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
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
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
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
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
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
5 December 2001