Government Communications — Motion to Take Note

– in the House of Lords at 4:22 pm on 7th May 2009.

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Moved By Lord Fowler

To move that this House takes note of the Report of the Communications Committee on Government Communications (First Report, HL Paper 7).

Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative 4:24 pm, 7th May 2009

My Lords, I am sure that this will be a much calmer debate than the debate that we have just had, dealing as it does with one of the Government's outstanding successes: government communications. We will see.

First, I thank the journalists and government officials who gave evidence to the committee, and I pay particular tribute to Sir Robert Phillis and his highly skilled team, which reported in 2004. I also thank our committee clerk Chloe Mawson, and our committee specialist Peter Hills-Jones, who have both rightly moved on to higher things. They both made a major contribution to the work of this committee and its predecessor on the BBC charter. Last, but in no way least, I also thank the very hard working members of my committee, some of whom are here this afternoon.

Let me make clear from the start my belief that there is an important role for government communications; I can hardly say less given that, when I was Secretary of State for Social Services, I ran a very high profile campaign on HIV/AIDS using radio, television and the press. I do not deny for a moment that the Government are entitled to advertise when, for example, there is a public health danger or to employ press officers to answer questions about departmental policies. There is no disagreement on that point.

Indeed, I would go further and say that as many high-flying civil servants as possible should serve for a period in the press office so that they understand what is involved and, frankly, to keep their feet firmly on the ground. That might prevent the kind of conversation that I once had with the Treasury about public spending, in which I pointed out that the cut that it was proposing went smack against what had been in my party's manifesto, and got the reply from one of the Treasury officials, "Oh, Secretary of State, that's just politics". The more you can keep civil servants adjusted to what is actually happening outside the House, the better. I therefore welcome the Government's sympathetic response to our proposal that as many officials as possible should have press office experience, and their assurance that they will examine ways in which this can be done practically and with the least cost.

I have no quarrel with the principle of government communicating either with the public or the press, but we then come to crucial questions about the scale of government communications and their purpose. The committee believes that it is of the utmost importance that information provided by the government service should be accurate and impartial, and that there should be no hint of party political bias. This is obviously of the greatest importance now in the period leading up to a general election. If government press officers were to be misused to put out party messages, that could be an unfair influence at a crucial time.

Special advisers have a different role from that of departmental press officers, but they too are governed by the Civil Service Code. In reviewing the effort of the government communications machine as a whole, it is obviously crucial that its cost should not be excessive. On the question of cost, it is clear that there has been a substantial increase in the costs of the government information machine under the present Administration. That simply cannot be denied. It was clear from the beginning in 1997 that changes were to take place. In his evidence to us, Sir Robert Phillis explained that,

"the Labour opposition before the election was very, very effective in its news management, and on taking power I think the view was that much of the old"—

Government Information Service—

"system was not well equipped in the skills of news and media management ... as the Labour opposition had been before they took power".

In the two years following the 1997 election, 17 of the 19 departmental heads of information left office and a number of political special advisers were appointed to work in communications. What has happened since? The number of press officers in government departments in Whitehall has increased by 72 per cent in the past 10 years. In December 1998, there were 216 press officers. By September 2008, this number had risen to 373. At the same time, the number of special advisers has also risen sharply by no less than 92 per cent since 1996. In that year, there were 38 special advisers. In 2008, there were 73.

In terms of overall cost, it has been extraordinarily difficult for the committee to find a total of all government spending. Departments such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Health were able to provide such information, which sometimes raised a range of questions. For example, the Department of Health planned to spend double the amount on communications in 2008-09 than it did in 2007-08; that is, £107 million compared to £52 million.

But the extraordinary point is that the Government are unable to give a total cost figure for all departments. The suspicion must be that if they did so that figure would be very high. They say that there are problems here of definition, but that ignores the fact that three government departments were able to provide such information. They defended in a generalised way the increases that had taken place. They said that the demands of the media were now much greater than ever before, while ignoring the fact that many of the so-called new news platforms do not have their own reporters, as we pointed out in a previous report, but rely on agency copy and do not carry out an investigative or truly reporting role.

We did not have time to go further into this issue without unduly delaying our report, but perhaps I may suggest that this would be a proper subject for the Public Accounts Committee to investigate and see whether the public are getting value for their money. It is ludicrous that the Government cannot make some estimate of the money that the taxpayer is spending in this area.

Other members of the committee will speak for themselves on the subjects in this report that they consider important, but there are two particular areas where we made proposals and where the Government's response causes me concern. The first is special advisers. We said we believe that it is of key importance that Ministers made clear at all times that special advisers must follow the guidance available and stay within the limits set down. The Government's response was complacent. They said:

"The Civil Service Code also applies to special advisers and this makes clear that they always act in a way that is professional and that deserves and retains the confidence of all those with whom they have dealings".

The Government were saying not that special advisers should act in this way but that they always did act in this way. Their response was dated 2 April.A few days later on 11 April, this explanation was effectively blown out of the water by the case of Damian McBride, a special adviser to the Prime Minister—a very senior special adviser at that— misusing public funds to try personally to smear political opponents. If ever a special adviser was guilty of dragging politics into the gutter it was Mr McBride. It marked a new low in British politics and raised the question why a man like this was ever employed inside the Government, let alone at No.10.

Let us be clear where responsibility for special advisers lies. Again, I quote from the Government's response to our report. They say that the Ministerial Code makes it clear that the,

"appointing Ministers are responsible for the management and conduct of their special advisers".

I repeat, the "appointing Ministers". So, if those words mean anything, it is that the Prime Minister is responsible for his special advisers and other Ministers are responsible for theirs. Being responsible does not just mean saying that when something goes wrong, "I take full responsibility and I have sacked him", it means making it clear to special advisers from the start what they are expected to do and what under no circumstances they can do. That is what taking responsibility means.

I welcome the fact that in their response the Government agree with us that codes of conduct will now be made available not just to special advisers but also to Ministers. However, by itself, that is not enough. Ministers must recognise that they are responsible and accountable for the conduct of their special advisers and they must do their utmost to avoid any abuse by them.

My second concern is on announcements to Parliament. The committee recommended that the Prime Minister should draw to all Ministers' attention the guidance in the Ministerial Code that the most important announcements of government policy should be made in the first instance in Parliament. The House will note that we recommended that the Prime Minister should make this clear. The Government's response was, again, deeply complacent. They said that our recommendation simply reflected the current position. When Parliament is in Session, they said, the most important announcements of government policy should be made in the first instance to Parliament. The Government therefore proclaim themselves totally satisfied, and yet three weeks after that response, where does the Prime Minister choose to make his statement on MPs' allowances, the abuse of which had rightly caused grave public concern? He did not make it in Parliament where he could be questioned and where by definition it was most relevant and, I would argue, most appropriate. He did not even make it to the Lobby, where he could be questioned. He made it as a deliberate act of policy to YouTube where there was no opportunity for questions. Quite rightly, the policy eventually came to grief. The Prime Minister was not exactly in Oscar-winning form, but the graveyard humour over his performance should not disguise one fundamental point. By any measure, it was probably the most extraordinary bypass of Parliament that any of us can remember.

I do not deny for a moment that over the years and in previous Governments there have been attempts to bypass Parliament. Of course that is true. I remember remonstrating with one Minister of the Conservative Government in the mid-1990s when I was on the Back Benches on the grounds that one popular newspaper seemed to be getting an extraordinary string of exclusive stories from his department. So I do not quarrel with that, and what I emphasise and underline is that the recommendations of this all-party committee apply to all Governments of whatever persuasion. But what I do say to the Minister is this: in almost 40 years in Parliament, I cannot remember a time when politicians and Parliament itself were held in lower esteem than they are today. There are many factors to this, but the impression of sleaze is added to immeasurably when the Prime Minister's own special adviser conspires to reveal untruths about the personal lives of political opponents and uses public money to do so, while the best way of downgrading Parliament and making it irrelevant is by deliberately ignoring it and making statements outside the Chamber.

The truth is that in spite of the Phillis committee report and in spite of our own report, there is still a very long way to go. If we believe in democratic government, it should not be about fixing the news, about burying bad news on a day of world catastrophe, or about trying to blacken the personal reputation of opponents. There is a challenge here for government and for any party that has aspirations to be a Government. We need honesty and openness, and the responsibility for achieving those must rest on Ministers themselves. That is one of the key recommendations of our committee.

Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 4:40 pm, 7th May 2009

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for introducing the report of the Select Committee on Communications with the clarity and fluency that we have come to expect of him. He will forgive me if I do not agree with all the party political points that he made. Many of the recommendations of the committee are well taken and well argued, and I hope that the Government will give them serious consideration. However, there is one small but rather important gap in the report on which I wish to concentrate.

In his evidence to the committee, Sir Robert Phillis said that the central problem, the focus of his report, was not just "press management or spin" but rather the question of trust—the,

"breakdown of trust between politicians, the media and the general public", and the consequent disillusionment and disengagement from the democratic process. I would have liked the Select Committee to concentrate on that important question and suggest what we might do about the breakdown of trust between those three agencies.

Democracy, we all know, requires enlightened public opinion. Enlightened public opinion in turn depends on the public having access to accurate facts and to unbiased analysis. For both, the public depend on politicians in general and on the media. If those two groups of people, politicians and the media, are known to resort to lies, or to mischievous and self-serving spin, the public have no basis on which to form their opinion and to make reasonable demands. They also become cynical and fall easy prey to populist demagogues, who claim to tell the truth as it is but in fact do the opposite. We must therefore find ways of guarding the integrity of the public realm and ensuring that our political system is respected for its honesty and truthfulness. Sadly, for the past several decades, this has not been the case.

Politicians and journalists are among the most distrusted groups. A reasonable degree of scepticism is obviously necessary, but total cynicism and mistrust spell disaster for a democratic system. Journalists start with the assumption that all politicians are liars; and politicians for their part start with the assumption that journalists have their own agenda—which often is true—that they are feral beasts, as Tony Blair once called them, and that they are out to trip up the politicians, to take their remarks out of context and blow them out of proportion.

Both groups therefore approach each other with mutual contempt and suspicion, and what we hear and see on the radio and television is each trying to avoid being caught by the other. That, naturally, alienates the public and stifles a robust and public debate. Let us think of the occasion when Jeremy Paxman asked Michael Howard the same question several times, which has now become part of popular legend in this country. Was that a reflection on the politician, or a reflection on the interviewer who did not know how to get the information out by indirect means and had to repeat the same question so many times? Changes are needed in our political culture; it is not just a question of the mechanics of communication. The media need to realise that many of our politicians are honourable men and women who are guided by a spirit of public service and wish to do well by their country. Politicians for their part need to realise that many of our journalists are persons of integrity and wish to expose misuse of power and ill judged decisions. We need therefore to create a culture of mutual respect.

That culture requires changes both in the media and among the politicians. Politicians need to be more honest and open with the public—I shall say something both about politicians and the political culture and, a little later, about journalists and the media culture, as well as the changes we need to ensure the mutual respect that I was talking about earlier.

Politicians need to explain why they have taken certain decisions. What alternatives were available to them? What problems did each of these alternatives raise? Why did only a particular policy or decision seem right to them? They need to disclose all the relevant facts, which is what Sir Robert Phillis talks about when he stresses the principle of transparency and openness as central to any good governance. Politicians need to share their doubts, be tentative, and open to criticisms and new ideas. They need to answer questions honestly and not resort to long-winded statements that all but avoid the questions asked. Sometimes, listening to even very sensible people on the television and the radio, I wonder why otherwise sensible people spend so much time avoiding the question when the question could easily be addressed and answered.

Ministers should be more accessible to the public if we want the public to have ownership of the decisions taken by the Government. They need to travel more widely, meet groups of citizens, debate their policies with ordinary citizens and invite new ideas. I am thinking of the kind of thing that I read about when Bill Clinton first became President and went round the country meeting ordinary citizens in city halls and debating with them why the country needed a radical new direction on race. Rather than concentrating only on the press conferences, which are obviously important, we should also be thinking of Ministers addressing selected members of the public on a regular basis. In short, I very much hope that Ministers and others, not only in this Government but all Governments in future, treat the public with respect and are less self-righteous and dogmatic in their approach to their decisions. Political power has a tendency to breed its own pathology, its own isolation, its own secrecy, its own self-righteousness and dogmatism, and we need to guard against it.

Let me now turn very briefly to what I think the media need to be doing. The media need to take a balanced and nuanced view of the matter in question. Rather than blow up isolated remarks, constantly looking for a gaffe by politicians and jumping on it, which makes politicians nervous—rightly so—and prevents any kind of public debate, they should learn to ignore these isolated remarks and concentrate on the central issues. Nor should they be one-sided and concentrate only on discrediting institutions. When individual politicians or Members of Parliament misbehave, obviously they should be exposed, but not in such a way that the institution gets discredited. Take, for example, the debate about MPs' and Peers' expenses. Naturally, some people have misbehaved and this needs to be exposed, but at the same time, it is equally true that there are several Peers I can think of easily who attend regularly but never claim their attendance allowances. I also know Peers who are entitled to travel first class by train, but prefer to travel standard class. When people are told only one side of the story and not the other, an impression is created that all Peers and all MPs are out for their own benefit, which is not the case at all.

The second important thing to bear in mind about the media is that journalists should be subject to the same norms of public decency as public figures. We in Parliament declare situations where there is a conflict of interest. I can think of many cases where journalists write about matters where they have business, political or ideological interests. Would it not be proper that they should declare their business and other interests and not work or write on subjects that involve conflict of interests? There has to be a sharp separation between facts and opinions. Facts should be rigorously checked, and prompt corrections—not delayed corrections in the corner of a newspaper, but prompt and prominent corrections—should be available when so-called facts are proved to be wrong.

I have also often thought that the idea of cross-party parliamentary committees, holding public meetings where editors of major media might be asked to explain their coverage of public events, might have something to be said for it. Just as we have Select Committees where Ministers are cross-examined, I do not see any reason why editors or producers of major programmes cannot be cross-examined and asked to explain why they took a particular stand or represented the event in a particular manner.

An independent and publicly funded body could also be set up to audit periodically media coverage of important events and public figures, and to grade different media on a scale of objectivity and accuracy. This is what we do in relation to schools when we name and shame them. Why should not the same policy be applied to the media and other vehicles of information?

It is striking that in a recent survey just under 10 per cent of those interviewed trusted national newspapers, but 70 per cent trusted the publicly regulated broadcast television and radio. The point I want to make is this: the media cannot just be private business. They wield public power; they influence public opinion; they shape the alternatives that the Government consider, and in so doing shape the policy of the Government; and, even when they are privately owned, they are public institutions. They should therefore be guided by basic norms of public accountability. Such norms should be voluntarily enforced as far as possible, but, when necessary, I do not see any reason why they should not be subjected to sensitively calibrated and sensitively enforced legal constraints.

Photo of Baroness Howe of Idlicote Baroness Howe of Idlicote Crossbench 4:51 pm, 7th May 2009

My Lords, I am grateful for this opportunity, not least at a time when respect for all politicians is low, to debate the recommendations of our Select Committee on Communications, and particularly to follow the excellent contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Parekh.

We also have the Government's response, which I am afraid I must describe as somewhat meagre and rather dismissive. As a member of that Select Committee under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, I found the evidence we heard informative, certainly, but also, when read together with our recommendations, it could be seen as a useful basis for further improvement within government departments. Certainly, that was not adequately recognised, as the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, has already said.

Perhaps the two most important aspects of how Government communicate their policies and campaigns to their citizens through the media are: first, how effectively and impartially it achieves this; and, secondly, that announcements should be made as widely available as possible for use via all relevant communication channels.

Although there have been improvements to how government communications are delivered as a result of both the 1997 Mountfield Report and the 2005 Phillis report, there is little doubt that more needs to be done; and that need will probably continue for some time. One suspects that trailing announcements before they were delivered to Parliament did indeed take place in the past and that it still happens today—as does leaking such information to perhaps more friendly members of the media. Equally, from the evidence we heard, it is likely that on some occasions in the past, "difficult" journalists have been excluded from briefings relevant to their own area of expertise. Clearly, every effort must continue to be made to eliminate that kind of behaviour.

Most of the issues raised in our report have already been more than adequately covered by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. I can only concentrate my few remarks on underlining some particular areas, which I hope the Government will revisit.

I, too, hope it will be possible for the Government to find ways to publish the annual cost of each government department's communications campaigns—and, indeed, the Government's—and whether that cost has increased or decreased. The Select Committee heard evidence that the reason this has not been easy is because of the difficulty in separating this aspect of a department's spending from the rest of its work. Of course, that is understandable and we have already heard the reasons why. However, it is increasingly important for citizens to know this for a number of reasons, many of which have already been mentioned.

One example is certainly because of the involvement of special advisers who, although bound by the code of conduct for special advisers, are nevertheless appointed as supporters of the Government and are not civil servants. It is certainly helpful in this respect that the Government's response to the Select Committee has accepted, as we have heard, that each Minister, who is ultimately responsible for their special advisers' conduct, should also have copies of the relevant code supplied to them. Again, as we have heard, in light of the recently exposed disgraceful behaviour of Mr Damian McBride, that decision was clearly wise.

Secondly, the lobby system and ways in which it could be improved have been more than adequately covered in the report and subsequently. However, I urge that major press conferences—and as much government information as possible, once Parliament has been informed—should be made available on all media platforms, including TV and the internet. Frankly, the more that we have that done, the better.

It is certainly an important step, in this context, that it is now policy that civil servants in charge of communications within each government department should increasingly be of a senior rank. Indeed, it is perhaps significant that those seen as high flyers in the Foreign Office have often held this kind of role in other government departments, as well as in the FCO itself, as part of their career development for high office.

Thirdly, another benefit is that, although there are plans afoot to improve the service provided for regional and local media, if more government information of this kind is made generally available on more media outlets, including the internet, the easier it will be for local journalists and broadcasters to do their job effectively.

Finally, I support the points that I know other noble Lords will be making later on about the need to achieve a more effective partnership with the third sector. The very fact of the partnership with the third sector is, to me, excellent news. I come from a time when the third sector was not exactly seen by Labour Governments as part of the team at all. It was increasingly seen as taking jobs from other people rather than as playing the important role that is recognised today.

In their response, the Government point to the increasing role of the Office of the Third Sector, with its 43 third-sector strategic partners, and to the work of the Government Communication Network. I emphasise the point that was made so effectively by CABs in their evidence to us on the need to consult with them early when planning campaigns, such as the take-up of tax credit schemes, which will involve their expertise. When this is done, a far more effective delivery partnership can take place, which is of real benefit to the Government and, indeed, to the third sector partner and the client citizen. Vitally, however—and this really is my last point—the third sector must also be given the resources to do its job effectively.

Photo of Baroness Eccles of Moulton Baroness Eccles of Moulton Conservative 4:59 pm, 7th May 2009

My Lords, I, too, would like to thank my noble friend Lord Fowler for ensuring that the debate on this report takes place, and for his excellent chairmanship of our committee. We said in the report's introduction that its purpose was to consider what progress has been made since the Phillis review was published in 2004, and to make recommendations for further improvements.

The Phillis review report suggested seven main principles that should underpin all government communications, two of which are:

"Use of all relevant channels of communication, not excessive emphasis on national press and broadcasters", and,

"Co-ordinated communication of issues that cut across departments, not conflicting or duplicated departmental messages".

These principles are relevant to the two subjects that I would like to address, first, regional newspapers and, secondly, the voluntary sector, concentrating on Citizens Advice and its bureaux. Here, I shall re-emphasise some of the points that the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, made in her final remarks. As an aside, it is worth noting that the voluntary sector is now absorbed into the third sector, thereby disguising in its title the all-important function of volunteering.

Regional newspapers are already having a hard time owing to increasing competition from all sorts of digital media, even before the rapid shrinking of the economy which is affecting so many sectors. This makes it more important than ever that they should be able to receive timely news from government sources and not be regarded as an afterthought. Opinions vary on how much improvement there has been in communication with the regional press media over the past five years. Some say that there has been very little; others say that the quantity has improved but not the quality. This arises partly from a lack of understanding of the role or needs of the regional press, and the need for more media literacy among some of the press office teams in Whitehall and elsewhere.

Another comment was that regional press releases can so often be copies of national press releases with a few local statistics added on, a far cry from the Phillis suggestion that each region should be able to do more than simply regurgitate Whitehall press releases.

A suggestion was made that each region should have a cross-departmental head of communications who is based in the region and who understands it. This person should be both confident and well-informed enough to be able to brief quickly on a range of subjects. This suggestion is very much in line with the Phillis principle of communicating issues that cut across departments.

A widely held view is that relations between the regional newspapers and government departments vary greatly. They can be very good when a department and the region have interests in common, and where the ministerial team realises the importance of regional media. Difficulties can arise when people working in departmental press offices have no idea how newspapers work and struggle to deal with deadlines.

A frequent cry of pain can be heard from journalists who are sent from pillar to post. They start off calling the government press office, believing that is where the information is, only to be told to ring the regional office, which tells them that they are talking to the wrong people and should ring Whitehall. As a result what should have been a simple process becomes mired in confusion. Also, press offices in certain departments can be elusive and are keen to end a call as quickly as possible rather than try to be helpful. However, there is some good news: When press officers have been journalists themselves, they have a greater understanding of what is needed. Some departments take the initiative and will contact journalists with story ideas. Regional media emergency forums can produce clear and useful communications.

To summarise, in our report the recommendation that addresses the problems that I have just highlighted says that regional press officers should be trained to have a better understanding of regional and local media, they should become more proactive in their engagement with the sector, and more senior officials and Ministers should be available for interviews. The government response says that the Permanent Secretary for Government Communications is committed to improving the level of engagement with local journalists and producers. As this is a huge commitment that affects all government departments, could the Minister please tell me in his response how successful this far-reaching commitment is likely to be?

I turn now to Citizens Advice and its relations with government communications, although some of the comments will apply equally to others, especially umbrella organizations in the voluntary sector.

Before going any further, I shall provide a few statistics, but I promise that they are the only ones that I shall mention. They are important, because they emphasise the size and reach of the citizens advice bureaux and illustrate the important contribution that they make. The bureaux dealt with nearly 2 million clients who presented about 5.5 million problems in 2007-08. Adviceguide, the Citizens Advice public information website, had about 9.5 million visitors with problems in the same year. There are 426 member bureaux with 16,000 volunteer staff, who all have to be trained; 4,000 new volunteers are trained each year, but it is made clear that many volunteers stay for a long time. The volunteer recruitment line received 12,000 new applications last year. This must show that the voluntary sector is alive and kicking.

The reason why the word "bureau" has been dropped from the CAB's official title will be because much of the advice it now give is on its public information website, Adviceguide, which, as well as providing direct advice, is also able to guide the user with links to relevant government information. However, it is made clear that this is not a case of one-size-fits-all. This is amply borne out by the number of inquiries made in person at the bureaux.

On the government side, establishing Directgov as a single website portal is aimed at providing a starting point for individuals needing to find information about all government services and reducing the hassle of multiple sites with different designs and organisational approach. However, logging onto Directgov cannot overcome the lack of co-ordination between government departments or the complexity of form filling that challenges the individual inquirer or claimant. Also, a departmental website to which a link was provided by Directgov might appear inscrutable. For instance, the user might want an update on leaflets and find that there is nothing there. However, it is reassuring to note that Revenue and Customs is an exception, as it provides useful lists of leaflets and what has replaced them.

The helpfulness or otherwise of the internet, whether it is Citizens Advice's Adviceguide, or the Government's Directgov, is inevitably restricted to the computer-literate who have internet access. Sections of the population cannot use these sources of information for other reasons, and they need to be able to talk to someone who can help them. CAB service users come from a variety of backgrounds, which will be familiar. Face-to-face users are most likely to be within the C2, D and E social classes, have long-term illness, live in social housing and/or are over 60. Added to these categories are those who cannot read or write, have mental health problems or do not speak English very well. That is a formidable list. As more and more government information is switched to the internet, departments must recognise how important it is for Citizens Advice to be able to keep its bureaux up to date.

Changes to legislation which have to be communicated to the public by the Government often involve the CAB service as a distribution channel. It would be sensible for the government department concerned to bring Citizens Advice into the planning at an early stage. In this way, based on its experience, it can advise on whether the campaign makes sense and when it might be best to run it. Sometimes statutory instruments are published at the last minute, which does not leave enough time for amendments to CAB's guidance to be published for the use of advisers and the public before the law is in force.

Also Citizens Advice needs support from government departments to check their material to make sure that they get accurate information out to the bureaux in time. They find departments' responses to this appeal for help inconsistent, which can often make it difficult to meet deadlines.

A word on how Citizens Advice could help with the problem of unclaimed credits and benefits. This is very important, especially in view of the summing up of the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Myners, in today's debate on the economy, in which he stressed the value of pensions. In the opinion of Citizens Advice, more could be done to find ways of distributing the £3 billion of unclaimed pension credit. That is such a large figure. It believes that a shared strategy could be crafted which would mean more openness and partnership between government and organisations it could trust to find new ways to reach those who are not responding to present methods. That will not happen unless the Government really want it to. Citizens Advice believes that this would be an excellent example of government communications really making a difference.

To conclude, at a time when the Government are relying more and more on the internet for communicating with the public, special attention must be paid to the needs of those who cannot be reached by the web. The local voluntary services in general, and Citizens Advice in particular, are able to meet this need. They in turn are reliant on the Government making sure that they have prompt and accurate access to new information. Allied to this is the need for departments to involve the voluntary sector in forward planning and also being prepared to check their material for accuracy so that it can be disseminated in good time. I would be grateful if the Minister could reassure me that these matters are being taken seriously by government departments and that progress is being made in these important areas.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Labour 5:11 pm, 7th May 2009

My Lords, I will come to our esteemed chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, at the end of my speech. I want to begin by commending the contribution of my noble friend Lord Parekh. He is not a member of the Communications Committee, but his measured and non-partisan analysis of the appalling political culture into which we have sunk in the past few years could make one feel—as I often do these days—like cutting one's throat, while at the same time giving one a reason to feel that perhaps all is not lost and that we can recover from this slough of despond into which we seem to have fallen. Perhaps then we can find ways of making those of us directly involved in the political process, those commenting on it and the public whom we all seek to serve not only feel better but look better.

I intend to make a very short contribution to the debate, not least because most things have already been said, as is inevitably the case when you are the tail-end Charlie. I want to make three brief points. First, I do not want to get too far into the vexed territory of special advisers. I think that enough has been said on that subject here and, unfortunately, elsewhere. I am sure that your Lordships will be glad to hear that I do not feel compelled to add to that quantum, nor do I want to go too much into "on the record" and "off the record" briefing, which was none the less an interesting element of some of the evidence we heard. I would recommend to noble Lords who have not read the report in detail to look at that evidence, particularly from some of the journalists. However, I will just observe that the tension between the wish of any Government to be open and their anxiety to be in control of the interpretation of their policies has been around a long time. It seems to me unlikely that it will ever go away, no matter what forms of structures are put in place. When this tension is allied to a natural journalistic fondness for having an inside track, the phenomenon of the unattributable briefing and the prevalence of unnamed "senior sources" will continue to influence our perception of how we are governed as it comes to us via the media.

I would refer your Lordships to the evidence we heard from the respected Guardian journalist, Jackie Ashley. Speaking of her off-the-record contacts, she said:

"What they say to me when they know it is unattributable is what they actually think ... What do I do as a journalist? Do I say I will not take an unattributable quote, so I am not going to represent what you and a lot of your colleagues are saying, or do I say I will only take something with your name to it, in which case I am not giving the readers a true sense of what is happening in Parliament?".

I refer to that quote because what it points up is that we all live to some extent in an ambivalent relationship to the way that information is conveyed. We want to feel, when we read about the Government—any Government—in the newspapers or on websites or wherever, that we are getting information that the Government do not want to give us. That is part of what it is to be human. We think that we are entitled to know things that people do not want to tell us, and we believe that what we do not know is being withheld from us for malign and deliberate reasons. At the same time, we want to feel that everything is on the record, everything is open to us and that there is no culture of secrecy. We would be really miserable if there were no culture of secrecy; it would leave us with nothing to feel paranoid about. We need to examine our own motives as citizens in thinking about how government information is conveyed.

It is clear from much of the evidence that we heard that there is still value in a system of regular, on-the-record press briefings and that these should be as open and as accessible as possible, and that, in the main, major policy announcements should be made to Parliament before they are shared with John Humphrys. I am glad to see that the Government's response reinforces this view, albeit a little complacently, as others has pointed out. I hope that my noble friend will underline this again, when he comes to reply.

On the role of the voluntary sector, we heard evidence, chiefly from the CABs, as other noble Lords have mentioned, that there is work to do to ensure that a lot of the important information that the Government need to provide to citizens, the sort of information that rarely gets anywhere near the news—nitty-gritty stuff about tax, healthcare, education and benefits—to which people need access to improve, or just get on with, their lives, is still not getting through as efficiently as it should. The voluntary sector is absolutely crucial to improving the penetration of this kind of information into harder-to-reach sections of the community, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Eccles, referred, which perhaps do not have access to computers or are hindered through language or cultural difficulties from using the most widely available routes to information.

I cannot compete with the experience and depth of knowledge of my colleagues the noble Baronesses, Lady Howe and Lady Eccles, on this issue, but I would ask my noble friend if he could say a bit more than is in the Government's response about how better working with the voluntary sector is to be achieved, and specifically about the role of the Office of the Third Sector in bringing about a more integrated approach across departments to improve the take-up of benefits. The CAB's evidence on what it described as the "fragmented" administration of benefits between departments was very telling.

Finally, I address the issue raised principally by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and by others as well, on the numbers of people employed in government communications. My noble friend Lord Grocott, who is not in his place today, was a formidable member of this committee until a few months ago, and I mean no disrespect to his successor when I say that he is missed. As the committee embarked on the inquiry that gave rise to this report, and at intervals throughout, my noble friend reminded us that when thinking about government communications, we should not only be considering how the Government communicate with citizens, but crucially how the citizen communicates with the Government.

Nowadays, the range of ways in which he or she can do that is vast—far greater than we could have imagined a generation ago. There are websites, blogs, e-mail, e-petitions, requests under Freedom of Information legislation, telephones and there is even old-fashioned snail mail, which still works. There are, no doubt, many more which I have not identified. The figures provided by the Department of Health—I refer your Lordships to pages 86 to 90 of the report—are instructive in terms of the numbers of ways in which communication from the citizen to departments is being conducted. Of course, quite a lot of this traffic is generated by journalists and others with a professional rather than a personal interest in eliciting information, but it all adds up to a great deal of what might be called noise in the system and to the necessity for a lot of people to be engaged in trying to manage it and make sense of it.

Although the committee expressed concerns about the numbers and the costs of communications staff in government departments, I do not find it too hard to understand why there has been in some cases a significant increase in both over recent years. There is a high expectation among certain groups that information will be forthcoming quickly and that it will be both accurate and comprehensive. This is not an unreasonable expectation, of course, but it is not always easy to meet, given the number of different ways in which it can be demanded. At present we see—this was the thrust of the contribution made by my noble friend Lord Parekh—an exceptionally low level of trust in, and a high level of pretty intrusive interrogation of, government information. Money spent on attempting to make sure that it is as robust as it can be seems to me to be in principle a good investment, although clearly such expenditure should be regularly and rigorously reviewed.

I said that I would be brief but I have not been; I am sorry about that. I add only my thanks to our chairman for leading us so ably on this occasion, as he has on all others, and for his excellent, although occasionally discomfiting, opening speech. I also add my thanks to our team of clerks, who provided us with their usual excellent service. As ever with these inquiries, I learnt a huge amount more than I contributed. However, rather more importantly than adding to the sum of my knowledge, the report provides, I believe, a valuable and timely overview of a highly topical set of issues. I hope that the Government will take its recommendations seriously.

Photo of Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Baroness Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury Spokesperson for Culture, Media and Sport 5:21 pm, 7th May 2009

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to debate this report and I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler. There were moments during this inquiry when I was reminded of a previous committee inquiry that the noble Lord chaired. Its remit was the broadcasting of sport and the broadcasting of religion, both of which subjects elicited lively differences of views. In that instance, the noble Lord managed to bring together those with and without religious belief and to rebuff those—including the noble Baroness, Lady Howe—lobbying hard for bridge to be included as a sport. This inquiry into government communications involved the need for equally deft steering in bringing together, under a unanimous report, those on the committee who had direct experience of the subject but via rather different Governments.

Five years ago, as has been said, the report of the Phillis review of government communications was published. The Government are to be commended for having set the review up and for implementing many of its recommendations. However, the problem that Sir Robert Phillis was addressing back then, which he put to us as the,

"three-way breakdown in trust between government and politicians, the media and the general public", is still alive and kicking. The relationship between people and politics is, to put it bluntly, severely dysfunctional, as the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, said, and it is essential that it is remedied. In part this is due to spin, scandal and sleaze, but it is also due to the fact that the public feel alienated from the political process; they are not simply confused but ignorant about what we do at Westminster.

One of the report's recommendations is that,

"the Leader of the House ... should reinstate a weekly briefing on parliamentary business".

The Government do not agree, but their response is interesting. They say:

"The Leader of the House ... believes that the House itself should be the main focus of her statements and announcements .... She further encourages more sustained media reporting of the actual work of Parliament in the public's interest".

I am delighted that the Leader of the House wishes this, but the problem lies with the word "sustained". I believe that this should mean greater access and an enhanced facility for the media to cover the work of Parliament in such a way that what happens in Parliament becomes understandable to the public. I fear that what the Leader of the House means is more of the same.

Let us take broadcasting. Here I declare an interest as an associate of an independent production company. Various rules and regulations mean that television coverage is not allowed to reflect the way Parliament really is. The Hansard Society conducts an annual audit of political engagement. In its most recent publication, when people were asked where they obtained most information and news about politics and current affairs, 76 per cent of respondents said that they did so from television. However, what do people see on their television screens? On the one hand, they see shots of a more often than not near-empty House of Commons, with a Minister bent over the Dispatch Box intoning on some topic and occasionally giving way. Alternatively, they see a packed Chamber of heckling, baying men and women not allowing their fellow MPs, let alone the Prime Minister, to be heard. I call that brilliant communication. I know that the Minister will refer to the excellent BBC Parliament channel but, excellent though it is, it is a digital channel and it has a small, though growing, audience.

The production company of which I am an associate—a highly respected, highly regarded maker of prize-winning documentaries and political programmes—has tried in vain to get the go-ahead to make a series about the workings of the House of Commons in order to achieve exactly what the Leader of the House purports to want. However, where access is concerned, there is a culture of "no". Of course, I cannot make this point without noting that this House, thanks to the excellent work of the Lord Speaker, is far more flexible.

Continuing on the broadcasting theme—here I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Howe—the Phillis review states that one of the main principles that should underpin government communications is "openness, not secrecy", and that, to this effect, Lobby briefings should be televised. I carried out a little research here and found that the Lobby system has inglorious origins. In 1870, Speaker Denison stopped members of the public wandering into the Lobby to, as he put it, "inconvenience" Members of Parliament, and a list of those allowed access was established. Over the years, there evolved a "quasi Masonic", as one of our witnesses, the current chair of the Lobby, put it—a relationship of mutual back-scratching between politicians and Lobby journalists involving exclusive briefings given on an unattributable basis.

Change came only when John Major, who recognised that the level of secrecy was ridiculous, allowed journalists to attribute stories to the "Prime Minister's spokesman". Nowadays, summaries of the Lobby briefings are on the No. 10 website. However, televising is resisted by some Lobby journalists as well as by the Government, although I cannot see why. It would assist journalists who are outside what is still an exclusive circle. As Jackie Ashley, who has already been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, told us:

"I would love to be able to just turn on my computer and click in every day and see what is going on".

Would that not also be good for outside agencies and the public? It would also satisfy another of the Phillis review's main recommendations—that is:

"More direct, unmediated"— that is, not mediated by journalists—

"communications with the public".

Of course, what cannot be televised are the off-the-record briefings, or the even more private conversations between those involved in government and the journalists with whom they have special relationships. Having been the Liberal Democrats' Director of Communications as well as a journalist, I have experience of this from both perspectives. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh: these relationships, conducted properly, are an important tool in the coherent communication of the Government's aims and intentions. When used incorrectly, as they appear to have been by Damian McBride, it is a disaster.

I digress at this stage to note that today is the 30th anniversary of the first Thatcher Government, when we got Bernard Ingham, who allegedly destabilised as many Tory Cabinet Ministers—I do not think that any is in his place today—as Damian McBride is alleged to have done for his side. I add that to the debate.

Then there is the matter, as so many noble Lords have mentioned, of using favoured journalists to leak policy and announcing policy first to an invited audience rather than to Parliament. A few months ago on the morning that Digital Britain—Interim Report was published, a breakfast was held at 10 Downing Street. The Times referred to:

"Top executives from media and telephone companies ... to hear about Digital Britain".

When, later that day, a Statement on the report was repeated in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, tackled the Minister, pointing out that such behaviour,

"would have been smack against the Ministerial Code".

The Minister's reply was that there had been a breakfast but,

"there was no prior disclosure of the report or discussion of its recommendations".—[Hansard, 29/1/09; col. 387.]

They simply "exchanged pleasantries over pastries".

Be that as it may, it seems curious timing. We live in a parliamentary democracy and we say in the report that,

"the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance to Parliament".

We want open and transparent communications that allows everyone access at the same time. We on these Benches join the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, in being pleased that the Government accept the recommendation that codes of conduct for special advisers be supplied to Ministers as well as to special advisers. We are also pleased that the Government welcome the suggestion that high-flying civil servants should be given experience of working in communications. As they say in their response, the contribution that senior civil servants make to the communication of government policy is vital.

In conclusion, it is crucial to the health of our political system that there is effective communication between the Government and the public. Their prime concern should be to inform citizens clearly and unambiguously. As has been said so often before, the spinning must stop.

Photo of Lord Astor of Hever Lord Astor of Hever Shadow Minister, Defence, Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs, Shadow Minister, International Development 5:31 pm, 7th May 2009

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Fowler for giving the House the opportunity to discuss this report. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, and my noble friend Lady Eccles both pointed out that my noble friend Lord Fowler has been an excellent chairman of the Communications Committee.

The committee has produced an important report calling attention to an issue that is at the heart of the public's engagement with the Government and the political structure in general. With ever-falling voter numbers, and ever-rising cynicism and disillusionment, more needs to be done to communicate effectively, and above all honestly, with Parliament, the media and the public. One of the many recommendations made by the committee, quite rightly, emphasises the importance of the codes of conduct that govern the behaviour of Ministers, civil servants and special advisers. These codes of conduct have been thrown into the public eye in recent weeks.

My noble friend mentioned the Damian McBride affair, and I will leave him to respond to the comparison made by the noble Baroness between him and Bernard Ingham. The Damian McBride affair unfortunately showed an all too familiar failing of the Government. The immediate impulse, rather than taking a measured view of what actually went wrong, was to promise a new initiative. The code for special advisers clearly forbids the sort of behaviour that, rightly, led to a public outcry. The Government must stop looking for scapegoats and take the necessary steps to implement the existing rules.

The committee made very clear its concern about the lack of awareness, shown in the evidence, that civil servants appear to have of the various codes that they must adhere to. I have no doubt that this ignorance extends to Ministers and special advisers, too. The Government's response to this concern was entirely inadequate. Having a copy of the code on your desk is not the same thing as knowing what it says, and most importantly, knowing that there will be consequences if you fail to measure up.

Will the Minister tell the House what happens when a Minister or a civil servant breaches the relevant code of conduct, by, for example, releasing information before a parliamentary Statement? The committee's support for Parliament as the appropriate body to hear important government announcements before journalists is welcome. This issue is frequently raised in the House. Every time a new Minister or Secretary of State arrives on the Benches opposite, noble Lords take great pains to remind them of the value that the scrutiny that this House provides can have for effective government.

As the committee's report makes clear, the early release of information, whether by official interviews on the "Today" programme or by semi-official leaks, results in distorted public debate. Yet, time and again, that behaviour continues. I am sure that the Minister will repeat the government response that Statements to Parliament are fully supported by the Ministerial Code. As I have said, what good is that when Ministers are free to break that code whenever they choose?

Early release has a particularly damaging effect on the release of statistics and numbers, where it is much harder for even informed journalists, let alone the general public, to see what is spin and what is fact. We were keen to tighten the rules on pre-release of statistics during the passage of the statistics Act, but unfortunately our amendments were overturned by the Government. Our concerns were justified. The Government were rightly called to account over the early release of—I cite the Whitehall statistics watchdog—"premature, irregular and selective" crime figures in March this year. Does the Minister agree that it is exactly that sort of behaviour that does so much to damage the reputation of the Government?

The potential for political spinning appears to be equally tempting on other government-produced figures. The current economic climate has led to even greater incentives for Ministers to fiddle the figures and play with accounting standards. The recent Budget Statement shows just how far economic estimates and predictions can be stretched in the face of independent and objective analysis and disagreement. Does the Minister agree that the Conservative policy to establish an independent office of budget responsibility to prevent dodgy accounting would do a great deal to restore public confidence in government figures?

My noble friend's committee has released a report that gives a timely warning of the constant vigilance that is needed to keep government communications up to the standards that the public have a right to expect. The Government's response to the report shows worrying indications of complacency. The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, described it as meagre and dismissive. I hope that our debate will go some way to persuade Ministers that more must be done.

Photo of Lord Davies of Oldham Lord Davies of Oldham Deputy Chief Whip (House of Lords), HM Household, Captain of the Queen's Bodyguard of the Yeomen of the Guard (HM Household) (Deputy Chief Whip, House of Lords) 5:38 pm, 7th May 2009

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, for introducing the debate and to all noble Lords who have spoken in it. I am also grateful to him for chairing the committee and producing such an interesting report. We can tell from the contributions to this debate that it raises difficult issues for any Government and fundamental issues about the culture in which we all operate. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Parekh for attempting to define some of the issues that revolve around the culture which we all inhabit. He was supported by my noble friend Lady McIntosh, who also commented on some of those difficulties.

It is easier to analyse what is difficult and can go wrong than to be prescriptive on how to put it right. I merely say to my noble friend Lord Parekh that being critical of the media is one thing; working out in a free society how you can constrain them by law is a different matter altogether. I heard him say—I am not quite sure of the actual phrase that he used—that some mild or gentle legal reform might be necessary. The question of bringing the law, other than libel law, into constraints on the press raises fundamental issues about press freedom. He will know how sharp the reaction to any proposed constraints is from the media, and indeed from the wider public, lest those constraints benefit certain people.

My noble friend also said that it might be helpful if the press appeared before Select Committees. We do not need a Select Committee on the press. Select Committees have the ability to invite members of the press to their sittings whenever they wish, if in fact the press are relevant to their inquiries, and they do. The press are put under forceful questioning from Members of Parliament. From my reading of reports on Select Committee sittings, it seems that editors and journalists give as good as they get from Members of Parliament and members of Select Committees when they are challenged on these issues, so let us not suggest that this issue of culture can be easily resolved.

I entirely sympathise with the points that have been made. We are all distraught at what we regard as a reduction—we have not lost it completely—in people's trust in parliamentarians. We all know some of the reasons for that, we all know that we must take steps to improve the situation as rapidly as we can, and we know some of the issues that have helped to cause it. However, we should also recognise, when we talk about some aspects being the nature of the culture that we inhabit, that from a parliamentary point of view the press at times looks over-negative, overcritical, over-challenging and unfair.

People from other countries will say that the British press is an example of freedom in a democracy and that the constrained press that operates elsewhere does not do the job that our press does, so in a sense we should take great care when we talk about changes in culture, although the committee's report, which is about such important issues, does not raise very challenging matters when it comes to culture.

Whenever any difficulty occurs, damage is done to Parliament, parliamentarians and the relationship between Parliament and people. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, said that he did not intend to introduce this debate in the same contentious way in which the previous debate had been introduced. He then got on to sleaze quite sharply, and identified one or two issues in a way that, to put it mildly, could be described as fairly critical.

Let me make the obvious point about the sleaze that he identified with regard to Damian McBride. I was away for a few days when the issue broke but by the time I got back he had gone, so I question the idea that there was a reluctance to deal with the issue and that it was not quite clear whether he had broken the code for special advisers. The answer is reflected in the sharp result that he has gone. I might add that the person with whom he corresponded has also gone from his private position as developer and editor of and contributor to the website that he was intending to operate. The Prime Minister made it absolutely clear that he would emphasise the Code of Conduct for Special Advisers, and an amendment was made to it to make it absolutely emphatic and a code that all special advisers are obliged to sign. It is quite clear that special advisers are not expected to use their position for party political purposes. That is clear in the code and will be enforced. I have been asked whether what the code represents is clear: it makes Ministers responsible for their special advisers.

This is not the first time that there has been an incident concerning a special adviser. There have been one or two in the past as well. However, we have to set that against the background that special advisers were introduced, first, I think, by a Labour Administration under a degree of criticism. We felt that we would get additional support and help from people who could be drawn upon for the particular roles they played and their relationship to Ministers. Over the nearly two decades during which the Opposition were in power, they used the special adviser system extensively and we have continued to do so. I do not think it can be argued that the concept of special advisers is flawed, but it is necessary for the code to be clearly enforced and that special advisers should know their limits. I want to assure the committee that the Government are taking this matter very seriously.

Another element of sharp criticism in this debate was the statement made by the Prime Minister on YouTube. The Government are enjoined to use every means of communication. When the Prime Minister, for the first time, used this form of communication, he was criticised for his performance, for having used it and because it was not a Ministerial Statement. Let me make it clear: this YouTube broadcast was preceded by a Written Ministerial Statement to which Members of Parliament had access and which contained the information that was put out on YouTube.

Why did the Prime Minister act in this way? This was an exceptional circumstance. The House of Commons was going to deliberate on Motions before it about Members' expenses, which we know has been just about the most inflammatory issue as regards the general public and its relationship to Parliament in recent months. It has cost us all dear in terms of reputation and, of course, Members of Parliament are greatly anxious about it. Therefore, there was a necessity for immediate action and a need for communication to Members of Parliament and to the wider public that action would be taken. Action, of course, was taken on that Thursday in the deliberation on the amendments.

I will present my next point with some care because I have the greatest respect for the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, who I know will be very concerned about the nature of the work of his committee. But there is just a tendency in this area to be "damned if you do and damned if don't". If all forms of communication were the tried and tested, and nothing experimental was ever used, the Government would look as if they were out of touch and showing no ability to relate to the public. If other forms of communication are used, the great danger is the suggestion that the Government are sidestepping the proper forms of communication and using something which is not fair. I recognise the criticisms, but I do not accept entirely their validity.

However, I accept the validity of the important principle of the primacy of Parliament and I want to reassure the chairman of the committee, the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and the members of the committee that the Government support and advocate the principle on which this report on the primacy of Parliament was written and that Ministers should announce new policies to Parliament first. This principle is enshrined in the current version of the Ministerial Code, which was established in 2007. It is the Prime Minister's guidance to his Ministers on how he expects them to conduct themselves in public office. Copies of this code are issued to Ministers on their appointment. There is no excuse for them not abiding by the code. On the occasions when failures occur, the press and the media are on to the issue very quickly, as are Members of the Opposition and other Members of Parliament. Indeed, members of the governing party can be critical as well. The primacy of Parliament must be maintained, but we ought not to get the issue out of proportion.

This Prime Minister and this Government make a large number of Statements to Parliament. I do not have the figures for this year immediately to hand, but noble Lords will recognise how many Statements of government policy are repeated in this House, and that is reflected in the fact that at times we are criticised for doing so. But if Governments are to be open and answerable to Parliament, then of course Statements form an important part of that aim.

There are two particular issues in the report that I want to comment on. The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, referred to the Phillis review. The Government are proud that to a large extent we have fulfilled our commitments to the findings of that review and followed through on its recommendations, but the areas of some difficulty are things like the regional dimension of policies. I agree entirely with the noble Baroness, Lady Eccles, that the regional press is in considerable difficulty and we all know about the economic reasons challenging it at present. We must also consider the changes we have seen in the media generally. While the Government could be upbraided on the increase in the number of press officers and people employed in government communications, we have to set that against the enormous expansion of the media over the past decade, and indeed over the past five years. I refer not just to the 24/7 media, but to the extensiveness of that 24/7 media. We have to consider the sheer number of outlets that expect to have access to government services and the enormous thirst out in the wider world for information, which we should respect as the development of a free society in its expectation of access. We all agree on the important point that we cannot expect a democratic society to function effectively without access to information, but the issue lies in how it is presented.

Again, there are difficulties regarding the regional press. Most government campaigns are inevitably national in nature and therefore the national media are often the most cost-efficient way to achieve campaign objectives, so that is where they are targeted. However, I accept the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Eccles, that some regard needs to be made of the regional dimension and I assure her that the Regional Co-ordination Unit within the Cabinet Office supports particularly the regional Ministers in their engagement with local media on key government issues.

The other point I want particularly to comment on was that raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Howe, Lady Eccles and Lady Bonham-Carter, about the third sector. This is an important and growing dimension. I heard the criticism from the noble Baroness, Lady Howe, that she thought she could recall a time when Labour Governments were not so concerned about the voluntary sector; I dispute that. The third sector has changed a great deal. I was in the House of Commons as part of a Labour Government at the time to which she referred, the 1970s, and there were certain charities to which we were bound to relate. I was then interested in third-world development, and I assure the noble Baroness that we could not have achieved our objectives with regard to changing priorities in development aid without having the closest relationship with third-world charities. However, I accept her point. I think that she will in turn recognise that this Government are very concerned to engage with the third sector, which has an important role to play in providing services to our community. That is why we should make sure that we have effective communication with the third sector. I can only testify to the important fact that scarcely any significant government social legislation now occurs without the fullest consultation with the third sector. It would be impossible for us to deliver campaigns on issues such as obesity, in which I know the noble Baroness has taken a keen interest, without having significant regard for the work of charities and the third sector. That is true of a whole range of public policy. The noble Lord, Lord Fowler, mentioned in a modest way the campaign on HIV/AIDS in 1980s, for which we all respect him and which was a significant breakthrough in government communication. I have no doubt that he, too, sought to engage the third sector in that. I do not therefore seek to deny the importance of being able to communicate in those terms if government communication is to be effective.

It is difficult to summarise a debate which covered the broadly philosophical and sociological while being rather precise in its analysis of where the Government have gone wrong in particular areas. This is a massive exercise. Substantial public resources are inevitably involved in the Government's communicating their services to the community. It is not about politics but about government. It is about administration; it is about ensuring that our people are informed about how their lives can be enhanced, developed and protected. It is about them seeing how public health is advanced, how educational objectives are being met and how their social environment is being improved through effective government action, which is often consensual and not party political. It is very important that the Government have the resources to communicate effectively.

On the other side of the argument, inevitably, is the nature of government communication when it gets into more controversial areas, the most controversial of which arises when, from time to time, in these myriad activities carried out by a very large number of people, mistakes are made. Damian McBride's mistake was a significant act by an individual that was completely outwith any government objective and any standards to which the Government subscribe, and it led to his removal from his position. These things will happen from time to time in the complex operation of government.

I hope that the House will recognise that it is right that the committee should identify errors where they occur. I hope on the other hand that the committee will appreciate that the Government's response to the report is positive. We are grateful to it for having taken on another stage the crucial issue of successful communication. The Government responded constructively because we are based on firm principles of effective communication, which I know are shared by the whole committee.

Photo of Lord Fowler Lord Fowler Conservative 5:59 pm, 7th May 2009

My Lords, I thank everyone for taking part in this very interesting and very valuable short debate. I thought that all the speeches made very important points. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, raised some very thoughtful issues. I agree with him that editors and journalists should be questioned by Select Committees; which is exactly why we did it. When we were examining the ownership of the press, that is exactly why we called editors and journalists and proprietors to us. I am not sure that everyone came with total alacrity, but the call went out and most of them did come. I am not sure that I agree with his diagnosis that much of the fault for the breakdown in trust belongs to journalists. It seems much more likely that Mr McBride, as a special adviser, did more to damage that trust than any journalist.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bonham-Carter, referred in passing to Bernard Ingham and said that, in her experience, he destabilised many Cabinet Ministers in the 1979 to 1990 Government. I served all but a few months in that Cabinet, and I have to say that he did not destabilise me, but I do, of course, concede that had a strong view, at times, on some of the policies being pursued and he obviously had things to say; Lord Biffen comes to mind. The difference is this: I do not think—I think the noble Baroness will agree—that Bernard Ingham would, under any circumstances, have ever indulged in the kind of personal attack that was being plotted by Mr McBride. Under no circumstances would he have done so. He would certainly go for the politics, but he would not go for the person in that way.

There were a range of other interesting speeches. The noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh, gave her views on unattributable briefing, and I agree that that is an inevitable part of politics. Whether Ministers should give unattributable briefings is another matter. She said, and I quite agree, that Governments should always try to make Statements on the Floor of the House first. That is part of what we were saying. My noble friend Lord Astor of Hever, in a very good speech, made exactly the same point, and I agreed with him on the pre-release of official statistics and government policies.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, underlined the need for the total costs of communications to be published. I find it inexplicable that the Government cannot do that. I totally agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Eccles, that the Government need to do much more and take much more seriously, as all Governments should, the needs and requirements of the regional media and the regional press. I declare a past interest, as the chairman of two regional newspaper groups.

I think that was all the Back-Bench speeches. Then the noble Lord, Lord Davies, spoke, and I agreed—I put in my notes, "slightly unusually"—with much of what he said. That would be unfair, but I did agree with a lot of what he said. I am not sure, however, that the fact that Damian McBride has gone is a full reply to the fact that he has abused the system. Ministers must make it clear to every special adviser personally what is required and what is simply not permissible. That, it seems to me, is the lesson of the McBride case. I am not opposed to the concept of special advisers; what I am opposed to is the abuse of the system.

As for the YouTube defence, the Minister did a noble job as far as that is concerned; he is one of the very few Ministers who have attempted a defence of the YouTube question. I thought he protested a bit too much; he said the Prime Minister made a Written Ministerial Statement beforehand. That was very good of him, but it does not actually mean any more questioning than he would get on YouTube. I think the Prime Minister made a mistake; he should have said it openly to Parliament. The question of parliamentary expenses seems to me to be absolutely a matter of concern for Parliament itself; that was the proper way to do it. I do not in any way damn YouTube, but I do say that it should be used after a proper oral Statement has been made.

We have had a useful and a good debate, and I thank again everyone who has taken part.

Motion agreed.