Parliament and the Public — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:11 pm on 16th June 2009.

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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.