Parliament: Communication with the Public — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:25 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative 4:25 pm, 18th December 2008

My Lords, I think that everyone knows what "noble friend" means, and I am delighted to thank and congratulate my noble friend on this afternoon's debate and, indeed, on the lucid and incisive way in which he has tackled a series of constitutional issues over the past few years. The whole House has benefited from it.

My noble friend has introduced a subject of extraordinary importance, much greater than we are giving it credit for today. My noble friend Lord Marlesford reminded us that Parliament was invented to control the Government. Before that, we had chaos and blood-letting. It actually cost a great deal of blood to build this institution that we now occupy so placidly. It is what stands between the British people and a reversion to some unsatisfactory, undemocratic and, quite possibly, violent existence. It is foolish to think that mere stasis will preserve it.

The line between government and Parliament has been so blurred since the reign of George I that many of the public do not understood the function of Parliament, because they see government functioning inside it. There are, I think, 140 Members of the Government and PPSs occupying Benches in the House of Commons. They are inside the machine invented to control them, into which none could have put a foot before the reign of George I, who did not speak English and had to have somebody here to do his work for him. We are looking at a precious thing. As the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who has not yet returned to his place, pointed out, the product is very good: it is liberty.

Now, if the British people do not understand that, and if Parliament becomes devalued, they will not stand to protect Parliament because they will not see it as protecting themselves. Therefore, we have a real duty to show the people how the power of Parliament has been eroded, is being eroded and will, if future Governments of all political colours have their way, continue to be eroded, because Parliaments are a thorn in the flesh of Governments. If the public are to understand that, they must understand what we are doing.

I have been impressed by the catalogue of new technologies that my noble friend has produced for your Lordships. Others have added to it and Members of this House have further embellished it, but that is resource-intensive. There is one simple method that rests not on what I call new technology but on the traditional media—that is to say, the press, the radio and terrestrial television—where Governments have successively taken things out of the hands of Parliament and, principally, out of the hands of the other place, or House of Commons. At this point, I fear that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, will wince when he reads Hansard, because I must draw your Lordships' attention to the change that has come across the handling of information—from Parliament as a whole, but principally from the House of Commons—since I first became interested in politics in the 1960s.

When I was a parliamentary candidate and started looking at these things, I well remember the furore of excitement if a Minister ill advisedly let a government policy out of the bag, deliberately or accidentally, outside the premises of his appropriate Chamber in Parliament. I do not know what happened in this House, because I am unaware of there being an incident, but if a Minister in the other place, or House of Commons, were to make a policy statement outside it, as soon as that was known he was hauled back by the Speaker to face an emergency debate. He got a headline, but not the one that he wanted about the policy; it was the headline of how he was humiliated and brought back, embarrassingly, to put right what he had done by making the announcement outside Parliament.

What happens now, almost without comment and as a matter of routine, is that almost all government policies—or all but those of the hugest importance—are made outside the House, by the Government, to an audience invited by them and consisting mostly of media reporters from newspapers and elsewhere. As a result, the only comments that the media hear come from Ministers, the officials supporting them and the other reporters. That means that not only are the voices of the enraged Opposition, of whatever party, not heard but the voices of the disenchanted Back-Benchers of the government party are also silenced. So what the public get is a picture that bears no relation to Parliament at all and nothing gets reported from these two Chambers.

The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is now here to wince as I comment on proceedings in another place. Would it not be a simple matter for the House of Commons to take this matter back into its hands and to require the Government to release all news about their business that affects the electorate inside the Chamber? That is where the news would then be, as would the reporters, who would hear what Members of Parliament thought about it. That would be the news, and it would be broadcast on the traditional media, at least. That way, at no extra expense to anyone, Parliament would begin to come back to being the focal point of public interest, which is where it must be if this sovereign and free state of ours is to maintain its freedom in the years to come.