Question for Short Debate
My Lords, the Committee on Standards in Public Life is an independent committee that provides advice to the Prime Minister. Its remit is to promote high ethical standards across the public sphere, not just Parliament. Its first ever report, in 1994, recommended seven principles to guide the behaviour of those who serve the public in any way: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Those principles are popularly known, after the first chairman, as the Nolan principles.
The committee published its fifth general survey of public attitudes last autumn. The committee has conducted the survey every two years since 2004. It is a unique long-term, independent study and source of information about what the public think about standards in public life. The issue here is general probity. It is important to check our perception of the standards that the public expect of public servants and organisations, and the extent to which those are being met, against reality. We cannot afford to assume that we know what the public really think about these issues.
The survey was published at a time when a variety of research showed an increasing disengagement from the political system and some national institutions seemed to be engulfed in a series of scandals. The apparently—and I stress apparently—engulfing nature of scandals is a particular problem of the modern era. At least in some media discussion the impression exists not just of a few bad apples but that entire institutions lack probity: the BBC, Parliament, the police, et cetera.
The survey draws on all four previous surveys to chart changes in attitudes over the past 10 years. All surveys have consistently demonstrated what members of the public expect from people in public office. It is: to be committed to public rather than private ends; selflessness and integrity, as in the Nolan principles; to be honest and open in decision-making; to make decisions in the light of the best evidence; objectivity; to be held accountable; and for some senior public figures to lead in some respect exemplary lives—the principle of leadership.
Over the lifetime of the survey, there has been a continuous and substantial decline in the number of respondents rating standards as quite high or very high. In the latest survey, 28% of respondents rated conduct as either quite low or very low. There was also an increase in the proportion of people thinking that standards had got a lot worse. In relationship to Westminster MPs, the public broadly share a set of expectations that are in line with the seven principles of public life. However, they have consistently lower levels of confidence that MPs meet those standards. In the latest survey, pessimism was less marked than in 2010, when attitudes were sharply affected by the then recent events of the expenses scandal, but levels of confidence have not returned to their 2008 levels.
Although absolute levels of confidence are low in particular types of national public officeholders and professions—for example, Ministers, MPs and tabloid journalists—that should be contrasted with higher and rising confidence in institutions, processes and those administering the process. For example, as in most countries that have low and falling levels of confidence in politicians, there is, paradoxically, higher confidence in national institutions such as Parliament itself and much higher confidence in the legal system. For Parliament, it might be argued that there was something that looked like the possible beginnings of a crisis of legitimacy in the 1970s, but there is no sign of such a crisis today
Questions of trust are valuable tracking devices for changes, but there are dangers that we should be alert to in generalising about the public perception of probity. For example, we are sometimes a bit disappointed that only the broad, negative perceptions of MPs are reported in the media. There is a great deal of complex, sometimes counterintuitive material in the research which has messages for those working in public life. For instance, our survey showed a widespread belief that respondents would receive fair treatment from a wide range of front-line public services. Less than 15% of those surveyed expressed concern that they would be treated worse than others, and there are clear messages that the public expressed more confidence in the probity of those working in the public sector as against those working in private services.
The data also give us a picture of those groups who are most likely to feel sceptical and, to some degree, alienated. That is particularly the case for those lower social grades from white British or white Irish backgrounds, middle-aged or older, and who have little engagement with the political system. The growth in the size of that group presents a challenge to all of us involved in public life.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life recognises that it is important to place those findings in a wider context, and it is now doing further research and assessing the results from our British survey compared with those in other countries, to see if results are potentially affected by domestic factors or reflect citizens’ attitudes across western democracies in general. We also appreciate that perceptions of trust and public confidence can include a range of issues which have nothing to do with integrity and genuine trustworthiness and are much more to do with the policy process and the process of delivery.
It is important that the public have confidence in the integrity of public institutions and that those who work in them are alert to a certain level of public malaise and, where necessary, willing to challenge the status quo. At a recent committee meeting with academics, there was a wide-ranging discussion about some issues which might address some of those perceptions: whether or not a less adversarial style of politics might help; or whether or not a better level of political reporting would help. An interesting point was made that MPs in the Netherlands considered that they have a role as a public educator. It is not quite as clear that MPs in United Kingdom consider that to be an important part of their role. There were a number of other interesting ideas for discussion and debate.
The broad context is clear enough. Modern politics became less ideological when the era opened up by the Russian revolutions closed in 1989. Politics became, it is often said, more about values and individuals and ideologies, but we still have a gladiatorial style, seen most spectacularly at PMQs, inherited from a more ideological age. The result is a displacement of inevitable popular resentment, which used to have a more ideological form of expression, to individuals in a more modern version of Brecht’s socialism of fools.
My committee believes that there is scope to improve and maintain levels of public confidence and trust by public officeholders and institutions by improving their own trustworthiness; by consistently and reliably exemplifying high standards of ethical behaviour, openness and accountability, as our recent report, Strengthening Transparency Around Lobbying, discussed; being more attentive to and active in addressing emerging ethical standards issues as they arise, rather than waiting for pressure for reform; establishing and promulgating robust mechanisms to detect and deal with wrongdoing; and creating a culture where high standards are built into everything the organisation does and genuinely seen as everyone’s personal responsibility.
Following a recommendation of the committee’s recent triennial review and understandable budget cuts across the public sector, that was the last such survey produced by the committee. I must say that since my arrival in the chair in September, the importance of the survey has been borne in on me in a way that was not the case before, and I began to appreciate its value in a way that I had not before. To have that steady survey over a period of changes and transitions in public mood is, I think, of great value. We regret losing in-depth analysis of the public view, especially when there are signs of disconnect between the public and the political process.
The focus of my committee’s immediate work programme will be on working collaboratively with public sector officeholders and organisations to promote and reinforce ethics and practice. We need to increase our understanding of the factors at play in building and maintaining public confidence. I believe that the committee and its research has a role to play in trying to move the debate on from the position so often heard—“They don’t get it”—to a different and better position, which is, “What can we do about it?”.
My Lords, I have long admired the noble Lord, Lord Bew, for his ability to tease out of sometimes very dense language extremely important points, and he has just done so in his speech. Indeed, it was he who inspired me to read the whole of the report, which is dense and curious, sometimes, in its language. The noble Lord referred to the phrase, “the lower social grades”—a slightly grating phrase. I think that Aldous Huxley would have recognised that phrase, with his standard gammas, unvarying deltas and the rest.
That said, as I ploughed through the report, which the noble Lord, Lord Bew, inspired me to read, I became surprised—so I searched the harder—to find no specific mentions of your Lordships’ House in a longitudinal study, which strikes me as a major lacuna. There are mentions of all sorts of people—police, judges, and those in the front line giving out advice—but no mention of your Lordships’ House. I think that that needs to be addressed in future reports of this sort if we are to have the full value that we should get from them.
I can only make assertions, because there is nothing in this report which will stand up what I am about to say, but does the Minister share the concern expressed by some people in my hearing that there are things wrong with this place which need to be addressed? For example, some people feel that it has got terribly large and therefore is not very effective in what it does. I think that, had questions been asked in the longitudinal survey, we would have got some very interesting answers.
Most importantly, I am convinced—anecdotally; perhaps I listen to the wrong kind of taxi drivers—that the impression of your Lordships’ House has gone down sharply in recent years. If there is one thing that has affected that perception it is that a revolving door is still possible between someone becoming a lawmaker, then becoming a lawbreaker and leaving the service of your Lordships’ House, and then, having served whatever sentence was given, coming back into your Lordships’ House, having been a lawbreaker, to be a lawmaker. You do not have to be a taxi driver to think that there is something a bit rum about that.
I end on the note that something should be done and be done quickly. It always used to be said that nothing could be done quickly about changing the laws of succession so that men and women could be in the right order of birth to become head of state in this country. The blessed Norman St John-Stevas used to stand up and say that it was quite impossible to do. Suddenly, the Zeitgeist changed and it was done. We need to make sure that as the Zeitgeist changes over this issue, the revolving door that goes between lawmaker, lawbreaker and lawmaker no longer exists.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bew, for initiating this short debate. I was acting chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life during most of 2007 and a member of the committee when Sir Nigel Wicks was in the chair and the public attitudes survey was inaugurated. I remember clearly how excited we were about the significance of the survey, particularly its long-term tracking of standards in public life.
The main thrust of my contribution is to ask the Government to think again about the withdrawal of funding for the public attitudes survey. I have been in contact with Sir Nigel Wicks and he has permitted me to communicate his “great disappointment” that the Government are withdrawing funding for future surveys. They provide an authoritative and transparently impartial method for tracking public perceptions and expectations of standards in public life. They give all concerned with standards in public life feedback on how the British people view a fundamental element in the working of our democracy. Sir Nigel is firm in the belief that the value of the public attitudes survey could not be replaced by a series of ad hoc surveys, conducted by bodies other than the committee. Such surveys would lack the authority derived from the committee’s own authority and knowledge, as well as the continuity provided by the regularity and consistency of the committee’s surveys. This would make it virtually impossible to identify trends and changing attitudes.
I can only echo Sir Nigel’s words and ask the Minister to consider the long-term implications of the Government’s decision to cease funding. The work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life is admired by the rest of the world for its independence and robust defence of standards. It will appear very strange for politicians, who admittedly are not too high on the popularity poll, to take the decision to weaken fundamentally the authority of these surveys.
My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bew, for securing this debate. Our national poet, Robert Burns, often spoke about seeing the good in people. Perhaps we can see the good in people in public life because there are so many who are all too ready to highlight those who do the wrong thing.
However, my thoughts go to the fact that we have thousands of men and women up and down the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland, who have chosen to serve in local government for very little reward. Those men and women hold down their jobs and go to meetings of the council. At night, they attend the public meetings that we have with the housing associations or the tenants’ associations. They also deal with what some people would consider to be the little things, such as repairs to the sinks or drainpipes, or cleaning up the play area. A Speaker in the United States, Tip O’Neill, once said that all politics is local. We might call what these men and women in local government do “the little things” but it is important to remember that those things are important to the elderly, the mothers who want a play area to be cleaned up and all the other people who are worried about their community. As those men and women are not here at Westminster, sometimes constituents come to their door and disturb them even when they are having a family meal.
Your Lordships should remember that we often tut-tut when we are in conversation about non-traditional housing: the corridor houses and multi-storey flats in our cities. Not all of those places are bad to live in but because of the climate we have in this country the local authority gets the blame. In the 1960s and 1970s, when those men and women who were in local government wanted to clear the slums away and give people decent homes, it was central government who said to them, “You will not get government funding unless you build non-traditional houses”. When the problems arose, the blame lay with local government and the Government distanced themselves from the difficulties.
What I can say about the other place is that there are those who have brought the Commons to shame. We should remember that there are 650 Members of Parliament and that they are excellent at working on an all-party basis. Although I do not have the time, I advise noble Lords to read the adjournment debate which Mr Chris Skidmore raised on dangerous driving, in which dozens of Members from all parties took part.
My Lords, in view of the time constraints I want to focus on just one part of this excellent report. Figure 4.1 on page 22 shows that 26% of the respondents to the survey feel that MPs can legitimately take into account what big donors to their parties want when they cast a vote in the Commons. The committee found in another of its surveys, in 2010, that 81% of the public thought that the most common reason for donating to a political party was either in the hope of receiving some special favours in return—perhaps appointment to your Lordships’ House—or gaining access to those taking decisions. This perception that influence and access may be auctioned to the highest bidder is corrosive of our politics and corrosive of public perceptions of standards in public life.
The CSPL rightly concluded in its November 2011 report on party political finance that,
“this situation is unsustainable, damaging to confidence in democracy and in serious need of reform”.
The then chairman of the committee, Sir Christopher Kelly, argued that the cost to the public purse of capping big donations to parties would be the equivalent of just one first-class stamp each year for each elector. There is the choice: between each person paying 50 pence for an equal, democratic share of influence over the political system or a few people paying £50,000 a year for a necessarily quite unequal share of that influence. Yes, the public are sceptical about politics and parties but we have a responsibility to make the arguments, rather than shy away from them.
Just a fortnight ago in your Lordships’ House, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, invited us to show that leadership by proposing the minimum possible reform of the party funding system: the introduction of a very small amount of tax relief for individual donations to parties. He said that,
“the very credibility of this institution is at stake. We have had far too many scandals over the years; political scandals relating to money and politics”.—[Official Report, 15/1/14; col. 320.]
He was backed up across the House. I particularly want to draw attention to the words of my noble friend Lord Hamilton of Epsom, who said that,
“political parties in this country are financed by the trade unions and, to a very large extent on all sides of the House, by extremely rich men who are seen to exert influence … This does us no good at all and we should grasp this nettle and do something about it”.—[Official Report, 15/1/14; col. 321.]
I supported him, as did my noble friend Lord Hodgson, who said:
“Someone, sometime, somewhere has to be brave, and we need to give them a nod tonight to get on and be brave as soon as possible”.—[Official Report, 15/1/14; col. 325.]
I welcome the report of the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Bew, but I worry about the deepening public distrust in politics that is held by our fellow citizens. I endorse strongly what was so many noble Lords have said and I very much hope that we will soon make progress and that our leaders will be brave on party funding because without that, there will be further corrosion of trust in party politics.
My Lords, the committee chaired with distinction by my noble friend Lord Bew is the guardian of the seven principles of public life first promulgated by the standards committee in the mid-1990s, under its founding chairman Lord Nolan, as my noble friend reminded us. The most cheering finding in the committee’s 2012 survey, which we are debating today, is that the public continue to support those principles to an overwhelming degree.
Should the British people become so jaundiced with those in public and political life that, when asked about the behavioural lapses on the part of their Ministers, officials and legislators, they shrug disdainfully and reply, “Well that’s the way they are; what can you expect?”, then we would be in deep trouble as a country and a polity. Mercifully, we are still shockable.
However, the standards committee report makes for truly depressing reading on the low levels of trust in politicians. But, in my judgment, it is the findings on political engagement which leap most dramatically out of its pages. It is the level of alienation from all parties, big and small, across the spectrum that is searing. Place this finding alongside the Hansard Society’s 2013 Audit of Political Engagement and the picture is truly grim. The Hansard Society found that, in terms of general elections:
“The number of young people (18-24 year olds) certain to vote has declined 10 percentage points in a year (22% to 12%)”.
The reasons for such indifference and alienation are multiple and have accumulated over a decade of historically low general election turnouts.
I will finish by mentioning but one aspect that has long worried me: the language in which we conduct our national political conversation. George Orwell argued, in his classic 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, that if the main instrument of political exchange and argument—language—became stale, clichéd and debased, we would be seriously impoverished. Nearly 70 years on, in our deeply sound-bitten political culture, we have much more to worry about than did Orwell. Between now and the general election of May 2015, can our political class raise its game? Can our politicians find the tone, the pitch and the vocabulary to break through the indifference, especially of those 18 to 24-year-olds? I live in hope.
I have one final thought for the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and his committee, the work of which I have always admired. How about a review of the quality and clarity of language used in government White Papers? That is a question of standards, too. Doing an Orwell on White Papers would be a service to us all.
My Lords, before turning to the survey in more detail, I would like to make some brief points of a more general nature about the seven principles of public life. First, these principles are absolutely fundamental to the healthy functioning of any society. Without them, a society can only be regarded as sick and it certainly would not function as it ought. Secondly they exist in their own right, valid in themselves, with a claim upon us. They cannot simply be read off or derived from any scientific or economic description of society. That is why, if I am honest, I think the word principle is a somewhat weak term. We could, for example, say things such as, “I am going to run the organisation along the following principles”, as though these were guidelines I had chosen, when I could have chosen others. However, the qualities that we need for public life are not items in a bag that we decide to choose. They are a sine qua non of any ordered society. For example, if a Minister lies in his private life, he will have to sort it out with his family as best he can but if he lies to Parliament, he rightly has to resign. Truthfulness, trustworthiness, integrity and a concern for the wider good are not principles that we just happen to choose. They are the fundamental values which make possible any ordered life together.
So it is very good to know, as the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, emphasised, from the introduction of the report, that the public have consistently prioritised these principles across the five surveys. It is clear that the public have continuing high expectations of those in public office and that is very healthy. As the survey indicates, there is an overall decline in standards since the survey in 2008 and this stands in marked contrast to an overall continuous rise from 2004 to 2008. The report was correct to point out that the decline since 2008 had much to do with the financial sector, particularly the banks in bringing about the economic crisis, and the newspaper hacking scandal. So, as is pointed out, if trust can be lost, it can also be regained, as it rose in some areas in the years from 2004 to 2008. That is an important point and we must respond to it.
Nevertheless we cannot get away from the fact that the overall rating of standards has declined very sharply. In 2004, 46% rated them quite high or very high but by 2012 this has fallen to 35%. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, emphasised the importance of educating public office-holders. I suggest that the Government have a responsibility, both through the Department for Education—in citizenship education in schools in particular—and the Department for Communities and Local Government, through its cohesion programme, to try to educate religious communities and, not least, their leaders. Religious communities now have a key role in thickening the moral fabric of our society. Communities of all faiths have a particular opportunity to feed into and strengthen the moral bonds that hold us together and which enable public life to truly serve the common good.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bew, on initiating this important debate. I wish to make three short points. The first is that maintaining standards, as embodied in the Code of Conduct, is necessary, but it is not sufficient to establish high levels of trust in our political system. As is clear from the survey, we have some way to go to meet the necessary standards. However, ensuring compliance with the code should be seen as only part of the solution. What flows from the survey, and the Hansard Society’s annual Audits of Political Engagement, is that we should be pursuing both a bottom-up and a top-down approach to restoring trust.
The bottom-up approach is captured by one of the final sentences of the survey, on page 51:
“It also seems likely that perceptions of standards would respond to better public information about how different institutions try to ensure that they live up to the principles in public life”.
One of the problems is lack of understanding of the political process. Like the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, I believe it is necessary to bolster citizenship education. It is in the national curriculum, but there are no incentives for head teachers to take it seriously. We need to be ensuring that there are incentives, and resources, for schools to deliver it effectively. It is essential to the health of our political system.
However, ensuring that people are more informed about the system is no guarantee that it will enhance support for it. That will come when people recognise that politicians are acting in good faith to deliver on their promises. There is thus a major challenge for politicians in terms of behaviour. We need political parties to move away from empty partisanship and to get out of the Downsian cycle of outbidding one another. We need politicians to show leadership—the top-down approach—to lead from the front and not follow focus groups or the latest passing bandwagon. Margaret Thatcher pursued policies that were contentious, but her leadership style resonated. We need to be addressing these issues. It is easy to advocate constitutional reform, but that is a form of displacement activity. It is to suggest that the structure, rather than those who occupy it, is the problem. The problem is the people who occupy it. Once we accept that we are part of the problem— indeed, a central part—we can then start to tackle it.
My question to the Minister is straightforward: do you agree?
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bew, on securing this very timely debate. The attempt to yoke standards in public life with public engagement is commendable but it is no easy task. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, covered a point which I was going to make and I would like to reinforce it. There is a lack of knowledge about the systems on which interviewees are being asked to comment. It is not just about the political scene, it is about all manner of things. Things such as crime statistics, in which I am interested, or medical incompetence may be important to a few but are not often a wider consumer experience. This report shows there is no room to be complacent but it also show there is an endless need to try to dig a little deeper.
Since 2012, we have had several high-profile instances of things going wrong in both the public and semi-public sectors. The fact that the semi-public bit is not truly a public body does not mean that it does not have a public profile or impact on the public interest. Professor Barry Loveday of the University of Portsmouth wrote an excellent paper some years ago about performance management. He identified the target culture; at senior level, it is a culture for its own sake. Then there is collectivisation of risk and responsibility, so that there is no individual to blame and, with it, no real focused leadership. There is protection of the status quo—the system for its own sake. With the rank and file, not to be too segregationist here, there is a silo mentality. People say, “It’s not my job, not my responsibility”. There is a demarcation with other people’s roles and a philosophy of “Don’t grass on your mates”.
Within all this, some commonalities arise. There is the lack of ethical framework, referred to by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries. The rights and entitlements are not matched with the duties and responsibilities, a point made yesterday in “Thought for the Day” by Clifford Longley. There are no real consequences—everyone is doing it, so do not break ranks or make yourself conspicuous. These are the matters of concern.
We have heard about leadership and politicians. I am afraid to say that both rank exceedingly low on the OECD statistics, but there are obviously sociological aspects and there is this awful thing to do with victimless crimes—as if ever such a term could be invented. We should not have that; because the Home Office counting rules do not count them does not mean that there are no victims. So there has been a failure to exert rigorous investigations. I have in the past suggested that there should be senior criminal judge investigations in certain areas of our public life; there are victims who need to be recognised as there are malefactors to be brought to book.
I could go on, but my time is up. I wish the committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, very well. Never was a role more worthy or necessary of further funding.
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Bew for putting together this report. I declare an interest as a producer at the BBC. As a journalist, I want to concentrate on what the report tells us about the public trust in the media and their ability to hold those in public office to account. In Chapter 5, the noble Lord, Lord Bew, reports on the decline in public confidence in the media to do this. It seems a small fall from 80% 10 years ago to 70% in 2012, but the decline reflects a public awareness of the ability of the media to investigate and check public figures.
Local media in particular have been devastated by the move of advertisers to alternative providers on the internet. My noble friend Lord Martin mentioned local authorities; across the country, the work of local authorities is being ignored by journalists and receives little public attention, as local newspapers close down or become freesheets. We see the same process in our national newspapers, as newsrooms are pared to the bone. Of course, there are still investigations, like the exposure by the Telegraph of the MPs’ expenses scandal, but increasingly news is filled with PR, as product placement and unchecked political spin become more prominent. The internet is an extraordinary source of news stories, as the new tools of social media make us all citizen journalists. But when there are so many voices out there and so many with hidden positions and private axes to grind, it is hard to know which voices to trust.
That brings me to the findings of Chapter 2 of the report, showing a surprising increase in trust in journalists across the board; I wonder whether that would still hold up, after the last year of phone-hacking revelations. As my noble friend Lady O’Neill of Bengarve pointed out in her TED talk, the generic question of whether we trust a particular group is flawed. We do not ask whether we trust fishmongers; we trust some fishmongers and not others. Likewise, we trust some politicians and not others, and some journalists and not others. There are some journalists and some media outlets, such as the BBC and ITN, which we do trust.
It has never been more important for us to have professional journalists whom we trust to sift through evidence, painstakingly check its reliability and present us with a report that we can believe. They need to be supported by editors, prepared to take on an investigation even when it might fail. I cite the sterling work of my former colleague, Michael Crick, on “Channel 4 News”, in getting to the bottom of the “Plebgate” scandal, as he tenaciously investigated the two competing versions of the truth offered by competing holders of public office. Eventually, he discovered the lies in the police story and the flaws in the Cabinet Office’s investigation of that story. Television, the internet and newspapers need to foster those journalists, so that audiences continue to have faith in their ability to hold those in public life to account. It is important to support the work of investigative journalists that is exercised with integrity, so that authorities can be held to account as part of a healthy democratic process.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Bew, and want to concentrate on the issue of the ignorance of our young citizens of this place and its workings and the impact of that. The report says:
“One particular cause for concern from the research is the number of people, especially young people, who feel disconnected from the political system and political parties”.
It says that the growth in the size of that group represents a challenge to us all. The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Lord, Lord Norton, all referred to that.
Yesterday, the EU produced its first anti-corruption report. If noble Lords want to feel really miserable, they should look at that, because it shows that 64% of the people of this country consider that there is widespread corruption, from the private sector to the public sector and back. If noble Lords want to feel more miserable still, they should concentrate on the statistic in the Bew report to the effect that 41% of those polled in the youngest group—and a great number of people were polled—have no connection or sense of belonging to any political entity or party and are certain not to vote.
It is not good enough for us just to say that it is down to the Government. We are the legislature and we produce more legislation every year than any country in the free world: roughly 10,000 pages of new statute law a year. Much of that is beyond our comprehension, let alone the public’s. I am not making a trite point. If we go on as we are, the chances of the British public catching up with us are frankly nil. It becomes an exercise in cynicism. If you do not understand the basics of your democratic society—and, my word, they grow in complication year by year—let alone the law, how can you expect young people to identify with the system, feel ownership of it and want to contribute to it as active citizens?
I must declare an interest as the founder and president of the Citizenship Foundation. It is the biggest civic educator in the country. The situation is critical. Half our secondary schools do not even have to teach citizenship education. The rest have scarcely been Ofsted-ed. The numbers taking citizenship GCSEs are falling. The number of those teaching citizenship is falling. This is a crisis and we must start at root with our young people and give them the chance to be citizens.
My Lords, like other noble Lords I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Bew, for initiating this debate. I agree with many if not all of the points made. In three minutes, however, it is difficult to get across all the points that you want to make. I thank the Committee on Standards in Public Life for commissioning the preparation and publication of this report, which is one of a series that it has produced since 2004. Like my noble friend Lady Donaghy and the noble Lord, Lord Bew, I very much regret the withdrawal of funding for this survey in future years.
The report confirmed for me a number of things that I had suspected about public attitudes to standards in public life. While some of these perceptions might not always be fair, as politicians and people in public life we often do not do ourselves any favours. I noted that in 2012 MPs and Ministers were evaluated less favourably than all other categories, with the exception of tabloid journalists. The expenses scandal in 2010 certainly affected in a negative way public attitudes towards politicians, and levels of trust and confidence have not returned to the levels seen before then.
I am of the opinion that people who go into public life and who seek elected office, at whatever level, do so with the best intentions, and that in this House, in the other place, in other parliaments and assemblies, and, as my noble friend Lord Martin of Springburn said, in council chambers, good men and women are seeking to make things better. We can and should debate, discuss and even argue what that should be. That is what a healthy democracy does.
The report also highlighted how we need a strong media to hold people to account and showed that 70% of people believe that the media will generally uncover wrongdoing. It was pleasing to read that people generally felt they would be treated fairly by people providing public services. There are high standards in the public sector and we are well served by people who work there. We also have remedies to deal with issues when things go wrong. Being able to correct things and provide redress is part of the confidence in how you know that you will be treated.
Will the Minister tell the House what action the Government intend to take following the publication of this report? In particular, will he tell the House, as the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, highlighted, what the Government intend to do to deal with people’s feeling of disconnection from the political system and political parties? This is one of the most worrying findings of the report and it is incumbent on the Government to ensure that we have conditions in place to allow healthy parties to thrive.
I again thank the noble Lord, Lord Bew, for enabling us to debate this important issue tonight.
My Lords, this has been an excellent debate and we could have spent a great deal longer on it.
I am struck by the level of public alienation from conventional politics, which we find most of all among the young. I find it deeply frustrating that we are in this situation, partly because I spent some time as a member of the Government’s World War One advisory board, reading political literature on the first 15 years of the previous century. I reflect that we have a much less corrupt political system than we had then. Standards of personal morality among our politicians are far higher than they were then, but respect and deference have gone down.
There are many reasons for that. We are in the middle of a media war with politicians. The Leveson inquiry has not settled things down into a new relationship yet. A major trial is under way that will impact on our perceptions of the media, as well as the relationship between the media and politicians. We have some real problems to face. When I read in the report where politicians stood, I was cheerfully reminded of a conversation at a party in Saltaire the winter before last. A friend of one of my wife’s cousins asked me what I did. I said that I didn’t think that she wanted to know. She said, “You’re not a banker, are you?”. I thought: good, there are people who rank below politicians in public respect.
However, we know that there is a crisis in our institutions and in confidence in our elites—not just our political elite. The standing of the police will no doubt be much lower in the next survey than it was in the latest one. This is a general problem for all of us; it is a problem of trust. The question of how we re-establish trust in our institutions is enormous. There is also a sense that people have lost local community. They have lost the church as part of local community and that gives them a sense of loss of control. They have lost local democracy. I am struck in our big cities, such as Bradford, Leeds and Birmingham, that there are wards of 12,000 to 15,000 people where you cannot have a sense of contact between elected politician and the community that he or she serves.
Globalisation—the extent to which multinational companies come and go, and a sense that international organisations, be they the European Union for us or the United Nations for Americans, are somehow interfering in our lives—gives a sense of popular alienation. The question of how we deal with this ought to be one of our major shared concerns. It cannot be dealt with by the Government or political parties alone; it has to be dealt with by all of us, including the media, judges, the police and others.
I liked the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Bew, that Dutch MPs see public education as part of their role. That is something we all ought to think about in more detail. I also liked his remark about the gladiatorial style of our party politics being a major part of the public’s switch-off. Lots of other politicians watch Prime Minister’s Questions because they think it is fun but not very constructive. The way that we approach political and constitutional reform is pretty awful. We ought to bear in mind that, unless we see the process of political and constitutional reform as a way of regaining the trust of the public, we are wasting our time.
The noble Lord, Lord Patten, asked about the House of Lords and how that fits in. I am not sure how people see the House of Lords—I think through a glass darkly on the whole. Yes, we are too large; so is the House of Commons, but that is partly because the Government are too large. We are the largest collection of government appointees of any advanced industrial democracy, and perhaps that is something else that we need to contemplate. However, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Patten, that the Private Member’s Bill—the Steel Bill mark 5, or whatever it now is—which is now called the Byles Bill, will begin to correct the problem of lawbreakers subsequently returning to the Lords.
The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, asked the Government to review the decision to end this survey and I will take that comment back. I, too, read the Hansard Society survey on attitudes to those in public life. Part of the reason for deciding to end the survey of the Committee on Standards in Public Life was that a number of other similar surveys reach the same worrying conclusions, and the Hansard Society survey is clearly very much part of that.
The noble Lord, Lord Martin, talked of the importance of politicians being seen as serving their communities. One of the things that we have to combat is the sense that everyone, whatever they do, is doing it for their own benefit. That is part of the attitude that has grown up in the past 20 years. Economists bear a certain amount of responsibility for that with the growth of public choice economics, which argues that everyone is self-interested and no one has any altruistic feelings, as do the spread of libertarianism across the Atlantic and the disciples of Ayn Rand, who forget that the concept of public service—contributing to the life of the community—does motivate people. We need to reward those who are motivated by that. That is very much part of what we need to reintroduce in our public life because the cynicism of those who say, “You’re all in it for what you can get out of it”, is part of what has eroded popular respect for all our elite institutions.
My noble friend Lord Tyler talked about the power of money in politics as being part of that erosion. The power of money has always been there; it was just that previously it was disguised by deference. The extent to which we had mass political parties meant that they could claim to be funded by a very large number of people. I was rather shaken when I discovered, about two years ago, that in the previous year there had been more individual donors to the Liberal Democrats than there had been individual small donors to the Labour Party. The Labour Party had retreated to a position where it depended very heavily on union donations. That is a problem for all of us, and is one we all share. Why has our membership shrunk? Why have political parties ceased to be able to persuade people to share in contributing to political life at all levels, which is what we attempt to do?
The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, talked about the need to reconsider the language of politics. That is very much a problem for all our public educators, journalists and others. The war between the BBC and the written media is part of the problem that we currently face, as the noble Lord well knows. There is the sense that the BBC is trying to address public service broadcasting and is being attacked; that it is an inherently left-wing concept for the Daily Mail and the Telegraph is part of what has gone wrong. How we gain that sense of a shared discussion about limited issues is very much a part of what we have to do.
I suggest that part of it is that politicians have to explain to people the limits of what is possible. I come from a party that, much against my efforts within the party’s policy committee, attempted to persuade people that we could somehow abolish tuition fees. We could not; we needed to spend the money on early years and education. It was a mistake. Politicians in some parties are now trying to persuade people that we can tell the world that we want to get off and go back to national sovereignty. We cannot. There are things that people want that politicians cannot provide. We cannot put up pensions, provide everything free on the National Health Service and cut taxes at the same time. Anyone who suggests that that is possible is misleading the public dreadfully.
The importance of expanding citizenship education is an issue on which the noble Lords, Lord Norton, my noble friend Lord Phillips and others touched. Yes, it is vital. No, we have failed to do that, as have successive Governments over the past 20 to 30 years, and more. It is something that other institutions, such as the churches and local politics before local government was cut so badly, used to provide. We have to find a way of doing that and I thoroughly support the work of the Citizenship Foundation and my noble friend Lord Phillips in promoting it.
We all feel that good men and women are needed to hold political life and democracy together. We also recognise that to some extent the professionalisation of politics has undermined that. We have a problem with political recruitment and getting people into politics who will want to serve. In many ways it is sad that David Cameron’s efforts to bring a number of people from outside politics into the Commons through his A list has not been more successful. He was trying to find people from outside political life who would contribute to politics. We need a broad common effort by all political elites to rebuild public trust. That has to come from parties, Parliament the media and others—heaven knows, business and bankers. Until bankers begin to make their own proper efforts to reconstruct the trust of the common public in the financial system, there is a limit to what we can do to rebuild public trust as well. Most of all, we need to explain to and educate our public about what is possible and what is not, and to accept that we are not just politicians but, as the noble Lord, Lord Bew, said, we have to be public educators.