Hansard to the rescue

Baroness Murphy

Sometimes one’s speech in debate doesn’t quite go according to plan. On Tuesday afternoon 17 November, Lord Warner had raised a short debate on the Charter for Dying Well produced by the organisation Dignity in Dying http://www.dignityindying.org.uk. The Charter contained much that everyone could agree with but also included a call for the legalisation of the right to request an assisted death when terminally ill at a time of the individual’s own choosing, a sentiment I agree with strongly. There was only an hour tabled for the debate, I guessed we’d get about 5 minutes each. Then 16 people put their names down to speak and I cut down the speech to 2 minutes. Then the Government Whips Office decided to let us have an hour and a half, giving the by now 20 of us 3 minutes each.  I was rushing about beforehand, my notes got in a mess. I followed the ineffably cool and elegant Baroness Jay, who was as lucid and measured as ever. I lost page 2, I dropped page 4 and frankly lost the thread of my talk. With 3 minutes one can’t afford to get it wrong. I feared I implied depressed old people should be offered assisted dying, hardly the thing for a psychiatrist to say and indeed the opposite of what I meant. I looked at Hansard with some trepidation yesterday and by some miracle, they’d managed to say broadly what I meant better than I had! Not perfect but a bit of a rescue job. Next time I shall rehearse better for that important 2 or 3 minutes. 

So John Sargeant, the erstwhile political broadcaster and now amateur ballroom dance TV competitor has voluntarily stepped down from Strictly Come Dancing, (and it was headline news on the Evening Standard billboards last night) recognising that his popularity with the public voters was subverting the purpose of the show. What a pity, I enjoyed watching him just as much as the strutting showbiz professionals. Just think what would happen if popular but talentless members of both houses of parliament stood down in favour of the skilled and competent but less popular….

10 comments for “Hansard to the rescue

  1. 20/11/2008 at 10:09 am

    Talentless yes, but where are all these popular politicians? Surely an oxymoron? If people voted in elections with the fervour that they vote for programmes such as Strictly Come Dancing, political apathy wouldn’t be an issue.

  2. 20/11/2008 at 12:43 pm

    Ah, the tragedy of democracy, that “popular but talentless” will always beat “unpopular and talented”. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t, really.

    A question, Baroness Murphy. You seemed to imply that the Hansard record did not transcribe what you said exactly. Is this common practice? What are the regulations and guidelines for altering the public record in this way?

    I have no wish to embarrass anyone, nor do I disagree with you on the specific issues raised, but I do admit to a touch of unease that the official record of Parliament can be considered open to interpretation.

  3. 20/11/2008 at 1:52 pm

    McDuff: it is often said that John Prescott’s contributions in the Commons had to be tidied up by Hansard in order to say what Mr Prescott actually meant!

  4. Baronessmurphy
    21/11/2008 at 8:39 am

    McDuff, the point you make is a serious one. Hansard doesn’t change the meaning of speeches made but does omit the ums,ahs, errs and tidy up the grammar if we have been unwittingly ungrammatical and also does occasionally clarify a ‘shoots eats leaves’ problem by adding punctuation. When we are obviously using speaking notes as I was the other day, an attendant will ask if Hansard can borrow them so that they have a clear record of what we were intending to say, which helps to eradicate errors in spelling proper names and assists the Hansard recorders in getting the meaning clear. My experience of Hansard has been wholly good and only very rarely do we need to point out a transcription error which needs to be changed in the printed record

  5. Senex
    21/11/2008 at 7:58 pm

    You say: “Hansard doesn’t change the meaning of speeches made but does omit the ums,ahs, errs and tidy up the grammar if we have been unwittingly ungrammatical and also does occasionally clarify a ’shoots eats leaves’ problem by adding punctuation.”

    If an orator says something that might sound like something else and is challenged about it Hansard is currently obliged to record what the orator insists they said even if it is contrary to any public domain sound recording.

    Surely this is wrong. A tennis ball out of court can be verified by technology even when the player insists that the ball is in court.

    Such rare conflicts should be subject to scrutiny by the Speaker’s office before being written up. It is within the power of the Speaker’s office to restore Parliaments low esteem in the public eye. Forcing Hansard to do otherwise serves nobody well.

  6. baronessmurphy
    22/11/2008 at 8:27 am

    Senex, I would agree with you if I thought there was a problem but I have never challenged Hansard,and don’t know anyone who has; only corrected very minor errors of fact not of meaning. Perhaps I’m naive but I didn’t think anyone could challenge what was actually recorded, after all it’s there on the parliamentary channel for everyone to hear. Do you know any factual accountgs of this happening?

  7. Mike
    23/11/2008 at 1:17 pm

    How often do these sorts of debates actually change peoples minds?

    The word debate, to me, implies a back and forth discussion between a few people rather than a huge number getting up and repeating a pre-set speech. Is it possible to attend a debate with no pre-set speech and then simply respond to what somebody else said. Otherwise why not have everybody send their speech to Hansard directly, seeing as how reading is faster and more flexible than listening.

  8. Senex
    25/11/2008 at 2:45 pm

    Baroness: You said: “Perhaps I’m naive but I didn’t think anyone could challenge what was actually recorded, after all it’s there on the parliamentary channel for everyone to hear.”

    Then you must be naive!

    The leader of the opposition, only a couple of metres away repeats what was said by a government front bench MP. We rely on technology for clarification in the courts but not so in Parliament it seems.

    The offending MP was quick to restate what was heard; however a sound recording had already captured his indiscretion.

    The electorate more than at any time in our recent history need to believe in the integrity and processes that take place within Parliament and with the conduct of its politicians.

    It is the Speaker’s office that safeguards standards. It failed in this instance. Perhaps the office grows tired whilst not being completely at one with technology? Hansard in the meanwhile is a hostage to fortune.

    Ref: Commons PMQ’s March 12, 2008


  9. baronessmurphy
    26/11/2008 at 9:42 pm

    Mike, the question about whether debates ever change people’s minds is a fair one. Rarely I guess in a set speech type of tabled debate, but quite often in debates on amendments.

    Senex, Yes, I take your point on the Ed Balls “So What?”. I suspect the Hansard recorders didn’t hear it, but there, I am far more likely to believe in Cock up than conspiracy. Hansard has no axe to grind, it is only as accurate as its recorders.

  10. 03/12/2008 at 12:45 pm

    Anyone following the “edited Hansard” debate might be interested in this instance, where the re-wording watered down a reassurance that the ID card database couldn’t be hacked into:

    It’s a months-old story now, but was mentioned in a letter to today’s Telegraph.

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