Parliament: Communication with the Public — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:31 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Baroness Garden of Frognal Baroness Garden of Frognal Spokesperson in the Lords, Children, Schools and Families 4:31 pm, 18th December 2008

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, on initiating this debate. It launches us into the Recess with a thought-provoking and cross-party topic. As we have heard, it is surely at the heart of a democracy that members of the public should be in dialogue with those responsible for government, and equally that those who are elected or appointed to make laws should ensure that they remain in contact with members of the public.

Communication is indeed a two-way process, yet many of our citizens have so little interest in communicating with Parliament that they do not even vote. As my noble friend Lord McNally pointed out, in the previous two elections four out of 10 people did not participate in this very simple activity. It seems that they failed to see any relevance to their own lives in the work of these Houses or to make connections with decisions on education, health, tax, housing, the environment or security, on any one of which they would have had a violent opinion, and all of which are issues that affect their everyday lives.

We see that lack of interest at local, national and European levels, with many studies and reviews analysing the reasons and remedies. We have already heard mention of the estimable Hansard Society as one of the bodies that looks at that, aiming to strengthen parliamentary democracy and encourage greater public involvement in politics. One recent forum posed the question, "Are young people allergic to politics?". It found that the young people were not backward in telling the commissioners exactly what they did not like about politics, how it could be more child-friendly and what could be done to promote politics to young people. One barrier particularly identified by young people is the lack of diversity among parliamentarians.

A survey conducted recently by Girlguiding UK, which has more than 500,000 members, identified that girls were put off by a lack of young MPs and by having so few female role models to emulate. In fact there are some very able young male and female MPs but they are of course greatly outnumbered by those who are older, and the men greatly outnumber the women. This is an issue for all parties that look for a fairer gender balance among candidates as well as better representation from minority ethnic communities. In that respect, your Lordships' House is more representative than the other place; it has much wider diversity in gender, ethnicity and disability. Youth, as we all know, is a comparative concept. Knowing the part that women play in the debates in this House, it is unusual that in this debate today I find myself as the only representative of the gender minority.

The public perception means that this House may seem even more remote to the average citizen, and the barriers already referred to of communication in our procedures, customs and language are pretty mysterious to new Members of your Lordships' House, so to outsiders they can seem even more impenetrable. Mention has already been made of the snapshots of Prime Minister's Questions that we see on television, with selected extracts of people shouting, interrupting, heckling and generally not behaving very well. The interminable picture of this House is of the State Opening, with the red robes and tiaras, which is assumed to be a typical day. I have been asked by people who I thought might have known better whether I have to wear my red robe every day. It is a widespread misunderstanding. The third picture that we see is of near-empty Chambers where lonesome souls toil away on some worthy topic, which gives an immediate impression that we do not work very hard.

Broadcasting both Houses has therefore been a great benefit to open government, but has given some distinctly misleading impressions about what goes on in Westminster. Given that the media generally prefer to focus on shortcomings and mistakes, it will add to the publicity if the centre of the story is an MP or a Peer and again disengage the public from what is going on Westminster. We therefore start with an uphill struggle in communicating all that Parliament does towards good governance of the country, and towards improving the lives of individuals.

The good news in all this has already been referred to in previous speeches: the positive initiatives of new technologies; the parliamentary website being constantly upgraded; and the blogs—I, too, have to refer to the Lords of the Blog, as my noble friend will follow me in speaking. The education service produces teaching and learning materials to stimulate interest and discussion in schools. The outreach team has worked with more than 1,000 teachers this year alone. Another part of the service receives schools here, a programme which has expanded nearly fourfold in the past five years, with, on average, 40 schools a week sending parties to visit, tour and learn about the work and role of Parliament. As we have already heard, the UK Youth Parliament was held here to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Life Peerages, giving young people the opportunity to participate in debates and discussions. These visits are memorable and make Parliament more real to the young people who take part. I add my voice to those who expressed admiration for the Lord Speaker's outreach programme, which is expanding its services with Peers in schools, women's institutes and Rotary groups.

There is a natural curiosity about us and our role which we can use to the advantage of this House. Unlike members of the other House, we have no electorates to look after and are not restricted to any particular part of the country. We have a greater assurance of continuity, at least for the time being. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that, in spite of all the benefits of multimedia facilities, face-to-face contact with other people remains a powerful means of communication.

This House is well known for the collegiality and conversation of its members. Those very skills can be used to such good effect outside the House as well as in it. We can as individuals play our part in keeping channels of communication open with members of the public. Through this debate, the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has given us food for thought for our new year resolutions.

Annotations

Jax Blunt
Posted on 8 Mar 2009 12:42 am (Report this annotation)

"Communication is indeed a two-way process, yet many of our citizens have so little interest in communicating with Parliament that they do not even vote. As my noble friend Lord McNally pointed out, in the previous two elections four out of 10 people did not participate in this very simple activity. It seems that they failed to see any relevance to their own lives in the work of these Houses or to make connections with decisions on education, health, tax, housing, the environment or security, on any one of which they would have had a violent opinion, and all of which are issues that affect their everyday lives."

Actually I think that it's because we vote, and it makes no difference. I was part of the majority vote in the last election - 65% of those voting voted against the labour party. So please tell me how come we have a labour government?