House of Commons Information Committee, First Report on Electronic Publication of House of Commons Documents. 27 March 1996. Session 1995-6, HC 328, London HMSO.
University of Warwick
Date of publication: 7 May 1996
The Information Committee of the House of Commons is one of four Commons Select Committees which consider the services provided to the House and has Gary Waller MP as chairman. In its First Report the Committee considered and gave general approval to the Report of the Electronic Publishing Group (EPG) established by the Board of Management of the House of Commons.
The EPG was chaired by Mr. Ian Church, the editor of the House of Commons Official Report (the Hansard) and consisted of officials of both Houses with expertise in this area. The terms of reference of the EPG were to consider issues “arising from the distribution in electronic form to consumers outside the House of parliamentary publications or materials derived from them”.
Parliamentary publications are currently subject to Parliamentary copyright as opposed to Crown copyright and a crucial issue for the EPG was the implications of the proposed publication of the Hansard and other documents on the Internet (See Church 1996 1 JILT).
The main conclusion of the EPG was:
'Parliament as well as the Public has a substantial interest in making its papers available in electronic form. As a law-making body, Parliament needs to ensure that those subject to its laws have easy access to them and the law-making process, and the group believes that there is a clear public right to unfettered access to this material'.
This general principle led the group to further recommend that the full official text of Parliamentary publications (including the Hansard) should be published on the internet as soon as practicable after it has been released to Members of Parliament, and that the publication should be free of charge. Others intending to republish this material with added value or in combination with other material, for example in an on-line dataset such as LEXIS, should be able to do so under a non-exclusive licence after official publication in an electronic form. It also noted the recommendation of the House of Lords Finance and Staff Sub-Committee Report of May 1995 that in principle the licence should be free of charge. However, that in the case of commercial or “for profit” ventures, “the Houses may wish to reserve the right to require the payment of a royalty on sales or a licence fee”.
The Information Committee in its First Report substantially endorses the recommendations of the EPG as the recommendations, particularly as to publication on the internet free of charge, 'would bring about a most valuable augmentation to current methods of providing access to House documents' and 'encourage wider public interest in, and knowledge of, the business of the House'. The Committee decided to leave two key issues to other bodies. The financial implications of publications, which presumably include both the publication costs and the means of defraying them from licences and royalties charged to republishers, are to be left to the Finances and Services Committee of the House. At present, the HMSO administers Parliamentary copyright on behalf of each House. The Committee noted that on privatisation of HMSO, a residual organisation will be left in public hands with the brief to administer Crown copyright. Whether this organisation should also administer Parliamentary copyright is to be left to the House of Commons to decide.
In principle, both the EPG and the Information Committee go a long way towards establishing easy and free access to Parliamentary information without going the full distance in 'killing copyright' as suggested by Professor Oppenheim in this issue. Academic users will be very happy with the proposals as they will facilitate free and efficient access to resources. For example, academic libraries can avoid the problems of the internet by downloading and delivering Hansard on university networks without having to pay licence fees. Whether commercial publishers are equally happy will depend on the nature and extent of royalties charged. The intention is that there should be no royalties or minimal ones. However, the matter still needs to be resolved.