Parliament: Communication with the Public — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:06 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Brabazon of Tara Lord Brabazon of Tara Chairman of Committees, House of Lords 5:06 pm, 18th December 2008

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, for raising this important subject. I also congratulate noble Lords who have contributed so knowledgeably to today's debate. I think we can all agree that ensuring effective communication between Parliament and the public is absolutely crucial. Not only should we strive to publicise the valuable work carried out by Parliament—and, from our point of view, particularly by the House of Lords—but we should also make it as easy as possible for the public to communicate with Parliament.

Over the past few years, much work has taken place to improve Parliament's performance in this area, and I congratulate the noble Lords and staff responsible. I am particularly grateful for the work that your Lordships' Information Committee is doing in this area. It has done a great deal to advise and support the House's information and communication services, as shown in its recent annual report, which I commend to the House. I also pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, who spoke very knowledgeably in the debate and who chaired the highly influential Hansard Society commission on connecting Parliament with the public.

I shall start by setting out some of Parliament's current activities in this field before attempting to respond to the questions raised by noble Lords. The activities fall into three broad categories: visits to Parliament, including those by school children; parliamentary and House of Lords outreach work; and remote access through a variety of different media.

I turn to the first of those—visitors. One of the most effective ways in which we can help the public to increase their understanding of Parliament is by encouraging personal visits. As noble Lords will know, much good work has been done over the past few years to enhance the visitor experience. A Central Tours Office was set up in 2003 to manage groups of visitors invited to Parliament by Members and to train guides to a standard script. I hope that that will please the noble Earl, Lord Attlee. The office also runs the summer opening programme, which is now a permanent and extremely popular fixture.

Visitor Assistants have been introduced to provide an improved welcome to visitors, to manage queues and to give out information about parliamentary business. They are also trained in the workings of both Houses and so are able to impart useful information and answer questions from visitors. The 24-strong team now provides a service until both Houses have risen. In addition, the Cromwell Green visitor reception building provides an enhanced access point for the public.

In 2007, the Palace received more than 1 million visitors in total, including 184,000 visitors to the Galleries of either House, 134,000 visitors on Members' sponsored tours and 29,000 people on Education Service visits. These impressive figures speak for themselves.

An essential part of our visitor strategy is the Education Service, to which the noble Lord, Lord Renton, referred. It has significantly increased the number of young people it welcomes to Parliament and provides valuable tours and workshops about the role of Parliament. It is hoped that 37,000 young people will be received by the Education Service in the 2008-09 financial year, up from 7,500 only four years or so ago. Plans for the provision of a dedicated education centre in the Palace of Westminster will enable the service to receive 100,000 learners per year and to provide an even better service. I have to admit that that is still a little way off at the moment.

In addition, the Education Service produces materials, including a new website, which support teaching and learning about Parliament. The education outreach team trains teachers to increase their knowledge and understanding of Parliament. This year alone, the team has worked with 1,000 teachers, as the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, pointed out, across all parts of the UK, including the most far-flung places. We will, of course, continue to ensure that the Education Service covers fully the important role of the House of Lords within its material.

I now turn to my second category, outreach. This House's outreach and engagement programme seeks to connect external audiences with the work and Members of the House through outreach visits by Peers, events held in Parliament and online initiatives. The broad aims of the programme are to increase understanding of the role and relevance of this House and to raise awareness of how people can interact and engage with us. I warmly welcome the Lord Speaker's leadership in this area and I join the noble Lords, Lord Grocott, Lord Puttnam, and others in congratulating her on that role.

The outreach visits by Peers are a particularly important means for raising awareness of the work of this House. So far, 160 visits to schools have taken place, involving over 8,000 young people, 300 teachers and nearly 70 Peers. I am sure that some of those 70 are in the Chamber now. Visits are also made to many other organisations and groups, including regional meetings of the Women's Institute and, in the future, to district conferences of Rotary International.

I also welcome the outreach events that take place in this House. For example, in May 2008, the UK Youth Parliament held a debate in the Chamber which was very well received, as referred to by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, and others. A number of events are planned for next year, including a flagship event in the Chamber—there will be only one such event each year; seminars designed to showcase the expertise of Members; an annual lecture in the Robing Room to follow on from the five very successful lectures celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Life Peerages Act which took place over the course of the past 12 months; plus new projects involving young people.

In addition to the Lord Speaker's outreach programme, the parliamentary outreach service does good work in spreading awareness of the work and processes of the institution of Parliament. Four regional outreach officers have been appointed, working predominantly in the two start-up regions of Yorkshire and Humberside and eastern England. The intention is to expand the service over the next two years, ensuring a national service from year 2 which will be consolidated in year 3. The service offers training and information events to a range of audiences, including people from the voluntary sector.

Parliamentary Archives is also heavily involved in the outreach agenda, placing emphasis on engaging the public with the archives and the history of Parliament with a view to stimulating interest in the current work of both Houses. A key part of their strategy has been to increase the provision of online services; for example, inquiry-answering and online payment for copies of records. Also important are the exhibitions and websites that have highlighted elements of the collection.

The archives are also starting an innovative project that will take its outreach work beyond the confines of the parliamentary estate into the regions, supported by the parliamentary outreach team. The initiative, entitled People and Parliament: Connecting with Communities,will involve partnership working with regional archives, thus making connections between archival material in Westminster and archives held locally. This, in turn, will lead to community-based activities producing content for the new living heritage section of the parliamentary website. In addition, locally based displays will help to bring the holdings and work of the Parliamentary Archives to the attention of new audiences.

The last of the three strands I mentioned is connecting with the public through the work of the Information Office, the internet and broadcasting media. Clearly, this area is by far the largest in terms of the size of the audience reached. I start with the Information Office, and I join the noble Lord, Lord Norton, in praising its work and I congratulate all those involved. This House was the first to appoint a professional to promote its work and the first to appoint a press officer dedicated to publicising committee work. The Information Office carries out valuable work in promoting the work of the House, emphasising the important role that your Lordships play in holding the Government to account through scrutiny of legislation, Select Committee work, Questions and debates. It also focuses attention on the broad range of expertise to be found in this House, which the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, in particular, referred to, and the more we can do of that, the better.

The Information Office conveys these messages in a variety of ways. Noble Lords will know that it produces a range of publications and briefing materials, such as the excellent pamphlets entitled The Work of the House of Lords, 100,000 copies of which are circulated to target audiences annually, and the Guide to Business in the House of Lords. The Information Office also provides an inquiry service, so that members of the public, journalists and others can get answers to their queries by telephone, e-mail or letter. In the past financial year, around 20,000 inquiries were handled.

A significant part of the Information Office's work is its press and media strategy because coverage in the media reaches a very large audience. The focus is on promoting debates, Select Committee reports and outreach activities. In the past Session, the Information Office undertook for the first time to promote general debates to the media with a view to highlighting the diversity of expertise and experience in the House. In total, 45 debates were promoted, which resulted in 150 items of news coverage in national newspapers and 103 in regional or local news sources. That was a 63 per cent increase on the number of articles related to Lords debates in the previous year. The general tone of the media coverage was positive and the expertise of the Peers taking part was often referred to.

The press officers have also been successful at promoting the reports produced by your Lordships' Select Committees, ensuring that they receive maximum exposure and make a significant impact. Notable examples last Session included the Science and Technology Committee's report on waste reduction, which was widely covered in the press and on the radio, the Communications Committee's report, The Ownership of the News, and the Economic Affairs Committee's report, The Economic Impact of Immigration, which sparked a very high-profile debate. In addition, reports of EU sub-committees often receive widespread coverage by the media.

In this day and age, one of the most important ways we can communicate with the public is via the internet, as many noble Lords said. The Parliament website has improved substantially in recent years and provides an excellent service that is very widely used; in the past year, over 7.8 million people have visited it. I can tell the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, that the web centre uses an external agency to do real-user testing, using members of the general public to validate the website. One of the key features is the Bills service, which provides access to all legislation before Parliament as well as to amendments and other relevant documents, such as Library research papers. In November, these pages received 118,000 unique visitors who generated 210,000 visits. Further enhancements are planned, such as the introduction of plain English updates after each Bill stage.

I am aware of mySociety's Free Our Bills campaign, which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, mentioned. Many of the issues it raises have already been addressed through improvements to the website. For example, Bills, amendments, related copies of Hansard and research papers are put on the website minutes after they are published in hard copy. Access is easy and users can sign up for a wide range of alerts. In addition, Bills are already available in XML format—whatever that is—which allows individual clauses and subsections to be tagged, as mySociety wants. This material is available with a free "click-use" licence.

The difficulty in indexing Bills in the way that mySociety wants is that UK legislation is frequently referential, and often makes provision without anything that would appear to the lay reader to be an obvious or useful keyword. None the less, I understand that a feasibility study on clause-by-clause indexing is in train. The study will also consider how the results of indexing might be integrated with the current Bills information on the website. Further progress on that point will depend on the outcome of the study.

Other valuable services on the website include the parliamentary calendar, which enables people to find out what is going on in Parliament; the improved search engine; virtual tours of Parliament; quick guides to Parliament; podcasts; and an enhanced news service. The capacity of the website to run online consultations on behalf of Select Committees is also being developed. Some such consultations have already been held, with 42,000 unique visitors making 85,000 visits to the web forum site. I also note that the Lord Speaker's Competition for Schools 2008 involved your Lordships' Science and Technology Committee inviting school groups of different ages to submit their ideas to the committee's inquiry into waste reduction. Finally, I welcome the fact that analysis of the results of Divisions will be posted on the website from next month onwards, which I hope is good news.

Elsewhere on the internet, the House of Lords has been at the forefront of developing new approaches to engaging and informing youth audiences, with the launch of five videos about the House on the YouTube website, to which the noble Earl, Lord Errol, in particular, referred. To date, there have been 111,000 views of videos on Parliament's channel on YouTube. Work is also ongoing to enhance Parliament's presence on other social websites, to which some noble Lords referred. That brings information about Parliament to a much broader audience and provides a forum for discussion of relevant issues.

I should also mention the innovative Lords of the Blog website, where certain Members discuss political topics of interest. Since its launch in March 2008, the site has received more than 110,000 views and more than 2,400 comments from the public. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Norton, wrote on the site about this debate, and more than 20 people suggested topics for him to raise in his speech. I welcome this dynamic communication between Members and the public. I was very interested in the figures given by the noble Lord, Lord Soley, whom I know has been very much involved, showed that younger people, in particular, were interested in that form of communication. I can tell him and other noble Lords that the next edition of Red Benches next month will invite all Peers to take part in the Lords of the Blog website. I hope that we will get enhanced coverage from that.

Broadcasting is another important medium for conveying the work of both Houses to the public. The full proceedings in both Chambers and in Westminster Hall are covered, as are a number of committee meetings in both Houses. In addition, Chamber and committee proceedings are made available online through the www.parliamentlive.tv website, either in visual form or in audio only. As a result of the planned capital programme to upgrade committee rooms, an increasing proportion of committee meetings will be available in visual form, rather than audio only. I should add that the length of time for which proceedings are available on the website has recently increased substantially, from 28 days to a year.

I turn briefly to some of the specific issues raised in the debate, some of which, I must say, are not for me. The noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Greaves, commented on the BBC Parliament channel. My influence over that is very limited, but I hope that the BBC will pick up on what they said. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, asked why Divisions were always broadcast in complete silence. I do not know the answer to that, but I shall try to find out and let him know.

Other noble Lords criticised—or at least mentioned—both the Government and the House of Commons. Of course I cannot—or would certainly not want to—answer or comment on such criticisms.

I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, only that he will have to be patient for accommodation and will have to wait for the bright, sunny uplands of Millbank House, in which I am sure a palatial suite of offices will be made available to him.

The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, asked me to do something about the Prime Minister, mentioning going to Parliament. I am not sure whether I can do that either, but I shall read with care what the noble Lord said and I will see what can be done.

I shall now conclude. This has been an excellent debate on a subject of first-class importance. I hope that I have demonstrated that Parliament has made great strides in improving the way in which it communicates with the public, although it is clear from noble Lords' speeches that there is still more work to be done. I am particularly interested in the forthcoming inquiry of the Information Committee, to which the noble Lord, Lord Renton, referred, and I hope that the committee agrees to it being set up next year.

Once again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Norton, for bringing this subject forward, and all noble Lords who have contributed to such an interesting debate.