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On the role of the voluntary sector, we heard evidence, chiefly from the CABs, as other noble Lords have mentioned, that there is work to do to ensure that a lot of the important information that the Government need to provide to citizens, the sort of information that rarely gets anywhere near the news—nitty-gritty stuff about tax, healthcare, education and benefits—to which people need access to improve, or just get on with, their lives, is still not getting through as efficiently as it should. The voluntary sector is absolutely crucial to improving the penetration of this kind of information into harder-to-reach sections of the community, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Eccles, referred, which perhaps do not have access to computers or are hindered through language or cultural difficulties from using the most widely available routes to information.

I cannot compete with the experience and depth of knowledge of my colleagues the noble Baronesses, Lady Howe and Lady Eccles, on this issue, but I would ask my noble friend if he could say a bit more than is in the Government’s response about how better working with the voluntary sector is to be achieved, and specifically about the role of the Office of the Third Sector in bringing about a more integrated approach across departments to improve the take-up of benefits. The CAB’s evidence on what it described as the “fragmented” administration of benefits between departments was very telling.

Finally, I address the issue raised principally by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and by others as well, on the numbers of people employed in government communications. My noble friend Lord Grocott, who is not in his place today, was a formidable member of this committee until a few months ago, and I mean no disrespect to his successor when I say that he is missed. As the committee embarked on the inquiry that gave rise to this report, and at intervals throughout, my noble friend reminded us that when thinking about government communications, we should not only be

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considering how the Government communicate with citizens, but crucially how the citizen communicates with the Government.

Nowadays, the range of ways in which he or she can do that is vast—far greater than we could have imagined a generation ago. There are websites, blogs, e-mail, e-petitions, requests under Freedom of Information legislation, telephones and there is even old-fashioned snail mail, which still works. There are, no doubt, many more which I have not identified. The figures provided by the Department of Health—I refer your Lordships to pages 86 to 90 of the report—are instructive in terms of the numbers of ways in which communication from the citizen to departments is being conducted. Of course, quite a lot of this traffic is generated by journalists and others with a professional rather than a personal interest in eliciting information, but it all adds up to a great deal of what might be called noise in the system and to the necessity for a lot of people to be engaged in trying to manage it and make sense of it.

Although the committee expressed concerns about the numbers and the costs of communications staff in government departments, I do not find it too hard to understand why there has been in some cases a significant increase in both over recent years. There is a high expectation among certain groups that information will be forthcoming quickly and that it will be both accurate and comprehensive. This is not an unreasonable expectation, of course, but it is not always easy to meet, given the number of different ways in which it can be demanded. At present we see—this was the thrust of the contribution made by my noble friend Lord Parekh—an exceptionally low level of trust in, and a high level of pretty intrusive interrogation of, government information. Money spent on attempting to make sure that it is as robust as it can be seems to me to be in principle a good investment, although clearly such expenditure should be regularly and rigorously reviewed.

I said that I would be brief but I have not been; I am sorry about that. I add only my thanks to our chairman for leading us so ably on this occasion, as he has on all others, and for his excellent, although occasionally discomfiting, opening speech. I also add my thanks to our team of clerks, who provided us with their usual excellent service. As ever with these inquiries, I learnt a huge amount more than I contributed. However, rather more importantly than adding to the sum of my knowledge, the report provides, I believe, a valuable and timely overview of a highly topical set of issues. I hope that the Government will take its recommendations seriously.

5.21 pm

Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury: My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to debate this report and I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. There were moments during this inquiry when I was reminded of a previous committee inquiry that the noble Lord chaired. Its remit was the broadcasting of sport and the broadcasting of religion, both of which subjects elicited lively differences of views. In that instance, the noble Lord managed to bring together those with and without religious belief and to rebuff those—including

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the noble Baroness, Lady Howe—lobbying hard for bridge to be included as a sport. This inquiry into government communications involved the need for equally deft steering in bringing together, under a unanimous report, those on the committee who had direct experience of the subject but via rather different governments.

Five years ago, as has been said, the report of the Phillis review of government communications was published. The Government are to be commended for having set the review up and for implementing many of its recommendations. However, the problem that Sir Robert Phillis was addressing back then, which he put to us as the,

is still alive and kicking. The relationship between people and politics is, to put it bluntly, severely dysfunctional, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said, and it is essential that it is remedied. In part this is due to spin, scandal and sleaze, but it is also due to the fact that the public feel alienated from the political process; they are not simply confused but ignorant about what we do at Westminster.

One of the report’s recommendations is that,

The Government do not agree, but their response is interesting. They say:

“The Leader of the House ... believes that the House itself should be the main focus of her statements and announcements .... She further encourages more sustained media reporting of the actual work of Parliament in the public’s interest”.

I am delighted that the Leader of the House wishes this, but the problem lies with the word “sustained”. I believe that this should mean greater access and an enhanced facility for the media to cover the work of Parliament in such a way that what happens in Parliament becomes understandable to the public. I fear that what the Leader of the House means is more of the same.

Let us take broadcasting. Here I declare an interest as an associate of an independent production company. Various rules and regulations mean that television coverage is not allowed to reflect the way Parliament really is. The Hansard Society conducts an annual audit of political engagement. In its most recent publication, when people were asked where they obtained most information and news about politics and current affairs, 76 per cent of respondents said that they did so from television. However, what do people see on their television screens? On the one hand, they see shots of a more often than not near-empty House of Commons, with a Minister bent over the Dispatch Box intoning on some topic and occasionally giving way. Alternatively, they see a packed Chamber of heckling, baying men and women not allowing their fellow MPs, let alone the Prime Minister, to be heard. I call that brilliant communication. I know that the Minister will refer to the excellent BBC Parliament channel but, excellent though it is, it is a digital channel and it has a small, though growing, audience.

The production company of which I am an associate—a highly respected, highly regarded maker of prize-winning documentaries and political

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programmes—has tried in vain to get the go-ahead to make a series about the workings of the House of Commons in order to achieve exactly what the Leader of the House purports to want. However, where access is concerned, there is a culture of “no”. Of course, I cannot make this point without noting that this House, thanks to the excellent work of the Lord Speaker, is far more flexible.

Continuing on the broadcasting theme—here I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Howe—the Phillis review states that one of the main principles that should underpin government communications is “openness, not secrecy”, and that, to this effect, Lobby briefings should be televised. I carried out a little research here and found that the Lobby system has inglorious origins. In 1870, Speaker Denison stopped members of the public wandering into the Lobby to, as he put it, “inconvenience” Members of Parliament, and a list of those allowed access was established. Over the years, there evolved a “quasi Masonic”, as one of our witnesses, the current chair of the Lobby, put it—a relationship of mutual back-scratching between politicians and Lobby journalists involving exclusive briefings given on an unattributable basis.

Change came only when John Major, who recognised that the level of secrecy was ridiculous, allowed journalists to attribute stories to the “Prime Minister’s spokesman”. Nowadays, summaries of the Lobby briefings are on the No. 10 website. However, televising is resisted by some Lobby journalists as well as by the Government, although I cannot see why. It would assist journalists who are outside what is still an exclusive circle. As Jackie Ashley, who has already been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, told us:

“I would love to be able to just turn on my computer and click in every day and see what is going on”.

Would that not also be good for outside agencies and the public? It would also satisfy another of the Phillis review’s main recommendations—that is:

“More direct, unmediated”—

that is, not mediated by journalists—

Of course, what cannot be televised are the off-the-record briefings, or the even more private conversations between those involved in government and the journalists with whom they have special relationships. Having been the Liberal Democrats’ Director of Communications as well as a journalist, I have experience of this from both perspectives. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh: these relationships, conducted properly, are an important tool in the coherent communication of the Government’s aims and intentions. When used incorrectly, as they appear to have been by Damian McBride, it is a disaster.

I digress at this stage to note that today is the 30th anniversary of the first Thatcher Government, when we got Bernard Ingham, who allegedly destabilised as many Tory Cabinet Ministers—I do not think that any is in his place today—as Damian McBride is alleged to have done for his side. I add that to the debate.

Then there is the matter, as so many noble Lords have mentioned, of using favoured journalists to leak policy and announcing policy first to an invited audience rather than to Parliament. A few months ago on the

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morning that Digital Britain—Interim Report was published, a breakfast was held at 10 Downing Street. The Times referred to:

“Top executives from media and telephone companies ... to hear about Digital Britain”.

When, later that day, a Statement on the report was repeated in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, tackled the Minister, pointing out that such behaviour,

The Minister’s reply was that there had been a breakfast but,

They simply “exchanged pleasantries over pastries”.

Be that as it may, it seems curious timing. We live in a parliamentary democracy and we say in the report that,

We want open and transparent communications that allows everyone access at the same time. We on these Benches join the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, in being pleased that the Government accept the recommendation that codes of conduct for special advisers be supplied to Ministers as well as to special advisers. We are also pleased that the Government welcome the suggestion that high-flying civil servants should be given experience of working in communications. As they say in their response, the contribution that senior civil servants make to the communication of government policy is vital.

In conclusion, it is crucial to the health of our political system that there is effective communication between the Government and the public. Their prime concern should be to inform citizens clearly and unambiguously. As has been said so often before, the spinning must stop.

5.31 pm

Lord Astor of Hever: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Fowler for giving the House the opportunity to discuss this report. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and my noble friend Lady Eccles both pointed out that my noble friend Lord Fowler has been an excellent chairman of the Communications Committee.

The committee has produced an important report calling attention to an issue that is at the heart of the public’s engagement with the Government and the political structure in general. With ever-falling voter numbers, and ever-rising cynicism and disillusionment, more needs to be done to communicate effectively, and above all honestly, with Parliament, the media and the public. One of the many recommendations made by the committee, quite rightly, emphasises the importance of the codes of conduct that govern the behaviour of Ministers, civil servants and special advisers. These codes of conduct have been thrown into the public eye in recent weeks.

My noble friend mentioned the Damian McBride affair, and I will leave him to respond to the comparison made by the noble Baroness between him and Bernard Ingham. The Damian McBride affair unfortunately showed an all too familiar failing of the Government.

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The immediate impulse, rather than taking a measured view of what actually went wrong, was to promise a new initiative. The code for special advisers clearly forbids the sort of behaviour that, rightly, led to a public outcry. The Government must stop looking for scapegoats and take the necessary steps to implement the existing rules.

The committee made very clear its concern about the lack of awareness, shown in the evidence, that civil servants appear to have of the various codes that they must adhere to. I have no doubt that this ignorance extends to Ministers and special advisers, too. The Government’s response to this concern was entirely inadequate. Having a copy of the code on your desk is not the same thing as knowing what it says, and most importantly, knowing that there will be consequences if you fail to measure up.

Will the Minister tell the House what happens when a Minister or a civil servant breaches the relevant code of conduct, by, for example, releasing information before a parliamentary Statement? The committee’s support for Parliament as the appropriate body to hear important government announcements before journalists is welcome. This issue is frequently raised in the House. Every time a new Minister or Secretary of State arrives on the Benches opposite, noble Lords take great pains to remind them of the value that the scrutiny that this House provides can have for effective government.

As the committee's report makes clear, the early release of information, whether by official interviews on the “Today” programme or by semi-official leaks, results in distorted public debate. Yet, time and again, that behaviour continues. I am sure that the Minister will repeat the government response that Statements to Parliament are fully supported by the Ministerial Code. As I have said, what good is that when Ministers are free to break that code whenever they choose?

Early release has a particularly damaging effect on the release of statistics and numbers, where it is much harder for even informed journalists, let alone the general public, to see what is spin and what is fact. We were keen to tighten the rules on pre-release of statistics during the passage of the statistics Act, but unfortunately our amendments were overturned by the Government. Our concerns were justified. The Government were rightly called to account over the early release of—I cite the Whitehall statistics watchdog—“premature, irregular and selective” crime figures in March this year. Does the Minister agree that it is exactly that sort of behaviour that does so much to damage the reputation of the Government?

The potential for political spinning appears to be equally tempting on other government-produced figures. The current economic climate has led to even greater incentives for Ministers to fiddle the figures and play with accounting standards. The recent Budget Statement shows just how far economic estimates and predictions can be stretched in the face of independent and objective analysis and disagreement. Does the Minister agree that the Conservative policy to establish an independent office of budget responsibility to prevent dodgy accounting would do a great deal to restore public confidence in government figures?



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My noble friend’s committee has released a report that gives a timely warning of the constant vigilance that is needed to keep government communications up to the standards that the public have a right to expect. The Government’s response to the report shows worrying indications of complacency. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, described it as meagre and dismissive. I hope that our debate will go some way to persuade Ministers that more must be done.

5.38 pm

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for introducing the debate and to all noble Lords who have spoken in it. I am also grateful to him for chairing the committee and producing such an interesting report. We can tell from the contributions to this debate that it raises difficult issues for any Government and fundamental issues about the culture in which we all operate. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Parekh for attempting to define some of the issues that revolve around the culture which we all inhabit. He was supported by my noble friend Lady McIntosh, who also commented on some of those difficulties.

It is easier to analyse what is difficult and can go wrong than to be prescriptive on how to put it right. I merely say to my noble friend Lord Parekh that being critical of the media is one thing; working out in a free society how you can constrain them by law is a different matter altogether. I heard him say—I am not quite sure of the actual phrase that he used—that some mild or gentle legal reform might be necessary. The question of bringing the law, other than libel law, into constraints on the press raises fundamental issues about press freedom. He will know how sharp the reaction to any proposed constraints is from the media, and indeed from the wider public, lest those constraints benefit certain people.

My noble friend also said that it might be helpful if the press appeared before Select Committees. We do not need a Select Committee on the press. Select Committees have the ability to invite members of the press to their sittings whenever they wish, if in fact the press are relevant to their inquiries, and they do. The press are put under forceful questioning from Members of Parliament. From my reading of reports on Select Committee sittings, it seems that editors and journalists give as good as they get from Members of Parliament and members of Select Committees when they are challenged on these issues, so let us not suggest that this issue of culture can be easily resolved.

I entirely sympathise with the points that have been made. We are all distraught at what we regard as a reduction—we have not lost it completely—in people’s trust in parliamentarians. We all know some of the reasons for that, we all know that we must take steps to improve the situation as rapidly as we can, and we know some of the issues that have helped to cause it. However, we should also recognise, when we talk about some aspects being the nature of the culture that we inhabit, that from a parliamentary point of view the press at times looks over negative, overcritical, over challenging and unfair.

People from other countries will say that the British press is an example of freedom in a democracy and

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that the constrained press that operates elsewhere does not do the job that our press does, so in a sense we should take great care when we talk about changes in culture, although the committee’s report, which is about such important issues, does not raise very challenging matters when it comes to culture.

Whenever any difficulty occurs, damage is done to Parliament, parliamentarians and the relationship between Parliament and people. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said that he did not intend to introduce this debate in the same contentious way in which the previous debate had been introduced. He then got on to sleaze quite sharply, and identified one or two issues in a way that, to put it mildly, could be described as fairly critical.

Let me make the obvious point about the sleaze that he identified with regard to Damian McBride. I was away for a few days when the issue broke but by the time I got back he had gone, so I question the idea that there was a reluctance to deal with the issue and that it was not quite clear whether he had broken the code for special advisers. The answer is reflected in the sharp result that he has gone. I might add that the person with whom he corresponded has also gone from his private position as developer and editor of and contributor to the website that he was intending to operate. The Prime Minister made it absolutely clear that he would emphasise the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers, and an amendment was made to it to make it absolutely emphatic and a code that all special advisers are obliged to sign. It is quite clear that special advisers are not expected to use their position for party political purposes. That is clear in the code and will be enforced. I have been asked whether what the code represents is clear: it makes Ministers responsible for their special advisers.

This is not the first time that there has been an incident concerning a special adviser. There have been one or two in the past as well. However, we have to set that against the background that special advisers were introduced, first, I think, by a Labour Administration under a degree of criticism. We felt that we would get additional support and help from people who could be drawn upon for the particular roles they played and their relationship to Ministers. Over the nearly two decades during which the Opposition were in power, they used the special adviser system extensively and we have continued to do so. I do not think it can be argued that the concept of special advisers is flawed, but it is necessary for the code to be clearly enforced and that special advisers should know their limits. I want to assure the committee that the Government are taking this matter very seriously.

Another element of sharp criticism in this debate was the statement made by the Prime Minister on YouTube. The Government are enjoined to use every means of communication. When the Prime Minister, for the first time, used this form of communication, he was criticised for his performance, for having used it and because it was not a ministerial Statement. Let me make it clear: this YouTube broadcast was preceded by a Written Ministerial Statement to which Members of Parliament had access and which contained the information that was put out on YouTube.


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