1.Lord McFall introduced the seminar highlighting one of the key developing themes of the Liaison Committee review being public engagement and external communications. He also highlighted the written evidence the Liaison Committee received from Helen Jones MP, in her capacity as Chair of the House of Commons Petitions Committee.
2.Helen Jones MP began by introducing the House of Commons Petitions Committee explaining that the current petitions system was set up in 2015 following a report of the House of Commons Procedure Committee. This was in response to the promise from then Prime Minister David Cameron, that any petition that received over 100,000 signatures would be debated in Parliament. The Petitions Committee has the same powers other committees in the House of Commons, meaning they can call witnesses, hold inquiries, write to the government and expect responses. However, as a new committee Helen Jones explained that they set themselves two tasks, to give a voice to topics that do not always receive one and to engage with the public in greater numbers and new ways. Helen Jones noted there has been a 300% increase in public reading of Hansard and a 900% increase in viewing figures of Westminster Hall debates where those debates were advertised to petitioners.
3.One engagement tactic used by the Petitions Committee is engaging with young people on issues that matter to them. The key to this was changing the debate around issues that involve young people and allowing them to have a say, rather than be misrepresented. The Committee uses both quantitative and qualitative surveys, that allow a wider and more digitally advanced audience to participate. Simple surveys can be relatively easy to create. One other technique the Petitions Committee has used to hear real people’s views is web threads. Despite being more resource intensive, as all comments are screened by staff, these threads have garnered thousands of responses in the past and offer real life experiences to the committee rather than general comments from stakeholder groups. Such engagement is often used by Members of the Committee when opening debates in Westminster Hall.
4.However, the Committee has not only used digital resources in order to hear real life experiences and engage individuals on topics that relate to them, they have also used different face to face tactics. Helen Jones highlighted that the committee became aware that individuals who are coming to speak on their own behalf to a Parliamentary Committee may often feel intimidated by the location and being questioned by Parliamentarians. In response the Committee started to hold roundtable events which allowed a variety of people to come and tell their stories in a less intimidating setting. As well as this during, their inquiry in to the online abuse of disabled people, the committee offered an opportunity for members to travel to different parts of the UK and speak to people face to face about their experiences.
5.Public engagement forms a crucial part of the Committee’s reports. They have previously published reports that include not only the real life stories they have heard either online or in person, but have also added in photos of the people telling the stories, creating a more personal report. As well as this, as a follow-up during the inquiry into the online abuse of disabled people, the Committee produced a draft report, which was also available in an easy read format. Committee members and staff met with disabled people across the country to feed their views directly in to the report, and comment on what they liked and what they thought needed changing.
6.Overall Helen Jones highlighted that there could be difficulties in public engagement, as there will always be individuals who try to subvert the rules or use public engagement to their own advantage, not as it was initially intended. It is also important to remember that there are risks with experimenting with different models of public engagement and the Committee had recognised from the outset that not all the approaches which it tried would necessarily work and that it was certain that some mistakes would be made. However, the overall outcome they have experienced is that public engagement pays dividends. Public engagement allows topics that are important to the public to come to the forefront of politician’s minds and enables new generations of people to engage with Parliament. Both Houses must be open to change in order to stay relevant in a changing world, and public engagement allows for that.
7.The session was then opened up to comments and questions from members of the House. The following questions and comments were amongst those raised:
(a)Is there a concern about greater public engagement raising the expectations of the public to think they will get what they want immediately through engaging in some way?
Helen Jones noted that there are definitely higher expectations the more that you engage with people. However, this means that it is the role of committees to more clearly explain the systems in place, and that any engagement through a petition or a committee more generally should merely be seen as part of a campaign and not the whole thing.
(b)How can the ideas that have been discussed today be adapted and implemented in to Lords Committee work?
Helen Jones noted that while there are staff who are committed and want to do things differently, then public engagement can be imbedded in to committees. However, there will no doubt be a need for resource who are specifically trained in public engagement work.
It was also noted that there is not a need for public engagement on every issue, and it should be approached as a value adding tool. The benefits of public engagement are around developing a topic, as you do not know people’s stories and experiences until they are given a voice. As well as this, public engagement often offers an opportunity for wider public buy in on issues which could be helpful for topics such as restoration and renewal.
(c)After you have engaged with the wider public, is there a way that feedback is also offered?
The Petitions Committee tries to feedback to as many people as possible, however many people are content to have just aired their views. If action has been taken on a topic then the committee aim to feedback. Similarly, if action is not taken but there is a better forum for an issue to be addressed in staff aim to point people in the right direction.
(d)How have other members of Parliament viewed the public engagement undertaken by the Petitions Committee?
There has been a mix of responses including those who see the value in public engagement, particularly if it assists in understanding their constituents. However, there are still some people who do not fully understand. It is important to bear in mind that every innovation takes time to build up momentum and backing, however public engagement increases publicity with in turn encourages participation from members.
8.In response to questions Helen noted that Petitions Committee staff would be happy to speak to Lords Committee staff separately to discuss the logistics of what was discussed during the seminar.
9.The session ended with closing remarks from Lord McFall.