Select Committee on Information First Report


Meetings held on 20 May 2002

Note by the Clerk of the Committee

1. On 20 May, the Committee held a series of informal meetings with:

Stephan Shakespeare Director of Public Opinion Research for YouGov, and
Nick BuckleyUpMyStreet, publisher of local information;
Richard DeverellHead of New Media News, BBC,
Anne SlomanChief Political Adviser, BBC, and
Martin VogelLead responsibility for interactivity and politics work, BBC; and
Stuart HillDirector, BT Stepchange;
and Mark GladwynTechnical Director, Criminal Justice IT Directorate.

2. Stephan Shakespeare said that YouGov was a politically neutral community research company which used principally online methods. He believed that conventional opinion research did not allow investigation in any depth.

3. Nick Buckley said that the premise of UpMyStreet was the need to provide "joined-up" information. UpMyStreet was still developing, and feedback about the information offered was welcome. Local government had shown particular interest in the service.

4. Mr Buckley recognised that to use UpMyStreet (or any other third party) as a channel by which Internet users could reach MPs directly would probably lead to an increase in caseload, with consequences for Members' administrative support. Peter Luff MP pointed out that Members could forestall a number of inquiries by providing relevant information on their websites. Mr Shakespeare suggested that screening of e-mails was the answer. Mr Buckley said that all web-based companies had followed a learning curve in dealing with e-mail. Members might choose to list some "Frequently Asked Questions" with generic answers on their websites; or they could redirect inquiries.

5. John Mann MP said that he did not share the reticence of some: he could not foresee any circumstances under which constituents could interact excessively.

6. Mr Buckley said that Digital TV could "shift the spectrum" and open up new channels for interaction. Some people who would not choose to pay for a PC and Internet link might be prepared to invest in Digital Television, which was easier to use

7. Margaret Moran MP asked whether it might be possible to draw up a concordat between Parliament and the people, to prevent organised (often international) campaigns. Mr Shakespeare said that it would be reasonable to build in screening measures, perhaps warning that it was not possible to deal with e-mails of beyond a certain length. Mr Buckley said that screening could be undertaken by an intermediary (such as FaxYourMP). Alternatively, filtering systems could be used: these were not so expensive if they were shared and the costs borne by an institution.

8. Both Mr Shakespeare and Mr Buckley believed that public expectations were growing. The effectiveness of Parliament in interacting with the public would be measured against others performing comparable services.

9. The Committee then held a discussion with representatives of the BBC. Mr Vogel began by saying that the BBC was looking at how the BBC website could be enhanced to offer better connections with the public. New features might include pages about institutions and how to contact them, briefing on issues of concern, and forums.

10. Mr Deverell noted some Committee members' concerns about overload and said that software could control mass access. He suggested a "database of democracy" which could explain who was responsible for what and which could redirect inquiries away from Westminster when responsibility lay elsewhere.

11. Anne Sloman said that it would be possible to ensure that Members received only e-mails from their constituents, by stipulating that those who sent e-mail should register their postcode.

12. John Mann MP said that signposting was needed: people could be pointed towards the BBC website for links to Parliamentary information or Members' voting records, and the BBC website could provide links to Members' websites. Richard Allan MP agreed that the BBC would need to do some editorial sifting.

13. Neil Gerrard MP said that he would not want to bar incoming e-mails from people who were not his constituents but who might have legitimate reasons for wanting to contact him in particular. Filtering was not always the answer: redirection was just as important.

14. Martin Vogel stressed the importance of "intelligent" links. A news story about adoption could, for instance, have links to other information pages or to relevant "deep-level" pages about the Adoption Bill on the Parliamentary website. People could register areas of interest: the BBC could then alert them when there were relevant developments.

15. Richard Deverell said that an interactive politics service would need to be kept "at arms length" from BBC News, to preserve the distinction between information and journalism. Anne Sloman agreed, noting that the BBC had to be clearly seen to be independent.

16. The Committee then held a discussion with Stuart Hill, from BT Stepchange, and Mark Gladwyn, from the Criminal Justice IT Directorate.

17. Mark Gladwyn spoke briefly about the "disruptive technology" theory, which held that new technology began by providing less than was required but ultimately did more than necessary. The communications technologies now being developed did not (yet) fall into the latter category.

18. Stuart Hill said that there was little point in using technologies when they gave no added value. He set out a vision of possible technological developments over the course of the next 100 years, and described a possible day in the life of an MP in 2012.

19. The Committee Chairman thanked Mr Hill for the presentation but noted that, whatever technology was developed to facilitate tasks or perform them automatically, personal judgment would still be needed. Mr Hill agreed.

20. Mark Gladwyn echoed this point, saying that knowledge was not the same as skill.

21. Mr Hill said that the growth of the Internet and mobile technology was making more and more information available "any time, anywhere" - the Martini syndrome. Users would be bombarded with not just information but also noise and advertisements.

22. The Committee Chairman noted widespread concerns that if MPs became ever more accessible, they could be "snowed under" with extra work. There was a need for information to be condensed.

23. Mark Gladwyn agreed that an "Intelligent Agent", as described by Mr Hill in his presentation, would be needed to sift through and interpret information.

24. Richard Allan MP noted that some organisations were still very paper-based, and the Committee Chairman said that letters to Ministers were likely to get a quicker response than electronic communications.

25. Dr Coleman (Specialist Adviser to the Committee) asked what might be the consequences for Parliament if it did not keep up. Mr Hill suggested that it could be left out of the loop and that the legitimacy of Government might be challenged, with society filling the gap.

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Prepared 15 July 2002