As you’re probably all too aware, it’s now more than 10 months since the UK went into the first covid-19 lockdown. That means it’s about nine months since MPs began to participate in business in the Commons Chamber via video link, thanks to the extraordinary hard work of our colleagues in the Broadcasting Unit and PDS.
The first post we wrote about Hansard’s coronavirus experiences was way back in April last year, before any virtual proceedings in the Commons Chamber. We also published a post about reporting select committees that meet virtually. But we’ve yet to tell you about the changes we have had to make to report virtual proceedings or the things we’ve learnt during these challenging times. You might even have noticed a couple of these adjustments yourself from reading Hansard.
Things that look different to us
1 - The Chamber...obviously...
If you’ve watched any proceedings in the Commons on TV or online, you’ll have seen some changes. The way the Chamber looks and feels now is even clearer from our bird’s eye view above the Speaker’s Chair. In “normal” times, the Chamber feels like Grand Central station or—perhaps less romantically—Clapham Junction. MPs are continually on their way in or out, and there’s a constant undercurrent of murmuring and chatter. It's not just the green benches (and the floor) that are usually packed during PMQs, Budget day or debates on contentious legislation. The press gallery, where we sit, bustles with journalists. Across the Chamber, the public gallery is filled with schoolchildren, students and curious tourists.
Now the public gallery is closed, the press gallery is almost empty and there are often fewer than 10 MPs in the Chamber. In fact, there was recently an Adjournment debate in which not one participant was physically present. Social distancing and hygiene measures are in place. And, of course, there's the nine giant screens displaying MPs from across the country. The novelty of seeing people in a different context has certainly caused some amusement. And this has been the source of some jokes from Members in the Chamber that might not stand the test of time in Hansard—at least, not without reference to the video.
For example, the headset worn by Bob Blackman MP, making him indistinguishable from an airline pilot, has been the source of some gentle teasing, resulting in eight Hansard references to him “landing a question” by Mr Speaker between June and December 2020. You may groan—we’re all struggling for entertainment these days...
2 - Our log (the way we make notes)
Before the pandemic, individual reporters in the Chamber took their own log of proceedings with pen and paper before typing up their chunk of proceedings. Now a team of just three staff are present in the Chamber throughout each day, making a log for the rest of the reporters who are at home. Reporters watch Parliament Live to see what’s going on, but the cameras don’t necessarily show the whole picture, so the log is important. Doing it this way makes the job harder for reporters—it can be frustrating not actually witnessing your turn and being able to solve all your own problems—and for the people logging. But using Word Online so that reporters can see the log being created in real time is time-efficient and user-friendly. It’s still important to have a back-up option, though. In fact, recent network problems and low batteries have meant resorting to good old pen and paper for a couple of hours.
3 - Our interaction with MPs
Another job of the loggers is to send MPs queries that they think might help the reporter, which can be particularly crucial when virtual connections are poor. Sending query notes to MPs—and specifically getting answers back—takes a bit longer than usual, because we’re doing it digitally to avoid any physical contact. That might seem counter-intuitive because email is fast, but I’ll explain.
Reporters normally send handwritten notes to MPs while they’re in the Chamber—as soon as the “can’t google that” bell rings in our head. MPs are used to this and it’s hard for them to miss a Doorkeeper personally presenting them with an envelope. But just think how busy an MP’s email inbox is. So if your MP happens to mention you in the House of Commons and you’re eager to show your friends your name in Hansard, but we’ve spelt it wrong, it's not because your MP hasn't bothered to tell us. And it’s not because we haven’t bothered to find out. It’s just a communication lag. Once we’re updated, all corrections are made.
Things that look different to you
4 - [V] for virtual participation
When you read debates online, you might notice that some MPs have a [V] next to their name. This means that they were not physically present in the Chamber, but contributing virtually. It appears next to the MP’s name the first time they speak in the piece of business you’re reading, whether that’s in a debate or in question time.
5 - [Inaudible.]
This one was a bit of a punch in the guts for most Hansard reporters. We take great pride in identifying every word that a Member says. We listen extremely carefully in the Chamber, send notes to Members if we think we might have misheard a word and gather around one other’s computers to discuss hard-to-hear phrases. But that’s more difficult when we’re reporting alone from home, and sometimes several words in a row might be completely missing due to a patchy connection, so we had to do something exceptional for Hansard: introduce [Inaudible.] The proof is in the graph below. That little outlier before lockdown, in February last year, is the search incorrectly picking up an instance of the word “inaudible”, rather than our “stage direction”.
6 - Suspensions
Perhaps you’re working at home during lockdown. In between Zoom calls, pretending you understand your 11-year-old's maths lesson and sweating over a home workout video, you put your feet up in front of the TV and decide to see what’s going on in the Commons today, right? But, what’s this? Just a picture of a clock? It must be over already... Wait! Don’t switch to “Bargain Hunt” yet. The likelihood is that the sitting is just suspended for a couple of minutes. “Phew”, I hear you whisper.
Suspensions are fairly unusual in the Commons Chamber. But if you browse through a day’s Hansard from the past few months, you’ll see a lot of “Sitting suspended.” Sittings are suspended between most pieces of business to allow for the sanitising of the Dispatch Boxes and any other surfaces that might have been touched, and to give Members who are physically present time and space to enter and exit the Chamber in a manner that is safe for them and for the staff of the House.
Things we’ve learnt
7 - Patience
Everyone in the world will have had their patience tested at some point over this pandemic, and we’re no exception. Whether we’re facing tech struggles at home, or waiting patiently for an MP to read our email so that we can confirm to our sub-editor whether their constituent’s name is Graham Smith or Grahame Smyth, most things seem to take a little bit longer remotely—even if they don’t. I imagine that when life returns closer to “normality”, the occupants of the Hansard reporters room will be as serene as Zen monks. And I’m quite sure that it will last...
8 - Adaptability
We always knew that we were great at teamwork, but this experience has really shown that. Whether working at home or in the Palace of Westminster, everyone at Hansard has pitched in to get the job done and there has been a real sense of “all hands on deck”. The challenges of home working, and a heavy workload caused by Brexit and coronavirus, pushed us to capacity. We were short staffed before the pandemic hit, and training new reporters is time and resource-intensive. We managed to run a short training course for Committee Reporters in early autumn and we’ve recently closed applications for five new Parliamentary Reporters to top up our complement.
The covid-19 pandemic has forced workplaces everywhere to make changes—in some cases, changes that might not have seemed desirable or achievable previously. Some of our pandemic working practices work for us and some don’t. Some work for some people, but not for others. We haven’t yet decided which bits we’re going to keep, which bits we’re going to ditch and which bits we’re going to work on. We’ve formed a working group to consider everything we’ve learnt, from everyone’s perspective, and to suggest options for the future.
9 - Yoga
I can’t speak for my colleagues, but logging the Chamber in a pandemic directly resulted in me taking up yoga, which has changed my life—in a good way. Long story short: with three people spending the day in the Chamber, instead of 16, you spend a lot more time sat in the Press Gallery than before. And it’s not that comfortable for people who slouch, like me. The seats don’t have backs, and national heritage considerations mean we’re not really in a position to make structural changes. We’ve experimented with various postural aids and colleagues have adopted their favourites. But mine is daily yoga practice. And about once a week I’m perfecting the downward-gazing Hansard reporter.