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Administration and Works Committee

Volume 738: debated on Thursday 12 July 2012

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the report from the Select Committee, The Use of Electronic Devices in the House: Follow-up Report, (2nd Report, Session 2010-12, HL Paper 298), be agreed to.

My Lords, this is a short and straightforward report. On 10 March 2011, the House agreed the committee’s first report, which recommended new rules to clarify where electronic devices can and cannot be used in the House. In that report, the committee recommended that Members should be able to use hand-held electronic devices when addressing the Chamber or Grand Committee. That report also recommended that,

“for a one-year trial period in the first instance, Members taking part in proceedings should be able to use electronic devices to access Parliamentary papers and other documents which are clearly and closely relevant to the business before the House or Grand Committee”.

This subsequent report recommends that Members should be able to use hand-held electronic devices in the Chamber and Grand Committee,

“for any purpose, provided that they are silent and are used with discretion”.

This is in line with the rules adopted by the House of Commons. It also recognises the current reality and the impossibility of policing the purpose for which a device is being used. I see that the opposition Chief Whip is taking a close interest in this.

While reviewing the rules for Members, the committee also considered that the rules should be applied to officials advising Members in the Chamber and Grand Committee. The committee felt that it would be sensible to apply the same rules to officials as for Members, and therefore recommended that officials should be able to use hand-held electronic devices for any purpose, provided that they are silent and, again, used with discretion. Furthermore, the committee specifically recommended that officials should be able to use such devices to access information for use in debate and communicate directly with Members in the Chamber or Grand Committee. Nevertheless, these proposals would deprive the House of the innocent pleasure of observing the cavalry, in the form of the government Whip, riding to the rescue of a besieged Minister grasping a vital note from the Box. Similarly, Ministers would be spared the task—and I speak with some experience—of desperately trying to decipher an illegible note. I hope that both these factors will be of benefit to the House.

The recommendations contained in this report recognise and reflect the evolving use of electronic devices by Members in this House. I believe that the recommendations are a sensible and logical way in which to simplify the current rules and allow Members to use electronic devices in a way that supports them in their parliamentary duties, should they wish to do so. I beg to move.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the convention in this House, and indeed in the House of Commons, is that speeches should not be read and therefore that it would be inappropriate to read a speech off an iPad or similar device?

I thank the noble Lord for that question because it gives me the opportunity to make an important clarification. The use of electronic devices should be used in the same way that notes are used. They should not be used as a means of presenting an entire speech.

My Lords, in the spirit of self-regulation, does the Chairman of Committees agree that the discretion exercised in the use of these devices should mean that they should not be used to receive and answer general e-mails but only for information that is relevant to the matter being debated at the time?

My Lords, quite honestly, the difficulty here is that we can say what the devices could and could not be used for, but there is the total impossibility of policing what is going on. We have to be a little in touch with reality.

My Lords, I worry about the idea of Ministers standing at the Dispatch Box and reading out what officials are typing in. I know they are not supposed to read, but it is quite difficult. I suppose we could all try to see what is going on there, but I think it will change the way in which Ministers take advice from the Box—and not take it sometimes, which adds a bit of fun. It is quite important. I wonder whether a machine on the Box would still be allowed, even if one is not exactly reading from it. I would be grateful for the Chairman of Committees’ comments on this matter.

My other question is: what is the difference nowadays between a laptop and a hand-held device? My noble friend Lord Foulkes has a hand-held device. I have something called a laptop, but it has exactly the same screen size, although it is a bit thicker. I notice that paragraph 5 of the report talks only about hand-held electronic devices, without exception, whereas paragraph 1 says that laptops may not be used. Is the difference between them a little subtle? Should we not just call them electronic devices and not worry about what make or size they are, as long as they are used with discretion?

My Lords, I often think of the late, great Lord Weatherill, who said he was all in favour of progress, as long as it did not mean change. As I listened to the Chairman of Committees present this innocuous report, I thought that there was inexorable change here, which, over a period, is making a real difference to this Chamber and will make a greater one in the future. I, personally, regret it. I think it is a pity that electronic devices are so widely used. When we had a brief debate last year, I made the point that people could receive the racing results. That has clearly been conceded; as the Chairman of Committees says, you cannot police it. Nor can you adequately describe, as the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has just indicated, what device is permissible and what is not. Although I would not dream of dividing the House on the matter, I want to put it on record that there are some of us who regret these developments.

My Lords, I wonder whether I could give a little reassurance on behalf of the Information Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing.

My noble friend Lord Cormack’s concern is well understood, and I respect it. There are significant gains to be made in developing services for Members that are delivered electronically. Speaking for myself, I think that we should take advantage of the new tablet technology, not laptop technology. Laptop technology reinforces my noble friend’s concerns about people using physical keys, which make a noise and create a barrier in front of them because they open a screen. For that reason, laptops are not wholly appropriate for the kind of services that we are trying to develop. I speak of tablets, not iPads, as the House must be very careful about not giving a commercial advantage to any particular manufacturer, although there are some specific security advantages to iPads at the moment, which we are taking advantage of. We are being very careful about how we progress with all this.

I give the same assurance to my noble friend Lord Cormack as I gave him last year: that we will be very careful about how we take the next steps in introducing these new services. Apart from anything else—and this goes for the wider public policy area—there is an important digital divide. There are Members of this House who will always be effective Members on a paper-driven basis. Contrariwise, looking forward to 2015 when we acquire new Members—howsoever they are acquired—they are much more likely to come in with an experience of tablet technology. The technology is changing on a nine-monthly basis. This institution would be left behind if we did not accept this important and small next step—the sensible approach recommended by the Administration and Works Committee.

My next point in attempting to console my noble friend is that there are savings to be made in the budget, if we move carefully in this direction, which can be redeployed in the Library service, for example. These decisions would not be taken by the Information Committee because we are not budget-holders. My noble friend is right to caution us about how we introduce these things, but the savings that we make from the successful introduction of tablet technology for the service of Members could be redeployed in a way that I think he would approve of. Therefore, the wider picture is a win-win situation.

My final point is that by the end of the financial year in March next year we hope to have enabled the entire precincts of both Houses of Parliament for wi-fi technology. That is a significant and wise investment on the part of the House authorities, and I support it because I am an enthusiast of the services that can be delivered. However, I am absolutely sensitive to the need to accommodate the concerns which my noble friend Lord Cormack rightly raises and should continue to raise. We need to take steps in a positive direction, but we need to hasten slowly to make sure that we do not leave other Members behind.

My Lords, perhaps I may also try to console the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about progress and change. My point concerns the advantages, as I see them, that would ensue from this technology helping Ministers at the Dispatch Box. During the processing of complex legislation, we have often seen Ministers in this place and the other place at a loss. The officials write too slowly for them to get the information and all too often Ministers have to agree to write in response to particular questions. This technology offers Ministers the possibility of being able to respond at the Dispatch Box, thus giving your Lordships the opportunity to scrutinise legislation more thoroughly and instantaneously, which, after all, is the historical purpose of your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, I am one of the people who has enjoyed being able to use a tablet in the ways described in the pilot. However, I ask the Chairman of Committees for an assurance. If noble Lords are to use this equipment in the way in which the committee intends—one of the considerable advantages being that we will save a lot of paper in this House—it will be necessary to make it easier for Members to navigate the parliamentary website so as to find more easily the kind of information that we use. Can the noble Lord give us any encouragement that progress is being made in that direction?

I support the recommendation. Until this Motion is passed, I am not sure whether I am breaking any rules by having this hand-held device here. I see that Black Rod has left the Chamber, so I am safe. However, just to illustrate how useful it is, I have been able to check on the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. The House will not be surprised to hear that for many years he was a governor of the English-Speaking Union and is the founder of Heritage in Danger, so he really does do what it says on the packet.

My Lords, I shall deal briefly with a number of points made in the debate. There is a slight difference in emphasis between the noble Lords, Lord Berkeley and Lord Wills. I come down heavily in favour of the latter because I think it is important that Ministers have immediate and accurate information to transmit to the House when we are discussing legislation. It is quite good fun to see the scuttling back and forth between the Box and the Front Bench and the Minister then fumbling over a note. However, it would improve the effectiveness of this Chamber if Ministers received accurate information directly.

I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood. I suspect that we will go towards a tablet-based system very quickly. I look forward to that and am sure that people will take it up.

With regard to the parliamentary website, I have to agree that I sometimes find it less than completely useful and easy to use. However, I am sure that those responsible are always endeavouring to improve and I am certain that that message will get across.

I fully recognise that, although the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, is a relative newcomer to this House, he is a doughty defender of the traditions and courtesies of the House. The whole House will agree that, as a courtesy, noble Lords in the Chamber should pay attention to the matters being debated. Along with many noble Lords, I deprecate tweeting, texting or other similar activities that indicate that the minds of noble Lords are otherwise engaged—heaven forfend.

On enforcement, as at least some noble Lords will be aware, the House has many ways of registering its displeasure if it feels that individual noble Lords are slightly overstepping or abusing their rights. I hope the House will accept this report. I think it is a step forward and brings us to a position where we are using technology without being dominated and mastered by it.

Can the Chairman of Committees respond to my question about the difference between a laptop and a hand-held device? My laptop has a touchscreen, so the question of noisy keys does not arise. Can we get rid of all these differentiations?

The noble Lord has effectively just destroyed the brief. According to the brief I have, the difference between laptops and hand-held devices is one of noise as you press the keyboard. If you move on to tablets of course—the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood—that no longer exists. I commend the report to the House.

Motion agreed.