https://commonshansard.blog.parliament.uk/2020/05/27/hansard-virtual-select-committees/

Hansard: virtual Select Committees

In a previous post, we described how Hansard staffmostly working from home – had reported the Chamber at the start of the coronavirus crisis in the UK. So much has changed in parliamentary proceedings in the weeks since then, and we have adapted our working practices to keep pace and produce our reports as usual. 

Most of you are probably aware that business in the Commons Chamber has been conducted in a hybrid format for the past month or so; there is capacity for up to 50 MPs to be present in the Chamber, and all others who wish to contribute have appeared virtually via Zoom. But virtual sittings in the Commons actually kicked off in Select Committees, way back at the end of March. (Remember Marchbefore the clocks changed and the sun came out, when we all roamed free and embraced one another in the rain?) Many more virtual Select Committees then took place during the Easter recess, and they continue to meet in this way. This post includes two perspectives of our formative experiences of virtual business. 

Logging a Virtual Committee

Charlie Browne, House Reporter 

It's Thursday 26 March, and the Health and Social Care Committee is holding the first ever public Select Committee sitting to be conducted entirely over Zoom. Jeremy Hunt is chairing the Committee from the parliamentary estate, while the other Committee members and witnesses join the meeting remotely from their homes or offices. 

And we’re here too, as with any Committee that Hansard is reporting. By “here” I mean that three of us, plus one reserve – just in case – are in our separate homes, logged into the Zoom meeting, happily anonymous behind black screens stating “Hansard note taker”. I think we’ve probably chosen this moniker because no one would know what we were doing if we went with “Hansard logger”. People might wonder if we were felling trees, or something. Nevertheless, logging is what we’re trying to do. That is, making a record – or log – that reporters can use in conjunction with an audio recording, to figure out exactly who is speaking and what’s going on. I say “trying” because this is the first time we’ve dealt with a virtual Committee, so we’re working it out as we go.

Jeremy Hunt chairing the first remote sitting of the Health and Social Care Committee, screenshot from parliamentive.tv

Everyone helping out  

This wouldn’t normally even be my job. I’m a reporter, not a sub-editor. But I’m helping today because I have experience of Zoom meetings. A positive aspect of lockdown has been that development activities have cropped up all over the place.  

Trial and error 

First, we try using Hansard’s customised version of Word, thinking that we will helpfully be able to include the metadata that reporters usually insert into their turns (among other things, this metadata results in you being able to search the Hansard website effectively – to find out what your MP said yesterday, for example.) But it’s just too slow and difficult for us to keep up with the Committee 

Next, we try using plain Word files, but again this ends up being too slow. Finally, we decide to produce an online Word document that we can all edit at the same time, and realise that this is the way forward. It’s much easier to take over from one another, and to help colleagues to correct formatting errors and typos as they press on with the job.

Sub-Editor Helen's cat, Valentine, being very helpful during lockdown*

Backup 

We’re operating a rota of one person logging electronically, one person making a back-up pen and paper log, and one person taking a break. We switch roles every half hour or so, communicating throughout on Skype for Business. This makes it far easier to get distracted than if I were logging in a Committee room without the company of colleagues. Noting which Members are speaking is simpler, because their face is at the centre of my screen (in some Committee Rooms, we don’t have the best view of all participants), but I do find that I’m having to work a lot harder to focus on the arguments. 

I’m relieved that one of my colleagues is on standby, as the tablet I’m using to watch the Committee on suddenly fails me and needs to be restarted. But I’m also conscious that it will not be realistic for us to keep up this level of staffing when there are many more Select Committees sitting. 

The Committee overruns by over an hour (no complaints – this is the Health Committee at the height of a pandemic!), so I’m glad we built the breaks into the rota. Time to feed the cat. 

Reporting a Virtual Committee

Jenny Hilder, Parliamentary Reporter 

So far, so normal. It’s Friday morning and I’ve just put my name down to report some of yesterday’s Health and Social Care Committee sitting. As usual, I set up my five-minute turn (the chunk of debate I am responsible for reporting) in Hansard’s customised version of Word and find the log, which will help me to find my place in the audio and let me know who was speaking when. I load up the audio and press my foot pedal to make it play, but then realise I’ve left the radio on. 

Home working

I’m at home – just like most of the Committee members and witnesses, in fact. The coronavirus pandemic means that I am working at my kitchen table with my laptop jostling for space next to a couple of sickly looking houseplants. Luckily, our remote working systems are holding up better than they are, despite the short notice, thanks to the hard work of Hansard’s and Parliament’s IT experts. 

I’m pleased to find that the audio, which I’ve downloaded from parliamentlive.tv, is good quality, so I can easily hear what everyone is saying. That’s important because a Select Committee transcript is about recording the precise testimony of expert witnesses, which could inform a Select Committee report and, ultimately, Government action.

Jenny's home workstation. Hector the cat can be glimpsed taking his daily lockdown exercise in the sun.

Challenges

There are a few hitches. One witness has a poor internet connection and their audio is patchy, but the Chair is quick to stop them and ask them to try again. It’s also tricky if people speak over one another. If that happened in normal circumstances, I would watch the video feed to work out what was said, or turn up the volume to disentangle one voice from another. Both those things are more difficult over Zoom. The other thing I’d try is asking my colleagues for help... 

The company of colleagues is the main thing I miss. Teamwork is a huge part of our work, especially when it comes to listening to tricky sentences or hard-to-hear words. With my usual deskmates scattered around the M25, I send out a plea via email instead: “Will you listen to something for me?” And while I wait for a reply, I can finally water those houseplants.

 

*n.b. Valentine did not actually partake in any logging duties

 If you’re interested in how Hansard has dealt with the hybrid proceedings in the Chamber, we’ll be publishing a post about our experiences in the coming weeks 

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