The long-awaited debate on the report of the House of Lords Administration and Works Committee on “Use of Electronic Devices in the House” finally took place today. The report was introduced by the Lord Chairman of Committees, Lord Brabazon of Tara, who explained that the aim was to:
“clarify the rules regulating the use of electronic devices in the House.”
He pointed out the
“rules are not only outdated and incomplete; in places they are also inconsistent and contradictory.”
Admirable, though the intentions of the report may have been I have already commented that there would continue to be confusion, which I expressed again today:
“Lord Harris of Haringey: I think that the whole House will be grateful to the Chairman of Committees for the way in which he has introduced this item and the work that has gone into it by the Administration and Works Committee. There are many elements in the report that I am sure the whole House will welcome, in particular the reiteration of the importance of devices being held in silent mode.
I wonder whether the report quite deals with its prime focus, which, as I understand it, was to reduce the degree of confusion that Members might have as to what is or is not permitted. Although the report refers to devices such as iPads, the words in the box do not. It simply says: “Hand-held electronic devices”. How big is the hand? Does that include holding an iPad or a Kindle? What is or is not a laptop? Is it something that opens and closes? Perhaps an iPad will be permitted under the words in the box. My understanding is that the latest version of the iPad can have a little add-on, which folds over the top of the iPad and switches it off. Is a handheld device something that opens and closes? Many small, handheld devices also open and close.
If it is not the fact of opening and closing that is the issue, it is presumably a question of size. Laptops come in a variety of sizes. The marketing phrase now is “netbooks”, some of which are extremely small. Is it that they should be no larger than a certain size? I am raising all these questions because, although this has been a helpful move to try to resolve these matters, it has not removed the scope for confusion.
Secondly, perhaps it would be helpful if further consideration could be given to the question of what people can do with these devices. Of course it is sensible that, rather than lugging around large volumes of paper, people should be able to access paperwork, parliamentary material and so on electronically, but I wonder whether it makes sense to forbid the use of search. Perhaps I should apologise to the House at the outset for the fact that I have on occasion used a handheld device in this Chamber and that I once—
Lord Harris of Haringey: I apologise unreservedly, as I apologise for what I am about to say. On one occasion during Oral Questions, in order to clarify whether I was correct in the point that I wished to make, I did a quick Google search. As a consequence, I was much more confident about putting to the Minister the point that I wanted to make. However, it seems to be entirely legitimate and sensible that people are able to do that. I note that our Clerks in your Lordships’ House have in front of them a laptop. On occasion, I have noticed that it is linked to Google, so obviously our Clerks, who are not Members of the House, have been known to google things during your Lordships’ proceedings.
I hope that we can look at these matters because, while I understand that we might not like the idea of people being able to relay comments externally prior to the Minister knowing what those comments are, the material resulting from searches about factual matters is available to all Members; it is just a question of whether it is permitted. In any event, how would this be enforced, unless there are inspections or we have some sort of fancy monitoring device that lets you know exactly what people are accessing in the Chamber, which I am sure could be supplied by the relevant people? I wonder if that would be useful.
Perhaps I may make one final plea to the noble Lord. When the Administration and Works Committee looks at these matters again, would it also consider the quality of mobile reception around the Palace? I am aware of a number of areas where the reception is very poor from one provider or another. I am sure that, if this provision is to be made, we want to make sure that it is available equally to all Members of the House wherever they happen to be sitting.”
Broad support for the changes came from all sides of the House, but support was not unanimous and two Conservative peers made their views clear:
“Lord Higgins: My Lords, can my noble friend tell us whether the committee considered, if it wishes to clarify the position, whether handheld devices should not be used in the Chamber? To what extent did the committee consider the effect that such use may have on those watching the proceedings of the House on television? They may well think that Members who are using handheld devices are not paying sufficient attention to what is happening.
Lord Cormack: My Lords, I strongly support what my noble friend has just said. I must confess that I do not Google, Twitter, tweet or blog, nor do I have any particular desire to do any of those things, but it seems to me that to have handheld devices in the Chamber is not conducive to good debate and intelligent participation in it. The fundamental reason for my opposing the idea is that it is the beginning of what I would call electronic mission creep—if I can use some jargon. I am very concerned about how instructions could be monitored or enforced. The answer is that they could not be. Therefore, anybody sitting in this Chamber with a handheld device could do anything from googling facts to getting in touch with his bookmaker. I suggest that the committee consider once again the point that has just been made briefly but forcefully by my noble friend.”
But another Conservative Lord Deben (the artiste formerly known as John Gummer) put them straight:
“Lord Deben: My Lords, I support what has just been said. Perhaps I may suggest also that making a virtue of being out of date is really not helpful for this House. Let us transpose this debate to the time when writing came in. It was perfectly true that writing might have upset the person sitting next door—it might have taken your mind off the debate—but most of us now write to make notes in this House. Most of us use this electronic equipment—well, I hope that we do; those who do not perhaps are not really involved. It is silent; it is extremely helpful. I must say to my noble friend that the idea that it is better to be ignorant and make a speech where the fact is wrong than to look it up and make sure that you have got it right seems very peculiar. I am pleased that it will not matter, because we will all do it and nobody will be able to see. I hope that the privacy Acts and the Data Protection Act will stop people looking over our shoulder to see what we are looking up. We hear some speeches made in this noble House where perhaps playing Scrabble on our devices would be a better alternative. This House does itself no good in making a virtue out of obscurantism. We either do things properly, which means using the wonderful mechanisms that we have, or we must accept the likelihood of being thought to be out of date.”
After 35 minutes of debate, Lord Brabazon wound up:
“The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, we have had an interesting debate on this subject, as I suspected we would. Given the opposing views of those in favour of this advance and those who I might say are more old-fashioned and do not want to see anything change, it looks as though we got the report about right.
The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, asked me a large number of questions, one of which was whether I could define the difference between a laptop and an iPad. I use the expression “iPad” in the same way that one uses the expressions “hoover” or “fridge”. It does not necessarily mean the Apple product—there are other varieties. The noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, who is a member of the committee, put her finger on this when she said that it should be used silently. We do not want people clicking away on a keypad—at least that was the idea. That is the fundamental difference between what I see as an iPad, such as the one that is now on the Table, and a touchscreen device. Of course, technology might move on. It has moved on enormously. Only a few years ago we changed the rules of the House on the use of mobile telephones.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend. If the object is to clarify the position, in light of what he has just said are we to understand that iPads will be all right but netbooks will not?
I have slightly lost my thread now. I was referring to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey. He held up his hands to say that he had used his handheld to search the web for something that was relevant to the debate at that time. The committee did not consider that an appropriate use, for the reasons that we set out at some length in the report, but I remind noble Lords that we specifically say that this is for a one-year trial period in the first instance. We will, of course, take into account the observations that noble Lords have not only made today but will no doubt make during the course of the year. The matter will then be reviewed again by the Administration and Works Committee, and we will have another debate. When we produce a report, we will have to bring it to the House.
As several noble Lords said, in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, the matter relies on your Lordships’ good sense and self-regulation. My noble friends Lord Higgins and Lord Cormack worried that people working away on their handheld devices would be a distraction and that it would not look good on television. At least it would prove that those noble Lords were awake and not asleep. It would look no worse than that. That is unfortunately a picture that one gets occasionally in the television coverage of your Lordships’ House. I can tell my noble friend Lord Cormack that nothing in the present rules would prevent him getting on to his bookmaker. If he has been doing that, good luck to him.
My noble friend Lord Lucas asked a number of questions. I am glad to say that he was generally in favour of these proposals. We have measures in hand to improve wi-fi access in the Chamber and we will take those forward. My noble friend asked about various things, for example statutes in force. As it says in the report, those would be closely and clearly relevant to the business of the House and would therefore be just the sort of thing that it would be permitted to look at.
Other noble Lords made various other observations. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkwood, for his support. He is, of course, also involved in this as chairman of the Information Committee. No doubt it, too, will come forward with proposals in due course. He is right to have said that this is a step towards cutting down on the use of paper and going in the direction of a paperless way forward. The noble Lord, Lord Broers, suggested that one should be able only to read from one of these devices, rather than to access new information, while one was in the Chamber. However, the report makes it clear that it will be possible to download White Papers and that kind of thing, and if one happens to want to do so while one is in the Chamber I can see no objection to that.
I hope that I have answered most of the questions raised. I am sure that your Lordships want to get on to the main business of the day—
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will forgive me, but I did suggest that he should look at various aspects of the report again. For example, the box on page 6 is untenable, as is clear from this debate. I urge him to ensure that the report is clear, because point 2 in the box is not possible; we will not be able to police matters in that way. I urge the committee to look at it again.
“If the House agrees this report”—
I have no doubt that it will—
“the Procedure Committee will be invited to amend the Companion when it is next updated”.
Can I have an assurance from someone, please, that the Procedure Committee will take account of this somewhat divergent debate in that consideration?
The Chairman of Committees: I can give that assurance. On behalf of the Procedure Committee, I may well have to produce another report on these matters and have that debated on the Floor of the House again. In answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, the main cause of concern in today’s debate has been about paragraph 8 of the main report rather than the box at the back that summarises it. As we say there, this is a one-year trial period in the first instance. We will just have to see how that trial works out, and come back in one year’s time.”
The Administration and Works Committee report was then agreed, but the change will now require a further report from the Procedure Committee and at the moment searches will be banned and the arrangements will be for a trial period only.
So the Luddites were rebuffed – but only partly so and for the time being only.