Westminster On The Web
Parliament's Internet Service Takes Off
Election fever grips the air, allegations of sleaze abound and the Government are teetering on a knife-edge as their majority disappears. But what is the really big news from Westminster? It is that the parliamentary web site is up and running and is doing a lot of business.
The latest figures show that for November and December there were almost 30,000 user sessions and nearly 200,000 hits as users gain access to Hansard and other parliamentary documents.
The service first appeared on the Internet last October to great acclaim both from Members of Parliament and the people who vote for them. One Internet user described the event as "a great leap forward for democracy", and there was, among a wide variety of interest groups, a mixture of relief and amazement that vital material that had always been so expensive to obtain was now available free at the keying of http://www.parliament.uk.
The Commons publications currently published include the reports of the European Legislation Select Committee and a wide range of information about all Select Committees, the Weekly Information Bulletin, a House Library publication offering a digest of information about legislation and the House of Commons, and a number of Bills. Currently these include the Finance Bill, the Police Bill and the Firearms (Amendment) Bill.
But all of this is only a start. From April next the Hansard reports of Standing Committee proceedings and all Select Committee reports will be put up. From March 1998 the publications list will include the full range of documents including the Vote Bundle and all Bills.
The House of Lords is in the process of publishing a limited number of Bills and Select Committee reports, the intention being to extend publication to the full range of these documents in May. The Minute and Order Paper will be issued from the following November.
In parallel with the Internet facility, an internal Intranet service is provided. This replicates the external service and disseminates it over the parliament's internal network enabling Members and Peers and staff within Parliament to gain speedier access to the material than having to undergo the delays that can occur on the Internet.
The services are being provided for Parliament under contract by the newly privatised Stationery Office Ltd, formerly HMSO. The new company has the contract also to print Parliament's papers, and it converts the output from the printing process into HTML to provide the material for Internet users.
The service is intended for personal use only, and not for reproduction purposes. For those with more ambitious plans a source database has been created. This facility is intended to be used by commercial publishers who wish to add value to the material for use by clients who may have specific needs. The process will require the value-adders to buy a licence and arrange for the data to be down loaded. One condition is that any provider of a service based on the material should make a copy of that service available free of charge to House of Commons. Eventually, all parliamentary material will be deposited in the source database. Academic institutions wishing to exploit material for their own, non-profit making purposes can expect to be offered access to the text on preferential terms.
In spite of the introduction of the new services, however, the Department of the Official Report is continuing to provide Members and staff in Parliament with its own on Hansard On-line Text Service, which celebrated its first birthday just as the Internet web site was being launched. Details of what is available on HOTS were given in the first issue of JILT last January. The department's view is that in offering enhancements tailored to the needs of parliamentary users the service is able to hold its own against the Internet/Intranet contributions.
Date of publication: 28 February 1997
Citation: Church I, 'Westminster On The Web: Parliament's Internet Service Takes Off'', IT Review, 1997 (1) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/sw/97_1hans/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1997_1/church/>