An electronic copy of the text of Erskine May, the book which contains the rules under which which Parliament functions, has today been released by pro-democracy and pro-transparancy hackers.
The book, edited by Sir Malcolm Roy Jack KCB, who was Clerk of the House of Commons while he was editor, and produced with assistance from other parliamentary staff, was previously only available to those willing to pay the retail price of a hefty £267.00.
The text released is that of the current, Twenty-fourth edition, published in 2011.
The release of the full text of the publication on the morning of the 5th of November 2011 appears timed to co-incide with the anniversary of the gunpowder plot and a “rewired state” event at which developers are encouraged to build online tools to open up Parliament.
This opens up, to a much wider group, previously closely held secrets detailing the way our democracy is run. There are details about the types of amendments on motions the speaker will accept, rules and practices which are key to our law making process and understanding what’s going on when watching Parliament on TV or reading the records of debates on TheyWorkForYou.com.
Those who released the material did so with an accompanying statement:
The operations of any Parliament are the kernel of democracy, and that kernel must be open source.
The procedures of the UK Parliament are based on precedent and decisions by the Speaker, which are written and collated by House of Commons staff, and sold for a high price.
While private parties should be free to produce versions for profit, those rules fundamentally must be freely available to all.
We therefore offer you this electronic edition, free.
The process by which it was created will have produced some transcription errors. If you rely on this material for your work, we suggest you purchase a definitive copy.
We hope that #rsparly and other groups, gatherings and geeks will embrace and extend these simple files.
As well as information which might help MPs increase their chances of getting amendments accepted and debated; archaic details are released too, I learnt for example that one of the tellers for the Ayes is supposed to count in the No lobby, this detail, isn’t so far as I can tell openly published anywhere, which might explain why the book notes that inexperienced MPs acting as tellers for the Ayes have in the past both gone to the Aye lobby (and the pair of tellers for the Noes to the No lobby).
There is an interesting section on too on voting “Both”:
Intentionally voting in both lobbies is an accepted way of cancelling out the effect of inadvertently voting in the wrong lobby. However, Members who have voted in both lobbies in the same division have been allowed on the following day to state as a matter of personal explanation (see pp 376-377) in which lobby they intended to vote, and the numbers of the division have been directed to be corrected accordingly. A correction has been directed to be made at the end of government business on the same day after an explanation by a member of the government on his own and a colleague’s behalf. The Speaker has deprecated as ‘unparliamentary’ the practice of voting in both lobbies as a demonstration of a ‘third’ position
I would love to see more MPs explaining which way they intended to vote and why. There needs to be a better system than that associated with voting “Both” though. The procedure detailed in the released material appears to show a handful of MPs voting both on a close division could cause the final result of the division not to be known until the following day when the MPs in question make up their minds / explain their intent.
I suspect these details relating to tellers and voting both might well be of interest to those maintaining the Public Whip website who might in the future be able to better explain what’s going on.
The book also contains examples of previous Parliamentary practice on the basis that it might guide what happens in the future. One occurance it notes is that the House of Commons spent around an hour in private, secret, session in the early hours of the morning of the 5th of December 2001. It appears that an adjournment debate, on a motion by proposed by
Douglas Hogg the Former Conservative MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham Andrew Selous MP was held during that period. There is no record of what was discussed in the secret session, just a note that it took place.
The material appears to have been distributed, by email, to pro-democracy and pro-transparancy campaigners at around mid-day on Saturday.
I was one of the recipients.
The material needs tidying up; there is to be a call from those who released the information for others to work on tidying it up and making it accessible.
Freedom of Information
FOI requests for the material have been rejected, on the grounds it is exempt as it is available by other means (ie. by paying the £267!)
The book starts with a hefty warning, threatening criminal prosecution of those breaching copyright by distributing it. This is reproduced in the electronic copy:
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form (including photocopying or storing it in any medium by electronic means and whether or not transiently or incidentally to some other use of this publication) without the written permission of the copyright owner except in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 or under the terms of a licence issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency Ltd, Saffron House, 6-10 Kirby Street, London ECIN 8TS. Applications for the copyright owner’s written permission to reproduce any part of this publication should be addressed to the publisher. Warning: The doing of an unauthorised act in relation to a copyright work may result in both a civil claim for damages and criminal prosecution.
There is a history of the UK Parliament being opened up by those willing to risk prosecution for breach of copyright. The website TheyWorkForYou which makes it easy to follow MP’s and Lords’ parliamentary activity had to breach copyright law to get started (I suspect it may still be on unclear ground in relation to some of its excellent activities)
Hopefully now the document has been released, first thing Monday morning, we’ll see the UK Parliament see the error of its ways in trying to keep this the distribution of this material restricted to a select elite, accept this approach is now futile, and publish the full and up-to-date version on their website.
The rules governing how Parliament is run must be available to all, from an authoritative source, for democracy to function.
If a publishing company (or anyone else) wants to take the material produced by Parliament’s staff and form it into a pretty, physical, book and try and sell it, fair enough, but the information coming out of Parliament ought be freely accessible to all.
The House of Commons – Standing Orders – those elements of the rules which are currently made public by the parliamentary authorities.
If anyone spots the released material in the wild online somewhere do add a link in the comments.