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Thursday 24th March 2011 | 12:09
At last, the forces of progress have won the day.
The Commons Procedure Committee has today produced a report on "Use of hand-held electronic devices in the Chamber and committees".
In a nutshell, it concludes that MPs should be allowed to use iPads and Twitter in both the main chamber and in committees.
Committee chairman Greg Knight ought to be congratulated for showing some good sense in dragging Parliament into 2011, but it was not for lack of opposition from some of the more traditional MPs.
Former deputy speaker Sir Alan Haselhurst, now chairman of the Administration Committee, wrote a memorandum of evidence to argue strongly against change.
He said that he and his committee "believe the practice of 'tweeting' from the Chamber should be prohibited...we find such a practice grossly discourteous to other Members"
Sir Alan added that rules allowing BlackBerries in the chamber since 2007 have "now gone a little too far".
Fortunately, Mr Knight disagreed. Although the response from MPs to the Procedure Committee's inquiry was "very poor", he said he realised that around 225 MPs now Tweet and many would like to use iPads or other tablets and smartphones in the Chamber.
"Banning them from the Chamber might make the House appear out of touch with modern life and would mean that those in the Chamber would be the last to know of breaking news widely available on the internet," his report states today.
The Procedure Committee recommended that the House approve the following resolution:
"That hand-held electronic devices (not laptops) may be used in the Chamber, provided that they are silent, and used in a way that does not impair decorum; that Members making speeches in the Chamber or in committee may refer to electronic devices in place of paper speaking notes; and that electronic devices, including laptops, may be used silently in committee meetings, including select committees."
In its full report, the Committee also made clear it would not copy the House of Lords and ban the use of the internet (the Lords merely allows a peer to check notes of speeches on an iPad).
It pointed out that PMQs should not be turned into an "instant rebuttal" field-day through the use of iPads and smartphones. But it has the good sense to add that even at present paper notes are often passed to ministers during questions and "we see no reason why such messages should not equally be transmitted electronically as by hand".
Explaining why laptops are still banned, the report has a lovely line that "a good rule of thumb would be a device no bigger than an A4 sheet of paper in width and length which did not obscure the Member's face when in use" We wouldn't want to obscure a Member's face, would we?
On Twitter, the Committee again came out on the side of the forces of modernisation. It ruled:
"The use of Twitter by Members is very popular and its use in the Chamber or Westminster Hall has caused comment from Members themselves and from the public. Many different views have been expressed, from those who believe that it is a threat to the dignity of parliamentary proceedings to those who argue that it brings Parliament to a whole new audience.
"Tweeting about proceedings from the galleries is in our view no different in degree from presenters commenting on live broadcasts of proceedings or indeed from tweeting or blogging about proceedings when watched from outside the Chamber. Whilst tweeting from inside the Chamber is clearly a more sensitive matter, we consider that it would be inconsistent to ban this one practice whilst advocating the approach based on decorum rather than activity which we advocate in this report.
"We also recognise that it would be impossible for the Chair to police tweeting by Members and that the Chair should not be expected to rule on allegations that inappropriate tweeting is taking or has taken place. Instead, we urge all Members to use their good sense and behave with courtesy, particularly in not tweeting messages which would be disorderly if said in the House."
So, it's a small but historic day for the technological evolution of the Commons.
There's only one small matter left unclear. At present, although MPs and Members of the Press Gallery can tweet from their respective bits of the Chamber, members of the public cannot.
In particular, Sally Bercow, who sits in a side gallery, has to date been banned from Tweeting in PMQs, for example. Today's report is silent on Mrs B's silence.
FOOTNOTE: Let's hope that MPs don't, er, abuse their new privileges. Like this Italian MP did recently...
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