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9 November 2015

Why Parliament needs a “Cyber Chamber”

The more contact the public can have with the legislative process, the better. It’s time we started using the internet for better dialogue.

By John Bercow

Most people know of me, if they have heard of me at all, as “the chap who shouts “Order!” a lot in the House of Commons Chamber.” Whilst this is by no means an outrageous mischaracterisation of my role, I have always been clear that any modern Speaker should aim to reach out beyond Parliament’s walls and act as an ambassador for our institution, and, by talking to people outside politics, work to connect politicians with the people we are elected to represent.

This is not to say that such outreach is not already undertaken. The received wisdom is that Members of Parliament are reluctant to spend time in their constituencies; in fact, colleagues spend a good deal of time, when not in the Chamber or in committee, dealing with their constituency workload. From my own experience, and from talking to fellow MPs, I can testify to the fact that this has increased hugely in my tenure as the Member of Parliament for Buckingham. Constituents – and this is no bad thing for either our democracy or the egos of us politicians – are more demanding than ever. This is exacerbated by new technology: the traditional triumvirate in an MP’s armoury of responding by letter, picking up the phone, or holding an advice surgery has been supplemented by email, Facebook and Twitter. It is easier than ever for members of the public to contact their Member of Parliament, and this they do in their thousands.

The impact of constituency work, in terms of the esteem in which local residents hold their MP, is evident in the analysis of Professor Phil Cowley and Dr Rosie Campbell. The study, conducted in September 2013, suggests – I would not use a stronger term – that those who have had contact with their local Member are likely to have a marginally more generous opinion of him or her than those who have not. I would suggest – and again, it is merely a suggestion – that direct contact between the electors and the elected can help persuade the former that we are not the slightly odd political anoraks they believe us to be. At least, not all of the time.

I am of the view that Parliament, as an institution, should engage with those outside its gates in a way similar to that in which individual MPs engage with his or her constituents. Better dialogue with those directly affected by legislation makes for better laws and a more involved citizenry can only improve the health of our democracy and the legitimacy of our Parliament.  

It was with this in mind that I established the Speaker’s Committee on Digital Democracy (DDC) which reported on 26 January this year. The Commissioners spent many months interviewing people from different age, regional and technologically savvy demographics to determine how the power of digital could be harnessed to achieve greater engagement with what happens in the House of Commons.

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One of the key, and arguably most interesting, findings of the Commission was that whilst many people did not identify themselves as party political, they were interested in the issues that have a direct impact on their lives. A focus on policy, rather than politics in the traditional sense of the word was, the Commission decided, the way to re-engage the citizenry with Parliament.

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One of the ways that we are looking at doing this is by developing the “Cyber Chamber”. The focus on policy rather than party politics, the Cyber Chamber operates parallel to the debates that take place in Westminster Hall. Westminster Hall debates are allocated to Members who apply for them and are usually – albeit not exclusively – focused on local or specific policy issues. Parliamentary question time, and particularly Prime Minister’s Questions, can get quite partisan; this is not a criticism, merely a statement of fact. It is completely natural for opposition parties to endeavour to hold the Government to account during these sessions but it was felt that, given the more tightly focused nature of the debates, Westminster Hall was a more appropriate venue for the Cyber Chamber.

The first road test of this idea was linked to the 90 minute debate lead by my parliamentary colleague, Greg Mulholland MP, on 16 June of this year. The digital aspect of the debate, entitled “Access to drugs for ultra-rare diseases”, took place the day before for two hours on Twitter, using the hashtag #RDdebate. Greg took part in the debate, responding directly to those who tweeted out ideas and questions, and the House’s Digital Outreach team worked with Genetic Alliance, an organisation for people with genetic conditions, to publicise the initiative.

During the debate there were just over a thousand tweets from people with an interest in the subject matter, and the hashtag reached over a million Twitter accounts. The aim of the exercise, however, was not to get the hashtag trending internationally, but to encourage those with an interest in the subject to contribute to the debate with the intention of those contributions being used by MPs in Westminster Hall the following day. The aim of the Cyber Chamber is to give the public some influence on the focus of Parliamentary debates, to inform those taking part in the Chamber on the issues that affect ordinary people, and to put those directly affected at the centre of the discussion.

Whilst the Cyber Chamber is only at the piloting stage, I am hopeful that it will soon become a regular feature in the Parliamentary calendar. It would, at least, be one way to fuse together the two parts of the body politic, and I look forward to it being utilised further in future.

John Bercow is the MP for Buckingham and Speaker of the House of Commons