Parliament: Communication with the Public — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:34 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Leader, House of Lords, Spokesperson in the Lords, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 3:34 pm, 18th December 2008

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.