The House of Lords may be the place of hereditary peerages, woolsacks and arcane procedures, but today the Chamber ventured into the 21st century when it trialled virtual proceedings for the first time, using Microsoft Teams.
Peers across the country dialled in to a giant conference call chaired by the Lord Speaker, as ministers fielded questions from living rooms and kitchens. And while things went surprisingly well considering the the average age of the House is 70 and the technology was being used for the first time, there were a handful of rather amusing incidents along the way.
Here are Mr Steerpike’s favourite moments from the first session:
The missing minister
Anarchy briefly reigned in the Chamber this afternoon, when a minister set to answer questions, Lord Gardiner, failed to make an appearance. A peeved looking Lord Bishop of St Albans – kitted out with microphone stand and headphones – was unfortunately not given leave to ask his question.
Thankfully the Lords Chief Whip was on hand to work out what was going on. Asked if he could explain why the minister was not present, the whip helpfully replied: ‘The answer is: I’m very sorry, I have no idea why’, before asking the Chamber (and perhaps the bishop) for forgiveness.
Later, Lord Gardiner did make an appearance, and had to explain that he'd been on the phone to IT for over an hour. Oops.
Did Baroness Hayter print off a giant picture of the Lords?
Those who have recently become familiar with video-conferencing software will know that it is possible to set a background image to sit behind you as you talk. Most members of the Lords opted for a blurred or plain background when they spoke this afternoon, but one wonders if Baroness Hayter didn’t quite get the memo.
As far as Mr S can make out, it appears as if the Peer instead printed off a giant picture of an empty House of Lords to physically sit behind her. The picture seemed to be leaning against the Baroness’s blue curtains. Full marks for commitment at least.
The random mobile phone numbers
At least four times in the first session, Peers were interrupted by a terse, robotic voice which began to read out random mobile phone numbers to the whole world. Mr S suspects that when Peers joined the Teams session, they accidentally inputted their phone number as their display name, which was then read aloud by the software.
To spare the blushes of the unlucky Lord, Mr S has muted out the actual number accidentally broadcast below. But let’s hope Peers figure it out soon, before their digits end up in Hansard.
The woman behind Menzies Campbell
Menzies Campbell, aka Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, set an unusual precedent in the Chamber by appearing to bring along a guest. The former Lib Dem leader, sitting in front of an impressive number of paintings, was accompanied by a woman (presumably his wife, Elspeth Campbell) who stood over his right shoulder watching the screen.
Mr S doesn’t know where to begin. Was she simply helping with the technology? Are wives and partners set to become the must-have accessory in the Lords? Or is Campbell being haunted by a resident ghost?
Lord Dubs' mystery chin
Free from social commitments and work strictures, many people have used the lockdown period to grow a beard for the first time – with varying degrees of success. Mr S wonders if that is why Lord Dubs, the Peer and refugee rights campaigner, chose only to display his forehead when he appeared for the first time on video.
Mr S hopes that if the venerable Lord has been nurturing a growing beard or handlebar moustache over the past few weeks, that viewers are treated to a look next time.
The problems with mute
As well as losing ministers, Peers frequently missed the opportunity to ask a question due to either technical faults, or an inability to turn off the mute button on their Teams client.
Mr S can’t say for sure whether Baroness Uddin was the victim of poor technology or made a simple mistake, but her ill-fated attempt to ask a question summed up the Lords' difficulties communicating via video today.
— Esther Webber (@estwebber) April 28, 2020
Progress on virtual parliament has been impressive but not everything is going to plan... (Lords questions earlier) pic.twitter.com/0r2fVBVLIN