My Lords, I pay tribute to the staff and everyone who has made it possible for us to continue to meet, hold Government to account and consider legislation. Whatever the shortcomings of the technology, it is infinitely better than not being able to do anything at all.
But what do we do? What is our function? As a Member of the other place, I used to invite my constituents, street by street, in coach-loads, down to the House and show them around, so that over the years I had literally thousands who came here. Quite frequently, someone would say, “Mr Lilley, wonderful building, but isn’t it just a talking shop and a waste of time?” To which my reply was, “You’re right, it’s a talking shop; you’re wrong it’s a waste of time.” There are only two ways to govern a country. One is for the Government to say, “These are the laws, these are the taxes; obey the laws, pay the taxes. You’ve got no say in the matter and we’ll brook no argument.” The other is the way we have developed in this place over 1,000 years, where no law can be passed, no tax can be imposed, without it first being debated in principle, then line by line, by the elected representatives of the people in that House, which has the ultimate say through its vote, and in this House, where a wider range of expertise can be brought to bear.
In this House, the importance of words and debate is even greater than down there, because our only power, ultimately, is to persuade or to send legislation back down to the other end and ask them to think again so we prolong the debate and have further discussion and debate here. Over the years, we have developed ways of doing that which have been thought effective. But we have, as the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, said, now carried out a controlled experiment of operating in a different fashion, and we have to consider what the results of that experiment are.
Two things have struck me. The first is that debate via Zoom is far less effective than debate in person. I am not against the use of modern technology; I think I was the first Secretary of State who insisted on using Zoom—well, some primitive system of video conferencing —to talk with my officials in further-flung parts of the United Kingdom. It is good for many things. It is good for presentations; it is quite good for simple questions and answers; it is not much use for interrogation. We have seen that reading speeches to the screen is a travesty. Interventions are almost impossible, which makes holding Ministers to account far more difficult. The palpable sense of the mood of the House cannot be expressed if people are dispersed in their drawing rooms or driving their cars or whatever while considering what is going on. We cannot let a hybrid House become the norm in future.
The second thing I learnt is that it is not just words in the Chamber that are important. I have missed, almost equally, words about the place. I decided that, from 1 September, I was going to come back here every day that I could—a decision reinforced by the fact that the builders working in the basement below me were making so much noise that I had to come in. However, I have found that the words I used to be able to exchange with someone next to me on the Benches are impossible to exchange when we are sitting two metres apart. The words in the Corridor, on the way to, or in, the voting Lobbies, not least in the refreshment establishments in this place, were important. We should not be ashamed of that. Just as armies march on their stomachs, legislatures ruminate over their victuals; that rumination is important.
Another my constituents would ask me was, “Mr Lilley, how do you possibly read all the laws, statutory instruments and Select Committee reports before you take part in debates?” I said, “I don’t, always; I read the ones that I know are of specific interest to me.” But then, as I was having tea in the Tea Room, a drink in the Bishops’ Bar or lunch in the Dining Room, someone would say to me, “Hey, Lilley, you’re very keen on public expenditure. Have you seen that statutory instrument? It could cost a fortune.” Or they would say to someone else, “Look, Baroness, here is something which I think is really damaging to women’s rights. Have you looked at it?” That is the way we harness the research and reading of the whole House to direct our efforts and make it more effective. That is impossible if we are not all here, or here in large numbers, to participate in the debate.
I am sure that there will be positive lessons to be learnt. The question is whether we should try to take decisions about what lessons to learn from a mode of operation which is less effective. Or, should we wait until we are largely all back here and can take decisions effectively, and then decide, from the base of how we used to work before 23 March last year, what changes we should add to it? That is a far better way of doing it and that is why I shall support the Motion in the name of my noble friend Lord Cormack—even if he does not move it.