Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120
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
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
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.
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
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.
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 schooland I know it was a long
time agoI 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 areais there somebody coming to give
a talk somewhereso 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
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.
You will have to put your telephone number on your blog.
Ms Williams: Give us your number and we will
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.