Are the Lords listening? Creating connections between people and Parliament - Information Committee Contents


105.  Not surprisingly, the Committee received contradictory submissions on the ceremonial aspects of Parliament and in particular the State Opening of Parliament. As with parliamentary language, a number of people said that the ceremonies in the Chamber were a barrier to them understanding the work of the House of Lords:

    "The House of Lords has a lot of interesting conventions which have historical significance but can often be a barrier to some people seeing and understanding the place the House of Lords has to play in today's society."

106.  Not everyone shared this view, however, and a number of people used the Committee's web forum to say that the Parliament should retain its ceremonies:

    "I think Parliament's language and ceremony are marvellous and should be retained."

    "The pomp and pageantry of this nation is one that I admire greatly and one that the world envies us for. No other country does it quite like us Brits and watching the processions on days such as the state opening gives me even more of a sense of national identity. This also applies to other Parliamentary traditions and in my opinion all should be maintained and honoured."

    "I think ceremonies and the pageantry every so often is a brilliant spectacle … the pageantry and ceremony won't harm [the House] … they are a bit of fun that reminds us just how much history our parliament has."

107.  Whatever sense of spectacle the ceremonies create, the Committee heard that they lead to an image problem for the House of Lords. Dr Meg Russell, Reader in British and Comparative Politics at University College London's Constitution Unit, pointed out that it is was difficult to find a picture accompanying a House of Lords story, in the print or broadcast media or online, which did not show peers in ermine-trimmed robes gathered for the Queen's speech. "This remains the ubiquitous and enduring image of the Lords, but it portrays an event which happens only once a year." Dr Russell argued that this image perpetuated the impression of "an ancient institution, out of step with modern times." The House of Lords had "an 'ermine clad' image" which was "an obstacle to communicating its role as a modern, functioning institution." She concluded that until this image was "consigned to history," the House would "struggle to convince the wider world of the important work that it does." Indeed it would be "impossible" for the House to move on from this image "unless the reality of peers gathered in their robes actually ends" (pp 160-63; see also QQ 229, 298). Her analysis was shared by a contributor to our web forum:

    "Perhaps the lords needs to do more to review these ceremonial traditions … Lords sat on benches in red furry capes is not an image that many people would think sits comfortably with the idea of a modern democracy."

108.  Dr Russell did suggest a solution to this problem: members of the Lords (like MPs) should "start wearing everyday clothing for the Queen's speech" (p 162). She stressed that this "small change need have no implications for any other aspect of the ceremony." She thought that this change would be "symbolically extremely important" and considered that "there could be disproportionate, and essential, benefit from making this small symbolic change" (p 163). Lord Lipsey agreed: "we should abolish ermine. While we wear it, editors and broadcasters will choose pictures of us in it as if it was our daily garb. This makes us look pompous and ridiculous" (p 141). However, Journalists we spoke to questioned what the impact would be of this change (QQ 206-08). An alternative solution we considered was whether it would be possible for the State Opening of Parliament to take place in Westminster Hall (with or without robes), in order to separate the symbolic ceremonial event of the Queen in Parliament from the work that members do in the House of Lords Chamber.

109.  Parliament's ceremonies raise a number of issues which are complicated, contentious and go well beyond the remit of this Committee. Furthermore, any recommendation on State Opening in this report could detract from our other recommendations, which are practical and should lead to changes which make the House of Lords more open and transparent. We decided therefore that our Chairman should, after our report has been considered by the House, seek to initiate a separate debate in the Chamber on the impact of the ceremonial aspects of the House on public understanding of its work.

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