The House of Lords has responded to the coronavirus pandemic by adapting its procedures to enable Members to take part remotely. This change to procedures has taken place in two phases. During the first phase, the House mainly sat virtually using video conferencing, with only a limited presence in the chamber for separate, parallel sittings. Members taking part virtually were unable to vote. The House then moved to a hybrid model, in which online and physical proceedings were more integrated. This second period saw online voting introduced.

Initial procedural changes: Introducing virtual proceedings

Procedurally, the House of Lords sat in Westminster as normal up until 25 March 2020. Following the Easter recess, the House began virtual proceedings for business such as questions and debates. During this period, which ran from 21 April to 4 June, there was an increase in the number of contributions compared with the similar period between 7 January and 5 February, before the pandemic became established in the UK. At the same time, there was a reduction in the number of Members taking part. Further information is provided in the House of Lords Library In Focus article ‘House of Lords: Virtual sittings, participation and Covid-19’ (15 June 2020).

Hybrid proceedings replacing virtual proceedings

Hybrid proceedings in the House of Lords began on 8 June 2020. Since these procedures have been introduced, a similar pattern of Member behaviour has emerged to that seen during virtual proceedings.

More contributions were made during hybrid proceedings

During the period from the beginning of hybrid proceedings to the House rising for the summer recess on 29 July 2020, Members made approximately 7,026 contributions. This was over the course 34 sitting days.

During a comparable period in 2019—from the end of the Whitsun recess on 4 June to the beginning of the summer recess on 25 July—4,693 contributions were made. This was over the course of 33 sitting days.

Figure 1: Number of contributions

A graph showing the number of contributions Members made from 4 June to 25 July 2019 inclusive and 8 June to 29 July 2020 inclusive

Fewer Members spoke

While there was an increase in the number of contributions made during hybrid proceedings when compared with the previous year, fewer Members took part. Again, this is similar to the pattern seen during virtual proceedings. Between 8 June and 29 July 2020, approximately 437 Members made at least one contribution. This compares with the period from 4 June to 25 July 2019, when around 510 Members made one or more contribution.

Figure 2: Members contributing

More women took part

Women made up a larger proportion of those taking part in hybrid proceedings compared with the same time during the previous year. Of those Members taking part in hybrid proceedings, 32% were women, compared to 30% during June–July 2019. However, this is smaller than the proportion of women who took part previously during virtual proceedings—35%. Women make up around 28% of those currently eligible to attend proceedings.

No change in age

The (mean) average age of those participating during both periods, as measured on the first day of each date range, remained broadly the same. The average age of Members taking part during hybrid proceedings was 69, compared to 70 during the June–July 2019 period. The average age of Members taking part during virtual proceedings was also 69.

Other findings about hybrid proceedings

  • 73 fewer Members took part during hybrid proceedings, a reduction of 14% compared with the period June–July 2019.
  • In both periods, the majority of Members taking part made 50 or fewer contributions—94% during hybrid proceedings and 97% during June–July 2019.
  • Lord Bethell, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Care, and Lord True, Minister of State at the Cabinet Office, made a greater number of contributions during hybrid proceedings than any other Member during the June–July 2020 period. Both spoke over 200 separate times. During the June–July 2019 period, the Member who spoke most frequently was Baroness Blackwood of North Oxford, who spoke 141 times. Conicidentally, she also held the position of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Care at the time.
  • The oldest Member to take part in hybrid proceedings was Lord Mackay of Clashfern (Conservative), who was 92 on the first day of hybrid proceedings. The youngest was Baroness Penn (Conservative), who was aged 35 on the first day of hybrid proceedings.

Comparing hybrid proceedings and virtual proceedings

On average, there were fewer spoken contributions per day during hybrid proceedings compared with virtual proceedings. The average number of spoken contributions per day during hybrid proceedings was roughly 207. During virtual proceedings, the average number was 218. This reflects the different patterns of sitting days during these two periods. The House sat for fewer days a week during virtual proceedings, not resuming Monday sittings until 18 May 2020. The House sat for a total of 18 days during the period virtual proceedings were in place, compared to 34 days between the start of hybrid proceedings on 8 June 2020 and the beginning of the summer recess.

Analysing the data: Notes of caution

As discussed in the Library’s In Focus article on virtual proceedings published in June 2020, comparison between two periods of House of Lords activity is difficult. There are many variables involved, including sitting patterns within that period. For example, normally the House would sit on around one Friday per month. However, during July 2020 the House of Lords sat on three consecutive Fridays. The period from 4 June until 25 July 2019 has been chosen as the closest comparison available given the timing of recesses that year. However, it covers a slightly shorter period in terms of the number of sitting days.

Certain procedural features of hybrid proceedings may have been a factor in the decrease in the number of Members participating. For example, interventions were more difficult during virtual participation compared with the previous year. The introduction of speakers’ lists for oral questions, statements and other items of business may also have been a factor. However, it is not possible to establish the extent of the impact of these compared with other potential factors.

No adjustment has been made to account for the very different business considered over both periods, including the frequency of statements and private notice questions; the relative split between very short interventions (such as reminders about arrangements or invitations for the next speaker to begin) and longer contributions (such as substantive speeches); any differences in the length of relevant sittings; or other changes, such as how many Members may have served as a deputy speaker.

This analysis only considers spoken contributions recorded in Hansard. It does not take into account other activity Members were engaged with during either period, including committee work and/or voting where applicable.

The source data used does not facilitate the accurate assigning of contributions to contributors. This limits the extent to which a gender and age breakdown of the total contribution figures is possible. Due to other limitations with the dataset, the figures cited above should be considered provisional and indicative rather than conclusive.

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Image: Copyright House of Lords 2020 / Photography by Roger Harris