Like everyone in the world in these times of social distancing, Hansard staff are having to find ways of working differently to get our job done. So far, this has meant two things. First, with most staff based at home, figuring out how to adapt our normal working methods so that we can continue to report business taking place in the Commons Chamber. And secondly, reacting quickly to come up with new ways to cover parliamentary proceedings – currently, Select Committees – that are themselves being conducted in new ways. We want to share with you how that experience is going. In this post, I’ll concentrate on how we’ve reported the main Chamber, and next month you can read about our evolving experience with Select Committees conducted via Zoom.
It’s Monday 23 March 2020 – the day on which the Government announce a strict lockdown across the UK, and the hefty Coronavirus Bill goes through all its stages in the House of Commons. I’ve been working from home for several days now, after developing mild coronavirus symptoms early last week. In fact, nearly all Hansard reporters have now been working from home for a few days to keep ourselves and others safe. We’ve set up home workstations with networked laptops, foot pedals (to control the audio we are listening to while also typing) and headphones. And for of a lot of us, at least one furry feline whose new sole purpose in life is to sabotage the words of our elected representatives by being cute and then trampling across the keyboard.
A necessary presence
While a lot of my colleagues have joined the ranks of the 10-second commuters, a small number of sub-editors are still maintaining a presence in the Chamber. They are producing a log of proceedings and carrying out other tasks that are usually the job of reporters in the Chamber, such as contacting MPs to verify information that is difficult to check online. The documents are then scanned and uploaded to our shared drive so that we reporters can access them from home.
It is vital for us to have this presence in the Chamber to produce an accurate report. The cameras cannot possibly capture everything that is going on at once and the House of Commons is a lively place, even if there are notably fewer Members than usual sitting on the green benches today. We’re all watching parliamentlive.tv to see what is happening in the chunk of debate (or “turn”) that we’re each responsible for reporting. But our first official day of working from home demonstrated why Hansard’s presence in the Chamber is necessary. Those of you who were glued to the feed while self-isolating may have noticed that only one fixed camera was in use for a while. This was because a gas leak meant that camera operators had to be evacuated from their offices.
I’m a few turns into the day and it’s already the middle of the evening, as the House sits from 2.30pm on a Monday. I can glimpse one of the benefits of homeworking in the hours ahead – the lack of a commute. It really is nice not having to contemplate a journey home when business in the Chamber finishes late. I can also make a cup of tea in whichever cat-themed mug I choose. Oh, and my actual cats are here. That’s obviously the best bit.
Midnight. I’m close to finishing my final turn of the day. And let’s just say that there are...emotions. I’m appreciating my home comforts, but the overall experience is more challenging than our usual working practice. Off the parliamentary estate, the IT systems we use to produce our work are slightly slower. We’re finding ways around this, but it does require a bit more patience – a quality that I’m working on.
I also miss my colleagues. We’re a close-knit team and our work relies on strong communication. It’s much more laborious to send an email to 16 people asking, “Which Member read out a letter from their constituent who is a hairdresser?” than just to shout the same thing out in an office and get a more nuanced response. I’ve currently got about 10 different conversations pinging away on Skype for Business – a reminder that we do have the same level of communication, it’s just a bit different for now.
Trickiest turn in a while
But for me, the biggest challenge is something that I didn’t foresee. When things are hassle-free, it is easy to underestimate how much actually goes into something. Tonight I have been reminded of how many tiny acts of research we reporters carry out to complete a single turn. We often need to refer to an array of documents to ensure we have understood MPs’ arguments and accurately record the decisions made during the scrutiny of legislation. These documents can include Bills, amendment papers, Select Committee reports and many more. We also constantly refer to our own in-house style and procedure guides, and to previous debates in Hansard.
We usually do all this with the aid of a good-sized desktop monitor and even paper copies of documents, which are sometimes easier to search. Toggling between numerous browser tabs and PDFs on a laptop – while simultaneously responding to colleagues’ questions, and asking my own, via email and Skype for Business – is a new test for me. At 10.10 pm I landed myself with the beast of all procedural turns (no speeches, just a lot of decisions being made that I need to record accurately) and I’m still going as the clock strikes 12. The nature of this fast-tracked emergency legislation means that MPs have proposed a lot of last-minute amendments. Some of the text that I need to complete my work is therefore not as readily available as it is normally.
After numerous messages to ever-patient sub-editors, a lot of effort, the generous help of colleagues and even my partner dictating legislative jargon to me with no context whatsoever (Him: “What is this?” Me: “Just read it to me!”), I breathe out and commute back to the kitchen. I remind myself that that was an extreme example in extreme times; in three years of reporting the Chamber, I have thankfully never had a turn like that.
My thoughts turn to what will happen after the Easter break, as the UK will probably still be in coronavirus lockdown. The idea of a virtual Parliament has been mooted, but exactly what this would mean in practice is yet to be confirmed. We’ll be logging and reporting the first Select Committee evidence session conducted via Zoom in a couple of days’ time, and more are scheduled for the weeks ahead. Perhaps these sittings will provide a template for future business in the Chamber. We might also look to the example being set by other legislatures, such as the Welsh Assembly. I pour myself a stiff drink, happy in the knowledge that that really was a once-in-a-very-long-time kind of an evening and that Parliament will be going into recess in a couple of days, meaning no midnight finishes for a while.
If you want to know how Hansard has begun to handle the reporting of virtual Select Committee sittings, look out for future blog posts.