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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 109 - 119)


Ms Trish McMeekin, Ms Alison Williams, Mr Lee Shelsher and Ms Chloe Stables

  Chairman: Thank you so much for coming. It is very, very kind of you to come and help us with our inquiry on Parliament and how we manage as Parliament, and the House of Lords particularly, to relate better to the outside world, and maybe particularly to those who do not every night listen to Today in Parliament. We are very grateful to you for coming. I am going to ask everyone round to table to say their name and one sentence about themselves so that you get a very, very small idea, at least, about all of us and who we are. My name is Tim Renton and I was in the House of Commons for a great many years before coming here. I am the Chairman of this Information Committee and I am looking forward very much to hearing what you have got to say to us this afternoon.

  Lord Taylor of Warwick: I am John Taylor and I was born and raised in a place they call Paradise, and it is Birmingham, just off the M6 motorway, by the gasworks! I am a failed footballer for Aston Villa. I was a barrister for 20 years and a judge for five years and now I am here.

  Lord Jones of Cheltenham: I am Nigel Jones and I am from Cheltenham. I was the MP there for 13 years during which time I became famous for being assaulted by a man with a Samurai sword. It was one of the worst things that has ever happened to me. When I left the Commons in 2005 I thought I had escaped but then I ended up in the House of Lords so had not escaped at all. For my sins I am a Vice President of Cheltenham Town Football Club who have just got relegated.

  Baroness Coussins: I am Jean Coussins and I am an independent cross-bencher. I have been in the House of Lords for just over two years now, so I am still pretty much a new girl. Since everybody else has mentioned football I should say with pride that I am a season ticket holder at Fulham Football Club, and we are doing very well, thank you very much. My other interest in here is modern languages and I chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages.

  Lord Methuen: I am Robert Methuen. I am an electrical engineer who worked in computers for IBM and Rolls-Royce.

  Earl of Erroll: I am Merlin Erroll and I am a hereditary peer elected to stay, and I have been here a long time. Basically I am interested in IT, computing, internet, all those sorts of issues and have been for years. I am not involved in football. I used to play rugby a little bit.

  Lord Taylor of Warwick: I am sorry I started this now!

  Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: My name is Anne Gibson. I was born in Gainsborough in Lincolnshire and brought up in Market Rasen, which is a very small town in between Lincoln and Grimsby. If you go by train we still have a railway station! I am a former trade union official. I am on the Labour benches and in the Lords my main interests are industrial relations because of my work background but also I chair the All-Party Group on Latin America because Latin America is one of my great loves in life.

  Lord Puttnam: I am David Puttnam and I am a Labour peer. I used to make movies. I have been a Member of the House of Lords on the Labour benches for 12 years. I was born and brought up in north London. As a result I am a Tottenham Hotspur supporter for 60 years, which is why I became prematurely grey!

  Chairman: I am learning a lot!

  Lord St John of Bletso: I am Anthony St John. I am a cross-bencher. I took my seat way back in 1978 and spent many years in South Africa. I come from a legal background so my main interests are in deregulation and foreign affairs.

  Lord Selsdon: Malcolm Selsdon. I have only been here since 1963, but I have just passed the average age! I spent my life going to those parts of the world that no-one else wanted to go to. I started my life in all the declining industries, asbestos, the Navy. I was a shop steward in the T&GWU for a while but mainly my life has been trade.

  Q109  Chairman: Good. Before handing over to you, could I just remind you that a full transcript of the public evidence session will be taken. It will be posted on the website and published with the Committee's report, but you will have an opportunity to propose corrections to the transcript which will be sent to you in draft very soon after the meeting ends. That said, over to you, and it is up to you how you manage it. If anyone would like to make a short statement before we get down to the questions, please do so.

  Ms Williams: My name is Alison Williams. I am from the charity Rethink Severe Mental Illness. We are a charity that operates nationally. I have been there for about six years now. We run 350 services and one of those is called Good Companions and Trish McMeekin, my colleague here, and I work there. We are a befriending service so we recruit and train volunteers to befriend people who are isolated because of their mental illness. That is how we got involved with this project. We first got involved with it with Lee here from Brentwood Library. Would you like to explain how we came about that link into Parliamentary Outreach?

  Mr Shelsher: Essex libraries always look to have community outreach in everything that we do around engagement to reach out to the people who live in our communities to make sure that we provide the right services and to engage the communities in local events. We provide exhibition spaces for local artists. We go out to various clubs and societies to talk about the services that Essex County Council and Essex libraries provide. We thought that we needed to be a nucleus between communities and other partnerships in the area to look at how we offer generic learning outcomes, generic social outcomes and increased life outcomes, and also to gain more around participation in the community. Alison and I were meeting one day and Alison had spoken around the fact that there was a budget to allow more influence on voters to get them to actually vote, especially those with mental health issues. I just happened to have visited an open day here at the House of Commons and I noticed that there was a fantastic outreach programme going on. We had made contact with Becky, Sharon and Clare and thought to ourselves how wonderful it would be if we linked these two partners together. That is how the initial relationship came together.

  Ms Williams: That is how it came about. Rethink does research, runs campaigns and provides services and in one of our campaigns we have been funded by the Electoral Commission because it is noted that people with severe mental illness and their carers are not that well represented in being registered to vote, so we have been having this campaign—and this is one of the packs—to give people the opportunity to vote and to try and get more people registered to vote. When Lee mentioned they were doing this parliamentary outreach, immediately we both saw a really good link there and I came along to the first event that you had with Becky.

  Q110  Chairman: I think that is a very helpful start, thank you very much. Chloe, what about NCVO?

  Ms Stables: I am Chloe Stables and I am the Parliamentary Officer at NCVO. I have been there since last June and previous to that I worked in the homelessness sector. We have around 6,900 members across the voluntary sector in England and we have also got sister councils in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Our general aim is to create an environment in which voluntary and community organisations can flourish. One of the ways in which we aim to do that is to assist them to campaign, to lobby, to be influencing and generally engaging with Parliament, which led to our involvement with the Parliamentary Outreach Programme.

  Q111  Chairman: I think for me to start off really from the background that you have already given us, what we are trying to do in this inquiry is to see how Parliament could relate better to people, as I said at the start. I think the outreach that you have all been using and been involved in is a very good step forward, but what more could we be doing or should we be doing that we are not? Do not hesitate to tell us where you see gaps, where you think there are things that you may have put forward and we have not acted on them because what we are really wanting to know is whether it is a very good idea and why did we not think of it before.

  Ms McMeekin: I would just like to say that I have found through people who attended the project we have just done that using a universal medium was really good, so bringing in the message through art or music or something like that. That to me was how it really helped the people who are the service users make the link. If we had presented it as a parliamentary thing, it may not have been as popular as it was, and people would not perhaps have been as open minded about it. I work directly with service users. I am a befriender co-ordinator so I actually meet people one-to-one, and I felt that it was easy to sell to people because it was something they already understood. When Becky and Rachel came along on the day and then explained more about the background to the project, the relevance to Essex, the suffrage, everybody instantly was able to take that on board and I felt that made it very successful. If you are at grass-roots level it has to be disseminated, in my opinion, in that way.

  Ms Williams: It was using really creative ways like the art workshop that we have done. It creates a really relaxed environment. I do not know if it is an appropriate time but we had feedback from the workshops that we did and I just feel that that links in quite well. 92 per cent of people that attended workshops felt they had learned more about getting their voice heard. 82 per cent strongly agreed or agreed that they had learned a lot about the history of Parliament. It was done in such a relaxed way. We did this art project on suffrage to produce this finished art project—and you will be getting a pack which has an invite for you all—which was a really creative way so people were engaged with the art workshop and then they were listening to the history that was going on, and some of the materials that we were using gave the history, so as they were using it, it was amazing what people were actually taking in. As Trish said, if it had just been, "Come along, we are going to talk to you about Parliament," probably they would not have come because it would have been too intimidating. Because it was done with us, and they know us, in a fairly relaxed way using art, "That's nice, we can do some painting," that is how they picked up that information. That was a really good way of doing it, so I think you need more opportunities like that.

  Q112  Chairman: Lee, do you want to add to that?

  Mr Shelsher: Yes please. From meeting with Clare, Becky and Sharon, it was clear that we all shared a common goal and that was to promote our services externally to the organisation in which we worked. What we wanted to do was to bring the parliamentary process to life. As I say, libraries really wanted to encourage the community to be involved in participation. We set up a Getting Involved event at Brentwood Library which gave an overview of parliamentary process and how to get involved in the services that you provide. This was open to the voluntary sector and we invited the groups in. From there we received updates to this which I sent to other organisations in the community as well as getting staff more active. This was also important for generic events because they took a great interest from listening in. From this we planned Breaking Barriers to combine the expertise of the Parliamentary Outreach team and the funding and experience of this type of exhibition, to run an event which would appeal to all ages and also, importantly, have a local Essex theme that would combine museums as well as libraries and together pool resources to once again bring the subject to life. We now have rolling exhibition plans, starting in June at Southend Museum, which we are very grateful that Baroness McIntosh will open for us, and this is also important because there is an excellent Essex connection there and also this encourages accessibility to yourselves as well. This will then move on to Brentwood Library taking in museums and libraries across the county. We have been able to look at designing class visit packages around this exhibition for schools, which is very important to support the subject of citizenship and encourage teenagers and youth assemblies to visit and to bring the interest to the community of the history of suffrage and its relevance today. We will have reciprocal advertising and promotion via websites and we will encourage questions and interactive participation during the visits. We have also ordered relevant library stock for displays. Workshops have been formed to leave a legacy from this, as Alison has explained, and Parliamentary Outreach has played a great part in cementing this project and utilising resources from all partners to make this work. There is already a tremendous buzz awaiting the exhibition's arrival and we will also provide services for each partner, leaving a legacy for us all.

  Q113  Chairman: That is interesting to hear. Do you want to add anything, Chloe?

  Ms Stables: If I could say one thing that could perhaps be done better and it is to build on the Parliamentary Outreach Programme, which I think is a fantastic programme and it is really great that it has been initiated by the Houses of Parliament. It is taking Parliament to where the people are and not expecting people to come to the parliamentary website or not expecting them to physically come to Westminster. It is about being out there in communities and having a web presence on Mumsnet or YouTube or Facebook. Being where the people are as opposed to expecting people to be reading the parliamentary website, which I do but I am very geeky. That would be the one thing that I would say. I think the parliamentary website is fantastic and the improvements over the last couple of years do make for more transparency. Being able to watch committees and debates and things like that is a really, really good step, but I think possibly more could be done. There is more to be done also on the general awareness of Parliament as a public space, I don't think enough people are aware they are allowed to come into committee meetings or allowed to come into Parliament. I think there is a very physical and psychological barrier that prevents most people from engaging with Parliament.

  Chairman: We will move on with that. I think the phrase "psychological barrier" is very interesting. Lord Methuen?

  Q114  Lord Methuen: What sort of feedback have you had from your stakeholders about the success of the Outreach Programme and how could that be improved?

  Ms Williams: The feedback that we have had via the workshops was that 100 per cent of participants strongly agreed that they had learned a new skill, and that they would attend more workshops of the same type. They had learned a lot more about the history of Parliament and they felt they had that engagement with Parliament through Becky and by learning more. The feedback we have had has been brilliant. Do you want to add, Trish?

  Ms McMeekin: The informal feedback that we have had from speaking to people is really that they were able to relate. We coined it as a "Breaking Down Barriers" theme but it was looking at voices for the voiceless through the ages as to how people could link modern day issues of mental health to suffrage of its time. People very easily identified with that. People just really enjoyed it. Everybody who has participated in a workshop will be invited to the exhibition, so there are all the issues around self-esteem and seeing people's work on display and being part of something that is not really to do with mental health; it is to do with art and it is public and it is going to be showcased. A lot of people who attend workshops enjoy seeing their work on public display.

  Q115  Lord Methuen: We have been encouraging members of this House to go out into the public on the Outreach Programme. Have you found that helpful? To what extent has it happened with your organisation?

  Ms McMeekin: I do not think we have had a visit.

  Q116  Lord Methuen: Certainly the Lord Speaker's programme sends members of the House out into the districts to talk to people like yourselves and your stakeholders.

  Ms Williams: There have been some, like the event that I attended at Brentwood Library. Libraries are a really good way of getting involved with the public because you see such a cross-section of people in a library. It is amazing how much time people spend in the library. You think people go in and out with their books. We have done some promotional work within our library and some people spend all day in the library. It is absolutely incredible and the same people kept coming up, they had been there all day. You get a real cross section of people and it is a good way of getting information out there. I think there is a really good link with the libraries. The voluntary organisations are another really good way that Parliament can use to outreach and source to sections of the communities that may not source that information for themselves.

  Ms Stables: I think the feedback from our members is that they really appreciate face-to-face contact and having access to somebody who is obviously so clearly knowledgeable about what is happening in Parliament and really able to bring things to life. Talking to a real person about something makes it a really genuine interaction.

  Mr Shelsher: When we ran the Getting Involved event it was aimed at voluntary groups, but we held it in a public area and members of the public were coming past and asking when they were going to have one specifically for them and a larger event, something we hope to also plan with the outreach team, so we know the demand is there.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Baroness Gibson?

  Q117  Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: Lee, you have certainly told us a little bit about what you are going to do as a follow-up from your contact with the House of Lords and Parliament generally. I wondered if anyone would like to add a little bit more on that because obviously from our point of view something has started off and we are interested in your next steps.

  Ms McMeekin: We are hoping to link in with Becky. Becky is going to put together a national bid and we are hoping to benefit from that. Very locally within our own service we are going to continue the workshop with a theme of Self because at the end of the workshop all the unused materials were donated to the service, so locally, because people really got a lot out of it, and a lot of people because they have heard about it and we have talked about it and we have publicised it since would like the opportunity to do it, we are hoping to link in and obtain more funding to develop the programme.

  Mr Shelsher: We would like to do more around citizenship because we have two major centres in Essex plus books around exams and information are constantly borrowed from Essex libraries, so we would like to do more about bringing that to life, most definitely. Our own county hall has ceremonies held there as well so we could tie all that in together. We have a free-to-use PC provision as well, so if we could have more digital citizenship around that, and have links to sites and bring that part of the programme to life, that would be fantastic.

  Q118  Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: Where are the two centres?

  Mr Shelsher: Basildon and Colchester I believe.

  Q119  Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen: Because I live near Colchester. That is interesting.

  Ms Stables: One of the things that we are discussing currently with the Parliamentary Outreach Service is the possibility of a joint national conference with our voluntary and community sector members.

  Chairman: Thank you. Lord Taylor?

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