Parliament and the Public — Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 16th June 2009.

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Tabled By Lord Renton of Mount Harry

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to increase the connection between Parliament and the public.

Photo of Lord Renton of Mount Harry Lord Renton of Mount Harry Conservative 7:38 pm, 16th June 2009

My Lords, this short debate arises from a Question that I tabled some months ago asking the Government what steps they were taking to increase the connection between Parliament and the public. Given the vitriol that has poured over Parliament in the past few weeks, noble Lords reading this Question today may well indulge in mirthless laughter. They may, for example, have heard the speaker on "Thought For The Day" two weeks ago speak of,

"the anger and dismay that many feel about Parliament and politicians".

But surely that is what we have to work to change. I hope that the Leader of the House, who I am delighted is taking part in this debate, will present some positive proposals from government as to how they will act to rebuild a bridge of understanding between Parliament and people. In the mean time, we must surely ask ourselves, as Members of the House of Lords, how we help restore the confidence and belief that are so necessary for the strength and purpose of Parliament.

We all know why the anger and dismay are now so prevalent—the press has been telling us for the past 30 days—but the problem goes further than the expenses catastrophe. Regular polls have shown us for a long time that only a minority of the population is interested in politics or in the legislative work that is the backbone of parliamentary work. This is reflected in the number of those voting in general elections, which has fallen over the past two elections from around 70 per cent to 60 per cent. In the MEP elections two weeks ago, the average figure was a mere 34 per cent. This is a devastating and damaging trend for democracy.

It is against that background that our Information Committee, of which I am proud to be chairman, decided to hold an inquiry into the relationship of people with Parliament. We could not have done this at a better or more suitable time. We set out to find what worked well in our relationship with the public—with the ordinary man and woman in the street—and with children at school, and what was misunderstood or not listened to at all. We have tried to catch the eye of those who do not listen to "Today in Parliament". We were the first domestic Select Committee to hold a formal inquiry to which, in addition to written submissions, we invited broadcasters, the Hansard Society, the UK Youth Parliament, news editors and sixth-form students. We have used the internet and the web extensively. Members of our committee as Lords of the Blog have talked on the internet about our inquiry and we have put videos on YouTube.

Let me quote briefly three comments following my last video on YouTube. Marie Sheldrake replied on 12 June. She said:

"Parliament is so far removed from normal life I doubt anything I say they will understand".

Alex on the same day said:

"Bring ordinary people into Parliament. Select a group of 100 members of the public at random, on the same basis as the jury system, and pay them to spend a year in parliament talking to MPs and Lords, reading Bills, whatever, and blog about it. Ideally give them the right to vote in the Lords".

Then James Clarke, a day later, added:

"Make anything promised in the manifesto a legal requirement to put to a vote in order to try and enact it once in parliament as the first order of business. This would stop issues like EU referendum and Lords Reform from dragging on and making MPs look like liars".

I am no Minister and I cannot make any promises today, but we will take regard of the many comments that we have received in our committee. Tomorrow we are meeting to consider what should go into our report on our inquiry, and we plan to publish this in July.

We can divide our recommendations into two parts. The first is the easier. It will cover the outreach work in which the Lord Speaker has given a great lead by her numerous visits to schools and the development of our education service. We very much welcome an extension of this outreach work and consider that Peers themselves are the greatest ambassadors for our House. We would like to see more Members participating in the Peers in Schools programme.

We also welcome the many improvements in the parliamentary website and fully expect there to be a growing use of the internet for political information, parliamentary data and contact between interested individuals. The second part of our recommendation may be more delicate. We have received many requests that the House should provide better information about the particular interests and expertise of Peers. Should we create a database in which Peers themselves specify the topics on which they are experts and are ready to answer questions, either to the press, on the internet or at meetings? Would Peers appreciate having that amount of public visibility? Questions could then follow about whether there should be greater access to Parliament for filming. Should we review the rules of coverage for broadcasting Lords' proceedings with a view to making them more user-friendly?

Then we come to the vital question of what the Government can do to improve the openness, clarity and transparency of what happens at Westminster. Obviously, there is a great need for this since much of the ancient system and language that we use is incomprehensible to many who have to be cajoled into listening to us. A start would be to modernise the language in which Bills are presented at Westminster, simplify the procedure by which they are passed, add a short explanation at the front of the Bill about what it is all about; and then continue to explain on the Bill as it got changed in Committee just how it was being changed and why. Do we suggest that members of the public answering personally via the internet could influence the content of Bills? That is a $64,000 question. A Government, in my judgment, have to give a lead, and, so far, that has been missing. I hope that we will be better informed by the end of this debate.

I was delighted to serve on the Puttnam commission four years ago, and I am very pleased that the noble Lord will follow me this evening. I think it is fair to say that that is where the argument started that Westminster was not for Members only. I believe that we can carry this point further. I hope it will become clear that the Lords are listening and aim to make their work better and more broadly understood. In this context, I think that the recommendations of our committee will help create closer relations between Parliament and the people.

Despite the clock up there, I know that my time is up. I end by saying that I know that I am lucky to be part of a large family. I look forward with keen anticipation to the day when one of my grandchildren, aged perhaps 10 or 12, turns to me at breakfast and says, "I was listening to Parliament yesterday; it was very interesting". At that moment, I will know that we are moving forward.

Photo of Lord Puttnam Lord Puttnam Labour 7:46 pm, 16th June 2009

My Lords, as noble Lords have just heard, along with the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who we have to thank for this evening's short debate, I had responsibility for delivering to Parliament in 2005 a report entitled Parliament in the Public Eye. That report concluded with the following words:

"We want to see a Parliament which is an accessible and readily understood institution, which people know how to approach, and when and where to make their voice heard, a Parliament which relates its work to the concerns of those in the outside world. This is the challenge".

The report stressed that the essential prerequisite to any possibility of an enhanced sense of connection between Parliament and the public it serves can only occur against a background of renewed trust and respect. If this were true in 2005, I think we would all agree that it is even more the case today. By way of example, respect for the working of Parliament is at present being seriously undermined by what I see as the inanity of the debate over the future of your Lordships' House.

Personally, I have a very catholic attitude to what we wear, what we are called, and at what age we are required to retire, even in respect of our place of work. Against that, I have a very clear view of the manner in which an improved second Chamber can add to the effective working of Parliament and, in so doing, contribute to the enhanced levels of respect and engagement that we all seek. In a sense, my position is summed up by my favourite line from Proust:

"We do not need new landscapes, we only need new eyes to see those which already exist".

That 2005 report set out a comprehensive series of initiatives, which could and should have led to improvements in the way that Parliament is viewed by the public. There can be few in either House who do not now wish that those recommendations had been taken a little more seriously, but there is no point in jogging backwards.

I want to offer two suggestions, one old and one new, and then to finish by making what I hope will be seen as an altogether broader point. The well-rehearsed idea is to embrace the concept of post-legislative scrutiny as a timely and important role for a second Chamber, which could, over time, refine, improve and rationalise the whole of our statute book. That may sound like a big ask, but the long-term benefits to the way in which our law is improved and understood could be enormous. The relatively new idea revolves around embedding and legitimising one of the few obvious improvements that I have witnessed in my 12 years in this House.

It would take a pretty cynical and extremely partisan Member of your Lordships' House not to have noticed the dramatic improvements to the business of the House brought about by the introduction of Peers in government positions with reputations and experience of the subjects on which they speak. Watching the performance and hands-on expertise demonstrated on the Front Bench by, for example, my noble friends Lord Malloch-Brown on foreign affairs, Lord Darzi on health, Lord Carter on broadcast and communications policy, and Lord Adonis on education—this is a far from exclusive list—has been the cause of a great deal of satisfaction. Surely, on the evidence, this represents a serious and visible improvement in the way this country is governed.

That being the case, my suggestion is simple. Lords Ministers, following their recommendation by the Prime Minister, should be required to subject themselves to a form of confirmation hearing by the appropriate Commons Select Committee. This would have the effect of re-engaging the principal Chamber with these appointments and, to an extent, democratically legitimising them. The confirmation hearings could be time limited, and, of course, the Government of the day would have the majority of members on the appropriate Select Committee. Yes, it would slow things down a little, but, in my judgment, the benefits would significantly outweigh any inconvenience.

Lastly, I have a more general point. I cannot be the only person who views much of the rhetoric surrounding Lords reform as coming from the same shop that gave us the present expenses debacle. The position of successive Governments would appear to have been, "We do not have the courage to face the electorate and pay you properly, so we will make it up by means of expenses". In the case of Lords reform, the equivalent thinking appears to be, "We do not really want a second Chamber at all, but we dare not admit that, so we will try to claim legitimacy by electing a Chamber with no, or at least severely limited powers".

That leaves me with a simple question. Does anyone think it likely that respect for Parliament will be enhanced by removing from parliamentary scrutiny of, for example, issues affecting climate change, the noble Lords, Lord Turner, Lord May, Lord Rees, Lord Stern, Lord Oxburgh, and others who have devoted half a lifetime to this specialist subject area? Of course, I could have chosen any number of other crucial policy areas, such as health, education, foreign affairs, defence, agriculture, energy or infrastructure. In each of these areas, and many others, the collective wisdom and experience of this House is not only unmatched in another place, but would be difficult to replicate on a consistent basis in any second Chamber in the world.

In conclusion, I suggest to the usual channels that we have a proper discussion about re-engagement and trust; one that is based rather more on what might be in the best long-term interests of the country, and rather less on posturing and theocracy.

Photo of Baroness Crawley Baroness Crawley Government Whip

My Lords, with respect, when the clock reaches three, our time is already up.

Photo of Lord Roberts of Llandudno Lord Roberts of Llandudno Spokesperson for International Development, Spokesperson for Wales 7:51 pm, 16th June 2009

My Lords, I very much appreciate what the two noble Lords have said; but I suggest that the problem is far deeper. It is the problem of making people think again—and think constructively—that this is their Parliament, that their vote counts, and that their influence can be felt in Parliament itself. I suggest, first, that we have to look—of course, I speak from the Liberal Democrat Benches—at the electoral system. At the 2005 general election, 52 per cent of the votes cast did not elect a Member. Therefore, fewer than half those who voted feel that they have some representation in this Parliament. We must look at that. When half the people feel disenfranchised, we are in trouble. I would look at the system used in the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament to keep the link between constituencies and a Member. You have that with the alternative vote, with at least 50 per cent of the electors in a constituency represented, and then a top-up list, which evens things out into some sort of proportionality.

A week today, the House of Commons will elect its Speaker. I am told that there are as many as 12 candidates for the post. If they had the first-past-the-post system, would Members of the House of Commons be satisfied? When the Conservative Party chooses a leader, he or she must have at least 50 per cent of the votes. When the Labour Party chooses a leader, that leader is elected only when he or she represents at least half the electorate. Why do we treat ordinary electors differently? They, too, deserve to be listened to, and to feel that they have a stake in Parliament. It should not be "them and us"—we have somehow to make people feel that this is their Parliament.

Secondly, and very briefly, there was a disgraceful situation last night when some Members on the government and Conservative Benches wanted to allow the continued representation in Parliament of people who do not pay taxes in the United Kingdom. This would take us back to rotten boroughs, where you can buy a seat and influence. It is the wealthy who take this opportunity. Ordinary people who do not have the wealth feel, "Gosh, this is not our Parliament, but a Parliament in the hands of those who want to keep an undemocratic electoral system, a Parliament of those who can afford to buy seats". I urge all noble Lords to think very widely on this matter.

Photo of Baroness Coussins Baroness Coussins Crossbench 7:54 pm, 16th June 2009

My Lords, we must of course update and improve our communications mechanisms and processes, but I hope that our inquiry will also say how important it is to communicate our purpose. If the public do not know who we are and what we are for, their interest will be hard to capture. Even well-informed people are often ill-informed about the structure and purpose of your Lordships' House—not realising, for example, how many independent Cross-Benchers there are, or that our principal role is not representative, but that of holding government to account by scrutinising legislation.

Terminology can give the wrong idea. We should not be surprised if some people think that a place called the House of Lords admits only male aristocrats in ermine. Perhaps if "House of Peers" were the name in common usage, it would be a small step towards conveying our diversity and accessibility.

One of the most inspiring sessions of the Information Committee's inquiry was with groups of sixth-formers. They wanted more information about who we were and how to get to us, and were intrigued to discover that we did not have noble Lords for particular areas, in the same way as Members of another place have constituencies, but might usefully be approached according to subject or interest area.

It is no coincidence that the All-Party Group on Modern Languages, which I chair, held one of its best meetings a couple of weeks ago, also when sixth-formers came to talk to us. It was a win-win experience. We got a huge amount of insight from them, and they were excited to visit Parliament and to know that Members of both Houses were genuinely interested in what they had to say. Thinking about both these meetings made me realise that we have, right under our noses, a vast communications network of untapped—or undertapped—potential in the dozens of all-party groups that exist. We should invite them all to consider how they might contribute to outreach and education work, with particular reference to young people. With groups on everything from aerospace to the wood panel industry—I could not find one beginning with Z—it will not always be relevant or appropriate; but I am sure that many of them could benefit from connecting with young people, in person or online through YouTube or schools.

We should go to them, as well as inviting them here. We should not forget that one-third of adults are not on the internet, so personal contact is still important. In the commercial world, it would be called "brand building" and PR. We call it outreach and education. Either way, it is no surprise that most people start out feeling that Parliament is hard to connect with. They probably feel the same way about their GP, their child's head teacher or their bank manager—but at least they have a clear idea about what these people are for, which is not necessarily true about their understanding of Parliament, and in particular of your Lordships' House. We have much brand building to do, and I am sure that the Information Committee's inquiry will be an important catalyst in moving forward.

Photo of The Bishop of Bradford The Bishop of Bradford Bishop 7:57 pm, 16th June 2009

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for this—as he said—very timely debate. I fear that much of the discussion is trying to adjust the deck chairs on the "Titanic". I support what the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, said, and join him in arguing for proportional representation, in particular STV, as a way of building a closer bridge between Parliament and the people.

I declare an interest: one of my assistant bishops is president of the Electoral Reform Society, and another, my neighbour and colleague, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, is also a champion; and I wish to maintain their friendship. As the pig said to the hen when discussing the English breakfast, "I have more than an interest: I have a commitment". So does the Church of England. We have been using the single transferable vote since 1920—first for the General Assembly and now for the General Synod. In 2003, the General Synod voted by 225 votes to six in favour of the introduction of the single transferable vote in this country.

We all know that first past the post gives disproportional representation—and if it is disproportional, it is misrepresentation. Some of the alternatives are little better. I am from the Yorkshire and Humberside region and, sadly—many feel—only one Labour member was elected. Who chose which Labour member it should be rather than one of the other two, three or four? Was it done by an electorate? No. Perhaps it was Buggins's turn; perhaps it was a toss of the coin; perhaps it was a secret group somewhere. But it was not the voters. We are very often getting, as has already been mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, poor representation.

However, single transferable vote is used in parts of the country with great success. It has been used in Northern Ireland. While people there take politics seriously, there were no serious objections to the use of STV. As has been suggested, it prevents Northern Ireland having three Ian Paisleys in Brussels. Again, more recently, in Scotland, the hegemony of one party dominating local politics has been swept away in half the councils by use of a better way of representing the opinions of the people and being able to represent them more subtly than can be carried out by first past the post.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, that we would not want to elect our leaders of particular parties individually by first past the post. Why inflict it on the electorate?

Photo of Lord Willoughby de Broke Lord Willoughby de Broke UKIP 8:01 pm, 16th June 2009

My Lords, there are three essential measures that will go a long way towards achieving the aims of the debate of the noble Lord, Lord Renton. The first is to repeal the 1972 European Communities Act. Seventy per cent of our law is now handed down from Brussels to Westminster by the unelected and unsackable European Commission. It has been rubber-stamped by a parliament impotent to change so much as a single syllable of any of the legislation that it has to pass into UK law.

Without that, any reforms are rather like a facelift on an ageing actress: I am afraid that they change the face but not the substance. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham so aptly said in the debate on constitutional reform last week:

"Tinkering with bits and pieces of the system will not do".—[Hansard, 11/6/09; col. 764.]

The second essential is to follow the Swiss lead in holding binding referendums at national and local level. That single measure would more than anything else to take power away from the Executive and put it back where it belongs: with the electorate. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, would agree with me that that would give people a stake in politics. Local referendums would, at a stroke, remove the widely disliked, costly and unaccountable Rural Development Agencies which routinely override local people's wishes. At a stroke, those expensive bodies would be consigned to the scrapheap, which I believe to be a very good thing.

The third essential is a much smaller Parliament, with no more than 300 Members of Parliament in the other House and 300 Members of your Lordships' House, sitting no more than 100 days a year. Their initial duties, at least, would be to repeal laws and not dream up new ones. Far from being banned from taking outside jobs, MPs should be actively encouraged to hold, or at least to have held, jobs. The aim should surely be to discourage career politicians and encourage, let us say, "citizen legislators"—people who have a stake in business and understand what goes on outside Parliament rather than simply being enclosed in the Westminster bubble, which I am afraid is what seems to be happening now. After all, that is why Parliament is so discredited.

All these sensible proposals are in my constitutional reform Bill, freely available in the Printed Paper Office. I commend that Bill to your Lordships.

Photo of Baroness Shephard of Northwold Baroness Shephard of Northwold Conservative 8:04 pm, 16th June 2009

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry on securing the debate and on the way in which he has introduced it. Given the truly amazing variety of contributions so far, we await the report of his committee with great interest. He is, of course, quite right and so are other noble Lords. It is currently vital that Parliament seeks ever more to explain and justify itself in the light of recent events.

I will make a few brief points about what is already being done with the outreach programme encouraged and launched by the Lord Speaker to inform the public. First, on the professionalism and enthusiasm of the Parliamentary Education Unit, it has been absolutely transformed in the past couple of years. The materials being used are marvellous and the enthusiasm of the staff is a miracle to behold. They are doing what I always think is necessary when launching an educational initiative: training the teachers first. All of those things are being achieved by the education unit, and I hope that all noble Lords speaking in this debate will make time, if they have not already done so, to look at those materials.

Secondly, I commend the outreach work done by noble Lords. More than 200 have taken part in outreach work since the programme was launched just two years ago. They have made visits to schools and addressed large adult audiences. I think that the record so far is held by the Lord Speaker herself, who addressed something like 6,000 members of the Women's Institute in the Albert Hall, with—and I am of course making no comparisons—a very good reception.

Others of us have addressed Rotary, large church groups and adult education groups, quite often with the view expressed after we have spoken: "Well, I didn't really understand about the House of Lords". Also, in my experience, such groups often reveal an underlying and strong respect for this House because it is seen as less political than another place, and because of the expertise of Members of this House and the thorough nature of the scrutiny that we give legislation. Indeed, suggestions have been made as to how we might get closer to the public, and the Women's Institute itself has suggested that Peers might be shadowed by a Women's Institute member in regions throughout the country, which is a marvellously practical idea. You would expect that from the Women's Institute, and I think it could work.

Finally, I commend the first-class lecture series that has been organised—particularly those with Queen Mary, University of London, with five lectures last year on women's roles in the House of Lords. I can give some publicity to a similar lecture being held on Thursday, with a starring role being played by the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow. A lot is being done. We should not get too depressed.

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 8:07 pm, 16th June 2009

My Lords, one of the strengths of the British political system and its protection of freedom has been its ability to adapt over the centuries. In a three-minute speech I am not going to persuade everyone of the necessary adaptations, but I commend some of the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, and the noble Lord, Lord Renton, as well as his work and his appearance on YouTube. When I started my blog, originally as a Member of the House of Commons, seven or eight years ago, it was regarded as slightly weird. When I came here and suggested that we create a group "Lords of the Blog", I was accused even by bloggers of being slightly weird, which I thought was a step in the right direction; I was getting ahead of the game.

There must be major change in how we do our politics. It is not just down to quick fixes like the PR system. I do not want to get into an argument about PR here but, frankly, it is not the answer in itself. There are many countries with PR systems that have low turnout and low voter interest, and countries like ours with first past the post also have a similar problem. It is much wider and deeper than that and we need to make the changes.

First, like the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, I commend everyone for the work that has already been done, which is great. My second point is about something we could do as a next step: to recognise that until about 30 years ago, newspapers would carry stories about what MPs and Members of the House of Lords said. That was killed in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We need to get something of that back, which people can look at and read either online or in paper form. One way of doing that—and here is another shock-horror suggestion that startled some of my colleagues in the other place when I first made it a few years back—is to allow an edited version of Hansard. The fear has always been that if we allowed editors to get their hands on the speeches that we make, they would distort them in some way. I am convinced that we can do it well enough so that—whether it is edited television footage or edited Hansard extracts with photographs, and so on—it enables people to engage. One of the lessons of Lords of the Blog, from the people who wrote in to say what they liked about it, was that it was more informative and easier to read. Please can we have an edited version of Hansard, with pictures, that is easily available online and, preferably, on paper?

My final point echoes something that the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said about language. This place should be held in respect, but not in awe. Much of the language and behaviour here dates from the 19th century and it shows. You make new traditions only if you create new traditions. You can test this if you talk in a school. If you say "the right reverend Prelate", most kids will not know who you mean, as I am sure the Bishops will agree, but they know who a bishop is. If you say "the learned gentleman", some of us would quibble about whether all barristers are learned anyway. Whether they are or not, do we really need that? Do we really need—and I say this as an ex-serviceman, not particularly gallant, of many years ago—"gallant"? We need more ordinary language. Certainly, such phrases as "the other place" just do not make sense. They sound embarrassing to many kids if you talk to them about it. We can start making those changes without changing very much. We do not need grand Acts of Parliament. Let us just get on and talk normally and people will understand and relate to us better because of it.

Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 8:11 pm, 16th June 2009

My Lords, I too congratulate my noble friend Lord Renton on securing this short debate and on the excellent work that the Information Committee is doing on this subject. As my noble friend Lady Shephard has said, part of the work being undertaken by this House to increase the connection between Parliament and the public is the Peers in Schools initiative, part of the Lord Speaker's outreach programme. I have spoken at a number of schools. I spoke at Shoeburyness High School last Friday. A question from one of the pupils was, in essence, "How do we find out about what you are doing?" Another came to see me afterwards to ask how he and his friends could go about influencing a local issue. There is an interest in politics and the making of public policy, but how do we ensure that people are able to find out what Parliament is doing, and how they can have some input into our deliberations?

I refer to a school visit because it is very relevant to the key point that I wish to make to the Minister. The Question asks what steps Her Majesty's Government are taking to increase the connection between Parliament and the public. I suspect that the Minister will say, quite rightly, that much of what can and should be done is primarily a matter for Parliament itself. As we have heard, there is certainly much that we should be doing. There is one crucial step that the Government can and should take, and that is to increase the resources available to citizenship education in schools. It is through the educational route that young people can learn about our political system and, as part of that, about Parliament.

Citizenship education is something that I very much welcome. The problem is that it requires greater commitment, on the part both of Ministers and schools. There have been some improvements since the then Education and Skills Committee in the other place reported on it in 2007, but it needs to be given greater priority. Through citizenship education, pupils can learn about our parliamentary process. The problem is that citizenship teaching is underresourced. That is something that we can exploit at a parliamentary level, given the excellent material freely available through the parliamentary education service and the Information Office. There needs to be more systematic support and commitment of resources by the Government. There also needs to be a sharper focus on the political process. There is not time available to expand the point. I hope that the Minister takes the point on board and pursues it. It is something that I hope we will return to in the not-too-distant future.

I conclude briefly by identifying the criteria that we and the Government should have in mind in seeking to increase the connection between Parliament and the public. We need to ensure that what we do is accessible; interactive, because we want to hear from the public and not simply push material out to them; targeted, because not everyone is interested, but different publics most certainly are; and that we emphasise substance over process. Our procedures are relevant, but most members of the public are likely to be interested in what we are saying, rather than the mechanisms by which we say it. If we can keep those criteria in mind, our attempts at connecting can be both effective and efficient.

Since I have a few seconds left, I invite the Minister to reject the flawed arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, and the right reverend Prelate. Ten per cent of the votes equals 10 per cent of the seats does not then equal 10 per cent of the negotiating power in the House of Commons; it is not proportional.

Photo of Lord Alton of Liverpool Lord Alton of Liverpool Crossbench 8:14 pm, 16th June 2009

My Lords, Winston Churchill got it about right when he said:

"Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried".

As we cast our eyes towards Tehran, Burma and North Korea, we can understand why Churchill believed that our imperfect system of government was worth fighting for and dying for. This theme of an imperfect but cherished democracy was captured well by EM Forster in Two Cheers for Democracy. Forster said:

"I believe in the Private Member who makes himself a nuisance. He gets snubbed and told he is cranky or ill-informed, but he does expose abuses which would otherwise never have been mentioned, and very often an abuse gets put right just by being mentioned ... So two cheers for Democracy ... Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three".

During the 30 years since I first came to Westminster, the disappearance of too many of these dogged constituency MPs and their belief in public service has weakened Parliament. If Parliament has become detached from the people, it is because of the culture of politics itself. Too much time is spent worrying about image, in honing rent-a-quote soundbites and learning the dark arts of spinning. More time should be spent by Members of Parliament in their constituencies and they should live there. They should be chosen after a process like the American primaries. By contrast, the frenzied taint of the Westminster village too often produces a self-serving form of politics. Parties come to resemble cults and sects, rather than broad churches. For example, making party policy of issues that were traditionally conscience questions, such as abortion, euthanasia, embryo experimentation and human cloning, makes it impossible for many people who have conscientious objections to such policies to join or vote for such parties.

When mainstream parties become narrow cliques, they drive away supporters. When they disappear from the day-to-day lives of neighbourhoods and communities, it opens the way for such groups as the British National Party, the heirs of Oswald Mosley and the Brown Shirts. The success of the BNP in such regions as the north-west—where I live—is also, in part, because of a voting system that concentrates power in the hands of small political elites. I spoke and voted against the introduction of the closed party list form of proportional representation for European elections precisely because it was bound to open the way to groups like the BNP and because it offends a fundamental principle of our parliamentary democracy: the right to vote for an individual candidate, rather than a party or list.

If there is to be a change in our voting system, let it have as its first requirement that an MP will represent a defined geographical area and that votes will be cast for people, not parties. A move to a single transferable vote—which I have always supported—or the alternative vote would need to command widespread support and should not, under any circumstances, be steamrollered through as a last-gasp political fix, or as part of a political deal.

Despite its manifest imperfections, the immediate crisis of confidence in our political system and the political classes has been the expenses debacle. It is not a crisis of faith and democracy. If we wish to renew Britain's political life, we need to address the disconnect between politicians and the people whom they are supposed to serve.

Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative 8:17 pm, 16th June 2009

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to be able to serve under the noble Lord, Lord Renton, who reminds me of so much of the best of our political system. He pats you on the shoulder, you feel good, you look down and six months later your arm has gone.

I ask some simple questions that I have been asked. Why are we here? What do we do? Why do we do it and who do we do it for? When I came to this House, 45 or 46 years ago, I was one of those chinless wonders: a hereditary, Conservative, merchant-banking Peer who ought to be put down. I have been attacked all my life. I find and feel now a great opportunity for your Lordships' House to take a lead. The question is, who do we represent?

When I first came here, I was told that, if anyone wrote to you from a constituency, you did not reply. Of course, you did not have any writing paper or stamps, so it was a costly business to reply. You passed the letter to the representative of the people, the elected Member of Parliament, with a little note, and he would reply. You were told that you did not communicate outside with people; you did not represent them. You represented certain ideas. Then you say, why has it all changed? Now we are looking at outreach and reaching out to people. The interesting thing is that they want to hear from us.

Your Lordships, I am told, have great expertise and experience. I happen to have one of those databases that demonstrates that. Let us take a few subjects. Defence is very important at the moment. Among the 174 people in your Lordships' House who served in the Armed Forces, we have two former Secretaries-General of NATO and goodness knows how many Chiefs of the Defence Staff. I am not trying to say that there are not so many in the Commons.

Let us move on to health, which is pouring out of your Lordships' House. There are 124 or more experts. Go into business or the media. As the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, knows, the lists of people in the media are enormous. There are so many former Secretaries of State for foreign affairs and so many ambassadors that we do not even know who they are; we have to scratch and look them up, and they change their names. We have all the expertise that anybody could wish for. The question is, how do we deliver it and to whom?

I took a simple view. I said I will represent somebody and decreed myself in the mirror one day—if you have an oval or convex mirror, you can look good or bad, I was told in hotels. I looked and said, "I am going to represent the 19 million people who did not vote in the last election, the 20 or 18 million British subjects who live abroad and I would represent everybody in Her Majesty's Realms and Territories". I asked if they would please write to me. Of course, nobody wrote to me; not many people write to me, but they send me e-mails and jam up my system.

I would like to relate to people; I would like to meet people. I think your Lordships' have a lot more to offer than they realise. However, our role above all must be complementary to the House of Commons and not a replacement.

Photo of Lord Greaves Lord Greaves Spokesperson for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Spokesperson for Communities and Local Government 8:21 pm, 16th June 2009

My Lords, it is a privilege to start the winding-up speeches on behalf of the Liberal Democrats to this very impressive and enjoyable short debate. It is an impossible job in three minutes. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for promoting what I think is an appetizer, or perhaps a commercial, for his report. No doubt we will all meet when it comes out and, I hope, have an opportunity to discuss it in much more detail. We look forward to that.

My only response to these speeches is to say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford how wonderful it is to hear people, who do not sit on these Benches, like the noble Lord, Lord Alton, who has a history of these things, extolling the merits of the single transferable vote. Nevertheless, it is very welcome indeed to hear that. These matters are on the agenda now but, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said they must be debated in a proper context and not as a knee-jerk reaction to the present political situation.

We have discussed widely in this debate a range of problems, from the problems of the present collapse of confidence in Parliament, particularly in the House of Commons, right through to practical matters of promoting greater understanding of what we do. I want to touch on two issues that I and other noble Lords raised when we last debated these matters last December.

First, it is true that the educational work that is taking place on behalf of Parliament, and the outreach work on behalf of this House, is a great advance. However, the single big lack is a proper parliamentary visitor centre. Everybody who comes to London comes to this building. The vast majority never get beyond the pavement outside, and that is wrong.

Secondly, the parliament channel is a journal of record, like Hansard. The explanatory information that is provided as part of the parliament channel is entirely inadequate. People do not understand what they are watching or listening to. That needs to be improved.

I finish with a quotation from John Keats:

"Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:—do I wake or sleep?".

I believe that this House at least is waking up to the need to communicate with people and to encourage their involvement in what we do. Let us continue doing it and give a lead to the rest of Parliament.

Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates Shadow Minister, Cabinet Office, Shadow Minister, Communities and Local Government, Shadow Minister, Energy and Climate Change, Deputy Chair, Conservative Party 8:24 pm, 16th June 2009

My Lords, like all other Members, I pay tribute at the outset to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for initiating the debate and for the way in which he introduced the subject. It has been a sparky debate; there have been lots of issues that people agree with and disagree with, but that is in the best traditions of parliamentary discussion. It is timely; the noble Lord put his finger on the issue when he said that there was incredible anger among the public about the sense of a breach of trust that they have with this place. We should take their anger as something complimentary about this place—that they actually care about their parliamentary system, contrary to what some would let people believe. I was told when I came into this place at the other end that there were only two types of parliamentarian—those who came in to be something, and those who came in to do something. In these times, people are interested in what this place does rather than what it is and the processes that we undertake.

We need to balance that in our debates so that we do not get carried away like trainspotters. We are obsessed about our quaint procedures while the people out there are passionately concerned with many issues. If you ask people whether politics is relevant, they would probably say that it was not very relevant to them. In the evidence given to the committee on 18 March, it was pointed out that only 19 per cent of people agreed that Parliament was working for them. Yet if you say to people, "Are you interested in issues such as the environment, knife crime, the quality of school exams, animal cruelty, student loans, animal testing, abortion, the war in Iraq and Afghanistan?", they would of course say, "Absolutely. We're passionately interested in all those things", which all channel themselves in one shape or form through this place. From that point of view, we need to focus very much on what we do.

I offer two brief suggestions. First, in addition to the very noble people who have been before the committee so far, we have thousands of highly qualified researchers and other people working in the Palace of Westminster—young people who are in touch with the outside world. We recognise that their opinions need to be garnered and brought into the process. Finally—I do not want to finish on a poor note, but it is important—the people in the country will start to take Parliament seriously when the Government start to take Parliament seriously. I hope that the Minister will acknowledge that.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, House of Lords, Leader of the House of Lords and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 8:27 pm, 16th June 2009

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Renton, on securing the debate and on his thought-provoking introduction. I thank him and other members of the Information Committee for the effort and time that they have put into their work in this vital area on behalf of the House. I look forward to studying the committee's report when that work is concluded. I am proud of the work that the Information Committee carries out.

This has certainly been a wide-ranging debate. I have to confess that I was not expecting a discussion on electoral reform, and certainly not on electoral systems in the Church of England. Neither was I expecting a debate on the powers of the European Union, but such is the strength of this great House.

The Question is a particular and specific one about what steps the Government,

"are taking to increase the connection between Parliament and the public".

It is for Parliament as the legislature to increase its connection with the public, rather than for the Government as the Executive to take steps to improve that connection. That is the position based on appropriate separation of powers and has traditionally been the position that successive Governments have taken, but we have seen significant shifts in it over the last few weeks as the Government have intervened with proposals for Parliament in the wake of the revelations about allowances in the other place. Such an intervention is highly unusual. Government do government and Parliament does Parliament. Where the two meet, the conjunctions are complex and careful. Proposals for change in the voting system or in the powers and composition of this House, for example, can be brought forward by the Government, but it is ultimately for Parliament to decide on them. Parliament is not beyond government proposals, but all Governments tread warily in this area.

However, in the judgment of the Government, recent events have required this greater and different intervention. For example, it was the Government who referred MPs' expenses to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which took its first evidence earlier today. However, it will be for Parliament, not the Government, to take final decisions on any proposals brought forward. That is the right division of responsibility and the correct separation of powers. Parliament, not government, must remain sovereign. So there is a limit to what steps this Government—indeed, any Government—can and should take to increase the connection between Parliament and the public, but that is not to say that there is not a strong communality of interest between what the Government and Parliament want to see: great involvement, greater participation and democracy working better. I would still give three cheers for democracy.

In the modern world, both the Government and Parliament face the challenge of ensuring that we continue to engage with the public and increase transparency and so build and maintain the trust that we need to work on the nation's behalf. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, my noble friend Lord Puttnam and others are right to draw the link between information, transparency and trust. Both the policies and programmes of the Government and the decisions taken in this House affect the lives of millions of people, so the Government need to ensure that citizens have an accurate and impartial understanding about government policies, activities and services. Parliament needs to ensure that citizens have a full understanding of the scrutiny and work that it is doing on their behalf to hold the Government to account and to make legislation that sets the framework for our society, our economy, our public services and our place in the world.

That is the crux of tonight's argument. The committee's work builds on the excellent foundations laid by the work of the Hansard Society commission chaired by my noble friend Lord Puttnam and on which the noble Lord, Lord Renton, served. Rereading the work of the Puttnam commission, which was a delight, I was struck by how appropriate for both the Government and Parliament their fundamental vision remains four years on. I quote:

"We want to see a Parliament which is an accessible and readily understood institution, which people know how to approach, and when and where to make their voice heard, a Parliament which relates its work to the concerns of those in the outside world".

That is what Parliament wants and should want and it is also what Governments, regardless of their political stripe, should want for their Parliament, too. It is certainly what this Government want for Parliament.

The Puttnam commission's vision was not just about how we communicate but about how we listen. These days, people expect to be able to find information where and when they want to know it rather than to be told when we want to tell them. People expect to be in control rather than to be controlled. They expect to have information in terms of their everyday lives and interests, not in terms of the institutions that provide it. What is more, if we listen well, both the Government and Parliament can harness the knowledge and skills of citizens to help us in our work and to help us to improve public services. The noble Lord, Lord Bates, referred to the many young people working in this institution. We should be listening to them. By increasing engagement and participation, we can win broader consent and inclusion in our democratic processes. I believe that information is a prerequisite for democratic empowerment.

There is, therefore, a high communality of interest. There is also a communality in the challenges that we face as government and as Parliament: the challenges to connection are now unprecedented. But so, too, are the opportunities for us all in government and in Parliament: in communication, in engagement and in involvement in the way in which people now live and will live their lives in the 21st century. This debate is especially timely, given that the Government have today published their White Paper on Digital Britain, about which my noble friend Lord Carter of Barnes repeated a Statement to the House earlier. The challenges and opportunities of digital technology are not the only ones that we face, but they are of a scale that many of us are only beginning to comprehend and at which many of us marvel.

As the White Paper puts it, the changes that digital technology brings require us to develop a new level of participation for a competitive digital knowledge economy and a modern democratic and fair 21st century. The digital big bang will transform how we participate in a modern democracy, how we learn, how businesses operate, how we find jobs and how we do them, how we access our public services, how we develop our creativity and how we make the most of our free time and network with friends.

Both the Government and this House need to grasp the opportunities being offered up by the mass take-up of the internet. Good work has already been carried out to improve Parliament's website, as noble Lords have said, both with more information and by making it more usable and accessible. Similar work is being done in government through the creation of direct.gov and businesslink.gov, which focus on the needs of individual citizens and businesses, and through the introduction of minimum standards of usability, accessibility and accountability for all government websites.

However, the internet is no longer a one-way medium. It is a powerful means of engaging directly with the public and obtaining their views. In government, the e-petitions function of the No. 10 website has now had nearly 10 million signatures on 25,000 petitions. We have started to open up policy documents for open consultation online, such as the science White Paper, and we are making regular use of YouTube and other social media. We are determined to do more in this area. We have recently published and accepted the recommendations of the Cabinet Office's Power of Information Task Force on how to move forward. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has appointed Sir Tim Berners-Lee to help us to move forward on the openness of government data.

Many noble Lords mentioned the ways in which this House has been experimenting in this field. I warmly welcome the many innovations, such as Lords of the Blog and the YouTube video, which I watched with the noble Lord, Lord Renton. I also welcome the fact that Parliament Labs has published several trial versions of the Equality Bill online, bringing together the clauses and the Explanatory Notes side by side. That is a fantastic innovation.

For many young people in particular, the internet is now not just a way of life but a normal way of life. One of the recommendations of the Puttnam committee was that Parliament should do more to engage with young people. This House has made excellent progress. I pay tribute to the Lord Speaker for her role in developing and championing the outreach programme. The Peers in Schools programme has been fantastic, and I thank the many Members of this House who have already given their time to it and to the other outreach initiatives. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, for her new ideas—thanks to the WI—and I share the enthusiasm expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for bringing sixth-formers in here. The more young people we see, the better. The Lord Speaker has personally sponsored an annual competition for schools every year since her appointment, and this year's competition, about young people's representation in the media, is currently under way. Young people are the future of our country and our democracy. Last month, I was in Oldham talking about the building of a new youth centre. The young people were involved in the decisions, which made them passionate and switched on to debate and democracy. They were also interested in the House of Lords.

We in government and in Parliament have made great progress, but there is still a long way to go. No one knows all the answers or what is consistently best, but in government and in Parliament we need to try things out, innovate and learn to know that some things will not work or will have unexpected consequences. We need to manage them and not be afraid of them. We need to open up our information so that others can find ways of using it. We need to use the skills of those outside Parliament who want to help.

Many of the proposals emerging from the work of the Information Committee will be matters for this House, rather than the Government, to decide and implement. Noble Lords will take a view about the pace of change and about how to open up our processes and information. On behalf of the Government, I can give the House an undertaking of support for its work. The newly appointed director for digital engagement in the Cabinet Office will work with the officers of this House to share knowledge about best practice and best technologies. We will look to how the needs of the House can be incorporated into the work that Sir Tim Berners-Lee has agreed to lead for us and we will work with the House to ensure that where information passes from the Government to the House and vice versa—for instance, on Bills or in Questions—it does so smoothly and in ways that support the open information objectives of the House.

I have greatly enjoyed this debate. I am sure that I have not answered all the questions. In response to the question about citizenship, I firmly support citizenship education and will take the question about future financing back to the department. I look forward to many future debates on this terribly important issue.