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MPs now free to surf and tweet

Warned not to take debate from the Chamber to the interwebs

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MPs appeared last week to have overtaken the somewhat more cautious House of Lords, with the publication of new guidelines allowing MPs to tweet – and surf – during debates in the Commons, so long as they do it tastefully, and don't take up too much room.

This was the conclusion of the Third Report of the Procedure Committee, which had been asked to review the rules for what electronic devices MPs might be allowed to access in the Chamber in the course of a debate. The current rules, approved in October 2007, allow for the use of mobile phones and other hand-held devices "to keep up to date with emails ... provided that it causes no disturbance".

However, the Speaker has previously made it clear that it was unacceptable for a Member to be prompted by information on the screen in the course of a speech – or for a device to be used as a prompt by any Member participating in proceedings.

This was re-inforced by Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle in January of this year, who was reported by the Telegraph as appearing to rule against the use of Twitter after Labour MP Kevin Brennan complained that Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert appeared to be tweeting adverse comments about Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham, instead of making his comments openly in the Chamber.

However, this appears to have been mostly a storm in a teacup, as Hoyle later explained his comments were intended to be "tongue in cheek".

The committee clarification means that smartphones and iPads will definitely be allowed into the chamber of the House of Commons – but not laptops or any devices much larger than a single sheet of A4, as these were felt likely to take up too much space in a chamber notoriously lacking in seating room.

Earlier this month, the Lords too objected to laptops but, having more elbow room in which to debate matters of state, expressed themselves more concerned with issues of noise.

Where the Commons appears to differ is in its willingness to allow MPs to tweet in future during debates or even to catch up on their emails during less riveting performances by fellow members.

This sparked various fears by critics of the new move. Conservative MP James Gray voted against the report, worrying that the proposed rules could lead to a "worrying change in the atmosphere" in Parliament. He said there was a danger that debates could look increasingly "unattractive" to members of the public, while some members might not listen quite as attentively as they should to complex points made in debate.

Even committee chair, Greg Knight, who commended this report to the House, expressed a concern that MPs "tweeting about their holidays ... whilst a minister was announcing deaths in Afghanistan" could lead to embarrassment. On balance, however, he felt that the House of Commons needed to move with the times and, since the technology was now available, it could not be ignored.

Other critics expressed concerns that some members would take to debating issues online at the same time as they were being debated in the House, leading to parallel debates taking place: one in the chamber and another taking place via Twitter and even in internet forums.

In addition, the committee itself expressed concerns that members attending to Twitter in the course of the debate could be subject to lobbyists attempting to influence the outcome of key votes.

According to the report, some 225 MPs currently tweet. ®

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