Lord Gardiner of Kimble debates involving the Leader of the House during the 2019 Parliament

House of Lords: Governance

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Excerpts
Wednesday 8th December 2021

(2 years, 4 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Moved by
Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait The Senior Deputy Speaker
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That the Grand Committee takes note of the governance of the House of Lords.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait The Senior Deputy Speaker (Lord Gardiner of Kimble)
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My Lords, looking round the Moses Room this afternoon, I see a galaxy of stars of Members—and not Members—who have a great history in this House. Therefore, while my notes say that I am very pleased to have this opportunity to open the debate, my expression should be rather stronger than that.

At the outset, I thought it would be helpful and useful to set out some of the details about this conundrum of the governance of the House—the beginning of an answer to the question that was asked several times during our debate on 25 October: who runs the House? I shall start with the officeholders in the House.

The Lord Speaker presides over proceedings in the Chamber, chairs the senior domestic committee—the House of Lords Commission—is the primary ambassador for the work of the House, has formal responsibility for the security of the Lords’ part of the Parliamentary Estate and is one of the three “key holders” of Westminster Hall. The Leader of the House, in addition to her ministerial responsibilities, has a wider task of upholding the rights and interests of the House as a whole. This gives her a particular role in the governance of the House, in addition to her membership of the commission.

I recognise the roles of noble Lords who make up the usual channels: the Leaders and Chief Whips of the main party groups and the Convenor of the Cross Benches. They all play a crucial role in the governance of the House through their various memberships of the House’s domestic committees and the arrangement of business. Finally, as Senior Deputy Speaker, I am deputy chair of the commission and chair of a number of the House’s domestic committees, and I exercise general supervision and control over private Bills and hybrid instruments. I also speak on and answer any Oral and Written Questions concerning the administration of the House, the work of the House of Lords Commission and the work of the committees I chair.

Moving on to those domestic committees, in July 2016, the House agreed to the implementation of proposals that were developed through an extensive governance review undertaken by the Leader’s Group on Governance, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard of Northwold. This included the creation of a new senior committee, the House of Lords Commission, to provide high-level strategic and political direction for the House of Lords administration on behalf of the House and to monitor the performance of the administration. The commission engages on strategic matters such as restoration and renewal, the financial and business plans provided by the administration, security, allowances and the ongoing response to Covid-19. The commission is supported by three other committees: the Services Committee, the Finance Committee and the Audit Committee.

The Services Committee agrees day-to-day policy on Member-facing services, such as catering, digital, property and office services, and on the use of facilities. It provides advice to the commission on strategic policy decisions in relation to such services. For example, the Services Committee has been reviewing the House’s fire evacuation policy, our health and well-being policies, and the new travel office contract. The Finance Committee considers expenditure on services provided from the estimate for the House of Lords, and reports to the commission about forecast outturn and estimate and financial plans submitted by the management board, and monitors the financial performance of the House administration. The Audit Committee considers internal and external audit reports and the management responses to such reports, and provides advice to the Clerk of the Parliaments. The chairs of each of these committees sit on the commission.

Taken together, 31 noble Lords serve on these committees: officeholders, the usual channels and Back-Bench Members. We work together across the committees with the best intent to enable the House to flourish. That is the structure the House agreed following the governance review recommendation for what might be termed Member-led corporate governance.

I now turn to the official-led administration, which supports our work as Members. The House administration is led by the Clerk of the Parliaments. By statute, the Clerk of the Parliaments is appointed by Her Majesty by letters patent. He is the chief executive of the House of Lords and the chief procedural adviser to the House. The Clerk of the Parliaments is also specified in statute as the accounting officer and the corporate officer for the House, and the statutory employer of House of Lords staff. He is responsible for all aspects of the services provided by the administration for Members, the public and other interested parties. In discharging his duties, he is supported by a wide range of staff; in particular by the management board, which he chairs. The management board takes strategic and corporate decisions for the House administration within the policy framework set by the commission. The Clerk of the Parliaments and the management board lead the House administration with the objective to support and strengthen the work of the House of Lords. In this, they are guided by four values: inclusivity, professionalism, respect and responsibility.

While this is, to some extent, an answer to the question of who runs the House of Lords, I readily recognise that it hides a wealth of detail, not least the constant interactions between committee members, officeholders and Members from all around the House. But, as I have found in coming back to the House, in a sense, since May, it is not simple, sometimes, to put one’s finger on where decisions are to be made. It was, in part, in recognition of the complexity of our work, the importance of ensuring we meet the highest standards of good governance, and ensuring that the Member-led and official-led elements of our governance system worked in close partnership with one another for the benefit of the House, that the commission asked for an independent external management review to be carried out.

The report of the external management review, published earlier this year, made a broad range of recommendations. The majority focused on the internal management of the House administration. There are three recommendations that it would be particularly useful to cover here.

First, the report proposed that the commission be put on a statutory footing, with a separate legal entity to act as the employer of House staff. Essentially, this would remove from the Clerk of the Parliaments his current statutory responsibilities and place them with the commission. It would allow for clear lines of direction and delegation from the commission to the administration. It would be a radical and complex shift away from the current situation. The commission has treated this recommendation with caution; noble Lords may also have views on this matter.

Secondly, the EMR, as I will describe the review, recommended that the governance arrangements of the House, particularly the relationship between the commission and the Clerk of the Parliaments, be set out clearly in a governance statement to bring clarity to questions of who is accountable and responsible for what. The report of the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, made similar recommendations. Work on putting this recommendation into effect is under way, and I anticipate the commission being able to make a statement in the spring.

Thirdly, the report recommended the appointment of a Chief Operating Officer. It is important not to underestimate the complexity, scope and range of services that are provided by the House of Lords administration. Much of it goes on behind the scenes, often in partnership with the House of Commons, and is visible to us only when something directly affects us. It is quite distinct from the procedural work that we see every day to support our proceedings.

The responsibility for overseeing and managing this work falls to the Clerk of the Parliaments as accounting officer and corporate officer of the House. With this in mind, the review highlighted a need for additional senior-level capacity in the administration’s management structure specifically to enhance the administration’s performance in relation to the work outside the Chamber and committees—broadly speaking, to support the Clerk of the Parliaments in his role as chief executive of the administration. A recruitment process for this post was undertaken earlier this year and an appointment made. Mr Andy Helliwell will join the administration on 3 January.

Lord Strathclyde Portrait Lord Strathclyde (Con)
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I am sorry to interrupt the Minister; I hope that it is in order.

I have here a briefing from the House of Lords Library on the organisation of the House of Lords administration, which is of course excellent. Nowhere does it mention Members, who ought not so much to be represented but to whom the administration needs to be accountable. Secondly, the appointment of the new—what is he?

Lord Strathclyde Portrait Lord Strathclyde
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Yes, him. Would the Minister say that he feels that, in the past few years, the clerks have been unable to fulfil the function that this new person will do? I think that the clerks have been admirable in the way they have carried out their duties. I did not mean to interrupt, and of course I will speak to this later, but I wanted to make that point before the Minister got any further.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait The Senior Deputy Speaker (Lord Gardiner of Kimble)
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It is fair to say that a considerable proportion of my speech opened with the Member-led governance of this House and its huge importance. My remarks relate to my understanding, which is about Member-led governance; I have then referred to the administration, which we rely on very closely.

All I can say is that we have identified that extra support is needed for the Clerk of the Parliaments. We have excellent people working for us, as I shall say with greater emphasis shortly, but the truth is that it is a very demanding job, as I outlined. The Clerk of the Parliaments’ responsibilities are extremely great. Therefore, the endorsed view was that there should be extra support, outside the Chamber and committee work, to help the Clerk of the Parliaments with the very considerable responsibilities that we have placed in one person.

This has been a brisk gallop around the essential aspects of our governance structure. It would be remiss of me, as the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said, not to highlight the excellent work of the administration and of Members, both individually and collectively, for the good of the House. The work of our committees, communications, outreach, digital, heritage and conservation, maintenance, catering, security and more is all supported and enabled by good governance.

While I may not be able to answer in detail the many points that will be made in today’s consideration, or debate—whatever we wish to call it—I assure your Lordships that I shall listen carefully. If I am permitted to say so, I know that a number of other people are listening carefully, both here and outside the Moses Room. I very much look forward to hearing what noble Lords have to say. It is the case that my door is proverbially always open, as is that of the Clerk of the Parliaments. The Lord Speaker intends to hold a series of townhall meetings, at which I will be present with the Clerk of the Parliaments, the chair of the Services Committee and those of other committees, as appropriate, to ensure that all noble Lords feel that their voice is heard.

We all accept that the effective, responsible and professional governance of our House is essential, as is noble Lords having confidence in it. To me, in my role, that is of huge importance and significance. The whole purpose of good governance is to support and strengthen the House in the delivery of its vital constitutional role. All of us with a position in the governance structures I have described take our roles very seriously, and at all times we seek to work as a team to discharge our responsibilities for the benefit of the House, its Members, its staff and, importantly, the public we all serve. I beg to move.

--- Later in debate ---
Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait The Senior Deputy Speaker (Lord Gardiner of Kimble)
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My Lords, this has been an illuminating and instructive debate. A lot of ground has been covered. I am not going to be able to respond to all the detailed points, inevitably. That may please your Lordships but I do not want any noble Lord to think, because of the very detailed and important points that have been made, that I have not made a note, because I definitely have. We need to work on them.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, mentioned interest. I actually think that we should up our game. All noble Lords are here because they have a deep commitment to this House and what it does for this nation. I am looking at a lot of people who have served the public interest for a very long time. Our job and task, in my view, is to be the custodians of our generation and hand over a House that can continue the absolutely vital role I believe it needs to fulfil for our country.

The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, referred to self-regulation. In point of fact, we had a consideration only last week of how, as a House, we wanted to proceed in terms of self-regulation. I believe that it is a very cherished principle and a sign of the maturity of this House.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett of Manor Castle referred to, sort of, anarchy—I believe that our self-regulation is about a responsibility that we all have to maintain order and ensure that business is conducted properly. I think it is incumbent on all Members to respect the House’s traditions of self-regulation, mutual respect, forbearance and courtesy. I have been looking very carefully at the conduct of Question Time, and I think that what was missing—that vibrancy—has in fact come about. I very much hope that those noble Lords who were concerned about this will, with time, agree—the noble Baroness is shaking her head, but I think she should give this a little longer rather than taking a view only three days in.

When it comes to the governance of the House, there have to be formal arrangements. We obviously have the custodianship of public funds and powers that are vested appropriately in staff such as the Clerk of the Parliaments and indeed committees, such as the commission. I have noted the point about the commission. I have to say that, having been at Defra for six years, I came back and suddenly found that there was a commission, and I am now seeking to work within the commission, but also to make this House breathe. One thing that I felt very strongly about, in accepting this great honour, is that our purpose is to make the House flourish, not ensuring that the reverse happens. My experience—I am so glad that the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, is here and, indeed, during the passage of this debate, members of usual channels, all of them very busy—is that there is not a single person I know of both Members and staff who does not wish the very best for this House; they are united in that purpose.

So, we need to do better. We need to do better not only in our internal communications with noble Lords but in the very important point, in my view, that has been raised by the noble Lords, Lord Haselhurst and Lord Wei, and the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, at the end about ensuring that the House of Lords is represented properly and fully in the national discourse. That is where we should be promoting the work that we do. That is why I want to highlight the tireless work of staff in promoting the work that your Lordships undertake. Everyone always looks at the dark side, unfortunately, but since our return from the Summer Recess, there have been 2,968 print or online articles or broadcast features about the work of the House of Lords committees, a clear reflection on the experience and expertise of the House.

I also want to say something to the noble Baroness, Lady Buscombe. I absolutely am in tune with her that we need to ensure that we engage with the widest range of talent to come to work in the House from all members of the public and all parts of the country. We need to be open and professional, and all of us—I know that everyone here does—need to treat everyone with courtesy and respect.

I have a great sheaf of questions to answer, which will be impossible in the time, but I want to run through some very important features of what has been discussed. The noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst, referred to joint working with the House of Commons catering service. That is tremendously important; I know that our catering and retail services collaborate very effectively in joint working. Indeed, the senior management of both teams meet weekly to share best practice, ideas and solution and to ensure that we align strategically and operationally—gosh, that is quite a lot of jargon, but I hope that noble Lords will understand what I mean. It is valuable that the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, is here as he chairs the Services Committee. These are areas where this collaboration can enhance what we have and ensure that noble Lords are well equipped with what they need. Digital was mentioned in particular, I think, as another success of innovation.

Fire evacuation was mentioned. I mentioned in my opening remarks that the Services Committee has that under review and consideration. If noble Lords are concerned about any issues of that variety, I know that the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, and the Services Committee actively want to ensure that the House has the services it requires.

The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, referred to two excellent reports. I attended their webinar launch, and the Government will respond in due course. They highlight the fine examples of what the House does best: detailed, expert, cross-party scrutiny of issues of national importance. I always think it is a great mistake to give an uninformative answer, whether to an Oral Question or a Written Question, because all it does is invite further questions, so my encouragement is always to answer the question.

The noble Lord, Lord Wei, mentioned innovation again. I am not very technical myself, but I am committed to the view that we should be road-testing laws, as he mentioned. I am glad, for instance, that the Liaison Committee has yet again proposed a post-legislative scrutiny committee.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, referred to confidence. One reason why I think that this debate, which we will carry on by varying forms, is essential is because I want this House to be confident of itself. I am not sure that I feel part of an ownership of the House of Lords; I see us as custodians of a hugely important institution. It is of enormous import. I certainly see confidence as part of my responsibility: to work with noble Lords to make sure that they are confident in how this House is run.

A number of points were made about catering accounts and access to GPs. They are all matters I will be working on with the noble Lord, Lord Touhig.

Questions of workplace culture were raised by several noble Lords. The point has been very much hoisted, I assure noble Lords. Obviously we must all treat everyone, staff members, individually and collectively, with respect. We need to attend to how that can best work for noble Lords.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, mentioned this: if there was ever a need to have hybrid working, for whatever reason, the technology is there, but this would need to be agreed by the House.

The noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, referred to a number of matters. My door is, as they say proverbially, open, as is the Lord Speaker’s. Noble Lords are not employees and are not salaried, but we want to ensure that all noble Lords can participate. That is why I am very pleased that we were able to work a system that has enabled virtual contributions for Members with long-term disabilities. At its meeting next week, the commission will also consider the issue of allowances claimable by Members with long-term disabilities who participate remotely.

A number of points were made about consultation—another word I have taken back. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, that that was one of the considerations I took back from 25 October, and before that. I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, who used the word “bounced”. I am determined that noble Lords are not bounced in any proposals that I am responsible for bringing forward. Unless it is an emergency, when it would be commonsensical that something had to be dealt with promptly, there will be proper time for noble Lords to digest and come back. I also pick up the point that, before it gets into that tube, an understanding and a consensus should be growing around a particular subject, because I assure noble Lords that I do not want to take back reports that have involved a lot of work because noble Lords were very unhappy about them. That is a waste of everyone’s time. I say that very strongly.

R&R was mentioned, including by the noble Lord, Lord Cromwell. Again, this is a key factor for our House and the other place which we must deal with responsibly. The figures are enormous. The chair of the Finance Committee—the noble Lord, Lord Vaux—was here earlier. This is a matter on which he and I and other noble Lords that are dealing with this matter, with responsibility from the House of Lords, are very concerned about.

The noble Lord, Lord Balfe, raised a point about allowances. This is a matter for the commission. The current system is not perfect, but it was felt at the time that the better option was to put in place a simpler and clearer scheme, rather than one that was increasingly complex, bureaucratic and could get us into difficulties. I do not want to say any more than that.

The noble Lords, Lord Balfe and Lord Davies of Brixton, and the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, spoke about the role of the COO. This decision was made before my time, but I understand that it was to bring greater capacity and, indeed, a range of experience. As I said specifically, this is not to do with our affairs in the Chamber or committees. Frankly—I can say this, but the Clerk of the Parliaments could not—this is about the enormous burden of responsibility we place on the Clerk of the Parliaments and to ensure that his role remains possible with all the other responsibilities he has. That is very important. I obviously want to ensure that we have the results and success that we all want from that appointment. One thing I will say off-script is that when I looked at some of our arrangements for management and administration, I thought there was quite a lot of streamlining and work still to be done. Doing that in those areas would be for the benefit of the House in terms of value for money and perhaps getting a less bureaucratic—I might even say Byzantine—system.

The noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, raised a point about the intent of the commission. I have attended those meetings since May, and I have never at any moment thought that our consideration—whether internal or external members, or individually or collectively—did anything but work for the best interests of the House and, of course, for the public we serve. I would also say, again in my experience, that the privilege of working with the administration and management is their focus on wanting to support and strengthen the House.

Two noble Lords raised the interesting question of why we have both a Finance Committee and Audit Committee. That came out of the Leader’s Group on Governance chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard. It was considered by the House Committee at the time and approved by the House, but this is obviously something I want to work through.

The noble Lord, Lord Desai, and others mentioned the Bishops’ Bar. Having used it all the time I have been here, I know that it is very highly regarded. This has been the subject of a Members’ survey; it is under active consideration by the Services Committee, which is keen to hear noble Lords’ views on this matter. We have to accept, with the current arrangements, that the Bishops’ Bar is a very small space; that is probably why we like it. But it is currently being used, I think very valuably, as the Covid testing centre. It is very convenient. I am now going there once a day to have a test because it is so straightforward and very easy and because it is an important thing to do.

On Stonewall, this is up for renewal and consideration in February of next year. In January, our HR director will be involved in considering the business case and return on investment for this membership and I am very grateful to noble Lords for some of the expressions that have been raised today, which I shall ensure form part of that consideration.

I have not answered all the questions, I know, and there are some clear ones, but I can sense I am starting to test the patience of noble Lords. I like the directness and frankness of many of my former noble friends—former in one sense only. I believe, and I think all noble Lords believe, or I hope they do, warts and all, that we have a vital role to fulfil. We must ensure that our governance and organisation support the House in carrying out that role. As well as having a continuous focus, as we do, on holding the Government to account, I think we should have a long-term perspective as to the custodians of this institution. I think the noble Lord, Lord Mann raised this. I did not agree with that all he said, but I think he hit on some very important points. We must be professional, responsible, respectful and inclusive. We must have the highest standards of governance for a public sector body and we must be mindful of our reputation and public expectations, mindful of the point of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that we are unique.

We must also have due regard and recognition to our culture, our history and our heritage. This was raised by a number of noble Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Howard of Rising, in particular. It is important that we all work together to find the right balance between these aspects of our work, between traditional virtues and modern best practice, so I am very grateful for the engagement of today’s debate. The Lord Speaker will be holding these town hall meetings. The first is planned to be held on Tuesday 25 January—please, mark in diaries. The noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, of Epsom, raised another important word, “openness”. I am not a secretive person and I want this House to be as open and transparent, and as accountable and effective, as possible. We must demystify some of the issues that have been raised by all noble Lords today, so I encourage attendance.

I conclude, noble Lords will be pleased to know, by saying that I believe that the House is a constitutional safety valve. We ask the Executive and the elected House to think again. This House is an essential part of upholding our constitutional arrangements and I believe we should be confident of our purpose. The noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord Robathan, raised the point of confidence. I think we should, I repeat, be confident of our purpose. I believe this requires statesmanship and judgment.

This House has an extraordinary range of experience to offer to the national discourse; that is why good governance of the House must be of the top order and why I believe this debate has been constructive and valuable and, if I may say, continuing. I am not in a position to wave a magic wand and resolve all the issues that have troubled noble Lords, perhaps over a little while, perhaps, but I hope that with openness and dialogue, some of these matters can be resolved in a responsible manner in a way that enables noble Lords not only to derive satisfaction from coming here, but to ensure that the primary reason we are here can be fulfilled.

Lord Hamilton of Epsom Portrait Lord Hamilton of Epsom (Con)
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Before the Senior Deputy Speaker sits down, does he know why it was decided that retired three-star military officers would no longer be Black Rod?

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait The Senior Deputy Speaker (Lord Gardiner of Kimble)
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I can say that there has been fair and open competition since 2001. The first few recruitments still led to the appointment of former generals.

Motion agreed.

Procedure and Privileges

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Excerpts
Tuesday 13th July 2021

(2 years, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait The Senior Deputy Speaker (Lord Gardiner of Kimble)
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My Lords, I respect all the points made this afternoon. It has been a very thought-provoking debate. I have no doubt that my words will not satisfy most in all regards, other than that I think we all recognise how much we have gained from the experiences we have gone through but want better times ahead. In the words of the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, the package of proposals before your Lordships is designed to facilitate a return to “a fuller, livelier and more effective House” when we return in September.

Of course, I join the noble Baroness, as almost all noble Lords who spoke did, in thanking everyone. In my turn, I thank all noble Lords and particularly all members of staff for working together. This is a very important point: we have all worked together on these matters in rising to the challenges presented to us by the pandemic. It has been a period of innovation and exceptionally hard work. Again, I want to emphasise, because there have been words about this, that I identify the House I have had the privilege to be in for 11 years with hard work. I think noble Lords work extremely hard, as do the people who come to work here as well as us. These efforts meant that, working at an unprecedented pace, the House was able to find ways to continue its work despite the constraints. In recognising how much has been achieved, we all also understand that we have lost some of the character and spontaneity of our proceedings. The proposals before your Lordships today represent seeking to return to that character but incorporate elements of the practices we have adopted during the pandemic which the committee believes have worked well. I say also to all noble Lords that the committee—and indeed the commission—considered with all seriousness the points made in the debate of 20 May, but also much discussion on all these matters.

Turning to the amendments before your Lordships, that in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, invites us to set the House’s start time at 1 pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. As mentioned in the report of the Procedure and Privileges Committee, the House would otherwise revert—should the report and the Leader of the House’s Business of the House Motion be agreed to—to the pre-existing sitting times of 2.30 pm on Mondays and Tuesdays and 3 pm on Wednesdays. As has always been the case, the diversity of the membership of this House and the range of commitments that noble Lords maintain mean that it is not possible to find times that suit everyone. The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, generously raised that as part of his speech. For some Members, earlier sitting times would undoubtedly be more convenient, potentially allowing for an earlier finish—although the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, suggested that there have not always been early finishes as well. However, I am particularly mindful of other noble Lords who come from across the United Kingdom and the importance of ensuring that all Peers from all parts of the United Kingdom can attend this House in reasonable time. Earlier sittings would undoubtedly be difficult to accommodate on certain days of the week, and this is what I picked up from Peers from across the United Kingdom. As referred to, there are others who may have significant commitments outside the House, but from whom we want to hear the essential contributions that they make in afternoon and later proceedings.

Having taken on this post, I am also mindful of the immense work that your Lordships undertake in Select Committees and other bodies, which tend to make full use of mornings in particular for meetings. I refer particularly to Wednesdays, because the later start enables some group meetings which do not conflict with Select Committees to be convened before the House sits. The sitting times have evolved over the years. While I will, I am afraid, ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment, I have no doubt that the points raised are very pertinent, and we will want to keep them under review. In other words, to do a very quick flick, as it were, to 1 pm would have consequences that I would not advise going into at this juncture. But I think we want to consider all these points because, after all, our purpose is the smooth running of the House.

The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, regrets the proposal from the committee to have speakers’ lists for Oral Questions and Questions to Lords Ministers who are full members of Cabinet, and it asks the committee to reconsider this point by 31 October. The committee recognised in our deliberations that there were good arguments on both sides of the matter over speakers’ lists for Questions. On the one hand, there are those who value principally the spontaneity of unlisted questions. On the other, there are those who value the scope for lists to enable what has been a wider range of noble Lords to ask questions and—I wrestle with how to put this—perhaps a less boisterous atmosphere in which to ask a question.

The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, in particular led the charge of complaint about this consultation. I understand that many of your Lordships did not like the fact that a majority of noble Lords voted in the way that they did. I would say to the noble Lord and to others that it is surprising the number of noble Lords who have come to me and said, “How refreshing to be consulted in this way; what an innovation. It hasn’t happened quite this way before. Are you sure you’re not going to turn into a radical Senior Deputy Speaker?”

None Portrait Noble Lords
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Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait The Senior Deputy Speaker (Lord Gardiner of Kimble) (Non-Afl)
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I thought that might amuse a few.

We did genuinely want to hear—and I say the word “genuinely” very seriously—what the feel of the House was. One of the things we have all missed is distinguishing the mood of the House. What are the shrill voices with a pet subject? What is the general context in which the mood of the House gathers as we try to do things well?

The number of noble Lords who took part in the consultation on this question was 551. A clear majority favoured having lists, and that majority informed the committee’s decision about what to propose to the House. I hope this is very clear: it is, of course, a decision for the House itself to take. As a committee, we took a responsible line. There were so many different views at the debate on 20 May and we wanted your Lordships to express a view so that, in our mind, we could be responsible in bringing something back that we thought might meet the mood of the House at the moment, and I stress the words “at the moment”.

As I have said, the effect of the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is to mandate a review of this decision by 31 October. I respectfully suggest that the amendment is not necessary, given that the committee is committed to reviewing this and other arrangements after we have had some experience of their operation. Only five sitting weeks are likely to have taken place by the noble Lord’s deadline, within which I assume the committee would also need to have conducted its review. With a majority of 97, the result of the consultation—I repeat that it was a consultation—was clear, but the committee’s report states that the operation of speakers’ lists will be kept under review. I say particularly to the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, that we can gauge the effect of operating lists, noting of course that lists will not extend to Private Notice Questions, Urgent Question repeats and Statement repeats, so we will all be able to compare and contrast within the dynamics of the House meeting in person.

The amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, would ask the committee to produce proposals for a Commons-style Question Time, with the Lord Speaker given the role of selecting and calling noble Lords to ask questions, rather than operating on either self-regulation or the list system as proposed by the committee. As with the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, the committee would be charged with presenting the alternative by 31 October. The noble Lord’s proposal is a fundamental one: moving your Lordships’ House from self-regulation to what, in effect, would be regulation by the Woolsack. Today’s Motions are about the return from the hybrid House, alongside the changes that the committee recommends should be retained. Before we take any further steps, I suggest to your Lordships that we should see how the House responds to the list system for some Questions and self-regulation for Urgent Questions, PNQs and Statements. I believe that is a good basis on which we can make some sound consideration.

As well as the constitutional and procedural dimension to the proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, there are some important practical aspects that I believe I should pose. Our Chamber is not the same as that in the other place. The position of the Table places the clerks at a considerable distance from the Woolsack, unlike in the Commons where they sit in front of the Speaker’s Chair, for accessing officials’ advice. Even with the wonders of instant messaging technology, this would be more challenging without work to reorganise our Chamber. The Lord Speaker sitting on the Woolsack is also, with no disrespect, much less well placed to see noble Lords in all corners of the Chamber than is Mr Speaker from his raised position in the Chair. None of these points would be insurmountable, but I do not want the House to consider that making the change proposed by the noble Lord is simple or straightforward. My view is that we should first look at how we return to the House, and see how the House fares, before we make decisions such as that.

A number of other very important points were made by noble Lords, in particular the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton, Lady Goudie and Lady Tyler of Enfield. We will continue to follow public health rules and guidance. The important question of eligibility for virtual participation has been under consideration by the commission. It has been agreed that requests should be considered by the additional support group. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, that this was a group established by the commission last year to decide on requests for additional financial support from Members with disabilities. It was felt that this group would be well placed to consider requests for virtual participation as well. I will chair that group alongside the three Chief Whips and the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers. I understand that some Peers may wish to avail themselves of this eligibility in readiness for 6 September. We will make sure we circulate details for requests for continued remote participation very shortly, in the next day or so.

I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who I was delighted to meet 10 days ago. He made a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, made as well. The noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, also raised this in terms of the integral nature of all Members of this House and the work they undertake. If we are not doing this as well as we should—and there is always room for improvement—we need to find ways of ensuring that all Members, particularly those with long-term disabilities, see coming to the House as a natural way of engaging. At no point do any of us want the message to be that remote voting is the option for those noble Lords. We gain so much from their presence in this House, but we also recognise that we need to ensure that when their disability is such that they cannot attend, they are in a position not only to vote but to participate wherever that is possible.

Further work is being done on ventilation. The main ventilation in committees is fresh air—an interesting point to make in London. The level of ventilation in the Chamber and a selection of Lords Committee Rooms has been assessed by the monitoring as satisfactory, but it was a well-made point that it is something we should always consider.

On the point the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, raised about degrouping, we deliberately used the word “discourage”. For the assistance of the House and of all noble Lords, in particular the Opposition Front Bench—which perhaps does not have some of the support mechanisms that the Government Front Bench has—degrouping is unreasonable unless there is a really strong reason for it. That is why we brought that forward. Again, it is for the smooth running of the House and the certainty of your Lordships.

On the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, we deliberately said that all noble Lords voting using PeerHub will be asked by the system to confirm that they are voting from a place of work on the Parliamentary Estate. They will be able to proceed to cast their vote only if they confirm that they are. I would be remiss if I did not draw all noble Lords’ attention to the existing requirement in the code for us all to act on our

“personal honour in the performance of”

our “parliamentary duties and activities”.

We should all be mindful, clearly, that we are voting for the laws of this land. This needs to be an event that we take with due seriousness. I think noble Lords should, with respect to the noble and learned Lord, understand that a place of work means, overwhelmingly, as it says, on the Parliamentary Estate. That is what we decided was the best way of defining this. I know it is not precise, but we thought this was the most pragmatic way for this interim system. Committees are in a position to decide for themselves when they meet, and remote witnesses have undoubtedly worked very well.

I am reminded by the Whip that I should conclude. I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate and assure your Lordships that the Procedure and Privileges Committee will continue to reflect on the points made about how the House works. My purpose and that of the committee is to enable your Lordships and our work to flourish. Following the debate on 20 May and many discussions, we have sought to bring forward a series of Motions that we believe will be helpful to the House—not just to noble Lords but to our excellent staff. The Motions in my name and that of the Lord Privy Seal return the House, as from 6 September, to its original procedures, with some important innovations. We have responded, rightly, to the request that Peers with a long-term disability should have the opportunity to participate remotely when they wish.

I seek noble Lords’ approval, constantly mindful that we should always consider where we might do things better. That is why we will need to reflect on and consider many of the points made by noble Lords. Your Lordships’ committee seeks noble Lords’ approval in our joint endeavours to assist your Lordships in fulfilling their vital role in the national discourse and their constitutional duties. I ask the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, to withdraw his amendment and invite your Lordships to support the Motions tabled in my name and that of the Lord Privy Seal.

House of Lords: Remote Participation and Hybrid Sittings

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Excerpts
Thursday 20th May 2021

(2 years, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Inglewood Portrait Lord Inglewood (Non-Afl) [V]
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My Lords, I welcome this debate and the work of the Constitution Committee that lies behind it. I am speaking from my office in rural Cumbria, which is just further away from London than Paris. In my remarks I will focus on remote participation and voting.

First, however, I think that it is a mistake to assume that the hybrid proceedings, which, as so many of your Lordships have said, have been so skilfully arranged by the House’s staff—I pay tribute to them—are a consequence of Covid. Covid has of course played a part, but so has the development of the technology, which until recently did not exist. If the pandemic had happened a few years ago, things would have been very different. I hope, pray and believe that the pandemic will come to an end, but the technology will endure and will get better.

At the risk of oversimplifying, it seems to me that during my period of membership of your Lordships’ House there have been basically two types of Member participation. First, there is full-time, which is Front-Benchers, Officers of the House et cetera; then there is a group of other Members, who are also engaged in outside activities that inform membership and contributions and are set within the framework of the rules relating to declarations and conflicts of interest.

In my own case, I live 300 miles away in northern England, where I work on my own account and play a part in public life that is really quite relevant to what we are doing here in the Chamber. Travelling to London and spending time there involves an enormous amount of wasted time that is dead time away from home. I believe that it is no incentive for those from the further-flung parts of Britain to come to play a full role in the House’s activities if the banks of the Thames are a ball and chain around their ankles. It is a form of London capture. It can, of course, be argued that those like me should, quite simply, retire or take a leave of absence and go away. It might seem a fair point, but it is very “southist”, especially in the days when voices outside London are particularly important.

Obviously, Parliaments cannot work exclusively remotely. Human interaction is extremely important, as numerous noble Lords, following the lead of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, have repeatedly pointed out. It is important and central to political discourse and parliamentary activity that people interact with each other. Whatever is done in the future, there has to be at least some real human contact and involvement between Members—all of them—as part of the whole.

However, what I believe is needed—I am the first to concede that I do not have the answers—is some way to marry two apparently conflicting aspects. For what it is worth, as well as thinking about the use of technology, we ought to think about procedures, timetables and the whole way we work. It is legitimate to think about how changes in technology might affect the way we do our business, which, after all, has been continuously evolving since the Middle Ages. We are now in the 21st century; technology has transformed everything else in life today and it would be rather odd if it did not have the same potential in this context.

I suspect that the implications of some of the points I have touched on may be thought quite radical—possibly far too radical for some—but when we are trying to reduce a London-centric bias in the way this country is organised, I do not think that an excessive metropolitan bias in the character of its Parliament is necessary or, nowadays, desirable, not least when novel approaches for dealing with it are becoming ever more possible day by day. While the purpose of and rationale for Parliament is unchanging, the way we do it can and should change if appropriate.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait The Senior Deputy Speaker (Lord Gardiner of Kimble) (Non-Afl)
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The noble Baroness, Lady Greengross, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Hannan of Kingsclere.

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere Portrait Lord Hannan of Kingsclere (Con)
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My Lords, I thought long and hard about participating in this debate. I have been here for only five minutes. There is a weight of experience all around me that I am conscious of. I am one of those new Peers mentioned by my noble friend Lord Cormack in his introduction. I have known nothing except empty Benches, taped-off entrances and sterile corridors. None the less, I have been in politics for long enough to be aware of one iron rule: whenever anything is proposed, the opponents are very vocal and the supporters tend to sit back and take it for granted.

So I wanted to come here to lend my enthusiastic support to my noble friend Lord Howe and a number of my noble friends who spoke previously: my noble friends Lord Farmer, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, Lord Howard of Rising, Lord Dobbs, Lord Trenchard and Lord Taylor of Holbeach, and others. I agree with everything they said, but the intervention on which I really want to focus came from the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, who quoted the Writ of Summons all of us receive when we are called here. Some of your Lordships have been around for a while and might have become a bit blasé, but I, being new, was terrifically excited to get a Writ of Summons from my sovereign, demanding my presence at this Parliament to be holden here in “our city of Westminster”. It is worth just for a second dwelling on the words that she used:

“We strictly enjoining Command you upon the faith and allegiance by which you are bound to Us that … waiving all excuses, you be at the said day and place personally present”.

Parliament has a peculiar centrality in the annals of this country. The biggest events in our history were experienced as parliamentary moments: the Reformation; the arrest of the five Members and the civil war; the Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights; the rise of Churchill and the formation of the wartime coalition; the entry into and then the withdrawal from the European Union. Take Parliament out of the equation and our national story becomes meaningless. That is why we must reverse changes brought in on a contingent basis to deal with a specific emergency when that emergency passes. Our meeting again here physically will be the supreme sign that the nightmare has passed, that the sun is in the sky again and that our national story can resume its course.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait The Senior Deputy Speaker (Lord Gardiner of Kimble) (Non-Afl)
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The noble Baroness, Lady Goudie, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Haselhurst.

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Baroness Smith of Newnham Portrait Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)
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My Lords, earlier in the debate it was suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, that we are all on a spectrum of some sort. Nobody has quite said that we should go back overnight to exactly the way Parliament was before March 2020, although the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, came close to it. Nobody has entirely said that we should be wholly hybrid and, as far as possible, not be present in person in your Lordships’ House. I fall quite a long way along the spectrum towards the speech and Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. In an ideal world, we should all be back in person on 21 June, without social distancing and without hybridity; this is my personal view. It is noticeable that the Whips on the Liberal Democrat side decided to put me in a graveyard slot this afternoon. Presumably, they thought that I would say something dangerous and controversial.

However much I should like to say that we must get back to being here in person, it is also important to bear in mind that some Members are not able to do so at present, as my noble friend Lady Brinton pointed out. This does not mean that they are not working, nor that they have no value. It does not mean that they should take leave of absence. We need to find a mechanism that allows those Members who physically cannot be here at present to participate, but this must be the exception. Those of us for whom it is simply more comfortable and convenient to stay at, and work from, home need to stop and think again about the purpose of this Chamber.

The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, pointed out that form followed function in the hybrid proceedings. That was all very well but, at various times, it has felt as if the broadcasters have been in control. We have been told that things cannot happen because it does not suit or is not possible for the broadcasters. We should not make rules that are for the convenience of us as Members. We should make rules that are for the good governance of this country, to enable Parliament to do its duty and for us all to hold the Government to account and scrutinise.

Like many noble Lords, I do not feel that this Chamber has been able to do its job adequately during the last year. The staff and Members have all done a great job, as have the Zoom people who emailed to remind me what a great job they have been doing. That flexibility has been important but to hold Ministers to account, we need to be able to see and make eye contact with them across the Chamber. The noble Earl, Lord Howe, has just looked up at me; had I been speaking remotely, I would have had no idea if he had looked up or not.

To do our jobs, it is crucial that we are able to interact and we cannot do this effectively via a Zoom screen. We should move back to in-person meetings of the Chamber as soon as possible, with the caveat that those who are unable to attend will have some sort of mechanism to enable them to participate, but this should be the exception. The noble Lords, Lord Kakkar and Lord Hannan, pointed out that the Writ of Summons requires us to be here. It was noticeable that Her Majesty the Queen was herself here present last week. If she, at 95, can be here, so can we—and we should be.

My call would be that this House needs to take back control. We should not let the Procedure Committee decide on interventions. We should be able to decide when we intervene on Ministers or in debate. We need to return to ensuring that we are scrutinising and doing our duty. In doing so, I hope we can ensure that the Government do their job effectively as well.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble Portrait The Senior Deputy Speaker (Lord Gardiner of Kimble) (Non-Afl)
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The noble Lord, Lord Curry of Kirkharle, has withdrawn, so I call the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe.