House of Commons Commission Report

Annex 7: Connecting Parliament with the Public — Recommendations of the Modernisation Committee (2004)


1. The House of Commons is the representative institution of the British people. It is here that our laws are made and it is from its Members that governments are formed. The sovereignty of Parliament is the fundamental expression of the sovereignty of the people. It is the apex of our democratic system. As such, it is very much a working place and at any time there are many thousands of passholders, in addition to 659 MPs and around 700 Peers. It is the purpose of this Report to make recommendations which will better reconcile the necessary purpose of Parliament with the reasonable expectation of the people to have access to the processes by which we govern ourselves.

2. It serves no-one if we make it difficult for voters to understand what their elected representatives are doing. Too often the impression is given that the House of Commons is a private club, run for the benefit of its Members, where members of the public are tolerated only on sufferance. It is beyond the influence of the House of Commons, let alone this Committee, to arrest international trends of declining participation and trust. However, the Commons can make itself more accessible to those outside, both as interested visitors and as citizens wishing to be more involved in proceedings, it can do more to make it easier for people to understand the work of Parliament, and it can do more to communicate its activity to the world outside.

The Citizenship Curriculum

3. We recommend that Ministers in the Department for Education and Skills re-examine the balance of the citizenship curriculum because, while we recognise that the other matters covered by the curriculum such as the balance of rights and responsibilities and community involvement are crucial aspects of citizenship education, an understanding of the country's democratic institutions is also of fundamental importance to today's young people, and to the engaged voters of tomorrow.

Educational resources at Westminster

4. We recommend that the House consider the provision of dedicated educational facilities for the use of the Education Unit, including a teaching area, as the National Assembly for Wales does.

5. We recommend that the Education Unit be given precedence in the Macmillan Room when the House is sitting in September.

6. We also think it would be desirable for the Central Tours Office to offer, in addition to its current tours, a Parliament-in-action Tour which would help visitors to understand how Parliament works and give them a brief taste of select committees, standing committees, adjournment debates and Westminster Hall as well as the Chamber.

Outreach work with schools and colleges

7. Outreach work is the core of the Education Unit's work, and rightly so. The vast majority of young people will not have the opportunity to participate in a school visit to Parliament, and Parliament's educational activities must therefore be tailored to those who wish to learn about Parliament in the classroom. To supplement existing resources such as the website, outreach facilities such as a Parliamentary roadshow could have the potential to reach many more young people than currently are able to visit Parliament. We recommend that before any further consideration is given to establishing an educational roadshow, the House should examine the scope for a Parliamentary partnering scheme with, for example, local authorities. Parliament's contribution to the teaching of political literacy could be delivered to people in their own communities (in schools, libraries and council premises) by way of joint enterprise.

8. The Education Unit already does a great deal of work building links with individual teachers, schools and colleges. We recommend that it should do more to publicise its work to Members, and to build links with local education authorities.

Use of the Chamber

9. We believe there is a case for reconsideration of the long-standing convention that only elected Members of Parliament may ever sit in the Chamber, which is in contrast to the practice of many other legislatures.

New Voters

10. We recommend that the House devise a new voter's guide to be sent to all young people around the time of their eighteenth birthday.

The Internet

11. We are convinced of the need for a radical upgrading of the website at an early opportunity, which will require significant investment in systems and staff. The financial implications of this are for the Finance and Services Committee and the House of Commons Commission to consider.

12. We recommend that the Broadcasting Committee keep under review the possibilities offered by the digital broadcasting of Parliament.

On-line consultations

13. We believe that the greater use of on-line consultation is a good way for Parliament to take account of the views of the wider public.

14. There have now been several experiments with on-line consultation on an ad hoc basis, both by select committees and by all-party groups. They have generally been successful and have proved effective as a way of engaging members of the public in the work that we do and of giving a voice to those who would otherwise be excluded. We urge select committees and joint committees considering draft legislation to make on-line consultation a more regular aspect of their work.

A Commons newsletter

15. We recommend that the House make available to those interested in receiving the information (by post, e-mail or other convenient method of communication) a weekly newsletter. Aimed at the general, non-specialist reader, it should summarise the business of the previous week and set out forthcoming business for the following week. In due course, it may be possible to extend this service to allow for communication of other information by e-mail (such as the daily list of papers available in the Vote Office) and regular, subject-based updates for which users could subscribe. A printed form of the newsletter should be made available to visitors at various points around the Parliamentary Estate, including the bookshop. Electronically, it should occupy a prominent position on or near the front page of the Parliamentary website.

Information for young people

16. We recommend that, as development of the website progresses, the House authorities, in consultation with young people, develop the website in a form which is more accessible to them.

Visitors to the Parliamentary Estate

17. To the extent that there is conflict between the needs of different groups of visitors, we believe that the House should, as a matter of principle, give priority to the needs of those who come to see and participate in the work of Parliament over those whose primary interest is the Palace of Westminster as a historical building.

A visitor centre

18. We welcome the work of the Administration and Accommodation and Works Committees and the House's endorsement of the proposals for the construction of the reception and security building.

19. We recognise the several unique difficulties involved in establishing new visitor facilities near the Palace of Westminster, but urge that all possible options are explored.

20. Our starting point is that any Visitor Centre project should have four main objectives:

a) it must provide a welcome to visitors;

b) it must provide an interesting and friendly environment;

c) it should make Parliament more accessible, allowing visitors to see at least something of what Parliament is and does without necessarily having to visit the galleries, committees or take a tour; and

d) it must improve public understanding and knowledge of the work and role of Parliament.

The new reception and security building will help to meet the first of these objectives; it will use visitor staff so that visitors' first contact with staff of the House will come from someone whose primary concern is to greet them and make them feel welcome. A major review of signage, currently under way, should also help to make the environment more welcoming. There may also be scope to improve the current facilities designed to meet the other three objectives but in our view the need for a dedicated Visitor Centre remains. Once the overdue improvement to Parliament's welcome and access has been addressed, attention can focus on meeting the other three main objectives of the Visitor Centre Project through planning for a dedicated Visitor Centre.

21. Participants in the Hansard Society's Connecting Communities with Parliament programme suggested a number of ways in which visitors' experience of the Parliamentary Estate could be improved for a very modest cost. The main proposals were:

a) More staff on-hand specifically to welcome visitors, tell them what they could see and point them in the right direction, handing them a written guide, perhaps including a plan and an indication of what visitors were able to do.

b) A sign at the entrance saying 'Welcome to the Houses of Parliament'.

c) Better signage in general, indicating such things as toilets, the Jubilee Café, the Grand Committee Room, Committee Corridor, etc.

d) Improved queuing systems for the Gallery.

e) The possibility of a 'viewing gallery' which would allow visitors to pass along the corridor at the back of the Gallery, seeing the House while it is sitting but not stopping to listen to the debate.

We welcome these practical suggestions and we commend them to the House authorities.


22. We recommend that the term 'Strangers' be no longer used in referring to visitors to the House of Commons.

Access to the Gallery when the House is sitting

23. We recommend that further consideration be given to ways in which groups of visitors touring the building might be able to pass through the gallery as part of a tour so that they are able to witness aspects of Parliament in action.

Saturday opening

24. We recommend that the Administration Committee consider Saturday opening of the Line of Route—for Members' parties as well as paying groups—to assess its feasibility.

25. We further recommend that the Administration Committee consider the feasibility of allowing Members to book guided tours of the Line of Route throughout the Summer opening on a similar basis to that on which they can book tours on sitting days.

Standing committees

26. We recommend that the Procedure Committee consider how better to present the information from the bill, explanatory notes, amendment paper and selection list, either on paper or electronically, so that when an amendment is being debated Members and visitors can see the original clause, the clause as amended, and an explanatory note on both, so that the issue under debate is clear to all.

27. We recommend that a guide for visitors to standing committees on bills should also be produced.

Public petitions

28. We believe that there is a case for the House to do more with public petitions which, if handled correctly, represent a potentially significant avenue for communication between the public and Parliament.

29. We recommend that the Liaison Committee and Procedure Committee consider a process whereby public petitions should automatically stand referred to the relevant select committee. It would then be for the committee to decide whether or not to conduct an inquiry into the issues raised, or to take them into account in the context of a current or forthcoming inquiry.

Rules governing the submission of petitions

30. We recommend that the House accept petitions in both typescript and manuscript, although the present restriction against interlineations, deletions and insertions should be retained so that it is clear that the wording of the petition has not been changed without the petitioner's knowledge. The top sheet—the authoritative copy of the petition—should continue to be distinguished from sheets of additional signatures by the Member presenting it signing in the top right-hand corner, as is the current practice.

The House of Commons and the media

31. We welcome the progress that has been made in recent years to improve the House's communications strategy, in particular the establishment of the posts of Communications Adviser and Media Adviser and the Select Committee Media Officers. The Group on Information for the Public has likewise played a vital role. But we believe that there is scope for greater co-ordination of the House's media and communications resources. We therefore recommend the establishment of a central press office for the House of Commons, to take a more proactive role in promoting the House and its work.

32. We recommend that the Board of Management and the House of Commons Commission urgently consider whether there is scope for further improving the co-ordination of the House's media, educational and communications resources and planning, with effective Member oversight and close liaison with appropriate officials and Members of the House of Lords.

Promoting Hansard

33. We recommend that the Department of the Official Report aim to produce a simple index to the daily part of Hansard once the necessary technological changes have been seen through.

34. We recommend that the Hansard report of a debate should be posted on the internet at the same time as it is sent to the printer, to be replaced with the published version the following day.

The Press Gallery

35. Consideration should be given to allowing journalists to bring laptop computers into the Press Gallery.

Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, First Report of Session 2003-04 (HC 368), pages 3 to 8, Conclusions and recommendations.

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