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House of Commons Hansard
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Digital Democracy Commission
10 February 2016
Volume 605

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the implementation of the recommendations of the Digital Democracy Commission.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. Just over a year ago, the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission published its report. The commission had been established by Mr Speaker in January 2014 because he was concerned that the world outside Parliament was leaving Parliament behind, and that outside of this place, digital tools were being used to enhance engagement and interact with the public, but we were still living in a different century.

Mr Speaker set up the commission, bringing together a group of outside experts and two MPs: I was one, and the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) was the other. The eight commissioners pledged that the publication of the report would not be the end of our engagement, which is one reason I am here today. I pay tribute to my fellow commissioners for their continuing support and scrutiny, to officers of this House and for challenging and ensuring that the recommendations are carried through. They are doing too much to highlight in the time I have for this short debate, but I was impressed to work with a number of them on Monday, when we had updates from the House of Commons authorities.

The Digital Democracy Commission labelled its report “Open Up” because 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 last year, we published our report—online, of course—and made five headline recommendations that I will remind the House of, though I know that the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons was present at the last debate as well.

We recommended that, by 2020, the House should ensure first that everyone can understand what it does and secondly that it should be fully interactive and digital; we felt that those two things were connected. The third recommendation was that the newly elected House of Commons in 2015—today’s House—should immediately create a new forum for public participation in the debating function of the House of Commons. Fourthly, secure online voting should be an option for all voters by 2020. Finally, by 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 2015. At the same time, we adopted a declaration on parliamentary openness, which commits us to making parliamentary information more transparent and providing easier access to the public—the very reason the commission itself was established.

I am pleased to tell Members that the new forum for public participation, which has been dubbed by many a “cyber Chamber”, has made great progress in the short time since it was created. The idea was that a third Chamber would be established in Parliament, allowing the public to debate an issue ahead of MPs. We all know from our constituency work how often there are hidden experts out there who have a lot to contribute, if only we know where they are. Sometimes they find us, and this forum is a way to enhance that participation.

The forum has been open since June last year and has so far focused on debates in Westminster Hall. The idea is that, ahead of a debate, the Member who leads it is asked to engage in an online debate with interested members of the public. Up to 1,000 people have participated in a single debate via that route. I pay strong tribute to the one member of staff in the House of Commons who has single-handedly turned that idea into the reality it is today. On Monday, she reported to the commissioners on progress, and we were keen as a group to see more support for embedding the idea of a cyber Chamber as business as usual in the House.

On Monday, we also received updates on the Data.Parliament open data project, on the ease with which anyone can now clip a video from a debate and on how our publications, web content and social media are being developed to make engagement easier and more meaningful—for example, through the use of plain English.

The Petitions Committee deserves a special mention for its swift embrace of the commission’s principles from the onset. Of course, that Committee was only established in this Parliament. It enables hundreds of thousands of individuals to better understand how they can influence policy making, and sets an example for how other parts of the House can embrace engagement better.

When we published our report, we very much saw it as a road map to improve the way that MPs engage with the public and to allow the public to better engage with Parliament. As a commission, we were mindful that we were reaching out to under-represented groups. My fellow commissioner, Helen Milner, who runs the Tinder Foundation, had particular expertise in that area. We touched on how to ensure that we do not leave behind those who are digitally excluded—it is not our intention to do so—but rather, to use digital tools to reach more people where they are willing.

Just as with Government services that are going online, we need to be mindful of those who are unable to use digital options. We see digital as enhancing and improving what we do, rather than replacing human interaction. We want to expand the human interaction we have as MPs week in, week out on doorsteps to digital methods and to the wider House.

Today, my comments will be a little more parochial, focusing on the changes that still need to take place in Parliament and that are within the hands of Members of this House.

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Does the hon. Lady agree that the electronic voting systems in place in Scotland and Wales free up a significant amount of time for Members there to focus on more important matters, rather than spending 20 minutes going through the Lobby for each vote?

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The hon. Lady must be a mind reader as well as an MP, because I was just about to move on to the issue of electronic voting using MPs’ smart identity cards. We had some serious discussion about that on the commission. I will touch on the history of the idea, which might inform the hon. Lady’s thinking.

The commission’s headline recommendations 29 and 30— we had many more—were as follows. Recommendation 29 said:

“During the next session of Parliament”—

this Session of Parliament—

“the House of Commons should move to record votes using MPs’ smart identity cards but retain the tradition of walking through division lobbies.”

Recommendation 30 said:

“The House of Commons should also pilot an electronic version of the practice of ‘nodding through’ MPs who are physically unable to go through the division lobbies, which would enable MPs who are unwell, or have childcare responsibilities, or a disability, to vote away from the chamber.”

This is not the first time that electronic voting has been discussed here; we may be slow, but we sometimes come back to things. In 1998, the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons issued a consultation paper to Members of the House at the time on voting methods. Just over half of MPs—53%—preferred the current system, with 70% finding it acceptable, although there were suggestions that voting could be made quicker by the use of smart cards, fingerprint readers or even infrared handsets.

The reason that the commission did not push hard for remote voting in the end was a strong concern from Members about losing the opportunity to speak informally with Ministers in the Lobby and to have contact with other Members; the Lobby is dubbed the Lobby for a reason.

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I am interested to hear the points that the hon. Lady is making. While it is important for people to be physically present in the Chamber or in Parliament to vote, does she agree that a key part of having an electronic method of recording votes is that people could quickly find out how their MP voted? We would then not have situations such as the one we had yesterday, when an hon. Member asked the Deputy Speaker in a point of order how three members of the Cabinet had voted. Of course, the Deputy Speaker could give no answer.

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Absolutely. The problems with the current system will be evident for many people. I have talked closely with the Clerks of the House about how they record votes. For those who are not initiated, once Members have been through the Lobby, we are crossed off a list with a black marker pen. That piece of paper is then taken by parliamentary staff and reconciled. It not only takes us about 15 minutes in total to walk through the Lobby; it is a considerable length of time—some hours—before the vote is published digitally.

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I congratulate the hon. Lady on both her work on this issue and on securing this important debate. I very much welcome the commission’s findings, in particular those on electronic voting. My office worked out that in the previous Parliament, we spent 245 hours queuing up in order to cast 1,153 votes. Does she agree that having an electronic way of voting would also mean that we could record abstentions? Abstentions sometimes matter. They do not just mean that MPs were not here; they mean that neither of the two choices in front of them were any good.

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The hon. Lady raises an important point. These are all issues that we need to debate and discuss if we are going to make any progress. I hope that, at the end of this debate, we will get some assurance from the Deputy Leader of the House that the matter will be taken seriously and that further work will be done.

As I said, a vote takes about 15 minutes in total—the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion has also done her maths. In the previous Session of Parliament, there were 544 Divisions in the Commons. Even if three minutes had been saved on each one—a modest improvement on our current practice—it would have meant a time saving of up to 27 hours for each MP. I hope we would have used that time productively; others may want to comment on that. That just goes to show that an awful lot of time is spent on something that could be done more quickly. We have also recently had experiments with iPads. They certainly speed up digital recording, as the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) indicated, but there are still issues with human error and accuracy.

The record of votes is important. In the modern age, it is ludicrous that people have to wait several hours to find out how their Member of Parliament voted on an issue. As the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said, other things are not recorded. People get confused about what was an abstention and ask, “Was someone not there?” We should be able to record if someone is absent, for instance, because they are on maternity leave, or absent because they are sick or because they chose to abstain. That is common sense, one would think.

Clearly, any new approach will have problems, so it is worth teasing out what some of those are in the hope that they will be openly discussed and resolved. MPs could lose their smartcards, if that system is the one implemented, which may mean that fingerprints could be a preferred method. MPs could pass their cards to the party Whip or other MPs who could impersonate them or vote in their place, so we would need a system for verification. Verification currently allows for those who are on the premises but unable to vote in person to be nodded through by the Whips. I voted that way a number of times after my youngest daughter was born. The Whips nodded me through, but only after an Opposition Whip was satisfied that I was present, so we have a very crude way of verifying now. I think that could have been done differently and, certainly, we could look to improve it.

The cost of upgrading the system is not to be sniffed at. On Monday, the commission had reports from Officers of the House that it could cost more than £500,000 over the next three or four years, if decisions were made quickly. However, the long-term benefit could justify the one-off cost. Restoration and renewal of this Parliament provides a big opportunity to modernise this core activity of MPs.

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I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate and apologise that I cannot stay until the very end. On time-saving, time represents cost—it is not just about time for MPs, but for staff and security, especially when Divisions go on late into the evening. The costs involved in a one-off cost would surely be offset by the time saved.

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Absolutely. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about time-saving, because clearly, some votes are consequential on other votes, so there is always going to be a time when we may have to wait for the result of a vote before we can vote again. However, sometimes, as with deferred Divisions, a number of votes could be carried out simultaneously, whereas currently we have to queue for separate 15-minute time periods to go through the Lobby.

It is worth stressing, as the hon. Member for Torbay said and as we heard from many Members—this is why we did not go for distant, remote electronic voting as a recommendation—that the ability to work closely and talk to Members on a daily basis is a very big part of the work of this House. It is important that that spirit is seriously considered in any change. However, I am directly asking the Deputy Leader of the House to take this matter very seriously and to ensure that the Government do not knock it into the long grass. It is a matter for the House. She is our champion, along with the Leader of the House, to Government. I hope she takes this seriously, because we need a green light to investigate change.

From talking to officials in the House, I know that, at the moment, there is a lot of enthusiasm for embracing the commission’s recommendations. A number can take place without interference—dare I say it?—from hon. Members. However, this is one where we really need to be engaged and I hope that today, the Deputy Leader of the House will set out a clear timetable on the measure and commit to serious consideration of its potential benefits and to reporting back to the House on that progress.

We can look at other examples in other Parliaments. Egypt, only two weeks ago, introduced an electronic voting system. It has had some problems with impersonation, so that is a lesson to be learnt. In Romania, politicians have 10 seconds to vote once they have initiated the smartcard voting system. In the United States, electronic voting was introduced to Congress in 1973. Members there vote by inserting their voting card into an electronic dock and by pressing the appropriate button. In South Korea, they vote electronically and can change their vote as they go, so there are very important issues that we might want to discuss about the change of culture that this would bring. Of course, as hon. Members have highlighted, in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the European Parliament, voting is done electronically. It is not a new phenomenon, and we need to ensure that it is properly embraced.

In my lifetime, Parliament has evolved very slightly to reflect technological change. Voice recording was introduced in 1978, when I was a schoolgirl. In 1989, the Chamber was first televised, and only last year, a low-level camera was installed—I was a student in 1989, and I hope that, before I am a grandmother, we might have considered electronic voting, bringing Parliament into the 21st century.

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I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady again. In the European Parliament model, people can see instantly how the vote has gone. Does she agree that, if we had the technology to see how a vote has gone, it would enable us to hold over votes to a particular time in the day—or at least a couple of times in the day—which would, again, mean that we are not running backwards and forwards from one part of the Estate to the other?

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The hon. Lady brings valuable experience from her time in the European Parliament. All these things need to be thrown into the mix. We need to have a discussion about our culture here—it is an important part of this—but there are ways of resolving the issues without sticking rigidly to the current system. A change would save time and money, and critically, just be clearer to the public, so that they can see what is happening.

Overall, in terms of engagement, many people are keen to get involved in Parliament and politics but find them very opaque. This would be one step to improving that. Evidence from a survey carried out by Cambridge University showed that 46% of people say that they would like to get involved in politics and Parliament if they could, but less than 10% are currently engaged with Parliament. As we know, there is often a large gap between those who say that they will get involved and those who actually do, but even if half those who wanted to were able to, it would be a significant increase in the number of people engaging with what we do. That is not to decry what hon. Members do; week in, week out, we engage with and talk to people on the doorstep, but we reach relatively few. With better digital engagement overall—so, just moving away from the issue of electronic voting—we can enhance the face-to-face contact that we have. There are other elements of the DDC that we need to make sure we set in train and with which we can bring about change.

I think we are on the cusp of a revolution. The Digital Democracy Commission’s report lays out a pathway. We hoped on that commission that the new Parliament elected in 2015 would see the opening up of Parliament as nothing revolutionary, but as business as usual in the modern world. In preparing for this debate, I have been heartened by the number of hon. Members who were keen to register their interest, even if they were not able to be here for a short half-hour debate today. I had more than 30 Members who were keen to speak had this been a longer debate, and we may seek a further opportunity to raise the matter, perhaps when we hear from the Deputy Leader of the House about her timetable.

If we are to be more accountable and accessible to the people whom our Parliament serves and who elect us, we must not let this opportunity pass. This could be the Parliament when we finally get into the century we are in. As Members of Parliament, we need to be bold and embrace this change to engage more constructively with the public. We need to open up Parliament, listen to our constituents better and not simply broadcast what we do, which I am afraid to say, is a tendency of this institution.

Mr Speaker had the vision and the commission has done its work. We are now a year on. Officers of the House have made huge progress and I pay testament to them, as do other commissioners, on opening up data, making House publications more accessible, making it easier to use broadcast clips, improving our web and social media interaction and on developing a cyber Chamber. It is now for Members to show that we are firmly in favour of modernising our working practices. We who are privileged to be elected to this House must be the facilitators of this change. We need to lead by example.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Stringer, and to contribute to the debate secured by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier). She is a member of the Speaker’s Commission and has spoken with passion about its work and her views. I thank her for the update on the progress made, including that reported at a meeting of the commission earlier this week.

The commission outlined five key targets, but as the hon. Lady has already stated those, I will not repeat them. There are further recommendations in the report, many of which are for the House to consider and debate. To some extent, a large part of that should be done, in my view, via the Procedure Committee. I will try to highlight key areas where, in particular, the Government can contribute to that debate.

Promoting public awareness of the role of Parliament and of Members of Parliament, and increasing public participation and engagement, are both worthy aims. Much has been achieved, particularly in recent years, as a result of the efforts of many hon. Members and our dedicated House staff—the service and the Clerks—and undoubtedly, that engagement will continue to increase.

The attempts to engage the public in different formats are very valid, as there are several recognised ways of learning and engagement, and people will have a natural tendency towards one or two. Traditionally, people have always had the written word, in the form of Hansard, legislation and business papers, accompanied by the occasional visit to Parliament to see how it works in practice, elements of which are open to everyone in this country. Aural transmission through radio and the screening of proceedings has been a step change. Further elements such as videos explaining Select Committee reports and the use of social media have continued to reach different audiences and interact with people in different ways. They are to be welcomed.

I will try to address the points raised by the hon. Lady and by other hon. Members during the debate. Turning to some of the commission’s recommendations, particularly focusing on the targets, the House service continues its work on engagement and outreach, guided by its strategy—I believe that was praised at the commission the other day—although I think it has found the feedback from the commission helpful, in that it was not necessarily achieving all that it thought it had and had a higher bar to reach. That said, I congratulate those involved in some of the improvements. Improvements to the digital service for both internal and external users are a key priority but there is still a considerable way to go.

The Commission made some useful recommendations about engaging the public. Some aim to improve understanding of Parliament and the work of MPs— for example, simplifying language, clarifying online publications and improving the website, including for people with disabilities or sensory impairments. Much has been achieved in these areas already, but I am sure that there is further to go. Making it easier for people to track specific areas of interest to them is one example of how we could improve interaction. I think some MPs are not aware of some innovations that would be useful to them. I am an evangelist for the apps for tablets and smartphones that have been created and help both MPs and the public in their daily work and to access documents that can be read alongside debates.

The public inquiries team has reviewed and rewritten every Commons glossary entry on the Parliament site and about 400,000 users access this. Content now focuses on explaining in clear, plain English the word, phrase or acronym, and includes links to further learning and business content to extend users’ knowledge. Previously, content had been overly long and often unclear.

A recommendation that cuts through to the legislative process is the commission’s suggestion for a new procedure for amending Bills so that amendments are written in plain English. In my view, this is where the role of explanatory notes comes in. We saw in the last Parliament, and see it more and more now, that Members are encouraged to add explanatory notes to the amendments they table.

The Government are committed to ensuring that the legislation they put before Parliament is of a high standard, but I know we can always do better. It is vital that Parliament has the necessary means by which to perform its scrutiny. Further recommendations to change that process further are for the House to decide, but I suggest to the hon. Lady that we are creating law, so to some extent, the clarity and the explanation come from the debate on Second Reading and the examination in Committee, where the Minister and the Opposition—any Member in fact—can to talk to amendments. We could do more and, in my role on the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Committee, I often push for further detail on the explanatory notes when I do not think they are clear or we need to be more explicit in stating the intention of amendments and clauses.

One recommendation is to improve the search engine. There are other search engines, but many hon. Members use Google to find information on the external parliamentary website. That is a shocker and apparently work is being done on it, but perhaps we should just leave it to the market. If Google and other search engines have already cracked the issue, we may want to use the House’s financial resources for other matters.

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The Minister is rightly talking about how better to explain legislation, but sometimes we need to explain better to the viewer what is going on. For example, the most common question I am asked on school visits is why MPs are standing up and sitting down.

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That is an interesting point, and new Members often ask that question when they arrive. To some extent, the induction process helps with that. There are matters not covered by the commission that many Members would like to see changed but—dare I say it?—some of the more traditional people, and I include the Speaker in certain elements of this, are resistant to that change. Examples include speaking lists and understanding how to participate in a debate. Perhaps we can do more on the video front and if we stop trying to improve our own search engine, it could free up a bit of cash to do that.

On crowd sourcing questions, the party leader of the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch is doing that for PMQs, which is an interesting experiment. I will leave it to hon. Members to draw their own conclusions on whether it is successful, but I am sure it is good for the Labour party’s communications database. It is an interesting approach and some Select Committees have considered it as part of their reviews. I seem to remember the use of #AskGove to generate questions for a Select Committee. It is for Members to decide how best to use that and to manage expectation without just using it as a gimmick.

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The Minister rightly highlights managing expectation. I refer her to the Petitions Committee, which has done a good job at a very early stage of beginning to make sure that engagement happens. It is about managing expectation, which is where the clear circulation and exchange of information is important. There is a precedent in that area. I hope that she will have time to touch on electronic voting.

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I certainly will—I assure the hon. Lady of that. I want briefly to flag up some of the other recommendations before coming to the issues on which she spent a lot of time in her speech.

For young people the new education centre has been a huge success and I hope the House will record how successful it has been throughout the United Kingdom.

In terms of the new forum, the cyber Chamber has been talked about. The Petitions Committee and the debating of e-petitions have probably been the most significant change in that regard. Parliamentary time is provided to the Government, the Opposition and Back Benchers, and now the public, through the organisation of petitions, also have time for their business to be debated. That is a welcome step and although it is in its infancy, the hard-working Clerks and the Chairman of the Committee to whom the hon. Lady referred—the interface between the House and the public—who have taken on the challenging job of moderating petitions, are to be commended on their work to extend that engagement.

I was interested in the idea of trying to delay the selection of Westminster Hall debates to a fortnight to have more engagement with civic society. I think that would take away from Members the element of urgency and topicality.

The daily edition of Hansard, one of the key data sets identified by the commission, is now available as open data in a variety of formats. There is still a lot of work to be done on digital media. “Erskine May” is now available freely to Members and their staff on the intranet. I have spoken briefly to a trustee of the May Memorial Fund about the next edition and I have written to him. He has promised to report back to me and I will share his response with the hon. Lady.

On voting, there are two recommendations. I will touch briefly on electronic voting so that I have time to finish on the other one. What can the Government do on electronic voting? The Speaker’s Commission recommended that secure online voting should be an option for all voters by 2020. Concern remains about the security of e-voting and it is vital that any new system attracts the confidence and trust of voters. Estonia is often mentioned, but turnout has not increased there and it has a compulsory national identity card. Electronic voting is certainly not a priority for the Government, but the experience of elections, and the referendum on Scottish independence, shows that if people are really interested in the issue being debated, they will turn out to vote using the existing mechanism. After the drop in the number of people turning out to vote in the 2001 election to 59%, engagement and voter turnout has gradually increased to about 66%.

On Lobby voting, the House service has been investigating the electronic recording of Divisions and the hon. Lady will be aware that we had several attempts in the last Parliament and this. Errors occurred, but were addressed by the tellers to make sure that Members’ votes were recorded. Full implementation of tablet recording of Divisions is expected later in this Session—certainly before the summer—but among the many goals set out by the commission, it recommended retaining the tradition of walking through the Division Lobbies.

The hon. Lady referred to swipe cards and raised issues such as verification. I understand that some of the early scoping and ideas that are being discussed so far suggest that Clerks would still do a physical check to ensure that an hon. Member’s photograph on their swipe card goes with their face.

The hon. Lady referred to fingerprints. I think hon. Members would be anxious about that and I suggest, in the kindest way, that it needs a lot more work and engagement with colleagues. She mentioned 30 people. Scottish National party Members are obsessed with electronic voting because of their experience in the Scottish Parliament, but I suggest that the Procedure Committee should look at that.

On time saving and cost saving, this Parliament debates more than any other Parliament in the world. On average, we have 48 hours of debate every week and perhaps longer when we sit on a Friday. The hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) seemed to be suggesting that perhaps we should have a shorter schedule.

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Will the Minister give way?

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I have only 30 seconds left, and I suggest I continue the debate with the hon. Lady separately because I want to answer the points already raised.

I value the tradition of linking debates to votes, and I think that matters. I realise that the hon. Lady’s swipe card idea would still do that, but the physical presence of MPs really matters. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) referred to abstention. I suggest that voting in both Lobbies is a way to record that now.

On progress, I cannot tell the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch that I have made a timetable. I suggest that considerably more debate needs to be had with a wider range of Members—

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.