Parliament and the Public
Lord Puttnam (Labour)
My Lords, first, may I express my thanks to all those who have made this afternoon's debate possible, especially my noble friend the Leader of the House, who has given up a very great deal to be able to respond on behalf of the Government? I also thank the many noble Lords who have elected to speak this afternoon. It is a particular pleasure to me that my noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley has chosen this as the occasion on which to make her maiden speech. The whole House will wish to join me in welcoming her; I know we are all eager to hear what she has to say.
When our report Members Only? Parliament in the Public Eye was initially published, it received what can only be described as mixed notices. However, within a week things began to look up, largely, I suspect, as a result of people actually reading it. I can honestly say that the ability of knowledge to break down prejudice never ceases to amaze me. But of course that is part of the subtext of this afternoon's debate.
On the subject of knowledge, I here acknowledge my personal debt—in fact, the debt that all of us owe—to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, whose most recent book Parliament in British Politics has become little short of a bible in allowing me to better understand Parliament past and present more confidently to anticipate the future. His presence among us offers the same reassurance as checking that one's seatbelt is secure on the motorway.
Having survived what I have come to recognise as the macho reflex of some government departments towards reports that they have neither instigated nor controlled, this particular report has gone on to enjoy six months of remarkably fair weather. Not only has my right honourable friend the Leader of the House in another place demonstrated serious interest in many of its recommendations, but the Prime Minister himself has encouraged a number of other Ministers actively to look at ways in which these recommendations can advance the cause of public engagement, something that he takes very seriously. As, indeed, should all parliamentarians.
I would argue that by ignoring the present scale of disengagement—or, rather more accurately, the hostility that exists towards politics in general—we are actively laying the foundation upon which political extremism can only flourish, to the point of possibly becoming unstoppable.
To sit in an exalted place, unaware and unresponsive to change and churn in the society that surrounds you has always been a recipe for the downfall of the mighty—which begs the question: could this soon be true of Parliament? It is my contention that we are getting dangerously close to that being the case.
Do not just take my word for it. Next month, many of us will gather across the road to celebrate the life of one of the outstanding parliamentarians of my generation—Robin Cook. Shortly before he died, here is what he had to say on the subject:
"It is because I love Parliament that I never want to see it sink into irrelevance, a top draw on the tourist circuit, but no longer the crucible of the nation's politics. Its authority rests on public confidence, and if it is to restore that confidence it must change. It is those of us who most love Parliament who therefore want to see it modernised".
He went on to say:
"The problem is not that the British people have no opinion on the issues of the day, but that more and more of them no longer feel ownership of their parliamentary democracy, or believe that its political culture can solve the problems of their lives".
That is not only Robin Cook talking to us, it is Robin Cook giving voice to just about everyone in this country under the age of 35, who has ever given 15 minutes' thought to their, or the nation's, future.
Allow me to put my cards on the table. Having enjoyed the privilege of serving in your Lordships' House for just eight years, I find myself somewhat staggered to discover that my ambitions for Parliament are even greater than Parliament's ambitions for itself. As my granddaughters might say, "How strange is that!"
In fairness, there has been movement. In the past six months we have seen a welcome expansion of the Parliamentary Education Unit. There has been the appointment of Mr Dominic Tinley as managing editor of the parliamentary website, in preparation for the "radical redesign" agreed as being necessary and urgent by both Houses. Most recent of all has been the appointment of Dr Elizabeth Hallam Smith as the new head of the Library and Information Services in this House. These are very much steps in the right direction and greatly to be welcomed.
But before anyone gets carried away with enthusiasm, it is worth repeating what we said in the report. The pace and, in some cases, the nature of the changes taking place in society are occurring so rapidly that even our best efforts at incremental change leave us, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, puts it, running in order to stand still. I would go even further: more often than not, we are actually falling behind public expectations.
The problem lies not in our commitment but in our ambition. What is needed is not another round of incremental change, but a step change—and a large step, at that—in the way that Parliament engages with the electorate, especially the younger element of that electorate. By way of example, we have the opportunity to commission the finest resource for public and parliamentary information ever created—a model that every other country would seek to copy. It can be done.
Last week, at an Internet conference here in London, I had the privilege of sharing a platform with Mr Bill Gates, and listened to his very compelling vision of the future—not the distant future, but the world of information just five years from now. In following this up, I became aware of the sheer scale and sophistication of web-based companies such as Amazon.com, which began its life just 10 years ago as a book retailing site, working out of a garage in Seattle. I am no great techie or wonk, so please bear with me while I attempt to enthuse your Lordships with what is already happening.
Amazon.com fulfils the orders of more than 50 million regular customers. A regular customer is judged to be anyone dealing with Amazon more than once a month. As any of your Lordships who have purchased products online will know, you enter the home page to be greeted with something like, "Hello David Puttnam"—I am afraid the online world is no great respecter of titles—"you recently purchased so and so. Did you know that the same author has a new book out?" Or, "We noticed that you're developing a growing interest in jazz. Are you aware that the following CDs have been released in the past couple of weeks?". The point is that my interests have been accurately captured so that I can be constantly updated about what has recently become available within my predetermined areas of interest. What we have here is an enabling mechanism that allows us significantly to increase interest in the work of Parliament.
By no means am I suggesting that we develop a cheap and cheerful version of what is already available in the US private sector. We in this country are perfectly capable of taking this technology to a new stage in its development. The BBC and Guardian Online are already world-class websites and the BBC's web-based development of "Listen Again" is literally transforming the audience for serious radio.
I think we would all accept that interest in politics—certainly politics as we know it—has reached such a low ebb that it is difficult to see how it can be revived through what we might term natural means. As Robin Cook suggested, the electorate, most particularly the young electorate—those missing millions—will connect with Parliament only through issues which are of genuine concern to them. So, for jazz from Amazon.com, read climate change from Parliament.com. Why should the people of this country not directly connect and learn about the issues that most affect their lives through access to parallel activity in Parliament? When, as returning visitors, they are greeted by name at the entrance to the parliamentary site, why should they not discover what a great deal is happening on climate change in Parliament? The website could say, "The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee reported on Monday, and the Minister is making a Statement this afternoon. Would you like to see it—click here—or would you prefer to receive a copy?". And so on and so forth.
The noble Lord, Lord Currie, will no doubt smile a little at my having conflated the consumer and the citizen, but I have never had a problem with the potential for enhancing the engagement of the citizen through opportunities and lessons learnt from the market place.
None of this stuff is science fiction. All of it can be achieved here and now. Most importantly, this represents an opportunity for Parliament to prove that it can escape from the dead hand of incrementalism. Once it does so, other equally desirable changes will undoubtedly follow. Many under the age of 35 now regard the Internet as their principal source, not only for communication but for knowledge. We would be wilfully myopic were we to ignore the opportunity that this represents to re-engage a new generation of informed citizens, addressing their individual concerns and then steering them towards whichever aspect of the parliamentary process is most likely to satisfy their interests.
I am not pretending that it would be easy, but surely it would be a development that we would all celebrate. I am sure that many noble Lords can already imagine well intentioned laughter seeping out of the Bishops' Bar at some of the ideas that I am floating this afternoon. But if we do not grasp the nettle of change, I am afraid that the laughter could well start rising from outside the walls of the Palace of Westminster until eventually the whole country is laughing at its Parliament. That would be a bad idea for any sustainable democracy.
We actively seek the votes of the electorate on an individual basis. We attempt to persuade citizens to support parliamentary parties on an individual basis. Tomorrow, or over the weekend at surgeries up and down the country, MPs of all parties will be dealing with their constituents' problems on an individual basis, so why not use the technology that is available to ensure that those same individuals are continually informed of the issues and problems that loom largest in their lives? Why not shift from an essentially responsive mechanism, mediated by the press and other media outlets, to a proactive mechanism that seeks to inform and engage interactively and accurately?
With all that in mind, I have one question for my noble friend of the Leader of the House, which I hope she will try to address in her response. It is already being suggested that parliamentary finances are being stretched to breaking point by the additional security measures that have been and are being put in place. As a result, the type of recommendations set out in this report may, at least for the time being, be placed on the back burner. Should that be the case, I hope that she will argue that the greatest security Parliament can obtain stems from the engagement and trust of the people—a trust that will best be developed through a process of honest, two-way communication between the electors and the elected. The idea that our ability to communicate with the electorate should be in any way compromised as a result of Parliament taking shelter behind ever deeper layers of steel is something that should not be countenanced.
"Democracy is government by explanation".
Look no further for why the electorate is drifting away in droves. We have been appallingly bad at explaining what we, in this place and in Parliament generally, are really all about. That was the issue that our report set out to address. A number of our recommendations seem to have found favour with those interested in improving the work of both Houses. The purpose of this afternoon's debate is to stimulate that interest and create a sense of urgency for its implementation. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, puts it in the final paragraph of his recent book:
"Identifying what needs to be done is only half the battle. The other, more important half, is doing it".
My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
Lord Howe of Aberavon (Conservative)
My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord in the debate that he has initiated. I am sure that the whole House will want to congratulate him on the production of the report and on the initiation of this debate—and on choosing a Labour Party day for what is essentially a Cross Bench and cross-party topic.
The main focus of the report is, understandably, how the public see and learn about what we do, and what we can do to make that better. I do not dissent from that, nor any of the points made by the noble Lord in his speech. I am very glad about the first sentence of the first chapter of the report. It states:
"A more effective Parliament would make a greater contribution than anything else to a renewal of British democracy".
In other words, the substance of what we do and how we do it is probably even more important than how that is perceived and how we communicate it.
I have one reservation about the scope of the report itself. I believe that the noble Lord has acknowledged elsewhere that it pays very little attention to your Lordships' House as a distinct component of Parliament. The report reflects the paradox spelt out by Emma Crewe in her engaging recent book Lords of Parliament in which she says:
"The Lords is considered by many—particularly MPs and especially members of the Government—a political backwater and is neglected by political journalists".
Yet, she adds:
"The only effective opposition in Parliament comes from the unelected chamber".
Last night's events put a slightly different edge on that, but the substance is the same.
Despite the substantial improvement in recent years—in the Information Office, for example—in the extent to which we present what goes on in this House, it remains the case that far too little is known and understood about it. Here, we illustrate more than other places what is so much and so often happening in the presentation of Parliament as a history lesson. My rooms are at the other end of the Royal Gallery and every day I pass the guide presenting the history of this place. His report talks about it as a heritage tour. I get the impression that people learn more about the wives of Henry VIII and the strange activities of Black Rod than about what we actually do here.
Lord Howe of Aberavon (Conservative)
My Lords, the message that should be put across about this House is important in light of the changes that have taken place over the past five years. People should be told, for example, that no longer is there an army of hereditaries waiting in the hills to descend on us. Instead, there is a very narrow, hard pressed and hard working group of parliamentary Stakhanovites who work harder, perhaps, than many of the rest of us. There is no longer a built-in majority for the Government nor even for the Conservative party. Neither major party has more than 30 per cent of the votes in this House and 40 per cent is composed of noble Lords in the Liberal Democrat and Cross-Bench corners of the Chamber. That is an important insight into the increased role that this House plays.
The elected Chamber, quite rightly, has the last word, but this Chamber makes a distinctive input to the working of Parliament. When I address it, I feel that to some extent I am addressing the national jury— this broad spread of interests and expertise. It is probably more accurate to describe this House as the national judge because we distil the wisdom, as we like to think, but we then present that to the national jury in the democratically elected Chamber who have the last word. That is perhaps the better parallel.
I have one footnote on the historical aspect of this House. I can well understand the concern of people—I have felt it myself sometimes—at the over-elaboration of ritual and dress. On the other hand, I confess to having been attracted by it on some occasions. I designed a uniform for the Chancellor of the Exchequer in which to go to the Trial of the Pyx because I did not see why everybody else should be dressed up and not me. However, we ought to remember that, although we are rightly critical of particular aspects of these things, tradition, history and ritual can serve a real purpose. Emma Crewe, who is after all an anthropologist, goes a little far when she says:
"The rituals are the real stuff that politics are made of".
That is an overstatement, but surely our language—the noble Lord, the right honourable gentleman in the other place, my noble friend—is a courteous way of reminding us to respect each other, instead of saying, "You've got it wrong mate". It is odd, but important. I do not stand up for every aspect of ritual, but dress is also important. People wear various degrees of strange dress from Annabel's to Butlin's, from the Quai d'Orsay to the Kremlin, for recognition purposes and to tell the staff from the visitors.
To return to my opening reservations, the terms of reference obliged the noble Lord and his colleagues to concentrate perhaps too much on better presentation of the performance of a Parliament whose role is ever less respected because it is ever more stunted, "cabined, cribbed, confined" by the behaviour, not just of this Government but of successive governments. The noble Lord rightly reminded us of Robin Cook's phrase. That is one reason why people feel that they have lost ownership of Parliament—because it has been hijacked by the Executive.
A similar question is posed in a book produced recently by Sir Christopher Foster, called Why Are We So Badly Governed?, which contains a lot of perceptive observations on all this. Is it not just because of the declining role of Parliament but because of a decline—a much wider question—in the candour, courage and quality of democratic political leadership, not only in this country but in other countries around the world? Is that being reflected and entrenched in the diminishing role of Parliament? What is it—and this again reflects the question posed by the noble Lord—that makes it so hard for us in today's democracies to carry through those changes that many citizens and many Members of this House know in their hearts to be necessary, on the questions that he identified, such as climate change, nuclear energy and retirement age? We all know that those questions are crying out for earnest, candid address; why does it not happen?
I was delighted to rediscover a quote that I once used in a party conference speech. It is an observation almost 150 years old by Walter Bagehot, at the time of our first major step towards universal suffrage, the 1867 Reform Bill. He said that he could conceive of nothing more corrupt than that two combinations of well taught and rich men—noble Baronesses must forgive me, as he was talking about the 19th century—should compete for the support of the working man and promise to do as he likes, if only he would tell them what it is. That is an apt definition, from a long time ago, of focus group politics. In effect, he was forewarning us about the kind of thinking that has caused so many things to happen, and not just here. Why has the European Union failed to implement the Lisbon agenda? Similar fears stand in the way of candour in that regard.
We do not have to go on proving Bagehot right. As the noble Lord said—to requote his quotation—democracy is government by explanation, and we have to understand that democracy is a two-way process. I hope that I may be forgiven for returning us to the issue, but there is ample room—as I believe the government led by my noble friend Lady Thatcher demonstrated—for courageous political leadership in interpreting the nation's mood. We had one advantage in our favour at the time when we were doing those difficult things, in that almost everyone realised that the nation was in the last chance saloon. But it is possible to identify what is necessary, expound it and go ahead with doing it.
Political leaders need to identify, with as wide a consensus as possible, the way ahead, which is often in truth the only way however unpopular it might be, and to persuade people why they have to follow that road. That is at the heart of the credibility of Parliament and politics. Public opinion needs to be persuaded and not spun; it needs to be led and not fed. That is the right way, the best way and the only way towards "a more effective Parliament", to quote the first sentence, and towards the subject of today's debate, wider participation in the political process.
Lord Holme of Cheltenham (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I start by adding my thanks to the noble Baroness for honouring the commitment she made to this House in an earlier debate on this important topic. We are all most grateful.
As the Hansard Society has the unusual distinction of seeing its name on the Order Paper, as chairman of the society, I shall talk for a moment about what we do and why we commissioned this important report. The Hansard Society is, in a real sense, Parliament's own NGO and Parliament's own charity. Our mission is to bring Parliament closer to people and people closer to Parliament—the very two-way process that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, has just spoken about. We work inside Parliament with those who seek to modernise this venerable institution and make it more relevant and accessible to the citizen. Outside Parliament, we have a wide range of projects, which many noble Lords will have come across, from working with schools—not least in making MPs' visits less of an ego trip and more useful—to conducting mock elections on a massive scale, to working with disadvantaged and excluded young people—the parts of the electorate that the normal system does not seem to reach—to experimenting with e-democracy and new technology.
Some three years ago we first identified the real gap in understanding of what Parliament does and decided to set up a commission to consider how communication of our role in Parliament could be better achieved. Over the years the Hansard Society has used those special commissions, which in their authoritative membership and way of working are not unlike the old Royal Commissions—which are sadly no more—to deliberate and report on matters of political and parliamentary moment. I think of the commission on electoral reform, chaired by the late Lord Blake 30 years ago. Most of the chairs of these commissions either already are or end up in the House of Lords. There was the Rippon commission, chaired by Lord Rippon, which produced the report Making the Law; there was Women at the Top, the commission chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, although at that point she was not a noble Baroness; the Newton commission, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, on parliamentary scrutiny, two or three years ago; and several others.
At worst, the reports have educated people and changed the terms of debate. At best they have secured reform. I devoutly hope that the Puttnam commission proves to be one of those that secures reform. The report about which we are deliberating today is I believe one of the most powerful and valuable that has ever been produced under the society's aegis. I have to say—and I shall not spare the blushes of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam—that each commission has depended crucially for its success on its chairman. After I approached the noble Lord with the important issue of the communication of Parliament's work, he not only agreed to chair the commission but also threw himself with his usual astonishing energy, enthusiasm and leadership into developing the project. In terms of the cinema—and I hope that he will forgive my dragging the cinema into this debate—the Hansard Society may have been the producer of the report, but the noble Lord was most emphatically the director whose vision imbued the whole thing. He in turn was very well served by his fellow members of the commission—by his vice-chair, Jackie Ashley of the Guardian, and a fine panel of leading academics, media people and parliamentarians from both Houses. I am glad to see that my noble friend Lord Tyler, who was then an MP and who was a member of the commission, will be speaking this afternoon. We are also very grateful for the support of Ofcom in getting the commission going—and I am glad to see that the noble Lord, Lord Currie, is present—and for the help of the BBC and Channel 4.
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, would agree that the commission is not and does not purport to be a comprehensive blueprint. It does not have all the answers about a disengaged public and a superficial media, but it does suggest the first vital steps out of this impasse that we are in of disenchantment, falling turnout and a pervasive contempt for political and parliamentary life. We need what the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, called a step change. There have been repeated polls and surveys, and the evidence from them is clear: as the noble Lord said, people are interested in issues, but ignorant and suspicious of the political process. Although a majority of people respect their individual Member of Parliament—and that is something to build on—they distrust politicians in general. They also believe, for instance, that the media have more power than the Prime Minister or the Civil Service or Parliament; and indeed, judging from research, there is a hopeless muddle in public perceptions between Parliament and government. They are confabulated in the popular mind.
So wherever separation of powers exists in the British constitution—and sometimes it is quite difficult to find—it is certainly not in the minds of our fellow citizens. You could argue that their instinct, if not their information, is very good, because Parliament in its role of producing good legislation and in holding power accountable is excessively responsive to the Executive and insufficiently responsive to the citizen. I wonder how realistic it is to expect people to respect Parliament if Parliament so often does not seem to respect itself and its own crucial role.
A report was published earlier this week, which many of your Lordships may have seen or read about, by the House of Lords Select Committee on the BBC Charter Review, of which I and my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter were members. It noted that there were three challenges for the BBC, another great British institution: the accuracy of its reporting and its journalistic editorial independence; the development of new technologies and the digital revolution; and the increasing emphasis on, and need for, more rigorous systems of corporate governance.
There are some striking resemblances between the needs of the BBC and those of Parliament: independence from government, so that the public can distinguish between the different arms of our constitution; our ability as a legislature to embrace these new technologies and the digital revolution as a way of getting greater public engagement; and our own systems of governance and regulation in terms of communicating with society.
In the Communications Act we succeeded in getting an amendment to ensure that public service broadcasters have an obligation to promote civic understanding. That standard ought to be applied to Parliament as well. How good are we at promoting civic understanding? It is not enough for us to inform the public about what we do; we must enhance the understanding of what we do, and of democracy itself.
Finally, in doing that, we desperately need the constructive help of everyone in the media. The Puttnam commission was perhaps a little gentle with the media, but I do not propose to be quite so gentle. We need the help of Ofcom as regulator, which has clear duties laid upon it on our behalf. We need the help of the BBC and the other public service broadcasters, and greater help and responsibility from the press and the rest of the media. I would say to the media who report our work here, or too often do not do so on a serious basis, that if Parliament can remove the beam from its eye—and, as the Puttnam report indicates, there is indeed a substantial beam to be removed—what about the media removing the mote from its own? They should remember that we in this country are all citizens who live in communities, part of a society in whose future we all have a stake, and not just to be treated as consumers and viewers.
Here is an example of good coverage. "Today in Parliament" shares a birthday with the Hansard Society. We are both 60 years old. I cannot help thinking that if the BBC in particular and the media in general could recognise, as both these institutions do, that you do not have to be dull to be worth while, and that you can be sprightly even if you are mature in years, we could make the next 60 years a time of democratic renewal and of parliamentary renaissance.
The Earl of Sandwich (Crossbench)
My Lords, I congratulate all the authors of the Hansard Society report. I accept its broad analysis. I think we all accept that voter apathy has set in, and that the public have inclined towards single-issue campaigning at the expense of full-frontal democracy. This process will continue until Parliament is made more accessible and transparent. I fear, however, that much of the change suggested is about representation itself, and therefore goes beyond the strict mandate of this report.
My own political education was gained almost entirely through non-governmental organisations, which is now a much more popular route into politics. As a young man I only ventured once or twice into the House of Commons to hear my father speak in debates which I found frankly rather obscure. Once elected under our four-year system, MPs are really a law unto themselves, and subject to the Whip. Yesterday's outburst of Back-Bench freedom was an encouraging exception.
I doubt whether action on any of these recommendations will attract the voters back, but I think that they will make Parliament more accessible to those who already take an interest. I will mention sixth formers in particular. In this sense, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, is handing Parliament a lifeline, as he just implied himself.
More transparency in procedure and a language review would help. At first sight this looks like a back door into reform of working practices, but it is a fair point that parliamentary language and procedure could be made more digestible and intelligible. Here I do not quite agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe. The endless repetition of titles in both Houses could be simplified without loss of elegance or courtesy, and the labyrinthine procedures surrounding Private Members' Bills and the like could be removed. As suggested, a Joint Committee could at least consider this while reviewing communications strategy. These points have been made before; in fact, the appendices of previous reports are rather daunting. These issues should be dealt with.
I hesitate when it comes to the recommendation of a single communications department. The Lords could never agree to unite both Houses in one central voice of Parliament which the Commons would always dominate. To maintain the present balance we must surely keep the two voices harmonious but distinct. However, to achieve even harmony will require a joint communications strategy and a Joint Committee, as well as a strengthening of the present loose structure—of which I have some experience—in which rubber stamps seem to be the most practical form of decision-making.
I have some sympathy with those who would like to improve the media's access to Parliament—though I will not enter the "motes and beams" debate provoked by the noble Lord, Lord Holme—having some personal experience of the frustrations of camera crews sent upstairs to film interviews that they really wanted outside the Members' rooms. We do not have adequate facilities for the media. Yet there is a real risk of the media occasionally interfering with normal business, and, yes, our somewhat traditional way of life.
I want, though, to concentrate on recommendations for education, and here, like others, I very much look forward to the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. Almost exactly 10 years ago, my maiden speech dealt with citizenship, awareness of world issues, the Crick report and changes in the key stage 3 curriculum, where there has been a lot of progress under this Government. In this context, the noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, who is otherwise engaged today, has made an enormous contribution.
I still feel passionately, with the British Youth Council, that young people need more opportunities to experience the real world in relation to their education. The UK Youth Parliament, launched six years ago with the help of LEAs, has made a tremendous start. It has adopted admirable aims, such as raising awareness of the situation of asylum seekers, erasing misconceptions and better integrating them into the community.
The UNA—the United Nations Association—has also had notable success with its model UNs, which now benefit some 200,000 young people a year. I spent a morning with the one at Leeds University, and was impressed by the commitment of all those involved. There was an idea that each student should be able to advocate a country other than their own. The only country that was an exception was Israel—apparently only an Israeli student was able to fill that role, and he did so very well.
Many of these groups, even sixth-form groups, have their own websites. Our own website, which is sadly still under construction, could learn a great deal from looking at them and exploring their ideas.
I support the suggestion that we have a designated debating chamber for young people in the vicinity of Parliament, if not in the Palace itself. I hope the Lord President will encourage this idea. It would give great encouragement to schools and societies promoting citizenship, and to any other young people who take political life seriously—and there are many of them. I realise that committee rooms are in demand, but perhaps this arrangement could be formalised as part of the work of the Education Unit. The unit itself, although being expanded, consists of only six people who have to manage 10,000 young people every year. It needs strengthening, and I hope the House of Lords, which helps to fund it, will itself become more involved in implementing these ideas.
I am not one of those who thinks that all young people ought to have this experience because not all of them want it or need it. In most schools it is usually a committed group of sixth formers. I invited one of them to come in and share some ideas only last week. He is 17 and comes from a north London school. He thinks that school politics could be made much more interesting. I shall quote him at some length. He says:
"The youth of today feel disconnected with politicians, because they have received a completely different education from most MPs and Peers and they have different attitudes towards life in general. Many young people from poor backgrounds feel angry and a little patronised. They therefore divert their anger towards politicians who are seen as the enforcers of the laws and regulations which are keeping them down the social political and economic ladder.
However there are not enough young people interested in politics. Maybe it would help if there were workshops available to both parents and young people so that they could learn and discuss together.
Politics needs to become exciting again. Maybe every school should be visited by an MP or politician at some stage. When an MP meets people face to face and answers questions, they feel they can respond to things happening in Parliament. MPs could ask the opinion of students in their constituency on important issues such as the Iraq war".
Finally, this student says:
"Activities such as Model UNs . . . are the best way of involving young people in politics. If these could be in the main parliament building it would add to the atmosphere and realism of the activity, and people might take it a lot more seriously than at school".
What this young man did not say is that politicians could do more themselves to appeal to young people and undergo some form of training, as the report advocates. This is, of course, a matter for the two Houses, but the Government's support would be invaluable.
Baroness Morris of Yardley (Labour)
My Lords, if it does not sound something of a contradiction in terms it is 13 years since I last made a maiden speech in Parliament. I certainly feel 13 years older; I am yet to feel 13 years wiser, but I hope very much that listening to debates in your Lordships' House, certainly from what I have heard so far, will enable me to feel that extra wisdom in the, I hope, not too distant future.
It is a privilege to sit in the House of Lords, as it was a privilege to sit in the House of Commons representing my constituency of Yardley in the city of Birmingham, and to have served in two government departments. In the contributions that I shall make in the House of Lords I very much want to reflect the experiences that I had there as a Minister, and the opportunities I had to meet so many people. Parliament is certainly a great place for learning. In view of the subject of today's debate, it should also be a good place in which to teach people about what we do.
In the context of this debate it is my contact with my constituents—over 100,000 people in the constituency of Yardley—that most informs my views regarding what I want to say today. There are two matching myths around at the moment. They are growing with such strength that they are almost becoming an accepted part of our democracy. The first myth is that Parliament, and what we discuss here, is no longer relevant to people's lives. The second almost matching myth is that people are not interested in politics. Nothing could be further from the truth. Neither of those things reflects the health of our democracy or what people think regarding their everyday lives. That was brought home to me strongly in my experience as a local constituency Member of Parliament.
The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, referred to advice bureaux that Members of Parliament will hold this weekend. Time and time again when I held advice bureaux it struck me that the hopes, concerns, aspirations, the matters that people felt pleased about and the matters that people worried about in their lives, their families' lives and their communities' lives, were matters on which we took decisions. They were the bread-and-butter matters that we tackled in Parliament every day. Every time constituents were worried about a school, or wanted a nursery place for their young child, or had a concern that they did not receive hospital treatment as quickly as they should, they were talking about politics. They were engaging with politics as the latter affected their lives and those of their families. Noble Lords have mentioned my next point. Every poll that is conducted does not tell us that people are not interested in politics; they tell us that more people are interested in political activity and in the substance of politics than ever before.
The one group that is most interested in politics is young people. Part of the myth which is going around is that we are bringing up a generation who are not interested in what happens to their country or in the nature of politics. There is no evidence to indicate that that is the case. However, the dilemma is that while it is true that people are interested in politics and in what happens to them, that is matched by an increasing disengagement from the institutions which drive political change; that is, our Houses of Parliament, our House of Commons and our House of Lords, and from the political parties, which are a cornerstone—and have been for a very long time—of our nation's democracy.
In my view the first step is to accept that the fault is ours and not that of the people. Therefore, it is our responsibility to drive the change to a culture that again reunites the people's interest and their passion for politics, because politics affects their lives, with the institutions that are charged with delivering politics in our democracy. I do not want to suggest that this is a simple problem; it is not, it is very complex. Nor do I want to suggest that I have all the answers, because I do not. However, I shall refer to one or two very important points in the report.
I welcome the report and congratulate the Hansard Society on producing it and on the work that it has done over the years. I also congratulate and thank my noble friend Lord Puttnam for chairing the commission with the energy, commitment and enthusiasm that he brings to whatever he does. The report's strength is that it has a very clear focus on a particular aspect of our democracy. It concerns how we communicate with the people we serve. Another strength, which I believe has been mentioned, is that it brought together politicians and journalists. This is a three-way relationship. In my view political journalists have just as much responsibility for the health of our democracy as Members of the House of Lords and Members of the House of Commons. But whatever the nature of the relationship between politicians and journalists, neither of us would have any reason for existing if it was not for the people that we both should serve. A huge strength of the commission was that it engaged with both those groups. Its recommendations therefore address broadcasting and journalism and what we do in this House.
I share with the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, the sense of urgency with regard to the report. If we were to implement every recommendation and if we were to surprise ourselves and do it within the next year, the sad fact is that we would just about catch up with other institutions which play an important part in the life of society. Parliament, the house of democracy, should lead in that regard.
I agree with tradition. I am immensely proud of the traditions of the Houses of Parliament. When I have visitors I enjoy behaving rather like a tourist guide. That part of our history explains a lot about how we deal with our present. However, that pride in tradition should never ever prevent us changing to face the future. I suspect that there is still a tendency to consider that tradition holds us back whereas we should respect it but move forward.
As I made notes for this speech I reflected that if other institutions did as badly as we do as regards communication with the public, they would be berated. If there was something called Offgov or Offparliament—although I do not by any means wish that that were the case—we would be in serious special measures on account of serious weaknesses. Any school that did not communicate with parents on a regular basis, did not explain to them the nature of the national curriculum or listen to what parents had to say about the quality of education that the school was delivering to their children, would be in special measures and a new head would be parachuted in. Any hospital that did not explain to its patients the nature of their treatment and the options that faced them would barely get one star in the performance tables. That is how bad we are. That is how much still needs to be done.
Like other noble Lords who have spoken in the debate, I want to reflect on the importance of the report for young people and the next generation. Almost everyone who will vote for the first time at the next general election has grown up in the Internet age. They take as their right, as the way of the world, personalised forms of communication. That is just part of their everyday lives. The truth is that our young people, even those who are not of the age to vote, find it easier to communicate directly in real time with people they do not know on any continent of the world than they would to communicate with a Member of this House. This generation of young people is not used to having one-way communication; they are used to a form of communication that allows them to reply in a very short time. Referring to Parliament, my noble friend Lord Puttnam talks in his foreword to the report about,
"the enormous amount that remains to be done in closing the communication gap between itself and the electorate".
I could not agree more. The report goes on in clear terms to outline the consequences:
"In the 21st century institutions that do not communicate fail".
The report asks us to do no more than we ask of other institutions who serve our collective public. They do that, so we should make changes so that we can keep faith with the people who put us in business.
I particularly welcome some of the recommendations. Recommendations 18, 20 and 21, on education, would mean that we could play our part in citizenship and the work that we need to do in bringing on the next generation of children in a way that other institutions are already doing. Recommendation 30 enhances the media's ability to report Parliament in a relevant way, and Recommendation 1 is the means to make it happen.
I conclude by again thanking the committee for producing this report, which enables us to move forward. But we have to take the initiative. I hope that in the not-too-distant future the next debate on the topic might reflect on the progress that we have made since the launch of the report.
Lord Jopling (Conservative)
My Lords, before I begin my allotted time it gives me huge pleasure to congratulate the noble Baroness on her most thoughtful maiden speech. She has brought her experience of media matters as a former Minister in DCMS, but we shall of course look forward to her informing and entertaining us in future with what she is better known for—her experience as a former teacher and former Secretary of State for Education. She is the third member of her family with whom I have had the pleasure of serving in another place. It was a great pleasure a few moments ago to see my old friend, her uncle Alf, standing at the Bar of the House listening to her maiden speech. She comes from a very distinguished parliamentary family, and I hope that she will not be offended if I were to call it one of our most distinguished parliamentary dynasties. We look forward to hearing from her again on many occasions.
I welcome the opportunity to debate the report that the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, has produced. I have had a long interest in the matters of parliamentary modernisation and effectiveness. I was an early advocate of the Select Committee system in another place. I served on two of the Crossman Select Committees in the 1960s, and I negotiated with the Opposition in setting up the current departmental Select Committees, which have done so much to extend and improve parliamentary scrutiny. Again, in 1991, I had the great privilege of being the chairman of the Select Committee on sittings of the House in another place, which led to a good many changes, for instance the ending of the absurd nonsense of debating the Consolidated Fund Bill several times a year through the night into the following morning.
My first reaction to the report was that it should be seen in the context of the composition of what is called the "commission", although I am not sure of the difference between a commission and a committee. Over half the members of the commission had a media background, whereas less than a third were active parliamentarians, which seemed somewhat skewed. Rather like a referendum if you know the answer you want you can pitch the question to get it. I suspect there might be just a little bit of that here. I understand why the media always press for greater access and transparency. It is only natural in this commission with this membership that many of the proposals are slanted for exactly that. We need to assess the report both in terms of what the media want and what is best for the system of parliamentary government. Those two things do not always fit together.
Incidentally, in the section of the report with recommendations under the chapter headed "Media coverage of Parliament" on page 81, I notice that there are many lectures handed out to the BBC but there is very little advice given to the press. I often think that in terms of reporting Parliament the press need a good many more lessons than the BBC. The lack of interest shown by the press and broadcasters in Parliament leads us to many of our current problems. I have often despaired over the years at the situation where an excellent Select Committee report, which is often acclaimed by the people over whom it has effect, is totally ignored by the media, the press in particular, at the expense of trivia. An example is the Westminster Dog of the Year competition. The coverage given to trivia of that sort at the expense of dealing with Select Committee reports is one of the tragedies of modern Parliament.
On communications, I agree with a great many of the proposals in the report. I agree with my noble and learned friend Lord Howe that there is a vast and urgent job to do in improving parliamentary communications. The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, referred to the fact that it would be a huge step forward if we had a proper, modern visitor centre attached to this House, whether beyond Black Rod's Garden or somewhere between Westminster Hall and the road. That would deal with a great many of the points in the report that refer to young people. I am really not sure about having children in the Chamber during the Recesses. I understand that the replica of the House of Commons Chamber that used to be on the premises of Granada television, which they let out for tours, was dismantled some years ago. Whether that was because of lack of interest I do not know.
It is not necessary to tamper with anything simply because it smacks of tradition. The report says that we should no longer refer to strangers. When I was a Member of another place, my constituents were tickled to death by being described as strangers. Let us remember the old saying that tradition is a good servant but a bad master.
Of course government can govern only by the consent of Parliament, but I question some of the recommendations to transfer some decision-making from Front Bench to Back Bench. Would Members of the House of Commons or your Lordships' House queue up to stand for election as members of the commission at the other end, or at this end as members of the House Committee? I rather think that they would not. Some people say that the membership of Select Committees should be decided not by the Whips but by election. That might be a good idea for committees on defence or foreign affairs, where there would certainly be a long queue. However, I remember from a former incarnation as a government Chief Whip at the other end that, for some Select Committees, one would have been pushed to find anybody to stand for election at all. I happen to be a member of the august Select Committee on Merits of Statutory Instruments; frankly, I do it only as a favour to the noble Lord the Chief Whip, and I do not know anyone else who would wish to stand in the circumstances.
We must be realistic in our Parliament. Unlike the parliament of the United States, we do not have one based on divided powers. Under our system, it is inevitable that Parliament is government-driven, with the consent of Back-Benchers and the opposition parties, of course.
Finally, I want to say something as the noble Baroness the Leader of the House has been kind enough to come here. There is a need for governments to regain the respect for Parliament that they had in the past. I am sure that she knows precisely what I am going to say. One of her great failings as Leader of the House—likewise her predecessor—has been the lamentable way in which government departments treat this House in answering Questions. I shall give one example about which I have tabled a Question, which again is awaiting a reply. Parliamentary Questions are supposed to be answered in two weeks. Last week, we had a Question to the Home Office that had been down for 18 weeks. It was tabled in June and had still not been answered. The noble Baroness keeps telling us that she is doing her best; she will have to do a great deal better. That is simply one example of the ways in which governments successively have had less and less respect for Parliament. Parliament will get much more respect in the country if it is respected much better by government.
Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury (Spokesperson in the Lords, Culture, Media & Sport; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I add my congratulations to those given to the noble Baroness on her excellent maiden speech. I have long been an admirer of hers. Her style as an MP and Cabinet Minister was distinguished by her understanding of the need to do exactly what the report says—to connect.
I too am grateful for the opportunity provided by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, to debate this extremely important topic. As has been said by many other noble Lords, people out there feel alienated from the political process, and it is essential that we remedy it. Most worryingly, according to a MORI survey, that alienation particularly affects young people. Only 37 per cent of people aged 18 to 24 voted in 2005. That was the only category by age in which turnout actually fell between the two most recent elections.
The report of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, confirms that people are not just confused but plain ignorant about what happens at Westminster, stating that:
"Most of the population simply do not have a clue about how Parliament works or what our MPs do".
The important principle behind the report—made clear in the ironic title, Members Only? Parliament in the Public Eye—is that the public have the right to know what goes on in Parliament and to participate in its proceedings, and that it is Parliament that should actively seek to involve the electorate if we are to succeed in reconnecting with them.
I want to talk particularly about television coverage of the Palace of Westminster. On that matter, I have the luxury of having been involved on both sides—in fact, probably three sides if that is possible, having been a journalist, a spin doctor, and now a politician. Although I agree with my noble friend Lord Holme that the messenger is not blameless, I know from experience that Parliament does not make it easy for the message to be relayed, and it is on that that I will concentrate.
As editor of Channel 4's "A Week in Politics" in the mid-1990s, a very important part of my brief was to cover the Houses of Parliament. In those days, broadcasters were still excited by the access that televising of Parliament had brought, and we were expected to translate what was going on in the Committee Rooms and Chambers of both Houses into appealing TV. Largely due to the wit and wisdom of Andrew Rawnsley and the late, much-missed Vincent Hanna, we did. However, we were not helped by the contents of a file that I was given to read on taking the job called The Chamber's Rules of Coverage. It contained a number of very specific restrictions, one of which is the ban on cutaways mentioned in the noble Lord's report. I find it astonishing that it is not thought okay for the public to witness politicians reacting to what their colleagues are saying.
I happen to have noticed, tucked in front of me here, a Sudoku. Every now and then, maybe there will be a cutaway of a politician doing a Sudoku—I apologise to my noble friend whom I have outed—but that would not have disastrous consequences. I do not know whether everyone knows it, but we in this House are the subject of a gentle experiment to see whether allowing reaction shots will provoke catastrophe. The rules circumscribe what can be shown. In doing so, they deny Parliament any sense of life. Television coverage is not allowed to reflect the way this place really is. Frankly, the rules make it boring to watch. When people visit the Palace of Westminster, I find that they are excited, exhilarated and surprised, saying, "I didn't expect it to be like this—it doesn't look like this on television". How perverse to pursue a policy of underselling such a great asset.
The other way in which this place needs to change is over access, about which there is frankly a culture of "no". One of the most exciting and important events to have occurred within these walls recently was the Conservative leadership election, but no television camera was allowed to cover it. Instead, we had the political editors rushing to their fixed spot in Central Lobby to relay information to the public. Why that spoon feeding, with the inevitable spin attached? Why could the public not experience the reality more directly—the drama, the euphoria, the dejection, even the ejection of gatecrasher Edwina Currie once fellow Tories remembered that she was no longer a MP, which I read about in the newspaper. How much more likely we are to draw people into the political story if they can see events unfold, rather than retold.
And what historic value there could be. How I wished, when I was making a series on Margaret Thatcher, that there had been footage from that same corridor of her astonishing victory over Ted Heath, to bring alive the stories of those who remembered it. One MP told me how he and Airey Neave ran along the corridor to the room where she was to break the news. We had to cover that with our camera running down the corridor, rather like something out of a horror movie, whereas I was making a documentary.
A more recent historic moment was the all-night sitting on the anti-terror Bill last March. By being denied access to the human story, Andrew Marr stated in this report:
"Television viewers were cheated of perhaps the best demonstration of parliamentary democracy doing what it should that there has been for decades".
People love going backstage, but we do not allow them to do so here, and it is a stage that belongs to them as just as much as to the politicians.
Of course there have to be rules about coverage, as the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, mentioned, but at the moment they are over-restrictive and sometimes ridiculous. The political editor of the BBC Nick Robinson told me that he was recently reprimanded when reporting from Central Lobby for allowing his toes to cross a line that he did not know existed. And there must be rules on access. Politicians, like everyone in their workplace, need privacy, but the default position should not be "No". I believe that the precedent argument is now being replaced with the security one, but the fact is that it has always been "No". As the distinguished former Liberal Prime Minister, HH Asquith, once observed:
"There is no more striking illustration of the immobility of British institutions than the House of Commons".
I think that it is time that we proved him wrong—on that, anyway.
I wholeheartedly support the report's conclusion that a new communications department is needed, pursuing an enlightened, integrated communications strategy. This is a place that deserves a better press, both from the press and the public, but to get it we have to loosen up.
Lord Currie of Marylebone (Crossbench)
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, on securing this debate and thank him, his very distinguished commission and the Hansard Society for this report. Speaking as the chairman of Ofcom, I was pleased that Ofcom was able to play a role in sponsoring and supporting the work of the commission. It has done an excellent job in looking at the relationships between the public, politics and the media, and I support the report's recommendations, which we urgently need to consider adopting.
I do not need to remind noble Lords that the citizen is at the focus of all that we do at Ofcom. We debated that long and hard during the passage of the Communications Bill and the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, played a special role, with others, in placing the obligation to look after the citizen at the heart of what we do. This report takes the same position—that we have a somewhat alienated public and that we need absolutely to put the citizen back at the heart of what we do in Parliament to make a start on reconnecting with the public.
When we set up Ofcom, we thought long and hard about how we should communicate with citizens, consumers and the general public. We did that for three principal reasons. First, if we had a communications regulator that communicated badly, it would quickly become a laughing stock. Secondly, Parliament rightly placed considerable obligations on us to be transparent and open in all that we do, and to explain what we do in as clear a way as possible. Thirdly, I believe that the authority and reputation of a regulator is crucially dependent on communicating effectively so that its work is understood. That gives us many significant influences that go beyond the formal powers with which Parliament has vested us.
So we have worked hard to communicate what we do. In all our major reports concerning communication with citizens and consumers on the key issues, we aim to produce a plain-English version that is crystal-marked by the Plain English Campaign. In even the more complex areas of spectrum that are very technical, we seek to explain in simple terms. I am sure that we are not wholly successful in our endeavour to explain clearly, but it seems to me that that urgency of communication, that clarity of explanation, is something that we in Parliament should also seek to do. We often have highly technical debates about complex issues, but those issues can be communicated in more simple and straightforward ways.
At Ofcom, we reduced the size of our communications department from the size that we inherited from the former five separate regulators, but we have greatly enhanced the quality of our communications department. The quality of people in the communications area is fundamental to getting messages across. The report makes important recommendations with regard to what we as individual parliamentarians could do in both Houses and to what we can do as an institution. We should pursue that as a matter of urgency.
In our review of public service broadcasters, we at Ofcom acknowledge the need for PSB providers to ensure that their content responds to the needs of modern British society, and engages with people. As the noble Lord, Lord Holme, pointed out, the Communications Act requires public service broadcasters to enhance civic understanding of the democratic process. Our recent research into attitudes to television coverage of the election produced some interesting results. The general view was that that coverage was "quite" well done or "very" well-done. But there was a marked contrast with the views of 18 to 24 year-olds. In general, the young felt that television did not explain party policies and party politics at all well.
The one thing I have learnt in the communications area is that if we want to see the future, we should observe the behaviour of the young. They are doing now what all or most of us will be doing in five years' time. We must focus on communicating to the young, who are the current voters, and, indeed, to those below voting age, to ensure that our messages are getting across. We need to consider how we can make use of new technology more effectively. Increasingly, the young obtain their information in an ambient way. They do not sit down and watch news bulletins, they gather news from many different sources. Increasingly, they obtain such information on the move, and the question of content via the mobile attracts huge commercial interest. We as an institution need to take that seriously. Could parliamentary highlights be flashed on your mobile in a similar manner to highlights of football games?
Ubiquitous digital connectivity makes many things possible. The way in which we communicate both ways can be hugely enhanced in this world of instant connectivity. I receive many e-mails on Ofcom business, to which I am able with my Blackberry to respond quickly. We have online chat rooms at my business school for our alumni and students that allow us to keep our finger on the pulse of what people are thinking. Could we set up parliamentary chat rooms for similar purposes?
The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, referred to Amazon. Perhaps I may refer to another online phenomenon which I think is relevant. The online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, is maintained by ordinary people. It is, if you like, a democratic encyclopaedia. Economists might ask why people would want to keep it accurate and up-to-date and why they would not corrupt it. The answer is that most people seem to have a wish to maintain that type of social phenomenon online. Perhaps there are ways in which we could use the same kind of phenomenon to aggregate the views of ordinary people in innovative ways, using the new technology to enhance what we are doing. If we do not look ahead in the use of technology, we will surely fall behind.
Therefore, I make two pleas. The first is that we communicate better and more effectively, and the second is that we ensure that we use all the technology, including the new technology that is coming down the road towards us.
Communication cannot be at the sidelines of what we do here in Parliament. It must be at the forefront, and that is why Ofcom was delighted to be associated with this project from the outset. Hence, the report provides us with important ways forward which we should take very seriously.
Lord Howarth of Newport (Labour)
My Lords, I add my voice to the chorus of thanks to my noble friend Lord Puttnam and his fellow commissioners and to the Hansard Society for their informative, thoughtful and important study. I also, with enthusiasm, congratulate my noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley on her maiden speech. We were both Members of Parliament representing West Midlands constituencies and I vividly remember that, shortly after she entered Parliament, we found ourselves sharing a platform. As I listened to her speak, I thought, "This person is interesting, eloquent, reasonable and decent". That was in 1987. By 1997, through the vicissitudes of politics, we found ourselves as fellow junior Ministers in the Department for Education and Employment, and my appreciation of her political and human qualities could only grow. Today, her speech was interesting, eloquent, reasonable and decent. As we are debating the reputation of Parliament, perhaps I may also say that the manner in which she held, and left, high office did much for the esteem of politicians.
The analysis in the report of disaffection and disconnection from formal political processes, particularly on the part of young people, can only intensify the concerns that most of us already have. If we see a continuation of the collapse of participation in elections by those who are eligible to vote for the first time—only about a third of them voted on the last occasion—then we might well fear that the writing is on the wall for parliamentary democracy in Britain.
I shall talk about Parliament rather than the wider issues of participation in politics and, in particular, about the House of Commons because I think that that is the main subject of the document. It would require higher levels of enlightenment than we can foresee for the wise and well tempered debates and the searching scrutiny that occur in your Lordships' House to take the place that they deserve in the productions of the media.
The report is persuasive in making the case that Parliament needs to be more coherently managed, that it needs to do better in setting out its stall to the public, and that it should have a unified communications department, communications strategy and realistic communications budget. It exposes absurdities and rightly argues for organisational reform and, in particular, for the liberalisation of rules about broadcasting. Of course Parliament should have an exemplary website; of course Parliament should use information technology to promote interactivity between Parliament and people; of course we should strengthen our education unit; and of course the Westminster Parliament should not be too proud to learn from the Scottish Parliament—out of the mouths of very babes and sucklings—about its admirable procedures in relation to petitions, including e-petitions.
But members of the commission, who are sensible people, will not have been starry-eyed about how much all this can achieve. How far will the public make a distinction between Parliament as an institution, politics, the political parties, political personalities and the Government? I suspect that, in the public understanding, Parliament is a shorthand term for politics in Westminster—for what goes on in the parliamentary bear pit and thereabouts.
If Parliament as an institution fails to do a good job, no amount of public relations will convince our sceptical citizens that the institution is in good health. The Welsh Assembly has put into practice many of the policies that the commission recommends for us, but I am not yet aware that the communications strategy of the Welsh Assembly has kindled a love affair between the people of Wales and their Assembly. And I would be wary if we were to proliferate communications professionals in this place—a few, yes, but good ones are very hard to find.
So I enter those reservations, but I favour a serious attempt to make Parliament transparent and accessible. It is at the very least discourteous and unwise that we should be impenetrable to those whom we serve. So I favour more extensive televising and freer broadcasting of Parliament, both in its formal and informal aspects, as the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, recommended to us. Perhaps the most important reason why I believe it would be worth while is not so much that it will transform public attitudes but that I think that that kind of monitoring will encourage Parliament to sharpen up its act where it is defective.
Parliament is always in the thick of a variety of power struggles. How those are played out will more powerfully condition perceptions of Parliament than any public relations strategy that Parliament may adopt. Parliament is, after all, the principal arena in which the competing interests and aspirations of our people are expressed and resolved, and the processes whereby that occurs are mainly humdrum, complex and lengthy. It is very hard to see how they can be presented appealingly. If, as the commission proposes, we are to have a review of procedures with a view to improving Parliament's capacity to communicate, then I think we should be very careful that we do not so simplify and truncate procedures that we throw the baby out with the bathwater, that we weaken scrutiny, that we enable the Government too easily to have their way and that we facilitate bad legislation.
Parliament is often turbulent, and that provides drama and stories which the media relish. The public reaction is mixed: they are both fascinated and appalled by the clash and noise of lively parliamentary proceedings. We had to permit the broadcasting of Parliament; it would have been absurd for Parliament to have hidden from the 20th century's most powerful means of communication. But to what extent has the transmission of our adversarial dynamics—what some people call "yah boo politics"—into every home caused the people of this country to view Parliament more favourably?
There is always a power struggle in Parliament between Front Bench and Back Bench and between Parliament and government. Because we do not have that separation of powers, that struggle occurs right within Parliament. When Parliament in its historical development challenged the Crown and eventually captured the Executive, it thereby enslaved itself all over again. Too many of today's career politicians are excessively willing slaves. So while I was happy to hear my noble friend say that the commission's report has received a good welcome from the Government, I think that we should watch this space because an independent and spirited Parliament is never convenient to government.
Another set of struggles arises from the jealousy and competition between Westminster and Whitehall—in this united—and other institutions of our democracy, such as local government, devolved government and the European Union. The commission suggests that there should be a shared effort of communication, and that would indeed be desirable. But I am not sanguine that we shall create an enlightened trans-institutional seminar. I think that the public will continue to scratch their heads, remaining baffled about who is responsible for what between all these different organisations and about what is going on in this complex, charged interplay. So, while it would help if people understood more, the spectacle will never be easy or satisfying.
The most naked and dangerous power struggle is that between Parliament and the media. Chapter 5 of the report quotes public expressions of anxiety about that. The report offers to encourage us by saying that the problem is primarily one of malfunction. The recommendations look forward to a media that works with Parliament to communicate effectively with the public.
Will the criteria of news value of the media embrace the routines of Parliament, however worthy? The media will have their own agenda to form the political consciousness of the nation and to be arbiters of our public affairs. They prefer to please the public, to gratify the desire of freeborn Britons to grumble, to "cock a snook" and to give a kicking to authority, which is one of the reasons why there is such a fascination with Prime Minister's Question Time—for all the ambivalence of attitude to that ceremony. They will fabricate celebrities; they will parade scapegoats. We have sadly seen that during the course of this week. When they set out to destroy individual politicians, thereby further discrediting politics and Parliament, no communication strategy of Parliament will stop them.
While I fully endorse the recommendations of the report, and while I know that good journalists are as worried as we are about the difficult and damaging state of relations between politics and the media, none of us sees our way through. In the long term, perhaps education will be the most important remedy and in the shorter term, better presentation. But the sources of our present discontents are varied and profound and so must be the reformation of our political culture and the rescuing of the centrality of Parliament.
Lord Norton of Louth (Conservative)
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, on securing this debate and on the report that gives rise to it. I am extremely grateful to him for his opening comments about my own work. It is also a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, and to agree with the views that he expressed.
As is clear from what has been said already, this is an extremely important debate. Parliament is the pivotal body in our political system. It is the one authoritative body that stands between government and the people. It is the body that sustains government, but it is also the body that calls government to account for its actions in between general elections. It is the body through which the people speak to government. This valuable report recognises that we have to address not only what Parliament does in relation to government but also how it communicates with the people. It is a two-way relationship. We have to consider how Parliament reaches the people. We also have to consider how the people reach Parliament.
For people to pay attention to what Parliament is doing, Parliament has to be seen to be fulfilling the functions expected of it. If it is fulfilling important tasks, relevant tasks, then the media will pay more attention to it. I do not necessarily share the view embodied in this report about the terminology employed by the two Houses. I recognise that there is an issue here, but I do not regard it as crucial. What is vital, as my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon said, is the substance of what we do. The terminology employed in Select Committees is not particularly obscure or archaic. What is important is ensuring that the work of committees in both Houses is relevant and attracts media attention. One flows from the other.
The report makes a number of important recommendations on how to communicate with people, but these, as the report stresses, must come as a consequence of a culture change within the Palace of Westminster. We still have a blinkered view of our relationship with those outside the institution. The media are still viewed with suspicion. They have been allowed into parts of the palace previously deemed off limits, but the attitude is still extremely restrictive. The more we allow the media into the palace, the greater will be the coverage of what we are doing.
Media coverage is vital to ensure that people can see what we are doing. So too, increasingly, is our use of the Internet. The Parliament website is a major repository of data. It is invaluable for people like me. Yet, as the report makes clear, it is not geared to members of the public who want to know what is going on. Contrary to what many people think, people have not lost interest in politics. Rather, as has been said, their interest has been displaced, from mainstream party activity to issue-based activity. As we have heard, the website is not geared to those interested in issues. Although there have been some notable improvements, it remains based on the institutional structure of Parliament. If you are interested in, say, animal welfare, and look to see what Parliament has done in this area, you will likely give up in despair. I know, as I tried it this morning and that is exactly what I did. Not only does there need to be a radical redesign of the website; there also needs to be more central co-ordination. Perhaps the Leader of the House can confirm that, before the new website is introduced, there will be consultation to ensure that it meets the needs of people outside Westminster? Given that the communication should not simply be one-way, will there be an interactive capacity? I teach, in an MA online, that there is an interactivity which is core to that. It is not rocket science but it is essential.
In terms of communicating with the public, we need to be more outgoing and entrepreneurial. Take this House. We have an excellent Information Office which produces first-class material. It publishes a booklet on the work of the House. The print run is 40,000. The number of visitors to the Palace of Westminster each year exceeds 400,000. Most of those visitors will leave with admiration for the building but, as my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon said, with no real understanding of what the institution does. The Information Office puts together information packs. These are excellent for students. If students visit the palace, we can give them the packs. If we go to schools and colleges, we can take packs with us to distribute. The material, however, deserves to be disseminated much more widely. The Information Office lacks the resources necessary to distribute it on a more extensive basis. This may seem a small matter, but it is illustrative of the problem we face. As this report states, what we do here is a public good worth investing in. We must change our attitude and ensure that the emphasis is on communicating effectively, not on penny-pinching. We must invest in communicating with the public.
Similarly, we must ensure that people can communicate with us. I welcome what the report says on that. I agree that committees should go out more and take evidence from people in different parts of the United Kingdom. I have argued the case for petitions to be taken more seriously. Although petitions presented to the other place are now referred to the relevant departmental Select Committee, there is still a case for a dedicated petitions committee. Such a committee exists in the Scottish Parliament and in most parliaments of western Europe. As the Constitution Select Committee noted in its report last year, there is also a cogent case for committees engaging in more online consultation as well as commissioning opinion polls.
It would be churlish if we did not acknowledge changes that have taken place in recent years—some of them have been extremely valuable. I am very impressed with the work that the Law Commission is doing in investigating the capacity for post-legislative scrutiny. However, we need to go further to reach a new plane. The health of the political system depends on us achieving that.
The Leader of the House, in replying, can make a signal contribution by committing herself to achieving that necessary culture shift and by agreeing that we need a much more cohesive communications strategy within Parliament. Responsibility, as this reports makes clear, is too diverse. If that means knocking heads together, then so be it. We must put Parliament first.
Lord Tyler (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Norton, because I have so often been stimulated by his views on these issues in the past. I am also delighted to have witnessed the maiden speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley. I know that Members of this House will recognise that she was held in huge respect for her integrity and judgment in the other place, and I am sure that that will now transfer here.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, on this debate and on the fruitful leadership he gave to the commission on which I was delighted to serve. I want merely to emphasise and underline some of its findings and recommendations. First, as many noble Lords have said, it must be time to have a joint strategy for the whole of Parliament to communicate what we do in this building. That was identified by the Modernisation Committee in the other place as a real weakness. Surely, it must be time that the two Houses together demonstrated to British citizens not only what we are doing but how we intend to ensure that it is more visible and transparent. Surely, it must be a basic essential for a healthy parliamentary democracy in the 21st century that Parliament develops an effective communications strategy and also has an effective mechanism for its delivery. I wonder whether noble Lords have examined the organisation chart on page 33 of the report. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, will recall the difficulty with which we extracted that information from the officials in the House.
The Group on Information for the Public—I wonder how many noble Lords are aware of the GIP—is composed only of officers of the two Houses. There is no Member involvement or Member ownership. I believe that without Member interest and accountability, this vital activity will never receive the resources it requires. Incidentally, I very much endorse the views earlier expressed about the Information Office in this House, which is a great deal more effective than its comparable organisation at the other end of the corridor. And of course this House pioneered the televising of debates. I hope that in this matter, too, we will be leading the other end of this building.
Secondly, and flowing immediately from that lack of accountability, the commission believes that the priorities for expenditure need to be reassessed urgently. Spending many millions of pounds on a super visitors' centre, which has been mentioned, will be greatly appreciated by visitors from Tokyo and Texas. But, frankly, I do not believe that it will be much help to British students of politics of all ages, from Tintagel in Cornwall to Tayside in Scotland, who find it extremely difficult to come to London at all during their studies or when they are interested in an issue that arises here. Surely, it would be far more cost-effective to ensure that we take advantage of a unique opportunity to re-engage the electorate with the new electronic communication tool that is to hand—a really effective website. I entirely endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said about that.
Incidentally, such a website also provides an unrepeatable chance of reducing our reliance on the conventional media to communicate what Parliament is doing. The distinguished journalists on our commission, to whom reference has been made, warned us that editors are rather better at dishing out advice than they are at taking it. We were therefore told that perhaps we should concentrate on what we are doing rather than concentrating too much on the media. In any case, there never was a golden age when parliamentary debates were assiduously followed by huge numbers of our fellow citizens. The daily full report in the Times was read by an elite sitting in leather chairs in London clubs. Today, we have a real opportunity, with the electronic communication to hand, to change that and to make it a public interest. Already, the Parliament Channel and the parliamentary website have a far larger audience than ever existed in the written press and they far outnumber those who ever bought Hansard.
Thirdly, like other noble Lords, I believe that our website is woefully inadequate. It totally fails to keep up with technological change or public expectation. In that context, we must move very fast and very effectively. Let me give one example. In one of my several failed careers, I was an architect—to be strictly accurate, I worked in an architect's office and never achieved qualifications. Therefore, I yield to no one in admiration for this amazing building, which works extraordinarily well 150 years after it was designed. But of far more relevance and value than the conventional "Line of Route" tour of the building must be to demonstrate that it is a working democracy. I believe that all British citizens, not just students, will be far more interested in what happens here rather than simply seeing what it looks like.
Therefore, as a small initiative in that direction, I have set up on my own website a simple virtual tour to demonstrate how a Bill—naturally, called "Billy"— makes its way through the legislative process in this building. I have already been told by students that that is of far greater value than being shown the way in which Pugin and Barry designed for our predecessors. A useful by-product is that it demonstrates to the electorate how and where there is a point of entry into the legislative process—where the interactive communication referred to may be of value.
Fourthly, I emphasise what has been said in the commission report and by Members today, that we must make a special effort to communicate with younger age groups. My noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter referred to the depressing drop in turnout of the 18 to 24 age group—from 39 per cent to 37 per cent—in the recent general election. The chairman of the Electoral Commission, who drew this to our attention, warned that some people are now out of the habit of voting, with a generation apparently carrying forward their non-voting as they get older. That is doubly depressing.
Finally, I have a specific suggestion which I touched on in the commission but which did not appear in the report. The fifth of November marks one day in the year when, at least in theory, the nation celebrates the survival of parliamentary democracy. Why not make that a focal point of a Parliament Week? Scandinavian parliaments which I have visited take their message to the electorate. They involve local parliamentarians in events. Schools and community groups are invited to put forward projects of all kinds to indicate the extent to which parliament is, or should be, acting on an issue of concern and interest to them. Surely, that would be a typically British way—and perhaps delightful in its own way—to demonstrate that Parliament is a critical part of national life and by building on the tradition of Guy Fawkes night we could perhaps enjoy ourselves at the same time.
Baroness Shephard of Northwold (Conservative)
My Lords, it is, as ever, a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, who has brought a brisk and invigorating suggestion to this extremely important debate. It will be interesting to hear the response of the Leader of the House to that and other matters raised today.
I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, on the enthusiasm and skill that he has brought to the production of the report. I also congratulate the Hansard Society on its continued and impartial attention to the cause of parliamentary democracy in our country. The report has as its remit to examine public perceptions of Parliament and to recommend ways in which Parliament should counter what is described in the report, rather menacingly, as,
"widespread cynicism and voter alienation, which is in danger of lapping at the skirts of the Mother of Parliaments itself".
There are clearly issues alienating voters other than public perceptions of Parliament, one of which I intend to address later. Others have been addressed by earlier Hansard Society reports as the noble Lord, Lord Holme, pointed out.
The recommendations range from the fairly easily accomplished, such as an updating of the parliamentary website, to rather more controversial ideas, which I think no one has raised so far, such as the appointment of a chief executive for Parliament and the involvement of a Speaker—any Speaker—in a more high-profile and explanatory role. Examples drawn from other parliaments suggest that we should introduce public presentations of the work of Parliament by impartial parliamentary officials themselves, using all the means of communication described during the debate. Those officials would be impartial in the same way that Clerks to Select Committees or the House Education Officers are impartial. Over time, intriguingly, it would be possible to test the optimistic proposition reported in chapter 5 that if that were done, journalists would resist the Westminster village approach that has during recent years so trivialised political reporting in the UK. It would be good to put it to the test.
In France, for example, we do not see the same obsession with personalities in political reporting that, sadly, we find here. Nevertheless, research in which I am engaged with colleagues in Queen Mary College, University of London, and the Sorbonne reveals some of the same cynicism in the electorate described in the report. The research is based on a questionnaire completed by matched groups in France and England, designed to probe attitudes to the democratic process and accountability—in short, whether voters actually think that it is worth voting or whether they believe that other means, such as direct action, are more effective. We are seeing an illustration of that in France at the moment.
The research is in its early stages, but there are already interesting points of convergence, where respondents in both countries tend to claim that all politicians are the same—where have we heard that before?—and of difference, where there are clear indications that the French respondents, unlike their English counterparts, believe that their vote counts locally. Intriguingly, the translation of a questionnaire into French by colleagues at the Sorbonne has revealed the fact that there is no precise French equivalent of the word accountability.
It is regrettably the case that there is, as the report states, great confusion in the public mind about Parliament. My elected experience—the noble Lord, Lord Holme, also said this—was that people do not distinguish between Parliament and government. They use the words interchangeably. However, I take gentle issue with the comment in the report in chapter 1, paragraph 1.5, which states:
"Without Parliament, both the legitimacy of Government and the freedoms of the press are unlikely to stand".
As my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth reminded us, actually, without a parliamentary majority there can be no Government. As an earlier Hansard Society report on the scrutiny role of Parliament stated:
"Crucially it creates and sustains the government".
The power to govern is bestowed on a political party by the people via the ballot box and legitimised by Parliament. There is no other way under our constitution. That is how important Parliament is. Obviously it is vital that Parliament itself takes charge of how it is perceived and, by using the means of communication, sets about putting the story straight. That is the message from the report; clearly there is support for it from all sides of the House.
However, it is not only the responsibility of Parliament to explain and publicise the importance of its role. It is also the proper role of governments, which depend on Parliament for their existence. That has already been mentioned by other noble Lords, but everyone who has ever been in government will agree that close parliamentary scrutiny of the kind exercised most notably by Members of this House is deeply uncomfortable. Indeed, about the worst experience that I can recall as a Minister was having to appear before Select Committees of this House, where were assembled not only all one's ministerial predecessors but every known world expert on the subject.
All governments, whatever their politics, seek to avoid parliamentary scrutiny if they can. That is part of the game, part of the territory. But it is also the duty of governments—whatever government—to protect the sovereignty of Parliament and to defend its importance. In the rather dire circumstances so eloquently described in the report of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, it is imperative that the Government should give a lead. It is good to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, that he has already had an encouraging response to the report from the Leader of the other place.
It is the case, and it is well documented, that constitutional change such as devolution—introduced for the best reasons, of course—has obscured the clear line of accountability of our Parliament. It is also the case that the plethora of plebiscites, focus groups, lobbies, citizens' movements, the Internet and citizens' juries obscures the important role of Parliament. Of course Parliament is not the sole repository of political wisdom, and I do not suppose that it has ever been, but it alone is elected and accountable to the electorate. It is not acceptable that any government should seek to bypass Parliament. There have been sins on the part of the present Government, very fiercely pointed out by the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, and there will undoubtedly have been sins on the part of previous governments. But if a government seek to bypass Parliament, that does not increase respect for Parliament among the electorate. It is apposite that all governments should take note of that; after last night, maybe they will.
I welcome the report. We are all parliamentarians and should support its main message: that Parliament, which is at the heart of our democratic process, should be explained, presented and made accessible and important to the electorate by Parliament itself. That must be right. But in that task, which falls to us as the current incumbents, Parliament in turn must be supported by government to achieve what the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, has described as a step change.
Lord Greaves (Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, this has been a fascinating debate so far, from the originator of the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, right down the speakers' list. I would like to continue to discuss much of what has been said, but I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if instead I get on with my remarks.
The report's subheading is Report of the Hansard Society Commission on the Communication of Parliamentary Democracy, and that is what most of the debate has been about. It has also been suggested that we consider making it easier to communicate what we do. The Motion refers to participation in the political process. To a degree, those are two different things. Participation in the political process clearly includes communication of parliamentary democracy and involvement of people with what we do in each House; but participation, which I want to discuss in more detail, goes further than that. In doing so, I wish to make clear that I do not disagree fundamentally with the comments on political leadership made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, who said that it was time that politicians engaged in persuasion not spin, and that people deserved to be led not fed; nor do I disagree with most of what the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, said on the role of this House and its communication.
Page 14 of the report touches on other activities and suggests that direct political activities, including signing a petition, taking part in a demonstration, responding to a consultation or presenting views to an MP, have increased in recent years. It reports that the most recent audit of engagement by the Electoral Commission and the Hansard Society found that one adult in six is a political activist, and lists those activities as including signing a petition and writing to your MP. In my view, that does not constitute being much of an activist, if that is all you do.
I am aware that tradition always weighs heavily in this House—never more so than when my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter can quote her great-grandfather in such a debate. I am reminded that the Earl of Oxford and Asquith, as he was then, compared trying to make a speech in your Lordships' House to trying to speak in a poorly illuminated charnel house—I am not sure whether those were his exact words. We have advanced with the times a little: we now have electric lighting, electric clocks, microphones and even an annunciator for those sitting in the Gallery, so perhaps we can make some advances with such things as the electric Internet and electric television.
Democracy depends not just on the institutions of liberal democratic politics and representative democracy but also on people getting off their backsides and taking part actively in the political process. That might entail becoming involved in the formal institutions or in more direct action.
Recently, we have talked about the ancient rights of personal belief. In your Lordships' House, we have discussed the right of free speech in relation to the Bill on racial and religious hatred. We talk a bit less nowadays about rights of association, which I believe are just as important and fundamental. Mr Brian Haw has a tatty display in Parliament Square that upsets a lot of people in this building. I believe the fact that he has been able to do that, and continues to do it, despite so much of authority wanting him not to, is an outstanding statement of democracy in this country. But, in most cases, being effective is not something that people can do as individual acts; they have to associate with other people to organise it.
Democratic politics is an untidy, messy and difficult matter. If it is working properly, it should be awkward for authority. Nowadays, we tend to think far too much in terms of people taking part in carefully structured surveys, focus groups, citizens' panels and so forth. We talk about partnerships and organisations, which are ridiculously called stakeholders—a word that I believe should be banned in your Lordships' House, as well as everywhere else. We have the new burgeoning quangocracy of people who are appointed by authority to take part in the democratic system through those organisations. That is not real democracy. Real democracy is when people disagree and have big rows and conflicts which have to be resolved. In many ways, democracy is about having structures and institutions which allow conflicts to be resolved, even though people are angry and committed. Ultimately, a process has taken place in which they have been involved. It is not the structures or structural participation that matters, but whether people are able to get organised, associate themselves and put forward their views.
As a parliament, what should we do? We cannot force people to take part; to vote, to go on demonstrations, to write to the local newspaper or whatever else it is that they want to do. We can make sure that the institution of Parliament provides clear and full information for people who want it. There is a lot of very useful information in the report. I agree entirely with what people have said about the website, which I cannot find my way round.
We must be open in our proceedings rather than secretive, and less sensitive to outside criticism and people mobilising for their beliefs. We must be more receptive to listening and to engaging with people who want to engage with us. I have to say, in parenthesis, that if we are talking about the means of making Parliament more understandable to people outside, or even to those of us who are here, we need to concentrate in your Lordships' House on this House. If there is a lack of understanding of how Parliament as a whole works among the public and the journalists who are supposed to be in here, the lack of understanding of how this House works is almost complete. Time and again we have to explain to well known, competent journalists, in words of one syllable, how this House works, the procedures and how it relates to the House of Commons. We should be worried about that.
In my final few moments, I want to make a few comments about the Parliament Channel, which is brilliant as far as it goes. Far more people have watched it than have ever read Hansard. There are technical problems in many parts of the country. The picture is postcard size on about a quarter of the screen. I have no idea why that is. When you complain, you are just told that there is not enough power to do it properly. That needs sorting out.
The fact that the Parliament Channel provides continuous coverage is very good, but the annotation and explanation of what is going on is absolutely abysmal. For anyone who does not understand the procedures of this House it is almost impossible to follow them sensibly. There is no reason why that should be the case. Although some annotation is provided, nowadays we are used to 24-hour news services with strap lines running across the bottom of the screen and panels popping up to tell the viewer what is going on. That kind of information ought to be incorporated into the Parliament Channel. Perhaps it is only a silly point, but we ought to think about the words that are used to describe things. What does "Starred Questions" mean? It appears on the Parliament Channel. Simply renaming that business "Daily Question Time" would make it far more understandable.
I turn to some other aspects. For good reasons this Chamber moves seamlessly from one item of business to the next. That is fine within the House, but those watching from the outside find it meaningless. At one moment we are discussing one thing, and the next we have moved on to another. For example, this debate was announced with the words "The Lord Puttnam". Admirable though the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, is and admirable though this debate may be, apart from the fact that the noble Lord has sponsored it, those words do not describe what the debate is all about. Those responsible for broadcasting the Parliament Channel ought to look hard at ways of making it more comprehensible to the people who tune in. Again, we are perhaps all astonished to find out that people do actually watch it from time to time.
Lord Gould of Brookwood (Labour)
My Lords, first, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley, who made a terrific speech. It was a good speech because it reeked of integrity, of decency and of realism. If we want an example of the sort of politician whom the public respect, my noble friend is exactly that. She has always been popular and well respected. She is the kind of person who puts politics in a good light.
I congratulate my noble friend Lord Puttnam on producing an exemplary report. What is so impressive is that it is both honest about the seriousness of the problem and uncompromising in the radicalism of its solutions. I only wish that I could make films as well as my noble friend can write reports.
We do face a crisis of political engagement. If a visitor came from Mars and observed the polling in the last general election, their impression would not be that this party or that policy is preferred, but that the whole political process is viewed with something that approaches bemused contempt. In the Hansard Society report, Enhancing Engagement, the word "politics" is associated with sentiments like, "hypocrite", "dishonest", "liar", "self promotion", "greed", "selfish" and "disdainful", to name only some of the best of them. They are entirely typical. Let us have no illusions here; this is what the public are saying.
Politics are, in the first years of the 21st century, becoming a minority sport. The institutions of politics as we know them and often love them—we love them here—their procedures, culture, language and rules, are turning away the public they seek to serve. The game of politics is, by and large, played in the same way by the same old rules, but the stadium is increasingly empty and the crowd is melting away.
The crisis of political engagement has no single cause, a point which has been made clear in our debate. It flows from the whirlwind of change that has transformed so much in recent years. Globalisation has sucked power upwards, sweeping away the traditional geography of politics. Citizens feel increasingly insecure and disempowered. Consumer expectations have been transformed so that we accept as normal qualities such as choice, quality, responsiveness, consistency, personalisation, and even a measure of control. Traditional institutions have lost their right to unchallenged respect. Trust has to be earned and depends on authenticity, transparency, a moral cause and, increasingly, responsiveness.
The politics of Westminster have become divorced from the politics of the people. Mums in the focus groups that have become so popular in this House today recoil at the notion of politics, but are intensely political in their interests and their lives. Young people regard rejection of politics as normal but are involved in more political activity than ever before. Politics are like a river that has burst its bank and is flowing in one direction while the riverbed continues in another. Westminster politics goes one way, the people's politics another.
Finally, the supply of information has exploded; it is continuous, intensive, personal and interactive.
These factors alone would challenge politics, but compounding them is the breakdown in trust between politicians and the media which now contaminates so much of our political discourse. Steven Barnett, Professor of Media Studies at Westminster University, believes we have entered a "new age of media contempt", in which politicians are treated routinely as a lower form of life. On the other side, many in the media believe that it is the default mode of politicians to dissemble and it is the media's duty to expose this.
We have all become trapped in a circle of disengagement. Consumers with raised expectations, citizens with insecurities, a media edging towards the destructive, politicians who feel defensive in the face of unrelenting scrutiny—all these factors reinforce each other. The process does not start in one place alone and the solutions do not lie in one place alone. If we want to change politics, everyone—the media, political parties, citizens—will have to play their part. We are all responsible; we all have to make a difference.
But the challenge is vast. We have to move from the politics of disengagement to the politics of participation in which involvement is continuous, the political process accessible and political institutions responsive. This is a very long journey, but the first steps are clear.
We need a new settlement between media and politicians. The age of contempt has to end. Politicians need to be more open and more transparent; the media need to be less hostile and destructive. The London School of Economics and the University of the Arts in London are creating a joint initiative, in which I am involved, in an attempt to strengthen confidence in the media and to help restore trust between media and politics. The poison has to leave the system. Journalists have their job to do but politicians are, for the most part, decent people, serving the public interest as best they can, and both sides need to recognise this.
We need to modernise radically the institutions of politics. This is where the Hansard Society report is so useful and so right. Our political institutions must be shaped around politics as they are, not politics as we would like them to be. The key here is accessibility and responsiveness. This is an old building, but it is a fascinating one. We need everyone, not only the lucky few who visit or report on it, to see it as it is. Television coverage of Parliament should be as unconstrained as possible. We need to uproot Parliament and take it to the public. Parliamentary committees—even, possibly, the whole House on occasion—should move to regional centres. We need interactive communication between Parliament and the people. At first, this can be just communication, but then possibly petitions and citizen's initiatives with real political content.
We need to rethink what democracy means in the early 21st century. Democracy in this modern era cannot mean only elections every four years or so; we have to move to continual involvement and dialogue. As involvement increases, so does trust. Citizens' juries work. They are not a complete democratic model but they are a hothouse of democratic possibility. People need real mechanisms that involve them in decisions that affect them. Politics and political campaigning must become more local, more interactive, more of a partnership.
Finally, we need a new culture of politics. I have lost count of the number of times I have shown a television bulletin to a group of the electorate and they have looked on bemused and uncomprehending. They see politicians fighting and commentators interpreting arcane events in a way that simply leaves them cold. That is, incidentally, why the consensual character of this House, if only anyone knew about it, is so close to what the public now prefer.
The solution is not sensationalism or entertainment, but relevance. Everyone—politicians, reporters, commentators, the public—wants the same thing: they want the hard truth without embellishment, explained in language that people can understand.
People are wise. They know that the problems are complex, cannot be solved overnight, and may not even be solvable at all. They want to be treated as adults; they should be—they can take it. There is a very long way to go to fix all this. It will not be solved by one silver bullet but a complex myriad of solutions, but solved it will be, and this report is an outstanding place to start. I congratulate the authors of the report, and I congratulate my noble friend the Leader of the House on facilitating this debate.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury (Spokesperson in the Lords (Id Cards & Charities Bill), Home Affairs; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I, too, commend the Hansard Society for taking this initiative. I commend the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, for his chairmanship of the commission. Its 39 recommendations are, by and large, unarguable; they seem self-authenticating, and I shall refer to two of them. I commend the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, for a quite outstanding maiden speech, which others have properly praised. I also commend the information and education departments of this House which, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and others have said, do amazing work with tiny resources. We have fewer informational resources in this House than the average company has in its PR department. That is bizarre.
I spent between 1970 and 1983 trying to get elected to the other place and once to the European Parliament. Five times I was roundly rejected by the electorate, and I took the hint in 1983. However, I learnt vividly that the British electorate are, as others have said, not uninterested in politics. Rather, they are potentially passionately interested but, for reasons others have touched on and I do not intend to repeat, they feel apart from the processes here. It was evident even then. In trying to do something at grass-roots level, I set up a charity called the Citizenship Foundation. When I came here in 1998 I, like the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, made my maiden speech on citizenship and connectedness. That was the occasion on which we first discussed reform of this place. My point then was that unless we drew the public into deliberations on reform of this House, we would fail democracy and ourselves extremely badly, and I think that we did. We set up a committee but it had only eight public meetings; roughly 100 people came to each. The effort to draw in public engagement with reform here was, in my view, tragically inadequate.
Unless we can do this along the lines set out in the report and along the lines mentioned by noble Lords today, we will continue down this dismal path of citizen disengagement and sourness, leading to what I call a culture of disparagement of politics, which is deeply unhelpful to the process, unfair to the politicians and unsatisfactory to our citizenry.
To recover the political will and the interest of the electorate, we must do a number of things. First, we must show genuine interest in them. We simply cannot expect the public to be interested in us if, in truth, we are not interested in them. I am afraid that we demonstrate an extremely limited interest in them in all sorts of ways. Why, for example, as we take part in an accessible debate, which has been well trailed and has involved hundreds if not thousands of people, do we have—I added this up before I rose to speak—one person in the Press Gallery, two under the Bar, two in the Circular Gallery and 12 in the Public Gallery—there are a few more now—and 27 in the Chamber, with 21 speakers? That says a lot about the failings of this place and the failings of the process, and we need to go on asking why. I believe that we must reach out in every way possible. The principal mechanism suggested by the report—the new communications council or department—is central to what we do.
One of the things that we could very easily do tomorrow is for all of us to offer to speak outside this place to organisations who want speakers. It would be very simple to organise. I have no doubt that 600 out of the 690 of us would say yes and probably be willing to go and speak half a dozen times a year. If such a list were publicly available for organisations such as women's institutes, schools, parties and universities, that would be a good thing. We could have 5,000 speaking visits a year out of this place going to where people are rather than expecting them to come to us. That would be a very strong symbol, and we are short of outgoing symbols.
We must also take over-legislation seriously. It baffles us: it totally baffles the punter. It is not just the volume of legislation—13,408 pages in 2003—but its complexity. I do not know how many noble Lords have looked at the Identity Cards Bill, but it needs a lawyer to find his or her way round it. We have reached a pitch in our principal function of lawmaking that is utterly self-defeating. It is self-defeating in terms of the impact on the country and in terms of citizen adhesion and ownership of our processes. We are too top-down and we must take seriously localism and devolution in all sorts of ways. I am convinced of that, and it seems to me now to be virtually agreed between the main parties that we have to reach out by reaching down and letting people do for themselves what currently we are doing very badly for them.
Conduct has been referred to. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, was a little gentle on the other place. I do not think that people understand the ways of the other place as they see it on television. I think that I understand it myself, but yesterday's proceedings—as heard on the wireless and seen on television—were deeply inimical to a sense of public engagement with and understanding of what we are about and what we do.
Nobody has mentioned electoral reform. It is a highly partisan subject, I appreciate, but I put it to the House that there are far too few voters in this country who are represented in Parliament. I have never in my political life cast a vote for a successful candidate.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury (Spokesperson in the Lords (Id Cards & Charities Bill), Home Affairs; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I can hear the titters, but it is not good enough. We need a system where people feel that they have someone representing them in Parliament.
I want to commend Recommendation 18, which refers to citizenship education and the role that we can play in that. Citizenship came on to the curriculum in 2002. I would hate today to pass without saying how sad I am—and I think others may be—that David Blunkett was forced to resign yesterday. He was a fine Minister and is a fine man and the person who more than any other brought citizenship on to the curriculum against great opposition. Everyone now accepts it, but not enough is being done. David Bell, the OFT top man, was lecturing at John Moores University yesterday. He said that in one in five schools, citizenship education is still marginalised. He emphasised how citizenship education can reinvigorate education as a whole, making it exciting and relevant.
The noble Lord, Lord Weatherill, asked me to say how sad he was not to be here. He had an unbreakable engagement and wanted me to say:
"Good citizenship needs to be taught and it should not be left to chance. It is difficult to measure success, but with so many now in the field I hope that all of us together can make an impact".
What an impact he made as Speaker and later in this field.
I have two suggestions. First, we should abandon titles in this House. I am not suggesting that anyone who has one should lose it, but it is distancing and vaguely ludicrous to call life Peers Lord this and Baroness that. I genuinely think that it is a distancing, unnecessary encumbrance to the very thing that we are trying to do—present ourselves in a modern, democratic, ordinary light.
Secondly, I believe that people who do not attend this place with some degree of regularity should lose their place. That could be done quite simply by saying that if you do not attend six times a year, or something like that, you are out. People do not understand how this place can be a serious legislative House if a third or a quarter of Members are very rarely here. We must also make changes in silly things—such as the fact that the people sitting in the Public Gallery are not allowed to make notes of what we are saying, because it is against the rules of the House. That is stupid. It has nothing to do with the modern world. We should treat our visitors with respect. I had 40 of them in on Monday and it took them 20 minutes each to get through the security check. That is not respecting the public—this is their House, not ours.
Finally—and perhaps most cheekily, but still seriously—why on earth do we not have an illuminated sign outside St Stephen's Entrance saying "Vacancies in the House of Lords", "Vacancies in the House of Commons"? Have you ever seen the galleries full in this place? No—and when you ask why, you get a very unsatisfactory answer. There are a lot of things we could do, big and small. Thanks, once more, to the Hansard Society commission.
Lord Sawyer (Labour)
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, on this issue, and I believe that what I have to say fits nicely with his contribution. He is a bit of a mentor of mine in these matters, and I want him to know that if I had had the opportunity to vote for him in those elections, I would have done so—provided that they were elections in which he was the Labour candidate.
I congratulate my noble friend Lady Morris on her maiden speech. As we would expect, it was thoughtful, reflective and wise, and those are the qualities among many others that my noble friend will bring to these Benches—which are the ones that I care most about, of course—and to the wider House. I am sorry that I was late for this debate, because I wanted to come to listen, although that may be a new concept, and I particularly wanted to hear the contribution of my noble friend Lord Puttnam. I am pleased that he has been able to pass me a copy of his speech to read before I make my contribution. The work of the noble Lord's commission is excellent and outstanding; it follows on the work of the Newton commission, of which I had the privilege and opportunity to be a member, and goes with the grain of trying to bring Parliament closer to the people, as all noble Lords have said. That is a very important and necessary task for the health of our democracy.
At some point in our history we shall need a Prime Minister who gets really passionate about these matters. In the copy of the speech that the noble Lord gave me, I was able to read that he was receiving good soundings and a good response from Ministers. But I hope that in future we shall have a Prime Minister who is really passionate about modernising Parliament. Those of us who have worked with Tony Blair know how passionate he was about modernising his own party. It was very important to him; he used to say to the electorate, before he had the chance to show his credentials as Prime Minister, "I have modernised my party, can I modernise the country?" He has attempted to do so, and the success of that or otherwise will be the subject of another debate; but clearly he did not have the same passion for modernising Parliament. I hope in future that one of the parties represented here will produce a leader and a Prime Minister who does, because it will take a big change in culture to make the steps forward that noble Lords have talked about this afternoon.
My take on this subject is probably quite different from that of other people, because I think of Parliament as a place of work, and as a place where people come to make legislation, make speeches, ask questions, or support or challenge governments. People come for all kinds of different reasons, but this is actually a place of work—and I have been thinking about how that relates to the places of work where I spend most of time. As many noble Lords do, I spend a lot of time in places of work outside Parliament and I spend a lot of time with people who earn less than the national average wage, so perhaps I have some understanding of how it is for people like that.
I looked for three key words that people in the world of work outside Parliament would expect to see, and I came up with the words "fairness", "equality" and "merit". That is what modern workplaces are like today, both in the public and private sectors, and when people go to work that is what they expect to see. They expect to experience fair employment policies, equality of opportunity and promotions based on merit. I asked myself, what would be the key words I would use to describe this place of work? In order to make the point, perhaps my choice has been a bit extreme, but I hope your Lordships will go with it so I can make us all think, which is the intention of my contribution. The three words I chose for Parliament were Úlitism, patronage and privilege.
We all recognise that we are by definition something of an Úlite. We cannot avoid that. In the other place, the disconnection from any constituency, the long hours, the criticism by the media and the close attention paid to the words of parliamentarians makes us an Úlite, but we have to guard against Úlitism. We must look at ways in which we can practise humility. We have to develop our listening skills as much as we develop our speaking skills, and we have a long way to travel in that respect. Most of all, we must learn from people who are not parliamentarians about how it is for them and how they perceive us. Many of the speeches made by noble Lords this afternoon have reflected the importance of that learning process and the fact that many noble Lords are involved in it.
I tried to think of a good example of a non-Úlite politician, and I came across the example of Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, getting on the Tube and going to work with Londoners straight after the bombing. This was not a photo-opportunity, which we see so often in politics when politicians go to places and look normal for five minutes before coming back and being an Úlite. It was a man practising something that was not Úlitist; he travels to work every day in the same way as the people he represents. It was so important that he could continue his practice and show solidarity with the people of London. It is not easy to find other examples, but the principle is that those of us involved in politics should explore more ways of showing that we are not Úlites, and that we can express solidarity and connectedness with the people we claim to speak for.
There is also the word "patronage". When I was the general secretary of the Labour Party, new MPs—or candidates about to become MPs—would come to me and ask what they should do to get on in Parliament, and I would often say: "Find a patron. Find a senior politician with whom you have an affinity, work with them, look to help and support them, and by that means you will probably find that if you work hard and make sensible speeches supporting the Government, you will probably have advancement". I did not say: "Have a good look at the job description". I did not say: "Reflect on the person specifications", "Take your appraisal very seriously" or: "Have a good discussion with the chief executive about your personal development programme". I said none of those things, because, although they apply in a huge way outside Parliament, they do not apply here.
I am not saying we can eliminate patronage; it is probably important to how the place works. However, we could at least try, particularly through the noble Lord's suggestion of a chief executive and some kind of council, to consider how some of the practices that work in normal workplaces—and that encourage people to grow, develop, change and train—can be linked to the well tried systems we have here. That might change the opinion, often held outside this place, that Parliament depends on patronage rather than the criteria that work in other people's lives.
Finally, there is privilege. How do you define privilege? Often, the standing of politics is not enhanced by politicians in the other place—who, in the eyes of the voters, earn reasonably good salaries—taking jobs outside Parliament that also pay good salaries. When I was a young man, people expected MPs to do their work for a salary and not take on other work. I do not want to be "hairshirt" about this. Certainly it is important that noble Lords work outside Parliament, and it is probably important that MPs do so. However, one needs to be sensitive to the effect that has on people, as one needs to be sensitive to feelings of unfairness and resentment that can arise among people outside Parliament regarding the provision of grace and favour homes. A good reforming government that wanted to do something about the way in which Parliament was perceived could consider that matter. Obviously, no one would deny the importance of a Prime Minister having a place to which he could take visitors and guests and where he can spend his leisure time. But in the modern world is it possible to have a parliamentary conference centre where Ministers could book suites to spend a weekend with colleagues from abroad? The same building could be used by non-parliamentarians. Is there a different way of creating a space that it is perceived senior politicians need, but not providing what seem to be grace and favour homes?
Those are just a few reflections that I wanted to make on the subject. The debate has concentrated very much on communication. The fundamental question concerns what we communicate. These are challenging words. They may not be the best words or widely accepted, but if we communicate patronage, Úlitism and privilege, we are wasting our time because we are communicating the wrong things. As time moves on, if we can make the changes that have been outlined in the report and try sincerely to get closer to the people and start to communicate fairness, equality and merit, we will have a chance of changing Parliament for the better.
Lord McNally (Leader In the House of Lords; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, that was a typically thought provoking contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Sawyer. Without destroying the non-partisan nature of the debate, I leave a further thought to provoke him—that in the ninth year of a majority Labour Government he still finds problems with Úlitism, patronage and privilege. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Gould, could send a copy of his speech to the Prime Minister—we know that he reads his memos very closely—because if we are to get any of the changes that have been debated today, we shall need real enthusiasm and commitment from the very top.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme, pointed out that the report is a Hansard Society production. However, in the way that it has developed it bears all the hallmarks of a Puttnam production. There have been some outstanding performers, a little glamour, some cameo roles for distinguished old thespians and "A Star is Born" with the outstanding speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley. However, she cannot imagine how old it makes me feel when I say that I remember serving in the other place with the noble Baroness's father and uncle. It was an outstanding speech.
This is an important debate about the importance of Parliament. I thought that the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Gould, was a little doom laden but he was right to tell us that there was no single silver bullet regarding the issues that we are discussing. When she replies to the debate the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will not be able to say that we have not suggested initiatives. My noble friend Lord Phillips suggested signs being put outside the House saying that seats were available. A number of noble Lords rightly pointed out the revolutionary impact that a proper use of website, and interactivity on that website, could achieve. My noble friend Lord Tyler suggested holding a parliament week. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, suggested having a new visitor centre. Central to the whole report is the concept of a communications department under an all-party administration.
Certainly, I consider the website an attractive concept. Having slightly lived my life backwards, I now find myself in early old age with teenage children. Watching how they use their website is, for me, revolutionary. They do not lack any interest in politics. My 15 year-old son goes on to chat rooms where they debate all kinds of things, and people from all parts of the world join in.
Lord McNally (Leader In the House of Lords; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, it is interesting that the noble Lord should ask that. I do not usually follow the chat rooms in detail, but the other night he got a message on a chat room where the intervener said that the reason why my son took a particular point of view was that his father was a well-known left-wing radical. I instantly made him download it, and I can distribute it to any doubting colleagues—it did not say which secure unit the contributor was being held in. The point is that the Internet is a way of getting young people involved.
We can use this building far better. There are too many restrictions and too many excuses. I agree with my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter; I am worried that security will now take the place of cost as a reason for doing nothing. I would use this Chamber for youth parliaments when we are not using it. I would let people much more into the building; there is a great deal more scope. I like the idea of Parliament going on the road in some aspects and signing up for the ideas suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, of speaking tours and the creation of more information for visitors when they come here. They all have their attractions, and the unit proposed by the report, with such a mandate and with a proper budget, could start making this place work more effectively.
A few months ago, I suggested during Question Time that we turn this place into a museum of democracy and we move into a whole new Parliament building. There was the usual lifting of skirts at that, but the problem is that the building imposes its own conservatism. However, I also have some sympathy with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, because I do not want to see us dumbing down in a desire to communicate. The point made by my noble friend Lord Greaves about making things more simple and understandable is valid, but some of the courtesies and rituals are important. In giving evidence to a committee the other day, I said that if you start looking like Croydon Council, you start getting treated like Croydon Council. I say that with no disrespect to that fine local authority—I know how to secure a postbag.
One point I want to raise is media coverage. I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Currie, resisted the suggestion that Ofcom should take over our regulation. It is one of the few times that I have seen Ofcom not wanting to empire-build, so I congratulate him on that. He also resisted Ofcom having oversight of the print media, so we shall have to leave it to think about its role in a democracy. The broadcast media are accountable, which is why I have been so enthusiastic in my support for a strong charter for the BBC. It is no accident that all studies show that broadcast news, with its responsibility for balance, is much more trusted by the people. Print journalists should ponder that and worry about it. A study by Cardiff University showed that over 70 per cent of people said that basically they trusted the news they heard on radio or television. About 10 per cent trusted what they read in a red-top newspaper. If I were a journalist, I would worry about my own profession rather than about the body politic.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, paid compliment to the Parliament channel. However, it has always mystified me that we are told that we will all watch 400 channels very soon, yet we get one channel—as he pointed out, in certain parts of the country it gives you only a postage-stamp picture—and if the Commons is going through the most dull and mundane business but there is a debate of real public interest in this Chamber, the Commons is still automatically given the live coverage. It happened the other week when there was the debate on the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe. In the morning, all the papers were saying that there would be a debate in the Lords that afternoon about assisted suicide but, if you switched on the Parliament channel, you would have seen three MPs discussing some routine business.
There is much more opportunity for promotion. I think that it is mentioned in the paper. We see BBC Four programmes promoted on BBC1, so why not say on the main channels, "Tomorrow on the Parliament channel the Lords or the Commons will be debating X, Y or Z"? That would get people involved. I am told that you can arrange on your Internet for a message to pop up about various things. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, mentioned how Amazon uses that effectively. That kind of idea about pushing out information is important.
Reference was made to Robin Cook. What do Dick Crossman, Norman St John-Stevas—the noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley—and Robin Cook all have in common? They have in common that, when in the hot seat, they took the opportunity to press through real reform. I hope that Mr Hoon and the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will go and tell the Prime Minister that, if he is looking for a legacy, this is the moment to get a real communications strategy for Parliament that would greatly strengthen our democracy.
Baroness Wilcox (Spokesperson In the Lords, Cabinet Office; Conservative)
My Lords, it has been an excellent and valuable debate, and I take the opportunity to thank the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, for introducing it today. It is also a great pleasure to welcome to this House the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, who made her maiden speech today. As we have heard from other noble Lords, her reputation goes before her from the other place. Her integrity and personal honesty will be very welcome in this House, and I look forward to hearing her speak here in the years ahead. I will say, naughtily, that I rather recoiled at the idea of Offgov, yet another regulatory body. This Government is rather keen on them; I was hoping that she meant it as a joke.
The 120 pages of the report, which is indelibly associated with the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, reflect the scale and intensity of the work done by him and his colleagues on improving public engagement with Parliament. I congratulate him and his team on their commitment to that. A great deal in the report is good, but I fear that a good deal also somewhat misses the point. The point is that a major part of the business that we are in is line-by-line scrutiny of complex draft legislation. That will never be exhilarating television, however skilful are the panning shots or enthusiastic the reaction shots that we could imagine during a speech by, say, the noble Lord, Lord Gould, who spoke so eloquently today, or my noble friend Lady Shephard, who brought us news of her work with London University and the Sorbonne.
There is no one for whom I have a greater admiration in this area than the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. But even he would be hard-pressed to take the second sitting of the Grand Committee on the Commissioner for Older People (Wales) Bill to the top of the ratings. The reality—and I follow and extend the reference by the noble Lord, Lord Currie of Marylebone, to a football match—is that if we were to view each group of amendments as a football match, we would play out three or four goalless draws for every game with a goal. Cup shocks—government defeats—come pretty rarely. In 2004–05, 3,306 amendments were laid; 913 were made, but the Government lost only 36 times. That makes one cup shock every 90 games. That is a bit boring and is scarcely the stuff to get people rushing to their screens or to our Public Gallery.
We know that in the midst of those obscure proceedings and the dialogue across the Chamber, valuable work is done. Avoidable injustices are avoided. Impending mistakes are corrected. Ministers are careful to consider points that are raised in debate and are ready to alter their view. It is useful work, but it is frequently dull, as the empty seats in the Moses Room or in the Chamber show all too often. If we do not watch every word ourselves, how can we expect the public to do so?
We cannot alter the nature of our work, and I do not think that we should. Indeed, concern with procedure—where we have made many major changes in recent years as part of the Williams reforms—obscures the real issue, which is whether the two Houses of Parliament are doing their job to the full in sceptically reviewing the work of the Executive. I do not think that they are. Scrapping the fine old term "Strangers" or trying to abolish the office of the Lord Chancellor—part of processional ceremonies that every tourist who visits Parliament has read about in their books—does not bring us closer to the people. It merely drains colour from what we have, as my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon described much better than I could.
All my life in business says to me that we should spend less time worrying about such trivia and more time worrying about whether our basic business of holding the Executive to account is performing. We should do all that we can, and the report has many valuable suggestions to communicate better and to secure more attention for the work of the Select Committees of this House. We should also try to reach out to young people, although I note that the Prime Minister has had the power of patronage for eight years and the average age of Labour Peers appointed by him in the past two years is 60.
The report is full of ingenious ideas about how we could reach out. I most definitely agree that our parliamentary website should be made more accessible, easily navigable and comprehensible. We should not lose sight of the work that the Clerks of this House are already doing on that, but I have no doubt that the report will encourage them to go further.
I also pay tribute, as has the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, and others, to the work of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth and our party's Commission to Strengthen Parliament. Many recommendations, and indeed many recommendations in the Puttnam report, concerned another place. I am interested in the idea of a petitions committee, on the model of the Scottish Parliament, but would like to know more about how it might work in practice. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, that we must look at easing restrictions on media access to the Palace of Westminster. I am not averse to the idea of committees meeting outside London, but with daily attendances averaging only 388 in the previous Session, we need to be mindful of the pressure on both noble Lords and the staff of the House who would be involved in manning committees of the House, Grand Committees, Select Committees and committees outside London all at the same time. One of the great strengths of this House is the value for money that we represent. Every change we make needs to be measured against that—more politicians and more political staff are not high on the public's wish list.
I commend, in particular, the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, for more post-legislative scrutiny. Let us just look at some recent legislation: the Licensing Act, the Gambling Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the European Parliamentary and Local Elections (Pilots) Act with its removal of the right to the secret ballot, to name but a few. In all those cases, would Ministers not have benefited from the opportunity to consider how their legislation was working out before it was finally visited on the public? Effective post-legislative scrutiny could help Ministers to pull back from, say, 24-hour drinking and might provide the basis for the swift, agreed amending or clarifying of legislation. Working with existing committees, it could also give Parliament a chance to look carefully at, and propose changes to, all those secondary powers spawned by giant Bills, such as the Communications Bill, which we are never able to look at properly during their passage through this House.
Heaven knows, does not this House's experience with the Home Office's ill-thought-out Bill amended by ill-thought-out Bill Session after Session, make the case for Puttnam post-legislative scrutiny? Surely we should help the Home Office to get its ideas right before releasing another Rolf Harris pushmi-pullyu of a Bill on an unsuspecting world. I like that suggestion: I wonder what practical proposals the noble Baroness the Leader of the House has for bringing it into effect. I back, too, the idea of putting more effort into education and outreach work, although again resource and member issues are involved.
In many ways, we are the junior partner to another place. We have different perspectives and different roles. It would be all too easy for Members of this House and the interests of this House to be put at the back of the queue in joint structures.
I end where I began. We must improve communications where we can without losing the essence of what we are here to do. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, was a little disparaging about the authors of the Magna Carta in his foreword to the report. But from Magna Carta down we have built precious freedoms: trial by jury; habeas corpus; freedom of movement without a need to identify oneself; and freedom from detention without trial. Too many of those are being eroded, and time and again this House has stood up for them. I have not noticed any lack of interest on those occasions. People are interested in what we are doing when what we are doing is interesting. I doubt whether we need a large communications apparatus to get people to take an interest in our debates about detention without charge.
Part of the confusion about what goes on in Parliament results from far too much complex and unnecessary legislation put forward by all governments, far too much otiose regulation that Parliament cannot halt or amend, and far too many priorities chosen by governments that are not the priorities of the public. It is as well to call Parliament to account and to ask us all to communicate better. But government, too, have a major responsibility to help Parliament do its job. Too often this House is treated as if it were the enemy of the Executive and not a partner in delivering better government. As many noble Lords have said today, convincing government to engage with Parliament is a communications challenge of a wholly different order. And it is, I submit, probably even more important and far more urgent than many of the themes set out in this worthy report.
Baroness Amos (President of the Council, Privy Council Office; Labour)
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Puttnam on chairing the Hansard Society Commission which produced this report and on giving us the opportunity to have what has been a very interesting and thought-provoking debate. I said to my noble friend at the beginning of the debate that I was faced with a real test of my commitment to Parliament today because I gave up attendance at a lunch with Tina Turner to be here. I also extend my thanks for the report to all the commissioners, including, in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler.
I also congratulate my noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley on her excellent maiden speech. I am sure that the House, together with me, looks forward to hearing her future contributions.
The report raises issues of great importance to Parliament. Many of the report's recommendations are directed at another place and it is not for me or this House to comment on how another place conducts its affairs. However, the report and all speakers have shown that there are many ways in which this House can improve its relationship with the public, particularly on communication. At the outset, I pay tribute to the work of the Hansard Society and to the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham. The Hansard Society has set out a wide range of issues and recommendations on how Parliament can conduct itself, which have been of great value over years.
The report offers this House an opportunity that I hope we shall grasp. My noble friend Lord Sawyer used three words to describe our house: elitism, patronage and privilege. The report shows how the public sum up their view of Parliament by saying that Parliament lacks a contemporary personality, and that it is seen as boring, old-fashioned and formal, dating from a different age when people would stop and listen to those better and wiser. If that is the reality of how we are seen, there is much that we can do to bring about a change.
This afternoon many speakers have touched on our responsibilities as parliamentarians to the people we serve, not in this House as their elected representatives but as members of the second Chamber, with a responsibility to scrutinise legislation, to amend it and, ultimately, to pass it. In that role we serve the public and the failure to communicate effectively is a failure to serve effectively. I believe we are all chastened by the declining rate of voter participation and the apparent disengagement of young people from politics. There can be no greater reprimand in a parliamentary democracy than that its activities are seen as opaque and meaningless by our citizens.
I am heartened by the tone of the debate this afternoon and by the ideas that noble Lords have put forward for making this House more accessible. This is a matter for the House; it is not a matter for government. It is in that spirit that I answer the debate. I say to the noble Lords, Lord Norton of Louth and Lord McNally, that this House can take the lead. To do that we need to be serious about what we want to achieve. Many suggestions have been made this afternoon and towards the end of my speech I shall make a suggestion about how we should take them forward.
I have given a great deal of thought to ways in which we can encourage greater youth engagement with Parliament. I agree with my noble friend Lord Puttnam that it can be done. We shall need to be creative, innovative and ambitious. We should be serious about changing our relationship to the outside world. I say the "outside world" advisedly, because sometimes it seems like "us", the world of the Westminster village, and "them", the rest of the world.
I strongly agree with my noble friend Lady Morris about the vibrancy of our democracy and the general interest that continues to exist in politics. I do not have a constituency—I would not be here if I did—but I talk to a lot of people and there is a lot of interest in both domestic and global issues. People have very strong views and they have no problem communicating those views when one talks to them. They have views which they want us to hear. On that, I agree with my noble friend Lord Gould. I also agree with my noble friend Lord Puttnam and others that while there is disengagement from party-political processes and from our institutions, including Parliament, there has been a rise and an interest in specific issues which require political leadership and a political response. So it is not a one-sided issue and it is important that we remember and recognise that. Indeed, the introduction of Chapter 2 of the report makes that point.
That institutional disenchantment is not, overall, political disenchantment or disengagement. We should remember that people engage with the work of this House on an issue about which they feel strongly or which they feel affects their day-to-day lives. Some 15,000 members of the public wrote to the Select Committee on Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill. Fifteen thousand people connected what was happening here with an issue that mattered to them. And it also made the news in a way that gave authority and profile to the work of this House—something we are not always able to achieve.
The comments I have heard today lead me to the conclusion that we in this House need a communications strategy, with the aim of promoting the work of the House, focusing on the valuable work that is done not only here in the Chamber but also in committees. The noble Lords, Lord Puttnam, Lord Currie and Lord Howarth, alluded to the importance of that.
The great strength of this House lies in its ability to tackle big, complex issues and to do so thoroughly and impartially. But it also has a day-to-day task, described by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, in terms of the scrutiny of legislation. The fact that we have the opportunity to think about some of the big, complex moral issues which face our society, and that we can consider them before any government are able to take them forward legislatively, gives us a real opportunity. I am sure that the outside world would see that as an important and valuable part of our work.
Perhaps I may add a personal view—a plug, if you like. If this House were to go down the route of having a presiding officer, that would be an appropriate figure to give authority to a communications strategy representing the work of the House. It would not be the work of government or of a party or any individual Peer; it would be the work of the totality of contributions made by this House as a legislating Chamber. That communications strategy could include a comprehensive approach to promoting the work of your Lordships' committees. And more committees might consider holding meetings outside Westminster and London, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. Indeed, our committees might consider ways in which they can take greater steps to listen to the views of the public on the issues they are investigating; for example, through online communication.
My noble friend Lord Gould and the noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, stressed the importance of the coverage of activities in Parliament. There is no reason why we should not ask the Information Committee, for example, to look at the rules governing television coverage in this House. It was, after all, your Lordships' House which led the way to broadcasting proceedings from Parliament when it decided in 1983 to let the cameras in. The other place followed in 1989.
The broadcasting contract is due for renewal next year. It is an opportunity to reconsider whether the rules are too narrowly drawn. In that respect, I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally.
I hesitate to say any more about the wider role of the media, which was a theme picked up by several noble Lords. The reason that I hesitate is that although there are some real issues about the role of our media that we need to consider as a Parliament, as a Minister and a member of Cabinet, anything that I say from this Dispatch Box about the role of the media will be misinterpreted. So I will say no more, but I think that the whole issue of our relationship with the media and the interpretation of the political events in our country is something that one of the committees of the House may consider in more depth.
Many noble Lords know that I would like an expansion of the education programme that would make the House accessible to young people and students, especially when the House is not sitting. I have been told that the House could give permission for the Chamber to be used for the finals of the national debating competition, for example. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, raised that point. That would be an innovative way of engaging a new generation with the work of the House. It would be going beyond the heritage tour and giving our young people a better understanding of what this House does.
The noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, had another idea about a debating chamber close to Parliament. Again, that idea is worthy of consideration. I can report to the House that progress has already been made in expanding the visitors programme for schools and colleges run by the Parliamentary Education Unit. Former teachers have been recruited to develop outreach programmes with local education authorities and schools. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, that there is no reason why more Members of this House should not go out as part of a wider outreach programme. Indeed, I think that that will be something that the Information Office would be happy to do if the resources were available.
The House has endorsed the recommendation for a new visitor centre. Construction is due to begin on-site in January next year and it is planned to complete the work by the time of the return of both Houses in October 2006. Again, that will offer a great opportunity to extend the wider interest in Parliament and its activities.
I was not surprised to read in the Puttnam report that even seasoned journalists admitted to having difficulties finding their way around parliamentary documents. I think that we have all had that problem at some time or other. How many of us were baffled by the language and procedures when we first arrived in this place? How many of us have, over time, got used to them and stopped realising how strange they may sound to the outside world? The challenge for us must be to continue to view the language and procedures with outsiders' eyes—a point powerfully made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves—and to seek to change them where it is needed. I emphasise, where it is needed—I am not advocating change for the sake of it. Our objective should be to make our language and procedures as transparent and as clear to the outside world as possible.
I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, and the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, that tradition and history can lend our proceedings dignity and, indeed, a quirky charm. However, I think that we could be more rigorous in thinking about what works and what does not. I agree with my noble friend Lady Morris about the importance of considering change as a way of facing the future.
Many noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Puttnam and the noble Lords, Lord Currie, Lord Norton of Louth, Lord Tyler, Lord Greaves and Lord McNally, talked about the importance of using new technology. An improved website to engage people, especially young people, and draw them into our work is achievable. I understand that plans for that are already under way. There is no reason why our website should not be interactive, looking outwards not inwards and drawing in views as well as putting out information. Many organisations, including other parliaments, already take advantage of new technology to reach people in new and innovative ways. This House could learn much from practices elsewhere.
I should like to pick up on four final points—I may have lost count as I have been dealing with each point as I go through my speech. The first is accountability and our overall effectiveness as an organisation. I agree with the noble Lords, Lord Norton of Louth, Lord Jopling and Lord Tyler, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, and the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, who talked about the importance of the substance of what we do and communicating that to the public. My noble friend Lord Sawyer also talked about the importance of what we communicate.
In response to the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, who keeps me on my toes with Questions for Written Answer, I agree that the Government need to improve but I remind him that, since
The noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, mentioned the importance of government being more accessible and communicating more effectively. I feel that the Government have a track record of seeking the views of the public on policy issues. We have consulted them on a wide range of policy issues relevant to individuals in society, including GM crops, disability, sustainable development and NHS services. The House may not realise that earlier this year the Home Office launched a cross-departmental initiative called Together We Can, which commits the Government to help citizens to work with public bodies to set and achieve common goals. As part of that initiative there are specific plans to increase democratic participation by raising understanding of political processes. The Department for Constitutional Affairs, in partnership with the Hansard Society and the Association for Citizenship Teaching, has just commissioned the development of a teaching resource dedicated to explaining Parliament and its work, to be used in schools. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, who reminded the House that it was this Government who introduced citizenship teaching. He did it by reference to David Blunkett, but it is a reference that I will pick up because it is important to value the role that my right honourable friend played in that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, mentioned that the explosion in methods of communication made it much harder for us as a parliament to communicate. I agree with that. But, even in recognising that, we have a responsibility to look at whether we can use those new and different methods to enhance our relationship to the wider public. A point about accessibility and security was made by my noble friend Lord Puttnam and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury. I think that we are all agreed that while we have to be conscious of security, particularly given our responsibilities to staff who work here, we need to find the right balance between security and accessibility.
I have to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that I was a little surprised, because I felt her speech was slightly outside the spirit of our debate. I believe that Parliament and government have a common interest in strengthening post-legislative scrutiny. From the Government's point of view, it could help to ensure that our aims are delivered in practice and that the considerable resources devoted to legislation are committed to good effect. We have therefore been giving very close consideration to how post-legislative scrutiny can best be achieved. We have asked the Law Commission to undertake a study of the options. I have to say to the noble Baroness, who mentioned a whole raft of Bills, some of which are not even yet operative, that in order to carry out post-legislative scrutiny effectively it would be sensible to wait to see what impact those Bills have.
In conclusion, the report rightly points out that clear political leadership is essential if change is to be achieved. The House authorities can assist us in providing opportunities for our work to become more accessible and open to the general public. But they are not responsible for those decisions and they cannot be the sole drivers for change. I would like to propose that we refer all the proposals made today to the relevant committees for consideration. I would be very happy to look back over the debate, consider the suggestions that have been made and perhaps place one or two sides of A4 in the Library making it clear to which committee each suggestion or recommendation has been referred.
I was a little surprised that, at the same time as participants in the debate were extolling the importance of the independence of Parliament and that it was seen as separate from government, from the Executive, it is government who are being pressed to bring about the changes proposed in the report. If Parliament is to communicate effectively and engage fully with the public that it serves, the leadership must come from its Members. That is a challenge for all of us, collectively. It will require time, energy, co-operation and good will. If it is to happen, let us be honest with ourselves.
The views expressed today do not necessarily reflect the views across this House. I have seen sensible proposals for change go no further because of a fear of change. That is part of the challenge that we face collectively as Members of this House. We have to be honest about that. There is no point in participants in this debate expecting me to deliver those changes. I am one individual and, sometimes, one lone voice on many of the committees on which I sit. It is sometimes a little peculiar to find that, as a member of the Government and a member of the Cabinet, I am the one making suggestions about the way in which this House can fully exercise its independence.
The responsibility rests with noble Lords. It is a challenge, but I am sure that it is one to which all can rise.
Lord Puttnam (Labour)
My Lords, first I thank my noble friend the Leader of the House for an incredibly constructive and honest summing up. I shall try to use the short time available to me as best I can.
I want to pick up on something said by the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox. The noble Baroness knows how fond I am of her, but she made a comment which stunned me momentarily, but now I see that she has done me an enormous favour. She suggested that I was in some way depreciating the framers of the Magna Carta. My instinctive reaction was to say that I was not, but on looking again I can see how that implication might be possible. She is right. I start my introduction to the report with the words, "We the people", and go on to quote:
"Government of the People by the People for the People".
It is probably entirely fair to say that the framers of the Magna Carta, Barons as they were, never seriously considered the concepts of "We the people" or "Government by the people for the people". That was just not within their frame of reference. The challenge we face is to make absolutely sure that, almost 1,000 years later, we are not from time to time guilty of making the same mistake.
The noble Baroness made another legitimate point when she said that the report does not pay enough attention to the extraordinary amount of scrutinising work carried out in this House. The motto on our coat of arms should possibly read, "The devil is in the detail", but it would immediately be suggested that the motto should be in Plantagenet French, and a lot of its meaning would be lost.
I join all noble Lords in congratulating my noble friend Lady Morris of Yardley on her remarkable maiden speech. For five years my noble friend was my boss, and she was a terrific boss. If she is half as good a parliamentarian in this House as she was a joy to work for, I can promise noble Lords that we are all very lucky.
I have a couple of quibbles. The noble Lord, Lord Jopling, suggested that membership of Select Committees is less than something sought after in another place. My experience is the exact opposite. I think that the pressure to get on to a Select Committee, certainly that exerted by newer Members of that House, is enormous. Perhaps things have changed over the years.
My noble friend Lord Howarth of Newport said that satisfaction levels in the National Assembly for Wales were poor. We looked into this quite carefully and I am sure that he will be interested to know that while it is true that they started from a low base, year on year, things have been improving. That is not unconnected to the communications strategy that has been adopted by the Welsh Assembly. While I am sure there is room for improvement, this offers real hope too.
My strongest criticism is reserved for myself. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe of Aberavon, and I have had several conversations about the fact that not enough reference is made to the House of Lords in this report. A good psychologist would be able to explain this to me. I think that the reason is that I am so enormously proud, and sometimes even in awe, of the work done by the House that, surrounded as I was by colleagues with less understanding of it, I became too timorous and therefore did not push anything like hard enough in pressing the case for this House. I deeply regret that and I apologise to the House almost unreservedly.
Along with other noble Lords, I also thank the Hansard Society. I should say to your Lordships that to go to breakfast with the noble Lord, Lord Holme, then to be asked to chair a committee, to say yes, and then to find that you have taken on a life's work is something all noble Lords should think twice about. I do not regret it for a moment. It has been one of the great pleasures of my life and my colleagues on the staff of the Hansard Society have been absolutely exemplary.
I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for referring to the chart on page 33 of the report. If noble Lords sensed a feeling of frustration in my opening remarks, this is where it lies. By any stretch of the imagination, the organisational structure of the two Houses is daft. It would have been nice had someone put up their hand and said, "You are right. It is one of those things which has just developed over the years. It makes no sense whatsoever and of course we are going to redo it". Not so. What actually happens is that the tin hats come on, rather lame justifications are made, and no one has yet said that the structure is a nonsense and will be changed. That may also be why we heard a certain frustration in the remarks of my noble friend Lord Gould of Brookwood, and in those of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. It is for this reason that we get frustrated. It is not because we want in any way to disparage the House or the people who work for it but because we constantly sense that really good ideas, thoughtful ideas—debates such as the one we have had today—end up going straight down some unknown drain into the River Thames. It is extremely frustrating.
Perhaps I may make a couple of other small points. The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, referred to television. She and I share a background. Please accept that, from our perspective, what goes on here in the way in which this House is projected to the outside world is utterly inexplicable. We are asking the television audience at home to watch something that they never see at any other time of their lives—no cutaway shots, no reaction shots, no close-ups. It is barmy—there is no possible justification for it—and I genuinely believe that it will change.
Let me lastly pick up on the interesting point made by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, about the debate on Monday of last week on assisted dying. The noble Lord is absolutely right: it was well trailed over the weekend, it received a great deal of attention and an enormous number of letters were received. At the other end of the Corridor, the Civil Aviation Bill was being debated. I counted six Members present. But the debate that went out live was the one on the Civil Aviation Bill. Our debate was transmitted the following day. Why? It is not the BBC's fault. The BBC does not have the ability flexibly to schedule the output; it is our decision.
At the nub of this is a real worry. If there is—and this may be what the Leader of the House was suggesting—such rigidity and rivalry between the two Houses that that kind of problem cannot be sorted out, then, my Lords, it is just possible that today's debate has been a fruitless exercise.
I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.