Parliaments

Parliament relaunches Historic Hansard service online

Hansard books Image copyright Richard Morris
Image caption The double-stacked bookshelves of Hansard

If you want to know what an MP said, or to read the mood of Parliament, there is one reliable resource available to you.

Hansard has been an integral part of Parliament since the latter half of the 1800s.

It started modestly, as a way of simply outlining the debate, the sitting times and the key arguments for and against. Vote results were also published.

Today, of course, Hansard records MPs' and peers' words in the House of Commons and House of Lords as they debate and pass bills.

It has never been a perfect, word-for-word account of what is said - it is, instead, edited to remove mistakes and repetition, but it never changes the meaning of what a parliamentarian says.

The UK and its devolved institutions use Hansard, as do many Commonwealth countries, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Kenya, Ghana, Jamaica, and Sri Lanka.

The Hansard website previously recorded every word since May 2010.

There was a "Historic Hansard" which always sat on a separate website. It was a website with a poor search function and a less-than-stellar appearance. The debates listed on the site go back to 1803.

"It was never a project that we actually finished, that's the important thing to understand," says Jack Homer, of the former Historic Hansard website, who admits it was "primitive".

Now, with the website's relaunch, everything is in one place.

What's in Hansard?

Grey squirrel

The grey squirrel was first introduced to the UK at some point in the 1870s, as a fashionable accessory for wealthy landowners. The first time the grey squirrel was mentioned by someone in Parliament, however, was by Lord Buckmaster, who, in a debate on the Lords Forestry Bill on Commissioners' rights to destroy animals, said on 14 July 1919 as his amendment failed:

"I had hoped, if the House had been more evenly divided, to persuade your Lordships that no mercy need be given to an alien squirrel and that we might have some protection for our native squirrels. But the expression of your Lordships' opinion is so marked against our native creatures that I do not desire to move any protection for the alien."

Space Invaders

On 20 May 1981, George Foulkes, the MP for South Ayrshire, now Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, said, when introducing his bill entitled Control Of Space Invaders And Other Electronic Games:

"The Bill seeks to control "space invaders"—of the terrestrial kind—and other electronic games. The motivation is not any whim of mine, but the fact that some months ago the head teacher of Cumnock academy, in my constituency, drew to my attention the increasingly harmful effects on young people of addiction to "space invader" machines. Since then, I have seen reports from all over the country of young people becoming so addicted to these machines that they resort to theft, blackmail and vice to obtain money to satisfy their addiction...

"That is what is happening to our young people. They play truant, miss meals, and give up other normal activity to play "space invaders". They become crazed, with eyes glazed, oblivious to everything around them, as they play the machines. It is difficult to appreciate unless one has seen it for oneself."

Ganja

Drugs, have, of course, been a frequent topic of debate in Parliament. In a debate on crime in Jamaica on 1 August 1951, Labour's Tony Benn asked:

"Will my right hon. Friend consider putting some ganja in the Library of the House so that hon. Members may decide for themselves whether this drug has the effects attributed to it?"

To which came the reply:

"I will see what I can do during the Recess."

How did they create the new Hansard website?

About 10 years ago, all the original bound volumes of Hansard were sent to India to be scanned and undergo Optical Character Recognition (OCR), which would turn the printed volume into plain text which computers can understand.

The OCR process enabled the team to publish all this plain text on the old Historic Hansard website. The text had no further information on speakers, other than constituency names and whether someone was a minister. The text sat online, relatively unedited and untouched.

This created a confusing pairing of websites. With the relaunch, everything is searchable and viewable on one site.

And it comes in a big year for British political anniversaries, as Parliamentary celebrations mark 100 years since women aged 30 and over got the vote, as well as most men over the age of 21. It's also 90 years since women aged 21 and over got the vote in the Equal Franchise Act.

"We're on a trajectory here," says Mr Homer of the new site. "This is not perfect, we're inviting people to comment on it."

Hansard staff are hoping that people browsing old debates will be able to flag up errors or items in need of correction, a process they refer to as crowdsourcing.

"Our immediate desire with crowdsourcing is to correct some of these OCR errors," says Mr Homer, "so where people spot that it says Mouse of Commons, instead of House of Commons, they can use the flagging function to flag that to us."

In the longer term, the team hopes that historians and academics will be able to fill in some of the missing information - on who was a minister for what and when, for example. The original information became too complicated, as people changed positions and titles too often.

And he says he fully expects Hansard to eventually link video produced by Parliament with speeches in Hansard.

So the service may well end up, 50 years down the line, becoming both a text, and video, record of proceedings in Parliament.

"There is that onus on video coverage to be as comprehensive and undiscriminating as Hansard is," he says, referring to how Parliament now keeps every video of every session available on their streaming site, Parliamentlive.tv. The earliest date of coverage on that service is 4 December 2007.

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