Select Committee on Procedure Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from Mr Richard Allan MP


  The inquiry is very welcome. It should be possible to improve the effectiveness of Parliament by implementing a system for the electronic tabling of questions and motions.

  This contribution aims to answer some of the technical queries that may be posed by such a proposal. It is important to get the specification right for any proposal to move a paper system to an electronic one. Any points that are not sufficiently well covered in this document can be elaborated upon if requested.


  A system for the electronic tabling of questions and motions that is more efficient and secure than the current paper-based equivalent could be implemented quickly and at reasonable cost. This would bring real time savings to members and staff.

  In technical terms, it is a fairly straightforward application. Many businesses use a variety of electronic forms for the collection of data at present. These are based on industry-standard architectures such as that used by the Parliamentary Data and Video Network (PDVN).


1.   Verification of Identity

  Electronic systems should allow more effective security procedures to be followed than their paper-based equivalents. A pen signature is a highly insecure form of identity verification though it is often the only form permissible in law for transactions and contracts. House of Commons procedures are not contractual arrangements, so these legal considerations should not apply, though it would be advisable to take advice on this for the avoidance of doubt.

  Under the current system, members are required to add a pen signature to all PQs and EDMs. They can then be submitted in person by the member themselves, in person by another member to the Table Office, or by post to the Table Office (except Oral PQs). It is possible for the member to leave signed PQ forms with their staff and have them produce PQs on their behalf and submit them by post. While this is not supposed to happen, it is a practice well known to members.

  A key decision needs to be taken in respect of translating this system into electronic form. This is whether to permit submission from any email address or whether to restrict permission to only those email addresses on the Parliamentary intranet (PDVN).

  There are major new security questions to be answered if the intention is to follow the former option and allow submission from any email address. I would suggest that this option is rejected as it would be prohibitively complex and is in any case not necessary.

  The option of only allowing submission from the PDVN is far more straightforward. Any member can have a PDVN account and can access this from the Parliamentary estate and remotely via any telephone line as a free call. PDVN and other email accounts are not mutually exclusive but complementary. If a member does not wish to use the PDVN account for their general email purposes, they are entirely free to run another email account and use their PDVN account purely for purposes requiring this form of secure access.

  The PDVN by its very nature as a secure, private network, can offer verification of the identity of the sender of a message which could be regarded as more reliable than that afforded by a paper signature.

  At its simplest level, a procedure that only accepted submissions from a member's personal PDVN account would satisfy the requirement for a procedure to be at least as secure as the current paper system. Of course, the member could allow others to log in via their personal PDVN account. However, this is no less secure than the current system as it is only the electronic equivalent of leaving signed forms for staff to use.

  Furthermore there are some strong disincentives to doing this which should make it less likely that staff are left with access than under the paper system. Firstly, each member signs an acceptable use policy for the PDVN in which they undertake not to allow unauthorized access to their accounts. Secondly, if they do allow others to access their account then they will be permitting access to all their personal data on the PDVN. Good practice could be recommended in which researchers preparing questions or EDMs could forward them to the PDVN account of the member. The member would then check the PQs or EDMs and then use their account to place the text into the relevant Table Office forms.

  It is therefore recommended that a system be implemented that has a security component that involves verifying that the communication came from a registered member's PDVN account. Further safeguards could be implemented such as requiring each member to confirm that they wish to use their account for this purpose and sending automated responses so that the member is informed of everything that has been tabled from their account.

2.   Geographical Access to the System

  A system implemented within the PDVN would allow control to be exercised over points of access to the system. Members can access the PDVN on the Parliamentary estate or via a remote access system. The remote access system is typically used in the constituency office or at home, but can also be used from any other location via a member's laptop.

  It is possible to tell whether a user is logged into PDVN locally or remotely. This would therefore allow a distinction to be made so that each form of tabling could be specified as being accessible only on the Parliamentary estate if required in the procedures. A decision can be made on each form of communication as to whether to allow it also to be made remotely.

  This ability to define location is another reason why a system built on the PDVN should be preferred to one using any email system on the public internet.

3.   Queries From the Table Office

  A number of PQs and EDMs require the Table Office to respond to the member with a query. This would remain the case with electronically submitted material. The same conventions could be applied as at present. Where a minor change is required this will be done automatically. Where it is more substantive, they can be asked to call the Table Office.

  Each member could specify their preferred means of contact as they do at present with the Message Bureau. They can ask whether they wish to be contacted via email or telephone. This need not lead to any additional delay over that under the present system.

4.   Network Reliability

  There is a risk of communications not getting through when the network is down. This is normally obvious to members however as they will be unable to log on to the system. The likelihood of messages being lost at the time of a network failure is small and unlikely to be worse then that of papers being lost in the paper mail. Computer network failure delays are also likely to be less of a burden than paper mail delays for communications using that route. If a member has a communication of major importance, they would still be able to take that to the Table Office in person and should be advised accordingly.

  One additional benefit of electronic tabling is that receipts could be generated by the system allowing better tracking of communications than under the paper system.

5.   Timing Questions on Oral PQs

  The system for submitting oral PQs is more complex than the one for WPQs or EDMs as it involves specific questions being submitted at specific times. There is a worrying potential for disputes in this area if it is not implemented correctly.

  In respect of enabling the tabling of the right Departmental questions on the correct days, this can be resolved in both form and web-based tabling systems. Forms or web pages can be made accessible only on the right days and between the right hours for that subject. A member would be able to look at the tabling system to see which questions are "open" for submission and could table only those questions. If the procedure is otherwise as at present, then normally there would be just one OPQ form open up to 5.30 pm each day for that day's tabling. The system design would have to incorporate a simple procedure for Table Office staff to specify which Departmental forms should be made available on which dates.

  Such a system which withdraws the forms when tabling is no longer possible should leave little room for disputes about submitted questions. If these do occur, then tracking and timed receipt information should make it easier to settle any dispute.

6.   Areas Covered

  Written PQs are the most straightforward area to address first. EDMs are also an important area to include. This is especially the case for adding names to existing names where the existing procedure is very wasteful.

  Oral PQs are more complex, but should be included if we are to maximise the value of the investment that has been made in Parliamentary communications systems.

  Work on Bills such as amendments should also be considered for future work.

7.   Accuracy and Cost of Transcription

  One of the principal advantages of an electronic system would be the potential reduction in the need to transcribe information. This should remove some scope for errors as well as being a cost saving.

  These advantages are best realised by implementing a system that verifies and formats information at the point of initial data entry. This is a common feature of a forms-based system and gives it a strong advantage over a free format email system.

  Once information has started to arrive electronically at the Table Office then systems for forwarding it, after checking, to printers or even Government Departments become possible. These may be developed over time as protocols are agreed for this.

8.   Type of Implementation

  The system remains a fairly straightforward one in overall business terms and there are technical solutions which could be applied to this requirement at a reasonable cost.

  The PDVN is based on industry-standard technology that offers a number of common commercial platforms which could be adapted to the task. One possible implementation of the system would be to use the "Forms" functions of the Parliamentary email system, Microsoft Outlook. The other obvious alternative would be to use a website on the Intranet. Both of these should be considered.

5 December 2001

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