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Parliament and the Constitution: Public Information

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 26 October 2006

Lord Higgins asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they have any plans to improve the information which they provide about Parliament and the constitution.

My Lords, we have funded the production of a Citizenship Foundation publication, Inside Britain: A Guide to the UK Constitution, which was launched on 10 July of this year. Copies have been sent to all secondary schools in England and Wales and to further education colleges.

We are also funding a number of other projects that are intended to support the education community in its commitment to explain how our parliamentary democracy works. These include six booklets which are being published by the Hansard Society and the production of a CD by the Hansard Society with the Association of Citizenship Teachers called “Big Ben and All That”.

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for that extensive reply. Does he agree that it is very important that information on Parliament and the constitution should be unbiased and accurate, especially information provided to schools and those applying for citizenship? The documents provided to schools are not at all bad, but the document produced apparently by the Home Office, Life in the United Kingdom, A Journey to Citizenship, is full of the most appalling errors and is grossly misleading. For example, it states that after 1945 “unemployment vanished”. And, under a heading, “The Thatcher Era”, it states:

“The Conservatives won the general election of 1979 and stayed out of office until 1997”.

Does the noble and learned Lord agree that not only would someone applying for citizenship and paying £9.99 for this document have wasted their money but they might well have jeopardised their chance of being accepted for citizenship?

My Lords, on the issue of unemployment, the document should have said, “after 1997 unemployment vanished”. As to what happened between 1979 and 1997, obviously the author was writing about his hopes, rather than what actually happened.

Of course, accuracy is incredibly important in relation to what is said. I am grateful for the noble Lord’s comments about the material provided to schools. It is extremely important that schools are told about how our constitution and our Parliament work, because that is how our values are embedded—and that is important at the moment. I will take up all of the noble Lord’s points about the inaccuracies in the Home Office document.

My Lords, I am not sure to which figures the noble Lord is referring. The Home Office is not a figures department; it is much more a generality department, so there probably are no figures in the document.

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor say whether a copy of all this material has been sent to Mr Jack Straw, who seems somewhat ignorant on matters of the constitution, judging from recent leaks about his intentions?

My Lords, talking about Lords reform in the House of Lords is always a bit of a hospital pass, I feel. We should continue our search for consensus. As for the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, on historical material, in my experience, there is no one more experienced in history than the Leader of the House of Commons.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that the Life in the United Kingdom booklet to which the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, referred and the Life in the UK website offer aspiring UK citizens no further educational resources? Yet, here in Parliament, we have the excellent Parliamentary Education Unit, which produces books and videos that are mainly directed at young people and would be perfectly suitable for immigrants to look at. It has also an excellent website called “explore Parliament”. Would it not be sensible for the Life in the UK website at the very least to have a link through to the Parliamentary Education Unit website, so that it would be easy for aspiring new citizens to access those excellent educational materials?

My Lords, I agree entirely that the work done by the Parliamentary Education Unit is absolutely first-class. I also agree that, if there were links between that website and the Life in the UK website, that would be beneficial. I shall see whether that can be done.

My Lords, should not some information be provided clarifying the law on privilege following the extensive argument that took place last week among lawyers about whether a proceeding in Parliament on a Question on rape should be transmitted or published? I understand that some television companies bleeped on an unprecedented scale that proceeding in Parliament and lawyers blocked copy in national newspapers. Is there not now a need for clarification in some form of publication, and will my noble and learned friend consider writing to Members of the House on this matter?

My Lords, that is a bit far from the Question, but it is a very important issue. I shall not refer to the specifics of the matter raised by my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours, but Parliament has privilege so that there can be free debate in Parliament. There is no point in free debate in Parliament if the free debate is then kept secret by the media.

The purpose of the privilege rule is that, so long as there is an accurate account of what is said in Parliament, it can then be broadcast or put in national newspapers. If the account is biased or unfair, that is not right. If you name someone, as in the example given, then, so long as the context is set out fairly, there is no legal restriction on it being published. We need to look at that. My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours is absolutely right to say that it would appear from some elements in the media that the conclusion reached by the lawyers was that, because it would not have been privileged if it had been said by someone outside Parliament, a fair account of it could not be given in Parliament. The best example of that is that those proceedings were not even broadcast on the BBC Parliament channel, and that could not have been a fairer account of what happened. So I think that we need to look at the matter and that a definitive account of parliamentary privilege needs to be given in both Houses of Parliament.

My Lords, I will return to the Question. The document referred to by my noble friend does not just contain inaccuracies; it has fundamental mistakes. I shall give one example—certainly it gets worse for the Members opposite:

“Labour under Harold Wilson returned to power from 1964 to 1970 and again from 1974 to 1979”.

Thus, Jim Callaghan is completely written out of history. That is a classic example of why history—not citizenship—should remain compulsory for all pupils to the age of 16. If the Home Office cannot get it right, who can? Unless we have a solid grounding in history, how can we begin to understand and build citizenship?

My Lords, I agree entirely about the importance of history. If the Home Office is not adequately referring to Mr Callaghan, that is of deep and profound regret. I see the noble Lord, Lord McNally, nodding enthusiastically, because he was a part of that. Sadly, my noble friend Lady Jay of Paddington is not in her place, but the omission of Lord Callaghan is terrible.