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Parliament (Joint Departments) Bill [Lords]

Volume 463: debated on Tuesday 17 July 2007

Considered in Committee.

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Clause 1

joint departments of the houses of parliament

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

As my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), said when he introduced the Second Reading debate on the Bill, the Parliament (Joint Departments) Bill is unusual in that it is neither a Government nor a Back-Bench Bill, but a parliamentary Bill, concerned with the machinery of Parliament. The Bill has its origins in the decision of the House of Commons Commission and the House of Lords House Committee to set up a joint Department to manage information and communications technology on behalf of both Houses.

We have a tradition in the House of making decisions about the services that we all need in a non-partisan spirit. I am pleased to say that the Bill enjoyed all-party support in the House of Lords, and that was apparent again when the Second Reading debate was taken Upstairs in Second Reading Committee. I am grateful in particular to the hon. Members for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) and for North Devon (Nick Harvey) for their support. I am pleased also to see my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) in his place. I know that as Chairman of the Administration Committee, he has taken a particular interest in parliamentary ICT and in the Bill.

Clause 1 establishes the key principle that there can be joint Departments of both Houses of Parliament. Although the two Houses have long since shared the building, they have always maintained separate administrations and staff. To some extent that must always be so, because there are occasions when the two Houses take contrary positions on the issues before them and require separate procedural support and advice. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly clear that it makes sense for the two Houses to share the management of much of our infrastructure. Until now, that has been achieved more or less satisfactorily by one House employing the staff to deliver a particular service and the other agreeing to make an appropriate financial contribution in exchange for a share in the service. For example, the House of Commons has managed the staff who maintain the buildings for both Houses while the House of Lords has managed the staff of the joint parliamentary archives.

Over the past 20 years, Members of both Houses and the two administrations have become increasingly dependent on ICT services. In response, during the 1990s the two Houses created a combination of joint and separate functions to meet the new requirements. In addition, most of the specialised Departments and offices of the two Houses acquired their own computer applications and staff, all under separate management arrangements. The consequence was that at the beginning of the present decade we had acquired myriad overlapping IT systems and teams. That is why, in 2004, the House of Commons Commission and the House of Lords House Committee accepted the recommendation from the Clerks of both Houses that there should be a single strategically managed ICT service functioning, for the first time, as a joint Department. It was agreed then that the new service called the parliamentary information and communication technology service—PICT—should be set up on an interim basis.

As parliamentarians, we all know that our dependency on ICT can only increase—a point tellingly made in the excellent report by the Administration Committee, “Information and communication technology services for members”. High-quality ICT services are essential for all Members to fulfil their responsibilities to their constituents and in Parliament. That requires careful strategic management on our behalf, and it eminently makes sense for them to be managed on a joint House basis. PICT is already operating in a shadow form, but for the longer term it needs a stable framework for joint employment, which is what the Bill is designed to achieve. Clause 1 therefore establishes the principle of joint Departments, and the remaining clauses flesh out the details.

I welcome the Deputy Leader of the House and congratulate her on her appointment. I did so previously in a Committee Room, but this is her first time at the Dispatch Box. I hope that she and I will be able to work together constructively, as I was able to with her predecessor, the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), in the best interests of all in this House.

As the hon. Lady said, this is not Government legislation but business of the House. As such, it is good to see that it is not contentious and has the agreement of all shades of the political spectrum. Among those who agree with the Bill, I am pleased to see the Chairman of the Administration Committee, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran), and we also have agreement from the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), representing the House of Commons Commission.

It is not my intention to detain the House for too long, but I should like to make a few comments. As we have heard, the Bill sets up a joint Department for parliamentary information and communication technology. It is extraordinary that in the 21st century the Palace of Westminster still operates as two separate units, whereby we have separate entities for retaining staff, signing contracts, holding property and the like. Although there has been very close co-operation, it is good that we are at last getting modern in the Palace and recognising the need for joint Departments.

In the case of information technology, there used to be some nine separate units serving all the various people and Departments in both Houses. In January 2006, it was decided to set up a joint Department, and it is fair to say that on the whole the work of that Department has been very good, subject to the odd error at times, but with constant work on improvement. The vital service provided to all of us was rightly highlighted in an Administration Committee report in May of this year. The report spoke of our enormous reliance on information technology and the work that the staff of PICT do on our behalf in this House, and in our constituencies by way of remote services.

The Bill seeks to formalise the initial Department that was set up by creating one with the power jointly to employ staff, on behalf of both Houses, and to safeguard their rights, as well as to protect the rights of future employees, particularly regarding employment legislation, while ensuring the applicability of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006. The Bill also provides for the corporate officers of the Department to be able to sign contracts and to hold property and the like on behalf of both Houses. Let me emphasise that those corporate officers can operate only with the explicit approval of the House of Commons Commission and the other place.

Finally, the Bill provides for the future creation of other joint Departments, but let me emphasise that such Departments will be created only if there is agreement from both Houses. Given the obvious economies of scale, the pooling of expertise and the likelihood of better services all round, it is good to see that this Bill provides for such a future eventuality. Possible future candidates for joint Departments may well be the proposed parliamentary visitor centre, the Refreshment Departments, the Libraries and the Official Report. Although I understand that there are no plans at present for any further joint Departments, it is worth noting the contents of the Tebbit report on House of Commons management and services, which was published on 18 June. It encourages the House to consider further joint Departments with the other place, but it nevertheless cautions that we should see how this first joint Department operates. With those comments, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall conclude for the moment.

Order. I just point out to the hon. Gentleman, and for the benefit of everyone else, that now we are in Committee, I am Mr. Chairman or Sir Alan rather than Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is just a small point.

Thank you, Sir Alan. I, too, welcome the Parliamentary Secretary to her new post and her first Committee on the Floor of the House. I wish her well because she has an important role to play in ensuring the smooth operation of the House for all hon. Members.

Clause 1 establishes a simpler way of getting joint operations between the two Houses and, as has been said, anyone looking in from outside might be a bit surprised about the situation. However, we have to remember the history of the two Houses and the fact that they are separate constitutional entities. Therefore, over time, they have evolved separate ways of functioning. Now, it makes a lot of sense to bring them together if we can, if we do so for the sake of efficiency and effectiveness.

PICT may have had glitches, problems and so on, but we welcome the extra support that has come from trying to build a larger organisation to support our IT. If I think back over the 10 years since I have been here, I can say that the changes in what hon. Members have been able to do through IT support in remote areas in order to access this building and documents have made quite a difference. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) recognised that having 650 small businesses to serve is quite a challenge for PICT and it is important to use the new structure to take that forward.

It would be interesting to hear from the Parliamentary Secretary what other joint Departments are in the pipeline. How far advanced are the ideas of setting up other joint Departments to bring other efficiencies to support Members of both Houses? Are there any at the moment, or are we dealing with this Bill purely to ensure that PICT is established, meaning that it will be some time down the line before we see further evolution building on the back of clause 1?

I welcome my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to her new position. It is a much deserved promotion and I look forward to working with her on the Bill and on many other issues in future.

I welcome the Bill, which is long overdue. In my current post as Chairman of the Administration Committee, I have learned that each House jealously regards its distinctive character. It is important to examine ways, as we are doing with PICT, to rationalise—that is sometimes a dangerous word—and improve services. Anyone who reads the Administration Committee’s report on PICT will realise that, even in the short space of time that the organisation has been operating in a unified manner, the service for Members of both Houses has dramatically increased. As the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) said, glitches and problems remain, but we are working hard on them with PICT and improvements will continue. I hope that our report provides a way ahead for that.

On other matters, there is clearly scope for integration. The hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) mentioned some of those that are under consideration. We have co-operated with the other place on several issues, most notably on providing an education unit. We have especially poor services for children who visit this place. By co-operating and co-ordinating, we hope to have an improved education unit in the not-too-distant future.

I hope that the experience of PICT and developing the education centre will lead to other developments. It makes sense in this modern world that economies of scale will apply to both Houses. Improvements in services should accompany them and I look forward to that.

I am most grateful to all hon. Members who have made such kind remarks and for the constructive support that they offer to the Bill.

The hon. Member for Kingston—

I am sorry. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that the Bill sets out a general proposition for joint Departments because it took slightly longer to bring forward the measure than would have been the case from a management point of view because of the shortage of parliamentary time. There are no plans for new joint Departments, but if decisions are made later, we will not need to wait for full establishment. I hope that that is satisfactory.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Exercise of functions of the Corporate Officers

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

The Bill establishes the principle that there may be joint Departments. For the time being, as we have already said, there are plans for only one—PICT. During our earlier proceedings, Members of both Houses expressed a range of views on the desirability of extending the joint Department model to other services used by both Houses, such as catering, the Libraries and Hansard.

The recent review of management and services of the House of Commons by Sir Kevin Tebbit also encourages us to explore further joint working with the House of Lords in the interests of greater efficiency.

I agree with those who have said that we need to adopt a gradualist approach. Organisational change always needs to be tackled sensitively and with proper planning and consultation. As the Administration Committee said in its recent report:

“Such an exercise requires a clear and coherent approach if it is to be successful. Even with such an approach, it will take time for the new organisation to work optimally”.

So the Bill provides for the option of future joint Departments, but it also creates some safeguards. Clause 2 requires that any proposal from the two corporate officers to create or add new functions to a joint Department would have to be agreed by both the House of Commons Commission and the House of Lords House Committee. In the House of Lords, in accordance with the traditions of that House, it would also go to the Floor of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

staff

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3 provides some key safeguards for staff who may be moved into a joint Department of Parliament in the future. It provides that pay will be kept broadly in line with pay in the Home civil service, which is already the case for staff of the House of Commons under the House of Commons (Administration) Act of 1978. It provides the same broad alignment for other conditions of service, with the important proviso that arrangements must be consistent with the requirements of the two Houses; and thirdly, it creates an absolute requirement that staff pensions should be kept in line with the principal civil service pension scheme, again a statutory requirement that already exists for staff of the House of Commons.

The Minister is aware that the trade unions have an issue with the changes that might occur to their current position. Under the 1978 Act, they have the right to go directly to the Commission and they are concerned that that right will not be preserved. Undertakings have been given that the right will remain, but it will not be a statutory one.

The reason we have not been able to incorporate into the Bill the provisions of the 1978 Act that provide formal access for the trade unions to the House of Commons Commission is that, in this instance, the joint Department is the employer. The trade unions have always made their feelings known to the Commission and they will continue to be effective in doing that. The heads of the joint Department will keep the Commission and the House of Lords in touch with what they are doing.

Access to the Commission, as under the 1978 Act, has been invoked on only two occasions, on both of which the issue was remitted immediately to ACAS for arbitration. That is what is proposed in the draft disputes procedure for the joint Department. In practice, there will be no serious lessening of the real and effective rights of the unions. There is also an effective Whitley structure in the House of Commons and a new Whitley structure for the joint Department is in the process of being established. I hope that satisfies my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran).

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

staff transfers

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Order. Before the Minister speaks to the clause, I should mention that if she is going to introduce every clause as helpfully as she is doing, the need for an extensive debate on Third Reading debate may be obviated.

Thank you, Sir Alan.

Clause 4 applies the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 in full to the transfer of staff into a parliamentary joint Department. There has already been a full process of consultation with the trade unions representing our staff at every stage of the exercise. As I have said, both Houses have established Whitley processes, and preparations for a new Whitley structure are being established.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Application of enactments

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5 ensures that the employment law that already applies to the staff of the two Houses separately would apply to the staff of a joint Department. It also provides that other enactments that apply to either House would apply in the same way to something done by or in relation to a joint Department as it would if it were done by or in relation to each House. For example, the Data Protection Act 1998 would apply to data held by a joint Department on behalf of either House in the same way as it would if they were held in each House.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

It is very rare for us to legislate for the administration of Parliament, the last time being in the Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Act 1992. The purpose of the Bill is to facilitate the provision of joint services to both Houses, through a unified management structure under the direction of an official who is accountable to both Houses. The Bill is a sensible evolutionary measure that recognises the reality that the two Houses co-operate in many practical areas of day-to-day administration, even when they sometimes disagree on larger matters. The Bill enables us to co-operate in a new way by employing staff in joint Departments. In doing so it gives full employment protection to our staff in the way that I am sure the whole House would wish and expect. The Bill provides for a management structure that should deliver services more efficiently and provide scope for procurement savings and value for money for the taxpayer. However, the most important thing is that PICT should be customer focused—in other words, that it provide the services that Members want and need in a timely and effective manner.

Between the Bill being published and considered in another place and coming to this House for its Second Reading, the Select Committee on Administration produced its excellent report “Information and Communication Technology Services for Members”. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) and all the members of the Committee for their hard work in producing the report. It referred—I know that this will strike a chord with many hon. Members—to what it described as an undertone of dissatisfaction with the services currently provided. There are issues about remote access to the parliamentary network, technical support for constituency offices and the maintenance of equipment.

The evidence to the Committee from Members of Parliament provides salutary reading. It demonstrates that politeness is not a substitute for effectiveness, nor courtesy for competence. The right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) said:

“PICT does not provide quick and competent support”.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler) said that PICT staff seem “very inexperienced”. My right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), commenting on his experience as a Minister, said that

“the various software incompatibilities meant that I could not access my diary or update my address books in ways that ran across both of my systems. The consequence of this is constant juggling”.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) wrote about her concerns about the contracts with suppliers, and the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) mentioned the problems for those of us whose constituency location means that we require remote access in rural areas. The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) wanted more discussion between PICT and users, and the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) believed that there were

“fundamental internal communication problems”.

I know that there have been tangible improvements over the past year. PICT has recently opened two PICT local offices—on the first floor of Norman Shaw South and in 2 Millbank—where Members can drop in with problems or requests and also see a model office set-up. I understand that PICT is also refocusing its management structure to deal with the agenda now set by the Administration Committee report, so that there is one director for Members services. I wish to assure hon. Members, however, that the Leader of the House and I understand the very real frustrations that many Members feel. I have met the director of PICT and discussed these serious issues with her.

The establishment of the new Department is also an opportunity for a major step forward in the quality of services. PICT is now considering the recommendations of the Administration Committee report as a possible work plan for the next three years and hoping to address ways of improving performance, constituency support and access, and mobile log-ins. Some of the issues involved—for example, extending the support available to us in our constituencies—might require additional funding, and that will be a matter for the House of Commons Commission to consider when it responds to the Administration Committee report. A menu of costed options will be given to the Commission before the end of the year.

One of the key issues in the Administration Committee report is the need for a regular channel of communication between Members and PICT concerning Members’ needs and service requirements. The Committee has suggested that there should be a Members’ ICT customer forum, chaired by a Member of this House, but also involving representatives of our staff working here and in constituency offices. The House of Commons Commission will respond formally to the report in due course and will take a view, but I am sure that all hon. Members will agree with the principle that PICT must focus on what its customers are saying and on the problems that we have. In order for that to happen, we need to improve the channels of communication.

However, the immediate effect of the Bill will be to enable the first joint Department, PICT, to operate on a stable and sustainable basis and, as I said earlier, to move the management of our critical ICT services to the higher level that a 21st century Parliament expects. Once again, I am grateful to all hon. Members present for their support.

This is an important Bill that sets out to improve the services to both Houses of Parliament. It is fair to recognise that it is part of Parliament’s evolutionary process to help it to come forward into the 21st century. We all hope that it will lead to better services, greater efficiency and better use of the taxpayer’s money in running the Palace of Westminster.

I understand that all the affected staff and relevant trade unions have been extensively consulted regarding the joint Department. There is, nevertheless, understandable anxiety on the part of the unions about any future joint Departments. That point was picked up by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran). It is important to emphasise for the record that, if there are to be further joint Departments, it is vital to have full and proper consultation with all the staff concerned and all the relevant trade unions.

May I take this opportunity to thank all the staff of the joint Department. I accept that there are still problems, especially regarding remote services to our constituencies, but efforts are being made to improve the services all the time. An example is the addition of two new offices, one in Norman Shaw South and the other in 2 Millbank. This has been a period of enormous change and uncertainty for the staff concerned, and I hope that, now that the Bill is progressing, matters will settle down for them. In such circumstances, staff are not thanked often enough, and when they are thanked, they are not thanked generously. I think that I speak on behalf of us all when I say that they do a wonderful job. Without them, we would all be very much at a loss, so it is good to have our appreciation put on the record.

May I also thank all those who have taken part in all the debates and those who worked in Committees such as the one chaired by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North? Although this particular Bill has not seen too many contributors, it is nevertheless fair to say that those contributions have been just as important as when many more have contributed.

May I conclude by thanking all the House Officers for their involvement throughout the process? My personal thanks go in particular to Richard Ware, the director of resources at PICT. His personal help and assistance has been much appreciated.

This is a unique Bill, which heralds the changing way in which the Palace of Westminster will be run in future. Let us all hope that it will be very much for the better.

I also support Third Reading and I echo the concerns about the anxiety felt by staff at any time of change. Even when there is no intention to cause disruption, there are always moments of anxiety and uncertainty for the staff involved, so the management of that change has to be handled sensitively and effectively through proper dialogue and negotiations.

It is also important to recognise that the benefits from reorganisation will depend on how it is delivered and managed. The Bill is fairly dry and simple legally and technically, but its delivery and outcome will make a difference. As the Deputy Leader of the House highlighted in her Third Reading speech, many practical and active things on the ground need to be sorted and dealt with. That will not come from a piece of legislation alone; the Bill will not change things overnight. It does, however, create a structure through which those things can be managed more formally and handled more effectively. It should therefore provide more stability on which to build for the future. I welcome the Bill and wish those who now have to deliver its promises all the best in bringing it forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed without amendment.