In response to my earlier post on tackling political alienation, a couple of respondents suggested increasing the transparency of Westminster – ‘losing the ivory tower effects of the Westminster village’ (DW) – and informing the public more about the basic operations of Parliament (Troika21).
Compared with many other parliaments, Westminster is a transparent institution. Votes are roll-call votes (you can see how each MP and peer has voted), legislative committees meet in public, as do select committees for taking evidence, and a record of proceedings (Hansard) is published the next day. A mass of material is made available online. In some parliaments, votes are often not roll-call votes (in some cases, voting is by secret ballot), committees meet in private, and a record of proceedings is not published promptly. When I was visiting a parliament in one central European nation, I was shown a committee room. I asked where the public could sit. I was given a strange look and told that the public weren’t allowed in.
Parliament has variously sought to make its proceedings more transparent. Some of the proceedings and terminology have been changed to be more understandable. In the Lords, for example, Unstarred Questions are now called Questions for Short Debate. We could do more to make our legislative process clearer. It is difficult at times for members – despite access to relevant material – to understand what some amendments are supposed to achieve, so it must be virtually impossible for members of the public. Limitations will always remain: legislation has to be written in precise form for the purposes of legal interpretation and enforcement. Nonetheless, I think we should be able to make progress in making what we do more transparent.
Is there more we could do at the basic level of informing people about the work of Parliament? The Lords has an outreach programme (this blog is part of it) and publishes a great deal of clearly written material, most of it available online. It has just complemented that material with an excellent guide for visitors. The Information Office does a superb job with limited resources. It takes up 1% or less of our budget. I would like to see us invest more in disseminating information about our work. Much of the material is available in passive mode – in other words, it depends on others taking the initiative to access it online or collect it when visiting Westminster. There is some proactive dissemination, material being sent to schools and universities. But how much more proactive should we be? Sending material out is one thing; getting people to read it is another.
Should we be doing more? Is there a market for knowing more about Parliament? If there is, what more should we be doing to serve it?