A Twitter ban in the House of Commons?

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11 October, 2011 by Jeremy Travers On Monday night, my Twitter feed contained several tweets talking about the House of Commons debating a possible amendment to ban the use of Twitter. Some of these tweets were from Claire Perry MP, the Conservative member for Devizes. This amendment was caused by a report from the House of Commons Procedure Committee, entitled Use of hand-held electronic devices in the Chamber and committees. There is a motion before the Commons to adopt the report but two Conservative MP’s, James Gray and Roger Gale, are moving an amendment to restrict the use of devices in the Commons Chamber and its Committees. Matthew D’Arcy writes on www.publicservice.co.uk:
It has been reported that "not for any other purpose" would deny MPs the opportunity to use Twitter during debates. 1

I thought to myself, “Why would the House of Commons need to consider this?” If one reads May’s Parliamentary Practice as I have, you’ll see that the House of Commons is a stickler for tradition and it’s practices have lasted for literally hundreds of centuries. For example, it is not in order for members to read newspapers in the Chamber and it is not in order to even read your speech in the Chamber. But let us look at what the Procedure Committee said in its Report. Paragraph 24 of the report could not have been clearer. The first sentence of that paragraph says:
As an example of a practice which could not have been predicted by the Modernisation Committee in 2007, tweeting could hardly be bettered. 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.2

The paragraph goes on to point out that there are many different views have been expressed. These views range from those who say that tweeting is a threat to the dignity of the parliamentary proceedings to those who argue that tweeting brings Parliament to a whole new audience. I tend to agree with the people who say that twitter brings Parliament to a whole new audience. Let us look at the use of Twitter by politicians in New South Wales, specifically. The Premier and the Leader of the Opposition both use Twitter to make announcements of policy. Both Mr O’Farrell and Mr Robertson also respond to tweets from members of the public who have

1

MP’s may be banned from using Twitter in the chamber, Matthew D’Arcy, www.publicservice.co.uk/news_story.asp?id=17658, 10 October 2011.
2

House of Commons Procedure Committee, Third Report – Use of hand-held electronic devices in the Chamber and committees (HC 889), p. 16, para 24.

asked questions about policy amongst other things. I would go so far as to call that “the citizen’s equivalent of Question Time, without the antics”. Twitter is an excellent tool to keep members of Parliament accountable to their constituents and I fail to see how the dignity of Parliament can be infringed by the use of Twitter. As long as the tweeting is not interrupting other members, especially those who are speaking, it should be permitted. As the House of Commons Procedure Committee report said:
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.3

The “activity” that the Committee refers to is the use of devices such as laptops and iPads in the Chamber of the House of Commons. But what consequences could there be for Australian parliaments if there is a Twitter ban in the House of Commons? In South Australia, Speaker of the House of Assembly Lyn Brewer has threatened to ban the use of mobile phones and the use of Twitter during Question Time.4 There already has been criticism in the House of Representatives Chamber after a member of the Opposition used Twitter to “reflect on a ruling by the Speaker”.5 The Speaker quite correctly stated in this instance that the action (withdrawing a remark) in the Chamber, as opposed to what was said on Twitter, was the end of the matter. The decision by the House of Commons on Thursday may be used as precedent for the presiding officers of Australian parliaments to ban Twitter from proceedings. I believe that there have been no incidents in Australian parliaments that would support such a decision. I would also contend that banning Twitter should also result in banning the use of any social network in parliament, whether it is Facebook, Google + or even MySpace. If one social media is banned, all social medias should be banned. As the saying goes, "one in, all in". The use of Twitter has provided a new culture and interest in parliament in Australia. Many interested members of public, the author included, has often tweeted about Question Time or pieces of legislation being debated as it happens. This new culture has provided a new interest in parliamentary proceedings that hasn’t been seen since the days of Paul Keating insulting the “humbugs opposite”. Twitter will only get more and more popular and parliament should adapt with the times. Using laptops, BlackBerries and iPads in some parliaments are in order, so long as use of these devices does not interrupt the member who is speaking. The same should apply to the
3

House of Commons Procedure Committee, Third Report – Use of hand-held electronic devices in the Chamber and committees (HC 889), p. 16, para 25.
4

Tweeting twits ban threat from Speaker, The Advertiser online, http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/tweetingtwits-ban-threat-from-speaker/story-e6frea6u-1226049413910, accessed 11 October 2011.
5

H.R. Deb. (11.02.2010), p. 1217.

use of Twitter. After all, you only need a laptop, BlackBerry or iPad to get onto Twitter. In my view, there is no reasonable ground for parliaments to ban its members from the use of Twitter. If parliament is to move forward into the future and modernise itself, as Tony Blair once said when he was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, than parliament needs to welcome social media.

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