House of Lords: Press Office — Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 8:07 pm on 27th January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Conservative 8:07 pm, 27th January 2016

To ask the Chairman of Committees whether there are any plans to appoint a unit within the House of Lords Press Office to promote proactively and apolitically the role and work of the House of Lords.

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Conservative

My Lords, we have just concluded a session during which there has been, in the elegant phrase of diplomats, “a frank exchange of views”. But I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I ask that, for the next hour at least, we leave our party-political weapons at the door. If this is not possible, the underlying reason for raising this issue, which is the need to underpin the reputation of the House as a legislative institution, will be lost.

This Question is not about Governments, Oppositions or Cross-Benchers seeking party-political advantage. It is about seeking ways to ensure that your Lordships’ House as an institution is seen by the general public in as balanced and unbiased way as possible. A political life can be tough—it can be bruising—and that is as it should be because important issues and the future of our country are at stake. Some of that bruising is bound to be felt in an institution in which such arguments are played out—so be it. But my concern is the rising number of snide, unfounded and unhelpful articles about your Lordships’ House that are quite unconnected with our legislative activities.

There appears to be no person or body within the House empowered to correct the facts and, above all, to correct them the very day they appear. The key words in my Question are, therefore, “proactively” and “apolitically”. That this is an issue which has touched a chord I think is shown by the fact that 14 noble Lords, drawn from all parts of the House, put their names down to speak, and I greatly look forward to hearing their views over the next hour.

As I said, my concern is with the steady trickle of articles that put an entirely unfavourable and inaccurate construction on matters concerning the House. Let me run through a few examples. On Monday 8 December 2014, the Guardian ran an article under the headline, “Champagne wars in the Lords as peers say no to a cheaper vintage”. It claimed that your Lordships’ House had refused to serve the same champagne as the House of Commons on account of its inferior quality, that over the past five years £265,000 had been spent buying 17,000 bottles of champagne and that this was equivalent to five bottles of “bubbly”—as they put it—for each Peer per annum.

By Wednesday 10 December, two days later, the Times was repeating the claim, though under a different headline—this time, “Is the House of Lords on a suicide mission?”—and increasing the number of bottles that were being drunk by each Member to 20. By Saturday, the Economist had climbed on the bandwagon under a headline, “A tizz about fizz”, again repeating the allegation about champagne consumption but, rather unattractively on this occasion, linking it to the powers of your Lordships’ House to block and delay legislation, implying that we do so in a champagne-sozzled condition, while at the same time claiming £300 per day, as the Economist put it, “just for showing up”.

On the Friday, too late to correct any of the above, a letter was published in the Times from the Chairman of Committees. He pointed out:

“In the last financial year, 57 per cent of all champagne sold was in connection with receptions and dinners … and 30 per cent through our giftshop. All alcohol sold in the Lords is sold at a profit, which has helped to reduce the cost of the catering service by 27 per cent since 2007”— and that the proposal to merge the two Houses’ champagne service was a 10 year-old story.

There was nothing wrong with the content of that letter, just its timing. A delay of four or five days between the original article and the rebuttal gave time for the story not only to get legs but also to expand in ways that frankly were still more unfavourable to the reputation of the House.

Lest noble Lords think that this is an isolated example, in September 2015 the Constitution Unit at University College London published a piece entitled, “The Lords’ declining reputation: the evidence”, and, in the excellent note produced by the Library as a background briefing for this debate, there is a table showing a similar, rather discouraging trend.

Finally, just before Christmas, a further set of allegations was made about the travel arrangements and costs thereof of the Lord Speaker. I understand that in several respects these were inaccurate or misleading: for example, excessive car waiting time for the Lord Speaker during her attendance at functions when security arrangements at the function required the clearance of each car.

Some noble Lords may argue that this is the way of the world and that there is nothing to be done about it. In the memorable phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Birt, we risk throwing another log on the fire. The noble Lord is of course vastly more experienced in the ways of the media than I am and I have to respect his view, although I also have to point out that it seems to me that, another log or not, the fire is blazing pretty merrily right now.

Your Lordships’ House has an excellent press office. I do not want what I have said and what I am about to say to be seen as a criticism of it. Its primary role has been to undertake planned press and other publicity linked to the reports being published by the various committees of the House or to its general activities. It is not set up to provide what one might call “rapid rebuttal activity”. I see three broad strands to what this work might entail: first, to say to a journalist or, where necessary, an editor, “This article is factually wrong, please correct it forthwith”; secondly, to offer journalists planning to write about your Lordships’ House a facility for the checking of facts; and, thirdly, to provide for journalists on quiet news days human interest or apolitical stories about the work of the House. This will be a role for a senior individual experienced in press or public relations. He or she would need clear lines of authority and responsibility to be able to carry out this sensitive and demanding task, for which it will be absolutely essential that there is whole-hearted cross-party support.

Several noble Lords, speaking to me ahead of this debate, remarked that such clear lines of authority and responsibility will never be established because there are several parties who will consider this to be their sole prerogative. Such high diplomacy is some way above my pay grade as a humble Back-Bencher. All I would say is that each one of us has been privileged to be appointed to this House and I hope that if there are issues of this sort about sovereignty, they can be reconciled in the greater interest of preserving and enhancing the reputation of this great institution that we are all proud to serve.

Of course, we can go on as we are. My fear is not that such an appointment would lead to more logs on the fire; rather, that if it is not made, the flames of misreporting and consequent mistrust and misunderstanding of your Lordships’ House as an institution of Parliament will become increasingly hot and uncomfortable. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Donaghy Baroness Donaghy Chair, Information Committee (Lords) 8:14 pm, 27th January 2016

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, for initiating this debate. I chair the House of Lords Information Committee and we spend a considerable amount of our time promoting and encouraging communications about the work of this House.

I pay tribute to our staff in the press and media area, who provide a 24-hour service in quite difficult circumstances. Why are they difficult? The department provides factual information and rebuttals but cannot—and probably never will—comment on anything that could be regarded as party-political or taking one side or another of a debate; for instance, on the size of the House or on tax credits.

As a self-regulating House, one could argue that no one is in charge or that everyone is in charge. We have the Lord Speaker, the Leader of the House and the Chairman of Committees, as well as the leaders of other groups. If we were to decide to have one spokesperson, they would still need professional assistance and it would require a change in our governance.

What is clear from the excellent briefing provided by the Library is that the work of Select Committees, which can cross party lines, receives enormously positive feedback from the public. The press and media team is able to be much more proactive in this area and the growth of social media coverage is very helpful in showing the positive side of the work that we do.

By far the best advocates for this House are its Members. The reputation of the House depends almost completely on its Members, for good or bad. Nothing beats that personal engagement, whether it relates to work in the House or outreach duties.

The staff work very hard to reach out to people about our work through broadcasting, education, archives, and the work of Parliament and its history. Any perception that they had strayed into the political world would, I am sure, be resisted. But all suggestions made by noble Lords this evening will be very welcome and, I am sure, will be considered by the Information Committee.

Photo of Lord Selsdon Lord Selsdon Conservative 8:17 pm, 27th January 2016

My Lords, I find myself in a difficult situation because for part of my career I was a director of a company called Research Services Ltd, which did the National Readership Survey, which was used as a basis for advertising and all forms of communication. Mark Abrams—slightly to the left of myself—was our guru, and I found myself also involved in the race relations study. Therefore, I have a love of information and data, particularly about your Lordships’ House.

The difficulty I have found with the press department, which I spoke to earlier today, is that its hands are tied. I said, “Well, whose hands are not tied?”. “My Lord, your hands are not tied”. “If you were me, what would you provide me with as a list of those people we should communicate with?”. “My Lord, you may have some suggestions to make”. I made certain suggestions and a list was produced that I would possibly be able to circulate to your Lordships, with emails, telephones—direct things—for 127 journalists, who, when I have introduced a Bill, have effectively become friends because only Peers can talk to the press. I find this very strange and I am not sure how it could be changed in any way, but people are waiting for stories. They can be written by anyone. You have to spend only a moment in the Bishops’ Bar and you have a new story.

On occasions, I made a few mistakes. I made a suggestion that we should possibly look at consulting with the Australians before we had the referendum relating to Scotland because there were 54 million Scots worldwide. To my horror, a journalist called me the next day, saying, “You are front page of the Sunday Post in Scotland: ‘Lord Selsdon says Obama is Scottish’”, because in Scotland you take your seeds, as it were, through the female line.

There are so many stories that we could write about this place and we have so many would-be journalists and writers and preparers of speeches. Therefore, I feel that we should ask ourselves to solve the problem.

Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 8:19 pm, 27th January 2016

My Lords, I was in the press office of a major charity for more than 12 years in the 1970s. It was not easy. The charity, Christian Aid, was constantly being accused of siding with refugees in southern Africa and victims of apartheid. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, is absolutely right to raise the subject at this critical time because the House has run the gauntlet of the worst of old Fleet Street and more recently, as he said, the Lord Speaker has personally come under fire, quite unjustly and with very little opportunity to reply.

I had not appreciated the extent of negative coverage until I saw the July-September figures. The press and media team seems to be coping admirably but has only three full-time staff working 24/7, while the House of Commons Media Service has many more. Arguably, the Lords has had a rougher time than the Commons since the expenses scandals. I suspect that the House will have to make at least one additional appointment now, until a major review is undertaken. The website of that other Lord’s press office, at the MCC, has a snappier style and a lot more people dealing with digital media but I am certain that this Lords press office has much more trouble.

I congratulate the press office on its success in promoting the EU Committee’s reports. I have direct knowledge of the Russia and Ukraine report last February, which generated huge publicity. But who is calling the shots? In a House dominated by political parties, all with their own agenda, it is virtually impossible to provide the media with a single version of events. I think that there must be a group of media-aware Peers with recognised responsibility for answering for the House as a whole. But from a press office point of view, it would be helpful to have a more focused message from one central point. I do not advocate the Lord Speaker’s office taking on this role, as some have suggested, unless and until the role of the Lord Speaker is redefined.

Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 8:21 pm, 27th January 2016

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Hodgson on raising this timely debate and endorse what he and other colleagues have said. In the time available, I want to raise a fundamental question, one already touched upon by the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, and the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich. It is fundamental to this House, this Parliament and indeed Parliaments generally.

If a crisis erupts affecting a company, there is a chairman or CEO who can speak for the company. Companies can, and good companies do, plan ahead in terms of crisis management. But what happens if a crisis hits the House of Lords? Who speaks for the House of Lords? Who speaks for Parliament? There is no one figure in a position to do so. That is why each House is always on the back foot if it is hit by a crisis. We cannot respond immediately and authoritatively, because there is no equivalent of a chairman or a company CEO. We need to beef up our excellent media team to be ready to respond but press officers can only inform. They can report and give information but they cannot be the face of Parliament or speak authoritatively for Parliament. That is the fundamental conundrum which we, as Members, need to address. We cannot hive off the responsibility; the sooner we address it, the better.

Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 8:23 pm, 27th January 2016

My Lords, any serious organisation takes the defence of its reputation seriously—that is, any serious organisation except this House. I will cite only one example. After one scandal—I cannot now remember whether it was over sex or drugs—it took more than two weeks while the Lord Speaker, the Leader of the House and the then Chairman of Committees argued about who should put out a statement. It was amateur night.

Four years ago, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, kindly asked me to compile a short report on the problems, which I did. My principal recommendation, which I did not think was earth-shattering, was that an ad hoc group should be set up consisting of Peers with media and PR experience and staff of the House concerned with information to chew on the coming threats and responses to them, and generally to develop the promotion of the House. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said yes, and moved on. The noble Lord, Lord Hill, at first said no, then maybe and then—mirabile dictu—yes. He also said that he would attend—except that he had to go to Brussels instead. The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, with her usual courtesy said no. I do not know why this has proved so difficult. It was not much, was it? Someone, somewhere among the officials of the House seems to think that such a proposal would mean that officials were in some way getting involved in politics. I simply do not get it. I suppose that after 18 years in the House, I should by now understand that even when something about it is clearly broken, someone will find a good argument for not fixing it.

Photo of Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Lord Sherbourne of Didsbury Conservative 8:25 pm, 27th January 2016

My Lords, I want to focus today on the world in which the House of Lords press office has to operate. The reality is that conventional media are in decline and social media are on the rise. There is a market for information and, in the days when newspapers often had 10 million readers, it was a sellers’ market. Today, people choose what information they want through their social media and it is a buyers’ market. People want information which is immediate, bite-sized and punchy, so what is it that propels a message? It is talkability and visibility.

By talkability, I mean: is the information or argument relevant and interesting, so that people want to talk about it and it engages them? A message then needs visibility, by which I mean: is it being relayed and disseminated widely across all the social media?

The challenge is what we have faced in our speeches today, with only two minutes per speech: we have to be disciplined in what we communicate and how we communicate. We have to make the message clear, focused and relevant and, as has been said, be very fleet of foot. We must use not only all the different social media but all the media.

Photo of Lord St John of Bletso Lord St John of Bletso Crossbench 8:26 pm, 27th January 2016

My Lords, I join in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, for introducing this short and very topical debate. I was a member of the Information Committee in 2009 when it had a report on the findings of the People and Parliament inquiry, which looked at how the House of Lords could improve public understanding of its work and role, as well as how the public could better interact with this House and Parliament. Thankfully, many of its recommendations have been taken up. There has certainly been an improvement through the information office in increasing the coverage of the role of your Lordships’ House through social media, including the Twitter and Facebook pages, as well as better coverage of some of the two and a half hour debates. Sadly, however, as everyone has mentioned, the press all too often revel in and focus on negative publicity about your Lordships’ House. Few of the public are aware of the enormous depth of expertise here or of the enormous amount of time spent in revising, examining and improving legislation.

The briefing pack for this short debate gave an excellent overview of the work and objectives of the press and media office, especially regarding your Lordships’ Select Committee reports, but there are clear limits as to what it can do to proactively publicise in an apolitical manner the progress of legislation. The press team have done their best with media rebuttals of unfair and inaccurate negative publicity about the work of your Lordships’ House and certain individuals in it. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, that we should have a specialist communications expert to be responsible for rapid rebuttals.

The Lord Speaker’s regional outreach programme is to be commended as well as the new parliamentary education centre launched last year, which takes between 500 and 600 visitors a day, mostly school groups and teachers, and provides 20 workshops a day. I want to make just one brief recommendation: that Select Committee chairmen should take a bigger role in becoming public spokesmen for their inquiries. We certainly need to become much more proactive.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 8:28 pm, 27th January 2016

My Lords, I am delighted that the Chairman of Committees is going to respond to this debate. No one is held in higher regard. He is the epitome of the great public servant and I hope that, following this debate, he will assemble a small group of your Lordships to discuss these issues and advise him as to how we can best project a positive image. It is up to us. There will always be annoying stories about champagne and other things. You only have to go to Buckingham Palace at the moment to see the Rowlandson exhibition to find that we are not the first public servants to be the butt of cruel humour and salacious yarns.

This House is a very positive institution, but the trouble is that people out there do not understand it. I would even say that people down there, in another place, do not understand it. They do not fully appreciate what we do and why we do it, or what our role is. What we have to do—I hope with the aid of the Chairman of Committees—is to extend the Peers in Schools initiatives, so that we can go into all manner of institutions to try to explain what this House does.

The people who know most about politics, it is sometimes said, are the London taxi drivers. Well, some of them do, but in the last couple of months, I have had four or five who have brought me here and who have not had a clue what we do. When I have told them, they have been amazed and surprised. I have had two of them have tea with me in the House, and I think they went away with a very much more positive impression of this great institution—and it is a great institution. It is part of Parliament and is not going to be upended in the immediate future, so we have to project a positive image as often as we possibly can.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP 8:31 pm, 27th January 2016

My Lords, I, too, serve on the Information Committee under the excellent chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, is to be congratulated on securing this debate, because this cannot go on any longer. I know the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, said that we have been here before, but it is getting worse. We have not so far referred to the catastrophe that occurred last summer with the publicity surrounding the former Chairman of Committees. Enormous damage has been done, and the fact is that there was nobody able to come out straightaway. The champagne story is another very good example. Perhaps we could have a panel under the chairmanship of the Chairman of Committees, representative of the House, and have a spokesperson from that panel, appointed on a rota basis. Where agreement is sought but cannot be achieved, maybe we cannot move forward on a particular issue, but where there is consensus, there may be some need to go out and rebut. Although we appreciate the officials, the truth is that the media will want a Member of the House to speak to them. I hope that the Chairman of Committees, in his summing up, will address that and other issues.

The one thing I am absolutely clear about is that we cannot leave things as they are. The world is changing, our circumstances are changing, and we are being systematically undermined and ridiculed. Some of that is our own fault, but most of it is not, and we have to be prepared to fight our own corner. Nobody will pay any attention to us if we do not.

Photo of Lord Farmer Lord Farmer Conservative 8:33 pm, 27th January 2016

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Empey, that in reputational terms the current situation is simply unacceptable and risks unnecessary damage being done to a vital part of the parliamentary process. Caricatures abound of ermine-clad Peers swilling champagne and swanning around your Lordships’ house at the taxpayer’s expense. That may sell newspapers, but it does not give anything of the true facts. A highly distorted myth is relentlessly peddled of everyone with their snouts in the trough, greedily pocketing £300 a day for turning up.

I do not claim any recompense because I do not need to, and I suspect others take the same approach. However, some depend on the daily allowance to make ends meet because they give so much of their time. If this were made clear to the public, who of course pay garage and plumbers’ bills per hour or per day, they might think the daily fee is in fact rather modest and even inadequate, particularly if they understand that there are many Peers whose work here restricts their earning opportunities elsewhere. Crucially, however, if our contribution is to be considered worthy of public funding, the public need to value and understand the work we do. When I was in Brussels last year for the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, various European officials I met were all of the opinion that the quality of the output from your Lordships’ House—reports and legislation—put all other secondary chambers they knew in the shade.

A proactive unit would, like a think tank, tweet and otherwise publicise whenever the Government accepted an idea or implemented a committee’s recommendation, so that the public would know they were funding a body that makes a difference. Charitable agendas are often championed by Members, so the profile of important national issues is raised and we begin to see cultural change in areas such as mental health, tackling domestic violence and myriad other good causes. There is so much to shout about, every day, that would actually encourage all who pay taxes, whether individuals or businesses, to see that they are in fact getting great value for money. We might even see public support for higher daily allowances—which I would endorse whole- heartedly, although that is a subject for another debate.

Photo of Lord Oxburgh Lord Oxburgh Crossbench 8:35 pm, 27th January 2016

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, for introducing this debate and the Information Office of the House for the enormous support it has given. It did a great deal of work, which time precludes my sharing with your Lordships.

Reputations are built up slowly and can be destroyed overnight. If we look back at the press coverage, we see that four or five years ago, positive and negative comments on the House were roughly evenly balanced. Since that time, we have had what we might describe as a triple whammy: the expenses scandal; the Sewel scandal; and, most recently, the so-called flooding of the House with 45 new Peers, which was not of our doing but was seen as our doing.

One must read the comments of that supportive and well-informed observer, Meg Russell, after the appointment of the new Peers:

“This has been a disastrous news week for the Lords. David Cameron’s appointment of an additional 45 new peers has met with universal media condemnation … As an Observer commentator put it, ‘where is there left to go when Polly Toynbee of the

Guardian and Quentin Letts in the

Mail find themselves in perfect agreement?’”.

We have a problem on which we have to act. If we take no action, that will support those who want damaging rather than constructive reform of this House. That reform will be, if you like, riding on the crest of ill-informed populist sentiment. We have to take action.

Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 8:37 pm, 27th January 2016

My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Hodgson on initiating this most timely debate. The problem we have is that we are now seen as a legitimate target by far too many people. I will make one or two suggestions as to what we have to face up to. The noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, put his finger on one of the problems: we have to change the governance of the House. If we want things to stay the same, they have to change, to quote someone else.

First, we have to have some sort of rebuttal unit. If something appears in the press which is wrong in fact, there must be someone here who is authorised to correct it. I am not talking about the politics of it but the sheer, straightforward facts. For it to take ages for three chairmen—the Leader of the House, the Chairman of Committees and the Speaker—to agree who should write a letter about champagne is just shambolic.

Secondly, we need a proper press cuttings service so that at least in the Library and online, your Lordships can see day to day what is being said. Thirdly, the political parties and the Cross Benches have to look at having a press service. There has to be a press officer in each one, so that if the rebuttal person is asked for a comment, they can say, “This is beyond my pay grade. Go to the party press office”. We must reach out. We must be much more flexible. That will require a change in governance, and we will have to face up to some problems.

I am reminded of the words from the Kipling poem,

“it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that”,

until you go to war. When the tax credits issue came up, we got an enormous amount of credit. Many people have come up to me about it, including one Conservative MP this week, who said, “You really did the right thing there”, although we were all whipped and did all in our power to defeat the opposition Motion. None the less, we can do things right, we must do things right and we have to shape the balance differently, but we will have to change.

Photo of Lord Dykes Lord Dykes Non-affiliated 8:39 pm, 27th January 2016

I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, for initiating this debate and, incidentally, for speaking for less than the maximum time allotted to him, which was very noble and helped other speakers. I agree with virtually all the suggestions that have been made, in particular the rebuttal unit that the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and others mentioned. We need the proper leadership of a very senior professional person recruited from outside—without making any criticism of the existing press office, which does a wonderful job within the current framework.

A very tough, brutal American politician of some 70 years ago is known for a famous quote. He said to his rather harassed wife, “Listen honey, I’m a politician, which means that when I’m not kissing babies, I am stealing their lollipops. Never forget it”. That may be a working definition of American politics but it does not bother us, because that is the Commons, that is the Government, and that is raising taxes. We do not have to do that. That is the built-in advantage of this House: that we can—and do—do good work through our wonderful Select Committees, on an elaborate scale; through marvellous work in revising Bills, which the Commons does not have time to do properly at all; and through examples such as tax credits recently, which the public did notice. Many other things can be done, but they have to be led by a senior person recruited from outside, after careful vetting of the candidate, to ensure that we can do this properly in future.

There are so many things that we need to explain. I am very glad that the Visitors’ Unit has started at the Education Centre. It is a very impressive building. If any Peers have not had the chance, I urge them to visit it, as the noble Lord, Lord St John of Bletso, said. We are increasing the number of visitors to this House per annum, and that will help, but we need clever outside journalistic types to talk to the journalists in the Lobby as well. The Lobby in the Commons is an estimable institution, but it does not have any interest in the House of Lords. We must correct that.

Photo of Viscount Hailsham Viscount Hailsham Conservative 8:42 pm, 27th January 2016

My Lords, my noble friend is to be congratulated for promoting this debate, but I hope that he will forgive me if I express a little anxiety about the particular solution. An apolitical and proactive unit sounds like an expensive unguided missile to me, and I would be cautious about it.

However, I share the great concern expressed in this House about the attacks on it. I have long thought that the second Chamber is of crucial importance to the functioning of the British constitution. That is as much to do with the deficiencies of the House of Commons as it is the excellence of what we do here. The public does not understand that. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, that one of the great counters that we should rely on is the quality of our work and the integrity of our Members, but we must respond to some of the concerns about composition, powers and numbers.

I have always supported an elected second Chamber. It will not happen, because the House of Commons will not wear it, but there are some things that we can do about numbers, for example. I know that a number of noble Lords have worked out a substantial package of proposals. I would not go down that road. I am not in favour of a “big bang” approach. There are too many potential turkeys, and such a Bill would be a Christmas tree on which every bauble is hung. I think we have to be a bit less ambitious. I would go for a few changes, starting now on numbers. I would have life peerages created for fixed terms. I would look at mandatory retirement, with suitable safeguards, and—dare I say it?—although I am conscious of the great cry of “Humbug!” that would rise up, I would also look at the by-elections for hereditaries. These are modest measures, but we need to take some because public anxiety is great.

Photo of Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Lord Stevenson of Balmacara Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport) 8:44 pm, 27th January 2016

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, for introducing this debate and reassure him that although I am speaking from the Front Bench, this is not a party-political issue. We are all in this together, to quote someone. This is a very good debate, although it is a bit curious that we are rather a male group and we have heard nothing from the Benches on my left, which is very surprising because they are usually quite hot on these issues. I will be interested to hear what the Chairman of Committees is going to say in response.

I will say three things about my feelings on this issue. First, I am not surprised we are getting a bad press. The Leveson report, which was legislated for in this Parliament, was supported unanimously by your Lordships’ House, so the House was bound to be hit by those who feel aggrieved by it. In some senses, I am surprised it is not worse. The noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, may have been overestimating the capacity for gossip in the Bishops’ Bar, but he is not far wrong about where stories could be found if people were seriously trying to bring this place down.

As my noble friend Lady Donaghy and others stressed, the staff we appointed to do the work we have asked them to do so far do a very good job, and we should compliment them on that, but if that is the case, what is the problem? It is the question that was asked in the middle of the debate about who actually speaks for the House of Lords. We need to have some answers on that. As my noble friend Lord Lipsey said, a serious organisation would make it a key priority to staff it so that a mechanism existed to preserve and enhance the reputation of this House and its work. That seems to be the issue before us today and, given the problems we face and the scale of change in communications in the external world, there is clearly a gap which needs to be filled.

Photo of Lord Laming Lord Laming Chair, Freedom of Information Advisory Panel (Lords), Chair, Hybrid Instruments Committee (Lords), Chair, Liaison Committee (Lords), Chair, Procedure and Privileges Committee, Chair, Refreshment Committee (Lords), Chair, Committee of Selection (Lords), Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Lords), Chair, Sub-Committee on Leave of Absence, Chairman of Committees, House of Lords, Chair, Administration and Works Committee (Lords), Chair, Committee for Privileges and Conduct (Lords), Chair, Accommodation Steering Group Committee, Chair, Hybrid Instruments Committee (Lords), Chair, Liaison Committee (Lords), Chair, Procedure and Privileges Committee, Chair, Committee of Selection (Lords), Chair, Standing Orders (Private Bills) Committee (Lords) 8:46 pm, 27th January 2016

My Lords, I very much welcome the opportunity to respond to this thought-provoking short debate on a matter that we all agree is of great importance to this House. I am most grateful to noble Lords for their thoughtful contributions and, in particular, I wish to add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, for securing this debate.

I hope that those who have contributed to the debate will have noticed that throughout I have been taking careful notes of the points that have been made because they have been well made and should be taken seriously. That being so, I hope that noble Lords will allow me to address some key themes rather than refer to individual comments. I hope I can end on something of an encouraging note because of the points that have been made this evening.

It has been very well said that communicating the role and work of the Lords is of great importance. The public must be enabled to know about the distinctive role that this House plays as a second Chamber. Noble Lords will agree that this House has special and specific duties in scrutinising and amending legislation, inviting the Government to think again and debating public policy. In my view, the House carries out those functions very well. There must be no doubt that the House administration is committed to improving the communication of the work of the House and to engaging with the public as part of the strategic plan agreed by the House Committee and the management board.

This debate has reinforced the fact that we have a good story to tell. In that context, I hope that noble Lords have had a chance to read The Work of the House of Lords, which is updated each Session. Just as a headline, it explains how in the 2014-15 Session Members of this House examined in detail 68 Bills, considered 3,449 amendments, agreed 1,257 of them, asked the Government 6,394 Questions and produced no fewer than 27 investigative Select Committee reports.

This evening it is not possible to cover all aspects of the work undertaken by the Press Office, but it is engaged in a wide range of functions and seeks to promote the work of this House proactively and, as has already been mentioned, apolitically because that is necessary in its role. Members of the House will know that the Press Office operates at the interface between the House administration and the media and covers a wide range of the House’s activities, including balloted debates, Oral Questions and legislation.

In that connection, the staff go to great lengths to build good working relationships with journalists across the media in order to explain the House’s work. They conduct fact checks of media reports and respond as quickly as possible. Their work entails daily contact with journalists to provide factual information. However, the House will understand—and this has been touched upon this evening—that the staff are not free to offer their opinions.

The Press Office places a particular emphasis on Select Committee inquiries and reports. That is, of course, because those reports are agreed on a cross-party basis and are clearly of wider interest and extensively covered in the press. The office also provides media handling on issues that affect the reputation of the House.

That is not to say that more cannot be done. We are very conscious of the need to do as much as we can in this area, but I feel sure that colleagues will understand that there are limits to what an apolitical Information Office can do. For example, we all know that one party’s victory in this House is another party’s defeat. I feel sure the House will agree that knowing that the Information Office is promoting the House neutrally and apolitically is just as important as knowing, for example, that the Legislation Office offers the same level of apolitical, professional advice to all Members across the House.

The Information Office has been using new technologies and means of communication to provide further essential information, in this case, directly to the public. We must also not forget—as has been indicated this evening—that there is a role for the political parties in explaining the work that they do in this House, and of course they are better placed to handle the strictly party-political issues.

What is clear is that the press team works hard to communicate creatively and effectively. Its work in promoting the House has developed very considerably. For example, in a recent four-week period, press notices issued by the office generated at least 150 media stories about the work of the House. I was astonished to learn that, last Session, work to promote committees led to 856 positive media items. These issues are being monitored on a daily basis. Moreover, the Press Office also works closely with the broadcasters and the House’s broadcasting unit, aiming to disseminate high-quality audio and video coverage of the work of Parliament.

A number of noble Lords have, understandably, mentioned the adverse press coverage. I want to reassure the House this evening that the Press Office and the Clerk of the Parliaments are doing their best to respond quickly and, where appropriate, robustly to unfair criticisms of this House. They have pre-agreed lines to take about a whole range of issues that one might fairly predict the media might raise. They are available for contact 24 hours a day to react to adverse press coverage. That being so, in recent weeks, as has been mentioned, their work has secured a number of corrections to inaccurate reporting in national newspapers, and this has been done in a timely fashion.

Of course, there are times when it is not possible to comment: they cannot comment, for example, on an ongoing investigation by the Commissioner for Standards or answer subjective questions about the size of the House. There are also times when we need to recognise that difficult stories have to be weathered, rather than responded to in every instance. However, a point which ought to encourage us is that the difficult stories stick rather more in our minds than the positive coverage that we receive.

We must accept that the media will take editorial positions, find stories and want to tell them. However, it is also important to recognise that media scrutiny is not necessarily intrinsically bad, and we must never lose sight of the importance of free speech and a free press to the effective functioning of a modern democracy.

Noble Lords may be interested to know that the daily media summary produced by the press and media team often contains lines taken with journalists, so that staff of the House and Members can understand the background to press stories, appreciate the steps that have been taken and explain the position themselves should they wish to do so. I should add that that daily media summary is always available in the Library on the day, and noble Lords are free to access that facility.

Understandably, we have focused largely on press and media work, but it is also worth while recognising that there are other ways in which the House tries to promote its work. For example, the pages on the website have had 175,000 views each quarter, which is an indication of how many people take an interest in the work of the House. Mention has of course been made of the very effective support that is given to the Lord Speaker’s regional outreach, to the Peers in Schools programme and to the fact that 75,000 students meet a Member to learn about the work of this House.

We continue to work closely with the education centre and with universities on understanding Parliament, and we have a digital engagement facility for the Lords Chamber.

A great deal is happening and I end on what, I hope, will be a source of encouragement for those who have taken part—so well, if I may say so—in this very important debate. The debate is most timely because a new communication strategy for the lifetime of this Parliament is now being constructed and will be considered by the relevant domestic committee of the House for approval. I know that this evening’s well-informed contributions will help to shape that document and inform the House Committee’s thinking on where the administration’s strategic resources, both financial and human, should be utilised.

As I said, this has been a most timely and constructive debate. I take the points that have been made about the possibility of engaging a group of Members in further discussion. I again express my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, for securing the debate and to all who have taken part in such a positive and constructive way. It has been extremely helpful and, from my personal point of view, time very well spent. I am very grateful.

Sitting suspended.