Members of the public tweeting live from Parliament

Houses of Parliament and Westminster BridgeFor the first time today, members of the public who attended a debate in Parliament were permitted, and indeed encouraged, to keep their phones and use social media. Sadly it wasn’t in the House of Commons, where you still have to hand in your phones and tablets before you go into the public gallery, but appropriately it was in a Westminster Hall debate on Digital Democracy (#digitaldemocracy). It’s not clear to me how many of the tweets were directly from the admittedly small public gallery, and how many from people watching it on ParliamentLive TV, but it was an encouraging start.

Back in January I wrote about the report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. Meg Hillier MP, one of the Commissioners, had secured a backbench business debate in Westminster Hall this morning. You can watch the full debate at the bottom of this post.

She began by saying that this first use of mobile phones in the public gallery just showed how behind the times Parliament is. The Commission itself used digital means to consult and report throughout its work. Rob Greig had just started in the new post of Head of Digital this week and she said that she hoped he would use the Commission’s report as his new job description.

As I mentioned before there are five key targets in the report:

  1. By 2020, the House of Commons should ensure that everyone can understand what it does.
  2. By 2020, Parliament should be fully interactive and digital.
  3. The 2015 newly elected House of Commons should create immediately a new forum for public participation in the debating function of the House of Commons.
  4. By 2020, secure online voting should be an option for all voters.
  5. By 2016, all published information and broadcast footage produced by Parliament should be freely available online in formats suitable for re-use. Hansard should be available as open data by the end of 2015.

Tom Brake drily remarked that perhaps the first one should have read “By 2015, the House of Commons should ensure that all MPs can understand what it does.” Simplification of the language is essential.

He and other speakers underlined the fact that a lot of public data is generated within Parliament, but it is difficult to find, and is often not made available until it is too late for members of the public to influence the outcome. For a start, Hansard must be produced in an open data format. Apparently, at present, staff use TheyWorkForYou to find out what has been happening instead of going directly to Hansard.

Many of the comments that were made through the debate took me back to the National Project for Local E-Democracy, which I chaired 10 years ago.  That project (funded by what is now the Department for Communities and Local Government) was designed to do to local government what the Speaker’s Commission is now attempting for Parliament. So I’ve heard the arguments many times about the digital divide (the fact that some people do not use digital channels is no argument for not making them available to those who do), about encouraging appropriate rather than universal uses of technology (MPs like to meet in the division lobbies, but they could use their smart cards to record their votes) and, of course, for and against online voting in elections.

Tom spoke as Deputy Leader of the House; he was most concerned about citizenship education and strongly supported the dedicated education centre which is currently under construction.

For me, the most exciting prospect was the notion of a cyber chamber, covered in the third target – an online space where the public could comment on, and provide evidence for, bills at an early stage. This was supported by several speakers. The Commission wants the next Parliament to implement that immediately.

The comments on my earlier post tended to focus on online voting, with many sharing my scepticism. At the turn of this century there were a number of trials of alternative voting methods for local council elections. The only method that significantly increased turnout was all postal voting. The concerns about security and transparency of online voting were enough to push it into the long grass.  But it has now come back, with the suggestion that newer technologies can deal with the issues. Tom Brake said he was happy for e-voting trials to take place, especially now we have individual electoral registration.

Even if the systems themselves can be shown to minimise fraud, I would still be worried about the privacy of the data afterwards. If GCHQ can access virtually any online data for its own uses then I imagine that hacking into the voting records would not be a huge challenge. But it would be a massive assault on our civil liberties.

Here is the recording of the Westminster Hall debate this morning.

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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  • Mary, I am not sure if it is still the case (no doubt one of our Lords can confirm) but until very recently it was against the rules to use a pen or pencil in the pubic gallery in the House of Lords.
    Break the rule and you were ejected by the nice men who stalk around in fancy dress.

    Digital democracy is a fine idea but the goose quill is still a bit of a novelty for some in the Palace of Westminster.
    As the Prime Minister said recently — “Half museum, half Eton, half old folks home” or something like that.

  • Public not pubic.

  • I guessed you probably meant that, John, but wasn’t quite sure 🙂

  • William Jones 11th Mar '15 - 8:17am

    I always find it odd that the public can’t use their mobile devices (have them detained at the door) in the public gallery while members can use theirs in the debating chamber.

  • matt (Bristol) 11th Mar '15 - 11:27am

    Joe Otten, I agree.

    It is quite odd in our political system that Parliament should be so often seemingly keen to keep so many odd and anitquated practises on the grounds that they are traditions that should be honoured (applying for the Chiltern Hundreds instead of resigning, voting in lobbies, the ‘funny costumes’ John T refers to, I could so on), but the simple, proven, publically involving and symbolically telling (and – in historic terms – relatively new) ritual of putting pencil to paper in a voting booth should be the first thing they want to go, well before all their own private little weirdnesses.

  • I think it would be shame if the concerns about online voting (which I share) were to overshadow all the other really good modernising proposals in the report. The Commission was specifically looking at digital methods, so couldn’t deal with the funny costumes etc. But it has all party support, so I see it as the first domino – expose the chamber to live social media, write things in Basic English, make all data available for re-use, set up Cyber Commons – these will all hasten changes elsewhere in the system.

  • Tony Greaves 12th Mar '15 - 11:20am

    Online voting may be okay if it takes place in the privacy of a polling station and is subject to a number of important safeguards. Otherwise it is another serious threat to the integrity of the secret ballot.

    Writing is banned in the gallery of the House of Lords except in the South West Gallery (a recent innovation).

    People who spend their time in meetings tweeting etc instead of listening and taking part are a damned nuisance.


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