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Jack Straw: let MPs use handhelds, laptops in Commons

Bums-on-benches push could see live TV spamming

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Backbench MPs struggling with a tide of emails led by former foreign minister Jack Straw are pressing to be allowed to use handheld networked devices and even laptops during Parliamentary debates.

In a report (200 page pdf) entitled Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bench Member, the House of Commons' modernisation committee explores ideas for getting Parliamentary democracy to function better. Specifically, the MPs - chaired by Mr Straw - sought to boost "the engagement of Members".

The report says: "Members might be more willing to spend time in the Chamber listening to debates or waiting to be called if they were able to do other work at the same time...perhaps even using a handheld computer or laptop to deal with emails. Several people we spoke to raised the question of multitasking."

The committee endorsed this notion firmly, recommending that "the use of handheld devices to keep up to date with emails should be permitted in the Chamber".

It could be that this is actually more about image than improving the engagement of legislators with Parliamentary debate. There's a telling passage in the evidence taken by the committee.

Iain Wright MP: Do you think that it is a bad thing for democracy and for public perception of parliamentary procedure when they turn on the telly and they see an empty Chamber?

Jo Swinson MP: Yes, I think that people do assume that MPs are not working if they are not in the Chamber and when they see an empty Chamber, and therefore that is damaging.

Question is, would the public rather see a House full of MPs beavering away on their handhelds, or a chamber empty but for a few cheesed-off parliamentarians waiting their turn to deliver a speech in order to boost their participation stats ("The advent of websites which collect statistics on participation have had an impact on Members behaviour," says the report).

Of course, handhelds are sometimes used for other things than work. Outwardly busy MPs might easily be getting in a spot of gaming, web surfing, or watching TV, rather than conscientiously reading email from voters.

Given Parliamentary TV coverage and an MP with push email, however, it wouldn't be hard to find out. Simply wait until a representative is on screen, and then send an email saying "wave at the camera if you're reading this", or similar.

Then rank the responses on a website. ®

Bootnote

The term "BlackBerry" doesn't appear in the report, sadly.

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