Isle of Man: World’s oldest parliament goes online

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Posted on the 6th April 2020

Parliaments around the world are looking at new ways to conduct business during the Coronavirus crisis. We’d like to thank the Hon. Juan Watterson, Speaker of the Isle of Man’s House of Keys for taking some time to explain how the ancient institution took its business online for the first time. The Tynwald is the parliament of the Isle of Man and has an unlimited, but not necessarily exclusive, legislative competence over the islands. Find out more about their parliament online.

Like the rest of the world, the Isle of Man is a part of the interconnected global community. The spread of Covid19 has touched countries big and small, rich and poor and the Isle of Man has been no exception.

The parliament of the Isle of Man, Tynwald, is the oldest continuous parliament in the world, and in its history, which stretches back over 1,000 years we have faced many crises, but nothing quite like this.

Although our chambers are large enough to be reconfigured to allow for social distancing of its members (by utilizing the public gallery). It was far from ideal and it was difficult for members to achieve social distancing at all times, especially as we had to rotate around the building to allow everyone to use their voting button in the chamber.  More concerningly, with an increasing number of Members needing to self-isolate for various reasons, the numbers able to attend started to drop which put our ability to achieve a quorum at risk.

Prerequisites

A virtual solution seemed to solve a lot of the problems, particularly around participation of those who were self-isolating, but has brought additional challenges.  The Isle of Man has been in a fortunate position with regards to all of the prerequisites to achieve a virtual sitting.  First, there is no legal or constitutional barrier to our sitting virtually. We do not have a written constitution, but no law requires us to meet physically in any particular place, just standing orders.

The provision of an online sitting also requires a willingness and ability of the Members to make it happen.  The Covid19 outbreak has seen a real pulling together in our community and our parliamentarians shared a unanimous desire to echo the ‘stay safe, stay home’ message of our healthcare professionals.

The Isle of Man also has exceptional broadband penetration at over 93% and all Members of Tynwald already have access to broadband internet. Fortunately, all of our Members have enough technical savvy to use the technical solution that was worked up.

We are though talking about manageable numbers. The House of Keys (the popularly elected branch) has 24 Members, with the Legislative Council (comprising the President of Tynwald, Lord Bishop, Attorney General and Members elected by the House of Keys) has 11 Members. In total, around 40 people are included in the virtual solution, including Clerks, Hansard, legislative drafter when needed and technical team who ensure the live feed is available on the internet and on local radio.

We have also been supported by a small, but absolutely first-class team who make Tynwald function. Their “can do” attitude across Clerks, Chamber Service and Hansard has been remarkable and they worked up the whole solution from concept to reality in a little over a week.

The virtual sittings would have been challenging at the best of times, as they involved not just an emergency sitting of Tynwald but also of both branches of Tynwald, sitting separately one after the other. Primary legislation was taken and a Bill completed its passage through the branches. It was successfully amended.

The Solution

All Members have an issued iPad for the purposes of accessing their parliamentary papers, which was configured with a basic version of Microsoft Teams which provides audio and video streaming. The sittings were based in the Legislative Council Chamber which already had the set up for Hansard and the live link. Admittedly the interface between MS Teams and the Live link / Hansard audio feed was a bit “Heath Robinson”, but on testing it worked perfectly fine. We found that audio quality was particularly improved if Members wore headsets with built-in microphones. Members’ video was turned off permanently for the sitting, as was their audio until called to speak.

The ‘Chat Box’ within teams was used for Members to indicate to the Presiding Officer that they wished to speak, call a division or interject. This helped maintain the discipline of one person speaking at a time.

Restrictions

We discovered during the test that we were at the mercy of the slowest broadband connection, which meant dispensing with the visual element, even just for the person speaking.  Microphones needed to remain on silent to ensure that the person speaking could be heard clearly. Whilst these measures helped the audio quality noticeably, we did miss out on some things we take for granted in the Chamber. Members could not participate in prayers in the same way, could not read the body language of other Members, and the effects of humour were diminished as there was no instant feedback to what was said. The timing of the exchanges meant that the sitting was much more formal and less conversational than normal.

It helped that Members have been using iPads for some years to access their parliamentary papers, although the virtual sitting required members to access papers differently (perhaps via desktop) or switch between applications.

Because we were using the basic MS Teams package, we did not have access to a voting solution.  This meant voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in the chat box. Whilst Members could vote quickly, tallying the votes took 3-4 minutes. This is in stark contrast to the electronic voting set up in the chamber, but to those members who predated the 2006 electronic voting system, it was just like old times!

Procedure

It perhaps goes without saying that when the Presiding Officer is in a different room from the other Members and cannot see them, there were a few differences to procedure. First was the need to suspend Standing Orders in order for the sitting to take place virtually. In addition, because this was an Emergency sitting, Standing Orders needed to be suspended to allow the urgent Government business to be taken under the Emergency Powers Act.

However, we tried to run sittings as closely as possible to Standing Orders to provide as much continuity as possible. Even our Sword of State, which is over 600 years old, was present in the chamber. The President and clerks wore wigs and gowns, as normal. However, the point was made that the dress code would be harder to enforce and the President did not make Members bow to the iPad before leaving the virtual chamber!  There was no Speaker’s procession, but the Clerk announced that the Speaker was present in the chamber to start the sitting.

Opinions of Members

Members found the virtual sitting to be a very positive development in meeting an urgent need. There was, of course, a significant amount of goodwill with Members both in terms of the exigencies of the situation and the use of a virtual sitting. Members were more than keen to allow interventions and speaking one at a time, and a lot of ‘chatter’ continued ‘outside of the chamber’ via Telegram Groups which are already established fora.  Whether this would be sustained over time remains to be seen!  As far as the public was concerned there was little appreciable difference.

Lessons learnt

It was very important to test the system with all Members before an actual sitting. This was achieved by a practice run (not in public) the day before the public sitting. This took the form of a statement and questions and trialed email and ‘chat box’ voting (emailing votes was discarded as a solution, being too time-consuming).

In addition, all Members were asked to log in 15-20 minutes early on the actual sitting day to allow for technical issues to be addressed.  We have identified the need for a better way of dealing with voting than at present, which would be available in an upgrade of teams.

Conclusion

The Covid19 Emergency of 2020 has had many far-reaching impacts on the Manx way of life, many of which are yet to be realized.  However, with our borders effectively closed and people being encouraged to stay at home as far as possible, it has inspired a collective will to lead by example and trial a virtual sitting. The hard work and ingenuity of our staff is to be applauded, and the system will no doubt continue to be refined if the current emergency endures for much more than a month or two.  This will be our way of doing business during these difficult times, but it is unlikely to endure afterwards due to the limitations which are more easily overcome by a physical sitting than better technology. The experience has shown though that the Isle of Man has lived up to its motto, synonymous with our three-legged flag, of Quocunque Jeceris Stabit, or “Whichever way you throw me, I will stand”.

The Hon. Juan Watterson
Speaker of the House of Keys
Member of the House of Keys for Rushen

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