The House of Lords has made a series of alterations to its procedures to enable it to continue to sit whilst managing the risk posed by Covid-19. On 20 May 2021, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate remote participation and the hybrid proceedings.
How were hybrid proceedings introduced?
The House of Lords has moved from physical to virtual then to hybrid proceedings over the course of 2020. These changes were agreed and introduced gradually:
- On 21 April 2020, the House of Lords agreed to a motion enabling virtual proceedings to take place. The first virtual oral questions took place on the same day. The first virtual debates took place on 23 April 2020.
- The House agreed a motion on 4 June 2020 to establish a hybrid House, allowing both physical and remote participation for an item of business in the chamber. To allow social distancing, a maximum of 30 members can participate from the chamber at any one time. Hybrid grand committee proceedings were also introduced on 2 September 2020.
- Remote voting has been introduced in the House of Lords with the first remote voting taking place on 15 June 2020. Divisions were deferred on 30 September 2020 following a failure of the online voting system during the first day of report stage of the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill. However, the rescheduled divisions subsequently took place on 5 October 2020.
A similar deferral took place during third reading of the Domestic Abuse Bill on 15 March 2021. The rescheduled division took place on 17 March 2021.
Other changes have also been made:
- On 6 May 2020, the House agreed a motion that members who spoke during a physical sitting or virtual proceeding were entitled to an allowance of £162. This new rate applied to attendances up to the start of the summer recess on 29 July 2020.
- Following the return of the House in September 2020, members participating in business in the chamber or grand committee in person were eligible for the full daily allowance (£323). Members attending a committee, whether in person or virtually, were also entitled to claim the full amount. Members participating in proceedings in the chamber or grand committee virtually or voting remotely were still only entitled to the reduced allowance of £162.
- Speakers’ lists have been introduced for new items of business during hybrid proceedings. This includes oral questions and statements. Additionally, the time allocated for certain items of business was extended.
- The House of Lords voted to suspend hereditary peer by-elections in March 2020. The House voted several times in 2020 and 2021 to extend this suspension. On February 2021, the House approved a motion that the continuation of this suspension should be subject to a review by the House of Lords Procedure and Privileges Committee. On 26 April 2021, the committee published a report stating that hereditary by-elections would resume.
A more detailed timeline of events is provided in the House of Lords Library briefing, ‘House of Lords: timeline of response to Covid-19 pandemic’ (13 May 2021).
How have the changes affected attendance?
It is possible to identify the following, based on a snapshot of attendance taken on the first sitting day of each month. During hybrid proceedings, members can attend either virtually or physically. Overall, a smaller proportion of the total membership has attended the House either physically or virtually each month during hybrid proceedings when compared with physical attendance before the pandemic. For example, over the 12 months up to March 2020, on average 58% of those members able to attend proceedings did so in person. Over the subsequent 12 months, on average 31% of members attended the House either physically or virtually.
Figure 1: Percentage of membership attending the House on the first sitting day of each month January 2019–April 2021
These figures include all forms of attendance in the chamber or in grand committee, including members who attended either remotely or physically, and members who voted in divisions. The figures exclude members on leave of absence, those disqualified from sitting as senior members of the judiciary or who were ineligible to attend for other reasons.
Any comparison between two periods of House of Lords activity is difficult due to the many variables involved. These figures will be affected by factors including the type of business being debated each day. For this reason, these figures should be treated as indicative only.
How have these changes affected the number of members speaking?
Data collated from Hansard indicate that the monthly average total of spoken contributions in the House of Lords increased following the introduction of virtual participation. However, by March 2021, they had returned to a similar level to the monthly average in 2019. The monthly average number of members speaking has increased since the introduction of hybrid proceedings. In March 2021, the average was higher than it had been in 2019.
The number of spoken contributions made in the House of Lords declined in April 2020 to 138, compared to 176 in March 2020. Virtual participation was introduced on 21 April 2021. The following month the figure increased to 197 and remained at a similar or higher level for the next six months. However, following a decline in the number of members making spoken contributions beginning in January 2021, the average had reached 147 members in April 2021.
The following table shows the trend since January 2019. These figures are based on all spoken contributions made in the chamber or in grand committee. They include contributions made physically and virtually.
Figure 2: Total spoken contributions made each day (monthly average)
The average number of members speaking each day has increased since the introduction of virtual participation. For example, in March 2019, the average number of members speaking each day was 68. In March 2021, the average number of members speaking each day was 79.
Figure 3 shows the monthly average for the number of members speaking each day. As in figure 2, this data is based on members speaking in the chamber and in grand committee. It includes members making physical and virtual contributions.
Figure 3: Number of members speaking each day (monthly average)
How have these changes affected the diversity of members speaking?
The changes have had a limited impact on the diversity of members speaking. The following figures compare spoken contributions made in March 2019 and March 2021, before and after the introduction of virtual participation. The House sat for the same number of days in both months (18 days).
- In terms of gender, the same proportion of members spoke in debates in March 2021 when compared with March 2019 (31%). This was unaffected by an increase in the proportion of members who are women. A slightly higher proportion of members who were eligible to attend proceedings in March 2021 were women (28%) when compared with March 2019 (27%).
- There has been small change to the age of members participating. The average age of members making spoken contributions in March 2021 was 69. The average age for all members able to attend was 70. In March 2019, the average age of members participating was 70. The average age for all members able to attend was 71.
Further statistics for the number of spoken contributions made and the number of members speaking during hybrid proceedings in 2020 is provided in the House of Lords Library briefing, ‘House of Lords: impact of virtual and hybrid sittings in 2020’ (25 February 2021).
Reaction to the changes
The impact of virtual participation has been discussed in the House of Lords on several occasions. Some members have argued that, while virtual participation has been necessary because of the health risk posed by Covid-19, it has had a negative impact on the ability of the House to carry out its work. Other members have argued that virtual participation has had additional benefits, including enabling members to participate who might otherwise find it difficult to attend the House in person.
When the motion to introduce virtual participation was debated on 21 April 2020, the measures received cross-party support. Lord Ashton of Hyde, the Government Chief Whip, described the aim of the changes as being to emulate normal proceedings as closely as possible. He also said the system would be adapted over time. However, he said that it would not be possible to create an “exact mirror of what we have in our normal proceedings”.
Following the introduction of virtual proceedings, members have spoken in support of their ability to participate virtually in the House during the pandemic. For example, during a debate in February 2021, both Lord Faulkner of Worcester (Labour) and Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer (Liberal Democrat) said they supported the ability of members to be able to participate remotely. Lord Faulkner argued that, while he supported a return to normal as soon as possible, the procedures adopted by the House should ensure that all members are able to participate in debates. Some members have argued in favour of a return to physical-only proceedings. Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Labour) said the House should return to physical-only proceedings as soon as possible. Speaking in a separate debate, Lord Cormack (Conservative), has also argued the return to normal proceedings should happen as soon as possible. He argued virtual participation during debates prevented members from seeing colleagues properly. He said this meant that participants in debates were unable to sense the reaction of the House. However, he also said he welcomed the support he had received to enable him to participate remotely.
There have been concerns raised by some members about the impact of the reduction in the allowances for participation during hybrid proceedings. Lord Shinkwin (Conservative) has argued that the reduction has had a negative impact on members who relied on the allowance system to enable them to participate in proceedings. Speaking in July 2020, he said the change had resulted in some Lords going into debt and that this was disadvantaging members who did not have other sources of income. Responding, the Leader of the House, Baroness Evans of Bowes Park, argued that while the new system was “not perfect”, efforts had been made to ensure all members were able to participate in proceedings during the pandemic.
Retaining hybrid proceedings in the Lords
The House of Lords Constitution Committee has conducted an inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on the constitution. Lord Lucas (Conservative) argued in his written evidence submission to this inquiry that elements of virtual participation should be retained. Lord Lucas said virtual participation had several benefits, including that it made it easier for members who were geographically distant from Westminster to participate. Lord Newby (Liberal Democrat) said in his oral evidence to the committee that one of the “unexpected” benefits of virtual proceedings was that it enabled members to participate who would normally find it difficult to attend in person, including people with disabilities.
In June 2020, Professor Meg Russell of the University College London Constitution Unit submitted evidence to the committee arguing that virtual participation should be maintained for as long as it was necessary to ensure all members are able to participate. She argued:
Any decisions about Parliament’s workings during the pandemic need to be underpinned by the fundamental principle of equal participation. Virtual or hybrid working is not ideal—it makes it hard for parliamentarians to read the room, limits spontaneity, and leaves little space for the informal interactions crucial to Westminster’s day-to-day workings. But none of these shortcomings are enough to justify ending the system of remote participation, if that conflicts with the basic parliamentary and democratic principle of equal participation.
In February 2021, Lord McFall of Alcluith, the then Senior Deputy Speaker, was quoted in the Guardian as suggesting the House may wish to consider whether elements of hybrid proceedings should be retained to enable members to participate who were unable to attend proceedings physically for health reasons. The newspaper reported:
When asked if video participation could continue once more normal life has returned, [Lord McFall] told the Guardian: “As an officer in the House of Lords, I’m always careful in saying ‘this is going to happen’. But given that we have said equity is the guiding principle in this, if people can’t come then it’s a legitimate question to look at when we review the hybrid house sittings”.
Lord McFall has been appointed as Lord Speaker following elections that took place over 13–15 April 2021. In his online election address prior to the vote, Lord McFall said that the establishment of hybrid working had been achieved through “listening to members, seeking advice and working collaboratively”. He said that this approach should be maintained when the House considered issues including its “future working arrangements”.
House of Lords constitution report: impact of remote proceedings
The House of Lords Constitution Committee’s report on the impact of Covid-19 on the constitution was published on 13 May 2021. This report included several conclusions about the impact of hybrid proceedings on the work of the House of Lords. The committee argued that, while the change to hybrid proceedings had enabled the House to continue to sit in a Covid-secure way, the changes had a negative impact on the ability of the House to scrutinise the Government. The report said:
[…] changes to House of Lords procedures as a result of hybrid proceedings, particularly the loss of spontaneity in members’ interactions during debates, has resulted in Parliament’s essential scrutiny role becoming less effective, including its capacity to hold the Government to account.
However, the report noted the following benefits:
Notwithstanding the limitations of hybrid proceedings, we accept that they have been necessary while a significant number of members are unable to attend the House of Lords in person. We welcome the benefits that remote proceedings appear to have had for members with disabilities, health concerns or caring responsibilities, or who are geographically distant from Westminster.
The committee recommended that the House should consider what form the proceedings should take after Covid-19. It also recommended that the Procedure and Privileges Committee should publish draft proposals for further debate, before the House made a final decision.
End of remote participation in the House of Commons
The House of Commons has established a separate system for enabling some virtual participation in proceedings. The most recent motion passed in the Commons enabling remote participation to take place states this will end on 21 June 2021. 21 June 2021 is also the earliest date for the beginning of step 4 of the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown. During step 4, the Government has said it will remove all legal limits on social contact and remove any remaining restrictions on premises and large events. On 10 May 2021, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, said that the UK was currently on track to move towards step 4 on 21 June 2021.
The Government has stated in its response to the House of Commons Procedure Committee’s report on virtual participation that it supported a return to normal proceedings as soon as it was safe to do so. The response, written in April 2021, stated that virtual participation in the Commons had had the following negative impacts:
Whilst the Government commends the work of the House authorities to put in place these changes over the last year, the quality of debate and scrutiny has undoubtedly suffered. Since the introduction of virtual proceedings, scrutiny of Government has been less effective with fewer opportunities for interventions; debates have been reduced to a succession of pre-prepared speeches read out one after the other; MPs have had fewer opportunities for collegiate cooperation to hold government to account; there are risks with technology meaning that members have sometimes been cut off mid speech or the House suspended; there has been less spontaneity and flexibility and backbenchers have had reduced access to ministers.
- House of Lords Library, ‘House of Lords: virtual sittings, participation and Covid-19’, 15 June 2020
- House of Lords Library, ‘House of Lords: hybrid sittings, participation and Covid-19’, 11 September 2020
- House of Lords Library, ‘House of Lords: impact of virtual and hybrid sittings in 2020’, 25 February 2021
- House of Lords Library, ‘House of Lords: timeline of response to Covid-19 pandemic’, 13 May 2021
- Study of Parliament Group, ‘Parliaments and the Pandemic’, January 2021
Cover image: Copyright House of Lords 2020 / Photography by Roger Harris.