13.The Committee has previously drawn attention to the difficulties facing Parliament, and in particular the House of Lords, in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities of holding the Government to account and scrutinising legislation adequately. Parliament is under increased scrutiny about the way it works. It is against this backdrop that the Committee embarked on its inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on Parliament.
14.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 functions. The Government used a range of emergency powers and introduced a significant quantity of legislation, the scope of which had not been seen since the Second World War. Parliament’s ability to scrutinise these important measures in its usual manner was limited by time constraints and the physical restrictions introduced in response to the pandemic, which meant that Parliament could not meet in the usual way.
15.Both Houses of Parliament were compelled to make significant changes to their sitting arrangements and procedures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of which were driven by the need to respect social distancing. Members of the House of Lords, like the public more generally, were encouraged to work from home and avoid travelling, as much as possible.
16.Between March and June 2020, the House of Lords moved from physical to virtual then to hybrid proceedings. Decisions about these changes were mainly taken by the House of Lords Commission, which is responsible for the governance and administration of the House, and the House of Lords Procedure and Privileges Committee, which considers changes to the House’s procedures. The decisions to move to virtual, and then hybrid, proceedings were taken by the House as whole.
17.Box 1 summarises the timeline of COVID-19 and the response of the House of Lords.
18.There was a broad consensus among witnesses that Parliament had responded well to the pandemic in operational terms. Lord Norton described “remarkable achievements in a small space of time”.
19.Professor Meg Russell, Director of the Constitution Unit at University College London, told us:
“in the early stages, Parliament responded admirably. … Indeed, to coin a phrase, we were somewhat world-leading at the early stages in the rapidity with which we got proceedings online. There was fantastic leadership from the Speakers in the two Chambers and a huge amount of work done by the staff behind the scenes to set up the hybrid Parliament.”
20.While Baroness Evans of Bowes Park, the Leader of the House, and Baroness Smith of Basildon, the Leader of the Opposition, acknowledged “frustrations” among members about the impact on the House’s business early on in the response to the pandemic, they considered that the House of Lords had been able to function well in unprecedented circumstances. We examine some of the continued frustrations with the current arrangements in Chapter 3.
21.Many witnesses complimented the staff of the two Houses, including the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit and the Parliamentary Digital Service, in making virtual and hybrid sittings possible. There was praise for the Clerk of the Parliaments in keeping members informed of developments.
22.Most witnesses also praised the usual channels in the House of Lords, including for their work in the House of Lords Commission and Procedure and Privileges Committee, during the pandemic. Baroness Smith said it took “hours and hours of discussions” to reach consensus on how to respond to the pandemic; while it had been “quite tense and frustrating” at times, she thought the usual channels had agreed the right outcome. Lord Ashton of Hyde, the Government Chief Whip, paid tribute to the opposition parties in the House: “everyone has tried to put the needs of the House first, and they have had that uppermost in their minds.”
23.However, while Baroness Walmsley, Co-Deputy Leader of Liberal Democrat Peers, praised the efforts taken to ensure that the House could continue meeting virtually in the early stages of the response to the pandemic, she was more critical about the initial changes to the system of financial support for members which had been agreed by the House of Lords Commission. We do not consider financial support for members in this report but note that the arrangements were subsequently changed by the House of Lords Commission, with the agreement of the House.
24.Some witnesses considered that the House of Lords had handled the pandemic better than the House of Commons. Professor Russell thought that the arrangements in the House of Lords had allowed the response to proceed more smoothly than in the House of Commons:
“in the Lords, things have been more consensual, as far as I can see. That is partly by necessity, because the Government do not have a majority, but you also have those mechanisms that back up the fact that the Government do not have a majority. You have forums in which you can get cross-party agreement, which many other parliaments have.”
25.Despite the restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the efforts of staff from across Parliament and the members of the House of Lords Commission and Procedure and Privileges Committee ensured that the House of Lords continued fulfilling its constitutional role so far as circumstances permitted. We commend everyone involved.
26.Parliament’s response to COVID-19 had a significant impact on its public-facing role, including the House of Lords’ objective of promoting public understanding of and engagement with the House. From March 2020, non-essential visitors were no longer permitted to visit the Palace of Westminster to view proceedings. Parliament’s various public engagement activities became virtual rather than physical.
27.Social distancing and virtual proceedings in both Houses have meant that there are no longer familiar scenes of Parliament in the news or on television—for example, there has been no crowded and lively House of Commons chamber during Prime Minister’s Questions. Therefore, the inability of Parliament to conduct the same degree of scrutiny as it did before the pandemic may have increased public scepticism of Parliament’s role and how each House carries out its functions.
28.While it was not possible for the public to attend proceedings in person, proceedings continue to be livestreamed on parliamentlive.tv. For the benefit of the public, members presiding over proceedings from the Woolsack provided further information about the nature of the business being discussed. However, the number of viewers of Lords proceedings on parliamentlive.tv declined by 7% in 2020 compared to 2019.
29.The restrictions meant that schoolchildren were no longer able to visit the parliamentary education centre and members of the Lords were no longer able to visit schools, through the Peers in Schools programme, or engage in person with members of other legislatures in the UK and internationally.
30.However, a new House of Lords engagement programme has allowed members to connect virtually with pupils from across the UK about the role and work of the House. We understand that this programme has received positive feedback from participating schools.
31.We welcome the continued engagement by members of the House of Lords with pupils at a time when many other activities and services have been postponed or cancelled, and young people have had so much disruption to their education. We trust the House will continue to develop its important work in this area, particularly as the restrictions introduced in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are eased.
7 The House of Lords Commission provides high-level strategic and political direction for the House of Lords administration. The Commission is also responsible for agreeing the House’s annual estimate, business and financial plans, supervising the arrangements relating to financial support for members and agreeing business continuity and resilience arrangements, among other matters.
8 For the Commons roadmap see House of Commons Commission, ‘Commission approves Commons roadmap out of lockdown’ (8 March 2021):
9 (Lord Harris of Haringey, Lord Hunt of Wirral), (Baroness Smith of Basildon), (Sir David Natzler), (Dr Hannah White), (Lord McFall of Alcluith) and (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park)
10 Written evidence from Lord Norton of Louth ()
11 (Professor Meg Russell)
12 (Baroness Smith of Basildon) and (Baroness Evans of Bowes Park)
13 (Lord Harris of Haringey), (Lord Hunt of Wirral), (Lord Newby), (Baroness Smith of Basildon) and (Baroness Walmsley)
14 (Lord Judge), (Lord Harris of Haringey), (Lord Newby) and (Lord McFall of Alcluith)
15 (Baroness Smith of Basildon)
16 (Lord Ashton of Hyde)
17 (Baroness Walmsley)
18 Written evidence from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (), (Professor Meg Russell), (Dr Hannah White) and (Lord McFall of Alcluith)
19 (Professor Meg Russell)
20 Information provided by the Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit. The number of viewers is an aggregate of both chamber and committee proceedings.
21 Information provided by the House of Lords Communications Office. The engagement programme has two strands which are delivered through Microsoft Teams: Learn with the Lords Online reached 4,168 pupils at 116 schools, making this one of the largest legislator-to-pupil programmes in the world; and Learn with the Lords Question Time reached 3,254 pupils at 117 schools.