Apple iPad: MPs weigh up Commons role for tablet PCs

Westminster debates rules on tech in the chamber…

Westminster debates rules on tech in the chamber…

A burning issue is eating away at Westminster's political elite - not how to solve the fiscal deficit or end conflict in the Middle East - but whether there is a place at the dispatch box for the Apple iPad.

In a move that could spell the end for the tatty bundles of papers waved aloft during parliamentary debates, MPs are reviewing whether to relax the rules on letting mobile PCs inside the House of Commons chamber.

The review by the procedure committee - the body that scrutinises proper practice inside the House - has been launched "as a matter of urgency", in recognition that parliamentary rules have been outpaced by the march of technology.

Technically, laptop computers are banned from the Commons chamber, while "handheld devices" are allowed - but as computers have slimmed down and phones have become more capable, distinguishing between the two categories of devices has become difficult.

Greg Knight MP, chairman of the procedure committee, said: "Electronic devices do not stand still with time... we need to keep up with the times and look at this again. It's right these rules are reviewed from time to time."

The committee will assess current parliamentary rules on how electronic devices are used inside the Commons chamber and committee rooms, and recommend necessary changes to parliament.

parliament

Parliament is reviewing the use of electronic devices inside the Commons chamber
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

One class of device that exposes the taxonomic shortcomings of the existing parliamentary rules is the tablet PC, and Knight acknowledges the difference between the bulky laptops of when the rules were drawn up and today's sleek computers.

"If you were to take the earliest laptop, it was a very cumbersome device with a lid," he said.

"[In contrast] look at an iPad, it's quite discreet, and you can work on it with no more intrusion than you would from having a file of papers in your hand."

Current practice leaves it to the discretion of the Speaker of the Commons or the chair of Commons committees to decide how to interpret rules on which electronic devices are permitted, based on whether or not their presence would disrupt proceedings in the House.

The problem is, as Knight admits, "the rules are rather vague".

Andrew Miller MP, former chairman of the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee, said the practice of the speaker distinguishing whether tablet PCs are laptops or handheld devices is "absurd".

"It raises the question, can he define where the boundaries lie?, because speaking as someone with more technical knowledge than the speaker, I am blown if I can draw the distinction," he said.

Under the present ad hoc arrangements, iPads and their tablet brethren have been finding their way into the Commons chamber, but mostly squirrelled away on the backbenches rather than centre stage during debates.

But all that could be about to change, if...

...the procedure committee backs members using tablet PCs in place of paper notes when making speeches to the House.

"I, personally, think members should have the ability to use whatever means they can to make their business easier, and that includes making speeches," said Knight.

"What we will want to look at is... someone holding a tablet in their hand instead of a sheaf of notes [when making a speech].

"Just as I wouldn't insist on someone using a quill pen with ink out of an inkwell to make their notes, I don't see why in this day and age they have to use paper to make their notes."

In redefining how electronic devices can be used inside the chamber, the procedure committee will examine whether the capabilities of modern technology are reflected by parliamentary rules.

For example, current rules state that "handheld devices" are permitted to be used "to keep up with emails" inside the Commons chamber, a rather quaint view of a class of devices that today are capable of linking to social media, apps and the web through the internet.

The kind of dilemma that can arise when 21st century IT collides with centuries' old tradition was exposed last week when a row broke out over whether MPs should be able to tweet from the chamber - prompted by concerns that Twitter was allowing politicians to make surreptitious comments about fellow members during debates, without giving them a chance to respond.

Apple iPad

Could the Apple iPad soon be a common sight at the House of Commons dispatch box?
(Photo credit: James Martin/CNET)

Far from mobile computers distracting from parliamentary business, former minister for Digital Britain Stephen Timms believes such devices can allow members to be better prepared for the day's business, as well as saving time spent fetching papers.

"My view is that we should be able to use them [iPads and other tablet PCs], albeit with some restrictions on what you're permitted to do with them," he said.

Timms has been using an iPad in the Commons chamber since the device was released last year.

"For me, the benefits include being able to look up parliamentary papers, looking into Hansard without going out of the chamber, and accessing the parliamentary order paper that sets out the business of the day," he said.

"It's no different from having that on paper but it's convenient to be able to access that sitting in the chamber rather than having to go out and get a paper copy."

In Timms' eyes, the benefits of tablet PCs could be even greater in Commons committees: "If you are scrutinising legislation in a committee then it is useful to be able to look things up - the iPad is ideal for that."

While it may seem like Westminster is gearing up for an open house on computers, parliamentary etiquette and the rather cramped dimensions of the debating chamber mean the Commons won't end up resembling a branch of Dixons.

The ban on using laptops within the chamber partly arose as a result of...

...the limited seating inside the Commons chamber - the chamber has fewer seats than elected MPs - leaving little room for bulky desktop-replacement laptops.

"We are peculiar in that we don't have a seat for every member [in the Commons chamber]," Knight said.

"I think it's highly unlikely that we will allow the use of laptops with a lid for that reason, and also you can't have a plug-in point."

Mobile phone calls are, obviously, also likely to remain off the cards - with the review unlikely to change current rules that mobile phones can only be used in silent mode in the chamber.

But Knight says the review will consider any technology that could be used inside the Commons, and may even look at whether wi-fi should be introduced into the chamber.

"It's likely to be a full review, which at this stage is ruling nothing in and nothing out," Knight said.

The procedure committee will meet next week to agree the exact scope of its review. Any changes to existing rules on the use of electronic devices inside the Commons chamber and committees will be put before parliament, at an unconfirmed future date, where the new rules will be amended if necessary, before being adopted.

All the signs are that, come crunch time for the new rules, this could be one vote where the "i's" really do have it.