mySociety condemns the inclusion of new legislation against protest in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the second reading of which started on Monday and which continued to be debated and was then voted through last night.
Clauses 54 to 60, amending the Public Order Act 1986, were added at short notice to a wide-ranging Bill and threaten to expand police powers with loosely written clauses that will allow almost any act of assembly or protest to be seen as breaking the law.
The Bill now goes to the Committee stage stage for a clause by clause analysis which you’ll be able to follow on TheyWorkForYou. There is still time to send your comments to your MP before the proposals become law.
A vital right within a democracy
mySociety is a non-partisan organisation which gives people the tools they need to be active citizens. We strongly believe that in a thriving democracy, citizens must be able to hold their elected representatives to account. We recognise that public protest is a vital part of being an active citizen; a mechanism for making change and challenging those in power.
When a single voice isn’t enough, a message can be amplified by marching on the streets with banners and megaphones — an entitlement that is protected under the European Convention on Human Rights, codified into UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998, and which we believe to be of huge importance to the way that democracy functions.
Protest doesn’t just block roads and display inconvenient dissent to governments. Protest is a means by which communities across the UK may discuss amongst themselves and come to agreement about what they believe in; what they will or will not stand for and the kind of country in which they want to live.
It brings issues to the public discourse far from the cities in which a march or assembly takes place, and can result in nuanced discussions, changed minds, and ultimately, alterations to law that reflect this new consensus.
Impact is the whole point
With vague wording that allows for police to clamp down on any assembly (or indeed lone protester) that “may” cause disruption, this addition to the Bill extends maximum sentencing for public nuisance to ten years; and deters citizens from one of the important means of displaying dissatisfaction — all points that were brought up during the debate but which were ultimately discounted in the final division.
Under this clause, a Senior Police Officer may “impose any conditions they consider necessary to prevent disorder, damage, disruption, impact or intimidation”, reports the Good Law Project, also pointing out that “the very object of exercising the right to protest is to have impact.”
Indeed, we can look back at a long history of instances where protest has done just that, from the abrupt withdrawal of the Poll Tax to the gradual change in law over gay rights.
The Good Law Project is not alone in pointing out that the proposed amendments also give Home Secretaries (present and future) unrestricted powers to change the definition of ‘serious disruption’: they have a perhaps surprising ally in Theresa May:
“It is tempting when Home Secretary to think that giving powers to the Home Secretary is very reasonable, because we all think we are reasonable, but future Home Secretaries may not be so reasonable.”
This provision was conceived during the pandemic and presented as a temporary measure that would allow the government to ensure that people did not endanger others by breaking lockdown rules. As many have pointed out, such simultaneously nebulous and sinister adjustments to police powers should not be written into law lightly, in a hurry, and without intense scrutiny from civil society.
But it was added at short notice to the Bill along with other hurried restrictions and significant omissions which should be similarly subject to proper scrutiny.
What you can do
As this is the Second Reading, the Bill now undergoes its Committee and Reporting stages before being sent to the House of Lords. If the Lords want to propose amendments, it will return to the Commons for further debate. So there is still time to use our WriteToThem service to email your MP and tell them how important the right to protest is to you and to your community.
If you’d like to really make sure your experiences and insights count, this joint committee is currently accepting input from ‘interested groups and individuals’.
You can also add your name to the demand for a charter for Freedom of Assembly via this petition from Netpol.
Ironically, there will be real-world protests too — indeed, these began outside the Houses of Parliament on Monday night and there have been smaller demonstrations across the UK. If you are taking part, please do be careful out there.
The climate emergency is, of course, a massive concern, and that’s why we often urge you to contact your MPs and councillors to demand faster, better, greener progress.
And that’s important — but also, we really should take the time to give positive feedback, thanking those councils and politicians who are doing the right thing.
This year, we’re taking part in the Climate Coalition’s Good News Day which, since 2015, has asked “organisations, institutions, household names and millions of people to use the power of green hearts to join together and ask politicians to put aside their differences and tackle the climate crisis.”
Here’s how you can get involved
- On Friday February 12, use our Climate Action Plans database to search for your local council and see if they have a plan in place.
- If they have, drop your councillors a line on our WriteToThem service to let them know you appreciate it.
Local authorities and councillors who are taking action need to know they’re supported in their actions, some of which may be radical or taking them into new territories — so let’s thank them for everything they’ve done so far, and maybe give them the support to go further, too.
- If they haven’t? Let them know you care about any climate-related action the council have taken, and urge them to get a wider plan approved.
- Maximise the power of your action by shouting about it on social media. Use the hashtag #ShowTheLove, and use a picture of a green heart (we’ve added links to some royalty-free images below you can download or copy and paste) to join in with the national Good News Day movement. Or, if you want to go all out, make your own crafty green heart: there are some ideas on the Climate Coalition’s worksheet and on cafod.org.uk.
- If you’d like to do more, see the Climate Coalition’s collection of downloadable resources.
If you’re on a roll…
There are other ways you can #showthelove, too.
We think the prompt to ‘ask politicians to put aside their differences and tackle the climate crisis‘ is a particularly important one, so:
- You could also use WriteToThem to email your MP with this message…
- …or go public and tweet them!
And finally, there is encouragement to share everything your own organisation is doing to help the climate. With that in mind:
- Here’s mySociety’s own environment policy — which any other organisation is welcome to copy and adapt for your own needs.
- And a reminder of our post showing the various ways in which our services can be used to help the climate.
- If you’re one of our many friend and partner organisations in the UK and around the world, please consider joining Good News Day and getting the word out to your own followers.
Green heart pictures
Pictures on Unsplash are free to use and you don’t even have to credit the photographer, although if we’re talking about showing the love, we should of course do the same for the creative people whose work we benefit from!
On 18 January we received a letter from Robert Largan MP regarding our parliamentary site TheyWorkForYou. He requested that we ‘correct a misrepresentation’ in the way that the site displays how he and his fellow MPs have voted on measures to prevent climate change:
The letter was co-signed by around 50 members of his party, and identified three votes not currently included in our climate change vote calculations, with the request that they be taken into account on their voting records pages.
This was not an unusual message: we often receive emails from MPs to TheyWorkForYou, asking us to explain or reconsider the data we publish on them — and the most common subject is the voting records pages.
The only differences with this letter were that Mr Largan had gathered the support of so many other MPs; and that it was covered in the press and shared on Twitter quite a few days before we actually had receipt of it.
So we’ve treated it in the same way that we would any other, but given the amount of exposure the issue has already had, we thought we’d also share our considered response here. We’re glad to have this opportunity to illustrate how we run the site, and the judgements that we have to make in order to run the fairest, most factual service we can.
Image: UK Parliament
mySociety services help people be active citizens, whether by speaking truth to power, communicating directly with politicians, or demanding change on your doorstep — and that’s true for the area of climate activism as much as it is for any other burning issue.
By listing some of the ways you’ve been using our services to help the climate, we hope to inspire others to do the same, and to consider new ways in which you might be able to use them to push the climate agenda even further.
At the beginning of 2020, mySociety made a commitment to the planet, adding Climate to our existing workstreams of Transparency, Democracy and Community.
There are many experienced and knowledgeable organisations already working to fight the climate crisis. Accordingly, much of our work in this area has involved teaming up with these existing institutions, to offer the skills we do have and which they are often lacking: data wrangling, service design, site development, research and so on.
But there’s another way in which we can be useful, with no extra development or resource required from us: thanks to our established suite of services, we can help individual citizens to take action. mySociety’s UK websites are already set up to help people find out facts, ask politicians questions, check how MPs are voting, and demand better for their local communities — all useful tools when you want to tackle climate change.
We’ve had a look at the ways in which you’ve been using our websites in service of the climate, and we’ve found a huge variety of examples. Take a look through, and you might be inspired. And, if you’ve taken another type of climate action through our websites, do let us know so that we can add it to our list!
Changes in your neighbourhood
Trees filter air pollution, absorb carbon and provide shade, so it’s possible to argue that every tree is a benefit to the community. As Friends of the Earth advise, that’s all the rationale you need to lodge a request for a Tree Preservation Order, which means that an existing tree cannot be removed without reason.
Or perhaps there simply aren’t enough trees where you live? Then you can write to your council and request that new ones are planted.
We know that climate change is driving bees away, so those who ask their councils to leave roadside verges unmown and allow wildflowers to grow are also doing their bit to help offset the damage.
Meanwhile, WriteToThem can be used by any campaign which wants its supporters to email their politicians, and there are many with an environmental or climate agenda who have done just that.
Hyperlocal groups are campaigning against the loss of green spaces; the Possible organisation regularly rallies its supporters for innovative climate issues such as ground source heat from parks and better spaces for walking or cycling.
Badverts wants to stop the advertising industry from pushing high-carbon products, and Power For People is pushing for non-profit clean energy companies.
And it’s not just campaigns that use WriteToThem, of course — tens of thousands of you use the site every month to tell your politicians what is important to you, how you’d like them to vote, or to alert them to wrongs that need to be set right.
Emails sent through WritetoThem are private between you and your representative, though, so unless you tell us about it, we can’t know what you’re writing about. All the same, we can say with absolute certainty that many of you are expressing your concerns about the climate — it’s such an important topic that you must be.
Many councils declared a climate emergency in 2019 — but what does that mean in real terms, and what comes next? If your council hasn’t published its Climate Action Plan, and you want to ascertain whether they actually have one (or are perhaps working on it) then a Freedom of Information request might yield answers, and plenty of people have used WhatDoTheyKnow for just this purpose.
Or, if the plans are already written and available to the public, there’s still lots more that might need disclosing: are they being adhered to and working as intended? And are the budgets accurate and adequate? How is money actually being spent?
FOI can be used in a huge variety of ways: for example, to collect disparate data from multiple authorities to make up a coherent dataset showing a nationwide picture — like this one, on behalf of Amnesty International, finding out how local authorities were reacting to childrens’ climate strikes.
Thanks to our Alaveteli software, organisations all over the world are running sites like WhatDoTheyKnow that allow their citizens to ask for information. In Hungary, the KiMitTud site uncovered a river pollution scandal; and on AskTheEU the VW emissions misconduct was hinted at long before the story hit the public consciousness.
Holding politicians accountable
FOI requests can take a while to be processed by authorities, so while you’re waiting you might like to do something a bit more immediate and look up your MP’s voting record on TheyWorkForYou.
Each MP’s voting record includes a section on the environment, containing all parliamentary votes since 2010 that we’ve identified as relevant. The data — on policies from selling state-owned forests to higher taxes on air fares — comes from the Public Whip website, where votes are analysed and categorised.
In the interests of stressing the importance of the climate emergency, we’re keen to give this Environment section more prominence and detail, but of course we can only include the votes that have been held, and even then only the votes that were recorded in Parliament — not those that were just ‘nodded through’ (see more about this here). However, we’ll be keeping a keen eye open for the key climate-related votes of the future.
The open data accessible through our sites can often be useful for researchers: one example of this is the TheyWorkForYou API, which allows for the analysis of everything said in Parliament, among other uses.
As examples of what can be done, Carbon Brief analysed Hansard to see which politicians mention climate change the most; and the Guardian, using TheyWorkForYou, gave a more rounded score to each MP which also took into consideration their votes and interests.
So – that’s quite a long list, and just goes to show the breadth and diversity of the possibilities afforded by our various online services.
If you’ve been feeling helpless about the climate crisis, perhaps this will give you a little hope, and inspire you to take a few small online steps yourself, in service of the planet and our future. Please do let us know how you get on.
Over the last few years we have stopped publishing several statistics on some of our services, but haven’t really talked publicly about why. This blog post is about the problems we’ve been trying to address and why, for the moment, we think less is better.
TheyWorkForYou launched with explicit rankings of MPs but these were quickly replaced with more “fuzzy” rankings, acknowledging the limitations of the data sources available in providing a concrete evaluation of an MP. Explicit rankings on the ‘numerology’ section of an MPs profile were removed in 2006. In July 2020, we removed the section altogether.
This section covered the number of speeches in Parliament this year, answers to written questions, attendance at votes, alongside more abstract metrics like the reading age of the MP’s speeches, and ‘three-word alliterative phrases’ which counted the number of times an MP said phrases like ‘she sells seashells’.
This last metric intended to make a point about the limits of the data, along with a disclaimer that countable numbers reflect only part of an MP’s job.
Our new approach is based on the idea that, while disclaimers may make us feel we have adequately reflected nuance, we don’t think they are really read by users. Instead, if we do not believe data can help make meaningful evaluations or requires large qualifications, we should not highlight it.
Covid-19 and limits on remote participation also mean that the significance of some participation metrics is less clear for some periods. We’re open to the idea that some data may return in the future, if a clear need arises that we think we can fill with good information. In the meantime the raw information on voting attendance is still available on Public Whip.
WriteToThem responsiveness statistics
When someone sends a message to a representative through WriteToThem, we send a survey two weeks later to ask if this was their first time writing, and whether they got a response.
This answer was used annually to generate a table ranking MPs by responsiveness. In 2017 we stopped publishing the WriteToThem stats page. The concerns that led to this were:
- There are systemic factors that can make MPs more or less likely to respond to correspondence (eg holding ministerial office).
- As the statistics only cover the last year, this can lead to MPs moving around the rankings significantly, calling into question the value of a placement in any particular year. Does it represent improvement/decline, or is the change random?
- MPs receive different types of communication and may prioritise some over others (for example, requests for intervention rather than policy lobbying). Different MPs may receive different types of messages, making comparisons difficult.
- The bottom rankings may be reflecting factors outside MPs’control (eg a technical problem with the email address, or health problems), which can invalidate the wider value of the rankings.
The original plan was to turn this off temporarily while we explored how the approach could be improved, but digging into the complexity has led to the issue dragging on and at this point it is best to say the rankings are unlikely to return in a similar form any time soon.
The reasons for this come from our research on WriteToThem and the different ways we have tried to explore what these responsiveness scores mean.
There are structural factors that make direct comparisons between MPs more complicated. For instance, we found that when people write to Members of the Scottish Parliament there are different response rates for list and constituency members. What we don’t know is whether this reflects different behaviour in response to the same messages, or whether list and constituency MSPs were getting different kinds of messages, some of which are easier to respond to. Either way, this would suggest an approach where we judge these separately or need to apply a correction for this effect (and we would need to have different processes for different legislatures).
There are also collective factors that individual representatives do contribute to. For instance, if MPs from one party are more responsive to communication, controlling for this factor to make them easier to compare to other MPs individually is unfair as it minimises the collective effort. Individuals are part of parties, but also parliamentary parties are a collection of individuals. Clear divides are difficult in terms of allocating agency.
One of the other findings of our paper on the Scottish Parliament was that there was an effect in the Holyrood and Westminster Parliaments where female MPs had a systematically lower responsiveness score than male MPs (roughly 7% lower in both cases, and this remains when looking at parties in isolation). Is this a genuine difference in behaviour, or does it reflect a deeper problem with the data? While responsiveness scores are not quite evaluations it seems reasonable to be cautious in user-generated data that is systematically leading to lower rankings for women, especially when the relevant literature suggests that women MPs had spent more time on constituency service when the question was studied in the 1990s.
One concern was if abusive messages sent through the platform were leading to more emails not worth responding to. This was of special concern given online abuse against women MPs through other platforms. While WriteToThem only accounts for 1-2% of emails to MPs, it is a concern if we cannot rule out if a gendered difference in abusive messages is a contributor to a difference in a metric we would then use to make judgements about MPs.
Our research in this area has found some interaction between the gender of the writer and recipient of a message. We found a (small) preference for users to write to representatives who shared their gender, but without more knowledge of the content of messages we cannot really understand if the responsiveness difference results from factors that are fair or unfair to judge individual representatives on. Our policy that we should maintain the privacy of communications between people and their MP as much as possible means direct examination is not possible for research projects, and returning to publishing rankings without more work to rule this out would be problematic. We are exploring other approaches to understand more about the content of messages.
Content and needs
We could in principle adjust for differences that can be identified, but we also suspect there are other differences that we cannot detect and remove. For instance, constituents in different places have different types of problems, and so have different needs from their MP. If these different kinds of problems have different levels of responsiveness, what we are actually judging an MP on is their constituents, rather than their own behaviour.
A finding from our analysis of how the index of multiple deprivation (which ranks the country on a variety of different possible measures of deprivation) relates to data in WriteToThem is that messages to MPs from more deprived areas are less likely to get a response than those from less deprived areas. The least deprived decile has a response rate about 7% higher than the average and the most deprived decile is 6% lower. However, when looking at rates per decile per individual MP there is no pattern. This suggests this is a feature of different MPs covering different areas (with different distributions of deprivation), rather than individual MPs responding differently to their own constituents.
At the end of last year, we experimented with an approach that standardised the scores via a hypothetical average constituency. This was used by change.org as one metric among many in a People-Power index. While this approach addresses a few issues with the raw rankings, we’re not happy with it. In particular, there was an issue with an MP who was downgraded because more of their responses were in a more deprived decile, and this was averaged down by lower responses in higher deciles.
If we were to continue with that approach, a system that punishes better responsiveness to more deprived areas is a choice that needed a strong justification. This approach is also becoming more abstract as a measure, and less easy to explain what the ranking represents. Are we aiming to provide useful comparisons by which to judge an MP, or a guide to WriteToThem users as to whether they should expect a reply? These are two different problems.
We are continuing to collect the data, because it is an interesting dataset and we’re still thinking about what it can best be used for, but do not expect to publish rankings in their previous form again.
FixMyStreet and WhatDoTheyKnow
Other services are concerned with public authorities rather than individual representatives. In these cases, there is a clearer (and sometimes statutory) sense of what good performance looks like.
Early versions of FixMyStreet displayed a “league table”, showing the number of reports sent to each UK council, along with the number that had been fixed recently. A few years ago we changed this page so that it only lists the top five most responsive councils.
There were several reasons for this: FixMyStreet covers many different kinds of issues that take different amounts of time to address, and different councils have more of some of these issues than others. Additionally, even once a council resolves an issue, not all users come back to mark their reports as fixed.
As a result the information we have on how quickly problems are fixed may vary for reasons out of a council’s control. And so while we show a selection of the top five “most responsive” councils on our dashboard page, as a small way of recognising the most active councils on the site, we don’t share responsiveness stats for all councils in the UK. More detail on the difference in the reported fix rate between different kinds of reports can be seen on our data explorer minisite.
WhatDoTheyKnow similarly has some statistics summary pages for the FOI performance of public authorities. We are reviewing how we want to generate and use these stats to better reflect our goals of understanding and improving compliance with FOI legislation in the UK, and as a model for our partner FOI platforms throughout the world.
In general, we want to be confident that any metric is measuring what we want to measure, and we are providing information to citizens that is meaningful. For the moment that means publishing slightly less. In the long run, we hope this will lead us to new and valuable ways of exploring this data.
When we asked this question on Twitter, the first person to reply was Tim Morton, who told us how he’d used our services to get a useful addition to his local neighbourhood. The story began on FixMyStreet, but really came to fruition thanks to WriteToThem.
Tim says that he’s been using FixMyStreet since 2008: “If you look at my reports, the vast majority relate to the street I live in, and my local park” — and indeed, that’s the scene for the success he tweeted to tell us about: the story of the Grit Bin.
It began with a report, back in 2010:
“I pressed send,” says Tim, “and waited for something to happen”.
But unfortunately, nothing did — had Tim’s message been lost in the internal workings of his council?
It was radio silence until four weeks later when FixMyStreet’s automated mail arrived, asking whether the report had been seen to. If you click ‘no’, you’re taken to a screen suggesting a few ideas for escalating your issue, one of which is to contact your local councillors through WriteToThem.
Tim decided that this was a good idea, and posted an update on his FixMyStreet report to say so:
“Again, though, there was a period of silence… and I’d almost forgotten about it,” says Tim.
But sometimes these things take a bit of time. Because, seven weeks later, and just in time for Christmas:
Tim’s simple request had brought about a useful and tangible change for his community.
OK, so, ideally it would have happened quickly and with full communication from the council, after that first FixMyStreet report. But on the other hand, this is a great example of how sometimes you have to persevere, and try another route, before you get success.
“The grit bin is still there: occasionally I ask for a refill, and when the snow falls I trudge along the road and shovel grit across the junction.”
So the benefit has lasted — and is allowing Tim to do his bit for his community even now, a decade later.
Tim rates FixMyStreet so much that he’s demonstrated it to community groups and on training courses. He explains, “I think the great thing about FixMyStreet is its ease of use, and the very visible audit trail.
“One thing I always point out is the timestamps on my initial reports. I often make reports in the evening, or at weekends: they’re done in the moment and not by trying to get through to the council on Monday morning or when the office is open. I find if I had to wait, I’d forget about the issue.
“Leicester Council has been good at responding to my requests, and I always post their replies in the comments on my reports.” (Leicester is not currently a FixMyStreet Pro client, so their responses are not automatically published on the website, but sent to the report-maker by email.)
Being an expert user, of course Tim knows all about FixMyStreet’s more advanced features.
“I’ve recommended that community groups use the local alerts function. This means they can see what other people are reporting in their area, which they may be unaware of.
“If they’re a group that focuses on neighbourhood improvement, it will identify potential issues for them to work on, and in fact, may introduce them to potential new activists in their area. I’ve pointed Ward Councillors to this, as well, as it can be really helpful in their work”.
Thanks so much to Tim for telling us all about the grit bin and his efforts to help spread the word about FixMyStreet. A grit bin may seem like a small win, but when you consider how many thousands of reports are made up and down the country every week on FixMyStreet, and how many messages are sent to councillors on WriteToThem to ask for a neighbourhood improvement, you can see that the net effect could be massive.
And on that note, if you have brought change by writing to your MP or councillor, by making a FixMyStreet report or perhaps by using one of our other services, please let us know — we’re all ears.
We’re using these stories as part of a training module that helps young people understand how democracy functions in the UK, and how to work within it to make positive change. Your stories will help us to show this in action, rather than just theoretically, so you’ll be helping us to help those who need it. Thanks!
Humanity & Inclusion is a charity working to combat the injustices faced by people with disabilities and vulnerable populations in situations of poverty and exclusion, conflict and disaster.
Their recent campaign, ‘Stop Bombing Civilians’, encourages supporters to protest the bombardment of innocent citizens in areas of conflict like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan.
As their website explains, when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, 90% of casualties are civilians. Many are left injured or disabled with their lives and livelihoods completely ruined — surely all would agree that this is not a just or desired outcome of bombardment, no matter what your view on the conflicts generally.
And so we were gratified to learn that WriteToThem, our ‘contact your MP’ service, is playing a part in this campaign.
A toolkit for speaking out
Humanity & Inclusion have put together a set of actions that supporters can take, from signing a petition to taking a selfie and sharing it on social media — or writing to your MP.
“WriteToThem was the obvious choice.”
And that’s where we came in: this last action is managed through integrating WriteToThem on the charity’s campaign page (something that any campaign can do, for free).
We asked Tom Shelton from Humanity & Inclusion to explain more about how they used our service within their integrated campaign.
Up to date contacts
Tom explained that a central part of the campaign is the petition, and it is easy enough for them to run petitions by using the forms on their own website.
However, when they’re asking supporters to directly email MPs, it’s just too complex to maintain and implement the dataset of politicians’ contacts themselves.
“Yes, this data is publicly available, but like many small organisations, we have no capacity for maintaining its integrity”.
Flexible and free
So the charity looked around to see what tools were available.
“There are some impressive tools out there, but most of them are pretty expensive given our modest needs. In previous years, we have used a relatively low cost paid tool for this type of ‘email your MP’ campaign.
“We needed a tool that was simple and safe for our supporters to use.”
“However, given that this new campaign was quite targeted, we were expecting a relatively low volume of emails, so we needed something that was easy to implement on our website, and we didn’t want to make any investment in a paid tool that would involve setup costs.
“We also wanted to avoid an ongoing subscription cost as we knew that our campaign would probably be paused at various points and then re-activated later (say, during elections, parliamentary recess etc).
“In particular, we needed a tool that was simple and safe for our supporters to use, and would help them to approach MPs in a way that is appropriate and would get the best response.
“Based on this, WriteToThem was the obvious choice.”
For all levels of coding knowledge
How easy was it to add the tool to their website?
Tom says that, for anyone with basic web skills, the postcode box option is very simple to set up.
“The more complex integration is also quite straightforward, but due to time constraints, we opted to integrate the postcode finder widget.
“The documentation on the WriteToThem website is excellent.”
“This fitted nicely in with our website and immediately worked. The documentation on the WriteToThem website is excellent, as is the guidance for how best to use the tool for effective campaigns.”
Humanity & Inclusion are actually a great example of an organisation who have read the guidelines and included them into their campaigning plans: if you visit the ’email your MP’ page of their campaign, you’ll see that they encourage you to write messages in your own words, while providing inspiration for some of the points that might be included.
This is because WriteToThem blocks mass copies of identical messages, based on evidence that these tend to be regarded as a nuisance by politicians, rather than having the desired effect.
Thank you very much to Tom and Humanity & Inclusion for sharing their experience of using WriteToThem as one part of a simple but effective online campaign.
And now, if you have been convinced of their cause, we suggest that you take advantage of their campaign pages, and email your MP.
Image: ©Peter Biro/HI
Nada, 10, was injured in a bombing with her father in Mosul. As a result of her injuries her leg was amputated below the knee and she will need jaw surgery to help make eating less difficult.
Covid-19 has meant changes to how parliaments all round the world work, and this means that parliamentary monitoring sites like TheyWorkForYou need to consider how they should change to reflect this.
We are attempting to represent MPs’ votes fairly in this unusual time during which voting is not necessarily available to, or easy for, every representative. We believe in the current situation most (if not all) have the possibility of casting proxy votes, but need to ensure additional information reflects where this was not the case. We are concerned about the concentration of votes held by party whips through the proxy vote system and believe in terms of simplicity, time taken and the health of MPs and staff, the remote voting system was a better approach for both MPs and their constituents.
The old normal
Westminster has one of the oldest parliamentary traditions in the world, and consequently has a large number of antiquated processes and procedures which are not efficient or inclusive by contemporary standards.
MPs sitting practically on top of their colleagues in the House of Commons was not an unusual sight pre-COVID, as the chamber is not big enough to accommodate all 650 elected representatives at one time. PMQs were defined by heckling from the backbenches, voting required physically walking through a lobby (rather than the electronic voting of the Scottish Parliament) with almost no allowance for proxy or remote voting.
This was the system of parliamentary governance at the start of 2020, with little reason to expect any changes. The plan to vacate Parliament to allow essential repairs and maintenance to the building would have provided an opportunity to experiment with different designs or practices. Instead the plan was to build a replica of the chamber and division lobbies as they already exist.
Change is resisted with reference to tradition, but behind that is also the understanding that changing the physical space and practices of Parliament would have an impact on where power is distributed. The result is a slow rate of change, where reform (such as an independent panel to deal with bullying and harassment allegations against MPs) is resisted and hard-won.
And then COVID struck, and everything changed, very fast.
A digital revolution — and a roll back
There have never been such rapid shifts in practice in the House of Commons as during the COVID-19 crisis.
MPs were sent from Westminster back to their constituencies to work from home, like so many of their constituents. Parliamentary business migrated online. All of a sudden, remote electronic voting was the only way of registering a vote. This was revolutionary. The hard working folks at the Parliamentary Digital Service managed to tweak the existing online MemberHub system to enable this new electronic service, and it seems to have worked extremely well.
But this huge digital step forward has now been rolled back. In early June, MPs were summoned to return to the parliamentary estate, regardless of their individual health considerations. This meant that many MPs who have underlying conditions and were advised to shield from the virus had the unenviable decision of whether to risk their lives and return to Westminster, or to remain at home and risk not being able to vote or represent their constituents effectively.
The government was insistent that remote electronic voting would no longer be available as an option, and while there were later concessions in the form of widening the criteria for which MPs could have a proxy vote, there are likely to have been some that missed votes or could not participate during this period because they were unable to be present or arrange for a proxy in time. This is not just an issue for MPs who cannot be in parliament in person, MPs voting in person have to do so in a way that is more time consuming than the normal approach.
Proxy voting is the wrong approach
While the proxy voting scheme was initially expanded from parental leave to those who were in a ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’/‘clinically vulnerable’ category, this has now been expanded again. The current situation is that the proxy voting scheme covers MPs on parental leave, or with a medical or public health reason related to the pandemic. There is a table at the bottom of this post showing who could vote during which period.
There is no requirement to “provide any detail specifying why you are unable to attend Westminster for medical or public health reasons related to the pandemic”, so in practice, all MPs should be able to designate a proxy to cast votes on their behalf. That said, not all have done so, and there is no requirement that an MP must designate a proxy if they cannot attend Westminster.
This has also had the side-effect of expanding proxy votes to MPs with health problems who would not have been ineligible for them before (we have previously written in favour of proxy votes for MPs with long-term health problems).
As of the 24th June, there were 169 MPs who had applied for proxy votes – that is just over a quarter of all MPs. three quarters of these have listed a party whip as a proxy. That many MPs have designated their whip as a proxy simplifies the administration of such a large number of proxies, but means that those MPs have less effective freedom to rebel on a case by case issue.
While many MPs may never have chosen to exercise that freedom, this might create an expectation that the ‘norm’ is to pass the vote to the whip, and raise suspicions about MPs who might reasonably decide not to. The virtual voting system was ironically more traditional in preserving the idea that MPs (not whips) cast votes.
In the past, we’ve contributed to a parliamentary inquiry supporting a more formalised system of proxy voting, not least because without a formal record, there is no data on how individual MPs have voted. Without data, we can’t publish accurate records that would give our users the context they need to understand the significance of a ‘no-show’ from their MP in a specific vote.
But this position was working from the assumption that proxy voting would be accounting for at most a few dozen MPs. Accounting for large numbers of MPs raises new issues about how many proxy votes one MP should be able to exercise, and in general whether it is the appropriate solution for this situation. A remote voting system was a better solution to the problem at hand, that better protected not only the health of MPs and staff required to be present on the parliamentary estate, but the existing power relations of MPs and parties.
Portraying MPs fairly
Whether votes are through a proxy system, or whether they are not being recorded at all because an MP couldn’t make it into Parliament on health grounds, we want people to be able to fairly assess how and what their representatives are doing. Over the long term, we want to make sure that the special circumstances of these months are reflected.
Here are our current plans on how voting records should reflect changing voting access:
- We have added a box on the voting page to inform about the current situation, and that there were recent votes where some MPs were not able to participate. This is the same for all MPs, as proxy voting information is not complete and we cannot reflect which MPs may feel excluded from votes.
- We have acted on a pre-existing plan to remove some of the comparisons we currently publish on metrics such as how many votes or debates they have participated in. This will remove the issue of MPs who are not physically present performing less well on these metrics.
- In the long term, we will be exploring how individual votes where voting access was effectively restricted may be marked on the site, as well as exploring if other changes to the service are required.
mySociety has worked with parliaments all over the world over the last 10 years, and we continue to consult on how procedures, information and systems can be digitised for better transparency, accountability and inclusion of the wider public.
Given the changes and experiments going on in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, we’re going to be blogging more about the effect on democratic practices, as we focus in on various aspects of our parliamentary system in the UK and how it might be modernised.
Who could vote when?
Period Remote voting Proxy voting In person voting 11 May – 2 June Everyone Parental leave – 2 June – 4 June – Parental leave Physically present 5 June-9 June – Parental leave, ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’, ‘clinically vulnerable’ Physically present 10th June- – Parental leave, medical or ‘public health reason related to the pandemic’ Physically present
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Last year, mySociety worked as part of a consortium to deliver three local citizens’ assemblies in the UK. This was as part of the Innovation in Democracy Programme, which was a joint project between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government. The goal was to trial new ways of involving citizens in local decision making. Alongside Involve, the Democratic Society and the RSA we investigated how digital tools and methods could be used as part of deliberative processes.
As one of the final parts of this programme, the RSA has published a handbook about what we learned, and case studies of each of the assemblies:
- How to run a citizens’ assembly: a handbook for local authorities based on the Innovation in Democracy Programme
- Innovation in Democracy Programme case studies
The RSA have also blogged about the handbook.
mySociety’s part in this project was primarily to investigate how best to use digital tools to complement an in-person citizens’ assembly. We published this as two sets of guidance:
The first is a practical exploration into what materials are best to prepare and show on a website for a citizens’ assembly; the second looks at how tools can be used to bring evidence and external contributions into the debate, without diluting the representative nature of how participants were selected.
The handbook also describes an approach we helped with at the assembly in Test Valley. Discussions at pre-evidence sessions were recorded in argument maps for reference during the event.
This thinking has led into our work on the UK’s climate assembly helping proceedings, evidence and outputs to be transparent and available to everyone who is interested.
Since that project, for fairly obvious reasons, many organisations that previously focused on offline deliberation are now looking to pivot rapidly into how to run online deliberation. Involve has a good guide as to the range of tools and approaches that can be useful.
We are continuing to research and think about how citizens can be more integral to decision making, and what the appropriate role of technology is in making this happen. You can subscribe to our research newsletter to hear more:
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The House of Lords Select Committee on Democracy and Digital Technologies has released its report: Digital Technology and the Resurrection of Trust.
The recommendations can be seen online, but we were pleased to see a point taken up from our friends at Democracy Club, that there should be more open data about elections, candidates and polling stations so focus can be on providing that information to citizens rather than sourcing it.
This recommendation in particular reflects mySociety thinking:
Technology can play an important role in engaging people with democratic processes. Parliament and government, at all levels, should not seek to use technology simply to reduce costs, and must ensure that appropriate technology is used to enhance and enrich democratic engagement.
Through our research and practical work in the last few years, we have been concerned with finding the appropriate place for technology in addressing problems.
Digital solutions have enormous potential to scale cheaply (and have powerful uses in democratic transparency), but also have uneven engagement and require different skill sets to manage. Where digital tools allow more efficiency, this should enable resources to be redirected towards improving the overall quality of the exercise.
As we argued last year when we were looking at digital tools and democratic participation:
Where using a tool can bring down other costs, those funds can be redeployed towards outreach and other real world activities to broaden participation. The use of digital tools must be understood as part of the whole system, which involves gauging not just what the tool does, but the effort and time it can free up to address other priorities.
The problem of citizens and communities being excluded from the political process will rarely be fixed by a digital tool alone, but when correctly aligned with democratic efforts to involve people in decision making, they can be a powerful part of the solution.
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Photo credit: Photo by Ciel Cheng on Unsplash