British MPs set to join the BlackBerry age

British MPs set to join the BlackBerry age

But only after a three-and-a-half hour debate tried to prevent the use of handheld devices

British MPs are set to be allowed to bring BlackBerrys into the House of Commons after rebel members failed in an attempt to prevent their use – despite three-and-a-half hours of debate last week.

Currently external communications during Commons debates are restricted to messages written on slips of paper passed by messengers wearing traditional black tail-coated uniforms.

But a select committee report on modernisation of the House has proposed a change to allow MPs to use "handheld devices to keep up to date with emails" while sitting in the chamber or in committees waiting to deliver a speech.

The same report had also proposed a first step towards parliament developing a system for handling e-petitions.

Liberal Democrat president Simon Hughes was the first to object to the change.

"I am not a luddite or anti-technology - of course we all see the advantages of being able to receive messages - but we should not have a parliament in which people are spending all their time doing their correspondence and sending emails," he said:

Conservative MP Brian Binley drew an analogy from recollections of going to the cinema to see Westerns starring Gene Autry and Roy Rodgers which depicted saloons that stopped people at swinging doors where gunmen had to deposit their weapons.

"I wish that the government had taken notice of that particular habit and asked all members to leave their electrical devices at the door on the basis that they cause almost as much trouble as guns in the hands of cowboys in the old west," he said.

Labour MP Sir Peter Soulsby said that some MPs were already anticipating the rule change with speaker Michael Martin turning a blind eye.

One front-bencher had used one "for a good 10 minutes" without anyone noticing, he said. Soulsby did not want MPs to bring in PCs or laptops but thought the technology proposal was “modest".

Tory MP Sir George Young claimed the rule "simply validates what has been the practice for some time."

"I do not find it enormously controversial," he said.

But former Tory trade and industry minister John Redwood claimed the government may have an ulterior motive because it would enable "controllers outside this House who will watch debates and send messages through to those who cannot think of their own interventions and questions because they want to stage-manage rather more".

Deputy Commons Leader Helen Goodman said she was sympathetic to Binley’s comments but the change had the support of the committee and she was sure the Speaker would prevent disturbances.

A proposal to drop the rule change was lost by 74 votes to 36.