Select Committee on Information First Report



Principle A: The House is committed to the use of ICT to increase its accessibility and to enable the public , exercising its right to use whatever medium is convenient, to communicate with Members and with Committees of the House.

The general principle

  13. In evidence to the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House, the Leader of the House has highlighted the need for Parliament to do more to make its proceedings more readily accessible to the public, stating that a communications strategy is needed which "will convey the significance, the success and excitement of what goes on in the chamber and in committee". He added that "the potential for projection of the work of Parliament is immense, but is largely unrealised".[11] We agree. We recognise the importance of a communications strategy that maximises the accessibility and transparency of the House, and indeed Parliament, and we acknowledge the work already being done by the House of Commons Commission.

14. It seems to us desirable in principle that no method of gaining access to Members or to the proceedings of the House should be privileged over another. Both Members and the public should be able to choose methods of access that are most convenient to them. For many, access to Members or to the proceedings of the House can be speedier, richer and more interactive through advanced Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs).

Access to Members

  15. It is always possible for members of the public to telephone Members' offices, by using the Palace of Westminster switchboard. It is also possible for some to visit in person; but other methods of communication, such as e-mail, are the instinctive mode of communication for many. Mobile telephone messaging is already very popular, and Digital TV may in time become a widely-used means of sending messages. Other facilities, such as audio and video conferencing, can be more convenient than a meeting in person at the House.[12]

Access to Members by e-mail

  16. Members, and their small band of staff, receive large quantities of correspondence daily, much of it on paper but increasingly by e-mail (where the Member provides that means of access). Typically, 10 to 20 per cent of a Member's correspondence might be received electronically, but this figure seems set to climb. The Finnish Chairman of a European IT conference in Helsinki in September 2001 observed that he received 60 per cent or even 70 per cent of his correspondence by e-mail.[13]

17. The ease with which constituents and others can send e-mail is seen by Members as both an opportunity (in that databases of constituents and correspondence can be created and maintained with comparatively little effort) and as a threat, in that it could generate a demand that Members cannot meet with existing structures and resources.

18. One issue of concern to Members is the use of e-mail by pressure groups for mass campaigns. Publicising an e-mail address to the full membership of an organisation can prompt mass posting of a standard e-mail to any one Member. The Member and his or her staff will then have to deal with each e-mail. A Member may decide to delete each one without reading it first; but care will need to be taken to identify and preserve mail from constituents.

19. Concern about the possible impact of e-mail on a Member's work was echoed elsewhere, and Reg Alcock agreed with us that there could be real difficulties in coping with the demand.[14] Furthermore, e-mail does not necessarily substitute for paper mail but it may add to it. A recent report produced by the Congress Online project in the United States of America stated that:

    "Rather than increasingly replacing postal mail, as many had expected, e-mail is generating a whole new source of work. With individual House offices now receiving as many as 8,000 e-mail messages per month, and Senate offices receiving as many as 55,000, the burdens on staff are viewed as unmanageable ¼ As a result, the demands of e-citizens have been wreaking havoc on most congressional offices".[15]

20. A Member might decide to rule out the use of new communication channels on the basis that there is no capacity to deal with them. This is effectively what many Members do at present by declining to publish an e-mail address. It can be argued that it is better to keep using traditional systems properly rather than to use new systems badly. However, our view is that the demand for Members to adapt to e-mail and other communications technologies is so great that a more pro-active strategy is required. The reputation of Members—and of the House—could be damaged by a refusal to embrace such technologies at a time when they are becoming standard in most other organisations. The House Administration could assist in this respect by building Members' confidence in e-mail as a means of communication. We make a few suggestions below.

21. Few Members have effective systems for dealing with the host of e-mails which come into their offices each day; yet there are a number of solutions which Members can use to protect their systems, such as barring e-mails from specified senders or barring e-mails of more than certain length. Filtering software can intercept and weed out "junk" e-mail, using specified criteria.[16] The Congress Online report noted above refers to the EchoMail system, currently being piloted in Senate offices, which "uses artificial intelligence to filter, sort and respond to e-mail."[17] Each of these possibilities might help Members to be more confident in the capacity of their offices to deal with e-mail and accord highest priority to e-mails from their own constituents. We will investigate the EchoMail and other filtering systems to assess their suitability for Parliament.

22. The Parliamentary website could also publish guidelines for the public as to when it is appropriate to contact a Member of Parliament and what can reasonably be expected of a Member. For example, it could be made clear that Members of Parliament can only take up casework on behalf of constituents. This would reduce the instances of "spamming" that currently occur.

23. It is possible to put in place a programme which asks senders to supply their postal address and directs them elsewhere if that postal address does not fall within the Member's own constituency. This facility could be publicised to Members.

24. Intermediaries may play an important role in directing electronic communications to Members. The "FaxYourMP" website is a useful model in this respect, as it will receive e-mails on Members' behalf and forward them to Members' offices by fax, a method of communication with which all Members' offices are familiar. As far as we aware, only a very small number of Members have objected to this service. The House Administration should develop protocols to assist intermediaries in providing the best medium for communicating with Members, and these protocols will be considered by this Committee.

25. Reg Alcock[18], who has used new technology extensively to enable his constituents to contact him through whatever means are suitable, warned us against the dangers of providing only those services which were acceptable to all - the "lowest common denominator" approach.[19] The paper mail addresses and telephone numbers of Members are well-publicised and there is a public expectation that all Members will use these means of communication. Whilst other bodies such as the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament have also set up public e-mail addresses for all their Members, this has been left to individual choice in the House of Commons. Any proposal to require Members to be accessible via new communications methods, such as an obligation to publicise an e-mail address, would be likely to provoke strong opinions amongst Members on both sides of the argument. The acceptance of this principle on accessibility requires the House to address the question of whether all Members should be required to be accessible via standard methods of electronic communication. However, the Information Committee will in future investigate and make recommendations on potential mechanisms to enable all Members—whether they choose to have their personal e-mail addresses publicised or not—to be accessible to the public electronically.

Access to Members using video conferencing

  26. Video conferencing has been used by a small number of Members—particularly those with constituencies far from London—usually to supplement constituency surgeries. Some Members have also experimented with a video link between their Westminster and constituency offices. Reg Alcock[20] told us that he held video conference surgeries on weekday evenings when he was in Ottawa, partly to provide a fuller service to his constituents and partly to reduce the demands on his time at weekends in Winnipeg.

27. The House owns video conferencing equipment which Members may use without charge.[21] We used this equipment for our conference with Reg Alcock, and we found the quality acceptable. Although not a perfect substitute for face-to-face discussions within the same room, video conferencing is a valuable tool when time or the cost of travel inhibits contact in person. The House could do more to promote the use of video conferencing by Members. Regular investment may be needed to take account of developments in technology (including ISDN and broadband) which improve picture quality, overall reliability, and opportunities for simultaneous translation.

Access to the proceedings of the House

  28. Until recently, a member of the public who wanted to follow live proceedings in the House was obliged to attend in person, unless the proceedings which interested them were broadcast live by BBC Parliament. Since January 2002, the proceedings in the Chambers of the two Houses, as well as proceedings of certain select and joint committees, have been webcast as part of a one-year pilot project. The Committee strongly supports this initiative and was much impressed by the comprehensive webcasting service offered by the Scottish Parliament.[22] The pilot project for the Westminster Parliament will be assessed at the end of the year and decisions will be taken on whether to sustain the project on a long-term basis and whether to make it available to Members on the Parliamentary Data and Video Network. We recognise that the Select Committee on Broadcasting will play a key role in this decision; but, for our part, we encourage the House Administration to bear in mind not just viewing figures during the term of the pilot but also the general desirability of making the proceedings of the House—and of select committees—as accessible as possible. An archive of webcast proceedings would also be valuable to both the public and Members.

Access to information about the House

  29. The establishment of the Parliamentary website has dramatically improved public accessibility to documents used by Parliamentary bodies, the record of what is said in Parliament, and decisions taken by Parliament. The website contains a wealth of information about the activities of Parliament, and there is no need to describe its contents here. We note that it is increasingly recognised as the prime source of information about the activities of the two Houses. The website is shortly to be relaunched with a different "look and feel" both in terms of navigation and terminology. These revisions have been recognised as necessary for some time, and we very much welcome them. We hope that the site, once relaunched, will be seen by the public as being more accessible and easier to use.

30. Use of the Parliamentary website could be increased by improving links from other websites, including media and government department sites. These links might be top-level links from homepages or, more usefully perhaps, subject-based links. Representatives of BBCi[23] described for us how a news story on adoption policy, for instance, might link directly to the page in the "Bills before Parliament" section of the Parliamentary website relating to the Adoption Bill.[24] Similar links could be established from Government department websites or from the UK Online portal. While the establishment of links from other websites would be a matter for the organisations running those websites, we suggest that officials of the two Houses who oversee the website and monitor its content could actively encourage and facilitate such links.

31. Besides its participation in the relaunch of the Parliamentary website, the House has made a significant effort in the last year or so to provide more information for the public about its workings and to provide a better welcome for visitors. Many of the steps taken do not generally involve use of Information and Communication Technologies, and we do not consider them in this Report; but we welcome them nonetheless as making progress in improving the visibility of, and knowledge about, the House.


The general principle

  32. The Chairman's letter to Members, inviting comment on priorities for investment in Information Technology to support the work of Members, elicited a number of thoughtful responses. A common thread was the need to provide a stable Parliamentary network and secure access from outside Westminster; for many, this was more important than increasing support for new channels of communication (such as video conferencing and webcasting).

Remote access

  33. It is essential, in order to run an efficient and professional office, for Members to have reliable remote access links from outside the Parliamentary Estate.[25] We acknowledge that the "remote access" service occasionally performed poorly in the past. Once initial start-up problems had been overcome, performance improved when the Parliamentary Communications Directorate upgraded the software and doubled capacity. There are good prospects for further major improvements in the remote access service. The House approved last year a number of resolutions relating to Members' Allowances; one resolution provided for the implementation of certain recommendations by the Review Body on Senior Salaries on parliamentary pay and allowances, including central funding of a Virtual Private Network.[26] A considerable amount of work has since been undertaken by the Parliamentary Communications Directorate to develop this project, including an upgrade to the link between Parliament and the Internet. We are optimistic that Members will have the benefit of improved links between Westminster and constituency offices before long.

Mobile devices

  34. It seems difficult now to imagine how Members fulfilled engagements both inside and outside the House while remaining in contact with their Westminster and constituency offices, all without the benefits of pagers or mobile phones. The Committee held a short but useful discussion with representatives of British Telecom and Compaq, exploring recent developments in technology to support handheld devices. Products now available are generally either multi-purpose, allowing access to e-mails, diaries and address books, as well as (in some cases) a limited word processing facility; or they provide single functions but are more compact. We note that some products alert the user to the receipt of e-mails and do not require "synchronisation" with a desktop machine.

35. Members may buy such equipment using their Incidental Expenses Provision. There is a case, however, for including a suitable mobile device as part of the standard set of equipment issued to Members, funded centrally; the Speaker's Advisory Panel on Members' Allowances may want to consider this possibility. The Parliamentary Communications Directorate would also need to be resourced to enable Members to use any such device to access their e-mails on the [email protected]' domain, and to provide training in the use of mobile devices.

Support for networking hardware

  36. Several Members have written to us to describe the frustration of trying to use computer hardware which was not fully networked. In the interests of enabling Members' offices to operate with maximum efficiency, we suggest to the Speaker's Panel on Members' Allowances that it consider whether resources should be made available to assist Members in networking their computer hardware in both their Westminster and their constituency offices.

Dealing with e-mail

  37. In addition to their duties in relation to the business of the House, Members of Parliament are expected to offer a highly professional service to their constituents; in turn, Members of Parliament are entitled to expect appropriate support from the House in handling increased public communications, whether by e-mail, via websites or as a result of online consultations.

38. As e-mails are transmitted more quickly than letters, a sender may well assume that less time is required for a substantive response. Most Members will have experienced the annoyance of a constituent who has tried to contact them via e-mail and has not received a satisfactory response. Failure to respond to the demand within the expected time-frame can harm rather than enhance a Member's professional reputation.

39. We have in the past been concerned to improve training facilities for Members and their staff, and one Member suggested to us during this inquiry that there should be basic training for Members and their staff on handling e-mails.[27] We have no doubt that such training would enhance the professionalism of many Members' offices. The House Administration could, for instance, usefully draw up guidelines for Members and their staff (and indeed House staff) on how to meet expectations of quick response times and on storage of e-mails.

11   Op.cit., paragraphs 52-3. Back

12   Audio conferencing allows either (i) a number of offices to be linked to conduct a telephone conversation, or (ii) a group of people in one office to hold a telephone discussion with another person or a group elsewhere. Video conferencing allows two people or groups in different places to see each other while holding a discussion. Both the picture quality offered by video conferencing technology and the general reliability of equipment are improving. The House provides audio and video conferencing services, but they are not heavily promoted. Back

13   Fourth European Conference of Members of Parliament on Communications Technologies, Helsinki, September 2001. Back

14   See Annex 2. Back

15   E-mail Overload in Congress: Managing a Communication Crisis, Congress Online project 2001, p.3. Back

16   See Annex 3. Back

17   Op. cit. p. 9. Back

18   Member of the Canadian House of Commons. Back

19   See Annex 2. Back

20   Member of the Canadian House of Commons. Back

21   The House does not, however, expect to bear the costs of equipment used at the other end of the video link. Back

22   See Annex 1. Back

23   Formerly known as BBC Online. Back

24   See Annex 3. Back

25   Several Members made this point in their responses to the letter sent by the Chairman to all Members. Back

26   Report No. 48 by the Review Body on Senior Salaries: Review of parliamentary pay and allowances, Cm 4997-I; Official Report, 5 July 2001, col. 466. A Virtual Private Network would allow better remote access to the Parliamentary Intranet and e-mails. Back

27   Evidence not printed. Back

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Prepared 15 July 2002