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Lord Moynihan: My Lords, I cannot agree with that. My calculation was that 8.7 million people voted in "Pop Idol" and the collective number would have been greater. However, I may stand corrected once I have checked the arithmetic.
In those circumstances, there is little cause for optimism in the future. Levels of disengagement are likely only to increase, becauseand here I totally agree with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Holme, about the importance of engaging young peoplethe problem is most acute with the young. Some 61 per cent of the 18 to 25 age group did not vote in the last election. I ask the Minister to pick up on the point that disconnection on that scale among young people poses a significant threat to the long-term health of our democratic institutions.
Voter participation is an essential part of a healthy democracy. While to some extent I understand the argument that we are living in what has been called a post-political age, in which the blurring of the old sharp ideological divides between Left and Right and the crowding of politics on the centre ground mean that people perceive little difference between the political parties and feel that voting one way or the other will make little difference to their lives, the
I do not believe that the public are more apathetic now than a generation ago, but I believe that there is a misalignment between national politics and local activism. There is no longer a perception that social, economic or environmental problems will necessarily have a political solution. As a result, our political institutions are no longer seen to be the key focus for change.
In many ways, activism is growing, but respect for the political process and the traditional institutions through which politics used to function is collapsing. Today, the targeting of the business world by NGOs and pressure groups is often seen as more likely to be an effective vehicle for change than elective politics. Yet if voters choose to sideline Parliament because they see politics as unfashionable and irrelevant to their lives, there will be grave consequences for society.
Democracy is only as good as its citizens. Good citizenship requires knowledge and participation. We know too much about the perils of dictatorship to indulge in the myth that democracy is simply a designer accessory. Democracy is by no means a perfect system. It has faults, flaws and deficiencies, but after 2,500 years it is still the best and fairest system of government known to man. The commitment to democratic accountability and legitimacy underpins the most successful governments and states in the world.
Representative democracy is critical if competing interests are to be reconciled not only peacefully, but in a coherent way. The collective will of the people must be manifested in our democratically elected Parliament, from which the Government are formed. If our elected representatives lose their authority because their mandate comes from ever fewer voters, the unelected and unaccountable activists will step into that vacuum, claiming that, on a given issue, it is they, not Parliament, who truly represent the people. Mob rule is not far from that scenariowitness the case of the anti-paedophile protests on the Paulsgrove estate in Portsmouth in 2000.
The way in which Parliament and politics are presented through the lens of the media is clearly influential in forming public attitudes. Ironically, the overall effect of increased media access to Parliament has been to make the political system seem more distant and less relevant to everyday life. The media have been criticised for dumbing down their coverage of politics. In part that is due to the dog-eat-dog fight for audience share, which means that entertainment is likely to win at the expense of information. That contributes hugely to the current soundbite culture of our political life. This language drives the public away, because they perceive a departure from the politics of conviction towards the politics of expediency.
Yet it is difficult to expect the media or the public to take Parliament seriously when the Government so often sideline it. The relationship between Parliament and the Government is one of the most fundamental in our democracy. The Government are elected through Parliament and deserve and derive their political authority from that fact. It should be a salutary lesson for governments that if Parliament is undermined, eventually so too will be the authority of the Government. To neglect Parliament is to neglect the body that confers the legitimacy necessary for a government to act and the body that ensures that the views of the public, whom it represents, are taken into account. Parliament is integral to public policy making, not separate from it or inferior to it. Yet we are increasingly drifting towards an executive approach to government, with executive announcements and action taking the place of decision-making through parliamentary debate.
In that context, Parliament must be able to regulate and police itself effectively. The resignation of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Elizabeth Filkin, her complaints of undue pressure and whispering campaigns and her criticism of the lack of independence and resources to be offered to her successor were highly damaging to the reputation of Parliament. It is vital that Parliament maintains high standards of probity and good conduct, for if it does not, how can it deserve its rightful place at the centre of our national life?
In closing, I place on record my thanks and admiration for the work done by the House of Lords administration, which has greatly improved public accessibility to your Lordships' House and plays a great role in facilitating understanding of its work as part of Parliament. The challenge that we facethis is a challenge for the Government, for political parties of all complexions and for Parliamentis how to deliver politics in an accessible way and to kindle political interest by ensuring that all people, young and old, are made aware of the relevance of politics to their lives. Voter disconnection from formal politics is not the inevitable outcome of a post-political, information age world. Without a 21st century Parliament for a 21st century Britain, efforts to re-engage the public will meet with only limited success.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, like others, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for introducing this debate. Judging by the numbers who have attended it, it has struck a chord with the Houseand so it should. As my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham said, I am president of the Citizenship Foundation, which I founded in 1988. As long ago as 1969, I persuaded a headmaster to allow me into his school for one lesson a week for a year, to see whether I could interest apathetic 15 year-olds in politics and the law. That was a lesson more for me than them and one that I have never forgotten. It was heart-lifting to discover that so-called apathetic, disenchanted and disconnected young people were hugely interested in the moral issues debated in this
In the intervening 30 years, those problems have grown substantially. I refer particularly to the sense of powerlessness and civic insignificance of the vast majority of our fellow citizens. Weby which I mean this House and another placedo not understand just how disaffected people feel. I did my stint of canvassing at the last general election. Never before did I hear the constant refrains, "What is the point of voting? Nobody really cares or notices what we think. They only take any interest in us when an election comes around. Our MP is a decent enough person but utterly insignificant. MPs say one thing to your face and vote for something else in the House. They are powerless, so what does that make me?"
There is a schism between the values that people hold dear in their own lives and the values that they see characterised by Westminster. In their own lives, people value integrity, independence and moral courage. There is a great deal of all that in the Palace of Westminster but the public do not see much of it. Among the most difficult of the thorny issues with which we have to contend is that on which the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, concentratedthe relationship between party discipline and the activities of Membersparticularly of another place. Even in this House the situation in that regard is getting worse, not better.
Until we re-establish in the minds of the public a sense that their Members of Parliament are independent agentsalbeit governed by party discipline and having to sign up to an election manifestowith infinitely more freedom to be what the electorate want MPs to be, a great deal else will not succeed.
The predicament in which we find ourselves is even worse than many may think. It is not just that only 39 per cent of the electorate under 25 voted at the last general election, a point to which the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, referred. One third of those under-25s are not registered to vote. If one subtracts them from the 39 per cent, only one in four of under-25s voted at the last election. In the elections for the European Parliament, only one in 10 of under-25s voted. What does that say about politics?
Party membership is also rapidly declining, which raises a serious problem of the authenticity of government. No longer can governments make the claims that they could when more than 60 per cent of young people and more than 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the total electorate voted in general elections. It is no longer adequate for governments to say, "We have the authority of the ballot box". They do not.
The Citizenship Foundation has active connections with more than half of all state primary and secondary schools. The gap between the relevance of this place to the so-called ordinary citizen and its actual relevance is enormous and growing, so I totally endorse everything that has been said about increasing the information output. The tiny band of people in our Information Office do wonderful work but there are fewer of them than in a medium-sized public company. We need to reach out.
One thing that we could do is have a speaking list, with each one of us offering to speaknot just to schools but to anyone who wants to hear about the work of Parliament. I do not imagine that any Member of this House would refuse to give half a dozen evenings a year for that purpose. Think what a transformation that would represent3,000 or 4,000 occasions a year when we would be going out to the public. There could be no more effective sign of our interest.
I was infinitely depressed when, during our debate on the Nice treaty, I moved an amendment requiring the Government to circularise every household with an unbiased, plain English guide to the main issues vis-à-vis the governance of the kingdom. I was depressed by the lack of interest shown by government speakers, who seemed to think that everything was more or less all right because the White Paper that was published last year, price £10.40, was on a website; another pamphlet could be read in libraries; and Peter Hain had made a few public speeches.
We need to do infinitely more. We must get on our horses and go, like Wesley, into the highways and byways to sell our wares. Unless we do, the problems that we confront now will grow worse and worse.
We live in a disconnected, fast-moving world in any event. There is less informal communication than before and a decline in communality and local life. Volunteering and giving are not increasing. The latest statistics show that among the under-30s, there is a radical decline in the giving of both time and money. Even at the seminar at Church House yesterday, the BBC complained that it can no longer connect effectively with the young adult age group. We have a real problem in the form of communal, social and national disconnectedness. There is no easy answer to that. However, some of the suggestions made today will undoubtedly help.
In the final minute allotted to me I shall make a few specific suggestions. First, I suggest that we should have a post-legislative audit or impact assessment. That is because I believe that the volume of legislation is ludicrous and that the complexity of legislation is utterly self-defeating; and I would like to see a duty imposed on the Law Commission to keep track of those matters. We should have more limited-life legislation. We may need to consider carefully a common law approach to statute law, which broadly deals with principles and values rather than the minutiae of our traditional legislation.
We also need to consider the system of elections for Europe. The closed-list system was an affront to democracy. We need to contemplate open primaries because, even with open lists, there is still a gross excess of party membership influence on those lists.
We need to give advance warning of our debates and Billsan active outreach that will allow us to contact every organisation relevant to our debates and Bills and let them know what subjects are to be debated and the results of those debates. I also believe that the Schools UnitGod bless itneeds 100 times more resources.
Lord Dean of Harptree: My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for introducing a subject of very great importance. I am also grateful to the House of Lords information officer. She has produced an excellent brief of the work that she and her team are doing to try to promote a greater awareness of the role of Parliament.
I suggest that any debate must start with the government of the day, no matter what their colour. Governments can help to promote greater awareness by treating Parliament with more respect. We need to reverse the growing tendency of Ministers to bypass Parliament and to make statements first to the media. That undermines the authority of Parliament and partly explains why people, particularly young people, do not bother to votea point impressively made by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham. We need to remind ourselves repeatedly that Parliament is supreme. Parliament makes and very occasionally dismisses governments. A strong government needs a strong Parliament. It is in the interests of the government of the day to help restore the authority of Parliament and promote public awareness.
Today we hear much about the modernisation of Parliament. I have now had the privilege of sitting in one House or the other for over 30 years. I am always suspicious of modernisation, which usually means that the government of the day can more easily get their business. I am glad to see the noble Lord, Lord Norton, with his enormous experience in these matters, nodding in assent.
I give one example of what worries me. There is a suggestion that it may be possible to carry over Bills from one Session to the next. I believe that that would be extremely dangerous and unparliamentary. One of the main disciplines of governmentany
I suggest that to allow the carry-over of Bills would tempt the Government of the day to overload the legislative programme, which they already do, and would deprive the Opposition of the day of a legitimate parliamentary weapon. We need fewer and better Bills, not more and worse Bills. I believe that the bad effect of carrying over Bills from one Session to another would blunt public awareness and respect for Parliament.
We have also heard about the possibility of a Civil Service Bill. Recent events have made it clear that we need to define more precisely the relationship between Ministers, civil servants and special advisers. For years there has existed in our system of government a key principle of trust between Ministers and civil servants who are devoted to the cause but are wholly non-party political and will loyally serve whichever government are in office. The waters are now muddied. I do not suggest that we should not have special advisers. We are now in that age, and I am very glad that the Committee on Standards in Public Life is now studying those problems.
There is a rumourI am sure that the noble and learned Lord who is to respond to the debate will be able to comment on itthat Downing Street is trying to hold up the possibility of a Civil Service Bill. I do not expect the noble and learned Lord to tell us what will be contained in the next Queen's Speech. However, I hope that he will be able to scotch that rumour, thus allowing us to say that a Civil Service Bill will have high priority in the Government's programme.
I turn to executive agencies and quangos, which were mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, whose enormous experience in the other House we greatly respect. This is another area where there are disturbing developments. Oppositions are always rather cautious and suspicious of quangos. The minute they come into government, of course, they realise how handy they are and tend to increase the number of them.
In executive agencies and quangos, there is now a huge power of patronage, supported by vast sums. The effect that they have on individuals and businesses is very considerable. They are not effectively answerable to Parliament. I am not against executive agencies. Much is to be said for the Government laying down the broad policy and allowing the details to be dealt with by executive agencies. In recent years such agencies have grown enormously, but parliamentary scrutiny of them has not grown to anything like the same extent. That point was made very clearly in a distinguished report from the Hansard Society, The Challenge for Parliament, chaired by my noble friend Lord Newton of Braintree.
Equally, I am not against quangos. In a modern age, we possibly need quangos. However, they are often created without any reference to Parliament; for the most part, they are not required to report to Parliament; and they are outside the direct scrutiny of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Consequently, it is very difficult for Select Committees in either House to scrutinise their work effectively, even if they had the resources to do so.
I suggest that there is a growing gap in effective scrutiny of bodies that have a major role to play in Parliament. This partly explains the lack of public interest and awareness. People will, understandably, ask, "If Parliament cannot do this job, what is the point of us trying to take an interest?" I believe that to be one of the reasons for the decline in the prestige of both Houses of Parliament.
In conclusion, I shall mention very briefly four disturbing developments that seem to me to be important for Parliament. The first development is Ministers bypassing Parliament. I am not making a party-political point here because parties of both colours have done it. Secondly, there are the modernisation proposals that make it easier for the Government and more difficult for the Opposition. Thirdly, there is the confusion as regards relationships between Ministers, civil servants and advisers. Fourthly, while methods of government have moved on, Parliament has been overtaken in its attempt to scrutinise these developments. This insidious combination is, I suggest, largely responsible for public apathy and lack of awareness. Only Westminster and Whitehall can put this right.
Lord Haskel: My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that there is a strong case why we in Parliament should see a big rise in the public awareness of our work. After all, we are here on behalf of the public. I congratulate the noble Lord on moving this Motion. As I see it, the problem is that the public may not really want to be aware of the work that we carry out in Parliament. Many people believe that our work here is far removed from their day-to-day lives. It seems to me that what they are really interested in is the politics that goes on in Parliament, rather than the work. They are interested in the differences of opinion; they are interested in the personal rivalries; and they are interested in the political ambitions. I am not being cynical. I am just trying to be realistic.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme, said that the work of Parliament and the politics of Parliament are inextricably linked. I agree. You cannot just raise awareness of our work without acknowledging the public's interest in our politics. It would be nai ve to think that we will be judged purely on the quality of our work. We shall also be judged on how we handle the politics. The openness, the honesty and the transparency with which we deal with the country's politics will also affect the interest that the public have in our work. The two are indeed linked.
What should we do about the situation? Let us look at it from the point of view of the public. Perhaps our parliamentary system is not as admired and appreciated by the public as much as we parliamentarians would like to suppose. What we see as useful and helpful procedures, perhaps the public see as fudge and secrecy. Let us take, for example, the decisions reached by the usual channels. This happens every day. We see it as a helpful way of reaching compromises, but it must be pretty mysterious to outsiders. To the outsider, this could be rather like the activities of a secret organisation. Anyway, the public now know that work is done better when it is openly discussed. That is why we should open up our procedures and let people see who takes decisions in Parliament.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, says that our committee work is reported less; I am not sure why, but I believe that this openness is a special feature of our committee work, especially in your Lordships' House. That is why it is much admired. The committees consider things broadly from the public interest point of view. The European Union committees, the economics committee, the Science and Technology Committee and the ad hoc committees all try to make their work relevant to the public interest rather than to the political interest. Like the noble Lord, Lord Norton, I believe that our reporting ought to be a lot more user friendly and better presented, but I know that that work is in hand. I hope that we shall achieve that aim very shortly.
However, we have been slow and late in our attempts to inform the public about our work. An information office in your Lordships' House was established only five years agoand, more recently, in the other place. The money and staff devoted to it are minuscule. I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Norton, and Lord Phillips. The resources devoted to the press and information office of a government department, a business, or, indeed, of other parliaments are much larger than those that we supply. I do not wish to detract from the work of Mary Morgan and her staff. They deal with 2,000 telephone calls a month when the House is sitting, and ensure that the press is informed about our current work and future business. I also happen to know that it was their initiative that the parliamentary website should be redesigned to make it easier to use and more attractive to the public. I hope that my noble and learned friend the Minister will join me and other noble Lords in congratulating that department on its work.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, asked if our behaviour is one reason why the public are less interested in our work. My noble friend Lord Sheldon, with his vast experience, thinks that that may be exaggerated. I rather agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan. The public should expect high standards of personal behaviour from parliamentarians. After all, parliamentarians are law makers. The public expect law makers to stick to the law, to set standards and to be honest. I agree that exaggerated reporting sometimes leads to unnecessary public anxiety. But if
Instead of responding to the narrow accusations and political rivalries about which my noble friend Lord Sheldon spoke, it seems to me that we could do far better using these opportunities to break out of the low ground that is currently permeating politics. By regaining the high ground, we could shift the agenda back to the political direction of the country and so create a better understanding of the work that we accomplish in Parliament. Yes, sometimes this kind of action injures its originator. We in the Labour Party are perhaps victims of its rules about disclosure of political donations, but that does not detract from its merits.
I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Moynihan and Lord Phillips, that the real worry about all this is falling participation at elections. There is a danger that the turn-out at the next general election could fall below 50 per cent. Are those who stay away saying that they want to vote for none of the candidates? Are they staying away because they just do not care? The noble Lord, Lord Norton, asks: is it that the public's influence on decisions is getting more and more distant as we join international organisations? Decisions that affect people's lives are becoming more distant. Yet, paradoxically, the world is coming closer together. We may not be sharing the same currency as others in Europe, but it is becoming apparent that we share many of the same values and ideals.
Perhaps to stimulate us we need a campaigning organisation like Greenpeace. In the same way that it stimulated concern about the environment, perhaps we need a similar campaigning organisation to stimulate us to face up to the concerns of the public and to tell us where it believes we have failed. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, is the president of the Hansard Society and the noble Lord, Lord Norton, is on the council. Perhaps they could persuade the society to turn itself into such a campaigning organisation. The Hansard Society seems to be saying to us that we parliamentarians indulge too much in politics and management and too little in governancenot government, governance.
The society calls for more governance by Parliament through scrutiny. The noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, spoke about scrutiny, which would have to be more systematic and better-resourced, not only with more money and people but with more time devoted to it. As the Hansard Society suggests, perhaps Parliament should devote one day a week to scrutinising the work of government instead of simply debating it. I know that we parliamentarians prefer to debate the work and effectiveness of government, but that is largely political. Scrutiny by committees, whose Members have a career in Parliament devoted to scrutiny, would be better understood by the public as a means of scrutinising the work of government. The Public Accounts Committee and the Audit Commission are showing the way in that regard. Such scrutiny would be better understood by the public and would raise their awareness of our work.
I realise that governments like to be judged by results; after all, what could be clearer? As many noble Lords have said, we live in a democracy. A democracy must be concerned about how those results were achieved. So, how can we have a democracy without those systems being open to scrutiny? That effective scrutiny combined with proper information is the key to raising people's awareness of the work of Parliament. In short, if Parliament wants the public to take more interest, it must become more public-friendly in every respect.
Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market: My Lords, I too to congratulate my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth on initiating this important debate. I agree with his concerns. However, it is worth putting the matter in perspective: in 1949 Christopher Hollis, a Conservative MP of independent inclinations, published a book, Can Parliament Survive?. Three years later, George Keeton, a professor of law, brought out The Passing of Parliament. The issues are not new, but they have intensified in recent years.
I begin by disagreeing slightly with the remarks of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth. I shall set the record straight: the problem is not that Parliament does not address the issues of public concern. That point is usually made in connection with such matters as the environment, drugs and social issues, which are of great concern to young people. In fact, Parliament does debate those issues frequently. Contrary to the suggestion that health, education, transport and welfare issues are not debated in Parliament, any week's analysis of Hansard would show that Parliament is deeply concerned about those matters and that they are the stuff of parliamentary debate.
Every day in the other place there are pages of Written Questions on health, education, transport and welfare issues of direct local concern to constituents. That is not the problem; rather it is how the matters are conveyed and perceived. Nor is there insufficient contact with the electorate. All Members of Parliament now spend more time than ever contacting their electorate throughout the week and every weekend. They now use every means of doing sonot public meetings, because the public does not attend those, as their lifestyle offers them so many attractive alternatives. Not least because the parliamentary allowances have been increased greatly, various means are now used to communicate with the electorate, including professional public relations agents and all forms of technology. That means that one can make direct contact with doctors, nurses, pensioners and every interest group to survey their opinions. That happens all the time and on a larger scale than before, so it is not the real problem.
I am in favour of the work of the Information Office here. Until this debate, I was largely unaware of its work, which is perhaps a problem in itself. I am in favour of the work of the Citizenship Foundation, and I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, for his leadership of that body. When I was Secretary of State for Education, I was keen on the
We must analyse the underlying reasons why we are not projecting ourselves well to the public as was done in the past and why Parliament is apparently held in such low regard. First, as was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and others, outside influences have greatly weakened the supremacy and power of Parliament. Globalisation and the need for global and regional solutions, immediate information technology and instant global communication, and the shift of power to Brussels and Edinburgh have rendered other institutions of significant, but perhaps not equal, importance in relation to Parliament. Changing cultures and attitudes are important factors. We live in a non-deferential eraand it is different from 15 years agoin which instant gratification can prevail. The ambition of many is to earn a good deal of money so that they can retire earlier, rather than to contribute to public life and service. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, made that point also. There is a problem with engaging young people in public life, partly because of their lifestyles, their busy working lives and the increase in two-income households where people wish to devote their free time to their family. Those changes have reduced participation not only in politics but also in church, social and voluntary activities, as noble Lords know.
People will not vote if they feel comfortable and do not think that their vote will affect their lives. That point is highlighted by the contrast between the events surrounding the British election and that in Zimbabwe, where a vote really matters. People will not lobby unless they feel threatened. The lobby today outside both Houses indicates how Parliament still matters, because people feel threatened about a matter on which it will take the ultimate decision. It is disturbing that pressure groups such as Greenpeace sometimes feel that is more important to lobby bodies other than Parliament and the Government to get their way. When the Committee on Standards in Public Life was examining lobbying issues, I was struck when a prominent member of Greenpeace who was asked about parliamentary lobbying replied that supermarkets and consumer targeting matter more than Parliament.
When discussing the influence and power of Parliament, we cannot avoid mentioning the role of the mediaalthough it is a hackneyed issue. Robin Oakley, the distinguished BBC correspondent, wrote in a farewell article in The House Magazine:
I fear that that is true. That is often the only communication from Parliament that many read in their daily newspaper. It is a sad reflection of how the media now feel that they must respond to what they
I could talk much more about the media, but we are all aware of the difficulties that it creates for us. So I now turn to Parliament itself. First, composition is a factor in the other place. It is disappointing that such a heavy element of the modern Parliament is composed of people who have known nothing other than politics since their student days. The necessary width of experience is no longer being brought to Parliament. That is partly a function of salary, partly a function of sleazeif I have the time, I shall comment on thatand partly a function of work pressures.
There is also the apparent irrelevance of Parliament. That too partly comes back to the media. Is Parliament any longer the forum of the nation or is it the media? If it is the media, the sadness is that the interviewers and producers have the power without the responsibility. They have the ability to ask questions but never to find the answers.
That is partly due to the bypassing of Parliament by government, not only by regarding the "Today" programme as more important than making a Statement to ParliamentI deeply regret thatbut also because, with a large majoritythis is more fundamentalgovernment can be pretty brutal in saying that they can get anything through Parliament whenever they wish to do so, and that neither parliamentary debate nor proper parliamentary scrutiny of legislation matters. Regrettably, that too often seems to be the impression that is created today. Indeed, it is the impression that the Government often give by the way in which they currently bypass Parliament.
Something I feel strongly about is the parliamentary atmosphere of confrontation andif I may put it this way"yah boo" politics. It is out of tune with the spirit of the time. We all know that it is only a small part of what actually takes place in Parliamentat Prime Minister's Question Time and other Question Timesbut it is the part that gets all the attention. I was much struck when judging the final of one of the
Much more attention needs to be paid to committee work and Select Committees. Governments need to take much more note of what they do. Select Committee chairmen should be paid, and I am glad to see that we are moving in that direction, and Select Committee work should be seen as an alternative career structure for a Member of Parliament. There is too much other workload pressure on MPs so that they cannot participate, or only a few do, in Select Committee work and in parliamentary scrutiny of legislation, and they do not do it effectively.
On the question of sleazeI declare an interest in serving on the Committee on Standards in Public Lifewhat I regret most about the past five years is that, at a time when sleaze (if I may use that shorthand word due to shortness of time) is actually a small part of parliamentary life, and when most of the aspects being examined are trivial in the extreme, it receives so much public attention that it has the opposite effect to that intended. It gives the public the impression that sleaze is prevalent in Parliament when it is not.
Above all, we need to make sure that Parliament matters. I was saddened to note Peter Riddell, who I greatly respect as a columnist, writing in The House Magazine the other day, that, as a result of Stephen Byers's Statement to Parliament, when it appeared that his ministerial life was secured, Parliament still mattered. It is a rather trivial reason for thinking that Parliament still matters. But one of the problems that exists at the moment is that we have a government who have ignored Parliament too often because they have too large a majority. With smaller majorities, as I well recall in the last years of the Conservative government, Parliament really did matter. Members of the Government have to pay a great deal of attention to what Parliament thinks. When that happens, Parliament is clearly the focus of the nation and the media pay much more attention.
Many of the comments we have heard this evening turned on people's concerns about a reduction in the reputation of this House and the other place. Indeed, the noble Lords, Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market
Next week there is a debate on hunting. It is a controversial debate. I shall take a view and Members of this House will take differing views. Members of the press, stirred by Members of the other place, will pore through the Division List in the House of Lords to look for those Members of this place who have perhaps just signed in, just taken the Oath, not spoken this Session or perhaps not voted on any issue this Session, and who it is quite clear have turned up specifically to vote on the issue of hunting with self-interest in mind.
We can safely predict that some noble Lords will fall into that bracket. They discredit this place. Self-interest will have determined what they do. It will be exploited by the press. The will of the House of Commons may well be undermined because of Members taking such a position.
If there are to be reformsthere have been many which I support and which have been referred to todaylet us start by running a House which does not operate on the basis of self-interest and where people cannot simply cannot walk in and vote, as they did in 1989 if I remember rightly on the community charge legislation. We used to laugh about it in the other place. We were told how the Division Lobbies were filled in this place with some who had not voted or seen the place for years, but who turned up because they had an interest in that legislation in so far as they were going to save a substantial amount of money.
That is what creates public cynicism. That is why people become angry at the Houses of Parliament when they see those things happening. I rest my case. Next week, when we look at the Division List, I am sure it will be upheld.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, is a distinguished expert on the constitution. He does great service for your Lordships' House. He is the chairman of our Select Committee on the Constitution and performed another service today by introducing this debate with a speech full of interesting and valuable ideas.
This Motion raises two questions. The first is whether the case for raising public awareness of the work of Parliament is made out. I am sure we all agree that it is. The second question is: if so, how do we do it?
It is clear that interest in politics at all levels has declined, not just an interest in Parliament. That decline is partly for reasons which are acceptable and perhaps even welcome. Politics is certainly less ideological than it used to be. The failure of socialism as an economic system means that there is now much less difference in substance between the main parties. Class consciousness, in my experience, is a good deal less than it was 40 or 50 years ago.
Those changes are certainly acceptable and I believe welcome. But there are also less welcome reasons why interest in the political system and in Parliament has decreased. For example, there is less interest in local government because so much of it has been centralised. Central government now tells local authorities what they are to do and how they are to do it. Indeed, we have two Bills before the Housethe Education Bill and the Police Reform Billwhich increase the directive powers of central government. And nowadays local authorities raise only a small proportion of their own funds.
We have moved too far from what I suppose was the golden age of local government, which was probably the late 19th century; the age of powerful city corporations in our great industrial cities like Birmingham and Manchester, and the era of the foundation of the London County Council. Indeed, I remember one of the characters who used to inhabit the Peter Simple column in the Daily Telegraph with the ghost of Alderman Foodbottom, who had been the chairman of the Tramways and Fine Arts Committee of Bradford in the great days. I am afraid nowadays even the ghost of Alderman Foodbottom has given up the ghost.
We need to hand powers back to local authorities, including fund-raising powers. That would create more interest in local government. It would also mean that local elections would cease to be no more than glorified opinion polls on the popularity of the current central government. There has never been enough interest in the European Parliament even though it now has significant powersbut that issue is for another debate.
The decline in public interest extends to the whole of the political process, not only to Parliament itself. We cannot separate the lack of interest in the working of Parliament from the lack of interest in the process. Nothing is more irritating when campaigning than finding a voter on the doorstep saying, "You lot are all the same. You're all in it for what you can get out of it". I, as a campaigner, would much rather find someone saying, "Well, we are all staunch Tories in this house", or even, as once happened when I was campaigning on entry phones in Kensington, a voter who said, "You can stuff yourself up your own soft centre".
The people who say, "You are all in it for what you can get out of it", usually mean that they are too lazy themselves to take an interest or vote. But, in a sense, they are rightwe are all in it for what we can get out of it. But what we get out of it is usually not money. Most of us, I am sure, are financially worse off for our involvement in politics. We are in it, in some cases, because we want office. That is not an ignoble reason for taking part in politics; it is certainly what inspired Winston Churchill for most of his career. We are in it for the excitement and interest of a political career; we are in it for the satisfaction of taking part in an essential function in a democratic society. We need to get those reasons across to the public.
The decline in interest in and respect for Parliament is blamed on the media. There is less coverage of Parliament than there used to be, but that is largely a symptom, not a cause, of the problem. We cannot force newspapers to print what the public do not want to read, although I agree very strongly with my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham about the duty of public service broadcasters to keep the public informed about the work of Parliament.
I do not believe that satirists such as parliamentary sketch writers and Rory Bremner are doing damage because they appeal only to people who are already interested in politics. I do not entirely agree on this issue with the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor of Pulham Marketnot "Pulman Market" as his name appears on the List of Speakers.
We need to consider whether Parliament itself could do more to raise awareness. I am reluctant to suggest what the House of Commons could do because, unlike a number of previous speakers, I have never served there. But the sight of an empty Chamber for important debates and excessive party points scoring is not likely to increase the viewing figures for the parliamentary channel. Speeches on busy occasions are too often directed towards raising a cheer from party supporters rather than persuading a wider publicand I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, on that issue.
Respect for your Lordships' House is high, perhaps particularly now that the Conservatives no longer have a permanent majority among Members who take a party whip and most of the hereditary Peers have left. But there is still a danger that we will be seenI have to watch my language here to ensure that it is parliamentaryas a group of "boring old flatulences". "Old", I must confess, we are. At the age of 69 I have reached the average age of Members of the House.
We have to keep an eye on our public image. On one day a few weeks ago, the media coverage of your Lordships' House concentrated entirely on a Parliamentary Question about the House Christmas cardnot because of any intrinsic public interest in the House Christmas card; clearly there was none whateverbut because it reinforced the misleading image of ourselves as "boring old flatulences". I do not believe that there will be a real interest in your Lordships' House until most of us are elected and the public feel that, in a sense, we belong to them.
The most important thing for improving awareness and interest in Parliament is education. I agree absolutely with my noble friends Lord Holme and Lord Phillips on this issue. We heard a passionate speech from my noble friend Lord Phillips, who has perhaps campaigned more than anyone else in your Lordships' House to ensure that the public, and particularly young people, get proper instruction in
I strongly welcome the developments in citizenship education. It is essential that all pupils, not only those studying politics, should get a basic instruction on the constitutional and political system of this country. We should seriously look at reducing the voting age from 18 to 16. That is now the policy of my party. It is a policy about which I have been in the past distinctly sceptical, but I find my mind changing on this issue.
When I was a parliamentary candidateas I was on four occasionsI found that school sixth forms, as they were then called, were the most acute and interested audiences I had to face. But, of course, very few of those pupils were eligible to vote. If pupils became eligible to vote while they were learning about the political system instead of a year or two later, they would be much more likely to vote. Voting would then become a part of the rite of passage into adulthood and, having voted once, young people would be more likely to do so again.
I am delighted to see that the sum which the Electoral Commission is authorised to spend on encouraging public awareness of our political and democratic systems is being increased under a statutory instrument which has recently been laid before your Lordships' House, from £1.5 million per year to £7.5 million. That is certainly a welcome step forward.
There is no single cause of the decline of interest in politicsand in Parliament in particularand there is therefore no single answer to that problem. The best answer, to borrow a phrase from a right honourable member of another place, is "Education, education, education".
Lord Saatchi: My Lords, on this occasion, as on several others when my noble friend Lord Norton has initiated debates in your Lordships' House on the constitution and related matters, we are most grateful to him for highlighting and so expertly analysing a major problemthat is, that the glorious idea of representation, which is perhaps the essence of our political system, has somehow been lost.
I always feel that debates such as this show your Lordships' House at its best. I remember that on one occasion the noble Lord, Lord Desai, said that the reports of the Select Committees of your Lordships' House should be made compulsory reading in schools, and the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, made similar remarks about our reports. Perhaps it is true that the best and simplest cure for the problems to which many noble Lords have referred is to open up your Lordships' House to visitors.
It is very striking that the public galleries are almost empty. Perhaps we should aim to fill them. For that reason I echo the remarks of my noble friends Lord Dean and Lord Moynihan, and those of the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, in praising Mary Morgan and the work of the House of Lords Information Office and
My noble friend Lord Norton dissected some of the key causes of the problem that is the subject of the debate and applied innovative thought to them. I hope that, when he comes to reply, the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House will give a positive response to the brilliant analysis given by the noble Lord, Lord Sheldon, and my noble friend Lord Dean of the problems that exist in our own parliamentary procedureparticularly the "insidious combination" of the four procedural elements described by my noble friend.
Many noble Lords analysed the symptom of the problem as being low turnout, especially among young people. Some alarming and depressing statistics were given to us. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said that he was so concerned about low turnout among young people that he wondered whether the mandate was not being called into question, which is very serious indeed.
Other speakers concentrated on the diagnosison what the underlying causes might be. For adherents of post-materialism, I believe the root of the problem is widespread affluence leading to general contentmentthe point was not taken up by previous speakers, but we read a great deal about it. Most speakers took the opposite point of view; namely, that the cause of the problem is widespread discontentment, disillusion and disrespectthe "deep cynicism" of which my noble friend Lord Moynihan and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, spoke.
Many speakers were worried about the media. I refer in particular to the noble Lords, Lord Holme and Lord MacGregor. It will take a major act of will on the part of government to solve this problem. Simon Jenkins once explained to the Nolan committee why, as editor of The Times, he abandoned the full-page parliamentary report. He said that people,
That statement is the precursor of the thinking that now dominates broadcasting in our country, both in the commercial ITV companies and in the BBC. It is the thinking that leads to the concept of the "themed" channel, which now dominates broadcasting. Echoing what Mr Jenkins said, the ITV companies say: "If people want to watch news, we have a very nice 24-hour news channel". That is the new conventional wisdom in commercial television. The BBC says much same; namely, that it has conducted research among young people in "digital" homesit takes this group to be the best predictor of the future shape of societyand that such persons are not interested in politics, and that, therefore, it is inappropriate to provide such programming, other than on a themed channel.
One issue that arises in regard to the BBCI was grateful to have the opportunity earlier to mention this to the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the Houseis why the BBC parliamentary channel is, incredibly, available only on audio on the ITV digital
Many noble Lords focused on the possible cure for the problem being "Education, education, education", a phrase employed by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart. I am not sure that he was not closer to the mark in the earlier part of his speech, when he seemed to be getting at the important point that low turnout was not altogether a bad thing.
In reading around this subject before the debate, I found that it is a common view that the problem arises from a low opinion of the publicthe suggestion being that they are either ill-informed or dim. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said that we live in a sick society. The implication is that, if only the public knew more, all would be well.
Instead, I ask your Lordships to consider for a moment that the reverse may be true; namely, that the public are very intelligent. Is it not a striking feature of our age that we live in a new enlightenmentit has been described as a "democracy of information"in which the need to know has been replaced by the right to know. Is it not true that the public know everything? Like the natural philosophers that they are, they know the great changes that have taken place in modern politics. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, touched on that point.
The public see two historic forces at work, which may have led them rationally to conclude that their participation in politics is not as urgent and necessary as it once was. The first of these could have been revealed to them through their knowledge of the game of chess. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first official world chess champion on whose scientific principles chess is now based, said that it was always good, on principle, to take an opponent's centre pawn.
So it is that, today, the public see that both main parties, chess grandmasters, want their King near the centre of the chessboard. That is why, as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, mentioned, all research now shows that the public say that "all politicians are much of a muchness these days".
Until recently, the position of the parties on the political chessboard has been very different. For example, the Conservative Party has spent the 20th century successfully depicting our Socialist opponents as totalitarian wolves in the clothing of constitutional sheep. Winston Churchill described the Socialist Party as:
The Conservative Party developed all the winning arguments of our time. We were proud of Conservtive economics and what it could do. We said that "a rising tide lifts all ships". We said that lower tax was goodfor moral reasons, because it meant more freedom and choice for individuals; and for economic reasons
But then, of all things, after a victorious century-long battle against Socialism, the facts of life turned out to be Labour too. Under Prime Minister Blair's directionand who can deny him credit for this?Labour's Berlin Wall came down. He embraced free enterprise capitalism. He welcomed low tax. He respected work. He admired wealth creation. He said that "the polarities of Left and Right of the 20th century would prove an aberration". He would consign the old Left/Right divide to what Engels called "the museum of antiquities". When Mr Blair went on to offer his beguiling synthesis of capitalism and socialism, the great divide in British politics came to an abrupt end.
I am putting forward the notion that the British public are intelligent enough to see all this in exactly the way that I have just described it. So is it any wonder that the passion for politics has declined? That is the first great force at work which the public see.
Secondly, people are aware of what is perhaps the most monumental change in our lifetime; namely, globalisationwhich has shaken up all our institutions and produced an entirely new form of capitalism, which the public can see is beyond the reach of the national governments for whom they are asked to vote with such urgency.
Perhaps I may expand on what my noble friend Lord Norton said about this subject. The public have been told, and have understood, that no man is an island, not even this one; and that it is not the case, as my noble friend Lord Dean hoped it would be, that Parliament is supreme. They have been reminded that, for example, the rule of law requires a compulsory jurisdiction. They have already accepted the degradation of their own sovereignty, because foreign judges already make decisions which they have to accept as a necessary result of the international rule of law. They have been shown how, with global financial markets, economies are interdependent; how environmental problemsthe ozone layer, climate change, biodiversity, and so oncannot be solved at the national level; how the World Trade Organisation cannot allow contravention of rules by one country in pursuit of its own sovereignty.
So, as usual, a shrewd public see it all. They see mega-mergers, global alliances and jobs moving to where it suits global corporations to employ people, and they conclude that fighting globalisation is like fighting Darwinism. So, if we are depressed to discover that the public believe that the globalisation of companies and economics means that the globalisation of countries cannot be far behind, and if we are concernedas every speaker has beento hear people express doubts about the relevance of our Westminster Parliament to their lives, perhaps it is because the public are excellent students of economics.
I want to end on a positive note. It would be wrong to despairas I think the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, did at one pointthat things are getting worse and worse. I am not sure that that is true. It is certainly not happening because people are too dim, uninterested or apathetic. I hope that noble Lords will agree with that, for some of the reasons that I have outlined. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said that the key point is that people like to see differences of opinion, and I agree. All they need to be "heart uplifted"as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, saidis to see and hear the clash of real ideas presented by political parties that have a clear and distinct sense of purpose, a certain idealism, and a marching tune to which they can respond. Those are the essential preconditions for the future health and happiness of our great democratic system.
The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, and all noble Lords who have spoken, for a debate that has gone a good deal wider than the parameters set down in its title. For my part, I think that that was a useful widening.
All the speeches seemed to demonstrate one point: we all have a common purpose in this House that unites our thinking even if we do not always come to identical conclusionswhich is that all governments require effective scrutiny. Governments therefore require this House to run as effectively as possible, so that scrutiny can be diligent, continuous and informed. A number of noble Lords have spoken about what we do. What we do is important; how we do it is critical. It is interestingindeed amusingfor someone who has never been a Member of the House of Commons to note that, on an occasion like this, the most swingeing criticism of the House of Commons has come from the recently and dearly departed who had formerly sat there. So all the sinners begin to repent when they enter a more civilised Chamber.
I thoughtif I may say so without offencethat the analysis from the noble Lords, Lord Dean of Harptree and Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market, was extremely interesting. The criticisms of the noble Lord, Lord Dean, includedif I have them noted correctly in my mindfirst, criticism of Ministers bypassing Parliament; secondly, concern about modernisation proposals; thirdly, the relationship between Ministers, civil servants and political advisers; and, finally, his feeling that, in some ways, Parliament has perhaps been overtaken in its true scrutiny role. He specifically mentioned the question of carry-over.
We all have the common desire to get the best possible legislation. It seems to me that the House's current Committee scrutiny is not satisfactory and ought to be divided conceptually into two. The first aspect is the Bill's policy, on which there may be no agreement between the Government and the Opposition parties. Secondly, howevereven if there is disagreement about policy and the conceptswe ought at least to deliver proper, effective and workmanlike legislative product. If we could achieve a situation in which most significant government Bills were subject to pre-legislative scrutiny, and the co-relative benefit wasas I know that the noble Lord, Lord Dean, suspectsa likely carry-over, it seems that we would then be able to work together to get good legislation even if we disagreed on the policy content.
There are the questions of public perception to which the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, referred. As he knows, I pay tribute to his work with the Citizenship Foundationto which he introduced me long ago when I was at the Bar and was able to join in on his mock trial projects, which were extremely successful. I suggest to your Lordships that it is no longer tolerable that it should be assumed that attendance in Committee, on Report or at Second Reading is somehow an optional extra in which one may indulge or not as the case may be. The fact is that this is and ought to be a full-time House, even if it is currently staffed by part-timers. I should be grateful if your Lordships could assist me in explaining to the public why we do not work in the mornings and have two and a half months off in the summer, but at the same time say that we cannot introduce importantI take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord PhillipsLaw Commission Bills. I have never been able to explain that to the public.
I suggest that we shall have to have a sea-change in the way in which we work. We should not be sitting after 10 o'clock at night, and we should be doing our work of bringing the government to account much more effectively. One of the effective weapons in this Chamber is not the yahoo anticsas some of your Lordships have described them; I could not possibly agree with thatpractised elsewhere, but the daily Question Time. That is one of the most effective occasions in this place, if your Lordships wish to make it effective. It will be for your Lordships to decide
There are many other devices by way of modernisationor improvement, if modernisation is too jarring a word for our activitiesand other proposals that we could consider. If we have the unity of purpose that we have demonstrated this afternoon, I have no doubt that, even if it is on an experimental basis, we shall be able to improve our practices. It is right that we are regarded as arcane by many of those whom I have almost described as votersthe gloomy feature is that they are not voters; some of them are not even registered. We have to bear in mind, of course, that turnout in the American presidential election was even worse. Fewer than 50 per cent of those who are registeredand registration there is not good, at about 48 per cent, if my memory is correctvote in those elections.
Some of those who might be interested in politics plainly are not interested because of the extraordinary divorce between our experience, as we believe it to be, and their knowledge of their existence. When we spend day after day after day arguing about Section 28still unresolvedand day after day on the age of consent, they simply come to their conclusion, with which I entirely sympathise, that we inhabit not a different world but a different planet and insult them by our lack of knowledge about how they live their lives and wish to construct their futures.
It was said by the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, that the media have a responsibility. That is true. HoweverI am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Baker, is not in the Chamber; as a collector of political cartoons he would have the knowledge to respond to this fullyif one thinks of Rowlandson, Gilray and Hogarth, to take but three examples, one might think that the media are not entirely devastating at the moment.
The noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, raised a particular aspect of the media which is important. I am grateful to him for his courtesy in warning me about the BBC. I believe that we are entitled to say that if the BBC, uniquely constituted and funded as it is, is to continue, those who fund it on a compulsory basis are entitled to say that part of the public service interest ethos must be to give a full and proper review of parliamentary procedurenot an uncritical one. It seems to meI am speaking personally and heading for, I expect, immediate dismissalthat the purpose of the BBC is not only to be described as aiming for the highest possible ratings and possibly going hand-in-hand with the lowest common denominator.
The noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, asked questions about video on which I have had research conducted. It is right that the Government allocated digital terrestrial television capacity to the BBC. There is not
The rest of the media have been criticised partly because of parliamentary sketches. But parliamentary sketch writers can be amusing and criticalI see the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor, shaking his head in disagreementonly if on occasions the performance offered justifies such descriptions. Sometimes the descriptions are over-harsh and sometimes they are over-obsessive, but if we have a good debate in your Lordships' House we generally receive good credit for it. Sadly, for our families, not all of our speeches are reported in full, even in the broadsheets, but if we have a good debate we normally receive a decent response.
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