43.On 15 June the House of Lords Commission agreed to ask this Committee to explore a model by which a small number of members who may be unable physically to access the Chamber on grounds of long-term disability would be able to continue to participate virtually. The Commission will decide how and by whom decisions over eligibility for this provision would be taken, but its expectation is that this would be a facility for a small number of members and therefore potentially be deliverable without adding high additional support costs and having little impact on other business returning to physical-only. The Commission is making separate proposals for how allowances interact with participation for disabled members eligible for virtual participation (hereafter “eligible members”) who decide to take part virtually. This Committee’s role is to take decisions over what procedure for virtual participation for eligible members should be proposed to the House.
44.Recognising the importance of enabling all members to participate in the work of the House, we seek to maintain the maximum degree of ongoing virtual participation possible for eligible members without imposing any significant constraints on the Chamber’s otherwise physical-only operation. The approach we recommend in this report represents the maximum degree of ongoing virtual participation without the full teams currently required to provide additional support to hybrid sittings. These constraints mean that whatever procedure the House agrees to, it will not be possible to maintain the degree of parity between physical participation and virtual participation which has been a feature of the hybrid House during the pandemic. It is also the case that with a return to the operation of Grand Committee in the Moses Room from 6 September, virtual participation will not immediately be available in Grand Committee.
45.The contribution disabled members make to the House’s debates and decisions is integral to the work of the House. In our view eligible members should be able to participate in all business of which there is sufficient notice, including business without speakers’ lists. For items with speakers’ lists, eligible members could participate with the same deadlines for signing up as all other members. In order to avoid re-imposing effectively the same constraints on the Chamber as hybrid proceedings, eligible members would continue to need to give notice the previous working day for debates without speakers’ lists (including amending stages of bills), and to be called to speak by the Chair at fixed points. There would also need to be limitations on a member contributing virtually being able to intervene, speak more than once, and put in a “voice” (Content or Not Content), and limitations on participation in Third Reading, consideration of Commons amendments or fast-track bills when proceedings move too fast for notice the previous day to be feasible. In considering such restrictions on virtual participation it is important to note that eligible members would always remain free to choose to participate physically. From the discussions members of the Committee have had with disabled members in framing this proposal we understand the importance of ensuring that the physical Chamber is as accessible as possible as this will always be the preferred way of participating. We will work with the House authorities to improve accessibility for members where this is possible. The model for ongoing virtual participation is there for the occasions where this is not possible.
46.On groups of amendments to bills, it would be open to an eligible member who was the lead signatory to an amendment to move and wind up on a group where the amendment is the lead amendment. Where the amendment is not the lead amendment in a group, or the eligible member is not the mover, the member could be called by the Chair after the question is put for the first time. In the event that more than one eligible member has signed up to contribute virtually, it would be most straightforward to take all virtual contributions in the same place. At this stage, and on the assumption that the number of members taking part in this way will be low, we hope that the House could operate such an approach without having to consider a cap on virtual participants where business is time-limited. It would be possible to allow an eligible member providing appropriate notice to participate virtually, where there is sufficient notice, in brief business after questions and consideration of Commons amendments, unlike in hybrid House proceedings.
47.In the short term, all members will continue to use the PeerHub platform to vote, as is described in paragraphs 39 to 42 above. Eligible members would be exempted from any obligation to vote on the Estate when they are participating virtually. After the point at which the House is anticipated to move across to a new pass-reader based system, eligible members will be able to continue to use PeerHub or call the Table Office to vote. If they are present on the Parliamentary Estate they would be able to participate in a division by using the pass-reader system, or by voting in their place.
48.We recommend that, subject to being deemed eligible according to the procedure agreed by the Commission, members who are unable physically to attend the House on grounds of disability should be able to continue to participate virtually in the Chamber when they choose to.
49.We recommend that eligible members should be able to participate virtually in all business in the Chamber where there is sufficient notice. In order to support this participation in business without speakers’ lists, eligible members will need to indicate their wish to take part by a given time the previous working day. In all such business, there will be a fixed point at which eligible members participating remotely are called by the Chair.
50.We recommend that eligible members should be able to continue to vote remotely when not present on the Parliamentary Estate, whether using PeerHub or by telephone, in a method agreed in advance with the Table Office, as well as retaining the option to vote “in their place” in the Chamber under SO 53 should they choose.
51.To give effect these recommendations, we recommend that the House agree to new Standing Order 24A, as set out in Appendix 3 of this report.
52.The recommendations on ongoing virtual participation will be kept under review to ensure that disabled members are able actively to participate in the work of the House in an effective and sustainable way.