Select Committee on Information First Report


Members' websites

  40. Members may feel pressure from the development of other new communication methods. For example, they may feel that they are expected to spend time and resources on producing their own website, or they may be asked to produce material for other web sites and online newsletters. There will also be an increasing demand for them to participate in online activities, such as interactive consultations. The importance of updating websites, to maintain their relevance, should not be underestimated.

41. We invited Members to comment on whether the Parliamentary website should carry micro-sites for each Member (following the model of devolved parliamentary bodies). The response was cautious: some were in favour, but several Members warned that they were already committed to maintaining other sites and that the establishment of yet another personal website might not be welcome. Certainly, websites which are not kept up-to-date or relevant appear unprofessional. The best solution to this might be to build links from the Parliamentary website to an existing site carrying authoritative biographical information, such as the website maintained by the Vacher Dod Publishing Group. Responsibility for maintaining the information would then rest with the publisher.

Technology and Members' constituency role

  42. Members may wish to use a range of technologies to engage and consult with their constituents, such as via online surgeries and interactive fora. We recommend that support is given to Members to carry out their constituency role in this way. This includes assistance and guidance with moderation and advice on participation in online activities.

43. Improved ICT facilities within constituency offices, and between those offices and Parliament, may also bring benefits to the House by enabling more staff to work effectively outside the Parliamentary Estate. The current funding of the Virtual Private Network project permits two concurrent remote connections per Member. The House Administration may need to review the allocation of resources for remote connectivity to enable additional members of staff to work from the constituency.


The general principle

  44. A Parliament will be better informed if it makes full use of the insights to be gained from public experience and expertise, with no sector or social group being ignored. Consultation with the general public, relevant experts and interested parties is at the heart of Members' work and of parliamentary business, and Information and Communications Technologies provide a number of tools that can be used to good effect in this area. The Leader of the House has acknowledged this point, noting that:

45. As far as the House is concerned, some of these tools offer entirely new ways of working, but many can also be used to enhance the procedures currently used. In this respect, we note in passing the recent publication of a Report by the Procedure Committee on Parliamentary Questions, which includes proposals for the electronic tabling of questions.[29]

Public participation in online consultations

  46. We were impressed by the efforts of the Scottish Parliament to engage those represented by it in meaningful dialogue via online fora. These include regular consultations related to Members' Business Debates, which approximate to Adjournment Debates at Westminster (both in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall); and also Committee inquiries.[30] Select Committees at Westminster have occasionally used online consultations to gather input, as has the All Party Group on Domestic Violence.[31]

47. While the value of such consultations by select committees is not something for this Committee to assess, we believe that they can significantly enhance the work of the House, if conducted with care. We have gained useful knowledge of this area from our discussions during the course of this inquiry. We have also benefited from the expertise of our Specialist Adviser for the inquiry, Dr Stephen Coleman. We therefore make the following recommendations for the conduct of consultations:

    —  the purpose and terms of the consultation should be made clear at the outset, both to those initiating the consultation and those participating in it. Consultations may range from a simple invitation to submit views to a more deliberative and interactive debate including senior decision makers.

    —  it must be made clear to participants that they are not being asked to make policy but to inform the thinking of legislators;[32]

    —  efforts need to be made to recruit participants, whether individuals or organisations, who can impart experience and expertise;

    —  special efforts are needed to make online consultations socially inclusive: these may include training in the necessary ICT skills and directions to public Internet access for participants;

    —  contributions to consultations need to be interpreted or summarised by an independent body or staff;

    —  a good consultation exercise will bring value to both the decision makers and the consultees. This can be tested through effective evaluation procedures, which should be built into each consultation proposal. These should be both quantitative and qualitative. Of particular value would be follow-up with a selection of both consultees and decision makers to assess the value of the consultation to them. The results of any evaluation should be produced in good time and made available to all participants;

    —  participants should receive feedback on the outcomes of the consultations.

In each case, the consultee should be given clear information on what they can expect, perhaps in the form of a "consultation contract".

48. Consultations on behalf of select committees have in the past been managed by the Hansard Society, who have recruited participants, provided technical support, moderated contributions, and summarised the evidence. If online consultations are adopted widely by House committees as a means of gathering information, consideration should be given to providing such support, with consequences for the House's technical support staff and committee staff. The Liaison Committee would be an appropriate forum to consider whether such a move might be desirable in principle. We encourage all those who would play a part in such a decision to bear in mind the value to the House of widening the net for evidence and of being seen to do so.

Consultations: bearing in mind the "digital divide"

  49. The impetus behind the adoption of new technologies for consultation is a wish to see more people engaged in the political process and a broadening of the base of consultees beyond those who have had the time and resources to participate in Parliamentary debates in the past. However, at the same time, it should be recognised that different levels of facility with technology may create new forms of exclusion. Where online consultations are undertaken, this divide will need to be borne in mind and bridged wherever possible. For example, a select committee may want to gather views from people who have no representative body but who would not want to submit views individually (or who would not use paper mail or e-mail for communication).[33] In such cases, a facilitator could play a part, receiving comments by whatever channel is favoured by the consultee—including audio, text and video messaging, and any other popular channel that develops—and relaying them to the committee.

50. As long as there is a "digital divide", as described at paragraph 6, it will be important to gain a picture of how various social groups are using Information and Communications Technologies in their communications with the House and its activities. If it becomes clear that there are groups which are largely excluded, some thought can then be given to finding ways of enabling them to participate in the work of the House. Special efforts need to be made by the House to engage younger people, who are recognised as being both more ready to use technology and more disconnected from the traditional political system.

Public participation in the law-making process

  51. The Government has started to use its web sites extensively to publish consultation documents. For its part, the House has in recent years conducted pre-legislative scrutiny of a number of draft bills, and the Leader of the House has stated that the Government "will continue to seek to produce more legislation in draft for scrutiny".[34] A Joint Committee of the two Houses is currently examining the draft Communications Bill and, for the first time, a website has been established allowing the public to register their views on the bill.[35] We strongly welcome this development.

Public participation: the Parliamentary website

  52. If there is to be a greater level of public participation in the work of the House, whether in select committee inquiries or in pre-legislative scrutiny, the Parliamentary website will be the portal. It would be possible to extend the scope of such interactivity to allow all papers published electronically on the website to be open to feedback by the public. The web pages carrying "Hansard" reports of debate could, for instance, feature a standard button allowing members of the public to comment and then transmitting that comment to the Member or to the Government department concerned. The principle could be extended to other, more factual pages (such as lists of bills before Parliament, or select committee pages), so as to offer members of the public an easy way to direct inquiries to the relevant staff of the House.


Principle D: The House recognises the value of openness and will use ICT to enable, as far as possible, the public to have access to its proceedings and papers.

The general principle

  53. Public pressure for openness and transparency has led to an expectation that material will be made publicly available and that access to it will be encouraged rather than discouraged. The development of the Internet has almost certainly contributed to that culture. To a large extent, the House has risen to meet the challenge by placing a very wide range of documents produced by and for the House on the Parliamentary website. Nonetheless, there is a case for widening that range. The Scottish Parliament, for instance, publishes on its website papers circulated to committees. We recognise that there are questions here of privilege and committee practice which are outside our remit. We observe, however, that comparison between the range of documents available on the Parliamentary website and those available on the websites of the devolved parliamentary bodies is inevitable.

54. The two Houses of Parliament have obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We are aware that much thought is being given to how those obligations should be met. At the same time, important safeguards for the individual's right to privacy, such as the Data Protection Act and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, are receiving more public attention. These have very serious implications for Members of Parliament, who may hold in paper or electronic form large quantities of highly personal and sensitive information.

55. These developments mean that there is growing scope for challenges to be made to individual Members from both directions, namely those of freedom of information and those of protecting individual privacy. If only to maintain a degree of consistency in Members' practice, the House could usefully offer Members guidance on how to meet statutory requirements on freedom of information and data protection.


Principle E: The House will develop and share good practice in the use of ICT by other parliamentary and governmental bodies both within the United Kingdom and elsewhere, and with work in collaboration with outside bodies.

The general principle

  56. As we noted at the start of this Report, Information and Communications Technologies are developing constantly. Unless the House maintains a high level of awareness of these developments and the opportunities that they offer, it will run the risk of being seen to fall behind other parliamentary and governmental bodies and high-profile public and private sector companies. This applies both to the infrastructure and facilities offered to those who work in the House, and to methods of communication between the public and the House. At worst, the reputation and relevance of the House could appear to be diminished.

Keeping abreast of developments

  57. Commercial organisations have been in the forefront of developing online services. Now, increasingly, public sector organisations are becoming reference points in their use of Information and Communications Technologies. The Government has an ambitious target to make all its services available online by 2005. The presence of Government departments and agencies on the Internet is growing as a result. It is important that Parliament, as a central representative institution, is not in any way marginalised by direct channels of communications between the public and the executive.

58. To prevent such an outcome, we suggest that the House Administration should:

28   Op cit.,paragraph 51. Back

29   Parliamentary Questions, Third Report of the Procedure Committee, HC 622 (Session 2001-02). Back

30   The Education, Culture and Sport Committee has held an online consultation to gather evidence for an inquiry titled "The Purposes of Scottish Education". Back

31   The former Social Security Committee, the Public Administration Committee, and this Committee. Back

32   A group of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament noted that consultations should not be seen as plebiscites; one MSP compared them to victim statements, which gave an opportunity for views to be aired.  Back

33   Examples might include children in care, or rape victims.  Back

34   Op cit., paragraph 19. Back

35 Back

36   The House Administration already has well-established links with the European Centre for Parliamentary Research and Documentation, which has been active in this field. Back

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Prepared 15 July 2002