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House Of Commons

Volume 124: debated on Monday 7 December 1987

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Select Committee Reports

33.

To ask the Lord Privy Seal if he will make it his policy to ensure that all Select Committee reports are the subject of timely and substantive motions in the House.

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answer that I gave to the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on 23 November. With regard to debating all Select Committee reports, I remind the hon. Gentleman that since 1979 there have been more than 500 reports from departmental Select Committees alone.

Should there not be a Select Committee to shadow the Department of the Attorney-General, which would give us an opportunity to have an informed debate, not only on the injunctions on the BBC, which should attract timely and informed parliamentary comment, but on the position of Mr. Charles Elwell? Is it not extremely unsatisfactory that a party committee, albeit the distinguished defence committee of the Conservative party, should invite a former security officer to Parliament? What does the right hon. Gentleman think about that?

The hon. Gentleman's latter point is not a matter for me, but I understand that the invitation is not being pursued. The other matters mentioned by the hon. Gentleman have been decided by the whole House, and I have no plans to make any changes.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Department of the Environment still has to reply to a report on "Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments", published on 18 February last, a report on the "Property Services Agency" published on 8 April last, and a report on "Pollution of Rivers and Estuaries", published on 14 May last? We have been given various excuses, such as an impending general election and the non-reappointment of the Select Committee. Does my right hon. Friend regard those replies as satisfactory? Will he ensure that the convention that Command Papers are placed before the House within three months of the publication of a report is adhered to in the future, and may we have a debate on those papers?

I shall certainly refer my hon. Friend's points to the Ministers concerned. Select Committees are entitled to replies to their reports, and in the majority of cases that has already been done. There is always pressure on time for debates, but I will do my best.

Does the Leader of the House have any plans to have discussions with the broadcasting authorities which deal with broadcasts from the House to ascertain what would happen if, during debates from Select Committees, including the Privileges Committee, references were made to people who had at some time been members of the security services?

From time to time I have discussions with broadcasting officials, and these matters may come up.

The Leader of the House will know that I am anxious that we should debate pretty soon the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee on Boundary Commission changes. The changes are already beginning for local government re-warding, and if we are not careful it will be too late to do something. It was an excellent report, and many hon. Members believe that the time has come to change the procedures of the Boundary Commission. But we can do nothing until we debate the report.

I know of the right hon. Gentleman's concern about such matters. I have already discussed the report with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who will have a word with the right hon. Gentleman. As a result of those discussions, we shall decide how best to proceed.

Palace Of Westminster (Cleaning)

34.

To ask the Lord Privy Seal if, pursuant to the answer of 16 November, Official Report, column 388, there are any plans to clean the stonework or otherwise improve the appearance of the internal courtyards of the Palace of Westminster.

Yes, the courtyards are included in the stonework restoration programme, but we intend to give a higher priority to the restoration of the south elevation and the Victoria tower.

Although I welcome that answer and recognise that higher priority should be given to the Victoria tower and completing the clean-up of the external elevations of this splendid pile, does my right hon. Friend nevertheless agree that the general appearance of the internal courtyards is dirty and unsightly? If they were cleaned up, it would considerably brighten the environment of those using this Palace and also perhaps throw new light into some of the rooms and corridors.

I am glad that my hon. Friend agrees with our priorities for the stonework restoration programme. I accept that everything is not right with the courtyards. They are swept every day by the cleaning contractors. The Refreshment Department is responsible for taking its rubbish to the collection point in the State Officers Court. There are problems because of the limitations imposed by the building, but I shall draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of the Chairman of the Catering Sub-Committee.

Facsimile Transmission Equipment

35.

To ask the Lord Privy Seal if he will consider the provision at public expense of the necessary equipment to enable hon. Members to make facsimile transmissions from the House direct to other facsimile machine users for use in connection with their parliamentary duties.

Hon. Members are already able to make transmissions, on a repayment basis, from the facsimile machine in the Central Lobby post office. Several hon. Members have also purchased machines for their own use from their office costs allowance.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the provision of facsimile services to hon. Members at public expense would be no more revolutionary than the provision of telephone services to hon. Members some years ago? Is he further aware that the service available in the Central Lobby is the Intelpost service, for which hon. Members are charged £2·50 per page to receive a message and £3·50 to deliver the message from the machine in Central Lobby to an hon. Member in his office in the House? Does he not agree that that is most unsatisfactory?

The present arrangements appeared to be satisfactory until fairly recently. However, I recognise hon. Members' increasing interest in such facilities and I shall ask the Services Committee to consider this matter again.

Is the Leader of the House aware that it is two and a half years since I asked the then Leader of the House to arrange for fascimile machines to be made available to hon. Members in various parts of the House? Is he aware that at that time it would probably have cost about £10,000 to do the whole House? Does he know that over the last one and a half years hundreds of thousands of pounds must have been spent by hon. Members on acquiring individual machines for their own offices, as indeed I did, and I spent £2,000 of taxpayers' money? Is it not a waste of money when a cheap route was available that would have been economic for the taxpayer and would have resolved the difficulties of hon. Members with offices in their constituencies hundreds of miles away?

The position up to now has seemed satisfactory to the majority of hon. Members. There is now an increasing demand and it is right that we should consider the matter again.

Is it not something of a paradox that, when Government and Parliament are always lecturing people outside on the need to innovate and keep up with the latest technology, we always seem to be the last when it comes to introducing new technology for our own benefit? People outside cannot understand it when they are told that they simply cannot pass messages here and that messages must be sent by motor bike dispatch riders. If one does that, the messages promptly get lost in the system. These facilities must be introduced soon.

We have to work by consent. Hon. Members have different views about the speed at which technology should be introduced in this place.

Government Expenditure (Scrutiny)

36.

To ask the Lord Privy Seal if he has any plans to bring forward proposals to enhance the scrutiny of Government expenditure by the House through departmental Select Committees and the Committee of Public Accounts; and if he will make a statement.

I am sure that the Leader of the House is not aware that tonight the Government will try to sneak through public expenditure to the tune of £47 billion on the Vote on Accounts, and over £1 billion on the Winter Supplementary Estimates, without a vote, debate or reference to the Select Committees. Now that he is aware of that, will he ensure that this vast amount of public expenditure is at least debated by the House prior to the Consolidated Fund Bill?

I do not know about sneaking anything through. We are putting matters on the Order Paper in the proper fashion. It was not possible this year to have them debated by the Select Committees. For reasons which the hon. Gentleman knows, it was not possible to set up the Committees any earlier than was done.

Does my right hon. Friend think that it is time for a scrutiny of the expenditure by Select Committees, especially with regard to staff and travel? Does he believe that the House should now look again at the role of Select Committees and decide whether they are worth the money?

I agree that there are two points of view about Select Committees. Select Committees were established to provide expert and detailed scrutiny of departmental operations, complementing that of the PAC. They have discharged that role in a way in which the House would find difficult given other competing claims on its time. It is not necessary for their reports to be debated for them to have a significant effect on Departments and publicly.

Is the Leader of the House aware that because the Select Committees were not set up in time at the beginning of the parliamentary Session a lot of money has been saved for the taxpayer in respect of all the trips that have not been enjoyed by hon. Members on both sides of the House—excluding a few of us who do not believe in this sloppy consensus system of Select Committees and who are aware that it does not produce any fruits for the taxpayer? Will he bear in mind that that money should be saved for the taxpayer? Does he agree that that money could be very usefully employed if it was sent to a country such as Ethiopia, where it could help to fill the starving bellies of the kids out there?

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to suggest that the money might be used to offset the surcharge that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) sought to impose on me a minute ago. I recognise that, because the Select Committees were set up later than some people had hoped, money was saved. I do not put that forward as a valid argument. I believe that on the whole Select Committees do a good job for the House.