Select Committee on Procedure Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Clerk to the National Assembly for Wales


  1.  Many of the rules on admissibility of questions at the National Assembly for Wales have parallels in the House of Commons, though the fields of responsibility of Assembly Ministers are obviously more narrow.

  2.  The principal distinguishing feature of our Table Office is that it conducts much of its business electronically. The Assembly is committed to using modern information and communications technology (ICT) to the fullest extent. All Members and their support staff, along with all Assembly civil servants, are connected to the Assembly's ICT system (OSIRIS) and through this to the Internet and to the Assembly's Intranet.

  3.  Since its establishment, the Assembly's Standing Orders[3] have made specific provision for electronic tabling of questions and motions. In addition, all questions (and answers), motions, amendments and laid documents are published electronically (on both the Intranet and Internet) after tabling. The Internet and Intranet are the primary means of publication for all Assembly business including the Assembly's agenda and record of proceedings.

  4.  The system has operated smoothly for two and a half years without any significant problems.


  5.  Questions may be tabled in English or Welsh using a form provided on the Intranet or from the Table Office. Members can table questions in person or by post or can e-mail the form to the Table Office. E-mails are addressed to a specific Table Office e-mail address, which is accessible to all Table Office staff to assist speedy processing.

  6.  Members can authorise a member of their staff or another Member to table questions on their behalf. The nominated person is then able to table questions either electronically or in writing. The Table Office maintains a list of those who have been authorised to table questions.

  7.  Assembly Members or their authorised support staff must advise the Table Office, either in person, by telephone or by e-mail, of the decision to withdraw a question or convert it for written answer.

  8.  Motions and amendments to motions can also be tabled electronically in much the same way as questions. The majority of motions which come before the Assembly in plenary come from the Cabinet and so, in addition to Members and their support staff, Assembly civil servants working in direct support of the Assembly Cabinet are also authorised to table motions and amendments on behalf of Ministers.


  9.  The Assembly's ICT system provides password access to the individual Member, support staff or civil servant's e-mail "account". The password is personal to each individual and the system automatically prompts regular changes. Members are responsible for all material which is sent from their personal computers and are responsible for ensuring that their password is secure. The same rules apply to Members' support staff and to Assembly civil servants.

  10.  As each OSIRIS user has a unique e-mail identifier, which can only be used after personal password access to the system, staff in the Table Office can readily identify the sender of each e-mail received. If they have any doubt about the authorship of a question, Table Office staff will check with the Member or support worker concerned by telephone or in person.

  11.  Thus far, there have been no instances of false authorship. That is not to say that the system is 100 per cent secure or foolproof. However, there is no reason to suppose that it is any less secure than a purely paper based system. For example, in the House of Commons it used to be the practice that Members signed stocks of blank forms so that their staff were able to table more easily on their behalf. As all e-mails can be tracked by the OSIRIS system and as there are a range of other security measures built-in, our electronic system offers a greater degree of protection than a paper-based system.


  12.  Among the principal advantages of electronic tabling are:

    —  Electronic tabling helps speed the processing of questions and motions by cutting down on text input, providing immediate access to questions by all Table Office staff and allowing questions to be forwarded instantaneously to other staff for processing (for instance for translation into or from the Welsh language).

    —  All questions and motions are available on the intranet/internet at all times and can be marked as withdrawn or transferred as soon as possible after notification.

    —  The timings attached to e-mails provide a record of discussions with Members (for example, about the orderliness and need to redraft a question). These discussions can take place throughout the day.

    —  Members do not need to wait in the Table Office while decisions are made on whether a question or motion is in order.

    —  Members and their support staff can table from their constituency offices if they wish. (All constituency offices are linked to the OSIRIS system).

    —  Members also have dial-up access to the OSIRIS system and can table from any location where they have access to a telephone line using laptops.

  13.  Electronic tabling is popular with many Members who find it convenient and flexible; most Members have tabled in this way at some point. As the system is permissive, other Members can use more traditional methods if they prefer.

  14.  There are no real disadvantages that have emerged so far. The only problem has been on those occasions when there has been a breakdown in the OSIRIS system. Such occasions have been relatively rare and, in any event, the paper-based system continues to be available during these times.


  15.  Electronic tabling in the National Assembly can be considered a success. There are a number of reasons for this. There was a clean slate to work on. As a new institution the Assembly did not have long-standing procedures and there was a readiness among Members to accept modern ways of working. In addition, the Members were new and came from a variety of backgrounds and for the most part had no preconceptions about how business would be conducted.

  16.  There was also a general consensus that the Assembly should be a leader in using modern media and that this would help to create an open, inclusive and participative democracy in Wales. In practical terms, the fact that all Members and their support staff share a common (and pre-existing) ICT system with the civil service staff of the Assembly has removed many of the worries that might have existed about security and access.

  17.  My experience at Westminster makes me well aware that it would be more difficult to introduce an electronic system in an environment where ICT is not standard across the House. But if that obstacle were overcome, the tabling of questions electronically would, in my judgement, bring advantages for Members, their staff, the staff of the House and the civil service.

Paul Silk

January 2002

3   Standing Order 33. Back

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