I join others in congratulating the House authorities and all those involved in making this hybrid virtual Parliament work over the past 16 months. I also congratulate the leadership of the House. My noble friend the Leader of the House should take this as a compliment. She does not get many from me; I give her one—and others involved, as well.
These virtual hybrid sittings have been a lot better than nothing—they have allowed us to continue our work—but this has not been a parliamentary assembly. I agree with much that is in this report. I agree also with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who sadly is no longer in his place, on the business of opinion polls, which seem to me to be exactly the wrong way to go forward in the way we did. I note the lucidity of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay. Some people say there should be a retirement age in this House; I do not agree. Should I be spared and get into my 90s, like my noble and learned friend, I hope I have some element of the lucidity that he showed in his excellent speech.
I turn to the delicate subject, which people are particularly unhappy to discuss, of exemptions for disabled people. I listened intently to my noble friend Lord Shinkwin, who obviously has a personal and very good understanding of this. I can see that we can do an awful lot better. I, too, appreciate the excellent contributions of some of the disabled Peers here, who add enormously to our diversity and help us understand. I have had four hip operations, which is quite a lot, but I am not disabled. While appreciating that—and I see that we can do better—I quote the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, who said that the House authorities can help. I think the House authorities could probably help more. It is a question of looking at what help there can be. We should look again, for instance, at part 17 of the financial support document entitled Additional Financial Support Available to Members with a Disability. Of course, people who find it more difficult should have all the support they can. We should show all these people real respect. They make incredibly valuable contributions.
However, we should be cautious about how we view attendance. This is a parliamentary assembly—to take part, you need to assemble. It is about emotional geography, which my noble friend Lord Strathclyde referred to, apparently quoting the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy: talking to people, understanding the mood of the House—which noble Lords have referred to—and understanding the point of view of others. This, too, is important: disabled people who bring benefit to this House also need the assembly. They need the informal discussion and the spontaneity, which has been referred to. Therefore, we should be extremely cautious about how we proceed on that line.
Finally, as a former Deputy Chief Whip in the other place, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who said that there is a particular value to the Front Bench in listing speakers. For that reason, I do not agree with it. By so doing, there would be no spontaneity, as my noble friend Lord Cormack said, and no difficult questions. That is why I shall support my noble friend Lord Cormack in the Division.
My Lords, I join in thanking the staff for the very helpful way in which they have supported us during the last 16 or 18 months of the pandemic.
When we had the opinion poll, as described by my noble friend Lord Grocott, I voted in favour of lists, not because I like lists but because I feared that, if we rejected lists, we would go back to a situation of no change under any circumstances. My preferred choice would be to have the Lord Speaker choosing people to ask supplementaries. After my time in the Commons, I was absolutely shocked at Questions in our House. There are many things about our House that are better than in the Commons, but Question Time is certainly not one of them. I found it intimidating, I found that I was easily bullied—I still am—and there was no chance to be spontaneous; it was a matter of whether one had any chance at all of getting in.
By the way, I mean no disrespect to the right reverend Prelate when I say that the House gives way to the Bishops’ Bench. They have a better chance, so I do not think he should vote in support of the amendment to the Motion suggesting that we should have lists. My preference is absolutely to have a Lord Speaker doing the selection of Members to ask supplementaries, so I shall certainly support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe. I remember the days of the queues, not so long ago, to try to get a Question, sitting outside the Table Office. One had to sit sometimes for two hours in advance. It was totally ludicrous. Passers-by said, “Whatever are you doing here?” Two hours of your time, maybe even longer if you wanted to be certain, and then the undignified bearpit process of trying to get in on a supplementary.
Of course we need flexibility. I believe in the Lord Speaker choosing people. I am sure the Lord Speaker would be pretty fair to those with disabilities; would be fair in terms of choosing people specialising in the subject, rather than anybody; and would be fair in terms of timing if he or she had some flexibility in terms of giving more time to one question than to another. All that, to my mind, would be a matter of spontaneity, so I shall support with enthusiasm the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe.
As regards voting on the estate, of course there have to be exceptions and we have to define what a “place of work” is, but I think that, unless people have disabilities, all people should vote on the estate. I did not quite follow the excellent speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, in one respect, about Millbank House, because, under the proposed system, as I understand it, she would be able to vote from Millbank House. I am in Millbank House myself and I am bound to say that, while I move pretty quickly—or I did before the pandemic—I found sometimes that getting to a vote from Millbank House when a Division was called took some time because of traffic at the pedestrian crossing and so on. As for Portcullis House, coming over for a Division takes some doing. I know Members of our House who never go to meetings in Portcullis House because, if there were to be a Division, they simply would not get back in time.
While we are on this, I support the amendment in the name of my noble friend Lord Adonis. I remember when we used to sit very late, which might still be the case this autumn, and I had to make sure I knew the timing: my last Tube home was at 12.35 am and I would race to get the last Tube to save a £40 or £50 taxi fare. So I understand the difficulties and I am well aware that I can move quickly and Members of this House who are not able to move so quickly, or who are disabled and can hardly move at all, should have better provision made for them than is the case now.
To conclude, I support my noble friend Lord Adonis in his suggestion of different timings. I am on the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and we always meet on a Wednesday afternoon. One has to forgo either the Select Committee or what is going on in the Chamber. This is quite possible and it is normal to have to juggle timings a bit, so that one can decide whether one is in a Select Committee or whether one is in the Chamber. As I said earlier, I very firmly support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe. I do not believe we can go on with the present system, or that the list system will be able to continue. Surely it is not a breach of our traditions of being a self-governing House if we stop the bearpit that characterised Question Time up to the pandemic.
My Lords, I have listened to most of this debate, all bar a few speakers, and what has struck me is that most of us think that personal interaction is very important. Most of us are concentrating on what we are saying, but it is what is listened to that is important.
Ministers give out a great deal of information without saying anything. How many times has a noble Lord here realised that they have made a good point as the Minister shrinks slightly into the Front Bench and those around them start to look slightly embarrassed? That is when you know you have a point. There are minor victories, such as the Minister sprinting to the Box for information and then coming back. That always helps if you are sitting down keeping score during a long Committee stage. We must keep this interaction—the sudden realisation that there is a point that matters, and which has some weight behind it.
How we get to that is fairly irrelevant. Do we have Question Time with a list or do we jump up and down? It depends on who you are and what your experience has been. I have been here a long time. I do not know how many supplementary questions I have asked—it may well be in the thousands. But it was the last thing I learned and got comfortable doing. It is not an easy skill. Is it a skill we need? On occasion, I have even provoked a reaction from the Minister, especially if I have been wise enough to gather information to back up my question. Everything is about getting that reaction.
Can the new technology help us? The answer is yes, if we use it correctly and we adapt it. We are taking our first steps in using this virtual world. It has already been reasonably successful for committees, particularly for getting witnesses in. Occasionally we can get too many witnesses in and we do not have enough time to examine them correctly or, more importantly, have the committee discuss what it has heard. We will have to develop how we work with this.
Also, as my noble friend Lady Barker said, we have not made the technology work for us in the way we want to use it. Is that possible? Of course it is. I remind the House of some of my interests in assistive technology: voice-to-text and text-to-voice technology, used in different formats for various disability groups, such as the blind, dyslexics and even the deaf. Most of the technology is fairly similar at heart, whether you turn it round to interpret a written or a verbal input. You can change it around and get better stuff out of it, but we have to learn to use it better. I hope that the House will make sure we take it on and integrate it into what we are doing. If it gets good enough to make a Minister cringe then maybe we can use it, but not until then—not until you can get the idea that you are carrying people with you and making those against you occasionally say, “Yes, there is a real point here”, because that is what we are about. We are trying to make sure that we interact.
Everybody else has said something about voting, so I might as well. The Chief Whip will know that I have an occasionally unsuccessful relationship with technology when I have left my phone on silent and put it down, or something. I apologise, but not with any great sincerity. It is convenient, but we have had more votes that we normally would because we have missed out on what I have just talked about: Ministers are not picking up the vibe and do not know what is going on. We do not have a chance to make a serious change. I am absolutely convinced that we are leading to slightly more formalised conflict because we have a more formalised process that does not have the brakes and the ability to interact outside of it.
There is also the social interaction around voting: the conversations that have already been referred to matter. If anybody tells you that they do not, they probably have not been in a situation where they can use them. Everybody else does. Also, something can happen if you actually speak to somebody who knows something about an issue beforehand. We have to try to get the best out of the new technology and be brave enough to work it in with the old idea that we are actually talking to people and changing their minds. It is difficult to change your mind and to listen to what is said to you. Saying yes or no and pressing a button is easy. Until we learn to make that technology serve us well, we will be wasting opportunities.
My Lords, what an interesting, valuable and enjoyable debate this has been. As the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, warned us right at the start, we have heard many strong and divergent views, but the overwhelming majority want to restore the normal working practices of the House at the earliest opportunity. I say to my noble friend Lord Cormack that I do not think he is ambitious enough. Many of us would like to see us restore those practices on 21 June. I pay tribute to my noble friend for sitting for over six hours through every one of the 80 or so speeches. That is the hallmark of a true parliamentarian, and we respect him for it.
Like others, I begin by warmly thanking and commending everyone who has risen to the not inconsiderable challenge of enabling this House to carry on with its business in the past 15 months. It has been a herculean task, achieved with the minimum of fuss and the maximum of inventiveness.
However, it was always intended to be a temporary measure for the duration of the pandemic. I am sure that, in advance of this debate, others in the House received a persuasive briefing from Zoom, the designers and providers of a system that has facilitated not only our debates but a great deal of business and artistic endeavour in the world outside during the lockdowns. The briefing is persuasive because it makes the very valid point, as highlighted by a number of speakers, in particular recently the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, that witnesses to Select Committees have been able to give evidence remotely throughout the pandemic—a practice that makes sense and, I agree, should be allowed to continue. It makes sense from the health perspective and for the environment, by reducing unnecessary travel.
However, the business of this House is a very different matter. As some of us have trickled back into physical attendance, we have quite rightly been subject to strict provisions for the prevention of infection. These have been relaxed further, as noble Lords will be aware, but some requirements very sensibly remain in place. No one seriously disputes the need for that common sense and caution. Like regulation, though, such measures must be proportionate to the scale of the danger, risk and need.
When I first entered the House of Commons, 45 years ago, the wartime generation was still a significant presence. That generation may have gone now, even from this House, but surely we can show a tiny fraction of its courage and resolve by leading the way in returning to normality.
I suppose I am in a special position, if not an entirely privileged one, in that I have been doubly vaccinated and have also been infected by Covid-19, with mercifully light and fleeting symptoms. I am well aware that there are others whose immune systems have not had quite so thorough a workout, particularly among our staff here, and their interests are vital.
We have already reached a point—and with fortune at our backs we shall go further on 21 June—at which increasing numbers of our fellow citizens are going back to work. If we expect that of them, they will increasingly expect it of us. It is a long-cherished principle that before voting in this House we should be present to take full account of the arguments presented, so let us at least lead the way. When my noble friend Lord Wakeham and I led the Select Committee on televising the House of Commons, we were playing catch-up because the House of Lords had led the way. Let us do so again.
I am afraid I cannot say anything further than that the inquiry will begin work in spring 2022. But I can certainly assure the noble Baroness that my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster spoke to all the First Ministers about the announcement of the inquiry, and we have pledged to work with them to establish it and ensure they are involved—so, yes, conversations have been had and will continue to be ongoing.
As I have said, the inquiry will be a thorough examination across the breadth of our response. Obviously, the situation in care homes has been at the forefront of our minds throughout this pandemic. It is not for me to make commitments, but I cannot believe that this would not be something the inquiry looks at. I am sure that it will be and that relatives and those who work in care homes will be called to give evidence.
The noble Lord, Lord McNicol of West Kilbride, has withdrawn from the debate, so I call the next speaker, the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler of Enfield.