Friday 1 April 2011

Open Act

This is a pitch/idea shaping exercise/idea bounce/is this really a good idea post.

Firstly some disclaimers. I didn't study law. The closest I came was studying a module at university for my HND in Business and Finance (no I don't have a degree, yes I am looking at rectifying that, possibly, yes it might be in journalism) so I know tort, I know duty of care, I know that the word 'reasonable' can have 17 different meanings depending on which County it's interpreted in. That's all.

I also know few people read the small print. Because it isn't in plain English half the time. The other half of the time it's too small to actually read.

I know that law is something I am allowed to have an opinion on which I can express freely and without restraint without needing to be wary of Purdah or politically restricted posts. I am not in a politically restricted post, of course, but I might as well be because I am being expected to act in the manner of someone 3 grades higher than me, even if I am not - and no, there's no bitterness there. But I cannot do the things in local gov I would like to do right now because I am in local gov - but that doesn't mean I cannot apply disruption elsewhere.

Finally, I know that I passionately feel that you should not need to have studied law, for example, to know the following:

  • There is a Bill at second reading stage in the House of Commons called European Convention on Human Rights (Withdrawal) Bill Bill. Summary: A Bill to make provision for the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • There is a Bill at second reading stage in the House of Commons called Face Coverings (Regulation) Bill. Summary: A Bill to regulate the wearing of certain face coverings; and for connected purposes. 
    • Further reading reveals the subject to exemptions in subsection (3), wearing a garment or other object intended by the wearer as its primary purpose to obscure the face in a public place shall be guilty of an offence.
      • It should be noted that subsection (3) specifies only 'in a place of worship'. It does not specify for purposes of religion, a rather different thing entirely.
  • There is a Bill at second reading stage in the House of Commons called Remembrance Sunday (Closure of Shops) Bill. Summary: A Bill to provide for the extension of Christmas Day restrictions on the opening of retail premises to Remembrance Sunday; and for connected purposes.
Some of those items do not make me happy on a personal level. Some of those items, I believe, have a necessity to be out in the open and up for public discussion amongst the groups of people those Bills will directly affect. I believe that parliament have done what we can reasonably expect of them to do in being open and transparent. I believe the failure lies with those of us who could translate those words into plain English but choose not to.

I would like to give people the opportunity to choose to do the right thing and act as interpreters and relays for the information which is in the public domain but I don't believe can be easily understood.

Therefore, I would like to propose a database driven website on the front end, with an open wiki on the back end. The wiki will take each new Bill, dissect it and translate it into plain English, in an unbiased and non-politically influenced way. This translation will stay in the Wiki for those who require more detail of Bills along with an original copy of the Bill and all subsequent revisions at each step of the Bill process through Parliament. A summary will be created and keywords allocated to each Bill translation and it is this which will be fed through to the database which drives the front end site.

The front end site will allow users to search on keywords for Bills which are relevant to them, their community group, their religious group, their charity or their organisation. It will display summaries of Bills as results of the keyword search. A link will be provided to the back end Wiki with the full translation in plain English should it be needed.

It will also be possible to visit the site once, set up email subscriptions based on keyword searches and then have notifications emailed to you when a new Bill summary is uploaded to the database which satisfies those keywords. Additionally, it will subsequently be possible to subscribe to an individual Bill and be notified each time it progresses through parliament or a committee meets to discuss the Bill. 

The Wiki driving this and the translations will need to be provided by community volunteers. Driven, dedicated, passionate volunteers with an ability to read 'legalese' and translate it and reasonably quickly. Once all current Bills at the various stages through the process have been translated, it is anticipated that fewer people will be needed to keep on top of the rolling introductions of new Bills and the workload will drop, but the initial workload will be high.

I believe, very strongly, that everyone in this country has a right to discuss and feedback to parliament on the Bills which may eventually become Acts which may affect those citizens every day movements, their human rights, and their personal freedoms. 

Many thanks for reading this far. Offers of help would be very welcome. Criticism and feedback are also welcome - the problem with leaving comments has been fixed.


  1. Good idea. Parliament tries to make the process transparent but doesn't really manage it on individual bills. They also have "explanatory notes" which usually aren't.

    Without looking at the list of Bills before Parliament, I would guess that the bills you're worrying about are Private Members Bills or Ten Minute Rule Bills - as in, they have been formally introduced but without government support (which I doubt they have) they'll go nowhere. Of course we shouldn't expect people to understand what PMBs are, and the improbability of their reaching the statute book.

    I think that the current Speaker is keen to make Parliament more open. Some way off happening. I'd certainly be keen to push this idea forward if people wanted to do something about it.

  2. Sounds a fabulous idea. Whilst I too am not a lawyer, there's aspects of law which I deal with enough times to know that often there's issues which are left up to the courts or a regulatory body. Issues where the law us black and white and someone has to decide whether a grey matter is okay or not. Might this be a stumbling block?

    Perhaps getting in touch with the "theyworkforyou" people might help?

  3. I knew they were ten minute bills cos it says so on the summary pages for each Bill but I didn't know what that meant and no, I didn't know it wasn't likely they'd go anywhere.

    It's a really really important link in the chain. Multi-disciplinary team needed, I think ;O)

  4. Nice concept but would not want the "dissecting" and plain English job. It's become clear to me over time, that much legislation is written in obscure or incomplete ways. Not ultimately approved by lawyers, of course, and it's the job of the courts to interpret, or attribute intent in cases of dispute. The best a lay person could do is suggest what some intent appears to be, was intended to be ( eg in manifestos etc), or might end up being after the courts have had a go at interpretative cases.

    Several examples you give are things that sadden me. The law should not be about codifying pretty minor points of opinion. Closing shops on Remembrance Day is an excellent case in point. It is legislation to try to enforce reflection on the lessons of history. Why should, and how can, that be made compulsory? And whatever benefits for identifying yobs and thugs might come from the face-covering Bill, we know it is the wearers of traditional islamic women's wear who will find themselves as targets of Daily Mail selfrighteous hypocracy, this time with "with force of law" behind them.

    We are in sad times.

  5. There are some things that might make this easier, like the prospect in the near future of improved XML from Parliament for Bills.

    But on the other hand, something like the Localism Bill is a huge piece of legislation and translating that into plain English would be a mammoth task in itself. Not to mention all the places where it refers to or amends previous legislation, which then also have to be examined.

    And then you'd have to keep up with all the amendments that are made as the Bill progresses through its various stages.

    The big, complicated government Bills also tend to come with explanatory notes which fulfill some of this function.

    The private members' bills which Anthony mentioned tend not to come with these notes (if only cos no one really expects them to become law).

    And these PMBs are also generally short and only seek to have a limited effect (because individual MPs don't have the resources to make complicated legislation, even when they get some help from a lobby group).

    So perhaps PMBs would be a good place to start this experiment.

    It might be focused on Bills with little prospect of becoming law, but it would still increase the accountability of the MPs who introduce them and allow lots more people to hold them to account (or indeed support them) when they propose obviously questionable things.

    That would be a neat thing for the democratic process.

  6. It has been done in other countries. Chile has a virtual senate and Brasil a virtual chamber of deputies. In both cases people can go on-line and discuss the draft bills before the chamber.

    In 2006 a joint committee of the Oireachtas (the Irish Parliament) ran a pilot e-consultation. They split the heads of agreement of the proposed broadcasting bill into chapters, and made it available on the WWW via Lotus Notes. Citizens could register and comment on any section of the bill. I was part of the team that evaluated this pilot - our report is still on the Oireachtas's web site (search for evaluation of pilot e-consultation).