Every so often in the House of Lords a debate takes place which deserves to be promoted beyond the vital but passive provision of Hansard and “They Work for You” which is where I was alerted to this particular one. The debate took place on Thursday under the title “Conduct of Debate in Public Life – Motion to Regret” which was begun by Toby Harris. The statement was “That this House regrets the conduct, and toxicity, of debate in public life; of the divisions in society which result from that; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to take steps to address such divisions.” I found Toby’s opening speech and the following one from Meral Hussein Ece very inspiring and was considering editing them for this blog until I read a bit further down and came across this from Robert Winston and this is really strong as a way forward for both houses of Parliament and it offers useful advice to Councils too.
“It is astonishing that Prime Minister’s Question Time has been a showpiece for Parliament. It is absolutely unacceptable that that is how we judge our political measures in this country; it does us a great disservice. Unfortunately, it is generally copied; not just the arguments but somebody on one side making strident assertions and somebody on the other doing nothing but reading a prepared answer. That is not debate. In fact, it is quite destructive to proper debate, and we have to consider that. If I may be impertinent, in 24 years in the House of Lords, I have never spoken on issues of conduct; I have avoided it. However, far too often, people come into the Chamber to give a prepared speech with no intention of debating or interpreting what has been said before, of putting some flavour on what is being said, or of speaking without notes. I think that is very derogatory. There is competition to speak. We jump up together at Question Time and now lack the courtesy to give way to each other.”
I fully agree with what he has said about Prime Minister’s Question Time and recall about a decade ago when I attended a meeting at Brighton and Hove Council to observe a debate on the funding of the voluntary sector. At the end of the debate a Councillor stood up to give the final speech for the proposed way forward and read out the text that had clearly been well prepared long before the debate began. It was a very clear speech but completely ignored the whole debate that had taken a very different direction from what had been anticipated by the Council leading team. It made the whole thing seem a complete waste of time although thankfully the outcome was a good one for the sector.
At around the same time I was part of the South East England Regional Assembly and we took part in debates that involved a smaller number of people than are allowed to debate in the House of Commons or House of Lords. It was as fascinating arrangement because we did not sit in two straight lines facing one another or in a circle but instead we attending different venues across the region. Most of the time we sat around circular tables throughout the room and from time to time we even sat on tables with some of the politicians. However when it came to votes many of them chose to ignore the diverse debates which involved the voluntary sector and the business sector along with the environmental group of representatives and instead simply argued for what they had prepared before they came in the room. However every so often enough of them were persuaded by the debate and the calls for change that the final decision was modified just a bit. Now this was in a setting where 70% of the members where Councillors and around 90% of the Councillors were from the Conservative Party. Had the balance been a bit closer to 60:40 or even 65:35 the decisions may well have become far more effective.
It would be amazing to see a new way forward at both a Parliamentary level and in Council Chambers and in due course when the English landscape is offered some devolution such as was possible through bodies like SEERA. However that may take some more decades just as Robert Winston is reflecting on his quarter of a century!