Summary of discussion workshop in Chesterfield

The Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy held a discussion workshop, chaired by Commissioner Helen Milner, at Chesterfield library on Monday 30 June with adults who have learning difficulties.

The aim of this discussion was to hear from adults with a range of different learning difficulties and disabilities on how Parliament communicates with them and how they would prefer to engage with the UK Parliament.

The session was organised following correspondence on the Commission’s web forum from Chesterfield resident, Simon Cramp.
The discussion was attended by 19 people at Chesterfield Library. It was live tweeted using #DDCVisits.

Main conclusions and recommendations

Engagement with Parliament
The consensus in the room was: “we would engage with Parliament and MPs if we could”. Several key problems experienced in doing so were identified:

  • Time

“By the time you're able to understand what's going on, it's too late to try and get your voice heard.”

The group agreed that there often wasn't enough time to respond to consultations taking place; by the time the information about what is going on and how to get involved reaches people, the deadline has passed or there's not enough time to get a submission together.

  • Advertising

What is going on in Parliament and how people can get involved needs to be better advertised both by where it is advertised and how. Suggestions included using TV adverts, adverts in local papers and targeting of local community groups. Advertisements should be written in simple language and be available in different forms such as video.

The group in general thought that it would be good to be contacted when issues they had previously shown an interest in (such as writing to their MP about it) were being discussed in Parliament.

  • Language

The group agreed that the language Parliament uses is a huge barrier to engagement and people are intimidated by it; the language makes people feel stupid and think that they cannot be involved because they don’t understand.

If you care about an issue, it’s almost impossible to find out who you need to talk to and how you can talk to them. The way things are advertised is incomprehensible i.e. MPs surgeries and select committee evidence—nobody knows what that means. Even when you have found a consultation that you want to contribute to, the language used is complicated and very lengthy which not everyone can deal with.

Participants also spoke about the reduction of funding for support workers—they felt strongly that support workers help people with learning difficulties understand how society works and would be their normal person to ask to for help to communicate with government or Parliament if they needed to. 

  • Accessibility

The group strongly agreed that non-digital always needs to be available, not just for reports but also for information explaining what’s going on in Parliament.

Suggestion: All Select Committee reports should have easy read versions and people should not have to pay for hard copies. It was noted that unless someone was confident enough to contact the staff on a select committee, (select committees generally post out free hard copies on request), you are directed online to the Stationary Office website where documents such as select committee reports cost around £20.

Suggestion: For elections, there should be an easy read list of promises from parties and a way to easily view whether those promises have been met or not at the end of a Parliament if that party has been in government.

Digital inclusion

The group agreed that people need more help and support with internet access both in terms of training to use it and affordability of having it.

Listening to the public

Disabled people are engaged (even if not with Parliament) on issues and there are a vast range of forums which already exist—Parliament needs to seek them out.

Suggestion 1: Community Outreach and discussion
Using the existing structure of Parliament’s Outreach Service, local community groups could receive training and updates on what’s going on in Parliament. They can then ask their members views by holding face to face discussions and then feeding this back to Parliament digitally. This would also allow people a chance to understand the issue more and by talking with people they know and trust, come to a good decision about what their view is.

Grants should be given to these groups to make equipment available for people to contribute—for example cameras for filming YouTube videos as submissions to select committee inquiries. 
A similar, alternative suggestion was ‘digital outreach people’ who could facilitate discussion on current consultations/ discussions happening in Parliament and feedback people’s views.

Suggestion 2: MP portal and/ or opinions portal
A final suggestion included having an opinions portal—possibly for MPs and their constituents and/ or a general portal for Parliament and UK citizens. People could write their views on different issues on this portal. When Parliament or an MP want to gauge public opinion or investigate an issue (for example say a select committee decides to conduct an inquiry into adult literacy like the recent Business Innovation and Skills Committee) this portal can be used to search for public views, view organisations interested/ local area projects and general opinions as a starting point for their inquiry. The portal would need to be sophisticated with an excellent tagging/ search facility for Parliament or individual MPs to find the information they want.

Thanks

The Commission would like to thank the participants in Chesterfield for coming along to share their thoughts and the staff at Chesterfield Library for their hospitality.

Image: Parliamentary copyright