[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair] — House of Commons Commission

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:06 pm on 23rd October 2008.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, PPS (Rt Hon Harriet Harman QC, Minister of State), Government Equalities Office, Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 3:06 pm, 23rd October 2008

My hon. Friend is right, as he sometimes is. The truth is that we all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to those who work in the Library. I have always found them exemplary in seeking to meet whatever timetable I have set, which is a remarkable feat. They are always intelligent, on time, and precise. In some regards we have helped them with that, because the pre-legislative scrutiny process that we have introduced enables them to gain a more coherent view throughout the legislative process.

The way in which we engage with the public is an area of the Commission's work to which individual Members attach great importance: the survey of services conducted by the Commission found that of the three core objectives it was the one that hon. Members thought needed most attention. It is a question not only of how we carry out the aspects of our work that are intended primarily to reach out to the wider public—welcoming visitors, providing educational services to schools and maintaining a first-rate website, which are all important in their own right—but of ensuring that the issue of public engagement permeates all that we do. If Parliament is incomprehensible to the wider public we have failed in the job we are trying to do. Long gone are the days when just issuing a statement in Parliament, making a speech or for that matter legislating was enough to transform society. We have to be able to take society with us if we want to enhance legislation.

When I was first elected I became aware of how incomprehensible Parliament and politics could be to the public. I was so excited that I had been elected that I wrote to the Minister for Europe informing him that I spoke Spanish and French and would be only too happy to help if I could offer any assistance—very puppy dog-like. The Minister's office rang back saying that he would be delighted to see me for tea. That evening I went home, very excited, and told my partner, "I'm going to see the Minister for tea." He replied, "There's a Minister for Tea?" Sometimes Parliament is not quite as incomprehensible as it seems but there is a process that we need to go through to make the drama of politics here as readily understandable to as many members of the public as possible.

Some procedural reforms, such as the introduction of evidence-taking Public Bill Committees, bringing the sitting hours of the House more closely into line with working patterns in the outside world, and the introduction of topical questions and debates have contributed to making the House more accessible and relevant. One area in which I should still like us to do more work is in bringing the work of Committees more into the public domain. Some of the best debates—the sharpest and clearest examinations of legislation—happen not in the House but in Committee. Journalists often miss that; if we can find ways to bring that process more clearly into the public domain we should do so.

I hope that the House will soon have an opportunity to consider the Procedure Committee's proposals on e-petitions—another procedural innovation that would make it easier for us to engage with the wider public. The hon. Member for North Devon has already set out some of the Commission's key achievements in that context, but the Group on Information for the Public, led by the Director General of Information Services, has led the work on three fronts: first, and very importantly, welcoming visitors to the House; secondly, education and outreach; and, thirdly, improving information on the internet. It is important that we provide a good service to people who visit this place, whether they have come to see Parliament in action or just to see the Palace as a historic building. The House's education and outreach work, and the use of the internet, will, I suspect, contribute most to the nurturing of the link between people and their Parliament.

There was an enormous increase this year in the number of young people who had the opportunity to come here as part of our educational visits programme. The number was up to 29,000 this year, compared with 17,000 in the previous year. I pay tribute to all those involved in the programme. The increase has been largely due to the introduction of the new educational visits programme, which allows us to welcome up to six groups of school or college students every day. It was much more limited in the past. However, I know from my constituency, which is both in a deprived area and at a considerable distance from Westminster, that for many schools there are practical difficulties to getting here in time, early enough in the day, and financial issues to be dealt with. The Administration Committee has recommended that the House offer some subsidy to offset the cost of travel and I very much look forward to seeing the outcome of the pilot project, which has already started. For those who cannot travel to Westminster, this year "Parliament in Your School" was launched. It provides teacher training and workshops in schools around the country.

The Tebbit review identified the parliamentary websites—there are in fact three of them, which may be an issue in itself—as the "key element" in developing stronger links between Parliament and the public. The main Parliament website has always been comprehensive—perhaps even too comprehensive. Almost every paper produced in this place finds its way on to the website in one form or another, but for many years it was simply an online collection of parliamentary papers, with little form or structure. For some time the accuracy of the search engine was only one in five or between one in five or one in four—about 22 per cent. It is a delight to see that accuracy has zoomed up to 86 per cent., but we still need to do more to make it easier for ordinary members of the public, who are not experts in parliamentary process or procedure, to find their way through the website. Incidentally, I think it would be useful for Members if the intranet were sometimes swifter in finding information so that we could find out earlier in the morning what was going on that day.

The look and feel of the website is much better. The front page contains more information about key events, and it is updated five times a day, although perhaps that needs to increase yet further. The new legislation gateways draw together all the information about each Bill in one place, which makes it easier to follow a single piece of legislation. Those improvements have been reflected in an increase in use of the website from 6.8 million hits in 2003-04 to 8.8 million last year.

Although we have made great progress, there is still a great deal more that could be done with the website. In particular, we still need to make it easier for the public to scrutinise their individual Members. For instance, we might find some way to make it possible—not just the next morning when Hansard is published, but perhaps later the same night—for people to see exactly how their Member of Parliament voted in a Division. That information is available to the House; we should find a way to make it available to the public.


Owen Blacker
Posted on 23 Mar 2010 3:18 pm (Report this annotation)

There probably should be a Minister for Tea. Their portfolio would, of course, include Cakes, Crumpets, Scones and Clotted Cream, naturally ;o)