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Mr Speaker's speech to the Policy Exchange

Read below Mr Speaker's speech to the Policy Exchange on 10 June 2014.


Thank you very much indeed for that introduction and indeed the opportunity to address you today. I am a huge fan of think tanks in their many varied forms and take pleasure in the fact that they have multiplied as they have done over the past twenty years. The world of policy and hence politics is much the better for this development. I have taken a particular interest in the pioneering work of Policy Exchange and am delighted that it is led by two old friends, Dean Godson and Mark MacGregor. Dean is a considerable intellectual, the Aristotle of the organisation. Mark, a good friend of mine for over 30 years, is a modern day Machiavelli and one of the finest organisational talents I have ever met. Any organisation which has Mark at its heart is destined to be a dynamic and energetic institution. I hope to emulate his drive and energy in my own endeavours as the Speaker of the House of Commons.

When I was elected Speaker almost exactly five years ago I made it clear that while I would be a non-partisan figure within our democracy, I would not be neutral about our democracy. I do not feel that it is stretching the nature of the office in which I serve to champion that democracy. Quite the contrary, I firmly believe that an important part of the work for the individual holding the office of Speaker is to be a champion of democracy, an advocate for the House of Commons and a public catalyst for participation in politics.

Representative democracy is a wonderful principle but what it is to be representative should be re-examined, as our society evolves. It is a process, not an event.

Parliament’s very survival is testament to its ability to evolve and adapt to the changing needs of the age, elegantly incorporating the modern, or different, to meet its objectives.

This has been true from the law passed under Edward II, in 1313, prohibiting the wearing of armour in the Houses of Parliament to the Wright Report in 2009 that resulted in seminal reforms including the election of the Chairs of Select Committees, the introduction of e-petitions and the creation of the Backbench Business Committee. In a sense, Parliament was putting its own armour back on.

Even the familiar clock dial on the Elizabeth Tower - ‘Big Ben’ – is a demonstration of this. While the rest of the numerals on each clock face are a Gothic script, ‘Blackletter’, over 155 years ago Pugin thought an X representing 10 would look ‘inelegant’. In its place is a two-foot high F; indeed, F was used for all the Pugin clocks within Parliament. Some users of certain Microsoft products may think there is a link between a two-foot high F and digital technology, but, on this, I couldn’t possibly comment.

For those who question the need to consider the future of representative democracy, particularly the challenges to its very nature that arise from the effects of digital technology, I say this: will the ancient walls of the Palace of Westminster fall if elements of digital are introduced to our democracy? Really? No, of course not.

Recognising this, I took the initiative to establish a special Commission to consider how the digital revolution of the past 25 years, since the birth of the internet, has changed or might further develop British representative democracy. The Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission began its work in January 2014; we plan to publish a report in early 2015, to coincide with our Parliament’s 750 birthday.

We have set ourselves a tough task. It is far bigger and bolder than our House of Commons inquiries generally are.

This is because I recognise that to think strategically, about public participation and digital democracy, there needs to be a willingness to listen to challenges and contrary views from across the country and around the world. I recognise the importance of engaging with external experts and people outside the Palace of Westminster. I recognise, too, the strength that comes from seeking out expertise, information and ideas from staff and politicians within Parliament.

I, and the members of the Commission, wish to hear the voices of those people often described rather patronisingly as ‘hard to reach’ (though I suspect a more accurate descriptor would be ‘hard to hear’), as much as recognising the voices of those people with in-depth and ingrained detailed knowledge. Which is why, unlike a Select Committee, the Commission on Digital Democracy is willing to take evidence, ideas and information in any format and has not stipulated precise rules about submissions.

As a result, so far, we have received hundreds of unsolicited emails and phone calls, conducted countless conversations via social media, encouraged others to ‘open-source’ their evidence, taken face to face meetings with over 200 different experts, held roundtable discussion forums with several more to follow, have Twitter followers in 14 different countries, will host a one-day policy seminar, are involved in several ‘hackathons’ and initiated a youth-focused forum with Facebook. In addition, I have written to the Vice Chancellor of every University in the UK. So far this has resulted in over 30 replies with offers of help, ideas and further contact with academics at the cutting edge of their specialisms. We have run an on-line forum for politics students from nine Universities from across each nation in the UK, considering five separate themes, the results of which will shortly be published. We have considered and continue to look at what public participation means with a wide range of people and organisations, from the ‘tech’ world and businesses to charities and civil society. Our next evidence-gathering meeting will be live-streamed and is open to the public. Even our terms of reference were openly and publicly sourced.

In a similar vein, while the UK Parliament has an impressive record of using digital technology, the Commission has looked to learn from initiatives outside the UK. I undertook a short fact finding mission to Estonia, where I discovered how digital is interwoven into the fabric of Government and democracy, and had the privilege of being one of the key-note speakers at the World e-Parliament conference, held recently in Korea, where I learnt about developments including e-Chambers.

My aim at the outset of this project was to make our methods part of our message.

Indeed, our first thematic evidence meeting included a Skype-call with an expert from the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, Cristiano Ferri Soares de Faria, who described the e-Democracia programme in Brazil that used a virtual legislative community with Wiki-groups, forums and a discussion guide to engage people in brainstorms on specific issues.

As I am sure you will be aware, the UK Parliament has three constituent elements: the House of Commons, the House of Lords and the Crown. Together these three elements make up the legislature of the United Kingdom, which has the primary roles to legislate and scrutinise.

It seemed obvious to me that the starting point of our inquiries should be legislation and scrutiny, themes on which we have called for, received and are still receiving evidence. Our next themes for consideration focus on representation and engagement. May I take this opportunity to welcome ideas, information and evidence from this august audience.

Since even before the House of Commons had its first phone installed in 1883, the UK Parliament has responded to the emergence of new technology and adapted. For generations Tellers in the Division lobbies have taken a manual record as MPs file past in order for the Division list to be published in Hansard. Without changing the architecture of the House or changing the tradition of Divisions, would it be so heretical to question whether votes in the future might be taken with the help of modern technology? This of course would be a matter for the House, but it does not seem unreasonable to me for us to consider if the key activity in the House, namely voting, might be improved. There are two arguments in favour of some sort of e-voting in the House; first, it would be more efficient, as demonstrated by our counterparts in the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly (where the votes are published within half an hour) and the Northern Irish Assembly; secondly, it would clearly demonstrate a commitment to practise what we preach, in terms of being a ‘pro-tech’ Parliament.

It is clear to me that Digital Democracy should be seen as an integral part of the Parliament reaching out, listening and talking to the external world. It affords us the opportunity to improve our responsiveness to the electorate and the country at large, offering citizens, parliaments and political actors flexible forms of public participation.

My Commission wants representative democracy to thrive and evolve. To this end, we are prodding and poking Parliament, questioning the way things are done.

Already in our investigations some common themes have emerged.

In 21st century Britain there is an expectation of openness, a need for flexibility and a greater understanding that people, the ‘consumers of democracy’, use and do not use modern technology in a manner that suits them.

The most brilliant Apps for democratic participation could be built but achieving the next step, getting people to use them and, ideally, to use them well, is a political and social challenge rather than a technological challenge. Similarly, digital tools can enhance democratic processes, but cannot fix any systemic problems there may be within those processes. It may be that changes to underlying systems will be required if digital tools are to provide a more effective, dynamic and pluralistic, democracy.

Recognising that one of the downsides of digital developments is the possibility of being swamped by information, raises the uncomfortable question of resources, in an age of austerity and distrust of politicians. Social media, digital forums and crowd-sourcing tools can be a useful means of increasing engagement between the public and political actors. However, if these are to be used on a large scale, there will need to be a way of digesting the various views expressed, understanding sentiment vs need, and presenting them in a way that can be of practical use. This seems to be an issue both of resources and of ensuring a positive user experience, on both sides.

In a similar vein, surely it would be easier for the public to influence the law-making process before Bills are published in technical jargon and then debated in Parliament. One academic has suggested to the Commission that now, immediately after forthcoming Bills are announced in the Queen’s Speech, would be an ideal time to seek the public’s views, when the focus would be on the policy rather than on complex legal clauses.

British voters will soon be able to register on-line. Yet there is no one place where they can check the location of their polling station or even a common method of publishing results. This lack of transparency, surely, is not conducive to increasing the desire for the citizen to participate in or trust ‘the system’. Now I know some do believe that voting ought to have an element of difficulty. The argument is that a good citizen should have to make an effort to vote, picking up a postcard posted to them weeks before and dragging themselves down to an empty community hall or primary school on a wet Thursday, to put a cross on a tiny piece of paper.

Sorry, but I am not convinced this is the pinnacle of 21st century democracy in action.

Yes, of course there are well-rehearsed arguments regarding electronic and internet voting and the integrity of the ballot box must be absolutely protected. That said, in an era in which many people bank, search for a partner and conduct their most private of business on-line, treating their mobile phone or tablet as an extension of themselves, why should we not enable them to register to vote, cast their vote or express their views on the issues of the day using the same or similar tools, if they so wish? Indeed, would it really be such an earth-shattering change for voters to vote electronically in a polling station? Or at home, as they do so now with a postal vote?

One of the buzz words in political campaigning at the moment is ‘Micro-targeting’. It is, in part, a method of recognising that people are different individuals and receive political information in their own separate ways. Perhaps the time has come for the House of Commons to allow for greater micro-targeting, or rather allow for greater choice, more flexibility and public participation.

That may mean that even more of our data should be open for others to use, allowing people to have information about their Parliament, in formats that suit their needs. It may mean that there is a need for greater clarity regarding the role of MPs and what ought to be a citizen’s expectations. It may also mean some of the mystery surrounding the development of our laws, or holding the Government of the day to account, needs to evaporate. These, and other questions, we have yet to resolve.

My aspiration is that the result of the Digital Democracy Commission should be more than a considered and well-researched report; rather the result, in time, will be a relevant representative democracy, fit for the needs not just of today’s voters but of those of future generations to boot.

Thank you for listening to me and I look forward to hearing your views.