Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons First Report

Connecting with the Public

51. Over recent decades government publications have been made much more attractive to the general reader. Routinely they involve colour printing with photographs to illustrate and break up the text. Statistical points are normally illustrated by graphics which make the point more visible and more easily comprehensible.

52. Conversely, select committee reports now look like documents from a previous era. They are always in black and white, rarely contain any illustrations and statistical points are at best expressed by a table. This does not do justice to the excellent work which the committee may have put in over many months on the inquiry. Nor is it fair to the wider public to whom we could readily make these reports more accessible.

53. This is a matter on which previous committees have commented. The Liaison Committee made this point powerfully in its Report 'Shifting the Balance' two years ago.[20] Some recent progress has been achieved. We applaud the changes made with effect from the start of this year : the replacement of roman numerals in Reports by familiar figures, the larger typeface and the improved layout of Report covers. Nevertheless we believe that much more can be done to improve the design and to increase the accessibility of select committee reports so that they reach a wider audience. We recommend that the Committee Office procures the services, either on a consultancy or a salaried basis, of experts in design and layout to ensure that reports benefit from the most modern technology and the most attractive design.

54. Previous proposals for improvement of the presentation of select committee reports have carried the qualification that any such improvements should be cost neutral. We believe that there are areas where substantial savings could be secured. For instance, we are not persuaded that current practices on printing and publishing evidence pay sufficient attention to economy. It is important that Members and the press should be able to access the transcripts of oral evidence and written memoranda. But such evidence can readily be accessed on the parliamentary website thus avoiding the need invariably to print such sometimes bulky material along with the committee's report with a significant increase in the cover price. There may also be changes in practice in the way in which evidence is received from outside the House and transmitted to the presses which could lead to savings. Nevertheless the House should not shrink from some marginal increase in cost if that is necessary to give reports a more modern and attractive presentation.

55. We are convinced that Parliament and its committees should take full advantage of new technology to communicate with the public who elect us. We welcome the pilot project in webcasting public sittings of select and standing committees. This enables any citizen with access to the internet to listen to live proceedings and to hear the evidence brought before committees. This may not, except on rare occasions, be a matter of mass interest, but it is an important service for NGOs, lobby groups and commercial organisations, many of which will have an interest in proceedings. We hope it will one day become the norm for public hearings of select committees to be broadcast via the internet in this way.

56. Not all improvements need to be technologically based. One step could readily be taken to make what goes on in the House's committee rooms much more intelligible to members of the public who attend proceedings. We recommend that Notes for Visitors should be prepared, setting out in plain language the nature of the proceedings, and that where practical this should be supplemented on the day with guidance on the topics under discussion.

57. Select committee reports are of great value as an informed contribution to public debate and are often a valuable stimulus to such debates and their media coverage. However, their impact on Government policy in part depends on the process for parliamentary debate and Government response to the reports. We welcome the introduction of debates in Westminster Hall which has significantly increased the opportunity for debate of select committee reports selected by the Liaison Committee under the arrangements proposed by our predecessors in the last Parliament. At present, however, such debates by convention normally take place on reports only where the Government has published its response. We recommend that all reports of select committees should be eligible for debate in Westminster Hall after the closure of the two month period within which Government is expected to publish its response, whether or not such a response has been tabled. We anticipate that the effect of this recommendation will not be to increase debates without a Government response but to reduce the number of occasions on which a Government response has not been tabled within two months.

58. There have been proposals to increase the frequency with which select committee reports are debated in the Chamber and in particular to provide greater topicality for such debates by bringing reports before the House more quickly. For instance, the Liaison Committee in the last Parliament in its report 'Shifting the Balance' recommended that once a week there should be a half hour set aside after question time for a short exchange on a recent report. We have not taken a view on this or other such proposals in our present study. We believe that it would be more sensible to return to this matter when we consider the structure of the day in the Chamber in the course of our forthcoming study of the modernisation proposals put forward by the Leader of the House.

20   HC 300 of Session 1999-2000, paragraphs 93 to 95. Back

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Prepared 12 February 2002