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Legislative Scrutiny: Digitalisation

Volume 760: debated on Wednesday 4 March 2015


Asked by

To ask the Leader of the House what assessment she has made of the impact on the effectiveness of the scrutiny of legislation of the introduction of further digitalisation.

My Lords, I have not made any formal assessment of the impact of digitalisation on scrutiny, but I welcome initiatives from the House of Lords administration that take advantage of digital developments, and the Government’s good law project continues to look to improve the process of scrutiny using new technologies.

May I explain for the sake of clarity that by digitalisation I mean the use of computers? Would it not be a great advantage to the House that instead of being presented with amendments on paper that read something like, “delete ‘the’ and insert ‘a’”, we saw what they meant by their being placed and tracked in the draft Bill, that Explanatory Notes should be accessible alongside the clauses by clicking through, that each day the successful amendments should be shown incorporated into the draft Bill, that Bills should be in words that we can amend and exchange with each other—I could go on for a long time, but I will not—and that the use of annunciators could be better if they showed the Question being asked rather than just saying, “1st Oral Question”?

The noble Baroness is right that we should use new technologies where they are relevant to our work and will help us to do it better. We have made quite a bit of progress during this Parliament. Last night I downloaded the House of Lords app on my iPad, which allows us to look at the relevant papers associated with today’s business. On the noble Baroness’s specific proposals for tracking changes, I can inform your Lordships that that facility will be available not in quite the detail that she would like but starting down that track from the beginning of the next Parliament.

My Lords, I certainly welcome the ideas put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. Does the Leader agree that one of the most important aims for further digitalisation is increasing transparency and engaging those in the wider world with the excellent work of the House of Lords, including scrutiny of course? I certainly commend the recent report by the Arctic Committee and the way in which it is interactive. Does the noble Baroness also agree that over the course of this Parliament, Twitter has proved a great way of communicating the important job that is done in this House?

Yes, I do agree with the noble Baroness. It is important to distinguish between the use of new technology to engage with the public and the use of technology to help us to do our job better; sometimes they serve different purposes. The arrival of the new digital director for Parliament later this month will, I hope, see all these things taken forward with great speed.

My Lords, will the Leader of the House make sure, in implementing the changes that she is talking about, that the needs of those who access the information using access technology are not forgotten? I am sure these developments can be very beneficial for people using access technology, but we have to make sure that we do it in the right way, not the wrong way.

The noble Lord is right. Not only do we need to make sure that those who use access technology are well served alongside any new technological developments; we also need to make sure that those of us who rely on paper and prefer to do our work in an analogue fashion are able to do so. At the same time, we do not want to be behind innovation, so it is also about bringing people with us.

If the objective is greater public scrutiny of work in the House of Lords, in particular on legislation, why does the House of Lords not have its own television channel instead of having to share one with the House of Commons? If the public want to watch what happens in this House, they have to wait until one o’clock in the morning. Have we actually assessed what it might cost to provide another channel?

As the noble Lord knows, I used to work at the BBC. If he would like, I could give him chapter and verse some other time on the way in which decisions are made on the costing of channels. While we do not have our own dedicated channel, it is important for us all to be aware that people have access to what goes on in this Chamber and in all the other democratic Chambers around the UK via a BBC service called “Democracy Live”, as well as what is available through

My Lords, does the noble Baroness think that perhaps we should be a little more cautious about moving towards a more digital economy before advancing a bit more in the area of cybercrime?

The noble Lord is starting to take me off the heart of the Question, which is about the digital means for us to be able to do our jobs here in this House. But he makes an important point.

I support the point made by the noble Lord opposite about a separate channel. If you tune in regularly, you will find something of the order of five or six new channels a week on television. Against that background, I cannot see why it is not a priority to find the resources to ensure that there is a proper channel for the revising Chamber that we represent here in the House of Lords.

The point I am trying to make is that new technology allows for access to more Chambers than has been possible before. In an analogue world, there was one television channel that could view only one Chamber at one time. Streaming via the internet, all the Chambers operating in the United Kingdom are accessible to everybody simultaneously.

The noble Baroness the Leader of the House has told us about the importance of the new role of the digital director for Parliament. I appreciate that we are moving slightly off the core subject of the Question, but does she envisage further elements of co-operation between the two Chambers of Parliament, not just in digital areas but in all sorts of areas? What discussions has she had with her opposite numbers in the House of Commons?

As for the possibility of greater joint working, the noble Lord may or may not know that one commitment that we have made is for the Clerk of the Parliaments here to explore possibilities with his counterpart in the Commons. Alongside that, if we were to decide to go further down that route, clearly we would need to make sure in due course that we were in a very clear position to negotiate so that this House is never subordinate to the other House.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that one of the suggestions made by the noble Baroness does not require any great technical innovation or, indeed, easy attention to the changes in the computerisation of our activities: placing the Explanatory Notes alongside the appropriate clauses in draft Bills or, indeed, Bills that come before your Lordships’ House? I did that with a Bill two years ago with cross-party support and drew it to the attention of some of her noble colleagues, but it does not seem that the Government have caught up.

I think I am right in saying that the innovation that will start at the beginning of the next Parliament, which, as I described, allows us to see tracked changes at the end of the Committee stage, will also allow access to the Explanatory Notes alongside it. What the noble Lord is suggesting is in train if it has not yet been implemented.