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Report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy
Published: 26 Jan 2015

11 A fully digital Parliament

One of the targets the Commission has set is that by 2020, Parliament should be fully interactive and digital.  This chapter describes some of the actions which will contribute to meeting that target.

11.1 Increasing efficiency

Parliament has already begun to use digital to work more effectively, increase efficiency and reduce costs. Examples include:

  • publishing more documents online and reducing the number of paper copies printed;
  • a move to paperless working by House of Commons select committees; and
  • a major project to streamline the process of sending written questions from MPs to Government Departments and publishing the replies online.[1] 

But there is potential to use digital to bring further efficiency savings and better ways of working. Processes should also be reviewed, with a view to establishing whether they are suitable for a digital and interactive Parliament. For example, much parliamentary information is not created in a format that can be made available to the public as open data. It has to be converted into another format in order to do this, which is costly and time-consuming. These kinds of inefficient processes must be reformed so that information is handled more efficiently and a digital-first approach is taken. The new Head of Digital should be closely involved in this process, which will be a good opportunity to build links with other departments.[2]

27. The House of Commons should identify more areas where a digital-first approach can lead to service improvements as well as increased efficiency.

11.2 Upgrading Parliament’s technical infrastructure

Many of Parliament’s buildings will be upgraded over the next decade.[3] This is mainly to ensure that the Palace of Westminster, which is a grade I-listed building and UNESCO World Heritage Site, is protected for future generations and that parliamentary buildings are safe for people to work in and visit. However, it also presents an important opportunity to upgrade technical infrastructure and facilities such as Wifi and video-conferencing.

28. The Digital Democracy Commission recommends that Parliament should seize the opportunity that restoration and renewal work provides to improve facilities to assist MPs in their work for the public and ensure the fabric of Parliament is fit for the future.

11.3 Voting in the House of Commons

Another area where digital could improve efficiency and produce better data is in the way that votes in the House of Commons are counted. Currently when there is a vote, MPs go into one of two different corridors on either side of the debating chamber, depending on whether they wish to vote yes or no. This is known as dividing the House. The corridors are called division lobbies and a vote is called a division. MPs who are not in the chamber are given eight minutes to arrive for a vote before the doors are locked. If an MP is in Parliament but too ill to reach a lobby his or her vote may be 'nodded through', which means it is added to the voting total in their absence.

Votes are recorded on a paper checklist by parliamentary staff, so are subject to human error. A vote takes about 15 minutes in total. Votes need to be counted at the end of a division, which takes a couple of minutes, but it is some considerable length of time before a digital version of the list of votes can be published. There have been calls for reforms of the voting procedure, either by voting electronically or by holding some or all votes at a set voting time.[4] The House of Lords is currently trialling a system of using tablets, instead of paper, to record votes and this has helped to speed up the output of results.

We would like to see more radical changes to the system of recording votes in the House of Commons. We recognise that Members value the chance to meet Government Ministers and other MPs during votes, as this gives them an opportunity to raise important issues with one another. Our recommendation therefore would not affect this tradition of walking through division lobbies. We are simply recommending that MPs should use their smart identity cards to record their votes against card readers in the lobbies. This would produce an electronic record of how MPs have voted more quickly and accurately than under the current system.

In the long session of Parliament immediately after the 2010 election there were 544 divisions in the Commons. If three minutes had been saved on each one this would have added up to a time saving of 27 hours for each MP. It would also mean that a record of who had voted, and how they voted, would be available to the media and the public very soon after a vote had taken place. 

29. During the next session of Parliament the House of Commons should move to record votes using MPs' smart identity cards but retain the tradition of walking through division lobbies.

30. The House of Commons should also pilot an electronic version of the practice of 'nodding through' MPs who are physically unable to go through the division lobbies, which would enable MPs who are unwell, or have childcare responsibilities, or a disability, to vote away from the chamber.

11.4 Tools for democratic engagement

We received a lot of suggestions for digital tools that Parliament could use to work more effectively. Many of these were about making it more open and accessible, and this is good news because it suggests that people are interested in engaging with Parliament. Popular suggestions included jargon busters and bill-tracking tools to help people understand and follow their progress through Parliament.[5]

In our discussion groups and workshops, young people in particular often suggested apps and tools that could help them to engage politically.[6] These included tools to help them decide who to vote for, and a youth social media platform, linking all the digital democracy platforms and apps.[7] Further suggestions are outlined below.

Digital tools suggested by young people

At our Brighton Digital Festival and Hardcopy or #Hashtag? workshops, young people outlined some of the digital tools they would like to see:

1. Celebrities and vloggers doing 1-minute talks on YouTube about political issues they care about to help engage young people in politics (the winner from the Hardcopy or #Hashtag? workshops)

2. A system that allows citizens to vote on issues, not parties (the favourite in Brighton)

3. A TV show with a celebrity being taught about a different political issue each week. Supported by an app and online forum for users to discuss the issue with experts and politicians.

4. Legislation / Bill tracker apps, including: summaries of what Bills said; live updates; links to news articles; and tools to help scrutinise Bills.

5. Jargon busters

6. A tool enabling users to tweet or instant message questions for Prime Minister’s Questions and to vote on other people’s suggestions.

7. A local voting app, telling you when people are voting in your area.

8. A democracy website for students to connect with politicians, linked to democracy days, run through schools

9. A tool that uses demographic and location information to show how legislation affects individuals.

10. A website to encourage local engagement with politics, with users posing questions to representatives, debating on forums and voting on the importance of topics.

The Democratic Society pointed out that some of these tools “already exist, but are either in the wrong format (i.e. are not compatible with the types of technology young people use the most) or are poorly communicated.”[8] Many tools that are developed simply fail to take off. Parliament does not have the resources to turn all of these promising ideas for apps into a finished product, so it needs to choose which areas to focus on. That is partly why we are recommending that Parliament should release all of its published information freely online in re-usable formats—so that individuals or businesses can develop and market digital tools and apps if they see a gap which they think ought to be filled.

11.5 Open data

Open data is a policy which says that information produced by public sector organisations should be made freely available in a format that can be easily re-used—for example, to produce apps and other tools. The benefits are:

  • transparency
  • empowering the public
  • encouraging innovation in public services and
  • promoting economic growth by enabling the private sector to re-use data. 

If Parliament released more information as open data, then entrepreneurs and organisations could use it to provide apps, websites and other digital tools to help the public understand the work of Parliament. A great deal of important information about scrutiny of Government policy and bills, as well as decisions on issues from the economy to military action, could be re-purposed in this way. As Dr Andy Williamson put it:

“It should now be possible for anyone and everyone to see everything relating to parliamentary business in an easy to access and user friendly way…This doesn’t simply mean providing digitised versions of existing documents but ensuring that content is machine readable, correctly tagged and indexed so that it can be found, matched, verified and re-used by third-parties: build it open and encourage others to use it, mash it up and repurpose it!”[9]
Parliamentary open data by Alex Mitchel (

Parliament has recently created an open data service called data.parliament. There is already lots of useful data on the site, such as records of how MPs and Peers have voted, but we would like to see more and more data going up. We welcome the commitment by the Management Boards of both Houses in June 2014 that “parliamentary data will be made easily and freely accessible in an open format for reuse, so that the value of parliamentary data may be fully realised”.[10] The key data we would like to see released as open data as a priority includes:

  • Hansard (the official record of what is said in Parliament and information about how MPs have voted)
  • bills
  • information about who is speaking in the Houses of Parliament
  • the register of MPs’ financial interests

31. All parliamentary information in the public domain should be made available to the public as downloadable data in formats which make them easy to re-use. Hansard and the register of MPs’ interests should be made available as open data by the end of 2015, followed by bills.

11.6 Erskine May

Parliamentary insiders will tell you that the “bible” of how to run Parliament is Erskine May, an encyclopedia of parliamentary procedure. It is named after Thomas Erskine May, the former Assistant Librarian of the House of Commons, who wrote the first edition in 1844. At present you can get Erskine May only as an expensive hardcover book, which makes it inaccessible not only to the average citizen but also to many parliamentary staff.

The Speaker’s Commission fully supports the recommendation of the House of Commons Governance Committee that the arrangements for the publication of Erskine May should be reviewed. We agree with the Committee that “this important work, central to our constitution, should have an audience beyond parliamentary experts” and that opening the publication “to all in Parliament and beyond will demonstrate the determination of the House to make the workings of Parliament understood by a wider range of staff and the public.”[11] We believe that it should be freely available online. This should also reduce Parliament’s costs. To this end, the DDC recommends that, as a matter of urgency, Erskine May should be freely available online for any citizen to access.

32. We recommend that Erskine May, the definitive guide to parliamentary procedure, should be freely available online by the time the next edition is produced.

[1] Parliament Written Questions and Answers

[2] For more on the new Head of Digital, see the next section on developing skills in Parliament.

[3] Restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster

[4] House of Commons Procedure Committee, Programming, 5 December 2013; Digi088 [Caroline Lucas, MP]

[5] Nick Booth, on our online comment thread, 7 March 2014; Terence Eden on our online comment thread, 20 March 2014; Student forum discussion on legislation; Student forum on engagement; Digi001 [StJohn Deakins]; Digi002 [Nottingham University Student Union]; Digi003 [Involve]; Digi008 [Jordan Milton]; Digi016 [Mark D. Ryan and Gurchetan S. Grewal]; Brighton Digital Festival roundtable 17.09.14; Hardcopy or #Hashtag? workshops; Model Westminster contribution following workshop on 12 August 2014;

[6] Brighton Digital Festival roundtable 17 September 2014; Hardcopy or hashtag workshops October and November 2014; Model Westminster roundtable, 12 August 2014; Stockport roundtable 11 August 2014

[7] Stockport roundtable 11 August 2014; Brighton Digital Festival roundtable 17 September 2014;

[8] Brighton Digital Festival roundtable 17 September 2014

[9] Digi018 [Dr Andy Williamson, Democratise] 

[10] Preparations for the new Parliamentary Digital Service, May 2014

[11] House of Commons Governance Committee, House of Commons Governance