Skip to main content

Information Committee: Visitors to Parliament

Volume 695: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2007

rose to move, That the First Report from the Information Committee, Improving Facilities for Educational Visitors to Parliament, (HL Paper 117) be agreed to.

The report can be found at http://www.publications. parliament.uk/pa/ld200607/ldselect/ldinformation/117/117.pdf

The noble Lord said: My Lords, when I came to Westminster this morning at 10 o’clock, I walked from the Members’ Lobby towards our Lobby and I passed a guide who was talking to a bunch of young people. He was explaining to them that well known picture, “Speaker Lenthall asserting the privilege of the Commons against Charles I”. This, of course, is the picture in which Charles is seen in the Speaker’s chair trying to arrest five leading Members, including Pym, who had been a great nuisance to him. The guide did it well; he spoke well and all the young people listened very carefully. But I thought that that little incident synthesised the problem that I hope we are going to talk about today, which is how do we successfully present both Houses of Parliament as a living, important, vital organism? How do we do that to both the young and adults, but particularly to the younger student?

I followed my noble friend Lord Baker of Dorking as chairman of the domestic committee, the Information Committee. Its remit is,

“to consider information and communication services including the Library and the Parliamentary Archives within financial limits approved by the House Committee”.

In the year that I have been chairman there have been one or two modest and minor changes. For example, there has been a modest and carefully planned change in the Library—which I hope some of your Lordships have noticed—for example, in the arrangements for desk-top and information services in the Queen’s Room. The Parliamentary Archives are now more accessible than they were. This has reference to a Question that was asked in the House this afternoon.

But what concerned my committee more than anything else was the need to enable the Palace of Westminster to handle a much larger number of school visitors and to give them such an interesting and vivid description of what Parliament does today that they went away with a much better knowledge of the way Parliament works, both in Select Committees and in PQs, and also in drafting and debating Bills and turning them into Acts. That is the task, it is fair to say, that has dominated the thinking of the Information Committee in the past year while I have been chairman.

What we have tried to do has a history. A pamphlet was produced way back in the early 1960s by Stephen King-Hall, then president of the Hansard Society, suggesting that there should be two “looking and listening” chambers underneath the House or in the garden over the way that would have some of the effect of what we are talking about today; of enabling people to understand better, listen to more debates and so on.

We have to accept that the Palace of Westminster is not an easy place to take school visitors to. Victorian Gothic, beautifully built under the instructions of Pugin, marvellous in itself—but not an ideal place to take a school party. Where are the loos? Where are the sandwiches? Where can they sit down and stay warm, rather than queueing in one of our cold corridors? Yet we have to teach the importance of Westminster, for that is where legislation starts and is finalised, not on the “Today” programme with John Humphrys between 8.10 and 8.30 in the morning. That is not an easy task.

It is against that background that we produced the report we are looking at today. It has one great credit; it is only about eight pages long. There is a similar report from the House of Commons that is about 145 pages, so our report’s brevity is some credit to us. Its key recommendation supports recommendation 17 in the Commons Administration Committee report of 18 April that has the same title as ours; namely, that,

“a dedicated space for school visitors of approximately 1,000m² (consisting of flexible accommodation of five classrooms with ancillary space for storage, toilet facilities, a lunch area and locker space) should be sought either on or off the existing Estate—the exact space depending on what becomes available and at what cost”.

Why a dedicated space of approximately 1,000 square metres? Quite simply, because the Parliamentary Education Service, for which I have great respect, reckoned that that was the area that was necessary, within which it would be possible to accommodate entire average-sized year groups. It estimates that within such a space capacity could be increased from the present 28,000 students a year who come to Westminster to a target figure of 100,000 a year.

In addition, the facilities could be used by others outside term times; for example, for adult learners, families and teacher training. The aim would be to make the education centre very high-tech so that it was exciting and stood up against the sort of exhibition that students can now have at the Science Museum. Some of the suggestions come under the heading of “interactive space”. Using the latest technology such as digital film editing, students would engage with the work of Parliament. For example, a Peer could be interviewed in the education centre by a visiting school group, who would then use the footage to create a short film introducing the role of the Lords that would then be downloaded on to computers in the education centre and edited. In order to produce a coherent film in that exciting way, students would have to understand better the functions of Parliament. Thus they will be motivated by the technology, which will immerse them in the topic so that they learn about Parliament.

The prime requirement now is finding an appropriate space. That has not yet been found, but I understand that an active search is taking place and several possibilities are now being examined. The space should if possible be within the parliamentary estate. As the space has not yet been found, the cost is not yet fixed. That would be the next and important question. I understand that, for capital costs of this nature, the Commons pays 60 per cent and the Lords 40 per cent. It is therefore clearly a matter in which we would be closely involved, and it would require close attention by your Lordships’ appropriate committees.

I have a high opinion of the Parliamentary Education Service. When we succeed in increasing the capacity for educational visits from the present figure of 28,000 to the hoped-for level of 100,000, it is calculated that the number of people in the education service will increase to 19 from today’s rather unhappy figure of 9.5, and that the complement of visitor assistants will increase from 17 to 20. That means in turn that there would be a total full-year estimated additional cost of £549,000 per year, of which the Lords’ share would be £165,000. It is a substantial sum and again it reflects the appropriateness of our House being well involved in, and looking very closely at, the proposal for increasing education facilities in Westminster.

Recommendation 7 on page 4 of our report sounds a note of caution by stating that our committee did not subscribe to all the conclusions and recommendations contained in the House of Commons Administration Committee’s report (HC 434). Some members of the Information Committee—I am delighted that a number of my colleagues from that committee are here this afternoon and are, I hope, going to speak—felt that providing better education facilities for children and students should be only a first step towards better, more modern and more effective reception of adult visitors, including tourists. Paragraph 63 of the House of Commons report states:

“It is clear from the information provided to us that provision for visitors at Westminster has fallen behind other Parliaments and Assemblies, both in the United Kingdom and abroad”.

This applies to both the visitor centre at the Scottish Parliament, which has, the report states,

“a deliberately open and accessible approach and … uses tourist industry standards to ensure visitors leave satisfied”,

and the National Assembly for Wales, which has placed a visitor and education centre with toilets, interactive displays and a shop in a listed building 50 yards from the Assembly building. I have to say that we felt more strongly than our colleagues in the other place that the education centre might be only a first step towards better facilities for all tourists.

In this context, I pay tribute to the outreach work of the Lord Speaker. I am pleased to learn that an experienced communications professional, with a strong track record, will be located in the House of Lords Department of Information Services, support the office of the Lord Speaker and work closely with the Parliamentary Education Service. Those are all important steps in making Parliament more visible and more comprehensible to the general public.

Westminster is not just about Prime Minister’s PQs on Wednesday morning. We all realise that there is little knowledge of what Westminster does among the general public, including students. It is arguable that the place where we are today would be more suitable as a museum, but that will not happen. It is surely our duty to promote Westminster—Lords and Commons—as being at the heart of the current governing process. We wish to help young people understand, keep that understanding, teach it to others, and go home excited at what they have seen and learnt here. This is a compelling task in which I hope we can succeed. I beg to move.

Moved, That the First Report from the Information Committee, Improving Facilities for Educational Visitors to Parliament, (HL Paper 117) be agreed to.—(Lord Renton of Mount Harry.)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, the chairman of our committee, for the excellent way in which he introduced the report, with his customary panache and clarity. Today we are being asked to agree to this report, as I am sure we will, despite the fact that it is a much shorter report than many members of the committee would have liked.

In June 2004, the Modernisation Committee in another place expressed concern that Parliament needed to reconnect with the public. It was absolutely right; there is no doubt that Parliament needs to do something to reconnect with the public, particularly the younger generation. This was underlined very clearly in the Puttnam commission’s report. If Parliament fails to make an impact on youngsters by the age of 16, it is very unlikely that they will vote and even less likely that they will become involved in the political process, join political parties, or stand as candidates to become councillors or Members of Parliament.

The evidence of Parliament failing to connect is widespread. There has been a reduction in turnouts at general elections, with even lower turnouts for European elections and elections to local councils. I remember standing in a county council election in Park ward, Cheltenham, almost 20 years ago in 1989, which was not a particularly good year for my party. The turnout was well over 54 per cent; in the neighbouring ward it was over 60 per cent—and, yes, I won that election by four votes, after a recount. In a by-election in the same area this year, the turnout was, dismally, less than 40 per cent.

How do we address that decline? We need to provide much better facilities for visitors—and for all of them, not just for schools. We know from research carried out that most school visits to Parliament come from the south-east of England—in other words, where the party can get to and from Parliament in a day. When I was MP for Cheltenham, in another life, I received school visits and was aware how early the children and teachers had to get up to catch the bus to London, how many of them missed breakfast, and how tiring the whole process was for them. I can recall one morning a young girl fainting in the “No” Lobby—which, for noble Lords who have not served in another place, is the equivalent of our “Not Content” Lobby.

Recommendation 24 in our report’s appendix, taken from the House of Commons report, says that we should consider subsidies for educational visits, to allow more schools to come—and examples are given of Australia, Germany, Norway and even Wales, where there is such a system of subsidies. To help those who live a long way from London, we need to provide that kind of support as well as access to Parliament through the internet. Recommendation 12 of the report’s appendix makes that point.

The Information Committee carried out a lot of work, looking at proposals for a full new parliamentary visitor and information centre. The officers serving the committee did an excellent job looking at the possibility of providing such a centre, either in or under Victoria Gardens or College Green. I admit to having been excited at the prospect of planning a PVIC, but to having qualms over the estimates of the likely costs. Details of these proposals and estimates of costs are included in report HC 434 from another place. Costs were predicted to vary between £44 million and £84 million, depending on the site and design. This obviously scared off some of the more vocal members of the sub-committee of the Administration Committee in another place, with whom we had joint discussions. I have no criticism of the chairman of that committee, Mr Frank Doran, who did his best to save something from the wreckage of our discussions and to make progress despite the outright opposition of some, may I say, difficult members of his committee.

It is quaintly bizarre that after the Modernisation Committee in another place decided that something must be done, some Members of that place decided that nothing should be done. I will not name them but I wonder whether those individuals who do not want any improvements in facilities for visitors have discussed this with their constituents. Some might conclude that the last thing these Members want is for their constituents to find out what goes on here—particularly the unnecessary yah-boo politics which we see and hear too much of, not in your Lordships' House but in another place.

Until and unless we can reconnect with the people, the negative image of Parliament portrayed so often in the media will get worse. Discussion in pubs and restaurants will be about trivia rather than about the substantive issues and challenges of our time.

We are the people's Parliament. Our democracy should be about being open to scrutiny, not just within Parliament but accountable to people. Of course we should support this modest report, but we should also make it clear to those in another place that much more needs to be done to stop the corrosive wasting away of our democracy as fewer and fewer people take part.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to take part in this debate and to follow the excellent introduction by the chairman of our committee, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and the noble Lord, Lord Jones.

It will be no surprise to noble Lords that this is not, and never has been, a straightforward issue—other, that is, than stating the broad objective. It is, of course, true that Parliament, and Members of both Houses who labour here, have an important role to discharge in the national interest. It is right that the accommodation and other needs of Members to fulfil their roles, and of those who assist and support them, are taken fully into account.

Nor can we ignore the problems of terrorist threats, though I become more and more concerned as every time we return from a recess there is more and more costly physical protection in place. We must surely be prepared to face some risk, as the bill for all that is being done to protect us and these buildings becomes an ever greater charge on the public purse.

It is, of course, a privilege to work in such unique buildings with their iconic, worldwide appeal and combining, as they do, many of the features of a famous museum and architectural heritage site. With the improving visitor arrangements we have rightly sought to look after the interests of groups and individuals, tourists and sightseers who want to visit and absorb some of the history and ethos of the Palace. But just as visitors to a museum or stately home are expected largely to do their own homework and inquiry into the place, perhaps with the benefit of a guide, so, too, we expect such visitors to the Palace to behave. The focus of the Information Committee’s work has not been on them; rather it is on the education of young people and others whom we want to interest and inform about the political processes of the country at the national level.

Combined with extensive work undertaken by the Administration Committee in the other place, we have agreed the recommendation that a dedicated space for school visitors with flexible accommodation of greater space than currently available to the Parliamentary Education Service is required. I am disappointed that we have not been able to come up with anything better, though this, when implemented, will be a considerable improvement on what is available at present.

Understandably, a large capital charge on the public purse for a new-build visitor centre was not deemed to be a runner, and was thus described as not representing “good value for money”. I should have preferred to save the £60 million-plus being devoted to a Supreme Court building, and used some of that for a dedicated educational facility instead of reshaping and rehousing the Law Lords.

Nevertheless, our aims of reaching out to schoolchildren and the voters of tomorrow are undoubtedly a high priority for the country and for its democratic health into the future. This is a form of education with real practical value and importance throughout adult life. Is it not a topic that might appeal to major benefactors with interest in supporting youth education and the democratic processes of this country? Are we right not even to consider or explore this approach? Has it to be ruled out of order because it would look as though Parliament were ducking its responsibilities and so be embarrassing? Are we being a bit defeatist in thinking that, whoever was to pay for it, no new build in the vicinity of the Palace would ever get through the planning and heritage regimes to which it would have to be exposed, or at best only after a most monumental struggle and inordinate delays? Maybe we can return to that another time.

I turn to the thinking about outreach, which has an important part to play in getting the message across to young people. For those who cannot make the journey to London or be fitted into the limited resources that we have on-site, getting out to them is important. The three Armed Forces run formal presentation teams that visit all corners of the country and explain to their audiences what their service does, what it has and how it is structured. Over the years, the teams have honed their presentations—no doubt many noble Lords will have seen them for themselves—and with the use of video and so on they have a very good track record. They are widely appreciated and perform a most important function of informing and explaining the role and make-up of the Armed Forces of today. The teams tailor their presentations to the level of knowledge and experience of their audience.

Many in the country now have few opportunities to engage with and understand what the services do, apart from what is reported in the media, and that is not always the “good news” type of story. Perhaps there is a role for a formal House of Lords presentation team, working either in direct support of the Lord Speaker on her outreach work or on other occasions to explain and interest young people in Parliament. Video excerpts from the State Opening, a Question Time, a debate linked with a commentary explaining what was behind the visual images being projected, or, to avoid being too dated, perhaps some passages from “Yesterday in Parliament” might be incorporated.

For the Lords, without the direct link of constituency interest, such presentation material could avoid becoming overly constrained by factional party barriers. Combined with the excellent efforts in train that are so successfully improving the Parliament website, and as a feature of the Lord Speaker’s key outreach work, I commend the idea of a House of Lords presentation team to the House. Meanwhile, I support the Information Committee’s report.

My Lords, it has been a pleasure to serve on the Information Committee. As the noble Lord, Lord Jones, reminded us, much of the work of the Information Committee dealt with the decision in 2004 to enhance the relationship between Parliament and the public. Although this decision was taken by the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, your Lordships’ House decided that it applied as much to us as to the other place. Indeed, the views of your Lordships’ House on connecting Parliament more effectively with the public have usually been more progressive than the ideas of the other place. That is thanks not only to the members of our Information Committee but to a great extent to the efforts of our committee staff. Their imagination, innovation and dedication deserve our grateful thanks and congratulations.

We are seeing and benefiting from some of the results already. For a start, the Parliament website is very much improved. It is right that we should have started with the internet, because internet-enabled networks are changing society, the economy and politics. Our website provides information on what is happening in Parliament, on legislation, debates, Questions, how to contact MPs and Peers, who we are and what we do. The website explains how Parliament works; it provides a fascinating insight into the culture of Westminster, our democracy, its history, its heritage and, indeed, the history of Parliament. It is slick and modern. Noble Lords appreciate this, because when I referred to it during Question Time last week, my remarks were greeted with quite a few “hear, hear”s from all around the House—and they were deserved. One day in May, there were 38,504 user visits to the parliamentary website. That is an impressive number.

Facilities for visitors are better, also. The Central Tours Office and the provision of trained guides is a big improvement and help to those of us who have visitors to Parliament. The guides are eloquent, enthusiastic and well informed. The visitors reception building currently being built on Cromwell Green will also make visitors more welcome by speeding up security and providing even shelter from the rain.

In your Lordships’ House we have elected a Speaker, part of whose task is to connect the House with the public. As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, she is now doing this with energy, vigour and imagination. The media are certainly telling the public a lot more about us.

Where do we go from here? I do not hide the fact that, like the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, I would have liked to have gone for a full-blown visitor centre. We are after all the Mother of Parliaments and we have a lot to say and teach about our parliamentary democracy. It is well worth visiting the Scottish Parliament’s visitor centre. However, wiser heads than mine counselled a step-by-step approach. Change in Parliament seems to come about best through the accumulation of small steps, rather than a giant leap. Your Lordships’ committee proposes that we should now tackle education. I agree—education mainly for the young, but also for adults.

Of course, we already have a Parliamentary Education Service and, although it is run from the House of Commons Library, it serves both Houses. I can confirm that it is well respected and much-valued, because I have “speakered” debates which it has organised. Parents, teachers and students themselves have told me of their appreciation of the service. However, only one in five young people who visit Parliament benefit from the education service. Requests are increasing and your Lordships’ committee recommends that the service be expanded. The expansion is ambitious—to provide an education service for 100,000 mainly young people per year. Anything less would be failing our commitment to connect Parliament with the public.

We are not the first to do this. The major museums are already doing it and we went along to learn from their experience. The main lesson that came across strongly to me is that it is a matter not just of staff but of facilities and organisation. As the noble Lord, Lord Renton, said, unless you provide young people with a place to leave their bags, a place to eat their lunch, adequate toilets and secure arrangements for dropping the young people off and collecting them, they will not come. Without these facilities, if they do come, they will not stay for long. I agree with the noble Lord—we must provide them with good modern technology. We must provide them with workshops in art, drama, photography—and the film-making that he described—with debating opportunities, as well as telling them about the history and workings of Parliament. Otherwise, you will not hold their attention and enthusiasm. As well as budgeting for staff, we have to budget for space and facilities—and it all has to take place on the parliamentary estate. The museums told us that the whole package has to be provided; it will not work in parts.

These enhanced educational facilities can, of course, have a dual purpose. The noble Lord, Lord Renton, spoke about this. They can be used by parliamentarians for sessions with community or constituency groups. They can also be used for conferences and training for citizenship teachers and perhaps even for social gatherings and exhibitions outside the parliamentary term. So I support the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Renton.

Others may say that we are a working Parliament and priority must be given to that. It is true that the work of Parliament has to take priority over visitors, but Parliament also has to justify its work and be accountable, as the noble Lord, Lord Jones, said. We must justify ourselves to our citizens, but we will never do that if we are remote and exclusive. There has to be a balance between the work of Parliament and justification to our citizens. Making them welcome and educating and informing them about our work is one crucial way in which we can justify ourselves.

Indeed, I think that this is so important that we should consider the case for subsidising visits by young people, perhaps from the more remote parts of the country. This happens in most other nations, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig, said. However, not everybody will want to come to Westminster, so there has to be an outreach service, again to perhaps the more remote parts of the country. That is already happening in Cornwall, where this month outreach work is going on, with the full co-operation of the Cornish Members of Parliament. The feedback should be interesting.

I hope that your Lordships will join me in supporting these initiatives. Your Lordships’ House has a tradition of being innovative, imaginative and progressive in these things. After all, the televising of Parliament started in your Lordships’ House. We had another first earlier this year: the finals of the schools debating competition took place here in your Lordships’ Chamber. The venue inspired excellent speeches. The event inspired the teachers and delighted the parents. It certainly convinced me that we are moving in the right direction.

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for introducing this debate on the report. I served on the previous Information Committee as well as on this one. The joint meetings between the Information Committee and the Commons Administration Committee entailed a lot of work. In fact, the work on the visitor centre has been going on since 2000. The Group on Information for the Public was set up to look at what we should be doing and the Visitor Facilities Support Group did a great deal of work on the detailed recommendations that went into the final feasibility report.

There is general agreement about what is needed and why we want to do it. We have to provide a better welcome for the public and an interesting and friendly environment for the visitor. We need to make Parliament more accessible in what it is and what it does. But we also have the problem that it is a real workplace, and we have huge security problems.

A number of feasibility studies were made, culminating in the feasibility report and options appraisal in October 2006. In considering this report, one needs to consider the target audience: what do we give them and how? Hence, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said, the committee visited a number of locations: the Globe Theatre, the British Museum, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Churchill Museum. We were also given information about how other Parliaments provide facilities. We had information from Austria, Canada, Australia, the EU, Scotland, Wales and the USA. The United States is building a huge new visitor centre in Washington so that its citizens can see what is happening. The costs and provision vary enormously.

A survey of Peers’ opinions brought out a lot of dissent. One Peer would rather spend the money on a Lords car park than a visitor centre. So there was a huge range of opinions about the way that we should go.

The costs have been mentioned. They range from £84.5 million for a full visitor centre down to £45 million for an education unit only. However, the £84.5 million represents only about £1.3 per member of the population, which would be a fairly trivial amount if it were added to income tax.

Who are our target audiences? I think that there are three or four, and obviously, one is schoolchildren. I had the pleasure of going round with such a party with the education unit. We are looking at children in the eight to 11 year-old range, who are starting to become interested in citizenship. There are then the young adults in the 15 to 18 year-old range, who are coming into the voting environment and whom we must get to come because these will be our new young MPs, councillors and so on. We have to get them involved in the political process. Then there are the disillusioned older people who are failing to vote. I think that they form one of the most important groups, but we will not attract them simply by having an education unit. Finally, there are tourists from both overseas and the UK.

All those people require different facilities. As has already been said, for school parties we need lockers, picnic space and toilets. We need interesting things using modern technology that will attract their attention. There is also the question of subsidies for people who come from more remote areas. That is terribly important. We can do so much with modern technology and outreach but it is vital to subsidise children from schools in the north of England, distant corners of Wales or Cornwall in order to get them to come here.

If we had gone for a full visitor centre, I thought that we might have had a reproduction of the House of Common Chamber where children could take part in debates. The education unit does that to a small extent, with limited facilities, before they take the children out. It is very effective and interesting to see how they all take part in that. Our website has improved enormously over the past few years, and the provision of modern computer facilities, perhaps with virtual tours of the workings of the House, could also be beneficial.

The decision on the way forward was obviously complex because there was distinct opposition to spending such a sum of money. The House of Commons Administration Sub-Committee was well and truly divided, which was a great pity. The Lords were more or less united in thinking that we should go for a full parliamentary visitor centre. However, as I said, again, the Lords survey showed a division in opinions. The opposers favour the use of such a large sum of money for improving the facilities for Members—I have already mentioned the car park. My own opinion is that we should go for something more elaborate so that we can encourage the older voter to come and take part, but it is important that we ensure that the scheme does not simply degenerate into a tourist attraction for overseas visitors.

There were enormous problems regarding planning and location. We had endless letters from the planning people, English Heritage and Westminster City Council, and it was clear that, whatever we did, there would be problems. We looked at taking over a number of existing buildings within the neighbourhood but, again, that did not come to anything at this stage.

I support the noble Lord, Lord Renton, in what we are doing but I agree most heartily that this should be only the first stage in a much more elaborate plan.

My Lords, I warmly congratulate my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry on securing this debate, and on the report his Information Committee has produced, which has made a positive contribution towards the debate about raising the profile of Parliament in the eyes of the public. We must not forget that turnout at the 2001 general election was less than 60 per cent. That represented the lowest turnout for a Westminster parliamentary election since the advent of universal adult suffrage. It gets worse: among 18 to 24 year-olds, turnout was less than 25 per cent. The noble Lord, Lord Jones of Cheltenham, referred to the imperative of the need to address that. There was not much improvement at the 2005 election, despite the creation of the Electoral Commission with a specific remit to increase turnout. It is not just about turnout. Nearly 4 million people who are eligible to vote are not even registered to do so.

It is too easy to put this down to a general feeling that all the decisions are taken in Europe, or that people's votes do not matter. To put this right we have to start at a young age. We must enthuse children and young people with the process of Parliament. Today's young people need to be aware of how fortunate they, and we, are to live in such a democracy. They see, daily, on the internet and television, the horrifying examples of countries such as Zimbabwe, Burma and Darfur whose citizens have lost, or never had, the benefits we have. We and they must not forget what the suffragettes suffered for. For hundreds of years only a small elite could vote. Disraeli, with such forethought, started the process of widening the franchise. What would his generation have thought of today's apathy?

Let us not forget, either, how fortunate we all are to work in this wonderful place, with its history and traditions, and to have a chance to influence our country's affairs. While our excellent tour guides, as my noble friend Lord Renton explained, draw out the historical aspect, it must be our duty to ensure that the working Parliament is explained and that an awareness is passed on of its real benefits to future generations. If Parliament is to continue to carry out its functions properly, future generations must learn to understand how it works, to love it and to enthuse about it. They need to know how both Houses and their committees actually work; what a politician does; and about the huge amount of knowledge and talent there is, especially in your Lordships' House.

As we have heard from my noble friend Lord Renton, his committee's report draws attention to a key recommendation in the other place's Administration Committee's report that an off-site parliamentary visitor and information centre would not provide value for money and would be unlikely to focus on educational visitors interested in the Houses of Parliament as a working legislature. The Administration Committee concluded that the most effective route forward would be to create a dedicated facility for school visitors. While endorsing that, we must not allow it to happen in isolation. Education has to become a state of mind among us all. The Lord Speaker's initiative of Peers going into schools, to which other noble Lords have referred today, is an excellent example, and the students' debating competition in May, which the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, mentioned and which my noble friend Lord Hunt and others worked so hard to achieve, is another example, of which we need many more.

Educational visits to Westminster are undoubtedly of huge benefit to students and to the institution of Parliament, and are in high demand, with a waiting list of two school terms ahead. According to the most recent annual report of the other place’s commission, nearly 11,000 students and teachers visited Parliament last year; that figure is up nearly 40 per cent on the previous year, so the appetite is there and it is growing.

We must seize the opportunity represented by this demand. The reports from the Commons Administration Committee and from our Information Committee are valuable contributions to the debate on exactly how we can accommodate our guests, although I hope I am wrong to wonder whether I detected some reluctance in the wording in the Commons report. The recommendation in paragraph 7 of my noble friend’s committee's report urges more detailed work and planning, which we must strongly support. What is going to happen in the classrooms? How will that be made to happen? Exactly what resources are needed? Who is going to do the teaching? And how will the teachers be trained? The answers to these and many more questions need to form part of that detailed planning work. So we must surely endorse this report wholeheartedly and ask what action will be undertaken to take it forward, so that a precise and costed proposal can be presented.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Renton, for introducing this report of the Information Committee. Noble Lords may be curious as to why I am found speaking from the Dispatch Box this afternoon. As Chairman of Committees, I am the spokesman for the House Committee, and the House Committee eventually—I hope—will be asked to look at this proposal and the financial side for the Lords’ share. It does, however, mean that I am of course unable to comment on some of the more political points that have been made this afternoon; for example, the merits or otherwise of the Supreme Court building.

The House will be aware that much is being done within both Houses to improve the engagement of the public with Parliament. The consideration by the Lords Information Committee and the Commons Administration Committee of options for improvement to education and visitor facilities has been a key aspect of this work. It is to the credit of both committees that they worked in parallel throughout their investigations. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Renton, and his committee on their work and report.

Noble Lords will recall that the viability of a visitor centre was considered as a possible way to improve the experience of visitors to Parliament. However, as noble Lords have mentioned, difficulties such as locating a practical space for such a development have blocked this option—not forgetting, of course, the potential cost, which has also been mentioned. The committees have now indicated that they consider enhancing educational facilities to be the key priority. Of course, I recognise that a majority of speakers in this debate would have liked to go much further in the direction of a full-blown visitor centre.

On 12 June, the House of Commons endorsed the recommendations contained in the Administration Committee’s report, which included a proposal for a dedicated space for educational visitors to be provided on or off the Estate. As indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Renton, the Information Committee of this House has supported that proposal. This is significant because, in identifying strategic objectives of such importance, it is helpful when the two Houses agree. Improved educational facilities would enhance the delivery of the Houses’ core objective of promoting public knowledge and understanding of the work and role of Parliament. As has been mentioned, a large number of students visit Parliament each year to learn more about the workings of our institution. However, the Parliamentary Education Service estimates that the number of learners visiting Parliament could increase to 100,000 in future years. Clearly, the current accommodation would be totally insufficient to meet this demand.

As has been mentioned, the Lords have always been at the forefront of encouraging innovation in Parliament. In May, the Lord Speaker hosted the finals of the English-Speaking Union Schools Mace competition in this very Chamber. This was the first time that either Chamber of Parliament had been opened up to public, non-parliamentary use and the debate saw the winners of national school debating competitions from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland go head to head in the UK final. The feedback from those who attended the debate, which included many of your Lordships, was extremely positive.

A programme of virtual tours of the Houses of Parliament is also being developed to enable visitors to take virtual tours of the Palace. The first tour to be developed is that of the House of Commons Chamber, Members’ Lobby and a Division Lobby. A tour of the Lords Chamber will be developed next. The tours will provide a new tool for the Parliamentary Education Service and community outreach teams to use in their activities with schools and colleges and will provide a useful pre-visit or post-visit lesson tool for groups. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, and others have praised the many other improvements to the parliamentary website, and I join in that praise.

Initiatives such as these are part of the wider efforts by the Houses of Parliament to open ourselves up to the public. Endorsement of the proposal to provide enhanced educational facilities would be a key step in driving forward the agenda to improve Parliament’s engagement with the public. The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, mentioned the recent outreach programme to Cornwall. I can tell the noble Lord and the House that the initial feedback was that it was very successful. The experience gained during the Connecting Parliament with the Public week in Cornwall will now feed into plans being developed for a formal parliamentary outreach programme which will be piloted in two regions next year.

This House is invited to endorse the Information Committee’s recommendation. If agreed to—and I am sure that the House will wish to agree—it will set in train more detailed design work and discussions so that a precise and costed proposal can be prepared for consideration by the House Committee in due course. I recommend that the House agrees to the report.

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who spoke in this debate. All the speeches from colleagues on both sides of the House have been extremely constructive and helpful. I shall make one or two specific points in reply.

The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, made a point about finding major benefactors who might help to finance the space for the educational office when we move there. He made the same point in the committee. I think it is worthy of serious consideration. I recognise that it is branching out from the traditions of Westminster, but it is a serious point.

The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, spoke about the parliamentary website. I was delighted by his conclusion that it is much improved, and I agree. The noble Lord might like to know that the site as a whole has been redesigned. The section devoted to schools, which is known as Explore Parliament, is being updated, and this week the first of the virtual tours—I am always worried about the word “virtual” because it has several double entendres—of the best known areas of the Palace of Westminster has been released. The first tour explains the functions of the House of Commons Chamber and a similar tour of this Chamber is planned for early next year.

I was grateful for the support of my noble friend from the Front Bench. He asked how a working Parliament can be explained. It is a very good question. It is a high priority for the Parliamentary Education Service. It is developing special tours focused on the national curriculum so that children who come on the general tours will get information on the role and function of Parliament, as well as its history, that will fit into their general curriculum.

I end by remembering that the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, kindly used the words “innovative, imaginative and progressive” about what we are trying to do in our report. Since I became chairman, I have taken the view that we want to have a project that is achievable, not one that we would get into conflict with the Commons about or that was vastly too expensive in the first stages, but a project that we might see happening a year or two ahead. That is why some of the comments in the report were not as all-embracing as some of the noble Lords who have spoken would have liked. It is important that we concentrate our minds on a project that might take place in the next few years. It is against that background that I thank all noble Lords for their speeches and I move that the report be now agreed to.

On Question, Motion agreed to.