Lord Speaker's statement on UK Parliament’s response to the spread of COVID-19

19 April 2020

A letter from the Lord Speaker, Lord Fowler, to members of the House of Lords regarding the House’s return from recess:

Dear colleagues,

As we prepare to return to work, I thought it might be helpful if I wrote to each of you to underline a few important points.

First, it is clear that we are still very much in the grip of a public health pandemic. The Government advice is clear and everyone in the nation has been asked to stay at home. I would like to emphasise that point. The Leader of the House, the other political leaders, the Convenor of the Crossbenchers and I have underlined this point and urge all members to avoid the attending the House while the current restrictions apply.

Parliamentarians need to show leadership and as the coronavirus situation remains critical, we must do all we can to keep other colleagues safe and, very importantly, protect the staff who will have to be present to enable the House to sit. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to follow this advice. Just before the recess we had made substantial progress in that respect. Before the coronavirus crisis the average daily attendance in the House was around 450 and by the time we rose for Easter that number had reduced to under 100. The target now must be to take another major step to reduce the average daily attendance.

Second, those working from home will still be able to engage in the proceedings of the House and stay in touch. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays there will be an entirely virtual session to deal with oral questions and private notice questions, both of which are the heart of our normal proceedings, together with statements, urgent question repeats and debates. All business in the chamber itself will be adjourned during these virtual proceedings. There will be four virtual oral questions each day and I will be presiding over these sessions from home. Members are able to put in their names down to ask supplementary questions and Ministers will respond. There will be 10 minutes allowed for each question and, as you will have heard me say before, I would urge both questioners and ministers to keep their contributions short so that we can include as many members as possible. I should also add that, thanks to the work of the Parliamentary Digital Service, those members not actively participating by asking questions or speaking will still be able to observe proceedings virtually.

Last week, you will have received instructions on how to access and use Microsoft Teams and how to participate in and observe these virtual proceedings and I would encourage you to engage. In these extraordinary times we will all have to adapt to new ways of working, the advantage is that we all learn new skills – very much including myself!

Third, I would also like to thank five members of the House for putting themselves forward to serve as deputy chairmen. They are:

  • Lord Bates;
  • Lord Duncan of Springbank;
  • Lord McNicol of West Kilbride;
  • Lord Alderdice; and
  • Lord Russell of Liverpool.

I am well aware that even this note does not cover every issue. To name one, there is the issue of allowances, which currently cannot be claimed for participation in virtual proceedings. This includes not only activity in the virtual sessions for questions, statements and debates, but also the virtual activities of select committees, many of which have continued to work hard during the recess, getting on with the work the House has appointed them to carry out. This issue will be considered by the House of Lords Commission, which I chair, soon after the House resumes and I will report back to you on the result of our deliberations.

As you know, I stood back from duties in Westminster some weeks ago, but I am very much working from home here in the Isle of Wight. As well as chairing virtual oral questions each day, I will be deciding on private notice questions as they are submitted. Obviously not every issue falls within my area of responsibility, but if I can help I will endeavour to do so. The important point is that the business of the House continues.

I would like to thank everyone in advance for their patience, forbearance and co-operation.
 
Kind regards,

Norman Fowler
Lord Speaker

Previous statements from the Lord Speaker on Covid-19

Tuesday 7 April

Dear colleagues,

I have received many communications and suggestions about how all members can continue with their Parliamentary work or raise questions, even when they are working from home. Perhaps I could reply in this way.
 
It is now clear that the present public health crisis will continue beyond 21 April, the date the House is due to the return, and probably a long way beyond that. This presents us with a serious problem as we seek to continue to fulfil our constitutional duty of holding the Government to account and scrutinising public policy. In practical terms, as we continue to adhere to the Government’s clear advice, it will mean that many of us will continue to be absent from Westminster and have to work from home. Indeed, the number of members attending during the last sitting week before the House adjourned for Easter was only a fraction of the usual number. It is my strong view that it is essential that those working from home should not be excluded from participating in Parliamentary proceedings, if at all possible, and the Parliamentary Digital Service is working incredibly hard to make this a reality.
 
Conversations I have had with many of you over the last few days indicate that the priority now is to enable Oral Questions, including Private Notice Questions, to continue to be asked by colleagues who are in Westminster and by colleagues working from home, when the House returns after Easter. We will also have to look at how we approach statements and debates. There is already a great deal of progress being made to enable select committees to meet remotely and Questions for Written Answer can already be tabled by email or over the telephone. I would like to pay tribute to those in the Parliamentary Digital Service who are working incredibly hard to bolster our existing digital systems and develop new ones under immense pressure.
 
Oral Questions pose particular challenges and if we are to open participation up to all members, we will have to change how we work. If we were to conduct these particular proceedings digitally, either wholly or partially, the questioner and the Minister would have to be willing to participate via video link and a pre-selected list of supplementary questioners would have to be drawn up, much like a speakers’ list for debates. This would allow participants to make arrangements to participate remotely and seek IT guidance in advance, should that be required.
 
Arranging something like this at such short notice will require patience and forbearance and doubtless there will be glitches, although rehearsals may be possible if we agree on the arrangements soon. The range of possible difficulties should not hold us back and the perfect should not be made the enemy of the good - this is an exceptional set of circumstances which requires an exceptional response. Such a response would quite properly have to be endorsed by the Usual Channels, the Procedure Committee and would require the approval of the Government before being put to the House for agreement. Although this sounds lengthy, it need not be so if the will is there.

I am glad to say that John Birt, the former Director General of the BBC, and former chairman of PayPal Europe, has kindly agreed to advise me in this area. I would also invite any colleague who has a proposal to improve the way we work to let John McFall, the Senior Deputy Speaker and Chairman of the Procedure Committee, know so we can better respond to these extraordinary set of circumstances.

My guiding principle here is that I would not want to see those following the health advice and working from home unnecessarily excluded.
  
I will write again with the latest health advice before the House resumes.
 
Very best wishes,
 
Norman Fowler
Lord Speaker

Thursday 19 March

My Lords, I would like to make a short personal statement. This is the second major public health crisis I have experienced. The AIDS crisis of 1986/87 when I was Health Secretary was the first and it presented a particular set of circumstances. But it was fought on the basis of expert medical advice from the public health experts at the Department of Health. I followed the advice that I was given. I might say in the face of some opposition, and we had more success than many other nations in preventing deaths. We can, and should, learn valuable lessons from the past.
 
My strong view from my own experience, is that the best course to take in the present crisis is to follow the clear direction of Public Health England who have issued specific advice about social distancing for those over 70 and for those with specific underlying health conditions. This is not only for their own good - or should I say our own good - but for the benefit of those in our National Health Service who are working so incredibly hard in the current circumstances. And perhaps I could say (softly) that some of us are not just over 70 but over 80! 
 
So reluctantly, I will be withdrawing from the House for the time being but thanks to modern technology, I will still be in close contact with my Office, deciding Private Notice Questions and continuing my duties as Lord Speaker. In effect I will be doing what thousands of people are now doing: ‘working from home’. My Woolsack duties will be carried out by some of my excellent deputies who will be further strengthened in numbers.
 
As for the situation more generally, my advice remains that no-one should consider it is their duty to be here in present circumstances. As Parliamentarians we have a duty to show leadership and heed the clear advice of the public health experts. I would ask that everyone continues to reflect on their own situation in the light of that advice, for their own good and for the broader public interest.
 
Lastly may I personally thank everyone for their co-operation over the last weeks.

Tuesday 17 March

My Lords, yesterday I made a statement about Parliament’s response to the spread of Covid-19. Yesterday evening the Government issued new advice and it is right that we respond by taking further action here in Westminster. As the Prime Minister has stated, we are now all involved in national fightback against the virus. Parliament will continue to sit – that is important - but the way we operate will have to change.

In addition to the measures we announced last week about official travel and access to the Parliamentary Estate:

  • Non-essential access to the Parliamentary Estate for non-passholders will now cease;
  • Access to the public galleries and side galleries of both Chambers will now be restricted for use by Members only;
  • Non-passholders will not be admitted to observe select committee proceedings but witnesses will still be able to attend;
  • Democratic access tours arranged by Members will be cancelled and no further bookings will be taken;
  • The Parliamentary Education Centre will close, educational and school visits will cease and no further visits will be arranged; and
  • There will be certain changes to the catering provision on the Parliamentary Estate and further details will be communicated by the Administration later today.

Copies of my letter with details of these new arrangements are available in the Printed Paper Office.

Mr Speaker and I, together with our Commissions, will keep the arrangements under constant review and I would like to thank you once again for your continued co-operation

Could I add this: the Government have also issued specific advice about social distancing for those over 70 and those with specific underlying health conditions. Obviously, this has particular implications for members of this House. I would like to emphasise one point - that no-one should consider it is their duty to be here in these circumstances.

As Parliamentarians we also have a duty to show leadership and heed the advice of the public health experts. In my view, Public Health England, the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser are serving our nation well. I would ask that everyone now reflects on their own situation in the light of their advice and the broader public interest.

Monday 16 March

My Lords, I would like to make a short statement about Parliament’s response to Covid-19. I co-authored a letter with Mr Speaker on this subject and circulated it to all Noble Lords on Friday.

As we all know, the nation is facing an extremely challenging set of circumstances. The spread of Covid-19 has already begun to have widespread implications for the way the country is run and on individuals’ lives. Parliament is no different. 

Mr Speaker and I are resolved that Parliament should, insofar as possible, continue to fulfil its important constitutional duties but it is our duty to take proportionate and reasonable measures to reduce the risk to those who work on the Parliamentary Estate and those who have to visit.

It is in this spirit that we have decided to implement a number of restrictions relating to overseas travel and visitor access. These steps have been developed in conjunction with Public Health England and reflect the Government’s current approach.

From today:

  • All passholders should refrain from bringing non-passholders on to the Estate unless they here for Parliamentary business.
  • No banqueting or commercial tour bookings will be accepted; existing bookings have been cancelled; and refunds will be issued.
  • No mass lobbies will be allowed.
  • APPGs are asked not to invite non-passholding guests on to the Estate.

These restrictions are effective from today and the copies of the letter with details of the restrictions are available in the Printed Paper Office. Should you have specific queries, please do feel free to speak with the Clerk of the Parliaments; his Office will be able to provide advice or direct you to the appropriate person or department.

I would like to thank you all Noble Lords for their co-operation.

My Lords, as you would expect, Mr Speaker and I, together with our Commissions, will continue to keep the situation under constant review, and I will make further statements as necessary.

Further information

Parliamentary officials are receiving daily briefings from Public Health England and are holding daily planning meetings to manage the situation in accordance with that advice. 

We have been reassured that our current response is reasonable and proportionate.

Parliamentary authorities are keeping the situation under constant review, and are being updated according to the best medical advice.

Further information about the coronavirus pandemic can be found on the official government coronavirus website

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