People and Parliament: an update

Hansard Society

As Chairman of the Lords Information Committee, I want to tell you how we have got on in our Inquiry on “How can we improve the relations between Parliament and the Public?”. Obviously, this is now a sixty-four dollar question.

Since we started in March we’ve received many many comments from people. We’re now having a one hour debate in the Lords this coming Tuesday evening, 16 June, on this subject. The following day, the full Committee will meet to discuss the contents of the Report on our Inquiry, which we plan to publish in July.

You may have seen all that has been put to the Committee already. This is a chance for you to send us any further comments, ahead of our debate in the Chamber – either on this blog or responding to my YouTube video.


I will forward your comments to all the Members who will be participating in the debate.

We want to hear from as many interested members of the public as possible before we come to recommendations and conclusions.

Thank you very much for your interest.

Tim Renton

18 comments for “People and Parliament: an update

  1. Croft
    12/06/2009 at 12:09 pm

    I’ve caught most of the hearings footage and been faintly scandalised by the charging arrangements which seem to positively incentivise broadcasters not to use parliamentary footage. However I think that point was well made by the witnesses.

    On a small point, but looking at other committees the problem also seems to occur, I went to look at the Written Evidence submissions. Unfortunately the PC I was using didn’t have MS word so I couldn’t view it. That is not generally the case but even when I switched pc I was forced to download each document in turn and then discovered that seemingly no two documents were in the same font type or size so I suspect some people (especially those with poor sight) would have needed to adjust each document in turn which is a nuisance. If committees put submission online as simple html pages they would require neither ‘downloading’, proprietary document viewers nor resizing/font changing as they would take the browser set defaults.

    Obviously that’s a quite specific point,I could have mentioned others, but my point is that it taps into the bigger general request by various of the witnesses for open (non-proprietary) easily manipulatable data to make accessing and using easier and more pleasant.

  2. marie sheldrake
    12/06/2009 at 2:06 pm

    Parliament is so far removed from normal life, I doubt anything I say they will understand.

    For example, the amount that ‘the law says a person needs to live on’ – who compiles this law and have they actually tried to live on it themselves? I doubt it! Since the energy companies put up their prices, did allowances go up to compensate those families most in need? No. Pensioners got a little help, the rest have to go without in order to heat their homes etc.

    Since the recession began, and food prices have gone up, have allowances also gone up to compensate? No. The only plus we get is having rates go up at last autumn’s inflation rate.

    What does this have to do with Parliament? While MPs have been allowing themselves ‘expenses’ on top of their ‘above average’ wages, the rest of society (those who work for minimum wages, those on benefits who don’t want to be but circumstances force them to be, pensioners, disabled) are struggling. As the general public, we see ourselves having to go without, having to exist rather than live, while those who are supposed to serve us have been, instead, helping themselves to hard earned tax-payers money. What is worse, now that some MPs have been caught, they are being allowed to pay the money back, no questions asked, no criminal charges brought, others are standing down at the next election and being (I understand) paid hefty sums as a kind of ‘retirement’ present.

    If Parliament are serious about cleaning up their act, they need to think about what constitutes expenses. For example, an ordinary worker, if they work away from home, they are expected to fund their home and their ‘2nd home’ out of their wage, they do not have extra money paid to them from their company funds. If MPs with homes outside London had accommodation near Westminster, this would save the taxpayer a great deal.

    Food – Whilst MPs may have to eat out a fair deal, surely there should be a curb on the amounts claimed. Perhaps there could be certain establishments used and the MP concerned would have an account that was capped each month, anything above a certain amount would be payable by the MP.

    Travelling expenses – For those living outside London, there should be allowances made, depending on where their home is and how much it costs. For example, my MP has to use the Isle of Wight ferry which is expensive, an MP in Scotland would need to fly to save time. So long as the trip is o do with the job, travel expenses (within reason) are perfectly fine.

    Gardeners and handyman services. Do the majority of the general public get this for free? No, they pay out of their income. So should MPs. As for the one paying a handyman to change lightbulbs for him, I refer to a comment I made earlier about MPs not living in the same world as the rest of us!

    I hope you have enjoyed my rant. I hope it’s helpful, it has certainly helped me to get it off my chest.

    Feel free to email me if you require any further help.


    Narie Sheldrake (Mrs)

  3. steve stevenson
    12/06/2009 at 3:14 pm

    First we should stop the corruption.Public confidence may loses
    significantly for that.
    I appriciate your commitment engage with public via internet media.parliment should more engage with ordinary citizens like disscusing,dibating asking ideas through internet media.
    thank u

  4. Bedd Gelert
    12/06/2009 at 3:48 pm

    Possibly by putting the kibosh on silly legislation like this..

    And slapping down misbehaving miscreants in the House, like this..

    Sadly refusing to accept the elevation of ‘Sir’ Alan Sugar and Glenys Kinnock is not something, I fear, you have much control over..

  5. Alex
    12/06/2009 at 7:25 pm

    The ideal way of doing this is to bring ordinary people into parliament. Select a group of 100 members of the public random, on the same basis as the jury system, and pay them to spend a year in parliament talking to MPs and Lords, reading bills, whatever, and blog about it. Ideally, give them the tight to vote in the Lords, so they have enough political influence that ministers pay some attention to them, but not so much to cause a constitutional problem.

    I think that the problem of politicians getting out of touch is a social one to some extent, as opposed to a personal failing. Inserting ordinary unambitious people into the centre will dilute the atmosphere of ambition and political calculation.

    One reason why this might actually be an attractive idea to politicians is that it’s not a punitive mechanism. In fact, it provides an alternative connection between parliamentarians and the public than the ‘gotcha’ obsessed media.

    • Alex
      16/06/2009 at 8:57 am

      To expand slightly:
      It is difficult for parliament to engage more deeply with the public, simply doe to the numbers. So the idea is to engage more deeply with a representative sample of the public.

      The reason for selecting 100 people, rather than just a handful, is so that they are statistically representative. And the reason for saying a whole year, rather than a short period like a week, is so that the engagement would be qualitatively different from the kind of engagement which current mechanisms provide. It needs to be long enough for them to get to know parliamentarians on a human level, so they can tell whether that weeks media scandal is likely to be rubbish or not, and to have time to have an extended dialogue.

  6. James Clarke
    13/06/2009 at 3:05 am

    how to improve relations between parliament and the public? hmmm… well if i were in the driving seat i would.

    1. Have an appropriate system where the peoples rights and the governments structure with regards to checks and balances are written into a constitution.

    2. make anything promised in the manifesto a legal requirement to put to a vote in order to try and enact once in parliament as the first order of business. This would stop issues like EU referendum and lords reform from dragging on and making MP’s look like liars.

    3. Full modernising reform of the house of lords to represent a cross section of society kicking out the bishops as they are bad publicity. Then passing legislation that ensures the house of lords integrity and removes it from parliaments reform without a referendum first.

    4. More elections for police chiefs, hospital boards and local spending. To increase debate about what our money is being spent on and why.

    5. A one stop easily to navigate website where information can be easily obtained about public consultations about issues. Instead of them being buried away. This lordsoftheblog idea is great but what about the other things that government want the publics input on arent here?

    6. What needs to be done is enacted before the next election because if there is years of consultations everyone will just get bored and give up because it confirms the current opinion that parliament is listening just not doing what its told.

    These points above are super important to me because no one i know in the UK understands why our government works the way it does. Everyone however more or less understands how the American one does. This is crazy. Im sure if it was put to a referendum tomorrow and there were many different choices of what type of government to bring into effect people would choose the American system. (even though im not an advocate of it)

    Im sorry to say chaps that nobody knows what you guys do. I do but I spend most of my spare time navigating the oodles of disorganised information available about our democracy. If you want to impress our people we need to put something in place as obvious as the nose on your face and as accessible as your local starbucks

    P.s. Its no good spending months telling everyone what should not happen. people just want something new that works, not a list of patches that can be applied to the old broken system. This old bangers a write off.

  7. Phil
    13/06/2009 at 6:33 pm

    Dear Lord Renton,

    Thank you for taking time to consult us. While I did not find this blog until recently, I am eager to enter the public debate. It seems that there are solutions that can be implemented immediately and other longer-term solutions to Parliament’s problems.

    There would appear to be four solutions to our problems:

    1.Reducing party power over MPs.
    As has been noted by the press, at the moment MPs are – due to mixture of safe seats & party selection procedures – often more indebted to their party than their constituents. This has resulting in several occasions when people have felt their views were not adequately represented by their MP.

    2.Reform of the House of Lords.
    Firstly, I should say that I do not believe that all Lords should be elected, only that all voting Lords should be elected. I believe that unelected Lords – who often have an immense amount of knowledge on specialist subjects – are essential for crafting legislation. That said, a core of elected Lords would provide legitimacy to the House’s decisions. It would also prove an opportunity to solve other problems. By banning an elected Lord from having party ties (donations, membership etc…) for five years before running for a seat, it would leave elected Lord’s entirely indebted to their constituents. It may also be worth considering an equal number of seats for England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, in the way that US states have equal numbers of representatives in the Senate, to reduce perceptions that the non-English nations are marginalized in Parliament.

    3.Increase the prestige of Parliamentary Committees.
    While I would be against giving UK committees the same power as US committees (which, with their subpoenas, have a ability to turn into witch hunts), making the Chairmanship of a committee more prestigious and well paid would mean that not all MPs would feel obliged to climb, as Sir Humphrey Appleby put it, “the greasy poll” to ministerial office.

    4.Some sort of a statement of Parliamentary “values” for MPs to uphold.
    I do not believe a written constitution is the answer to Britain’s problems. The US constitution, while a tremendous document, is rather rigid and treated like gospel. Society changes and so should constitutions. What I would like to see is a set of values (free speech, freedom of information, Queen and Country etc…) that MPs are asked to do their best to uphold. This would not be binding, like a constitution, but would give people a clear idea of what they should expect from their MP.

    In the long-term, it would seem that teaching British Parliamentary history at school would be the solution. The countries with the highest voter turnout are often those nations whose citizens have the clearest understanding of what they had to do to get their vote. Britain has an interesting history of voter rights (women sufferance, Catholic & Jewish emancipation, the Reform Act etc…) which, if taught at schools, might leave people more inclined to vote. While I realize that schools often skirt round this part of history, considering it boring and tied up the awkward issue of Empire, it would seem an essential long-term solution to getting people voting again.

    Hope this all helps in some away and good luck at the debate.

    Best wishes,

    Phil, Buckinghamshire, aged 24

  8. Kyle Mulholland
    15/06/2009 at 12:09 am

    Dear Lord Renton

    Thank you for your graciousness in inviting members of the public to put forward suggestions as to how to get the public more involved with Parliament.

    The problem seems to be that we simply don’t know how it all works. Perhaps if there was a strand of the national curriculum that taught not only about the procedures of Parliament, the rules, but also the customs and the way debates are conducted. It would also be a good idea for an educational series to be broadcast or otherwise produced on the topic, with a clear explanation of how practices differ in the Lords and Commons. If you ask a person of average education in Britain what a division is, they’re unlikely to know.

    People will only become interested in politics if they think they can make a difference. Having peers arrange and publicize MP-style surgeries in various parts of the country (perhaps in the area after which their peerage is named, or even just throughout the country, though I know they are not salaried, so this may be a bit unfair) where they can say that they will listen to those who visit them, discuss issues with them and bring it up in the Lords might get people more interested in the business of the House. However, to do that, they have to know how it all works and therein lies the solution: perhaps they could produce on the BBC a documentary series about the history of Parliament up to the present day and how it has evolved, which could be so wide-ranging and interesting, as all the most important events in history have involved Parliament in some way. Though not explicitly educational in nature, it could get the people talking about it and more casually interested in political machinations.

    Thanks so much and I do hope the debate is televized


  9. Ben Crompton
    15/06/2009 at 7:47 pm

    Firstly, Lord Renton: you and your committee have already taken the first step by releasing these videos. However, I might suggest promoting your videos on Youtube, to ensure that they can be found easily by visitors.

    Ever since the creation of the House of Lords (HoL) it has been almost impossible for members of the public to involve themselves with the peers inside. If a member of the public has a problem or an issue regarding the law, they would go directly to their MP: he lives in their area and they voted for him (or his opponents) and this makes him easier to reach. People are unlikely to contact members of the HoL unless they disagree with their MP’s party and a specific peer is involved in something they are interested in.

    This is where the staple problem lies: the person has to be interested in the law and has to go looking for information and contact details on who they should talk to. Links need to be made between the public and the HoL. This has been difficult due to the lack of elections but there is one election that takes place in the HoL to decide who is there: the election that occurs under the rules of the HoL Act 1999. This is where we can create a link between the house and the public.

    I propose the public vote for the heridetary peers (and at the same time therefore possibly increase the number of heridetary peers in the house). This means that the specifically-skilled or previous-parlimentarian life peers can continue to be appointed, whilst the public can involve themselves with the house’s hereditary peers.

    This would firstly create a large media hype, drawing pople to the idea, informing and involving them. Secondly, parties and peers would have to advertise themselves: causing the public to know of their areas of expertise and laws to contact them about and how to contact them. It would restore public faith in the HoL and involve them in and inform them of it.

    I thank you again for your efforts to help the HoL

    Ben Crompton

    • Ben Crompton
      15/06/2009 at 7:59 pm

      I would like to follow up slightly by confirming that a fully-elected house would be wrong for many reasons (mainly the conflict with the commons) but a partially elected house would almost give ‘the best of both worlds’ and enable the benefits of appointment and election to occur in harmony.

      • beccy83
        16/06/2009 at 12:20 pm

        Response from Lord Renton:

        Many thanks for your responses to my blog. I have received a number of very interesting thoughts, some of which I hope to bring into the debate this evening.

        The debate can be listened to or watched live

        • beccy83
          17/06/2009 at 10:50 am

          A further update from Lord Renton:
          You can watch and read the transcript of last night\’s debate:
          * ParliamentLive:

          * Lords Hansard: Parliament and the public

          • Croft
            17/06/2009 at 11:46 am

            Definitely a better link Beccy 🙂 I’d had to skip through on the previous link taking guesses how far to jump to find the start of the debate.

            On the whole the debate seemed a disappointment. Much that was said seemed to have no bearing on what had been discussed in the committee but simply a repeat of individuals well rehearsed constitutional change arguments. In such a short debate the repeating of well trodden roads in preference to discussion of some of the submissions by individuals and witnesses on areas like rights/web-streaming, the free our bills proposals, better public rights to comment on pre-legislative stages seemed a lost opportunity.

      • Ben Crompton
        21/06/2009 at 9:16 pm

        I was pondering over the thought of peer election and an idea came to me. Under the system I have thought up, an election would take place in which each member of the electoral register would vote for a party. Each party’s vote would then be turned into a percentage. After this an independent body, or otherwise, would determine the number of peerages that would be necessary for the continued running of the House of Lords, taking into account likely retirements and resignations etc. This number of appointments would then be shared between the paries proportionally to the percentage of the vote that they achieved. When the government has used up all its appointments it can call another peer election. This would enable peers to be appointed, with the public effectively voting them in.

        PS Crossbenchers could be appointed by the percentage that did not turnout to vote or appointed by the independent body.

    • beccy83
      17/06/2009 at 12:54 pm

      Reply from Lord Renton:

      Ben Crompton: Many thanks for your message. We will discuss it at our meeting this afternoon. I am sure that the question of election to our House will be a major subject at the General Election next year.

  10. Senex
    17/06/2009 at 9:34 pm

    Lord Renton: The Commons for the last 100 years has had a clearly defined mandate to improve the lives of voters; major advances have been achieved by the House of Commons and Trade Unions and both should be proud of their track record. It has not been easy for either of them.

    The reason why it has been a winner is that politicians have successfully applied a carrot on a stick mechanism to capture interest and then rewarded the voter by a perceived growth in their personal incomes and improvements to public sector facilities. Governments have become comfortable with economic growth fuelling their ambitions and the electorate has come to expect benefits arising from it.

    Scientifically, the lower levels of the Maslow hierarchy of needs have been the focus of attention by politicians and voters alike with legislation increasingly focusing on the safety aspects of those needs. So successful has the political process been in realising people’s needs that many are entering or have entered the esteem needs level.

    This is a cautious level for a democracy. Politicians have little or nothing to offer voters by way of bribery. Instead, what voter’s value in their politicians are respect, admiration, high regard and good opinion, all values associated with esteem. This is why the expenses affair has been particularly cruel and hurtful to the electorate.

    If an individuals esteem needs are not met by Parliament then one could argue that they would be less likely to vote in elections or to talk to politicians generally. They effectively switch off and become idiote.

    Now the prospectus on offer from the Commons is to bring people back down to their safety and social needs levels. For many it will drop further to their physiological needs level. The choice for the voter, is do they vote for the party with the least cuts or do they not bother at all?

    If the people elected an extremist government on a first past the post system it would have full and unfettered access to the Treasury. There is no House of Lords to oppose Commons budgets or cast an inquiring eye over its money management. Public bodies set up to guide Commons spending would have legislation reversed rendering them inoperative.

    Whilst current events conspire to increase voter apathy the present constitutional arrangement offers enticing prospects for extreme politics and ambition. The Commons needs to get a grip and be honest with itself and the electorate. It must do more to satisfy the esteem needs of the electorate.

    Ref: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

  11. 20/06/2009 at 4:25 pm

    Frankly, I think we need to get politics on the National Curriculum from the age of eleven. Teaching them the basics at the start, the history of the vote etc and the working up to debates in the class, mediated by the teacher, allowing kids to hear all sides of a viewpoint would be beneficial to everyone. Plus it could curtail extremism.

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