I was out on a long walk this morning and catching up on news podcasts while doing so. One topic of discussion on a number of the podcasts covering Westminster politics was Tony Blair’s appearance yesterday at the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee to discuss the handling of the “on the runs” during the Northern Ireland peace process while he was in office.
That sounds pretty interesting, I though. As a citizen, a Wikipedian and a Wikinews contributor, I’d rather like to see what this country’s former prime minister has to say about this controversial issue. And I currently can’t easily get a transcript of what was said. Hansard does not seem to report the oral evidence presented to select committees. There is a video I can watch and it requires I install Microsoft Silverlight for some reason that should have been redundant since the introduction of the HTML 5 video tag and the availability of free, open source video codecs. And I don’t want to watch video: I can read a lot quicker than I’m sure either Blair or the members of the select committee can speak.
Even though select committees play an increasingly important role in political life in Westminster (think of Margaret Hodge’s fearsome chairing of the Public Accounts Committee or the role of the Backbench Business Committee in Parliament), Hansard do not provide transcription of oral evidence presented to select committees. Quite how deaf people are supposed to be able to engage with this, I am not sure. I’m also wondering how Parliament get away with this given that they have voluntarily agreed to conform to WCAG 2 as well as having legal duties under the Equality Act 2010 to not discriminate against people with disabilities (which includes deaf people).
This aside, there is a wider issue: I’d like to know what Parliament is up to. What business is scheduled for the Commons and the Lords? Who is going to be giving evidence to select committees? The media do an okay job of covering Parliament, but the problem is usually it is too late. It is after-the-fact, it focusses on the dog and pony show that is PMQs and what party leaders are up to, and often doesn’t dig into the detail of how the institution is running.
Parliament has a Twitter feed. Which is great if you want to know what Parliament is doing right now. It’s not so useful if you want to know what Parliament is going to be discussing next week. Then there’s the Facebook feed—because what I really want is Facebook to not just filter content my friends post but also decide which bits of the already curated feed of stuff Parliament post on Facebook is “relevant” to me. No, I want to decide that. And there’s a Google+ feed but nobody who doesn’t work for Google gives a fuck about Google+, least of all me.
Then I look a bit further and find a list of RSS feeds. Okay, that looks more promising. I subscribe to the Commons Select Committees feed and despite the fact that the feed is formatted in a very bizarre way in terms of date and timestamps, it does the job.
For instance, for the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee oral evidence session with Tony Blair, I get this:
And if I click through on this, it takes me to the homepage of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee. The same feed also tells me that yesterday a select committee would be hearing evidence regarding High Speed 2. So I click on that link… and I go to a calendar page listing all the select committee hearings for yesterday. Why do these two feed items take me to different places? I have no idea.
What would be nice is if each debate, each particular item of business—whether that’s a Commons debate on a bill, a ten minute rule bill, an adjournment debate, a questions session like PMQs, a select committee oral hearing—would have one permanent URL which had on it all the details. If the debate hasn’t happened yet, the same details that appear in the upcoming business listings. When the debate has happened, it should contain video (and not in bloody Silverlight—as I said, HTML 5 video exists) as well as audio and full text transcripts. Hansard should be expanded to include oral evidence to ensure select committee hearings are covered. This would help researchers, it’d help journalists, but most of all it’d help citizens better follow (and share and debate etc.) the proceedings that matter to them in Parliament.
I’ve heard lots of hot air around the subject of digital democracy: it is something that John Bercow, Speaker of the House seems keen on doing. Making it so that the Parliament website actually lets us as citizens meaningfully track the business of Parliament would be a good start.