Parliament: Communication with the Public — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:56 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Earl Attlee Earl Attlee Conservative 4:56 pm, 18th December 2008

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth for introducing this debate this afternoon. He clearly has much experience in this area, and he made numerous very good points. When I say that he touched on a topic, that means that he gave a very succinct description of a situation. He has given us a brilliant introduction to our debate.

My noble friend Lord Renton talked about his intended proposal for the Information Committee. Noble Lords appeared to approve it, but it is not a matter for me to determine.

My noble friend Lord Norton touched on interest groups, and he is right, but I have some concern about single-issue pressure groups. I do not find their briefing as valuable as that of the groups with wider areas of concern; there always seems to be a lack of balance and rather too much intensity.

The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, made one of his characteristic speeches. He is very knowledgeable about IT; I have heard about him outside your Lordships' House as well. He made some very good points, some of which were about relatively easy problems to solve. I was going to suggest that he is appointed to the Information Committee, but I found out that he is already on it.

My noble friend Lord Marlesford talked about the need for the guillotine in the Commons. Mindful of the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, I agree with my noble friend's analysis of the difference between the two Houses. I well recall the noble Lord who is now the Chairman of Committees inviting me to drop several of what I believed to be brilliant amendments during the passage of the then Transport Bill to finish the Bill in good time, because the principle of this House is that the Government get their business.

The noble Lord, Lord Soley, talked about the choices and the quality of the choices made by the media. I agreed with everything that he said on that point. Many noble Lords remarked on the good work done by the Information Office, with limited but slowly increasing resources. One operational problem is the number of single-man posts; it must be very challenging to maintain continuity of service. This is an issue of how much resource we are prepared to put into the Information Office. One of the big improvements made by the Information Office is in the generation of media interest in publications of your Lordships' Select Committee reports. I have certainly noticed the effect of this outside your Lordships' House when you casually pick up a newspaper and see that a Select Committee report has been published.

The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and many others, mentioned the Lord Speaker's outreach programme. I confess that I have not yet made a presentation, but I will do so next year. I look forward to doing it, and I hope other noble Lords will join me. We really ought to try to do one every year, although I know that that will be challenging.

Many noble Lords have touched on the media, directly or indirectly. Media operations cannot be ignored, and any organisation that does not pay attention to the media will experience serious problems.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, talked about BBC Parliament. I share all his views, good and bad. It is surprising how many people dip into it just by chance. More would look at it if it were better organised. A couple of weeks ago, I discovered that it was not that easy to see what we have been up to. I had exactly the same experiences as those described by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I agree with him, and his view of the URL links brings me to my next point. However, the relevant technology is fast moving and can be hard to keep up with, even for the best resourced organisations—but we need to keep up.

Most of the population obtain their information via the internet, and my noble friend Lord Norton touched on that. Having a high-quality website is vital, but I am not an expert on web design. Can the Chairman of Committees say whether our website could be assessed by an outside organisation? It is no good that we look at our own website, because we are either not very experienced at assessing websites or look at our website through rose-tinted spectacles. How good are we at measuring the quality of our website?

I am surprised at how few private individuals make direct contact with me in Parliament, either by e-mail or by letter. It may be that I need to raise my profile a little in the way suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam. Organised letter campaigns, often by Christian religious organisations, are an exception. However, I receive few communications, despite my e-mail address being easily available through open sources. Many years ago, it was with some trepidation that I published my e-mail address in Commercial Motor magazine—the publication for managers in the transport industry. I was surprised that I received very few e-mails as a result, despite there being several big issues which remained to be decided.

I pay tribute to the writetothem.com website. So far, I have received about half a dozen e-mails. I have carried out a test this afternoon to see how fast I would receive an e-mail back, so shall see whether that is on my desk when I return to my office. That website is a positive development.

I should also draw noble Lords' attention to the theyworkforyou.com website, which other noble Lords have mentioned. It is excellent and allows the public to see what we have been doing. It is constantly being improved and developed. I am confident that its operators will recognise some of their problems and that they are taking steps to rectify them. The website measures how many times each noble Lord speaks in debate or at Question Time. I have spoken 33 times in the past year, my noble friend Lord Selborne has spoken 13 times, and the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, has spoken 16 times. However, the reality is that this year I have been rather less assiduous, because I have been doing other things, whereas my noble friend Lord Selborne has, we know, done tremendous work with the Science and Technology Select Committee of your Lordships' House—although the site does not show that. Similarly, the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, is an absolutely sterling Member of your Lordships' House and is highly regarded inside it and outside. I am sure that he has done much more than I have done this year, but he does not receive any credit for it on the theyworkforyou.com website. It needs to do some work to measure better what we have been doing. Nevertheless, both sites—theyworkforyou.com and writetothem.com—perform a very useful function and we should encourage them.

My final point concerns visitors. As well as outreach visitors, thousands visit the Houses of Parliament, some hosted by a Peer or MP. I certainly regard it as my duty to host as many visitors who would not normally be able to come here as part of their work as I can. I have only once failed to sell the virtues of the House, even to some somewhat sceptical guests. However, the vast majority of visitors are taken around the House by a range of guides, and improvements have been made to the operation of the tours system. The noble Lord, Lord Grocott, touched on the excessive attention given to ceremonial dress and photographic images of the House. One difficulty is that both Houses form a working Parliament; we are not a museum.

Furthermore, we must be getting fairly near to maximum capacity for visitors. My noble friend Lord Renton talked about virtual visits and other means of achieving the same effect as an actual visit. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, talked about the visitor centre. I am not aware of the pros and cons of this project but no doubt the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees will be able to give us a little information about it.

My concern is with the message put out by the guides. The history of Parliament is interesting and the State Opening ceremony is important, but I fear that visitors from the UK and overseas leave with a good idea of Tudor history but are little informed about our day-to-day work and our ethos, which we believe to be distinct from that of the House of Commons. For example, do visitors learn that we are a self-regulating Chamber? Your Lordships will recognise that we could not have arrived at that position from a clean sheet of paper. It is a bizarre situation but it works. Therefore, will the Chairman of Committees take steps to ensure that the guides, while still being accurate and objective, are more definite about the message that they send out about your Lordships' work?