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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)

WEDNESDAY 29 APRIL 2009

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

  Q120  Lord Taylor of Warwick: Just to build on your last answer, are there any other services that you would like to see from Parliamentary Outreach and, if so, what would they be?

  Ms Williams: Having built on what we have done, one of the things that I think a lot of people do not realise is that you can come and have a tour and that you can come and see what is going on. I certainly think that would be something that now we have broken that barrier down we would be able to get our group to come up. I think those tours are really good. I came on one earlier in the month myself and I understood better then how much access we can have and how much input we can actually have, because otherwise it does seem like it is nothing do with the public, it is only there, and the only chance you get to have any affect is by voting, and it is not like that at all, is it? The general public still have that perception.

  Q121  Lord Taylor of Warwick: What is the best way to communicate the fact that these facilities are available? You mentioned Mumsnet; I have not heard of that; what is Mumsnet?

  Ms Stables: It is a website for mums. It is really huge.

  Q122  Lord Taylor of Warwick: So I am disqualified?

  Ms Stables: It is a big thing. It is nearly on the scale of Facebook and Twitter. A lot of people do engage with that kind of thing. Going back to my earlier point, it is about making sure that you are there rather than expecting them to be here.

  Q123  Lord Methuen: You said that you came here. Were you in a group or were you by yourself?

  Ms Williams: I came in a group because I have done quite a lot of work with Rethink on the campaign that I mentioned and they invited a few of us to come on a tour, and we came as a group. It was not just staff, it was our service users as well, so it gave us a chance to really see what goes on and really brought it to life, I suppose, and made it accessible because we were allowed in and we could wander round. It was during the Easter break as well so we could wander round probably more places than otherwise you would be able to.

  Q124  Lord Methuen: One of the problems is if you live in Essex it is comparatively close, but if you are talking about somebody in the north of England it is very much more difficult. In fact, I think if you have got school parties, for instance, they should be subsidised as part of their educational process. This is a real problem and I do not know what views you would have on that. If you are in the glorious South East it is very much easier than if you are in the distant North West.

  Ms Stables: I would say that one of the strengths of the Parliamentary Outreach Programme we have found so far is that they are well-established regionally. We have run events in the West Midlands and things like that and they do have that national coverage that makes it a lot easier, especially for NCVO members and other voluntary and community sector organisations in the north, to engage with Parliament.

  Q125  Lord Methuen: It is not the same thing as actually coming here.

  Ms Stables: Not quite, no.

  Ms Williams: That is it.

  Q126  Chairman: What Lord Methuen has just said is an interesting point. Is it the same thing as coming here? I often wonder about virtual tours. It is a funny phrase, is it not? Do you and your customers, if I may use the word, find that they do find the virtual tour, by and large, satisfactory or is the end result, "Gosh, I must get into Westminster now," or a bit of both?

  Ms Williams: For some people a virtual tour and using the internet would be much less anxiety provoking.

  Mr Shelsher: Certainly you have some wonderful tools to promote, but there is nothing better than word of mouth enthusing about those services. Certainly people who have not used libraries for a while perceive them in a different way to what they are. We do a lot of outreach and family events to get people in and then their perception has completely changed. They are seen as vibrant, welcoming places. Libraries have ready-made audiences. Over this summer we will be attracting 43,000 children to join our summer reading challenge. There are ready-made audiences that a collective or partner can tap into to discuss or promote their services.

  Q127  Chairman: The only point I would add to that is that the Education Service is now subsidising visits here and it is very popular with schools. There is quite a queue for it. It is very, very popular. It is a pilot project.

  Mr Shelsher: We have often been asked can we provide something that would bring the Gunpowder Plot alive for children, so that feedback is fantastic.

  Q128  Earl of Erroll: You mentioned that people have less anxiety perhaps doing virtual tours. So even if it is just going to be a tour here, people feel anxious? Is that about coming here or the journey?

  Ms Williams: It will be the whole process. The travel would be one thing and then coming in here would be another. It is the unknown. We find that the best way to quell people's anxiety is to let them know exactly what is going to happen and when, so there are no surprises. It might be that if we did think that they would be coming that we could show them pictures and a virtual tour on the internet so they can see what to expect and then that breaks that down. The travelling is one hurdle.

  Q129  Earl of Erroll: It is the fear of the unknown?

  Ms Williams: It is the fear of the unknown.

  Q130  Earl of Erroll: It is not so much fear of us?

  Ms Williams: I hope not.

  Chairman: I must say rather frivolously, before calling Lord St John, I do remember when I was first an MP and a ladies' club from my constituency in Sussex came up to go round the House of Commons and they were going to have tea, and I remember saying to my agent, "What is the one thing I must watch out for?" and he said, "Well, make certain there are no pips in the raspberry jam"!

  Q131  Lord St John of Bletso: I was taken by what you were saying, Chloe, about taking Parliament to where the people are because I think that is a very important message and recommendation for us. When you were talking about perception, one of the frustrations I think we have here is perception versus reality because the perception is that the House of Lords is life after death; it is the most exclusive club in the world; it gets scant media coverage. Certainly the internet and multimedia has helped a lot in getting the message across about the efficacy and the role of the House of Lords, but I suppose the question I have is: what else can be done to connect with the public and, more importantly, to engage the public with the work, and to engage the public with us as members of the Lords?

  Mr Shelsher: I think you can utilise places like libraries and public places. If you want to do something virtually you could get staff of public libraries to promote your links and your website, so again they meet with somebody initially who is in an informal environment. The library staff are very good at being open to supporting customers through the use of PCs. We could be highlighting your information better for you to then get them used to going to virtual websites, et cetera, and encourage them to visit. I think that is important as well.

  Ms Williams: It also brought home for me when we did the round-robin how human you are. It is about those things that you have told us about yourselves. When people hear football, they think, "Yes," and that really helps if people can meet with some of you and they can share that human rapport. You cannot beat that human contact, can you, just that sharing of the fact that you have not always been here. Obviously you have been here a long time, Lord Selsdon, but there was a life outside and it was really interesting what you were saying about the countries that you have been to. People would be really interested to hear that and to see how that had progressed on to the work that you are doing now.

  Mr Shelsher: We asked members of the public about the website and what they thought about it and they came up with three suggestions. Number one for people with English as a second language. They found it quite difficult not being able to tap into different languages on your website. Secondly, children were looking for perhaps more of an interactive website. They had been on the US Congress website, Kids in the House, and they loved it because they could do time travelling with Presidents, et cetera, and ask questions which they get feedback from. Also they were looking for a huge "Get Involved" button. It was very easy there and they could just click on and then feed back. That is a couple of feedback ideas.

  Q132  Chairman: That is really interesting. We have got some children and schools coming after you and it is very interesting to hear that.

  Ms Stables: I have to say I speak as somebody who is a massive fan of the Lords. I used to work for a Lord and I was absolutely in awe of the amount of energy and intellect that that man had, it was staggering, but I think that sometimes other people's perceptions of the work of the Lords can be that it is very arcane, and I think sometimes the language that is used around certain parliamentary processes does not always make it easy for people to really engage and to understand, so I think maybe the point around processes and languages is quite important if you are expecting people to engage as well, as well as content. If the content of inquiries is directly relevant to people's lives and presented in a way that people can understand, I think that it would be a no-brainer and people would really be queuing up to engage, because I think some of the stuff that is done in the Lords is absolutely fascinating and has such an important role in balancing the work of the Commons.

  Q133  Lord Jones of Cheltenham: What about mechanisms for the public to make their views known to the House of Lords? Are they adequate? Do you know about them? What ideas do you have for what might work?

  Ms Williams: To be absolutely honest, even though I did public affairs at school—and I know it was a long time ago—I did not realise until I went to the workshop at Brentwood Library when Becky was there that we can have that input. If I did not know that and I have studied that a little bit, then I am sure there are lots of people that do not. We have talked about this. The internet is such a big thing now. That is the best way of communicating things. We wondered about on the internet site having an easily identifiable community page where there could be communities all across the country and what is going on in your area—is there somebody coming to give a talk somewhere—so you could easily click on a community page for your area and see what is going on and maybe see what Members of the House of Lords are from your area, and could you contact them, is it easy to contact them? Are there issues that are going on relevant to that particular location that they might want to put input into? It has got to be very easy to navigate that on the website otherwise people get a bit lost. They press one button and then another button and they give up. It is a bit like when you phone the electricity people, you have to press this button and then you lose them and finally you give up. It has got to be really simple. I know we have mentioned the internet a lot but especially for younger people, everybody is on Facebook all the time, and you have to link in with those things in order to engage.

  Q134  Lord Selsdon: I wonder if you could help me. I am getting terribly bored with the current scene. As soon as you speak on a subject your email is full up with lobby groups and you are not meeting people any more. Nobody rings you up. Sometimes when I get a letter from someone I ring them up and they say, "Who?" and I say, "Hello, well you wrote to me, how many other people did you write to?" I will say, "Don't you know any Lords? Don't you know any members of the House of Commons? Didn't you know that I represent the sniffer dogs in the Lords?" Children like sniffer dogs. You talk to people, but it is very difficult, so when you have reach-out you want to reach in. If you go round and ask people if they know a Member of Parliament or a Member of the House of Lords, they will get in a muddle with Mr Brown or whoever but they will only know people that they have seen on television. We are not really people any more; we are only the things at the end of a machine. If you are like me and fairly geriatric on the machines you can make terrible mistakes. I just wish people would ring me up. That sounds rather sad.

  Q135  Chairman: You will have to put your telephone number on your blog.

  Ms Williams: Give us your number and we will ring you.

  Chairman: I think Lord Erroll would like a catch-all question. Sadly, we have got to move on.

  Q136  Earl of Erroll: Something you said about Lords in your area was interesting. You will find that most Lords are better approached by subject. Most Lords do not think of themselves as being territorial but much more their subject expertise. It is quite important because clearly that does not come across and maybe it is something we should try and do. I have just been looking at the posts on the HL Information Committee site. Did any of you, out of interest, go and take a look at the Information Committee feedback and posts?

  Ms Williams: No, we did not.

  Ms Stables: I had a quick look.

  Q137  Earl of Erroll: Was there anything interesting on it? No, not really!

  Ms Stables: No, nothing springs to mind.

  Earl of Erroll: It is not exciting.

  Q138  Lord Puttnam: How many of you have been to the United States or to Washington, any of you?

  Ms William: No.

  Q139  Lord Puttnam: It is this business, Lord Chairman, of a psychological barrier. It is a very strange thing because the United States is a much bigger country than ours, they have all the same security concerns that we have, and yet their Congress is an extraordinarily welcoming place because you are brought up to understand that it is yours; it is yours because you are citizens. We still have a very complicated problem in this country in that you are not citizens, you are subjects. Some people think it is a semantic difference. I don't think it is a semantic difference at all, because the very notion of you being a citizen gives you a whole series of entitlements. You are absolutely entitled to be in this place

  Ms Williams: Ownership.


 
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