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 13 July 2021, the House of Lords will debate proposals to replace hybrid proceedings. These proposals, produced by the House of Lords Procedure and Privileges Committee, include retaining some of the changes made during virtual and hybrid proceedings which the committee argued would be of benefit to the House.
If agreed, these will be implemented when the House returns, following the summer recess, in September 2021.
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.
- Ballots were introduced for selecting items of business, such as oral questions and questions for short debate, during hybrid proceedings. Speakers’ lists were introduced for new items of business, including oral questions and statements.
- The time allocated for certain items of business was extended. For example, the time allocated for normal and topical oral questions each day was extended from 30 minutes to 40 minutes.
- 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. In 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?
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. This has been worked out by taking a snapshot of attendance on the first sitting day of each month. 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–July 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.
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 number of spoken contributions increased to 197 and remained at a similar or higher level for the next six months. After December 2020, there was then a decline in the average number of spoken contributions, reaching 147 in April 2021. However, following the start of the 2021–22 session in May 2021, the number of spoken contributions rose again. In June 2021, the figure reached 214.
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 June 2021, the average number of members speaking each day was 97.
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 June 2019 and June 2021, before and after the introduction of virtual participation. The House sat for the same number of days in both months (16 days).
- In terms of gender, a higher proportion of those who made spoken contributions in June 2021 were women (34%), when compared with June 2019 (32%). However, this may reflect a slight increase in the proportion of female members overall. A slightly higher proportion of members who were eligible to attend proceedings in June 2021 were women (28%) when compared with June 2019 (27%).
- The comparison showed a small change to the average age of members participating. The average age of members making spoken contributions in June 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, which was the same as the average age for all members at that time.
Since changes were made to the way supplementary oral questions are selected during hybrid proceedings, more female members have taken part (on average). Since March 2020, the proportion of supplementary questions being asked by female members has been higher on average each month when compared with previous years. Figure 4 shows the average proportion of supplementary oral questions asked by female members. These figures exclude the first supplementary question asked by the member who tabled the oral question:
Figure 4: Proportion of female members asking supplementary oral questions
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).
How have these changes affected the number of Members voting and the frequency of divisions?
During the period since the introduction of remote voting, the average number of members voting has been higher when compared with previous sessions. The frequency with which divisions have taken place is also higher. Figures 5 and 6 show the change in both the average number of members voting in divisions and the average number of divisions per sitting day:
Figure 5: Participation in divisions
Figure 6: Frequency of divisions per sitting day
- There was only one division during the 2019 session.
- Figures for the 2021–22 sessions are as at 30 June 2021.
- Figures for the period since the introduction of remote voting were taken from the first remote division on 15 June 2020 until 30 June 2021.
Reaction to the changes
House of Lords constitution report: impact of remote proceedings
The House of Lords Constitution Committee has conducted an inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on the constitution. The committee published a report on the impact of Covid-19 on Parliament on 13 May 2021. This report included several conclusions about the impact of hybrid proceedings on the work of the House of Lords.
The report said that select committees had operated effectively during the pandemic by allowing committee members and witnesses to participate in meetings remotely. It recommended that committees continue to allow virtual participation by members and witnesses, where appropriate.
More generally, 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.
Debate on the future of remote participation in the House of Lords
In February 2021, the Government announced its plans to end the measures introduced in England to prevent the spread of Covid-19. It said the relaxation of these rules would be done in steps. During step 4, the Government said it would 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 looking to move towards step 4 on 21 June 2021. The Government subsequently announced that it expects step 4 to come into effect on 19 July 2021.
The House of Lords debated remote participation and hybrid sittings on 20 May 2021. Some members argued that, while virtual participation has been necessary because of the health risks posed by Covid-19, it had a negative impact on the ability of the House to carry out its work.
Earl Howe, the deputy leader of the House of Lords, said the Government believed the House should return to physical-only sittings in the chamber and grand committee as soon as the social distancing guidance allowed. He also said remote voting should end as soon as it was safe to do so. He argued that, during hybrid sittings, the procedures of the House had been less flexible. For example, he noted that the House had introduced new requirements for members to give notice when they intended to participate in certain types of proceedings. He said remote participation had resulted in more members speaking in debates, requiring members to adhere to shorter time limits on their spoken contributions. He also said that there had been an increase in the frequency of divisions, which had made it harder for the scheduling and progress of business in the chamber.
Despite this, Earl Howe believed there might be a case for retaining some of the changes that had been made. This included enabling committees to hear from witnesses remotely and the extended time available for oral questions. However, he said any changes should only be retained if they did not have an impact on the “practicalities or principles of our traditional ways of working or our ability to participate and vote physically”.
Lord Cormack (Conservative) thought the introduction of remote participation had had a negative effect on the quality of debate in the House of Lords. He described debates as having become a “series of written statements, delivered without any reference to others”. He said he regretted the loss of the “cut and thrust” of in-person debates. Lord Cormack also tabled an amendment to the debate motion which would have required the House to return to its normal working practices on 21 June 2021. This motion was withdrawn by Lord Cormack at the end of the debate and was not voted on.
Other members argued virtual participation had had additional benefits, including enabling members to participate who might otherwise have found it difficult to attend the House in person. For example, Lord Newby, the Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords, said that increasing the opportunities available for members to participate was a positive development and ensured that a broader range of views were represented during debates. Lord Judge, the convenor of the Crossbench peers, argued that while he believed hybrid procedures should end, the House should consider the continued use of technology to support members unable to participate in person because of a disability.
Several members also spoke about whether remote voting should be retained. For example, Lord Hain (Labour) argued that the increased number of members voting in divisions electronically was a positive change, saying this was a “sign of democracy”. However, Lord Lamont of Lerwick (Conservative) argued against allowing members to continue to vote remotely, saying that it enabled some members to claim that they were participating without interacting with the business in the chamber in a meaningful way. Other members, including Lord Hope of Craighead (Crossbench) and Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Non-affiliated) argued that electronic voting should be retained to avoid members voting in the crowded division lobbies and risking the spread of Covid-19. However, they recommended that electronic voting should only be allowed for members who were on the parliamentary estate.
Lord Kennedy of Southwark, the then Shadow Cabinet Office spokesperson, said he supported the return of physical proceedings in the Chamber. However, he said this should only happen once it was safe to do so. He also said innovations to how the House operated, as tested during hybrid proceedings, should be reviewed and that some should be retained.
At the end of the debate, Baroness Evans of Bowes Park, the Leader of the House of Lords, repeated the Government’s position that hybrid proceedings should end. She also told the House that the issues raised during the debate would be considered by the House of Lords Procedure and Privileges Committee as it drafted new proposals for amending House of Lords procedures.
What has the Procedure Committee proposed?
On 7 July 2021, the House of Lords Procedure and Privileges Committee published a report outlining its proposals for amending procedures in the chamber and in grand committee. The motions to bring these changes into force were also tabled and will be debated in the House of Lords on 13 July 2021. If these proposals are passed by the House, the changes that will come into force on 6 September 2021 will include:
- Retaining some procedural adaptations, such as the extension to the time available for oral questions, the use of speakers’ lists for oral questions, and the use of ballots for selecting oral questions and questions for short debate.
- Temporarily retaining electronic voting, with the additional requirement that the majority of members would only be able to vote if they were on the parliamentary estate. The committee said that new proposals to vote in person using pass readers would be put to the House in the autumn.
- Allowing some members who are unable to attend in person due to long-term disability to continue to participate remotely if they wished to do so. These members would also be able to vote remotely whilst away from the parliamentary estate. The committee proposed that the House of Lords Commission would be responsible for establishing the process for deciding who might be eligible for continued remote participation.
The report stated that, where no change is proposed in its report, the House’s procedures for business in the chamber and grand committee would revert to the pre-pandemic arrangements.
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 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.
This article was updated on 8 July 2021.