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We can do far more to utilise the internet. Bills are now published in XML format, so anyone can use the material to tag particular clauses and subsections. That takes us some way towards meeting the aims of bodies such as mySociety. We should be able to build on this capacity so that Bills posted on the website are indexed in order to enable users to search text and sign up for more specific alerts.
The Constitution Committee of your Lordships House, in its 2004 report entitled Parliament and the Legislative Process, advocated the greater use of informal Keeling schedules, where a Bill amends an Act, enabling people to see how the original sections are amended by the Bill. The Modernisation Committee of the other place has also recommended exploring the possibility of publishing on the web the text of Bills as amended in Committee, with text that is added or deleted shown through the use of different colours.
I understand thought has also been given to interleaving Bills and Explanatory Notes, so that relevant material from the notes appears on the page facing the clauses referred to. That not only makes it easier to grasp the purpose of a clause, but may also encourage those who write the Explanatory Notes to ensure that a note on a clause does not simply repeat the provisions of the clause. I suspect it will be as helpful to parliamentarians as to members of the public.
There is also more that we can do to exploit broadcasting opportunities, both in further enhancing the facility for broadcasters to cover the work of Parliament, and in ensuring that what we do is both relevant and understandable to those outside. These are examples of the sort of thing we should be pursuing. At the very least, we need to give thought to how we might disseminate information to a wider audience and not simply expect that audience to come to us.
We can also do more in respect of the audience that does come to us. Every year, almost 1 million visitors pass through the Palace of Westminster. There is far more information made available to them than ever before, but there is still much more to be done to ensure that more of them leave with an understanding of Parliament as a working political institution, a body that has an impact on their every-day lives.
However, the biggest challenge is to enable people to communicate with Parliament. Let me offer a few suggestions. Committeesnot least those engaged in pre-legislative scrutinycan make greater use of online consultation. Even though we are ahead of the game internationally, its use remains limited. Where it has been employed, it has been extremely useful. As the Constitution Committee recommended in its 2004 report, committees should also consider commissioning public opinion polls where they believe it useful to have an awareness of public opinion on the Bills in question.
In your Lordships House, we need to think more about how we exploit the capacity for engagement. We receive briefing material from organisations that know how to contact us, and we hear from individuals, many of whom are prompted by outside organisations. But
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We also need to look at the recommendations of the Procedure Committee in the other place in respect of e-petitions. Even if we do not make use of that procedure, we may usefully think about how we use the internet, perhaps following the precedent ofLords of the Blog, to facilitate a dialogue with members of the public about issues that concern them.
Each House can learn from the experience of the other. Both can learn from experience elsewhere. The Constitution Committee argued the case for spending more time looking at the communications strategies of other legislatures, including the Scottish Parliament. Though in some areas we are ahead of other legislatures, there remains much that we can learn from others.
We can also learn from and work in partnership with government departments when Bills are going through. I commend Defra for its Marine and Coastal Access Bill newsletter of 5 December, in which it explains the parliamentary process and encourages people to listen to debates on the Bill, check progress on the Parliament website, and, if necessary, write to their local MPs. I hope that disseminating such informationthough perhaps with more emphasis on your Lordships Housebecomes standard practice.
The developments I have outlined are clearly not cost free. There are resource implications, both in terms of time and money. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, wrote in the foreword to his commissions report, the costs involved,
The cost relates to the activities of Members and to the activities of each House institutionally. Communicating with members of the public creates a cost for Members, both in terms of their time and their support resources. The mail received in your Lordships House is substantial, but it is as nothing compared with Members of the other House. We need to improve support resources, but to do so in a way that enhances Members capacity to communicate as Members of either House and not in their capacity as party politicians. I would place the emphasis here on the flow of communication from members of the public rather than on funding parliamentarians to promote themselves to the public.
However, the main resource implication is in respect of the institutional capacity to communicate with and to hear from the public. That entails investing in our capacity to utilise electronic resources effectively and to be at the forefront of such development. Both Houses, as I have said, are investing in the internet and the Parliament website. More, though, can be done, and not always at great cost. The Information Office of your Lordships' House accounts for less than 1 per cent of the budget of the House. It delivers tremendous value for money. We could expand its resources, enabling it to be proactive, without making a great dent in the parliamentary budget.
I end as I began. It is crucial to the health of our political system that there is effective communication between Parliament and public. We have taken great strides in communicating with members of the public, though there is still more to be done. The biggest challenge is to enhance the capacity of members of the public to communicate with us. That requires commitment and resources. The health of our political system is worth the investment. I beg to move for Papers.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, I warmly welcome the debate on Parliament and the public. I offer to the House three points of reference that I always find useful in discussions of this sort to help me to view the subject in some perspective and, I hope, in a constructive way.
There is a considerable amount of political cynicism. The men and women in the forces quite properly posed the questionWhat Government has ever kept its election pledges? A quite similar saying from the doorstep isWell, its all the same whoever gets in!andThey are all out for themselves anyway..
I offer that quotation from 60-plus years ago simply to remind the House of two things. First, there was no golden age of a love affair between Parliament and the public, or, if there was, I have not yet detected it. In addition, and perhaps more relevant to this debate, improvements in relations and communications between Parliament and the public are likely to come in small stages and not necessarily in dramatic advances. They are a matter ofif I may misquoteeternal vigilance. It is something that needs to be worked on. I certainly do not have any golden solutions, but I shall make one or two suggestions.
The second context in which I view these subjectsI hope that I am not sounding complacent when I say thisis that we must all believe, and I hope that we do all believe, that in communicating Parliament to the public we have what is fundamentally a very good product. If you say that, there is always a danger of people thinking, It is just complacent; it is parliamentarians talking among themselves all the time. They all think they are wonderful, and so on. I certainly do not come from that school. Over the years, I have tried in many ways to improve the ways in which we operate, including how we communicate with the public.
Our parliamentary democracy, with its general elections, delivers Parliaments, Governments and MPs accountable to their constituents. The Government offer a legislative programme each year, which is debated throughout the year and either stands or falls. This is conductedlet us be honest, given all the exaggeration of recent months and yearsin an incredibly free environment, which is still the envy of huge numbers of countries in the world. That is a good product. You cannot communicate a bad product; unless you believe in the product, you might as well give up on your communication strategy.
The third thing that I want to saythis is important, as it is a pretty pervasive finding of pollingis that, whereas the publics perception of politicians in general is low, all the tests show that their perception of the parliamentarians whom they know and with whom they have worked, in particular their local MP, is always much higher. That is very much in keeping with tests undertaken in other walks of life. For example, people say that there are real problems with the health service. They talk about infections in hospitals and waiting lists. But when you ask them about their personal experience of hospital, they say that their local hospital is terrific. That happens time and again in polls and is relevant to todays debate.
It is from those three points of reference that I offer some limited solutions. My first one relates to the point that I have just made. If we are to improve the way in which we communicate with the public, and the publics perception of us, most of the work necessary to achieve this will have to be done by parliamentarians. You cannot subcontract it. MPs do an awful lot of work with their constituents, in advice bureaux, in offering information and in enabling visits to Parliament, and the same applies to Peers. Many noble Lords do an awful lot of work in that respect. We should certainly commend the outreach work that the Lord Speaker does. There is no better advertisement for Parliament than parliamentarians talking to the public about the work that they do. That is the case with most of us at any rate. We need to strengthen the outreach work to which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, referred.
Secondly, we need collectively to take pride in the institution. I offer two perhaps not so popular points in that regard. I wince whenever Members of this House make ferocious criticisms of the way in which Members of the other House operate and vice versa. It is a common activity. People make the mistake of thinking that, if you are in Chamber 2 and you demean Chamber 1, you are simply demeaning Chamber 1, when in fact you are demeaning the whole parliamentary process. They do not tend to say that they like some policies but not others. We should be cautious in that regard, particularly as a lot of what we say about the other Chamber simply is not true. Far more scrutiny takes place in the other Chamber now. When I was first elected, there were no Select Committees, which frequently hold the Government to account, and there was no broadcasting of any kind. Huge advances in accountability have been made and we are wrong to think otherwise.
My other mildly controversial point concerns the language that we use. We need to recognise and applaudI hope that I might get the support of three-quarters of the House when I say thisthe work of political parties. I am not ashamed of being a lifelong member of the Labour Party. Next year I will have been a member for 50 years, if anyone wants to send me a card. I am proud of that. I respect enormously members of other political parties who knock on doors on wet nights and attend public meetings where people shout at them. I have absolutely nothing against the other parties other than the fact that they get so many things wrong. However, I greatly respect their commitment to the operation of our democracy. I have many friends on the Cross Benches but I do not accept that somehow
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We must make our language and our method of operation more accessible and intelligible to the public at large. I have two seconds left but I make a plea to our friends in the broadcast media not to show the stock shot of us all in ermine, which is totally unrepresentative of how the place operates. If we are to communicate more effectively with the public, let us at least have pictures that are accurate.
Lord McNally: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. My first duty and pleasure is to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for initiating the debate. Sometimes we find ourselves on different sides of the argument about the precise future of this House. However, I know from committee work with him and from personal contact that we both share a pride in and an awe of this building and what it represents. I have been coming here now for over 40 years in various guises and I still come through the doors of this place with a sense of awe for what it represents. We have no differences about that in the debate today.
Secondly, I associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Norton, about the way in which the Lord Speaker has grasped the task of parliamentary outreach and so promoted it. I know how difficult it is to get change in this place. She has managed to get places opened up for meetings of the Youth Parliament, including this Chamber, and she has promoted seminars and conferences in a way that was unknown only a few years ago. I also associate myself with and look forward to the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, whose Information Committee often tries to push us faster than this old House is quite ready for.
Thirdly, the Hansard Society has played an important role in championing research and discussion. That is why I look forward to hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, later in the debate. The recent Hansard Society report, Parliament and the Public: Knowledge, Interest and Perceptions, found that 32 per cent of people claim to have a good understanding of the way in which Parliament works, but only 19 per cent thought that Parliament worked for them. In some ways, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. Rather as with personal knowledge of the local MP, in all those years I have never had visitors to this place who have gone away disappointed. It is interesting that the Hansard Society research claims that 26 per cent have a fair amount of knowledge of the House of Lords and 42 per cent claim to have a fair amount of knowledge about the Commons. Perhaps that is not surprising, given the direct link between a Member of Parliament and his constituents, but it shows where we may have work to do.
Some 53 per cent express a general interest in Parliament. Where there is a concern lies in what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, hinted at: turnout in 2001 was 59 per cent and in 2005 it was 61 per cent. Perhaps even more worrying, the turnout among voters under 24 in 2005 was 37 per cent. A parliamentary democracy needs democrats to make it work, so the task set by this debate is important in making sure that citizens see the connection between casting their votes and the decision-making processes here that influence their lives.
My only caveat is that I do not want to see us dumbing down politics or making the process of voting too easy. There is a social contract between the voter and the process, which should require a certain amount of effort from those taking part. I remember the late Hugo Young saying that if only 50 per cent are willing to be involved and 50 per cent do not care, perhaps we should concentrate on those who do rather than those who do not. That is probably too harsh; we have to reach out and encourage participation, particularly among the young, but I do not want us to try to do that by methods that debase the political process.
I will be interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, says. I know what his committee said about making parliamentary processes more understandable and simpler. I agree, but I also agree that this placeboth endsneeds certain pomp and circumstance. I have said previously that if you start to look like Croydon Council, you will start to be treated like it. I received letters after saying that the first time, so I will probably receive them again, but I hope that Croydon Council and the House know what I mean by that.
I welcome the various initiatives to which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, referred. I am encouraged by looking at how President-elect Obama in the United States has managed to use new technologies to inspire young people. However, I want to use my last couple of minutes for another plea. We already have in our hands a superb piece of communicationBBC Parliament. It is already the best viewed parliamentary channel anywhere in the world, but it seems to achieve that in spite of itself, as there is no proper schedule and you never know what is on. It is like a lucky dip; you tune in and sometimes you can find the most interesting stories.
I was telling the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that I switched on and saw a beautiful little documentary about the Reform Act 1867, which showed how in 1867 Gladstone tried to put through a piece of modest reform, which Disraeli completely sabotaged only to bring in the following year an even more radical reform. I pointed out to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that it might be better for him to take the Lords reform that was on offer, in case a future Conservative Government decided to be even more radical. However, he did not completely follow me on that. Nevertheless, BBC Parliament should be made to be more like any other channel, with cross-references, proper scheduling and the like.
The other good news that I discovered when I was researching for this debate was that in September 2009 the BBC is to launch Democracy Live, a new online
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Lord Renton of Mount Harry: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, kindly referred to the fact that I am chairman of that domestic committee, the House of Lords Information Committee; indeed, that is one reason why I wanted to take part in this debate. Another reason is that I was a member of the commission of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, in 2005. I remember it well and that the booklet it produced was provokingly entitled Members Only? Parliament in the Public Eye. We have moved on from that, as has just been said, but it is about that subject that I wish to talk.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton, in particular on all that he has done in this field and, of course, on winning the ballot for this debate. I have followed in his footsteps. I became a guest blogger last week. Blogger is not yet a word in the Oxford dictionaryI expect that it will be soonbut I am a blogger and I also have seven minutes of my words on a podcast which can be listened to. They say, Come on. Learn more about Parliament.
Hey a really interesting site you guys got. Cool to see that the people that are running the country are having different ways to get in contact with the people. The House of Lords blog is a great example of how the members of parliament can get and stay in touch with the people. Hopefully the parliament in my native Norway will try something like this. Keep it up and thanks for a great blog that is making the distance between parliament and the people smaller.
What is the average age of a Lord? What do you actually do? How many hours do you usually work per week? Do you like your position as Lord, and why? Is the House of Lords necessary as an addition to the House of Commons?.
I want to say a few words about the Parliamentary Education Service, which I certainly consider to be one of the successes of the past few years. Its purpose, as many noble Lords will know, is to support young people in developing an understanding of Parliament and democracy. There has been an enormous increase in the number of children visiting Westminster for both school workshops and tours. The figure was 9,700 four years ago, and 35,000 are expected this year. Our aimthat is, working with the other Houseis for 100,000 to visit when the new education centre is
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My noble friend Lord Baker suggested that it was necessary for every child to visit Westminster before leaving school. We should almost make that a target, although it would mean visits from 750,000 children a year. We will not manage that but, given new websites and perhaps with a new approach to the internet and information and communication technology, all those children could see Westminster through a virtual tour and could find out what we are about from a website through the internet. Using information available throughout the country for matters such as teaching children how to use the website intelligently but in a way that is exciting will be a tremendous challenge for us.
In this context, the Director of Information Services and Chief Librarian, Dr Hallam Smith, who is well known to us all in the Lords, is very optimistic about what can be done with developments in ICT and websites. She feels that, as we go forward, we could attract many more people to the idea of listening to us electronically, at a distance. She says that we have multiple audiences, from the aficionados of the Westminster village plus journalists and Whitehall on the one hand to users who may be unfamiliar with the work of Parliament and schoolchildren on the other. We are moving forward with new information architectureI think that is the right wordthat will enable more people to learn about us from a distance.
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