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I should like to say a few words about the Information Committee, which I have chaired for the past two years. We have produced an annual report, which I hope we may have an opportunity to discuss in the Lords when we come back in January. Our remit is:
including the parliamentary website, parliamentary outreach, visitor services and the broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings. We have an active and hard-working committee. I am glad that two members of it are here this afternoon and intend to speak.
Against that background, and against the background of all the bright ideas that we will hear in this debate, which will merit further consideration in the new year, I propose to invite the Information Committee to conduct an inquiry into how Parliament, and the House of Lords in particular, can communicate better. Such an inquiry would allow us to hear from noble Lords and from those outside Parliament and we could give fuller consideration to what may be proposed. My initial thought is that we could look back to the reports of the Puttnam commission and to the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee of 2004, not just to appreciate how Parliament has changed for the better since then, but to see whether there is still work to be done. We could call witnesses
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The Earl of Erroll: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, very much for giving us this opportunity to voice a few ideas. I shall not go into detail as others are doing so more competently than I can. I want to make a couple of small points about communication and to offer some thanks.
An interesting development is putting stuff about the Lords on YouTube. I was interested to see how we are rated. About 10,000 people have looked at the piece by the Lord Speaker, which is interesting and informative; about 12,000 people have looked at the Youth Parliament which took over the Chamber last summer; but 47,000 people looked at a pop group called the House of Lords, which was next on the list. That tells me that people are attracted by entertainment. If we are to try to get our message across, we shall have to make it quite entertaining and short, sharp and snappy so that people become aware of it.
Although I am pro republic and do not believe in an unelected house, I have seen the value that the Lords have in preventing absurd legislation proposed by the Commons in more recent years. This is mainly due to the hysterics of modern-day terrorism. Let's hope that the Lords do everything in their power to stop the 42-day detention bill from becoming law.
That is good; I like that. That is the whole point of it. The Lords of the Blog come along with more serious pieces. I have looked at that and it is heavier stuff to go through, but it is good. We need some short, sharp things. I think Twitter used very short sentences to track the State Opening of Parliament; for example, The Queen has just entered the House and so on. I do not know how many people showed interest in that, but all those little things build up more interest and then some people dig deeper. That is important.
What I get from the Information Office, from Mary Morgan, is extremely useful. I often speak at and host occasions concerned with Parliament and I find the supporting material very useful. Some of those packs are used by children who become interested and take them into school. With a bit of luck, that will have a knock-on effect and it is viral marketing effectively, which is good.
Our parliamentary website needs much doing to it. Work is going on behind the scenes. Of course, moving forward something established that has shortcomings in its structure is a problem. I know there are a lot of interesting ideas. I should like to see more material available on the internet for our own convenience; for example, the annunciators. They are not secret, yet you can get them on the intranet only and you have to log into Parliament to do so. If I were down in the Commons and the annunciators were not switched onthey often are not in some placesor do not work, I could get them on my PDA, see where a debate has got to and arrive on time for once. There are all sorts of little things like that. It would be much easier to have everything in one place instead of splitting stuff off and making some of it appear secret. We should protect only those things that we do not want the public to see; for example, certain internal processes that should not be tampered with. I look forward to more openness.
However, if I want someone to find out what I am up to in Parliament, I tell them to go to theyworkforyou.com. The sad thing about that is that Peers are not indexed on the front page, so I am hoping that Tom Steinberg will read this and will put Peers on the front page so that I do not have to tell people to type /peer/earl_of_erroll to find me. So there can even be improvements on the associated sites, but I do not disapprove of them because they have greater freedom to do things that we cannot because of the constraint that the support here must be independent. It has to be terribly careful not to take a partys side or a view one way or another.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, spoke about responding to petitions and consultations. Who responds will be critical, and there are all sorts of things that we will have to work out on that. If it is done personally by a Lord of the blog and it is that Lords consultation, he can respond with his opinion, but we must make sure that it is clearly stated that it is his opinion because, for instance, I know that I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, about an elected versus an appointed House, and there are many such issues. However, we are moving forward and things are improving hugely.
People want power to influence. The main reason people do not turn out to vote is because they feel that they have no influence when they vote for one person who does not have real power. The Civil Service produces all the statutory instruments, and we cannot alter them. People are not stupid, and they know that that is so. That is why they love No. 10 Downing Street petitions. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that we have to be very careful about going too far on e-voting and making voting too simple. We do not want to know what people did on the spur of the moment with a click of a mouse; we want to find the opinions of people who have thought about things. I do not want to go off the point, but I am not that keen on people being forced to vote or on very young people who have not thought about the issues being given the vote, just so that we can say that we have lots of authority because lots of people voted for us. That counts for nothing. People have to think about these things.
Another problem with consultations is writers block. I like speaking, I am afraid, but I am not good at writing. I spend too much time agonising over it and things never go off. They sit in drafts for ever. People very rarely get a response. I hardly ever write a letter, but I e-mail on business. We have got to watch that we do not skew things.
Two things really interest me. The Obama campaign was the first campaign influenced by the internet. McCain thought that he would not have money, but he got thousands of small donations, which is how parties should be fundedby people who believe in them donating in large numbers and small quantities. There was also viral marketing. I got a wonderful e-mail that read: Merlin Erroll: the one who did not turn out to vote, so we lost. I had to click on it, and it had wonderful clips of very senior people saying, And we could have won, and underneath, CNN: Merlin Erroll fails to turn out to vote. Obama loses by one vote. It was very clever and of course I sent it on to other people. There are clever ideas out there, and we have got to get them.
How we communicate is what it is about. Things need to be short, sharp and amusing to get people to look at them. I learnt that from my daughter who is at the London College of Communication studying graphic design. She has just done a short animated video for Row for Kids to get people to give money for sports equipment. She spent a lot of time on it, and it is amusing, short, sharp and witty. It is on YouTube and the charitys website and will get people to do things. We need similar things here. We need to look at the way we communicate our message so that people want to see it.
Lord Marlesford: My Lords, I want to talk about the relationship between Parliament and the Government, because that is what the public, on the whole, most observe. There is bound to be tension between Parliament and the Executive. That is why Parliament was invented: to act as a limit and control over the behaviour of the Executive. That tension can and should be a focus of public interest in Parliament. It is where the public should find most relevance to the whole concept of representative government, which is of course distinct in certain respects from democracy.
That Ministers and civil servants should find Parliament an inconvenient intrusion into their operations is inevitable. Civil servants have to fight on two fronts, as the immortaland I mean immortalYes Minister series described. Much damage has been done to Parliament over the past decade. I start with the guillotine. When I was a Lobby correspondent, the prospect of a guillotine was worthy of comment. It meant either that the government business managers had got into a muddle or that the Bill was so controversial that agreement could not be reached within a reasonable timeor, sometimes, that there was a deliberate attempt to filibuster the Bill.
Now that a timetable is introduced for every Bill, few pieces of legislation get proper discussion in the other place. As we all know, Bills come to us from the Commons with whole sections undebated. The absence
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Secondly, there is far too much legislation, which is often poorly prepared. The Home Office is especially at fault on both points. It is a department notorious for its lack of either imagination or lateral thought and, most of all, for resistance to change or any outside views. We get from the Home Office Bill after Bill, year after yearusually two or three in a yearwhich all matter a great deal to the public. I fear that the Home Office has not even started to earn remission from the findings of the right honourable Member for Airdrie and Shotts, Dr John Reid, when he was Home Secretary: that it was not fit for purpose.
Thirdly, much legislation is so complicated, with the desire for certainty overcoming the need for clarity, that it is incomprehensible to the legislators. Explanatory Notes are a useful innovation, but I fear that pre-legislative scrutiny is not really working. If it were, the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 would not have had to have been repealed by the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 because it proved virtually useless in reducing red tape. The fact remains that much legislation, especially that by order, has to be read and applied by outsiders. When they find it unclear, they blame Parliament, which is not good for our reputation.
Fourthly, far too many shortcuts are now being used in the legislative process. They are normally proposed as being in the urgent national interest and, on occasion, they are, but often that is quite bogus. A most deplorable example occurred last month, when the Government added 23 pages of complicated financial regulations to the Terrorism Bill and rushed it through both Houses in a few hours.
Fifthly, new Labour, using the usual Whips tincture of charm and patronage, to, in my view, an excessive degree, has sought to control the behaviour of its MPs. Some noble Lords may remember the story of the Labour MP who, in 1997, insisted on wearing his ear phones while his hair was being cut. Eventually, he was persuaded to take them off. Suddenly, the barber realised that the MP had stopped breathing. The barber seized the ear phones, held it to his ear and heard the reassuring voice of Peter Mandelson saying, Breathe in; breathe out.
Finallyand, I admit, controversially across all three partiesI turn to House of Lords reform. I supported the cull of 750 hereditaries, but what has emerged has been outstandingly successful, especially with the erosion of the influence of the Commons. This House should now be left well alone. This Government, and their successor, will have much bigger fish to fry.
There is in your Lordships House an astonishing collection of talent, experience and wisdom, especially among those described as the great and the good. They have been put here for what they have achieved. The rest of us are here not for anything that we have done but in the hope and expectation of some modest contribution to the everyday work of this place. Of the 740 Members, there are no fewer than 200 privy
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I make just one small specific suggestion: that the Information Office be tasked with providing, and then updating, a profile of the achievements, skills and qualifications of the Members of this House, and that this summary should appear in all our publications. I think that the public would be really impressed if they saw the sort of wisdom that there is here and which is available and at the service of the country. For this purpose, the Information Office would have to have access to an IT database, designed by the Journal Office and Information Office and supported by PICT. It must be given the resources to do this. I am glad that my noble friend Lord Renton is here, because I hope that he may remember this suggestion.
My conclusion is simple: if Parliament were to assert itself so that it played its proper role in legislation and in holding the Executive to account, people would take more notice of it. If we go on as we are, people will become increasingly cynical and disillusioned. If they feel that they cannot rely on Parliament to safeguard their interests, they will take to the streets whenever they have big grievances, as they do in France.
Lord Greaves: My Lords, I am about to refer to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, so perhaps he would like to stay for a minute. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, and I stand very firmly in different political traditions, but we very often agree on the things that we want to debate. When I saw that this debate had been tabled, I thought that I must take part, and I agreed with 99 out of 100 points that he made. The point that I did not agree with particularly was when he suggested that we are not necessarily here as political animals. I am very much a political animal. I am here not because I am good, great or particularly wiseI do not necessarily think that I am any of those thingsbut because I am a politician who stands for a particular point of view, which I believe to be valid, and I am incredibly privileged to be able to take part in the councils of this country and in this House. Without political parties, this House simply would not function. I am in no way undermining or underrating the role of Cross Benchers, but we would not work without political parties. I was very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for saying that, and he can go now.
The noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Norton, referred to the visitors who come here and whom many of us delight in taking around this quite astonishing
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We must force ourselves to explain to visitors how this place, the House of Commons and Parliament work, because people are interested. They do not know and they do not understand. I agree that the television authorities do us a disservice by always showing the State Opening, which does not show what we do. People ask me, Oh, do you dress up?. I say that I do not and they ask, What do you do then?. People also have the impression that the House of Commons is just Prime Ministers Question Time. As a legislative chamber, that does it a disservice. I am not one of those people who slags off the House of Commons and thinks that everyone here is wonderful. We are complementary. We both do our best and we both can, and should, improve the way in which we do it.
One million visitors may come around this building, but there must be many more millions of people who never get inside. When they come to London, they come to see this building. They stand on the pavement and have their photograph taken with the Clock Tower in the background. Perhaps some still have a photograph taken with the policemen, although not the policemen with a gun. But that is it and they never come inside the building.
The lack of a proper visitors centre is a shame. A proposalI think it was made last yearto build a rather expensive, elaborate visitors centre at this end of the building was thrown out because, basically, it was thought to be too expensive. As a spin-off from that, there will be an education centre, which will be very valuable, but it is aimed at school pupils and students. The lack of a proper visitor facility to explain how this place works, its history and the building is a disadvantage. That matter should be returned to so that something is provided not very far from this building.
A lot of noble Lords have talked about modern communication. I very much applaud the Lords of the Blog, the most interesting being the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and my noble friend Lord Tyler, but that is because I am interested in the same sort of things, which is why I am taking part in this debate. I do not go on Facebook or YouTube and I hope that I will never need to. I know that Twitter exists, but that can stay where it is. However, I applaud noble Lords who get involved in such things. We have to stay up to speed with communication, but it is not just that.
My noble friend Lord McNally said that he was on the big march against the Iraq war, as was I. But it was not a march, it was a shuffle at about one foot an hour
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Old-fashioned political involvement and communication is just as important. It is a great shame that the Mayor of London has overturned the former Mayor of Londons proposals to make Parliament Square a much more people-friendly place. I liked the idea of it being a public forum where public debate could take placesuch as at Speakers Cornerand where Members of Parliament and this House could engage with people and take part in debate. That that will not be possible is a shame and I hope that it will be revisited.
Finally, my noble friend Lord McNally referred to the parliament channel. I am astonished at the number of people who say, I saw you on the parliament channel. I ask them why they were watching it and they say, Well, I could not get to sleep. It was three oclock in the morning. I was flicking through the channels and the House of Lords came on. After the debate on the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, I looked for the parliament channel on London television, where it is on a different number from my home. There I was talking to myself. It was a most extraordinary experience. I now find that on TheyWorkForYou.com 25 people get an e-mail every time I speak in this House. It is frightening, but it is the modern world and we have to live with it. It is quite extraordinary.
I think the parliament channel is excellent, but I echo my noble friend in that we do not want it to turn into a normal entertainment broadcast, as has happened with party conferences. Journalists talk over the first minute that people are speaking so you cannot understand what they are talking about. Having a continuous, uninterrupted broadcast is the right principle, but more explanation is needed. Anyone who tries to follow the Committee stage of a Bill in this House or the House of Commons without any background information finds that it is just gibberish. They do not know what is happening. We stand up and say erudite things like, I am standing up to move Amendment No. 356ZA and other amendments in the group. It is garbage, really. At the very least, there ought to be a line along the foot of the screen as they have on BBC News 24they can do it quite easily nowadaysexplaining what is being debated and perhaps giving a URL to the documents we are debating for those interested enough to follow it. That kind of basic information is absolutely essential and I cannot imagine that it would be expensive to do.
Lord Soley: My Lords, along with others who have spoken in the debate, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton. I agree with a great deal of what he had to say, as I do with much of what other noble Lords have said. I, too, want to place on the record my thanks to the Hansard Society and the Information Office of this House, not only for their work on the Lords of the Blog but for their work in general. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that we have seen significant improvements in recent years.
I want to say a brief word about the media and politics. I have great respect for my noble friend Lord Puttnam and for the work of his commission, but I feel that we have never quite got to grips with the interface between the media and politics. For that matter, it is not just us who have not done so, it is the media as well; we are both partly to blame. I certainly do not want to go back to the old situation where the Times would report line by line what was saidit does not and would not work, and the media have changed so much that it is meaningless to talk in those termsbut there is a problem that needs to be addressed by editors and politicians. I can give only one or two examples because of time constraints.
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