There was a massive failure of transparency in the way the House of Commons operated on Monday the 18th of March 2013 in relation to the debates on proposed new press regulation laws.
Two key documents which were debated were not publicly available online from an official source prior to the debate. They are:
- The Draft Charter (to set up a body to recognise any self regulatory bodies which might be set up)
- Amendments to the Crime and Courts Bill (PDF of Scanned Fax)
A scanned fax version of amendments debated were published by Guy Fawkes’ Blog at 15.18 and at 15.25 by Index on Censorship. The fax was timed 14.44 and was to: 902072190107 (reformatted this becomes 9 for an outside line followed by 0207 2190 107). Given the House of Commons switchboard is 0207 2190 3000 that looks like an internal House of Commons number.
At the time of writing, around twelve hours on, the usual official source of amendment papers; the Bill documents — Crime and Courts Bill [HL] 2012-13 page on Parliament’s website is still not providing them. I would expect them to be present under the “Amendment papers” heading. Though confusingly there is an amendment paper dated with the day of the debate, it does not contain the actual amendments debated. In order to check the current amendments had not been appended to the published material I had to go through the crazy process of clicking “continue”, scrolling down a page of text, and clicking continue, a number of times during the day and again before publishing this article. For those who’ve not used Parliament’s website much this is a core element of their unique user experience across the site.
A scanned fax emerging on various websites is not the way this information ought to have been published. It’s important documents like this are available from an official, trusted, source, so they can be easily found and so there is an assurance they are authentic.
It’s not clear if the fax is was a leaked document. If it was an official communication it raises the question of why the Parliament website is not used as the primary means of communication and why our Parliament is still operating in a world where a Fax is even used, never mind, considered the best way to disseminate information to the public.
Until after the emergency debate had concluded the only version of the draft charter available was the superceeded version from the previous week it was only after the Prime Minster during his concluding remarks revealed the existence of a new version, agreed by all party leaders, that it was marked superseded online and the new one published. (I used the Gov.UK per-page feedback system to note the document had been superseded and urge this be noted as it later was).
Failure Raised in Parliament
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am sorry to do this, but it is all very well to talk about the publication of the draft charter, but it is not available in the Vote Office or in the Library. The Clerk has a copy of it but hon. Members do not have copies of it. It is an odd way of doing business for us to debate something that we have never had an opportunity to see.
The Speaker dismissed Mr Bryant’s complaint:
I say to the hon. Gentleman, whom I thank for his point of order, that my copy and that held by the Clerk came from the Vote Office. Therefore, my understanding is that copies of the document are lodged in the Vote Office, and I say that only on the basis of my experience. If copies are not so lodged, they most certainly should be. I can deal only with the exigencies of the situation as they arise.
My view is that in the modern world if material of this nature is not available online then in practice it has not been published irrespective of it it has been “lodged” in an an office or not. This being Parliament who knows what “lodged” means or even if the “Vote Office” is an office (it appears to be the “document supply” department).
Mr Bryant’s complaint only extended to the draft charter, and not the failure to publish the amendment papers online.
The failure to publish the current versions of the documents caused confusion among many people commenting on proceedings throughout the day.
Even those producing BBC’s Newsnight which went out late in the evening quoted from the outdated versions of the amendments rather than those which were actually debated. (Update 19/03/12 this isn’t quite right- see my update in the comments).
These errors are understandable as Parliament’s official website wasn’t carrying the up to date material.
and even our well funded state broadcaster which almost all of us are compelled to fund, don’t know what our MPs are debating, what hope have the public at large who might want to lobby their MPs in advance of the debate and any possible vote?
There are legions of publicly funded staff
in the BBC and in Parliament who really ought be getting this sort of thing right. It really is the basics of what they ought be doing, right at the core of the functioning of our democracy.
Does It Matter?
The charter is in draft form, and the amendments are still to go through the House of Lords. It appears the charter also goes further than the government intended in relation to regulation of material online; so we’re in the middle of a process; not having access to the latest version of the documents would be more important had these been final versions.
There was a vote in the Commons on the reading for the second time of clause 21A . Clause 21A is one of those which is in the unofficially published fax but was not on Parliament’s website. It’s really critical that we can easily find out exactly what our MPs have been voting on.
Is how significant the differences between the versions of the charter and the amendments available to the public, and those actually being debated important? (ie does it not matter if the changes are considered “manuscript amendments”?) I’d suggest you have to have the latest version at least just to check how significant any changes are. (See the comments below where I have placed both versions of the clause actually voted on are presented – they are in my view significantly different).