A virtual symposium
After being unable to host delegates in Edinburgh in 2020, this year reporters and editors from the Scottish Parliament’s Official Report held the British-Irish Parliamentary Reporting Association’s (BIPRA) first virtual symposium, with more than 50 participants contributing across three days on Microsoft Teams.
BIPRA is made up of delegates from: the House of Lords and the House of Commons in Westminster; the States of Deliberation, Guernsey; Senedd Cymru in Wales; the Northern Ireland Assembly; the Houses of the Oireachtas in Ireland; the States of Jersey; Tynwald in the Isle of Man; and the online hosts, the Scottish Parliament. The symposium began with a welcome reflection from David McGill, Chief Executive of the Scottish Parliament, that parliamentary scrutiny, and therefore the accessibility and transparency of official reports, has never been more important than in the pandemic, and a reminder to take pride in the consistency of our work in this period. The first two days of this online symposium fittingly focused on the impact of Covid-19, which has dominated the content of official reports and the lives of their reporters and editors for the last 18 months.
Discussions commenced with representatives from each BIPRA member reporting on the experiences of their legislature since the last symposium. Charlie Browne delivered a fascinating presentation on the comprehensive remote working project at the House of Commons, which has used interviews, staff consultation and data analysis to evaluate the impact of home working in the pandemic and potential new ways of working. The key question raised was that of sustainability: remote working began in extreme circumstances, but could a hybrid system devised for the long term build on its benefits while maintaining fairness and mental and physical well-being?
Day one concluded with a session on organisational responses to the pandemic, with delegates discussing policies and guidance from their legislatures and teams in online break-out groups. As these groups reported back, it became clear that personal circumstances and feelings had limited the impact of some corporate policies. For example, several legislatures offered considerable financial support for home office equipment, but many delegates said that sharing space with family and thinking that home working would be short-lived prevented them from taking full advantage of this.
Working mindfully through the pandemic
Day two began by focusing on our individual experiences of working during the pandemic, as we completed online polls to express how we felt at the start of the pandemic and now. The results demonstrated that most people have become more settled working from home but that some still feel lonely, so it was unsurprising that many expressed a preference for hybrid working, although not every legislature has been able to offer that option. Delegates then discussed these results in small groups. This session indicated our continuing uncertainty about the pandemic, especially after past experiences of restrictions easing and then being reintroduced. Consequently, it was encouraging to hear about the activities people use to cope in these volatile circumstances; for example, many mentioned exercise as a way to improve well-being and build routine.
Adrienne Zitt (Scottish Parliament) gave a session on mindfulness that perfectly complemented delegates’ emphasis on improving well-being and handling uncertainty. Directing delegates to slow down and focus on gentle sensations, she sought to “turn the volume down” on worries, eliciting a noticeable calm among attendees, detectable even over Teams. The lecture by John Vice (House of Lords) spoke well to this atmosphere, focusing on the errors and pitfalls to which remote parliamentary sittings can be prone—and offering thoughts on how to deal with them (and how not to). Reminiscences about Members’ virtual contributions being interrupted by anything from barking dogs to wardrobe malfunctions highlighted how risky remote working can sometimes be, and, in making us laugh as much as it did, John’s lecture reminded us that, even when we are physically distant, humour can still bring us together.
New technologies, now and then
The third and final day opened with Jack Homer’s update on the House of Commons’ progress with automatic speech recognition technology. After a trial run, the Commons team found that expected problem areas, such as strong accents and fast-paced Committee exchanges, had yet to be ironed out. Nevertheless, the overall quality of the automated text had proved of great assistance to reporters: use of the trialled software saw a marked increase during lockdown (Jack speculated that it reduced some of the burdens of reporting during a time of stress) and slower, more predictable environments like Westminster Hall were found to suit the technology’s strengths well. James Inglis, a PhD student at St Andrews, carried on some of the themes of this talk in his concluding lecture on early typewriters. A particular highlight was the details of Parliament’s first official typing pool, set up in 1895 by May Ashworth in Room G of the House of Lords. With a high proportion of female staff—unusually for the age—this innovative department displayed a readiness to embrace new technologies that, as Jack Homer showed, persists in Parliament to this day. Susan Mansfield, Editor of the Scottish Parliament Official Report, closed the meeting.
Taking note of good practices
Initial feedback provided by delegates at the close of the conference was universally positive. More people had attended virtually than would have been able to physically, and there was a consensus that the event was much more convivial than had been expected. Highlighting advantages ranging from reduced paper usage to the rise of virtual book groups and baking clubs, BIPRA 2021 proved that remote working has not been all bad.
BIPRA hopes to be able to invite parliaments that are not members of BIPRA to attend future conferences as observers; details will be posted on Tiro.
Amy McMillan and Daniel Norman are Hansard reporters in the House of Lords with responsibility for reporting debates in the Chamber, Grand Committees and Select Committees.