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A few months ago, there was a massive demonstration where thousands of people came to Parliament to lobby about the European Union Bill, which they felt would affect Britain constitutionally. I disagree with their point, but they made it very powerfully and there were thousands of them. That story was virtually pushed out of the media by three young people who climbed on to the roof of Parliament to make a protest. I have to say that if editors choose a news story about three fit young people who are devious enough to get on to the roof of Parliament and brush aside the efforts of thousands of people engaged in a lobby, something is going wrong with the reportage. Not only does that make people feel that lobbying Parliament has no impact on the media but it also encourages demonstrations of the type that I have described.

When I started a blog as an MP in 2003, I was struck by a long series of exchanges in response to my entry about Fathers for Justice. The debate went on for a long time and involved many people. One of them said to me later that the fact that he had felt able to communicate directly meant that he did not have to climb up on to a crane. Noble Lords will recall that, at one point, men from Fathers for Justice were climbing cranes and doing all kinds of other things. If the media will report only the dramatic, what makes an attractive picture, and ignore how the democratic process works for thousands of people, something has to be addressed. That is important.

I turn to the weblog, or blog, as it has become known. One of the reasons why I think that this form of communication is important—people may think that I would say that because I had a hand in formulating it and was one of the first in the House of Commons to write a blog—is that the figures in the report, which is now available from the Information Office, show that around 55 per cent of the people visiting the site are between the ages of 18 and 34. Some of the best programmes that the BBC and broadcasters are delivering on podcasts and so on—“Today in Parliament” is a good example, but there are others—are attracting an audience drawn from the other end of the age range. The real point here is that the nature of politics is changing. People are not less interested in politics but more issue-interested.

One of the good things about weblogs is that people can go in and look at what a person is saying about particular issues. That is important, particularly for young people. We ought to be doing more to develop

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this, whether through Facebook or whatever. Indeed, one of the best examples in Parliament is Derek Wyatt MP. He has an incredibly interactive site, where he talks directly with people. That is the way things are going. The 18 to 34 age group that is using the Lords of the Blog will be the older group, who may well still listen to “Today in Parliament” and the other programmes but will also be looking for ways to interact. That is profoundly important. Although I was pleased with the site’s take-off performance—we reached 113,000 visits, which is no small number—the usage of Lords of the Blog is relatively low at the moment and there is further to go.

I confess that I have not made enough entries recently. I aimed originally to do at least one a week but I have not achieved that. All credit to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, who manages far more than I do. He has taken to it like a duck to water, but we have to make sure that he is not left as the main blogger. Other people need to come in. We have 10 or 12 noble Lords who blog occasionally.

The noble Lord, Lord Renton, and the Lord Speaker did guest blogs, which were very useful. I suggest that we write to all Members of the House saying, “This exists. This is what it does. Remember that you are talking particularly to younger people but also people who are interested in the House of Lords. It is not difficult to do. Please phone this number in order to have your hand held, if you like, while you get on line. It does not take much time when you are doing it”. The thing that puts people off is the fear of being pulled into arguments and discussions that go on for ever, but it is not like that; you can have perfectly reasonable discussions in a limited time. I have also written to the education department of the House, which has agreed to make sure that this is drawn to the attention of schools and colleges, because they will build on it.

On the language that is used in this place and elsewhere in Parliament, I am not against the grand occasions here—although, like others, I think that it is a mistake that the media produce only one photograph of the House of Lords—but more important is the day-to-day language that we use. Whenever I speak, I try to use language that is understood on the street. I did so when I was in the House Commons and I do so here. The language in here is not always the language that is understood on the street. A little while ago I asked some youngsters what they thought a right reverend Prelate was. Not too many knew, but they all knew what a bishop was.

A point has been made about the use of the word “gallant”. As an ex-national serviceman who was not that gallant in his service I cannot claim to be gallant, but I am not sure why we make the distinction. I have always felt that the use of the word “learned” in the phrase “noble and learned Lord” was a shrewd marketing move by barristers to get their trade recognised and given the status that it deserves.

The other typical phrase that troubles me is “the other place”. If you say that you had a conversation with someone in the other place, quite frankly it sounds as though you had a chat with someone in the

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loo. It is not like that, but that is how it sounds on the street. So can we get rid of some of it? If we talk in ordinary language in here, people will understand it and will relate to it better. However, I am delighted with the work that is being done. We need to do more and I urge every Member of the House of Lords to at least give the Lords of the Blog a try. Have a shot at it. It does not take very long.

4.25 pm

Lord Elton: My Lords, I think that everyone knows what “noble friend” means, and I am delighted to thank and congratulate my noble friend on this afternoon’s debate and, indeed, on the lucid and incisive way in which he has tackled a series of constitutional issues over the past few years. The whole House has benefited from it.

My noble friend has introduced a subject of extraordinary importance, much greater than we are giving it credit for today. My noble friend Lord Marlesford reminded us that Parliament was invented to control the Government. Before that, we had chaos and blood-letting. It actually cost a great deal of blood to build this institution that we now occupy so placidly. It is what stands between the British people and a reversion to some unsatisfactory, undemocratic and, quite possibly, violent existence. It is foolish to think that mere stasis will preserve it.

The line between government and Parliament has been so blurred since the reign of George I that many of the public do not understood the function of Parliament, because they see government functioning inside it. There are, I think, 140 Members of the Government and PPSs occupying Benches in the House of Commons. They are inside the machine invented to control them, into which none could have put a foot before the reign of George I, who did not speak English and had to have somebody here to do his work for him. We are looking at a precious thing. As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who has not yet returned to his place, pointed out, the product is very good: it is liberty.

Now, if the British people do not understand that, and if Parliament becomes devalued, they will not stand to protect Parliament because they will not see it as protecting themselves. Therefore, we have a real duty to show the people how the power of Parliament has been eroded, is being eroded and will, if future Governments of all political colours have their way, continue to be eroded, because Parliaments are a thorn in the flesh of Governments. If the public are to understand that, they must understand what we are doing.

I have been impressed by the catalogue of new technologies that my noble friend has produced for your Lordships. Others have added to it and Members of this House have further embellished it, but that is resource-intensive. There is one simple method that rests not on what I call new technology but on the traditional media—that is to say, the press, the radio and terrestrial television—where Governments have successively taken things out of the hands of Parliament and, principally, out of the hands of the other place, or House of Commons. At this point, I fear that the

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noble Lord, Lord Grocott, will wince when he reads Hansard, because I must draw your Lordships’ attention to the change that has come across the handling of information—from Parliament as a whole, but principally from the House of Commons—since I first became interested in politics in the 1960s.

When I was a parliamentary candidate and started looking at these things, I well remember the furore of excitement if a Minister ill advisedly let a government policy out of the bag, deliberately or accidentally, outside the premises of his appropriate Chamber in Parliament. I do not know what happened in this House, because I am unaware of there being an incident, but if a Minister in the other place, or House of Commons, were to make a policy statement outside it, as soon as that was known he was hauled back by the Speaker to face an emergency debate. He got a headline, but not the one that he wanted about the policy; it was the headline of how he was humiliated and brought back, embarrassingly, to put right what he had done by making the announcement outside Parliament.

What happens now, almost without comment and as a matter of routine, is that almost all government policies—or all but those of the hugest importance—are made outside the House, by the Government, to an audience invited by them and consisting mostly of media reporters from newspapers and elsewhere. As a result, the only comments that the media hear come from Ministers, the officials supporting them and the other reporters. That means that not only are the voices of the enraged Opposition, of whatever party, not heard but the voices of the disenchanted Back-Benchers of the government party are also silenced. So what the public get is a picture that bears no relation to Parliament at all and nothing gets reported from these two Chambers.

The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is now here to wince as I comment on proceedings in another place. Would it not be a simple matter for the House of Commons to take this matter back into its hands and to require the Government to release all news about their business that affects the electorate inside the Chamber? That is where the news would then be, as would the reporters, who would hear what Members of Parliament thought about it. That would be the news, and it would be broadcast on the traditional media, at least. That way, at no extra expense to anyone, Parliament would begin to come back to being the focal point of public interest, which is where it must be if this sovereign and free state of ours is to maintain its freedom in the years to come.

4.31 pm

Baroness Garden of Frognal: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on initiating this debate. It launches us into the Recess with a thought-provoking and cross-party topic. As we have heard, it is surely at the heart of a democracy that members of the public should be in dialogue with those responsible for government, and equally that those who are elected or appointed to make laws should ensure that they remain in contact with members of the public.



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Communication is indeed a two-way process, yet many of our citizens have so little interest in communicating with Parliament that they do not even vote. As my noble friend Lord McNally pointed out, in the previous two elections four out of 10 people did not participate in this very simple activity. It seems that they failed to see any relevance to their own lives in the work of these Houses or to make connections with decisions on education, health, tax, housing, the environment or security, on any one of which they would have had a violent opinion, and all of which are issues that affect their everyday lives.

We see that lack of interest at local, national and European levels, with many studies and reviews analysing the reasons and remedies. We have already heard mention of the estimable Hansard Society as one of the bodies that looks at that, aiming to strengthen parliamentary democracy and encourage greater public involvement in politics. One recent forum posed the question, “Are young people allergic to politics?”. It found that the young people were not backward in telling the commissioners exactly what they did not like about politics, how it could be more child-friendly and what could be done to promote politics to young people. One barrier particularly identified by young people is the lack of diversity among parliamentarians.

A survey conducted recently by Girlguiding UK, which has more than 500,000 members, identified that girls were put off by a lack of young MPs and by having so few female role models to emulate. In fact there are some very able young male and female MPs but they are of course greatly outnumbered by those who are older, and the men greatly outnumber the women. This is an issue for all parties that look for a fairer gender balance among candidates as well as better representation from minority ethnic communities. In that respect, your Lordships’ House is more representative than the other place; it has much wider diversity in gender, ethnicity and disability. Youth, as we all know, is a comparative concept. Knowing the part that women play in the debates in this House, it is unusual that in this debate today I find myself as the only representative of the gender minority.

The public perception means that this House may seem even more remote to the average citizen, and the barriers already referred to of communication in our procedures, customs and language are pretty mysterious to new Members of your Lordships’ House, so to outsiders they can seem even more impenetrable. Mention has already been made of the snapshots of Prime Minister’s Questions that we see on television, with selected extracts of people shouting, interrupting, heckling and generally not behaving very well. The interminable picture of this House is of the State Opening, with the red robes and tiaras, which is assumed to be a typical day. I have been asked by people who I thought might have known better whether I have to wear my red robe every day. It is a widespread misunderstanding. The third picture that we see is of near-empty Chambers where lonesome souls toil away on some worthy topic, which gives an immediate impression that we do not work very hard.

Broadcasting both Houses has therefore been a great benefit to open government, but has given some distinctly misleading impressions about what goes on

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in Westminster. Given that the media generally prefer to focus on shortcomings and mistakes, it will add to the publicity if the centre of the story is an MP or a Peer and again disengage the public from what is going on Westminster. We therefore start with an uphill struggle in communicating all that Parliament does towards good governance of the country and towards improving the lives of individuals.

The good news in all this has already been referred to in previous speeches: the positive initiatives of new technologies; the parliamentary website being constantly upgraded; and the blogs—I, too, have to refer to the Lords of the Blog, as my noble friend will follow me in speaking. The Education Service produces teaching and learning materials to stimulate interest and discussion in schools. The outreach team has worked with more than 1,000 teachers this year alone. Another part of the service receives schools here, a programme which has expanded nearly fourfold in the past five years, with, on average, 40 schools a week sending parties to visit, tour and learn about the work and role of Parliament. As we have already heard, the UK Youth Parliament was held here to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Life Peerages, giving young people the opportunity to participate in debates and discussions. These visits are memorable and make Parliament more real to the young people who take part. I add my voice to those who expressed admiration for the Lord Speaker’s outreach programme, which is expanding its services with Peers in schools, women’s institutes and Rotary groups.

There is a natural curiosity about us and our role which we can use to the advantage of this House. Unlike Members of the other House, we have no electorates to look after and are not restricted to any particular part of the country. We have a greater assurance of continuity, at least for the time being. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that, in spite of all the benefits of multimedia facilities, face-to-face contact with other people remains a powerful means of communication.

This House is well known for the collegiality and conversation of its Members. Those very skills can be used to such good effect outside the House as well as in it. We can as individuals play our part in keeping channels of communication open with members of the public. Through this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has given us food for thought for our new year resolutions.

4.38 pm

Lord Puttnam: My Lords, I add my thanks to those offered to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for introducing this debate. It was a model introduction, and it leaves me only to support and amplify his points, although, encouraged by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, I think that I shall go a fraction further.

Eleven years ago today, at this very moment, I gave my maiden speech. I deliberately chose the final debate before Christmas on the assumption that it would hide my inadequacies and I could then flee for a three-week break before having to face noble Lords again. Many changes, most of them improvements, have occurred since that, for me, awesome day. Some of them are

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obvious, but many more are not. Among the more obvious is the far greater diversity of background and ethnicity displayed within this House. It is also fair to say that the House is typified by a significantly improved level of tolerance towards the beliefs and lifestyles of others. In sum, it is a Chamber that far better reflects the make-up and attitudes of the nation as a whole.

I shall now dwell for a moment on the unobvious changes that have taken place—first, in the quality and nature of the support we receive, in terms of both personnel and technology. Sadly, this has not been accompanied by improvements in accommodation; I still have three people sharing two chairs in my office and it represents a daily problem, though one that I am sure the House authorities will find a way of solving eventually.

For obvious reasons, today’s technology is quite unrecognisable; none the less, it is a welcome aid to making a number of other important improvements possible. But, for me, it is the people who have been recruited who have made the real difference in the past 11 years. I have time to mention just three.

John Pullinger, the librarian in another place, is a dynamo and someone who has a real vision of the future. He understands where Parliament is going and what needs doing. Similarly, our own Elizabeth Hallam Smith is absolutely committed to making this place a House we can all be proud of. Tom O’Leary, the head of education, and his outreach team are beginning to do some extraordinary things. I know the plans he has, and if we can supply him with resources and encouragement, I think he could do a job that we will all be very proud of in years to come.

The indefatigable efforts of the Lord Speaker, which have been referred to by many noble Lords, have made outreach and the promotion of this House a very visible priority. The commitment of all those I have mentioned, and those who support them, and the opportunities afforded by the digital environment that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, so eloquently set out, are exactly what we need to move forward.

The obvious arguments against rushing our fences are usually made very well and many are good ones. But when considering opportunities afforded by the future, I would always beg your Lordships’ House to set those opportunities against Primo Levi’s famous question, “If not now, when?” There are times when we move more slowly than we need to do.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, mentioned the Hansard Society. I have the privilege of being the vice-chairman of that organisation. He has laid out the statistics, though there is one more worth adding. Less than one-quarter of British people believe they have a fair knowledge of the work of the House of Lords, whereas almost half believe they have a fair knowledge of the work of the House of Commons. This indicates to me that there is still a lot of work to be done.

At the Hansard Society, the greatest frustration is not the job that we do but, in some senses, the broader job that we believe we could do if we were given the encouragement, and—in some respects—the resources to do so. The Hansard Society is a very important institution and is often taken for granted by this House when it could be more actively encouraged.



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Lastly, what should we as individuals in this Chamber do to address the broad thrust of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Norton? I think quite a lot. The reputation of Parliament is going through one of its periodic low ebbs and, although my noble friend Lord Grocott assures me that this is something that happens constantly, I would argue that, while there is a consistent superficial cynicism toward Parliament, and I think he was right to refer to that, there is something rather different going on at the moment. There is a lack of trust. Trust is something I spoke about in last week’s debate. Trust is absolutely fundamental to this House, and this is where I think we all have a role to play. People are rightly concerned—many even quite frightened about the future. The traditions of this House for reflection, for expertise, for consideration of very complex issues and even of wisdom are more important than at any time in my recent memory. This Chamber is seldom less than reassuring and, at times, is capable of being positively inspiring when it considers the options available to the country.

The more those qualities are visibly demonstrated on a day-to-day basis, the better. That is actually what differentiates us from the other place. Occasionally—and I apologise to my noble friend Lord Grocott for saying this—there is an addiction to outbreaks of fairly juvenile behaviour. I am not a professional or even a tribal politician, but I have spent a lifetime as a professional communicator. The media may enjoy knock-about politics, but the thinking public are resolutely unimpressed by them, or are even positively turned off. Here, the media and the BBC in particular, can be very guilty of a form of conspiracy. Every one of us knows that, should any of us happen to have a Jonathan Ross moment in this Chamber, we would be absolutely guaranteed an appearance on “Today in Parliament”. It would not reflect the Chamber, or the traditions of the Chamber, and not even the normal behaviour of the noble Lord concerned. The truth is that it would be repeated on TV. In that sense, we are seen as a branch of show business. This helps nobody, particularly the BBC. Even in our own Chamber we are capable of being guilty of the occasional outbreak of yah-boo party-political point scoring. Earlier this week I was sad to see that break out during Questions. My judgment is that it hurts us, it hurts our reputation and wins us absolutely nothing. At times of crisis, such as these we are living through, it can potentially even lose a great deal.

I thought that what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said early in his speech about the importance of Parliament was very relevant indeed. Last Sunday, in the New York Times there was a good article about church attendance in the United States. In it the Reverend A R Bernard said:

“When people are shaken to the core, it can open doors”.


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