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House of Lords: Use of Electronic Devices (AWC Report)

Volume 725: debated on Thursday 10 March 2011

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the Report from the Select Committee on the use of electronic devices in the House (First Report, HL Paper 92) be agreed to.

My Lords, this report has been put before the House because the Administration and Works Committee identified a need to clarify the rules regulating the use of electronic devices in the House. Those rules are not only outdated and incomplete; in places they are also inconsistent and contradictory. As a result, many Members are unclear about which devices can be used in and around the Chamber, for what purpose and at what time.

Following careful deliberation over two meetings, the committee has proposed new rules on the use of electronic devices in the Chamber and Grand Committee, as well as in other locations on the Principal Floor. On the whole, the report only restates and clarifies the existing rules or proposes new rules and restrictions where there are currently none.

There is, however, one area where we have recommended relaxing the current rules, in which I am sure that many noble Lords will be interested. The committee has recommended that, for a one-year trial, Members should be able to use electronic handheld devices to access parliamentary papers and other documents that are clearly and closely relevant to the business before the House or Grand Committee.

For example, Members would be able to use electronic versions of the Order Paper, Bills, Marshalled Lists, Hansard or government reports. Although that may seem a big step to some, it seems perfectly reasonable that, if Members prefer to access documents electronically rather than relying on a multitude of paper copies, they should be allowed to do so, provided that the material is generally available to all Members by other means. The report is clear that Members should not use electronic devices to search for material for use in debate to which other participants do not have access.

It may be helpful if I give an example of how I see the rules working in practice. For instance, if there were to be an Oral Statement on a newly published White Paper, it would be entirely appropriate for a noble Lord to use an electronic device to consult the online text of the White Paper. We do not, however, think that a noble Lord should use Google News to search for media comment on the White Paper and then relay that comment in an intervention on the Statement. I hope that the House will agree that this is a proportionate, common-sense approach to a difficult area.

The committee tried to be as general as possible in defining which electronic devices should be permitted, as it was conscious that any rules agreed now could soon be overtaken by new technology. The key considerations are practical. In paragraph 10,

“we recommend that Members should be able to use electronic devices, in silent mode, for any purpose not related to the proceedings before the House or Grand Committee, provided they do not distract other Members”.

The noise of someone typing on the keys of a laptop could be rather distracting to other Members, a problem that does not arise to the same extent with handheld devices. Furthermore, while handheld devices can be held quite easily and discreetly out of view, laptops are altogether more intrusive. It is for this reason that we have decided to recommend that only handheld devices should be permitted and not laptops.

I hope that the report is clear in its propositions. I encourage noble Lords to consult the box on page 6 for a clear and concise summary of our recommendations. While the rest of the report provides the background of the committee’s deliberations, it is only the points in this box that we propose should be adopted formally. If the report is agreed today, the Procedure Committee will be invited to amend the Companion when it is next updated and the Members’ Handbook will be revised accordingly.

This House is well respected for the quality and depth of its debates and the way in which it conducts its proceedings. The committee was therefore extremely conscious of the need to maintain an environment that is conducive to good and proper debate. However, I am sure that noble Lords will agree that we need to move with the times and that, where there is a demand and good reason to use modern technology, we should respond positively. I therefore hope that noble Lords will agree that this report strikes the right balance between embracing the use of electronic devices while maintaining the dignity and self-regulation of this House. I commend the report to the House.

I think that the whole House will be grateful to the Chairman of Committees for the way in which he has introduced this item and the work that has gone into it by the Administration and Works Committee. There are many elements in the report that I am sure the whole House will welcome, in particular the reiteration of the importance of devices being held in silent mode.

I wonder whether the report quite deals with its prime focus, which, as I understand it, was to reduce the degree of confusion that Members might have as to what is or is not permitted. Although the report refers to devices such as iPads, the words in the box do not. It simply says: “Hand-held electronic devices”. How big is the hand? Does that include holding an iPad or a Kindle? What is or is not a laptop? Is it something that opens and closes? Perhaps an iPad will be permitted under the words in the box. My understanding is that the latest version of the iPad can have a little add-on, which folds over the top of the iPad and switches it off. Is a handheld device something that opens and closes? Many small, handheld devices also open and close.

If it is not the fact of opening and closing that is the issue, it is presumably a question of size. Laptops come in a variety of sizes. The marketing phrase now is “netbooks”, some of which are extremely small. Is it that they should be no larger than a certain size? I am raising all these questions because, although this has been a helpful move to try to resolve these matters, it has not removed the scope for confusion.

Secondly, perhaps it would be helpful if further consideration could be given to the question of what people can do with these devices. Of course it is sensible that, rather than lugging around large volumes of paper, people should be able to access paperwork, parliamentary material and so on electronically, but I wonder whether it makes sense to forbid the use of search. Perhaps I should apologise to the House at the outset for the fact that I have on occasion used a handheld device in this Chamber and that I once—

I apologise unreservedly, as I apologise for what I am about to say. On one occasion during Oral Questions, in order to clarify whether I was correct in the point that I wished to make, I did a quick Google search. As a consequence, I was much more confident about putting to the Minister the point that I wanted to make. However, it seems to be entirely legitimate and sensible that people are able to do that. I note that our Clerks in your Lordships’ House have in front of them a laptop. On occasion, I have noticed that it is linked to Google, so obviously our Clerks, who are not Members of the House, have been known to google things during your Lordships’ proceedings.

I hope that we can look at these matters because, while I understand that we might not like the idea of people being able to relay comments externally prior to the Minister knowing what those comments are, the material resulting from searches about factual matters is available to all Members; it is just a question of whether it is permitted. In any event, how would this be enforced, unless there are inspections or we have some sort of fancy monitoring device that lets you know exactly what people are accessing in the Chamber, which I am sure could be supplied by the relevant people? I wonder if that would be useful.

Perhaps I may make one final plea to the noble Lord. When the Administration and Works Committee looks at these matters again, would it also consider the quality of mobile reception around the Palace? I am aware of a number of areas where the reception is very poor from one provider or another. I am sure that, if this provision is to be made, we want to make sure that it is available equally to all Members of the House wherever they happen to be sitting.

My Lords, it was my enthusiasm for my new iPad that led me, as a member of the Administration and Works Committee, to suggest to your Lordships that the use of an iPad in the Chamber would be perfectly proper. The point about an iPad is that it is silent; there are no clicking noises. It is quite small and can be held easily in one hand. However, I am a bit old-fashioned and the thought of standing up and referring to notes on my iPad is not very encouraging. I am old-fashioned enough to say that I will still be using paper, as many of your Lordships do in any case.

On a more serious note, most of us in this House have electronic devices and there is confusion about where they can be used. I take absolutely the point made by the noble Lord who is my namesake about where electronic devices can be used, as well as the lack of coverage in parts of the House, which is another important point.

Our devolved Parliaments and Assemblies use laptops, although they are old-fashioned now. While watching them use that technology, I felt that we were very disadvantaged. Members there were able to get absolutely up-to-date papers, yet Members of your Lordships’ House have complained many times that we have not been able to get hold of a report while it is being discussed on the Floor of the House. I encourage noble Lords to accept the recommendations made by the committee and to join us in the 21st century.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell us whether the committee considered, if it wishes to clarify the position, whether handheld devices should not be used in the Chamber? To what extent did the committee consider the effect that such use may have on those watching the proceedings of the House on television? They may well think that Members who are using handheld devices are not paying sufficient attention to what is happening.

My Lords, I strongly support what my noble friend has just said. I must confess that I do not Google, Twitter, tweet or blog, nor do I have any particular desire to do any of those things, but it seems to me that to have handheld devices in the Chamber is not conducive to good debate and intelligent participation in it. The fundamental reason for my opposing the idea is that it is the beginning of what I would call electronic mission creep—if I can use some jargon. I am very concerned about how instructions could be monitored or enforced. The answer is that they could not be. Therefore, anybody sitting in this Chamber with a handheld device could do anything from googling facts to getting in touch with his bookmaker. I suggest that the committee consider once again the point that has just been made briefly but forcefully by my noble friend.

My Lords, I very much look forward to using my new iPad, when I get one, on the Education Bill, which amends 17 Acts. I very much hope that the Chairman of Committees will confirm not only that we will have wi-fi access in the Chamber when we come to debate that Bill in May, so that I can get at those documents, but also that we will have easy access to statutes in force, because, as he will remember from his days as a Minister or a Back-Bencher, the Acts that one can have printed in the Printed Paper Office are nothing like those that we are amending. Such access would therefore be immensely useful.

I find rather strange the worry expressed in paragraph 8 about having access to things that are not generally available to participants in proceedings by other means. One of the great reasons why I come to this Chamber is that it is full of people who know things that I do not know and understand things that I do not understand. Are we not supposed to have an equality of arms in this place? The point about being here is that you have access to a lot of people who know things that you do not. If someone happens to know something because they have looked it up on the internet or consulted an authority, rather than having done it in the Library five minutes before, I really do not see the problem.

We should allow ourselves to think about how we are going to catch up with the Commons when it comes to allowing participation by the public. The Commons is now allowing public participation in its Committee stages. Committees accept outside briefing from all sorts of people; they often hold open days when people can come and give evidence in front of them. We cannot do that with our committee system, because we use Committees of the whole House, but lots of people watch our proceedings live on television. If they were submitting to a public site comments on what was going on, why not allow us to read them so that we might see what they were saying and pick up the ideas that they might have? I understand the noble Lord’s difficulty with having us quoting people whom we are picking up off Twitter or some blog, but merely to gain insights and intelligence from people who may have vast practical experience and happen to be watching us on television would be a good thing.

I am grateful to my noble friends for making me feel, for the first time in a while, that I am a member of the younger generation.

My Lords, I support what has just been said. Perhaps I may suggest also that making a virtue of being out of date is really not helpful for this House. Let us transpose this debate to the time when writing came in. It was perfectly true that writing might have upset the person sitting next door—it might have taken your mind off the debate—but most of us now write to make notes in this House. Most of us use this electronic equipment—well, I hope that we do; those who do not perhaps are not really involved. It is silent; it is extremely helpful. I must say to my noble friend that the idea that it is better to be ignorant and make a speech where the fact is wrong than to look it up and make sure that you have got it right seems very peculiar. I am pleased that it will not matter, because we will all do it and nobody will be able to see. I hope that the privacy Acts and the Data Protection Act will stop people looking over our shoulder to see what we are looking up. We hear some speeches made in this noble House where perhaps playing Scrabble on our devices would be a better alternative. This House does itself no good in making a virtue out of obscurantism. We either do things properly, which means using the wonderful mechanisms that we have, or we must accept the likelihood of being thought to be out of date.

My Lords, I suggest the compromise that these devices be used simply as readers and that, for the present, we should allow the use of electronic readers and the searching within documents on the reader. We will not be out of date if we rule out devices that are connected. I am a member of a couple of quite big organisations in New York and, when they have large board meetings, typically today the modern thing is to say, “There will be no connected device during this meeting. There will no connected BlackBerries or laptops”. However, to rule out electronic readers would be foolish, because very soon there will be large A4-type readers that are much better than a pack of papers. I suggest the compromise that we make the distinction that we allow the use of electronic devices to read documents and to search within them, but that we do not allow connected devices.

My Lords, I support the report in its entirety. I do so first for the reason that the House authorities are anticipating working, where sensible, in a more paperless way for the duration of this Parliament. Why? Because it will save money and a great deal of waste and will create efficiency in the proceedings and work of this House. I am sure that the direction of travel is right. Between now and 2015—if that is the time we are given—we can make sensible provisions for those who wish to adopt touchscreen technology. We are talking not only about iPads—we must not promote Apple exclusively—but about tablet technology. Touchscreen technology will take us into completely different considerations, and is so important because it does not distract people in the way that my noble friend said. Distraction is a potential danger, and the report identifies that.

It might reassure colleagues such as the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and others that if, after looking at the technology over the next year, they genuinely feel that they wish to adhere to the tried and tested ways of doing things, that will be absolutely fine; they should be entitled to do that without distraction. If the pilot produces distraction and the noble Lord and his colleagues feel that they are being put off or that people are abusing the new flexibilities in these rules, the pilot evaluation should take that into account and there should be a serious reconsideration.

However, the pilot should reassure our colleagues who take that view because it will proceed gently, step by step and year by year, consider what is available, change things and try to make the issues as clear as possible. There will always be difficulties but, at the end of the day, people will have to rely on their own judgments, soul and conscience. The rules will do the best job that they can and we should proceed with caution in the way that the committee report suggests.

As noble Lords may know, I am chairman of the Information Committee. I am keen to explore the development of touchscreen technology—not only readers but enabled connected devices—for Select Committee reports, which could transform the amount of paper produced for members in their service on Select Committees. Over the next year, I shall be particularly interested in looking at that.

Let us accept the report. Not to accept it would be a backward step. Let us look at the situation in a year’s time and, if it does not discomfort or discommode colleagues who do not wish to adopt the technology, which is a different matter for evaluation, let us take this step. For all these reasons and more, as the Lord Chairman said, if we do not do this we will not be moving with times—and it would not be in the interests of this institution if we do not move with the times.

My Lords, I, too, support this report. We should accept it in full. As many noble Lords will know, I use an electronic device, even before the report has been accepted. I am using it now, so I suppose I should apologise to the House in the same spirit as the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, did. As noble Lords will know, I have this electronic device, which I am holding up and showing now. It is just about handheld, but I prefer to use two hands so that I can read it. It is a bit less cumbersome than the device I had when I arrived in this House. This is the only practical way for me to access much of the information, some of it taken from the intranet, which I need for engaging in your Lordships’ proceedings.

In recognition of this, the House authorities have been very accommodating and have fitted up a little tray on the back of the Bench in front which I can pull down, rather like an aircraft tray table, so that I do not have to hold it in my hand the whole time. I can put the device down and use it more conveniently when I am trying to make a point during the proceedings. I am very appreciative of this accommodation. It is, in the jargon of disability discrimination legislation, a reasonable adjustment, and very helpful it is too. Without it, I would not be able to participate in your Lordships’ proceedings in the way that I do. I am very grateful for that.

I think that the sort of facility that has been extended to me should be extended to the rest of your Lordships. I make this point on the basis on which I make many of my interventions in your Lordships’ House: namely, as an ardent champion of equality for the sighted.

My Lords, I welcome this report, which will take our technology into the 21st century. It is of course right for us to update our rules and for us to make proper use of new technology, but we should be under no illusion; it will change fundamentally the way in which we work in this Chamber. That is not to say that it is a bad thing, but it will change it. iPads and other new technologies are absorbing and addictive and will change the way we work. As long as we are aware of that, that is absolutely fine.

The report talks about the policing of various uses of pieces of technology in this self-regulating House. I believe that for the new technology of which the report speaks, it has to be all or nothing. It is simply not feasible and not possible to police the use in the way that is suggested in the report. Like my noble friend, I refer to the box on page 6, which states that the new technology,

“may be used to access Parliamentary papers and other documents … but not to search the Web for information for use in debate”.

That is simply not possible.

Many interesting and valuable points have been made in this debate. I suggest that the report should not be referred back, because it is a good report, but that it needs to be revised in the light of what has been said to make it more coherent and to bring clarity. At the moment, I do not think it brings the necessary clarity. I advise the noble Lord to have a look at the box on page 6 to ensure that it is properly clear because, while it is suggested that this should be for a trial period, this is the sort of issue on which, once one has advanced, there is no retreat. We have to be clear about what we are doing.

My Lords, we have had an interesting debate on this subject, as I suspected we would. Given the opposing views of those in favour of this advance and those who I might say are more old-fashioned and do not want to see anything change, it looks as though we got the report about right.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, asked me a large number of questions, one of which was whether I could define the difference between a laptop and an iPad. I use the expression “iPad” in the same way that one uses the expressions “hoover” or “fridge”. It does not necessarily mean the Apple product—there are other varieties. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, who is a member of the committee, put her finger on this when she said that it should be used silently. We do not want people clicking away on a keypad—at least that was the idea. That is the fundamental difference between what I see as an iPad, such as the one that is now on the Table, and a touchscreen device. Of course, technology might move on. It has moved on enormously. Only a few years ago we changed the rules of the House on the use of mobile telephones.

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend. If the object is to clarify the position, in light of what he has just said are we to understand that iPads will be all right but netbooks will not?

Then the answer is that we would prefer devices that do not click and that therefore do not distract noble Lords while they are in the Chamber.

I have slightly lost my thread now. I was referring to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey. He held up his hands to say that he had used his handheld to search the web for something that was relevant to the debate at that time. The committee did not consider that an appropriate use, for the reasons that we set out at some length in the report, but I remind noble Lords that we specifically say that this is for a one-year trial period in the first instance. We will, of course, take into account the observations that noble Lords have not only made today but will no doubt make during the course of the year. The matter will then be reviewed again by the Administration and Works Committee, and we will have another debate. When we produce a report, we will have to bring it to the House.

As several noble Lords said, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, the matter relies on your Lordships’ good sense and self-regulation. My noble friends Lord Higgins and Lord Cormack worried that people working away on their handheld devices would be a distraction and that it would not look good on television. At least it would prove that those noble Lords were awake and not asleep. It would look no worse than that. That is unfortunately a picture that one gets occasionally in the television coverage of your Lordships’ House. I can tell my noble friend Lord Cormack that nothing in the present rules would prevent him getting on to his bookmaker. If he has been doing that, good luck to him.

My noble friend Lord Lucas asked a number of questions. I am glad to say that he was generally in favour of these proposals. We have measures in hand to improve wi-fi access in the Chamber and we will take those forward. My noble friend asked about various things, for example statutes in force. As it says in the report, those would be closely and clearly relevant to the business of the House and would therefore be just the sort of thing that it would be permitted to look at.

Other noble Lords made various other observations. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, for his support. He is, of course, also involved in this as chairman of the Information Committee. No doubt it, too, will come forward with proposals in due course. He is right to have said that this is a step towards cutting down on the use of paper and going in the direction of a paperless way forward. The noble Lord, Lord Broers, suggested that one should be able only to read from one of these devices, rather than to access new information, while one was in the Chamber. However, the report makes it clear that it will be possible to download White Papers and that kind of thing, and if one happens to want to do so while one is in the Chamber I can see no objection to that.

I hope that I have answered most of the questions raised. I am sure that your Lordships want to get on to the main business of the day—

My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will forgive me, but I did suggest that he should look at various aspects of the report again. For example, the box on page 6 is untenable, as is clear from this debate. I urge him to ensure that the report is clear, because point 2 in the box is not possible; we will not be able to police matters in that way. I urge the committee to look at it again.

My Lords, before the Chairman of Committees answers that point, I want to make a similar point quickly. Paragraph 16, the conclusion, says:

“If the House agrees this report”—

I have no doubt that it will—

“the Procedure Committee will be invited to amend the Companion when it is next updated”.

Can I have an assurance from someone, please, that the Procedure Committee will take account of this somewhat divergent debate in that consideration?

I can give that assurance. On behalf of the Procedure Committee, I may well have to produce another report on these matters and have that debated on the Floor of the House again. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, the main cause of concern in today’s debate has been about paragraph 8 of the main report rather than the box at the back that summarises it. As we say there, this is a one-year trial period in the first instance. We will just have to see how that trial works out, and come back in one year’s time.

Motion agreed.