The Annunciator

Baroness Murphy

Today my annunciator i.e. my office  TV screen reporting events in parliament, suddenly went blank. I was in my office in Millbank trying to make sure I didn’t miss the Lord Speaker’s Procession before question time in order to give myself plenty of time to get in for Lord Cobbold’s question on drugs, tabled third.  I frantically pushed all the buttons on the remote but had to abandon it until a few minutes ago when an attendant showed me how I had inadvertently switched it off.  It made me realise how much we depend on the annunciator screens to keep us informed by the direct feed from the chamber into our offices, dining rooms, library and corridors.

The first ‘parliamentary annunciator’ appeared in the New Smoking Room of the Commons in 1894, (I wonder where that was, it’s definitely not called that now), an early benefit from the new electricity. The original annunciator is still displayed in the Commons terrace corridor opposite the shop, a 4 feet long machine which looks like an old set of electrical trip switches and valves with a yellowing piece of thick tickertape in front.  Apparently there were a handful of these machines placed in important areas and the message was formed by striking the moving paper with 7 electro-magnetic hammers. Each hammer and driving motor received impulses from a central transmitter.  Before these screens informed peers of what was happening in the chamber, members were dependent upon rumours and personal messages delivered by stewards.

Now that we have screens throughout the estate, over 1500 of them I gather, red for Lords business, green for the Commons, we know what is being discussed in the chamber without actually having to enter it. This is a blessing and perhaps a curse; you don’t have to participate to understand what is going on. Hence perhaps the empty benches you see on TV parliament channel until a division, when suddenly 2-300 people emerge apparently from nowhere to vote.

 The highly professional team of annunciator staff, managed by Hansard, perform an operation that is crucial to the smooth running of Parliament, Whitehall and the Government machine. Using a fully computerised system, the display on screen gives the subject of debate, the stage of a Bill’s progress, the person speaking, the time that person began speaking and divisions and their results. Flashing red or green bell symbols tell us when there’s a division called and which House it’s in (on the committee corridor the division bells can sound confusingly similar). A brilliant service.And I managed to squeeze in a question to follow up on Lord Cobbold.  Drug policy will remain unchanged, and a total failure.  


18 comments for “The Annunciator

  1. Croft
    11/05/2009 at 3:08 pm

    Well there certainly was a Smoking Room in the commons until a few years ago – it’s might just have lost the ‘new’ perhaps.

    What’s the difference between the bells – roughly!

  2. 11/05/2009 at 3:56 pm

    With all this high technology, isn’t it a little strange that voting still takes place by walking through a particular lobby? If MPs and Peers had keypads, as in most parliaments throughout the world, votes could take place in under a minute, which would mean sittings could go on less late in the evening, or you could have more time for the actual debate.

  3. Daryl Griffiths
    11/05/2009 at 4:36 pm

    These insights are really helpful to better understand how the system runs.

    I have always been under the impression that MP’s suddenly appeared to just vote as whipped without having any idea of what they were voting for/against.

    Interesting post, thanks.

  4. Croft
    11/05/2009 at 4:55 pm

    Daryl Griffiths: I don’t think you were mistaken in thinking MPs vote per whip as almost any of the sites that monitor such things show. Peers on my last recollection are not actually that different with votes going mostly by strength. Only the XB peers (obviously) really buck this in having no whip.

    Jonathan: Of course it also allows many votes passed in a short duration which is great for the whips but not necessarily for those trying to lobby at the last minute or persuade by speeches. I think it highly optimistic to think quicker voting would leader to any more debate time. MPs have a tiny legislative programme and have had for recent times. It doesn’t mean they are have been allowed to debate longer as the government still uses (and wanted to introduce into the Lords) guillotine/programme motions as a matter of course.

  5. baronessmurphy
    12/05/2009 at 8:26 am

    Croft, both Houses are non-smoking now. When the Bill passed to ban smoking from public places we decided it was time we joined everyone else in banning it. Lady Howarth swears she can still smell the whiff of tobacco in the Bishops Bar, probably in the curtains and carpet, but I don’t have that good a nose.

    There’s no difference in the sound of the division bells (except by curious doppler effect as you move away from your own Chamber) but they flash up on the screens as red or green bell symbols to indicate where the vote is.

    Jonathan, I have long agreed with you that the voting could be electronic but many peers point out to me that the voting by person and double counting by tellers, attendant and mechanical clicker does provide a secure check and allows a lot of meeting and discussion in the lobbies themselves. A good place to catch ministers and colleagues for a quick word. And would anyone turn up at all to the Chamber if they could do it electronically? Not sure. Overall though I am in favour of radical modernisation of a system which other senates round the world manage without.

    Daryl Griffiths, Jonathan is right, most political peers just follow their party whip in voting just like the Commons. However that’s not always so and if you want a good example, let’s come back to the recent smoking debate in the recent Health Bill. Lord Faulkner of Worcester, a trustee of the anti-smoking campaign organisation ASH spoke out against the government approach, which he considered timid, in the matter of vending machine controls and declared he would vote against the Government, his own party, if pressed to a vote. the website ‘’ is a great place to see who tows the part line and who doesn’t.

    • Croft
      12/05/2009 at 2:38 pm

      Lady Howarth is doubtless correct. 150 yrs of the fixtures and furnishings absorbing smoke will probably never entirely go away unless washed which, given the nature of the material involved, would be prohibitively expensive.

      If the bells are the same, isn’t that a touch problematic for peers with visual impairment who may struggle with the screens – would seem straightforward to pulse the bells differently?

      Lord Faulkner of Worcester should get brownie points as a simple google finds he maintains a half decent website, that is clear, informative of what he’s doing, well linked and up to date. It even has a rather nice photo of the letters patent of his Coat of Arms – something of a rarity, so I hear, among labour peers.

  6. Bedd Gelert
    12/05/2009 at 10:06 am

    Baroness Murphy,

    Perhaps you would care to go round to Lord Foulkes and give him a good slapping to knock some sense into his head !!

    How dare he speak to Carrie Gracie in that way – she is earning a crust in a market place, and if she doesn’t perform or fiddles her expenses she would be booted out pronto.

    The sense of ‘entitlement’ from people like Lord Foulkes and those grandees in the other people is galling in a way I don’t think you even begin to comprehend. Libby Purves puts it far better than I can. What happened to personal honour indeed ??

    The idea that people in Parliament should be above scrutiny is just appalling. For Lord Foulkes to blame the media for the fact that not enough news reaches our screens of the good MPs and the noble Lords do, when the source of the problem lies closer to home is just showing how out of touch their grandstanding is.

    I think a few more women in charge would help people get a grip.

  7. Paul
    12/05/2009 at 1:18 pm

    And would anyone turn up at all to the Chamber if they could do it electronically? Not sure.

    Electronic voting would make it a lot easier for many people with a disability to be MPs or Lords. On those grounds alone I think that it would be worth doing, even if it made it more difficult for the able-bodied to get together for a chat.

    It might also make it easier for MPs and Lords to vote as they think best, rather than as the whips want, and that to me is a definite advantage.

  8. Croft
    12/05/2009 at 2:50 pm

    Bedd Gelert: I saw that link as well. While I think there is a valid argument that the BBC, some of whom are paid more than 10x any MP or peer, are pushing their luck with moral outrage over ‘misuse’ of public money I was still gobsmacked by Lord Foulkes.

    Paul: How exactly does pressing a button make it easier to defy the whips. I can’t see how, when you’re hanging by your feet over a vat of oil in the Chief Whip’s Office, the argument you only voted against the party electronically is going to cut much ice 😉

    • Paul
      13/05/2009 at 12:02 am

      Croft – well, once it’s done, there’s not much that they can do is there? Whereas if I’m voting in person, the whips can send one of their representatives to stand outside the “wrong” lobby and apply a degree of pressure.

      I guess that I’m applying the “it’s better to apologise than ask permission” principle. And if enough MPs or Lords did it, the whips are going to need a pretty big vat of oil – or would they just call in The Met for a spot of kettling?

  9. Paul
    12/05/2009 at 6:23 pm

    Bedd Gelert – Hear Hear!

    I thought about posting about Lord Foulkes’ performance but thought that it was too off-topic.

    The thing that surprised me was his apparent definition of democracy. From the way he spoke, the people get to vote once every so often (or not at all in his case) and after that they should shut up and be grateful until the next election.

    Lord Foulkes, if you’re reading this, it’s time to go.

  10. baronessmurphy
    12/05/2009 at 7:29 pm

    Paul, a good point.
    Bedd Gelert, I recognise the plea to comment on ‘the elephant in the room’. I will talk about peers’ allowances in due course, I have done so before, (allowances not expenses please, we only get those for specific travel) but not right now when the public’s enjoying the sport and not much sense is being said on any side.

  11. baronessmurphy
    13/05/2009 at 6:33 am

    Can I just add to the above that I was commenting positively on Paul’s earlier blog on the advantages of electronic voting, not the one referring to Lord Foulkes.

  12. Bedd Gelert
    13/05/2009 at 8:16 am

    I do think we need to hear something from the noble Lords about allowances, expenses, emoluments, moolah, dosh and other perks…

    If only because there is an ugly mood rising among the public at the moment and the current plague on both houses affecting Labour and Tory MPs will, with the involvement of the peer Michael Ancram [who is a ‘good egg’ by all accounts] will result in a plague on ‘both Houses Of Parliament’ as a sort of ‘collateral damage’.

    This article is anecdotal, but I think you would surprised just how much discussion of this is taking place in pubs and cafes up and down the land – fuelled [quite rightly] by the Telegraph, but now being given added momentum by Jeremy Vine and many others.

    If you think this is unfair, ponder on this – none of this storm COULD be whipped up if the MPs had behaved honourably – and as the MPs like to tell US “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear”. So why did they fight to gag the FOI requests?

  13. lordnorton
    13/05/2009 at 9:25 am

    Bedd Gelert: Like Baroness Murphy, I plan to comment on expenses – as soon as I get a few minutes in between meetings!

  14. Croft
    13/05/2009 at 10:23 am

    Bedd Gelert: The sad thing about the whole expenses revelations is that while some of those names don’t surprise me others are people who I have a lot of time for politically. It’s all very depressing. 🙁

    Of those mentioned in the press Ancram (the 13th Marquess of Lothian), Douglas Hogg (3rd Viscount Hailsham) and at a stretch James Arbuthnott MP is heir presumptive to a baronetcy!

    baronessmurphy: I wondered how long that ambiguity was going to last!

    I’m thinking considering the scale of the expenses scandal perhaps we should retire the phrase elephant in the room as not fit for purpose: Blue whale in the room anyone 😉

  15. Senex
    13/05/2009 at 8:29 pm

    Baroness: “It made me realise how much we depend on the annunciator screens to keep us informed by the direct feed from the chamber into our offices, dining rooms, library and corridors.”

    Which is just another way of saying how dependant we are on technology. I am not exactly a technophile but in these depressing times I have taken myself to the cinema to see the new Star Trek film. I really enjoyed it and on these terms it was as much a fillip as watching Mama Mia.

    The original Star Trek was full of politics and the new film does not disappoint in this respect. It reminds us of Kirk’s academy test in which he realises he cannot win so he breaks the rules. It repeats the unashamed kiss between a white and a coloured that the networks of the sixties could not tolerate except for the insistence of Gene Rodenberry a man way ahead of his time. It does a lot to remind us of the small-minded way of things back then and how we have moved on.

    However, nurses then used to take your pulse using a fob watch. They would count them over fifteen seconds then using mental arithmetic work out the rate per minute. Where have we gone wrong today?


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