Parliament: Communication with the Public — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:43 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Renton of Mount Harry Lord Renton of Mount Harry Conservative 3:43 pm, 18th December 2008

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.