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JILT 1996 (1) - Hansard



The columns of Hansard have been the repository of some of the greatest moments in modern history, the battleground of turbulent politics and lush pastures for browsing students and researchers.

New technology is, however, setting a new scene. In the latest version of Hansard, those famous columns are no more because Hansard is now available as an electronic database, and in this format the columns have been dispensed with.

The database - the first to carry the full text of the Official Report of the proceedings of the House of Commons - is, unfortunately, available at present only to users within the Palace of Westminster. It is the result of a computerisation project for the production of the printed version of Hansard. It has been developed within the Department of the Official Report, the department of the House that is responsible for the daily production of Hansard.

The new Hansard on-line service provides a fully searchable text dating from 16 November 1994 the day of that year?s State Opening of Parliament. It is updated on a daily basis. The previous day?s proceedings are added to the database overnight and become available at 7.30am.

The Editor of Hansard, Ian Church, regards this latest state in the development of the department?s services as one of the most significant since the department was created in 1909. He believes that it is difficult to overstate its value to Members, their researchers and secretaries and to staff of the House for whom Hansard is an indispensable working document.

The Hansard on-line facility uses web browser technology to provide a cost effective and efficient means of locating, studying and printing out textual passages. At the moment it contains only oral questions and debates, material that is keyed, or originated, within the department. During the 1996-97 session, however, the department is planning to take on the keying of written answers. When that happens, they, too, will be added to the database.

The system is a spin-off from the computerised network that each day is used to create the text of the Hansard daily part. As sections of electronic text are transmitted to HMSO?s Parliamentary Data Centre for the final stages of processing before printing, they are also sent to the web server, passed through an indexing procedure and stored ready for release the following morning.

One of the many advantages of the new system is that, unlike the paper copy, which can carry the next morning all of the proceedings up until about 1.30am, the browser will have no cut-off when the House sits beyond that time. If the House were to sit until, say, 4.30 am, the full text would be available on the browser at 7.30am. Users will no longer have to wait until the day following before being able to read what is said in debates that stagger through until the dawn breaks over County Hall.

The service is currently available to anyone connected to Parliament?s computer network. The minimum requirement is a 386 computer loaded with Windows and the Netscape software that is used to gain access to the Internet. It offers a number of features. These allow the user to

  • Explore a range of facilities including a searchable index using keywords in the form of a single word or a phrase or combination searching based on x or y or x and y. There is also a full text database menu offering rapid access to ?yesterday? or any day in the past week, or a sub menu offering any day since State Opening 1994.
  • Browse Bill titles - follow the history of a Bill
  • Browse oral questions - all questions are divided by department and sorted by the subject of the question, with the name of the Member asking it and the date
  • Browse debate subjects in a list that is sorted alphabetically under the title of the debate as it appeared in Hansard
  • Browse points of order, either by date or by Member
  • Follow a particular Member?s speaking history from an indexed list that shows every occasion on which any individual Member spoke
  • Search and browse the full Government list showing the Cabinet and all other Ministerial appointments.
The most common question to Editor Ian Church from those not privileged to be within the parliamentary community is "When can we have it?" It is a question he is unable to answer at present. He is chairing a group within the House that is looking at the whole question of electronic publication of parliamentary documents. A central theme of that inquiry is to suggest to the House whether, and, if so, how the House's publications can be made more widely available through the use of electronic means. The answer to the question seems to be "Watch this space!"



We are privileged to be able to publish an example summary of House of Commons business for 19 January 1996, and the results of a search for the terms "Warwick University" kindly provided to us by the House of Commons.

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