Motion to Take Note
That this House takes note of the role of openness and transparency in reinforcing confidence in public institutions.
My Lords, it is an obvious truth that openness and transparency are desirable attributes of public institutions. As far as this House is concerned, one of the places that is recognised is in paragraph 10 of the Code of Conduct, which sets out the general obligations of a Member to register and declare their interests and then goes on to say:
“The test of relevant interest is whether the interest might be thought by a reasonable member of the public to influence the way in which a Member of the House of Lords discharges his or her parliamentary duties … The test of relevant interest is therefore not whether a Member’s actions in Parliament will be influenced by the interest, but whether a reasonable member of the public might think that this might be the case”.
The importance of the Code of Conduct is recognised in the first sentence of the report of the Committee for Privileges dated 13 April 2016, which is ironically entitled Undermining Public Confidence in the House. It reads as follows:
“A central purpose of the Code of Conduct is to provide the openness and accountability necessary to reinforce public confidence in the House of Lords”.
The relevance of this, and the reasons that I balloted for this short debate on this important topic of public interest, is that while it may have a topical EU context, I believe that the principles at stake are of much wider relevance. Since rejoining this House eight months ago, I have had a particular, personal experience of a public institution apparently rejecting the principles of openness and transparency. This is a matter of concern to me and I thought it only right to draw it to the attention of this House and, therefore, the public. I apologise if some of my remarks are rather specific and detailed.
This came about after I spoke last autumn in the first debate on the referendum. Having myself just completed that lengthy and exhaustive declaration of interests, with which all your Lordships will be familiar and which all new Members of this House have to complete, I was surprised to note that some Members speaking in that debate who were former EU Commissioners did not, when speaking, declare the pensions that they receive from the EU. I looked into this further and discovered that there was a specific exemption from the Committee for Privileges and in the code exempting such Members from declaring such pensions and that the committee had confirmed this exemption on several occasions. This resulted in my writing a letter, co-signed by 30-odd Members of this House, to the committee in March this year setting out the reasons why we thought this exemption was, in 2016, inappropriate and, frankly, wrong. A copy of this letter is in the Library for those noble Lords who would like to look at it later.
That letter made a number of points. I have another quote, if your Lordships will forgive me. Paragraph 58 of the Code of Conduct for Members of the House of Lords and Guide to the Code of Conduct states:
“Members are not required to register pension arrangements”—
I think that we are all familiar with that—
“unless conditions are attached to the continuing receipt of the pension that a reasonable member of the public might regard as likely to influence their conduct as parliamentarians”.
And here is the important sentence:
“Such conditions attaching to pensions from European Union institutions do not normally require the pension to be registered or declared in proceedings in the House”.
In other words, as we wrote in our letter, a Member is not at the moment normally required to register or declare a pension from EU institutions, even if the receipt of that pension by such a Member is subject to conditions that a reasonable member of the public might regard as likely to influence their conduct as parliamentarians.
My next point that I draw to your Lordships’ attention is very important and is contained in Article 213 of the treaty of Rome. This, in my submission, makes this situation different from all other pensions that are exempted from the normal obligations of disclosure. It states:
“The Members of the Commission shall refrain from any action incompatible with their duties ... When entering upon their duties they shall give a solemn undertaking that, both during and after their term of office, they will respect the obligations arising therefrom … In the event of any breach of these obligations, the Court of Justice may … rule that the member concerned be … deprived of his right to a pension”.
That is key, because the nuisance that I am trying to point out here is not only that, if a former EU Commissioner and Member of this House is speaking, the fact of his or her being in receipt of an EU pension needs not be disclosed, but that this financial sword of Damocles is also unknown. In this era of transparency, I submit that this is inappropriate.
My third point is that this matter was considered, I have found out, about 10 years ago by the Sub-Committee on Lords’ Interests under the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, who is, as many noble Lords will know, a very distinguished Law Lord. He looked into this exemption and his report contained a very simple conclusion—please forgive me for another quote; it is only one sentence, recommending that,
“Members of the House in receipt of pensions from the European Union should as a matter of course declare such pensions as a financial interest when taking part in debates, Statements and Questions on European Union matters”.
The curious thing is that is an unequivocal recommendation, but the committee rejected it and has done so ever since.
As noble Lords have heard, normal pensions are exempted from obligations of disclosure. For the reasons I hope I have set out, we consider this situation to be different. However, the Committee for Privileges disagrees with us. As a new Member of this House, albeit the second time round, I was genuinely surprised—
Is there a scintilla of evidence that the receipt of pensions from the European institutions has ever influenced the position of a Member of this House or that the European authorities have threatened such a Member for expressing a view?
Anyone who listened to that question will realise that I cannot say that there has been but, as the noble Lord heard, in the Code of Conduct the question is whether a reasonable member of the public might think that such was the case if they knew the facts.
My Lords, perhaps I can help the noble Lord on that question. There is no doubt that the European Commission has threatened people with the loss of their pension if they do not toe the EU line. One of those people is the redoubtable and wonderful Marta Andreasen, who noble Lords may remember was the chief accountant of the European Union and as such refused to sign its fraudulent accounts. She was threatened with the loss of her pension. Another is the former French Prime Minister, Madame Édith Cresson, who had an arrangement with her dentist which was less than wholly proper. When she came to trial in front of the Commission, it decided not to take her pension away because she had gone through enough suffering. I wanted to help the noble Lord with his interjection, which supports our side of the argument rather more than his.
As I was saying, I, as a new Member of this House—albeit the second time round—was genuinely surprised when I received the letter of rejection from the committee, because I honestly thought that the arguments we had set out in our letter in this day and age were frankly unanswerable, and there are further reasons for so saying. This is of course now 2016, after the expenses scandal and the seven Nolan principles of public life. What once may have been acceptable, if it ever was, no longer is. This exemption, in my submission, is now out of date. To paraphrase my noble friend Lord Lexden, who spoke in the previous debate, it does not pass muster any longer.
Secondly, I refer to the Survey of Public Attitudes Towards Conduct in Public Life 2014 contained in the briefing pack provided by the Library for this debate. It contains two quite telling sentences:
“Overall, the survey suggests that the public continue to have a very poor valuation of the current standards in public life”;
“Overall, the survey paints a fairly bleak picture of the public’s perceptions of standards in public life”.
In its April 2016 letter in reply to ours, the committee simply stated that it had previously considered this matter on three occasions and that it,
“could not identify a material development since it last considered the matter which should cause it to reconsider its position”.
There we have it: a particularly important committee of this House, comprised, as noble Lords will see when they look at its composition, of some very senior and distinguished Members, professes to respect openness and accountability while at the same time by some of its decisions apparently rejecting the principle of transparency. I am led to go on to say that it is no wonder that the public have the low regard for standards in public life that is noted in the briefing pack, as noble Lords have just heard.
As soon as I heard that this debate had come up in the ballot and I got the date for it, I gave notice to the chairman of the committee and implicitly invited him and any of his committee members to attend but, as far as I am aware, none of them is in the Chamber today.
Will the noble Lord tell us whether he also notified about this debate all the people against whom certain aspersions are being cast?
If I heard that correctly, I think that this is a matter of public interest and I am simply ventilating a decision made by the committee.
Do I take that as a no?
Yes. I am obviously not casting personal aspersions. I think that the court of public opinion will judge this matter.
I am sorry to hassle the noble Lord. I am sure he heard that what I asked him was whether he had alerted the people who might be caught by this accusation to the nature of this debate. I think that most people thought it was about something quite different, and I am asking whether he had alerted the people who might have an interest in the case he is making to the content of this debate.
I had not alerted those people on all sides of the House who might be caught by this, but my comments are not directed at them; they are directed at the decisions of the committee.
Notwithstanding what the noble Baroness has just said and what other Members of this House who are listening may feel, I believe that this is a matter on which the court of public opinion will draw its own conclusions. As to the subject of this debate, I took advice about how to frame the ventilation of my concern on this topic, and I think it was the Table Office that advised me to address it in this way. While it is rather specific, I think that it raises general principles of transparency, openness and perhaps accountability.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for letting me intervene. I am in receipt of a pension from a Civil Service trade union and I regularly participate in debates relating to employment. I observe that there are scientists in receipt of pensions who participate in debates in this House. I notice, too, that there are people in receipt of health service pensions. In general, rather than specific, terms, which the noble Lord has just come to, is he arguing that this debate is about a general application right across the board, or is he focusing solely on the EU?
In my submission, this situation is different because of the provision about forfeitability. That is the key point because, as I understand it, there is an exemption for most other pensions. The key point here is that any member of the public who was listening would not know that one of the noble Lords taking part in the debate was in receipt of a pension that they were not obliged to disclose but, more particularly, that if they said one word that the ECJ objected to, they could have that pension forfeited. That is the mischief that I am talking about and it is utterly different from the situation that the noble Lord has referred to.
I think that I have made myself clear. I have genuine concerns. I am raising this subject at an interesting time, but in fact it has come up because I am a new Member and had not come across it before. Although it is curious that it should come up now, in the era of transparency and openness in which we live it is a matter that is worthy of debate. Unless it be thought that this is a party matter, I am authorised to say that several Members of this House who countersigned the letter that we wrote have expressed their agreement with my words, including the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fairfax of Cameron, for introducing this debate. I am still relatively new to this House, so you may not know that if there is a stick lying on the ground with a label on it saying, “wrong end”, I am prone to pick it up. I was drawn by the title of this debate and therefore went to the Library to read the briefing pack, which was fascinating. Its conclusion opens by saying that overall, the survey suggests that the public continue to have a very poor valuation of current standards in public life; respondents generally gave negative answers. That is something we should be concerned about.
My contribution will be over in 10 minutes and then you can get on with the debate that obviously some of you want to have, but I want to speak about what I see as the moral and spiritual dimensions to this issue.
When my middle son was seven—he is now 22 and one of the most examined children in history—he sat the first of many tests: the dreaded SATs, which parents of my generation will know about. He attended a wonderful Church of England primary school in Huddersfield, where we were living at the time. To avoid undue pressure on the children, the school sensibly played down the fact that it was a test and encouraged us parents to do the same. Amazingly, we did. When the day came, he hardly knew what was in store or its significance. When he got home that day, he said, “Dad, what a funny day it’s been”. He told me that the whole class had been marched into the hall where they normally have their lunch and been given some “special work” to do. But what really surprised him was that, before they did the special work, the teachers had impressed upon them that they were not allowed to help each other. It was his first foray into the values of an overly competitive adult world, where you learn how to be an individual and a consumer but rarely a community.
Hitherto, this school, like virtually every other school in the country, prized as a core value helping each other. More than this, it was a Church school, where loving your neighbour as yourself was at the heart of the school’s ethos. However, in the world of the exam, we have another name for that value whereby we help our neighbour if they are struggling: cheating. Do not get me wrong: of course we need exams—that is not the point I am making. However, this seems to me to be a helpful little parable for our time. As we grow up, as targets and league tables take their toll, and as many feel left behind, the value of collaboration—helping each other—is superseded by another value: competition. We stop seeing ourselves as a community and learn to see ourselves as individuals set against each other in a dog-eat-dog world. This affects everything. Little wonder then that we in public life, who appear to be dining at the top table, are therefore often judged harshly and there is great delight when we fall.
It also affects so much of our public discourse. Our ways of interacting with one another are often combative and adversarial. That is the way we have learned to do things. In this of all weeks, we need to see national and global solutions for the new place we find ourselves in. Thinking merely in terms of winners and losers disfranchises half a nation. However, at the same time, it is interesting that many of today’s most successful businesses, like our very best schools, prize collaboration as a way of encouraging enterprise, harnessing creativity and, in so doing, developing different and more collaborative models of leadership. We also see this in some of our best local authorities and councils. My well-being and success are now intrinsically bound up with the well-being and success of others and of the whole. I discover that, when I am trusted, I am much more likely to trust others. Incidentally, that is why our Select Committees here are such a joy to be part of. If the public saw this side of our political life rather than the bear pit of PMQs, we might begin to change perceptions. But we need only to look around ourselves at the layout of this space, let alone of another one. Here, at the centre of public and political life, we are formed and schooled in a way of making decisions that is not primarily about reaching consensus and finding a common mind but about winning an argument.
Let us place this alongside the other influences that I have mentioned—not least the dispiriting weight of always being viewed as a consumer. You cannot drive 100 yards down the road nowadays, let alone switch on your phone or open a magazine, without somebody trying to sell you some new great lifestyle. The world is kind of saying, “If you bought this fast car, or if you wore that perfume, or if you got those designer-label jeans, you would be happy”. Well, none of it works—or perhaps to be more accurate, it works just enough to get you addicted. All this has created what I see as a nation of junkies, lusting for the wealth to deliver the goods that they think will buy them happiness and then realising that it does not really work.
Then there is the increasing professionalisation of political life, where other influences and experiences are fewer than used to be the case. Add all this together and there is an inevitable disconnect between different groups of people in our country, and we are part of that. There is also a disconnect between the public and the private: between the things we value and the way we do things in, let us say, our schools and our families—even the things we experience in some of our more innovative businesses—and the things we do and see in public. This breeds cynicism and we should not therefore be surprised when the evidence shows us that the perception of the public, albeit an unfair one, is that we cannot be trusted.
But what if our families and schools were right? What if this way of doing things is best and what if we allowed it to shape our public life? I quoted Wilfred Owen earlier today; let me now quote WH Auden. In his wonderful poem “In Praise of Limestone”, he said this:
“The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide”.
The transparency of life, where I am the same person at home and at work, when the door is closed as well as when the door is opened, is formed in us by values of responsibility and ownership—by ownership here I mean not of goods but of ourselves and our actions—and by collaboration. It is where we know that we belong to each other and are accountable to each other and, I suppose most of all, accountable to ourselves, able to look ourselves in the eye over what we have said and done. This is, thank God, taught and valued in all our schools. It is the elusive ethos that parents and politicians crave, but it is often lacking, or at least diminished, in public life, where we have allowed a separation of who we are in one place from who we are in another, and where the values we espouse at home are not always the values we espouse at work.
I spoke to a woman recently—I think this is wonderful—who said that her rule of thumb in elections when deciding who to vote for was, would she let them babysit her children? That is quite a good test to apply. I can certainly think of worse reasons.
I conclude with one last story because parables often help more in these matters than anything else. I heard recently about a teenager who was caught stealing pens from WH Smith. He was arrested and cautioned. His parents were distraught. “I cannot believe it”, said the father, “My son a thief. If only he had told me that he needed some pens—I could have brought him some back from the office”. No amount of principles, protocols, guidelines or codes, useful though they are, will make a difference if we have not allowed the fundamental value of seeking the common good, loving and valuing our neighbour as ourselves, to form our personhood and shape our institutions. Rebuilding trust and changing perception is a spiritual and moral issue, and it begins in the heart. Until we have decided to be one person rather than several, there will be no change at all.
My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend on initiating this debate. We have only had two speeches and I am already wondering how my noble friend Lady Chisholm will manage to respond.
I shall follow the Motion in addressing confidence in institutions and avoid addressing the wider, but major, question of restoring confidence in our politics. That merits a later and extended debate in the light of current events. Political parties are institutions operating in public but they are not public institutions.
I wish to focus on confidence in one particular institution—namely, Parliament—although my comments may have a wider resonance. The most recent Hansard Society audit of political engagement revealed a welcome increase in the proportion, to just over half, of respondents who claim to know at least “a fair amount” about Parliament. Almost three-quarters agreed that Parliament,
“debates and makes decisions about issues that matter to me”.
Most of those questioned, none the less, are not satisfied with how Parliament works. Only 32% are satisfied, and only 29% are satisfied with how MPs generally do their job. MPs, Matthew Flinders has argued, have become a demonised group.
In terms of trust, Eurobarometer data show that only one-third of those surveyed in the United Kingdom tend to trust Parliament. The figure is slightly above the EU average but still lagging behind Scandinavian legislatures and a number of west European legislatures. My starting point, therefore, is that there is a problem of trust. The situation may not be critical but I would argue that it is unhealthy.
The point I wish to develop is that greater openness and transparency are necessary but they are not sufficient. There is a clear case for making institutions more open and transparent. Doing so is important for people knowing that they are open and transparent. It is important also for public accountability. Openness and transparency help reduce the likelihood of waste and corruption. There is clearly a cost in terms of money and resources, but it is a worthwhile cost for fulfilling those purposes. It may be cost-efficient in so far as openness and transparent help to tackle inefficiency and corruption.
Parliament is notable for the extent to which it has sought to be open and transparent. We are far more open than many legislatures. Votes are roll-call votes; how Members vote is a matter of public record. So, too, is what they say. Plenary debates and committees are generally held in open session. Hansard provides a valuable transcription, and one that is available within a matter of hours. Long gone are the days when the reporting of parliamentary proceedings was a punishable offence. The media can report what goes on, while we have moved to embrace the broadcasting of proceedings and to exploit social media to let people know what we are doing. We have invested substantial resources in the parliamentary website. Members of the public can watch proceedings on BBC Parliament or on the internet through “Democracy Live”. All these put us way ahead of many other legislatures.
Investing in these resources is important and necessary, but clearly it is not impacting greatly on public confidence. To have a significant impact we need to be proactive and not simply passive. Making material available is necessary, but we should not assume that people are keen to have access to that material. Some are, but the problem is that nowadays members of the public have a great many sources vying for their attention. Parliament is hardly the only body utilising social media. We cannot assume that if we put material on the public record the public will be avid consumers of that material.
We have to compete in a much more competitive environment in terms of attracting interest, we have to compete against a cynical attitude towards politics, and we have to work in the world of the print media, where declining income means that less attention is paid to politics and more to sport and human interest stories. Expenses scandals will act as a magnet for media interest, but not the parliamentary scrutiny of Bills, even though that activity may have far-reaching effects on the citizens of this nation.
If we are to restore confidence, we have to go out and make our case. We have to inform and explain, but we have to get people’s attention in order to do that. Parliament has an admirable outreach programme. There is now the dedicated education centre. We have in this House the Peers in Schools programme. This year, the parliamentary outreach teams are working on building links with BME communities. In the Commons, the Backbench Business Committee and the Petitions Committee are serving to pursue issues that engage the commitment of different groups in society. There are thus steps that we are taking to build links and let people know what we are doing.
What is being done is commendable; we need, though, to build on it. That involves looking both outwards and inwards. We need to be outward-looking and proactive in reaching out to members of the public, be it generally or organised in particular groups. That may entail—indeed will entail—investing more resources, not least in social media. It may mean being more ambitious in what we say as well as in how we say it. That in my view means utilising Members more to make our case. Officials are wary of going beyond providing descriptive data, but Members can be more outgoing in what they say and are able to challenge critics. We need therefore to harness the resource that is the membership of the two Houses. We cannot expect people to have confidence in Parliament if we do not have confidence in ourselves. In recent years, parliamentarians have adopted a bunker mentality in the light of media criticisms. We need to come out fighting.
We need to be inward-looking in terms of ensuring that our practices and procedures, and indeed our behaviour, are worthy of trust. We cannot simply assume that what we do is likely to attract the trust of citizens. We need to review what we do and how we do it. We sometimes behave in the Chamber in a way that suggests that we have forgotten that we are being televised. People are not necessarily impressed when we become overly parochial. We need to be aware of the wider environment and indeed of the superior needs of the House. The House is more important than any individual Member, however important some individual Members may consider themselves.
In some areas, this House is falling behind the other place; in some areas, we are playing to our strengths. I think particularly of the use of ad-hoc committees for post-legislative scrutiny. That, in my view, is the sort of thing we should be doing. We need to ensure that our procedures and how we conduct ourselves are reviewed regularly, not least with a view to ensuring that we are operating in a way that is likely to enhance rather than undermine public confidence. In short, we need to ensure that we are as open and transparent as possible. That is necessary but it is not sufficient. We need to move beyond the passive. We have to take our case to the public, rather than assuming that they will take an interest in what we do. We have to explain why Parliament matters and how members of the public can not only follow what we do but feed in their opinions. It is not just a question of openness but also one of engagement.
For the public to trust us, to have confidence in us, we have to be seen to be fulfilling our job of calling government to account. Good government needs an effective Parliament. It is also important to stress that it needs an effective Opposition. The Government are elected through Parliament and rest for their legitimacy upon Parliament. It is therefore in the Government’s interests to take Parliament seriously. Much of what I have said is a matter for the two Houses, but my noble friend Lady Chisholm may wish to put on record the Government’s commitment to having Ministers and civil servants engage fully with the work of both Houses. In terms of trust, it is in the Government’s own interests to do so. There are times when Ministers need to be reminded of that. Parliament and government rest on public confidence. Recognition of that is especially important at the moment. We are not acting in a vacuum.
My Lords, I, too, had taken this debate to be rather broader than the question of the declaration of interest, let alone one specifically about the sources of pensions. It is not irrelevant, but I think that this is, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, has just shown us, something of very much broader concern. We are, I suppose, 30 years out from what is taken by some to be a revolution in accountability and transparency. I have no doubt that that revolution was, in many ways, made possible by the advent of forms of IT—it was much easier to make far more public. It is, I think, reasonable to ask ourselves: is it working? Are more accountability and transparency having the effects we hoped they would have—not just in public institutions or in Parliament, but much more generally, in all institutional life and perhaps beyond institutional life?
I do not think it is actually that new—we have had some forms of accountability and transparency for decades, perhaps centuries. After all, what is financial audit of a company, what is the publication of accounts, except accountability and transparency? Yes, we all know that it has a very limited focus and there is an awful lot you cannot learn by reading a company’s accounts, even if you are more of a forensic accountant than I am. However, we have to ask ourselves, many years out, whether this attempt to extend accountability and transparency has worked the way we thought it would. Has it increased public confidence? The evidence is very mixed and some of it is very discouraging.
It is a commonplace to say, “Oh, by the way, trust has declined”. I am cautious about saying that, because the empirical evidence we have is extremely mixed and people tend to rely rather too much on opinion pollsters, who ask questions about generic attitudes. They ask, “Do you trust doctors?”, “Do you trust politicians?”, Do you trust the media?”. People say, “No” or “Yes”, or they rate trust on a one to five scale, and we all know those scales. However, when you look at the time series—and we have it for a few, such as politicians and journalists—you discover that the people who are most mistrusted now were also most mistrusted 25 years ago. Conversely, judges and nurses, who were among the most trusted, remain among the most trusted. I shall come back to this but we might want to think a bit more critically about what we are trying to look at when we talk about trust.
What should we do if we hope to have greater public confidence? This may be the wrong question. Accountability and transparency might surely be expected to have more effects on trustworthiness than on trust. That seems intuitively the case. If I know that the information about my institution or my conduct is going to be public, one would hope that I would be a bit more careful about whether I behave in a trustworthy way. Whether other people trust me is, of course, up to them. Trust is something that others give, not something that I can control. There is no automatic read-across in my view from accountability and transparency to that magic goal of more trust, although there might be a better connection to trustworthiness.
I shall take accountability and transparency separately. A good question would be, “Does accountability always increase trustworthiness?”. The answer seems to be, “Sometimes it does, but not always”. We have quite a lot of let us call it, rather simply, unintelligent forms of accountability around, and this Parliament is responsible for increasing their number in a very generous way. I give noble Lords just one little example from schools. It is the classic example of forms of accountability that create perverse incentives. A performance indicator for schools is the number of A to C passes at GCSE, and there are other benchmarks for primaries, sixth forms and so on. What does a rational school do? Well, they want to get more A to C passes per pupil. So a very good thing to do would be to put the pupils in for less demanding subjects and to withdraw those who will not exactly shine from taking too many, or too difficult, subjects. A metric that was meant to improve children’s education thereby ends up damaging it. Perverse incentives are littered across our system of accountability. Of course, they do not improve trustworthiness—people feel that the schools are not doing a better job by children—but nor, probably, do they improve trust.
However—this is much lower profile but I suspect that it is more serious—the attempts to increase accountability have a deadening effect, even when there is not the high-stakes disaster of the perverse incentive, simply because of the burdens of compliance becoming too great for too many people who should be looking at the task they are doing and the people they are meant to be serving. I give noble Lords an example. A few years ago I chaired a little inquiry into the safety of maternity services in England and Wales. One of the midwives said in evidence, “The problem really is that it takes longer to do the paperwork than to deliver the baby”. There is one thing that a midwife is meant to be doing—namely, keeping an eye on the mother in labour and on the newborn, not doing the paperwork. That, I fear, is an example of a rather dangerous burden of compliance, but we all know the word “tick box” now. Tick-box compliance is with us for a reason—namely, we thought that more compliance and more accountability would always be better, so we ratcheted up and up. Should we wonder, then, that people have to spend so much of their time—and misspend their time—doing the compliance? If noble Lords read—as I did recently—Swimming with Sharks, which is about the 2008 crisis in the financial sector, they will discover something very interesting about compliance. When the author, a Dutch journalist called Joris Luyendijk, started asking people in banks, “What sort of animal are you?”, the traders said, “I’m a lion”, “I’m a wolf”, “I’m a fox”, “I’m a bird of prey—an eagle, perhaps”, but in compliance the people said, “I think I’m rather like a beaver. Beavers don’t have much time for servicing others, they’re too busy chewing”. So we have to be pretty cautious about stupid forms of accountability—and we have fantastic numbers of them.
Does increasing transparency increase trustworthiness, even if it does not increase trust? Not always. Consider how often your Lordships have encountered the minutes of an institution—a public institution or, for that matter, a commercial institution—and thought, “Well, these minutes are mightily bland and uninformative”. But we should ask why they are bland and uninformative. They are bland and uninformative because somebody told the person who was writing the minutes that they really should not be too sharp-edged or create any controversy and that they should damp it all down, forgetting that a minute is valuable only if it is an accurate document of record. That is where the transparency that is so commonly the case for organisations now—you have to publish the minutes—can be damaging.
However, sometimes more transparency does increase trustworthiness. Publishing a list of interests is quite a good idea, although I note that throughout the institutions many people confuse the question of whether people have interests with the question of whether they have conflicts of interest. They are quite different things. An interest is a standing interest; a conflict arises in a particular situation and has to be dealt with.
I will give your Lordships an example of where a lack of transparency does lead to a lowering of trust. Consider the state of Delaware. Delaware has almost as many corporations registered in it as citizens. Why? Because you do not have to declare the names of the directors—no transparency, it is not in the public domain. That is why any corporation that wishes to do something that its directors might not wish to have attributed to them will incorporate in Delaware. It is just a small example of offshoreness, albeit within the jurisdiction of the United States. In general, declarations of interest and the identification of conflicts of interest can be helpful because they help us know who is responsible for what.
Does transparency increase trust? The empirical evidence is extremely poor on this point. It looks as though transparency often reduces trust. Of course, there has been only sporadic research but it is not very convincing. I think we know why. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, touched on this. Very often transparency is just too little to increase trust or trustworthiness. Transparency can increase trust only if it is accompanied by, as the noble Lord said, engagement, dialogue and communication.
What is transparency? It may be fashionable but it is actually a matter of putting stuff in the public domain. That is easy in the age of IT. You can tip shedloads of stuff into the public domain, but guess what? It is not something that everybody reads. When I hear in an institutional context people saying, “We should be more transparent”, I think, “You want to let yourselves off lightly, don’t you? That won’t be enough”.
Why does it not work? First, it is often not accessible. People do not always find the stuff. Those of your Lordships who know how long it takes to become familiar with the website of any one of our government departments or any business that tries to do it well will realise that tipping it on to the website does not always mean that people find it. Worse, it is not merely that it is not in practice accessible to everybody; when they get there it is often not intelligible. That really does put people off from placing their trust. When they can understand roughly what it means, it is very frequently not assessable; that is, they cannot judge what it all comes down to.
A few years ago, I took part in a Royal Society working party on science as an open enterprise. Science depends immensely on communication and transparency, but we came through that thinking that mere transparency and openness are never enough. What we need is intelligent openness, which means taking account of which audiences there are and what they can follow—and following up on it.
If we were successful in being transparent, what could we achieve? Could we perhaps make it easier to make judgments of trustworthiness? I do not speak about trust but trustworthiness will need three things: evidence of honesty, evidence of competence and evidence of reliability. We are not going to get there by mere transparency. Too often, it is unintelligible and unassessable even if people find it. In short, transparency, that fashionable nostrum of the 1980s, has not delivered more than we should have expected. It might have delivered more or less what we expected but every time I hear someone say, “We should be more transparent and start to flood people with data”, that is just not enough. Neither stupid accountability nor stupid transparency will work.
Finally, to take one last kick at something, the question: “How we should rebuild trust?” is very unfortunate. It is for other people to give or refuse trust; we can be trustworthy but they give trust. So that question tells me that people already have their PR hats on and are thinking, “How can we persuade other people to trust us?”. It has a certain whiff of a conman’s question. If we think about the well-known Mr Madoff, who made off with so many people’s savings, can you not just hear him saying, “How can we rebuild trust?”, and what would he mean by that?
My Lords, I compliment the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, and my noble friend Lord Norton on their very interesting, thoughtful and, dare I say it, rather academic and philosophical views of the wider issue that we are discussing. I am afraid I shall bring it back to the narrower issue in supporting my noble friend Lord Fairfax but the good news for the House is that I shall not detain it long.
In reinforcing my noble friend Lord Fairfax’s point about the register of interests, I note for instance that my noble friend Lord Tugendhat—I have not told him about this but it is in no way critical—mentioned that he was in receipt of a pension from the Commission when he took part in the EU Committee report, The Process of Withdrawing from the European Union, an extremely useful document. I mention that because I do not see the problem with it. Indeed, there is no problem at all, so I back up my noble friend Lord Fairfax on that. Perhaps I may cite my noble friend Lord Lexden, who took part in the previous debate. He said more than my noble friend Lord Fairfax says. He said that it,
“simply will not pass muster in this age of much-vaunted transparency”.—[Hansard, 30/06/16; col. 1700.]
I agree with the noble Baroness but that is what he said. It would be better if people were open when they have an interest that could be a conflict of interest—not that it necessarily is.
Leading on from that, I wish to concentrate on the latter part of the Motion on,
“reinforcing confidence in public institutions”.
Narrowly, I want to talk about confidence in this institution. I have been a Member for only eight months; it is a unique and pretty strange but very privileged position. It can work and I am happy to defend the House of Lords but we do not have constituents to whom we answer, nor are we accountable at elections for our actions and views. However, we are accountable in a more general sense.
I particularly want to pick up on my discovery in the last few months that my view, which was that leaving the European Union was the right thing for this country—I am sure everybody would agree that we should always try to do the right thing, whether in politics or in our personal lives—was in a minority. Having a minority view is fine but I found that my view was rather derided and I found myself criticised and actually heckled for expressing that view. I met a wall of hostility. Similarly, when the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, stands up, he tends to be rather derided. There is nothing the matter with people disagreeing, but it is quite worrying when the overwhelming view in this House is out of touch with the majority view of the British public.
In reflecting my own view, my judgment was of course paramount, because I believe it was the right thing to do, but I hope that I at no stage derided the more than 16 million people in this country who took a contrary view. But to see the view of the 17.5 million of my fellow citizens so derided, in this House or elsewhere, is surely wrong. For those who read the London Times, there is an article by David Aaronovitch today which basically says the people have spoken but they have got it wrong and we have to go back and try it all over again. I am sorry, but the people have indeed spoken.
I will go further. One noble Lord, before the referendum, told me that we would have to stop any legislation coming forward should the country vote for out. I assumed he must be joking. But not at all, he thought that was right: after the largest participation of the electorate in a democratic vote since 1992, he was keen to ignore the result because it did not coincide with his views. If we want to reinforce confidence in this House and this public institution, we need to consider—dare I say it—less arrogantly the view of the British people. That is not to say that we have always to agree with them, but we who are fortunate enough to be here are here to serve the British people.
In the Commons yesterday, one Member of Parliament was booed because he took a contrary view and was in favour of leaving. In this House it has been less vocal, but there has been chuntering whenever noble Lords express views contrary to the settled view of this House on the EU. Formerly, as a Member of Parliament, I would talk to my constituents every weekend, as one has to, in the street, in the supermarket, at advice sessions, at events or whatever. I should like the House to know that I still talk to them in the street, in the supermarket or wherever. I suggest that we in this House need to listen rather more to the British people. It is not that they are always right, but we need to listen to them and understand from our privileged position that we owe it to the British people—our people—to take a more balanced view of what they want.
Your Lordships overwhelmingly opposed what has turned out to be the majority view of the British electorate in the referendum. Of course we should not abandon principles—far from it, we should stand by them—but nor should we dismiss the concerns of our fellow Britons. If we wish to reinforce confidence in this institution, we should take greater note of the views of the people of this country, whom we are here to serve.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me a peg on which to hang another item that relates to the fundamental subject that he has raised. I give notice that in September this year I will introduce a Private Member’s Bill that seeks to amend existing legislation on lobbying, transparency and openness. If we are truly to have a better relationship with the public, I hope that will help us to go in that direction. The public need access to real facts, so that when they take their decisions they are basing them on real hard facts that they understand. My Private Member’s Bill will be along those lines.
Why does lobbying and transparency matter? Lobbying is an estimated £2 billion industry in the UK, and most of this money is spent by big business. As profit-making entities, it is entirely rational for companies to lobby, whether against a threat to their business from government—the sugar tax is a very good example of that—or because government is providing an opportunity for profit, such as the opening up of the £110 billion NHS budget, which is a big opportunity for business.
There is nothing inherently wrong with that, and companies should be allowed to seek to be heard by the Government, but those of us who participate in Parliament and the public at large should be allowed to know just who is being approached, what is being said and what influence is being brought to bear. The present legislation in this country does not permit that, and as a consequence much is happening that we should know about but do not know about.
Take the lobby for the alcohol industry, of which I have some knowledge. It enjoys enormous influence in government, in large part a consequence of the significant resources that it devotes to lobbying, which far outstrips those of the public health advocates—of which, I openly declare, I am one. The lobby in favour of fracking is another with a sizeable budget and many well-connected political insiders on its payroll, resources that community and environmental groups opposed to fracking cannot match in any way. These are the kind of issues that we should seek to open to wider debate.
I have only two minutes to speak on this topic. I am grateful to have the opportunity to do so, and I hope that the House will be willing to participate in a much fuller debate on the Bill later in the year.
My Lords, briefly, I support what the noble Lords, Lord Fairfax and Lord Robathan, said about noble EU pensioners not declaring that interest in our debates about EU matters and in our register of interests.
I suppose that when the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm, replies for the Government she will say that this is not the Government’s problem: that the decision about this disgraceful state of affairs is for our Committee for Privileges and Conduct to take. Indeed, she will be right if she says that. With regret, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fairfax, that it would have been helpful if the noble Lord, Lord Laming, the Chairman of Committees, could have joined this debate to explain to your Lordships’ House and the wider world why the Privileges Committee has yet again ruled that these pensions do not have to be declared, even if their beneficiaries can lose them if they fail,
“to respect certain obligations arising from the office that they held”.—[Official Report, 6/3/03; col. WA31.].
That was published in Hansard on 6 March 2003, so this question has been rumbling around for some time. If they fail to respect the obligations arising from the offices that they held, they can lose their pensions. That means if they fail to uphold the interests of the European Union in debate in your Lordships’ Chamber.
I will not name them, but one can think of one or two who take part in our debates and who never bother to mention this interest. In fact, they go out of their way not to mention it. If a noble EU pensioner were to get up in one of our debates and say, “Goodness me, it suddenly strikes me that Lord Stoddart of Swindon has been right all along. This European project has failed and should be wrapped up as soon as possible, and what’s more I could even tell you a little extra scandal about it here and there”, he would be in real danger of losing his pension, so he will not say that. He will not go anywhere near as far as that. He will not openly criticise the project of European integration on which his pension depends.
That is what makes these EU pensions so rare, perhaps unique, and this is why under our code of conduct it must be obvious to a normal member of the public that they should be declared. Nevertheless, I look forward, with patience, to the noble Baroness’s reply.
My Lords, thankfully I got wind of what this debate was really about, as opposed to what is on the Order Paper. I do not know much about EU pensions. All I know is that the Privileges Committee of this House considered this issue in 2004, 2007, 2010 and again, it would appear, this year, and came up with the same conclusion. The other thing I would say on the subject is that we are a self-regulating House. I therefore suggest that the noble Baroness, Lady Chisholm of Owlpen, should say simply that it is not a matter for the Government, it is a matter for this House.
Taking it slightly wider on pensions, I remember signing my contract as a senior police officer, when I was appointed as a deputy assistant commissioner, where I had to undertake not to discuss anything that I learned during the course of my employment outside the police service for X years to come. As a consequence of having signed such a contract I, along with many other senior police officers, published my autobiography within months of leaving, on the word of the then chief executive of the Metropolitan Police Authority, who told me that the contract was not worth the paper it was written on.
More seriously, what I also did when I joined as a constable in 1976 and did again when I retired as a deputy assistant commissioner in 2007, was sign the Official Secrets Act, which again was an undertaking not to reveal sensitive issues that I had experienced during my service. I might be tempting fate, but so far I have not been arrested for revealing what might be considered sensitive things, not least in this House. To be honest, to suggest that Members of this House would not act on their honour and express their honest opinion in debates because they were in receipt of a pension from wherever it is I think is an absolute disgrace. The problem of trust is not—
I am grateful to the noble Lord. First, I think his analogy is stretching it a bit far. I am in receipt of an Army pension. Nobody can take it away from me, as it happens, any more than they can take away his police pension. But the point—surely he understands this—is about perception. I am sure that all the former Commissioners here are honourable people, but it is the perception that is left hanging there when they do not declare their interest.
I am grateful for the intervention. As a matter of fact, were I found guilty of a serious criminal offence, which breach of the Official Secrets Act is, I could quite easily have my pension withdrawn from me. I suggest that the problem of trust—
Would that make the noble Lord less likely to breach the Official Secrets Act? That is what we are saying; the fact is that these pensions are unique in that you can lose them if you do not go on upholding the interests of the European communities. That is what puts you at risk of losing this pension and that is why they should be declared in your Lordships’ House.
My Lords, I refer back to what the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, said—which was, in effect, “What is the problem that we are trying to solve here?”. Where is the evidence that people who are in receipt of these pensions have not spoken openly and honestly about their experiences because they are in receipt of that pension? Where is the evidence?
The problem, as I see it, with the public not trusting politicians—and we have had a very good example of it during the EU referendum campaign on both sides—is that politicians tend to express subjective and partisan views that quite clearly do not hold water. Perhaps we should be debating that issue rather than the one that the noble Lord is proposing today.
My Lords, first I thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Chelmsford for raising the standard of the debate, if I may say so, and also giving us an insight into why his sermons are so popular.
A noble Lord
It was not a sermon.
No, but he has good stories.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Fairfax, for at least the subject of this debate, although his contribution did not bring much credit to the House. I regret that he did not notify people who would be affected by it. Let us name one of them, because we know who we are talking about. The idea that anyone does not know that my noble friend Lord Kinnock was a Commissioner seems to me extraordinary. I am going to put that subject to one side, because I think that the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, has said what needed to be said.
The title of the debate was beautifully written, and the issue is at the heart of our democracy—the openness of government and public institutions, whether those are elected bodies; the Civil Service or Parliament itself, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, has said; that plethora of public bodies that contribute to civic society, including police, schools, regulators, the health service and social care; or, indeed, private bodies that receive public money, including landlords whose tenants are in receipt of housing benefit, and farmers, who get a lot of public subsidy. Some openness on those is equally important. Indeed, we might note that companies and banks are also active in the public arena, and society needs to know more about their shareholdings, tax payments—or non-payments—and payments to political parties, as well, perhaps, as their rates of pay. Some of those are public issues that go to the heart of trust.
It is the particular function of your Lordships’ House to hold the Government to account, and there are issues about the Government’s openness, whether about lobbying or public appointments, including to this House, in addition to the funding of the political party that forms the Government. Labour has a good record on increasing transparency, which is vital to accountability, as well as to fighting corruption. We implemented Nolan, and introduced transparency to party funding. Transparency is essential in a democracy, but I take very much the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill. Some of those points are absolutely central, and we need to think again. Transparency of itself does not produce accountability; it may be a tool in accountability but, in the short term, it can actually undermine trust in democracy if it reveals scandals, given that the biggest factor that undermines trust in politics is corruption or the perception of corruption. However, tackling such behaviour, and having the right regulation in place, can both drive up standards and—although it may take some time—increase trust.
We have already heard some figures about the lack of trust. More than half the respondents to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer said that our Government are “entirely” or “to a large extent” run by a few big entities acting in their own best interests. More than half feel that Parliament is “corrupt” or “extremely corrupt”. Given that the latter is, I believe, completely not the case, it demonstrates how perceptions are more important than fact—perhaps the one point on which I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Fairfax. For this reason, each lobbying scandal further erodes public trust in decision-making. People are well aware that big money talks and has influence, and that decisions are likely to be taken that please people with big money rather than the public interest.
I think—and I think the public think—that vested interests enjoy easy access to government, while the views of the public and critical outsiders are often seen as views to be managed, rather than actively considered. The result is that too many decisions are based not on evidence but on the opinion of insiders with a private interest. Sadly, many politicians do not recognise this, which is why all lobbying should be open and declared.
We on this side were bitterly disappointed with the lobbying Act, which tied lobbying by charities up in red tape, while leaving big business free access to government and the Civil Service. I absolve the Minister completely from any involvement in that. Indeed, it was a Liberal Democrat Minister who took that ridiculous Bill through this House. Why was it ridiculous? It excludes the activities of in-house lobbying, so that big interests which are big enough to have their own public affairs teams—defence, the drinks industry, which has already been mentioned, construction, pharmaceuticals and health providers—do not have to go on to the statutory register of lobbyists. It is only consulting firms that have to register, and even then only if they lobby a Minister or a Permanent Secretary. We have ex-Permanent Secretaries in the House, but none of them is in his place today. They, and any civil servant, will know that you lobby not at Permanent Secretary level, but at senior civil servant level, and it is unlikely that most consultant lobbyists would see a Minister, because at that stage the client would front up the meeting. Even if a consultant lobbyist meets a Minister, they have to reveal only their list of clients, not the particular client on whose behalf they lobbied and not on what issue. Supposedly, Ministers should disclose meetings with lobbyists through their published diaries, but they are so opaque and so late that it is impossible to work out what issue was being discussed, and meetings here in Parliament, without civil servants present, do not even have to appear on that declaration.
Furthermore, business can lobby special advisers, chairs of Select Committees, Members of your Lordships’ House or MPs without anyone having to know. So will the Government fully support, not just at Second Reading, the Private Member’s Bill proposed by my noble friend Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe which, as he said, will have its Second Reading on 9 September? It would produce a serious register of all paid professional lobbying of politicians and senior civil servants. If the Government will not give it their full backing, why not? Without that, we can have no transparency in government decision-making. Otherwise, we have to ask how a Minister who received IEA funding could then make a policy decision—in this case, to reduce lobbying by charities—with the press release announcing it actually starting by quoting the very IEA which had funded his office.
One part of decision-making is public appointments, where the Government have decided to give more power to Ministers over outside independent judgment. Will the Minister explain how this meets any government desire for openness, transparency and fairness, given that it smacks of jobs for friends? How can someone known to be associated with the out campaign be appointed to the Charity Commission, be involved in its advice that charities should not campaign on the referendum—a move widely seen as stopping environmentalists supporting European action—and then be re-appointed despite this apparent conflict of interest? Incidentally, I believe that a registered charity sent all Members of your Lordships’ House a booklet advocating out, yet the Charity Commission, to which, needless to say, I wrote the next day, failed to respond to my query about whether it was in breach of its guideline.
On appointments closer to home, your Lordships’ House has raised on a number of occasions the extraordinary number of Peers appointed by the present Prime Minister, and I assume we are about to get some more with a resignation list. Those appointments are in the gift of the Government, but surely we need more openness and transparency about them. Separately, his Government sought to cut the private funding going to the Labour Party while leaving completely untouched the limitless money that individuals seem to be able to give to his party. The Government, who have extended the vote to Brits living abroad no matter how many decades it is since they last were last here, let alone when they last paid any tax here, continue to refuse to say whether those non-doms will be able to send as much of their largesse as they fancy to his political party. Surely it is in no one’s interest for our parties to be funded by secret, offshore individuals.
In 2011, the Government signed the Open Government Declaration, which states:
“We acknowledge that people all around the world are demanding more openness in government … and seeking ways to make their governments more transparent, responsive, accountable, and effective”,
“We uphold the value of openness in our engagement with citizens to improve services, manage public resources … and create safer communities”.
Can the Minister summarise what steps the Government have taken since 2011 to translate these fine words into actions?
This was not quite the debate that some of us envisaged when we saw its title, but I am glad that we have had this opportunity—and I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Fairfax, has given me the opportunity to put a couple of questions to the Minister.
I would like to congratulate—I think—my noble friend Lord Fairfax on securing this debate and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken the time to attend and contribute to it today. I have listened with interest to all the comments and views and I will try to answer some of these first.
My noble friends Lord Fairfax and Lord Robathan and the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, all talked about EU pensions—I think that they know what I am going to say. The provisions of the code are a matter for the Committee for Privileges and Conduct and, ultimately, the House itself. As such, it is not the responsibility of the Cabinet Office. I would not want to pre-empt the Lord Chairman on this subject so I cannot really add much. However, the Committee for Privileges and Conduct has looked at this question on several occasions, as the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, mentioned, stretching back more than a decade. The committee has consistently maintained the position that is now set out in the code. I am well aware that my noble friend is already aware of this and I can only suggest that he takes up the subject again with the Lord Chairman.
The comments by the right reverend Prelate are why I enjoy these debates. Noble Lords can come in here and suddenly hear a speech of such interest, which is funny, amusing and intelligent, that they realise why they are in this House. That was certainly the case today. He mentioned that when someone is trusted, they are much more likely to trust others—I could not agree more, it is a very good statement. Everything that he said was thought-provoking and Auden’s poem hits the nail on the head. I also agree that I certainly use the marker of whether I would let somebody babysit—in my case, I am referring to my grandchildren now, but it used to be my children. It was an excellent speech.
My noble friend Lord Norton mentioned raising matters in both Houses. We certainly recognise that the Government have a critical role in leading by example and setting a high bar for others. This was also mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill. We have to take steps to increase transparency around government activity, such as publishing ministerial meetings and interests, gifts and hospitality. We must remember the seven principles of public life, which are a very good bar to keep in mind. We cannot expect the public to have confidence in Parliament if we do not have confidence in ourselves. I happily agree that Ministers’ engagement in both Houses is vital in building public engagement.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, also mentioned UK-registered companies. They will indeed need to declare their interests and persons of significant control on the register, providing real transparency about who benefits from a business.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, brought up several points, some of which I will have to write to her on. On party funding, the Government cannot impose consensus on the political parties but we are open to constructive debate and dialogue on how we can further strengthen confidence in our democratic process and increase transparency and accountability.
On the Minister’s answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, if she writes to her about the Prime Minister’s use of his patronage to appoint Peers—far too many—to your Lordships’ House, could she copy me in on that? As I think she knows, my party has an interest in that matter.
I certainly will.
On the point about lobbying raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, I will be interested in the noble Lord’s Private Member’s Bill when it appears on 9 September. I certainly cannot now say that we will agree with everything, but of course we will listen and take soundings, and we will be interested in what the noble Lord has to say. As he and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, know, the register is designed to shine the light of transparency on those who seek to influence the Government and will complement the existing government transparency regime whereby Ministers and Permanent Secretaries proactively publish details of their meetings. The register requires people who are paid to lobby government on behalf of others to disclose their clients on a publicly available register. The register also enhances scrutiny by requiring them to declare whether they subscribe to the code of conduct. Both the register and published meeting information include names of the organisations in question and are published in open, searchable formats. It is also possible to search the register for specific organisations.
The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, also mentioned public appointments. The Gerry Grimstone report put forward recommendations to strengthen the process. That will increase transparency, and it retains a critical role for the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments to make sure that public appointments are open and transparent.
The UK aspires to and can rightly claim to be the most open and transparent country in the world. Our democracy and governance is stable, robust and held to account by a strong, free press and an ever-growing range of ways to understand and scrutinise the decisions government makes and the way it operates.
I congratulate the noble Baroness on keeping a straight face at that moment.
I am not keeping a straight face. I am smiling—but I always smile.
The confidence with which our public institutions are held is the foundation that allows our great democracy to function. While government may have significant legal power to impose its will, it operates effectively with the people it serves with the consent borne of confidence and trust.
There are of course many examples of countries around the world where confidence in public institutions has been fatally eroded, often because of corruption or mismanagement, and where the ability to govern effectively is destroyed, hampering economic development and destroying prosperity. Confidence in public institutions is then precious, and the Government are committed to continually deepening openness and transparency to support it.
The noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, talked about this. I suggest that transparency and openness are different but connected parts of how modern government and institutions should function. Transparency, where the workings of institutions can be seen and understood, underpins openness, where government and institutions work with and alongside the people they serve to deliver the best possible services and outcomes. However, I agree that transparency should be used as a tool, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said, and we have to be careful to use it with other things as well.
The UK should, rightly, be proud of its status as a global leader on both transparency and openness. The Government continue to push at the boundaries of the information they publish and they strive to ensure that citizens can fully participate in making the decisions that affect them. For example, the UK leads the world in the release of open data and has recently been ranked number one in the World Wide Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer for the third year running.
Open data—the release in a structured format of key government data licensed in such a way as to allow anyone to use them—allows the public meaningful, open access to important data about how our public institutions function. These data on how public money is spent and on how well key parts of government are performing, as well as, importantly, data of high value held by government about things such as the transport network, create significantly greater opportunities for government to be held to account and, crucially, allow others outside government to come forward to build new data-driven products and services using previously hidden government data. One example of that is the tool Citymapper, a smartphone application developed in the UK that takes into account a wealth of open transport data to help you get from A to B in the fastest possible time.
The economic benefits of transparency are clear but perhaps it is harder to measure the impact of greater transparency and openness on public confidence in institutions. What seems indisputable is that trust in public institutions is growing. Research by Edelman as part of its annual Trust Barometer shows that since 2012 trust in government has risen. More strikingly, research by Ipsos MORI shows that civil servants in particular have seen a large increase in trust since 1983: only 25% said they trusted civil servants to tell the truth in 1983 compared with 55% now.
Are these the polling companies that forecast the outcome of the last general election and the result of the referendum?
Is the noble Lord casting aspersions on what I say? As my noble friend Lord Norton mentioned, sadly, in the same research it is revealed that politicians are still among the least trusted groups in the UK.
It is clear, then, that there is much more to do—more data and information to open up and publish and more opportunities for citizens to become involved in developing the policies that affect them. As the Minister for the Cabinet Office recently stated:
“We want to build a Britain where the citizen is an editor as well as a reader”.
Only through increasing openness and transparency can that be made a reality.
One mechanism by which government is approaching this task is the OGP—the Open Government Partnership. This is a very exciting initiative. The OGP was formed in 2011 by the UK and seven other countries to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. It has now grown to the extent that it has been taken up by 69 countries. It exists to ensure that each participating Government work closely with citizens to develop open-government reforms that matter to them.
In May, the Government launched their third Open Government National Action Plan. Among other things, it made ambitious commitments to tackle corruption, including establishing a public register of company-beneficial ownership information for foreign companies which already own or buy property in the UK or which bid on UK central government contracts. As part of this plan, the Government also committed to implement the Open Contracting Data Standard for the Crown Commercial Service, becoming the first G7 country to apply this new type of data release about public procurement to its central purchasing authority. In addition, this new standard for transparency will be applied to HS2.
When implemented, these commitments will provide unprecedented transparency about the real owners of the companies buying property in the UK and bidding on public contracts, as well as detailed, structured and more usable information about how government buys goods and services.
It is such transparency that can provide the hard data to reinforce confidence in our institutions. It is for this reason that the Government have placed significant emphasis on the better use of their own data so that the public can be confident we are doing all that we can to ensure we deliver better public services. The Government’s digital services data programme has been created to address this challenge and ensure that through the more effective use of data, the Government can make better operational, policy and economic decisions.
Significant work is required to deliver on that promise, and in practical terms this means that we need to do the following things. First, we must ensure that all parts of government are equipped to make better use of data, having the technology and skills to use new and innovative data science techniques. Secondly, we must ensure that the infrastructure of data in government—how they are stored, found and accessed—is up to date and that the policy and governance around how data are created, used and released is fit for purpose, allowing us to maximise the benefits of increased data use in government and the wider economy, while ensuring that is done in a safe and ethical way.
These measures, taken together with a continuous drive to release more information on open data, are vital tools to reinforce and grow confidence in government. We are delivering the most transparent, effective and open government ever. Through initiatives like the Open Government Partnership and the work of the digital services data programme, along with countless other parts of government all pushing in the same direction, we will continue to improve supporting ever more people to hold government to account.
There is no doubt that these are big issues and that we are working with powerful tools. However, used properly, data can build a better, more efficient government that more effectively meets the needs of those it serves, and so deliver institutions fit for the 21st century.
I know that there are some questions I have not answered, including that from the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, on charities. I am afraid I will have to get back to her on that as I do not have enough information to give a full answer. I thank all noble Lords for taking part and, if there is anything else that I have not covered that noble Lords have mentioned, I will of course write to them in the near future.
I thank all noble Lords who spoke in this debate for their varied contributions and the Minister for her comprehensive reply. Although I admittedly majored on one aspect of transparency in this House, I am glad also to have stimulated a wider debate on this important topic. I am sure we will return to it in the future. I beg to move.
House adjourned at 3.28 pm.