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.