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Members Only? Parliament in the Public Eye (Report of the Hansard Society Commission on the Communication of Parliamentary Democracy)

1 Jan 2005
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Members Only? is the 2005 report of the Hansard Society Commission on the Communication of Parliamentary Democracy, chaired by Lord Puttnam. The report concluded that Parliament was failing and out-of-date in its communication with the public. It set out multiple specific reform proposals for Parliament's communications and public engagement functions.

The 16-strong Hansard Society Commission on the Communication of Parliamentary Democracy comprised: David Puttnam (Chair), Jackie Ashley (Vice-Chair), Patrick Barwise, Stephen Coleman, Matthew d'Ancona, Patricia Jodgson, Raji Hunjan, Andrew Lansley MP, Martin Linton MP, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, Peter Riddell, John Sergeant, Richard Tait, Paul Tyler, Fran Unsworth and David Yelland.

The Commission took written evidence and met with numerous experts and interested parties between January 2004 and early 2005.

In its report, the Commission asserted that "A more effective Parliament would make a greater contribution than anything else to a renewal of British democracy". And yet it concluded that Parliament "is failing in its democratic duty" with "its organisation, procedures and general ethos ... now seriously out of date" and its communication "still predominantly organised around its own, often inward-looking, procedures".

The Commission made 39 recommendations, encompassing: the internal reorganisation of Parliament's communications function; reform of rules and practices on photography, filming and television coverage on the parliamentary estate; a "radically improved" parliamentary website; "a thorough review of the language and terminology Parliament uses"; improved public outreach, especially to young people; and improved public access to Parliament, both online and on-site.

A more effective Parliament would make a greater contribution than anything else to a renewal of British democracy. Parliament does not exist simply to provide Government with a majority and a mandate; it should also be a voice for the people – every day, not just once every four or five years.

But Parliament is simply not keeping pace with changes in society. So instead of the support and involvement of the public that Parliament requires, we see disengagement and cynicism, disappointing electoral turnout and low levels of satisfaction. Parliament is increasingly sidelined from the centre of British political life, with satire and neglect threatening to substitute for urgent or informed interest. If these trends continue the whole of our political and civic life will suffer.

The public have a right to expect a Parliament which communicates its work promptly, clearly and usefully, which reaches out to all citizens and which invites participation and interaction. Changes made by Parliament in recent years have not been far-reaching enough to meet its communication responsibilities in a rapidly-changing world. In the 21st century, institutions that do not communicate fail. And in this, Parliament is failing.

Members of the public are increasingly turning to single issues rather than to parties and traditional political processes. Yet Parliament’s communication is still predominantly organised around its own, often inward-looking, procedures. In an environment in which people need to see how Parliament relates to the rest of our democracy and public debate, Parliament fails to link its work to other representative bodies and forums for discussing public issues. Where the public expect institutions to be responsive to their concerns, Parliament provides almost no opportunities for direct voter involvement, interaction or feedback. Where the public look for clear and readily accessible information, it remains unnecessarily difficult to find the information people need.

Change should be driven by what citizens have a right to expect from their Parliament. Having listened to the public, parliamentarians, the media and interest groups during our inquiry, we have come to the following conclusions:

  • The public have an absolute right to know what happens in Parliament, as well as a right to participate. The public should be able to understand proceedings, to contribute to inquiries and to access all forms of information about Parliament. This would entail a complete overhaul of Parliament’s current communication structure.

  • Parliament should establish a Communications Service that brings together in a single department the various communication activities essential to a democratic institution. This department should develop a clear communication strategy founded on the widest consultation with the public and other interested bodies. The financial implications should not be seen as a cost, but as an investment in contemporary democracy.

  • The necessary overhaul of Parliament’s communication structure will be incomplete without a change in the management of Parliament. Key steps are a House of Commons Commission made independent of the influence of the frontbenches; and the administration of the House of Commons by a Chief Executive, experienced in the management of complex organisations in the public realm.

  • Parliament should be accessible to the public – whether in London, in local regions, on television or via the internet. This means, for example, that unnecessary broadcasting restrictions should be removed; the website, which is confusing and poorly designed, should be radically improved; and visits to Parliament should offer significantly more than a heritage tour.

Parliament should be an accessible and readily understood institution, a Parliament that relates its work to the concerns of those in the outside world; and a media that works with Parliament to communicate effectively with the public. Parliament must be viewed through a far more engaged and informed public eye.

  • Preface Rt Hon Lord Holme of Cheltenham CBE, Chair, Hansard Society

  • Foreword Lord Puttnam, Chair, Hansard Society Commission on the Communication of Parliamentary Democracy

  • Executive Summary

  • Our Recommendations

    1. Introduction: an overview

    1. Failing the Public?

    1. The Essentials of Modern Communications

    1. Elements of a Communication Strategy

    1. Media Coverage of Parliament

    1. How Parliament Runs Itself

    1. The Way Forward

  • Appendices

    • Commissioners

    • Terms of Reference

    • Written Evidence to the Commission

    • Meetings of the Commission

    • Public Eye: Citizens' Panel

    • Young People's Working Group

    • Recommendations from other Reports

  • Glossary

  • Selected Bibliography