another joint letter on 17 March, announcing more stringent restrictions on access to the estate. Since then, however, the approaches taken by the two Houses have diverged significantly. The Commons initially introduced hybrid proceedings in April, while the Lords introduced a mix of virtual-only and physical-only proceedings, subsequently moving to a hybrid model only this month – just as the Commons ended its own hybrid arrangements. David Natzler’s blog post of 13 May set out what the House of Commons had done to enable MPs to operate remotely, and the dismantling of those arrangements has since caused significant controversy. This post looks at what has been happening in the House of Lords, which has attracted far less public attention. As things stand, the Lords seems to have now instituted the very kinds of proceedings that many MPs are pressing to see reinstated.

The Lord Speaker works from home

On 19 March the 82-year-old Lord Speaker made a personal statement, announcing that he would ‘withdraw from the House for the time being’, and that he would be ‘working from home’ – with his Woolsack duties to be carried out by his deputies.

The average age of the Speaker and his 23 deputies was at that point 76, with only four aged under 70. So it was unsurprising that on 23 March the House agreed to a motion that ‘until 21 July 2020, and notwithstanding the normal practice of the House, any member of the House may perform the duties of a Deputy Chairman without further motion’. Five additional members took on this role, and on 21 April were formally appointed, at once reducing the average age of the panel by over three years.

Initial restrictions on business in the chamber

On Thursday 25 March, before the House adjourned for an extended Easter recess (which had been due to start at the close of business on 1 April), it agreed to a business motion restricting until 21 May (the start of the Whitsun recess) the kinds of business which could be taken: there would be no Private Members’ Bills, balloted debates or Questions for Short Debate. In moving this motion the Leader of the House (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park) announced that for the first three weeks after the return of the House on 21 April it would sit only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. On Tuesdays it would meet at 1pm (instead of 2.30pm) and on Wednesdays at 11am (instead of 3pm); Thursday sittings would begin at 11am as usual. She also announced ‘that a working group of senior officials from both Houses and the Parliamentary Digital Service has been set up to develop effective remote collaboration and videoconferencing’.

When the House returned at 1pm on Tuesday 21 April, the scene in the chamber was strikingly different from normal, with only about a dozen ‘socially distanced’ members physically present. The first business was the introduction of two new life peers, Lord Grimstone of Boscobel and Lord Greenhalgh, who had quietly been appointed ministers in March. They did not wear robes and did not have the usual two supporters. Continue reading

Coronavirus and the Commons: how the hybrid parliament has enabled MPs to operate remotely

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It has now been three weeks since the House of Commons agreed to operate on a hybrid basis, with many MPs contributing remotely and the Commons holding its first remote votes. Former Commons clerk David Natzler assesses how the virtual parliament has been operating, and asks if and when the Commons will return to its pre-hybrid state.

The three weeks since the return of parliament from the Easter break have seen the rapid emergence of a virtual parliament, but asymmetrically between the two houses. The Lords has followed a twin track: ordinary chamber proceedings whenever a decision of the House is required, and ‘Virtual Proceedings’ for questions, statements and debates where participation is restricted to those peers not in the chamber. In separate orders agreed on 21 and 22 April the Commons decided that both scrutiny (questioning) and substantive (decisive) proceedings would be ‘hybrid’, meaning that members could take part whether in the chamber or not, and that each group would be treated with strict equality. All categories of business can now at least in theory be dealt with. For example, the report stage of the Agriculture Bill is scheduled for 13 May. On 11 May two pieces of internal business were dealt with: a personal statement from Greg Hands was made remotely, and Conor Burns was suspended from the Commons for seven days, both following reports from the Committee on Standards: evidence that the House has still been able to exercise its powers during these unusual times.

Lists of questioners are compiled and published in advance, on the parliamentary website, indicating whether the member intends to attend in person or remotely. Virtual contributions are denoted in Hansard with a ‘V’ by the speaker’s name. That all is proceeding smoothly is due not only to the staff of the House but also to its political leadership, which has created a broad consensus in a way that seemed unlikely a few weeks ago. The Westminster parliament is now something of a market leader: the senior official overseeing the changes, Matthew Hamlyn, gave evidence on 30 April to the Canadian House of Commons Procedure and House Affairs Committee, along with representatives of other parliaments, on the new arrangements.

Who still attends in the Commons – and why?

The lead minister responsible for the department answering questions,  making a statement or introducing legislation generally, but by no means always, attends. Indeed, the first minister to answer departmental questions, Simon Hart, the Secretary of State for Wales, participated remotely. Junior ministers often attend physically if they have more than one question to answer. The presence in the chamber of the answering minister does give general confidence that their replies will be audible whatever minor gremlins get into Zoom. Most but not all opposition frontbenchers attend in person, although Lisa Nandy and Ellie Reeves both made their frontbench debuts remotely

By now the overwhelming majority of backbenchers participate remotely. A handful of members choose to attend in person, some travelling from far away; but as the new temporary regime has developed the numbers seem to be dropping. In the short debate on a pension enrolment instrument on 4 May there were no participating members physically present. By contrast debates on some specific local or sensitive topics seem to have more physical participants. Mark Garnier said that he had made a 300-mile round trip by car ‘to speak here in person’ on a harrowing case of domestic abuse, during the second reading debate on the Domestic Abuse Bill. Some members may still feel that a 10-minute speech in an important debate carries more weight if delivered in the chamber, while a 30 second question can be posed remotely without loss of impact. That said, Sara Britcliffe made the first virtual maiden speech remotely from Lancashire. But there is no prospect of Lancashire’s proud son in the Speaker’s chair presiding from Chorley. Continue reading

The Good Parliament: what kind of Speaker do we need?

image_preview.jpgIt has been three years since The Good Parliament report made its recommendations on how to make parliament more diversity sensitive. Since then, the Cox report in the Commons has emphasised that reform of parliament and its internal processes remains necessary. In this post, the author of The Good Parliament, Sarah Childs, examines how the next Speaker could improve upon the work of their predecessor.

The next Speaker of the House of Commons will be elected on 4 November. The procedure involves a secret ballot of MPs, with successive ballots ‘until either a candidate wins more than 50% of the vote, or only one candidate remains’. The election comes at a time of political and, possibly institutional, crisis. Parliament is beset by swirling questions about its constitutional role and about what it means to hold elected office in the UK. On this blog, Dr Mark Bennister has drawn attention to the context, one marked by the politics of Brexit, parliamentary sovereignty, Speaker impartiality, institutional trust, backbenchers’ ‘rights’, and the building’s restoration and renewal. The question of the bullying and harassment of staff on the parliamentary estate and the Commons’ wider culture are also rightly part of this. 

The culture of the Commons was one of the three dimensions identified in The Good Parliament, a report published back in 2016. While only looking at Members, the report laid bare the extensiveness of diversity insensitivities at Westminster. Together with redressing inequalities of participation in the House and discriminatory and exclusionary parliamentary infrastructure, the report identified 43 recommendations that would transform the Commons into the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s ‘truly representative, transparent, accessible, accountable and effective parliament’.

Much has been achieved since then via the Speaker’s Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion, which was set up and chaired by John Bercow. It comprised male and female MPs with an established interest in equalities from across the parties, and included longstanding and newer MPs. Some dozen recommendations have been implemented in full, with another good handful still in train. Its most high profile successes include in 2017 the permanent establishment of the Women and Equalities Committee (WEC), which is chaired by Maria Miller, and in 2019 – working with the Mother of the House, Harriet Harman – the introduction of proxy voting for MPs on baby leave. The new EU SI Committee is required to be gender balanced because of an amendment tabled by members of the Reference Group; the diversity of Committee witnesses is now monitored by the administration and is a key concern of the Liaison Committee; and in a first for an established democracy, the IPU undertook a Gender Sensitive Parliament Audit (on which WEC was taking evidence at the time of prorogation). Continue reading

Notre Dame: A wake-up call for the Palace of Westminster?

images.001download.001News reports suggest that the long-delayed Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster will be accelerated in response to the devastating fire at Notre Dame. Alexandra Meakin and Alexandra Anderson discuss why progress has been slow and the need for action to address the fire risk in Parliament.

The devastation at Notre Dame in April 2019 is a stark reminder of the dangerously high fire risk facing the Palace of Westminster. The home of the UK Parliament has been very lucky to escape its own catastrophe, with ‘sixty-six incidents that had the potential to cause a serious fire’ since 2008. Wardens have been patrolling the Palace 24 hours a day in order to mitigate the major fire risks and to address the inadequate fire alarm systems. Part of the problem is due to the very structure of the building, as after the devastating fire which destroyed the old building in 1834, the rebuilt Palace included an extensive ventilation system that ‘unintentionally create[d] ideal conditions for fire and smoke to spread through the building’.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday 25 April, the Labour MP Chris Bryant highlighted the Notre Dame fire in order to call attention to the urgent need for the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster (R&R) to be carried forward as soon as possible. Bryant, a long-running campaigner for rebuilding the Palace of Westminster (and potential candidate for Speaker should a vacancy arise during the current parliament), noted that while the fire in Paris had caused unimaginable destruction, there had been no fatalities. It would, he warned, be very different if such a fire was to take hold in the Palace of Westminster, where 9,000 people work every day and one million people visit each year.

The fire risk in Westminster has been well-known for years. A 2012 report set out the need for the major refurbishment programme in order to address the fire and flooding risk caused by the buildings’ dilapidated infrastructure that is decades past its expected lifespan. Four years later, the Joint Committee on the Palace of Westminster emphasised the growing risk to the building, warning that:

‘there is a substantial and growing risk of either a single, catastrophic event, such as a major fire, or a succession of incremental failures in essential systems which would lead to Parliament no longer being able to occupy the Palace.’

The Committee called for action without further delay, to ‘restore and renew this historic building for the future, and to ensure that the Palace of Westminster is preserved for future generations’. Continue reading

Leaving the European Union, leaving the Palace of Westminster: Brexit and the Restoration and Renewal Programme

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A year after the House of Lords backed a major refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster, Alexandra Meakin discusses the relationship between the UK’s upcoming departure from the EU and the plans for MPs and peers to temporarily move out of their current home.

Anna Soubry: ‘We have to grasp this, do the right thing, and – I cannot believe I am going to say this – but in this instance, in supporting amendment (b), absolutely everybody vote leave.’

Over the past few months parliamentary proceedings have taken centre stage in our nation’s consciousness. The legislative and political machinations surrounding the UK’s planned exit from the European Union have turned the Palace of Westminster into a theatre offering endless drama and occasional farce. Indeed, the wider area around the Palace has been absorbed into the set: the pro and anti-Brexit protests in Parliament Square; the broadcasters’ gazebo village on College Green; and even the steps outside St Stephen’s entrance, which hosted an impromptu press conference. The audience following every scene, however, couldn’t fail to observe the scaffolding covering the set, the external sign of a dilapidated building, where the infrastructure is decades past its expected lifespan. Alongside the preparations for departing the EU, MPs and peers are also planning for a further departure: leaving the Palace of Westminster to enable a major refurbishment programme.

After decades of neglect, the scale of the problem inside Parliament was outlined in a 2012 report, which noted ‘if the Palace were not a listed building of the highest heritage value, its owners would probably be advised to demolish and rebuild’. On receipt of the report the governing bodies in the Commons and Lords agreed that ‘doing nothing was not an option’. They ruled out the construction of a new parliamentary building, and committed instead to further analysis of the options for repairs, and specifically whether the work could be carried out while both Houses continued to sit in the Palace. Continue reading

The restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster: lessons from Canada

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The Joint Committee on Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster reported last week, recommending a full decant from the Palace. Attention is now turning towards the process of implementation. The Canadian parliament’s more advanced redevelopment programme, which will see MPs sitting in a temporary chamber from 2018, can offer some insights into some of the challenges likely to be faced. Oonagh Gay outlines the background to Canada’s restoration project and some of its more controversial aspects.

Following last week’s publication of the report from the Joint Committee on Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, recommending a full decant from the Palace, attention is turning towards the process of implementation. The Canadian parliament at Ottawa is also undergoing its own programme of redevelopment and provides a useful comparator.

The Canadian parliament was established on Parliament Hill, an escarpment next to Ottawa river. Its grand gothic revival buildings were designed to dominate the horizon. Opened in 1876, the complex suffered a devastating fire in 1916 which led to major rebuilding. A century later the parliament in Ottawa faces many of the same problems as the Westminster parliament. A complete restoration project began in 2001, when a Long Term Vision and Plan (LTVP) was developed in order to direct change in the parliamentary precinct in the city south of Wellington Street. It was designed as a 25-year programme to upgrade dilapidated buildings and add accommodation to the site for MPs, officials and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

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The restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster offers an opportunity to make parliament more user-friendly

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A joint parliamentary committee is currently considering options for the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster, expected to begin after the 2020 general election. Much of the media speculation has focused on what will happen whilst the work is undertaken but the committee must also address some other big questions. Oonagh Gay sets these out and argues that the programme offers major opportunities to re-design the Palace to be more user friendly.

The Palace of Westminster is falling down, and gradually the need to do more than patch and repair it has become urgent. This is a Grade 1 listed building forming part of an UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a million visitors a year, after all, even if extra expenditure on accommodation and services for MPs and peers is hardly popular. But a nineteenth century palace has struggled to adapt to modern office practices, with a growing need for online working and public transparency.

Senior parliamentary officials warned in October 2012 that irreversible damage would occur if nothing was done. A programme of Restoration and Renewal (R & R) began in the last parliament. The House of Commons Commission set in place an Independent Options Appraisal which was published on 18 June 2015, just after the general election. This set out three options:

  1. Rolling programme. Undertaking minimum work taking 32 years. Both chambers would have to close for between 2-4 years, at different times, but sittings could be relocated to a temporary structure elsewhere in or around the Palace.
  2. Partial move out. The work would be carried out more quickly if first the Commons, then the Lords, were to move to temporary accommodation outside the Palace.
  3. Full move out. If both Houses fully vacated the Palace this would take the least time and would avoid disruption to parliament from construction works. This approach would take around six years.

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