Is Hansard turning in his grave?

Collections - Posted 20-05-2019

Time was short between the referendum on devolution in Wales on 18th September 1997 and the first meeting of the National Assembly for Wales on 12th May 1999. The staff tasked with setting things up had less than 2 years to get everything in place and the law to establish the Assembly, which gave them the final framework received royal assent on 31st July 1998, less than a year before the first elections.

Among the many elements to establish was a system for recording and publishing the Assembly’s debates and decisions. There is no manual on setting up a parliament, so following good practice in other parliaments is the obvious option. In this case there was a clear precedent, followed by parliaments across the Commonwealth, Hansard. The United Kingdom Parliament had authorized the recording of transactions in printed bound volumes only since 1909, although individuals such as William Cobbett (1763–1835) and Thomas Curson Hansard (1776–1833) had been unofficially publishing them for over a century before that. The Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly also decided to establish their own versions of Hansard.

The first volume of the Official Record of National Assembly proceedings was printed and recorded the first words spoken in the Assembly by the Secretary of State for Wales, Alun Michael, on 12th May 1999:

Good morning. This is an historic day for everybody in Wales. Having elected our Assembly for the first time ever, we now meet officially for the first time. As Secretary of State for Wales and as Member of Parliament for Cardiff South and Penarth, I welcome you here today.

As a new parliament, the National Assembly intended to take advantage of the developing technology to be transparent. From the beginning the Assembly had a website, and the Official Record was published there. The printed version lasted a little more than 1 year and after October 2000, the authorised version of the Record was only published on the web.

The Assembly’s proceedings were filmed from the start and between 1999 and 2007 they were broadcast on S4C2. Since 2007 they are available on the Senedd TV website. There are links to the written record so that someone watching the video can see read the transcript as well as the relevant agenda and papers. There are also links from the Record to the relevant art of the audiovisual file. This opens Assembly proceedings to a much wider audience than the traditional bound volumes.

The Official Record was bilingual in Welsh and English from the beginning, with the first words on the opening day recorded in Welsh together with an English translation. The system continues to this day, with audio-visual files on Senedd TV giving the option of listening in the original language or with simultaneous translation into English.

Twenty years since the first meeting of the National Assembly for Wales it is difficult to think that this kind of access to the Record is revolutionary. Filming and broadcasting of the UK Parliament was only authorised in 1989 and the UK Parliament’s Hansard only became available on the internet in 1997.

The Assembly continues to make adjustments to improve access to the Record. Now the record is much more interactive, with the ability to go directly to a specific piece of business, links from the Record to information about the Am who is speaking and functions to enable copying and sharing  on social media. Senedd TV provides a similar service, allowing users to make and share clips. Today’s Record is a world away from the basic PDF Record of the early meetings.

Reporting Assembly debates on the web, and having audio-visual files recordings would be totally alien to Hansard, but what would he have thought? Would he be turning in his grave? I doubt it! His aim was to make parliamentary proceedings available to the people. I am sure that it would be very delighted, if somewhat surprised, that the work of those who came after him have opened up our democratic institutions to scrutiny in a way he couldn’t have possibly imagined.

Rob Phillips
National Assembly for Wales Archive and The Welsh Political Archive

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