2020 - Week 36

Best endeavours

Following a full and fun packed summer, Monday saw our shiny steam engine pull into Westminster station and our Members return. We’re happy to confirm that no owls were harmed in the filming of this scene. With Members back in town, our crack team of librarians emerged blinking from recess, only to find over 1200 tabled written questions sat in the subject indexing queue. Which is more questions than even a five year old can ask on an hour long car journey. Coffee was poured and work commenced, only to come to a grinding halt when the software used to index parliamentary material fell over shortly after lunch. And remained prostrate for the next three hours. For the first time in some decades it looked likely that the target to subject index all questions on the day tabled might be missed. But more coffee was poured and our publicity shy team of top librarians pulled out all the stops, working long into the evening to get the job done. Top work brarians.

Procedure mapping

Our Jianhan continued to chip away at the time bound routes work. Changes from last week await integration testing by our colleagues in Software Engineering but he didn’t let that hold him back. This week he’s updated our procedure map rendering which now shows non-current routes as dotted lines. You may need to zoom and squint a little. He also had a meeting with librarians Anya, Jayne, Robert and Michael to chat through how they might approach rewriting the work package visualisations so they also take account of non-current routes. This promises to be a much tougher task given the need to span and process a massively interwingled graph with typed edges according to some rather gnarly parsing logic, in order to render what we perhaps mistakenly refer to as the ‘future possibility space’ of procedure. But we know our Jianhan is good at maths. So we live in hope.

Your weekly egg timer update

Robert and Michael finally finished the comments for our seven styles of scrutiny period calculations. Which have now been pushed through Robert’s comment / Markdown parser to generate the HTML pages listed here.

Unfortunately they hit upon a slight snaggle which kicked off a series of calamities. Some background to explain: some - but not all - treaties are subject to parliamentary scrutiny before they can be ratified by the government. The rules underpinning this scrutiny are set out in Section 20 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. The first stage happens in both Houses and is described in legislation as period A. If during period A, the House of Commons resolves that the treaty should not be ratified, the minister is able to make a statement indicating they are of the opinion that it should nevertheless be ratified which kicks of period B. Period B being an additional period of scrutiny, happening in the Commons only, during which they may once again resolve that the treaty should not be ratified. And so on, looping to infinity.

Because period A encompasses proceedings in both Houses and period B is Commons only, Robert and Michael had assumed that, whilst the first would take account of sitting days in both Houses, the second would only take account of sitting days in the Commons. But CRAG seems to say that both periods are calculated in the same fashion. Both start on the first sitting day after the triggering event. Which for period A is the laying of the treaty. And for period B is the making of the ministerial statement. Both periods last for 21 days. And both count a sitting day as a day when both Houses are sitting. Or at least that’s our new and ever evolving impression. This is made more difficult by the fact that period B has never actually happened. So we lack precedent here. If our current notions are correct, it’s possible that both periods actually use the same calculation and next week we might be down to six pieces of calculation code and not the seven we’re currently battling. An email has been sent to JO Jane. An email has been sent to Martyn. An email has been sent to Alex. It’s more than probable that Mr Evans will get his ear bent at some point.

A further, further complication arises from what we mean by “sitting day”. In this or any other context. We have been operating under the assumption that sitting days might be counted in one of two ways, depending on the flavour of the instrument being scrutinised. Imagine the House of Commons were expecting to sit on Monday and Tuesday. But the Monday sitting stretched out past midnight, into the next day and past the point when the Tuesday sitting was scheduled to start. In strict parliamentary terms, this sitting is considered to have occurred on one day - Monday - and Tuesday was not a sitting day. Even though Members were sitting on that calendar day. In our code such days being counted are referred to as ‘parliamentary sitting days’. But there is also a more naive definiton of a sitting day for which - given the same circumstances - both the Monday and Tuesday count as sitting days. These might be referred to as ‘bums on seats days’, and in our code as ‘praying sitting days’. Some of our calculations use ‘parliamentary sitting days’ and some use ‘praying sitting days’. And we thought it might be best if we understood why. So Librarian Jayne and computational experts Robert and Michael spent part of Thursday peering at both Standing Orders and assorted bits of legislation in an attempt to find anything that looked like a definition of bottoms being on seats. And turned up nothing. So that’s confusing.

The closest thing we’ve found to any of this in House of Commons public Standing Orders is 21(3), “a day on which the House does not sit by reason of the continuance of a previous sitting.” The closest we’ve found in House of Lords public Standing Orders is nothing. Describing procedure for Proposed Negative Statutory Instruments, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 says, “a day is only a day on which the House of Commons or the House of Lords is sitting if the House concerned begins to sit on that day.” CRAG talks about sitting days but offers no definition. Section 7 of the Statutory Instrument Act 1948 talks about 40 days of counting, mentions types of days that should not be counted but again does not appear to define sitting days. Michael begins to suspect that he’s fundamentally misunderstood JO Jane’s definition of bottoms being on benches. Anyway, we type all this in the hope that one of those rare creatures inhabiting the interlands of legislation and clerkdom might perhaps come to our rescue. Because we are, quite frankly, baffled.

And before anyone assumes that Parliament is unique in having a different understanding of time to the rest of humanity and feels tempted to use the word ‘arcane’, Michael feels he must point out that in his previous place of work, days ran from 6am to 6am, weeks ran from Saturday to Friday and years ran from whichever week the first Radio Times was published in. Which is probably more nuts than any of this.

All about the collaboration

On Friday, Research Librarian Richard got in touch to ask if the Rush data records military service. He was wondering if it would be possible to query for people who served in both the military and the Cabinet. Unfortunately, whilst being a good source for education, trade union involvement, club membership, local government service and whatnot, there’s no specific data about military service. Michael thought the best we could do is query for attendance at assorted military schools such as Sandhurst and the Naval College. Though this is hardly representative. Librarian Liz pointed out that Rush does include both formative occupation and occupation at the time of election but also pointed out that that would leave a lot of gaps and is unlikely to include National Service. Luckily, Anya remembered that Wikidata exists, so Michael poked both Andrew and Simon and within minutes Simon had knocked up a query that appeared to answer the question. Our admiration for Wikidata and for the people who work with it knows no bounds. Having a single source of well modelled, massively interlinked, well managed data that anyone can query at the press of a button is a real thing of wonder. Thanks Simon.