COVID-19 and Parliament Contents

Summary of conclusions and recommendations

Below is a list of all of the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations (recommendations appear in italics).

Parliament’s response to the pandemic

1.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. (Paragraph 25)

2.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. (Paragraph 31)

Impact on scrutiny in the House of Lords

3.While it is important for the Government to keep the public informed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Government must adhere to the Ministerial Code and prioritise Parliament when making significant policy announcements, on the pandemic and more generally. Only then can Parliament’s centrality in holding the Government to account be respected. All concerned, including those responsible in Parliament, must continue to take steps to uphold this important principle. (Paragraph 45)

4.The high volume of statutory instruments laid in response to the pandemic, and the use of fast-track procedures, have severely limited Parliament’s ability to scrutinise significant powers. The blurring of legislation and guidance undermined public understanding of the rules. We will consider this further in our third report into the constitutional implications of COVID-19, on the use and scrutiny of emergency powers. (Paragraph 50)

5.We acknowledge the challenges faced by the Government in responding to the increased number of questions for written answer during the pandemic, but this does not justify poor, partial or non-answers, which was a concern before the pandemic. It is incumbent on the Government to ensure that departments are adequately resourced to respond fully to questions, including by providing information beyond that already in the public domain, in a timely manner. Doing so is an important part of ministers’ accountability to Parliament. (Paragraph 56)

6.The hybrid procedures during a bill’s committee stage would benefit from further review. (Paragraph 76)

7.The changes to House of Lords procedures as a result of hybrid proceedings, particularly the loss of spontaneity in members’ interactions during a bill’s committee stage and the need for speakers lists on more business, has resulted in the House’s essential scrutiny role, including its capacity to hold the Government to account, which was already in need of strengthening, becoming less effective. We consider that this presents significant problems for both members and ministers. (Paragraph 83)

8.We note that before the pandemic the number of members wishing to participate in some items of business, particularly questions and debates, meant that it was not always possible for every member who wanted to contribute to do so. There were also instances of regrettably short speaking times in debates. It might be that hybrid proceedings have simply exacerbated underlying issues, including occasions when members who have significant expertise in a matter not having an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution. Speaking times of one or two minutes per backbencher, which has sometimes occurred during COVID-19, do not allow members to make a meaningful contribution. (Paragraph 84)

9.It may be necessary for alternative approaches to be considered, particularly if some debates continue to be over-subscribed after the House emerges from COVID-19. This could include introducing a limit on the number of speakers and minimum speaking times for certain items of business. (Paragraph 85)

10.Notwithstanding the limitations of hybrid proceedings, they are a necessary solution to maintaining business continuity while a significant number of members are unable to attend the House of Lords in person. We welcome the benefits remote proceedings have brought for members with disabilities, health concerns or caring responsibilities, or who are geographically distant. (Paragraph 86)

11.Whatever members’ views on the merits of retaining remote voting in the longer-term, the introduction of this facility in the House of Lords during the pandemic has been successful in allowing all members to continue participating in divisions. (Paragraph 87)

Emerging from COVID-19

12.As Parliament emerges from COVID-19, the House of Lords should reflect on its experiences during the pandemic and consider how it can fulfil its role more effectively once things return to ‘normal’, including responding to forthcoming challenges. (Paragraph 90)

13.The experience of the House of Lords during the COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention to pre-existing issues regarding its size, self-regulation and the ability of members to participate in proceedings. (Paragraph 96)

14.As a first step, and following the experience of hybrid proceedings and remote voting, the House must carefully consider what form the proceedings of the House should take after COVID-19. (Paragraph 97)

15.As a next step, we hope the Procedure and Privileges Committee will publish draft proposals for further debate, before the House is invited to make a final decision. (Paragraph 98)

16.We recommend that those considerations should take into account any impact on the effectiveness of the House in discharging its constitutional roles of scrutinising legislation and holding the Government to account, public perception, inclusivity and business continuity. It will also be important to consider what the longer-term consequences of any changes to proceedings might be for the overall dynamic of the House of Lords. (Paragraph 99)

17.House of Lords select committees have operated effectively during the pandemic and the value of their work has been underlined. At a time of profound national reflection prompted by COVID-19, the expertise and longer-term perspective of the House’s committees will further enhance their role in holding the Government to account and engaging with the public as the UK emerges from the pandemic. We recommend that committees should continue to allow virtual participation by members and witnesses, where appropriate, including to receive evidence from a more diverse range of witnesses from across the UK and abroad, and should receive the necessary resources to fulfil their role to full effect. (Paragraph 104)

Longer-term resilience of Parliament

18.It is regrettable that the potential impact of social-distancing requirements to tackle a pandemic had not been considered in Parliament’s business continuity planning. We note that such an omission was not unique to Parliament; many other organisations faced the same dilemma of operating in a different manner without any plans for doing so being in place. We recommend the House of Lords Commission conducts a lessons-learned exercise on Parliament’s response to the pandemic as part of revising its business continuity plans. In doing so it should seek input from members and take into account the importance of Parliament continuing to hold the Government to account whatever the circumstances. (Paragraph 106)

19.We recommend that the House administration consider how its temporary accommodation requirements during decant may change, given that remote working may be more common by the time that both Houses need to decant from the Palace of Westminster. (Paragraph 115)

20.We recommend that the House administration should continue to develop its capacity to support virtual proceedings, in case this is required to support Parliament’s future business continuity arrangements or the restoration of the Palace of Westminster. (Paragraph 116)

21.We welcome the House of Lords Commission’s ongoing support for proceeding with the Restoration and Renewal programme on the basis of the resolutions endorsed by both Houses, including the full decant of the Palace of Westminster as the quickest, cheapest and safest option. However, we regret the continued delays in delivering the programme. While some delays have inevitably resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic, the apparent lack of support from the Government for the programme is regrettable. Parliament has demonstrated resilience in the face of the pandemic, yet the continued deterioration of the Palace of Westminster increases the risk of both Houses being forced to resort to virtual methods of working in future. (Paragraph 117)

© Parliamentary copyright 2021