Parliament and public

Lord Norton

55720It has been another of those weeks.   Yesterday was especially hectic, similar to Wednesday of last week (Constitution Committee, Association of Conservative Peers, Sub-Committee E of the EU Committee, Grand Committee on the Political Parties and Elections Bill, and a seminar with my students) but with the addition of giving evidence to the Information Committee and the votes on the Health Bill.  I will do a separate post on the latter.

I attended the Constitution Committee in the morning (a briefing meeting for our inquiry into the Cabinet Office) but had to leave early and cross the corridor to the meeting of the Lords Information Committee.  The committee was taking evidence from four journalists (David Hencke of The Guardian, Jason Beattie of The Mirror, Peter Riddell of The Times, and John Hipwood of the Wolverhampton Express and Star) and then from me.  A video of the session can be found here.  The journalists were very helpful; they stressed the value of targeting specialist and local media and of providing the press gallery with details of the specialist interest of peers. 

I had already made a written submission and the questions focused on my recommendations in that.  In my evidence, I stressed the importance of increasing resources, of targeting audiences (not treating ‘the public’  as some homogeneous whole), and of putting over not only the positive features of the House (as opposed to appearing overly defensive) but also putting with greater clarity the core functions of the House.   In this respect, I drew on this blog.  I mentioned a response to my earlier post on the re-designed website.  I quoted the comment of howridiculous that the home page appeared to be ‘too fussy’.    There is the danger of us providing too much  detail on the specifics of what we do and losing sight of explaining in simple terms what we are about.

The committee has already taken evidence from a range of witnesses, including pupils from a number of schools, and continues to welcome submissions.  Its web forum will remain open until 21 May.

5 comments for “Parliament and public

  1. Croft
    08/05/2009 at 12:21 pm

    The press, as with some other witnesses certainly repeated a particular issue of mine that the Lords should be making and publishing list of peers by region and expertise. It seems a very cheap way of helping all those with an interest in accessing or making representations to the Lords. However one peer, who I forget, kindly offered his own list to the press which seemed to me to miss the point. We should not be relying on an individual peer(s) to make lists for the press but surely that’s a proper job for the house to organise and the list(s) ought to be aimed at the public as well.

    I thought their point about Sub-Committee XYZ of the EU Committee was sound. It’s hardly an expensive or complex task to try use names likely to help people understand what they are and what they do. (I know their site calls ‘E’ Law and Institutions but the former seems used more than the latter)

    I did find the cost of setting up a committee a surprise. I’d never considered there was a financial constraint – I’d wrongly assumed that if parliament (Lords) wanted to establish a committee then that was that and they didn’t have to find it from within a set budget.

    I couldn’t see on the committee site any of the written submissions – did I look too quickly or are they not available yet?

    Does the house attempt to gauge peers’ individual outreach to schools and the like? As no doubt some areas have a concentration of peers to provide visits. If no one attempts to monitor this there is no opportunity to try to find ways to fill the gaps.

  2. lordnorton
    08/05/2009 at 7:01 pm

    Croft: When a new committee is proposed, the resource implications are the main obstacle. I think it is an obstacle we need to overcome. I take your point about Committee names, not least the sub-committees of the EU Committee. We do always refer to them (as you will have seen from some of my posts) as Sub-Committee A, Sub-Committee B etc. I was struck by the fact that one of the journalists complained about the covers of select committee reports, arguing that they were the worst covers that could be designed. I was sat thinking he obviously had not seen what had preceded them!

    Though uncorrected transcripts are made available following meetings, written submissions are not. I am conscious that this can make it difficult for readers and viewers to make sense of the discussion: the questions put to me all derived from my written submission. I think we need to think about putting written submissions online with the transcripts. I will take this up with the committee – though feel free to write and make the point also.

    On outreach, some areas are better covered by peers than others, but there are peers willing to travel to different parts of the country in order to fill the gaps. I know because I am one of them. I take the view that as long as a school is reasonably within reach by train, I’m happy to visit. I have done a fair number of visits to schools as part of the outreach programme: I’ve enjoyed every one.

    • Croft
      09/05/2009 at 1:54 pm

      Out of interest are they any rough figures as to the cost running a committee? I would have thought the massive fixed costs of running the building would dwarf any variable costs of committees.

      What I meant was how do you know which areas need more outreach or do you simply see who asks.

      Not having seen either report covers I can’t say. I think I’d only comment that sometimes when I see consultations/reports the use of colours and pictures are inversely proportional to the quality of the written content.

  3. lordnorton
    09/05/2009 at 3:27 pm

    Croft: The principal costs involved with creating new committees are the staffing costs. If it is an ad hoc committee, it places a strain on the existing resources; if there are to be new permanent (sessional) committees, then the number of clerks may need to be increased. The costs are, indeed, small relative to the overall costs, not least of running the building.

    On outreach, it is very much driven by which schools responded to a letter from the Lord Speaker; there is no targeting of particular areas or schools.

    I rather agree with you about the covers. The more glossy the presentation, the more worried I am about the quality of the content. At least in the Lords we cannot be accused of utilising garish covers.

  4. howridiculous
    10/05/2009 at 12:12 pm

    Dear Lord Norton,

    Thank you for alluding to my point about the website being ‘too fussy’. I certainly hope that in due course the front page of it is changed so that it gives some impression of the majesty and importance of the institution.


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