Bishop of Birmingham reflects on pandemic changes to working life in Lords

On 20th May 2021 the House of Lords debated the changes made to its working procedures as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The Bishop of Birmingham, as convenor of the Lords Spiritual, spoke about the effect on the Bishops’ Benches and more widely in the country.

The Lord Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, I share, from these Benches, our gratitude for all those who have worked so hard, with agility and rapidity, both the staff that serve the House and those who manage the business of the House, in a very challenging and, in fact, a unique time, as has been referred to several times already.

The noble Earl, Lord Howe, said that every aspect of life has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Even churches have become hybrid. Families have been separated and have kept in touch by Zoom. Employers and employees are now negotiating home and back-to-work settings. Online parents’ evenings at schools have become more popular than ever. As has been said already, I join those who are at a moment of learning lessons from what has happened to us, unexpected and unprepared, over the past 15 months. This great disruption means that we will face further change, not just here but in society as a whole.

The decisions we have to make are about what to keep that has been beneficial, or surprisingly new and advantageous, and what to go back to, as what works well for our purpose today. We do so in the context of an uncertain journey ahead, on the road map, and also with the priority to keep everyone safe and well in this terrible time of virus, as I believe we have tried to do in this House.

I have no doubt that your Lordships will want to do this learning on the basis of the principles of our primary purpose. As was said in Question Time on Tuesday, I think, structures follow purpose—it has been well articulated here, and I do not have to go through the details—but this, I believe, is best fulfilled in person. Yet, at the same time I agree with those who have said we should not simply stop and revert without attending to what we have experienced in some detail and to see what might be beneficial in the months and years ahead.

Let me just reflect for a moment on the experience of the Lords spiritual in our purpose of scrutiny. One of my colleagues has been quite clear that this has been stifled by the medium of Zoom. Then we come on to the whole business of accountability, our major passion in this House, to allow the Government—whatever kind of Government—to be held to account in the rush and tumble of our current way of doing things. Colleagues would say that it has been harder to press the Government to accountability, not least at this time when we have had to make lots of decisions by secondary legislation or, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, by statutory instruments.

Of course, there is the important matter of legislation itself: our role as part of the Parliament, the legislature in our organisation, especially at a time when there is tension and a contested power struggle between legislature, Executive and judiciary. This is much better done in person rather than remotely. The Lords spiritual is a distinctive group in your Lordships’ House—when writs are issued, it is done in the name of the Lords spiritual and temporal—bringing with us our regional experience and our responsibilities from all around the country. As has been mentioned, we have found it to be positive that committees, in the way they operate, have an advantage, in part, in their proceedings by having remote access, particularly when witnesses are being called. There is a much better reach, even internationally.

Electronic voting and the PeerHub have been mentioned. We love the PeerHub. Electronic voting has been used by the General Synod of the Church of England for several years, although some of my noble colleagues find it difficult to remember which of the three options, including abstaining, to press at the right time, which means that electronic life requires us to concentrate even more on the business of the day. Less easy, of course, has been the business of intervening when it comes to the very difficult task—I do not underestimate this—of forming the lists when ballots are involved. Colleagues on this Bench find that the custom of the House to allow an intervention in person is much more effective and easier than just being part of a ballot for which we cannot actually get in. I am sure that as we emerge from the next stage of the pandemic, decisions about rules and practices—comments have already been made about the detailed work that may need to be done in our lessons learned—will include the interests of everyone in the House.

In summary, we on this side of the House feel that it is preferable to be present in person. We express, as has been mentioned, our full humanity, our ability as this extraordinary part of the created order, when we engage with one another by sight—if we have sight—by hearing, by touch, by listening and getting the mood of what is happening. Of course, this is using all the advantages of politics as has been practised over the centuries and I hope will go on being practised in the centuries ahead—although not all of us may be here to experience that when it comes. The same applies in church: we may well go on with hybrid.

I am getting a nod and I am going to sit down. Please, may we work together in order to make the lessons learned really important. My final word is a word from the streets of Birmingham to the elders of the city: “If you’re not on Instagram, you don’t exist!”

Lords Chamber – Thursday 20 May 2021 – Hansard – UK Parliament