Parliament: Communication with the Public — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:07 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords (Planning), Department for Communities and Local Government 4:07 pm, 18th December 2008

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 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.