[Relevant document: The statement by the House of Commons Commission of 14 March.]
Just before I call the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) to move the motion, I should say, for the benefit of the House, that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), and that of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty).
I beg to move,
That this House accepts the need to make financial savings, but considers that the fundamental principle that the House of Commons is a people’s Parliament should not be put at risk; and concludes that since British citizens pay for Parliament, they should be free to visit it without paying, including the Big Ben Clock Tower.
I am very grateful to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee. I had problems with the proposals that were debated on Monday evening, but I am glad to say that I shall still vote for her if she decides to stand for a second term. I had to appear before the Committee only twice this time, as opposed to three times last time, but nevertheless I am very grateful.
I thank also the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney), who went with me to the Committee, and my Tellers today, my hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen).
Above all, I must thank the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), the Chairman of the House of Commons Commission, because on any problem that I have had in dealing with this issue he has at all times been courteous and, I would say, outstanding. Although I may have disagreements with him, I believe that he is an outstanding Chairman, and I wish I had the chance to vote for him—were the Commission democratically elected.
I have three points to make in this debate about the planned charges for access to the Big Ben Clock Tower. First, the decision is unprecedented but nevertheless creates a dangerous precedent; secondly, it has been decided in a somewhat undemocratic manner; and thirdly, it is unnecessary and unaffordable. I shall deal with those points in turn.
It is true that the House of Commons charges for tours when Parliament is not sitting, but this is the first time that it has chosen to charge for tours during parliamentary hours and, particularly, for tours organised by Members. Those who support the charges argue that Big Ben is not part of our democracy but simply an adornment—a luxury, if you like. That is patently not true. Big Ben is not only the most recognisable British icon in the world, but the most recognisably parliamentary icon.
A couple of weeks ago, I was at a primary school in Great Yarmouth where people were asking about coming down to the House to Commons for a tour. The young children, who were five and six, were talking specifically about Big Ben. The head teacher said that they would love to come here but coming all the way from that part of Norfolk is expensive enough as it is. Does my hon. Friend agree that adding a charge for Big Ben—the very thing that some of those children want to come and see—would put it beyond the reach of people in areas such as Great Yarmouth?
My hon. Friend—our mutual hon. Friend—the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) has the unenviable task of having to balance the budget for the Administration Committee. Is it not better to treat the Houses of Parliament in the same way as museums, with free access as a principle, rather than balancing it off the back of the Administration Committee?
My hon. Friend, as always, makes a very good point. I will talk about those issues later.
The history books tell us that the bells of the Great Clock of Westminster rang across London for the first time on 31 May 1859, and Parliament had a special sitting to decide on a suitable name for the great hour bell. Many suggestions were made during the course of the debate. It is alleged that the Chief Lord of the Woods and Forests, Sir Benjamin Hall—a large and ponderous man known affectionately in the House as Big Ben—rose and gave an impressively long speech on the subject. A wag in the Chamber shouted out, “Why not call him Big Ben and have done with it?” The House erupted in laughter, and Big Ben had been named. There are many other stories about why Big Ben is called Big Ben, but I use that as an illustration of its importance: when the bell was brought to Parliament, there was a parliamentary debate to show how central it is to our parliamentary democracy.
If I may disagree gently with the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), this place is not a museum but a democratic institution and Members should be able to arrange for their constituents to visit every part of it free of charge. I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on the debate. He is right that this could set a precedent. If we start hiring this place out to corporate bodies, massive banks and so on, there is a danger that we will lose the essence of this democratic House.
My hon. Friend rightly talks about the different suggestions as to why Big Ben is called Big Ben. I do not want him to lose sight of part of the argument, which is that Big Ben is not just for Parliament but for the wider populace, and part of popular culture. Indeed, many say that Big Ben was called Big Ben because of Benjamin Caunt, a prize fighter who had a rather large stomach. That shows its attraction to the public and why we must make it as accessible as possible.
My hon. Friend, who has been a friend for many years, is absolutely right. It is clearly not true to say that Big Ben is an adornment and is not part of our democracy. Moreover, those who claim that it is not part of our democracy and then say that we do not charge for tours elsewhere might ask themselves why we charge for tours during the summer and at weekends.
As I said, the proposal is unprecedented but creates a dangerous precedent. Now that this has been suggested., what will happen in a few years’ time when it is proposed to charge to go through Westminster Hall or to see the Royal Gallery? The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, the Leader of the House, the Speaker and so on will say that of course nothing like that would ever happen. I agree with them, in the sense that they are benign individuals, but who is to say that in future years there will not be such benign individuals and that these decisions will not be made?
Does my hon. Friend accept that there is a clear distinction between viewing democracy in action here in the Chamber from the Gallery, and in Committee Rooms, and touring Big Ben? The tour is fascinating—one can see the mechanism of the clock and the little room in which MPs were incarcerated—but in no way is it central to our democracy, unlike viewing, and being able to be part of in some small way, what goes on in this Chamber and in Committee Rooms. There is clearly a distinction between the two.
That is where I have a fundamental disagreement with my hon. Friend and with people who believe that we should charge for visiting Big Ben. I believe that Big Ben is central to the whole of Parliament, and the symbol of Parliament. If one asks anybody what is the one symbol of Parliament in the United Kingdom and across the world, they will say it is Big Ben. It is completely wrong to say that it is just a separate tourist thing.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this motion to the House. He is absolutely right to say that Big Ben is integral to the fabric of democracy and the institution here at Westminster. I know from personal experience that one of the first things that visitors coming from Northern Ireland say is, “Is it possible to visit Big Ben and go up the tower?” It would be outrageous to charge people to do that who have come all the way from Northern Ireland and paid their air fares; it would put them off coming to Westminster.
The right hon. Gentleman is right. People in Northern Ireland have been victims of terrorism, and they will know that the bells of Big Ben rang through the blitz and have a central part in everything good about being British.
This is an undemocratic decision because it has been made by the House of Commons Commission. The decision opens a can of worms. Yes, there have been consultations, chats, discussions and e-mails with MPs, but surely we in this House should have a say over major decisions about the costing and planning of expenditure at Westminster. The Commission says that we have to cut 17% from Parliament’s budget. I recognise, as does everybody else, that we have to make cuts. The 17% figure might be the right one, but it might be the wrong one—perhaps it should be 20% or 15%—but we in this House and in this Chamber have had no say in it, and that is wrong. The Commission should come to the House and present a list of the savings it is making, and then MPs should have the right to say whether they agree or disagree and answer to our constituents as to whether we are giving the taxpayer value for money.
The plans to charge for Big Ben raise much wider issues about the remit of the House of Commons Commission and whether Members should be elected to it.
I fully support the hon. Gentleman’s motion. He is talking about savings in the House, but very much of what the Commission does is totally undemocratic. We never get asked about it and suddenly find out things from other people who work in this House. Does he agree that over the past five or six years what happens in the House has become incredibly top-heavy, with managers who are managing everything and have no understanding of what is going on at the bottom here in the House of Commons?
I do agree. Sadly, that is true of the whole public sector, not just Parliament, but the hon. Lady makes a very powerful point.
My next argument is that the decision is unnecessary. The Commission states that Clock Tower tours cost roughly £93,000, which will go up to about £111,000 over the next year or so. I would question that. Now that we are going to bring in charges, I suspect that not as many people will be able to afford to come here. I know from an e-mail that I have received that up to 200 people have e-mailed to ask for Clock Tower tours as soon as possible to try to avoid the cut-off date.
As I said, Parliament needs time to debate where these savings could be made. We need to think first in generalities, but I will offer some specific savings for Members to consider. We could look at the cost of publications and press cuttings. As regards the dining rooms, on Mondays they are barely used at lunchtime, so one of them could be closed at those times, saving a fair bit of money. Then there are the properties owned by the House of Commons. I am particularly disturbed about the waste of food in this place, which is absolutely obscene. I therefore welcome the ten-minute rule Bill on the subject of food waste that was introduced by the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) yesterday. The other day, when I went to the Members Dining Room, I asked the staff, who are wonderful and hard-working, “How many people have been in here today?”, and they said “About three.” This was a Monday lunchtime, and there was a huge banquet of food, as there always is. I asked what happened to the food, and they said, “It has to be thrown away.” I replied, “Well, why can’t it be given to charity or why can’t less food be made?” The answer on the charity point was that they might be sued if the food was contaminated and somebody got food poisoning.
I tabled a written question to ask the House of Commons Commission how much food was thrown away in the last year. The answer was the shocking figure of £100,000-worth. That cannot continue. When we are looking for savings, we should look at that issue seriously. Again, MPs should have a chance to debate this matter.
On the issue of savings, my hon. Friend said that the cost of the Clock Tower tours is about £100,000 a year. Given that the tours are likely to diminish in number as a result of charging, has anybody told him what the cost will be of employing the person to administer the charging scheme, and does he know how much the administration of the project will cost in total? I suspect that it will be more than £100,000.
I will expand on this point in my contribution, should I catch the eye of Mr Deputy Speaker, but I have discovered through questioning that there are additional ongoing costs of £1.5 million simply for Parliament to come back for two weeks and then be off for another two weeks in September. If we compressed that time and did not have a break for party conferences, which are for political purposes after all, we could save £1.5 million.
With that point, my hon. Friend augments my argument that we should be able to debate savings on the Floor of the House, and not just through consultations or by filling out surveys, which people rarely notice among their e-mails.
I am grateful to the director of the savings programme and the Secretary of the Commission for providing me with a lot of detail about the important work that the Commission is doing to save money. I recognise that a lot of savings are being made. However, let me add a few ideas. We could cut corporate initiatives by an additional 10%, which would save £150,000 a year and leave 80% of the original budget. We could trim overseas trips and delegations by just another 10%, which would save £125,000 a year and leave 80% of the original budget. We could streamline parliamentary outreach by just another 10% in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, which would save £194,000 a year and leave 80% of the original budget. The total savings from those things would be £469,000 a year. Hon. Members may have other ideas, but we have never had the chance to debate properly on the Floor of the House what savings there should and should not be. That is why the decision that has been made is fundamentally wrong.
I have also said that this decision is unaffordable. We received an e-mail late on a Friday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, saying that individuals would be charged £15 a head. A family of four would therefore have to pay £60. For people on average earnings of just £20,000-odd, that is unaffordable. It will therefore discourage people from coming to Parliament and coming to see Big Ben. To return to the precedent argument, even if that figure was reduced—I accept that the Chairman of the Commission has said that it will consider that—it would be likely to increase in future years. First it will be £15. In two years’ time it might be £20, then £30, and then £40 or £50. Where does it stop?
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most important pillars of our democracy is transparency, and that part of that transparency is that this Palace is open to the public? We should encourage the public to visit their Parliament—it is not just our Parliament—and should not put them off with petty charges.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. My view is that the House of Commons Commission has come up with the easy option. Money needs to be saved, so why not target members of the public, who cannot really fight back, by slapping on a charge? That is the easy option, which is why I believe the decision is so wrong.
A leaflet that is sold in most of the tourism shops around Westminster states:
“Who owns Big Ben? You do! If you are a citizen of the UK, and if you pay taxes, you are one of the owners of Big Ben. In fact, you own the whole clock tower and the Houses of Parliament too!”
That is something that the British people believe. That is why it is so wrong suddenly to institute charges for people to come to see their heritage. In essence, it imposes double taxation because people pay for Parliament anyway.
I am interested to hear my hon. Friend’s comments. He mentioned that this is about British taxpayers. As no foreigner is currently allowed up Big Ben, so we have obviously managed to twist the rules on how we treat these dodgy foreigners. Should we not stitch them up, as we do in the summer, and charge them to go up the Clock Tower?
Perhaps I can be helpful, because I have looked into that very point. The reason given is that it takes two weeks to provide security clearance and to do passport checks before people are allowed to go up Big Ben. That might not be possible for visitors, foreign or otherwise. That might be the answer.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. I hope that these points are brought out in discussion.
In conclusion, I have a romantic belief in Parliament. I still genuinely believe that this is the best Parliament in the world, even with all the problems that we face as a country. I came here as a small boy when I was 10 years old, and from that day on, I wanted to sit in this place. We have to make our Parliament a special place and encourage people to come here. The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) made an important point a moment ago. I worry hugely that, rather than being a Parliament for the people, this place is becoming—
As my hon. Friend says, it is becoming a theme park. It is advertising itself for weddings, bar mitzvahs, engagement parties and big corporate entertainment shows. I have no problem with businesses coming here and having dinners at which particular issues are discussed. However, this is not a theme park. We should not be selling ourselves short to businesses and hiring ourselves out to them when ordinary people cannot come here. Businesses will inevitably be privileged over ordinary people. I am reminded of the parable of the moneylenders at the temple. Let us not become a place of moneylenders and be just about money, money, money; let us be the Parliament of the people, by the people, for the people.
On that rather churchy theme, does my hon. Friend not accept that people who want to pray in our great cathedrals do so, of course, free of charge, but that people who visit them as sightseers are invited to pay a fee? In a similar way, people who wish to participate in democracy here can view the proceedings, but if they want to be sightseers in the tower, they should perhaps be invited to contribute.
I have two points in answer to that. First, Parliament is part of our democracy and so is slightly different. Secondly, people who go to churches do not already pay for local churches through their taxes. We already pay for Parliament through taxation, so why should we be taxed again?
Finally, perhaps the House of Commons Commission could set up a foundation to look at the heritage of Big Ben and to keep Big Ben tours free. In the interests of that, I will make a pledge to the Chairman of the House of Commons Commission. Some Members will know that I have difficulties with my legs. I pledge to walk up Big Ben to raise money so that we can keep our Parliament free for all our citizens and to ensure that many people can come to see our greatest landmark for many years to come.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from ‘risk’ to end and add
‘and invites the Commission to reconsider its current proposal to charge for Clock Tower tours.’.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing the debate and on speaking to his proposition so passionately and eloquently. May I first correct one or two small points of fact? I am not actually the Chairman of the Commission, and Members of the House did vote for him, because it is ex officio the Speaker. He is always the Chairman of the Commission. I am merely its representative, tasked with speaking on occasions such as this and answering my hon. Friend’s many very good questions.
I should like, if I may, to divide my hon. Friend’s motion into two parts. I shall speak initially to the first part of it, with which I entirely agree, and then to the second part, with which I have some difficulties. I will then suggest to him that he and other hon. Members might like to accept my amendment, which I hope is a gracious way forward that will enable the Commission to take on board all the points made in the debate, reconsider the matter and see how best to accommodate what has been said.
May I pick up on a couple of points that have been made? My hon. Friend spoke about the waste of food. I am a qualified caterer—it was what I used to do for a living, and I am a fellow of a variety of professional bodies. Food wastage here is below the average for professional caterers. At the end of the day, there are always things left over on a plate, and they get thrown away. There is always a degree of food wastage, but the wastage here is at a much lower level than in many commercial companies and the House works extremely hard to keep it down.
The hon. Gentleman might say that; I think I will move rapidly on.
On the first part of the motion, I thank my hon. Friend for succeeding, in one debate, in giving more publicity among Members to the savings programme than I have managed to do in the past 18 months. In fact, the process began shortly after the election and continued through 2010. I have carried out a number of consultations and had the honour of speaking to various party groups. I have twice been honoured to appear in front of the 1922 committee. All the points that have been set out in the current savings programme were contained in the consultation documents that were put out, as they were in e-mails, reminders and a number of surgeries for which I made myself available. The Commission and the management have tried very hard to consult Members on all aspects of what is proposed.
It was the hon. Gentleman, of course, who responded to my inquiry about the ongoing and additional costs of breaking up our sitting and coming back for two weeks in September. Has he made any further progress on that? There could be a massive saving in one lump.
I cannot update the hon. Lady on that point at this particular moment.
At a time of national austerity, when we are seeking to reduce the cost of public services to the taxpayer, it is absolutely right that Parliament and parliamentarians are in the vanguard. Indeed, it would be absolutely wrong to exempt ourselves from that process.
I appreciate that my hon. Friend is trying to gain consensus, but I fear he is failing. I was on the Administration Committee, and I was bored to tears and managed to escape. May I ask him when the House agreed to the total savings programme that his Commission is forcing through?
The Commission put forward the overall figure of 17% savings in real terms during the summer of 2010. That figure informed all the documentation that has come out since, and it is the target. I actually hope that we can go further than that, because the process has demonstrated that many of the ways in which we do things have remained unchanged for many years, decades even. When they have been properly examined and re-engineered, it has been found that there are real and considerable savings to be made, not only monetary savings but increases in the efficiency of our work patterns.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, but you have just reminded me, Mr Deputy Speaker, that I have substantial progress to make in a very short time, so I will move on.
In 2004-05, the estimate—our total cost—was £189 million. In 2009-10, it was £278 million. Even taking out the one-offs and exceptionals, that was an increase in excess of 25% in the cost of this place in five years, more than twice the rate of inflation. This year, the out-turn is expected to be in the order of £205 million to £206 million, which is a substantial saving. The programme has been undertaken by the Management Board, and I think it has done an excellent job of examining very professionally what is going on. I see that the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) is leaving her place, but before she does so, may I say to her that I do not believe there are too many managers here or that they are distant from those at the bottom? The board is well constructed and does its very best to ensure that it is in full touch with both the staff and Members’ needs.
There is no question, nor has there ever been, that access to the Palace and the parliamentary process will be charged for at any time. However, I put it to hon. Members that we get more than £1.5 million in income from tours. We have been charging for summer tours for 10 years, and we are piloting art tours for which we charge £15. I say in parenthesis that the other place charges £30 for its tours—I do not know whether the art is better. We have a long history over the past 10 to 15 years of opening up the parts of this place that are not available to the public for a variety of reasons, and recovering the specific costs of doing so. I put it to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow that what we are proposing for the Clock Tower is very much in line with that principle.
I invite my hon. Friend to accept my amendment, which would allow the Commission and the Finance and Services Committee, which I chair, to consider the points that he has made, take them on board and return with an appropriate proposal. I ask him and other hon. Members to accept that as a better way forward. The answers to all his other questions will have to wait for another day.
I support the amendment in my name and that of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). The approach to the subject is bipartisan, and I note that there are Members on both sides of the House speaking for the amendment or the motion.
I am a member of the Administration Committee, which is a far duller Committee since the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell) is no longer a member. The Committee was consulted by our colleagues on the Finance and Services Committee prior to the proposal going to the Commission. I accept that the workings of the Administration Committee are not the most exciting, but we have been appointed by our peers, so to speak, in this place. I remind the House that the Members who represent their parties on the Commission have to be agreed to in a motion in the remaining Orders of the Day. However, I accept the point made by the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) that it is not the most transparent process.
Is not the difference in principle between the summer tours, which the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) mentioned, and the Clock Tower that while the paid-for summer tours are going on, Members can still have their constituents in and take them around for free? That is not the proposal for the Clock Tower. It is a completely different matter.
That is entirely why the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and I propose that the Commission be asked to look at the detail. It occurs to me that a more pragmatic way forward is to take away the privilege that only Members of Parliament can decide who goes on the tour. If we genuinely want to open up Big Ben, we could take Members out of the equation and give all members of the public that opportunity. That might be the way forward. I hope in that spirit that the hon. Member for Harlow will support the amendment.
I do not wish to be political, but many of my constituents would look with some surprise on some of the arguments being proposed not by the hon. Member for Harlow, but by other hon. Members who might speak in the debate from the Government Benches. They would be surprised that, at a time of cuts to benefits, and cuts to support for our armed forces and front-line workers, hon. Members think that Clock Tower access is a priority for public spending. Many of my constituents would find that wrong.
I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that that will not be the case. It is important, however, that we take the opportunity to look carefully at the best way of administering access. My view is that it should be administered in the same way as central tours.
As the hon. Gentleman has made a political point on deficit reduction measures, how can he justify the continuation of grace and favour apartments? How can he justify the parliamentary outreach programme? Surely we should have a parliamentary in-reach programme to encourage people to come and see the great work done here. It is not a museum, but the working heart of our democracy.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point and I entirely agree with him. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I have repeatedly raised in the House at business questions the issue of grace of favour apartments, because those arrangements need to be looked at.
I need to make progress.
On accessibility, the hon. Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) may wish to know that only seven of his constituents have taken the opportunity during his term of office to come and see the Big Ben Tower. If we are to find money for transparency, it would be better to take Parliament to places more far-flung than central London.
I intervened during the previous speech on the issue of grace and favour apartments. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm whether any discussions have taken place with the Chairman of his Commission as to whether his grace and favour apartment should be surrendered?
I was not aware that the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) has a grace and favour apartment. Perhaps the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) knows something I do not—the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden, who is in his place, is the Chairman of the Administration Committee, of which I am a member.
I should make progress on the point I was making. The hon. Member for Harlow made a point about the 17% saving, but I should point out that that is the Government’s figure—
I am most grateful for that point of clarification. I thought the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) had referred to the Administration Committee, so I apologise to him for that. The right hon. Member for Saffron Walden will also be most relieved that that has been cleared up.
The coalition Government said that 17% should be the average saving across public spending. That is why the Commission—rightly or wrongly—set that target. You, Mr Deputy Speaker, know that my view is that it is wrong, but if we are to meet that target, some difficult decisions have to be made.
Let us also be clear that the proposals are not about profiteering. This is not about making money, but simply about recouping the costs of running the tours.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that roughly 60 of my constituents have come on Big Ben tours? Tomorrow, 15 people from the Prince’s Trust are coming and I will meet them all. How can we justify telling those people that they have to pay £15 a head to come and see Big Ben?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there is a difficult choice, but the reality is that we must make cost savings. He knows that there are difficult decisions to make. I see the Minister of State, Department of Health, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr Burns), chuntering away next to him. He knows more than anybody that the real-terms cuts—they have been made in his Department—are difficult, yet he does not say that we should not make them. [Interruption.] Real-terms cuts have been made.
We are not all in this together. Members on both sides of the House do not recognise that the House needs to show fiscal responsibility.
No. I have given way enough and the hon. Lady is on the list of speakers.
We must make fiscally responsible decisions. Those are not choices that any of us wish to make, and I agree with the hon. Member for Harlow that we should look carefully at whether or not we proceed and how the proposal is implemented, but I hope he therefore graciously accepts the amendment. We can then look at the fine detail.
We must accept, however, that some difficult choices must be made. We should not for a second interfere with the rights of our constituents to come and see how the democratic process works—that should be an absolute red line, and hon. Members on both sides would not allow those rights ever to be compromised. However, I say again that if we are to be taken seriously and show the public that we mean what we say about the need for fiscal responsibility, that must begin at home.
For the purpose of this speech, Mr Deputy Speaker, I propose to regard myself as a Back Bencher and to stick very strictly to the six-minute limit. That is appropriate, because I speak as a member of the Commission. This is not a Government issue, but very much a matter for the House.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for his energy in pursuing this matter and for finding time for a debate. There is a genuine risk in unpicking a budget that has been put together and taking one item out without knowing what the consequences will be. That is why I am in favour of the amendment, which invites the Commission to have a look at the proposal in the light of the very strong views that have been expressed in the debate and to come up with alternative proposals. That would be a responsible way forward, rather than taking that particular item out and then obliging the Commission to find some other measure, which for all I know might be even less acceptable to the House than the one that is before it.
I agree that the House needs to accept the same discipline to make economies that has been imposed on other public bodies, and I support the commitment to reduce the annual costs by 17% by 2014-15. We are having to make exactly the same difficult decisions as public bodies in our constituencies. There is no easy way out of this.
The proposal to charge for visiting the Clock Tower was included in a package of proposed initial savings back in November 2010. From memory, there was no violent reaction when that was floated some 18 months ago. I should say to my hon. Friend that there is a distinction between the public having free access to lobby their MPs, to see the Chamber, and to view the work of Public Bill Committees and Select Committees, and access to the Palace as a visitors attraction. That principle has been conceded: visitors already pay to visit the Palace of Westminster for tours on a Saturday. That has already been accepted by the House.
One advantage of the amendment is that we could look at whether visits to the Clock Tower should be free if the Member of Parliament accompanies visitors, in the same way that we can take people around the House.
We could look at that option if that would meet the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but the ability to climb the Clock Tower is not essential to the enhancement of our democracy or an insight into how the political system works. There is a difference between access to the Clock Tower and access to the Chamber.
No one is suggesting that we should pay to look at Big Ben. The Clock Tower would remain as a visible icon. My hon. Friend would be free to look at it and we are not debating that—we are looking at the option of charging for going up it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) has done something that no one else who has held his position has done. He has come to the Back Bench committee of my party twice and answered questions about economies. I suspect that he has also been to parliamentary Labour party meetings. The process of consultation about the measures necessary has been very wide, and I commend what he has done.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow is minded to accept the amendment, which is the responsible way forward, so that the Commission can revisit the decisions in the light of the strong views that have been expressed. That would allow us to think again and come forward with some alternatives. I hope that on reflection, having listened to the debate, he will feel able to accept the amendment so ably moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on his persistence in getting this debate and on his passionate advocacy of the position that he has taken. However, I hope that the House will accept the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) for the Commission to have another look at the issue.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) made the profoundly true observation that we, and all our constituents, are struggling with how to prioritise difficult decisions in tough times, and this is one such example. We are not in an ideal world where perhaps all access to this building could be free, but we have to make the savings that—at the beginning of this Parliament—Mr Speaker, in his role as head of the House of Commons Commission, committed us to making.
It is also important to remember that this issue is about the Clock Tower, not about access to this building in its working sense as a Parliament. Our constituents will still have free access to see their Members of Parliament and to watch proceedings in the Chamber from the Public Gallery, as well as to visit Committees. I for one would not support the amendment if I thought that there would be any slippage in that very important principle. We need to separate the two issues, although I do understand the worries that people have.
I agree with some of the hon. Lady’s basic tenets, but is it not true that as a result of the opaque and antediluvian nature of the Commission and the Management Board, we are effectively held accountable for decisions over which we have had no real, effective or demonstrable say?
That is a very timely intervention from the hon. Gentleman as I was about to deal with that point, especially as I am a very new member of the House of Commons Commission. I have been in the House for 20 years and always thought that the way in which the House was managed was rather antediluvian and opaque, to put it kindly. I expected when I was given this job that I would dash into the Commission and everything would be revealed. I thought that I would see how the House and all of its domestic Committees worked. I have to confess that after a few months I am still rather of the hon. Gentleman’s view, and light, transparency and more debate about such matters should be organised. We need to think as a Parliament about how we can bring that about.
We are all busy. Doubtless everybody read the e-mails that were sent in 2010 about this issue, but perhaps they did not fully take them in. I therefore have much sympathy with the hon. Gentleman’s point, and we should consider how we might ventilate the serious issues that the Management Board has to deal with so that hon. Members on both sides of the House become aware of them in a more timely way. E-mails go out, but we cannot force Members to notice them or read them in detail. The system is antediluvian and lacks transparency, and we might want to think about more modern approaches.
One of the points made by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) is very important. We have the Administration Committee, which I sit on and which has made various recommendations to the Commission that have been overruled without any justification. Surely that is not a transparent or fair system, especially when we are considering cost savings.
I have considerable sympathy with that point, and perhaps we can all thank the hon. Member for Harlow for bringing this issue to the attention of the House so that we can consider how we might manage the House in a more modern way that brings people along at an earlier stage in the process and ventilates some of the darker, cobwebby areas of the old management systems.
My hon. Friend talks about Members not necessarily being involved. Does she agree that what seems to be happening more recently is that long-serving and dedicated staff of the Palace—especially at the lower paid level, such as cleaners and others—feel very much that they are taken for granted? They have lost the feeling of being part of a community: they are now part of a tick-box management mentality.
It is really important that, as these substantial attempts to save large amounts of money happen, we ensure that the pain is felt as much at the top of the structures as it is at the bottom. The only way we can have a savings process with any legitimacy is if everybody involved is affected equally and the pain is not visited most on those at the bottom or those least able to bear it.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady. Does she agree that we need to look again at the issue of grace and favour apartments, which do seem outdated in the modern age? Does she also agree that we should look at parliamentary outreach and perhaps talk more about parliamentary in-reach? Parliamentary outreach is perhaps better left to the Electoral Commission.
The House should always modernise the way in which it looks at things. I would be happy to see the Commission look at all of the grace and favour apartments and see what they cost. I assume that the information is available, and it should be ventilated. The House should also think about that issue so that we can have a zero-based look at everything that is done. The way that things have been done in the past is not necessarily the way that they have to be done in the future, especially if they can be done more cheaply, but without taking away our special and important position as a House of Commons, given the job we have to do in holding the Government to account and our independence in doing so. We must facilitate the effectiveness of that work so that we do not have false economies.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Harlow on obtaining the debate. I do not feel as strongly about charging for tours of Big Ben as he does, and I hope that the House will support the amendment—so ably moved by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross—so that the Commission can have another look at the issue.
It is a delight to support my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) in this very valuable debate. I accept completely the surprise expressed by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) at the fact that we are focusing on costings when there are so many savings to be made, but then I am surprised that the Commission is focusing on this issue. I wrote and elicited the response that it is costing us £1.5 million every year to have a break for two weeks just because we all choose to go off to party conferences. Surely in this day and age we can make that work. If we saved £1.5 million there, it would give us some spare money to keep the Clock Tower free and open to those who choose to go up it. The number of people who can go up the Clock Tower will always be limited to those able and fit enough to walk up the 344 steps—I have not done it yet—and because we need the clearances put on it.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will not give way, because I only have five minutes and many other colleagues wish to speak. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was going to be helpful though.
There are so many other things that we can look at. I have asked various questions about costings here, and was amazed to find out that £750,000 was spent developing a crèche that is hardly ever used. Early-day motions cost Parliament £1 million. When EDMs started out, they were relatively few and far between. In 2009-10, they cost £87,000 but £776,000 to print. That is £1 million. Since then, we have developed online petitions, so there are other ways of flagging up issues of importance to members of the public. EDMs are an outmoded way of doing so. We could scrap them and save another £1 million. There are plenty of ways to save money in this place.
The savings to be made—or not made, if the figures drop off—from charging a mum, a dad and a couple of youngsters £60 to walk up the Clock Tower will be paltry. Potentially, it will cost that family even more if, as a consequence, fewer people go, because the administration costs will remain the same and therefore they will have to ratchet up the prices. It will become something that only wealthy people can do. Many people come here because they want to see inside this place. With great respect to hon. Members and interesting though many of our debates are, many people also come here because of Big Ben. It is in all the London guides that it is free to come in this place. It is one of the few places students can visit for free—the Crown Estate parks are another example of that.
If we are to save money, which I completely agree we have to do, do not let us pick on a relatively small saving in an area that delivers so much pleasure. Even those people, like me, who have not gone up the Clock Tower always believed that at least we could if we wished. That opportunity is there for visitors who might wish to watch a debate and look around the House, but who might also wish to say, “I went up Big Ben.” This is important. What happens once we start picking off little bits of the estate and saying, “We’re charging for this, and we’re charging for that”?
There is some confusion about the fact that we already charge for tours in the summer recess. I say to hon. Members who raised this point, however, that constituents can visit for free on only three mornings a week unless accompanied by their Member of Parliament, in which case it is free with the tour. For most of the summer, then, constituents could be in the barmy position of having to pay to come into the House of Commons, because their MP is not there to accompany them, but then being able to go up the Clock Tower for free. There are daft anomalies in this place, but I do not think that we should be picking on a very small saving when we could be looking at so many other low-hanging fruits which would save a lot of money.
Unfortunately, we are sending the message that this iconic part of our British heritage is closed for business unless someone can afford to pay. That is a bad message to give, and I hope that the House votes for the motion. We do not want to send this back to the Commission. It could have tackled many other bigger issues but it picked this one. It was the wrong one to pick, and the House should be the decider of that.
I do not normally involve myself in these sorts of debates—like a lot of hon. Members who do not read the relevant e-mails and so on—simply because I trusted in those who take responsibility to do the right thing for us. This might be a lesson to me: perhaps we should take more interest. The issue concerns the principles by which we should go about the fiscal discipline that the House has undertaken. I believe that, because of all the troubles and what has gone wrong in recent years, the House of Commons has decided to beat itself up significantly in all sorts of ways, and this is symbolic of the end product of that.
The principle being breached in this proposal is that hon. Members, when approached by their constituents, should always be able to arrange for them to tour this place, their Parliament, free of charge, accompanied either by their MP or a passholder on their behalf. The Commission should consider that important principle, regardless of whether the motion or the amendment is passed—although I do not know whether that can have the effect of directing the Commission to do anything, to be quite honest.
I am a long-serving Member of the House. When I arrived here in 1997 representing the premier borough in Essex, which I still do, visitors on tours were charged, but the House authorities dropped it because the administration costs were so great compared with the income.
That is an interesting point. The arrangement that I am suggesting is more practical, which is in addition to the principle that Members should be able to help their constituents tour this place.
We have heard about other things that could be looked at if we are to stick to this 70% real-terms cut over the next few years, including the grace-and-favour apartments. Sometimes in this place, when a stone is lifted, one is staggered to find what is underneath. How many members of the public are aware that there are grace and favour apartments still lived in by Officers of the House? It is astonishing in the 21st century. There is little transparency or ventilation of such matters until something like this makes people prod further under the stone. The Commission should consider very seriously what Members have said about such arrangements.
It is important that people can come here, listen to our debates and see the House operating. It is also important that our constituents, particularly our younger constituents, can come here and understand the history of the constitution of this United Kingdom as expressed through these buildings. This is a modern, purposefully designed Parliament, albeit designed as a modern Parliament for the 1840s and 1850s. However, it was so designed to express our constitution, and I have found that the young people whom I show around this building have understood much better how our constitution works and what our democracy is all about. The very design of this place is a physical expression of the British constitution, and we should remember that. It is very important that our constituents can come here, free of charge, and have an opportunity to understand that.
This proposal is taking us in a dangerous direction. The Commission will see this as a fairly innocuous proposal to raise a bit of revenue, but my fear is that in a few years we will see the supreme irony in this place of huge corporate events and dinners for the bankers—the very people who put us in the mess that necessitates all this fiscal cutting. They will be the only people in here, having their swanky champagne parties and dinners in Westminster Hall or on the Terrace, while our constituents are charged simply for the privilege of looking around their own Parliament. That is where all this is headed. Whether we accept the amendment or the motion, the Commission needs to listen to the voices of people in the House and think again.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on bringing this debate to the House. He seems to have developed a trend and penchant for securing debates that get everybody very excited and hit right on the nerve the issues we want to talk about.
Everybody has said what needs to be said, so I will make only a couple of short, substantive points. I visited years 3 and 4 in a school in my constituency recently. A teacher asked the pupils to prepare questions for when I spoke to the class and to draw pictures of what they thought was my job as an MP. Almost every single picture contained Big Ben, and almost all the pupils thought I worked in Big Ben—that was my job. This charge will affect schoolchildren. Any barrier that we put in the way of schoolchildren coming to the House of Commons to learn about what we do and about democracy and to visit Big Ben is a mistake. We should not be doing anything to prohibit school parties and schoolchildren from coming here.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow said that he always wanted to be an MP. Anyone who has known him for many years, as I have, will know that that is true. Since he got here, he has never stopped talking about how he always wanted to be an MP. This place inspires schoolchildren.
I take the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I want to keep to the substantive points, as we are down to a five-minute limit.
As everybody has said, Big Ben is owned by the people—the taxpayers. It is their Big Ben, not ours. It is not ours to make such a decision. Richard Branson owns Virgin. No one says to him, “You have to pay to get on your planes”—I should mention, for all the twitterers, that I have received that comment from Twitter. The people own Big Ben, and they should not be charged to visit it. Just as they own the House of Commons, they should not be prohibited from seeing their MPs working in their Committees. People should be not be barred from going up into the Public Gallery, or charged for doing so, to watch what takes place in the Chamber; nor should they be charged to visit Big Ben, because it is all the same. There is the option—I am sure that there must be a way round—of saying that UK taxpayers should not be charged to visit Big Ben. There must be a way of pre-booking tours from overseas where a charge would apply. That would be perfectly reasonable. There must be a way of administering that.
Let me turn to waste in general, which many Members have mentioned. In my previous life, before I became a Member of Parliament, I worked for organisations such as SmithKline Beecham, Pfizer, Shell and Coca Cola-Schweppes. All those organisations, along with many other big corporations, had subsidised canteens and restaurants. The reason they were subsidised was that the overhead costs of the building had been met, so there were no losses from food sales. We have a captive audience in this place for meals in the restaurant from 8 o’clock in the morning, sometimes to midnight, with no overhead or infrastructural charges. Why do the restaurants in this place not make a profit, when they have a captive audience, very long hours and no overhead charges? It must be due to labour costs being too expensive, management being overburdened by costs and inefficiency. If there is inefficiency and money being wasted in this place, it is down to the managers, the Commission and others who are paid to do this work to find out where that waste is. We should not be saying, “Let’s plug the gap by charging people to go up Big Ben,” but then throwing good money after bad; rather, it is about finding out where there is waste at the moment, and there is indeed gross inefficiency and waste.
Those are the only points that I wanted to make. There is huge waste, and we should not be charging British taxpayers to go up what is their own property.
I rise to support the motion moved by the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), and I congratulate him on bringing this matter to the House. I have received a fair bit of e-mail correspondence on this issue, and it is also one that people have spoken to me about personally.
Two years ago or thereabouts, I was privileged to become a new Member of this House. People might say that that was a natural progression from being a councillor for some 26 years and a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for 12 years. The reason I mention that is that when I became mayor of Newtownards council, I made it my business as mayor that year to invite as many people as possible from the borough to visit the council offices and see some of the history. I was also one of those people who would drive by the bottom of the Parliament buildings at Stormont, look up at the building on the hill and say, “I wonder what it’s like up there.” When I was elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly and had the opportunity to serve there, I followed the same principle that I had followed at the council. I made it my business to send invitations out to all the people and all the schools, irrespective of whether they were Protestant, Roman Catholic, integrated or whatever. They all got an opportunity to come and look round, along with many other organisations, because it is important to do that. Therefore, when I had the opportunity to come to this place, I felt it was important that my constituents from Strangford should have the opportunity to come and visit Westminster, including the Clock Tower.
With great respect, that is not the point; the point is that those who wish to visit should have the opportunity.
Let me turn to the reasons why some of my constituents are unable to attend—it is important to reiterate this point. The first thing that I should mention about Northern Ireland is that, with the political progress that we made and the stability that came off the back of that, we had the opportunity to open the Parliament buildings at Stormont in Belfast. Every Mayday there is an open day, and tens of thousands come to visit, because it is accessible, which is important. That shows the natural direction in which we are going. All traditions come to visit, from all across the community, because all the political parties are represented there. Yes, people have to pay for their lunch and tea, but the tour is free. It is good if people’s own Members are there, but if they are not, tours can still go ahead.
The reply to one of the questions asked to some of those on the Commission said that a take-up of 90% had been assumed. If people are charged £15 a head, I would question whether that is achievable. I would say that it was not.
The distance from my constituency to this place means that the journey to get here, from when I get up in the morning, takes four to four and a half hours, plus the flight. We can use Flybe and perhaps get a cheaper flight, or British Airways or British Midland, or we can go by train and ferry. The cost to get here—by return flight, or whatever it may be—will be from £100 to perhaps £500. That perhaps puts into perspective the situation for those from my constituency—who, by the way, have come here, including people from a number of schools. Everything is arranged through our main office, so my name might not be on the paper as the sponsor, but I was the person who took them round, and I was quite happy to do so. We should not be imposing a £15 charge on a visit when people should have the opportunity to visit the Clock Tower free, just as they have the opportunity to make a similar visit—although not as magnificent a visit, I have to say—in Northern Ireland.
It would be great to be able to walk up those 334 steps; other Members have said that they have not done it yet, and neither have I, but I intend to make it my business to do so. I have talked to some of my colleagues who have done it. They told me that it was one of the most emotional experiences that they have had in this House, because when they got up there, they saw how high up they were, and the clock struck, and so on. All those things make the day special.
Just a few weeks ago a group came here from Glastry college in my constituency. There were 26 young people who wanted to look round as part of their citizenship studies; they do that work in their schools, but they also come to Westminster to see how Parliament works, whenever the opportunity arises, as well as to Stormont. If those 26 young people had been subject to a charge of £15 a head, their visit to this place would have cost them another £390. How is that fair to young people who want to come along and enjoy the occasion of a visit to Westminster, including a visit to the Clock Tower? Those are things that have to be part of a visit. Those young people visited Westminster abbey on the day—again, it was a wonderful occasion and a lovely visit. It cost them £16 or £17 a head to go there. They did not mind paying that, but there has to be a limit to how much a young person—a student, or a person attending school—pays, and also a limit to how much the teachers who take them there pay.
The comparison is this. We are all committed to democracy. We are privileged and honoured to be here and to represent our people. A visit to the Clock Tower, along with a visit to Westminster, is so important. It is important for citizenship and for people to see the democratic process. The hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) mentioned the impact of a visit on young people. Let me say this in conclusion. A visit does indeed have an impact on young people: it gives them an idea of how Parliament and the democratic process work. It also gives them a chance to see the fantastic history in this place. Let us support that; let us not have a £15 charge.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon).
I first visited this great Palace of Westminster in the summer of 1976, at the age of 11. It was part of a school visit. My parents were not particularly well off; we could not afford a foreign trip, so we came and visited all the London sights, one of which was the Palace of Westminster. The Palace of Westminster, including Big Ben, has been intrinsic to our national Parliament—some may call it the mother of Parliaments—for 150 years. It was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott who said:
“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”
Ever since William Rufus built the great hall in 1099, a Parliament has existed on this site. In 2008 Big Ben was voted the most popular UK landmark, and this debate is very much about that. This is not an administrative housekeeping issue; this is about setting a precedent. I believe that the public, who have already paid their taxes—as people have done over the hundreds of years there has been a Parliament here—should not be charged twice to visit a place that is theirs. The influence, power and discretion that we exercise here is done on the basis of a leasehold in the name of the people we represent. They ultimately own these buildings, and we are responsible and accountable to them.
That leads me on to the discussion that we have had today—thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who secured this debate—on the antediluvian, opaque nature of the governance of this place, and on the Commission and the Management Board in particular. I was never consulted on the closure of Bellamy’s bar in order to create a crèche, or on the closure of Annie’s bar. I have not been consulted on the alternative proposals on sitting days, on early-day motions or on the duplication of administration and paperwork in the House, all of which should be presented to us. We really need to have a proper debate on all that.
Are the House of Commons and the House of Lords really to become a kind of glorified Harry Potter-esque theme park? In this, the 200th year since Dickens’s birth, are we really so focused on taking a Dickensian, “Mr Gradgrind” approach that we must destroy the basic tenet that the people of this country who pay taxes should have free access to all the public parts of the precincts of the Palace of Westminster?
I will not give way, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
We must keep that access free, because it sends an important message. If we do not, we could find that only the wealthy, the well connected and businesses will have access to the mother of Parliaments. That would be a sad day, and a tragedy for democracy. It would further undermine people’s faith and trust in us. Let us imagine that a husband and wife and their two children get on the train in my constituency of Peterborough and pay £90 return each to come to London. Why should they have to pay £15 each to visit the Clock Tower? Why should we charge them an extra tax to visit part of the political and historical heritage of this country, one of the most famous buildings in the world? I do not believe that that would be right.
We need to explore the governance that has led to this proposal, because it has not involved ordinary elected Members. This feels like the script for “The Da Vinci Code”, because it is not open and transparent; far from it. I also reject the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). His remarks have been erudite and eloquent, as ever, but I nevertheless smell an establishment stitch-up.
May I tell the hon. Gentleman that on this occasion his sense of smell is a touch out? What he should be smelling is a desperate attempt—if I can put it like that—by those of us who are in charge of these things to seek to accommodate the views being expressed. I put it to him, to the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) and to his other hon. Friends that I really am seeking to arrive at where they want to go.
I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but one of the points of the Backbench Business Committee, if it is not to become the nobbled shih tzu of the Executive, is to ensure that the emphatic will and opinion of the House is sought on certain matters. We voted on such matters on Monday. Today we are looking at the thin end of a wedge; a precedent could be set that would result in our constituents being effectively excluded from part of the precincts of the Palace of Westminster. If the House divides on the motion, we must be emphatic in making it clear that we are not minded to enter into any kind of long-drawn-out scenario of kicking this matter into the long grass, and that we need to make a decision now. We need to set our own precedent. This is the people’s Parliament; they have paid for it through their taxes and they should have free rein here. We represent them, and we should be mindful of their opinions. We should keep the status quo.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), and I can confirm, having known him since the age of 10, that he has always wanted to be here. He made his case as a 10-year-old, and he does so now with great passion and verve. I rise to support his motion.
No one disputes that Big Ben is iconic; it has featured in our culture on many occasions. Hon. Members will recall “The Thirty-Nine Steps”, in which Richard Hannay was hanging off the second hand. They will recall it featuring in the James Bond film, “Thunderball”. They will remember the extra chime. They might also recall, as my children do, Doctor Who watching the Clock Tower being blown up, and more besides. The sounds of Big Ben also have iconic value. The chimes are broadcast worldwide by the BBC, and “News at Ten” gives us the image.
No one disputes that that is all of great value, and we should not understate that value and importance. Many Members have described speaking to primary school children about Parliament. We talk to them about what happens in this Chamber and in the House of Lords, and soon their eyes start to glaze over. As soon as we mention Big Ben, however, they wake up and come alive. They see it as an important part of Parliament.
Many years ago, when I was 10 years old, I was able to walk up to the front door of No. 10, and I was duly inspired. We have lost the ability to do that, because of the daily threat of terrorism that we face, but surely we do not want to lose the opportunity to visit Big Ben as a result of the accountants.
Absolutely not. It is excellent to hear what inspired and motivated my hon. Friend as a 10-year-old, and we can help to inspire others.
This is not just about primary school children attending this place as a tourist attraction, however. I recently hosted a tour of students from Burma. They were unable to access Big Ben, but they were nevertheless amazed at the direct access that the public have to their Members of Parliament. Obviously, that does not happen in Burma. I want to see that access maintained for primary school children and others. It is important to maintain that relationship, and part of that involves the access to Big Ben that Members of Parliament and Officers can provide. That access would be lost under this proposal.
We also need to recognise that this is not just about MPs acting as tour guides; it is about us opening up the doors of our democracy. That involves not only the working part of our Parliament but access to Big Ben. It is part of our heritage, and people having access to Parliament helps them to understand where we have come from as a democracy and where we want to go. Big Ben is very much part of our heritage, and we need to ensure that it is as accessible as possible.
The hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames), who is no longer in his place, gave the House some statistics, including the number of people who visit Parliament but do not take the tour of the Clock Tower. My view is that not enough people know about the tour. Those who do know about it grab the opportunity to do it, and we need to make it more accessible, not less.
There are hidden gems that we discover only when we climb those 344 steps inside the Clock Tower. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow for attempting the climb; it has defeated many others. Anyone who goes up the Clock Tower is reminded of our heritage, including our Christian heritage and the relationship between Church and state. Among the hidden gems are the chimes alongside Big Ben, near to which are written these words:
“All through this hour
Lord, be my guide
And by Thy power
No foot shall slide”.
Those who go up there can see those words, near to the chimes that are broadcast worldwide by the BBC each day. They illustrate our recognition of our Christian heritage, which is an important part of our democracy. We would lose that under the proposal, and I hope that our feet here will not slide into the realms of the accountants and others. Let us keep the Clock Tower open so that many more feet can go up and down it, and so that people can recognise our democracy for what it is.
It is always a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes). I hope that I shall not be viewed as some kind of establishment stooge this afternoon, as I rise to put forward a different view on the issue of charging.
The motion, which is supported by many hon. Members and hon. Friends with whom I am usually in agreement, is one that I cannot agree with on this occasion. I take the different view that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Generally speaking, I believe that the principle that the user pays should be adopted, and I see no reason to change it for the Clock Tower. I think it is preferable that those who use a service should be those who pay for it. In 2011 only 9,319 people used this service and went up the Clock Tower, so it is easy to see that over the course of an average lifetime, at least 99% of the population will be completely unaffected by whatever is decided on this issue.
I believe that the current system whereby everybody effectively pays for the benefit of very few people is wrong. I submit, too, that the current policy is likely to favour those who live closer to London, who find it easier to visit the Palace of Westminster. I do not know the statistics on how many of my constituents have been up the Clock Tower—I know of a few, but not very many. I submit that having paid to come down here, many visitors would not be surprised to find that they were being asked to contribute £15 towards the cost of that service. It is a once-in-a-lifetime visit, and I think it entirely reasonable for a small charge to be made to cover the cost of providing that tour.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this debate. I start by declaring an interest in that, as a hobby, I am a qualified blue badge tourist guide, so I have some experience of some of our more important sites. I am qualified to guide in the British Museum, Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London, the castle at Windsor and many other places. I am not qualified to be a guide here: for that, I would have to do a one-day familiarisation course, which could be quite valuable in my case. There is no doubt, however, that of all the places I know something about in this country, none is more important than our Parliament.
Although I respect the fact that we are going through an age of austerity, access to the Clock Tower is something I believe should be kept open and free. It is not that I fail to recognise that the House of Commons Commission has made considerable progress in advancing the cause of cutting costs. We have heard about a 17% reduction and that £2 million should be saved by putting official papers in electronic form on the internet; I strongly encourage and welcome those things. For certain goods and services—and indeed accesses—I would go so far as to say that we have a moral duty to ensure that they are provided free of charge. I would include access to NHS services, for example, which should be free at the point of delivery and universally available irrespective of the ability to pay. I would apply the same principle to museums and to libraries, from which my children regularly benefit when I take them to the local one every couple of weeks. I believe that if we can apply that particular approach to those places, we should certainly apply it here in the Palace of Westminster.
Some will say that the Clock Tower is not the same as the Chamber, where real democracy is transacted. Physically, that is a true statement, but in my opinion nobody can disentangle the two. As we have heard from many speakers this afternoon, if we ask people from overseas for their favourite image of British democracy, the chances are that they will cite the Clock Tower.
Let us look at the arguments in the House of Commons Commission’s statement, to which I do think anyone has referred this afternoon and a number of which I believe to be erroneous. First, the fact that we already charge for tours in certain parts of the Palace of Westminster does not mean that we should be able to charge to see the Clock Tower. That is erroneous because the fact that there are charges for some tours does not mean that there cannot be free tours in the same area, as, for example, with the Clock Tower.
The Commission says that only a small number of people—9,000 to 10,000—are affected, but I would say that a principle is at stake here and that whether we are talking about 10,000 or only half a dozen people, it is the principle that matters in this case. We are told that many savings are to be made and that it is only the cost of the tours that the charges cover. Once again, however, the principle of free access is fundamental here. Whether we are covering just our costs, more than our costs or only half our costs, I still believe it is fundamentally wrong to go down this route.
I know that other Members want to contribute, so I will conclude by re-emphasising that this issue is about a very important principle. This place—one of history, democracy and debate, perhaps one of the pursuit of truth—is not “our” Parliament; it is the people’s Parliament, and it is the Parliament for all the people.
May I say what a privilege it is to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride)? I was not originally intending to speak in today’s debate because I felt that charging people £15 to go up the Westminster Clock Tower might seem remote to the people of Rossendale and Darwen—from where it costs nearly £100 to get here on a train. I changed my mind because on my most recent leaflet, “Rossendale and Darwen Matters”—delivered free to the door by the MP—I included a line about Parliament belonging to the people, saying that it was always open for them to visit me here. I have been overwhelmed by the response of so many Lancashire people saying that they want to visit this great building.
As MPs, I believe we should look at how to save money within Parliament, and I commend the 17% target. I read in a newspaper recently about proposals to turn Parliament into a theme park, including the idea of charging people £2,000 to use the Terrace, £20,000 to use Westminster Hall, and now £15 to go up the Clock Tower. I believe that we Members should resist that. We should stand by the principle that this is a place that our constituents pay for; it belongs to them and it should be free for them to visit.
I will not support the amendment, because I believe that more can be done than simply looking at the issue again. When we look to save money, we should look to our own first of all. That is why I draw the House’s attention to what I believe is the scandal of the grace and favour apartments enjoyed by people who work in this place. When the last Clerk of the House retired, there was a great opportunity to remove the grace and favour apartment attached to the job. However, we did not take the opportunity. I think that as long as we provide such facilities to people who work here, we should not charge our constituents for going up the Clock Tower.
We should definitely not charge our constituents in what is an Olympic year, as this building will be at the front and centre when people visit our country. In this Olympic year, there is great interest in finding London hotels for people to stay in. I made an inquiry of the Ritz to find out how much its most expensive suite was, and I did the same for the Dorchester and all the posh places where I could never afford to stay. These suites cost thousands of pounds—some as much as £7,000 a night. What an opportunity for we Members to make these grace and favour apartments available all day to save the taxpayer some money. Why do people choose to pay thousands of pounds to stay at the Ritz and the Dorchester? It is clearly location, location, location—and security. That is what these grace and favour apartments have—location and security.
The hon. Gentleman is making a compelling argument. I wonder whether he is aware that there are some other grace and favour places down the road in No. 10, 11 and 12 Downing street. Perhaps the Patronage Secretary could make his place available to his constituents.
But that is completely different. Government is for 365 days a year and 24/7; Parliament is having an early recess to enable Members to avoid the Olympics, so surely those who work in Parliament will not be here.
We are not talking about a Big Brother-style eviction; we are simply talking about the possibility of those with grace and favour apartments, including the Chairman of the Commission, the Speaker of the House of Commons, giving them up for the period of the Olympics. Speaker’s House would, of course, command the biggest premium. I suggest that we could charge £20,000 a night for it, perhaps more, and that simply making it available during the Olympics could save half a million pounds.
All joking aside, it is true that we must save money, but I suspect that charging our constituents to go up the Clock Tower is in the easy pile. When we start talking about the things that are in the difficult pile—such as Speaker’s House, the grace and favour apartments of the Clerk and the Serjeant at Arms, and the crèche—we do not hear so many voices.
It is important for us to establish what we are here for. I think that we are here to speak up for our constituents, and to ensure that they continue to have free access to this building that they lease to us for five years at a time. If we want to save money, let us look at ourselves. Let us look in the difficult pile. Let us work out where the money can be saved without our charging people for access to Big Ben.
I much enjoyed hearing from my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry) an impassioned plea for the House to be turned into a glorified hotel with a free clock tower attached. I am not entirely convinced that that is the right order of priorities. It seems to me that the House is united in feeling that savings must be made, but that whenever a specific saving is suggested, everyone is against it.
I wish to defend the Commission against the charge that it never consults people. It does, as one will see if one reads one’s e-mails. I replied to one which dealt with the question of whether or not the bound copies of Hansard should continue to be available. I actually like re-reading my own speeches—somebody has to—and I therefore wish to receive the bound copies, but I quite understand that a very expensive process is involved. It might be appropriate for Members to keep their old copies together or to make a contribution if they want to continue to receive bound copies.
I believe that there are two clear principles when it comes to cost savings in the House. The first is that we, and our electorate, can hold the Government to account, and that anything that enables us to hold the Government to account should not be cut. That includes most of the papers that are produced for us, such as the daily Hansards, the Order Papers, and the lists of early-day motions. All the things that enable us to hold the Government to account ought to be retained, even if they are expensive; and all the things that allow our constituents to hold us to account—their freedom to visit the Galleries, to attend Committee meetings, and to exercise their important right to come to the front desk and ask to lobby us and to see us—should also be free, and not subject to any cuts.
The second principle is that we must be able to serve our constituents and meet their requirements when they have problems, and that, too, should not be subject to any cuts. It is important for Members of Parliament to have the staff they need and the facilities they need—the writing paper and the postage stamps—to deal with matters that affect their constituents’ lives.
Not a penny should be saved in those areas, and all Members of Parliament should be united in defending us against any such cuts; but—and it is a very big but—there are some things that are not essential to holding the Government to account and do not provide an essential service for our constituents. In those instances, even if the savings are small, it is important to make them. We are not only doing this in the context of Parliament’s £200 million budget; we are doing it symbolically, to show that we are not just imposing costs and cuts on our constituents, but tightening our own belts. Let me put this question to Members who do not want to charge people for going up the Clock Tower. How can we say to our constituents who are on £43,000-and-a-bit a year that they will not receive their child benefit, when we are not willing to accept even a modest charge for a visit to the Clock Tower?
My hon. Friend says that we must tighten our own belts. It is not our belts that we will be tightening, but the belts of our constituents who want to come and see Big Ben. I am not one of those who say that the House of Commons does not need to make savings. Indeed, I suggested a series of savings that the House could make in my opening remarks.
As I mentioned in my own opening remarks, everyone is in favour of savings, but if we can make an additional saving, we should be pleased about it. I hope that the Commission has heard all my hon. Friend’s recommendations for savings and the recommendations of others who have spoken, because they all ought to be considered. However, it is difficult to accept that going to look at a clockwork mechanism and a large bell, however great and however splendid, is essential to the democracy of this country which has served us so well for hundreds of years. It is a curiosity, it is something of interest to do, it is a delight and a pleasure, but it is not at the heart of how we scrutinise the Government or how we serve our constituents.
We know that times are hard. If I wished to be party political, I could say that our friends on the other side had maxed out the credit card; but whether it is due to that or to bankers, the fact is that the country needs to make savings, and a charging £15 each to 9,000 people a year who want to see a clockwork machine strikes me as not unreasonable.
I seem to be in the same position as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall). I seem to be more establishment than the establishment itself. I understand that, as we have been debating the matter, a compromise has been agreed, and I am sorry about that, because I think that this would have been a right and proper thing to do.
I have listened carefully to the debate, and I have talked to the Commissioners who are present. We have agreed that were the hon. Member for Harlow to accept my amendment, the Commission would ensure that there was no charge for entry to the Clock Tower during the current Parliament. We cannot, of course, bind successor Parliaments. As written, however, the motion is such that it might affect other parts of the important savings programme to which the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) referred, and we should therefore prefer to listen to the will of the House on this occasion in order to preserve the greater good of the programme.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow and I will agree to support the amendment, but one thing I have learned in my short time in the House is that, when I am on my feet, the fact that I might repeat something that has been said, or the fact that the outcome is inevitable, should not stop me saying what I intended to say. I shall therefore take advantage of my moment in the sun to make a couple of comments, if I may.
As has just been pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow, those of us who support his motion recognise that savings must be made. A number of important issues have emerged from the debate, most notably the urgent need to consider other possible areas of savings. Grace and favour accommodation seems to be at the top of most people’s hit lists, and that may well be one of the areas that should be considered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) spoke of schoolchildren imagining her working in Big Ben, and, in a rather strange way, it is a symbol of our democracy. I remember coming up from Cleethorpes on my first visit to London at the age of eight, and one of the photographs in my album shows me with the Clock Tower in the background. The Clock Tower is capable of sparking people’s interest in the whole democratic process. That is something extremely valuable, and something that we should not lose.
Bearing in mind the offer that has been made, I shall cut my remarks short. I was going to urge the House not to support what I had described in my notes as a “Sir Humphrey amendment,” but, of course, Sir Humphrey has ways of achieving his ends in the end. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow and I are prepared to accept the amendment, with the on-the-record statement that no charges will be made, at least for the period of this Parliament.
Amendment agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this House accepts the need to make financial savings, but considers that the fundamental principle that the House of Commons is a people’s Parliament should not be put at risk; and invites the Commission to reconsider its current proposal to charge for Clock Tower tours.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am delighted that the hon. Members for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) have put it on the record that they will look at this matter again. If decisions are made that do not accord with what has been stated in this debate, however, what recourse might we have to bring the matter back before Parliament?
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I should have said in my opening remarks that I am a member of the British Horological Institute, but I also want to put on record my gratitude to the representative of the Commission, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), for listening to Members and agreeing to drop the Big Ben charges.