HL Deb 04 July 2001 vol 626 cc821-34

3.20 p.m.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts rose to call attention to the case for improving the audibility and comprehensibility of the proceedings of the House to visitors to the public galleries; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise this important issue in the House. Perhaps I may begin by clearing up a misunderstanding which I hope is not widespread. I was waiting to come into the Chamber today when a noble Lord approached me. He said, "I don't know why you're doing this because I can hear perfectly well". My Motion is about noble Lords being heard, seen and understood from the public galleries, not about whether noble Lords can see, hear and understand the debates. That is a different topic and one on which I could not comment.

My remarks fall into three sections: first, what is the problem I want to place before your Lordships; secondly, why is it an important issue which I believe we should address, and, thirdly, what should be done about it? I begin by making it clear that what I am about to say is in no way a criticism of the staff of the House or the Doorkeepers who seem to be doing the best they can in the circumstances they face. However, I believe that visitors to our public galleries have a raw deal.

Many noble Lords may never have visited the gallery. Indeed, as Members of the House we are discouraged from taking up seats there at the expense of members of the public who may wish to attend our debates. However, before I became a Member of your Lordships' House a year ago I paid such a visit and I should like to give my impressions.

When visitors arrive they are first given a booklet entitled The HOUSE of LORDS, a brief guide, an excellent publication produced in several languages. It is particularly good on the geography of the place and the overview of the Chamber. It is much less good on what is happening when you are sitting in the gallery. There is a page entitled A Typical Working Day, but it is difficult to relate what is said on that piece of paper to what is happening in the Chamber.

Visitors are also given an Order Paper, although I think I was not. I understand that the Order Paper is normally prepared for the use of your Lordships and not for visitors to the gallery, but it is generally unhelpful to an outsider. If we look at the Order Paper afresh, we see that it reinforces a feeling of remoteness. The strange language used and the fact that there is no timetable and no explanation of what is being discussed in the House do not help people to understand what we are about. Today's Order Paper is reasonably clear. However, last Thursday, when I prepared my remarks, the Order Paper ran to three pages. The first third of the first page contained Questions. The last paragraph on the last page referred to the adjourned debate on the Queen's Speech. In between were three pages of Business of the House. There is no way that a visitor in the gallery would know that that business would probably be over in less than one minute; that the first part would last half an hour and that the debate referred to in the last paragraph would last three or four hours. Therefore, on the grounds of comprehensibility, we are not doing well by the people who come to see us.

Next, I refer to visibility from the gallery. The picture in the booklet is deceptive. On looking at it, we may think that a lot can be seen from the gallery, but when the photographer came to take the photograph he leant over the balcony at the front. If one is at the back of the Chamber, as I was, one can see only the top half of my noble friend Lord Henley when he rises to speak, or indeed of the noble Baroness the Minister when she speaks. Everybody to their left and right are invisible.

I am reminded of the description of the village cricket match in A G MacDonnell's England, their England where the ground slipped away behind the bowler behind one wicket so that the deep fielder behind the bowler saw nothing of the match apart from the bowler occasionally coming over the brow of the hill and disappearing, and from time to time, a ball being struck over the brow of the hill smartly in his direction.

Some noble Lords may say, "But there are television screens in the gallery". If we cast our eyes to the gallery, we see that there are two such screens which are about the size to be found in the average sitting room. Unless one has 20:20 vision or a pair of binoculars, one has considerable difficulty seeing the detail. Moreover, although one monitor is permanently set to the feed from the cameras inside the Chamber, the other gives the title of the debate and the name of the noble Lord who is speaking. That, therefore, does not overcome the problem.

Finally on this point, it is not easy to hear. There are microphones in the back of the benches but the benches were made for Victorian physiognomy. The backs are too short and the seats too narrow. If one tried to crouch down to listen, one would slip off the bench and would not be able to hear well.

Therefore, I believe that on the triple grounds of comprehensibility, audibility and visibility we are failing members of the public by not enabling them to see more clearly what we are doing in their name. Above all, visiting the gallery is a dry experience. No one will say when they get home that it was very interesting. They may have come to the Chamber and have been interested in what they saw, but no one's imagination will be caught by our proceedings.

Why does that matter? We have all read a great deal about the feeling of disconnection between the people of the country and the democratic process. Public opinion surveys and turn-outs in general and local elections underline that fact. This is a serious matter for our country and we should think of how to reverse the trend.

I cannot remember, and have been unable to discern, which mediaeval saint said that he could stand persecution; it was indifference that hurt him. I believe that all too often our fellow countrymen regard us with indifference. We must try to make our proceedings more relevant to them.

If I wanted to introduce a sour party political note, I would say that the activities of this Government in so often bypassing both Chambers of Parliament have not helped. However, I do not intend to follow that line. I do not believe that reconnecting with the public will come about in one great action, by the turning on of a switch which floods the room with light; it will be by a series of incremental steps which convince people that their participation in our process is important and that what goes on here is relevant to their daily lives. Improving conditions in the public galleries is one such step, albeit small.

There is a further reason why we in this House need to explain our role more carefully. The role and utility of a reforming Chamber made up of appointed individuals is a sophisticated concept and one which is easy to "rubbish". For us to stand out against what can be—because of the structure of our Government—the tyranny of the majority is hard to explain and easy to undermine. I do not wish to be drawn into the issue of the reform of your Lordships' House. However, we need to build up our reputation in the country as a whole.

What can be done? There are tactical measures which could easily be taken. First, we could produce a better Order Paper—it would not, of course, be an Order Paper—for visitors to the gallery. It could consist of a two-page sheet. The left-hand side could contain a description of the proceedings of the House laid out in a way that makes sense of the Chamber. The right-side could contain a commentary of the proceedings and state, for example, whether the House is dealing with a Second Reading, Committee stage or Question Time. Where there is a reference to Second Reading, for example, perhaps there could be a few words on what the Bill seeks to achieve. Above all, there should be a timetable so that people visiting the gallery at, say, five o'clock will have an idea of where we are in the proceedings.

Secondly, I should like to see the television screens replaced and enlarged. Modern technology makes it possible to produce a screen many times larger and I hope that the images appearing on the two different screens can be shown on the same screen. Thus, the top half would carry the visual feed from the cameras inside the Chamber and the bottom half would carry the name of the speaker and perhaps a few words about the subject under discussion.

Thirdly, we could consider redesigning the seats in the gallery so that they are better suited to modern sizes and physiognomies.

However, there is a bigger and bolder step that we could take. Like me, noble Lords may recall being taken to galleries and museums as children and that they were flat experiences. Children visiting museums today have an altogether different experience because museums have adapted to arouse the interest and commitment of casual visitors. I believe that we ought to try to tap that expertise because there are many firms in this country whose primary expertise is in communication; communication with staff, customers and the public. I should like to think that we could have a public competition to find the best way of explaining continuously the workings of your Lordships' House to visitors in the public galleries. I am sure that firms would rush to put forward their ideas; public interest would be aroused; and many ingenious and perhaps impractical ideas would be put forward. However, I am sure that we would be able to break out of the slightly sterile mould in which we find ourselves.

Some noble Lords will say that this is Chamber is not a theatre but that such changes would make it a theatre. I respectfully suggest that this is not about theatre; it is about providing information. It is about providing information to the people who are ultimately our masters—the general public. People will also say that we cannot make any changes because of this building; this wonderful, old Victorian Chamber. Again, I respectfully suggest that we are not a wonderful, old Victorian legislature. If we put architecture ahead of our role as a 21st century legislature, we must not be surprised if the public draw certain conclusions from our making that choice in our priorities.

In summary, I want a visit to the public galleries here to be an engaging experience, not an experience which emphasises the separation between the legislature and the people it seeks to serve. I want a few hundred people each week to leave the public galleries feeling that they have had an interesting visit. I want them to tell their friends and relatives about it and then, imperceptibly, like the movement of grains of sand on a beach, the reputation of your Lordships' House will be broadened and strengthened.

I say to the Minister that in matters such as this for every solution there will be a problem. In order to make a change we will need wit, resolution and imagination; qualities which I know from hearing her speak in the Chamber she has aplenty. I look forward to hearing her display them again, particularly imagination, when she comes to speak in a few minutes' time. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

3.34 p.m.

Viscount Falkland

My Lords, when the debate was mentioned at the previous party meeting of Liberal Democrat Peers there appeared to be a universal clamour for me to take part in it. Being an eternal optimist, I took it as being a form of compliment. However, on further reflection, I remembered that when at a meeting some weeks ago—and perhaps I was feeling slightly liverish—we had some spare time at the end I drew my noble friends' attention to the fact that, no matter how interesting or important their comments, I had heard that a number of Peers were finding it hard to understand what some of them were saying. Those Peers were so fascinated that they wished they had been able to hear what had been said. Therefore I suggested that my noble friends might take care to stand in front of the appropriate microphone; that they should be careful not to put their hands in front of their mouths; that they should speak up; and that they should not always read from their notes.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in today's debate but I believe that my appearance is to some degree the revenge of my colleagues: I am having to speak on the subject that I raised at my party's meeting. However, the issue goes much further than that.

I suppose that I am an old-timer in this House, although I do not feel like one and I do not think I look like one. I and other noble Lords came here rather like new boys to a school and we trod carefully. I was terrified but I did not have the kind of background that the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, has. If any noble Lord cares to trawl through Who's Who? he will find several inches of impressive service to the Conservative Party. The noble Lord has been a deputy chairman of the national party; he has held high office at local level; and he is a distinguished merchant banker.

The noble Lord's appearance here today in putting forward this Motion and the suggestions he has made illustrate one of the effects of the first stages of reform. There are people coming to the House who have a good deal of knowledge and expertise, particularly in politics, which I did not have. I had never spoken in public before coming to your Lordships' House and had never spoken to more than several people gathered together, perhaps at a board meeting. It was a terrifying experience when I was thrown in at the deep end and it took me some time to get used to speaking.

However, I quickly realised that we in this House have a conversational style. Such a style is appropriate to what we do here—in amending and revising legislation and in general debates—and is preferable to having notes, bending one's head down and reading them out just to get them on to the record.

I do not know whether all noble Lords remember my late loved and respected colleague Lady Seear. She was the most remarkable speaker and performer, as an academic, in the commercial field and as a parliamentarian. I miss her greatly. Her great skill was that although she had a sheaf of small cards and notes she made the most extraordinary speeches without referring to them once. The only drawback was that when she came to the crucial point of her speech she suddenly bent down from the waist and went into a slow circular motion, which meant that because she lost the sensitivity of the microphones some of the words were lost to your Lordships. However, noble Lords were listening so carefully to what she said that very little was missed.

I must say that during the time I have been a Member of your Lordships' House I have not given much thought to the public gallery. I shall do so in future. It is important that people should come into the gallery, particularly foreigners, as they do in large numbers. However, the last thing we should be doing is speaking to the public gallery. If we took that to the extreme, we could become like the pantomime routine, "Are you happy?" "Yes, we are.".

I am more concerned about being heard and understood by Members of your Lordships' House. I admit that sometimes I am anxious when I am being heard by representatives of the press who are in the gallery—and I see that today there are some in the gallery. I am not aware of the television. When we were mostly an hereditary House I recall that the first televised debate attracted the largest number of speakers that I had known. The novelty quickly wore off. I do not believe that any of us speaks to be seen on television. We have grown used to the television cameras and to the press gallery and visitors' gallery.

The important point is that until we are reformed and our powers and functions are changed we must do what we do to the best of our ability. I believe that we can achieve that largely by continuing in the way we have, with the benefit of the removal of most of the hereditary Peers and the influx of highly informed and experienced people, such as the noble Lord who introduced the debate today.

The noble Lord dealt with many issues. I was remiss in that I had not read—but have now done so with care—the article that he submitted to the Lords Diary. In that article he gave a little more detail about his first impressions of the House, of which I believe he has been a Member for a little over six months. I do not entirely agree with the noble Lord's conclusions from his first six months. For example, in his piece he states that the galleries must be very confused by the fact that we in this House vote Content and Not Content rather than Ayes and Noes. He said that that was a very difficult matter to explain to cynical sixth-formers.

I have spoken to a good number of sixth-formers, most of them girls—I do not want noble Lords to laugh because I make a serious point. It was suggested that I do so by the late Alan Clark. I had not been long in the House when I met him one evening. Volunteers had been sought to speak to a girls' school. I said that I certainly would not do so but he said that I must take any opportunity to speak inside the House and outside it; otherwise, I would not gain the experience that I needed to take part in political life. Whether or not I liked it, I was in political life. That was very good advice. However, I never met a cynical sixth-former. I often explained to them the bicameral system and how things worked.

I did visit a couple of boys' school but it was not so satisfactory. The boys were not cynical. However, just one boy, who was Jack-the-Lad, did all the talking; everyone cheered him on as they would a star footballer. I preferred talking to the girls because they were more intelligent. Whether or not they continue to be more intelligent is open to debate, but they probably do.

As to clear speaking in this House, I believed that I should follow Lady Seear and others. If anybody who comes into this House believes that he needs to take someone as an example I suggest that there is none better than the noble Baroness who is to respond to this debate. The noble Baroness is clear and distinct and her articulation is absolutely faultless. She is able to depart from her brief and make speeches interesting. I suggest to noble Lords who come into this House, no matter how experienced, that they study her performance, among others, at the Dispatch Box. I am quite sure that every word she utters will be heard in the public gallery by all five people who occupy it this afternoon.

I tease the noble Lord slightly. He commented on how we are perceived in the country. I do not believe that our perception in the country comes through the gallery but from the way the press reports our proceedings in this House. Sometimes the press is very remiss and misses those matters that it should cover and gives attention to others that it should not.

If, as the House moves quickly to the second stage of reform, which I doubt I shall survive—the country will become cynical, to use the noble Lord's word, if we do not do so—it retains its powers and functions, or they are increased, I suggest that in very short order the best thing it can do to get the public on its side is to drop the titles Lords and Ladies. If there is anachronism in a reformed House it is not the fabric of the building or the procedures at the State Opening of Parliament but the fact that we go through the pretence of being medieval notables. If we took that step as a voluntary measure it would be very much appreciated by the country at large. We would be seen to be serious about our future. I thank the noble Lord for giving me the opportunity to move slightly away from his Motion to make that point.

In all humility—I do not like my noble friends laughing when I say that—I suggest that the noble Lord's Motion could have been phrased somewhat differently. This is a small debate, although it is none the worse for that. However, there are serious implications in what he says which are not evident from the way the Motion is phrased.

I am quite sure that the bad habits of the House will continue to increase. I believe that I am a fairly amiable soul. As I say that I hope that I do not generate any sniggers from the Benches behind. In this world very few things annoy me; for example, people who spit, wink and use initials for everything when it is quite unnecessary to do so. We must put up with acronyms. Since the first stage of reform there has been an increasing tendency to use initials for everything. I do not even like "UK" which is demeaning to the country. I believe that "United Kingdom" is much better and requires no effort. The same applies in other areas. Those are the kinds of matters which will improve our reputation in the country at large. After all, we are a relatively well-educated, articulate and sensible forum which is able to set a standard. That may not necessarily be fully appreciated in the visitors' gallery—I am sure that it is to some extent—but certainly it will be in the country through television and radio if our standards fall. I believe that we must guard against that.

I thank the noble Lord for introducing this debate and allowing me to range quite freely round his Motion, as I am rather apt to do.

3.48 p.m.

Lord Henley

My Lords, like the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, I should like to offer my praise to the noble Baroness the Deputy Leader of the House for her clarity, comprehensibility, audibility and visibility. We look forward to her speech at the end of the debate. One was always told that if one indulged in flattery one might as well lay it on with a trowel. I follow the noble Viscount in doing just that.

I also offer my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Hodgson on introducing the debate This is an important subject but it is rather sad that it has attracted such relatively little support. That may be due to a number of different reasons; for example, the mere fact that my noble friend's Motion appeared on the Order Paper only on 25th June for ballot on 27th June, which meant that most noble Lords saw it on the Order Paper only on the 28th. It may be that in future we should look at balloted debates which are held at relatively short notice. I am not sure of the answer to that problem, or whether there is an answer. However, that is a possible explanation for the relatively few speakers. It may also be due to the fact that the holiday is to start somewhat earlier than normal and there is a relatively light load of work in the run-up to the break towards the end of the month. The Bills which the Government have seen fit to introduce are not exactly the most exciting and controversial. I am sure that all of them are of extreme importance, but some might be called good stuff for the lawyers, if not for the rest of us.

Despite the lack of interest in my noble friend's Motion, I believe that it is very important that we consider the whole visibility and audibility of this House and how we present our image outside. One should remember that until the 18th century—relatively recent in the history of Parliament—the proceedings in both Houses were not reported at all, and both Houses stuck to their right of keeping proceedings secret. Gradually pressure mounted on them until, in the late 18th and early 19th century, Hansard was developed and there was proper reporting of Parliament. That is right and should be the case. Therefore, the people to whom Parliament was accountable knew what was going on.

Similarly, there was very heavy resistance to the televising of both Houses of Parliament. I remember debates in the 1980s when this House was the first one to introduce television. There were a great many Peers and Members of another place who had considerable misgivings about the idea of bringing television into Parliament. I cannot remember what my personal view was, but I believe that all of us now completely and utterly accept the fact that both Houses of Parliament should be televised. There are many of us who would like to go even further and see a dedicated channel on terrestrial television for each House so that its proceedings are available to everyone at all times. That might come about in due course.

All of us accept that television is essential. It is quite right that Parliament should be televised. Most of us would accept that it has not made that much difference to how either House behaves and that it has not changed the character of this House. It might be that because so many of us now have screens and watch the proceedings in our offices, attendance has been reduced in both Chambers. That is arguable. Therefore, there are considerable advantages to television being available.

The image that this House presents to the world is very important. It will become even more so, particularly in the coming years as we await the details of the Government's plans for consultation with regard to stage two of the reform of this House, and, presumably, after that process of consultation—whatever that process is—their intentions.

When talking about the image of this House I should also offer some praise, which I am sure will be echoed by all parts of the House, to the work of the Information Office in publicising just what we do, how long we sit and with what—I always like to stress this point—economy we perform our duties compared to other legislative bodies. I refer to another place, and to the European Parliament and others. Those responsible do a very fine job indeed.

I must make an admission. Unlike my noble friend, I have never taken the opportunity of listening to our proceedings from the public gallery. I understand that what he said is probably true and that it can on occasions be somewhat difficult for some people in certain parts of the public gallery to hear, to follow and to understand our proceedings.

There are a number of possible remedies. There are also a number of routes that we should be wary of following. Obviously, there are a number of straightforward practical solutions of a kind which the Offices Committee and its appropriate subcommittee—I presume that it would be the Administration and Works Sub-Committee—could pursue. There could be developments and changes to the microphones and the speakers attached to them. The microphones have been changed in the last 20 years. I remember a time when they were much larger and more obtrusive. That indicates that in a House such as this we can always make changes even though, as my noble friend put it, there are some who are resistant to physical change in a building of this kind. But it is always possible. My noble friend made some very good points along those lines and in support of larger television screens and so on.

My noble friend mentioned seating and stressed the fact that body sizes have changed over the last 150 years and that therefore the seats in the public gallery are no longer suitable for the bodies of the 21st century. I do not know whether the same is true of the Benches down here, but certainly I find them perfectly comfortable. As my noble friend also suggested, one could pursue the idea of some new type of Order Paper.

I am very grateful that my noble friend referred to the brief guide to the House of Lords with its charming introduction by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor and the equally charming photograph of him. My noble friend said that it was quite useful but that it did not go far enough. Again it might be appropriate for some other body such as the Procedure Committee to look at what changes might be made.

I said that there were some routes that we should be wary of pursuing. In a desire to make ourselves more open we should not go down false roads. There is a frequent desire—dare I say it—for new Labour to pursue options which, in its terms, are "more modern" or "more relevant". I would strongly caution against any changes to our procedures which were promoted by the noble Baroness and her party under the guise of making our workings more understandable, or, to use another new Labour word, "more relevant". I have no objection to change in itself, but I am always suspicious of change when it is promoted by the Government under the guise of making things clearer, more modern or whatever. That is normally mere shorthand for making life easier for them.

I congratulate again my noble friend Lord Hodgson for raising what I believe is an important point. It is very important that this House makes sure that it can be understood by all those who come to observe it and that those to whom we are in the end accountable understand what we are doing, how we are doing it, and—dare I say—how well we are doing it.

3.57 p.m.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, for introducing this debate and also the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, and the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for their very kind remarks.

I understand that the acoustics in this Chamber have always been the subject of criticism. Your Lordships may be interested to know that in 1921, in his book Lords and Commoners, Sir H Lucy described this very Chamber as, the sepulchre of speech". He went on to state: There are not more than half a dozen peers who can successfully combat its grievous acoustical properties". Another famous and graphic simile suggested that speaking in your Lordships' House was, like speaking by torchlight to corpses in a charnel house". Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, said, I believe that things are not quite as bad as that today.

The subject raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, relates to audibility and comprehensibility. In terms of audibility, I have listened with great care to the remarks of the noble Lord. I shall of course pass on those remarks to the House authorities to see whether matters can be improved. I should be frank with the noble Lord, I have not been aware of any complaints from any of my visitors about audibility in the galleries. Comprehensibility might be another point.

In recent years, a speaker system identical to the one used in the Chamber has been fitted to every bench in the gallery, and I am sure that that has improved matters. In addition, there is an induction loop for people who wear a hearing aid. I am not sure what more can reasonably be done to improve audibility except perhaps asking that your Lordships speak clearly and not too fast. Quite often, in particular when we are speaking against time limits—despite what my colleagues on their various Front Benches have said, at times we all speak very quickly when we see the clock ticking—audibility can be that much more difficult. However, I shall be happy to raise what I can with the House authorities on those points.

In relation to comprehensibility, we move into rather more interesting territory offering perhaps a little more scope. There are two separate issues here: comprehensibility of the speeches and comprehensibility of procedures. I fear that there is little that we can do about the comprehensibility of speeches. The responsibility for that lies squarely with individual Members of the House and I would not dream of making any comment. However, I take some issue with what the noble Lord said as regards whether speeches are interesting. The noble Lord said that he did not think that they are as interesting as they used to be. I think that some of the contributions to our debates are absolutely riveting. Furthermore, on those occasions when they are riveting, it is usually the case that the House is packed full so that we have standing room only.

However, we cannot escape the fact that the subject matter of speeches and the speeches themselves are enormously important. It is the quality of both that gains the interest of the House. Perhaps I may gently point out to the noble Lord that when matters of real interest are to be discussed in your Lordships' House, usually there is a very long list of speakers. Thus in my view the notion that debates used to be more interesting is simply not true. I came to the House very often as a young civil servant. I sat in the Civil Service Box and advised Ministers. Some of the longest feats of endurance were encountered during those very long watches, when handwritten amendments to legislation were accepted from our predecessors. It was not so much a matter of what was comprehensible, but what was legible to the poor people sitting in the Box. Without comprehensibility and without legibility, it was at times very difficult indeed to judge whether the matters in hand were interesting.

I shall turn to the significant efforts that have been made to make our procedures more interesting for our visitors. Every visitor to the House is now offered the booklet illustrated in colour to which the noble Lord referred: The House of Lords: a brief guide. The guides are available in English, French, German, Italian, Spanish and Japanese—the languages most frequently requested by our visitors. The guide explains a good deal about your Lordships' House: what the House does; what are the stages of a Bill; what are the different items on the Order Paper; what are Statements and Introductions; what are the categories of Members in the House; how the party system works in the House; and where further information can be found on paper, on television and on-line. The guides also offer some important historical background to help the visitor to place all this information in its proper context. I am sure that noble Lords would agree that it is nothing short of miraculous that so much has been included in the small space available in the guide. Furthermore, I am happy to inform noble Lords that this extremely useful and informative guide is also available in Braille for our visually impaired visitors. I join with the noble Lord, Lord. Henley, in thanking all those who have helped to draw this information together.

I should like also to thank our Doorkeepers, who so far have not been mentioned in our exchanges. The Doorkeepers do a splendid job of explaining this House to visitors to the House who visit in the mornings and up until the time that the House sits. They also help to explain matters to those visitors who come to the House while it is sitting.

It must be said that there are certain parts of the public gallery where the view is somewhat restricted. In order to try to make it easier for visitors to see what is going on, noble Lords will note that two television monitors have been fitted in the gallery. One of the monitors shows the current business while the other—perhaps more helpfully—is tuned to the Lords' annunciator so that visitors can see what business is being taken and who is the current speaker. Perhaps we should install more of those monitors.

As regards the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Henley, on televising our proceedings, again that is something that we may look into. However, I am bound to point out that that is to a certain extent a matter for the TV companies, although I understand that yesterday the administration sub-committee agreed that an investigation should be launched into the possibility of webcasting Lords' proceedings, because the BBC Parliament channel covers Lords' proceedings only when the House of Commons is not sitting. Noble Lords will know that sometimes the proceedings in this House are a great deal more interesting than are the proceedings in the other place.

The noble Lord went into some detail on the democratic process and the need for accessibility. Of course we would all agree with that. In a democracy it is of the utmost importance that visitors can see and understand what is going on in the legislature of the country. It is precisely because of that need that the House authorities are acutely aware of the need for a great deal of thought to be given to making our proceedings as transparent as possible.

As to the question of the procedures themselves, frankly, this is not a question that we shall be able to resolve today. Perhaps I may say gently to the noble Lord that in the past there have been some sterling attempts to resolve these issues. It has been argued that our language is antiquated: we are "Content" or we are "Not-Content"; we "divide" rather than vote; and we have something called a "First Reading" where nothing at all is read. Of course those descriptions have grown out of many years of history and tradition and thus might not be the words that we would use today if we were starting with a blank sheet of paper. But we are not starting with a blank sheet of paper; we are where we are. If noble Lords wish to change the ways in which we conduct our business or the words we use to describe it, the answer to that is in our own hands.

The noble Lord is quite right to say that we do not have timetabling. That is partly because we are a self-regulating House. Personally, I would agree with much of what the noble Lord said about timetabling, but he will find that many in your Lordships' House regard the lack of a timetable as a legitimate lever to use when trying to come to understandings with the executive. I thought I heard quite a strong hint of that in the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Henley, in relation to the possibility of timetabling. However, I should remind noble Lords that my noble friend the Leader of the House has already indicated that he is considering setting up a leaders' group to consider ways of improving the working practices of the House. I am sure that the working group will be happy to consider the representations that any noble Lord—including the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson—wishes to make. No doubt when the moment comes, the noble Lord will be a doughty fighter for reform.

I have sat in the public gallery on many occasions, in particular in my younger days when I was the General Secretary of the Association of First Division Civil Servants. I should say that I did manage to hear the proceedings of your Lordships' House, but that was usually because I was very interested in what was going on. When we began this discussion I believe that some seven or eight individuals were sitting in the gallery. I see that we are now down to six, outside the press boxes.

As to the question of provision for disability, I have dealt already with the issue of monitors, but here we come up against issues of architecture. The noble Lord was rather dismissive on this point, but the fact is that English Heritage would have quite a lot to say about changes being made to the interior of your Lordships' House. I am afraid that there are many things which cannot be changed, given that we work in such splendid government buildings. Significant changes would not find acceptance in the eyes of English Heritage, which regulates us on these matters.

I hope that I have managed to convey a flavour of the facilities and the explanations which are provided for our visitors. If any noble Lord has a visitor who is in any way perplexed by what they have seen in the Chamber, I am sure that the Clerk of the Parliaments—who so far has not been the subject of any of our exchanges—would be glad to hear of any suggestions for improvement. I thank the noble Lord for drawing these matters to our attention.

4.9 p.m.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts

My Lords, I shall take only a minute or so to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, for his speech. I shall resist his teasing; I have not been the beneficiary of advice from Alan Clark. The noble Viscount made a wide-ranging set of remarks. Where he appeared to be sympathetic, I thank him for his support. I thank also my noble friend Lord Henley for his support and I take on board his words of caution.

I should say two things to the Minister. First, I was not making any comment about the content of speeches in the House. I was merely wondering whether they could be heard in the gallery. I was not saying whether they were more or less interesting than they were years ago. Secondly, my comments about timetabling referred to the redesigning of the Order Paper for the gallery and not to the procedures of the House.

There remains a problem which needs to be addressed. I am glad that I have had a chance to raise it. The Chinese proverb is that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I hope that we have made a single step today. I beg leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.