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Electronic Parliament

October 13, 2011

Parliament took another small step forward into the modern era this evening.  MPs voted to allow the use of hand held electronic devices in the chamber of the House of Commons and in committee rooms.  So MPs will be allowed to tweet from their mobiles, check their emails from their Blackberries(!) or i-phones and read their speeches from an electronic notepad.

I voted for the change and as long as we are sensible I think it will improve understanding of what MPs get up to and increase engagement with Parliament.  So if the tweets and Facebook updates are informative and MPs remember that we’re in the chamber to listen to each other then these innovations will be a success.  Everyone will wonder what all the fuss about, just like when the TV cameras were let in.

But otherwise the House of Commons is still very much a stuffy gentleman’s club.  Why can’t other MPs refer to me by name, rather than “the honourable Member for Bristol West”?  Why are lawyers any more “learned” than academics, doctors or…cough… tax consultants?  Why on earth do I have to wear a tie in all meetings and a suit jacket in the chamber (you can take it off in committees) when the rest of professional Britain ditched a decade ago the notion that sartorial elegance was more important than intelligent speech and communication?  Why can’t I know in advance whether I’m going to be called to speak in a debate, rather than sitting around on the off chance for 5 hours?  Why can’t speeches be time limited in more debates so we get to hear more views?  And there’s a lot more profound reforms I could mention that would enable MPs who are not in the Government to make a greater contribution to effective law making.

Back to all the electronic gizzmo stuff we can now do.  If I am to tweet I’ll have to get a new phone.  I’ve been rather attached to my Nokia E66 for several years but maybe this weekend will ask the nice people at Vodafone to give me an upgrade…

8 Comments leave one →
  1. John Rippon permalink
    October 14, 2011 1:09 am

    Stephen, what worries me in this context is how do you stop members from forming instant alliances in terms of voting IN MID-DEBATE in the house without the Whip, let alone the leaders of your own party having the faintest idea of what is going on?

    I find this aspect deeply disturbing.

    John Rippon.

  2. Ricky Knight permalink
    October 14, 2011 6:25 am

    As you say, the dinosaur moves forward but the antiquated processes remain to confuse and alienate – possibly intentionally: the club remains remote, isolated and cosy.
    Stephen, wow, electronic devices in the House!
    Maybe at last therefore, it’ll move towards electronic voting and stop the absurdity of shuffling for hours and hours through the Ays and Nays routine. What an insane waste of members’ time.

    • October 14, 2011 2:40 pm

      Hi Ricky, good to hear from you. Your leader Caroline seems to have sparked some comments from her followers on the evils of voting in person. I genuinely find it bizarre. There are lots of ways that House procedures could be made better but voting in person is actually a good part of the process. MPs and Ministers are forced together for 10 minutes (which in the context of the 14+ hour days that diligent MPs work ain’t much!) and can talk things through, make arrangements etc. Maybe Caroline doesn’t want to speak to anyone and would rather push voting buttons in her office. Most of the other changes she has suggested are fine (and some are happening anyway) but this one is nuts!

      • robertjessetelford permalink
        October 15, 2011 3:17 pm

        It’s not nuts, Stephen.

        You make a very strange justification for continuing in-person voting. We need Parliament to make debate and then vote on their decision based on that debate. If the voting process takes a huge amount of time, we waste good debate time on a huge range of subjects, and less good legislation can get passed.

  3. October 17, 2011 7:14 am

    please keep the sartorial standards – they have withered away everywhere else and we are the poorer for it.

  4. rosemary permalink
    October 17, 2011 12:24 pm

    Stephen, haven’t the quaint formalities been inherited to stop you brawling in the aisles? This (and worse) breaks out in other parliaments which don’t have them. Tiresome constraints on dress and speech are akin to traffic calming measures which speeding motorists don’t want to be bothered with, but other people see the point of in the end result: slower, more careful and considerate driving.

    I would do something about philibustering though. And confrontational parliamentary questions need to be reformed to restore the reputation of the house. This problem has become much worse since being broadcast, and has greatly discredited party politics generally.

    As to conducting a parallel debate in cyberspace which can’t be heard by all those present, or by the public watching on their TVs, I agree with John Rippon on this. It also takes the twitterers’ attention away from the real debate. How is that going to raise the falling standard of speeches you have complained of in the past?

    However, there might be something to be said for consulting the internet to check a fact, or using a tiny screen as an aide memoire, but not for routinely communicating on. How you would enforce that distinction, I can’t think, and I am sure MPs would take advantage.

    I’m glad you see the point of gathering together physically to vote. Miss Lucas has picked up some unfortunate attitudes from the European parliament, including avoiding the two subjects most relevant to the environment: over-population and mass immigration.

    • rosemary permalink
      October 17, 2011 12:59 pm

      PS I was present at the prayers before an Islamic political meeting recently: I noticed the celebrity imam down from London was fiddling with his mobile (up on the dais) all the while the rest of the brotherhood and sisterhood were chanting together beautifully in Arabic, their eyes lowered and their heads down. Last minute good tactics for his cleverly rhetorical rabble rousing performance, no doubt; but it looked irreverent, set him apart from the rest, and didn’t help win my respect. No-one else was doing this, at the prayers or during the subsequent meeting. Their attention was undivided, and they showed the respect he didn’t.

  5. October 17, 2011 8:54 pm

    Rob – the time spent voting is a tiny proportion of our hours in this place – I am in the Commons Library now at 9.50pm. There’s no vote tonight at 10pm but if there was it would be over with by 10.15pm, so about 15 mins out of my 13 hour working day by that point. Voting in person gives MPs a small amount of communal time – surprised you can’t empathise with this.
    Tony – I certainly think MPs should be smartly dressed but that does not mean ties are necessary.
    Rosemary – the use of electronic aids should be “with decorum” . I agree that rules are necessary to try to to keep us civil to each other, but a modernisation of the langauge need not hamper civilised discourse.

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