Parliament: Communication with the Public — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:38 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Puttnam Lord Puttnam Labour 4:38 pm, 18th December 2008

My Lords, I add my thanks to those offered to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for introducing this debate. It was a model introduction, and it leaves me only to support and amplify his points, although, encouraged by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, I think that I shall go a fraction further.

Eleven years ago today, at this very moment, I gave my maiden speech. I deliberately chose the final debate before Christmas on the assumption that it would hide my inadequacies and I could then flee for a three-week break before having to face noble Lords again. Many changes, most of them improvements, have occurred since that, for me, awesome day. Some of them are obvious, but many more are not. Among the more obvious is the far greater diversity of background and ethnicity displayed within this House. It is also fair to say that the House is typified by a significantly improved level of tolerance towards the beliefs and lifestyles of others. In sum, it is a Chamber that far better reflects the make-up and attitudes of the nation as a whole.

I shall now dwell for a moment on the unobvious changes that have taken place—first, in the quality and nature of the support we receive, in terms of both personnel and technology. Sadly, this has not been accompanied by improvements in accommodation; I still have three people sharing two chairs in my office and it represents a daily problem, though one that I am sure the House authorities will find a way of solving eventually.

For obvious reasons, today's technology is quite unrecognisable. But none the less, it is a welcome aid to making a number of other important improvements possible. But for me, it is the people who have been recruited who have made the real difference in the past 11 years. I have time to mention just three.

John Pullinger, the librarian in another place, is a dynamo and someone who has a real vision of the future. He understands where Parliament is going and what needs doing. Similarly, our own Elizabeth Hallam Smith is absolutely committed to making this place a House we can all be proud of. Tom O'Leary, the head of education, and his outreach team are beginning to do some extraordinary things. I know the plans he has, and if we can supply him with resources and encouragement, I think he could do a job that we will all be very proud of in years to come.

The indefatigable efforts of the Lord Speaker, which have been referred to by many noble Lords, have made outreach and the promotion of this House a very visible priority. The commitment of all those I have mentioned, and those who support them, and the opportunities afforded by the digital environment that the noble Lord, Lord Norton, so eloquently set out, are exactly what we need to move forward.

The obvious arguments against rushing our fences are usually made very well and many are good ones. But when considering opportunities afforded by the future, I would always beg your Lordships' House to set those opportunities against Primo Levi's famous question, "If not now, when?" There are times when we move more slowly than we need to do.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, mentioned the Hansard Society. I have the privilege of being the vice-chairman of that organisation. He has laid out the statistics, though there is one more worth adding. Less than one-quarter of British people believe they have a fair knowledge of the work of the House of Lords, whereas almost half believe they have a fair knowledge of the work of the House of Commons. This indicates to me that there is still a lot of work to be done.

At the Hansard Society, the greatest frustration is not the job that we do, but, in some senses, the broader job that we believe we could do if we were given the encouragement, and—in some respects—the resources to do so. The Hansard Society is a very important institution and is often taken for granted by this House when it could be more actively encouraged.

Lastly, what should we as individuals in this Chamber do to address the broad thrust of the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Norton? I think quite a lot. The reputation of Parliament is going through one of its periodic low ebbs and, although my noble friend Lord Grocott assures me that this is something that happens constantly, I would argue that, while there is a consistent superficial cynicism toward Parliament, and I think he was right to refer to that, there is something rather different going on at the moment. There is a lack of trust. Trust is something I spoke about in last week's debate. Trust is absolutely fundamental to this House, and this is where I think we all have a role to play. People are rightly concerned—many even quite frightened about the future. The traditions of this House for reflection, for expertise, for consideration of very complex issues and even of wisdom are more important than at any time in my recent memory. This Chamber is seldom less than reassuring and, at times, is capable of being positively inspiring when it considers the options available to the country.

The more those qualities are visibly demonstrated on a day-to-day basis, the better. That is actually what differentiates us from the other place. Occasionally—and I apologise to my noble friend Lord Grocott for saying this—there is an addiction to outbreaks of fairly juvenile behaviour. I am not a professional or even a tribal politician, but I have spent a lifetime as a professional communicator. The media may enjoy knock-about politics, but the thinking public are resolutely unimpressed by them, or are even positively turned off. Here, the media and the BBC in particular, can be very guilty of a form of conspiracy. Every one of us knows that, should any of us happen to have a Jonathan Ross moment in this Chamber, we would be absolutely guaranteed an appearance on "Today in Parliament". It would not reflect the Chamber, or the traditions of the Chamber, and not even the normal behaviour of the noble Lord concerned. The truth is that it would be repeated on TV. In that sense, we are seen as a branch of show business. This helps nobody, particularly the BBC. Even in our own Chamber we are capable of being guilty of the occasional outbreak of yah-boo party-political point scoring. Earlier this week I was sad to see that break out during Questions. My judgment is that it hurts us, it hurts our reputation and wins us absolutely nothing. At times of crisis, such as these we are living through, it can potentially even lose a great deal.

I thought that what the noble Lord, Lord Elton, said early in his speech about the importance of Parliament was very relevant indeed. Last Sunday, in the New York Times there was a good article about church attendance in the United States. In it the Reverent A R Bernard said:

"When people are shaken to the core, it can open doors".

It struck me that, interestingly, that is all of a piece with much of what has been said in the debate today. New doors are open because people are frightened. We have both an opportunity and an obligation to keep those doors open. However, the door that we most need to keep open is the door to democracy; it is the door to hope and to a belief that we in this Chamber can offer something better—a better future for the people of this country. Should we not take every opportunity to drive that point home? We do ourselves a disservice, and I think we do the electorate a disservice as well.