CHAPTER 4: SETTING PARLIAMENTARY DATA
61. The Committee heard a powerful case that
Parliament should make its data more easily available online.
Ben Hammersley, Associate Editor of Wired magazine, argued
that it was "morally and ethically wrong" for Parliament
not to make its data available in a form which could be re-used
and analysed by others (Q 79). Simon McManus, a web developer,
explained that most parliamentary publications were published
in Portable Document Format (PDF), which caused "a number
(1) Individual pages and sections are not indexed
by search engines.
(2) It is difficult to programmatically extract
data from a PDF.
(3) It is not possible to reference particular
sections of a document."
62. Publishing information in a PDF document
can give the author or publisher some control over how the document
is accessed and used. However, it can limit people's ability to
use the data within the document. The effect of Parliament publishing
information in PDF only was vividly seen recently in relation
to MPs' allowances. People told the Committee that the information
which Parliament produces (for instance in relation to legislation
or expenses) is essentially public information and so there needed
to be much greater "data transparency" (Q 86).
The Hansard Society said that "Parliament must get better
at making digital content available" and do "a lot more"
to make its data available in a form that "people can then
choose to reproduce and access." They suggested that the
parliamentary website should become "a repository of information
which the public can access on its own terms and in its own way"
(QQ 4, 10). The Hansard Society and others emphasised that
making digital content easily available online would be "a
big step forward". Moreover, it should be "viewed as
a tool to enhance communication and engagement, rather than simply
viewed in a technology-context." As Simon McManus said, if
Parliament were to make its data easily available online it would
help people to "interact with both Houses" (p 143).
Tom Watson MP, then Minster for Digital Engagement, agreed
that people outside Parliament would be able to use Parliament's
data to "make the richness of what we do here come alive
to a wider community of people
our challenge is to provide
all the data that we have got in a way whereby people can find
their own value with it and their own ideas and innovation"
Making public data available
online for re-use
63. There is a general drive to make public data
available online for re-use. On 21 January, his first full
day in office, President Obama issued a 'Memorandum
on Transparency and Open Government', in which he said that American
executive departments and agencies "should harness new technologies
to put information about their operations and decisions online
and readily available to the public." Following that, the
executive branch of the US Federal Government in May 2009 launched
a website which
allows the public easily to find, download, and use datasets that
are generated and held by the Federal Government. In a statement
to the House of Commons on 10 June, the Prime Minister announced
that he had asked Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with
inventing the worldwide web, to help the Government "to drive
the opening up of access to Government data on the web over the
In a speech
on 25 June David Cameron MP pledged to publish government
data online in a standardised format and to "create a new
'right to data' so that further datasets can be requested by the
64. What data should Parliament make more easily
available online? The Hansard Society suggested a range of information
from "transcripts of Hansard to digital video" (p 13).
Others asked for information related to core parliamentary business,
the "fundamental things" that Parliament does: legislation,
expenses, Hansard, divisions, submissions to committees, and committee
reports (pp 84, 104-05, 142; QQ 264-72). The "Free
our Bills" campaign, run by mySociety, calls for
Parliament to publish Bills in an electronic format that allows
the public to access the underlying data so that they can build
computer programmes and services around the Bills. The campaign
has attracted some publicity and, as with the controversy around
placing parliamentary proceedings on YouTube (see above paragraph
40), has led to criticism of Parliament. In a speech
on 26 May David Cameron MP said that the way Bills were published
online was "stifling innovation and blocking democratic engagement."
He said that a Conservative government would "publish all
Parliamentary information online" in accordance with open
standards. "This will help people easily access Bills and
other legislation in order to create useful applicationslike
text alerts when something you're interested in is debated. And
it will mean many more expert eyes helping to explain laws as
they're formed, flagging up flaws and suggestions for improvement."
Jo Swinson MP supported mySociety's proposal that Bills should
include electronic 'tags'. She told the Committee that "although
being a slightly 'techie' solution" it would "really
help people to connect with the progress of Bills so that they
can make their views heard on the different amendments, the different
issues that are being discussed". Tom Watson MP agreed
that if people could see in digital format "the whole journey
a piece of legislation takes" through Parliament, it would
give them "a greater ownership" of what Parliament does
65. How should Parliament publish data about
parliamentary business? People asked that Parliament present its
data on the website in accordance with "open standards".
They suggested that parliamentary data should be made available
in "eXtensible Markup Language" (XML). This development
could allow the maximum possible re-use and analysis of the data
to meet the needs of the user (QQ 4, 10, 78, 86).
The Hansard Society pointed out that the Irish Dáil
publishes its parliamentary Hansard in XML, and the Canadian House
of Commons has developed a highly successful XML-based system
for all internal information-processing, publication and broadcasting.
66. Parliament must not be left behind as
others set new standards for online publication and engagement
with the public. We recommend that information and documentation
related to the core work of the House of Lords (including Bills,
Hansard, transcripts of public committee meetings, evidence submitted
to committees, committee reports, records of divisions, expenses
and the register of Lords' interests) should be produced and made
available online in an open standardised electronic format that
enables people outside Parliament to analyse and re-use the data.
67. The Committee welcomes the fact that officials
in both Houses have agreed that parliamentary systems creating,
holding or publishing data about the core work of the two Houses
should be developed to deliver the information outputs required
both internally, for the efficient working of members and officials,
and externally for members of the public. The Committee stresses
the high priority that should be given to this work and will periodically
review its progress.
Progress so far on releasing
68. There has already been some progress in this
area. A new XML authoring tool for the Votes and Proceedings
documents in the House of Commons has been creating data conforming
to open standards since December 2008. The Historic
Hansard digitised Parliamentary Debates from 1803 to
2004 are now available as XML files, which are downloadable from
the parliamentary website. Parliament has also set up a prototype
site to test and demonstrate user interfaces for the
historic data, along with other functionality and to encourage
user input into how these interfaces are developed in the future.
The parliamentary website has a trial
version of a new presentation of the online Hansard text.
In the new presentation, each debate has a separate page, so that
page breaks do not occur in the middle of a debate or the middle
of a speech. The plan is to add further features, including indexes
by member, direct links from a member's name to a list of other
contributions that they have made, and better links to relevant
documents (such as Bills). When the new pages are fully functional,
they will replace the existing presentation. Tom Watson MP,
then Minister for Digital Engagement praised the "great work"
being done by officials
within Parliament to make parliamentary data available online.
He said that they were "amazingly pioneering in doing work
could be revolutionary in the future
are essentially digitising lots of data, voting data, speeches,
biographies of previous Members, and codifying it in a way which
people can use and crunch up and do things with. When their work
is complete, I think it will be an incredible resource for psephologists,
commentators and citizens to try and understand the history of
Parliament and what we have done in greater depth." (QQ 265-66)
69. The Committee is impressed with development
in the printed Hansard and welcomes recent developments in the
online presentation of Hansard. We stress the need for the online
improvement programme to continue.
70. People raised with the Committee the difficulty
of moving from one data-set to another on the parliamentary website.
For example, it is not possible to move directly from a member's
name appearing in the context of a debate to that member's committee
contributions, voting record or entry in the register of interests
(QQ 78-81). As Tom Loosemore said, information about members
"is all over the place on the website. It is all there, but
it is just scattered, and unless you know where to look, which
nine times out of ten people do not, it might as well not be there"
71. To counteract this problem, people suggested
that there should be links between text published in different
formats and audio-visual material (e.g. between Hansard and the
video of proceedings) (pp 13, 101). People also asked for
links between different publications that refer to the same procedural
event. For example, a division in the House of Lords is recorded
in Hansard and in the House's minutes of proceedings and is analysed
on the parliamentary website, but no
link exists between the three (or to information about
the members or to the subject of the division).
72. During our inquiry, we looked at a pilot
demonstrator integrating video of Lords proceedings with Lords
Hansard, which would enable users to watch, listen to and read
a past debate at the same time. The Committee welcomed this advance
and decided that development should continue with a view to offering
a full service to the public by summer 2010.
73. If people cannot readily find information
on the parliamentary website, it might as well not be there. We
recommend further integration of the various information sets
(such as Bills, Hansard, records of divisions, the register of
Lords' interests) on the parliamentary website. For example, in
relation to information about members, we recommend that from
each member's biographical page on the parliamentary website it
should be possible to access directly a much greater range of
information about that member's parliamentary activities (for
instance, through links to the member's voting record, the questions
and amendments the member has tabled, and the member's entry in
the register of interests). Work is underway to facilitate such
developments, and in December we will review progress towards
the recommendations in this paragraph.
Online information about Bills
74. We noted above the criticism aimed at Parliament
about the information available online about Bills (see paragraph
64). The Committee received several proposals about how the presentation
of information about Bills could be improved, particularly online.
These included providing documents to show how a Bill affects
previous Acts, providing explanatory material about amendments,
and creating the ability both to look back to track how a Bill
has been amended and to look forward to show how a Bill would
look if particular amendments were agreed to (pp 65, 100-02,
142, 163; QQ 78, 85, 86, 231-37). We note with interest the 'compare
versions' of Bills available
on the parliamentary website, highlighting the changes made to
a Bill in a Public Bill Committee in the House of Commons. Andrew
Stott, the Government's Director of Digital Engagement, suggested
that there could be an analogy with "Wikipedia, the online
encyclopaedia, which tracks every amendment which is made to an
Article. If you go to the history tab you get a whole list of
the versions of that page and you can compare any two versions
and [see] the differences, and for each change there is a link
to who made that change, when they did it and on Wikipedia there
is a space for a short comment on why they made it". He considered
that such a system could be adapted to Parliament's consideration
of a Bill, with "links to the supporting papers, and so on"
75. Tom Watson MP said that such improvements
had the potential to bring Bills "alive" to people.
He considered that such developments were "good" and
probably "inevitable", and he suggested that Parliament
"should go out and embrace those people who want to help
us" to deliver them. He cautioned that it was "not an
easy technical job" and that it would need resources, but
"it would help people engage with legislation" (Q 268).
76. We recommend that the presentation of
Bills on the parliamentary website be developed so as to make
the legislative process more transparent. The Bill pages should
be enhanced by the integration of information that we have called
for above (see paragraph 73). For example, it should be possible
on the parliamentary website to link between the following: each
amendment tabled and the point in the Bill that it seeks to amend;
the explanatory note on that portion of the Bill (where applicable);
information about the member(s) who tabled the amendment; the
Hansard record of the debate (if any) on the amendment; the audio-video
recording of the relevant proceedings; an analysis of any division
on the amendment; and a note of whether the amendment was moved,
withdrawn, debated, agreed to or not. We recommend that it
be possible online to look back and see how a Bill has been amended
as it moves through Parliament. That is, it should be possible
to see online how a Bill has been amended at each stage and also
to compare any two versions of a Bill (for example, to compare
the Bill as introduced in one House with the Bill introduced in
the other House or to compare the Bill as introduced to Parliament
with the Bill that receives Royal Assent). Such changes would
help all those following a particular Bill: members, their staff,
officials and outside organisations.
77. We recommend that the House of Lords administration
invite officials in the Commons and PICT to explore with them
the feasibility of creating an online system where people can
sign up to receive electronic alerts and updates about particular
Bills or portions of Bills relevant to their interests.
The role the Government should
78. In most cases, Parliament is the principal
or sole creator of its data. However, there are a number of significant
exceptions, where the data is shared or transferred to Parliament
from the Government. For instance, European documents considered
by the scrutiny committees of the two Houses, answers to parliamentary
questions, written ministerial statements, papers deposited in
the Library of either House by a Minster, and most Bills all come
to Parliament from the Government. The vision we have outlined
above cannot be achieved without Government collaboration. The
Government needs to share our commitment to use fully open standards
for data. The Government should work with Parliament to implement
common standards for the categories of information we mention
in this paragraph, so as to improve the flow of information between
Government and Parliament and to enhance the public's ability
to re-use that information.
79. In order to enable the implementation of
our recommendations in this Chapter, we call on the Government
to start producing Bills in an electronic format which both complies
with "open standards" and is readily re-usable.
80. In relation to Bills, we also recommend
that, for each Government Bill that significantly amends an earlier
Act, the Government should produce an accompanying informal document
to show the original legislation and how the Bill would change
it. Such documents, which would have no legal force, would
contain the provisions of the earlier legislation and show the
effect of the amendments embodied in the Bill. They would help
people to understand the effects of Bills being debated in the
House. We envisage that the Government and the House could agree
to exempt certain Bills (such as the annual Finance Bill) from
this requirement. The Government's 'Guide to Making Legislation'
says that departments should make such documents available to
members where they feel that they would be helpful to members.
In their response
to the Constitution Committee's report
on Parliament and the Legislative Process, the Government
said: "If in a particular case members believe they need
such material, they should say so." Those comments disregard
the benefits that such documents could bring to people outside
the House. We recommend that the Government produce these documents
as a matter of course before the Second Reading of a Bill in the
House of Lords and that the House make them publicly available
via the Bill pages of the parliamentary website.
81. In a debate
in the Chamber on 16 June 2009, the Leader of the House of Lords,
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon, gave the House "an undertaking
of support for its work" in this area. She pledged that the
"director for digital engagement in the Cabinet Office will
work with the officers of this House to share knowledge about
best practice and best technologies. We will look to how the needs
of the House can be incorporated into the work that Sir Tim
Berners-Lee has agreed to lead for us and we will work with the
House to ensure that where information passes from the Government
to the House and vice versafor instance, on Bills or in
Questionsit does so smoothly and in ways that support the
open information objectives of the House."
We welcome the Leader's undertaking to support the House's
work in increasing access to parliamentary data, and we note that
parliamentary officials have already started working with the
director for digital engagement in the Cabinet Office. We ask
the Government to explain how and within what timescale our recommendations
will be incorporated into the work that Sir Tim Berners-Lee
will lead on opening access to data.
Recommendations on Parliamentary Data
13 Commons Hansard, column 797. Back
TSO already publish Bills in XML format, but the data is not fully
open, structured or easily reusable. Back
Lords Hansard, column 1035. Back