Examination of Witnesses (Questions 109
WEDNESDAY 29 APRIL 2009
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
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
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
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.
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
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 campaignand this is
one of the packsto 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.
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.
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 projectand you will be getting a pack which has an
invite for you allwhich 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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
Chairman: Thank you. Lord Taylor?