Hansard on the Internet

Hansard (the “edited verbatim report of proceedings” of the House of Commons and the House of Lords) has been online for a while. The official site currently has records of debates and answers to oral and written questions dating back to November 1988). The paper records date back a lot further of course, and it’s a huge relief that someone is putting older proceedings online in a public experiment on the Hansard prototype site.

For one thing, the moment when Mr Cash withdrew an unparliamentary remark (he called Mr Dalyell a “boring old twat“) in 1986 would otherwise have been very difficult to find, and would probably have involved trawling major libraries.

As well as searching for naughty words, I thought it would be appropriate to celebrate Hansard on the internet by finding early references to the internet in Hansard.

Do you remember when people still said things like “information superhighway” with a straight face? Here’s Mr. David Shaw on December 15th, 1994 making a brilliant speech about ‘Internet’. He actually makes some great points, but when it comes to helping his parliamentary colleagues understand (?) why it’s not a threat to Britain’s leisure industry he somehow manages to be slightly confusing about it.

We may ask why people should use the system. Sometimes it presents a challenge: at the conference that my hon. Friend the Minister and I attended recently, I found it quite enjoyable to challenge some of the industry’s specialists by asking them why people should want to communicate through the information super-highway rather than—like most people—having a good night out in a pub, restaurant or cinema. Why indeed? The traditional British methods of entertainment and communication have been established over many hundreds of years and are very successful; certainly I do not want the leisure industries in my constituency, such as pubs and restaurants, to be done out of their trade.

Most people realise, however, that the new service presents a tremendous opportunity—not just for communications within the local town or county but for worldwide communications, entertainment and sources of information. The only question is whether the information super-highway can be made as friendly as a visit to the local pub or restaurant in good company.

Anyone who has ever spent time scanning through the furiously adolescent comments left on YouTube videos will know that David Shaw’s dream of a “friendly” information super-highway has either not arrived yet or it came and went some time ago. The screenshot below shows the first 5 comments from a randomly selected ‘featured’ YouTube video.

youtubecomments

(Slightly offtopic, but the video in question, ‘Planning an overtake in Wales’ is a motorcycle training video. The person who posted it was bemused by the enormous number of comments which started arriving on his educational video after it was featured on the YouTube front page, saying he wish it hadn’t been and that he had initially been concerned by the volume of comments which made him think he’d “picked up a virus”. I feel for the guy.)

But back to the celebration of Hansard on the internet via finding the internet in Hansard. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Technology (Mr. Ian Taylor) here makes the classic mistake of confusing the potential audience with the actual audience when he tries to convince the house that this speech is likely to be read by every nethead in the world:

I am inspired by the fact that, rather than addressing a thinly attended House, I am probably addressing 30 million people through the Internet system. My hon. Friend undertook to make sure that his speech and mine were downloaded on to Internet. I feel that all of our words of wisdom this morning will get their just size of audience. The figure of 40 million Internet addicts around the world has been given, but I like to be conservative in these matters.

I am also able to tell the House that I have my own e-mail and Internet address. This is, I believe, a first in Government. I am the first Minister to be on Internet, and my address is taylor@mintech.demon.co.uk.

In case you were wondering, don’t bother emailing the first ever online-MP’s first ever email address. ‘PERM_FAILURE: DNS Error: Domain name not found‘.

The public prototype is for experimentation (e.g. don’t cite it as ‘Hansard’ yet) and goes back, with some gaps, currently to 1885. The plan seems to be for it to go back to 1804 by the end of this year (?). I do hope that happens, since I bet early 19th century swearing was top notch.

If you want to go back even further than 1804, there’s ‘PARL18C‘ (the 18th Century Official Parliamentary Publications Portal) which apparently contains over a million pages of Hansard from 1688 to 1834. There’s plenty to whet your appetite in this press release:

Sir Ron Cooke, Chairman of JISC, said: ‘This is an impressive resource which uses cutting-edge technology to make universally available materials of immense importance to the history of this country’.

and

Paul Seaward, director of the History of Parliament Trust said: ‘… These sources, vast in their scope and comprehensive in their coverage, are now available in an easily-searchable format, providing everyone with instant access to a treasure house of historical material’.

Even more tantalisingly, but belying the phrases “universally available” and “everyone” above, is the conclusion:

The JISC programme represents a total investment of more than £22m in the digitisation of high-quality online content, including sound, moving pictures, newspapers, census data, maps, archives, journals, parliamentary papers and cartoons for use by the UK further and higher education communities.

That last sentence is a clue to a major annoyance most people will have with PARL18C. Unless you are on a .ac.uk, .parliament.uk, .bl.uk, .tcd.ie, .ucd.ie, .ucc.ie, .ucg.ie or .nuim.ie network then you (like me) won’t be able to access it. The project is funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) whose mission is limited to supporting education and research. While I’m pleased that students, academics and researchers can access this treasure trove of information, I’m more than a little frustrated at not being able to explore what was being recorded in Hansard during the industrial revolution for myself.

That said, the 1804 – 2004 Hansard public prototype is open for all (thank you!), a what pleasing couple of hundred years of British parliamentary history it is. There’s even a Google Group, and source in case you want to make suggestions. The best of luck to Robert Brook and the rest of the team. This is a great project, and I wish it every success.

4 replies on “Hansard on the Internet”

  1. We need a system like this to record dinnertime conversations.

    I don’t want to take issue with those youtube commenters, but isn’t sarcasm as sub-category of irony? :-)

    Also, before I’d read this I would never have believed that unparliamentary was a real word.

  2. Of course, there is a very user-friendly Hansard site at http://www.theyworkforyou.com. It has debates and written answers from the Commons, Lords, NI Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Westminster Hall. It’s highly searchable and has email alerts and RSS feeds for everything you can search for.

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