My Lords, I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise the issue of how Parliament communicates with members of the public. It is crucial to the health of our political system that there is effective communication between Parliament and public. Parliament does not, and should not, operate in a vacuum. What we do should be accessible to members of the public, and we should be alert to the views, and the knowledge, of people outside the Palace of Westminster.
"The public have an absolute right to know what happens in Parliament, as well as a right to participate. The public should be able to understand proceedings, to contribute to inquiries and to access all forms of information about Parliament".
The commission recommended a major overhaul of Parliament's communications structure. The report was published in 2005. Since then, we have seen some significant developments and I think it essential that I open by acknowledging what has already been achieved.
We have come a long way since the days when reporting the proceedings of Parliament was an offence. Members of the public can now not only read our proceedings but watch them on television. Recent years in particular have seen a major investment in resources. All public meetings are web-cast, either via audio, automated web camera or broadcast video coverage. Broadcasters have greater opportunities to broadcast from within the Palace. The amount of material that is available on the Parliament website is extensive. Visitors to the site can read and download anything from committee reports through to deposited papers. Users can sign up to a wide range of alerts through QuickSubscribefor new material published on the website. There is extensive educational material, ranging from the Education Service website through to the excellent research papers and notes prepared by the Libraries of the two Houses. The material is notable in terms both of its quantity and its quality. The website is now far more user-friendly, with further enhancements planned.
Both Houses have created information offices. I know that I speak for the House in commending the Information Office of this House for its outstanding work. What it does on limited resources is remarkable. I am a great consumer of its resources in speaking to schools and other organisations; the feedback is always excellent. Its latest publication, a detailed guide to visitors, is a good pedagogic tool.
The Education Service, supported by both Houses, has revamped its website and we will see in due course a dedicated visitor centre. There is a parliamentary outreach programme, which has now seen the appointment of officers not only in Parliament but also, experimentally, in selected regions. In your Lordships' House, the Lord Speaker has been at the forefront of the outreach programme, which has encompassed the Peers in the schools initiative as well as the blog, Lords of the Blog,which enables a number of us to engage with members of the public.
We are thus not starting from scratch. We are building on what has been an impressive array of developments, hence the Motion's reference to "enhancing" Parliament's capacity to communicate with members of the public. What more, then, should be done?
There are two points that inform my recommendations. The first is that we need to go further to keep pace with what is happening outside Westminster. There are significant changes in the very nature of politics. Some people are losing interest in politics; others are not losing interest but rather diverting their attention away from political parties to interest groups. There has been a phenomenal growth in the number of interest groups over the past 40 years. The membership of political parties has seen a major decline as the membership of interest groups has increased. We need to be in a position to engage both with those who come together to form particular groups and those individuals who believe that politics, and what Parliament does, is not for them. There have also been major changes in the means available for communication, especially electronic means. We have exploited those means to some degree, but we need to go further and ideally be ahead of other organisations in communicating with the public.
The second, and in many respects consequential, point is that communication should not be seen as flowing only in one direction. The emphasis has been on making material available to those who wish to access it. There has been less attention given to enabling members of the public to communicate with Parliament. We put information in the public domain, but we do not necessarily create the means for the public to respond to that material. I quote again from the Puttnam Commission report:
"Where the public expect institutions to be responsive to their concerns, Parliament provides almost no opportunities for direct voter involvement, interaction or feedback".
It is essential that we see communication as a two-way process, and not one where we are simply ensuring that people can follow what we are doing.
In looking at changes, we can therefore consider them under the headings of "opening up Parliament to the public" and "enabling members of the public to communicate with Parliament".
In terms of opening up Parliament, the starting point must be the recognition that uploading material on to a website means that it is in the public domain but not necessarily that members of the public are aware of it. Parliament's role is essentially passive rather than proactive. Committees, like government departments during consultation exercises, may alert bodies on their mailing lists—in essence, the usual suspects—but not do much beyond that.
We can do far more to utilise the internet. Bills are now published in XML format, so anyone can use the material to tag particular clauses and subsections. That takes us some way towards meeting the aims of bodies like mySociety. We should be able to build on this capacity so that Bills posted on the website are indexed in order to enable users to search text and sign up for more specific alerts.
The Constitution Committee of your Lordships' House, in its 2004 report entitled Parliament and the Legislative Process, advocated the greater use of informal Keeling schedules, where a Bill amends an Act, enabling people to see how the original sections are amended by the Bill. The Modernisation Committee of the other place has also recommended exploring the possibility of publishing on the web the text of Bills as amended in Committee, with text that is added or deleted shown through the use of different colours.
I understand thought has also been given to interleaving Bills and Explanatory Notes, so that relevant material from the notes appears on the page facing the clauses referred to. That not only makes it easier to grasp the purpose of a clause, but may also encourage those who write the Explanatory Notes to ensure that a note on a clause does not simply repeat the provisions of the clause. I suspect it will be as helpful to parliamentarians as to members of the public.
There is also more that we can do to exploit broadcasting opportunities, both in further enhancing the facility for broadcasters to cover the work of Parliament, and in ensuring that what we do is both relevant and understandable to those outside. These are examples of the sort of thing we should be pursuing. At the very least, we need to give thought to how we might disseminate information to a wider audience and not simply expect that audience to come to us.
We can also do more in respect of the audience that does come to us. Every year, almost 1 million visitors pass through the Palace of Westminster. There is far more information made available to them than ever before, but there is still much more to be done to ensure that more of them leave with an understanding of Parliament as a working political institution, a body that has an impact on their every-day lives.
However, the biggest challenge is to enable people to communicate with Parliament. Let me offer a few suggestions. Committees—not least those engaged in pre-legislative scrutiny—can make greater use of online consultation. Even though we are ahead of the game internationally, its use remains limited. Where it has been employed, it has been extremely useful. As the Constitution Committee recommended in its 2004 report, committees should also consider commissioning public opinion polls where they believe it useful to have an awareness of public opinion on the Bills in question.
In your Lordships' House, we need to think more about how we exploit the capacity for engagement. We receive briefing material from organisations that know how to contact us, and we hear from individuals, many of whom are prompted by outside organisations. But we have not developed means for enabling others to contribute—not least electronically—when a Bill is going through. In part, this is because we have not emulated the other place in using evidence-taking committees. We need to think about going down that route.
We also need to look at the recommendations of the Procedure Committee in the other place, in respect of e-petitions. Even if we do not make use of that procedure, we may usefully think about how we use the internet, perhaps following the precedent ofLords of the Blog, to facilitate a dialogue with members of the public about issues that concern them.
Each House can learn from the experience of the other. Both can learn from experience elsewhere. The Constitution Committee argued the case for spending more time looking at the communications strategies of other legislatures, including the Scottish Parliament. Though in some areas we are ahead of other legislatures, there remains much that we can learn from others.
We can also learn from and work in partnership with government departments when Bills are going through. I commend Defra for its Marine and Coastal Access Bill newsletter of
The developments I have outlined are clearly not cost free. There are resource implications, both in terms of time and money. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, wrote in the forward to his commission's report, the costs involved,
"must be regarded as an investment in modern democracy, not a charge against it".
As he also says, cut-price democracy will never represent much of a bargain.
The cost relates to the activities of Members and to the activities of each House institutionally. Communicating with members of the public creates a cost for Members, both in terms of their time and their support resources. The mail received in your Lordships' House is substantial, but it is as nothing compared with Members of the other House. We need to improve support resources, but to do so in a way that enhances Members' capacity to communicate as Members of either House and not in their capacity as party politicians. I would place the emphasis here on the flow of communication from members of the public rather than on funding parliamentarians to promote themselves to the public.
However, the main resource implication is in respect of the institutional capacity to communicate with and to hear from the public. That entails investing in our capacity to utilise electronic resources effectively and to be at the forefront of such development. Both Houses, as I have said, are investing in the internet and the Parliament website. More, though, can be done, and not always at great cost. The Information Office of your Lordships' House accounts for less than 1 per cent of the budget of the House. In terms of value for money, it delivers tremendous value. We could expand its resources, enabling it to be proactive, without making a great dent in the parliamentary budget.
I end as I began. It is crucial to the health of our political system that there is effective communication between Parliament and public. We have taken great strides in communicating with members of the public, though there is still more to be done. The biggest challenge is to enhance the capacity of members of the public to communicate with us. That requires commitment and resources. The health of our political system is worth the investment. I beg to move for Papers.
My Lords, I warmly welcome the debate on Parliament and the public. I offer to the House three points of reference that I always find useful in discussions of this sort to help me to view the subject in some perspective and, I hope, in a constructive way.
I begin with a text for the first point of perspective on Parliament and the public. It comes from a Fabian pamphlet for speakers in the 1945 election, as will become immediately apparent. It states:
"There is a considerable amount of political cynicism. The men and women in the forces quite properly posed the question—'What Government has ever kept its election pledges?' A quite similar saying from the doorstep is—'Well, it's all the same whoever gets in!'—and—'They are all out for themselves anyway.'".
I offer that quotation from 60-plus years ago simply to remind the House of two things. First, there was no golden age of a love affair between Parliament and the public, or, if there was, I have not yet detected it. In addition, and perhaps more relevant to this debate, improvements in relations and communications between Parliament and the public are likely to come in small stages and not necessarily in dramatic advances. They are a matter of—if I may misquote—eternal vigilance. It is something that needs to be worked on. I certainly do not have any golden solutions, but I shall make one or two suggestions.
The second context in which I view these subjects—I hope that I am not sounding complacent when I say this—is that we must all believe, and I hope that we do all believe, that in communicating Parliament to the public we have what is fundamentally a very good product. If you say that, there is always a danger of people thinking, "It is just complacent; it is parliamentarians talking among themselves all the time. They all think they are wonderful", and so on. I certainly do not come from that school. Over the years, I have tried in many ways to improve the ways in which we operate, including how we communicate with the public.
Our parliamentary democracy, with its general elections, delivers Parliaments, Governments and MPs accountable to their constituents. The Government offer a legislative programme each year, which is debated throughout the year and either stands or falls. This is conducted—let us be honest, given all the exaggeration of recent months and years—in an incredibly free environment, which is still the envy of huge numbers of countries in the world. That is a good product. You cannot communicate a bad product; unless you believe in the product, you might as well give up on your communication strategy.
The third thing that I want to say—this is important, as it is a pretty pervasive finding of polling—is that, whereas the public's perception of politicians in general is low, all the tests show that their perception of the parliamentarians whom they know and with whom they have worked, in particular their local MP, is always much higher. That is very much in keeping with tests undertaken in other walks of life. For example, people say that there are real problems with the health service. They talk about infections in hospitals and waiting lists. But when you ask them about their personal experience of hospital, they say that their local hospital is terrific. That happens time and again in polls and is relevant to today's debate.
It is from those three points of reference that I offer some limited solutions. My first one relates to the point that I have just made. If we are to improve the way in which we communicate with the public, and the public's perception of us, most of the work necessary to achieve this will have to be done by parliamentarians. You cannot subcontract it. MPs do an awful lot of work with their constituents, in advice bureaux, in offering information and in enabling visits to Parliament, and the same applies to Peers. Many noble Lords do an awful lot of work in that respect. We should certainly commend the outreach work that the Lord Speaker does. There is no better advertisement for Parliament than parliamentarians talking to the public about the work that they do. That is the case with most of us at any rate. We need to strengthen the outreach work to which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, referred.
Secondly, we need collectively to take pride in the institution. I offer two perhaps not so popular points in that regard. I wince whenever Members of this House make ferocious criticisms of the way in which Members of the other House operate and vice versa. It is a common activity. People make the mistake of thinking that, if you are in Chamber 2 and you demean Chamber 1, you are simply demeaning Chamber 1, when in fact you are demeaning the whole parliamentary process. They do not tend to say that they like some policies but not others. We should be cautious in that regard, particularly as a lot of what we say about the other Chamber simply is not true. Far more scrutiny takes place in the other Chamber now. When I was first elected, there were no Select Committees, which frequently hold the Government to account, and there was no broadcasting of any kind. Huge advances in accountability have been made and we are wrong to think otherwise.
My other mildly controversial point concerns the language that we use. We need to recognise and applaud—I hope that I might get the support of three-quarters of the House when I say this—the work of political parties. I am not ashamed of being a lifelong member of the Labour Party. Next year I will have been a member for 50 years, if anyone wants to send me a card. I am proud of that. I respect enormously members of other political parties who knock on doors on wet nights and attend public meetings where people shout at them. I have absolutely nothing against the other parties other than the fact that they get so many things wrong. However, I greatly respect their commitment to the operation of our democracy. I have many friends on the Cross Benches but I do not accept that somehow there is something inherently superior about someone who sits on those Benches. I know that they do not say that but sometimes the commentary on the Cross Benches is in those terms. We should applaud political parties and recognise what they do. You cannot understand Parliament without understanding how they operate.
We must make our language and our method of operation more accessible and intelligible to the public at large. I have two seconds left but I make a plea to our friends in the broadcast media not to show the stock shot of us all in ermine, which is totally unrepresentative of how the place operates. If we are to communicate more effectively with the public, let us at least have pictures that are accurate.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. My first duty and pleasure is to pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for initiating the debate. Sometimes we find ourselves on different sides of the argument about the precise future of this House. However, I know from committee work with him and from personal contact that we both share a pride in and an awe of this building and what it represents. I have been coming here now for over 40 years in various guises and I still come through the doors of this place with a sense of awe for what it represents. We have no differences about that in the debate today.
Secondly, I associate myself with the remarks of the noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Norton, about the way in which the Lord Speaker has grasped the task of parliamentary outreach and so promoted it. I know how difficult it is to get change in this place. She has managed to get places opened up for meetings of the Youth Parliament, including this Chamber, and she has promoted seminars and conferences in a way that was unknown only a few years ago. I also associate myself with and look forward to the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, whose Information Committee often tries to push us faster than this old House is quite ready for.
Thirdly, the Hansard Society has played an important role in championing research and discussion. That is why I look forward to hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, later in the debate. The recent Hansard Society report, Parliament and the Public: Knowledge, Interest and Perceptions, found that 32 per cent of people claim to have a good understanding of the way in which Parliament works, but only 19 per cent thought that Parliament worked for them. In some ways, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott. Rather as with personal knowledge of the local MP, in all those years I have never had visitors to this place who have gone away disappointed. It is interesting that the Hansard Society research claims that 26 per cent have a fair amount of knowledge of the House of Lords and 42 per cent claim to have a fair amount of knowledge about the Commons. Perhaps that is not surprising, given the direct link between a Member of Parliament and his constituents, but it shows where we may have work to do.
Some 53 per cent express a general interest in Parliament. Where there is a concern lies in what the noble Lord, Lord Norton, hinted at: turnout in 2001 was 59 per cent and in 2005 it was 61 per cent. Perhaps even more worrying, the turnout among voters under 24 in 2005 was 37 per cent. A parliamentary democracy needs democrats to make it work, so the task set by this debate is important in making sure that citizens see the connection between casting their votes and the decision-making processes here that influence their lives.
My only caveat is that I do not want to see us dumbing down politics or making the process of voting too easy. There is a social contract between the voter and the process, which should require a certain amount of effort from those taking part. I remember the late Hugo Young saying that if only 50 per cent are willing to be involved and 50 per cent do not care, perhaps we should concentrate on those who do rather than those who do not. That is probably too harsh; we have to reach out and encourage participation, particularly among the young, but I do not want us to try to do that by methods that debase the political process.
I will be interested to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, says. I know what his committee said about making parliamentary processes more understandable and simpler. I agree, but I also agree that this place—both ends—needs certain pomp and circumstance. I have said previously that if you start to look like Croydon Council, you will start to be treated like it. I received letters after saying that the first time, so I will probably receive them again, but I hope that Croydon Council and the House know what I mean by that.
I welcome the various initiatives to which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, referred. I am encouraged by looking at how President-elect Obama in the United States has managed to use new technologies to inspire young people. However, I want to use my last couple of minutes for another plea. We already have in our hands a superb piece of communication—BBC Parliament. It is already the best-viewed parliamentary channel anywhere in the world, but it seems to achieve that in spite of itself, as there is no proper schedule and you never know what is on. It is like a lucky dip; you tune in and sometimes you can find the most interesting stories.
I was telling the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that I switched on and saw a beautiful little documentary about the Reform Act 1867, which showed how in 1867 Gladstone tried to put through a piece of modest reform, which Disraeli completely sabotaged only to bring in the following year an even more radical reform. I pointed out to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that it might be better for him to take the Lords reform that was on offer, in case a future Conservative Government decided to be even more radical. However, he did not completely follow me on that. Nevertheless, BBC Parliament should be made to be more like any other channel, with cross-references, proper scheduling and the like.
The other good news that I discovered when I was researching for this debate was that in September 2009 the BBC is to launch "Democracy Live", a new online portal that will be live and on demand, covering all the UK political institutions and the European Parliament. The key feature of the site will be an eight-screen video wall that will give people access to full sessions of Parliament, Assemblies and committee proceedings. People will be able to search for on-demand video by political representative, by institution and by issue. The video will be supported by guides to the devolved political system, to the process and to biographies and information about the politicians concerned. We should be looking at the BBC Parliament channel as a major asset. It should be backed up by a single committee of both Houses, which would overlook communications services.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, kindly referred to the fact that I am chairman of that domestic committee, the House of Lords Information Committee; indeed, that is one reason why I wanted to take part in this debate. Another reason is that I was a member of the commission of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, in 2005. I remember it well and that the booklet it produced was provokingly entitled Members Only? Parliament in the Public Eye. We have moved on from that, as has just been said, but it is about that subject that I wish to talk.
I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton, in particular on all that he has done in this field and, of course, on winning the ballot for this debate. I have followed in his footsteps. I became a guest blogger last week. "Blogger" is not yet a word in the Oxford dictionary—I expect that it will be soon—but I am a blogger and I also have seven minutes of my words on a podcast which can be listened to. They say, "Come on. Learn more about Parliament".
I have been delighted by one or two of the replies that I have received to my blog. Perhaps I may read to your Lordships one from a Norwegian student:
"Hey a really interesting site you guys got. Cool to see that the people that are 'running' the country are having different ways to get in contact with the people. The House of Lords blog is a great example of how the members of parliament can get and stay in touch with the people. Hopefully the parliament in my native Norway will try something like this. Keep it up and thanks for a great blog that is making the distance between parliament and the people smaller".
Hooray! One of the other replies was slightly terser:
"What is the average age of a Lord? What do you actually do? How many hours do you usually work per week? Do you like your position as Lord, and why? Is the House of Lords necessary as an addition to the House of Commons?".
Those are good questions, which I took great care in answering.
I want to say a few words about the Parliamentary Education Service, which I certainly consider to be one of the successes of the past few years. Its purpose, as many noble Lords will know, is to support young people in developing an understanding of Parliament and democracy. There has been an enormous increase in the number of children visiting Westminster for both school workshops and tours. The figure was 9,700 four years ago, and 35,000 are expected this year. Our aim—that is, working with the other House—is for 100,000 to visit when the new education centre is built in the Palace of Westminster. That is not likely to be completed until 2012. The Lords will pay for 40 per cent of it and the Commons 60 per cent, so it must be educational about us as well as the Commons. However, the most important point is that, when children come here, they should have had a bit of fun. They should be able to go home and say, "Dad"—or Mum—"that really was good. I have learnt something and we should get more people from my school to come".
My noble friend Lord Baker suggested that it was necessary for every child to visit Westminster before leaving school. We should almost make that a target, although it would mean visits from 750,000 children a year. We will not manage that but, given new websites and perhaps with a new approach to the internet and information and communication technology, all those children could see Westminster through a virtual tour and could find out what we are about from a website through the internet. Using information available throughout the country for matters such as teaching children how to use the website intelligently but in a way that is exciting will be a tremendous challenge for us.
In this context, the Director of Information Services and Chief Librarian, Dr Hallam Smith, who is well known to us all in the Lords, is very optimistic about what can be done with developments in ICT and websites. She feels that, as we go forward, we could attract many more people to the idea of listening to us electronically, at a distance. She says that we have multiple audiences, from the aficionados of the Westminster village plus journalists and Whitehall on the one hand to users who may be unfamiliar with the work of Parliament and schoolchildren on the other. We are moving forward with new information architecture—I think that is the right word—that will enable more people to learn about us from a distance.
I should like to say a few words about the Information Committee, which I have chaired for the past two years. We have produced an annual report, which I hope we may have an opportunity to discuss in the Lords when we come back in January. Our remit is:
"To consider information and communications services", including the parliamentary website, parliamentary outreach, visitor services and the broadcasting of parliamentary proceedings. We have an active and hard-working committee. I am glad that two members of it are here this afternoon and intend to speak.
Against that background, and against the background of all the bright ideas that we will hear in this debate, which will merit further consideration in the new year, I propose to invite the Information Committee to conduct an inquiry into how Parliament, and the House of Lords in particular, can communicate better. Such an inquiry would allow us to hear from noble Lords and from those outside Parliament and we could give fuller consideration to what may be proposed. My initial thought is that we could look back to the reports of the Puttnam commission and to the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee of 2004, not just to appreciate how Parliament has changed for the better since then, but to see whether there is still work to be done. We could call witnesses from interested bodies such as the Hansard Society and, following our inquiry, our report would be able to set out the good activities already covered by the House, but also provide recommendations on where we go next and how we should take matters further. I shall propose that to the Information Committee when it next meets in January. It is a challenging and interesting proposal and I very much hope that it will have the backing of everyone listening to this debate.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, very much for giving us this opportunity to voice a few ideas. I shall not go into detail as others are doing so more competently than I can. I want to make a couple of small points about communication and to offer some thanks.
An interesting development is putting stuff about the Lords on YouTube. I was interested to see how we are rated. About 10,000 people have looked at the piece by the Lord Speaker, which is interesting and informative; about 12,000 people have looked at the Youth Parliament which took over the Chamber last summer; but 47,000 people looked at a pop group called the House of Lords, which was next on the list. That tells me that people are attracted by entertainment. If we are to try to get our message across, we shall have to make it quite entertaining and short, sharp and snappy so that people become aware of it.
Such things are image enhancing. I looked at some of the stuff under the Lord Speaker's piece and someone called Ash Connor said:
"Although I am pro republic and do not believe in an unelected house, I have seen the value that the Lords have in preventing absurd legislation proposed by the Commons in more recent years. This is mainly due to the hysterics of modern-day terrorism. Let's hope that the Lords do everything in their power to stop the 42-day detention bill from becoming law".
Noble Lords may or may not agree with that, but it is interesting because it raises our image. Brand and image come across well there. It was very simply summed up by Akeeda, who said:
"Honestly, from what I have noticed, it seems to more often be the House of Lords which cares more about common sense which is funny beyond words".
That is good; I like that. That is the whole point of it. The Lords of the Blog come along with more serious pieces. I have looked at that and it is heavier stuff to go through, but it is good. We need some short, sharp things. I think Twitter used very short sentences to track the State Opening of Parliament; for example, "The Queen has just entered the House" and so on. I do not know how many people showed interest in that, but all those little things build up more interest and then some people dig deeper. That is important.
What I get from the Information Office, from Mary Morgan, is extremely useful. I often speak at and host occasions concerned with Parliament and I find the supporting material very useful. Some of those packs are used by children who become interested and take them into school. With a bit of luck, that will have a knock-on effect and it is viral marketing effectively, which is good.
Our parliamentary website needs much doing to it. Work is going on behind the scenes. Of course, moving forward something established that has shortcomings in its structure is a problem. I know there are a lot of interesting ideas. I should like to see more material available on the internet for our own convenience; for example, the annunciators. They are not secret, yet you can get them on the intranet only and you have to log into Parliament to do so. If I were down in the Commons and the annunciators were not switched on—they often are not in some places—or do not work, I could get them on my PDA, see where a debate has got to and arrive on time for once. There are all sorts of little things like that. It would be much easier to have everything in one place instead of splitting stuff off and making some of it appear secret. We should protect only those things that we do not want the public to see; for example, certain internal processes that should not be tampered with. I look forward to more openness.
However, if I want someone to find out what I am up to in Parliament, I tell them to go to theyworkforyou.com. The sad thing about that is that Peers are not indexed on the front page, so I am hoping that Tom Steinberg will read this and will put Peers on the front page so that I do not have to tell people to type /peer/earl_of_erroll to find me. So there can even be improvements on the associated sites, but I do not disapprove of them because they have greater freedom to do things that we cannot because of the constraint that the support here must be independent. It has to be terribly careful not to take a party's side or a view one way or another.
The noble Lord, Lord Norton, spoke about responding to petitions and consultations. Who responds will be critical, and there are all sorts of things that we will have to work out on that. If it is done personally by a Lord of the blog and it is that Lord's consultation, he can respond with his opinion, but we must make sure that it is clearly stated that it is his opinion because, for instance, I know that I disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, about an elected versus an appointed House, and there are many such issues. However, we are moving forward and things are improving hugely.
People want power to influence. The main reason people do not turn out to vote is because they feel that they have no influence when they vote for one person who does not have real power. The Civil Service produces all the statutory instruments, and we cannot alter them. People are not stupid, and they know that that is so. That is why they love No. 10 Downing Street petitions. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that we have to be very careful about going too far on e-voting and making voting too simple. We do not want to know what people did on the spur of the moment with a click of a mouse; we want to find the opinions of people who have thought about things. I do not want to go off the point, but I am not that keen on people being forced to vote or on very young people who have not thought about the issues being given the vote, just so that we can say that we have lots of authority because lots of people voted for us. That counts for nothing. People have to think about these things.
Another problem with consultations is writer's block. I like speaking, I am afraid, but I am not good at writing. I spend too much time agonising over it and things never go off. They sit in drafts for ever. People very rarely get a response. I hardly ever write a letter, but I e-mail on business. We have got to watch that we do not skew things.
Two things really interest me. The Obama campaign was the first campaign influenced by the internet. McCain thought that he would not have money, but he got thousands of small donations, which is how parties should be funded by people who believe in them donating in large numbers and small quantities. There was also viral marketing. I got a wonderful e-mail that read: "Merlin Erroll: the one who did not turn out to vote, so we lost". I had to click on it, and it had wonderful clips of very senior people saying, "And we could have won", and underneath, "CNN: Merlin Erroll fails to turn out to vote. Obama loses by one vote". It was very clever and of course I sent it on to other people. There are clever ideas out there, and we have got to get them.
How we communicate is what it is about. Things need to be short, sharp and amusing to get people to look at them. I learnt that from my daughter who is at the London College of Communication studying graphic design. She has just done a short animated video for Row for Kids to get people to give money for sports equipment. She spent a lot of time on it, and it is amusing, short, sharp and witty. It is on YouTube and the charity's website and will get people to do things. We need similar things here. We need to look at the way we communicate our message so that people want to see it.
My Lords, I want to talk about the relationship between Parliament and the Government, because that is what the public, on the whole, most observe. There is bound to be tension between Parliament and the Executive. That is why Parliament was invented: to act as a limit and control over the behaviour of the Executive. That tension can and should be a focus of public interest in Parliament. It is where the public should find most relevance to the whole concept of representative government, which is of course distinct in certain respects from democracy.
That Ministers and civil servants should find Parliament an inconvenient intrusion into their operations is inevitable. Civil servants have to fight on two fronts, as the immortal—and I mean immortal—"Yes Minister" series described. Much damage has been done to Parliament over the past decade. I start with the guillotine. When I was a Lobby correspondent, the prospect of a guillotine was worthy of comment. It meant either that the government business managers had got into a muddle or that the Bill was so controversial that agreement could not be reached within a reasonable time—or, sometimes, that there was a deliberate attempt to filibuster the Bill.
Now that a timetable is introduced for every Bill, few pieces of legislation get proper discussion in the other place. As we all know, Bills come to us from the Commons with whole sections undebated. The absence of the guillotine in the House of Lords is one of our most valuable assets and, therefore, a great asset to the country. I hope that those who speak outside the House of Lords about what we do will emphasise that point.
Secondly, there is far too much legislation, which is often poorly prepared. The Home Office is especially at fault on both points. It is a department notorious for its lack of either imagination or lateral thought and, most of all, for resistance to change or any outside views. We get from the Home Office Bill after Bill, year after year—usually two or three in a year—which all matter a great deal to the public. I fear that the Home Office has not even started to earn remission from the findings of the right honourable Member for Airdrie and Shotts, Dr John Reid, when he was Home Secretary: that it was "not fit for purpose".
Thirdly, much legislation is so complicated, with the desire for certainty overcoming the need for clarity, that it is incomprehensible to the legislators. Explanatory Notes are a useful innovation, but I fear that pre-legislative scrutiny is not really working. If it were, the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 would not have had to have been repealed by the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006 because it proved virtually useless in reducing red tape. The fact remains that much legislation, especially that by order, has to be read and applied by outsiders. When they find it unclear, they blame Parliament, which is not good for our reputation.
Fourthly, far too many shortcuts are now being used in the legislative process. They are normally proposed as being in the urgent national interest and, on occasion, they are, but often that is quite bogus. A most deplorable example occurred last month, when the Government added 23 pages of complicated financial regulations to the Terrorism Bill and rushed it through both Houses in a few hours.
Fifthly, new Labour, using the usual Whips tincture of charm and patronage, to, in my view, an excessive degree, has sought to control the behaviour of its MPs. Some noble Lords may remember the story of the Labour MP who, in 1997, insisted on wearing his ear phones while his hair was being cut. Eventually, he was persuaded to take them off. Suddenly, the barber realised that the MP had stopped breathing. The barber seized the ear phones, held it to his ear and heard the reassuring voice of Peter Mandelson saying, "Breathe in; breathe out".
Finally—and, I admit, controversially across all three parties—I turn to House of Lords reform. I supported the cull of 750 hereditaries, but what has emerged has been outstandingly successful, especially with the erosion of the influence of the Commons. This House should now be left well alone. This Government, and their successor, will have much bigger fish to fry.
There is in your Lordships' House an astonishing collection of talent, experience and wisdom, especially among those described as the great and the good. They have been put here for what they have achieved. The rest of us are here not for anything that we have done but in the hope and expectation of some modest contribution to the everyday work of this place. Of the 740 Members, there are no fewer than 200 privy counsellors—and you do not get that for nothing. There are also a number of fellows of the Royal Society, who, like the judges and the law officers, should also be called noble and learned. Then there are the top military, with half a dozen former Chiefs of the Defence Staff. They are called noble and gallant, but any noble Lord who has been decorated for bravery, such as the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, who has both the DSO and the DFC, should also be called noble and gallant. Add to that the other distinguished academics in so many fields, including my noble friend Lord Norton, who has done so much for Parliament and for the constitution and to whom we owe this useful debate this afternoon. This House has many other examples of expertise.
I make just one small specific suggestion: that the Information Office be tasked with providing, and then updating, a profile of the achievements, skills and qualifications of the Members of this House, and that this summary should appear in all our publications. I think that the public would be really impressed if they saw the sort of wisdom that there is here and which is available and at the service of the country. For this purpose, the Information Office would have to have access to an IT database, designed by the Journal Office and Information Office and supported by PICT. They must be given the resources to do this. I am glad that my noble friend Lord Renton is here, because I hope that he may remember this suggestion.
My conclusion is simple: if Parliament were to assert itself so that it played its proper role in legislation and in holding the Executive to account, people would take more notice of it. If we go on as we are, people will become increasingly cynical and disillusioned. If they feel that they cannot rely on Parliament to safeguard their interests, they will take to the streets whenever they have big grievances, as they do in France.
My Lords, I am about to refer to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, so perhaps he would like to stay for a minute. The noble Lord, Lord Norton, and I stand very firmly in different political traditions, but we very often agree on the things that we want to debate. When I saw that this debate had been tabled, I thought that I must take part, and I agreed with 99 out of 100 points that he made. The point that I did not agree with particularly was when he suggested that we are not necessarily here as political animals. I am very much a political animal. I am here not because I am good, great or particularly wise—I do not necessarily think that I am any of those things—but because I am a politician who stands for a particular point of view, which I believe to be valid, and I am incredibly privileged to be able to take part in the councils of this country and in this House. Without political parties, this House simply would not function. I am in no way undermining or underrating the role of Cross Benchers, but we would not work without political parties. I was very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, for saying that, and he can go now.
The noble Lords, Lord Grocott and Lord Norton, referred to the visitors who come here and whom many of us delight in taking around this quite astonishing building, partly because it makes us look at it again. However, there is a real danger when we do so that we only look at the building and listen to the people who do the organised tours and give their little speeches. It is always worth eavesdropping on them, however, because they give us things to tell people about the building, concentrating on historical things such as Henry VIII and his concubine on the wall, the Runnymede barons who look very appropriately on everything that we say, and curiosities such as the holes in the Door in the House of Commons where Black Rod bangs his staff and in the Door here where he banged his staff during the war.
We must force ourselves to explain to visitors how this place, the House of Commons and Parliament work, because people are interested. They do not know and they do not understand. I agree that the television authorities do us a disservice by always showing the State Opening, which does not show what we do. People ask me, "Oh, do you dress up?". I say that I do not and they ask, "What do you do then?". People also have the impression that the House of Commons is just Prime Minister's Question Time. As a legislative chamber, that does it a disservice. I am not one of those people who slags off the House of Commons and thinks that everyone here is wonderful. We are complementary. We both do our best and we both can, and should, improve the way in which we do it.
One million visitors may come around this building, but there must be many more millions of people who never get inside. When they come to London, they come to see this building. They stand on the pavement and have their photograph taken with the Clock Tower in the background. Perhaps some still have a photograph taken with the policemen, although not the policemen with a gun. But that is it and they never come inside the building.
The lack of a proper visitors' centre is a shame. A proposal—I think it was made last year—to build a rather expensive, elaborate visitors' centre at this end of the building was thrown out because, basically, it was thought to be too expensive. As a spin-off from that, there will be an education centre, which will be very valuable, but it is aimed at school pupils and students. The lack of a proper visitor facility to explain how this place works, its history and the building is a disadvantage. That matter should be returned to so that something is provided not very far from this building.
A lot of noble Lords have talked about modern communication. I very much applaud the Lords of the Blog, the most interesting being the noble Lord, Lord Norton, and my noble friend Lord Tyler, but that is because I am interested in the same sort of things, which is why I am taking part in this debate. I do not go on Facebook or YouTube and I hope that I will never need to. I know that Twitter exists, but that can stay where it is. However, I applaud noble Lords who get involved in such things. We have to stay up to speed with communication, but it is not just that.
My noble friend Lord McNally said that he was on the big march against the Iraq war, as was I. But it was not a march, it was a shuffle at about one foot an hour at one stage. As we got to Parliament Square, being able to use the House of Lords as a comfort break was a very useful side perk of being a Member of this House. I am not sure what I would have done otherwise: it would have been a bit difficult.
Old-fashioned political involvement and communication is just as important. It is a great shame that the Mayor of London has overturned the former Mayor of London's proposals to make Parliament Square a much more people-friendly place. I liked the idea of it being a public forum where public debate could take place—such as at Speakers' Corner—and where Members of Parliament and this House could engage with people and take part in debate. That that will not be possible is a shame and I hope that it will be revisited.
Finally, my noble friend Lord McNally referred to the parliament channel. I am astonished at the number of people who say, "I saw you on the parliament channel". I ask them why they were watching it and they say, "Well, I could not get to sleep. It was three o'clock in the morning. I was flicking through the channels and the House of Lords came on". After the debate on the Marine and Coastal Access Bill, I looked for the parliament channel on London television, where it is on a different number from my home. There I was talking to myself. It was a most extraordinary experience. I now find that on TheyWorkForYou.com 25 people get an e-mail every time I speak in this House. It is frightening, but it is the modern world and we have to live with it. It is quite extraordinary.
I think the parliament channel is excellent, but I echo my noble friend in that we do not want it to turn into a normal entertainment broadcast, as has happened with party conferences. Journalists talk over the first minute that people are speaking so you cannot understand what they are talking about. Having a continuous, uninterrupted broadcast is the right principle, but more explanation is needed. Anyone who tries to follow the Committee stage of a Bill in this House or the House of Commons without any background information finds that it is just gibberish. They do not know what is happening. We stand up and say erudite things like, "I am standing up to move Amendment No. 356ZA and other amendments in the group". It is garbage, really. At the very least, there ought to be a line along the foot of the screen as they have on "BBC News 24"—they can do it quite easily nowadays—explaining what is being debated and perhaps giving a URL to the documents we are debating for those interested enough to follow it. That kind of basic information is absolutely essential and I cannot imagine that it would be expensive to do.
My Lords, along with others who have spoken in the debate, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton. I agree with a great deal of what he had to say, as I do with much of what other noble Lords have said. I, too, want to place on the record my thanks to the Hansard Society and the Information Office of this House, not only for their work on the Lords of the Blog, but for their work in general. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that we have seen significant improvements in recent years.
I want to say a brief word about the media and politics. I have great respect for my noble friend Lord Puttnam and for the work of his commission, but I feel that we have never quite got to grips with the interface between the media and politics. For that matter, it is not just us who have not done so, it is the media as well; we are both partly to blame. I certainly do not want to go back to the old situation where the Times would report line by line what was said—it does not and would not work, and the media have changed so much that it is meaningless to talk in those terms—but there is a problem that needs to be addressed by editors and politicians. I can give only one or two examples because of time constraints.
A few months ago, there was a massive demonstration where thousands of people came to Parliament to lobby about the European Union Bill, which they felt would affect Britain constitutionally. I disagree with their point, but they made it very powerfully and there were thousands of them. That story was virtually pushed out of the media by three young people who climbed on to the roof of Parliament to make a protest. I have to say that if editors choose a news story about three fit young people who are devious enough to get on to the roof of Parliament and brush aside the efforts of thousands of people engaged in a lobby, something is going wrong with the reportage. Not only does that make people feel that lobbying Parliament has no impact on the media, but it also encourages demonstrations of the type that I have described.
When I started a blog as an MP in 2003, I was struck by a long series of exchanges in response to my entry about Fathers for Justice. The debate went on for a long time and involved many people. One of them said to me later that the fact that he had felt able to communicate directly meant that he did not have to climb up on to a crane. Noble Lords will recall that, at one point, men from Fathers for Justice were climbing cranes and doing all kinds of other things. If the media will report only the dramatic, what makes an attractive picture, and ignore how the democratic process works for thousands of people, something has to be addressed. That is important.
I turn to the weblog, or blog, as it has become known. One of the reasons why I think that this form of communication is important—people may think that I would say that because I had a hand in formulating it and was one of the first in the House of Commons to write a blog—is that the figures in the report, which is now available from the Information Office, show that around 55 per cent of the people visiting the site are between the ages of 18 and 34. Some of the best programmes that the BBC and broadcasters are delivering on podcasts and so on—"Today in Parliament" is a good example, but there are others—are attracting an audience drawn from the other end of the age range. The real point here is that the nature of politics is changing. People are not less interested in politics but more issue-interested.
One of the good things about weblogs is that people can go in and look at what a person is saying about particular issues. That is important, particularly for young people. We ought to be doing more to develop this, whether through Facebook or whatever. Indeed, one of the best examples in Parliament is Derek Wyatt MP. He has an incredibly interactive site, where he talks directly with people. That is the way things are going. The 18 to 34 age group that is using the Lords of the Blog will be the older group, who may well still listen to "Today in Parliament" and the other programmes but will also be looking for ways to interact. That is profoundly important. Although I was pleased with the site's take-off performance—we reached 113,000 visits, which is no small number—the usage of Lords of the Blog is relatively low at the moment and there is further to go.
I confess that I have not made enough entries recently. I aimed originally to do at least one a week but I have not achieved that. All credit to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, who manages far more than I do. He has taken to it like a duck to water, but we have to make sure that he is not left as the main blogger. Other people need to come in. We have 10 or 12 noble Lords who blog occasionally.
The noble Lord, Lord Renton, and the Lord Speaker did guest blogs, which were very useful. I suggest that we write to all Members of the House saying, "This exists. This is what it does. Remember that you are talking particularly to younger people but also people who are interested in the House of Lords. It is not difficult to do. Please phone this number in order to have your hand held, if you like, while you get on line. It does not take much time when you are doing it". The thing that puts people off is the fear of being pulled into arguments and discussions that go on for ever, but it is not like that; you can have perfectly reasonable discussions in a limited time. I have also written to the education department of the House, which has agreed to make sure that this is drawn to the attention of schools and colleges, because they will build on it.
On the language that is used in this place and elsewhere in Parliament, I am not against the grand occasions here—although, like others, I think that it is a mistake that the media produce only one photograph of the House of Lords—but more important is the day-to-day language that we use. Whenever I speak, I try to use language that is understood on the street. I did so when I was in the House Commons and I do so here. The language in here is not always the language that is understood on the street. A little while ago I asked some youngsters what they thought a right reverend Prelate was. Not too many knew, but they all knew what a bishop was.
A point has been made about the use of the word "gallant". As an ex-national serviceman who was not that gallant in his service I cannot claim to be gallant, but I am not sure why we make the distinction. I have always felt that the use of the word "learned" in the phrase "noble and learned Lord" was a shrewd marketing move by barristers to get their trade recognised and given the status that it deserves.
The other typical phrase that troubles me is "the other place". If you say that you had a conversation with someone in the other place, quite frankly it sounds as though you had a chat with someone in the loo. It is not like that, but that is how it sounds on the street. So can we get rid of some of it? If we talk in ordinary language in here, people will understand it and will relate to it better. However, I am delighted with the work that is being done. We need to do more and I urge every Member of the House of Lords to at least give the Lords of the Blog a try. Have a shot at it. It does not take very long.
My Lords, I think that everyone knows what "noble friend" means, and I am delighted to thank and congratulate my noble friend on this afternoon's debate and, indeed, on the lucid and incisive way in which he has tackled a series of constitutional issues over the past few years. The whole House has benefited from it.
My noble friend has introduced a subject of extraordinary importance, much greater than we are giving it credit for today. My noble friend Lord Marlesford reminded us that Parliament was invented to control the Government. Before that, we had chaos and blood-letting. It actually cost a great deal of blood to build this institution that we now occupy so placidly. It is what stands between the British people and a reversion to some unsatisfactory, undemocratic and, quite possibly, violent existence. It is foolish to think that mere stasis will preserve it.
The line between government and Parliament has been so blurred since the reign of George I that many of the public do not understood the function of Parliament, because they see government functioning inside it. There are, I think, 140 Members of the Government and PPSs occupying Benches in the House of Commons. They are inside the machine invented to control them, into which none could have put a foot before the reign of George I, who did not speak English and had to have somebody here to do his work for him. We are looking at a precious thing. As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who has not yet returned to his place, pointed out, the product is very good: it is liberty.
Now, if the British people do not understand that, and if Parliament becomes devalued, they will not stand to protect Parliament because they will not see it as protecting themselves. Therefore, we have a real duty to show the people how the power of Parliament has been eroded, is being eroded and will, if future Governments of all political colours have their way, continue to be eroded, because Parliaments are a thorn in the flesh of Governments. If the public are to understand that, they must understand what we are doing.
I have been impressed by the catalogue of new technologies that my noble friend has produced for your Lordships. Others have added to it and Members of this House have further embellished it, but that is resource-intensive. There is one simple method that rests not on what I call new technology but on the traditional media—that is to say, the press, the radio and terrestrial television—where Governments have successively taken things out of the hands of Parliament and, principally, out of the hands of the other place, or House of Commons. At this point, I fear that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, will wince when he reads Hansard, because I must draw your Lordships' attention to the change that has come across the handling of information—from Parliament as a whole, but principally from the House of Commons—since I first became interested in politics in the 1960s.
When I was a parliamentary candidate and started looking at these things, I well remember the furore of excitement if a Minister ill advisedly let a government policy out of the bag, deliberately or accidentally, outside the premises of his appropriate Chamber in Parliament. I do not know what happened in this House, because I am unaware of there being an incident, but if a Minister in the other place, or House of Commons, were to make a policy statement outside it, as soon as that was known he was hauled back by the Speaker to face an emergency debate. He got a headline, but not the one that he wanted about the policy; it was the headline of how he was humiliated and brought back, embarrassingly, to put right what he had done by making the announcement outside Parliament.
What happens now, almost without comment and as a matter of routine, is that almost all government policies—or all but those of the hugest importance—are made outside the House, by the Government, to an audience invited by them and consisting mostly of media reporters from newspapers and elsewhere. As a result, the only comments that the media hear come from Ministers, the officials supporting them and the other reporters. That means that not only are the voices of the enraged Opposition, of whatever party, not heard but the voices of the disenchanted Back-Benchers of the government party are also silenced. So what the public get is a picture that bears no relation to Parliament at all and nothing gets reported from these two Chambers.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is now here to wince as I comment on proceedings in another place. Would it not be a simple matter for the House of Commons to take this matter back into its hands and to require the Government to release all news about their business that affects the electorate inside the Chamber? That is where the news would then be, as would the reporters, who would hear what Members of Parliament thought about it. That would be the news, and it would be broadcast on the traditional media, at least. That way, at no extra expense to anyone, Parliament would begin to come back to being the focal point of public interest, which is where it must be if this sovereign and free state of ours is to maintain its freedom in the years to come.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on initiating this debate. It launches us into the Recess with a thought-provoking and cross-party topic. As we have heard, it is surely at the heart of a democracy that members of the public should be in dialogue with those responsible for government, and equally that those who are elected or appointed to make laws should ensure that they remain in contact with members of the public.
Communication is indeed a two-way process, yet many of our citizens have so little interest in communicating with Parliament that they do not even vote. As my noble friend Lord McNally pointed out, in the previous two elections four out of 10 people did not participate in this very simple activity. It seems that they failed to see any relevance to their own lives in the work of these Houses or to make connections with decisions on education, health, tax, housing, the environment or security, on any one of which they would have had a violent opinion, and all of which are issues that affect their everyday lives.
We see that lack of interest at local, national and European levels, with many studies and reviews analysing the reasons and remedies. We have already heard mention of the estimable Hansard Society as one of the bodies that looks at that, aiming to strengthen parliamentary democracy and encourage greater public involvement in politics. One recent forum posed the question, "Are young people allergic to politics?". It found that the young people were not backward in telling the commissioners exactly what they did not like about politics, how it could be more child-friendly and what could be done to promote politics to young people. One barrier particularly identified by young people is the lack of diversity among parliamentarians.
A survey conducted recently by Girlguiding UK, which has more than 500,000 members, identified that girls were put off by a lack of young MPs and by having so few female role models to emulate. In fact there are some very able young male and female MPs but they are of course greatly outnumbered by those who are older, and the men greatly outnumber the women. This is an issue for all parties that look for a fairer gender balance among candidates as well as better representation from minority ethnic communities. In that respect, your Lordships' House is more representative than the other place; it has much wider diversity in gender, ethnicity and disability. Youth, as we all know, is a comparative concept. Knowing the part that women play in the debates in this House, it is unusual that in this debate today I find myself as the only representative of the gender minority.
The public perception means that this House may seem even more remote to the average citizen, and the barriers already referred to of communication in our procedures, customs and language are pretty mysterious to new Members of your Lordships' House, so to outsiders they can seem even more impenetrable. Mention has already been made of the snapshots of Prime Minister's Questions that we see on television, with selected extracts of people shouting, interrupting, heckling and generally not behaving very well. The interminable picture of this House is of the State Opening, with the red robes and tiaras, which is assumed to be a typical day. I have been asked by people who I thought might have known better whether I have to wear my red robe every day. It is a widespread misunderstanding. The third picture that we see is of near-empty Chambers where lonesome souls toil away on some worthy topic, which gives an immediate impression that we do not work very hard.
Broadcasting both Houses has therefore been a great benefit to open government, but has given some distinctly misleading impressions about what goes on in Westminster. Given that the media generally prefer to focus on shortcomings and mistakes, it will add to the publicity if the centre of the story is an MP or a Peer and again disengage the public from what is going on Westminster. We therefore start with an uphill struggle in communicating all that Parliament does towards good governance of the country, and towards improving the lives of individuals.
The good news in all this has already been referred to in previous speeches: the positive initiatives of new technologies; the parliamentary website being constantly upgraded; and the blogs—I, too, have to refer to the Lords of the Blog, as my noble friend will follow me in speaking. The education service produces teaching and learning materials to stimulate interest and discussion in schools. The outreach team has worked with more than 1,000 teachers this year alone. Another part of the service receives schools here, a programme which has expanded nearly fourfold in the past five years, with, on average, 40 schools a week sending parties to visit, tour and learn about the work and role of Parliament. As we have already heard, the UK Youth Parliament was held here to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Life Peerages, giving young people the opportunity to participate in debates and discussions. These visits are memorable and make Parliament more real to the young people who take part. I add my voice to those who expressed admiration for the Lord Speaker's outreach programme, which is expanding its services with Peers in schools, women's institutes and Rotary groups.
There is a natural curiosity about us and our role which we can use to the advantage of this House. Unlike members of the other House, we have no electorates to look after and are not restricted to any particular part of the country. We have a greater assurance of continuity, at least for the time being. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that, in spite of all the benefits of multimedia facilities, face-to-face contact with other people remains a powerful means of communication.
This House is well known for the collegiality and conversation of its members. Those very skills can be used to such good effect outside the House as well as in it. We can as individuals play our part in keeping channels of communication open with members of the public. Through this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has given us food for thought for our new year resolutions.
My Lords, I add my thanks to those offered to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for introducing this debate. It was a model introduction, and it leaves me only to support and amplify his points, although, encouraged by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, I think that I shall go a fraction further.
Eleven years ago today, at this very moment, I gave my maiden speech. I deliberately chose the final debate before Christmas on the assumption that it would hide my inadequacies and I could then flee for a three-week break before having to face noble Lords again. Many changes, most of them improvements, have occurred since that, for me, awesome day. Some of them are obvious, but many more are not. Among the more obvious is the far greater diversity of background and ethnicity displayed within this House. It is also fair to say that the House is typified by a significantly improved level of tolerance towards the beliefs and lifestyles of others. In sum, it is a Chamber that far better reflects the make-up and attitudes of the nation as a whole.
I shall now dwell for a moment on the unobvious changes that have taken place—first, in the quality and nature of the support we receive, in terms of both personnel and technology. Sadly, this has not been accompanied by improvements in accommodation; I still have three people sharing two chairs in my office and it represents a daily problem, though one that I am sure the House authorities will find a way of solving eventually.
For obvious reasons, today's technology is quite unrecognisable. But none the less, it is a welcome aid to making a number of other important improvements possible. But for me, it is the people who have been recruited who have made the real difference in the past 11 years. I have time to mention just three.
John Pullinger, the librarian in another place, is a dynamo and someone who has a real vision of the future. He understands where Parliament is going and what needs doing. Similarly, our own Elizabeth Hallam Smith is absolutely committed to making this place a House we can all be proud of. Tom O'Leary, the head of education, and his outreach team are beginning to do some extraordinary things. I know the plans he has, and if we can supply him with resources and encouragement, I think he could do a job that we will all be very proud of in years to come.
The indefatigable efforts of the Lord Speaker, which have been referred to by many noble Lords, have made outreach and the promotion of this House a very visible priority. The commitment of all those I have mentioned, and those who support them, and the opportunities afforded by the digital environment that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, so eloquently set out, are exactly what we need to move forward.
The obvious arguments against rushing our fences are usually made very well and many are good ones. But when considering opportunities afforded by the future, I would always beg your Lordships' House to set those opportunities against Primo Levi's famous question, "If not now, when?" There are times when we move more slowly than we need to do.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, mentioned the Hansard Society. I have the privilege of being the vice-chairman of that organisation. He has laid out the statistics, though there is one more worth adding. Less than one-quarter of British people believe they have a fair knowledge of the work of the House of Lords, whereas almost half believe they have a fair knowledge of the work of the House of Commons. This indicates to me that there is still a lot of work to be done.
At the Hansard Society, the greatest frustration is not the job that we do, but, in some senses, the broader job that we believe we could do if we were given the encouragement, and—in some respects—the resources to do so. The Hansard Society is a very important institution and is often taken for granted by this House when it could be more actively encouraged.
Lastly, what should we as individuals in this Chamber do to address the broad thrust of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Norton? I think quite a lot. The reputation of Parliament is going through one of its periodic low ebbs and, although my noble friend Lord Grocott assures me that this is something that happens constantly, I would argue that, while there is a consistent superficial cynicism toward Parliament, and I think he was right to refer to that, there is something rather different going on at the moment. There is a lack of trust. Trust is something I spoke about in last week's debate. Trust is absolutely fundamental to this House, and this is where I think we all have a role to play. People are rightly concerned—many even quite frightened about the future. The traditions of this House for reflection, for expertise, for consideration of very complex issues and even of wisdom are more important than at any time in my recent memory. This Chamber is seldom less than reassuring and, at times, is capable of being positively inspiring when it considers the options available to the country.
The more those qualities are visibly demonstrated on a day-to-day basis, the better. That is actually what differentiates us from the other place. Occasionally—and I apologise to my noble friend Lord Grocott for saying this—there is an addiction to outbreaks of fairly juvenile behaviour. I am not a professional or even a tribal politician, but I have spent a lifetime as a professional communicator. The media may enjoy knock-about politics, but the thinking public are resolutely unimpressed by them, or are even positively turned off. Here, the media and the BBC in particular, can be very guilty of a form of conspiracy. Every one of us knows that, should any of us happen to have a Jonathan Ross moment in this Chamber, we would be absolutely guaranteed an appearance on "Today in Parliament". It would not reflect the Chamber, or the traditions of the Chamber, and not even the normal behaviour of the noble Lord concerned. The truth is that it would be repeated on TV. In that sense, we are seen as a branch of show business. This helps nobody, particularly the BBC. Even in our own Chamber we are capable of being guilty of the occasional outbreak of yah-boo party-political point scoring. Earlier this week I was sad to see that break out during Questions. My judgment is that it hurts us, it hurts our reputation and wins us absolutely nothing. At times of crisis, such as these we are living through, it can potentially even lose a great deal.
I thought that what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said early in his speech about the importance of Parliament was very relevant indeed. Last Sunday, in the New York Times there was a good article about church attendance in the United States. In it the Reverent A R Bernard said:
"When people are shaken to the core, it can open doors".
It struck me that, interestingly, that is all of a piece with much of what has been said in the debate today. New doors are open because people are frightened. We have both an opportunity and an obligation to keep those doors open. However, the door that we most need to keep open is the door to democracy; it is the door to hope and to a belief that we in this Chamber can offer something better—a better future for the people of this country. Should we not take every opportunity to drive that point home? We do ourselves a disservice, and I think we do the electorate a disservice as well.
My Lords, we all congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, not just on his persistence in bringing this subject to the Floor of the Chamber, but on the fact that he practises what he preaches. As has already been said, he is our prize blogger. The rest of us who attempt to blog on a regular basis cannot keep up with him. I do not always agree with everything he says, but he introduced two major themes at the beginning of the debate that were extremely important. First, he urged us to recognise that we need to keep pace with the technological changes outwith this building and with political changes. That is extremely important, and we need to keep it constantly in mind.
Secondly, the noble Lord made the very important point that new forms of communication—other noble Lords have referred to this—make possible a degree of two-way communication that simply was not available to our ancestors and predecessors. That is very important.
I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, because I served on the commission that has been referred to several times and which produced the excellent report entitled Members Only? Parliament in the Public Eye. He will recall that that was followed up a couple of years later by Parliament in the Public Eye 2006: Coming into Focus?, which I think it is fair to say—I hope he will agree—ticked off a number of improvements that had been made, notably, at this end of the building. I will return to that point in a moment.
I very much agree with the noble Lord on the recruitment of additional staff, and the wider remit given to the education unit and to the outreach effort, which has been extremely effectively driven by our own Lord Speaker. Perhaps I may say—because I am sure nobody at the other end of the building is going to watch this part of the parliamentary channel—that we outshine the other place in terms of recognising these things, not least because of the interest of the Lord Speaker. We should always remember that we had television cameras in this Chamber some time before the House of Commons thought it was safe to let them in down there.
I want to refer to two specific things—I am conscious of limited time—before I come back to other noble Lords' comments. The Hansard Society in its excellent reports—and I too have to declare that I am a vice-chair—has indicated a number of important issues as to how the public see us. These have been referred to by my noble friend Lord McNally and others. One has not been mentioned. I think that the noble Lords, Lord Elton and Lord Marlesford, will be interested in this. Only one in two members of the public is confident that Parliament is not the same thing as the Government. That is a very serious issue. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, may recall that in his commission I pointed out that if you then went on the No. 10 website, you could view a day in the life of the then Prime Minister. If I tell you that Alastair Campbell arrived on screen at regular intervals during the day of the then Prime Minister, you will understand how very interesting this was. At the end of this sequence of pictures of the then Prime Minister doing this, that and the other, and having endless conversations with occasionally the then Deputy Prime Minister but much more often with Alastair Campbell, there came a picture which did not have the then Prime Minister in it. It said underneath, "The Prime Minister has left for the House of Commons"—full stop. There was absolutely no explanation of why he was going to the House of Commons, that he owed his position to the House of Commons or that he could not be Prime Minister without the authority of the House of Commons. What is even worse, I have now checked on the new Prime Minister's information on his website. The explanation of what he does and why he is there makes not one single reference to Parliament at all. As far as anybody looking at that website is concerned, the Government have no responsibility to this building and the people in it who serve the public. That is a disaster. If nothing else comes out of this debate, I hope that the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees will, in his inimitable way, persuade the Lord Speaker or somebody to drop a hint to No. 10 that it might be useful to explain to the public of this great country of ours that the Prime Minister owes his position to Parliament. We are a parliamentary democracy.
My other passion is that we need to demonstrate that this building is not just a historic monument, and nor are the people who occupy it. Noble Lords have referred to this. I very much agree with my noble friend Lord Greaves that we have to demonstrate that this is a working democracy. Many years ago I suggested that instead of having just the virtual tour of the building, showing the pictures or whatever, we should have Billy the Bill finding his or her—it should be gender-neutral—way through this building. If the relevant Bill starts in your Lordships' House, Billy should show where it goes and, most importantly, should show that in Committee in the Moses Room or on the Floor of the House those who have an interest in the Bill have an entry point into the decision-making process of the building. That would be helpful. I have a wonderful ally in the person of Mary Morgan in the Information Office, but I have argued for four years that our fellow citizens should be able to access such a site easily on the parliamentary website. Incidentally, during those four years I have had it on my own website in a rather limited amateur form as I am no great technocrat, but the number of hits on it is amazing. Every time I go to a school on behalf of the Lord Speaker, I find a ready audience for the suggestion that that should be put to better use.
I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that there was no golden age. We sometimes hear older Members of both Houses say that somehow or other in the good old days it was possible to read their speeches on the parliamentary page of the Times. They were the only people who read them, of course. The limited readership of Hansard in those days is nothing compared to those who watch the parliament channel or look at our proceedings online. We have a huge audience now and there is an appetite—the Hansard Society has demonstrated this—to know more about what we are doing. It is true that sometimes navigation of the site is not very easy because generally the public do not know what a Select Committee is or where the Moses Room is. However, they are very interested in the issues we discuss. We have to try to ensure that we fulfil their expectations in that respect.
I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott—he hinted at this point and I hope that he will forgive me if I paraphrase his words—that in a parliamentary democracy the fundamental form of communication between Parliament and the people is the ballot box. I hope that he agrees that important lessons can be learnt from that, possibly by your Lordships' House as well as the other place.
I very much agree with my noble friend Lord McNally—perhaps I should, as he is my leader. What he said about BBC Parliament is absolutely critical. I have not had the advantage of being so desperately short of sleep as my noble friend Lord Greaves to watch what is happening on that channel at three o'clock in the morning. However, when I did watch it, I was infuriated by the dead silence that was recorded whenever there was a Division in your Lordships' House or in the House of Commons. We operate rather quickly here but down there 18 to 20 minutes of dead silence elapse when there is a Division. That is enough to turn anybody off. Anybody who is involved in any sort of communication will know—as will the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam—that silence is not encouraging to the viewer or to the non-listener. Those 18 to 20 minutes present a wonderful opportunity to explain what Members are voting on. However, commentators are prevented doing that not by their editors or the broadcasters but by the House of Commons and, I suspect, your Lordships' House. I hope that we shall look at that because that would be the ideal time to explain what is going on.
We should not forget "Today in Parliament", not least because I have just recorded an interview for it for tomorrow night. There is this afternoon's plug.
The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, obviously speaks with a great deal of professional experience. We all have to learn how to be more succinct. I have tried with my blog, and it is very hard work. The public are used to soundbites, and they are not used to long, flowery phrases. We all need to remember that great saying by Dr Johnson, "I haven't time to write a short letter". We need a bit more preparation on the behalf of Members of the House and those who work for us all.
Time is short. I want to address what was a very interesting contribution by my noble friend Lady Garden. It is a critical part of open government that we have a transparent parliamentary system. I do not understand how the public can feel engaged with politics or with governance if they cannot see what is going on. Robin Cook once said that good governance demands good parliamentary scrutiny. The relationship between Parliament and the Government is incredibly important. It needs to be as open as we can make it—not just open in the sense of opening windows and doors so that the public can look in, but so that they can actually influence what is happening in the building.
We are very much indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, not just for this debate, but for all that he does in this field. I hope that others outside the Chamber this evening take note of what has been said. It is constructive, extremely relevant and important.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for introducing this debate this afternoon. He clearly has much experience in this area, and he made numerous very good points. When I say that he touched on a topic, that means that he gave a very succinct description of a situation. He has given us a brilliant introduction to our debate.
My noble friend Lord Norton touched on interest groups, and he is right, but I have some concern about single-issue pressure groups. I do not find their briefing as valuable as that of the groups with wider areas of concern; there always seems to be a lack of balance and rather too much intensity.
The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, made one of his characteristic speeches. He is very knowledgeable about IT; I have heard about him outside your Lordships' House as well. He made some very good points, some of which were about relatively easy problems to solve. I was going to suggest that he is appointed to the Information Committee, but I found out that he is already on it.
My noble friend Lord Marlesford talked about the need for the guillotine in the Commons. Mindful of the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, I agree with my noble friend's analysis of the difference between the two Houses. I well recall the noble Lord who is now the Chairman of Committees inviting me to drop several of what I believed to be brilliant amendments during the passage of the then Transport Bill to finish the Bill in good time, because the principle of this House is that the Government get their business.
The noble Lord, Lord Soley, talked about the choices and the quality of the choices made by the media. I agreed with everything that he said on that point. Many noble Lords remarked on the good work done by the Information Office, with limited but slowly increasing resources. One operational problem is the number of single-man posts; it must be very challenging to maintain continuity of service. This is an issue of how much resource we are prepared to put into the Information Office. One of the big improvements made by the Information Office is in the generation of media interest in publications of your Lordships' Select Committee reports. I have certainly noticed the effect of this outside your Lordships' House when you casually pick up a newspaper and see that a Select Committee report has been published.
The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and many others, mentioned the Lord Speaker's outreach programme. I confess that I have not yet made a presentation, but I will do so next year. I look forward to doing it, and I hope other noble Lords will join me. We really ought to try to do one every year, although I know that that will be challenging.
Many noble Lords have touched on the media, directly or indirectly. Media operations cannot be ignored, and any organisation that does not pay attention to the media will experience serious problems.
The noble Lord, Lord McNally, talked about BBC Parliament. I share all his views, good and bad. It is surprising how many people dip into it just by chance. More would look at it if it were better organised. A couple of weeks ago, I discovered that it was not that easy to see what we have been up to. I had exactly the same experiences as those described by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I agree with him, and his view of the URL links brings me to my next point. However, the relevant technology is fast moving and can be hard to keep up with, even for the best resourced organisations—but we need to keep up.
Most of the population obtain their information via the internet, and my noble friend Lord Norton touched on that. Having a high-quality website is vital, but I am not an expert on web design. Can the Chairman of Committees say whether our website could be assessed by an outside organisation? It is no good that we look at our own website, because we are either not very experienced at assessing websites or look at our website through rose-tinted spectacles. How good are we at measuring the quality of our website?
I am surprised at how few private individuals make direct contact with me in Parliament, either by e-mail or by letter. It may be that I need to raise my profile a little in the way suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. Organised letter campaigns, often by Christian religious organisations, are an exception. However, I receive few communications, despite my e-mail address being easily available through open sources. Many years ago, it was with some trepidation that I published my e-mail address in Commercial Motor magazine—the publication for managers in the transport industry. I was surprised that I received very few e-mails as a result, despite there being several big issues which remained to be decided.
I pay tribute to the writetothem.com website. So far, I have received about half a dozen e-mails. I have carried out a test this afternoon to see how fast I would receive an e-mail back, so shall see whether that is on my desk when I return to my office. That website is a positive development.
I should also draw noble Lords' attention to the theyworkforyou.com website, which other noble Lords have mentioned. It is excellent and allows the public to see what we have been doing. It is constantly being improved and developed. I am confident that its operators will recognise some of their problems and that they are taking steps to rectify them. The website measures how many times each noble Lord speaks in debate or at Question Time. I have spoken 33 times in the past year, my noble friend Lord Selborne has spoken 13 times, and the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, has spoken 16 times. However, the reality is that this year I have been rather less assiduous, because I have been doing other things, whereas my noble friend Lord Selborne has, we know, done tremendous work with the Science and Technology Select Committee of your Lordships' House—although the site does not show that. Similarly, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, is an absolutely sterling Member of your Lordships' House and is highly regarded inside it and outside. I am sure that he has done much more than I have done this year, but he does not receive any credit for it on the theyworkforyou.com website. It needs to do some work to measure better what we have been doing. Nevertheless, both sites—theyworkforyou.com and writetothem.com—perform a very useful function and we should encourage them.
My final point concerns visitors. As well as outreach visitors, thousands visit the Houses of Parliament, some hosted by a Peer or MP. I certainly regard it as my duty to host as many visitors who would not normally be able to come here as part of their work as I can. I have only once failed to sell the virtues of the House, even to some somewhat sceptical guests. However, the vast majority of visitors are taken around the House by a range of guides, and improvements have been made to the operation of the tours system. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, touched on the excessive attention given to ceremonial dress and photographic images of the House. One difficulty is that both Houses form a working Parliament; we are not a museum.
Furthermore, we must be getting fairly near to maximum capacity for visitors. My noble friend Lord Renton talked about virtual visits and other means of achieving the same effect as an actual visit. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, talked about the visitor centre. I am not aware of the pros and cons of this project but no doubt the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees will be able to give us a little information about it.
My concern is with the message put out by the guides. The history of Parliament is interesting and the State Opening ceremony is important, but I fear that visitors from the UK and overseas leave with a good idea of Tudor history but are little informed about our day-to-day work and our ethos, which we believe to be distinct from that of the House of Commons. For example, do visitors learn that we are a self-regulating Chamber? Your Lordships will recognise that we could not have arrived at that position from a clean sheet of paper. It is a bizarre situation but it works. Therefore, will the Chairman of Committees take steps to ensure that the guides, while still being accurate and objective, are more definite about the message that they send out about your Lordships' work?
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for raising this important subject. I also congratulate noble Lords who have contributed so knowledgeably to today's debate. I think we can all agree that ensuring effective communication between Parliament and the public is absolutely crucial. Not only should we strive to publicise the valuable work carried out by Parliament—and, from our point of view, particularly by the House of Lords—but we should also make it as easy as possible for the public to communicate with Parliament.
Over the past few years, much work has taken place to improve Parliament's performance in this area, and I congratulate the noble Lords and staff responsible. I am particularly grateful for the work that your Lordships' Information Committee is doing in this area. It has done a great deal to advise and support the House's information and communication services, as shown in its recent annual report, which I commend to the House. I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, who spoke very knowledgeably in the debate and who chaired the highly influential Hansard Society commission on connecting Parliament with the public.
I shall start by setting out some of Parliament's current activities in this field before attempting to respond to the questions raised by noble Lords. The activities fall into three broad categories: visits to Parliament, including those by school children; parliamentary and House of Lords outreach work; and remote access through a variety of different media.
I turn to the first of those—visitors. One of the most effective ways in which we can help the public to increase their understanding of Parliament is by encouraging personal visits. As noble Lords will know, much good work has been done over the past few years to enhance the visitor experience. A Central Tours Office was set up in 2003 to manage groups of visitors invited to Parliament by Members and to train guides to a standard script. I hope that that will please the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. The office also runs the summer opening programme, which is now a permanent and extremely popular fixture.
Visitor Assistants have been introduced to provide an improved welcome to visitors, to manage queues and to give out information about parliamentary business. They are also trained in the workings of both Houses and so are able to impart useful information and answer questions from visitors. The 24-strong team now provides a service until both Houses have risen. In addition, the Cromwell Green visitor reception building provides an enhanced access point for the public.
In 2007, the Palace received more than 1 million visitors in total, including 184,000 visitors to the Galleries of either House, 134,000 visitors on Members' sponsored tours and 29,000 people on Education Service visits. These impressive figures speak for themselves.
An essential part of our visitor strategy is the Education Service, to which the noble Lord, Lord Renton, referred. It has significantly increased the number of young people it welcomes to Parliament and provides valuable tours and workshops about the role of Parliament. It is hoped that 37,000 young people will be received by the Education Service in the 2008-09 financial year, up from 7,500 only four years or so ago. Plans for the provision of a dedicated education centre in the Palace of Westminster will enable the service to receive 100,000 learners per year and to provide an even better service. I have to admit that that is still a little way off at the moment.
In addition, the Education Service produces materials, including a new website, which support teaching and learning about Parliament. The education outreach team trains teachers to increase their knowledge and understanding of Parliament. This year alone, the team has worked with 1,000 teachers, as the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, pointed out, across all parts of the UK, including the most far-flung places. We will, of course, continue to ensure that the Education Service covers fully the important role of the House of Lords within its material.
I now turn to my second category, outreach. This House's outreach and engagement programme seeks to connect external audiences with the work and Members of the House through outreach visits by Peers, events held in Parliament and online initiatives. The broad aims of the programme are to increase understanding of the role and relevance of this House and to raise awareness of how people can interact and engage with us. I warmly welcome the Lord Speaker's leadership in this area and I join the noble Lords, Lord Grocott, Lord Puttnam, and others in congratulating her on that role.
The outreach visits by Peers are a particularly important means for raising awareness of the work of this House. So far, 160 visits to schools have taken place, involving over 8,000 young people, 300 teachers and nearly 70 Peers. I am sure that some of those 70 are in the Chamber now. Visits are also made to many other organisations and groups, including regional meetings of the Women's Institute and, in the future, to district conferences of Rotary International.
I also welcome the outreach events that take place in this House. For example, in May 2008, the UK Youth Parliament held a debate in the Chamber which was very well received, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and others. A number of events are planned for next year, including a flagship event in the Chamber—there will be only one such event each year; seminars designed to showcase the expertise of Members; an annual lecture in the Robing Room to follow on from the five very successful lectures celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Life Peerages Act which took place over the course of the past 12 months; plus new projects involving young people.
In addition to the Lord Speaker's outreach programme, the parliamentary outreach service does good work in spreading awareness of the work and processes of the institution of Parliament. Four regional outreach officers have been appointed, working predominantly in the two start-up regions of Yorkshire and Humberside and eastern England. The intention is to expand the service over the next two years, ensuring a national service from year 2 which will be consolidated in year 3. The service offers training and information events to a range of audiences, including people from the voluntary sector.
Parliamentary Archives is also heavily involved in the outreach agenda, placing emphasis on engaging the public with the archives and the history of Parliament with a view to stimulating interest in the current work of both Houses. A key part of their strategy has been to increase the provision of online services; for example, inquiry-answering and online payment for copies of records. Also important are the exhibitions and websites that have highlighted elements of the collection.
The archives are also starting an innovative project that will take its outreach work beyond the confines of the parliamentary estate into the regions, supported by the parliamentary outreach team. The initiative, entitled People and Parliament: Connecting with Communities,will involve partnership working with regional archives, thus making connections between archival material in Westminster and archives held locally. This, in turn, will lead to community-based activities producing content for the new living heritage section of the parliamentary website. In addition, locally based displays will help to bring the holdings and work of the Parliamentary Archives to the attention of new audiences.
The last of the three strands I mentioned is connecting with the public through the work of the Information Office, the internet and broadcasting media. Clearly, this area is by far the largest in terms of the size of the audience reached. I start with the Information Office, and I join the noble Lord, Lord Norton, in praising its work and I congratulate all those involved. This House was the first to appoint a professional to promote its work and the first to appoint a press officer dedicated to publicising committee work. The Information Office carries out valuable work in promoting the work of the House, emphasising the important role that your Lordships play in holding the Government to account through scrutiny of legislation, Select Committee work, Questions and debates. It also focuses attention on the broad range of expertise to be found in this House, which the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, in particular, referred to, and the more we can do of that, the better.
The Information Office conveys these messages in a variety of ways. Noble Lords will know that it produces a range of publications and briefing materials, such as the excellent pamphlets entitled The Work of the House of Lords, 100,000 copies of which are circulated to target audiences annually, and the Guide to Business in the House of Lords. The Information Office also provides an inquiry service, so that members of the public, journalists and others can get answers to their queries by telephone, e-mail or letter. In the past financial year, around 20,000 inquiries were handled.
A significant part of the Information Office's work is its press and media strategy because coverage in the media reaches a very large audience. The focus is on promoting debates, Select Committee reports and outreach activities. In the past Session, the Information Office undertook for the first time to promote general debates to the media with a view to highlighting the diversity of expertise and experience in the House. In total, 45 debates were promoted, which resulted in 150 items of news coverage in national newspapers and 103 in regional or local news sources. That was a 63 per cent increase on the number of articles related to Lords debates in the previous year. The general tone of the media coverage was positive and the expertise of the Peers taking part was often referred to.
The press officers have also been successful at promoting the reports produced by your Lordships' Select Committees, ensuring that they receive maximum exposure and make a significant impact. Notable examples last Session included the Science and Technology Committee's report on waste reduction, which was widely covered in the press and on the radio, the Communications Committee's report, The Ownership of the News, and the Economic Affairs Committee's report, The Economic Impact of Immigration, which sparked a very high-profile debate. In addition, reports of EU sub-committees often receive widespread coverage by the media.
In this day and age, one of the most important ways we can communicate with the public is via the internet, as many noble Lords said. The Parliament website has improved substantially in recent years and provides an excellent service that is very widely used; in the past year, over 7.8 million people have visited it. I can tell the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, that the web centre uses an external agency to do real-user testing, using members of the general public to validate the website. One of the key features is the Bills service, which provides access to all legislation before Parliament as well as to amendments and other relevant documents, such as Library research papers. In November, these pages received 118,000 unique visitors who generated 210,000 visits. Further enhancements are planned, such as the introduction of plain English updates after each Bill stage.
I am aware of mySociety's Free Our Bills campaign, which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, mentioned. Many of the issues it raises have already been addressed through improvements to the website. For example, Bills, amendments, related copies of Hansard and research papers are put on the website minutes after they are published in hard copy. Access is easy and users can sign up for a wide range of alerts. In addition, Bills are already available in XML format—whatever that is—which allows individual clauses and subsections to be tagged, as mySociety wants. This material is available with a free "click-use" licence.
The difficulty in indexing Bills in the way that mySociety wants is that UK legislation is frequently referential, and often makes provision without anything that would appear to the lay reader to be an obvious or useful keyword. None the less, I understand that a feasibility study on clause-by-clause indexing is in train. The study will also consider how the results of indexing might be integrated with the current Bills information on the website. Further progress on that point will depend on the outcome of the study.
Other valuable services on the website include the parliamentary calendar, which enables people to find out what is going on in Parliament; the improved search engine; virtual tours of Parliament; quick guides to Parliament; podcasts; and an enhanced news service. The capacity of the website to run online consultations on behalf of Select Committees is also being developed. Some such consultations have already been held, with 42,000 unique visitors making 85,000 visits to the web forum site. I also note that the Lord Speaker's Competition for Schools 2008 involved your Lordships' Science and Technology Committee inviting school groups of different ages to submit their ideas to the committee's inquiry into waste reduction. Finally, I welcome the fact that analysis of the results of Divisions will be posted on the website from next month onwards, which I hope is good news.
Elsewhere on the internet, the House of Lords has been at the forefront of developing new approaches to engaging and informing youth audiences, with the launch of five videos about the House on the YouTube website, to which the noble Earl, Lord Errol, in particular, referred. To date, there have been 111,000 views of videos on Parliament's channel on YouTube. Work is also ongoing to enhance Parliament's presence on other social websites, to which some noble Lords referred. That brings information about Parliament to a much broader audience and provides a forum for discussion of relevant issues.
I should also mention the innovative Lords of the Blog website, where certain Members discuss political topics of interest. Since its launch in March 2008, the site has received more than 110,000 views and more than 2,400 comments from the public. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Norton, wrote on the site about this debate, and more than 20 people suggested topics for him to raise in his speech. I welcome this dynamic communication between Members and the public. I was very interested in the figures given by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, whom I know has been very much involved, showed that younger people, in particular, were interested in that form of communication. I can tell him and other noble Lords that the next edition of Red Benches next month will invite all Peers to take part in the Lords of the Blog website. I hope that we will get enhanced coverage from that.
Broadcasting is another important medium for conveying the work of both Houses to the public. The full proceedings in both Chambers and in Westminster Hall are covered, as are a number of committee meetings in both Houses. In addition, Chamber and committee proceedings are made available online through the www.parliamentlive.tv website, either in visual form or in audio only. As a result of the planned capital programme to upgrade committee rooms, an increasing proportion of committee meetings will be available in visual form, rather than audio only. I should add that the length of time for which proceedings are available on the website has recently increased substantially, from 28 days to a year.
I turn briefly to some of the specific issues raised in the debate, some of which, I must say, are not for me. The noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Greaves, commented on the BBC Parliament channel. My influence over that is very limited, but I hope that the BBC will pick up on what they said. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, asked why Divisions were always broadcast in complete silence. I do not know the answer to that, but I shall try to find out and let him know.
Other noble Lords criticised—or at least mentioned—both the Government and the House of Commons. Of course I cannot—or would certainly not want to—answer or comment on such criticisms.
I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, only that he will have to be patient for accommodation and will have to wait for the bright, sunny uplands of Millbank House, in which I am sure a palatial suite of offices will be made available to him.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, asked me to do something about the Prime Minister, mentioning going to Parliament. I am not sure whether I can do that either, but I shall read with care what the noble Lord said and I will see what can be done.
I shall now conclude. This has been an excellent debate on a subject of first-class importance. I hope that I have demonstrated that Parliament has made great strides in improving the way in which it communicates with the public, although it is clear from noble Lords' speeches that there is still more work to be done. I am particularly interested in the forthcoming inquiry of the Information Committee, to which the noble Lord, Lord Renton, referred, and I hope that the committee agrees to it being set up next year.
Once again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for bringing this subject forward, and all noble Lords who have contributed to such an interesting debate.
My Lords, I begin by picking up on a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I did not mean to suggest that we are not political animals. We are, and we should be, political animals; political parties are absolutely essential to the health of our political system. I hope that that means that I now have 100 per cent agreement from the noble Lord. I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who made a point in that light, that I joined the Conservative Party when I was 13.
I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken. The list of speakers today is notable for its quantity as well as its quality. The fact that so many of your Lordships have taken part in the debate on the last sitting day before Christmas is testimony to the importance that we attach to the subject. Some excellent points have been made, and I am very grateful to the Chairman of Committees for his detailed response.
It is clear from what has been said that this debate should be seen as part of a process rather than the start or the end of one. I very much endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Soley, has said, which the Chairman of Committees picked up on, about blogging and contributing to Lords of the Blog. Any noble Lords who have not yet seen it may wish to go to www.lordsoftheblog.net to see exactly what we are talking about and the contributions that have been made. May I also say how delighted I was by the speech of my noble friend Lord Renton and his proposal for an inquiry into this topic by the Information Committee? I hope that he will ensure that members of the public have an opportunity to contribute to that inquiry.
As I said, it has been an excellent debate. Very good points have been made, which I hope will feed into and allow us to build on what has already been achieved. As I said and as the Chairman of Committees has emphasised, we have achieved an awful lot already. It is a question of building on the strength of that and taking it further. It is clear from the debate that we recognise the importance of communicating with the public and enabling them to communicate with us. Let us take this further forward. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.