Parliament: Communication with the Public — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:51 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of The Earl of Erroll The Earl of Erroll Crossbench 3:51 pm, 18th December 2008

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.