108.During the evidence taking process witnesses consistently highlighted the high standard of work that is produced by Lords committees. However, one of the biggest issues that this raised was the case for doing more to communicate committee work both internally and externally. This chapter will consider the issues and possible improvements to internal and external communications, as well as digital developments in the House of Lords.
109.The issues surrounding communications led to the appointment by the Liaison Committee Chairman of a cross-party working group on communications, whose members were Lord Gilbert of Panteg (Chair), Lord Sharkey and Lord Whitty. The group sought to understand the deeper issues regarding communications and to develop possible resolutions. The group reported findings and potential recommendations to the Liaison Committee (see Appendix 10), many of which have been incorporated into the recommendations of this report.
110.Various parliaments highlighted the importance of public engagement within their committees, and the processes they have established to ensure its importance is able to be acted on. The Australian Senate said that “participation in this process by community members serves a range of useful purposes” and discussed various innovations including round table discussions, online surveys and social media that have been implemented across the Australian Senate committee system.
111.The Welsh Assembly noted in their vision for committees that they must “engage with a wide diversity of people… and undertake work that enhances the public reputation of the Assembly.” The Scottish Parliament has a dedicated engagement unit within its committee office, which includes committee outreach team members who help build relationships between committees and the public where they did not previously exist.
112.As the first audience for House of Lords committee reports is the wider membership of the House itself, ensuring there is sufficient communication internally is a priority. Lord Teverson argued “we need to involve Members of the House and raise the profile of [committee] reports a lot more. They are subjects that most of us in the political and international sphere are interested in.” Similarly to external communications, it should also be remembered that it is not just committee reports that members of the House are interested in, but the work of committees more generally.
113.We recommend that a weekly report should be circulated to all members of the House summarising committee work. This report could include newsworthy developments, summaries of evidence sessions, upcoming events and report summaries. This report should be separate to current documents provided for the information of members such as Red Benches.
114.The current process following report publication is for copies of reports to be made available in the House of Lords Printed Paper Office, and following the publication of the Government response (usually within two months of publication), potential dates for the report to be debated on the floor of the House are then offered to committee Chairs as and when they become available. In practice, this typically means that debates are scheduled several months after report publication. Lord Gilbert’s working group on communications argued that the period between report publication and debate was too long. The length of time between publication and debate means that many of the recommendations in reports can become outdated, and the topicality of issues can quickly become irrelevant. In practice, this typically means that debates are scheduled several months after report publication, particularly if Chairs are unable to accept the dates which are initially offered.
115.In order to improve the timeliness of debates on committee reports, we recommend that reports should usually be debated within three sitting months of publication, to ensure relevance when the debate is held. If a Government response is delayed beyond the usual two month period without the written agreement of the committee, that should not be considered a valid reason for delaying the debate on the report. We note that the House of Lords Companion to the Standing Orders states that the convention that debate takes place after the government have responded is subject to the proviso “unless the committee wishes otherwise”.
116.We recommend that the Procedure Committee consider the order of speakers in debates on committee reports, in particular, consideration of whether the relevant Minister should speak at the beginning of a committee report debate, after its introduction, rather than the end, as at present.
117.The 2011 Report of the Leader’s Group on Working Practices recommended that “in order to promote wider Member interest in select committee work … up to five minutes after the end of oral questions should be made available for committee chairmen to draw Members’ attention to newly published reports”. This recommendation was never implemented. However, following the work of the working group on communications, we believe that there is appetite amongst members of the House to be informed about committee activity, and using the floor of the House to disseminate information such as committee reports would be welcomed by members.
118.In order to assist in internal promotion of committee reports, we recommend that the Procedure Committee should examine ways in which opportunities could be made available to highlight important committee work on the floor of the House.
119.Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal, University of Glasgow, explained “most of the outstanding work of committees goes on under the radar so far as the general public is concerned”. We have already identified that public engagement is an important feature of the work of House of Lords Committees, and witnesses consistently reiterated the importance of public engagement.
“The House does not exist in a vacuum. Although the focus… relates to the influence upon the Government and upon legislation and policy, nevertheless the public expect some kind of reaction from the House of Lords”
“It is worthwhile in and of itself to explain our work to a wider public. It is worthwhile to do it to improve the work we do, and the quality of that work”
“We have, I think, a prime duty to disseminate, to assist, indeed not just to influence Parliament’s deliberations but to help to shape the wider national conversation too”
“[The purpose of House of Lords committees] has to be about feeding into the public debate”
120.In order to improve the levels of public engagement Lord Gilbert of Panteg stated that “we need to focus on the evidence and on the inquiry as it is proceeding, not just on getting attention for the report.” Dr Catherine Bochel suggested there should be three stages to committee engagement “pre-engagement, engagement and post-engagement.” Pre-engagement should be approached at the outset of an inquiry when committees should ask themselves a variety of questions about their engagement goals.
121.Pre-engagement can be achieved by developing a communications strategy at the beginning of an inquiry. Mr Clancy noted that “if you do not have a communications strategy you may find yourself falling short in informing government stakeholders and the public.” The necessity of communications strategies to be used for all inquiries was supported by Lord Clement-Jones during the third seminar of the Liaison Committee review as well as other witnesses including Lord Forsyth of Drumlean. Lord Filkin however noted he did not “think there can be a common template for communications plans” and so individual thought and tailored plans must be offered to every inquiry and committee.
122.We recommend that there should be formal communications strategies agreed at the outset of all major committee inquires. The outline plan for communications should promote member engagement throughout the inquiry and after report publication.
123.The planning stage of an inquiry also offers committees the opportunity to consider who they want to hear from and communicate with, as well as how. In an attempt to help diversify witnesses, more work must be done to engage with a wide variety of organisations and stakeholders drawn from across the UK.
124.We recommend that stakeholder mapping should be part of the standard process carried out at the beginning of each inquiry. The mapping should involve committee members and aim to identify individuals and organisations to be directly involved in the inquiry for formal evidence, as well as individuals and organisations in wider civic society who might find the inquiry and report of interest.
125.House of Lords committees currently use a variety of different techniques in order to communicate their work. This includes a basic level of engagement of public evidence sessions, news items and published committee reports. Some committees have also adopted various other evidence taking techniques including roundtables, seminars, lived-experience panels and committee visits. On top of this many of our committees have their own twitter accounts in an attempt to engage directly with the general public. In recent years committees have also become more innovative with their engagement techniques and have held various publication events in the UK and further afield. One such example includes the dual report launch for the European Union Committee ‘Brexit: UK-Irish relations’ report in December 2016. The Committee launched their report in London while simultaneously holding a press conference in Dublin. All of this activity that is undertaken by committee teams is further supported by the work of the House of Lords press and media team who engage with journalists in both print and digital media to publicise the work of committees. Lord Mendelsohn, during his seminar (see Appendix 7) noted that whilst traditional media outlets such as television and print are important, we must not forget that online social media platforms, that range from Twitter to Facebook and Reddit to Linkedin can now reach half the world’s population. So whilst expanding and understanding these traditional methods, if expanding the audience is a key priority, then social media and digital platforms also offer a vital opportunity to develop the widest network and community.
126.There should be an effort to understand how successful press coverage is achieved. Whilst appearing on national TV and radio is positive for report publications, there should also be targeting to technical and regional press outlets where individuals are affected by the topics at hand. Similarly, a greater understanding is needed of how successful social and digital engagement is being achieved and how it can be improved.
127.Witnesses agreed that current work to engage the public in committees needed to be substantially increased. Whilst our current social media usage was praised as a step in the right direction, Professor Matthew Flinders, Professor, University of Sheffield, noted that “there is a major emphasis on the exploitation of fairly passive social media techniques (tweets, emails, existing contact lists)”. Lord Mendelsohn made similar comments, saying “twitter is a very good format, but it is a broadcast format”.
128.While increasing social media usage and press is important, witnesses noted that we must ensure there is active two-way communication rather than only broadcasting our work. Witnesses went on to highlight a variety of possible alternatives to passive engagement:
At the seminar on public engagement, Helen Jones MP explained various engagement techniques that have been used by the House of Commons Petitions Committee such as round tables, web threads, lived experience evidence and asking individuals impacted by the topics at hand for commentary on draft reports, to ensure it covered real life issues.
Doteveryone suggested developing the social media tools that are currently used by committees and expand to “live tweet oral evidence discussion to prompt replies and retweets and foster conversation”.
Baroness Tyler of Enfield advocated for “considerably more outreach work—particularly where committees go out on visits around the country and talk face to face to people most directly affected by the subject”.
Involve highlighted the benefits of using lived experience evidence to collect “relevant knowledge held by the public” such as “what it is actually like to live in an area, use a service, or have a particular life experience”. They went on to note that tools such as a this “can provide an important check and balance to the evidence provided by professions”.
Professor Cristina Leston-Bandeira of the University of Leeds noted that feedback on “how public engagement may have been used as part of a parliamentary activity” to demonstrate to the public “whether their input was of any use” is greatly appreciated by the general public.
130.We recommend that there should be an increase in the number of events and seminars that are held during the course of major inquiries and report publication, in an effort for committees to broaden their audience and impact. This might involve:
131.It was also suggested that one way to increase the public or semi-public activity would be to include the Lord Speaker or the Senior Deputy Speaker in some of these events, and for a number of events in relation to report publication or later relevance to be run by the Lord Speaker or Senior Deputy Speaker and supported by the relevant committee.
132.Despite the obvious benefits and desire to increase public engagement and communications witnesses also highlighted associated risks. The Australian Senate raised the issue of witness fatigue and stated that “there are risks in imposing too great a burden, particularly on non-government organisations, through repeated requests to participate in inquiries”. As well as this, they noted the need for committees to “manage the expectations inquiries may generate”, particularly when individuals impacted by a topic or policy area have been actively engaged throughout. Lord Lisvane warned that “if you invite people to become involved and put in their views … you need a credible and convincing way of taking those into account and showing people that for Parliament’s part it has engaged with them just as they have engaged with Parliament.”
133.The interaction with a wider audience and increased media and social media usage also comes with inherent risks that Lord Mendelsohn highlighted during his seminar on technology and committees. This could include a committee becoming “overloaded with responses” from calls to a wider audience or the risk of trolling that comes with a broader social media and online presence.
134.As well as this, many of the recommendations that came from witnesses to improve committee engagement both externally and internally involve an increased workload on staff and members. As with other engagement developments, present practice has developed incrementally, as the Committee Office at first piloted social media engagement which has over the past six sessions become the norm for investigative committees. In order for the recommendations we received to be implemented successfully there must be an awareness of the need for dedicated resources.
136.We conclude that the need for, and benefits of engagement that witnesses presented, alongside the solutions recommended, significantly outweigh the possible risks that accompany increased engagement.
137.The cost of press team staff time related to select committee activity is £125,772 (based on 75% of three Press Officers and 40% of Head of Press and Media’s salary figures and out-of-hours allowance in the 2019/20 Financial Plan).
138.The cost of the marketing communications team staff time related to select committee activity is £65,503 (based on 40% of three staff and 15% of the Head of Marketing Communications’ salary figures in the 2019/20 Financial Plan). The work includes in-house video editing and content creation, as well as delivering and supporting social media content. During the first half of the 2018/19 financial year, roughly £6,600 was spent on video content for the Economic Affairs Committee. The total spend for the year in this area was estimated at £10,000. Around £5,000 was budgeted for the design and print of select committee briefings, giving a combined total of £80,503.
139.Support for Lords select committees provided by the bicameral select committee engagement team in 2018/19 was £43,320. In summary, the total overall communications spend on select committee work in 2018/19 (including a proportion of the press cuttings service) was £251,925, met from the Communications budget.
140.The House of Commons Committee Office employs around 18 staff, including a Director of Committee Communications, to support its social media activity, distinguishing this from the work carried out by staff focused on press communications, and a similar number to support the web and publishing function associated with committees. Both in formal evidence and in discussions several of the House of Lords Chairs were concerned to ensure that enhanced committee communications should be adequately resourced. Amongst the needs they identified was the adequate resourcing of social media activity, for which Lords committees have no dedicated staff, unlike Commons committees.
141.House of Lords committees were at the forefront in adopting the internet as a communications tool as early as 1996, when a report by the Science and Technology Committee became the first select committee report from either House of the United Kingdom Parliament to be published electronically. That report also invited email feedback, another first for the UK Parliament at a time when parliaments world-wide were only just starting to use the internet.
142.Over 20 years later, the parliament.uk website is a victim of its own success, and the plethora of information available, particularly in relation to committee activity, makes it difficult to navigate. User testing has confirmed that even people familiar with parliamentary terminology have difficulty in searching. This issue is especially acute in relation to House of Lords committees. A member of the public wishing to find out more about recent parliamentary inquiries relating to health, for example, might be able to alight on information about the Commons departmental select committee but would be unlikely to succeed in finding information about recent House of Lords inquiries using the search engine on the parliamentary website. The website is also difficult to use on mobile devices, which are used by up to half of website visitors—a proportion which is steadily increasing.
143.The Parliamentary Digital Service is responsible for Parliament’s computer systems, websites and information architecture. Developing a new website is a top priority for the Digital Service, but due to the sheer scale of Parliamentary information it is necessary to proceed area-by-area. It has been agreed that new webpages for select committees will be one of the earliest areas to be completed. This work is being led by the analysis of dozens of interviews with website users to ensure it meets their needs to locate and understand information. As one of the principal means for the public to engage with Parliament, committee websites should remain a priority. The work that is taking place to develop new committee websites will be of vital importance in ensuring that our committees are properly equipped to engage with stakeholders and the wider public.
144.New websites developed by public sector bodies have a general obligation to be accessible under the Public Sector Equality Duty created by the Equality Act 2010. Further specific obligations arise from the Public Sector Bodies (Websites and Mobile Applications) (No.2) Accessibility Regulations 2018. Accessibility means ensuring that a website can be used by as many people as possible, including (for example) those with impaired vision, motor difficulties or cognitive impairments. This may involve ensuring that a website is compatible with screenreaders, that buttons and form fields are easy to click, and that the content is not needlessly difficult to read. The Digital Service intends to meet these obligations by ensuring all new webpages, including those for committees, are compliant with the ‘AA’ standard of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines issued by the World Wide Web Consortium. This is verified both within the Digital Service and by independent external testers. Parliament must meet its legal and ethical duties to ensure that its new website is accessible to as many people as possible.
145.It is increasingly important for public sector bodies to make their data freely and easily accessible to third parties so they can enhance and innovate on such ‘open data’. For example, Transport for London’s provision of timetable information supports a range of journey planning apps, and Parliament’s own provision of House of Commons division data is often used by media organisations in their reporting of proceedings. An additional intention of the Digital Service is therefore to make as much non-confidential Parliamentary data as possible available in accordance with ‘open data’ principles. This would include committee data. As well as its utility to those trying to communicate the work of Parliament, this would assist academic research, such as (for example) into the range of witnesses from whom select committees take evidence. These data could also be used by the Committee Office to monitor the diversity of such witnesses. As much committee information as possible should be made available using ‘open data’ principles.
146.While the formal outcome of a select committee inquiry remains, and will likely remain, a written report to the House, in their efforts to maximize impact and effectiveness committees are increasingly using alternative formats for their reports and the material surrounding them. Whilst it is acknowledged that there is a place for the current style and substance of House of Lords committee reports, there needs to be active work towards producing committee reports in a variety of formats that are more accessible to a wider audience. This could include condensed reports, summaries through infographics, and interactive presentations. A full assessment of the possibilities should be carried out in order to establish the most useful and engaging style which would be appropriate to the subject matter of, and likely target audience for, the report.
147.Just as the nature of evidence may vary between detailed facts and statistical analysis and people’s lived experiences of the impact or potential impact of legislation, so may individual preferences as to how that information may best be expressed. Although House of Lords committees have so far made little use of Mass Online Forums, the experience of several House of Commons committees has been that these can be effective in attracting large numbers of responses from the general public, particularly if they target a very specific audience and if they focus on individuals’ experience. Parliamentary committee online forums aim to encourage people to share their personal experiences, rather than opinions, with members in an open and supportive online space (the forums are pre-moderated using the Parliament online discussion rules). The key measurement of success is the depth of experience and insight they provide, rather than the quantity of posts. Committees can often use these first-hand accounts to powerful effect. In future we think it likely that more people will wish to engage with House of Lords committees through Mass Online Forums, and we accordingly recommend that the new parliamentary website should be developed with that in mind.
148.In general, evidence is currently only accepted orally or as text. Given the increasing amount of data being produced in all fields, it is likely that future committees may wish to accept large amounts of data as evidence. It should be ensured that no procedural or technical restrictions impair the ability of committees to accept evidence in alternative formats.
81 Written evidence from the Australian Senate ()
82 Written evidence from the National Assembly for Wales ()
83 The Scottish Parliament, ‘Reaching out to the Communities of Scotland’: [accessed 23 April 2019]
84 (Lord Teverson)
85 House of Lords, , 2015 edition, p 225
86 House of Lords Committee on the Committee Work of the House (Volume 1: Report, Session 1991–92, HL Paper 35)
87 Written evidence from Prof Sir Anton Muscatelli ()
88 (Michael Clancy)
89 (Lord Mendelsohn)
90 (Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield)
91 (Lord Howell of Guildford)
92 (Lord Gilbert of Panteg)
93 Written evidence from Dr Catherine Bochel ()
94 (Michael Clancy)
95 See Appendix 7 for seminar note.
96 Written evidence from Lord Forsyth of Drumlean ()
97 (Lord Filkin)
98 Lived experience refers to a representation of the experiences and choices of a given person, and the knowledge that they gain from these experiences and choices.
99 Written evidence from Prof Matthew Flinders ()
100 (Lord Mendelsohn)
101 Appendix 7, 4th seminar with Helen Jones MP
102 Written evidence from Doteveryone ()
103 Written evidence from Baroness Tyler of Enfield ()
104 Written evidence from Involve ()
105 Written evidence from Prof Cristina Leston-Bandeira ()
106 Written evidence from the Australian Senate ()
108 (Lord Lisvane)
109 See Appendix 6.
110 (Lord Mendelsohn)
111 Science and Technology Committee, (5th Report, Session 1996–97, HL Paper 77)