Parliament: Communication with the Public — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:46 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Tyler Lord Tyler Spokesperson in the Lords, Ministry of Justice 4:46 pm, 18th December 2008

My Lords, we all congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, not just on his persistence in bringing this subject to the Floor of the Chamber, but on the fact that he practises what he preaches. As has already been said, he is our prize blogger. The rest of us who attempt to blog on a regular basis cannot keep up with him. I do not always agree with everything he says, but he introduced two major themes at the beginning of the debate that were extremely important. First, he urged us to recognise that we need to keep pace with the technological changes outwith this building and with political changes. That is extremely important, and we need to keep it constantly in mind.

Secondly, the noble Lord made the very important point that new forms of communication—other noble Lords have referred to this—make possible a degree of two-way communication that simply was not available to our ancestors and predecessors. That is very important.

I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, because I served on the commission that has been referred to several times and which produced the excellent report entitled Members Only? Parliament in the Public Eye. He will recall that that was followed up a couple of years later by Parliament in the Public Eye 2006: Coming into Focus?, which I think it is fair to say—I hope he will agree—ticked off a number of improvements that had been made, notably, at this end of the building. I will return to that point in a moment.

I very much agree with the noble Lord on the recruitment of additional staff, and the wider remit given to the education unit and to the outreach effort, which has been extremely effectively driven by our own Lord Speaker. Perhaps I may say—because I am sure nobody at the other end of the building is going to watch this part of the parliamentary channel—that we outshine the other place in terms of recognising these things, not least because of the interest of the Lord Speaker. We should always remember that we had television cameras in this Chamber some time before the House of Commons thought it was safe to let them in down there.

I want to refer to two specific things—I am conscious of limited time—before I come back to other noble Lords' comments. The Hansard Society in its excellent reports—and I too have to declare that I am a vice-chair—has indicated a number of important issues as to how the public see us. These have been referred to by my noble friend Lord McNally and others. One has not been mentioned. I think that the noble Lords, Lord Elton and Lord Marlesford, will be interested in this. Only one in two members of the public is confident that Parliament is not the same thing as the Government. That is a very serious issue. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, may recall that in his commission I pointed out that if you then went on the No. 10 website, you could view a day in the life of the then Prime Minister. If I tell you that Alastair Campbell arrived on screen at regular intervals during the day of the then Prime Minister, you will understand how very interesting this was. At the end of this sequence of pictures of the then Prime Minister doing this, that and the other, and having endless conversations with occasionally the then Deputy Prime Minister but much more often with Alastair Campbell, there came a picture which did not have the then Prime Minister in it. It said underneath, "The Prime Minister has left for the House of Commons"—full stop. There was absolutely no explanation of why he was going to the House of Commons, that he owed his position to the House of Commons or that he could not be Prime Minister without the authority of the House of Commons. What is even worse, I have now checked on the new Prime Minister's information on his website. The explanation of what he does and why he is there makes not one single reference to Parliament at all. As far as anybody looking at that website is concerned, the Government have no responsibility to this building and the people in it who serve the public. That is a disaster. If nothing else comes out of this debate, I hope that the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees will, in his inimitable way, persuade the Lord Speaker or somebody to drop a hint to No. 10 that it might be useful to explain to the public of this great country of ours that the Prime Minister owes his position to Parliament. We are a parliamentary democracy.

My other passion is that we need to demonstrate that this building is not just a historic monument, and nor are the people who occupy it. Noble Lords have referred to this. I very much agree with my noble friend Lord Greaves that we have to demonstrate that this is a working democracy. Many years ago I suggested that instead of having just the virtual tour of the building, showing the pictures or whatever, we should have Billy the Bill finding his or her—it should be gender-neutral—way through this building. If the relevant Bill starts in your Lordships' House, Billy should show where it goes and, most importantly, should show that in Committee in the Moses Room or on the Floor of the House those who have an interest in the Bill have an entry point into the decision-making process of the building. That would be helpful. I have a wonderful ally in the person of Mary Morgan in the Information Office, but I have argued for four years that our fellow citizens should be able to access such a site easily on the parliamentary website. Incidentally, during those four years I have had it on my own website in a rather limited amateur form as I am no great technocrat, but the number of hits on it is amazing. Every time I go to a school on behalf of the Lord Speaker, I find a ready audience for the suggestion that that should be put to better use.

I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, that there was no golden age. We sometimes hear older Members of both Houses say that somehow or other in the good old days it was possible to read their speeches on the parliamentary page of the Times. They were the only people who read them, of course. The limited readership of Hansard in those days is nothing compared to those who watch the parliament channel or look at our proceedings online. We have a huge audience now and there is an appetite—the Hansard Society has demonstrated this—to know more about what we are doing. It is true that sometimes navigation of the site is not very easy because generally the public do not know what a Select Committee is or where the Moses Room is. However, they are very interested in the issues we discuss. We have to try to ensure that we fulfil their expectations in that respect.

I also agree with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott—he hinted at this point and I hope that he will forgive me if I paraphrase his words—that in a parliamentary democracy the fundamental form of communication between Parliament and the people is the ballot box. I hope that he agrees that important lessons can be learnt from that, possibly by your Lordships' House as well as the other place.

I very much agree with my noble friend Lord McNally—perhaps I should, as he is my leader. What he said about BBC Parliament is absolutely critical. I have not had the advantage of being so desperately short of sleep as my noble friend Lord Greaves to watch what is happening on that channel at three o'clock in the morning. However, when I did watch it, I was infuriated by the dead silence that was recorded whenever there was a Division in your Lordships' House or in the House of Commons. We operate rather quickly here but down there 18 to 20 minutes of dead silence elapse when there is a Division. That is enough to turn anybody off. Anybody who is involved in any sort of communication will know—as will the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam—that silence is not encouraging to the viewer or to the non-listener. Those 18 to 20 minutes present a wonderful opportunity to explain what Members are voting on. However, commentators are prevented doing that not by their editors or the broadcasters but by the House of Commons and, I suspect, your Lordships' House. I hope that we shall look at that because that would be the ideal time to explain what is going on.

We should not forget "Today in Parliament", not least because I have just recorded an interview for it for tomorrow night. There is this afternoon's plug.

The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, obviously speaks with a great deal of professional experience. We all have to learn how to be more succinct. I have tried with my blog, and it is very hard work. The public are used to soundbites, and they are not used to long, flowery phrases. We all need to remember that great saying by Dr Johnson, "I haven't time to write a short letter". We need a bit more preparation on the behalf of Members of the House and those who work for us all.

Time is short. I want to address what was a very interesting contribution by my noble friend Lady Garden. It is a critical part of open government that we have a transparent parliamentary system. I do not understand how the public can feel engaged with politics or with governance if they cannot see what is going on. Robin Cook once said that good governance demands good parliamentary scrutiny. The relationship between Parliament and the Government is incredibly important. It needs to be as open as we can make it—not just open in the sense of opening windows and doors so that the public can look in, but so that they can actually influence what is happening in the building.

We are very much indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Norton, not just for this debate, but for all that he does in this field. I hope that others outside the Chamber this evening take note of what has been said. It is constructive, extremely relevant and important.