Motion to Take Note
My Lords, it is my pleasure to move that the Grand Committee takes note of the Information Committee’s annual report for 2010-11. It is my pleasure and privilege to chair the committee. This is the first opportunity that we have had to share our deliberations more widely among our colleagues in the House. It is important that we should take every opportunity to do so when we can. I acknowledge the fact that the business managers have found time for this important debate. Time is precious and the Grand Committee has other business this afternoon.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, before the Division was called I was remarking that the business managers have done us a favour in finding time for this important debate in Grand Committee to deal with the annual report of the Information Committee.
I am sure that I speak for all committee members in thanking both the clerks who have covered this report and our own clerk, who has succeeded Rob Whiteway, and his colleagues in the clerks’ department. We are very grateful for the support we get from the clerks’ department. That is true also of all the heads and members of the professional staff and the directorates of the work that is overseen by the committee. They are all absolutely dedicated, enthusiastic professionals. It is a privilege to serve with them and we acknowledge the contribution they have, in their individual ways, made to making what I think was a successful year’s work enshrined in the committee report.
The committee has a very important, if rather peculiar role. You could characterise what it does in the three themes that are adverted to in the early stages of the report. It is driving what benefit we can get from information technology services in the service of the House. That has many aspects and dimensions, not just in terms of servicing Members but the back-office administration functions too. It is trying to make sure that we get a much more effective message across to the wider public generally about what is going on here and how we do our business, as well as trying to inform those who are anxious to inform themselves about the work of the House. That is an important element in the work of the committee.
I will be spending the majority of my short introduction dealing with services for individual Members in the House. In that regard, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon, who represents the administration authorities. We have had very good support from not just the clerks’ department but the House and administration committees in difficult financial circumstances, for which we are very grateful.
For a committee member trying to cover all the important aspects of the House’s work, it is right—good practice dictates it—to take every opportunity to report back to make sure that Members of the House and others know what is going on in the work of the committee. We do that by publishing our minutes. We are as open and transparent as possible, and that is useful. It is also right to solicit views. There is a user group dimension to the work that we do, and to be successful we need to encourage people to give their views. We must use every opportunity we can to get feedback. As another dimension, using complaints constructively and instructively is also important. We are getting better at that, particularly with the Parliamentary Information and Communication Technology side to the committee’s work. I have a sense—there is only anecdotal evidence—that PICT is rolling out services, such as the Windows 7 upgrade to operating systems on desktop and laptop machines across the whole Parliamentary Estate, with commendable efficiency and minimal disruption.
All these things involve change, and people get nervous of change. We need to keep in contact with the people we are seeking to serve, within the House, the Administration and the public. The 2010-11 report covers the first half of the Parliament—effectively, the first two years which are just coming to an end. The current period is not quite covered by that; I had hoped to mention one or two things to bring us up to date with things that have happened since July 2011. The report is a useful piece of work, and I hope we will have a useful discussion about it. For the members of the committee who are here, we need to learn what other people think about the contents of the report.
It is obviously true to anyone who has studied the work of the committee that we were bequeathed a very valuable legacy by our predecessor committee. The noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry and his colleagues produced, among other things, the seminal report, Are the Lords Listening? Creating Connections Between People and Parliament.
This report is still a work in progress before the existing committee. Indeed, my own name as chairman is on a list of ballotable debates dealing with Chapters 7 and 8. We are trying to get some feedback from the House as a whole on important questions such as the use of parliamentary language, which was identified as a barrier to people’s understanding, and to ceremonial aspects of some of the House’s work, which in modern times can produce a barrier to people’s understanding of the important work we do. There is a lot still being promoted, based on what was done before the committee took its place and started the work for this report.
The context is important too, because it has changed. The membership of the House has increased to such an extent that the pressure on all of its services, ICT and otherwise, cannot be ignored. That is something we are alive to. The political tensions and the quite hard-fought debates we have had attract attention, and we need to address and deal with that, in terms of dealing with people’s inquiries. We are also affected by deficit reduction, because everything we do in Parliament for the foreseeable future will be affected. All these things have to be considered in the mix.
We have a broad list of responsibilities. As well as parliamentary information and communication technology, we cover the Library, the important work of the Hansard reporters, public information, and bicameral services. Most bicameral services are hosted by the House of Commons, but we have our own parliamentary archive, which is a bicameral service that is brigaded in the House of Lords, and it is very valuable. Anyone who knows anything about what goes on here cannot help but be impressed by the enthusiasm of the staff and the dedication they bring to their work.
I should like to go through the five or six services to update the Grand Committee on where we are now as opposed to where the annual report ends. However, I shall spend a little longer on parliamentary information and communication technology because it is the biggest game changer that we are confronting as an institution and as a society. I do not want the House of Lords to get behind the curve to the extent that we do not relate to, and lose traction with, a public who are now involved in social networking and all that that means.
It is a struggle to stay on top of that degree of change but—I probably say this because I am chairman of the Information Committee and we are supposed to be doing this—we are ahead of this important area of public policy in many ways, particularly in the use and piloting of tablet technology. Since the report was completed in July 2011, two significant things have happened. First, the Information Committee agreed to undertake a tablet technology pilot. I stress the word “tablet” because this is not an iPad trial; it is a tablet trial. We must be careful that we do not end up as commercial agents for Apple Incorporated, however good the technology may be. That is easy to do, in the way that vacuum cleaners suddenly became Hoovers, and we need to be careful when talking about generic technology because it changes so fast. Machines are being trialled effectively at the moment by members of the committee and we will consider the first phase of the results at our important committee meeting tomorrow. The likelihood is that the evaluation of the work of tablet technology will need to continue before we can say with certainty that we want to deploy the servicing and the back-up of tablets for Members.
My noble friend invited comments, and as I have a Select Committee hearing to go to, I wonder whether perhaps he can help me with a question at the moment. I appreciate how PICT has helped individual members—it has been really helpful to me—but I get worried sometimes about the attitude within the Information Committee. It feels that issuing computers and laptops to Members is somehow a gift and that it is being very kind to us. In fact, those machines are there to help us with our work. We do not get any secretarial allowance now and those of us who come from outwith London have been seriously disadvantaged as a result.
When the committee considers this issue tomorrow, can more flexibility be written into the allocation of computers and laptops? For example, on page 8 of the report it says that we are entitled to a range of things, including one Blackberry handheld device. When I ask whether I can substitute something else for that Blackberry handheld device, such as another laptop or a tablet, I am told that I cannot do so. This kind of inflexibility creates problems for noble Lords who are only trying to carry out their job as Members of the House. Could the committee consider some greater flexibility in the allocation of equipment in the future?
Indeed. I am grateful for that intervention. We have to be open and honest and tell the unvarnished truth about the degree of change that will be coming if the ICT strategy that the committee has agreed in principle is rolled out by May 2015. I am keen on using that as a planning date. Previously we could not say with certainty when the Parliament will end, so being able to ask ourselves where we want to be by May 2015 is a useful device. It enables us to devise strategies and get plans in place.
In answer to my noble friend’s question, the ambition is to become device-neutral and provide internet-based services in the sky anywhere, any time and any place. The service will then change from a hardware-based system—as it tends to be at the moment, with broadband lines being provided and serviced—to inviting Members to use whatever device platform and in whatever combination they are comfortable with. We will guarantee bespoke services, including coaching in terms of individual Members’ ways of working. This plays into the important point that my noble friend makes. We all do things differently and struggle to look after ourselves without a heavy staff back-up. The best way we can do this within the financial envelope we face is to develop these services. I promise my noble friend that I have seen some of the early prototype services and they are stunningly useful on a tablet device.
We have to be absolutely upfront about this because people need time to plan. If this strategy works, we will not be in the business of handing hardware to people after 2015. We will not, indeed, be putting broadband connections into people’s homes. That is a huge change and people will be frightened by it, but the Committee’s important duty over the next two years is to try to win the argument about why we are making this change. It is not just about money, but it is about money; because you can do this an awful lot more cheaply. If my noble friend just thinks about the rate at which some of these devices change, then if, after 2015, you were locked into supplying people with up-to-date hardware, you would have to change the equipment you offered with such regularity to keep them ahead of the industry standard that it would cost an unimaginable sum of money.
I think people will get desktops in the main precincts of the Palace of Westminster because they are easily maintained by a central staff, but my ambition is to get everyone else mobile; and what a tablet device or platform gives you is the ability to work anywhere as long as you have a wi-fi connection. That is the first thing that the committee knows about and the strategy that we have agreed. We have a sterling job to do on that because people will understandably be slightly apprehensive—that is probably the best word—until they understand what is being offered to them.
Secondly, this is where the House Committee’s assistance comes in and again I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Brabazon. We now have the authority to wi-fi enable the whole estate over the next 12 months. That is a massive assistance. It puts us as an institution ahead of any other parliamentary service for tablet provision that I know of. The Italians are spending a lot of money and doing a lot of work on this and the Canadians have always had a reputation for it. The Brazilians are spending a lot of money as well. There is an international best practice sharing operation going on and by next year we could be seen as leading the service provision for individual parliamentary members because of the applications that we will be able to put on these devices. They will be crafted by our own people to assist Members of the House of Lords and I promise that when colleagues see the results of this work when it is rolled out—I hope within the next 12 months—people will see the reason and the justification for what we are doing in ICT.
In parenthesis, I want to be clear that we give an assurance to people who want their services delivered on a paper-based basis that they will always be catered for. That does not mean to say that the back-office machinery will not be done by clever enabled technology. People who are uncomfortable working in anything other than in a paper-based situation will always be catered for. That is an assurance the Committee would want to give so that that level of apprehension can be contained.
I have been slightly distracted. I wanted to talk about some of the other services. The Information Office, the Library, the Parliamentary Archive and the public information services have all done extremely well. The results of that are in the report. If I had had more time I would have given an update about the services that have been developed since July 2011 in each of those categories.
The Information Committee is at the forefront of ensuring that by 2015 we will be in the best possible place for incoming Members. However they come to this institution after May 2015, we will be confident that we will be able to provide them with an ICT back service which is fit for purpose.
I started with three themes: driving the ICT agenda forward with as much determination and as much robustness as we can, coupled with getting our message across to the general public about what is happening here so that they understand our work better, and getting the bespoke services fully operational and robust and fit for purpose. These are the things for the second half of the Parliament that the Committee will be committed to doing on behalf of the whole House. On that basis, I hope that colleagues will accept this report as a work in progress, and I beg to move.
My Lords, I begin, having been here rather too long, with a vote of thanks to our chairman, who has a remarkably light touch sometimes in that all the meetings we have attended have finished exactly on time, usually when I have plucked up the courage to say something.
I will speak not on the high-tech areas, but on slightly simpler ground. We have 827 Members of this House—there have been 118 new ones since the last election. Those on leave of absence make it 788 people. These are, in a way, our customer base. However, unlike many great institutions, we do not know each other. I am prepared to guess that on average nobody knows more than 100 Peers. Therefore there is almost a need for introductions or facial recognition. That has worried me quite considerably. I now know my noble friends the Liberal Democrats, but when you sit behind your own colleagues and see only the back of their head, you tend to find it easier to recognise the Opposition, so I have suggested some things that could be done. I asked Black Rod whether it would be possible for the names on the badges to be a bit bigger, because people come up, and look down, and say, “Who is that?”. This is just a simple basis of information.
We have a duty to communicate with Members of the House and to provide them with facilities in difficult times. As we know, wi-fi is going to be a very long way away and quite an expensive exercise. On the other hand, we are still a paper-based House. The Printed Paper Office points out that it has 2,000 different reports in its basement, that it receives and issues more paper than ever before, and that the number of lines per sheet of paper has dropped to about eight from 15. Many people still require paper. It will be a long time until we have caught up with the technology to get rid of the paper.
However, we are in the information business. We often forget that we are lucky enough to have probably one of the best libraries of its sort in the world. When I came here I did not realise that a librarian was more qualified than almost anyone else in the information business and suggested to the Library that I would quite like to be a librarian. They looked up to me in a down-looking way until I realised that you can find anything you want in that Library.
Over the past 10 years, the Library has issued 155 reports of great quality, but they are not as widely distributed as I would have hoped. One reason is that some of the data in those reports are sensitive because the Library does not necessarily own the intellectual property. But those reports would be a good promotion for the House; they could be more widely distributed and more easily issued to universities, academics, colleges and the general public. I have a list of those reports, which include everything from the adoption of children back in 2002 right the way through to Lords reform and human tissue legislation. It is quite a remarkable collection. The number of reports doubles in direct proportion to the size of the House and the demands of Peers. Many of the newer Peers do not know what they can get out of the Library.
Another thing we do for the production of information is to ask questions. Your Lordships will know well that certain Peers like to read about themselves in Questions more than anybody else. In this Parliament, we have had a total of 16,389 Questions for Written Answer. That is quite a lot. I went to the Library to ask staff about it—I beat them to it, because fortunately the Public Bill Office had explained that in the green paper each Question is numbered. So the number against the last Question tells you exactly how many there have been without your having to do any research.
On top of that, we have had 1,100 Starred Questions. That is quite easy to work out. You take the number of days that the House sat and multiply it by four, because there are four Questions a day, so that research did not take very long. All that information is in the public domain and much of it could be of great interest to the general public, probably more interesting that some of the extracts from your Lordships’ speeches, monologues or dialogues.
In that information area, we have to accept that people who come here are people with whom we communicate. There have been comments from time to time in the press that perhaps we are eating or drinking too much, too cheaply, or perhaps too freely. So I thought that it would be a good idea if I asked the Banqueting department how many people it had had last year. It had received more than 55,000 guests from institutions that nobody could criticise. I retyped the whole lot; I took out the names of Peers in case anybody thought a Peer might be on a freebie, or something else, but I left in two great celebrations when there were large birthday parties for individual Peers. Of those 750 events, none was any burden on the public purse—they actually provide a surplus—and they generated revenue through the shops. That is an important part of what one might call outreach.
I have not been out to speak to people. I was what was once called a Snopake speaker: when anybody let anybody down, I was the last one invited to speak. I would go to the dinner and scratch the menu to see whose name was typed under mine. But bringing people to this place is very worth while. I have been on a few tours and am now fully briefed. We should not worry about the older age group. Yes, it is a good idea to take soldiers round when they have been on things and to let them be recognised. So I went for the youngest ones; I said that I would like to bring round a young school group. I asked what the youngest was that they could cope with and they said eight or nine—so we brought round a team of five year-olds from my grandson’s class. They went round and had a whale of a time. Each one of them, in their own writing, wrote a letter of thanks, and said that the thing that they had enjoyed most was the nice lady who showed them round, the gold and the big hall. Those sorts of things make you feel good. When we have outreach in schools, in many cases it might not be a bad idea to put the House of Lords on an agenda for the history class and have every school in London coming in.
I have another suggestion to make on the lack of knowledge that we ourselves have about the House—certainly the lack of knowledge on procedures, which we know full well, and how we discipline our colleagues to stop them shouting and jumping up and down. When I first came here I was very nervous and everybody got my name wrong. The Chief Whip said, “You ought to make a maiden speech”, which I did, although I chickened out twice. He then said, “You can intervene now; I think you can intervene at Question Time”. So I said, “Well, what do I do, sir?”. He said, “Well, you stand up very quickly, because you are athletic, to ask a supplementary question and you will therefore be the quickest up, as you are one of the youngest. But then other people will get up and you will know they are more important than you—because the whole of the House is more important than you—and therefore you sit down. But you sit down very slowly, as though you were arthritic. They will turn to you—realising that you stood up first. Do that, and they will sit down”. Two Peers stood up and then sat down. I forgot what question I was going to ask and felt rather nervous. I did not know afterwards that the Chief Whip and the Leader of the Opposition had arranged this so that I would feel comfortable, and that the two Peers who stood up were only doing that to make me feel at home. Now, when one looks at Question Time, it is a barnstorming. I make a list—I call it the black list—of those who jump up, intervene and shout. It is not necessary—and that is part of the character of the House that has gone.
I will not go on about iPads because although I started with a computer, I could not make it work so I went to the Alfred Marks girls’ school, as Miss Selsdon, up in Oxford Street and Tracy, Sharon and Gail helped me. One needs that sort of friendliness; one feels embarrassed as a man if one cannot cope.
We have the Queen’s Jubilee Thames event coming up. I promise not to interfere in my capacity as Secretary and Treasurer of the House of Lords Yacht Club, although I believe that I could have the right to get three barges alongside. When the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, who is in charge of this, was briefing us the other day, we suddenly realised that the House of Lords, or Parliament, will be the focus. When the parade goes by, all the television cameras will be on the other side of the river. The suggestion was that this might be viewed by 3 billion people over a period of time—I am not sure how long the parade lasts, but perhaps for two hours. Some of the boats that are lower in the water are going to be quite difficult to see. However, on the main barge, I hope that we have got the Armada bell, which I have arranged to be put there with the ring. The argument for the Armada bell is whether it is middle C, C flat or C sharp. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry is dealing with it.
If the Information Committee knew that this was going out world wide, we ought to write a script on what happened in the House of Lords—the history of it, from Alfred the Great and the others. This could be passed, probably from the BBC, to the lead broadcasters in China, India and right the way around the world.
Information should be fun and interesting. I have certainly enjoyed being on the Information Committee. I have enjoyed the tolerance of the great Martin Casey, who knows more than anybody. We cannot let him go; now I will try hard to use my machine—I will not call it by its name. I am very grateful for having been on this Committee and I would like to thank the chairman.
My Lords, first, if anybody thinks that I am being high-tech using my iPad for my speech, that is partially true. However, I also have a confession to make. When I tried to print it out on paper, the paper stuck in the printer. I was leaving it a little bit late to get here and so, inevitably, I had to do it this way. In fact, I am very largely going to ignore it because of what has already been said.
I thank “my noble friend”—as my noble friend Lord Foulkes called him quite wrongly—Lord Kirkwood. I would still call him “my noble friend” at a personal level even if parliamentary convention does not really follow that route. He is also, of course, a fellow member of the gym.
However, I want to follow the speeches that both he and the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, have made from almost—not from the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, but certainly from the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon—the opposite point of view. He quite rightly has sung the praises of the Library. It is a magnificent place. I do not know many books there are in the Library but they could all be put on about three Kindles, to be read whenever anyone wanted to draw them up.
When I want information, as I showed in the House the other day, I go on Google and request that information. I do not go to the Library; I do not look at a book; I go on Google and find the information that I want. I used it for a very short history lesson. During a debate about the Scotland Bill and the United Kingdom there was an argument as to whether the United Kingdom had been formed with the union of the Crowns or the union of Parliaments. I looked it up and said that it was actually formed in 1800 when Ireland came into it. That was a matter of finding information quickly and easily on Google rather than having to go to the Library and look for a book to find that information.
That is the future. At the moment it is iPads but, before very long, there may well be a chip in the back of your hand through which you can get that same information. That is the way we are going and that is why the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, is absolutely right to say that we have to keep up to date. The same media that will attack us if we spend money on computers or whatever will equally attack us if we appear to be behind the ball game, out of date and no longer keeping up with what the younger people—and not only younger people but even old people like me—are doing in terms of technology.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, that 12 months until wi-fi is simply not good enough. O2 has done a deal with Westminster Council at the present time under which, by putting its routers on what I believe it calls street furniture—lamp posts, fences and so on—it will provide wi-fi access to anybody who has a computer, laptop or mobile phone, whatever it might be, within Westminster Council. It is starting now. Some of it will be available in June and the whole of the council will have access by the beginning of July in time for the Olympic Games. If it can do that, why are we not approaching a company and asking whether we can do the same thing? Why are we not having the same access to wi-fi?
Presumably, as we are in the Westminster Council area, we will be getting access to that wi-fi. It would be slightly peculiar if, for some reason, we were not able to get it. Just like smokers—but not me; I am not a smoker and have not been for 30-odd years—we will have to go out on to the Terrace, carrying our laptop or our tablet, in order to get the access that we require. That would be nonsense. We ought to have wi-fi access throughout the whole system and I will urge at a later date on the committee that we should look at this issue much more quickly. We should have wi-fi access across the whole of the parliamentary estate—preferably within the next three months and before the introduction of the O2 system—and at speeds that are faster than the O2 system. Otherwise there is a danger that people like me will access the O2 system and say, “Oh, it is better than the parliamentary one anyway”. I do not have to sign in for it as there is automatic signing in. Every time I turn my computer on to access it, it will be instantly available. If our system is not as good, that will create security problems because people will be using computers, tablets or whatever which are not in any way related to the security systems within the parliamentary estate. That could have dangers.
I will finish by making a second point about the tablet experiment. Quite rightly, there has been a survey of tablets. It is all very well my noble friend Lord Kirkwood saying that it is the iPad but, as far as I am aware, they did not try out any other tablet. The iPad 3 is now out—it was announced last week and it goes on sale tomorrow—and the iPad 4 may very well come before the end of this year. We have to take a decision: do we or do we not give people the iPad? There is evidence that money will be saved by using the iPad through a reduction in the amount of paper used. People can use their iPads rather than printing out information and using up great piles of paper or getting it stuck in the printer, whatever it may be. The iPad is there; it is coming; we need it. Fellow Members are constantly asking me when a decision will be taken: they are saying, “Do we buy our own or is it going to be provided?”. It may be that the Committee and the House authorities want people to buy their own and they can then say, “We will provide the services”.
It would not be entirely fair if they did that. We may not be employees but this is a place of work and we are here to do a job. I cannot think of any other job where the tools required to do it have to be provided by yourself—where you have to go out and purchase your own hammers, screwdrivers, computers, whatever it may be. I cannot imagine journalists, who probably will attack us if we provide or offer iPads to everyone having to buy their own computers, tablets or laptops. That does not happen.
We ought to take a decision to at least offer a tablet, preferably the iPad—at the moment there is not anything else on the market—to everyone who wishes it, not as a straight extra but as a replacement either for the laptop that people have, if it is due for replacement, or instead of the mobile device that they have. I can use this. I have used this on the last couple of nights and my wife has used it as a phone using Skype. Using Skype and providing Skype services may be another way of saving money.
I hope we will take that decision. I welcome the report and the further meetings of the Committee, where I will again raise these issues.
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to debate the report and to make a few points on it. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, for an excellent introduction, despite the rather rude interruption which tried to take us completely off the point that we were on. In future, if some Peers are going to make speeches in the middle of a debate, perhaps they will have the courtesy to stay until the end and not interrupt people at the start. This is a new tradition which has arisen with people who have come here and seem to think they have the right to do it and not to debate matters in a proper way. This reiterates the point of the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, that we are having trouble getting people to understand the conventions of a self-regulating House, where you are not told what to do by a Speaker and you do not have a headmaster any more.
Leaving that point aside for the moment—I shall take it up elsewhere—I found the Information Committee report interesting and hugely encouraging. Like everyone else, I shall start by talking about the tablet trials, which is a wonderful move in the right direction. There are lots of questions about it and we received a bit of flak in the press the other day, which was very unfair. I have found that it has enabled me to work more efficiently and has allowed me to find papers when I have not got them. I remember going to a meeting where we were discussing the Protection of Freedoms Bill and some aspects of RIPA and I had thought we were going to be discussing something slightly different. I turned up with my tablet and everyone else had about a foot of paper in front of them. When I realised what we were discussing, it did not take me long to get the information up on the iPad because I know my way around the parliamentary site—a point I shall take up later—and I was able to find things quicker than the other people were able to by desperately fumbling through their index tabs. In particular, when we went on to a point they did not expect, I was able to search the PDF for a different Bill, to which it referred back, find the information and produce some intelligent comments. With the annotation facilities that we have for the PDFs in GoodReader, I was able to find information more quickly because I had indexed it already when we were debating the Bill. That is hugely valuable and useful and it is there, sitting with me, all the time. So, called into a meeting, I can react immediately. In the case that I mentioned, I think that it rather astonished them. They thought that I would know nothing because, apparently, I had no supporting material, but actually I had an entire library at my fingertips. That is the point, and it is one that has been brought up by other speakers.
The other advantage is the flexibility afforded when speaking, which the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, brought up. He would have printed his speech out and probably have felt constrained to stick to what he had written. He would have discovered that it was no longer as relevant as it was, but instead he was able to adapt it in a sensible and flexible way and produce a very interesting speech—one that, I hate to suggest, was probably more useful than the original speech because that one had been pre-empted. That is a huge advantage. I certainly found myself always modifying my speeches because I was able to use my Writer application.
We have been criticised in the press for handing out laptops, but you have to have a core group of enthusiasts who will test anything that is new. There is an old adage that no plan survives its first encounter with the enemy. Whatever you do to start with is not how you will end up. We could have launched on day one with the idea either that we would loan out tablets for Peers to use or that we would get people to bring their tablets in. Some businesses are doing that, but a lot of large organisations are fighting it quite hard because of security issues; they are finding it much harder than we are to adapt, but they are being forced into it. We have moved proactively, although the point is that if we had gone in that way, the critics would have killed it on day one. You have to run a trial to find out what the disadvantages are. We can see already that access to the website is changing and modifying as a result of some of the reactions to the tablet trial in the Information Committee.
I think that this still has a long way to go. An example is that when I want to look at a Bill I am concerned with, I want all the stuff that is relevant to whatever stage we have reached to be together in one place. I am prepared to pick the Bill up off the desk, but I am only offered the latest version and all the documents. I then have to go in and stab around. What I want are the latest amendments. I also want the note from the Whips’ Office so that I know what order people will be speaking in, although I am quite happy to get that off the other thing because I normally have that sitting there as well. However, it means having to jump backwards and forwards from one bit to the other. It is as if the most important thing is the last stage of the Bill, but it is not. The most important thing is the amendments we are about to discuss. Also, it is a real nuisance having last-minute additions to the Marshalled List, but I do not know how we are going to handle that. It means that you have to have two lists of amendments. However, we may see an improvement in our working practices as a result of all this because in some cases it may make us think more logically.
To make maximum use of this technology, we need training in how to search for and find things. For instance, occasionally I want to find EU papers, which is a particularly thorny problem on whatever device you are using. This is where we need the expertise of our librarians. One of the great things about modern technology is the way librarians have changed from people who just give you books and tell you where to find something into people who are able to gear up their expertise in knowing where to find information, then summarise it and produce a distillation. Library notes and research papers into aspects of things we are looking at are found to be extremely useful by Peers. You can see that in the doubling of the take-up of those notes. It changes someone who used to sit behind a desk into someone who is summarising information usefully so that it then becomes knowledge. It is then up to us to have the wisdom to turn it into something that we will use properly. Things are useless when they are just out there in the form of information.
I have one other brief comment to make about the trial. We are facing what every large organisation has to face, which is the problem of how we are going to handle security in a deperimeretised environment, as it is called. How are we going to have collaboration orientated architectures, as the Jericho Forum calls them? I know that these are technical things, but I thought I would throw them in for fun. These are the things we are facing, and large companies are stumbling over them as well. That is why at the moment we have a separation between the intranet and the internet, which I find so awkward because there is stuff I cannot get on my tablet. It is sitting on the intranet and it is too cumbersome to try to log in on that if you do not have a good connection. So I end up taking what I can get on the internet. There is some stuff which is missing. It is not secret or anything like that, and there are ways around it. I think we need to look at this, and it is something that may usefully come out of the tablet trial. I hope that the internet will survive and the intranet will be something that is accessed, if it is needed, in a very different way. I think there will be secure areas.
I want to say two things very quickly on the report. I was a little concerned by the talk of bespoke systems for core activities. I can see certain aspects of how we handle amendments and things as Bills progress through another place and then here, going backwards and forwards, and that there is a specialised system especially written to handle that. However, for a lot of our systems, we should be careful about going too bespoke, because the world is changing very quickly in a very unpredictable way. Who would have envisaged, even four years ago, that we would be doing a tablet trial here and that I would be permitted to use it in the Chamber or for my notes here in Committee? Who would have envisaged that we would be beginning to work in these flexible ways, or that we would be talking about Members bringing their own stuff in that would hook up inside the parliamentary perimeter? The changes are so fast that we do not know where we will be, and we have got to be very careful of locking ourselves into expensive, upfront capital expenditure when the world may move in a different direction.
To take up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, again, is it an iPad or not? We are quite right to say tablet. It just happened that the iPad had the easiest interface, earliest on, off the starting block in this area. Actually, there are very serious rivals now and some that are outselling the iPad. There are some other more generic operating systems that could give us better access to some of the other facilities one would like to have on the internet. The iPad for various commercial reasons will not run Flash, but an Android-based system will. There are all sorts of bits and pieces like that, so we should very firmly say tablet, but of course it does not matter. If we go to a system which is device agnostic—as the chairman of our committee said—it removes that problem. People can have whatever they fancy and like and want to use. That is definitely the way to go, and it also offloads a huge amount of capital expenditure.
There are two other things I wanted to mention very quickly, because we have spent so long on computers. What we are doing on the outreach area and the Peers in Schools programme is very laudable. I think that move is hugely useful to public perception of what we get up to, what Parliament gets up to and what the two arms of Government—the legislature and the executive—do, with all the issues behind it that people do not understand. I am very encouraged to see that that is expanding. I have spoken in a couple of places, but not as part of the service. I think quite a few of us do, but it is right that we should formalise it and make it easier, and that is a very good move in the right direction.
The other thing that I am very grateful for is the Press Office. I have not had to use it, but I find it hugely reassuring that when there is something that hits the press that you are worried about, and you think, “Oh my goodness, what am I going to say?”, you have the Press Office there to act as back up. If it is a bit oversensitive, instead of putting your foot in it you can hand it over to the Press Office, which can put its foot in it instead. I am sorry, I mean that it can do exactly the right thing instead. These are very important aspects, which we should not lose sight of in our excitement about the new technology.
It is a very interesting and useful report, and I look forward to working with the committee as long as I am allowed to.
My Lords, I, too, thank our chairman for organising this rather pleasantly informal debate. We have members of the staff here, we have a clerk, and we even have a member of the Government to see that we behave ourselves.
Until they actually serve on the committee, people do not realise the huge amount of work and the huge range of activity which is done by the information staff. As we come into contact with them, we know about PICT and the Library because they are there, but we are much less aware of the information services to the general public—the outreach, the work done with House of Commons education, the website, the intranet, broadcasting and generally telling the world who we are and what we do. Who knows that the House of Lords staff also take care of the parliamentary archives? Do not, of course, forget Hansard. Therefore, I start, together with the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, by thanking the staff and congratulating them on all their hard work, dedication and thoughtfulness. Like the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, I think the committee should find some way of better informing parliamentarians of all this hard work and dedication. An awful lot of us just take it for granted.
Where should I start on this huge range of activities? I start by responding briefly to a question about ICT. This is a very difficult time to provide an ICT service because the technology and hardware are changing so quickly. No sooner had we learnt to operate our PCs than mobile systems started to take over. Then the tablet came along and now we may well be moving into an age of connected TV—who knows? It takes time for people to understand the systems and to move easily between static and mobile formats. That is why I am in favour of Peers providing their own equipment. I do not agree with my noble friend. It is partly because people would be more economical with their own stuff and partly because Peers are at different stages of development.
Some of us still use books for knowledge, as the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, said. For instance, I find it difficult to work on an iPad. I like to write little notes to myself in the margins of a document that I am working on because my memory is so awful. In a debate such as this, I could write a little note in the margin to refer to something that another Peer has said. I find this very awkward when using an iPad. It might be a little more difficult for the support staff but it would make the service more personal and individual if we supplied our own equipment. Providing our own equipment would also help to achieve the objective of increasing Members’ effectiveness in their own work. This does not mean that we should not be at the forefront of technology, as the noble Lord, Lord Maxton, said, but we have to do it at our own pace. That is why I was not in favour of trying iPads. They should certainly be provided for staff, but I saw enough of them being used by Peers in the Library and elsewhere in Parliament to conduct a worthwhile trial. I also felt that it was wrong to limit ourselves to Apple software—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. Now I read that we have Windows 7, with which we are all familiar, for the tablet in a very quick and easy form, with an app that does everything for you. I am sure that in time this will become very popular.
Another reason why it is right to concentrate on ICT is that it is a means of two-way communication—the feedback about which the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, spoke. It is a means of strengthening relationships, which is what the Information Committee is all about. This should be done not only through social media—I am not suggesting that we reward people who become friends—but through individual websites as well as the parliamentary website. Last week the Labour Lords website went live; my noble friend starred on it. It provides exactly the kind of two-way relationship that the Information Committee should support.
Lords of the Blog is another example. It has now been going for three years and the page views are rapidly increasing because Peers raise issues there that they cannot raise on the Floor of the House due to overcrowding. As long as the House is overcrowded, Peers will find other ways to monitor and scrutinise the Government by using ICT. This also applies to tweeting.
Reaching out to the public in person is perhaps even more important. The noble Earl, Lord Erroll, referred to this. As our report says, some 180 Members go to schools, colleges and other institutions to explain who we are and what we do. I would like to put on record my thanks to Gina Page and her colleagues in the Lords Speaker’s Office, and those in the Information Office, who put all of this together and actually organise more than 500 visits.
I have participated in this scheme since it started five years ago. What is appreciated is not so much telling people how Parliament works, but for people to have the opportunity to question a real, live, breathing, genuine Member of the House of Lords. I keep the explanations short when I go, and devote most of the time to a question and answer session. Indeed, this leads to some fascinating and informative discussions.
Of course, you are always asked how you became a Peer. You are always asked what you do. You are asked how much you get paid and what you did before you entered the House, and some of the questions are based on information gleaned from websites such as theyworkforyou.com. But many of the questions are unexpected. For instance, in November I was asked, if Jesus was alive today, would he become a Member of the House of Lords, and if so, on which Benches would he sit? This led to about 15 minutes of discussion and we came to the conclusion that yes, he would become a Member of the House of Lords, but no, he would not sit on the Bishops’ Benches; he would have become a Peer through the public applications system, and would sit on the Cross Benches as a champion of human rights.
Incidentally, to my knowledge we have never had a debriefing session for the staff and Peers doing this outreach, and I think this is something that the committee might arrange. For instance, before I visit a school or institution I always read the Information Office daily press report, because then I know what the audience has been reading. I wonder how many Peers know that this is available.
Of course, another part of the outreach with a human touch is the welcome given to visitors. The parliamentary guides are warm, they are smiling, they are informative and helpful, and they certainly form an important part of the human outreach. This is in addition to all the visitors that the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, told us about.
One part of the organisation that seems to bring a lot of these things together is the Library. Not only have the staff dealt with a huge increase in reference and research inquiries—not everybody uses their iPad—but they also provide briefing packs for debates. They provide online services and, helpfully, training on how to use them. There are computers for occasional use and services are available both here and at Millbank. As I said earlier, Peers look to the Library for help because it is local, in the same way that we look to PICT for help at short notice, which is another excellent service that we should applaud.
The report speaks about developing Members’ biographical pages. May I make one request? These biographies tend to say a lot about what Members take out of the pot—for instance, what the posts are that they hold outside Parliament—but very little about what they put back in. In all my years I have never met a Peer who does not do some kind of voluntary work in charity, sport, the arts, education, medicine—the list is endless. But rarely are people told about it. Both should have equal prominence in these biographies that we are working on.
There are lots of areas I have not covered, such as the archives, which is the place that many visitors tell me they remember the best. I could go on, but I must close. Has all this outreach been effective and worthwhile? I am not aware of any polling to find out, but my impression is that it is. People I meet are certainly much more aware of who we are, what we do and why we do it. If there is a reform Bill in the Queen’s Speech, this will be debated by an informed public, which will be far better informed today than it was five years ago, thanks to the work of the Information Committee. I also think that this work has made an important contribution to rebuilding our reputation and status with the public after the debacle of the expenses scandal—something that was desperately needed.
Internally, we work better, more efficiently and more effectively through the use of ICT, and this will only get better. Incidentally, streaming and broadcasting has made us more conscious of our behaviour and, speaking for myself, encouraged us to prepare better for meetings and debates. Once again, my thanks and congratulations go to all the information staff, to our Chair, our Clerks and my colleagues on the Committee. Our work is showing results.
My Lords, could I take up one minute of the Committee’s time to pursue a point just raised by the noble Lord, Lord Haskel and the noble Earl, Lord Erroll? It is about the use of equipment off the premises of the Palace of Westminster that is chosen by the Members themselves. That also featured in my noble friend’s introduction. I was quite excited by this, because the present system of allocating fixed hardware to people who then use it off the premises is unduly restrictive and can have serious disadvantages. I will mention one instance. I have a network at home and I was told that the Parliamentary ICT system could not supply me with broadband because of the danger that might arise from misuse by some of the other people on the network. It would happily look after one computer connected to broadband, which it would pay for, but if I were to connect one or several more computers to my network, that meant that it would not pay at all.
This would resolve the dilemma over iPads, which has been mentioned several times. I agree with the noble Lord that nowadays there are competitors to the iPad that, if not superior, are at least equal to it, and which Members might use if they had the freedom to choose. One can see the point of having specified equipment used in the offices in the House because the ICT people have to look after it. The desktop and printer on desks here in the Palace of Westminster should be specified, but as soon as you get outside and need a mobile, tablet or connection to the internet, Members should have a budget and be able to do exactly what they like with it instead of having to stick to equipment from a specified list provided by the IT department. I am glad to hear that the committee is heading in that direction.
My Lords, I am grateful to all the Members who have taken part. Apart from my noble friend Lord Avebury, we have kept this within the family. There is no harm in that, and I draw a conclusion from the fact that we have not had the Grand Committee packed with people complaining about various services that have gone wrong. That is a positive. The opportunity is there and it is important to provide that opportunity, and the fact that we have what is, in effect, another of our useful seminars among colleagues who were thinking freely and without being tied to an agenda has been valuable. Some important points have been made. The noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, made an important point about in-reach, not outreach. There is no substitute for visits into the Parliamentary Estate, particularly for young people. In-reach is important as well as outreach, and I also agree with him that information should be fun. The committee’s work is lots of things; it is sometimes fun, sometimes it is hard work, but it is important work, and we need to bear that in mind.
I just want to take up a point from the noble Lord, Lord Maxton. He is right to be impatient for change for wi-fi roll-out, but there are practical difficulties about the public contract, which has to go through European procurement rules. That is what is actually holding the thing back; there is a cost, but there are some procurement rules which we cannot avoid. We will know soon who the contractor will be, but then there is a lot of bureaucracy to go through; it is all European-compliant legislation of which we have to be very careful to take account. The earliest we can possibly do it is March 2013, but he will know—because he keeps up with these things—that there is an advantage to that, because the standards for wi-fi provision are being upgraded and we will be able to take advantage of that. If we had done it earlier, we would have been with wi-fi one; we will actually be going into a situation with wi-fi two, as it were, so there is an advantage in hastening slowly, at least to that extent. However, I am grateful to him and I hope he will continue to challenge robustly the speed of the provision.
We have been in danger of anticipating the outcome of the committee’s deliberation on the evaluation of the tablet trials. I do not want to do that, as it is still a very open question, and we have to go through this process very carefully. I am grateful to all my colleagues who commented, including the well informed overview that the noble Earl, Lord Erroll, gave of the trial. He has vast experience in this are, which is valuable to the committee, and I take his point about generic systems. But the generic systems will be in the customisation of the applications for each individual Member, so the customisation that would be required for him will be at a much higher grade than for ordinary users. It is more customisation of generic systems that we have in mind.
My Lords, this is of course the advantage of having an iPad which is indexed immediately with my comments, which one can do in a PDF. The document is actually talking about a use of bespoke solutions for Parliament’s unique core systems, in paragraph 12 on page 7. That was the one that worried me. I entirely agree with the noble Lord about customisation for individuals at the front end; it is a very good idea.
I thank the noble Earl. We are not far apart on this now. I am grateful to him for his other comments as well.
The noble Lord, Lord Haskel, was very kind to the House staff. We all feel that too; I think Member-led outreaches are invaluable and difficult to improve upon. I hope the debate has provided the House more generally, in Grand Committee context, with an overview of what we are doing and that we as a committee will decide to have another annual report, because they are good for the committee. They make you always look back at what you have done and give you a better idea of what you want to do in future. We are facing a challenging two or three-year period in the run-up to 2015. The committee is very vigorous and knowledgeable about this. I enjoy participating in it and am grateful to colleagues for the energy they put into the committee, which is in the service of the House and for the benefit of the House. There is a lot of work to do, and I hope it will continue to be fun. On that basis—because the Grand Committee has a lot of important work to do for the rest of the afternoon—I have pleasure in moving that the committee’s annual report for 2010-11 be noted by the Grand Committee.