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Freeing 'Erskine May': getting the authoritative guide to Parliament's procedures and practice online

4 Jul 2019
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'Erskine May', the authoritative guide to Parliament's procedures and practice, went online on 2 July 2019. The move has significant implications for democratic transparency and for Parliament's interaction with the public. Here, one of the editors of the new edition, Clerk of the Journals Mark Hutton, explains why and how the innovation came about.

Mark Hutton, Clerk of the Journals, House of Commons
Mark Hutton,
Clerk of the Journals, House of Commons

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Erskine May’s treatise on practices in Parliament was first published in 1844 by a young assistant in the House of Commons Library. Thomas Erskine May rose to become the House’s most senior official, Clerk of the House, producing a further eight editions before his death in 1886. ‘Erskine May’ has been regularly revised and updated since then, becoming the most authoritative and influential work on parliamentary procedure and practice.

The UK’s constitution is often labelled as ‘unwritten’. It is just as plausible to say that it is distributed among a range of overlapping and outlying documents, from the Bill of Rights to the various Acts of the devolution settlement. Erskine May’s Treatise on the Law, Privileges, Procedures and Usage of Parliament could be claimed as one of those documents. It is not so much a ‘procedural bible’ as a description of how Parliament works. At its root Parliament, although it has many rules, is not a rules-based organisation; it operates according to practice and precedent and its rules, whether expressed in standing orders or resolutions or even occasionally statute, are glosses on or amendments to that practice. It is for this reason that ‘May’ attracts public interest as a source of information and is influential outside the United Kingdom, particularly in countries which use the Westminster system.

The 25th edition was published in traditional book form in June 2019. But unlike earlier editions, for the first time, that book sits side by side with a free to use, open to all, digital edition (on Parliament’s website, at erskinemay.parliament.uk). This online edition was launched on 2 July. The two versions are textually identical.

It has been argued that as a matter of democratic transparency, ‘Erskine May’ – a volume long considered the preserve of proceduralists in Parliament and constitutional lawyers – should be freely available to all. There is force in that argument, although reconciling it with the exigencies of producing what has always been a commercial proposition has not been straightforward and has taken some time. But if there ever was a moment to achieve that aim, it seems apt to do so now when debates in Parliament are attracting more public interest than for many years and the procedures by which Parliament operates and makes decisions are both widely debated and tangibly relevant to people’s daily lives.

To some extent the last edition of ‘May’, published in 2011, was a digital product. It was published on LexisNexis’s online library and was available as an e-book. But digital was not the priority and e-book publication now seems very old-fashioned. At the same time there was the beginnings of pressure to make the book more widely available, or even provide it for free.

In 2014 the House of Commons Governance Committee proposed that the arrangements for publishing ‘Erskine May’ should be reviewed with a view to “opening the publication to all in Parliament and beyond”. This idea was picked up the following year by the Digital Democracy Commission, established by the Speaker of the House of Commons to consider the challenges and opportunities for democracy presented by new technologies. The Commission recommended that ‘May’ should be freely available online “by the time the next edition is published” (so that’s one more recommendation they can tick off!). Since then, there has been increasing interest and expectation from both within the Westminster community and beyond (as evidenced by usage of the #FreeErskineMay hashtag on Twitter).

The May Memorial Fund (the copyright holders), LexisNexis (the publisher of ‘Erskine May’ and the sole and exclusive rights holder) and Parliament, recognising the importance of this work being easily available to citizens and the electorate, worked together to make sure this happened. We have had to adapt what was essentially a self-funding commercial operation (the royalties from one edition covering the publication costs and supporting the work to produce the next) into a model which both preserved the necessary elements of the former (professional publication providing the editorial and production skills necessary to produce a text and book to the standards expected) and delivered the benefits of free online publication.

Alongside these changes we are also planning for regular (once or twice a year) updates between editions. Exactly how these updates will be published, and their timings, is still a work in progress, but, in these uncertain and changing times, being able to deliver them is another significant benefit of the new model.

Ensuring ‘Erskine May’ would work in a digital environment at least as well as it does in its print edition was a vital consideration for the editorial team from the beginning. The new paragraph and section numbering format in the print edition was largely driven by digital considerations: page numbers make no sense online and we wanted to ensure that those referring to ‘May’ could use the same references regardless of whether they were using a printed or digital source.

As the editorial team prepared the 25th edition of ‘Erskine May’, revising and updating its content, a small team within the Parliamentary Digital Service worked closely with the Editorial Board and the publishers to work out how to put the prepared text into a format which could be read and searched digitally, devise a user-friendly browsing system, and design and build a portal to present ‘Erskine May’ to a digital readership. The sheer size of the volume – ‘Erskine May’ has 2,057 sub-headings alone – makes the process of text conversion problematic, so extensive testing and retesting was required. Part of the challenge in publishing ‘May’ online was that the team had to wait until the final version of the text was available, just about when the print edition was published, before they could actually start constructing the digital version. So, much of the work on the digital version had to be completed in less than a month. The aim was to produce a textually identical, digital version of ‘Erskine May’ which reflected its iconic status and was distinctively, recognisably ‘Erskine May’ but at the same time in keeping with the style of Parliament’s website and eminently useable. I think we have achieved this.

Hutton, M. (2019) Freeing 'Erskine May': getting the authoritative guide to Parliament's procedures and practice online (Hansard Society: London)