Baroness Anne McIntosh: Money saved as House of Lords sits virtually should go towards health and care staff

The battle for the best background, work from home dress codes, and accidental expletives have all fast become mainstays of the nine to five, as nearly 40 per cent of jobs went virtual due to the coronavirus crisis.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering. Photo: House of Lords

YouGov found more than four in ten of the pre-crisis workforce are exclusively working from home (38 per cent), with another eight per cent now doing so some of the time.

And it is no different in Parliament, where MPs and peers have been given crash courses in framing, the importance of the mute button and the avoidance of political paraphernalia lurking behind them as they dial in to uphold democracy in these unprecedented times.

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But going virtual has not been plain sailing for some in the country’s more than 800-year-old Parliament, perhaps even more so for the ermine-clad peers sitting in the House of Lords - referred to as “the other place” by those in the Commons - who by their very nature are usually drawn from an older demographic.

“In the space of virtually three and a half weeks to go from a real Parliament to a virtual Parliament, it has been amazing. It’s been quite the learning curve,” Baroness Anne McIntosh of Pickering explained.

“I think we’re the generation - well I’m certainly from the generation - where we didn’t have any technology or IT skills taught to us at school so we’re all self-taught,” she said.

“So when you think about [it] we have literally gone from the real Parliament where we attended right up to the week of the 23rd of March, to returning after a slight delay [due to Easter recess] on the 21st of April to that week having one day where it was all fully virtual and remote. And it’s all been achieved through some very hard work and we are so grateful to the teams that put this in place.”

That is not to say there have not been difficulties.

In one case, peers were shocked to find their mobile numbers read out to the country when they entered or exited the session on Microsoft Teams – the app being used for virtual proceedings.

In other cases MPs and peers alike had seen themselves unceremoniously shut off when their time to speak had run out.

But alongside specific incidents, former Thirsk and Malton MP Baroness McIntosh, 65, said the change had been a substantial one which had seen some bumps in the road.

“One is that we're perhaps not the most confident,” she said.

“I think [due to] the average age, and I'm delighted to say I’m below the average age, is 70, and I admit to being more at home in the age of the quill pen and paper.

“But the other level of course is trying to reach out and having compatibility with the kit that you have.”

Before the crisis, Parliament was not renowned for being an agile, cutting edge workplace where staff could easily adapt to working from home.

MPs were given the option of accessing a pot of expenses cash - £10,000 each - at the beginning of the outbreak so they could ensure their staff could work from home with the right equipment, signalling they had not been able to do so before.

And it is not as simple as logging onto your personal laptop, with security requirements a must.

“So the first case in point, there I was [on] the 21st of April, keen as mustard to try and participate and show that I was willing to work with these new ways,” Baroness McIntosh said.

“And we had two rehearsals, one in the morning and then a little mini rehearsal before we were due to go live.

“And they could not - anybody who did not have a parliamentary computer at home, which I don't or a parliamentary laptop - we couldn't participate. But they were amazing, they connected us by telephone, mobile or landline.”

It was this desire to show the willingness to adapt that also led Baroness McIntosh to back a slash in the allowances peers could claim for attending sittings.

Usually peers can claim £323 a day for taking part in chamber and committee business.

But after a hour of debate earlier in the month it was agreed the current allowance system will be suspended and the maximum daily rate would halve to £162.

Outlining the move, Tory leader in the Lords Baroness Evans of Bowes Park said the “unprecedented circumstances” caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting remote working has raised issues around allowances.

However fellow Conservative peer Tory peer Lord Shinkwin said the Lords was being “hung out to dry”.

He said he was “not in any way shape or form a member of the privileged elite”.

He said: “I know from my own situation and the situation of other members that actually they do rely on the income that the allowances bring to live in the real world.”

On reducing the allowance, he said: “The decision takes no account of the fact that some members are not wealthy, that some members do have a huge mortgage as I do.”

He added: “I feel this decision hangs those of us, who live in that part of the real world, out to dry.”

But Baroness McIntosh said: “I think we all want to play our part.”

She added: “We want to share the pain that the country is going through at the moment.”

Any reduction should be “fair and equitable” she said, but “I personally would like to see that money that is saved - and obviously it's calculable, because you can just go over and see what we have been claiming in the past few month - that the money saved should go into the health service, to pay for PPE and to pay for the carers and extra carers because obviously where the health and care workers have suffered from Covid.

“We know that a number of them, over 200 now, have succumbed and paid the ultimate price, but those who are suffering have to be replaced before they can return to work fully.

“So I think it would be a wonderful idea if that could be costed and actually contributed to the health service. But whether that's feasible or not, that’s something for the health authorities to look at.”

The ongoing scrutiny of the Lords was key, however, Baroness McIntosh said, pointing to both the Fisheries and Agriculture Bills - the former is currently with the Lords and the latter, passed by the Commons on Wednesday, will soon arrive.

But she admitted some of the “immediacy and spontaneity” was lost when taking part from home.

“So while there was a rule and a practice that virtually in every debate, anybody could participate, this has now been time limited to a maximum of 50 participants.

“And that might sound a lot but actually, if you take the valedictory debate called by the Archbishop of York last week, there were 63 people [who] wanted to participate. So there were 13 disappointed peers that I know of.

“And the other thing is when it comes to voting, we haven't quite got there yet. So voting in committee stage and report stage, which is when we do the main policy amendments to a draft bill from the Government, we haven't quite mastered, certainly in the Lords, how we're going to do that.”

The comments come at a time when Leader of the House in the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg he does not want to see the so-called “hybrid” arrangements - where some attend in person and some virtually - extended beyond the Whitsun recess, which ends on June 2, thereby requiring MPs to attend in person to take part in proceedings.

He added that Parliament must “set an example” to the country, although his remarks surprised opposition parties and led to criticism, given the current social-distancing rules to combat the spread of Covid-19

Baroness McIntosh recognised there were issues, for example with taking evidence in various parliamentary committees.

“We can take written evidence of course,” she said. “But we will often want to drill down into what someone has submitted in written evidence to a particular inquiry and question them orally.

“We can do that privately but most witnesses and certainly we want evidence to be a matter of public record so that we can quote it and that will inform our views of that particular policy area.”

But she said the key thing was that both parliamentarians and staff felt safe coming into work.

She conceded many MPs are peers “do have access to a place in London” but added “many of the staff travel long distances in, so we’re mindful of the fact that we have to make them feel comfortable and safe as well”.

She said by ensuring the full hybrid proceedings seen in the Commons was implemented in the Lords, and encouraging debates to run longer, the system would be improved.

“So what will be interesting looking forward is will there be a long term move to those who perhaps are subject to an underlying health condition in the Commons or the Lords and feel safer working from home?

“Having invested in this kit, it would seem to make sense to keep a body of it because to me the danger period is a second wave or even a third wave, I think in the autumn when it turns cooler and when you tend to get more infections through the winter.

“So having made that investment, wouldn't it be a good idea to keep it under review and make it accessible so those who do have underlying conditions can still participate?”