Conduct of Debate in Public Life - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:18 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hunt of Chesterton Lord Hunt of Chesterton Labour 3:18 pm, 9th May 2019

My Lords, I welcome this debate about how government and Parliament can improve public debate on the critical issues affecting public organisations, communities and specialist groups, such as immigration, relations between religious groups, social and economic interests and private organisations working in the public sphere. We need to know what has caused the great deterioration of interrelations involving members of these groups, especially over the past three years, although the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, was quite right in her remarks about many of the big problems occurring 30 or 40 years ago.

It may be because the UK’s controversial national vote, with its huge numbers voting, involved a large proportion of the whole community, on one side and the other, in debate about the European Union. There may be long-term differences between societal and community groups, and the problems are growing to significant levels—for example, leading to disturbances in local areas and involving thousands of people in city centres. Many of these involve tensions between religious groups. At some of these events, political parties and groups have not always played their traditional role of calming social conflict and, in fact, have sometimes stirred it up. Even groups within the Labour Party have exacerbated, rather than calmed, social and religious conflicts, as mentioned by other colleagues.

An equally important role for Parliament and Government is to improve understanding about the processes of public debate and involve schoolchildren, students and political societies. We may hear later about this from the noble Baroness. It is also important to hear how the public debate influences public decisions about crime or funding for schools, for example. It is not just abstract debate; it leads to decisions that affect lives.

At the international level, the United Nations Association has been influential in the UK and other countries. My grandfather was secretary of the United Nations Association in the 1930s, so we used to hear a lot about this. The number of young people involved in similar organisations is perhaps less now than in the past. In the 1930s, as we have already heard and may hear more about, millions were involved. Now, we need to think of how we can expand the involvement of pupils and students. We have seen that this year, most recently with the bold invasion into businesses’ and politicians’ debates by the Swedish pupil campaigning here in London and elsewhere. It is interesting that the individual campaigning was working with non-governmental organisations and public media, so we perhaps begin to see a new way in which different communities can influence decisions.

We have also seen conflict within social organisations, including universities and schools, which should be centres for reasoned debate and provide welfare and comfort to affected students. Sometimes, the TV, media and internet have amplified conflicts between social groups and warring parties, particularly those affected by people coming from abroad. That has led to groups in the UK being far from welcoming, but hostile to these incoming groups, as we heard earlier. Government could do more to monitor and assist UK and international social and political groups that are sensitive to adverse debate and criticism. There is a new role for government and the organisations it sponsors for this purpose.

Other organisations have played a different role in improving and calming society. In advanced countries, the debates of industrial, governmental and commercial organisations have steadily improved management methods. Again, I refer to the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, whose father ran the Industrial Society when I was head of the Met Office. We had an extraordinary visit from Garnett in the 1990s, discussing how dealing with complex issues in a business or governmental organisation can be effective. It is noticeable how little conflict there is within many of these large business and governmental organisations, so perhaps we should learn more about them. They have had to deal with difficult organisational problems, and I believe we should think about that.

I am an engineer, a former chief executive and member of the Hazards Forum. Another aspect of this is that staff can be frustrated if there is no internal debate about critical issues and decisions. At present, several hugely important technical debates are ongoing around the world. Examples include the recent situation with Boeing—I worked with Airbus and can see this issue is of great importance—the combustible behaviour of people dealing with tall blocks of flats, and the factory workers of Bangladesh. These critical social issues are being debated.

Given the general experience of Members of Parliament and of committees of both Houses, we should be well placed to investigate different organisations dealing with controversial issues, general and technical, in important debates. I add the caveat that physical, natural and medical scientists and engineers make an important contribution to the role of Parliament, and we should hear more about that.