House of Lords: Virtual sittings, participation and Covid-19

The UK’s second chamber has adapted in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But to what extent have some of the changes affected participation levels?

Not quite business as usual

The House of Lords sat in Westminster as normal up until 25 March 2020, the day on which it passed emergency legislation to manage the effects of the epidemic in the UK. It then paused for Easter.

Over the recess period, staff worked to put in place a system that would allow virtual proceedings to take place when the House returned. The virtual format would allow Members to participate in certain business, including questions, statements and debates, while staying away from central London.

It would also operate in parallel with chamber-based sittings, which would continue on a limited basis to facilitate formal decision-making when needed. In total, the virtual and/or chamber-based arrangements took place on 18 dates between 21 April and 4 June inclusive.

Since 8 June, the House has sat in hybrid format. This has allowed Members to participate in business virtually or in person in the chamber.

Did virtual arrangements affect participation?

More contributions were made

Almost 1,000 more contributions were made during the interim virtual/chamber phase than during a comparative period at the beginning of the year. According to Hansard records, approximately 3,924 contributions were recorded over the 18 days on which virtual and chamber-based proceedings were held between 21 April and 4 June inclusive. This compares with the approximately 2,932 contributions made between 7 January and 5 February inclusive—the first 18 sitting days of 2020.

Figure 1: Number of contributions

Number of contributions. 2,932 contributions were recorded 7 January–5 February inclusive. 3,924 contributions were recorded 21 April–4 June inclusive.

Fewer Members spoke

However, these were made by fewer Members. The same records suggest 379 different Members made at least one contribution between 21 April and 4 June. This was lower than the number of Members who spoke over the first 18 sitting days of 2020. In that period, 470 different Members made one or more contribution.

Figure 2: Members contributing

Members contributing. 470 different Members contributed 7 January–5 February inclusive. 379 different Members contributed 21 April–4 June inclusive.

More women took part

Women comprised a slightly higher proportion of those participating in the virtual/chamber phase when compared with the sample chamber-only period earlier in the year—35% compared with 31%. 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, was very similar at 69 and 70 respectively.

Other findings about the interim virtual/chamber phase

A total of 787 Members were eligible to attend proceedings as at 21 April; 569 of whom were men (72%) and 218 of whom were women (28%). The (mean) average age of all eligible Members as at that date was 70, breaking down as 71 for male Members and 67 for female Members.

How do the captured participation levels for the 21 April to 4 June period compare with levels at the beginning of the year?

  • Of the 379 Members making at least one contribution during the interim virtual/chamber period, 248 were men (65%) and 131 were women (35%). Of the 470 Members contributing earlier in the year, 323 were men (69%) and 147 were women (31%).
  • The average age of participating Members at the beginning of the interim period (21 April 2020) was 69; the average age of male and female participants being 70 and 66 respectively. The average age of contributing Members at the start of the earlier period (7 January) was 70—breaking down as 71 for male Members and 67 for female Members.
  • The oldest Member who contributed during the virtual/chamber phase was Baroness Gardner of Parkes (Conservative), aged 92 at the beginning of the period. Lord Mackay of Clashfern (Conservative), also 92, took part as well. They were the oldest contributing Members in the comparative January to February period too.
  • The youngest Member who contributed during the virtual/chamber phase was Baroness Penn (Conservative), aged 35 on 21 April. Lady Penn was followed by Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay (Conservative), aged 36 on the same date. These two Members were also the youngest contributing Members in the comparative period.

Analysing the data: notes of caution

Any comparison between two periods of House of Lords activity is difficult due to the many variables involved. For example, the potentially large differences in the types of business taking place and the length of any sittings involved. 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 and longer contributions; any differences in the length of relevant sittings; or other changes, such as how many Members may have served as a deputy speaker. The first 18 sitting days of 2020 were chosen as a comparative period, as the 18 sitting days to 25 March are likely to have been affected by Members shielding in line with public health advice.

In addition, the provisional analysis undertaken for this piece 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.

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