Conduct of Debate in Public Life - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:23 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Young of Cookham Lord Young of Cookham Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 4:23 pm, 9th May 2019

My Lords, I have wound up many debates in my time but I find this the most difficult of all, not least because we have had some great speeches which it will be very difficult to match but also because some of the issues that we have been discussing—what sort of country we are, how our institutions are letting the country down and how our political parties are not working properly—have no easy answers. But noble Lords have been good enough to identify some ways forward, so let us have a go.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, was quite right to raise this serious issue, and I commend the speech that he made in introducing the debate. He made some very moving references to Jo Cox, also referred to by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds and others. The noble Lord cares passionately about our democracy. He articulated the threats that he sees, including the loss of confidence in democratic institutions, and identified some potential solutions. One theme that has run through the debate is the need for strong political leadership—a point he mentioned with which I agree. That was picked up by others, including the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. He also mentioned the need for political parties to put their own house in order, and again I endorse what he said.

I am grateful to all noble Lords who participated in the debate with some very thoughtful and thought-provoking interventions. They discussed how best to restore confidence in the institutions of our country, asking how we can promote good conduct and healthy political debate, alongside respect for those with a different view—the tolerance that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, mentioned—and what both government and those of us in active politics can do as individuals to heal the divisions. A theme developed by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, and others was that it is not just up to the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, mentioned the importance of the language that we use, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds was, rightly, concerned about the normalisation of violence in our language.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, referred to my noble friend Lord Bates—an unerringly friendly, courteous and popular Minister, who took stock of the vitriol, anger and intolerance in British politics and resigned, calling for reflection and change. He has decided to make his contribution by talking to people on his journey from Belfast to Brussels, to get a deeper insight into the current malaise and how we might restore national unity. We hope to hear from him on his return.

Picking up a theme from the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, and others, next week I am going to do something which many noble Lords have done. I shall be addressing a masterclass for year 12 at a secondary school, where those representing different career options will be making their pitch to school leavers. Listening to the debate this afternoon has brought home to me the challenge of persuading teenagers to opt for elective office when there are so many other careers that offer greater job security, less media intrusion, less risk of personal harm, and better pay, and which enjoy higher prestige in the public eye—and there is not even an estate agent coming with whom I could compete on equal terms.

I also remember recently addressing a roomful of university students on the Upper Committee Corridor. They were in their last year of a politics course. At the end, I asked how many would consider becoming an MP. Not one hand went up—a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, who talked about the difficulty of engaging. Yet I was struck by a point that the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, made: never have young people had more reason to become engaged in public life and shape their future. We saw last month how strongly young people feel about climate change.

In fact, we have a good story to tell about politics and democracy. In many ways, becoming an MP is more attractive now than when I started 45 years ago. MPs have better working conditions in Portcullis House, more generous pay and realistic allowances, proper staff, civilised working hours and, through technology, an increased facility to communicate with their constituents.

My noble friend Lady Bottomley put in a broader context the violence in society and asked what was different this time. I shall certainly read the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, as she recommended, and I will come on to the theme of social media, which she touched on, in a moment.

As part of the response to the issues that have been raised, I will explain what the Government have tried to do to remove some of the barriers to public life, to mitigate online abuse—one of our themes today—to tackle hate crime and hate speech, to prevent parliamentary intimidation and to promote democratic engagement, and I shall answer some of the questions raised.

This is a timely debate because, over the weekend, the Government announced plans to safeguard our democracy, addressing the mounting need to protect public debate and the integrity of our elections. In recent years, we have witnessed rising levels of violence and abuse directed towards those taking part in that debate. This increased prevalence of intimidation in public life risks stopping talented people from standing for public service and putting voters off politics.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, mentioned the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life. It was asked by the Prime Minister to look at this very issue of the intimidation of parliamentary candidates, MPs and other public officeholders following the 2017 general election. It looked at the nature of intimidatory behaviour and considered what measures might protect the integrity of public service effectively, especially given the rise of social media. As I said, we published a response last weekend, entitled Protecting the Debate: Intimidation, Influence, and Information. Additionally, the Minister for the Constitution announced that the Government will legislate for a new electoral offence of intimidatory behaviour—a matter raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece. Those found guilty of intimidating a candidate or campaigner during the run-up to an election will be stripped of their right to run for elected office for five years.

Passions run high in politics and political debate, and it is right that we should care about how we govern or are governed. However, there is absolutely no excuse for anyone, no matter who they are, to threaten or abuse a candidate or campaigner whose views they do not agree with. Neither do individuals have the right to impose their views on others. I deplore, as others have done, the comments made about Jess Phillips by a UKIP candidate; that candidate’s feet would not have touched the floor had he been standing for any party represented in our debate today.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester raised the need for a conversation about national identity, asking questions about who we are, to try to fill the vacuum—the “dark place” referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. He referred to the hostile emotions that have filled that vacuum and then sketched out how it might be done. This theme was developed by my noble friend Lord Patten, who suggested the possibility of a forum which might do some lateral thinking to work out the agenda for a way ahead. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, suggested a new role for the Government in reassuring minority groups—I would like to reflect on that—as well as the idea of a parliamentary committee looking at how outside bodies deal with the sort of conflicts that we have been wrestling with this afternoon.

Brexit was one of the themes that ran through our debate; a large number of noble Lords mentioned it. A referendum has the potential to set people against Parliament when the people vote for a proposition with which the majority of parliamentarians disagree, and are then frustrated—as the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, mentioned—when three years later the result they voted for has not been delivered. We have seen a sort of polarisation of leave versus remain, which is beginning to replace the traditional right/left divisions that we have seen in our politics. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, referred to the polarisation of a metropolitan elite on the one side and the rest of the country on the other.

I have reservations about referendums. I think it is legitimate to have a referendum to see whether Scotland or Northern Ireland wants to remain part of the UK, but I have reservations otherwise. I happen to believe that democracy is a conversation between people and Parliament, rather than a one-off instruction from one to the other. But, whatever one’s views, nothing can excuse the hatred and violence that we have recently witnessed.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds developed the themes by referring to the language of betrayal that has been used by some of those currently campaigning. I deplore the language that has been used—in some cases by my party—to talk about politicians. But the whole House welcomed the two memorable thoughts for the day offered by the two right reverend Prelates.

To the noble Lords, Lord Liddle and Lord Wallace, I say that we have had a look at electoral reform; we tried it but the public did not buy it, and I am not sure that it will happen in the near future. I was moved, as I am sure we all were, by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, who spoke of the risk of the slippery slope—the drift—if we do not confront extremists. He reminded us how nationalism can get out of control. Yes, we will stand up for the values he described.

While we have been talking about the toxicity in public life, it struck me that the increasing levels of violence that we have mentioned extend beyond the walls of Westminster to the lives of councillors—as the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, mentioned—and to hard-working teachers, nurses, doctors, judges and police and prison officers, who have also been targets and victims of toxicity and, in some cases, the intimidation and violence referred to in our debate today.

I was concerned to read in today’s Times, as I am sure were other noble Lords, that a number of MPs no longer feel secure walking across Westminster Bridge and are increasingly taking taxis. Noble Lords will have seen at times the aggressive behaviour of protesters during the recent Brexit debates. I looked out of the window of the Chief Whip’s Office this morning and saw a large placard saying, “Self-serving liars are destroying our nation”. Security arrangements at the Palace of Westminster are under constant review, and there is an ongoing police operation on the Parliamentary Estate as the debate on Brexit continues. The Metropolitan Police will do its best to balance the legitimate right to peaceful process, but its members will deal robustly with incidents of harassment and intervene wherever they see or hear breaches of the law.

A number of noble Lords mentioned social media and the online harms White Paper, and talked about the abuse that takes place online and the damage it can do to people’s lives, careers and health. That is why we are taking action through the joint DCMS and Home Office online harms White Paper, which was welcomed by a number of noble Lords. We will establish a new statutory duty of care, as referred to by my noble friend Lady Bottomley, to make companies take more responsibility for the safety of their users and tackle harm caused by content or activity on their services. Compliance with that duty of care will be overseen and enforced by an independent regulator. As we debate these measures, there will be opportunities for noble Lords to add their own thoughts about how the legislation might be improved.

Accountability was a theme mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar. Companies will be held to account for tackling a comprehensive set of online harms, including behaviours that may not be illegal but are none the less highly damaging to individuals or threaten our way of life in the United Kingdom. We expect that to include hate crime. We would also expect the regulator to include in a code of practice guidance to companies to outline what activity and material constitutes hateful content, content that may directly or indirectly cause harm to users—for example, in some cases of bullying or offensive material—and expectations around clear and accessible guidance to users on what constitutes hate crime and how to report it. We are consulting on the most appropriate powers for the regulator.

I thought the noble Baroness, Lady Prashar, made a good point, on the other side of the scales, in accentuating the positive benefits that can come from the intelligent use of information technology.

On fake news and state actors, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked why we did not have a toolkit such as the one that they have in Europe to deal with misinformation. In fact, the RESIST toolkit was launched last month to help communicators to spot and respond to disinformation. There is also a rapid response unit in the Cabinet Office to try to address disinformation.

The noble Baroness, Lady Morris, asked what we are doing to educate schoolchildren. We are looking at critical thinking skills in schools and launched a secondary schools resource last year to raise awareness of democracy. However, focusing just on children is not enough; we must do more now, which is why we launched the RESIST toolkit, as well as an awareness campaign targeted at 18 to 24 year-olds to give them the tools that they need. However, all the evidence is that people still look to the news agencies and news websites and give greater credibility to them than news on social media.

I am conscious that I am not going to get through all the issues that have been raised, but I will say a word about hate crime, an issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece. We are clear that hate crime and hate speech are completely unacceptable, that victims should be supported, and that those who commit these hateful attacks should feel the full force of the law. We are committed to upholding free speech, and legislation is in place to protect fundamental rights. However, this freedom cannot be an excuse to harm or to spread hatred. Current UK legislation values free speech and enables people who wish to engage in debate so to do, regardless of whether others agree with the views being expressed. Importantly, the law ensures that people are protected against criminal activity, including threatening, menacing or obscene behaviour, online and offline. In this way, we believe the law strikes the right balance between protecting citizens and protecting their right to expression.

I will say a word about Prime Minister’s Questions, an issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Winston—this will be a personal view. For many people, the weekly session of PMQs, which now lasts nearly twice as long as Standing Orders provide for, shapes their perception of politics. It is like Marmite. Some people love it—it is good box office, with at times some good one-liners worked up by spads and brisk exchanges on the issues of the day. For others, it is a poor advertisement for our democracy and our elected representatives, which switches many people off a career in public life and downgrades their faith in the democratic process. No one understands more than I do the passions that exist in the other place and the function of Prime Minister’s Questions as a sort of safety valve, but it could be a better advertisement for the political process if the context was less rowdy. I admire the way the Prime Minister handles this bear-pit with dignity, and I suspect it is not how she would prefer to conduct political discourse. I hope at some point it might be reset, retaining it as the forum of political debate but without the concomitant uproar.

Of course, the other place should never be like your Lordships’ House, where herbivores like me prefer our debates without the large decibel count, personal animosity or a binary approach to issues. We need to embody civility—a word raised by many during our debate. I agreed with what the noble Lord, Lord Winston, and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester said: this might be a better forum for addressing the issues we have been discussing than the other place. I cannot remember who complained about it, but there are fewer people in the upper House who read out prepared scripts from the Whips’ Office.

I thank all those who have taken part in the debate. We must all work together to protect, respect, and promote our democracy. I will share with ministerial colleagues the helpful suggestions that have been made, and I hope that, working together, we will create a better environment in which our democracy can thrive and in which we can all deliver on our collective responsibilities.