Thursday 19 October 2006
[John Bercow in the Chair]
House of Commons Commission
[Relevant document: Twenty-eighth Report of the House of Commons Commission.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Liz Blackman.]
It is a pleasure on behalf of the House of Commons Commission to introduce the report and start the debate this afternoon. I welcome the opportunity to do so just 10 days after the House came back from the recess, the report having been published in July, shortly before we rose for the summer. I will be pleased to attempt to answer in writing after the debate those questions that I cannot answer during it, and to circulate that information to all who participate.
The report before us is similar to those in previous years, but I remind hon. Members that the work of the House is now organised according to three primary objectives and six supporting tasks, as set out on page 17. The report includes more useful data tables than in the past, and for the first time gives a brief report of the Commission’s activities, at paragraphs 7 to 12, as well as those of the House of Commons service. On page 7, a magnificent shot of this debate last year shows me speaking before an even more packed Public Gallery than we have on this occasion!
A theme of last year’s debate was the need for a further review of the management of the House service, following the Braithwaite review, which reported in 1999. I can announce today that the Commission has appointed Sir Kevin Tebbit to review the implementation of the Braithwaite report on the management and services of the House. As hon. Members will know, Sir Kevin retired recently as permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence. His review will cover whether the expected benefits of the Braithwaite changes have been realised, what further actions are required to achieve the objectives laid down in the House’s outline strategic plan, and whether the current arrangements are adequate to realise the objectives stated in the resolution of the House of 26 January 2005 relating to connecting Parliament with the public.
The full terms of reference are published today in a written answer. Sir Kevin will be supported by a small group of officials. His work will start later this month and he is expected to report in the middle of next year. Sir Kevin and his team are keen to hear the views of hon. Members on both sides of the House, their staff and the staff of the House.
Since the previous debate, the new Administration Committee is no longer really new. I subscribe very much to Mr. Speaker’s tribute, in his foreword to the report, to its “useful and challenging” role. The Commission attempts to respond to reports from the Administration Committee using the same mechanism—though not always, I hope, quite the same tone—as Ministers use to respond to Select Committee reports. The conclusions and recommendations of the Administration Committee are taken very seriously, and many are being followed up at the moment, including those on services to new and former Members and catering services, to mention just two. The recent report on accommodation will be considered by the Commission at its next meeting. I thank the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) and his colleagues on the Administration Committee for their work.
At the beginning of the report on pages 19 to 24 there is an environmental report, for which I make no apology. That was stimulated in part by a report last year by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), to which I replied at some length and published a response on the Commission website, but in truth we were already moving in the direction in which he pointed us. We now have challenging targets, in particular in view of the power attributable to the ever-growing volume of electronic equipment used throughout the estate, and the simple fact that the main building, wonderful though it is, is not necessarily state of the art in environmental performance.
We are already matching central Government targets, but we can do better. In particular, we can recycle more paper, as accepted in paragraph 53 of the report. I draw attention to the note in Mr. Speaker’s foreword that the Commission is to make carbon-offset payments in respect of air travel on parliamentary business. The prospects for photovoltaic cells on the roofs of the building and for using more grey water are being actively pursued.
If I may, I shall say a few words on the basic tasks of the administration. The report sets out the somewhat astonishing rise in parliamentary questions and early-day motion signatures since the election. This September’s experiment in tabling written questions during the recess and obtaining answers seems to have gone down well, which is in no small measure due to the work of House of Commons staff at every stage of the process—fortunately, the rules did not appear to allow for questions to me.
Hansard is now making the full transcript of proceedings available on the web within three or four hours of delivery, and the process of bringing in-house the origination and setting up of the vote bundle is complete, bringing substantial savings on printing and publishing. All vote papers are now originated and paginated in-house and sent to the printer as they are ready, and material is also produced directly for the web. In addition to the substantial savings of previous years, on a straight, like-for-like comparison, publishing the same information as before, savings of £1.56 million have been achieved in this financial year alone. The House is now in a much stronger position to ensure security of supply. If necessary, all the business and legislative papers needed to enable the House to function effectively can be produced and printed wholly on the parliamentary estate through the combined efforts of the Office of the Editorial Supervisor of the Vote and the print services section of the Vote Office. Business as usual sounds easy, but it is not.
The past year has seen the establishment of PICT—the Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology service. PICT is not a magic wand and the report is up-front at page 45 about the problems that it inherited. However, I have been impressed with the professionalism of the new department and the determination of its staff at all levels to provide the best possible service, including, crucially, in constituency offices. The Administration Committee has started an inquiry into the provision for and by the House of ICT services and equipment, with particular reference to those for Members and their staff. Any Member who has observations to make on ICT might like to respond to the Committee’s invitation for representations.
I shall in due course submit a written submission, but I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman says. The system has been better, but I have been impressed by how much help we have had both in the constituency and here from PICT staff. My one criticism is that there appear still to be problems with compatibility between the estates. For those of us who work here, in the constituency and at home, as many of us do, the system does not seem to do quite the same things in those different places. Notwithstanding my earlier credit, if we could get PICT to look at that problem, that would be helpful.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point entirely. There certainly have been problems with remote access, so I am pleased that there seems to have been significant improvement in that respect, but further improvements could no doubt be made on compatibility.
The new voters’ guide, “Voting Times”, was launched in July and has now been sent to nearly 100,000 new voters across the United Kingdom. For hon. Members who have not seen it, I should explain that it is a colour broadsheet and is personalised to each individual who receives it. It is intended to encourage more new voters to ensure that they are registered to vote and to use their votes at the next general election. It is expected to reach a minimum of 432,000 18-year-olds in its first year. The proposals for the publication came from a report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, which was debated by the House in January 2005, when there was a large vote in favour.
The new voters’ guide is an excellent initiative and has gone down very well. During one of the Committee meetings when the guide was debated, I asked how in the period running up to elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly we would ensure that there was no confusion, because of references to a general election, but I note that the new voters’ guide does not refer to either of those devolved bodies. Will the hon. Gentleman respond to that question today or come back to me about it later?
I recall the hon. Gentleman raising the point. I think that it was felt, when the publication was finalised, that our locus was to concentrate on the work of the Westminster Parliament. If there are ongoing issues that might confuse people, I shall certainly take them on board. If I can cast any more light on the issue, I shall come back to him in due course.
Mr. Speaker wrote to all Members before the guide was launched. The Commission has agreed that “Voting Times” will be sent out until the next general election. The estimated budget for that period is £2.3 million plus VAT, which is roughly £1 for each person to whom it will be sent. Follow-up research will be carried out in October and November next year to assess the impact that it has had on those who receive it and, if necessary, to allow minor amendments to be made. Alternative versions of “Voting Times” in Welsh, in easy-read format and on audio CD have been prepared and can be provided on request.
I shall conclude with a few points at random from the report. I am delighted to report that the House was re-accredited with Investors in People status, and that managers are committed to addressing areas of weakness in personnel management. Of course, there will always be problems and difficult issues in such a large and diverse work force. The programme for a radical redesign of the website is under way. Hon. Members might have noticed the changes that were introduced in September, which are a harbinger of the more radical reorganisation to come. The new Session will see a change in the way information and documentation on legislation are presented.
Sitting here, as we are, in Westminster Hall, the works around us on the new visitor reception building are evident. The building is due to open at the start of the new Session next month. I recommend that Members turn to page 82 of the report to see what the Hall looked like without a floor. Much of the works have been completed, but the visitor reception centre is not quite ready. The Commission is keen that that important new facility should be fully ready for service at or soon after state opening, but there will be a formal opening of the new building early next year.
On a lighter note, the House’s engagement with the world of contemporary art continues—sometimes on a rocky path. One such highlight is recorded in the photograph on page 83 of Grayson Perry with the large etching that is now in Portcullis House. Our thanks go to the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and his colleagues on the Works of Art Committee.
The report conveys something of the variety of issues with which the Commission and the House of Commons service have had to grapple in the past year. We thank previous members of the Commission for their work, including the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), who served a full year, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), and Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, all of whom stepped down during the period of this report, and we thank the recently retired Clerk of the House, Sir Roger Sands, for all his work with the Commission. I cannot end without thanking our recently departed Commission secretary, David Natzler, and the excellent staff who worked with him. David served the Commission with a great readiness to help everyone, a sure deftness of touch and, on occasions, a very welcome sense of humour. His reward has been a promotion to head up the Table Office—I am assured that that is a reward—and our best wishes go to him in that role, and to his successor with the Commission, Andrew Kennon.
This is the first occasion on which I have spoken about a report of the House of Commons Commission, and—I say this rather shamefacedly—it is also the first time that I have spoken in Westminster Hall, so this is my maiden outing after 27 and a half years in the House.
The report emphasises something that most of us in the House take for granted—the work of the staff of the Commons, and the Lords for that matter, in many different Departments, who ensure that the operation of the British Parliament is as efficient as it can be. Only when we see the problems that arise in overseas Administrations do we realise what we take for granted. Our Rolls-Royce administration and much of the support beneath it should not be taken for granted; it is the result of a high level of expertise, dedication and experience from the staff in all Departments.
I echo the remarks of the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), and thank the staff of all Departments for their work, so much of which is unsung. When I compare how life was when I came to the House in 1979—it was not as good then—I realise that a big difference is that the only outstations then were in the Norman Shaw building, so most of the House staff were in the Palace. The Library research staff were here and so were the Fees Office staff and others, so we were much more likely to meet members of staff than we are now that a good part of the Library is across in Derby Gate and a good part of the administration is in 7 Millbank.
I endorse all the other comments made by the hon. Gentleman, and there is no need for me to repeat them. I am a new member of the Commission, but I have been delighted to make what contribution I can.
I want to highlight two areas. The first is the so-called “Braithwaite two” programme in respect of House governance. The administration of the House has changed markedly over the years to take account of the fact that we are in an ancient building but have to keep up with the times, and of the many more pressures on Members of Parliament today compared with 30 years ago and before.
When I take guests through this House, I sometimes show them the bank of telephone booths that are located halfway up the staircase on the way to the Chamber. I explain that just before I came into the House, they were the phone service for Members of Parliament. Moreover, a man with a tin used to be there, and he collected the money from any Member of Parliament who dared make a trunk call. I remember some of my Scottish colleagues explaining to me how if, in a moment of madness, they decided to make a call about a constituent to the social security office in Glasgow, they could see that the amount they were trying to save for the constituent was being spent out of their own pocket on the phone call.
All that has changed, but the change in technology and the huge change in expectations partly caused by that has meant that the pressure on Members is much greater. I sometimes produce another figure. While doing work on how Members of Parliament have had to become more professional, I obtained figures from the Post Office about the number of letters received by Members of Parliament in the early 1960s. On average, they received between 15 and 20 a week, and Members had to pay for their own stamps. It was still the age of deference, when people did not trouble their Member of Parliament that much and if a Member went to the constituency once a month they were regarded as a “good constituency Member”. There are true stories, not just apocryphal ones, about people on both sides of the House who thought that their constituents were lucky if their MP went to the constituency once every six months or less.
There has been a dramatic change accompanied by much higher expectations. There are many paradoxes. For example, there was greater respect for Members of Parliament when they were doing much less work. The idea that there was a golden age of accountability is nonsense: in the old days, there were many fewer written and oral questions; with so many Members of Parliament having a job to go to before they came here, there was far less scrutiny of Ministers; and, until the great reforms undertaken by Lord St. John of Fawsley in 1979-80, there were no departmental Select Committees and just one or two standing Select Committees.
All that has changed. That change has been accompanied by a large increase both in the work load of Members of Parliament and the support that must be offered to them if they are to work effectively in their twin tasks of representing their constituents and holding Government to account. That is bound to mean that we have to keep the administration of the House under constant review.
I am glad that “Braithwaite one” has been successful and, as I know him, I am delighted to endorse the decision of the House of Commons Commission to appoint Sir Kevin Tebbit to run this review. He is a very distinguished and experienced public servant. His previous job was perhaps an even greater challenge than doing a review of the House of Commons: he was permanent secretary in the Ministry of Defence.
My second point relates to the chapter beginning on page 49, entitled:
“Promoting public knowledge and understanding of the work and role of Parliament”.
In some respects, the wheel is turning full circle. Immediately post-war, and following the terrible ravages of that war, huge idealism was invested in the United Nations and there was a broad and deep consensus about the importance of education for citizenship. The United Nations associations were active in many parts of the country. There was no national curriculum, and civics, as it was then called, was a core task of almost all schools. In any event, one in 11 people belonged to a political party, which meant that most families—a broader family involves more than 10 people—had direct knowledge of the operation of a political party. That has changed.
Paradoxically, bringing Parliament closer to the people by the introduction of first radio, then television, has, to some extent, not been paralleled by an understanding of the work of this place, except as a kind of series and soap opera. Alongside that, there has been a drop-off in the amount of both specific citizenship education and the education on citizenship one can glean from television, radio and the print media. I am glad that five years ago we decided to include citizenship in the national curriculum. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) asked me about that in business questions today. We have some way to go to ensure that it is taught effectively.
I am particularly glad that the House, led by the House of Commons Commission, now recognises that an explicit part of its work is ensuring that the public, who, after all, are our employers—they determine who we are and what we do—know what we are doing and ensuring that a new generation of employers have a much better idea of what we are here for and how we go about it. I am particularly pleased about the voter pack that is sent out to new voters, and I am glad that moves are afoot greatly to improve the parliamentary website. We are also obviously within spitting distance of getting the visitor reception centre opened downstairs.
I have no doubt that there will be a lot more that we have to do in this respect if we are to achieve a situation, which applies in some countries but ought to apply in all, where there is real understanding about the work of parliamentary democracy and the institutions that comprise it. Without such a situation, our democracy will start to wither. The day-to-day work of the Commission takes place in the tower that houses Big Ben. Meeting, as we do, in the Speaker’s Study, we can seem a bit distant from that, but it is central to directing and leading this matter. I commend the report.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the 28th report of the House of Commons Commission, Mr. Bercow. May I begin by giving the apologies of my right hon. Friends the Members for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean)? The fact that I, in my junior status, am responding today does not mean that Conservatives place a lack of importance on the works of the Commission and on this report. I am delighted to represent my two colleagues on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition.
We heard eloquently from the two previous speakers about the importance of the report. It now covers a full range of specialised services that are needed to support a very modern Parliament. We have heard from the Leader of the House about some of the new challenges that we are facing. He led us a little down memory lane, talking about how life was when he began in Parliament.
The challenges that this Parliament is now facing are different, even from those of five years ago. The first such challenge is on information technology and the second is on security, which are two aspects that the Commission has handled well. The third aspect, on which I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) focus, related to the environment. I am sure that that would be met with approval by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). It is good that this Parliament is leading the way in how we can change our lifestyles and the way we work to meet the environmental challenges that we face today. I hope that such an approach will reflect well with other town halls and assemblies across the country, which perhaps look at us as a yardstick as to how they can improve their services.
Let me turn briefly now to some of the comments that have been made about the detail of the report. My colleagues and I welcome the decision to appoint Sir Kevin Tebbit to review the governance of the House of Commons and to continue the work from the Braithwaite review. It is important that we continue to scrutinise such issues to see how we can change things for the better and be cost-effective.
The Leader of the House said that things were different when he first arrived in the House. Any new intake of Members of Parliament brings with it new ideas about how this place should run, and new hon. Members sometimes need to be put in their place and reminded of the status, stature and heritage of this building. None the less, it would be fair to say that the latest intake of Members has a different set of expectations, particularly on the information technology side, and I am pleased that we are making progress in developing information technology. Many new Members would like a wireless network to be set up, and I hope that we can move forward on that one day.
As I have told right hon. and hon. Members before, we have an opportunity to develop Portcullis House into a little more than the coffee house that it currently is. It is a major focal point, or junction, in our busy lives, but we have not taken full advantage of it in the way that city firms, which are able to receive guests, would have done. We could certainly move forward on that. Indeed, there is not even a clock or a monitor in Portcullis House, and I hope that some of the recommendations that I have made—
The Leader of the House disagrees, but I can assure him that he will need to take his watch with him if he wants to work out the time in Portcullis House. In addition, there were not enough seats to enable all hon. Members to meet guests in Portcullis House this lunch time, so there are areas in which we can expand services.
I am pleased that we are making progress with the visitors centre, which will be a tribute to the House of Commons. We must strike a balance between dealing with security threats and remaining open to the public, and I am pleased that the centre will soon be open. It will allow us to show the nation, in a more refined way, exactly what we do here.
We have made many advances. Perhaps I can conclude by saying that we are not only meeting hon. Members’ needs, but defending the heritage and integrity of this building. This great place is the mother of all Parliaments, but we are for ever helping it to be reborn, and I am therefore pleased to endorse the report.
Several hon. Members will be aware that I have participated in debates on the Commission’s reports on a couple of previous occasions. I hope that that reflects not an obsessive interest in the minutiae of the way in which this building operates, but a belief that it is important for the efficiency of this institution to take an interest in its operation. What we do here is an important exemplar to the wider community of what we think and how far we put it into practice. The Commission’s work, with its emphasis on the connection between Parliament and the public, should be of concern to every Member of Parliament, particularly at a time when we are all concerned about the disengagement of many members of the public from the political process.
Before I make a few specific comments on the report, let me say that I recognise the important progress that has been made on several issues since last year. I am thinking particularly of some of the work that has been done on the parliamentary website, which is still in progress, and on environmental and energy issues. A lot of good, important work has also been done on outreach and education, which are particular interests of mine, and there are good signs for the future. I make those comments because I want to concentrate on a few issues on which progress can still be made and I do not want it to be thought that I do not recognise the progress that has been made. I certainly want to put on record my appreciation for the work done by the staff of the House. I should make particular mention of the work done by the Public Bill Office, and the report refers to the assistance that it has given hon. Members who have introduced private Member’s Bills. As many hon. Members will know, I introduced a private Member’s Bill earlier this year, and I had considerable assistance from the staff of the Public Bill Office, which I very much appreciated.
Let me turn, however, to a few issues on which we still need to make progress. One issue, which I have raised before, and on which I intend to be persistent, if not obsessive, is providing access to the building for cyclists, whether hon. Members or members of the general public. I cycle to this building fairly regularly, and one consequence of the undoubtedly necessary security arrangements that have been put in place over the past year is that it is now extremely dangerous for cyclists to turn in to a number of the entry points to the parliamentary estate. Obviously, security concerns must be paramount, but I assume that consideration will at least be given in due course to replacing the current, rather unsightly black metal barriers around this building with more visually attractive barriers. I hope that the fact that we must keep vehicles away from parts of the building will give us an opportunity to make the area around Parliament more visitor friendly and, in particular, more pedestrian and cyclist friendly. When somebody does start looking at the issue of cyclists’ access to the parliamentary estate, I hope that they will bear in mind the need to make the entries into the estate a little safer for cyclists. I have made that point before, but in the absence of any specific commitments to deal with it, I make it again today.
I also hope that we can consider providing cycle facilities for the general public. We talk about trying to encourage people to use more sustainable forms of transport to come to this building, and that presumably includes the general public. As we all know, there has been a welcome increase in cycling in London in recent years, and facilitating greater access will clearly involve security issues, but there is nowhere outside the perimeter of this building where cyclists can secure cycles if they want to enter the building as members of the public, to do business or whatever. Again, I hope that that point can be looked at when the appropriate discussions take place with the authorities around Westminster.
Having got that concern off my chest, I want to say a few words about the wider issue of the Commission’s work in promoting public understanding of the parliamentary process, and we are all aware of how crucial that work is at present. The work on the web has been good so far, although it is work in progress. Despite the welcome changes to the parliamentary home page, there are still a lot of problems with the way in which information is provided on the web, as hon. Members will be aware. To some extent, that reflects the way in which we present our business.
Over the summer, I used the new parliamentary website to try to find out what was going to happen on a particular day after the recess. Having tried to negotiate the rather arcane terminology—forthcoming business, future business, the agenda—I can say that it takes some time to find out what is going on even as a Member of Parliament, and we are used to finding our way around the system. Again, I hope that the Commission will look at that in due course.
More fundamental, in terms of the public’s access to Parliament, is the issue of facilities for visitors to the House of Commons and the outreach work that Parliament does in different parts of the UK. The work on the visitors’ centre is obviously good news, and good progress is being made. However, one issue, which I have raised before, is whether we should consider some form of financial assistance for groups, and particularly school groups, that want to visit the House of Commons. Those that come from further afield in the UK will obviously consider whether they will incur a cost by visiting Westminster.
The statistics for visits to the House of Commons by school groups and others show, not surprisingly, that the vast majority come from the south-east of England. That is not surprising and will not change fundamentally. Nevertheless, we could make some efforts, it seems to me, to facilitate visits by school groups from further afield. I am aware that the National Assembly for Wales and, I understand, the Australian Parliament have schemes to provide small amounts of financial assistance to encourage and facilitate visits to Parliament, particularly by school groups from more distant parts of those countries.
As has been recognised, however, not everyone will visit Parliament in person, and the outreach work that we do is of essential importance. I certainly recognise the progress that has been made with the appointment of increased numbers of education staff in this context. I know that they have been doing work in areas a long way from the capital, and indeed in my own city. There is still a case, however, for considering the idea raised a few years ago of a parliamentary roadshow where we can present at key public occasions some information about Parliament and its work. It is particularly important that that should happen in areas further afield from London, where perhaps there is less awareness of Parliament’s accessibility.
For example, by way of a comparison, I recently attended and took part in—with my own stall, indeed—the Edinburgh Mela, a big event for the south Asian community in Edinburgh and further afield. There was a Scottish Parliament stall there, with information material. It would clearly not be practical for the House of Commons to provide information stalls at every public gathering in the UK throughout the year, but nevertheless it seems to me that we might consider that approach to promoting greater understanding of what Parliament does, what it means and how people can get involved in the parliamentary process.
I know that such work—outreach and information work—costs more money, and to some extent there is no limit to the suggestions that could be made or the demands that could be made for more information, access and accountability, but within reason I do not particularly mind if we must increase resources in that area. In the end, if we really want to re-engage the public with the political process, that kind of investment seems to me well worth undertaking.
Finally, having said that I will not concentrate on minutiae, I shall take advantage of the occasion to raise one point of internal administration, now that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) has given me the excuse to do so; that is Portcullis House. If arrangements there are being examined, will someone please pay attention to signage on the first floor there, and try to assist Members and staff in finding their way round the building if they do not happen to come in at the particular point where there are signs? Accessibility to the public is important, but minimising the number of circuits that hon. Members make around the first floor would be a useful step for the Commission to take. I have raised the matter informally before, but as that did not result in any progress, I hope that the Commission can now deal with it in a slightly more formal way, in due course.
In parenthesis before I begin my remarks I want to say how glad I am that I am not the only person who must complete an entire circumnavigation of Portcullis House every time I want to find a room there. One would think that one would eventually learn the geography of the building, but somehow it escapes me—and, I am sure, many other hon. Members.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate, which may this afternoon be a slightly short one, on the work of the House of Commons Commission. I want to say how much we value the work of the Commission, in the first instance, but, more importantly, the work of the staff of the House, who do a remarkable job for us in all sorts of capacities, sometimes in the most trying conditions. I do not think that we have enough opportunity to thank them for their forbearance, patience and unstinting helpfulness to Members of the House.
I particularly make that point in the context of the present security situation, which has already been mentioned. It is a matter of concern that we face a continuing security threat. I do not know whether hon. Members have noticed that the state of alert has been at severe for some time now. Staff must deal with that on a regular basis. I do not want to go into details about what is provided, and how the security of the House is maintained, but I want to say that it is very important that that work is done—and effectively. Sometimes, we do not like the result. Some of us are still not desperately keen on the security screen, but we understand why it is there. Some of us are not desperately keen on the metal barriers, which, I agree, are not a great embellishment to the House, but we understand why they are there, and recognise the need.
Incidentally, and again in parenthesis, with respect to something that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) said, it seems odd to me that this sovereign Parliament sometimes has difficulty in doing what is necessary for the protection of the House, and the better working of the democracy that it embodies, because of the need to defer to a local council—Westminster city council—about planning. I am a great upholder of the rights of local communities to maintain planning, but when that gets in the way of Parliament doing its work, as I believe to be the case in this instance—I think that one argument for the present barriers was the difficulty in getting timely planning consent for a permanent alternative—it seems that things are slightly askew.
As to the work of the Commission, I echo what others have said about the education role. That has really taken off recently, which is extremely welcome, both in relation to the visitors’ centre that is being prepared, and the voters’ guide. I wonder to what extent there was proper communication and consultation with the Electoral Commission before it was produced, because it is a splendid document, and well worth while, but it overlaps with the work of the commission, and I should have expected the commission to make the same point that has been made this afternoon about whether voting arrangements in areas with devolved Parliaments or Assemblies have been properly considered. I understand the focus of the House of Commons Commission, but I also recognise that there is a wider issue.
I also hope that we can make things easier for visitors from our constituencies. My constituency is on the cusp of possibility, as it were, for visits. People can come on school visits from there, but they must leave extremely early in the morning to do it, and they sometimes do not recognise just how early, with the result that we often get groups arriving far too late, having been held up in traffic which they did not realise would be so severe. Of course, the changes in our hours of sitting have not helped that process. Anything that we can do to help school visits in particular, because those are hugely beneficial, is to be encouraged.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) made the point that the lead chapter of the report is about the environment. That is an instance of getting one’s defence to an attack in first. I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) that the House is leading the way. It is not. Let us not kid ourselves. We are not leading the way in environmental matters, but we are beginning to catch up, which is good. That is not to discredit what has been done. I recognise the difficulties that we have with this historic building, but let us also recognise that there is a lot more to do. I welcome what my hon. Friend said about looking further into energy conservation and grey water use, and about the use of unsustainable materials in the fabric of the building. All of those are important ingredients in demonstrating that we live up to our rhetoric on matters environmental. That is of huge importance. It is not just that what we do may be good in itself; it also sets an example and shows our recognition that we can do better in such matters.
Hon. Members have mentioned information technology, and, again, I recognise both the difficulties and the hard work that have been put in to overcome those difficulties. One problem for IT staff is the huge variance in the expectations and expertise of hon. Members from those who have only the haziest idea of what a PC is, let alone how to make it work, to those who expect everything to interface and to provide connectivity of a high order. The difficulty is that in the attempt to find a happy medium between those two extremes we always fall short of what is becoming common practice in the private sector. It is frustrating for many people that we do not have services that are as good as they could be. However, I recognise the work that has been done and the improvements that have been made.
Something that has not yet been mentioned is the work that the Commission has done with the Association of Former Members of Parliament, which is much appreciated. If we can do something in a small way to assist our former colleagues it is right that the Commission does so.
Turning to the review of administration and governance—“Braithwaite two”, as the Leader of the House called it—I was interested to hear that when my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon introduced the item he referred to administration and management, but Braithwaite referred to administration and governance, as did the Leader of the House. Governance is not the same as management; it is distinctly different, but both are important. Sir Kevin Tebbit is an admirable choice to provide a rigorous examination of the arrangements for administration and management, but I am less convinced of his expertise in governance, which is the province of the House.
I hope that the Commission recognises the need for right hon. and hon. Members to be involved in any changes in governance because that might bring the Commission into better contact with Members of the House. Despite the best efforts of my hon. Friend and many others and despite the forms and surveys that are sent out, there is still a feeling among many hon. Members that things happen in this place that they had no idea would happen and they cannot understand why they have happened. They learn about them afterwards and then grumble. I recognise that that is, to some extent, human nature, but if we can find ways of involving the membership of the House at an earlier stage, particularly with matters that are highly visible and therefore have an impact on the world outside and about which they will be asked questions, or matters that change the way of life and the way in which colleagues work, that should be encouraged. Sometimes, the Commission, however hard it tries, seems not to be in as good contact with hon. Members as it might be.
I made one detailed note on paragraph 237 of the report, which refers to “delegated resource budgeting.” I wondered at what level that scheme of delegation will apply and at what level budget holders will have discretion presumably to spend within their budget. I am a great supporter of the delegation of budgets whenever possible because it provides for better and more effective management of resources, and I shall be interested to know what is implied by that phrase.
I want to make three final points. First, a long-standing criticism that I hear from colleagues in the House is about the management of public works contracts and the length of time that sometimes seems to be necessary to complete work in the House. That must be qualified by the fact that we are dealing with an historic building and that there are often difficulties that the layman does not see. However, it is important to reach private sector and best public sector levels of performance of contract management and I would like to know whether that is regularly assessed and audited, and whether improvements are possible.
The second is services to Members. Increasingly with the changing membership of the House we need better health service facilities in the House and facilities for Members with families. That has not yet been fully addressed.
Thirdly—I say this with some trepidation—we are engaged in a protracted process, which some would say has been protracted for more than 100 years, of reform of the House of Lords. If there is real progress in reform of the other place, there are implications for the management of the Palace as a whole. I hope that the Commission will continue to work with counterparts in another place to ensure that wherever possible we can integrate our systems and management of shared facilities so that while we respect the different traditions and different ways of working of the two Houses, nevertheless, wherever possible we achieve co-ordination that results in efficiency and effectiveness.
My final point—I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is not here because I understand that this is her responsibility in the report—is that one of the disappointments is the paucity of information in the annual report of the Administration Estimate Audit Committee which is attached to the Commission’s report as an appendix on page 109. I expected a good deal more detail from the Committee, which is the check and balance within the system to ensure that the Commission and offices of the House are doing their work. The report is skimpy and it would have been a good opportunity for the Committee to publish as part of its report the principal conclusions and findings of the audit reports that it has commissioned and looked at. I commend that practice in future.
Having made what I hope are constructive comments on the Commission’s report, I again thank the members of the Commission for their work and all members of staff who work for the Commission and the House as a whole for their hard work during the past year.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Bercow, and add my thanks to those of other right hon. and hon. Members to the Commission, its Chair, its staff and particularly Sir Roger Sands and the Commission’s secretary. We are grateful for their work and that of the thousands of members of staff who enable us to do our job and enable democracy in this country to be a model for others.
I am particularly pleased that the report has developed some of the themes that were discussed last year and taken up some of the issues. That shows that the members of the Commission listen to hon. Members. It is clear from the tone of the discussion today that there is no complacency and that there is still much more to be done to ensure that both the building and its facilities are fit for purpose, not just for Members of Parliament but, as has rightly been stressed, for those who elect us and send us here, and who are entitled to enjoy the facilities as visitors.
I shall say no more than that, except to thank all who contributed to the report.
I want to respond to a few of the points that have been made. This debate has been useful and constructive and I welcome the tone of the comments that hon. Members have made, even when they have suggested areas where there is room for improvement. The Leader of the House gave an interesting history of the experience of MPs and of what constituents expect from their MPs. He rightly referred to the improvement in our outreach to the public and our work in trying to improve understanding of democratic institutions. I agree with his emphasis on that and I welcome the proposals that he will bring forward shortly for hon. Members to play a direct part in that process instead of everything being done by the House as an institution.
I welcome the contribution from the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) who talked about new Members bringing new perspectives. When I was a new Member in 1992 and a number of us had various grievances, I remember being egged on from behind by Tony Benn, who said, “Go on, go on, get your points in now. You’ll have turned native within a couple of years.” So it was that we did what we could to bring up our grievances.
It would be fair to say that we made a little progress.
The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East talked about information and communications technology. While reading the recently published book about the previous leader of my party, I noticed that new members of our party last year had been absolutely irate at the slow progress in obtaining offices and ICT equipment. I am sure that their grievances were well founded, but progress last year was better than it has ever been. However, a great deal more can be done to improve matters for future intakes.
The hon. Gentleman referred to a wireless network, and I reassure him that there are the beginnings of such work. A wireless network is being pioneered in the atrium at Portcullis House, about which he made other remarks. It is envisaged that in the fullness of time, the network will spread further. His observations about the atrium were very interesting. They warrant further examination, but it is not possible to promise adequate seating for everybody who wants to eat there. The facilities are excellent, but its capacity is finite, and Members and staff must recognise that they can go to other outlets on the estate. Nevertheless, he is quite right: we have not yet fully exploited the area’s potential.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) made some positive remarks and a few suggestions about matters on which he wanted to see more work. The website is a work in progress, and I recognise that there is more work to be done. We are doing a great deal more on outreach, and the hon. Gentleman’s idea of a roadshow is under consideration. It certainly has not been ruled out. His plea for better signage on the first floor of Portcullis House was well made, and I confess that although I have an office on the third floor, I, too, get profoundly lost every time I go to the first floor. There is signage, but it may be too high-tech for some of us to derive the full benefit.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has seen the exhibition at Tate Modern, featuring slides from the fifth floor to the bottom, but we should put forward that suggestion, so that by such a system, Members on the high levels of Portcullis House might access the Chamber. Might that assist the hon. Gentleman in his third-floor eyrie?
It is an interesting idea. Hon. Members would have to up their life insurance premiums before they started down that track.
I shall have to disappoint the hon. Gentleman about cyclists’ access. I emphasise that security matters are not for the Commission, but for Mr. Speaker, who is advised by the Joint Security Committee. Nevertheless, the security measures make life more difficult for cyclists, but because of the security climate, it is not possible to locate any cycle parking facilities in the environs of the estate. House authorities have discussed the matter with City of Westminster authorities and the secure zone in Whitehall with Government Departments.
We have managed to put cycle racks outside 7 Millbank, and there is a proposal to extend them, but for the time being and in the current security climate, I see no likelihood of providing public cycle parking facilities any closer to the building than that. I rule out the possibility of any facilities within the estate. It has been considered, but it is no more acceptable in security terms for the public to cycle into the estate than it is for them to drive their motor cars into the estate, which is not allowed.
Notwithstanding what the hon. Gentleman has said, Members might want to know that the Leader of the House also takes that issue seriously. Next Wednesday, he is meeting an MP who has made such requests to discuss the matter. I am happy to ensure that details of the meeting are fed back to the Chairman of the Commission, Mr. Speaker, and my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz).
I make it clear that I am suggesting not that members of the public should be able to cycle freely into the secure cordon around the building, but that somewhere not too far away, it must be possible to provide a few—more than a few, I hope—cycle racks and a place that is secure for cyclists as well as for Parliament itself. There must be plenty of locations to consider, and I am a little concerned that whenever anyone suggests improving cycle provision in Westminster or around any other public building, someone always says, “There is a terrorist threat and a security threat, and we can’t do anything.” It sounds like an excuse to do nothing, although I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would not take that approach. Will he consider access if not in the estate, somewhere around the estate?
Again, in the current security climate, there is no question of having cycle parking facilities on the estate. We have taken steps to provide facilities outside 7 Millbank, but I take note of the hon. Gentleman’s points, and we hope that the discussions that the Leader of the House will have might facilitate some progress. I recognise the desirability of providing such facilities for visitors at a convenient location.
My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) raised several interesting points, and I reassure him that voting times were developed through dialogue with the Electoral Commission, and that its observations were taken on board. I am grateful for his observation that we are beginning to catch up on environmental matters. I take his point that there is a great deal more to do, but we are ahead of one or two Government Department targets, which is good. There certainly remains more to be done, however.
My hon. Friend made observations about the upcoming Braithwaite review, and I urge him to make direct representations to Sir Kevin Tebbit and his team. Sir Kevin will have an open door, and he is keen to hear from Members. My hon. Friend had some interesting points that he would be well advised to make directly. I do not have a ready answer to the question of delegated resource budgeting, but I shall find out what it means and how it will operate, and I shall get back to him.
My hon. Friend also asked whether we monitor the efficiency of the works programme. The Administration Estimate and Members Estimate Audit Committee monitors the programme, and the way in which we tender for contracts is in line with other public bodies and Government Departments. We attempt to achieve best practice. When queries have been raised about certain high-profile projects, we have asked the Committee to investigate. I take on board my hon. Friend’s observations about the Committee’s fairly concise report, and I shall refer the Committee to them for consideration.
I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for stepping in, and for his tribute to the work of the Commission and the House staff. I echo that. The House staff do a wonderful job in trying circumstances, and we are all grateful to them for their forbearance and professionalism.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Four o’clock.