Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

Digital Democracy Dr Melanie Sully

UK Finance Minister was rebuked by the Speaker of the House of Commons for releasing news of a change in his Statement via Twitter instead of first informing parliament. The role of social media and parliaments is a new one writes This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

UK Finance Minister bypasses Parliament via Twitter: Speaker not amused.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , 14.11. 2013

The UK Finance Minister gave news of a change to his Autumn Statement to the House of Commons via Twitter. The Speaker rebuked the Minister saying it would be courtesy to inform parliament first “before the wider world”. The statement was delayed because the Prime Minister was in China. Labour inquired if it was “appropriate” to announce such news on Twitter first apart from arbitrarily moving ministerial schedules to avoid inconveniencing the Chinese Communist party.

The Speaker concluded: “to put it very candidly and bluntly these announcements should be made to the House not by the mechanism of Twitter. I think it is pretty clear”.

According to the Ministerial Code of Conduct of 2010: “When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament”. The Prime Minister decides if there has been any breach of the Code that might warrant further action.

 

These were the findings of a Parliamentary Committee Report on the use of electronic devices (tablets, smartphones) in the House of Commons from March, 2011 and a subsequent resolution:

The House approved the use in plenary sessions of electronic devices (not laptops) so long as they are in silent mode. The decision means that MPs can use Twitter during debates. Some argued this brings the House into disrepute whilst others maintain it keeps parliamentarians more in touch with their constituents and encourages young people to take an interest in politics. It is estimated that around a third of MPs tweet.

There is a TV Channel for Parliament (BBC Parliament) but according to the Broadcasters Audience Research Board, the average weekly viewing per person is around one minute. One MP expressed surprise it was “that much” but another suspected that the minute is accumulated through viewers surfing to get to other channels. Another benefit of Twitter put forward in the debate was that it helped deaf people know what is going on in the Commons. BBC Parliament does not have subtitles for all debates and there is no provision for simultaneous sign language “translation” as in the Austrian plenary chamber.

A previous ruling by a deputy Speaker banned Twitter in the House of Commons plenary chamber. During a debate an MP made comments on Twitter addressing an outside audience rather than making points in the Chamber which could be challenged.

The feeling was that the House could be externally influenced and debating standards would decline even more. One Chairman complained that a colleague was so absorbed with his electronic gadget in Committee, he completely missed his own amendment. Others cautioned against over-reliance on the devices which may have a black-out during a speech leaving the MP helpless. Some parliamentarians expressed concern that the devices could be abused e.g. to catch up with the sports news (especially tempting during the cricket season).

The majority in the House however supported the use of such hand-held devices meaning MPs can refer to documents, which may only be available electronically, as an aide memoire in debates. It is hoped that more MPs will attend long debates since they can catch up on e-mails and work at the same time. MPs agreed the devices

“should not impair decorum” i.e. should not be obtrusive or disturb others and should not be used in excess. Furthermore MPs should not tweet messages that would be considered disorderly if said in the House. 

International Experience

Members of Parliament debated a change in the rules following a report from the Procedure Committee. This report looked at practice in a number of other legislatures including Austria.

The report noted that in Austria Members are provided with electronic Notebooks and they can use mobile devices (“except, in most cases, mobile phones”). In many parliaments in Europe, laptops and tablet PCs are allowed but there are some provisos. In the French National Assembly, for example, “such devices may not be used during question time”. In Greece, according to the report, “no electronic devices are allowed in the plenary hall out of respect to the Member who is speaking”. Laptops are banned in the Finnish Chamber and all “electronic devices of any kind” are prohibited in parliamentary debates in Ireland.

Elsewhere the report notes a trend to greater lenience in legislatures in allowing the use of new technology. In Canada mobile phones and cameras are not allowed but laptops have been used since 1994 provided they cause no disturbance. In New Zealand the Speaker has discretion to permit electronic devices and has generally allowed laptops so long as they cause no annoyance and are used silently. Mobiles are not permitted although there are some available for use by the parliamentary floor leaders, but again subject to the discretion of the Speaker.

Finally the report noted changes that occurred recently to rules in the US House of Representatives where a ban was in place on mobile phones and computers on the floor of the House. But the Speaker has discretion to decide what technology can be used and how the device eg electronic tablets should be used. The rule change noted that the modern tablet is small and equipped with silent keypads so that there is little visual or audible “impairment to decorum”.