1.This report makes a series of proposals to return from hybrid proceedings to something close to the House’s normal procedures while retaining a few changes for the benefit of the House. We propose the changes take effect on 6 September which is the anticipated date of return of the House from its summer adjournment. The first set of proposals are adaptations from the hybrid House which we recommend should remain in place; the second set relate to the use of PeerHub as an interim voting system; and the third set is concerned with continuing to enable virtual contributions by a small group of disabled members, should they so wish. This report forms part of a package of proposals for the House to consider and to assist it in coming back to physical proceedings from 6 September 2021.The Committee will keep these changes under close review, and we continue to welcome any representations from members as how to improve their operation.
2.The motions which will be tabled to give effect to the recommendations in this report will be framed as taking effect from 6 September. Any earlier recall would operate under the existing hybrid House guidance.
3.The recommended changes below will require alterations to the Companion to the Standing Orders and Guide to Proceedings. These proposed alterations are set out in Appendix 1. Where no change to the Companion is proposed, the House’s procedures will simply revert to the pre-pandemic arrangements, for example the sitting times of the House.
4.Previously, priority for tabling oral questions was given to any members queuing outside the Table Office. During the pandemic oral questions have been selected via a ballot system. A random ballot is drawn from all questions submitted to the Table Office by email or phone prior to a 1 p.m. deadline four weeks before the question will be asked. Any remaining slots can then be filled on a first-come-first-served basis by members contacting the Table Office. Members are subject to the usual rules governing the number of questions they can ask.
5.The ballot procedure has been largely well-received. It removes the need for members to queue, sometimes for hours, and addresses the relative disadvantage to members who have other commitments inside or outside the House, such as select committee meetings.
6.We recommend that normal oral questions should be allocated by ballot.
7.Prior to the pandemic the wording of an oral question could not be altered less than 24 hours before it was due to be asked. This rule was altered during the pandemic to 48 hours to ensure that those signing up to speak would be aware of the altered wording of the question.
8.Significant changes to wording within one or two working days of a question being asked have always been exceptionally rare. The benefits of an earlier deadline include that members will have more notice of changes to questions should they be considering participating. Should speakers’ lists be retained (see paragraph 12 below), the earlier deadline will be essential.
9.We recommend the deadline for changing the wording of oral questions should be 48 hours in advance of any question being asked.
10.To enable virtual contributions, speakers’ lists were introduced for contributions to most types of business. In the course of the debate on 20 May it became clear that there was a range of views across the House as to the desirability of retaining speakers’ lists for normal and topical oral questions, and questions to Lords ministers who are full members of the Cabinet (‘Secretary of State’ questions).
11.Given the divergent views, the House was consulted on 5 July. 551 members participated in this consultation, with 324 voting in favour of speakers’ lists and 227 voting against. As such there is a majority, 59% to 41%, for having speakers’ lists for normal and topical questions, and questions to Lords Ministers who are full members of the Cabinet from 6 September. Representations had been made following the announcement of the consultation for alternatives, including a mixture of lists and members seeking to intervene spontaneously. The Committee will keep the operation of speakers’ lists for these questions under active review.
12.We recommend that there should be speakers’ lists for normal and topical oral questions, and questions to Lords ministers who are full members of the Cabinet.
13.During the pandemic the deadline for signing up to speak to business which has always attracted a speakers’ list (debates, including second reading debates) was altered from 6 p.m. the working day before the business was to be taken to 6 p.m. two working days before.
14.The longer deadlines have allowed more notice of the amount of speaking time available in time-limited debates, and more notice of when a member can expect to speak. We propose that the deadlines used for the hybrid House be retained (with one alteration). That alteration would be for any deadline which is on a Friday to be 4 p.m., rather than 6 p.m.
15.We recommend that the deadline for signing up to participate in business which attracts a speakers’ list be amended to 6 p.m. two working days before the item of business is taken, and 4 p.m. on a Friday.
16.During the course of the pandemic, the Table Office brought forward the deadline for the tabling of business to 5 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. The majority of the business tabled on a day-to-day basis is questions for written answer (QWA). An earlier deadline enables staff to process the questions earlier and to the standard expected of the House, reducing the rate of errors and the need for overtime payments.
17.The temporary deadline change has not reduced the number of questions tabled. Between 21 April 2020 and 26 March 2021, 14,361 questions were tabled (an average of 66 QWAs per sitting day). Between 21 April 2019 and 20 April 2020, 6,143 questions were tabled (an average of 51 QWAs per sitting day).
18.We recommend that the deadline for tabling business with the Table Office be 5 p.m.
19.The Committee moved the deadline for tabling amendments to bills for next-day publication from 5 p.m. on Mondays to Thursdays to 4 p.m. Again, experience suggests that the earlier deadline has been helpful in managing workloads and late working, for both the Public Bill Office and those tabling amendments, while not diminishing the service to members. It has also enabled amendments to be made available to interested parties earlier.
20.We recommend that the deadline for tabling amendments to bills for next-day publication be 4 p.m.
21.Prior to the pandemic, Question Time lasted for 30 minutes (with approximately 7½ minutes per question), and proceedings on private notice questions (PNQs) were 10 minutes. During the pandemic, oral questions were allocated 10 minutes each and PNQs 15 minutes. Proceedings on questions to Lords ministers who are full members of Cabinet were extended to 30 minutes from 20 minutes.
22.We recommend that the total question time for normal and topical oral questions be 40 minutes; that the time allocated for questions to Lords ministers who are full members of Cabinet be 30 minutes; and that Private Notice Questions be allocated 15 minutes.
23.During the pandemic, a ballot, open to backbench members only, for up to four questions for short debate to be taken in Grand Committee every five weeks has been in operation. This new procedure had no effect on the balloted topical QSDs or balloted debates, which remain unchanged (though neither of those procedures have been operated during the pandemic).
24.During the pandemic the House has not taken QSDs as lunch, dinner break business or last business. From 6 September a way to enable such business is needed. The balloted QSD process could be adapted to produce a balloted list of QSDs for debate in Grand Committee and an ordered list of those not successful in the ballot for Grand Committee could be produced. The Government Whips’ Office could use the list to select QSDs to be taken as lunch or dinner break business, when a break is available, or as last business. Slots would be offered in the order that they appear on the list. Frontbench members could enter this ballot process, with their entries only eligible to appear on the running list for lunch or dinner break business and not the slots in Grand Committee (their entry would be marked in the list to indicate it was a frontbench entry).
25.We recommend that the ballot for questions for short debate in Grand Committee be retained.
26.We recommend that the Table Office draw an additional list of questions for short debate from the ballot for use by the Government Whips’ Office to arrange lunch and dinner break business. Frontbench members should be eligible to ask questions for short debate earmarked for lunch and dinner break business, or as last business.
27.During the pandemic groupings of amendments have been binding. This was to give sufficient predictability to virtual participants, and the teams facilitating their contributions, and to ensure parity between participants. We understand it has been convenient for members participating in the Bill from all sides of the House.
28.In order to retain some of the benefit of having more certainty over groups we suggest that the Companion be amended to discourage de-grouping once each day’s groupings have been agreed with those with amendments and published.
29.It will be for the Government Whip in the Chamber to draw members’ attention to this guidance where appropriate. The process of agreement of groupings in advance will continue as now and will be unaffected.
30.We recommend that the de-grouping of amendments after each day’s groupings have been published be discouraged.
31.During “ping pong” each House considers the propositions made by the other House to settle the final text of a bill. When the House is disagreeing to a Commons proposition but not proposing an alternative, a Reason must be sent. Reasons are agreed by a reasons committee. Meetings of reasons committees are short and informal. Reasons normally consist of a single sentence.
32.During the pandemic, the requirement for a committee was formally maintained but the requirement for it to meet was suspended and a standard reason offered.
33.Reasons committees are relatively rare. Nonetheless preparatory work was required every time a proposition was tabled which would have required a Reason if agreed to.
34.We are advised that the content of Lords Reasons has no procedural impact on how the House of Commons considers a Lords message and there is no procedural bar as far as the Commons is concerned to the continued use of standard Reasons.
35.Reasons are necessary, to signal that the House is standing its ground. But meetings of a reasons committee are an unnecessary process, causing delay and burdening the Minister, other key members and officials at a critical moment but adding no value. They involve preparatory work on many more occasions than they are actually required.
36.We recommend that the requirement to convene a reasons committee should cease; and that a standard Reason should be given when the Lords disagree with a Commons proposition without proposing an alternative, “because the Lords wish the Commons to consider the matter again.”
37.At the meeting on 29 June the Committee also discussed two further specific points. The first was the issue of extending the sitting times for Grand Committee from four to five hours. The second was the scope for streamlining the process of time-limiting general debates. We are working with the House authorities to achieve both these points and will return to the House with proposals on both points.
1 Further to the Committee’s 7th Report of Session 2019-21, the scope of Secretary of State questions was expanded to include questions to departmental ministers sitting in the House of Lords who are full members of the Cabinet.
2 4 p.m. if that day was a Friday.
3 In the course of the Committee’s discussions, we divided on the question “that after 6 September Private Notice Questions should be for 15 minutes rather than 10 minutes.” 12 members voted in favour, and five members against.
4 The ballot closes at 5 p.m. on a Tuesday and is drawn on Wednesday, with the debates taking place on the Thursday of the following week. No more than two QSDs can be selected for any one government department; nor can any QSDs be selected for a department that has the main business in the Chamber on the day of the QSDs.
5 For example, Commons Reasons on last Session’s Trade Bill included “Because it is unnecessary in light of existing international obligations” and “Because Parliamentary scrutiny of trade agreements is ensured by existing measures”. A 2019 report by the Constitution Committee concluded that “Reasons committees serve no practical purpose and should be abolished.” The Government response to that report noted that this was a matter for the respective Houses and their Procedure Committees to consider. Constitution Committee, (24th Report, Session 2019–21, HL Paper 393).
6 Prior to the pandemic, only seven reasons committees were appointed in the Lords since 2010. During the pandemic, there has been one occasion where a reasons committee would have been required to meet.
7 The reverse is not true. When the Commons reject a Lords amendment which engages their financial privilege they send back a “privilege reason” which prevents the Lords from insisting on that amendment.