COVID-19 and Parliament Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction

1.The COVID-19 pandemic challenges every area of British society. Its health and economic implications, in particular, are profound. The constitutional impact of the pandemic has also been significant. Soon after the start of the pandemic we began an inquiry into the constitutional implications of COVID-19 in three areas:

2.Our first report, on the effect on the courts, was published on 30 March 2021.2

3.In this second report on the inquiry, we consider the impact of COVID-19 on Parliament, with a particular focus on the House of Lords.

4.The House of Lords is the second chamber of the UK Parliament. It is independent from, and in some respects complements the work of, the elected House of Commons. The House shares the task of making and amending legislation, the majority of which is proposed by the Government, and scrutinising and challenging the work of the Government, including questioning ministers who are members of the House of Lords; and it provides a forum for expertise.

5.Most of the House’s business takes place in the chamber but some is considered in Grand Committee, which is the secondary debating chamber. The House also has a number of select committees, which meet outside the chamber and consider specific policy areas, hearing evidence from a diverse range of witnesses, including ministers.

6.The onset of COVID-19 presented a significant challenge for the operation of Parliament, including its ability to continue meeting to carry out its constitutional role of holding the Government to account. Lord Norton of Louth, Professor of Government at the University of Hull, said:

“Limiting the capacity of the legislature to meet and deliberate enhances the position of the executive. The government continues and has at its disposal both prerogative powers (exercised through prime ministerial advice to the sovereign) and statutory powers, including those embodied in measures designed to cover emergencies. It can therefore govern without the legislature coming together to debate and challenge it. If the legislature is not meeting, ministers may avoid being subject to questioning.”3

7.In order to keep working through the pandemic Parliament, like many other organisations, moved quickly to adopt new technologies. The requisite software had to be rolled out to members at pace, many of whom had limited experience of using such technology. The procedures of the House needed to be flexed, sometimes significantly, to align with the new technology and to enable participation so far as possible.

8.The impact of virtual proceedings on the conduct of parliamentary business was significant and raised questions about Parliament’s ability to hold the Government to account. However, some of the short-term changes to procedure have presented an opportunity to do things differently and better in the longer-term. As a result, the response to COVID-19 presents a challenge and an opportunity. Procedural matters are the responsibility of the Procedure and Privileges Committee, and the House as a whole; our recommendations in this respect are offered as a contribution to that important debate.

9.In Chapter 2, we consider how Parliament responded to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the role of the House of Lords administration,4 the usual channels and the Government.5 We also consider the impact on the House’s ability to engage with the public, including its public profile.

10.In Chapter 3, we explore the impact of virtual and hybrid proceedings on scrutiny and procedure in the House of Lords and consider whether any elements should be retained when parliamentary business returns to normal.

11.In Chapter 4, we cover lessons for the longer-term resilience of the Palace of Westminster, including the role of Parliament in planning for this.

12.We are grateful to all who assisted our work by providing oral or written evidence. All the written evidence and transcripts of the oral hearings are on our webpages.6

1 Constitution Committee, ‘Constitutional implications of COVID-19 Inquiry’: -implications-of-covid19/. See Appendix 3 for the call for evidence for the Parliament strand of the inquiry.

2 Constitution Committee, COVID-19 and the Courts (22nd Report, Session 2019–21, HL Paper 257)

3 Written evidence from Lord Norton of Louth (CIC0002)

4 The House of Lords Administration provides the corporate leadership for the House of Lords.

5 The usual channels consist of the Leaders and Whips of the three main political parties. For certain purposes the usual channels include the Convenor of the Crossbench Peers. The usual channels are primarily responsible for making decisions about the arrangement of parliamentary business, as well as contributing to discussions about changing the procedure of the House through their membership of the House of Lords Procedure and Privileges Committee. The usual channels also play a key role in decisions about the governance and administration of the House, including on facilities and services for members, through their membership of the House of Lords Commission, the House of Lords Services Committee and the House of Lords Finance Committee.

6 See Appendix 2 for details.

© Parliamentary copyright 2021