Before we begin, I have a statement to make on behalf of Mr Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means. They have agreed, for the purposes of this debate only, that the public will be allowed to use electronic devices in the Public Gallery, provided that they do so silently and in a way that does not disrupt proceedings. That means that the same rules apply as apply to Members—so we will have no selfie sticks, or the rules of the Louvre museum will be applied. However, it is important that we do this properly. You are pathfinders this morning. You are trailblazers in this Parliament allowing the public to interrelate in the way that has been described: discreetly, with electronic devices.
I call Meg Hillier on behalf of the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission to open the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. I am delighted to have secured this debate about the future of Parliament, because that is no less than what we were discussing for a year as a commission. As you have outlined, Mr Havard, this is a first for Parliament: the public in the Gallery are allowed to bring in mobile devices. We are encouraging them to tweet, text and share today’s proceedings with the wider public. The fact that that is a breakthrough shows how far behind Parliament is compared with the world outside.
Thomas Friedman said that in 2004
“Facebook didn’t exist, Twitter was still a sound, the cloud was still in the sky…LinkedIn was a prison” and Skype was a spelling mistake. That does not describe the world that we all operate in today. If we look at they way in which Parliament works, we are some way behind that. The rate of technological change is rapid. We cannot control that, and when Mr Speaker set up the Digital Democracy Commission, he recognised that we need to embrace that. The commission has backed his view and agreed that we need to empower those who want to use digital resources to open up our democracy.
Mr Speaker set up the Digital Democracy Commission in January 2014. Made up of eight commissioners, including myself and Robert Halfon as the two Members of Parliament on the commission, the Speaker was concerned that the world outside Parliament was leaving Parliament behind. He is absolutely right. Only last week, I was surprised to receive a phone call from Radio 4, who were keen to talk to me about a revolutionary change in Parliament:
a new camera angle in the Chamber. Although that may be very exciting for the 650 of us who debate there, and for a few others, it is hardly the revolution that is going on in the world outside.
Mr Speaker set up the commission, bringing together a group of experts from technology, representation and the digital world. We heard evidence over that year, our method being very much our message, using online forums as well as traditional in-person evidence sessions. The commissioners were seeking out those who would not normally get involved. Famously, Helen Milner, the chief executive of the Tinder Foundation and one of my fellow commissioners, had a meeting above a chip shop. The chip shop owner even paid her staff to turn up, feeling that they would not come unless they were paid. By the end of that session, Helen, in her true missionary fashion, had persuaded a young man that voting was probably a rather good idea. That goes to show that, when the Digital Democracy Commission labelled our report “Open Up”, it was about opening up not only Parliament, but democracy as a participatory exercise, rather than just using technology to carry on doing what we already do.
In January we published our report—online, of course. A few rare hard copies are available—I am sure that they will be collectors’ items in future—but again, our method was our message. We made five headline recommendations. First, by 2020, the House should ensure that everyone can understand what it does. Secondly, by 2020, the House of Commons should be fully interactive and digital. Thirdly, the newly elected House of Commons, after the upcoming general election, should immediately create a new forum for public participation in the debating function of the House of Commons. Fourthly, in 2020, secure online voting should be an option for all voters. Finally, by next year—2016—all published information and broadcast footage should be freely available in formats suitable for reuse, and Hansard should be available as open data by the end of this year.
Those were our headlines, and I shall touch on two briefly before going into some in more detail. We talked about online voting, which was the headline that many picked up on, because we were all clear that that was the direction of travel. However, we were not set up to investigate in detail the issues of security and the mechanisms for delivering that, although we hope that the Electoral Commission and others will take that on. The hon. Member for Harlow will talk more about that recommendation.
We also called for an experiment, post the next general election, for what has been dubbed a “cyber Chamber”: a third chamber in Parliament allowing the public to debate an issue ahead of MPs having that discussion. As all MPs will have found at different times, often our debates can be best informed by an individual expert in our constituencies who finds us, approaches us and talks to us about an issue. We hope that the cyber Chamber will develop that expert contribution—by “expert”, I do not mean experts with letters after their name. Sometimes members of the public can be more expert about an issue that they have experienced than Members of Parliament. Again, the hon. Gentleman will speak more about that recommendation.
To turn to the rest of the report, overall, we see this as a road map to improve the way in which MPs engage with the public and to allow the public to better engage with Parliament. Within Parliament, we hope that the new director of the parliamentary digital service, Rob Greig, who joined only yesterday, will use the road map as his job description, as he continues the task of modernising Parliament in a digital way. We also adopted the declaration on parliamentary openness. I will not read that out for the record, but it basically talks about making parliamentary information more transparent and providing easier access to the public, which is the very reason why the commission was established.
My hon. Friend talks about the role of the incoming head of our parliamentary information services. That has to be looked at against the background of first, what happened in the past, and secondly, the difficulties relating to this building. Some 20 years ago, when we put the current network into the House, some of us were arguing that blown fibre would have been the answer. Doing the current cabling was a nightmare, because of the state of the building, the asbestos and so on. If we are to do this seriously, Parliament has to resource it, and the public have to understand that it has to be resourced.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is a real mission here, but there is a mission and a will. One of the pleasures of being on the commission was engaging very much with the staff of the House of Commons, who share the desire of Members to modernise the way in which this place works. There are physical challenges in this building, and we need do no more than look at the images of those challenges in the Michael Cockerell documentary. That issue was not the core focus of the commission, but it is fair to say that fellow commissioners who were not used to the workings of Parliament were surprised at some of the physical challenges that we face in this building.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and Robert Halfon on representing us all so ably on the commission. I also congratulate Mr Speaker on setting up the commission in the first place. It was not an easy thing to do. This is not necessarily the most radical and reforming place that one will ever come across, so we are grateful for that. Does my hon. Friend take great heart from the fact that many things covered in her report and in the Speaker’s commission mirror the work that we have been doing in the Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform, particularly on the digital aspects and getting young people, especially, to vote online? She is not on her own, and one day, all this will come to pass.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we hope this will all come to pass, and I commend him and his Committee for trailblazing on this issue. Other areas of the House have been looking at the issue. However, it is important that we use the launch pad of the new Parliament, after the general election, to say that this should be business as usual for Parliament. We can no longer debate whether to do it, but should instead debate how to encourage it. It has been a challenge for some colleagues, who worry about the work load that digital engagement can create, but the commission felt very strongly about it. In fact, one commissioner proposed that all hon. Members had a digital manifesto. I would recommend that as an idea, but we did not put it in our recommendations for all 650 MPs. The feeling was that we could not control how that would work. However, it is important that we understand that, although we would knock on a door and hear people’s points of view, that is not the modern method for many young people. In fact, smartphone usage among the under-24s is now more than 80%. It is very important that we allow similar engagement through a digital method.
The resourcing issue is touched on in the report. There was a feeling in the commission that this needed to be resourced effectively. We were not drawn on figures and numbers, but for MPs to do their job properly and actively listen to people through digital means, we need to ensure that we have the resources to do that.
Some hon. Members complain about the use of electronic media as a modern version of the postcard campaign: people press a button and send a message to their MP without even bothering to read it. There is some legitimate criticism there, but does my hon. Friend agree that, handled properly, creating proper digital engagement with our constituents will put some of those approaches on the back-burner and replace them with real engagement?
My hon. Friend seems to be able to read my mind, because that is what we were seeking to get across as a commission. We had a number of very interesting discussions, in public and, as a commission, privately, about how we encourage real dialogue. One way to do that—this is an area that I particularly want to cover—is by opening up parliamentary information. Open data are a real resource that could be used to make Parliament much more accessible, so that people out there can follow their issues and lobby effectively their MPs and, over time, the Government on them.
Let me use the example of something that has over time been an issue in my constituency—dangerous dogs. That issue has upset and worried a number of my constituents, but currently, if a member of the public wanted to find out where it was being discussed in Parliament, what laws had been passed and which Members of Parliament were actively interested in the subject, it would take a lot of digging through clunky information to try to find that out. No wonder the lobbying companies become intermediaries between the people and this place. That is because it is a full-time job to find out something as simple as what Parliament is doing to tackle dangerous dogs.
However, if we had open data, which is what we are seeking—the House of Commons is certainly doing this and we are pretty sure that the Lords will follow swiftly—that would allow tech experts, such as the many in Shoreditch in my constituency, to develop, for example, an app that meant that someone could look up a topic that mattered to them and follow through exactly where and when that was being discussed. It would possibly flag things up—this would rely on Government being co-operative about publishing an agenda, which was beyond our reach—and allow influence at the right time. One of the most compelling pieces of evidence that we heard was from Clerks of this House, who said that at the point at which legislation is published, it is practically too late to make significant changes. Government, in our system, determine legislation. We know from debates in this Chamber and from the excellent work of the Backbench Business Committee that debates that happen early on and in which hon. Members can show an interest from their constituencies can and do lead to changes in the law over time, but very often, members of the public write to us just before a vote and do not get the chance really to influence the way we do our business.
Opening up data is just one example. I am sure that we can all think of examples from our own constituencies of major geopolitical decisions on which we might want to have an influence. I say to hon. Members who are sceptical about digital engagement that we might find that we enhance the work that we do by being able to listen to people with strong views, passions, interest and expertise in advance of delivering our thoughts on issues. We would be better informed as Members of Parliament about subjects that matter to our constituents. However, unless they know what is going on in this place, that will not be possible, and it is opaque.
We wanted to see Hansard, for example, in a proper open-data format. Staff in my own office use TheyWorkForYou, which I commend as a website because its algorithms, through its screen scraping—a very old-fashioned approach—give easier access to data about my voting record than I have if I try to look it up in Hansard. We wanted to see that change and we are delighted that the House of Commons is already moving along those lines. We set stiff targets for this year and next year to ensure that things happen as quickly as possible.
Very shortly, we will be able to embed digital clips of what is happening in the House of Commons in tweets, on our websites and so on. That kind of openness is really important. This is the people’s Parliament. That is what Mr Speaker firmly believes, and that is why he set up the Digital Democracy Commission—to ensure that Parliament was reaching out to the people and opening up to the people. We as MPs therefore have a duty to ensure that we are listening to the people.
Perhaps the hon. Lady could expand a little on what the commission proposed on open data, because I think that a lot of the data that she has referred to are available, albeit not very easy to find. Has she identified how that would work, in terms of a member of the public being able to find out about dangerous dogs, and has she been able to make any assessment of what the cost would be of pulling all that information together in one place for the public to access it easily?
I had the pleasure of attending with the hon. Member for Harlow an international conference at which we saw some very technical presentations about exact formats. I know that the House of Commons is embracing that approach. I am not the best technical expert to explain which exact format might be used, but perhaps I should lay out the current approach for the record. Websites such as TheyWorkForYou will screen scrape. They will collect data almost in a manual way from a website and then collate it, with an algorithm picking up things. That will never be perfect. That website does a good job, but it would acknowledge its own imperfections. However, if data are produced in a fully open way, in an open format, then algorithms and other mechanisms can be put in place so that information can be collected in a more intelligent and useful way for a member of the public. In effect, the intermediary stops being the lobby group and becomes the technology, but that intermediary between what is going on in this place and what the public want is much faster, sharper and snappier. Equally, it should also work the other way.
One challenge that hon. Members raised with me and, no doubt, with the hon. Member for Harlow while we were on the commission was this: “Won’t there be too many different platforms for us to use?” We will all have to address that challenge. I, for example, will be crowdsourcing which other social media platform I should be using to engage with my constituents. I hope that, through that mechanism, I will gain an idea of which one is most useful to them, rather than me alighting on a system, a social media platform, that is good for me but is not actually used by many of my constituents. It might make my life easier in some ways if I did not get interaction, but that is not what I am here for. I am here to represent my constituents, as we all are. It is important that that technological approach is taken, and certainly the House of Commons is on that track. The new head of digital has just arrived to take it forward. That that post has been created is a sign of the vision for where the House of Commons needs and wants to go.
As well as the digital side, we touched on the very big issues around improving public understanding of politics and Parliament. I think I have touched on that in what I have said, but one issue is about reducing jargon and making parliamentary language more accessible. This is an extraordinary situation. There is a member of staff in this building, working for an hon. Member, who is doing a major piece of research about the availability of “Erskine May”. Those of us in this place will know about “Erskine May”, but I would hazard a guess that most of us in the Chamber today have not seen or touched a physical copy of “Erskine May”. That is because there are very arcane rules about who has access to it and who owns it. There is a real desire— Mr Speaker has been leading the charge on this—to get it made available online, so that anyone out there who needs to look up any of the terms that we use can do that. That may sound a small step, but it is amazing that the rules of this place are held in bound hard copy, accessible to only a handful of experts. That does not help to create an open Parliament, which is one of the reasons why we wanted that to change.
We wanted to ensure that we are reaching out to under-represented groups. We touched on how to ensure that we do not leave behind those who are digitally excluded, because it is not our intention to do so. Just as with Government services that are going online, we need to be mindful of those who are unable to use that process. We see digital as enhancing and improving what we do, rather than replacing human interaction. We want to expand that human interaction to digital methods.
We wanted to look at elections and voting. A key issue internally is how we vote in Parliament. We had some interesting discussions about whether Members of Parliament should vote remotely online. The two Members of Parliament on the commission felt strongly that there was a big benefit to being in the Lobbies and being able to tackle Ministers such as the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons directly, face to face. If we lost that lobbying opportunity, we would feel that we had lost a large part of what we come to this place to do on behalf of our constituents.
The commission concluded that the current voting system is slow, clunky and manual. The House of Lords has been experimenting with using iPads to record voting. One of the benefits of recording voting digitally is that the results of a vote can be available immediately to the public and the media, whereas currently there is a time lag, because of the paper sheets that we use. I should explain for the benefit of those who are not Members of the House that as we troop through the Lobbies, there are three Clerks sitting in each Lobby with large sheets of paper and black marker pens marking off our names one by one as we go through. In the modern world, it is extraordinary that we still vote in such a way. We all have smart parliamentary passes, and it would not be difficult to install technology that allowed us to swipe through. That would enable the result to be relayed to the public quickly, so we could be held immediately to account for the way in which we had voted. I think that that makes great sense and so did the commission, so that is one of our recommendations.
We set quite stringent time targets. As the Speaker acknowledged, it would be generous to say that the House of Commons is living in the early 20th century; we are way behind in many respects. We wanted to force a drive for change and make Parliament and the House of Commons much more open and accessible. The report provides the foundations, but ultimately the public will make it happen. It requires people to be engaged and interested. When we asked the public which of the recommendations they wanted to see implemented quickly, the results were fairly evenly spread. Interestingly, online voting just pipped the others to the post as the favoured option for slightly more than 20% of those who responded to our survey.
We need tech developers to take the open data that will be available and turn it into something that will enable us to carry out our roles more effectively and enable the public to engage with us. When I am knocking on doors in Hackney on a weekend, I can talk to somebody in their kitchen, and I want to have that sort of interaction with everybody. None of us can reach everyone on the doorstep.
I want those who are passionate about an issue to be able to engage more effectively. I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee, and we get a lot of letters. They often arrive very late in the day, just as we are about to start a hearing or sometimes after a hearing. It is a great sadness to me that we have not got the capacity to absorb that information at a more appropriate stage. With the right digital support, those who are passionate will be able to get involved more effectively.
Many people are keen to get involved. Evidence from a survey carried out by Cambridge university showed that 46% of people would like to get involved if they could, but less than 10% are currently engaged with Parliament. Of course, there is a large gap between those who say they will get involved and those who actually do, but even if half of them did so, there would be a massive increase in the number of people getting involved in what we do. That would ensure that Parliament is the preserve not only of those of us who are elected, but of those who want to influence what we do.
As Members of Parliament, we need to be bold and embrace the change. We need to use social media and the opening up of Parliament as an opportunity to listen better to our constituents, not simply to broadcast what we do. If we embrace the Digital Democracy Commission report, proselytise and tell new Members about it, we will make ourselves more accountable and more relevant, and we will improve the work that we do in the House of Commons. That work is, ultimately, representing the best interests of the public and listening to their views.
Before I call Mr Halfon, I would just like to say that I have a copy of Erskine May here. I am not sure whether it is meant to be a weapons system that I can throw at you if you are disorderly. It looks as though it has never been opened, although I can see that it has been, because there are markers at the page dealing with the maintenance of order during a debate—I think that that is probably what it is intended for—and at a page about disorder and the methods of curtailing debate. Mr Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means seem to give me the novelty or unusual discussions to chair. I want to take the opportunity to say that Mr Speaker is in the Gallery, which demonstrates his commitment to pre-legislative scrutiny and to any methodologies that can help with that process, as well as his commitment to engagement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. I thank Mr Speaker not only for giving me the opportunity to speak in the debate, but for having the wisdom to set up the Digital Democracy Commission, which is a revolutionary initiative to widen interest in our political democracy. It has been a massive pleasure to serve alongside the other commissioners, particularly my hon. Friend Meg Hillier—I call her my hon. Friend on purpose—who has just made an important speech. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve alongside her.
I believe that our democracy will never be complete unless it makes an effort to reach out to those who do not participate in it, and in considering access to it, we cannot overlook the impact of the digital world. The workings of Parliament are analogous to the workings of the code cracked by Bletchley Park expert Alan Turing. Parliament is an incredibly well engineered machine, but it can be deciphered only by a genius who has the experience and knowledge required to navigate its many enigmas. While we are still using the Enigma computer of Parliament, the public have moved on to getting information via smartphones and open source computers. Another way of looking at that is to consider Parliament as an old IBM mainframe system in an age where system diversity is the rule, not the exception. Parliament is restricting itself, and we need to ensure that it uses all the available options.
The purpose of the report is simple: encourage the public to engage more with Parliament and ensure that Parliament engages more with the people it represents. I believe that three steps are needed to ensure that that happens. First, we need to make sure that there is a free market of information from Parliament. Not only must that be accessible and understandable, but it must provide a forum for exchange and ideas. Therefore, the first step must be, as the report stresses, to overcome barriers through the simplification and digitisation of parliamentary data so that they genuinely become open. Secondly, the creation of a cyber Chamber will enable all to participate in the daily life of the Chamber. Finally, online voting would ensure that the most important part of the interaction between Parliament and citizens was accessible.
We do not need to build everything from scratch. The digital age has seen a lot of companies—Amazon, eBay and many others—developing ways to engage with customers, and we can use existing expertise to develop parliamentary engagement. If representation is to mean anything, rather than simply implementing a new, fancy web design, we should ask people what they want and directly engage with their opinions. The report has started the crowdsourcing of democracy to make it truly inclusive. In an era that is dominated by the digital sphere, it seems almost absurd to have such limited means of accessing House of Commons literature in a digital format and in language that is accessible to everyone.
The barrier to people educating themselves about Parliament and its features is dual: on the one hand, information is hardly accessible in the format used by the new generations; on the other, the language used in parliamentary proceedings is so obscure that, just like the Bletchley Park codes, it takes an accustomed genius to understand it. That is why, as my hon. Friend stated, the first step towards democratising access to parliamentary literature must be a simplification of the language to make it more accessible, which means clarifying the jargon, but also developing tools, accessible digitally, to demystify all the processes so that everyone feels they can get genuinely involved in the parliamentary system.
That participation cannot constrain itself to the traditional roles allocated to citizens. The policy that I find most important, and which is outlined in our report, is the creation of a cyber Chamber that would allow the general public to weigh in on debates that concern them. Throughout this debate, we have discussed ways to increase participation in parliamentary affairs. We can do that only by allowing those for whom the laws are made to intervene in debates, in an informative style, to ensure that every voice is heard.
Our surveys show that people feel disconnected from political parties, but not from the issues that we discuss. People are very interested in what goes on in the world and at home, but not in Westminster politics, which means that we have to focus our efforts on the substance of Parliament, the debates and the laws it creates to allow citizens to feel that they are an integral part of British democracy in action. That should include not only the cyber Chamber, but a new way of directly questioning the Prime Minister and MPs. The focus on direct representation must extend to ways of holding those who lead our country to account, and the report therefore outlines a need for an additional structure for Prime Minister’s questions that would directly involve the public.
If we are to crowdsource our democracy, we must make certain that the public feel they have real involvement in the way Parliament works. The report suggests the creation of a cyber Chamber, or “Open House”, which would be
“regular digital public discussion forums to inform debates held in Westminster Hall.”
That is the right direction of travel, but I am a revolutionary in that matter—we need to go further.
In the long term, we need a separate Chamber of the public where individuals are able to vote on key issues of the day that are being debated, which would give a voice to public opinion. Although the House of Commons would always have the ultimate say, each citizen would be given a personal identification number and could vote online on major debates. The result would be an advisory opinion as to what the public feel about key issues as they happen. The third, virtual Chamber would always be advisory, but it would be a great way to ensure that MPs were made aware of their constituents’ concerns before we walked into a debate. That would be a real way to re-engage the public in our democracy.
I am following the hon. Gentleman’s speech closely, and he knows that he will not find a greater advocate for the ideas that he and my hon. Friend Meg Hillier are proposing, but I underline my hon. Friend’s point that many people do not have the access that more educated or wealthier people may have. We have to be very careful not to skew the political system just so that those who are social media-literate and have access to the various devices that can get them into the House of Commons can start to orient policy at the expense of people who are probably more in need of excellent policy from this place.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point: roughly a third of people do not have access to the internet, but that also means that a huge number of people do. Many people have no access to Parliament and do not engage with their MP. The proposed system would not be perfect, but, as the internet and social media slowly spread, it would allow millions of people who otherwise would not engage with Parliament to do so. As the years go by, more and more people will have access to the internet.
The third essential part of the triangle is online voting. When considering the digitalisation of the political system, we must always bear in mind the ever-diversifying ways to use the internet. One of those is the ability to accomplish high-security tasks without having to move. Banks have set up transfer systems that require nothing but a click, so why would it not be possible for constituents to vote online if they wanted to do so?
The voting system is incredibly romantic. We have the old-fashioned pencil and the beautiful, black, dented, old-fashioned ballot box. We mark a cross on a piece of paper and stick it in the ballot box, which is anachronistic and stuck in the previous century. The public have moved on from such behaviour, which is why we have seen such a drop in voter participation and a huge increase in people who want to vote by post. Our surveys show that the majority of people would support an online voting platform, and 15.3% of the electorate chose to vote by post at the last general election, in 2010.
People want new options, and it is up to us to provide them with some. We must not fool ourselves: the decline in voter participation is strongly linked to the fact that new generations interact in different ways and therefore require different ways of appealing to them.
The digital divide is a fading reality, with more and more people being included in the digital age, and we cannot afford to keep Parliament out of it. We have heard the real concerns linked to such a policy, and the entirely valid fear of security breaches is probably the most important threat to the system we have imagined. I was amazed, after the first public meeting of the Digital Democracy Commission, to receive abusive e-mails from people saying that I was completely ignorant and out of touch with the security of online voting, but that is a farcical argument.
There are a huge number of abuses in the current system, but no one says, “Why don’t we look at the flaws in the system?” There are still many small “c” conservative advocates of that system, even though it has enormous problems. When we go to a polling station, we do not even have to show our identification, yet if any suggestion of online voting is made—we have security for online banking and shopping—everyone starts worrying about security.
As highlighted in the report, Estonia shows that online voting does not differ from the security requirements of other online proceedings. The system obviously needs to be protected, but we will not be able to proceed with digital democracy if we retain an attitude of stunned inaction towards progress. By looking away from online voting, Parliament would exclude itself from participative democracy and let the rest of the world move far ahead digitally and democratically. We have to engage the public in the way that they want to vote, and we have to move towards some system of online voting. I hope we can have some pilot schemes so that, by the 2020 election, we may see how online voting can work in certain parts of the country.
This year, we celebrate 800 years of Magna Carta, which is perhaps one of the most important documents in modern history—it might be rivalled only by the ten commandments. For the first time ever, a major country said that the king was not above the rule of law and did not have divine right. It took hundreds of years for the system to evolve into what we know as parliamentary democracy, but in that same way we need to mark this anniversary and to make digital democracy the new internet Bill of Rights between the people and Parliament. The report is a step in that direction.
Democracy does nothing if it does not evolve with the times. Freedom survives only when it is a living organism, not when it is stuck like a pickle in a jar in a laboratory. We must strive to enliven our democracy through the digital world. We would do well to remember that the Bletchley Park code breakers who saved our country did so thanks to IBM. Democracy is nothing if it does not recognise others.
I did not intend to speak in this debate, but I am particularly interested in the report. Back in 1992, when I was first elected to this place, I complained to the powers that be in the building about the inadequacies of my office. I said that I wanted another telephone line, and the person I spoke to said, “You can’t have another telephone line; you’re only entitled to two.” I said, “Well, I’m a bit old-fashioned. I need a third one.” “Why does that mean you need a third one?” I said, “I need one for voice, one for my old-fashioned fax machine and one for the computer.” The voice on the other end of the phone said, “Do computers use telephones?”
We have come rather a long way since then. That was one of the early mistakes of my career, because when I complained about it to the wonderful Don Dixon, now in the other place, he said, “Ah, son, you’re exactly the person we want. You’re on the Information Committee.” Never volunteer.
Robert Halfon referred to Enigma at the beginning and end of his speech. I had the great pleasure a few weeks ago of sending a message using an Enigma machine, at an event with 200 or 300 young female students. It was an extraordinary opportunity and incredibly thrilling, and it was made even more so by the fact that one of the women from Bletchley Park participated in the event. Her speech was far more enjoyable than mine. The hon. Gentleman is right to reflect back on that technology, but we must remember that that was 1935 technology. Here we are in 2015, talking about bringing this place into the current century.
In opening the debate, my hon. Friend Meg Hillier discussed how modern systems can more effectively gather information about us and individual subjects and make them available in accessible form. That is achievable, and it is a goal that we ought to set ourselves, but there are significant obstacles, because we start from an environment that is not conducive. By the way, we should not simply digitise everything here. First, we need a root-and-branch examination of what needs digitising and how we should do it.
To give a current example, just recently the Government produced a smart system—to be fair, it could have been done 10 years ago, but this Government drove it through—whereby we no longer need a physical tax disc on our vehicles. They did so by recognising that modern number plate recognition can easily tie in with insurance records, so that we know that a vehicle is insured. That is a very good idea; it was just about digitising the process.
However, the Government have wasted some public money in making that change. Those of us who represent areas with significant rural hinterlands will know that there are rather a lot of tractors on the road. For a considerable number of years tractors have been zero-rated for tax, and now we have a system that still requires farmers to go through all the bureaucratic nonsense of applying for a non-existent tax disc, wasting a huge amount of time in the digital infrastructure of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency for absolutely zero purpose.
As that example illustrates, we need a root-and-branch examination of why we do things in such a way. The hon. Member for Harlow referred to the language of this place; goodness me, he is absolutely right. It infuriates me what arcane language we use. “Erskine May” is not exactly a comfortable bedtime read; you are smiling, Mr Havard, because you have just had a glance at it. It is a horrendous document that is impossible to read. We first need a root-and-branch examination of the business process so we do not fall into the same trap as the DVLA and waste resource.
Secondly, we must examine the rules that govern us, such as those on voting, and the philosophy behind them. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch referred to that, as did the hon. Member for Harlow. It seems to me that philosophically, we should stick to the physical voting principle that we must be here in the building. The idea of saying, “Well, I’m not going to bother coming down from Ellesmere Port this week; I’m going to sit in my garden and vote digitally on my iPad” is not exactly engaging. The person must be physically present, but using intelligent systems to swipe through a vote would be a positive step. I am thinking of a system akin to the one used in the US Congress.
My hon. Friend is right; not only the US Congress but many countries use digital approaches to voting. One of our recommendations, though, involved the arcane but useful process of nodding through, by which people who are on the premises but unwell or physically unable through the Lobby for whatever reason to go can be verified and nodded through by a Whip. We recommended that the handful of people so affected at any time might vote remotely online, without having to be physically nodded through.
That is a good point, and we need to examine in parallel whether we would take the same view if, for example, a Select Committee were away from the Palace on official business. That needs exploring. I am not drawing any conclusions; I am saying simply that we need to examine those rules and get the principles right before we embark on phase 2, which will involve bringing the technology into the 21st century.
We should insist, following this debate, that part of the necessary reconstruction of this building involves installing the most advanced fibre networks. We need the tools to do the job properly. My Select Committee, the Science and Technology Committee, piloted the use of iPads in our work, and I must say that although there was a certain amount of resistance from some of my colleagues, it has massively changed for the better how we do things. It has improved the efficiency of our work, and we do not fell a forest by producing ridiculous amounts of paper every time we have a meeting. We need to drive forward with such technologies, but the infrastructure of the House must be considered.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch said, we must also explore the available technologies to ensure that we produce data in a form that is easy for us and members of the public to access. Frankly, I see no boundary between our needs and those of members of the public. There is very little currently on the intranet that should not be immediately available on the internet; the opening times of the coffee shop might be a different matter, but most of that material ought to be instantly available.
Finally, I come on to voting systems. I have been looking at them for some time, because there have been flaws in the existing system. I have seen with my own eyes the effects of people manipulating the current system. Way back in the 1970s, when I lived in Portsmouth, I saw mathematical evidence that in a row of houses that had all been bought up for compulsory purchase, every one of the tenants had cast their vote. If the result of that election had gone against my political views, I am sure that there would have been an election petition about that situation, because we knew that the landlord had manipulated that block of votes. So there are fiddles in the existing system that we need to clamp down on—the hon. Member for Harlow is absolutely right about that.
On the other hand, I had a constituent who complained to me on one occasion, “You know why we vote with pencil?” I said, “Actually, I don’t know why we vote with pencil.” He said, “Ah! It’s so they can rub out the results and produce the results they want.” I said, “Well, that’s a bit interesting, because they’ve produced a result that led to my being elected. So I am clearly part of the establishment now.” There are people who do not trust the existing system, although those are minority concerns.
However, when it comes to electronic systems, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The modern security systems that can be built in will never remove 100% the possibility of somebody standing over someone else at a computer and saying, “I’ll beat you if you don’t give me your password,” in the same way that they cannot solve potential abuse in banking systems. Nevertheless, as we have said, there are corrupt practices in the existing manual system, so we must work with security specialists to minimise those risks. In some banking systems, there is such personalised information that only the specified individual could enter the required data. We all have accounts with systems like that. Yes, they can be abused, but they also help to minimise abuse.
We are now at a stage where we ought to contemplate a number of possible moves. One is to properly pilot a modern system, and not the systems that were adopted a few years ago. A number of constituencies could be chosen as pilot areas to develop such a system, and we could examine anomalies in the voting system compared with other constituencies that we benchmark against.
Another possible move might simply be to use a model that is used in some countries whereby the voting system is not electronic but the counting process is automatic and done instantly. Today, the idea of all those town hall folk sitting around in the early hours of the morning manually going through our voting papers is an absurdity in the extreme. There is absolutely no reason why most of our counts could not be declared very shortly after the ballot boxes come in, even within the existing system. I have no idea what the cost of such an automatic counting system to local authorities would be, but I would guess that it would have extraordinarily large number of noughts on the end of it. Nevertheless, even just taking a gentle step on the way towards digitising the system could be beneficial.
We ought to welcome the commission’s report and focus on the structure and rule changes that we need to adopt in this place, so that we do not end up digitising things just for the sake of it. Digitisation must have a purpose that focuses on our needs and those of the general public simultaneously. We ought to explore all the issues around voting systems.
In what is possibly one of my last speeches in this place before I step down as an MP in a few days’ time, I wish the commission’s successors in the next Parliament every success in getting some of these changes driven through, to turn this place into a Parliament that can engage more effectively with the people we seek to represent.
I will be very brief. I had not intended to make a speech today, but I was prompted to do so by Robert Halfon, as is often the case, but in a very positive way. He talked about the Magna Carta, which leads me immediately to mentally flip to a written constitution.
In a sense, we have seen the future and it works—the remarkable report produced by the Speaker’s commission. I never miss a chance to boast about the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee and I hope that we have shown, in a small way, how this could happen as a regular practice.
I have two examples in mind. We have done a report on voter engagement, why people are disengaging and what we can do about it. There are lots of reasons for that: the media; MPs’ behaviour; registration; and not being able to vote easily, for example. We were determined to consult as many people as possible. We thought that engagement of voters would be very important.
I think we received what was, at the time, a world record of responses: we received some 16,000 responses, in one form or another. We used every possible type of social media. Also, and this is an interesting facet of what the commission is talking about, we used other organisations. This does not have to be almost nationalised by Parliament, as it were. Bite the Ballot, the Hansard Society and the British Youth Council all got involved and did their own online survey of all their members. The results then came back to us and were fed into our final report. Our report was very influenced by the majorities that stacked up, particularly on online voting.
In addition, we have produced a door-stopper of a report on a written constitution, which gives all the possible options. We have consulted widely on that. I think that there were some 6,000 responses to that. We have now distilled that into a 10-pager—what one might call a “mini-Magna”—a UK written constitution that tells us what we have now, written down for the first time ever, with some possible options for change on the margins.
Individuals can use that resource online. There is now a further consultation, until the end of the year, until we have had an election and until the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta has passed, and in the run-up to what may well be a constitutional convention. We have that resource open online, so that people can say what their view is on the distillation of a written constitution.
Rather than people saying that traditionally constitutions were written by 30 white guys in a hall in Philadelphia, we would like to have many millions of founding fathers and mothers, who will make their contribution towards what a final constitution might look like. Of course, that will be available to those who wish to set up a constitutional convention.
I want to make two points quickly. I am not trying to spoil the party, but we absolutely need to take them into account if this is to be successful. First, there is the point I have already mentioned to the hon. Member for Harlow about the information haves and the information have-nots. We need a strategy to consider how we can involve the have-nots. I represent the 10th poorest constituency out of 650; it is rated the 10th poorest by many different measures. It may be that two thirds of my constituents have access to social media and the online world, but I suspect not. I also suspect they are not fluent in it. What we need to do is to take these recommendations further to ensure that, as the hon. Gentleman said, everyone has at least the prospect of being involved, if they are not involved now, so that they can be part of this family.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He makes a valid point. We discussed digital exclusion a great deal in the commission. It brings to mind a constituent of mine who said, “Remember that my online access is one hour a day at the library.” He is online, but does not have a smartphone in his hand and has no broadband at home. There are layers of digital exclusion, even for those who are able to use the technology.
Indeed. Dare I mention hon. Members who, like me, do not have the staff available at a particular time or who do not have relatives to help them. I have a young daughter to help me through difficulties when things seem to go wrong. I think many of us are excluded by our own incompetence, more than anything else.
Technology is often neutral. We need to use technology to give us a broader-based democracy and to involve more people. We should never, ever think it is a panacea. The problems with this place are about its relationship with the Executive and its inability to stand as an independent institution separate from the Executive. We must always consider how technology can help us as parliamentarians to build a stronger Parliament. That is what the Speaker’s commission has done. Once again, I congratulate my two colleagues on representing all of us in the House so effectively. More power to your elbow.
The two Front Benchers will speak next. Could I ask you to share the time, please, so that Ms Hillier can have couple of minutes at the end to summarise and talk about what might come through in future? Thank you.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. I congratulate both my hon. Friend Meg Hillier and Robert Halfon, the other members of the Speaker’s commission and Mr Speaker himself on an important initiative that I welcome warmly. I will address some issues raised in the report and will, with your permission, Mr Havard, touch briefly on broader issues that are relevant to it.
As other hon. Members have said, it is worth reminding ourselves of the political context. When we were in this Chamber debating the report on voter engagement produced by my hon. Friend Mr Allen, we dealt with some of these issues, so I will mention context briefly.
We all know that voter turnout in elections has been in decline in recent years and that our political settlement is a lot more fragile than it was 30 or 40 years ago. There have always been turnout gaps in elections, including a social class and an age gap, and those gaps have widened significantly in recent years. Of course, we know that trust in politics and politicians, and in the traditional political parties, is at a very low ebb.
The hon. Member for Harlow made an important point: there is a disconnect with the political parties, but not a disconnect with the political issues. The report seeks to address some ways in which we can harness that interest in the issues, to make more of a connection with Parliament and how we do business in this place.
Of course, as other hon. Members have said, over the last 40 years the way that people interact with politics and current affairs has changed dramatically, with the rise of social media, a more diverse and mobile country and massive technological advancements. The success of online platforms, which hon. Members have mentioned, such as 38 Degrees and Change.org, has fundamentally altered the way that people raise issues with their Members of Parliament and, therefore, the nature of political debate and discourse. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North is right to remind us of a continued digital divide. That is why I think—all hon. Members have said much the same thing during the debate—that the measures proposed in the report are necessary, but are not sufficient to address the challenge that we face in terms of political disengagement. I will return to that in a moment.
The hon. Member for Harlow spoke about the important issue of online voting. When people can shop, watch television, communicate, bank and organise other aspects of their lives online, it is only right that we explore fully the extent to which democracy itself can be undertaken differently using online methods. Of course, as all hon. Members said, we need to ensure that there is adequate security, so the security of our democracy is not compromised, and that any initiative is cost-effective.
However, as the hon. Member for Harlow and as my hon. Friend Andrew Miller both said, in any method of voting there is a risk of abuse and fraud and there is always a debate about how we strike the balance between ease of access to voting and protecting the voting system from fraud and abuse. We debated that matter in respect of postal votes and traditional voting—turning up at the polling station—and, of course, we should have that debate in respect of online voting. However, such a debate should not be a veto to its consideration. I agree that we need pilot schemes to look at online voting and those need to be undertaken soon. Labour will commit to that. If we demonstrate that concerns about security and cost can be met, we will be in a position to consider wider implementation at an early stage.
These issues are not just about young people. Digital engagement crosses age divides. I have mentioned the big age gap now in terms of turnout in elections and wider public engagement. Addressing these issues, along with other measures—we have committed to votes at 16, for example—we can build much better youth engagement in our politics.
Technology can be used to register more people to vote. Although other hon. Members did not mention that, it is important. This is a big issue that we debated recently in an Opposition-day debate in the main Chamber, and we have debated it here in Westminster Hall. I welcome the Government’s initiative allowing online registration. An extraordinary number of people have registered to vote online. I met the electoral registration officer in Liverpool recently, who told me that now more than 80% of people registering to vote there are doing so online. That is exciting, but we need to consider other ways that we can use technology to allow people to register to vote, using Facebook, as the Government have, local authority websites and other local authority services, and looking at other options as well.
We can learn some interesting lessons from the Scottish referendum, where 97% of eligible voters were registered and turnout was well over 80%. That shows what can be achieved, but we must not forget the scale of the challenge that we face. The Electoral Commission estimates that 7.5 million eligible voters are missing from the register.
Some interesting recommendations were made relating to open data and to a cyber Chamber. My hon. Friend Ms Eagle, the shadow Leader of the House, announced recently a proposal to launch a new online democracy portal, which would seek to draw together all the things that people need to know before voting, including basic information about an MP, such as how they vote, and who the political parties are and what they stand for. That links well to the proposal for open data in this excellent report.
The commission’s first recommendation is that,
“By 2020, the House of Commons should ensure that everyone can understand what it does.”
That sounds basic, but it is important. It took my mind back to 1997, when we set up the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons and undertook some basic reforms. In particular, it reminded me of when I did the job that the Minister now does, as deputy to Robin Cook, Leader of the House of Commons after the 2001 general election. Robin was determined to drag this place into the 21st century—and certainly, at that time, to drag into the latter part of the 20th century, even though it was already 2001.
All the time we need to look at what measures we can undertake to better engage the public. My hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House has talked about engaging people more as legislation is going through Parliament. She proposed a new public evidence stage for Bills, where citizens, as well as experts in the field, can submit their views on proposed new laws, freeing up more time in the Chamber for a whole-House scrutiny stage, so that Back-Bench Members have more of an opportunity to question Ministers about proposed legislation.
The Leader of the Opposition has committed to the introduction of a public question time, where citizens will be able to question the Prime Minister once a week or once a fortnight. That will allow the public unprecedented opportunity to scrutinise the Prime Minister and hold the Government to account. I have been taking forward that proposal and looking at different ways in which it could be implemented. The idea of a cyber Chamber, which the hon. Member for Harlow talked about, gives an interesting dimension to that, and we will certainly consider it as we put more meat on the bones of the proposal.
A long-time passion of mine is citizenship education in our schools and communities. I praise the brilliant work of the education service in Parliament. It has moved on massively in recent years. Whenever I have school parties down from my constituency in Liverpool, I am always very impressed by its work, but we need to do far more to ensure that young people and children are being equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to be active citizens in their childhood, their youth and when they grow up.
The Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North, spoke about his recent report on voter engagement. He mentioned the constitutional convention, which has increasing cross-party support and support in civil society. It is an opportunity for us to engage with the public on some of these fundamental questions on the nature of democracy and to do so in ways that reach those members of the public who are traditionally not engaged in these sorts of discussions. If we can make that work, I do not see why we cannot explore the idea that the hon. Member for Harlow talked about, of having citizens panels that can meet regularly, not just on issues of political and constitutional reform, but on health, education, the economy and jobs of the future. Why can we not engage with citizens in a much more structured way and ensure that their voices are heard?
There is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North said, no single or simple panacea for these fundamental and political challenges. They are not new, but they have grown in recent years. They are not exclusive to this country, but are shared by many other advanced democracies. The proposals in the report are necessary and welcome, but they are not sufficient if we are to address the massive democratic divide in our country. I finish where I started by praising my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch, the hon. Member for Harlow and the other members of the Digital Democracy Commission for an important piece of work. Whatever the outcome of the general election, I hope that the House will take forward the report’s excellent proposals.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Havard. I thank Meg Hillier and my hon. Friend Robert Halfon for kicking off the debate. I also thank Mr Speaker for establishing the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission. The majority of its report’s recommendations are for Members of the House to consider and respond to, but everyone has a shared interest in many of the aims and objectives. Increasing public participation and public awareness of the role of Parliament and of MPs is a worthy aim. Of course, we are not starting at point zero. Much has been achieved in recent years as a result of the efforts of many, including the Political and Constitutional Reform
Committee. I reassure Mr Allen that he never misses an opportunity to boast about the success of his Committee.
The report contains 34 specific recommendations. I do not have time to comment on all of them individually, so I will highlight key areas, particularly those in which the Government have a lead responsibility. I will also try to address the points that Members have made on which the Government have a view.
The Speaker’s commission makes some useful recommendations about engaging the public, some of which are aimed at improving understanding of Parliament and the work of MPs. One example is simplifying language, which is something I think we would all support. I was interested in the idea that by 2020, Parliament should be understood by everybody. As an interim milestone, perhaps by 2015 Parliament could be understood by all Members of Parliament, and then we could progress to public understanding by 2020. Some clarity on precisely what “Parliament should be understood by the public by 2020” means would be helpful, because it could mean an awful lot of things to different people.
Other recommendations include clarifying online publications and improving the website, including for those with disabilities or sensory impairments. Much has been achieved in those areas already, but I am sure there is further to go. Making it easier for people to track specific areas of interest is one example of how we could improve our interaction with those who want to engage. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch set out how technology could be used to pull together the issues that people are interested in so that they could see in one place the range of contributions being made by different Members in both Houses, by Select Committees and so on. Through that, they could get a real feel for what is happening.
I am glad that the commission looked specifically at engaging the young. If we are to engage better with the public and in particular with young people, it is vital that we exploit the full range of communications channels. Although the web and social media are key mechanisms for reaching young people—I welcome the approach taken during Parliament week to focus on engaging the young in innovative and dynamic ways—there is clear evidence that taking the opportunity to visit Parliament can have a powerful impact on perceptions of our work and role. The shadow Minister outlined that when he talked about the visits enjoyed by schools from Liverpool. A visit can bring a reality to the theory that students learn.
More than 45,000 seven to 18-year-olds from across the UK visit Parliament each year via our education programmes, but such visits are heavily over-subscribed. I therefore welcome the decision by the House of Commons Commission to press forward with the creation of a dedicated education centre. That will increase capacity, giving more than 100,000 young people a year the opportunity to visit Parliament and learn about their democracy. Members will, I am sure, be aware that construction at the north end of Victoria Tower gardens commenced in September 2014. We expect to welcome the first groups to the centre in summer 2015. Votes at
16 can also help engage young people at an earlier stage in the political process and hopefully engage them thereafter when they become adults. That has been Liberal Democrat policy for many years, albeit that it is clearly not Government policy.
The hon. Member for Nottingham North referred to digital exclusion, which is a significant point. I spoke at the Wallington Evening Townswomen’s Guild, and I asked its members, “How many of you would welcome the idea of a cyber-forum where you could all go online and express your views about what the Government are doing or intend to do, or put forward your own views?” Of the 50 or so people present, one hand went up. That woman is involved in a forum that is interested in greyhounds. While we can talk about the importance of online democracy and online engagement, there is still a digital divide. I agree that the divide will probably shrink as people become more used to technology, but I still think there might be a drop-off in the number of people involved. Those of us who started off being familiar with technology—some of us might have grown up more recently, with Facebook and Twitter—will find that our children are using other things that we are not so familiar with. Even people who grew up in a technological world may reach a point where the most modern devices, apps and software exclude them.
We take digital exclusion seriously. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is leading on the provision of superfast broadband to at least 95% of UK premises by 2017, and on providing universal access to standard broadband, through Broadband Delivery UK. The Government Digital Service in the Cabinet Office is conducting research to provide a better understanding of the support requirements of the digitally excluded and assisted digital users. As part of the commitment to reducing the number of people and organisations offline, the GDS undertakes ongoing user research to understand what prevents people from going online. It has brought together 40 organisations from the public, private and voluntary sectors to sign up to a UK digital inclusion charter. Work is therefore going on.
On the report’s recommendations regarding the legislative process, the Government are committed to ensuring that the legislation they put before Parliament is of a high standard, and to ensuring that Parliament has the necessary means by which to perform its scrutiny function. In April 2013, the Government launched the good law initiative, which was designed to promote law that is effective, clear and accessible. One of the best examples of that that I have seen, which I would encourage to happen more often, is the idea of a Keeling schedule, which takes a series of interlinked Acts and creates a document with all the relevant excerpts from the predecessor Acts in one place. That way, rather than trying to read across a number of different Acts, everything can be read in one document. I would like to see that idea used more effectively, because it provides clear and accessible law.
During this Parliament, various initiatives have been introduced that are designed to improve the legislative process, including the use of explanatory statements on amendments, improved explanatory notes and the piloting of public reading stages for Bills. The issue of public consultation during the Committee stage of a Bill was raised in the debate. That was used for the Health and Social Care Bill in 2011, so there are precedents for the Government providing such opportunities for the public to be engaged. The Government have also provided more time to allow proper scrutiny in Public Bill Committees and, where necessary, provided additional days on Report. There are several recommendations in the report on ideas to change the legislative process further, which will clearly be of interest to Members.
On electronic voting, the Speaker’s commission recommended that secure online voting should be an option for all voters by 2020. Making online voting available for UK elections could be attractive in the light of current advances in IT, but there remain concerns that e-voting is not sufficiently transparent or secure. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow said that banking can nowadays be done by a simple click; the security measures that are in place are significantly more complex than that. There would need to be elaborate protection and security around online voting.
I conducted my own non-scientific online poll about online voting. Admittedly, it did not have a sample size comparable to those mentioned by the hon. Member for Nottingham North, but, interestingly, of the 11 people who responded out of the 232 people reached by the Facebook post—this was an online survey—seven, or 64%, said that they favoured online voting, and four said that they did not. Given that that was a sample of people who were online, and thereby excluded everyone who was not online, we must take on board the fact that a significant minority did not favour online voting. One person said,
“not in a million years, anything digital and online can be easily manipulated by cheats. Trust is the issue”.
“How will you make it secure, given the well documented issues that prevent that?”
Of course, there were people on the other side who were very much in favour. Some did not trust postal votes as an alternative, and Andy was
“inclined to trust the security of asymmetric cryptographic protocols”.
I trust Andy implicitly, so if he trusts them, I am sure that I should also trust them to provide the security needed for online voting. Clearly, we must address the issue of trust in the security of online voting. Public support for such measures is still far from universal, and traditional means of voting, such as polling stations and postal voting, remain popular with the electorate. Online voting would have to be an extra voting channel.
Speaking as a Liberal Democrat rather than as a Minister, I would be very happy for trials to take place in future, now that we have individual electoral registration in place. That was one of the building blocks that needed to be in place to enable trials to go ahead. I hope that that will be considered in future.
The debate has been interesting. All Members will have their own opinions on which ideas merit further effort to bring them into being. The report from the Speaker’s commission is a useful contribution to the ongoing debate. I have highlighted many of the successes of recent years, but I am sure that many Members will be keen to continue the pace of reform, particularly in taking the maximum advantage of the opportunities offered by advances in technology.
The Chamber is becoming more relevant to the lives of our constituents, whether through topical questions or Back-Bench debates on issues such as Hillsborough or contaminated blood, or through Mr Speaker’s greater use of urgent questions. It is important that our constituents see the relevance of what we debate to their everyday lives, and, importantly, that they feel able to engage in the political process. Technology is one way in which we can enable better participation in the parliamentary process and in politics more generally.
New technology has provided the means to move from our existing representative democracy to a participatory democracy, which could represent a fundamental constitutional change, affecting the role of MPs and their constituents, as well as the processes by which we govern. That bring its own challenges—for example, being clear about what is on offer, being genuinely open to ideas, and considering suitable accountability for participative mechanisms of engagement. It is in that context that we need to consider further the purpose and parameters of the reforms we have discussed today. I look forward to the debate being resumed in the next Parliament.
I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate, as well as others who were unable to attend but are nevertheless very interested in the work of the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission. I also thank many others who contributed to the commission’s deliberations. I thank the commissioners, who gave up their time freely to make the report what it is, and, of course, Mr Speaker, who had the initial vision and chose a mechanism that was not over-bureaucratic to ensure that we could start this century, rather than wait for another 20 years. Thanks to him, we have made more progress over the past year than we would have done had we waited for Members to come round to the idea of discussing digital democracy.
I want to pick up on a couple of points that were made by both Front Benchers. The first was about citizenship education, which put me in mind of a visit I made on behalf of the commission to an international event in Montenegro to look at issues of digital engagement. Montenegro is a very small country that was part of the former Yugoslavia. Because most of the adults there grew up under communism, they were keen to teach their children about democracy. In very good English that in many ways put us to shame, the children explained to the delegates a workshop that they underwent to explain democracy to them and help them to understand it. That underlines the fact that although the commission looked at digital, we were really focused on how to use it to make engagement better. Digital alone is not going to solve the problem, as many have said.
The Deputy Leader of the House spoke about broadband. It is worth drawing the House’s attention to the House of Lords report that was most recently mentioned in this Chamber about a week ago. The House of Lords concluded that broadband should be seen as an essential utility. If we are really to tackle the digital divide, that must be a mission for whoever is in government after the election. I hope that we have cross-party engagement on that.
The Deputy Leader of the House also spoke about engagement, and rightly highlighted some of the progress that has been made, such as opportunities for the public to influence the early discussions on Bills, open evidence sessions and so on. The commission was really clear about one important reason why open data is so important: unless someone knows that such opportunities exist, they cannot get engaged. There is a danger that, because of how the House works, we tend to go to the same few lobby groups and people who have an expressed interest in a subject. We all know that there are silent, quiet experts in our constituencies who, given the opportunity, could really contribute to the work of this place. I cannot do my job without those people, and I am sure that the same can be said for other Members, so it is important that we give them the chance to get involved at the right moment. That is where open data can make a difference.
It would be fair to say that we are on the cusp of a revolution. The report discusses digital engagement, but we know that it is not a panacea. Nevertheless, it is a tool for better accountability for this place and for us individually. We must not let this opportunity pass. Mr Speaker had the vision, and the commission has done its work. We have agreed to meet formally in a year’s time to see how we are doing, and the House of Commons staff are doing their bit, with the new digital leader, who started work only this week, leading the way. Members and the people of this country must now embrace and deliver digital democracy. The report will only live if the public engage. We must say to them, “We open up this place and its proceedings to you. Please contribute. Take on our recommendations and make them live.”
Thank you very much. Thank you also to those in the Public Gallery. This is the last time that I will chair Westminster Hall, so it is appropriate that we have discussed the future. The Panel of Chairs has been helping with related matters, so I thank those present for helping us to establish a netiquette—I think that is the word—for the future, in which the public can be involved.
The next scheduled debate will not take place, because the hon. Member who secured it is unwell. We wish him well in his recovery.