Parliament: Communication with the Public — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:11 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 3:11 pm, 18th December 2008

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.

I quote from the report of the Hansard Society Commission on the Communication of Parliamentary Democracy, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam:

"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 5 December, in which it explains the parliamentary process, and encourages people to listen to debates on the Bill, check progress on the Parliament website, and if necessary, write to their local MPs. I hope that disseminating such information—though perhaps with more emphasis on your Lordships' House—becomes standard practice.

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.


Posted on 11 Jan 2009 7:50 pm

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