1. TheyWorkForYou alerts are helping keep prisoners informed

    The TheyWorkForYou alerts system will send you an email every time your chosen keyword is mentioned in Parliament. A recent survey revealed that this system is being used by a broad range of different organisations and individuals. We’ve been speaking to a few of them to find out more.

    First of these is Ben Leapman, Editor of Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners and detainees, circulated to all of the UK’s 141 prisons. 

    A unique publication

    As Ben explains, “Each issue includes news, features, advice, puzzles – and eight pages of readers’ letters, which provide a fascinating insight into what’s on the minds of men and women behind bars. 

    “We’re a not-for-profit publication and a wholly-owned subsidiary of the New Bridge Foundation charity, which was founded in 1956 to create links between the offender and the community. We’re funded by advertising revenue. As far as we’re aware, no other country has a national prison newspaper. We’re unique!”

    As Editor, Ben commissions articles, decides which stories go on which pages, fact-checks, and plenty more. But he also writes news stories. We were, of course, interested to hear how TheyWorkForYou alerts can help with this.

    Parliamentary mentions of prisons

    “I use the alerts service to monitor for the keywords “prison” – it’s as simple as that,” says Ben. 

    Inside Time logo“Prisons are a crucial public service, but sadly they don’t get as much attention from politicians or voters as schools and hospitals – it’s a case of “out of sight, out of mind”. So the volume of daily mentions is manageable, and I’m able to look at them all.”

    These simple alerts have resulted in Inside Time stories such as this one, about an innovative scheme to reduce violence, being trialled at 18 prisons. 

    “I don’t think there has been any public announcement or press release about it,” says Ben: “I hadn’t heard of it until I saw the parliamentary question.”

    And here’s another recent story, this time prompted by a House of Lords debate in which Lord Farmer, who wrote two Government reports on the importance of family visits to the rehabilitation of prisoners, says that Covid restrictions in prison visits halls are doing harm.

    Stories can arise from all types of parliamentary activity: “I’ve found news stories in Commons and Lords debates, Select Committee hearings, written answers to Parliamentary questions in the Commons and Lords, Scottish Parliament proceedings, even the proceedings of Bill committees.”

    Communication is key

    Finally, we asked Ben what he thinks the impact of such stories is.

    “I’m a news journalist – I think it’s always important that people are well-informed. For the general public in a democracy, exposure to news is essential so that people can cast their vote in a well-informed way. 

    “In England, prisoners are denied the vote – but there are other ways that reading news can be a direct benefit. Say we report on a new course or initiative that’s happening at a particular prison. If one of our readers reads that story and likes the sound of it, they could apply to transfer to that prison – or they could ask staff why it’s not happening at their prison.

    “Prisons are rather secretive places, they’re not great at communication – so it’s often the case that both prisoners and prison staff are unaware of things going on around their prison or in other prisons, both the good and the bad.”

    Thanks very much to Ben for giving us these insights into how he uses TheyWorkForYou alerts in his work. 

    It’s certainly one area that we’d never have imagined before he filled in our survey — but we are very glad to know that our services are helping with the admirable aims of Inside Time.

  2. TheyWorkForYou quietly provides essential services for civil society — and beyond

    When we talk about our website TheyWorkForYou, it’s often to point out how it helps the ‘everyday’ citizen keep up with what their elected representatives are doing in Parliament: you don’t need to be an expert to see how your MP has voted, or what they’ve contributed to debates.

    This is one invaluable aspect of the site, but it ignores another large and equally important function. It’s an aspect that we haven’t much highlighted, but that could, without overstatement, be said to be underpinning civil society.

    We recently ran a survey of subscribers to TheyWorkForYou’s alerts system, which made it clear just how much heavy lifting the site is doing for charities and small organisations. Indeed, it is providing a service that many rely on — free subscription to alerts on any keyword, so that you receive an email when it is mentioned in Parliament. Despite recent improvements to the official Hansard site, respondents still indicate that they find TheyWorkForYou’s provision more useful than Parliament’s offering. 

    So it’s not too much to say that TheyWorkForYou is a vital service which would cause substantial fallout to this sector if it were to be discontinued; or, more positively, that if mySociety had the resource to update the site, make improvements and promote it to more of the types of organisations that would otherwise struggle to access the Parliamentary process, hundreds more charities and campaigns would be empowered to affect policy for the better. TheyWorkForYou is lowering the bar for small, often underfunded organisations to engage with Parliament.

    Perhaps more surprisingly, it is also helping those who work within Parliament to access the data they need to perform their roles.

    Charitable and service organisations

    We are too small to do any lobbying or to afford a paid-for service so this helps keep us in touch”

    People working in charities told us that they used keyword alerts to track all mentions of themes relevant to their work, such as words around domestic violence; asylum and immigration; religious persecution; accessibility; nature conservation, and many more. 

    “Without the site we might have to pay for a service, or give up trying to make our voice heard”.

    Tracking which representatives mention keywords can help charities in identifying potentially interested parliamentarians to connect with, but can also be directly useful in organisations that deliver services, like advising people on their rights.  

    “The alerts are invaluable as we don’t have the capacity to follow what’s happening in Parliament […] alerting us to new developments and detailed responses we may otherwise have missed.”

    Our email alert system helps distribute the latest policy via subscriptions to written questions and answers. For instance, a child poverty group uses a subscription to written answers from Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) ministers to get clearer details of policy and policy changes. This helps them conveyup to date information to clients & even get benefit decisions changed!” 

    Keyword searches can give indications of the interests of representatives, and potential MPs and Lords to try and make contact with. Better flows of information can help positive feedback loops between concerned MPs and local civil society. In the other direction, civil society organisations and campaigners can amplify the impact of questions MPs ask.

    “We find your service very easy to navigate & a critical time-saver. It is invaluable in terms of alerting us to new developments and detailed responses we may otherwise have missed.”

    One charity uses the site to provide briefings to colleagues before meeting MPs or looking up committee members when writing a consultation response. Where relationships are more established, making written questions more visible helps civil society groups suggest written questions to MPs, because they can better match the language and style.

    I find the emails that collate [Parliamentary Questions] of specific topics incredibly helpful. It’s a brilliant service” 

    Inside government and Parliament

    “I also use TheyWorkForYou to search and reference hansard as it is a lot more user friendly than the Parliament hansard website.” 

    Perhaps more surprising was the degree to which people working within Parliament are still using TheyWorkForYou.

    For some time after TheyWorkForYou’s launch, we were aware that it was being used by civil servants and MPs’ offices. We took this as a sign that we were offering something that the official channels did not; however, in recent years the Hansard site has improved greatly (perhaps, in part, due to TheyWorkForYou’s example) and we thought that this type of usage might have dropped off accordingly.

    Members of Parliament

    “I rely on the alerts to stay up to date with any written questions or debates relating to the interests of the MP I work for.” 

    MPs’ offices use the service to check if people live in the constituency, and for notifications of recent speeches by their or nearby MPs.

    “It’s the quickest way to keep up with any questions or votes that my boss has participated in.” 

    Information from TheyWorkForYou is also used as part of preparation of reports, media releases, and to support correspondence with constituents

    Civil servants

    Civil servants similarly have an interest in understanding the history and views of their ministers. Respondents to our survey included civil servants from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, Ministry of Justice, Cabinet Office, Foreign Office, Department for Work and Pensions and the Department for Education. 

    They use the service to keep track of Parliamentary mentions of their department and work. Inside the DWP (one of the larger departments), one response came from a civil servant who used the alerts to shape service delivery

    While charities highlighted that examples of existing written questions helped them draft new ones, they are also useful to civil servants in writing responses to those questions as they can see how similar questions have been answered previously. 

    Local government

    “As I’m an unpaid elected member your service effectively provides me with free parliamentary services which I value, especially the alert function so I can see what our MP acts on.”

    Local and devolved elected officials said they use the site to keep track of developments in Westminster

    Other uses

    Another notable group of users were academics and researchers. This includes those who study Parliament and government directly, but more broadly is useful to academics to help keep an up to date view of how MPs talk about their area of work in research and teaching

    TheyWorkForYou is used by large and small private sector organisations to be better informed on policy changes. In some cases this includes companies who may be able to afford access to a closed, paid-for monitoring system – but lowering the barrier to entry means making it easier for everyone. Providing a service good enough for those who could afford to pay is encouraging about the quality of service being provided to those who could not.

    In one private sector example that is worth highlighting, an accountancy firm uses TheyWorkForYou as part of due diligence checks on politically exposed persons. Improving the ease and quality of accessing official information about MPs’ activities (in particular given concerns about written questions and second jobs) enhances wider legal regimes around money laundering and anti-corruption. 

    TheyWorkForYou and the Parliament website

    Our survey did not specifically ask about this, but some respondents indicated why they used TheyWorkForYou rather than the official Parliament website. It is generally still serving its original role as a more functional version of Hansard. 

    “Primary use is a better Hansard than Hansard (still, though Hansard has caught up a lot)” – Public sector organisation

    There were several specific complaints about the search function of the official site. 

    “Its [the Parliament site’s] search function barely works at all.”  – Business consultancy firm

    In some of these cases the official site may improve in future (improving the search seems a very attainable goal), but in other cases there has been backsliding, such as availability of the register of interests. TheyWorkForYou has value as a backstop on the official service where it has flaws, but also in providing services like the email alerts that go above and beyond what the official service is ever likely to offer. 

    Image: Monisha Selvakumar

  3. MPs’ Register of Financial Interests

    Donations to MPs are in the news again, and TheyWorkForYou allows users to easily see what any individual MP has received. In fact, the site has carried a copy of the Register of Members’ Financial Interests (in which, as Parliament’s website explains, “MPs must register within 28 days any interest which someone might reasonably consider to influence their actions or words as an MP“) since at least 2005.

    This hasn’t always been straightforward, and has recently become slightly trickier.

    The official register is published as static HTML or PDF, with a simple list of all MPs. We scrape that HTML, convert it into light XML and import it onto the site – which means you can easily see not only the current entry on an individual MP’s page, but also see a complete history of their register without having to view many different copies of the official register.

    The XML contains all the data from the official register, but it only parses out basic information like the category of interest. Providing more detail would be great, but is quite a hard problem to tackle.

    Recently, Parliament has started using Cloudflare’s bot-protection technology. We assume this change was made with good reason, but as a side effect it has prevented effective scraping of the website, as Cloudflare don’t distinguish between good and bad bots or scrapers.

    We know that Parliament was working on an API at least as far back as 2016, from their now-removed data blog, but if this is still in development, it is yet to see the light of day. What they said at the time still stands: their website is still the only means of accessing this data. We don’t think it’s necessary to protect purely static HTML pages such as the Register in quite such a heavy-handed manner.

    We do have ways of continuing to get the Register, and TheyWorkForYou is still up to date, so anyone else who has been scraping the official site and has hit issues because of this is welcome to use our data, either via the XML or our API.

    Image: Adeolu Eletu

  4. Fish passports? Any fin is possible

    People making FOI requests are sometimes accused of embarking on a ‘fishing expedition’  — looking for news stories without a clear idea of what they will dredge up — but a recent request on WhatDoTheyKnow asked for something very specific.

    “Could you state”, it asked, “the number of passports issued to British fish since Brexit proper began on 1st Jan 2021?”.

    This request was not as fishy as it might at first appear: it was based on a statement in Parliament. On 14 January, commenting on Brexit and its impact on the fishing industry, Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg said:

    “The key is that we have our fish back: they are now British fish, and they are better and happier fish for it.”

    Ordinarily, we discourage what might be seen as frivolous use of FOI via our site, but as it happens this request was processed by the authority without complaint. They replied in a straightfaced manner:

    “Her Majesty’s Passport Office does not hold the information which you have requested. Animal classification is not captured as part of the passport application process.”

    While this might not have been exemplary use of our service, citizens have the right to make requests that clarify puzzling statements from our elected representatives, or to simply highlight that they are incomprehensible.

    One of the team says, “It’s understandable that the public might ponder, ‘what did he really mean?’ It could be something of a floccinaucinihilipilification, but it might also relate to a ‘catch certificate’, or one of the many other new items of bureaucracy that have appeared in recent months.”

    Another WhatDoTheyKnow team member added, “My reading of that response is that the Government aren’t sure that everyone with a British passport is actually human… and some proportion might well in fact be fish.”

    We, however, think that’s something of a red herring, and we’d advise that anyone seriously wanting to surface information about piscine issues might have more luck sending a request to DEFRA, CEFAS, or the Animal and Plant Health Agency.

     —

    Image: Fredrik Öhlander

  5. We believe in the right to protest

    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.

    Image: Steve Eason (CC by-nc/2.0)

  6. Connecting parliaments: the opportunities, risks and barriers of digital transformation

    Download the new research report Connected Parliaments here.

    When TheyWorkForYou launched back in 2004, it was a world first. Never before had parliamentary data been used to power a digital tool designed specifically for citizens to better understand how their MPs were representing them in parliament.

    Innovations like TheyWorkForYou and our open source code Pombola, which was designed to help people elsewhere run their own parliamentary monitoring sites, have helped make mySociety a bit of a global expert in the digital transformation of parliaments and parliamentary data, and over the years we have been working a lot with international parliaments to help them to realise their own digital potential, so that their people can better hold them to account.

    One of our key partners in this work is Westminster Foundation for Democracy, alongside whom we have worked with parliaments from Morocco to Uzbekistan to Myanmar. While each parliament is fascinatingly unique, there are very common opportunities, risks and barriers that arise in digital transformation, and an exploration of these themes is the subject of a new report published today.

    ‘Connected Parliaments’, published by Westminster Foundation for Democracy during Participation and Openness Week 2021, is a jointly authored report by WFD and me, mySociety’s Head of Research. It considers how local and contextual factors affect the digitisation of parliamentary business, and the potential for digital tools to empower citizens to better hold their political institutions to account.

    The report can be accessed here.

    Image: Fabio Bracht

  7. Digitising parliaments: it took a pandemic

    Thanks to all who attended the second in our series of TICTeC Seminars this week: and if you weren’t able to attend, catch up with the video or read the collaborative notes taken during the session.

    Many thanks, too, to our panelists, who spoke so knowledgeably and engagingly about the experiences of parliaments around the world that have been forced to make a quick switch to digital technologies during the COVID months.

    Julia Keutgen of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, Avinash Bikha of the Centre for Innovation in Parliament and Lord Purvis of Tweed from the UK’s House of Lords were led in conversation by mySociety’s Head of Research Dr Rebecca Rumbul.

    We heard about parliaments in Morocco, Brazil, Chile, the Maldives, and of course the UK, with a rounded view of the benefits of quick digitisation against the challenges and inconveniences. Naturally, parliaments and their members come in all shapes and sizes around the world, and their readiness or suitability for transferring to online methods vary accordingly.

    On the negative side, some representatives have struggled to adapt, especially if older; and all may be missing the nuances of face to face conversations with their colleagues.

    But there are positives too, with MPs able to spend more time in their constituencies helping constituents, and (close to mySociety’s heart, this one) a quicker turnaround of digital data on voting results.

    Watch the video to hear plenty more detail on this engrossing topic.

    The third and final TICTeC Seminar in our autumn 2020 series will focus on civic tech’s role in the climate crisis and will take place next month — date TBC. Sign up for TICTeC updates and we’ll send you an alert once timings are confirmed.

    Finally, if you work on, use, fund or research civic technology, we would be really grateful if you could spare some time to help us shape the future of TICTeC by filling in this survey.

    Image: Joakim Honkasalo.

  8. Keep on top of the new Parliament

    Whether or not you voted for the MP you ended up with, it pays to keep a careful eye on what they’re saying and how they’re voting.

    Democracy works best as a model when we, the public, hold our MPs to account. If you see them acting or speaking in a way that’s contrary to your views, tell them — otherwise, how will they know that anyone feels differently?

    But you’ll only be able to do that if you know what’s going on.

    Here’s one of the services that you might not know about, but which is a crucial tool for anyone wanting to stay up to date with Parliament:

    Alerts

    Sign up to an alert, and we’ll send you an email every time your MP speaks in a debate, or votes. Or, if there’s a topic you care about, we can send you an email every time it’s mentioned in Parliament.

    You can set up any number of alerts, to comprehensively cover your interests.

    What to do

    First of all, visit this page if you’d like to follow your own MP. Just input your postcode and email address, and you’re all set.

    Or, if you’d rather follow a word or phrase, follow the simple instructions in this post.

    Already signed up?

    One fifth of the UK has a new MP after the election. If you already have an MP alert set up, but your MP has changed, you also need to visit this page to switch over.

    And if you already have some other alerts set up, and you want to refine them, there are instructions here.

    Useful for everyone

    Email alerts are a really simple way to keep informed. They can be halted or paused at any time to suit your needs, and if Parliament isn’t sitting, your chosen MP isn’t active or your keywords don’t come up in a debate, you won’t receive anything on those days.

    It takes just a few seconds to scan the email, and, if you’re interested in the content, a couple of minutes to click through and read the content.

    Useful for businesses, campaigns and charities

    Alerts can be equally helpful if you work for an organisation that would benefit from knowing whenever your field is mentioned in Parliament.

    If an MP shows sympathy for your cause, you could get in touch and see if you might work together; you might ask them to submit a question to the House, come and see your organisation in action, or help you to forge useful links.

    Or if they say something misguided, you can put them right with a press release or a letter inviting them to come and see the facts for themselves.

    Some organisations run campaigns around upcoming legislation, asking their supporters to get in touch with their own MPs with their experiences and information that might help inform their vote.

    Image: ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/ Stephen Pike (CC by-nc/2.0)

  9. Making votes easier to understand

    Parliamentary votes (or ‘divisions’ as they’re known in the lingo) aren’t always the easiest things to understand; yet, as we know from our email inbox, they’re often what our users want to know about most.

    Supported by a grant from Open Society Foundations, we’re now displaying  MPs’, Lords’ and Scottish Parliament votes on TheyWorkForYou more graphically, making them easier to understand at a glance:

    (Click the image to see this vote in situ.)

    For a long time TheyWorkForYou would display divisions as a plain list, usually at or near the end of a debate. When a user wrote to ask us how they could see how a specific representative had voted on the issue of the day, we’d point them towards the relevant section of the right page — but of course, it’s much better if you can find the information for yourself.

    Things improved a little when we created the Recent Votes page, and separated out information for each vote onto their own pages. At that point, though, we were only displaying votes which counted towards the topics we cover on representatives’ Voting Record pages: in other words, those which helped us assess MPs’ and Lords’ stances on issues such as university tuition fees, fox-hunting, etc.

    Now, with this new tranche of work, we’ve been able to make the following improvements:

    • All votes are included on the Recent Votes page, not just ones feeding the voting records.
    • The voting breakdowns are shown graphically, so you can see straight away what the rough proportions were, and to what extent each party’s members made up each side. It should also be easy to see immediately when a representative votes differently to the majority of their party!
    • As we blogged recently, we’re including information on voting for anyone subscribed to MP alerts.

    If you’d really like to understand the full context of each vote, we hope you’ll click through from these pages and read the preceding debates.

    We hope you’ll now find it a lot easier to understand votes — and this certainly feels like a timely addition, given the interesting voting activity of recent days.


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    Image: Katie McNabb

  10. How your MP voted… in your email inbox

    If you subscribe to emails that tell you every time an MP speaks via TheyWorkForYou, then you may have noticed a change in today’s mailout.

    From today, we’re trialing alerts not just when your chosen MP has spoken, but also when and how they voted — and what could be more timely, what with the dramatic votes of last night! As always, you can click the link in the email to see further context.

    The alerts also cover votes in the House of Lords, and in the Scottish Parliament.

    This is one part of the work we’re able to do towards enhancing access to democracy, supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. It’s a feature we’ve wanted to add for a long time — not to mention something that you’ve been asking for — and as we hope you’ll agree, it certainly adds to our overarching goal of trying to make the goings-on in Parliament more accessible to everyone.

    Find out more about votes

    Generally speaking, you can check the Recent Votes page on TheyWorkForYou to see whether your MP was present for a division; or if you know what date it was held on, you can go to the calendar, click through to the relevant debate, and find the divisions usually near or at the end of the page.

    How to sign up for alerts

    Not signed up to follow your MP’s activity in Parliament yet? It’s very simple: just go to this page and input your postcode.

    Enjoy tracking your MP’s votes, and watch this space for more voting-related improvements coming soon.

    Image: Luca Micheli