2022 - Week 2

International, continental, Oxford Town

After several months - years? - of the kind of isolation that even Ian Curtis might have found oppressive, last weekend Anya and Michael finally made a trip outside the magick circle of the London Orbital. Face bibs deployed, legs hollow with anxiety, they ventured to Paddington and from there to Oxford Town. Last year’s Study of Parliament Group’s annual conference was fully virtual; this year’s conference convened as what we parliamentarians like to call a hybrid sitting. Although as neither mace was present that is, of course, debatable. We’re not really conference types. We tend to turn up, play our small part and head to the pub. But the SPG event always proves unexpectedly interesting. Which I suppose we should expect by now. Thanks go out to Cristina and colleagues for organising. And to Edward for top quality pub company.

Return to public bill mountain

Before Christmas, on the matter of legislative consent motions, Librarian Jayne and Michael came to the conclusion that we lacked the means to index such happenings. Whilst the sausages arrive in the form of letters to the two Legislation Offices, the making of said sausages is much less visible. At least when you find yourself sitting in Westminster. We find it quite difficult enough to track down assorted materials on our own website without having to plough through three more. With sad hearts, the decision was taken to strip LCMs from our maps.

After Christmas, listening to an SPG conference session on the devolution settlement and the Sewel Convention, this started to feel like a bad idea. A very bad idea indeed. Armed with Graeme and David’s briefing paper and the standing orders of assorted legislatures we’re now quite convinced that the procedure mapping part should be fairly straightforward. But keeping track of events that might actualise those events against our procedural steps would be somewhat trickier. Another email to Andrew and Liam yielded a list of contacts. Emails have gone out to three corners of our sceptred isles in search of offers to both idiot check our mapping efforts and provide some pointers on tracking activities.

Remediating remedial orders

Work on the urgent procedure for remedial orders remains paused whilst we wait for Mr Greenberg’s interpretation of the legislation and a better understanding of exactly what is allowed to happen in the first 60 days. And what is not.

A minor change has been made to the proposed remedial order procedure map. Librarian Jayne took to Parliamentary Search to check precedent and turned up the occasional existence of written statements drawing the attention of the two Houses to the laying of such a paper. New steps and new routes have been added to both map and data to cover this eventuality. So, when we’re ready to go live - we hope shortly - important details will not be missing.

Also in preparation for going live with remedial orders, our legislation model now comes complete with a proposed remedial order class. The accompanying comment is admittedly not one of our best, but until drafters come up with some alternatives for the word ‘draft’, we’re kinda stuck with it.

Treaty tweaks

Eyes well rested from the festive break, we dived back into pixels to patch over an earlier omission. Whilst we’d mapped the possibility of both the International Agreements Committee and the European Affairs Committee calling for a debate, we’d completely forgotten to do the same for the European Union Committee. This omission is now rectified.

Admitting defeat

We are, by nature, optimists. With the application of a little force of will, nothing is impossible. Anyone that knows us will vouch for our sunny natures, upbeat dispositions and enviable collection of motivational posters. Occasionally however one meets a procedural fence and falls over it.

Some months back we embarked on a mission to map the procedure for Census Orders. This is something of an oddity. Commonly referred to as a composite procedure, parts of the order are subject to the draft negative procedure whilst other parts follow the draft affirmative. And not only this. Census Orders are unique - to the best of our limited knowledge - in being amendable by Parliament. Amendments to the Order taking effect as amendments to the census itself. In order to amend the Order, a Member must table an amendment to the approval motion in the affirmative part of the procedure, setting out what they wish to change in the Order and indeed the census. So far, so good.

What is not set out in legislation is what happens if the two Houses pass different amendments. Like all statutory instrument procedure, what goes on in the two Houses happens in parallel and not in series, like, say, for bills. There is also no ping-pong-like mechanism by which the Houses may come to agreement. Having spoken to a number of clerks, it would appear that the approach taken to resolve this difficulty changes with each new Census Order. The last time it happened, there was much activity in the usual channels to ensure that the two Houses agreed on amendments to be made before procedure proper kicked off. As such agreements are ‘off-stage’ they’re unamenable to mapping. So, basically, we’ve given up. Sorry. We know our limits.

Mocking questions

Some time back - really quite a while back - boss bloke Ian asked Michael for some mocked-up instance data for written questions and answers. Or rather questions in expectation of a written answer, all questions being written. Some work was done to document the process flow in the Lords. Our regular reader will be aware of the rather spiffing Jackson Pollockesque swim-lane style diagram we managed to produce whilst pretending to be service designers for a couple of weeks.

Work on the mock data hit something of a roadblock when we realised, rather late in the day, that we’d quite forgotten to do any modelling of written statements. Written statements being rather important, if the Government wishes to correct substantial errors in earlier answers. Bit between our teeth and FRBR bibles at the ready, we now have a model for written statements covering both expressions - a statement as made to a House - and works - the more conceptual level of a statement, expressions of which may be made to both Houses. Lovely stuff. At least assuming we can ever populate it.

The addition of FRBRness has caused us to question how much duplication of effort goes on across the whole workflow both in Parliament and in Government. An email has winged its way to the Cabinet Office in the hope we can pry a little into how written statements are handled at their end but, so far, without reply. If you work in Government and have some insight into the written statement sausage machine, please do get in touch.

Being in possession of an agency model, a House membership model, a tabling model, a time period model, a question and answer model and a written statement model, Michael has finally pulled his finger out and made the mock data he promised to make last year. There are two flows, one for the House of Lords, one for the House of Commons. The Commons example being complicated by the potential for questions tabled in expectation of an oral answer transmogrifying into questions in expectation of a written answer.

Parsing the political from the procedural

Also back before Christmas, a side branch of an email chat found Journal Office Eve pointing out that what is procedurally possible is not always - or even often - politically plausible. This is something we’ve also spoken about, and at length, and usually with a pint in our hands.

Our procedure parsing code breaks the future possibility cone into four pieces:

This is all fine and good, but the space of allowed is a wide one, ranging from the probable to the barely plausible.

A similar question cropped up in the negative SI space recently when Jayne wondered aloud if a prayer against the instrument, having been debated in a Delegated Legislation Committee, would ever be likely to result in a decision. Or whether the Journal Office might recommend withdrawal. A quick email to Journal Office Mike put minds at rest. Whilst the possibility of time for a decision being found on an opposition day is vanishingly small, it remains a possibility.

All of this is a long winded run-up to the fun and frolics of Michael’s festive period. In the limited time available between cooking, cleaning and washing things, he popped open his computational device and wrote some code to calculate the plausibility of allowed steps actually happening. The first job was taking each business step in a procedure and querying to find the number of concluded work packages subject to the same procedure that that step had been actualised in. And then dividing that by the total number of concluded work packages subject to that procedure. At which point you have a plausibility score for a step happening.

A quick glance at this code ran over the made negative procedure reveals that - in the House of Commons - there is a 2.12% plausibility score for a fatal motion being tabled, a 2.66% plausibility score for a non-fatal being tabled, a 1.79% plausibility score for a Chamber debate, a 0.42% plausibility score for a DLC debate, a 0.04% plausibility score for a decision on a fatal motion and a 0% plausibility score for a decision on a non-fatal. At least based on the SI data we have available since 2017.

The same code has been rolled into the work package parsing code, which means that the clever computers can now tell you not only what is allowed to happen, but how likely that may be. Applause please.

WebVOWL resurrection

For those unfamiliar, WebVOWL is a bit of software that allows you to visualise graphs of all things ontologically shaped. It has long proved handy in checking our Turtle files for inadvertent snaufus. Unfortunately, the Log4j disaster meant it was no longer handy for anything. Jianhan has spent a part of the week stripping out Log4j and making it safe to deploy again. Which means we have our pretty ontological pictures back. Lovely. If bouncing balls are your thing.

Transfer of responsibilities

And finally, some news that will only be of interest to those who have had the pleasure and privilege of acting as Michael’s bank manager. A wider pool than one might at first imagine. Last year - possibly the year before, who’s really keeping track - we put a couple of Twitter bots live. Made-n-Laid tweets every time a made SI is laid before Parliament. Its sister account Tweaty Twacker does the same but for treaties. Whilst neither account can be considered as social media influencers, they have proved remarkably popular. 337 followers for laid and made SIs being not too shabby. Both bots are based on SPARQL queries hand-crafted by Librarian Jayne and some shoddy Ruby code cobbled together by Michael. Both were hosted on Heroku and, in order to keep them running, were costing him £15 a month. Which is pretty much a pack of tabs.

Displaying a true kindness of heart, Jianhan has now transferred both lots of code to Azure, thereby rewarding Michael with around three extra pints of Guinness per month. Unfortunately, whilst Azure is perfectly happy to host Rails apps, it does not allow for Ruby scripts to be run as cron jobs. Move to the cloud, they said. Embrace microservices, they added. All of this resulted in poor Jianhan having to rewrite Michael’s code as C#. Because once Microsoft have their talons in you, they’re unlikely to let go.

All discussions of cloud commoditisation aside, Made-n-Laid is now running on Jianhan’s code which is, in turn, running on Azure. The rewrite of Tweaty Twacker has also happened but awaits testing from Librarian Jayne. Which won’t happen until someone lays a new treaty before Parliament. If you’re in the international agreements business and feel you owe us a favour, please do sign a treaty.