I beg to move,
That this House
notes the Third Report from the Procedure Committee on Use of hand-held electronic devices in the Chamber and committees, HC 889;
and resolves that hand-held devices (not laptops) may be used in the Chamber, provided that they are silent, and used in a way that does not impair decorum, that Members making speeches in the Chamber or in committee may refer to electronic devices in place of paper speaking notes and that electronic devices, including laptops, may be used silently in committee meetings, including select committees.
With this we will consider the following:
Amendment (a) to motion 1, leave out from 'used in the Chamber’ to end and add
‘to a minimal extent, silently and with decorum, to receive and send urgent messages, as a substitute for paper speaking notes and to refer to documents for use in debates, but not for any other purpose.’.
Motion on Select Committee Amendments—
That this House approves the recommendations relating to select committee amendments contained in paragraph 21 of the Second Report from the Procedure Committee on Improving the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny, HC 800.
Motion on Explanatory Statements on Amendments to Bills—
That this House notes the recommendations relating to explanatory statements on amendments to bills contained in paragraphs 31 and 32 of the Second Report from the Procedure Committee on Improving the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny, HC 800; and invites the Leader of the House and the Procedure Committee to put in place a pilot scheme to implement these proposals in respect of one or more bills before the end of the next session.
Motion on Written Parliamentary Questions—
That this House approves the recommendations relating to written parliamentary questions contained in paragraphs 50 and 51 of the Second Report from the Procedure Committee on Improving the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny, HC 800.
May I start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for providing time this afternoon for these debates? I have to say that I do not think it should be the Committee’s responsibility to provide this time. These are House matters relating to the procedure of the House, and I think that in future the Government should provide time for debates such as this.
All the motions arise out of reports by the Procedure Committee. For the benefit of Members I should say that House of Commons papers 800, 889 and 1104 are relevant. I thank the members of the Committee for their hard work, which goes largely unnoticed. We frequently disagree, but it is part of our strength that we have a Committee comprised of a wide range of Members from all parts of the House.
I wish to start by referring to the first motion, on hand-held electronic devices in the Chamber. The House last revised its rules on the use of such devices in the Chamber and in Committee in October 2007, and of course since that time the use of technology and the introduction of smaller and less obtrusive devices have developed rapidly, as has new software. I therefore believe we need to re-examine our rules.
I remember when I first purchased a mobile phone—I think I was one of the first people in the country to do so. I had to carry it with a shoulder strap, and the battery was larger than a large, bound volume of Hansard. It was a device that weighed about eight pounds, and it would have been totally impractical to bring it into the Chamber. Yet we now see devices that have the power of computers but are capable of being held in the palm of the hand. It is therefore right that we look again at our rules, and I hope that the House will agree to the motion before us.
As I said, the current rules go back to 2007. They permit the use of mobile phones and other hand-held devices to keep up to date with e-mails, provided that they cause no disturbance. Since 2007, the availability and use of new technology both within and outside Parliament has increased dramatically. There are many new devices, including portable tablet computers such as iPads, and smartphones, that did not exist when the Modernisation Committee drew up the report that led to our 2007 resolution. It was against that background that Mr Speaker and the Administration Committee asked the Procedure Committee to look into the matter and see whether it felt the rules should be changed. We gladly agreed to consider the matter further.
We have examined what happens in other parts of the world, and we were particularly impressed with the new and simple rule that has been introduced in the United States of America. There, the House of Representatives had previously banned the use of mobile phones and computers on the floor of the House, but on
“A person on the floor of the House may not…use a mobile electronic device that impairs decorum.”
That seems to us straightforward and simple. It is designed to give discretion to the Speaker, or whoever else is in the Chair, to decide what sort of technology can be used by referring to how the device is used rather than what it is used for or what type of device it is, as was the case in the past.
The Procedure Committee’s report upon which the debate is based was passed by a majority of Committee members voting on it. I am happy to acknowledge straight away that my hon. Friend has been an opponent of it from the beginning and voted against it in the Committee. I accept that this is a matter of fine judgment. I do not think it is one of those issues about which one can clearly say that the mainstream view is right and any other view is wrong, but I hope
during my remarks to convince the House that, on balance, it should follow the majority view of the Committee.
I accept that there is a respectable argument that electronic devices should not be used at all in the Chamber or in Committees. It could be said that Members present at any time should be attending to the debate in hand and not undertaking any other activities, and that the use of electronic devices, even silently, could distract others. However, there are arguments the other way. I believe that the main arguments, although not all the arguments, in favour of permitting the use of electronic devices are pragmatic. The Modernisation Committee, to which I referred earlier, recommended the lifting of the restriction on hand-held devices, at least as far as e-mails were concerned, because of the possibility that allowing multi-tasking in the Chamber might increase the number of Members present in a debate. In a report specifically aimed at revitalising the Chamber, it argued:
“Members might be more willing to spend time in the Chamber listening to debates or waiting to be called if they were able to do other work at the same time, either dealing with correspondence or perhaps even using a handheld computer or laptop to deal with e-mails.”
Does my right hon. Friend accept my view that given that women are notoriously good at multi-tasking, it is possible for female Members to listen to debates, attend to e-mails and even think about what they are going to feed their children that evening?
I hope that some male Members are also capable of multi-tasking, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her support.
In considering how to refresh and enliven the Chamber, did the Committee consider ensuring that the Chamber has wireless reception so that we can communicate more quickly using our electronic devices?
I believe that in such matters it is better to take one step at a time, but we may return to that, subject to the House’s conclusion today.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way—
Order. The hon. Lady has just walked in. It is a little discourteous, given that we have already started, for her to seek to intervene. She ought to allow others to do so first. It is up to Mr Knight whether he takes the intervention, but Members ought to listen for a bit before jumping in. Mr Knight, do you wish to take the intervention?
The right hon. Gentleman is laying out a clear case. Does he accept that one of the other functions of using hand-held devices in the Chamber is to let the general public know what is happening? Our procedures are not always clear to the casual observer. Many people are interested in what we do, and Twitter, for example, is a good way of letting them know what is going on.
There is certainly a strong argument for saying that we should not rule out of order anything that increases public interest in the Chamber and our Committees. I agree, therefore, with the hon. Gentleman.
There is also the question of consistency. Written notes as well as books, newspapers, letters and research papers may be used as an aide-mémoire. There is no difference between allowing a Member to consult his or her speaking notes or necessary documents in hard copy and allowing them to use an electronic device. Indeed, as more material is published in electronic format only, it might soon be the only way in which some documents can be consulted, particularly if the House of Commons Commission pursues its quest for further savings and decrees that some of our publications, which currently we enjoy in paper format, should be available in electronic format only.
I think that I inadvertently became the first Member to use an iPad for a speech in the Chamber a few months ago, mainly because I thought that we had been told that we now could—I picked that up from Twitter, so perhaps that is one of its perils. I was one of the last to be called in the debate and, whereas in other circumstances MPs might stick grimly to a pre-written speech, the fact that I could listen to Members and amend my speech as I went along meant that it was more of a response to the debate, as opposed to my coming along to say my five or 10 minutes’ worth.
That is a very good point. What is the difference between the written word on a note made contemporaneously and referring to an iPad or other tablet device using the same process?
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that some of us think that the amendment tabled by Mr Gray proposes a more appropriate way of proceeding? It looks pretty bad if Members spend all their time looking at papers and other things that have nothing to do with a debate, but they look even less connected if they spend all their time playing with bits of electronic machinery. If we are here, we should be taking part in the debate, and the administration of our lives should happen outside.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is wrong if Members decide to have a little snooze? The motion states that we should behave with decorum. Is that not the point? We should use electronic devices sparingly, but the option to use them should be available.
That is the essence of my argument—in whatever we do, we should behave with decorum. There is no duty on any of us to listen to the Member who has the Floor. The duty on us is to behave with decorum and not to be out of order, which is why it is appropriate to allow the use of these devices. In many instances, Members wander into the Chamber early and wait for a debate to start, and are not there to participate in the debate under way. What is wrong with Members discreetly checking whether they have messages, e-mails or other documents to review?
As a lowly member of the animal life in the House, I have previously had to wait six hours to be called right at the end of a debate. As my right hon. Friend suggests, those six hours would be much more fruitful if I could do some work while waiting to be called—owing to my low position in the rankings of the House.
The hon. Gentleman does very well when he speaks. Perhaps that is why.
I agree with my hon. Friend, although I have never thought of him as lowly.
The issue is one of fine judgment. I have reservations about basing the rules on what activities are permissible or forbidden. First, the inadequacy of the reference in our current rules—to checking e-mails and nothing else—shows how quickly the range of applications on hand-held devices could outstrip any attempt to define what is acceptable. Secondly, it is difficult, if not impossible, proportionately to police activity on an electronic device. Do we really want the Speaker frequently to have to rule on whether a Member had been using a device for a proper purpose following a complaint from another Member? It is illogical to prevent Members from using electronic devices when they could use paper speaking notes and documents or other research. Why should we prevent Members from checking facts on the internet in the Chamber?
I was told as a new Member of Parliament by those who shall remain nameless, “Never mind whether your facts are accurate. Just say them anyway.” Of course, I have never followed that advice, but there are many advantages of instantaneously being able to google an article or, for example, to send a message to the chief constable of Wiltshire police in order to deal with damning statistics being provided by Opposition Members. That is incredibly helpful to us in doing our job of holding the Government to account and being good parliamentarians.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Ministers have had this facility for years. Officials in the Box have regularly passed notes to Ministers so that the latter can gauge the accuracy of points being made. Why should this be denied to the rest of us, who could obtain such information electronically? The Procedure Committee therefore concluded by a majority that Members should be allowed to use electronic hand-held devices for any purpose when in the Chamber while not speaking and that the current ban on the use of such devices as an aide-mémoire when we are speaking in a debate should be ended. I understand that even Hansard is now willing to accept notes for speeches electronically, rather than
asking right hon. and hon. Members for a hard-copy of their speech. However, we all hope that such devices, if allowed to be used, will be used with discretion and due regard to decorum.
The amendment that I suspect my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire will seek to move shortly would allow hand-held electronic devices to be used in the Chamber only to receive and send urgent messages as a substitute for paper speaking notes and to refer to documents in debates. There would be no right to search for information or to check e-mails while sitting in the Chamber.
I cannot understand how my right hon. Friend has interpreted my amendment to mean that there should be no searching for information. Of course, there should be. The point of the amendment is that the devices could be used for any purpose connected to the debate, but for no other purposes. Of course, under the wording of my amendment as I understand it, they could be used to search for information.
It does not say that.
It does not have to.
The amendment removes from the motion any mention of using such devices in Committee, which is extremely unfortunate because Select Committees already circulate non-confidential papers electronically. Indeed, I understand that the Administration Committee is piloting the use of electronic devices for the provision of some House papers. However, if my hon. Friend’s amendment is passed, the Chairman of the Committee alone will determine whether an electronic device may be used. The amendment provides no guarantee of consistency in Committee use.
Perhaps the drafting of the amendment is not all that it could be—had my right hon. Friend drafted it, it might be better—but if the procedure in the Chamber were changed in the way I have described, I presume that precisely the same would apply in Committee. I acknowledge that the amendment does not say that, but that is the clear implication.
My hon. Friend is now telling the House what he wished his amendment would do rather than what it does. I could not recommend anyone to vote for such an amendment. He drafted it, and it takes out all references to the use of electronic devices in Committee. In my view, Members should have certainty in what they can and cannot do in Committee. Imagine a Member attending a Committee with their notes on an electronic device and the Chairman saying, “Well, in my Committee we don’t use these devices.” That Member would be left high and dry.
If we were to presume, in the way the right hon. Gentleman does, that Chamber practice was consistent with Committee practice, the rule allowing hon. Gentlemen to remove their jackets in Committee, which does not apply in the Chamber, would presumably lapse.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point.
The amendment has been badly drafted, but there is another aspect to it. Currently Members have to sit in the corridor to use laptops; if the amendment is passed, they will have to stay in the corridor and will not be allowed in the Committee Room. Does my right hon. Friend agree?
I do indeed. I am against the amendment for reasons of consistency. If Members can send messages between themselves by paper, they should be allowed to do so with electronic devices. Indeed, if a member of a Committee wishes to pass a message to a member on the other side of the room, it might be less disruptive to use an electronic device, rather than leaving his or her chair, because sending a paper message would mean going to the side of the room. As for enforcing the rules, it would be difficult for the Chair to determine during proceedings whether a Member was using an electronic device to send or receive urgent messages. Who is to determine whether the messages that I view are urgent? Surely that is a matter for me to determine, not the Chair. The Chair would therefore be expected to rule on what is an urgent message.
Is not the real challenge for anyone receiving a message to know whether it is urgent before they have received it?
That is a fair point. We have to view our messages before we know whether they are urgent.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. I would like to clarify something with him, because it is quite clear that he has not served on a Standing Committee for rather a long time. The Chairman of Ways and Means, in his courtesy and wisdom, allows members of the Chairmen’s Panel, of which I happen to be one, a great deal of leeway in determining how we run our Committees in the interests of good order and progress of business. Let me assure my right hon. Friend that in any Committee I am chairing Members are under no illusions whatever about whether they are allowed to use electronic devices, which they are not, whether they are allowed to bring tea or coffee into the room, which they are not, or whether they are allowed to take their jackets off, which they are. I have never yet had a problem with any Member being in any doubt whatever.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but he thereby underlines my case for passing the motion unamended. He has made it quite clear that if Committees were exempt, he would not allow the use of electronic devices, whatever view we took in the House. If we wish to see the use of electronic devices, I would invite the House to reject the amendment and pass the motion unamended.
The point about participation is not one that we can ignore, either. There is an argument that Members are more likely to attend debates if they are able to do other
work while they are waiting to be called. That is why I believe we should allow the use of electronic devices in Committee and on the Floor of the House.
The remaining motions on the Order Paper, which you, Mr Deputy Speaker, have indicated we may debate together, contain three sets of recommendations that share a common aim: improving the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny. First, the Procedure Committee was asked by the Liaison Committee to consider whether Select Committees should be allowed to table amendments to Bills and motions being taken on the Floor of the House. We agreed to look at this and think there is a case for their being able to do so, subject to certain safeguards. Any amendment tagged as a Select Committee amendment should be agreed unanimously at a quorate meeting of the Committee, and notice should be given to all its members that such amendments will be proposed for consideration at a forthcoming meeting. We have also suggested that, subject to the established conventions on selection for debate and decision, the Speaker or the Chairman of Ways and Means might look favourably on a Select Committee seeking a separate Division on its amendments where business is programmed.
Let me say on behalf of the Liaison Committee that we are grateful that the Procedure Committee has not only accepted our proposal, which originated from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, but refined it, building in helpful safeguards. Is my right hon. Friend as astonished as I am that the Government appear to have it in mind to use the payroll vote to prevent what we propose from happening?
I hope that the Government will have a change of heart even as this debate progresses, but I rather share the right hon. Gentleman’s feeling that that may not come about.
Secondly, we also recommended that we should conduct a further experiment in this Parliament whereby Members and Opposition spokesmen are encouraged to attach explanatory statements to amendments and the Government provide explanatory statements clarifying the origin of amendments and new clauses proposed on Report.
Thirdly, our Committee recognises that although written parliamentary questions are a vital part of parliamentary scrutiny, they impose a significant cost on the public purse. Although we felt it would be wrong to consider imposing restrictions on Members’ ability to table questions in person, we think we should have a three-month trial whereby Members are restricted to a quota of five written questions a day submitted electronically.
To assist Members, we also recommended that the Government should deliver all answers to parliamentary questions to the Member concerned by e-mail at the same time as the answer is delivered to the House, which is vital. I do not know whether Members know this, but answers are delivered by a person who literally walks round the building. He takes the answer into Hansard and then to the Press Gallery, and then he puts it on the notice board for the Member. I asked a question recently, and in my case I was the last point in the journey. The House business was collapsing and I was on a train when I had a phone call from a journalist wanting to know my view on the answer to my question, which my
office had not received. On checking the board, I found that it had still not got there. I therefore do not think it acceptable for Members to be the last in the queue when receiving answers to their questions. That is why we feel that there ought to be a system in place whereby Members always receive an electronic reply immediately the answer is available.
I warmly congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee on an excellent set of reports and proposals on explanatory statements and so on. However, I want to press him slightly on the restriction on written questions that are only e-tabled, which seems to go against the arguments for consistency that have been marshalled for electronic devices. Surely a question should be treated the same whether it is tabled via the internet, by post or in person. Although we might need to look at a quota system, I cannot quite understand why electronically tabled questions need to be a special case, so that there is a quota for them but not for others.
If I may, I will come back to that point in a moment. I want to deal completely with Select Committee amendments first, but I will return to the hon. Lady’s point and, if she is not satisfied, I invite her to intervene on me again.
The Procedure Committee was invited by the Liaison Committee to look at the possibility of a tabling system that would enable Select Committees to table their own amendments. The current practice is that amendments agreed by a Select Committee may be tabled only in the names of individual Members, which makes it difficult to distinguish Committee amendments from those tabled by the same members of the Committee acting as individuals. After consulting interested parties, the Procedure Committee published a report recommending that the practice be changed to allow Select Committees to table amendments to Bills and motions in the name of the Chair, with a tag line indicating the name of the appropriate Select Committee. The advantage of that practice would be that it would offer clarity to the House and to individual Members, and enable anyone reading an amendment paper to see that an amendment had originated in a Select Committee. It was also felt that it would contribute to the effectiveness of Select Committees.
We recognised, however, that there could be disadvantages, as individual members of a Select Committee might disagree with a proposed amendment, either at the time of its adoption by the Committee or afterwards. To counter that, the Procedure Committee recommended that stringent safeguards be built into the process whereby Committees agreed amendments that carried the special status of Select Committee amendments. We suggested that such amendments would have to be formally agreed, without Division, by a quorate meeting of the Committee. That is a more rigorous requirement than that for Select Committee reports, which can be agreed by a simple majority.
The Committee rejected the idea that Select Committee amendments should be guaranteed debate, because of the constraints of programming, but we supported the adoption of a convention that the Chair should grant a Division when one is sought. Unfortunately, as the
Chairman of the Liaison Committee has said, the Government have indicated that they oppose this innovation, and I understand that they continue to oppose such a modest, sensible move today. Indeed, I have seen the Patronage Secretary buzzing round the House, rather like a wasp, discussing this matter. I therefore suspect that there could be a Government payroll Whip on this Liaison Committee suggestion.
The Government object to the proposal because they feel that it would be wrong for an amendment to be marked as having the support of a Select Committee if some of the Committee’s members might be in disagreement. We have tried to address that difficulty by recommending stringent conditions that would have to be met before a Select Committee amendment could be tabled as such. They include the condition that notice must be given before the Committee could agree the amendment. The Government say, however, that it would still be possible under the new arrangement for any two members of an 11-member Committee to approve an amendment on behalf of the whole Committee, as the quorum is only three and the Chair has a casting vote. That is technically correct, but I would suggest that the requirement for notice would make it most unlikely—or, in practice, impossible—that that could happen against the wishes of a majority of active members of a Committee.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. That makes my argument even stronger and the Government’s case even weaker, and I am grateful for his intervention.
Our proposal is merely intended to enhance the visibility of Select Committee issues, without in any way diminishing the position of individual members in voting for or against amendments on the Floor. This matter was not initially on our agenda, but the Liaison Committee asked us to look at it. We have done so, and this is our conclusion. I therefore hope that, even at this late hour, the Government will reflect on their opposition to it, which I feel is misplaced. We have given our view, and whether the proposal now proceeds further is a matter for the whole House.
I see Caroline Lucas in her place. She was one of the Members who supported the idea of explanatory statements, which is the subject of one of the other motions on the Order Paper today. The House has conducted a series of experiments with explanatory statements, and the Procedure Committee has assessed them. We decided that the overall effect was inconclusive, but it was put to us that carrying out a further experiment in a new Parliament—namely, this one—could be worth while, and that it would also be worth pursuing the experiment during the Report stage of a Bill. That is what we have decided to recommend to the House, and we are pleased to note that, in a debate Westminster Hall on
I am rather more hopeful about this proposal, because the Deputy Leader of the House attended that debate and—it was a rare situation indeed—offered Government support for the measure. He said:
“Regarding explanations for amendments, we had the experiment in Committee and I am certainly happy, as far as the Government are concerned, for that experiment to proceed. Perhaps we ought to look at having such explanations on Report, too.”—[Hansard, 3 February 2011; Vol. 522, c. 384WH.]
I wholeheartedly agree with him, and I am glad that, on this issue, we are as one. I hope that he will confirm today that he now thinks it appropriate for us to trial the explanatory notes again in this Session and the next one. It would then be a matter for the House to decide in due course whether the facility was to be made permanent.
On the question of having a three-month trial quota for questions tabled electronically, the concern arose from evidence—mainly informal—from the Table Office. It found, when questioning the intended scope of some questions tabled electronically in Members’ names, that some Members appeared to know nothing about the questions and registered surprise that they had been tabled in their name. The Procedure Committee took the view that, in some cases, research assistants might be using the electronic procedure to table questions without the express authority of those for whom they work.
Questions are a proceeding in Parliament and should not be submitted without the express and explicit authority of a Member of Parliament. As the electronic submission method could be used without the Member’s knowledge, we decided, in this area only, to limit the number of questions to five in a three-month period to see what the effect would be. We are not recommending any restriction on the number of questions that a Member may take into the Table Office personally. This is a modest recommendation, and we hope that it will lead to Members being fully aware that a question is being submitted in their name.
Would an alternative be to encourage the use of electronic submissions and to introduce a system whereby, once a question had been received, it was automatically sent to the Member by e-mail? It would then be very hard for a rogue researcher to table questions without being noticed.
That is a possibility, but we felt that, in the first instance, this three-month trial might lead to a small drop in the number of questions that a Member might deem worth asking. If Government Departments had smaller postbags to deal with, it could lead to better and quicker answers. We think that that is worth an experiment, but of course there are other options that we could look at. Indeed, as it is just an experiment, I would be quite happy to reflect on what the hon. Gentleman has said, should this motion proceed today.
My right hon. Friend is being gentle and courteous, but I think it is time he took the gloves off. There is a very real problem of parliamentary processes being manipulated by others who are not MPs—lobbying bodies, researchers and other parties associated with MPs. The process is quite clearly being abused, and it is time it was brought under control.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. This is a modest way of putting a check on the number of written questions going in and ensuring that in each case the Member is fully aware of what is being tabled in his or her name.
I have now laid my Committee’s recommendations before the House. I believe that they are all balanced, fair, proportionate and likely to assist Members in the performance of their duties. I commend them to the House—unamended.
Order. A 10-minute rule for Back-Bench speeches now comes into force. Will Members try not to use the maximum time and to cut down on interventions? The next debate is greatly oversubscribed. I understand that this debate is important, but people outside might not understand why we wanted to spend more time on hand-held devices than on high-speed rail.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in robust support of the main motion and strongly against the amendment. The main motion seeks to allow Members to use hand-held devices in a way that does not impair decorum. We are all adults, and we are all mindful of how we are viewed in the eyes of the public and of the importance of being respectful to each other. It is therefore right that we use our phones and our tablets with discretion. It is also correct that laptops should be banned—they conceal people’s faces and make a noise—and it is right that any smartphone or tablet should be in silent mode when used. It is always regrettable and often embarrassing when a colleague’s phone beeps or rings in the Chamber.
I cannot support an amendment that allows Members to receive and send only urgent messages. According to an e-mail that explained this amendment, the intention behind using the term “urgent messages” is to ban tweeting, among other things, from the Chamber. Twitter started five years ago and now has more than 100 million active users. More than 300 MPs use Twitter. It allows us, in a bite-sized 140-character nugget, to talk to people outside this place. While it is not a replacement for traditional forms of communication, it is a very useful way to connect with the communities we were elected to represent.
I am a user of Twitter myself. One of its advantages is that messages have to be condensed into 140 characters to communicate with the outside world. Does the hon. Lady agree that we could learn from that, and try to condense more of our contributions to 140 characters?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. That point has been made by many people engaged in the discussion about whether we should be able to continue using Twitter from the Chamber. I shall go on to refer to some of those contributions.
Many of us have a function whereby our tweets are listed on our websites for people to read, particularly for those who do not access the main Twitter website.
Some MPs have been lambasted for using Twitter solely to publish press releases or to state what they are doing. Others use it to engage in debate. A conversation on a topic can unfold on Twitter via a hashtag. I started the hashtag #keeptweeting to initiate an online discussion and identify what the public thought about tweeting in the Chamber. I was careful to ask what people thought about using Twitter in this place, not outside it.
The fact that the amendment has been tabled at all has provoked anger from some. For example, @RichSwitch said:
“No wonder people think Politicians are out of touch”.
There were many tweets offering reasons why Chamber tweeting should continue. I will not read them all, but I have picked a few relating to a number of themes. Some see it as a means of engagement. For example, @LeamingtonSBC said:
“Surely anything which widens public participation in the democratic process is a good thing!”
Similarly, @NHConsortium said:
“Parliament already seen as cut off & static, don’t amputate it further.”
Others shared why Twitter was important to them in understanding what is going on. Thus @maggieannehayes admitted that
“parliament can be such an alien place. MPs tweeting enables us, the voters, to get a sense of what’s happening”.
Does the hon. Lady agree with me that she has taken a somewhat self-selecting sample? She has asked the twitterers whether or not they like twittering. I would have thought that they probably would do.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I shall come on to the responses of people who thought that we should not continue tweeting. I have a selection here. To continue, @PercyBlakeney63 said, “Citizens deserve transparency”, while @Daisydumble said, “Censorship of MPs now”.
Does the hon. Lady agree that tweeting helps MPs to stay informed, in touch and accountable to their constituents, and that to ban it would be an inexplicable step back in time? That is 138 characters.
I thank the hon. Lady for her succinct, pithy and tweetable intervention of 138 characters, and I wholeheartedly agree with everything she said.
All too often we are accused of being inward-facing. The public say that we are out of touch and inaccessible. Twitter allows us to make politics relevant, and makes us as individuals accessible.
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend was in the Chamber when we discussed whether we should able to discuss whether the UK Youth Parliament should be allowed to sit here on a Friday for the second year running. It was a debate on whether to have a debate on that subject. Many MPs were here into the early hours of the morning. It was important that we could tweet and explain to people, particularly young people, what on earth this charade they were watching on the BBC Parliament channel was all about. Many
young people wanted to know what we were talking about. I think that was the best use of Twitter in the Chamber that I have encountered so far. I think people valued the fact that their MPs were prepared to explain to them what was going on.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention and wholeheartedly agree with everything she said. That was a good example of something embarrassing—the prospect of not allowing the Youth Parliament to sit in this place. We debated it for many arduous hours and came to the right decision in the end. The fact that we were able to communicate with the public, particularly with those young people who wanted the opportunity to come here, was a fantastic use of Twitter. Twitter also enables us to offer an immediate reaction to a debate, to signal when we are going to speak—as I did just before I began my speech—and to inform our constituents how we are voting.
I have the great honour, I believe, of having been the first of all current MPs to join Twitter. It has been useful. [Interruption.] I was not an MP at the time I joined; I do not claim that. I, too, have received a number of comments about this debate. A number of people said that they had become interested in politics as a result of following Twitter and receiving tweets from myself, the hon. Lady and others. There are also people who actively tune into debates because they know what is happening; they can quickly understand what is being debated in this place. The TV and online audience for Parliament goes up because of Twitter. Another point is that deaf people have no better way of following a debate in this Chamber as it happens.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who makes two points on which I shall elaborate in a few moments. As I said, I believe that Twitter, for the reasons I outlined, allows our constituents to hold us to account better.
A number of Members have said that if the public want to know what is going on, they should watch our proceedings on television. However, as @Scarletstand said, people “can’t all watch” it “on TV”. Not everyone has access to a television or a computer for internet TV, although they may have internet access to sites like Twitter on their mobile phones. It also less likely that the public would choose to watch the Parliament channel. Simon Hughes expressed in an earlier intervention his worry about what people might think as they watched us on television, but according to BARB—the Broadcasters Audience Research Board—the average weekly viewing per person of BBC Parliament is just one minute.
That much. I think it is when they flick through to get to another channel. As @Scarletstand went on to say, tweeting from the Chamber
“helps voters gauge mood & tone”.
Is the hon. Lady aware of any evidence relating to MPs like me who do not tweet? Is there any evidence
to suggest that our constituents are less satisfied with us than other constituents are satisfied with their MPs who do tweet?
I am not aware of any evidence to suggest that constituents would be less happy with their MPs if they did not tweet. I am saying, as I have said before, only that Twitter enables us to reach out to a wider audience. It should not be a replacement for traditional forms of communication, but for younger constituents and people who go on to our websites and want to see some pithy little updates, Twitter provides that opportunity. As I said earlier, it also enables people to gauge the mood and tone of this place, which they might not be able to pick up by watching television.
One aspect that had not occurred to me until I opened up the debate on Twitter is the fact that, as Dr Huppert mentioned a moment ago, it has positive benefits for people with hearing impairments. The BBC parliamentary channel is not subject to the BBC’s 100% subtitle commitment, and pledges just 800 hours of subtitled content a year. As @TimRegency observed, Twitter is one really useful way for deaf people to get involved in political discussion and debate.
Some objections were expressed. @JimSpin said that we could not concentrate and tweet. However, I would argue that we can, and that tweeting is equivalent to sending a text message, which takes just seconds. I agree with Claire Perry that both women and men are able to multitask.
“Can surgeons tweet from operating theatres, policemen in a raid, jurors from courtrooms, teachers from classrooms?”
I would argue that the audience for each of those individuals—the surgeon, the teacher and the juror—is immediately in front of him or her, whereas we are accountable to our constituents, who are a long way from this place.
Do not get me wrong. I am not advocating constant tweeting, or tweeting while we are talking. As @TrojanFanl969 said,
“mp’s to use common sense. 50 tweets an hr bit silly, but selective use v good, engaging with electorate etc.”
Just two countries in Europe have banned tweeting, and I do not think that we should join them. @RichSwitch said:
“A ban on Tweeting in the chamber would be unconstitutional”.
I am not sure that I agree, but I do believe that—as he also says—it would be
“anti-democratic, regressive and bemusing to the public”.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I am not speaking to a brief from the Administration Committee, and I am pleased that the written evidence submitted on behalf of the Committee—whose conclusions were unanimous—has been printed along with the report that is before the House today. What I am about to say will contain my own emphasis, in the context of the Procedure Committee’s report and its recommendations to the House, and I am aware that it will give me a good chance of becoming the leading candidate for the “dinosaur of the year” award.
I think that we should appreciate the extraordinary reputation that the House has throughout the world. We should be humbled by the fact that whatever Parliament or the Government may say or decide, the institution itself is admired and respected enormously. People come from everywhere to see how we proceed as a legislature. I think that the requirement for us to stand on our own feet and use our own wits produces a quality of debate that has given all British parliamentarians a fairly high reputation around the world.
We should bear that in mind, because I believe that if it appears that we are being prompted from outside—which is entirely possible if hand-held devices are produced in the House—our reputation will decline. I am not targeting Luciana Berger, but I believe that such devices will accentuate the tendency to read speeches, and the reading of speeches, which is discouraged by “Erskine May”, does have a dampening effect on debate. The hon. Lady made a very gracious contribution, and I repeat that I am merely making a general point.
Once, when I was in the Chair, I had to listen to a speech from an hon. Member who is no longer in the House. I thought that it had a certain ring about it, and indeed I discovered that it was a submission by that hon. Member to a Select Committee that was being read to the House. I was able to follow it word for word. I think there are certain dangers in going down that particular road.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many speeches that are based on closely written notes are a great deal more interesting than some of the more rambling contributions of other Members? I mention no names.
I accept that the quality of our contributions may vary, and I certainly make no claims for what I have said in that regard. As the hon. Lady knows, I have experienced 13 years with no practice of speaking in the House, so I am a bit of a newcomer myself.
I sometimes wonder, though, what would happen when a Member was using an electronic tablet, for example, and the power went off. That Member could be caught in a very difficult situation. It is ironic, is it not, that we are discussing this matter at a time when one of the best-known devices, owned by many Members, is having problems in achieving the purposes that some Members have extolled today.
I know that I shall not be able to stem a tide of what is, I guess, modernity, but there can be no doubt that it is transformational, and that it does not necessarily accord with the style of debate that we have used in the House over the years. Twice, when I had the privilege of sitting in the Chair, I had to restrain hon. Members from making telephone calls from the Chamber simply because the device was there. No one is suggesting that telephone calls should be made, but the fact that the device is there and can be used for that purpose does, I am afraid, lead to infringements. I also noticed that the Whips on duty on the Government and Opposition Benches were often distracted by the use of their devices and were not keeping pace with business, which created a dysfunction with the Chair.
Such devices are very compelling when they are in someone’s hand. It is not a question of what they might do, which is what is being recommended, but a question of what they can be used for. We know that people’s eyes tend to be drawn to a television screen when they visit someone else’s house. Similarly, the press of a button on a hand-held device can easily enable someone to view images from outside the House that command his or her interest. People know of my interest in cricket. How convenient it would be to ascertain what was happening in the Test match at that very moment! As the bowler was walking back to the end of his run, I should be able to look up and appear interested in what was going on in the Chamber, before looking down again at what was happening at the match.
Notwithstanding the qualified nature of the recommendation before the House—and the fact that it is accompanied by an even more curious suggested qualification from my hon. Friend Mr Gray—the Chair will have no means of knowing what is actually happening when these devices are in use. When we admit them—if we do—we shall have to recognise that they can be used for a variety of purposes that the Chair will find very difficult to distinguish from one another.
I am afraid that I will not. It would extend the length of my speech, and I do not want to do that in view of the limited amount of time left. I apologise to my hon. Friend, because I did refer to him.
It has been said that the purpose of allowing hand-held devices in the Chamber is to enable Members to get on with other activities—what my hon. Friend Claire Perry described as multitasking. I can honestly say, however, that over the years the Chair has tried to accommodate colleagues by not making them sit through the whole of debates. The convention is that Members are present for opening speeches and for the speeches immediately before and after their own, but the Chair sometimes provides guidance, bearing in mind that we are all under heavy pressure to do so many other things nowadays. I therefore do not think that the idea that Members have to be present for six hours and must get on with their work during that time is a particularly good excuse.
I am not sure whether this still happens, but I know that the public have complained about the fact that the Chamber is so often empty and have asked, “Where are they? What are they doing?” One of my constituents said to me once that any Member who was not in his place in the Chamber for the whole of a debate should be deselected. That has been the level of misconception outside the House. But now, as they look around the Chamber, the public are beginning to notice that Members are, in fact, doing something. A moment ago I saw several colleagues, heads down. It is not a question of whether they are able to multitask, or whether they are unable to listen to what is being said; it is a question of what the public think they are doing—and they do appear to be distracted from what is going on. That is a reputational point, and the House should consider it. Although I suspect that the House will bow to the
inevitable and say, “This is progress,” we must be aware of the direction in which we are heading and understand that the character of our debates is likely to alter.
The Administration Committee report suggested that we should trial this move much more in Committee first, and I still believe that. I used to have doubts on this subject. When I was the Chairman of Ways and Means and the Chairman’s Panel, we were rather opposed to the use of laptops, but I think that the tablet is different. It is less obtrusive and can be used effectively to deal with notes on clauses and all matters related to Committee work. I encourage this course of action, therefore, and that is why the Administration Committee is trying out how to operate in a paperless manner.
To my mind therefore, a better balanced response would have been to say, “Let’s see how this works in Committee before considering whether there is an essential difference between the work in Committee and the work in the House.” My right hon. Friend Mr Knight, for whom I have great respect, said what he was commending was a balanced approach on hand-held devices. I think the Administration Committee proposal, which I have advocated in my speech, would have offered a better balance still.
I warmly welcome this debate and congratulate Mr Knight on his Committee’s work. I support the Procedure Committee recommendations on Select Committee amendments and handheld devices, but I shall focus on the motion on explanatory statements to amendments. That might sound like a very dry, technical and abstract issue, but I believe it goes to the heart of exposing something that is rotten about the way this place works. When I first arrived in Parliament as a new MP last year and started voting on legislation, I was shocked to discover that, due to lack of time, some Government amendments go through on Report “on the knife”, with neither debate nor explanation. That effectively means that legislation is being passed with no scrutiny whatever.
It is equally scandalous that many MPs frequently have no idea what they are voting on when they file through the Lobby. The Procedure Committee has done excellent work in trying to address that problem and has offered the simple solution of explanatory statements. I addressed this issue last year in a report entitled, “The case for parliamentary reform”. Following that report, I was able to secure a lively and well-attended Backbench Business Committee debate in Westminster Hall, which was held on
During that debate, I was heartened by the degree of cross-party support that there was for the idea of explanatory statements for amendments taken on the Floor of the House. That was supported because the public would be rightly outraged were it to be widely known that legislation is being passed undebated and that many MPs are simply not in a position to know what they are voting on.
The hon. Gentleman underlines my point. I am not blaming Members as they simply cannot know the minute details of the effects of all amendments. That is why having explanatory statements—a limited amount of text clearly explaining what a particular amendment seeks to achieve—is so important. If Members had that information, they would be much better able to exercise their vote judiciously on behalf of their constituents, and would be able to put their hand on their heart and say, “Yes, we do know what we are voting on here.”
I was about to discuss the question of who is at fault. I am not blaming hon. Members; I am blaming the way we work. Given the way our system is set up, it is perhaps understandable—but it is not acceptable—that many MPs have to rely on the Whips to tell them how to vote, and do not really know what the amendment they are voting on actually does. I have seen Members literally being physically propelled through the Aye Lobby in support of Government legislation even as they are trying to find out the significance of what they are voting on.
Members might be less likely to be treated in such a way if there were a simple explanation of the effect of each amendment under consideration, and at least they would know whether they actually agreed with the Whips’ directions. If there were explanatory statements, there would be more transparency and better debates, and Members would be better able to object when the Government make a large number of significant amendments to their own legislation on Report with inadequate time for scrutiny.
It is, of course, absolutely right that MPs should as much as possible listen and contribute to debates in the Chamber, which should enlighten them on the effect of any given amendment. However, as all Members know, being an effective MP involves many other tasks, including responsibilities to undertake work on Committees, to attend debates elsewhere, to chair and attend meetings, to take part in all-party groups, and to meet constituents. As a result, MPs do not, and frequently cannot, sit in the Chamber for all the time that the debate on amendments on which they will later vote is going on. Furthermore, if it were easier to work out what the amendments meant before the debate, more MPs might contribute.
It is obviously good for democracy for MPs to know what they are voting on, but it is also important that we have a system that can be easily understood by members of the public who want to follow a Bill. Currently, interested citizens who might be following proceedings on television or on Twitter have to go separately to the Bill, then look up the clause and then probably go to the explanatory notes to the Bill to try and make sense of what is happening. We need a remedy.
The hon. Lady mentions explanatory notes to Bills, which we currently have. Does she agree that the proposal under discussion is simply an extension of what is already available? We have explanatory notes saying in plain English what a Bill does, and to extend that to amendments is a common-sense proposal, particularly for those of us and our constituents who do not have legal training. I have had experience of sitting in a Bill Committee and reading an amendment proposed by another Member and wondering what it means. Sometimes that is not clear until the debate starts. This proposal would address that problem.
I completely agree. The hon. Lady’s comments underline the fact that the proposal is not as complicated as rocket science; rather, it is an extension of the common-sense measures that are already in place.
I must have been reading different explanatory notes than Jo Swinson as I have never known them to explain anything. I fear that explanatory notes on amendments would be even worse, and I note that the report states:
“An explanatory statement is not required where the amendment is self-explanatory”.
The hon. Gentleman can try to make fun of this proposal if he wants, but in the European Parliament it is mandatory to have an explanatory statement and it is incredibly useful. If it is condensed down to about 50 or 100 words and explains what a measure is intended to achieve, an awful lot more people will have an awful lot more sense of what is going on. If the hon. Gentleman wants to stand up and say he thinks it is absolutely fine that so many Members do not know what they are voting for, that is up to him, but I am not happy about that.
I want to make some progress.
There is an ongoing pilot in Public Bill Committees, which is permissive in that it allows Members to table explanatory statements to amendments if they wish. What is now needed is to make that pilot permanent and to extend it, so that Members can table explanatory statements in Committee of the whole House and, crucially, on Report.
Given this state of affairs, it beggars belief that a Government who say they want more transparency and a healthier democracy were so negative and obstructive in their response to the Procedure Committee recommendation for explanatory statements on the Floor of the House. Why are the Government doing their utmost to block this simple move, which seeks to make sure that MPs are not just rubber-stamping legislation and to prevent the Government from sneaking things through on Report without any scrutiny whatever?
The Government try to use the low take-up of the Public Bill Committee pilot as an argument against changing the status quo on the Floor of the House, but that argument does not stand up to scrutiny. First, as the Government well know, MPs serving on Public Bill Committees will all be thoroughly engaged in the detail of the Bill, and the 20 or so members of a PBC voting on an amendment that they have all thoroughly discussed in minute detail is quite different from a Division on the Floor of the House, where 650 Members are called to vote, the majority of whom have no idea of the specifics of what they are voting on. So explanatory statements would be there not for those who had tabled them but for those who are voting and, thus, the suggestion that a lack of action from people tabling them equates to a lack of demand simply does not stack up.
If the Government really want to measure demand, why do they not simply survey MPs running down the escalators from Portcullis House to the Lobby all asking
each other hurriedly, “What’s this on? What’s going on? What are we voting on?” Furthermore, the Government should have been leading on this pilot. If they had made the effort to provide explanatory statements consistently themselves, they could have created a culture where such provision was expected. Instead, they did nothing to participate in or assist with a simple pilot of a mechanism to increase transparency.
When I tabled explanatory statements alongside my amendments in the Energy Public Bill Committee, MPs from all parts of the House told me how helpful they found it. This is about leading and working to change the standards that Members expect, and have expected of them, when they try to change legislation.
The Government have to.
Order. I think that we will have the debate carried out through the Chair.
My apologies, Mr Deputy Speaker. Does the hon. Lady agree that this should be a requirement on anyone tabling an amendment in order to boost slightly the chances of people having some idea of what they are voting on when they go through the Lobby? I absolutely concur with her view that most people have no idea what they are doing when they vote.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and I agree with him. It should be the case that not only the Government, but all Members should provide a short explanatory statement explaining the purpose of any amendment that they table. That would help everybody.
The Government’s complaint about these explanatory statements, as set out in their response to the Committee’s report, was that the statements would be a “burden”. Their idea that providing the statements would be too burdensome for them displays an incredible arrogance. If they want to change the law, they have to accept the work involved in making their intentions transparent. They should be more respectful of the right of this House to scrutinise the laws they want to pass.
In conclusion, this proposal is about redressing the balance between Back Benchers and the Executive. The Executive are riding roughshod over the rights of Back Benchers to scrutinise them. The Government have put up obstructive objections, which demonstrate their desire to maintain a massive imbalance in their favour. This is bad for Back Benchers, bad for democracy and bad for the legislation that we must live by. So long as MPs are not told what they are voting on and Government amendments go through without debate, our system merely delivers an illusion of scrutiny. I can think only
that the Government are trying to protect a system that serves to keep MPs as Lobby fodder and to keep the public in the dark. We are talking about secretive and opaque processes that serve against transparency and are reminiscent of the processes preserved for so long to try to hide the expenses scandal. I can assume only that the Government are taking this approach with some deliberate measures in mind. The fact that MPs have no idea what they are voting on is a scandal. It has been going on for years, but as the public find out more about it, as with expenses, they will be rightly horrified.
Eight months have passed since the debate on parliamentary reform in Westminster Hall, and I am disappointed that it has not been possible to effect greater change more quickly. I hope that the motion on explanatory statements will go through today. If it does, it will be a quiet but significant win for transparency and democracy. But if the Government force a vote, whipped or not, I hope very much that Back Benchers will stand up for themselves to address a glaring fault in our parliamentary democracy and correct the appalling imbalance that currently favours the Executive.
I shall be very brief, Mr Deputy Speaker. I rise to support the amendment standing in the name of my hon. Friend Mr Gray. I am particularly concerned, as a member of the Speaker’s Panel of Chairs, at the impact of the proposals before the House on behaviour in Committee. I fear that if the report goes through, as it is suggested it will, and if that impact is felt on the Floor of the House, it is almost inevitable that those of us who find ourselves in the business of having to chair legislative Committees upstairs will be under similar pressures to allow similar devices in Committee.
What we have experienced in the House over the past few years is, first, a definite shift away from the use of notes and the participation in genuine parliamentary debate, of which this country has historically been very proud, and towards the preparation and reading of speeches. The preparation has been carried out either by the Member concerned or by other people who then persuade the Member to read the speeches for them. That has become particularly prevalent in Public Bill Committees. It is no great secret that hon. Members on both sides of the House have taken to reading into the record vast tracts of brief prepared by lobbyists for the sole purpose of putting something on the record. That is not debate: it is a misuse and an abuse of the processes of this House. If we are now to suggest that hon. Members on both sides of the House are going to be allowed to twitter and tweet and receive comment in the course of these debates, it is inevitable that we will have people sitting in the Public Gallery sending messages, saying, “Ask him this,” “Tell her that,” or “Read this.” That is not what this place is about. If hon. Members come into this Chamber, they can and should be expected to sit down, listen to the debate, hear what other Members are saying and agree, disagree and comment accordingly, rather than simply reading out prepared speeches.
As the Chairman of Ways and Means, Mr Deputy Speaker, you, like your predecessor, have been extremely understanding in giving leeway to those of us who chair legislative Committees, allowing us to manage the business on the Floor of the House, when there is a Committee
of the Whole House, or in Committee in our own way and in the interests of the Members and the business they are trying to get through. It works. Any man or woman sitting in the Chair, whether that is the big Chair in which you sit, Mr Deputy Speaker, or the slightly smaller Chair in one of the Committee rooms, has to exercise the Nelson touch and we do so constantly. We know what is going on; we know that on occasion the processes of the House are being abused.
We know that hon. Members are busy people and that within the next six weeks, before Christmas, Committee tables will suddenly be piled with Christmas cards being signed while Members are also participating in Committee business. That is inevitable. It is multi-tasking and a dual use of time, but as a Chairman I object to the kind of situation that occurred fairly recently in a Committee over which I was presiding. A Front-Bench spokesman—I will not name the party—was so obsessed with an electronic device and the manipulation of that machine that they missed the amendment they were supposed to be moving, in spite of my best efforts to get their attention from the Chair and draw them back to the business in which they were supposed to be participating. That is nonsense.
No, I am going to be very brief.
Outside the Committee Rooms upstairs, there are wonderful green benches, rather like the ones in the Chamber, and lots of tables and telephones where people can go and work, send messages, receive messages, have cups of coffee and do what they like outside the Committee Room. I can see no place for these electronic devices in the Committee Room at all, any more than I can see any rhyme or reason why Members should sit there reading newspapers and magazines, which is, of course, also not allowed.
I accept—and use—a radio pager. On occasions, I have received messages while I have been in the Chair and I have had to say to the Badge Messenger, “Here’s a telephone number. Can you please go and ring that person and tell them that I cannot talk to them because I am in Committee and that I will ring them when I come out?” I do not have a problem with that—I do not know a Chairman who does. I do not have a problem with the sensible, quiet, courteous and discreet use of these machines in precisely the way that the House of Lords, at the other end of the building, has adopted the procedure. If we go down the route that is to be proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, we shall achieve what we want to achieve, which is a solution that is pragmatic, practical and protects the dignity of the House. I urge the House to accept the amendment.
I support the proposal ably put forward by my right hon. Friend Mr Knight—and he is my friend. He has recently printed an excellent book, “Dishonourable Insults”, in which I appear on page 163, and I thank him for that, too—[ Interruption. ] It is available in all good book shops and I wish him every success. When I intervened on him earlier, I suggested
that in addition to his proposals we should ensure that we have wireless reception in the House of Commons Chamber. Not so long ago, when I was trying to live tweet during Prime Minister’s questions—I had advertised the fact that I would try to do so in advance—I failed completely because of the poor reception we sometimes get here for electronic devices. I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker, if, in doing so and in making that admission, I was breaking some rules of the House at the time.
May I clarify one thing? I had a little contretemps in the Chamber earlier this year with Dr Huppert, who told us with his characteristic modesty that he was the first MP ever to sign up for Twitter—
I see I have provoked him into intervening, and I cannot say no after I mentioned him, can I?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for praising my modesty—that is very kind of him. We did have that discussion, but I think things have moved on. I wanted to be clear in case I misspoke earlier: of the current MPs, I believe I was the first. I was certainly not the first MP on Twitter. I do not know who has that honour, although I am sure they will claim it later.
I am very grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention because he has highlighted the fact that what I said about his modesty was meant to be ironic, and Hansard does not pick that up very well, so this gives me the opportunity to make that clear. Let me repeat a proposal that I have made in the past—that irony should be put in italics in Hansard so that everybody outside reading it can understand what exactly was meant.
The contretemps that the hon. Gentleman and I had was in relation to a point of order that I raised while you were in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. At that time, your ruling was interpreted as a ban on the use of Twitter in the Chamber, but I know, having had subsequent talks with you, that that was not exactly what you meant.
Order. For clarification, it is not that what I said was not what I meant—it was that people had not listened, I think.
I stand corrected, Mr Deputy Speaker. As ever, what you said was very wise indeed.
Returning to the point about the hon. Member for Cambridge, my point of order related to his use of Twitter in the Chamber during a debate when he was disputing something that was being said from the Dispatch Box by another Member. I think that some very reasonable concerns have been raised by opponents of the motion on how it could impact on the quality of debate. I have always thought that if one has a point of dispute or question about what is being said by someone who has the Floor of the House or other Chamber, one should attempt to intervene before one starts putting out messages disputing what they are saying on Twitter. I think that is the kind of courtesy and common sense that the Chairman and his Committee are calling for in their recommendations.
Yesterday, I met a delegation from the central committee school of the Communist party of China, who were very interested in what I had to say about communications and Twitter and the way that MPs use them. If I tell the House that the delegation was somewhat sceptical about my advocating the use of Twitter, hon. Members might understand that I think it is a force for good, for democracy, for free speech and for communication with our constituents, and not a source for bad. I understand the concerns held by many hon. Members on the Government side but I think they might find themselves embracing this means of communication in the near future as a good way of getting their messages about politics and their views out there and of engaging in interactive discussion with their constituents and others.
I agree with everything the hon. Gentleman has said. Does he agree that social media such as Twitter and Facebook give MPs the chance to broadcast to their constituents without relying on broadcasters?
I do. Further than that, it can also lead to opportunities to broadcast through the more conventional media. For example, as some hon. Members will know, yesterday in Welsh questions I asked the Welsh Secretary to ask the Prime Minister, when he was sitting next to her, to make sure that the Welsh flag was flying over No. 10 Downing street this weekend, just as the flag of St George flew last year during the World cup, to acknowledge the achievements of the Welsh rugby team. After Prime Minister’s questions I was invited on to a phone-in on Radio Wales on which there was a very lively discussion about this proposition. By five o’clock in the evening the Prime Minister had quite rightly agreed that the flag could be flying, and I give him credit for that. So, very quickly, Twitter, conventional media and the use of this Chamber altogether were involved in getting a result for constituents. I think that is a good example of how this technology can be beneficial.
I am very grateful. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that although Twitter can certainly be useful for broadcasting, the real value of that kind of interaction is that it is not solely about broadcasting, with MPs sending out messages to constituents, but that it allows two-way communication and can really engage people in the political process?
I just about heard the hon. Lady over the twittering of her colleagues at the Bar. She is absolutely right. I was about to make that point, but I will not do so in the interests of brevity, because she has made it for me.
I wrote an article, alongside Mr Gray, in Total Politics magazine a few months ago in which we debated these issues. I think I made it clear in that article that I respect and understand where he is coming from. Like other right
hon. and hon. Government Members who have spoken about the issue, he wants to maintain the reputation of the House for the quality of its debates and to ensure that our debates do not descend into a simple parade of read-out speeches. I agree that it would be the death of debate in the House if that happened, but their fears are misplaced.
One can embrace and use such technology and such devices while enlivening and enhancing our debates by bringing in information—yes, from outside, but what is wrong with that? If Ministers can get in-flight refuelling from the officials’ box, why cannot Back Benchers get in-flight refuelling electronically during their speeches if a useful fact can be drawn from outside? I see nothing wrong in being able to draw on all the expertise and information that is available from outside the Chamber.
In our exchange of articles, the hon. Gentleman made some very interesting points, but I will end by simply saying that there is nothing new in political communication in trying to get a message across in a pithy, memorable way, as Twitter enables us to do. In fact, I think that it was a certain Winston Churchill who said:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”—[Hansard, 20 August 1940; Vol. 364, c. 1167.]
If that statement was issued as a tweet, it would leave 66 of the 140 characters available on Twitter still to play with. That goes to show that those who want to fight the onslaught of technology on the beaches will find that the tide is turning against them.
I am grateful to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak and to Mr Speaker for selecting the amendment that stands in my name and those of a goodly number of right hon. and hon. Members from across the Chamber. I thank you for allowing a goodly amount of time for this important and useful debate. I do not intend to take up much of the House’s time, because a number of useful speeches have addressed most of the important arguments on both sides of the debate.
I very much agree with my right hon. Friend Mr Knight, who started the debate by saying that this is a matter of taste, discretion and delicacy. There are not passionate arguments on either side. One side is not definitely right and the other side definitely wrong. It is a matter of how we handle such machines, what we use them for, what their purpose is and how we ensure that debate in the Chamber is as good as possible.
In fact, as is often the case when we discuss matters that affect ourselves, today’s debate on the issue has been among those of the highest quality that I have heard recently. My right hon. Friend’s Committee was split on the report; four of us have signed the amendment disagreeing with it. We go from his stance, which is that virtually any electronic device can be used for virtually any purpose either in the Chamber or in Committee, through to that of my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Haselhurst, a former Deputy Speaker—he is by no means a dinosaur in this matter—whose broad view is that such devices should not be used for any purpose whatsoever.
I received a letter from a very senior Member with which I would not necessarily agree. He said that he felt that the rules applying in the House should be precisely the same as those applying at the opera—we should not use such devices at all—and there is some sense in that, although I do not necessarily agree with it.
Give us a song!
I shall not give the House a song; I fear that my voice does not rise to that.
I would not necessarily agree with Luciana Berger, who focused on the use of electronic devices for Twitter. It is right that I suggested in the e-mail that I sent to all hon. Members that we should probably not use Twitter and blogging, although I will suggest how we might be able to use them. I am not necessarily totally opposed to the notion of twittering.
The main thrust of my amendment, and of my thoughts on the subject—and the thoughts of a great many hon. Members who have spoken to me—is that if we allow unfettered use of electronic devices, three things will happen. The first is that the quality of debate will decline. Let me give an example. Recently, I chaired a Public Bill Committee. Glancing round the room, I saw that some two thirds of the people on the Committee were using electronic devices for one purpose or another. That included the shadow Minister, the Minister, both Whips, and six or eight Back Benchers, one of whom, rather magically, was using two electronic devices simultaneously; how on earth he managed to do that I have simply no idea. It seemed to me that the fine technical point being made about the Pensions Bill—for that was the Bill—was not necessarily being considered carefully by the two thirds of the Committee who were using those machines at that time. Had I challenged members of the Committee to lay out precisely what the person speaking had just said, a very large percentage of them would have looked at me blankly, and would not have had the faintest idea what was going on.
I totally accept the point made by my neighbour, my hon. Friend Claire Perry, that we can all multi-task. Of course we can; there is no question about that. MPs do it all the time. However, I simply do not believe that the finer points of argument in a debate will necessarily be picked up if one is focusing one’s mind on something else. The purpose of debate is not just for our own voices to be heard, or to get something on the record; we could do that by handing the speech in, as they do in the United States of America. The purpose of debate is to listen carefully to what the other person is saying, to pick up the other person on fine illogicalities in their speech, to make delicate points, and hopefully to come to some kind of useful conclusion. If a person is focusing on emptying their inbox, surfing the net, tweeting or who knows what else—famously, recently a member of the Italian Parliament was spotted surfing an escort site—while theoretically listening carefully to a debate, they are not taking part in it in the way that they should.
The crux of the issue has been touched on. In the Welsh Assembly, every Member sits in front of a computer. Earlier this year, the Conservative Assembly Member for North Wales,
Brynle Williams, passed away at a very young age. A Labour Member, paying tribute to him on the radio, said, “When Brynle Williams spoke in the Chamber, we stopped working on our computers and listened.” Is that not the crux of the issue?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, and it is useful to hear of his experience of the Welsh Assembly, where such changes have been made. Elsewhere around the world, there are examples of all kinds of Parliaments where people use the devices excessively and so are not taking proper part in the debate. [Interruption.] I am being passed a message—on paper—from the Whip, which reminds me to move my amendment; I shall indeed do so. I am most grateful to her; had she passed me that electronically, I would not have got it.
I beg move amendment (a) to motion 1, leave out from ‘used in the Chamber’ to end and add—
‘to a minimal extent, silently and with decorum, to receive and send urgent messages, as a substitute for paper speaking notes and to refer to documents for use in debates, but not for any other purpose.’.
That useful intervention from my hon. Friend the Whip leads me to the second reason why I feel uneasy about unfettered use of electronic devices. Whereas at the moment outside interests—including, dare I say it, the Whips Office—may have some influence over what we do or say, or how we vote in this place, by and large they have to exercise that influence in writing, prior to the debate. It would be particularly unhelpful if, during a speech or debate, outside interests—lobbyists, businesses and groups of all kinds—got in touch with us on our electronic devices and said, “I think you should ask the Minister such and such a question, because that is a weak point in their argument,” or “I think you should do this or that.” We should be listening carefully to the logic of the other person’s speech, and seeking to counter that argument not because a lobbying company or the Whips have asked us to do so, but because it is what we want to do.
Does my hon. Friend not accept that that is possible under the rules as they stand? It is perfectly possible right now, under the rules of the House, for someone to receive a message and check it in debate.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and if that were to happen, I would decry it. The purpose of my amendment is to say that electronic devices should be used for the purposes of the matter under debate and no other purpose. If the Chamber was seen to be full of people blogging, tweeting and surfing the net, it would risk bringing the Chamber into disrepute.
Does my hon. Friend not agree that one of the reasons MPs exist is so that people can lobby them with a view to influencing Parliament?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, I was a professional lobbyist for a number of years and so have no difficulty with that whatever. It is of course right that all sorts of interest groups around
the world, from journalists to lobby groups, should be able to make their views known to us, but I am not certain about the propriety of a lobby group, the Whips or anyone else getting in touch with us during the course of a debate or a Select Committee evidence session to say, “Here’s an interesting point you ought to raise.” Would it really be right for outside interest groups to get in touch with us via electronic devices during Select Committee cross-examinations, for example of the Murdochs, and say, “Here’s something you ought to say”? I think that that would be an unreasonable intervention in our internal debates by outside influences.
Well, I was not a member of that Committee, but that is just one minor factual inaccuracy of several that we are passing by. The point I was going to make is that one of the oldest rights of members of the public and constituents is the right to come to the Lobby and demand that we come out of a debate to listen to their point of view, so I do not see the difference.
The difference is extremely simple. Someone outside communicating via an electronic device during a debate is not equivalent to a member of the public coming to Central Lobby, filling in a green form and asking to speak to us; it is equivalent to a member of the public coming into the Chamber and saying, “Would the hon. Gentleman please ask this question?” which I do not believe is right. We should be debating among ourselves and not excessively involving people outside.
Most people agree that excessive use of electronic devices is not a good thing. Two or three objections have been raised with me. The first relates to the fact that we must all sit here for six or seven hours before finally being called to speak. That could be corrected in two ways: first, Members could take a greater interest in the debate; and secondly, we could perhaps move to the system enjoyed at the other end of the Palace, where peers have some indication of when they will speak. You, Mr Deputy Speaker, and your colleagues tend to indicate when Members will be called to speak, but the notion that we should sit here clearing our inboxes or writing articles on electronic devices for local newspapers because we are a little bored and cannot be bothered to listen to a debate seems a thin argument.
The hon. Gentleman makes his case powerfully, although I do not necessarily agree with it. Is the key issue not that Members can best engage in debate by being in the Chamber? If we are outside doing the work of clearing inboxes, the example he raised, we cannot be present listening to the arguments. I agree that Members should be present in the Chamber more often, but I believe that his amendment would prevent that.
On the contrary, my amendment encourages Members to make use of their electronic devices in the Chamber for purposes connected with the debate. That is the important point about the amendment.
The last main objections that have been raised concern the fact that the amendment’s proposals would be very difficult to police. You, Mr Deputy Speaker, sent out a letter in July stating that although any such ban on the use of hand-held devices would be difficult to police, it would none the less be down to the individual discretion and decency of hon. Members not to use them. There are all kinds of conventions and rules in this place that we observe. They do not have to be written down or policed. The fact of the matter is that there are things that we agree to do, and I believe that the amendment's proposal should be one of them.
If we allow the Procedure Committee’s report to be agreed as printed, we will end up with a Chamber full of Members staring at their electronic devices—I can see three or four doing so now. I suspect that those looking in from outside, whether from the Public Gallery or on television screens, would say, “What are those people doing? We used to object to the Chamber being too empty. It has filled up a little, but look at them all playing with their electronic devices.” I think that it brings the whole nature of debate in this place into some disrepute. I would like to see the standard of debate maintained. We are the mother of Parliaments. Let us engage with each other in detailed and logical debate and not spend an excessive amount of time on our electronic devices.
With the leave of the House, I should like to put on record my tribute to the work of my predecessor, my hon. Friend Helen Jones, who discharged her duties in the House assiduously and will be a very hard act to follow.
We on the Opposition Front Bench support the motion on explanatory statements put forward by the Chair of the Procedure Committee, Mr Knight. The Committee’s recommendation marks progress from an position already established, and as I understand it, Government Front Benchers have also adopted the recommendation, so I hope that it receives support from all parts of the House today.
We also support the sensible recommendation on written parliamentary questions, because there are alternatives to electronically tabled written questions, and if implemented the recommendation will not curtail the opportunities for Members to table written questions, as is their right.
We do, however, believe that the motion on a Select Committee’s right to table amendments to legislation should be sent back to the Procedure Committee for further consideration, as it has not been thoroughly thought out.
That recommendation was introduced by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in the previous Session; it was carefully considered by the Liaison Committee; and it has now been carefully considered and substantially modified by the Procedure Committee
in order to meet those concerns. Do we have another case of the two Front-Bench teams conniving to stop Select Committees and Back Benchers having rights in this House?
Perish the thought.
My point is that, if we give Select Committees the right to table amendments to legislation, business relating to the Floor of the House and Public Bill Committees, will it not create the danger of Select Committees taking a much less consensual approach to their work? That is the real risk with the recommendation, and for that reason it should go back for further consideration.
I turn to the recommendation on hand-held devices. I do not need to repeat the background to the debate which goes back to the decision in 2007, because the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire outlined it very clearly. Suffice it to say that technology has moved things forward at a rapid pace—to the extent that we now have smartphones, iPads and other tablets, which have completely transformed the way in which Members conduct their business.
On top of that, we have new forms of communication. According to the Procedure Committee’s report, 225 Members tweet or have Twitter accounts, but in today’s debate we have heard my hon. Friend Luciana Berger state that the figure now stands at 300. That demonstrates how over a six-month period 75 Members have signed up for Twitter accounts. It also shows the popularity of the device as a means of communication, and for that reason alone Members increasingly see new forms of communication such as Twitter as making it easier for us to open up a dialogue with the world outside—with the people we serve. Those new forms of communication and technology have called into question once again how we conduct our business in the Chamber.
I was elected in 2005. At that point, I never thought that I would be standing here on the Front Bench making arguments about smartphones, iPads and Twitter accounts, but that in itself demonstrates how quickly the world is moving forward and how difficult it is for the House to keep up. It would be all too easy to step backwards and pretend that the world has not changed. We could pretend that Steve Jobs never existed and say to ourselves that the business of the House should stay true to the days of paper, pen and ink. However, to do that would be to deny reality and to deny the dynamic relationship that now exists between Parliament and the world outside. Even if we deny it, the media, quite rightly, will not. We cannot, therefore, fulfil our obligations as legislators effectively if we pretend that the world outside has not got smaller and smaller in terms of how quickly news travels.
There are advantages and disadvantages in allowing a more relaxed approach to the use of hand-held devices by Members on the Floor of the House and in Committee, for it is undoubtedly the case that members of the public sometimes object to seeing Members of this House using their phones or their iPads while here in the Chamber. If the Chair of the Administration Committee were in his place, I am sure that he would testify to that fact.
I very much welcome the hon. Lady’s remarks. While it is true that some members of the public object, it is also true that many of them like the
fact that their MPs are on Twitter and on Facebook communicating what they are doing. Does she agree that that has come about partly because of the huge shift from paper to electronic mail and in how our constituents communicate with us?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. That is absolutely the argument that I am trying to make.
Although such behaviour is seen by some members of the public as discourteous and indicative of a lack of attention to the business of the House, and although on occasion that has proved to be true, and excessive and obtrusive use of such devices should be deplored, I would contest that excessive chatter and private conversations on the part of Members is equally to be deplored, and that it is those who persist in that kind of behaviour who bring the business of this House into disrepute. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree, who pointed out that Members who fall asleep in the Chamber while business is being discussed are most to be censured for discourteous behaviour. Indeed, it has been known on occasion even for Front Benchers to fall asleep or to snooze while the business of the House is ongoing.
We need to be pragmatic in our approach. Those who would continue a stricter approach to the use of hand-held devices in the Chamber on the grounds that it constitutes interference in parliamentary proceedings ought to bear in mind that we already allow the passing of messages and envelopes containing paper-based documents in and out of the Chamber for use in debate. On that basis, why cannot we allow the electronic transfer of such information for use in the Chamber? If a Member is given statistics relating to a debate via documents passed to her or him in an envelope brought to the Chamber by a member of his or her staff, then why should not that be done independently by the MP in the Chamber using an electronic device? Moreover, as the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire said, given that civil servants pass a fairly constant stream of notes to the Government Front Bench during debate, why should not other Members of the House be able to access information speedily and without delay?
We support the motion laid before the House by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire and other Members, and we commend the Procedure Committee for its work. We believe that it represents a pragmatic response to the challenges raised by the development of new technology and means of communication in that it requires Members to be sensible and discreet about their use of electronic devices in this Chamber and elsewhere. We also support the recommendations in the Select Committee report relating to Twitter and to tweeting, which are, again, sensible and pragmatic. As someone who has a Twitter account—and who is about to get her 1,000th follower—but who does not generally tweet in this Chamber, I nevertheless uphold the right to do so and the inevitable pragmatic need to give way on that point.
Our view is that we should give the approach recommended by the Procedure Committee an opportunity to work. We should bear it in mind that it is always possible to review the decision if it is felt that the recommended way forward is not working.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I hope that this is a point of order; I am still somewhat feeling my way in this place. There is another debate this afternoon, which was brought about by the Backbench Business Committee as a consequence of one of the first e-petitions. I might be wrong, but I understand that this debate can carry on until any hour. Judging by the number of colleagues who are standing to speak, it looks as though the second debate will get less time than a Westminster Hall debate. If that is the case and the second debate gets squeezed out, I hope that the Leader of the House, who is in his place, will consider giving it injury time at some point because it is an important debate that affects the constituents of a large number of Members.
I am very concerned about the time that this debate is taking. I will reduce the time limit on speeches and hopefully, if we have some brevity, we will get to the second debate. The high speed debate is important to this House and people will not understand why we are spending so much time on ourselves and our use of hand-held devices. As important as this is, we need to make progress as quickly as possible.
High-speed debates sound like a very good idea, Mr Deputy Speaker.
As I did not get to warmly welcome Angela Smith to her new responsibilities in our cameo appearances last night, may I do so now? I echo what she said about her predecessor, Helen Jones, with whom I always enjoyed debating. I wish her well in her new responsibilities.
I congratulate the Chairman of the Procedure Committee on securing this debate on his Committee’s proposals. The one area in which I disagree with him is on whether this debate should be held in Backbench Business Committee time. The Government have implemented the Wright Committee’s report, which was explicit on this matter. We hold to the position that the House should follow what the Wright Committee said on this matter. It is therefore the responsibility of the Backbench Business Committee.
I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s position on the motions, which I will take in order. The first motion on electronic devices is very much a House of Commons matter. Perhaps I should indicate that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I will support the motion, although some ministerial colleagues may hold other views.
Changes in technology have been swift and the Procedure Committee has taken a sensible approach in seeking to update the 2007 resolution in a way that might not need constant updating as technologies change. The Committee
helpfully demonstrates how its proposed change is in line with trends in other legislatures. The concept of not impairing decorum that has been adopted by the US House of Representatives is helpful. I am sure that Mr Speaker will decide, with characteristic wisdom, how this resolution will be interpreted in practice, just as he has provided general guidance about appropriate conduct in the Chamber.
I support the comparable changes for Committees, although I have one reservation in that respect, to which the Procedure Committee has referred. Tweeting about an ongoing evidence session would be discourteous and disclosing deliberations in that way could be a breach of privilege. That is an important reservation to enter at this point.
There is no Government position on the amendment tabled by Mr Gray and others, although enforcement of the resolution, if amended in that way, might pose significant challenges for the occupant of the Chair.
I noticed that in opposing the amendment Mr Knight asked why Members should not receive facts while they are preparing to speak. The explanation, perhaps, is that facts would entirely demolish the speeches of some hon. Members. Of course, just because a Member has received a fact does not mean that they have to take any notice of it.
The second motion, on Select Committee amendments, is where the Government part company with the Procedure Committee, because we do not believe that the case for the change has been made. We are continuing the position of the previous Government, which I believe is still that of the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge and the Opposition. Interestingly, that position was expressed at the time by Chris Bryant. I am not sure whether he still takes that view.
Currently, amendments are tabled in the name of a Member of the House—it does not matter whether they are tabled by the Government, the official Opposition or anybody else. The Procedure Committee argues that if an amendment appears simply in the names of members of a Select Committee, other Members may not realise its status, but I am not convinced by that.
The Government have taken a number of steps to strengthen the Select Committee system—arguably more than any Government since that of 1979, under whom departmental Select Committees were established. We have enabled the House to take the bold step of electing Select Committee Chairs, and the profile of the Select Committee system continues to increase. I believe that an amendment in the name of members of a Select Committee will almost invariably be recognised as such by the House without the need for additional steps.
I am very surprised to find myself in disagreement with my hon. Friend on a House matter, because we very rarely disagree on them. However, a Select Committee amendment would have had to be approved unanimously by it. Is his real fear not that of the Whips Office—that on just one or two more occasions an amendment that was not moved by a Minister might be selected by the Chair and be debated in the House? Is he not simply echoing the traditional Front-Bench view
that anything that allows Back Benchers to get anywhere near getting amendments selected is far too dangerous to be permitted?
It is extremely rare that I disagree with my right hon. Friend, but I do on this matter. The selection of amendments is, of course, a matter for the Chair, and if the Chair feels that a Select Committee’s members are proposing an amendment that needs to be debated, it will be selected. However, it is a serious concern that under the Procedure Committee’s proposal three members of a Select Committee, who would form a quorum, could obtain a Committee’s imprimatur for an amendment. That amendment would attribute to all members of the Committee a position that was held only by those present at a meeting. I do not think that that does the House a service.
I want to make a further correction, because I do not want to delay the debate any further by making a speech—I want the rail debate to go ahead.
My hon. Friend must recognise that any member of a Committee who felt dissatisfied with an amendment tabled in the name of their Committee, their having been notified of a meeting but not gone to it, would make that abundantly clear. Indeed, Mr Gray made it clear at the beginning of the debate that he did not support the motion moved by Mr Knight.
I am sure an hon. Member in that position would make their dissatisfaction abundantly clear, but equally it does not seem beyond the bound of reason that a Chair of a Select Committee could make it abundantly clear that he or she was presenting an amendment in the name of the Committee. The same arguments apply, and I am not persuaded by my right hon. Friend, which is why my ministerial colleagues and I will vote against the motion.
I turn to the third motion, on explanatory statements on amendments, and the remarks of Caroline Lucas. The crux of what she said was that the Government were being unreasonably obstructive and unhelpful in their approach. However, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is quoted in the Committee’s report as having said:
“I would certainly not oppose the continuation of explanatory statements”.
The report also quotes my comment:
“I am certainly happy, as far as the Government are concerned, for that experiment to proceed.”—[Hansard, 3 February 2011; Vol. 522, c. 384WH.]
It might be said that the barriers that we have sought to erect to prevent it from happening are rather low indeed. I repeat today the Government’s position that we will support the recommendation. However, it is important that we express caveats for the benefit of the House.
The hon. Gentleman said that the agreement was on the voluntary introduction of explanatory statements, but we are driving towards something mandatory. In his response to the Committee’s report, words such as “significant burden”, “lukewarm support”, “inconclusive” and “disappointing” strongly suggest that the Government are not firmly behind our proposal.
The lukewarm response was not from the Government—this Government and previous Governments have been happy to table explanatory amendments—but from other Members who showed not the slightest inclination to do so. That is the concern.
Let us go back to the origins. The experiment with explanatory statements on amendments was first proposed by the Modernisation Committee, under the chairmanship of Mr Straw, in its 2006 report on the legislative process. The Committee envisaged that the main benefit would be helping Ministers and civil servants to understand the intention behind Back-Bench and Opposition amendments, so that the Minister was prepared to address the issues that the Member wanted to debate and to respond to the queries or concerns being raised. They were envisaged as a vehicle for Back Benchers to explain their amendments, rather than for the Government to explain their amendments, for which there are many other mechanisms. Despite that, and although the Government have participated fully in each pilot, the take-up by Back Benchers has been low and has declined since the first pilot.
We have to acknowledge the resource implications. The Procedure Committee was told in the previous Parliament that the general application of explanatory notes to all Committee papers would cost the House services alone more than £100,000, and the costs would be greater still if applied on Report. That takes no account of the staff resource implications for the House services and the Government. The Government agreed to provide explanatory notes to all amendments in previous pilot schemes, and the Procedure Committee envisaged a mandatory requirement for Government amendments on Report. At the same time, however, the Committee rejected imposing such a requirement on others. I take it from what the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said that she would like that to apply mandatorily to others. There is some justification for that, but there is little justification for the current asymmetrical approach.
If the motion is agreed to, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will write to the Procedure Committee with proposals for the pilot. This is the last chance to show that the voluntary approach for everyone other than the Government could work as originally envisaged by the Modernisation Committee. We will want the experiment to demonstrate clear value-for-money benefits to the House, and if it does not, we might decline to support any further proposals along the same lines.
I support the final motion on written parliamentary questions. Again, the proposal is for a pilot scheme involving an earlier cut-off point for electronically tabled questions and a daily quota of five written questions that could be so tabled for an experimental period of three months. The right to table questions belongs to hon. Members and hon. Members alone. If the experiment encourages Members to take a closer interest in questions prepared by their staff, that would surely be a good thing. The average cost to the taxpayer of tabling a question is £239. Although overall quotas are not proposed, I am sure that hon. Members will wish to be mindful of the costs of what they do. We are keen to ensure that all written questions receive timely, substantive answers. If the pilot leads to “fewer, better questions”, as the Procedure Committee hopes, I would hope also to see quicker, better answers. We will provide the statistics on the timeliness of answers in the current Session on the timetable requested by the Procedure Committee.
To end where I began—on the theme of technological change—I can confirm that the Government are keen to work closely with the House authorities to take forward proposals for the electronic distribution of answers, which would benefit all Members.
I am reducing the time limit on speeches to five minutes.
Much of the debate on the use of hand-held devices—I note, Mr Deputy Speaker, that you called them “held-hand devices” when introducing the debate, but I am not sure what such a device might look like—reminds me of the Russian Orthodox Church, which in November 1917, while the revolution was gathering around it, spent its time debating whether to wear black or purple vestments for funerals. The honest truth is that the horse has bolted.
We can see them all round the Chamber: @ZacGoldsmith, @CarolineLucas, @lucianaberger, @SteveBakerMP and, of course, the brilliantly named @claire4devizes. All tweet regularly—[ Interruption. ] There is also @stellacreasy and many other Members.
Even though I was named in January as the most influential MP on Twitter—ahead, even, of the hon. Gentleman—I am most concerned that we should get on to the next business before I am flayed alive by my constituents.
I understand, because the hon. Gentleman is the Member for Wycombe, and I know how such issues affect people there, but if he had not intervened, we would get on to the next business faster.
I want to correct a couple of points made by Mr Gray. He seemed to think that I was on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. I should point out that I am not @tom_watson. There are a few differences between us, although we are often seen together.
I should also say that although he has been much misquoted, John Bright, the Liberal Member of Parliament, did not say that we—the House of Commons—were the mother of Parliaments; he said that England is the mother of Parliaments. That is because he believed—this is an important point—that we had to be transformed as history is transformed. I would say that Parliament has always been bad at opening itself up to the public. Indeed, in 1376 we first decided that we would take an oath of secrecy to ensure that nobody outside this place knew what was going on here. It took many centuries to get rid of that oath of secrecy, which was why John Wilkes ended up being expelled from the House of Commons on four occasions and had to be re-elected before eventually being allowed to publish what went on this House.
It is not a question of being dinosaurs or anything else; it is about opening Parliament up to the wider world around us, so that people can understand everything that goes on here. It is not for our convenience, but for our constituents’ convenience. The world has changed. When I was first elected in 2001, the vast majority of my constituents got in touch with me by coming to a constituency surgery. Now the vast majority get in touch by Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and, sometimes, text messages. We should make that more possible for our constituents, not more difficult.
Incidentally, I wholeheartedly agree with @KevinBrennanMP, who said earlier that proper wi-fi should be available in the Chamber so that people can engage properly. I disagree with the hon. Member for North Wiltshire that only urgent messages should be dealt with. Who on earth will decide what an urgent message is? It is my constituents who should decide what an urgent message is.
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not give way, because others want to get on to the next debate.
I have this picture in my mind of the Speaker going over to an hon. Member and demanding to see their last tweet or this place setting up “Oftwit” to ensure that Members are behaving properly. Mr Gray has only to listen to our constituents to find out what they are more interested in.
Members have said how inappropriate it would be if facts were brought to bear in debate, but that is what the officials Box is there for. [ Interruption. ] I see them smiling. Perhaps we should abolish the officials Box, so that Ministers have to rely on their own wit and intelligence. Would it not also be good if “Erskine May” was available online so that people could refer to it in the Chamber instead of having to buy a copy for several hundred pounds?
I want to respond to a couple of points that Caroline Lucas made. She is absolutely sincere in wanting to make our business more intelligible to people. However, I would like to know how explanatory notes to amendments would stand legally if an amendment were carried. There is a danger in proceeding down that route. In addition, I would have thought that the whole point of a debate on an amendment was to decide what it meant and what it did; just accepting at face value what the hon. Member who tabled it had said would not assist.
I shall not give way, because I want to be circumspect.
Finally, I look forward to the day when we have on Twitter @RogerGaleMP—and, for that matter, @15thcenturyMP, or perhaps he would be called @JacobReesMoggMP. I should also point out to Simon Hughes, who is not in his place, that one of his constituents has begged me on Twitter this afternoon to ask him to reinstate his Twitter account so that his constituents can get in touch with him better.
claimed to move the closure (
Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.
Question agreed to.
Question accordingly negatived
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes the Third Report from the Procedure Committee on Use of hand-held electronic devices in the Chamber and committees, HC 889; and resolves that hand-held devices (not laptops) may be used in the Chamber, provided that they are silent, and used in a way that does not impair decorum, that Members making speeches in the Chamber or in committee may refer to electronic devices in place of paper speaking notes and that electronic devices, including laptops, may be used silently in committee meetings, including select committees.
I understand that the motion on Select Committee amendments will not be moved.