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House Of Commons

Volume 84: debated on Monday 28 October 1985

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Library (Usage)


asked the Lord Privy Seal what has been the increase over the last 10 years in queries put by hon. Members to the Library.

Over the period 1975–84 the percentage increase in the number of Members' inquiries answered in writing by the research division and by the international affairs section of the House of Commons Library was 77 per cent.

Is the Minister aware that many Members of the House are grateful to the Library staff for the high quality of work and help that they give us, but that that is still no substitute for providing us with decent back-up? The two types of help are complementary. May I press the Leader of the House to think again about the need to provide each Member of the House who requires it with sufficient resources to employ one secretary and one research assistant?

The hon. Gentleman was shrewd to make the point about our gratitude to the Library staff, because that will unite the whole Chamber. I am not sure that the same is true of his second point. With the growth in the number of research assistants, one might have thought that there would be less demand upon the Library's research facilities, but in fact the reverse is true.

Following the comments of the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs), when my right lion. Friend the Leader of the House reviews the opportunity for Members to have at least one research assistant, will he also consider limiting the number of research assistants that Members should have?

My hon. Friend raises two separate issues The hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) was hoping that the review of the secretarial research allowance would proceed on the basis that the sum should include an amount equivalent to the financing of one full-time research assistant. The second point was made in the recent debate that we had on this matter. Whatever number of research assistants a Member might have, no more than two employees of a Member can have access to the House.

Notwithstanding the excellent help that the Library gives Members, how long will it be before the Leader of the House reviews the number of research assistants that hon. Members can have? Will he give an undertaking that that matter will receive priority over and above investigations into Members' salaries for this financial year?

Members' salaries for this financial year operate under an automatic formula. The subject of hon. Members' research assistants and the degree of access that they have has been remitted to the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin), and he will be reporting to the House in due course.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the latest contacts that I have had with the Library have told me about the emergence of an interesting new species—the research assistant's secretary? Is he aware of the conundrum of big fleas, little fleas and lesser fleas? Does he not think that the amount of Ministers' and Library staff time taken up by these research assistants, their secretaries and their secretaries' research assistants, and the amount of paper used, and the photocopying, has got out of control?

I do not want to stray too far into that controversy, because the matter is now before the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford. It is undoubtedly true that the term research assistant is used fairly liberally in our discussions. Many of those people could in no sense undertake serious research.

Proceedings (Sound Coverage)


asked the Lord Seal if there are any plans to extend to Members' offices facilities for live sound coverage of the proceedings of the House.

I understand that the Select Committee on Sound Broadcasting is undertaking a study of the feasibility and cost of such facilities with a view to making recommendations to the Services Committee in due course, but the introduction of any such scheme would, of course, require the authority of the House.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Select Committee on Sound Broadcasting has already conducted a survey and that only 398 Members favoured such live sound coverage? In the interests of keeping the House active, will my right hon. Friend disregard that survey in view of the temptation for hon. Members not to turn up in the Chamber at all if everything is broadcast to their offices? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Chamber is empty enough already?

My hon. Friend makes the very fair point that in this, as in so many other matters, we must have regard to the impact on attendance in the Chamber. I must point out to him, however, that as the matter is now before the Services Committee it would be inappropriate for me to make any observations or draw any conclusions until I have had the benefit of the Services Committee report.

I regret any disagreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels), but is my right hon. Friend aware that, although some of our parliamentary colleagues may be less than irresistible in their contributions, many of us who spend a fair part of the day at our desks might appreciate the opportunity to tune in from time to time to see how the proceedings are going?

That is an interesting view of the nature of the parliamentary process, but I must put it firmly on record that whatever we do we must do our utmost to maintain the vitality of this Chamber as the very heart of Parliament.

Opposition Parties (Funding)


asked the Lord Privy Seal when he plans to review the funds granted to Opposition parties in Parliament.

The amounts payable to Opposition parties under the Short money scheme have so far been revised on four occasions since the scheme's inception in 1975. The latest rise was effective from 1 January 1985. 45too Following this pattern, a further review would be likely to take place in 1987 or 1988.

When the Leader of the House considers the matter again, will he bear in mind that the Short formula does not tell the whole story, because of the enormous range of exclusive fringe benefits granted to the Labour party as the official Opposition? Will he take into account the £80,000 in salaries for leaders of that party in both Houses, the £66,000 for civil servants seconded to them and the £30,000 for a car and chauffeur for the Leader of the official Opposition?

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly correct. The Ministers of the Crown Act 1937, under which a salary was first paid to the Leader of the Opposition, also provided for a number of supporting expenses to come from the public purse. The hon. Gentleman is, therefore, quite right. The evolution of the Short money system since then has meant that two systems have been operating in parallel. I agree that it is perfectly valid to consider that at some future date.

Will my right hon. Friend comment on the anomaly that whereas the Labour party apparently sees fit to accept public money to keep its democratic institutions working, a large proportion of the trade union movement apparently resists acceptance of such money to keep its democratic institutions working?

I would rather confine myself to what goes on in this Chamber. I believe that the provision in the 1937 Act allowing public funds to be made available to the Opposition party has proved itself. Perhaps in the fullness of time wiser counsels will also prevail in the trade union movement.

I hope that this will not be treated as a party matter— [Interruption.] It will not be too long before the Conservatives find themselves in opposition. We are talking about the workings of a healthy democracy. At present, the Short money is entirely inadequate for an Opposition to function properly. I was most disturbed to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that the matter will not be reconsided until about 1987. Does he agree that it should be done much sooner?

There are some who would argue that it is not the absence of money which makes for an ineffective Opposition. We should beware of being too liberal in the application of so-called Short money. An agreement has been concluded and it would be appropriate for it to run to 1987 or 1988, as I have suggested. Of course, these are all matters that are considered from time to time, so the hon. Gentleman should not get too excited about it.