Select Committee on Information First Report


Video conference with Mr Reg Alcock, Member of the Canadian House of Commons

Note by the Clerk of the Committee

1. The Committee held a video conference with Reg Alcock, a Member of the Canadian House of Commons, on 13 May 2002. The conference was held in the Grimond Room, Portcullis House, using equipment owned by the House.

2. Reg Alcock started by describing how he had become involved in using new technology in his work. He had sensed a decline in voters' involvement in politics, and he sought re-engage his constituents, using databases to track voters and get feedback on issues of real concern to them. As a result, he was better informed about their priorities. He believed that his efforts to engage with the electorate had led to an increase in his share of the constituency vote, against the political trend.

3. Reg noted that his constituency was an urban one (in Winnipeg) and that a relatively high percentage of his constituents were regular and confident users of IT. His initiatives had met with very little resistance. He accepted that people of above a certain age - nearing retirement perhaps - were less likely to be comfortable with new technology. He held video conference surgeries on weekday evenings when he was in Ottawa, partly to provide a fuller service and partly to reduce the demands on his time at weekends in Winnipeg.

4. He noted that Parliamentary procedures in the Canadian House of Commons enabled him to make a one-minute statement on a subject of his choice before Question Time. Reg e-mails constituents on his database and invites them to reply and suggest a topic.

5. The Committee asked Reg about the volume of e-mails which he received. He did not find numbers of e-mails 'crushing'; it was rare to receive hundreds or thousands of e-mails on any one issue and, when it did happen, it could usually be foreseen and the necessary staff support could be arranged. All e-mails were routed to his staff.

6. Richard Allan MP asked what were the barriers to more widespread use of IT by Canadian MPs in their political or parliamentary work. Reg Alcock answered that Members 'would not be led' : technology required investment and some were keener than others. There was a sense that all MPs had to be 'treated the same' and that a common service level acceptable to all should be provided. This was akin to a 'lowest common denominator' approach. Critical mass was important: he believed that it would take a generation or two before the methods which he used became standard.

7. The Chairman asked about the quality of the sound and pictures offered by video conference. Reg Alcock replied that movements still appeared jerky and sound quality was maybe not perfect; but this need not be an obstacle and many people related to him in a conference as if they were in the same room. He was the only Canadian MP to have his own video conferencing facilities, and he had raised the necessary funds independently.

8. Gwyn Prosser MP said that certain constituents contacted him by e-mail and then conducted a dialogue, e-mailing on a daily or even hourly basis. This was burdensome, and Reg Alcock acknowledged it to be a 'very real problem'. If constituents were e-mailing constantly or if they were abusive, he simply ignored them.

9. Margaret Moran MP asked whether the Canadian Government had a e-democracy policy. Reg said that there were policies but no statement of principles such as that formed by the Scottish Parliament.

10. Ann McKechin MP asked about the social profile of those who corresponded with him using e-mail. She noted that most of the e-mails that she received from constituents came from 'middle-class' people or from students. Poorer and older people made much less use of e-mail. Reg agreed that this was a real concern. He believed that the usage of technological means of communication would become universal given time. To some extent, technology was used more by educated or 'well-off groups', but this reflected the general tendency of such groups to be more articulate in airing their grievances and seeking redress by whatever means, innovative or conventional.

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Prepared 15 July 2002