House of Lords to increase sitting days

12 May 2020

The House of Lords will return to sitting on four days each week from Monday 18 May, and look towards plans for online voting and hybrid proceedings.

In a letter to members from Lord McFall of Alcluith, Senior Deputy Speaker and chair of the Procedure Committee, he set out a number of changes to enable the House of Lords to conduct business and further scrutinise the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

These changes build on the second stage of virtual proceedings, which was implemented last week. This saw 225 members participate in 12 hours of business over two days, with a similar number of members contributing in questions virtually compared to proceedings in the chamber of the House.

The full text of the letter is available below.

Letter from Lord McFall of Alcluith to members of the House of Lords

Dear members,

I am writing to provide an update on the Procedure Committee’s consideration of virtual and hybrid proceedings. The Committee met yesterday for the third time in a month and will continue to meet regularly throughout this period. After each meeting we update our published guidance on virtual proceedings, which can be found here and supplements the Companion to Standing Orders for virtual proceedings.

At this week’s meeting we considered the progress made to date in implementing virtual proceedings in the House, and considered a number of proposals for modification and change.

Our deliberations were informed by the experience of last week, which saw the introduction of ‘stage two’ of virtual proceedings. Across the two sitting days last week we saw 225 members make contributions on 11 items of business, lasting 12 hours. In oral questions and PNQs the same number of members have been able to contribute virtually as are typically able to in the Chamber. And these figures compare favourably to the House of Commons, which sat for 10.5 hours over three days, with 173 members contributing. 

However, I am well aware – as is the wider membership of the Committee – that there is a strong desire for the House to do more to scrutinise the response of Government to the extraordinary situation facing the country. There are, though, a number of technical and practical limitations to what can be delivered virtually, and the letter to all members from the Clerk of the Parliaments last Thursday set these out very clearly. Working within these constraints, we will do all we can to facilitate the proper and necessary work of the House, allowing members to perform their essential work.

Monday sittings will resume next week, returning the House to its usual sitting pattern, and allowing an additional four oral questions to be tabled. A key feature of our work since Easter has been the use of Private Notice Questions, with members using this facility to question the Government on matters of national and urgent importance. The Committee agreed yesterday that the time allowed for a Private Notice Question should be increased to 15 minutes – a 50% increase - allowing more time for consideration of these crucial issues. This change, which I hope will be welcomed by all members, requires a motion to be agreed by the House before taking effect.

This, and other changes agreed yesterday, will be reflected in revisions to our previously issued guidance. The changes to sign-up times for oral questions, PNQs and debates which were agreed yesterday merit particular attention from members. These revised deadlines – which are essential to ensure the proper functioning of the new broadcasting operation – will come into effect on Monday 18 May. The guidance also emphasises the importance of keeping supplementary questions short and focused during oral question time, in order that a greater number of members can put their questions to Ministers. 

Next week the Procedure Committee will receive a demonstration of the remote voting app that is being developed by the Parliamentary Digital Service to allow members to take part in divisions from home. When development of the app is complete members will be contacted by staff to train them on the app. This week you will receive a form, which we

will ask you to return, setting out what IT equipment you have so we can identify whether anyone lacks the equipment necessary to vote. 

The House Administration are also undertaking work to plan and deliver hybrid proceedings in the House, following the decision of the House of Lords Commission on 7 May to move in this direction. Hybrid proceedings would enable some business to involve both virtual and physical participants. Any return to members attending the House would need to be staged and in line with guidance from Public Health England. The Procedure Committee will need to consider the procedural changes required to enable hybrid sittings to work effectively, and I will provide you with more detail on this in the weeks ahead. 

Yesterday I also met with each of the party Chairs, alongside the Convenor, and offered to attend group meetings if it would be helpful for me to discuss any of this in more detail. I am always happy to engage, and would ask you to please get in touch with my office if you have any questions or concerns regarding this important work.

With best wishes,

Lord McFall of Alcluith
Senior Deputy Speaker and Chair of the Procedure Committee

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