A more inclusive Parliament: a reflection by Baroness Campbell of Surbiton

I have been in the Lords 12 years and many of the barriers to my effective participation have been resolved by good-natured and enthusiastic staff and parliamentarians. Occasionally however, I have encountered disability discrimination and obstacles. This needs attention if we want Parliament to be a modern inclusive place to work and visit.  As we emerge from lockdown and embark on the restoration of the parliamentary estate, now is the time to act decisively.

This will be challenging for the traditionalists. Some of the barriers to my own participation were rooted in ancient parliamentary conventions. A classic example was my two-year battle to bring a PA and voice facilitator onto the floor of the Chamber because the standing orders of 1707 stated that: “no one apart from Peers, clerks and door keepers will cross the Bar!” I can laugh about it now, but at the time it was extremely stressful to cope without help during long debates. It was frustrating that such an obvious solution was not considered a reasonable adjustment. 

The requirement to be present at the start and end of long debates, if one is speaking, can also be challenging for a disabled person with stamina limitations, especially if they extend into the late evening. Requesting permission from the Government Chief Whip to leave early resembles a trip to the headmaster’s office! Parents with childcare responsibilities and older Members must also struggle with such a rigid rule – maybe it is time for review.

The speed at which Parliament converted to virtual working last year was extraordinary, and praise is due to everyone involved. It has helped not only those of us with a disability but also Members living far from London, carers or those with short- term health conditions. Early morning meetings, followed by late night voting, demanding one stays for many hours at a stretch is exhausting for me.  But with virtual capacity I can attend to the business of the House any time of the day, contributing to Parliamentary activities with an alert mind and effectiveness more than ever before.  Now that everyone is used to the technology and time restrictions, I believe virtual contributions are more focused and concise, and there appears to be a more diverse range of peers joining debates and meetings. 

On the downside, virtual working inhibits some, especially Members who are uncomfortable with technology. It is important that they are not excluded. There must be room for both virtual and actual participation. To do this, the entire parliamentary infrastructure needs modernising with up to date standards of accessibility. Requiring one to be present at all times of the day is not a viable option for some of us.  The House must allow everyone to flourish, whether virtually or in person. 

Networking undoubtedly oils the wheels of parliamentary collaboration and has been adversely affected by the pandemic. Virtual working can never replace face-to-face conversations in the tea rooms or corridors, and I look forward to returning to do just that. Some of the best ideas spring from informal exchanges outside the formal business of the House. These exchanges often shape policy and legislation. However, it doesn’t need to be either/ or.

So, to the future. My ambition is to help make the House less daunting and more accessible for those outsiders, who are unfamiliar with its traditions and for those inside who want to contribute more effectively. Our new virtual capability has provided opportunities for greater involvement and a more representative voice in our day to day activities. This is a great achievement, which has boosted inclusivity. Let’s wholeheartedly embrace this lesson from lockdown if we are genuinely committed to our treasured parliamentary democracy.