Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)

MR PETER RIDDELL, MR NICK ROBINSON AND MR MICHAEL WHITE

28 FEBRUARY 2007

  Q20  Chairman: They are daft. Madness.

  Mr White: That is another story. Long debates/short debates? Yes, there are lots of different ways you can adapt procedure roughly within what exists at the moment but there is no substitute for topicality. Private equity was raised at the Prime Minister's press conference yesterday and he gave a very unsatisfactory answer.

  Q21  Mrs May: And it has been raised in Prime Minister Questions before now.

  Mr White: It is a scary one to have to answer. You do not want to destroy markets.

  Q22  Mr Wright: Could I pick up on two things which have been covered already. I agree with your analysis that the media is fragmenting. People are chasing increasingly competitive and shrinking markets, as it were. I am astonished how well-informed some of my constituents are. I would give two examples. A woman e-mailed me and said, "There's a debate in Westminster Hall about financial inclusion—a half-hour Westminster Hall debate. Are you going to be there? If not, why not?" That sort of accountability is fantastic. Only this weekend, I had a massive amount of e-mails from people urging me to sign EDM 926 about people being sent back to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Again, unbelievable. And then, the day after I had signed it, people e-mailing me to thank me. The amount of people who can hold you accountable is quite remarkable. Having said that, I think that is a very narrow part of my constituent base. I am trying to marry the two up now but it is very difficult. Given that you go down the personality route—because people can get information elsewhere on the Internet, on theyworkforyou.com—do you still think you have the duty to inform which Jack mentioned before? Do you think you have it right? Do you think there is a correlation between the way in which Parliament has been covered and voter turnout and supposed voter apathy?

  Mr Riddell: I think there is a very slim correlation between coverage in the narrow sense of the term and voter turnout. You could argue lots of broader things about political culture, to which the media is a part. The fact that there is no longer a dedicated page in The Times, or two pages in our tabloid format devoted to Parliament, I do not think has made any difference at all to voter turnout. I think there are broader changes with what Mike talks about as marketisation and broader changes to do with culture, and also the fact that we have had a number of elections with foregone conclusions has probably had an effect on turnout. I make the safe prediction that turnout will be five per cent higher next time with or without postal voting. So I do not think it has had a significant impact. The examples you give I think are fascinating. Fifteen or 20 years ago, if you go to before Peter Mandelson's time when Ted Leadbitter was the MP, he was not having people, apart from your local UN Association, worrying about things in the Congo because he could not access the information. They were not getting Order Papers. I am sure you have a terribly good Smith's or whatever the local newsagent is but no one was getting Order Papers. Now they can get them instantly. They can look it up. I think there is a massive gain in that aspect of it.

  Q23  Mr Wright: But that is a very narrow base.

  Mr Riddell: There are lots of narrow bases. That is the point. There is a whole series of narrow bases. There are people concerned about education. There are people concerned today, as you know, about what is happening in schools and whether they are going to get the school of their choice. There was this Brighton thing last night. There are lots of different ones.

  Mr Robinson: That is the point. On the one hand, we all have to be careful—the media are currently obsessed with phone-in and text and so on and so forth—that we are not talking to a tiny group of people who do this. There is a great danger of that. I do a blog and I am told that it is less than one per cent of the people who read it who respond, yet it is tempting to take too seriously the people who respond. Peter's point is the right one. There are all the cliche«s about the RSPB having more members than in political parties. People belong to things in their constituency and nationally about their passions, where they could be better informed as to how Parliament affects their interest, and my point is that you need to take it beyond, as it were, the obsessive activist who worries about an EDM on the Congo and find ways of saying to people who are worried about school selection: "This very issue has been— or will be—debated at this time in this place and you can see it on your screen. Here it is." The Internet gives the capacity for Parliament to do that.

  Mr White: We worry a lot in different ways about the inequalities in our society and one of the growing inequalities is information inequality, so I welcome Mr Wright's vivid description of that EDM. That is terrific. The opportunities are enormous. Voters are better plugged in and deeply disrespectful and less deferential and forelock touching than the way they used to be but do not kid ourselves that that is a major reassurance on the points we have been discussing. I imagine one should register here to go and see the launch of the new website by senior parliamentarians. But, inasmuch as it is a disagreement, before we do, I would register the thought that I do think the media has contributed more than marginally, if that is what Peter Riddell meant, to the alienation of the public and the disillusionment of the public with politicians and the political process and I regret that. It is known as "John Lloyd's thesis" in the trade. There is a book by John Lloyd which some of you may have seen—which overstates its case, like all good journalism—that certainly makes that point.

  Chairman: When I sent around, following my 1993 report, to talk to editors Peter Lambert and Peter Stothard at The Times, and others, Peter Preston from The Guardian, and asked, "Why are you reducing the coverage of Parliament in this way?" they did not really have much explanation, except that they were being pushed by their young turks because it was fashionable not to report Parliament.

  Mr Sanders: During my lifetime I have observed a fundamental shift from newspapers reporting events that have happened, to all journalism trying to predict what is going to happen, often based on opinion pieces. That does not necessarily inform the public. As a Member of Parliament who every week will receive little press cuttings from newspapers from members of the public, normally opinion pieces, saying, "This is outrageous. What are you going to do about it?" you then have to engage on the process of explaining to them that this is an opinion piece, it has not actually happened. I think the petition on the Prime Minister's website is a classic case in point of people not fully understanding what the process was that was being undertaken in relation to road pricing.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: They did.

  Q24  Mr Sanders: No. I do not want to get into a debate on that but the petition was about surveillance and road pricing but it became a petition on road pricing. There are people, like myself, who are against surveillance but in favour of road pricing. There is that danger, that it is changing from reporting to opinion. I would like your observation on that. I have a second question and it is related to backbench MPs. Our access to lobby journalists is not as great as the frontbenchers' access to lobby journalists. Would a reform of the lobby system; that is, stopping these quotations of sources close to So-and-So and having to go on the record and have your name attributed to a quote, help enhance our standing and transparency in this place?

  Mr Riddell: The last is fantasy. Everyone says the American press is wonderful. I read the New York Times as I came in earlier this morning and it is full of non attributable quotations from senior administration officials. There has always been a relationship between journalists and newspapers. In my own paper's case, Palmerston used to plant wonderful stories with the great Times editor Delane, normally when they were riding in Richmond Park—I think the process has changed a bit now—and it was ever so. It depends which journalists you trust. On your first question, it is not just opinion. You say we do not report the fact that it is preview. I will let you into a little secret. The current Chancellor of the Exchequer often has people who ring us up and say, "The Chancellor's going to make a speech tomorrow, do you want a little bit of it before?" Exactly the same is done by the Shadow Chancellor, exactly the same is done by the Leader of the Opposition, and it used to be done by the Prime Minister but he has now retreated defensively. If we are told "x or y is going to be said tomorrow, launch this thing," are we going to say in chaste virtue: "Oh, no, I'm not going to touch this"? Sin lies everywhere.

  Mr White: That is part of the 24/7 news cycle, where the cycle eats up news all the time. Somebody said that it is a bit like the stock market: it moves on rumour. In a way, the technology drives a lot of this and the one thing we have not discussed is the extent to which we are all victims of new communications technology of an ever faster and more predatory nature. What Peter describes is true certainly about the United States, which is nowhere near as interesting a system. Nor is Congress—which is never reported, incidentally, in the American papers, and that was true 20 years ago—as effective as it thinks it is. It failed in the great crises of the 20th century persistently and consistently and it is still doing so. We must not think others have a better system. Off-the-record briefing exists in all systems. Dare I say, and even make a partisan point: even among the Liberal Democrats it does happen a bit. I think we had a leader replaced by a non attributable briefing quite recently.

  Q25  Mr Sanders: It might have been where I was coming from.

  Mr White: I beg your pardon. We have moved a little way from reporting what happened. I was very struck last week in all our papers how little what Mr Blair said about the troop withdrawal from Iraq got into the paper, compared with the larger context: people opinionating and people being asked in the streets of Basra and Blackburn of what they thought of it, as distinct from what Leon Brittan once called "mere words".

  Q26  Sir Peter Soulsby: All of us share your regret in the decline of the Chamber, its attendance and its coverage. Is it not really the case that it is pretty irreversible now? Even with the greater topicality, the short debates and the other suggestions that have been made, why would a backbencher spend many hours perhaps waiting in the Chamber to be called for a 10-minute speech and perhaps a couple of interventions in the meantime when they can get at least as much and keep on top of the e-mails by signing an EDM, doing a news release on the back of it and appearing on regional television and doing some interviews with a local paper? Is that not inevitable now? Is the future of effective scrutiny in fact going to be select committees?

  Mr Riddell: Yes. Unless you care passionately, devoting five to six hours of your day to a speech which will be ignored— Unless you do, as Nick says, and then podcast it out to your constituents. That is almost the only relevance of it.

  Q27  Sir Peter Soulsby: Even then, they are not going to be enormously impressed that their contribution was made in the Chamber as opposed to made in some other way.

  Mr Riddell: No, exactly.

  Mr White: The Chamber does work sometimes. On the Iraq war there have been occasions. We all remember 18 March 2003. A lot of people disputed the outcome but it was a real event and everybody watched and the people we worked for were interested in reporting it. They, of course, think they know what is going on because they can watch it on television. That slightly undermines our sacerdotal role, but, as you say, that has all changed. Social policy, currently, in a way that it did not when I was a whipper-snapper here, attracts enormous exorbitance. For what you may call "issues of personal morality", whether it is assisted death or fox hunting or sexual mores, the Chamber is full and there is an interest. So it has not completely gone. Again, one of Peter's points: I imagine that Winston Churchill made his great speeches in defence of proper defence in the 1930s from the backbenches to an empty Chamber. But they were still there.

  Q28  Chairman: Martin Gilbert, Churchill's biographer, makes that clear. On one of the things, if I may say so, Peter, I do not agree with you. There was not a golden age when attendance was full. My maiden speech was made at eight o'clock on a Wednesday to a near-empty House, despite the fact that we were all thrusting youngsters then. Overwhelmingly now you have full-time MPs. Even when Nick and I came in, it was the exception for people not to have other jobs. Many, many MPs rolled up, were not there for questions, questions often collapsed and so you had to go in to the next department in the Order. Many, many fewer questions were put down and debates were less well attended. The big difference was that if there was something interesting there, people had to go in because they could not see it on the television. I subscribe strongly to Mike's point of view, as a minister, but when I write my little book about how to survive as a minister, at least for a little while, "Pay attention to the Chamber" will be at the top of the list.

  Mr Robinson: It seems to me that Sir Peter has put his finger on something that you as a Committee have to address, which is the length of time it takes you to contribute to a debate. It seems to me that a problem for a Member of Parliament is that you can fill your day, I imagine, every single day with this sort of self-generated: "We respond to the papers, they respond to us, we e-mail, they e-mail us" and it is permanently full. I am not sure it would pass my making-a-difference test on any single day, let alone every day of the week. It may be the problem with having Blackberries and phones is that we have to think: What have I done on this that has made any difference and was actually worth doing? It is hard to prioritise your time. But just before we despair about the Chamber, I am thinking of what I have had to do in recent months and years: tuition fees, foundation hospitals, the 90-days debate. I did on television, for an audience of, I guess, five million people, explain what parliamentary ping-pong meant and how the House of Lords could affect the outcome of the House of Commons. When it happens and it matters, we do make the effort to explain it. There is a bit of a test as to how often it happens and how often it matters.

  Mr Riddell: I am looking forward to your report in exactly a week's time on the series of votes on the House of Lords reform. We will all be tuning the television in to that, Nick.

  Mr Robinson: I have to confess I did give up on the Chairman's voting system as a way of explaining on that.

  Q29  Mr Knight: I accept what Nick has said. I think the Press have always covered our processes when they have been unpredictable. We had far more coverage of debates during the period 1995 to 1997 when John Major had no majority because you did not know and I did not know who was going to win the vote. A recurring theme in your answers has been topicality, that we should have more topical debates or short, sharp debates. How do you persuade the Executive that they should embrace topicality? It seems to me that they see only the risk and not the gain. There is this view that you would be putting a Cabinet Minister out on an unpinioned wing with a brief that may be inadequate for this new emerging subject in which everyone is interested. We came very close to getting topical debates when Robin Cook was Leader of the House because I was asked by my chief whip to broker a deal with him. We put on the table some of our opposition days and we were willing to trade them in return for a number of short, sharp topical debates. It floundered because the government whips did not like it and a number of Cabinet ministers felt it would be too risky. How do we get over that hurdle? I suspect that if my party wins the next election we will take exactly the same attitude.

  Mr Riddell: It has to be awkward for the Executive. I think two things on that: one, there is already the power of the Speaker to grant either the emergency question or, as happened with Nick Clegg on the NatWest Three, the emergency debate. That can already be used more. There must be greater willingness to do that.

  Q30  Chairman: SO No. 24.

  Mr Riddell: Which used to happen. But also to change procedures, which is what your Committee exists to do, so that the Chairman gets a lot of rude remarks from his Cabinet colleagues. That is the only way progress is made.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Surely, until the Standing Orders of the House are put back in the hands of the House as a whole you will never get these changes.

  Chairman: I am not sure about that.

  Q31  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Seriously, Chairman, the fact is, as Greg Knight has said, that the opposition when they become the Government will not want Members to make things more difficult for them in the Chamber. The Government of the day does not want to make things more difficult. Robin Cook lost a vote which was supposed to be a free vote, when your Government was actually at the doors of the lobby saying, "This way." This was to do with appointments to select committees. The Government whips blocked the proposed appointment procedure to select committees, which would have taken it away from the Selection Committee which is dominated by the whips into an independent committee under the chairmanship of the Deputy Speaker.

  Mr White: But Parliament, Sir Nicholas, is master of its own fate if it so wishes to assert itself.

  Q32  Chairman: Yes, by pushing.

  Mr White: You were the victim in losing your chairmanship some years ago by precisely the sort of thing you are complaining about of the current Government but it was done by your own government. A great compliment to you, I thought, but it happens. Mr Knight may care to know that when the lobby system was reformed—it was opened up and put over at the Foreign Press Association in about 2001—it was initially proposed that the minister would come several times a week and take the lobby session and give the journalists something proper to report instead of this tittle-tattle you are all complaining about. He would brief on the great subject of the day—perhaps rail pricing. It happened, I think, once. The minister's agenda was put aside and he was given a duffing on whatever the topical issues of the moment were and it did not happen again. It was too risky.

  Q33  Chairman: I do it once a week, and I reinstated that.

  Mr White: As Leader of the House.

  Q34  Chairman: Yes.

  Mr Robinson: My attempt at a direct answer to Greg Knight's question: How would you persuade the Executive, that in the end, it is going to happen anyway? Sparing the Chairman's blushes, his advice to ministers is: If you are in a hole, go and give a statement in the House of Commons because you get dragged there eventually anyway. I think quite a lot of the younger ministers are learning that when in a hole the idea of running away from a camera as you get into your car, failing to answer a question, and refusing to go into the House of Commons never does you any good. Therefore, it may only be that process of brutal education that says: "You'll end up there anyway, you might as well do it and you will get credit for doing it"—

  Mr White: Perhaps we should not say any more. That is a terrifically optimistic thing to say. We should stop.

  Mr Robinson: It is a bit optimistic.

  Chairman: Of course there is going to be a debate which Greg and Nick have raised within government about whether you want to strengthen the procedures of this place. Building on what the other Nick has said, when we had the proposal for very greatly strengthening the committee stage of the public bills, my answer to my colleagues, who in the end signed up to it, was to say, "If as a government 10 years in we appear to be frightened of parliamentary scrutiny, we in a partisan way will lose out because the public will get the message." What I say to my colleagues is, rather, enlightened self-interest. Not narrow self-interest. Narrow self-interest says do not be accountable to anything ever—but you get found out about that. Enlightened self-interest says you strengthen levels of accountability. It is also a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff, to be perfectly honest.

  Q35  Mark Lazarowicz: One of the themes from today on which there has been agreement around the Committee and from yourselves is the importance of select committees and how that is going to be the future. But I think it was Peter who also pointed out how when select committee reports are debated the Chamber is almost empty. There is hardly anybody there except those who have written the report in the first place. I wonder whether one of the things we could do, which would both improve our role of scrutinising the Executive but also make things more interesting, would be to have a much clearer relationship between what committees do, the outcome from a committee, and how it relates to the Chamber as a whole. Instead of having a report perhaps eight months later, when the thing is no longer topical and having a debate which does not result in anything happening, we should have committee reports which are debated much more quickly, after they have been produced, with the opportunity to have some decision, some vote, on what the Committee is saying, rather than this disappearance into the ether from which they may possibly appear sometime in the distant future.

  Mr Riddell: My answer to that is: it is less the Committee reports being debated. On the whole, it is much more that they inform general debates on other subjects. I think that is more relevant. When there are debates on the select committee reports, they tend to be terribly incestuous. Having observed it for 25 to 30 years, I think it is much more to do with select committee practice and having more topical sessions. It is not necessarily producing reports all the time but having topical questioning sessions: "There is an issue at the moment, get the person in to question them." That will get coverage. I remember there was a very good example just before Christmas when the Foreign Affairs and the Defence Select Committees had a combined session with Margaret Beckett and Des Browne, and the CDS as well, discussing Iraq and Afghanistan and so on. It was packed out with journalists and members of the public. It was in one of the big rooms over in Portcullis House. It was a very good session indeed, very interesting, discussing what was happening on troop deployment. I think it is as much having evidence sessions which are topical, as producing reports—although reports obviously have a role. It is also having a mixture of long reports and short immediate studies: "An issue has come up, right, we will get this bloke in next week." Sometimes the timetables for select committees are too inflexible.

  Q36  Mark Lazarowicz: The Committee will produce recommendations 1 to 26 which are never discussed. Perhaps we could have some way in which a committee has proposed to the House that recommendations 1 to 3 are agreed and implemented, and there is some way of voting upon that. That is what normally happens in committees in other organisations: they have a report and recommendations. Perhaps we could do something like that.

  Mr Riddell: That might be okay for short debates, I think.

  Q37  Mrs May: To what extent do you see your role as leading or initiating public debate and to what extent is it simply following it? The private equity example is an interesting one because it has been raised in this House but obviously it had not been picked up, but now that it is being talked about and you are saying, "Why isn't Parliament responding to it?" The more you have talked about competitive news, and we accept all that, and consumerism, and we accept all that—we are all having to live in this new world—to what extent do you see your role as raising issues when they are raised here, even though the public have not thought about them as key issues? To what extent are you guilty of just responding to the great public focus group?

  Mr Riddell: A bit of both actually.

  Mr White: Yes.

  Mr Riddell: I regard my role as trying to inform, divert and—judging by some of the responses—annoy. I do regard it as informing, for busy people, as showing an angle on politics. It is also Michael's new role. He has been doing it. You provide an angle and you hope to inform readers, certainly, to provoke some response in them. The balance between you being responsive to events and leading is a complete mixture and it is bound to be.

  Mr White: You do your best but the one element you have left out of the equation is that any of the three of us have to persuade the man in a suit with his jacket off, sitting at a desk, down a telephone line that what we are trying to interest them in is interesting or important. If they have not read about it in the morning papers or on the Press Association or on the 24/7 news then you have a job persuading them. We are paradoxically very conservative about news: we like news we know already; we are a bit more at home with it. One of the tricks of the trade is that when we see something on 24/7 which you have been trying to sell all day, you send a note in pretending you have not sent a note earlier and you get a sale. They say, "Yes, we will take 500 words on that, as a matter of fact." And you pretend that you do not know that the reason they have said yes when they have previously said no is that it has just been on the Six O'clock News or on 24/7.

  Mr Robinson: Michael in his more bitter moments greets me in the morning as The Guardian's news editor and I reply that he is all too often my news editor as well because we are reflective in that way. I want to give a specific example but may I generally say that I think this debate would hugely benefit from committees looking for very specific examples of news stories and saying, "Well, why was that not a particular parliamentary occasion?" If you engaged in a very detailed conversation with journalists I think you would break through a lot of generalisations that we have all made about the last 20 years. But my specific example is on the House of Lords. The debate we then had was, given that an outcome was unlikely—it was unlikely the House of Lords would be reformed—was it worth three minutes' prime time airtime to debate the procedures by which this House would discuss something that might well not reach an outcome? The decision on that particular day—and I was not particularly proud of it because I had got my brain round it and would quite have liked to do it—was: "Probably not but we will return to it if an outcome seemed likely." That is the sort of conversation I think we inevitably have: "Is it going to get anywhere this? If it is not going to get anywhere, why are we detaining our viewers with it?"

  Q38  Sir Nicholas Winterton: How much coverage did you give to the Joint Committee on the House of Lords Conventions? Did you give any coverage to that report?

  Mr Robinson: You have to distinguish, Sir Nicholas, between radio news, where it did get quite a bit of coverage. I would be very surprised if it got on a mainstream television news programme.

  Mr White: You cannot film a convention, Sir Nicholas!

  Q39  Chairman: Picking up on what Mike said, this relates to the primacy of print media still in setting the news agenda. I was struck 30 years ago, when I was working on Granada and coming up with all sorts of bright ideas about stories we should do which came out of my head, that I could not convince very bright editors that these were good ideas unless I could find a piece of paper where someone else was talking about this. If somebody else had written about it, then they felt reassured. Although I accept entirely what you say, Peter, about the Internet, is it not still the case that the news values are set by the print media because those guys have been making a judgment about what goes on the Net and so on and what goes into your programmes are feeding through the print media because it is so much easier there?

  Mr Riddell: Up to a point. I agree more with Michael. I think it is much more a self-feeding process between all of us and what is on the Today programme. Exactly as Mike says, it is a news editor who does not know much about politics. You will have heard Nick say this morning, while doing his slot on the Today programme, "That will feed through to my news editor talking to my news colleague today."

  Mr Robinson: A little example of course is the road pricing petition, which did emerge from the new media.


 
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