I beg to move,
That this House notes the medium-term financial plan for the House of Commons as set out in Appendix A to the First Report from the Finance and Services Committee, HC 754; endorses the intention of the Finance and Services Committee to recommend to the House of Commons Commission a House of Commons: Administration Estimate of £200.6 million, which includes funding for the proposed Education Centre; further notes that, in line with the target for the Savings Programme, this is consistent with a reduction of 17 per cent in real terms since 2010-11; and further endorses the intention of the Finance and Services Committee to recommend to the Members Estimate Committee a House of Commons: Members Estimate of £33.3 million.
I am extremely grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate. Last year was Members’ first opportunity to have a substantial debate on the finances of the administration of the House and their own budget, and this year’s debate very much follows the same procedure. The Finance and Services Committee, which I have the honour of chairing, has produced its report on next year’s estimate and is proposing to advise the Commission that the estimate be £200.6 million. This debate is an opportunity for Members to discuss the report and the related documents, to consider the advice before it is made to the Commission and, I hope, to approve it.
Following a change to Standing Orders this year, the Committee now has a duty to advise on the Members estimate, and I want to make clear the difference between the two estimates. The substantial amounts required to look after Members, in terms of pay, office costs and so on, are dealt with by the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority in the IPSA estimate. The remaining Members estimate deals with the small number of costs left over after most of the costs went to IPSA, and they are such things as IT provision, stationery, liability insurance coverage and the occasional pension liability that occurs as a result of movements in the bond price within the Members contributory pension scheme.
I would like to begin by paying tribute to the staff who serve us. We have the good fortune to be looked after, in all areas of the House, by very dedicated and extremely professional staff who do their utmost to ensure that we can do our work smoothly and efficiently. They often work in difficult circumstances and for long hours, mirroring our work patterns, and are run by a management who do everything possible to help us in everything we seek to do. I am therefore happy to pay that personal tribute, but I believe it is one that Members in all parts of the House would be happy to pay too.
I should like briefly to set out some wider points about the estimate and then make a small number of points that I believe should be addressed individually. At the start of this Parliament, the Commission decided that, in a time of considerable austerity, it was right to have a look at the costs of running the House service. During 2010-11, a rigorous examination was made of expenditure, based on the principle that we should be able to do whatever was necessary for our proper work as scrutineers of Government, legislators and promoters of our constituents’ interests, but that, within that principle, we should seek to do that work as effectively as possible. The result of that examination, which took place over some considerable time through that year, was the medium-term financial plan, which the House agreed to last year and which broadly delivers a 17% reduction on the estimate over the course of this Parliament, from what was estimated would be £231 million at the start to £210 million by 2014. This year’s estimate of £200.6 million is on track to achieve that.
I should add, for those who are aficionados of dissecting the numbers, that some areas of the numbers are not entirely like-for-like. Therefore, to make an exact comparison, one has to take account of those areas of transfer in or transfer out. I can assure the House, however, that in broad terms we are on track to achieve the estimate that we were seeking to achieve of £210 million by the end of the period.
Paragraph 2 of appendix A, which is entitled “Medium-Term Financial Plan” and appears on page 12 of the report, lists
“a number of significant policy matters and events on the horizon that may have a bearing on the budget”.
The variability of the sums derived from those items seems to be enormous, so how can we have any confidence in the figures that the hon. Gentleman is presenting to us?
The Finance and Services Committee has looked in detail and scrutinised all these areas. One of the major factors that will affect the estimate is the movement of the House pension fund from our own resources across to the civil service, which will change the way it is accounted. The other areas where there is a degree of uncertainty include, for example, the impairment costs, which we have been advised should be made in respect of certain buildings, and the way we account for them. These have been moved from the capital cost, which is where they were budgeted for, to the resource account of the administration budget, where it is thought they should more properly be. I hope that answers, in part, the hon. Gentleman’s question.
With respect—I do not mean that to be interpreted in the usual way—the first item on that list is:
“Palace of Westminster Restoration and Renewal”.
That is a massive imponderable. We have no idea at present of the scale of that cost, the timetable or where all the other items on the list ought to fit into the context of that project.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for narrowing his question down. I will come to the restoration and renewal project in a moment. The key point is that, except for the points I will make shortly about the contract to make a full, professional and robust estimate of the costs and cost probabilities going forward, none of the costs to which he refers will fall in this Parliament or in the current medium-term financial plan. What the hon. Gentleman has identified will fall into the costs that go forward beyond the time frame of the costs that we are debating.
The hon. Gentleman rightly pays tribute to the staff of this House, and the report refers to our desire to be an “exemplary employer”. Will he confirm that no one working in this place is employed on a zero-hours contract and that staff receive at least the London living wage?
Allowing for ins and outs, the global reduction on House expenditure is 17%. Does the same apply to expenditure by, and on behalf of, Select Committees? Will the same reduction in expenditure be achieved for Select Committees?
I intend to cover resources to Select Committees as one of my five main issues. The 17% figure applies to the total, but there are variances within it. I believed it was important to approach this from the beginning not by saying, “There is the budget; let’s just slice it and take 17% off everything”, but by looking at areas where bigger savings or fewer savings might be made. The objective was to deliver the appropriate service that we as parliamentarians require to do our work. That was certainly what lay behind the work that was done. There is an issue relating to Committee resources, and I promise to come on to it. Again, I invite my hon. Friend to intervene on me later if he is not satisfied by what I say.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. He would add, of course, that some positive savings may be made—in other words, the work of the Administration Committee and other Committees can support positive saving, so it is not just a case of making cuts.
Indeed. I believe my hon. Friend refers to the income generation strand. I intend to refer to that, too, so I invite him to intervene again after I have dealt with it. I suspect that the Chair of the Administration Committee intends to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, and may well speak on this subject, as I know that this Committee has done a considerable amount of work on it.
Indeed. Another of my five points deals with restoration and renewal. Perhaps it would be a good idea if I just got on with it, Mr Speaker!
I was about to clarify the five points on which I wanted to focus: first, pay and contracts; secondly, income generation; thirdly, restoration and renewal; fourthly, the education centre; and, fifthly, Committee resources. There are a huge number of other issues within that. I have with me the last three days-worth of reading provided for me on virtually every subject. I am happy to try to answer any points raised, but I would like to stick mainly to the five points that I have drawn out as being the most important for our consideration today.
On pay and conditions, then, I have said before that we have a very high quality of staff. In my judgment, it is imperative to maintain that, and to do so, we must be exemplary employers. It is indeed the firm intention of both the House of Commons Commission and the Management Board that the House service be regarded as a model employer, using the best practices in employment. As we all know, however, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and it is not so much the intentions that count as how we give effect to them.
Let me deal with our commitment to the London living wage. I may be in danger of getting pelted for what I say, but I pay tribute to you, Mr Speaker, because you have led the drive with the Commission and the Management Board to ensure that we make a full and true commitment to the London living wage. You have provided an important piece of leadership on that issue. Both the chair of the Commission and the chief executive of the House service take the issue of the London living wage extremely seriously. The House is aiming to secure accreditation as a living wage employer from Citizens UK before Christmas this year and to achieve full compliance on all our contracts by April next year. That means our approach goes beyond the accreditation requirements. I can report that as of today all current House staff and all agency staff supplied to the House are paid at least the London living wage, and that contractors with dedicated staff who are based on the estate are paying those staff at least the London living wage, with a small number of exceptions that are currently being addressed and which we anticipate will have been addressed within a very short space of time. The final category is other contractors that provide services to the House. Good progress is being made to ensure they are paying their UK staff at least the London living wage if in London, or the living wage if outside London. I reiterate that we are on course to be accredited by Christmas and we are on course to meet the goal of having everybody, including our contractors, in compliance by next April.
The hon. Gentleman will recall that, with the support of my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, I tabled some parliamentary questions a few months ago about the living wage. At the time, the hon. Gentleman said a small number of new starters—agency staff, I think—were not receiving the living wage in their probationary period. Has that issue now been addressed? If the hon. Gentleman could write to me about that, I would be most grateful.
My belief is that that issue has, indeed, been addressed—and I think I have just had a little divine inspiration to confirm that. If, by any mischance, I have misinformed the hon. Gentleman, I will most certainly write to him, but otherwise he may take it that that has indeed been addressed.
The second issue I wish to touch on is what are termed zero-hours contracts. The Commission asked the Finance and Services Committee to look at that issue and prepare advice. We are in the final stages of preparing that advice and it will go to the Commission at its next meeting on Monday, so it is still, as it were, in draft, but I would like, if I may, to outline what the content of that advice is going to be.
In summary, we are advising that the House should not take on zero-hours contracts. Their key feature is that they do not have mutuality of obligation; that is the critical point that came out. We had a fascinating written and oral evidence session involving some very good employers ranging from supermarkets to the Royal Household and others, and what came out clearly was that good employers with good HR practices are not particularly keen on zero-hours contracts because of this lack of mutuality. We came to the firm view that, as that is the principal feature of zero-hours contracts, we should have nothing whatever to do with them.
We further go on to advise that where staff are currently being employed on a casual basis they should be placed on proper contracts that provide for full and appropriate employee rights with mutuality of obligation, and that that should be supported by best practice and, in particular, by the adoption of a code of conduct. I was particularly grateful to my right hon. Friend—if I may refer to him as that—the right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) who, with other colleagues, put together a report on this issue that included a model code, which we think is very fit and which we intend to recommend to the Commission.
This kind of call-off contract is a much better way of dealing with the perfectly legitimate need to have some casual staff within our service, particularly in regard to catering. We believe that by doing that in the way I have set out, and which we intend to advise the Commission to follow, we will be fulfilling our goal of being employers of the first order.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the work he is doing on this, which I think is very helpful. We have been in correspondence over the past year now about the interpretation of the contract of the staff in the Members’ Tea Room. Some of them have been working to certain customs and practice conditions for over 25 years and have had wage cuts as a result of a new interpretation of their contract. That still has not been resolved, and my understanding is that, following last week’s negotiations, the staff are still awaiting an offer from management. Can we try to resolve this situation as quickly as possible? It has gone on for more than a year and is undermining morale.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue with me. I do not have a specific answer to it, but I take very seriously what he said and will look at it, do what I can and come back to him.
The final point that we learned from our evidence session, and which absolutely every one of the HR directors of the various enterprises made, was: never allow HR and management to use zero hours as a sloppy way of managing staff. Our advice will contain a statement to that effect: that it is proper to have call-off contracts and to deal with casual staff properly, but it must be done with rigorous HR. I do not know what fellow commissioners may or may not say to all that, but I am hopeful that the Commission will accept the advice we are proffering.
The final point I would make on pay and conditions is that change is always difficult and unsettling, even in the best of organisations. I have had experience of, to use the jargon, “re-engineering” two businesses that were going bust to make them sustainable for the future. In making changes and asking people to change the way they do things, there are difficulties and there is absolutely no way round that. That is going on here, but what we are trying to ensure—and seeking to impress on the management—is that this be done as transparently and fairly as possible. There will be blips in morale from time to time, but everything possible should be done to mitigate that, and I believe the House service has listened to the points we have made.
There is of course one major area of disagreement on pay and conditions, which is going to end up being dealt with in court. That is regrettable, but as I understand it the legal advice on both sides is robust, and that is what happens in such situations. However, in most other areas —probably all—the discussions, based on good will, are likely to progress well, and I pay tribute, frankly, to the union representatives who have also engaged in those discussions with House management.
Of course, we are not a business that is going bust; we are a Parliament, and I am sure we all agree that that is the top priority in this discussion. What contingency is there in the figures if the House is proved wrong and has to pay legal fees and the increments involved?
The sums are fully provided for, as the hon. Gentleman would expect. I cannot tell him off the top of my head exactly what they are, including all the elements; if I may, I will write to him. It is obviously several million pounds, but I do not know exactly how many several million, and I would not wish to give the House the wrong information.
When I was saying earlier that I once re-engineered two businesses, I thought, “I know exactly what I would say to that if I was sitting somewhere else in the House”, and the hon. Gentleman has not disappointed me. Of course we are not a business going bust, but in looking at costs, any organisation can look hard at what it is setting out to do and the way it is setting out to do it. We now use iPads and we have radically changed our hours, so how and when we do things have changed out of all recognition, in just a decade. It is therefore right that we look at these issues, and clearly there has to be change.
I turn to income generation, an issue that I anticipate the Chairman of the Administration Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), will fill the House in on if he catches your eye, Mr Speaker. Parliament, in addition to being a working institution, is an iconic visitor attraction and world heritage site, so it is right that we develop ways of making it available to visitors. It is also right that we retrieve the costs of that. The principles, which I have set out before, are, first, that Parliament is a working institution and its work as Parliament takes primacy over all other activities. Secondly, all citizens have a right to access their MP on all aspects of the legislative process without let or hindrance or charge. Subject to those two overriding principles, however, the House has a duty to open to visitors as much as it can, and to recover the costs involved. The three relevant areas are: the development of more commercial tours; the development of retail activity; and the use of the banqueting facilities by outsiders.
It is that last point that disturbs quite a few colleagues in the House. Point 26 of the financial plan talks about
“commercial hire on a limited number of occasions”
“on an experimental basis”.
We have managed to survive as a Parliament for several hundred years without having to hire ourselves out, in some cases to the very commercial interests that caused the austerity that has resulted in our cutting our budgets. It would be ironic, would it not, if the bankers were sipping champagne in the people’s Parliament because we needed to raise money as a result of the damage they had caused. I believe that that is a line we should not cross.
I completely respect the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but there are huge amounts of time when we are in recess and not sitting here. Our dining rooms and banqueting rooms are very good facilities that match the best facilities offered by the livery halls and other venues. If we can operate during those times to make money that can be put towards restoration and renewal, for example, that is an absolutely legitimate thing to do.
The hon. Gentleman and I will disagree about this. Last year an amendment was tabled on the subject, and it was duly defeated. I completely understand his point, and it is critical that the people who have access to this place are properly vetted, but if venues such as Buckingham Palace can open in this way, I see no reason why we cannot do so. We should also be able to recover the costs involved. Clearly we should not charge for room hire for Member-organised events while we are working here, but otherwise, I believe that this is the right thing to do. The House, with its customary caution in these matters, is doing it on the basis of a two-year trial, which is being overseen by the Administration Committee. At the end of that time, we will be able to see how it is going.
My hon. Friend might be aware that, being close to London, I use the facilities here for charity events to the nth degree. Those events do not involve bankers; they involve ordinary members of the public who, because we are opening our doors, are given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the facilities here and enjoy the expertise of our banqueting service. I believe that, as MPs, we should be opening the House in this way.
I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) that outside organisations such as charities should be able to have access to these facilities. I am a patron of a charity that had its launch here two years ago, and many people were grateful for that opportunity to come here. However, I also share the concerns of the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) to some extent. One of the reasons that the catering department has had to look so much more widely is that political parties and trade unions, which regularly used to use the facilities, were effectively prohibited from doing so following the reforms of a few years ago. We want healthy political parties and well-organised trade unions that serve the interests of their members, and it is something of an irony that those bodies in our civic society that are among the most closely connected to this place are now the least able to use our facilities. Should not that matter be addressed?
If I may, I will write to the hon. Gentleman about that, unless the Chair of the Administration Committee happens to know more about the exact criteria involved and can give him an answer now. I believe that the reforms involved removing sponsored events, and that it would still be possible for other events to take place under the new system, but I will find out exactly what the situation is and get back to the hon. Gentleman.
We need some clarity on that in this debate, as there is some confusion. The events that I run on behalf of the parliamentary and scientific committee, the oldest all-party group, are rocketing in price under the new propositions. Learned societies, universities and science-based organisations should not carry such a burden.
I can confirm that there is no charge for events undertaken by Members, and there is a 25% discount on events for outsiders that are sponsored by a Member. There is no discount on events that are run purely by outsiders. That is my understanding, but I will happily confirm that to him.
I really do not want to go further in making comments when I do not have fully accurate data in front of me. In my role as president of the Tourism Society of the United Kingdom, I am sponsoring an event next March, and it is on the same conditions as the event last March. There might be a cut-off for events that are already booked, which is why I might not have the full facts. I will, if I may, come back to the hon. Gentleman and make sure that everyone who is in the Chamber is fully aware of exactly what is happening.
I am sorry to labour this point, but the hon. Gentleman half makes the point for me. I was told last week by my secretary that a social housing provider in my constituency, which has held events here in the past, thinks that the new terms and conditions will be absolutely crippling and that it will not be able to hold events here in the future. My point, which echoes that of the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), is that this is not the InterContinental.
I am very well aware of that. The principle is that we should recover the appropriate costs. It would be quite wrong for this House to subsidise anyone from outside in the provision of any facility. It is a matter of retrieving the appropriate cost for an event. That goes back to the principle that I set out at the beginning of the debate. I ask hon. Gentlemen to let me get the exact truth of the matter and give it to them, rather than carry on and possibly make a mistake. The Chair of the Administration Committee might be able to give a fuller answer.
The Palace of Westminster is a heritage site, an iconic building and a major visitor attraction. Most importantly, it is also a working institution in which we work throughout our time as Members of Parliament. It is also a building in which the fabric is at, or well past, its sell-by date. Some mechanical and electrical elements have been nursed on by brilliant engineers, but in any other building they might well have been replaced quite a long time ago. It is clear that a major project of renewal and restoration is required. The Commission’s internal report suggested a number of possibilities, and three broad strands were chosen. It was decided that, as the matter was so important, it should be looked at by external experts who can look both at the robustness of the business cases and at the cost, so that we have the very best possible advice. It has always been my experience that money expended at the start of a process on good understanding of the problem, so that we bottom out and scope the project, saves a great deal of money later on.
Broadly, the three main options are: a rolling programme with no decant—something like we are doing now—but with quite significant changes to working patterns; a rolling programme with a partial decant; or a complete decant to get everything done quickly. Those options will be appraised by the professionals. In order to get the best possible people to do the work, a contract has been put out to tender. I hope to be in a position to announce to the House before we rise for the Christmas recess who has won the tender and the details of it. They will then commence work, which will enable a decision to be made based on robust professional work at some point early in the next Parliament.
Is it not clear from what the hon. Gentleman has said that vast sums of money are being spent and will continue to be spent to ensure the upkeep of this building? Nevertheless, decanting must come at some stage because the money that is being spent will not, of course, bring about the total work that is clearly required. I worry that if we continue to delay the decision it will cost much more. I hope that by the end of the Parliament the decision will be reached so that the work that clearly is required—a completely new building, on this present site, of course—can be done.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point and he and I have corresponded on the matter. It was precisely to ensure the robustness of the decision that the Commission decided to look for external professional assistance with no optimism bias, internal bias or anything else. I have a private view on what the result will probably be, but it would be quite wrong of me to state it publicly before we have seen the results of the work. If we get the best experts we can to consider the issue completely dispassionately and judge it against the criteria we put forward, we must wait and see what they say. I will not prejudge the outcome of their work. It will take a little time to do the report and I suspect that the decision will therefore be one for the next Parliament—although probably for very early in that Parliament. That is probably the correct way forward.
Let me now turn to the education centre. In the last Parliament, a decision was made on the recommendation of the Admin Committee to create a dedicated education centre substantially to increase the number of school visits to Parliament. In the light of the likelihood of the restoration and renewal programme’s going ahead and the financial conditions prevailing at the time, the Commission decided not to proceed with the full-on version but instead to proceed with a more modest approach, which is that being proposed at the moment. The proposal is for a demountable building to be placed on Victoria embankment. It will comprise five education rooms with appropriate facilities for looking after schoolchildren and a dedicated security entrance. The latter, of course, will have the added benefit of meaning that they will not have to come through security at Portcullis House. I know that occasionally there is a clash between the interests of Members and those of the education centre, so that is a happy bonus.
I am grateful to my noble and hon. Friend for giving way. Will the separate entrance to the proposed building have annual security cost implications? Is not the estimate for maintaining security at the education centre almost £500,000 a year?
Indeed. I would say to my right hon. Friend, who also serves on the Finance and Services Committee, that I was about to bring out the proper concerns he and other members of the Committee hold on that point. I will deal with them fully in just a moment.
The plans I have outlined will allow an extra 55,000 pupils a year to visit us. The current number is 45,000, so it will more than double. I emphasise that quite a lot of research has been done that makes it very clear that engaging with schoolchildren by getting them to come and see this place first hand and be shown how we work is by far one of the most effective ways of securing engagement in politics. I therefore set out not only to defend the education centre, but to advocate it robustly—we ought to be very proud of it.
The plans will depend on a number of factors, one of which is planning permission, which probably will not be dealt with until January or February. I thought it appropriate to draw that to the House’s attention today, as with a bit of luck, a fair wind and planning permission children could be using the new education centre this time next year.
Some Members have made the valid point that perhaps we should put the education centre on hold until renewal and restoration have taken place, but I respectfully argue the exact opposite. The centre will allow twice as many children to come here, so if we were to wait the likely five to 10 years for R and R it could be 12 to 14 years before the additional children came here, by which time several generations of schoolchildren would have missed their chance completely, so it is very important.
The costs involved—about £7 million in capital costs and approximately £1 million in running costs—are quite appropriate and proportionate to what is proposed. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) is correct that a substantial chunk of the running costs—£470,000 or thereabouts—is for security, but the House’s total security costs are about £25 million, so in context it is not a particularly large sum. My point of view—I happily recognise that it is purely personal—is that £1 million, which we hope their lordships will consent to share with us, would be a suitable and proper investment in the education of our children and in getting them engaged with politics.
I am very supportive of the comments the hon. Gentleman has just made. Perhaps it would help other Members to know that that was not the only option that was looked at. Other options for increasing the number of schoolchildren coming here were considered. The only alternative available was putting a facility in No. 1 Parliament street. Anyone who considered that realised that fewer schoolchildren would be able to get through the facility and that it would simply transfer the congestion from Portcullis House and make it even worse at No. 1 Parliament street, so there is no real alternative to the proposal before us.
The hon. Gentleman, who also serves on the Finance and Services Committee, makes a valid point. The key point is that the per-pupil cost of this option was the lowest, so those of us who are in favour think that it gives the best value for money. Having said that, I completely recognise the point of view put forward by other Members. I am yet to meet a Member who is against the concept; the question is one of timing. I believe that we have to get on with it, but I fully accept that others do not necessarily share that view.
Will my hon. Friend answer the concern about how we can end up spending £7 million on a temporary building for this purpose? I imagine that schools across the country could do quite a lot with £7 million, but they cannot get it. It seems a lot for a temporary structure.
I am delighted to reassure my hon. Friend that it is not a temporary structure in the sense of being a glorified portakabin. In fact, it is quite the reverse. It is actually a purpose-built, demountable building with a minimum guaranteed shelf life of around 30 years. For a number of years we have had a very good-looking demountable building that used to be used on the green when we first started giving tours of the House. Everybody thought that it was a pretty good building and good value for money. Ultimately, it is about balancing the fact that it would be lovely to have something permanent that might or might not come with R and R with the possibility of having something not very good-looking but extremely portable. This genuinely offers extremely good value for money. The design has been undertaken by architects who were involved in some of the work on the Olympic site. It is really terribly well done. As I understand it, it is so well designed that the only objection so far on seeking planning permission is that one cannot see it—that it is not obvious enough. I therefore think we have probably got it just about right. I reassure my hon. Friend; I genuinely believe that it is good value for money. I commend it to Members of the House.
My final point is about Committee resources. One of the interesting things about this Parliament is the way in which Select Committees have taken on a more robust role following the introduction of election of their Chairs. Other than the Public Accounts Committee, which of course has the full and mighty resource of the National Audit Office behind it, Select Committees’ resources have remained broadly the same. The current plan does not envisage any particular increase, but Parliament should look carefully at what we want to do and how we might best do it. If it is recognised that there is a need for more resource, I would certainly look favourably at that in the next financial plan.
The Liaison Committee, under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), should look at the resources of Select Committees, and I would certainly commend that work. The Finance and Services Committee would be happy to engage with the Liaison Committee in that.
I am grateful for the remarks that my hon. Friend has made about resources for Select Committees. He is absolutely on the button—they have become a victim of their own success. For example, the Foreign Affairs Committee, with a staff of six, is meant to exercise oversight over 900 employees in 140 locations around the planet. We cannot do it. It is critical that the resources are reviewed.
I share my right hon. Friend’s views. I am signalling to the House that this should be considered in the same measured manner in which we have looked at other things. If we cut resources in places because we can do things more effectively, we must be able robustly to state why it is necessary to increase resources where we might wish to do so, and how that should be done.
Well ahead of the next planning round, which will be in a year or two, I am signalling that work should be done on Select Committee resources, and I encourage Select Committee Chairs to engage with the Liaison Committee and elsewhere to look at the resources properly and ensure that Parliamentarians’ key job of scrutiny of the Executive and some outside bodies, which we do through Select Committees, is undertaken.
May I preface my question by saying what an excellent job my hon. Friend does in chairing the Finance and Services Committee? Will he confirm that one of the overriding tenets of our decisions on these cuts, which have not been easy, is that they should not affect the way in which Members of Parliament do their job? We have to look carefully at Select Committee expenses because they should not be used as a reason to restrict their effectiveness.
The hon. Gentleman is right that the PAC is in a separate category because it has the resources of the NAO behind it, and of course the NAO seconds people to the Scrutiny Unit as well, but even the European Scrutiny Committee, of which I was a member some years ago, had 16 members of staff. It is curious that Select Committees, through the Liaison Committee, routinely undertake foreign visits—for very good reasons, I might add—but if a Committee wants to get even the smallest piece of independent legal advice for itself, it is inordinately difficult. In making the case for more resources, should that not be one of the things that is seriously considered? We need to make sure that Select Committees have access to the best legal advice and subject experts as a matter of routine within the warp and weft of their own activity, without being dependent on others.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. For most of last year I had the honour of serving on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. We had the opportunity to engage senior counsel, junior counsel and experts from a wide range of areas. We worked at breakneck speed and in a year came up with what has generally been accepted as a pretty comprehensive and far-reaching report that the Government are now putting into legislation—not enough of it, some commissioners believe, but most of it. The report was paid for by the Government because they had asked for it. That is an indication of how one might consider working in future.
I do not want to prejudge anything, nor do I wish to open a can of worms. It might be possible to say that a Select Committee should or should not travel or that it should spend more money on this or that. It is a debate that Committee Chairs and others involved in Committees need to have. They should do it in a thorough way and put forward something that is really robust, and then, at the financial end of things, we consider it based on fact rather than their saying, “Please give me 20% more.” The days when people just said, “Let’s have 20% more and go and do X, Y and Z with it”, are gone. The right approach is to work out what we want to do and how scrutiny can best be achieved, and then look at how best to deliver the resource.
I think that my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) was referring to the lack of flexibility in the budgets—the fact that, for example, a Committee cannot forgo its right to go on a foreign trip and use the money to buy, say, part of or a whole extra member of staff. Obviously some Committees have very big travel commitments, but I do not see why those that do not have travel commitments cannot spend their allocation on something different.
The hon. Gentleman puts forward the interesting proposition that instead of having a series of silos that each Committee can dip into, each Committee has a budget and then decides how best to use it. That is quite a departure from where we are today, and I therefore could not comment on it other than to say that I find it an attractive intellectual possibility to pursue. My point in raising this was to suggest to people such as him who are considering these matters that a process is needed, and I think the Liaison Committee is the best place for it to be kicked off.
Before anybody else has a chance to intervene, may I say that I think I have now carried out a tour of everything? I apologise for occupying the crease for so long—it is not my habit—but I wished to take all the interventions that were offered as best I could. I commend the motion and the estimate to the House.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) and to be called to speak in the same debate as the Chairman of the Administration Committee, the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), who is looking rather less bleary-eyed than I expected having no doubt been up all night watching the Australians collapse in the opening test.
Several years ago, there was a by-election where the Labour party did not do particularly well, and a then Labour Minister, who I will not name for obvious reasons, went on the radio to explain our poor showing and said that the reason Labour voters had stayed at home was that they were clearly very happy with what the Labour Government were doing. Looking around the Chamber at today’s attendance, I wonder whether some colleagues may wish to draw the same conclusion—that the reason there are not as many colleagues here as there might have been is that they are so delighted with the work that has been done by the Commission under your chairmanship, Mr Speaker, the Administration Committee and the Finance and Services Committee. It is surprising that many of the MPs who on previous occasions have complained vocally have not come along or tabled an amendment. I therefore assume that they are broadly content or have no better plans for how to make the necessary savings. I appreciate the incredibly difficult job that you, Mr Speaker, and your fellow Commission members have in trying to come up with those savings. I am struck by the fact that at a time when we are always preaching across the House about the need to make savings, some Government Members are asking for more money. That is very difficult to justify to our constituents. We must get better at spending the limited resources that we have.
I want to address three of the areas that have been covered so well today. First, on the catering and retail services, the Administration Committee has made it absolutely clear—I do not think I am speaking out of turn in saying that the Commission shares this view—that it is ludicrous that we have in the Palace of Westminster two sets of catering and two sets of retail outlets that are run completely separately. I know from the Clerk of the House and from you, Mr Speaker, that there is genuine good will towards the idea of seeking to merge the two services. I hope that my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House will set out the Labour party’s position and the Leader of the House will set out the Government’s position on whether that is a good idea. We could achieve significant savings for the taxpayer that would help us to fund other services if we were to persuade the House of Lords that while the House of Commons is making real savings, it must do more at its end of the building to bring down costs.
On the broader point about catering costs, I fully support the work that has been done by the right hon. Gentleman who ably chairs the Administration Committee in bringing forward proposals not to make money from charities but to offset the costs. A new set of charges is in place for a trial period, as of course you fully know, Mr Speaker, because it is costing the House money to provide our facilities to outside organisations.
I think we can all agree that pop bands would certainly not be classed as having a corporate identity. We are all looking forward to the world-famous parliamentary pop band MP4 entertaining us in a few weeks’ time. I am sure that you will be coming along to the Strangers Bar to see them on 10 December, Mr Speaker. I hope that that will generate some extra revenue. We all commend that excellent band for what they are doing.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point about which are the right organisations to bring in. The Administration Committee and the Commission have looked at this very carefully. We are saying that it would not be open to any organisation—there will be a vetting process—and it will be for the House itself, through the Chairman of the Administration Committee and the Committee more widely, to ensure that only appropriate organisations come here. I know that my hon. Friend is phenomenally busy doing a fantastic job in our education team, but if he wanted to come and have a chat with the Committee about the type of organisation that he would not like to see here, I am sure that we could reach a suitable accommodation with him.
Order. So that our proceedings are fully intelligible to those outside this place, it might be helpful to point out, with reference to the hon. Gentleman’s observations on MP4, that the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Sir Greg Knight) and the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), both here present, are distinguished members of said band.
I am most grateful for that clarification, Mr Speaker.
If my hon. Friend or other Members on both sides of the House have genuine concerns about specific organisations they do not think are appropriate to be using our facilities, I am sure that the Administration Committee and the Commission would be happy to hear representations from them. The intention is not to turn Parliament into a Disneyland, as an hon. Member who is not here has said previously, or to rent it out to any old organisation. My hon. Friend makes a valid point, because some organisations have, in the business parlance, a reputational risk for Parliament. At the same time, we need to offset the cost of running Parliament and, as you have set out, Mr Speaker, we cannot simply keep going back to the taxpayer to ask for more money. We have to look not only to reduce our costs but to offset them wherever possible.
Concern has been expressed on both sides of the House about charities being charged, but the fact is that it costs us money to make these facilities available, and charities have a 25% discount on their hire charges because we recognise that they are not-for-profit organisations. We do not seek to prohibit or inhibit the ability of charities and other organisations to use our facilities—we very much welcome it—but we have to make sure that we are not, in effect, subsidising those charities.
I am sorry to intervene again; my hon. Friend is being very generous in giving way. I think it is impossible to distinguish between different corporate interests. There will be issues of controversy with regard to all sorts of corporate interests. There might even be an issue of controversy in this House, which we will then be hiring out to those organisations. I think it would be better—I will not make this point again—if we simply stuck to charities that are registered with the Charity Commission; then we would all know where we were.
I am genuinely grateful for my hon. Friend’s comment, but where I disagree with him, with the greatest respect, is that we already rent out to the private sector. If Members were to walk down the Dining Room Corridor at 8 am every morning, they would see each Dining Room being used for breakfast. A large number of those breakfast events are—
The Dining Rooms also have events that are paid for by companies. My hon. Friend keeps saying from a sedentary position that they are sponsored, but that will not change; it is just that it is the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden, in his capacity as Chairman of the Administration Committee, who will be the sponsoring Member. In the same way that individual Members currently sponsor events during sitting times—it is up to hon. Members to make those decisions—the Administration Committee seeks to do so during recess.
I honestly do not see the difference. If my hon. Friend is genuinely saying that private organisations should not be able to hold breakfast, lunch, dinner or drinks receptions, that is a legitimate position, although I do not agree with it. I think that saying that it is okay for an individual Member to do it, but that it is not okay for the right hon. Gentleman to do it, is a false divide.
I am entirely in agreement with the hon. Gentleman and I disagree with earlier comments. In fact, it is surely much less compromising of the integrity of Parliament that if commercial organisations want to rent facilities in the House of Commons, they should not need to sweet talk a particular Member in order to do so, but instead make a straight commercial arrangement. Has he thought about having a different scale of charges for, say, a merchant bank that wants to use the facilities to promote the flotation of a stock market company, compared with a charity that does something that is recognisably for wider public benefit?
We are indeed proposing that there be different rates. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) has said, charities that are registered either with the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator or with the Charity Commission will receive a 25% discount, for the very reason given so eloquently by the hon. Gentleman.
I want to make progress, because I am conscious that there is another debate to follow. My second point is about the new MPs who will arrive in 2015. Labour Members hope that we will welcome a very large number of new MPs, but others may be less keen on that. The Administration Committee took a thorough look at the process that took place over the past couple of Parliaments. It is important to place on record our thanks to the House service and in particular to the Clerk of the House for the work he did with you, Mr Speaker, to prepare our induction in 2010. Those colleagues who have been in the House slightly longer have told us just how chaotic—I put it politely—the process was for them. Perhaps that was your experience when you entered the House only a few short Parliaments ago, Mr Speaker, but the process has improved dramatically under your chairmanship and as a result of the Clerk’s work.
We very much welcome the plans for the future, but they will clearly have cost implications. We recognise that it is important to get Members up and running as quickly as possible. As we all know, constituents—not unreasonably, having in their wisdom voted us into office—expect us very quickly to be able to take up their cases. The lag of six or perhaps eight weeks because of the general election has meant that MPs have not been able to take on new cases. I know from my experience three and a half years ago that deserving cases that need time get lost. The Administration Committee therefore proposes a series of sensible steps to ensure that when a Member arrives, even before they have been sworn in, they will be able to begin to tackle their casework.
That is why Members will be issued with tablets along with their pass as soon as they arrive on their first day. They will get them going and they are also a way of trying to reduce costs, because, frankly, we waste a huge amount of paper every day. I certainly hope we will never get to the point where we wave our tablets during Prime Minister’s questions, but do we honestly need the vast amount of paper we generate every day? Surely we can do much more through electronic devices such as tablets and iPhones. The move that you have championed with the Order Paper is hugely welcome, Mr Speaker, and the move towards greater use of the cloud in the next Parliament is also important.
My third point follows on from the excellent opening remarks by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross about restoration and renewal. We are spending a huge amount of money just to keep the place running. The building is now about 160-something years old and the piping and wiring are about 60 or 70 years old. The building has not had an overhaul since the restoration work that took place at the end of the second world war. It is not fit for purpose. Colleagues in both Houses who have difficulty getting around have told me how difficult it can be to get to Divisions because of the building’s lay-out.
I think everyone knows that I am of the view that we need to make the very difficult decision to decant, not only because that will allow us to overhaul this place, which appears to be the cheapest option, but because it will allow us to upgrade our facilities. We really need to make sure that we have a Parliament fit for the 21st century. As has been said, there is an opportunity to do it in one go. I used to work for Network Rail, which was pretty efficient in the end at doing what is called a blockade, whereby it would shut a section of line and do everything—the signalling, wiring and track maintenance—at once. We need to use this opportunity, in the next decade, to have a thorough overhaul so that this place is fit not only for Members, but for the illustrious Press Gallery and for visitors who want either to see Parliament in action or to participate in our democracy.
I should have said earlier that I want a restored building, not a new building on the site. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be useful if the Commons decided to fix a date in the near future—for example, 2020—for the work to start, because if we do not do so we will just carry on spending money, as he has rightly said, on work that will not resolve the issue at all?
The key thing is that both Houses of Parliament, not just the Commons, need to make that decision. If Members were to go down to the bowels of this place, they would see that it is so interlinked that it is not possible for just the Commons to make a decision. The decision needs to be made on a bicameral basis. I know that you are taking the issue very seriously, Mr Speaker. It is not for me to say when the decision should be made, but I agree with my hon. Friend that 2020—after the new intake has been sworn in and when we get to the summer recess—would be an obvious point at which to decant.
I am conscious that other Members want to speak. I commend the motion and thank the Select Committees that serve this House so ably.
In view of the prefatory remarks made by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), I think I should assure the House that I was tucked up in bed well before the test match commentary began, in deference to the fact that I hoped to catch your eye today, Mr Speaker. I awoke immensely reassured by the fact that, according to the Australian press, a medium-fast bowler aged 27 years had achieved a considerable breakthrough.
I suppose it is inevitable that I should be speaking from the angle of the Administration Committee, which I have the honour to chair, and dealing—if I may be forgiven for saying so—with bread and butter issues. The Committee has accepted with varying degrees of enthusiasm or concern the need for budget constraints, and we have tried to exercise our role in advising the Commission as to how we could fit in with those requirements.
I would like to add to what my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) said about the staff of the House. I have every bit as much cause as he and many of us to recognise what they do for us and the way they serve us. It is also worth remembering that apart from being deliverers of services, they are also consumers of some of those services.
The basic approach I share entirely with my hon. Friend—to recognise that this House is a working building and also an iconic visitor attraction. It is clear that the second consideration should in no way impinge on the first, but it is equally clear that the working pattern of Members of this House has altered dramatically. The amount of time spent in the building has changed, the division of time between constituency and Westminster has changed, and this has had an impact on the availability of facilities.
I emphasise that there is nothing unusual about a subsidy for catering in the House as a place of work. It is unfortunate that too often we are reported in the papers as apparently being 650 people who are running this place to our own advantage in terms of the catering. There are more than 13,000 pass holders who have access to this estate and who need to avail themselves of its facilities for normal refreshment in the course of a working day. Those 13,000 pass holders, be it noted, include representatives of the media, who enjoy the supposed advantage which sometimes they denigrate for others.
We have, nevertheless, a duty to address the scale of the catering subsidy. It was of the order of £6 million in 2010-11 and the aim is to have it down to £3.8 million by 2014-15. It seems sensible to the Committee that we have a twin approach—cutting costs where that could be done in an obvious way, and increasing income. It is right that efficiencies could be achieved. These have been undertaken, and a new, intelligent approach to how we deliver our services on the catering side has, I believe, been achieved. But it is also necessary to increase sales. Surely we want to make sure that what is on offer in our catering outlets meets the needs of all the people who may wish to avail themselves of it. I can report that the footfall in the cafeterias is up 9% and the banqueting covers are up by 14%, so we are making progress in getting the facilities used.
Attention has been drawn in this debate to the room hire charges, which are another element of the changes that we have made. I should say that the charges that are proposed are benchmarked. There is a discount for charities and a further discount for Member functions. This is for a trial period and it is under the strict scrutiny of the Committee. We will feel our way on this. I give an undertaking to the House—words I never thought I would be in a position to offer—that we will look at this very carefully. I recognise that there are possible points of difficulty and so on. We will watch this and, if necessary, look at it again, but the principle is clear and has been enunciated by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife.
I, too, woke up enjoying the news on the radio and I was very tempted to listen to it. Has the Committee given any thought to the events that are organised through outside bodies and that are designed to help Parliament, such as parliamentary links day, which you, Mr Speaker, open each year, and events run by the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, which are designed to help Members of Parliament? Why should they be disadvantaged under the room hire scheme?
We give constant thought to these things and will continue to do so to make sure that we have broadly categorised people correctly. I do not want to get into a mini-debate about some of the functions. I attend many of them and they do not always seem to me to be quite how they are painted, in terms of who patronises them and so on. Often the number of Members attending may not be quite as large as the event organisers were hoping, but we will look at the matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) raised the question of political dining. The change that was made was instigated by two hon. Members who are still Members of the House. It was thought improper that profit should be made by a political organisation, be it a party or a trade union, through having access to these facilities. For many people that has seemed unduly restrictive, but I have always taken the view that if we were to be more relaxed about that, it would have to be on an understanding among the parties in this House that no one was seeking to gain an advantage over another. It is odd, is it not, that those who perhaps take the closest day-to-day interest in political affairs are the ones for whom it is now slightly more difficult to come here in the way they used to.
The other matter to which we have given attention because we believe it is capable of great improvement is how to achieve greater revenue from retail sales. I will admit to being a retailer at heart. My dad kept a shop and I served behind the counter from an early age to earn my pocket money. I have always had a desire to see how I can sell things to people. There is a tremendous opportunity. The people who come here appreciate the fact that there are things they can buy as a souvenir, and we could be much more effective in that regard.
I regularly show visitors around this building but I was shocked recently, going into St Stephen’s Hall, to see that it looked rather like a building site, with workmen hacking up the floor, removing the old tiles—I presume to be destroyed—and replacing them with new tiles. On the subject of increasing sales, why are those old floor tiles not being marketed for sale?
I think I can give my right hon. Friend a definitive answer. There are aspects of the tiles that would make them an unacceptable item for sale. Some of them are to be re-used. We are examining the possibility that reproductions of the original be considered for sale. They will not contain any noxious substances or sharp edges. It might be a very good sales item. I assure my right hon. Friend that I take his point.
I have raised the matter in correspondence with Mr Speaker. An opportunity to market tiles on which Disraeli, Gladstone and Churchill walked has more appeal than selling a new tile. We buy bits of the Berlin wall, for goodness’ sake, which have sharp edges. I do not know what noxious substances there are in the tiles, but the precautionary approach seems to be taken to an unnecessary extreme in this case, with the result that we are not exploiting this resource for the House.
The issue is the asbestos element, because we do not want to be seen to encourage people to buy something that is not the safest item to have. We are prepared to consider whether a replica would have any sales value or would be of interest to people, but not to do anything reckless. Equally, we wish to save money by reusing some of the tiles, if we can, so there is not necessarily a bounty to be had from them.
Sales in retail went up by 11% in the year to October 2013, and in the visitor shop by 18%. A new range is being developed, and new marketing and design skills are being brought to bear, with the potential to go much further in that direction.
We are doing everything we can to increase availability for Members’ tours. At times of the year when it is appropriate to have paying visitors—as opposed to people who come in at the behest of Members and, of course, do so for free—we received 161,000 visitors in 2012-13, a number that we aim to double by 2014-15, which could raise an extra £1.2 million.
Another suggestion made to the Administration Committee, which came as a great surprise to me, was the possibility that film makers would pay to use certain locations in the Palace that we were prepared to make available. That could yield a considerable income, and would be done when the House was not sitting. It has been done in the Treasury, for example, so if a Department can do it, there is no reason why this House of the legislature should not consider doing so.
Bringing greater numbers of people into the House raises the question of access. The Palace is an iconic visitor attraction, and if we recognise that people want to come here—whether they be visitors from overseas prepared to pay during the summer months and at other times when we make tours available, or people who have asked their Member of Parliament to host a visit—we should do everything possible to maximise their opportunity to do so.
We must also do so in a way that makes those visitors seem welcome, as I am not sure that we achieve that as much as we should. I am extremely concerned, as is the Committee, which did a report on this, about exactly how we get people expeditiously and comfortably into the building. Because of the understandable dictates of security, the access points become very congested, with people kept waiting for a very long time, which is bad in all circumstances. The queue for the Cromwell Green entrance is unprotected against the elements, and general inconvenience is caused to Members waiting for people to come in, and to those who need to get in urgently but are caught up in a crowd who have just come for a visit rather than to give evidence to a Select Committee or any specific purpose.
For our young visitors, I believe it is important to develop the education centre. Although I understand the views of right hon. and hon. Members about the capital and security cost elements, the fact is that we ought to recognise the importance, from the point of view of a parliamentary democracy, of doing everything possible to encourage young people to come here.
I am certainly not aware of any complaints. The education service does a very good job. The question is how we can increase the capacity and do a better job. At the moment, we are very constrained by such circumstances as where people are brought into the Palace.
It is absurd that people may have to queue for a long time before being brought in at the north door of Westminster Hall, and then have to be taken all the way through the building to commence the tour back through it. Handling our visitors in that way makes us unique as a visitor attraction. With a dedicated education centre, there is no doubt that we could enhance the experience of people when they arrive and take them through the building along the proper pathway originally established for tours, as well as to extend our reach to many more schools. I accept the need to expand the funding that we have made available to schools further from London to make it easier for them to come here.
I entirely agree. I want to say in the hearing of the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House that no matter what the Procedure Committee has said, I seriously believe that we ought to have an opportunity before 2015 to test the opinion of the House about Tuesday hours, because the change has really cut short the opportunities to bring people into the House. We now have to wait months for a slot for a party from our constituencies, which absolutely flies in the face of what we should be doing.
I am a strong supporter of getting on with the education centre. I think we can say to the public that we are not spending the money on ourselves to increase our comfort; it is for them, for the public. Surely no one will stand up and say that we ought to restrict opportunities for young people to come here and learn something about this important bastion of democracy.
I hope that the Administration Committee’s guidance about ways of increasing income and access does not threaten the prime role of Parliament, which we all understand. The public has a right to suppose that we operate efficiently and effectively, with the modern tools that are now needed in any environment of this kind, but equally, we should recognise that people have a deep love and respect for this institution.
On very many occasions I have escorted parties round—with people coming into the Chamber when they can, and standing where some of the famous names of the past and of the present have stood—and seen them get a genuine thrill. Elderly people have said, “I’ve never been here before in my life,” and the experience is a very emotional one for them. We should respect that and try to make such visits easier, without feeling any shame about the fact that people might want to buy a mug, a pencil or a box of chocolates before they leave the building.
By extending access and maximising opportunities for income generation responsibly and appropriately, we can all benefit from a House of Commons and a Parliament that are as open to as many people as possible, at minimum expense to the taxpayer. That seems to me the objective that we should hold in front of us, and not be distracted from.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. [Interruption.] Sorry, Mr Speaker. I was looking at the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), who is a past Deputy Speaker.
The right hon. Gentleman’s eloquent speech contained a slight contradiction, which I want to bring gently to his attention, and which I invite him to discuss with his Committee. In response to my observation about the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, he said that sometimes not enough Members turn up—I totally agree with him on that—but education is a two-way process. People come here not only for us to learn about their skills, but for them to learn about what we do, as per the education unit. It is hugely important that we encourage not only young people, but other people —he mentioned older people who have not had the opportunity—to come here. People might not understand how their life or occupation fits into this place and it is hugely beneficial if they get exposure to it. There is a huge gap between Parliament and areas such as science and engineering, and it is vital that we strengthen our links with them. The Administration Committee is supporting access for young people—I totally agree with him about that—but restricting it for others on an arbitrary basis.
I certainly was not attempting to decry the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman is a distinguished member. It is a matter of observation that at many functions, the host who is paying for the thing brings in a great many people who are associated with them, whether they be volunteers, employees or associates. They of course hope that they will meet some Members, but the dictates of the business of this House, which cannot be predicted, might mean that the number of Members who can attend is quite small. The host brings a lot of other people to Parliament and I am very happy that they should do that. The proposal will not necessarily have an impact on what goes on now.
When I bring a school party here, I am one MP meeting 30, 40 or 50 schoolchildren. When I host events, as I did the other day on the important issue of immigration policy and science, the number of Members of Parliament who are present is unfortunately sometimes very small. However, an awful lot of people left that room better informed and educated about the processes that are going on inside the Government and the Opposition.
I understand the point that my hon. Friend is making. However, it does not relate only to this place. I want to thank the parliamentary outreach department. I know that you visit different parts of the country, Mr Speaker. A few months ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) and I took part in an event in which we talked to health service charities in the north-east about how they can get engaged in Parliament. Sometimes we place the emphasis on this place, whereas what we need to do is to take Parliament out to the regions. Those events are well attended and very beneficial to people.
I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. Indeed, I did a gig for the outreach unit in his constituency, which was linked to the activities of the British Science Association. It was a hugely successful event. The young man who services the outreach unit in Durham is a first-rate example of what my hon. Friend is talking about.
I want to talk a little about what we are doing with electronic devices.
Before my hon. Friend moves on to his iPad, may I return to the intervention by the distinguished Chair of the Administration Committee, in which he made the point that things will not change? When I inquired recently about the Terrace marquee, I was told that for an all-party group that does not represent any commercial interests—the all-party group on folk arts, in fact—the room hire alone would cost £750, which meant that the event could not take place. It is bad enough to have to get sponsorship for the catering, but having to pay £750 is prohibitive for a Member who chairs an all-party group.
That is exactly the point that I want to make. Many of the events to which I am referring are sponsored by me, but financed by learned societies, which by definition are not-for-profit organisations. They get trapped in the same way. That is why I invite the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden and his Committee to take a fresh look at the interpretation of the proposals.
As you know, Mr Speaker, my Select Committee was one of the first to take up the challenge of using electronic communications. Somebody said that if the Science and Technology Committee were not prepared to do it, either we had the wrong people on the Committee or we were asking the wrong question. It has been an interesting experiment. It has the potential to generate savings. The innovation was prompted by the need to make savings, but there are other drivers of it. It will allow multi-media, audio-visual and social media mechanisms to develop within the Committee structure and within the House more generally. Those elements need to be factored in, although some of them would be easier to achieve during a major refurbishment of the House.
I was on the old Information Committee in the days when we took the decision to move away from 405-line televisions and to use 625-line televisions with the cabling that we use now. That was the wrong decision and it was done on the cheap. We went for copper instead of the blown fibre that we should have used, because the costs were enormous and the House rejected that option.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) is right that a radical decision must be taken, whether we like it or not. When we get to that point, we need to have a comprehensive, strategic plan for how the communications systems will be developed. The opportunities would be endless if one had open access to this building to put in modern systems.
The experiment with iPads has thrown up some interesting new ways of working, but it has also thrown up challenges. With the of greatest respect to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), who made a brilliant presentation, he had under his arm a 2 inch-thick file of papers, because such detailed accountancy work cannot be done on an iPad. The software systems that are available are not up to the multitasking approach that one must adopt when dealing with complex projects. With the current technology, it is difficult to make the drafting of a Select Committee report a genuinely paperless process, which would be the ultimate conclusion of this approach, but developments in technology will assist in that. There will therefore be ongoing costs associated with the experiment. I hope that the Finance and Services Committee will ensure that those costs are supported properly.
I understand that the Committee Office is committed to saving more than £1 million through the digital-first programme, but that will not happen without investment, because it is an invest-to-save programme. We must consider the cost of iPads and the fact that they have a finite life. Given the way in which Members have to move around within this building and between here and their constituencies, I guess that the typical life of an iPad will be no more than a couple of years. Ongoing costs will therefore be associated with the project.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we should consider using other platforms because iPads are quite expensive? In the past few years, equally good and cheaper products have been developed that run on different operating systems. That could be a way of getting the costs down.
My hon. Friend is clearly looking over my shoulder at my notes, because I was going to say that one of the considerations is to undertake a parallel project using tools such as the Microsoft Surface. Historically, the House has used Microsoft tools for its base documentation, so the software support for other technology may prove to be more efficient and effective if the Microsoft operating system is used, instead of crossing over between it and the Apple operating system. The Finance and Services Committee needs to make investment decisions if it is to continue with this project.
I intervened a number of times on the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, and I make a number of pleas to him and the House. He rightly set out a solid case for why we should be an exemplary employer—if we cannot do that, how can we expect the rest of the country to follow suit? In his final remarks he mentioned the potential court case. I do not accept that an exemplary employer will, at some stage, inevitably end up in court, and I urge the House to use all resources available to you, Mr Speaker, the Committees and the Commission, to work to resolve that problem and avoid the courts.
Court costs are astronomical. Lawyers get rich in these things—[Interruption.] There are a few lawyers in the House saying, “Hear, hear”, which is worrying. Vested interests always come forward. It seems to me, however, that it is incumbent on all Members of the House to try to resolve the problem without recourse to the courts, both because I do not want to make the lawyers any richer, and because that is our duty as a good—exemplary—employer. I present the challenge not only to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, but to you, Mr Speaker, to try and resolve that.
I am 110% in support of the Visitor Centre, and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) set out a logical case for the use of the location. One more entrance that could have been considered are the gates from Derby Gate to the gap between Portcullis House and the Parliament street building. That may not be suitable for other reasons, and although it is not true to say that the proposed route is the only way, I recognise it is one that would work.
It is hugely important that early indications from the restoration and renewal project are factored into questions of timing so that we do not end up spending money on a project that will then be mothballed for years. It is not a question of whether people support the project—all Members will support facilities that help us bring in the next generation of people and improve their understanding of what we do—but it must be considered carefully before any major commitments are made. An early interim report from whoever the Finance and Services Committee appoints, could easily result in someone saying, “Hang on a minute”, which would put everything on hold because we would have to get out of here sooner rather than later.
I spent time on the Terrace during the September sitting, and I was astonished at the rodent infestation that I saw.
I was going to say that I did not mean Tory MPs by that, but we are facing serious problems. Through an interest in this building, some years ago I made a film about its geology. That resulted in me getting into places where most right hon. and hon. Members never go, such as the roof of the House of Lords or down in the basement. I have been down and looked at some of the structural issues, which are potentially very concerning, and we should not ignore the possibility that the subject of decanting might come up quicker than we thought. Against that background, when considering expenditure plans we must be prepared to say that a lot of them might have to be put on hold if an interim report suggests that things are as serious as they appear.
My final point is to the Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife. One cost we are bearing—I do not know the exact figures, but they would be possible to calculate; I do not know whether the Finance and Services Committee has done that—concerns the terms during which we sit, particularly the September sitting. I fully understand the argument used by the late Robin Cook and subsequently the current Government about the merits of the September sitting, but is a bit of a myth. If we shifted those two weeks to either end of the summer period, what savings could be built into the restoration and repair programme during that period? I think they would be quite significant, and the House needs to look at that as another way of saving money.
Part of the reason for it being a problem is because of the party conferences. Would it be sensible for the parties to get together and move their conferences to earlier in September? Then the House could return before the end of September without the need for this peculiar and expensive break.
That is why I addressed my remarks to the Front Benchers. There is place for a discussion about how we can avoid the silly coming-back for two weeks, which causes breaks in repair and maintenance contracts and disrupts a lot of organisation in the building. We need mature dialogue about how we can return to a more sensible approach—my hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head.
In summary, in some areas we can work towards savings based on the way we work, whether the September sitting or the use of electronic tools. All those issues require serious, mature thinking, and some up-front investment. The Visitor Centre will command support only if it is seen to be a genuine investment for a long-term facility, and I worry that the possible juxtaposition of the two projects might mean that it ends up as an investment that never gets its full use. As I said, I urge the House to use every possible resource to resolve the HR issues. Having spent 15 years in HR, I know that that is sometimes easier said than done, but getting things away from the courtrooms is by far the best solution and I urge everyone to work hard towards that goal.
We have heard a few comments about the superb news from Sydney, and with my accent may I back that? I will not mention last Saturday and Twickenham, save to say that our family had a motto imposed on us by our youngest son who said that he supports the All Blacks and anyone—but anybody—playing the Australians, which I also support.
I have sat with the two Committees behind this report. We have heard a good review from the two Chairs—one of whom has just disappeared—on the report’s key aspects, so I can be fairly brief.
As the report’s introduction explains, this is the second year that the Committee has produced a report. Assuming the motion is agreed, the report will go to the House of Commons Commission, which I assume will ratify it. As has been said, the report was put together with considerable assistance from the Management Board and senior staff, particularly the finance team. They did that under the unusual difficulties our system imposes on us, and they are to be congratulated on their expertise, persuasion, and—probably even more so—tolerance.
Having been in the private sector in a small and medium-sized business, been associated with a large national retailer, and had some small influence for a number of years on the finances of a local authority, I found our procedures to be quite bizarre, although at the end of the day they seemed to work. There are similarities with the outside world in that the Committee, with considerable input in certain areas from other Committees, in particular the Administration Committee, works with the Management Board and puts together the financial report. The bizarre part—in our system, the important part—is putting the financial report before the House, where individual Members with individual foibles, of which we have seen a little today, can seek to change individual parts of it. That risks an unbalancing effect on the whole estimate package, but that is democracy.
The difficult part for the Finance and Services Committee and the Management Board has been the necessity that the administration estimate be reduced by 17% by 2014-15. This is an obvious basic requirement, as similar savings are being sought and achieved across the public sector. Interestingly, although it is not obvious to the outside world, the majority of the savings, whether positive or negative, have been produced with imaginative thinking and in many cases with an improvement in the service. They have also come with a recognition that some services were expensive, out of date and redundant, and have generally, if not entirely, not been missed.
The response of the Management Board and the staff has been remarkably positive and is distinctly worthy of our thanks, which have already been given but which I reiterate. All the changes, it seems to me, have been done without affecting the day-to-day work of Members of Parliament. Some of the modernisations set in train, particularly current and impending changes in our IT systems, will bring positive benefits to MPs who are prepared to utilise new ways, although some are a little slower than others. The new benefits post-election for MPs and their IT opportunities is, when grasped, an overdue advance that will bring us slightly in the direction of modernity.
Moving to a cloud system makes us more vulnerable to cyber attack. That raises the issue of security, which has increasingly become a deep concern. We face more complex attacks, which make security more expensive. This is an area we share with the other place and that itself gives us problems, which have been subtly touched on. In this area and others, sharing brings considerable complications.
Another major area of complication is the proposed new education centre. That has been walked over and I do not intend to follow the same steps, but I would guess that no Member would decry the importance of extending education opportunities to the United Kingdom. The new proposals have been mentioned at some length by others. I have a constituency close to London, so my schools are in the best situation to benefit and increasingly do so. The relatively new transport grant should help the spread elsewhere. Nevertheless, this is an area where co-operation with the other place appears, for the moment, to have stumbled. It is amazing and astonishing that the facilities—I touched on this point in an intervention—particularly the dining rooms, in addition to the historic tourist attraction of the Palace, have not been used for income generation. At last, the Administration Committee has taken the brilliant step to expand services, in particular by utilising our dining facilities to the benefit of the House. These rooms are a brilliant addition, especially with our excellent banqueting team. Our change of hours has enabled the opportunity for a considerable extension in this area, although there are kick-backs that were touched on earlier. The Administration Committee should be congratulated on grasping this opportunity, which will increase income greatly.
Perhaps the biggest area of concern is the repair and renewal of this amazing historic building as we move towards a full capital expenditure of repair and renewal in the 2020s. All in all, we have to recognise that although we have pondered on this matter today, it is not what the report is about. Assuming the House agrees the estimates, we will move slowly towards having tighter functions and better services. Despite our bizarre system of financial control, it does seem to work and I hope these estimates are agreed without change.
I support the comments made by the Chair of the Finance and Services Committee, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). I congratulate him on the excellent way in which he has chaired the Committee in the past year. He has taken us forward on a number of difficult and contentious issues with a general degree of consensus, and it is important that we have agreement across the House on these matters.
It is important that we have sought to reduce expenditure by 17% during this Parliament. It would have been inconceivable to our constituents if, while they faced cuts in their public services, we in this House had been immune to reductions and carried on regardless. It was important to take that initial step. A number of factors have been borne in mind in making those reductions and it is important to put them on the record.
As has been said, the reductions have been made in a way that has not affected the ability of MPs to do their job and hold the Executive to account. That is a fundamental principle that, by and large, we have achieved. As the Chair of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government, I have not noticed any impact on the Committee’s ability to do its work properly in holding Ministers from that Department to account. Nevertheless, I welcome the commitment from the Chair of the Finance and Services Committee to review Select Committee resources. That is a helpful move in the right direction to deal with any problems that might have arisen and been identified.
We have made the work of discussing, deliberating and making decisions on our finances more transparent. As a member of the Finance and Services Committee in previous Parliaments, I was often unsure what we had debated and what decisions we had reached. If we had reached a decision, I was often unsure what then happened to it. I was confused on that, and I think that if I had asked most MPs about how decisions on financial arrangements for this place were made, they would not have had a clue. In this Parliament, we have clarified the relationship between the Finance and Services Committee and the House of Commons Commission. We make recommendations to the Commission and it is clear what the Commission does with them. That is a helpful first step.
It is important that we are having this debate today, the second such debate, so that matters are available for all Members to discuss, and, if necessary, vote on. It is also important that we have an annual budget, that we take decisions collectively across the piece on financial matters, and that, with the changes to Standing Orders, individual items with financial repercussions are not decided outside the framework of an annual budget. All financial matters must be taken within that framework. It is not too revolutionary to think of having an annual debate in this Chamber on the budget: any self-respecting council will have being doing just that for years. The fact that Parliament has only just got around to it shows we do not always move as quickly as local government. Nevertheless, we have got there in the end.
Despite the reductions, we have tried to treat our staff properly. They do an excellent job for us throughout the House. We should remember that and I think we have tried to reflect that. My hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) drew attention to the dispute over staff increments, which is to be regretted. I hope we will continue to engage in dialogue to resolve the issue before it goes to court. We have to remember that even the best employers occasionally have a disagreement with their employees. Both sides have genuinely tried to resolve the matter, but have not come up with an agreed solution. The disagreement should not go to court through a lack of effort in trying to find a solution. I hope both sides redouble their efforts to find a solution to what is clearly a difficult matter.
On the opportunity for staff to engage with management and improve the delivery of services, I think it was the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) who tabled an amendment to the motion last year to give staff and management in the House the opportunity to bring about improvements before we moved to market testing. It is to the credit of both management and staff that their efforts to achieve savings and improve service delivery has meant that market testing has not been necessary because of the success of in-House improvements. The fact that the opportunity was given and taken ought to be on the record.
The Chair of the Finance and Services Committee referred to the discussions and decisions on the living wage and avoiding the worst forms of zero-hours contracts. That, too, is the right thing for a good employer to do, and it is right that this House of Parliament has done so.
Problems remain with the Metropolitan police contract. Over the years, there have been difficulties, and there remains quite a bit of staff unrest, including over changes in shift patterns. We have discussed that. In the end, it is a matter for the Metropolitan police, but if it affects the morale of staff in this place, particularly those with security responsibilities, it is of concern. I think that the new Chief Superintendent, Sandra Looby, whom I have spoken to about this, is up for having further discussions with trade union representatives. I hope those take place and that they can find a way forward that provides Members with a good service and staff with working and family-life arrangements they feel comfortable with. The Metropolitan police contract is up for renewal in a year’s time, so we need to consider this further.
Finally, on the education centre, it is right that in reducing our expenditure, we have not done anything that affects Members’ ability to do their job, but neither should we take any actions that affect the ability of members of the public—our constituents—to visit this place and to see what goes on here and how Members do their work. It is particularly important that we do not impact on the opportunity of young people and schoolchildren to visit this place. I understand the concerns about spending money on the education centre—I think everyone agrees that in principle it is the right thing to do—and I do not think we should delay that expenditure if it means schoolchildren losing out on the opportunity to come here. After all, if we delay the expenditure for five years, some of those children will have ceased to be schoolchildren. It is right and proper, if we have a bit of extra money to spend, that we spend it on opening up access to schoolchildren. With that included, I hope we pass today’s motion. I, certainly, am happy to support it.
In the interests of brevity, I hope the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) will forgive me if I move on to different themes. I rise not to criticise the motion, which has my support, but to appoint myself unofficial shop steward of the Select Committee Chairs, in the absence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), the Chairman of the Liaison Committee.
There is universal acclaim for the progress Select Committees have made as a direct result of the Wright reforms implemented by my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), now Chief Whip, at the outset of this Parliament. The Conservative party pledged to implement those reforms, and I am proud that we are following in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher, who established the comprehensive system of Select Committees, and continuing in the tradition of strengthening the House and the scrutiny of the Executive. We have done that and improved Select Committees, despite a 10% reduction in expenditure so far, and will continue to do so, despite a continued squeeze on our expenditure, to achieve what I believe will be a 17% reduction in Committee spend over the planned period.
To reinforce that point, I refer the House to comments made by Oliver Wright in The Independent under the headline, “Once mice, parliamentary select committees have finally learnt to roar”:
“Some will argue that, at present, Parliament should not be spending more. But holding those in power to account is exactly what Parliament should be doing, and would be worth every penny. It might lead to less heat. But it would shine a lot more light.”
James Forsyth in The Spectator refers to you, Mr Speaker, somewhat erroneously as an “accidental reformer”. I do not think there is anything accidental about your reform agenda. Perhaps unfairly, he argues that you should have fought harder to protect or increase the resources of Select Committees. I do not feel that you have been reticent in your support for Select Committees, but asking you to magic money out of a thinning overall budget would have been quite a big ask. Nevertheless, the challenge has been laid down to you, and I will leave you to respond in your own inimitable style, Mr Speaker, rather than defend you. The point is that Select Committees should be getting more money, not less.
Like many others, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Stephen Barclay)—a member of the Public Accounts Committee, which, backed by the National Audit Office, is richer in resource than any other Select Committee—suggests constructively that we could do more to tap into external expertise. I agree that we could do that; I think we are doing that. Indeed, he might underestimate how much Select Committees now draw on secondments and staff loans, not just from Departments, but from the NAO, outside firms and so on. It is something we should be encouraging.
What have Select Committees done to save money and make ourselves more efficient? I am told that we carried out a “lean process review”—a term recognisable to management consultants—which has led to many practical steps being taken. When I was first appointed a Select Committee Chair, I noticed that we got all our press cuttings on wads of photocopied paper that the Clerks had got from the Library. I said there were ways of doing it electronically. I hope that all Select Committees now have electronic cutting services. There are some glitches in the system—understandably, it took some time to get electronic copies of the Financial Times—but the Committee Office and the Library have been assiduous in ironing them out and delivering a much better electronic “digital first” strategy for Select Committees.
Controversially, of course, that includes our being given iPads for our work. It should be put on the record that our iPads mean that our staff no longer spend hours photocopying, collating and sending out vast quantities of paper in the post. All evidence is now electronic. Giving iPads to Select Committee members, apart from a few colleagues who understandably find it difficult to adapt to new technology, has probably saved about £1 million a year. That can be devoted to scrutiny, instead of photocopying, saving an enormous amount of staff time, freeing them up to do more interesting and rewarding work. Given the high quality of Committee staff, it is absurd that so much of their time is spent on this unproductive work.
The Committee Office also decided to establish a web and publications unit. Painfully, that will take resource out of the direct control of Select Committees. For example, the Public Administration Select Committee will have to share a Committee assistant with another Committee. I would have preferred it to have been paid for by additional resources, but the unit will make our websites and publications more usable for the public and more up to date. A new web portal has also been created for the submission and publication of evidence by electronic means. PASC was one of the early pilots. Now all but one departmental Committee—my briefing does not say which is the miscreant Committee—have moved to accepting submissions in this way. We have also switched off the printing of written and oral evidence altogether. Therefore, although I was against accepting a savings programme initially, I have to admit that it has succeeded in accelerating innovation and new ways of working that have improved what Select Committees do.
Looking to the future, the Liaison Committee reported a year ago on the effectiveness of Select Committees and their resources and powers. That report was rather voluminous and contained lots of work on practical things that Select Committees could do. I particularly commend the training of MPs in the art of cross-examination. We all think we are frightfully good, until we are confronted by somebody who points out our tics and habits. Would you believe it, Mr Speaker? It was pointed out to our Committee that we all liked talking rather a lot and asking questions that made our points, rather than seeking information from our witnesses. I hope we have improved as a result of our training, and we will have another away-day of training later this month. I commend that to other Select Committee Chairs.
The Liaison Committee said in its report a year ago:
“Now may not be the best time to argue for increased resources, but it should be the long term goal of the House to build up the capacity of select committees, to improve their effectiveness and status, to increase their powers and influence, and to improve their efficiency by providing chairs and staffs with accommodation and infrastructure to enable them to hold Government to account.”
I am bound to say that it puts us on the moral high ground that we can look Departments in the face and say that we have taken our cuts as well, as we scrutinise their expenditure and efficiency. That long-term goal reflects the shifting nature of the work of Parliament. Less and less can we control the detail of legislation from this Chamber and the old-fashioned Standing Committees. It is clear that the public are more and more engaged with the cross-party, consensual approach adopted by Select Committees in the scrutiny and exposure of inefficiency, wrongdoing or whatever else is going on in Departments. As we monitor the recommendations of Select Committees, we see that, although the Government so often reject them in their formal responses, they recognise increasingly that Select Committees generate ideas and analyses that lead to changes in Government policy.
The Liaison Committee report went on to say:
“One clear message from this work is that chairs of committees are under considerable pressure to attend events, make speeches and respond to media inquiries above and beyond what used to be expected of a committee chairs. This means that a higher proportion of a chair’s time is spent on work related to the committee, compared with other parliamentary and constituency duties. In many cases part of this extra work is borne by the Member’s personal staff.”
Select Committee Chairs are now paid the equivalent of what an Under-Secretary of State is paid. Personally, I think that is extremely welcome. It means that I have willingly turned down offers of outside interest, because not only does my Committee absorb all my available time, but it reflects the additional responsibilities, particularly now that Select Committee Chairs are elected by the whole House to deliver a service to the House. I cannot describe to hon. Members how different it must feel from the old days. Indeed, I remember a senior Select Committee Chair, who had previously been effectively elected by his party’s Front Benchers, telling the Liaison Committee at the outset of this Parliament how much the terms of trade of Select Committee’s engagement with their work had changed.
The points that need to be addressed by extra resources include additional support for Chairs in all the extra work that we increasingly take on—as we take on a higher media profile, more and more demands are made on our time. That could mean providing either an additional member of staff for each Chair’s office or more staff in Committee teams to assist the Chair with his or her wider duties. I have no illusions. That is not going to happen very quickly. We have also pressed for more media support. It is extraordinary. I do not know how many press officers Departments have, but they run into the hundreds and hundreds. Each Select Committee shares a single media officer with several other Select Committees. The media that are generated are almost self-generated. However, when we issue a report, the entire Government media machine might be deployed in deflecting the criticisms made in it. This is an unequal battle. The need for a larger pool of shared media officers is something that Select Committees are focusing on. I pay tribute to our media officers. They work incredibly hard, are very enthusiastic and help us to put Select Committees on the map effectively, even with their limited resources.
There are other, obvious things. My office is at the top of Portcullis House and my Committee staff are in 7 Millbank. I do not know how long that is, but by the time one has bumped into a few colleagues on the way, it is at least a 15-minute walk. Would Ministers running Departments accept not having an office in their Departments? Again, that puts us at a disadvantage. The co-location of Committee Chairs with their Committee staff would be an instant efficiency gain. Indeed, Parliaments in other parts of the world would be aghast that a Chair of a Committee was not co-located with the staff of his or her Committee. That will clearly need to be thought about in the future, if Select Committees are to continue to develop their status and effectiveness.
Personally, I think the long-term game must be to do what we did with the Derby Gate Library—we acquired a building and put all the Library staff there to create a corporate centre for the Library—and have a similar building for Select Committees. I have in my mind’s eye the Canon row police station. I cannot believe that the police will be there for ever or that when that building becomes available, the parliamentary estate will not wish to acquire it. It is already in the public sector and would be an ideal building in which to co-locate Chairs of Committees, their Committee staff and their constituency staff, so that they are not separated. That would be a major step forward in the effectiveness of Select Committees. It would also mean that we could vacate 7 Millbank and release it from the parliamentary estate, because it is largely occupied by Select Committee staff.
Incidentally, in thanking the staff of the House, we should add our thanks to the Library staff, whose work for my Committee and others has been invaluable. I know that it was a bit counter-cultural for the House of Commons to do this—there is a sense that the Library staff work for all Members, not Select Committees, whose own staff should deliver for them—but the ability to lend Library staff to Select Committees for particular inquiries has been extremely useful and very welcome. Personally, I am extremely grateful for the good will and enthusiasm that the Library staff have shown in that work.
In the vision for the future, our aim is that Select Committees should be respected, listened to and, indeed, feared by Departments and Ministers for the quality of our investigations, the rigour of our questioning, the depth of our analysis and the value of our reports. Our influence should go beyond the subjects that we choose to inquire into. I am reminded of an anecdote by a special adviser in a new Government, who told me, “You have no idea how much the attention of a Select Committee on a part of a Department galvanises the civil servants in that part of the Department, because they know they’re going to come under intense public scrutiny.” The benefits of Select Committees doing more of their work, producing more reports and doing more inquiries are obviously beyond doubt. Our ability to do our job cannot be limited by constraints on access to information or on the witnesses from whom we want to hear, and we must be able to draw on expert advice and research.
Select Committees will be seen by our stakeholder communities as important players, influencing Government and public opinion, and as the natural place to go with concerns or ideas. On Tuesday, my Committee held a hearing about crime and the recording of crime statistics, which demonstrates the role we can play in public life in empowering individuals whose ability to give evidence is being stifled. We can provide them with a unique opportunity to explain their concerns, protected by privilege. The role of these Committees and the powers they can draw on will need to become better understood by the public. Then we can engage with the wider body of people and evidence to improve the quality of our work. Our work will be respected for its integrity and relevance to people’s lives, and can contribute to reviving faith in the value of parliamentary democracy.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye in what is the second of our annual debates on House of Commons estimates. It is a great tribute to how my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) has chaired his Committee that this whole matter has been brought before us so that a spotlight can be shone on the finances of the House of Commons, a highly complex organisation.
Since we started having these two annual debates, the whole culture of financial management in this place has changed. The hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) and I served on the Committee in the last Parliament, during which time the emphasis was on how much money we could spend—and the more money spent, the better the project. Now it is all about trying to get value for money and making sure that the House is run efficiently. I have to say that that has been a huge improvement. The savings target of 17% will bring this place’s budget down to £200 million by 2015. It has been met only after a lot of hard work by the Finance and Services Committee. In that respect, I pay tribute to our staff, to the Clerk of the Committee and to members of the Management Board who help us in various aspects of the task.
On the ongoing pay dispute, I echo what other Members have said. I hope that, as a result of this debate, there is enough good will on both sides. The Chairman made particular reference to us wanting to be an exemplary employer and, on the other side, I hope that the unions will want to be exemplary pay negotiators. This matter could go out to some form of mediation so that it does not end up in the courts, lining the pockets of the lawyers, which I think would be a most unfortunate outcome.
I shall be brief, as much has already been said, but it is worth noting some of the savings we have made. The print-to-web project has saved £2.2 million, and the new ICT strategy has saved £2.4 million. I want to pay tribute to the Chairman of the Administration Committee —I was formerly a member—who has rightly championed the cause of opening this place up so that we can generate more income.
There has been some controversy in the debate over how much we should open up and to whom. In the same spirit of openness that this debate brings to the whole issue of House of Commons finances and how this place is run, I personally think that we should open it up and charge a commercial rate to anybody, providing they are legal, and that includes political parties and trade unions. They should be fully declared and the information should be fully open on the public register. After all, what is the difference between a political party or a trade union making a profit as opposed to a commercial bank making one? Provided everything is properly declared and provided a full commercial rate is paid, I cannot see the difference. Indeed, I put in a freedom of information request the other day relating to two events I sponsored last year, trying to ascertain exactly who was there and what they were all about.
I view that as the way to go forward. Let us put it all in the public domain. At the same time, however, the Chairman of the Administration Committee has made it perfectly clear that there are to be some exceptions to full commercial cost recovery, for charitable organisations or events run by Members, for example. I think a third category of events run by all-party groups could be considered. If they are registered, proper all-party groups—bearing in mind Mr Speaker’s dictum that they should not be in hock to any particular commercial organisation —it seems perfectly reasonable for them to benefit from the same regime of exceptions.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we miss him on the Select Committee since he moved on to other things. On the point of all-party groups, the reality is that they might end up fronting for commercially organised events. That is why the all-party groups are not given the same exemptions.
If the hon. Gentleman had listened to my last few remarks, he would have heard that I clearly said “bearing in mind Mr Speaker’s dictum”, after his inquiry into all-party groups, that they should not be in hock to any particular commercial organisation. That is the proper basis for registering them in future. Just this last week, I have formed an integrated transport group to ensure that all methods of transport in this country mesh together. I have been clear about where the money for our secretariat is going to come from—not from one or two commercial firms. I would much prefer it if the money came from a trade organisation, a trade union or some membership organisation with a wide base of people.
It is important to clarify this point. If an all-party group is meeting in a room, there is no charge. If, however, there is a dinner for an outside body that is clearly paying for it, it should not be possible to hide behind the all-party group name to get a big discount. That is the point of what we are trying to do.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. If an all-party group is in hock to one particular organisation, I would expect the same sort of disclosure that I have mentioned to be applied and abided by. I do not want to get too involved in the minutiae, but perhaps we could gently suggest to my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Administration Committee that he carry out a further inquiry into the matter and come up with some distinct recommendations to deal with it. There is at least a debate to be had about who should have access to this place, on what basis and under which charging regime, hence my gentle suggestion to my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) as a possible way forward.
In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, I made it clear, as has he, that savings should happen only provided that they do not hamper our work as Members of Parliament. I put the work of Select Committees very distinctly in that category. Since their introduction, which was agreed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) said, by Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister, Select Committees have been an outstanding success in this Parliament, providing a model that many other Parliaments around the world are following.
I have hosted some foreign delegations that came here specifically to look at how our Select Committees work, and they are now beginning to adopt similar methods in their own countries, while the Westminster Foundation has sent out experts from the Select Committees around the world precisely to explain how they work. It would be a great pity—no, it would be more than that; it would be a serious limiting effect—if we limited the work of Select Committees by the amount of finance they receive. There clearly needs to be a budget. My suggestion would be for each Select Committee to put in its bid within an overall budget that is administered by the Chairman of the Liaison Committee. If a Select Committee has a particular problem for a good, well-made reason, it might need to incur additional expenditure through the year and should be able to go before the Chair to make its case. If the overall budget were breached, our Committee would have to look at it. That might be a way forward.
I shall next deal briefly with the restoration and renewal programme, whose budget will run into many hundreds of millions if not to £1 billion or more. We are therefore talking about a very big project indeed, and the possible savings to be made are immense. I commend the Chairman of our Committee on having guided us to ensure we have proper professional consultants to do a thorough appraisal; I say that as a chartered surveyor. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross that work done at the beginning on proper scoping and appraisal will save us from having to do more work in the long run.
Furthermore, that will not only help us with the financial aspects of this huge project but help us decide which of the three strands my hon. Friend mentions is the most appropriate one for this House. As a chartered surveyor who has taken part in large projects—perhaps not as large as this one—it seems to me that we will probably end up doing the most efficient job and saving the most work if we adopt the more extreme option, which is to decamp this House. If we do decamp, however, we should make it clear that there is a very strict time penalty on the contractor because we should only be out of here for the minimum possible time, and Parliament should make it absolutely clear that we are coming back in here, into an improved environment.
As others Members have said, if one goes down into the basement of this place one realises how fragile the overall services are. Our heating, lighting and IT and communication services are very fragile indeed, and our works department and works contractors do a fantastic job in keeping them going, but there is only so long that that can be done before a complete renewal will be needed. As has been said, there has not been such a complete renewal, and certainly not on the entire building, although part of it burnt down during the war. Some of the services in this place are therefore very ancient indeed, and we will need to look very carefully at that in the restoration and renewal programme.
Indeed, we need to look at some of the services fairly carefully now. I have an office in Portcullis house and I was without electricity for a day and a half a week or two ago. I am told that some parts relating to the electrical copper wiring are no longer available and it was confirmed in the Committee yesterday that it is entirely possible that that building, which is only 10 years old, may need complete rewiring. We do need to get these systems right because we cannot be hampered in our jobs by being without the basics of electricity, computers, telephones and so forth. Indeed, we cannot do our jobs without them.
The education centre is a subject of some controversy. In the light of the change of culture I have been talking about—running things efficiently in this place—I have to inform Members that, when the House originally passed the idea of an education centre, the initial budget proposed was a whopping £86.3 million. The budget today for the centre in Victoria tower gardens is some £6.1 million. That seems to me to be much more acceptable. Let me make it absolutely clear that I am in favour of this idea in principle because it is right that we should get as many of our schoolchildren around this place to see how this fount of democracy works and what we actually do on a day-to-day basis, because if they saw more of what we actually do, they would appreciate why it is important to elect Members of Parliament and they would bother to vote in elections, and the whole of our democratic system would be strengthened.
Yes, I can. Let us separate the capital cost and the running cost. I have thought about this whole thing quite carefully, and I have thought about what my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said in his opening remarks. I was initially opposed to the idea because I felt it would be a waste of money to build a demountable building that was likely to be put out of use when we started the R and R programme in some seven to 10 years’ time, as we would have that structure in Victoria tower gardens for only a fraction of its life and then it would not be used. As a chartered surveyor, I think that there will be some resale value to this building, however, and I believe it is still worth doing even if we decamp from it when we start the R and R programme in some seven to 10 years’ time, as I suspect we will have to, as it will be in the way.
The running cost, which includes the £470,000 extra for security, will be about £1.5 million a year. That is a substantial sum, but with at least 55,000 schoolchildren coming around this place, it is an important contribution the taxpayer will be making to strengthening our democracy.
It is not too late for that. As a property person, I think we could see if there is an office we could rent somewhere along the road from which we could do the job just as well. It is not too late to do that, but a solution has been identified that will also improve the travel path, as it were, through these buildings. At the moment schoolchildren are led in from the 1 Parliament street end of the building and all the way through, causing trouble at the pinch-point of the elevator from Portcullis house. If we take them in from the other end of the building, their flow around these buildings will be much better. I can see that my hon. Friend is not entirely convinced and I was not entirely convinced when we discussed this in Committee. However, I do think it is important that we get these children around this place.
One problem with getting schoolchildren around this building is that there is a London-centric issue. Those schools nearer London tend to come to Parliament more often than those further away. Therefore, we must do everything we can in terms of grants to make sure schools further from London get every possible assistance, so we can spread this visitor attraction to schoolchildren around the country as much as possible.
Order. May I gently say to the hon. Gentleman, to whose speech I am listening very closely, that we are aiming to finish the debate by 2.15 and there are two Front-Bench speeches and a very brief winding-up speech by the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee to come, so I hope very much that the hon. Gentleman is coming to his last few sentences?
Mr Speaker, I always wish to accept your encouragement for fear that I might not get it another time.
I just want to say a word or two about our ICT systems. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) and others mentioned tablet computers. I am a bit of an IT dinosaur, but even I have got one, and even I can use it in Committee.
This is an example of where new technology can contribute to more efficient and innovative working in this House. We are sometimes criticised in the press for issuing Members of Parliament with these tablets, but it is no different from 20 years ago when Members of Parliament were issued with computers. Mention has been made of our cutting down our paper use and carbon emissions, and if we are to keep on being efficient, we must make best use of these tablets. New Members entering this House must be issued with tablets as quickly as possible, too.
In that regard, and in the interests of finishing very soon, let me just say, too, that we must look at the whole issue of accommodation for new Members of Parliament. I say gently—I know this is in the hands of the usual channels—that it takes too long for new Members of Parliament to get an office. There should be a plan in place now estimating the likely maximum number of new Members and how to deal with allocating offices to all of them.
The situation is a lot better than it used to be. I spent my first five years in an office up on the T-block. It was a tiny little square with no windows. Our office accommodation has got a lot better than it used to be, therefore, but nevertheless new Members of Parliament coming into this place need to be able to respond to constituents’ queries very quickly and they always have a sackful of letters congratulating them on getting elected, so they need an office and staff rapidly.
This has been a very useful debate. Sometimes the work of the Public Administration Committee and the Finance and Services Committee is not seen as particularly glamorous, but unless some of us do it, this place will not run efficiently. We need to be able to take into account the views of our colleagues. Sometimes they are critical of what we do, but that is all part of the Committee system. We are here to take into account colleagues’ views, and we will keep working on behalf of the House. I think the system works quite well. We have produced an annual report, and I hope that Members will accept the estimate as it is, that the House of Commons Commission, which you admirably head, Mr Speaker, will take heed of our recommendations and that we can all move forward and run this place even more efficiently in future.
It is a pleasure to have been here to listen to the vast majority of this extremely important debate. I am glad the House of Commons Commission decided that having annual debates on this topic on the Floor of the House would be a good use of time, and I am delighted that the Backbench Business Committee agreed, because that has allowed us to have a very enlightening debate. I also want to thank the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) for opening the debate and for summing up the issues that the House’s various administration Committees—particularly, in my case, the House of Commons Commission—have been wrestling with.
The savings programme that the House has been working towards since 2010 has been managed efficiently, as has been demonstrated, and I should like to add my voice to those Members who have commended the work done to find the £16.1 million of savings needed in the coming year. It is right that we have a savings programme, and that we not only play our part but are seen to play our part in the general belt-tightening that has to go on across the country. However, it is vital when finding savings and efficiencies that we are constantly mindful of the knock-on effects on Parliament and its role. These savings must not impact on the House’s ability to scrutinise the Executive—a theme of today’s contributions —or on Members’ ability to represent and serve their constituents.
While this House is cutting its budget by 17% over five years, the other place has no formal savings programme. I am told that it has achieved savings of 15%, which is wholly welcome, but its having a formal process that could be held to account, in the way we are doing here, would have been desirable. We must ensure that the standing of the House of Commons in relation to the other place is not weakened because of our savings programme, and that we maintain an appropriate balance between the two Houses.
When a large savings programme is put into effect, it often tends to be done at the expense of the lower-paid members of that organisation. That is the lazy way of conducting efficiency and savings programmes, and I am delighted that we have taken steps to avoid falling into that trap. We must ensure that we are seen not to fall into it, which is why I welcome the assurances the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross was able to give us on zero-hours contracts and the London living wage. I welcome the lead that you have taken, Mr Speaker, on the latter, and the ambition that has been shown and set out in our discussions today. I hope that by Christmas the House will be accredited as a living wage employer for our directly employed staff, and by next April for our contractors. If we can achieve that—from what the hon. Gentleman said, it sounds as though we are on track—we will all be rightly proud, and it will demonstrate to others who have savings to make that they do not have to make them at the expense of their lowest-paid workers.
As you know, Mr Speaker, I have been explicitly and particularly exercised to ensure that we do not use zero-hours contracts as part of our employment terms. I therefore welcome the tantalising early look the hon. Gentleman gave us at the advice which will be coming to the Commission on Monday, which allows flexibility but ensures mutuality of expectations. I warmly welcome the commitments we heard from him today and I hope we will have minimum hours guaranteed, and not have to resort to the easy and unfair expedient of zero-hours contracts. I look forward to considering the advice he hinted at in his opening remarks when the Commission meets on Monday.
I also want to take this opportunity to recognise the great work and expertise of the staff in this place—a constant theme of all who have contributed to this debate, and one I warmly endorse. Often, we are the people who are seen, talked about and given credit when we achieve good things, but this House could not operate without the fantastic work of the staff who keep us going, whatever their level or grade. I always find them enormously helpful.
I also want to address the potential for further savings and efficiencies, and suggest something that could be done to deal with the important points that the Select Committee Chairs who have contributed to today’s debate have made about their own resources. It is time we explored the potential for further savings and efficiencies by merging the administration of this House and the other place. There is no reason why, in the 21st century, we should have separate administrative bodies for each House. For example, Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology, known as PICT, which has operated as a bicameral service since 2001, provides Members with an excellent service. Perhaps its advantage is that it was created in 2001 and not 1801. Moreover, security, visitor services, estate management, outreach, broadcasting and other such services are run on a joint basis. Procurement will also be run jointly.
Of course we must be ready to explore anything in these times of austerity, but I honestly believe that the hon. Lady will find that some of the lessons of those joint services are not comfortable ones. Running a single organisation with dual governance is difficult. An example is running Committee staffs when there are already complicated personnel issues, such as trying to support them with flexible staffing arrangements. There is good exchange between the two Houses and Clerks Departments, and it would be absolute madness to consider merging the Clerks Departments of both Houses.
I think we need to look at how we can run this place, with two legislatures that are not the same but coexist in the same building, in a far more effective and efficient way. That does not mean making them completely co-operative in the way the hon. Gentleman suggests, but it does mean that we should see what efficiencies and savings we can get from running joint services. There is absolutely no reason why we cannot make large administrative savings from doing so.
I thank my hon. Friend for his support. Merely dismissing this without thinking much more carefully about the potential for savings is perhaps being rather more conservative than I thought the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) was being when he declared himself the self-appointed shop steward of Select Committee Chairs. I was about to call him “Red Bernard”, but I decided that that might be considered unparliamentary language.
We should explore in detail the potential for releasing savings in these ways. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will agree with me more when I say that if we can release them, we should use some of them to give much more support and resources to our Select Committees, to enable them to hold the Executive to account even more effectively than they do now. I do not know whether he has talked himself and his Committee out of having some of those savings released to them. In his speech, he made a strong plea for the more effective resourcing of Select Committees.
There are probably savings to be made by merging back-office functions such as procurement, auditing and HR, but those are very different from the governance functions that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) was talking about.
The hon. Gentleman is already beginning to think creatively about where savings could be released, and we should do a lot more of that. I know that this is a radical proposal, and that it will ruffle some feathers, not least because the administration structures have grown up separately and guard their independence jealously. None the less, it is about time that we had a look at that anomaly and thought about how we might address it.
We have had an interesting debate on the prospect of the House raising revenue. At one end of the proposals is the suggestion that the cost of providing for those who visit us should at least be offset. At the other end are suggestions for more proactive revenue raising. Much of this is sensible and acceptable, although I acknowledge and share some of the worries that have been expressed today about the more radical proposals to rent this place out on a completely commercial basis. I hope we can all agree that we should expect to cover the costs of welcoming visitors, but we need much more debate on the prospect of renting out the building to all and sundry on a purely commercial basis. I share the feelings of unease about those more radical proposals. We are first and foremost a democratic Parliament, not a commercial proposition.
Much work still needs to be done on the matter of restoration and renewal. The subject is going to take up a huge amount of our attention, but it is not doing so at the moment so I shall leave the matter there, given the shortness of time for this debate.
On the education centre, I am a great supporter of the plans for the extended education service, and I think we should just get on with it. There are generations of young people out there who deserve to have access to our Parliament. I welcome the ambition to double the number of young people who visit Parliament. This is part of our need to renew our connection with those people who sometimes look askance at what we do here and who perhaps think that politics has nothing to do with them.
I am sorry; I meant £20 million. We have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) that the building and running costs of the temporary educational buildings and classrooms here would be £20 million over 10 years. Does the hon. Lady think that it is better to have a brand new secondary school in a Member’s constituency or to have temporary accommodation here in Parliament?
With all due respect, the hon. Gentleman is positing a false choice. It is important for the strength of our democracy that young people—from constituencies as far away as mine, not just from London—should be enabled to visit our Parliament, as part of their education, to see how it works. This is not an either/or in relation to providing education in Members’ constituencies. I am a great supporter of the proposals for the education centre, and I think it will prove to be good value for money.
I welcome this annual debate. It is already throwing a welcome light on the decisions that are taken by the House’s administration Committees that meet behind the scenes, in a way that I hope Members of the House and people outside will appreciate. I commend you, Mr Speaker, for agreeing to our holding this debate, and I welcome the fact that we are now holding such debates annually. Time is short, so I shall now allow the Leader of the House to tell us what he thinks.
I fear that we shall not complete the debate by 2.15—[Hon. Members: “Oh, go on!”] Tempting though that is. These are House matters, and it has been important to hear from Members about them; that is probably more important than hearing from me. I very much welcome the debate, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) for introducing it and for the work that he and his Committee have done. I should like to bracket him together with my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), the Chair of the Administration Committee, and to thank them both for enabling the House to have such confidence in their work and for managing the difficult decisions that will continually have to be made if we are to meet our savings targets.
I join Members across the House who have rightly expressed support for the way in which the House continues to manage the provision of services. Much continues to be achieved in delivering high-quality services to Members, to enable them to provide support for their constituents and to provide the representation here that is integral to our democratic process. We can do all that only because of the tremendous service and support that we receive from the staff of the House. Integral to the way in which the savings targets have been delivered has been the way in which the House staff have participated and offered their ideas on how the plans in the various Departments could be brought together.
Just over three years ago, the House of Commons Commission committed itself to reducing the administration estimate by at least 17% by 2014-15. I am pleased to see that we are on track to meet that target. This is related to the reduction in administration costs across government as a whole, including an average reduction in departmental budgets of 19% over four years, and a reduction in the overall administration costs in many Departments of one third in real terms. Of course, this is not only about administration costs; it is also about delivering efficiencies that can be reinvested to enable services to be qualitatively improved wherever possible.
The hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) made a point about working together with the House of Lords on administration. I must point out that we do that already. Good examples of where that can be, and should be, done are security, procurement and back-office functions. We have to be careful, however, not to treat the separate governance of the two Houses as an “anomaly”, as I think she called it. My hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) has made some good points in this regard. It is not an anomaly; it is a constitutional fact, and it is not going to change in the immediate future, so far as I can see. I know from my conversations with the Leader of the House of Lords that the Lords want to work together with us, but we must respect their position and the need for the two Houses to make decisions for themselves. My hon. Friend rightly drew the analogy of two local authorities working together to share support services and back-office functions. We can and should do this, but there might well be governance issues and areas in which separate decisions will continue to be made.
I want to say a few words about restoration and renewal, but I also want to flag up that, given the nature of the decisions that will have to be made, and the integral character of the programme for the two Houses, we will clearly have to think about putting in place joint governance structures for the programme, which will extend across the two Houses.
I will leave it to the Committees to decide whether they want to bring forward proposals. Although I am perfectly willing to commit to talking to the Leader of the House of Lords, it is in neither of our gifts to put the two Houses together for such a purpose, but I know that there is a willingness in both Houses to look at where administration and support can be managed together.
May I bring to the Leader of the House’s attention how well the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology works on a bicameral basis? We brought it into the House in the early 1990s, and it has worked extremely well. It has become very strong in the recent past.
Yes, I am aware of that, and of the example that the shadow Leader of the House gave of PICT. None the less, when we look at PICT, we must understand that there are certain areas of activity in which having two masters makes the business of trying to manage a service much more difficult. Effectively, we need to distinguish between the two sets of governors, as it were, and see whether they have entirely complementary objectives. It might be true for many areas of human resources, administration and back-office functions, but, in some other respects, the two Houses might not necessarily have the same objectives and, because of the nature of the governance, they must be given the opportunity to manage those separately.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) raised the issue of pay, as did my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). Pay is clearly a significant part of the overall management of cost. I know that there have been intensive discussions between management and trade unions, but too many issues remain unresolved for a deal to be done. The Management Board’s offer was a fair one, but it remains open to discussions with the trade unions. I hope that it is understood—I have had my own conversations with the staff about this—that there is no possibility of either the House or the staff winning from a court case. The net result of continuing with the court action will be a negative one overall, and it is in the interests of both sides to continue to try to reach a deal—if one can be reached.
I look forward to the Commission receiving the Finance and Services Committee’s report on what have been described as zero-hour contracts. I entirely take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. Strictly speaking, such contracts mean no minimum guaranteed hours and an obligation to undertake work at the request of the employee. There are no corresponding obligations from the employer in relation to the employee. That is not what we have, or what we are looking to have. We want a relationship with our staff that recognises that they and we have a legitimate reason for having flexibility and call-off contracts, but that should be on the basis of offering minimum hours if staff are looking for that and if it is consistent with the needs of the House. I am talking about areas such as visitor services and catering. We must always ensure that we meet our obligations in relation to annual leave, sick pay, training and, importantly, access to internal vacancies as and when they arise.
The House is asked to note the medium-term financial plan. I am tempted to take the position of the shadow Leader of the House and say nothing more about restoration and renewal. However, I will just say that it is a major issue. It is not simply that the expenditure is beyond the medium-term financial plan. We need to assure ourselves that the expenditure that we are undertaking on capital is not nugatory and will contribute beneficially to the overall programme. However, that does not require us to rush at defining what that overall and major programme looks like. Options should be properly explored and costed.
The involvement of the Major Projects Authority and Infrastructure UK in the review process is entirely sensible. Members in this House and in the other House will have potentially strong views on whether it is necessary to leave this place for a period. There could be a decant for a short time, or a long time, or no decant at all. No one would choose to decant; it is not something that any of us seek. None the less, we must understand that the risks and constraints on us if we do not do so may also be considerable. The independent assessment needs to give us a clear understanding of the options in terms of the practicalities, cost and potential value for money. The decision will not emerge from the options appraisal; it is a decision that we will have to make. We need to weigh the costs and complexities against how we manage our business and how the House continues to meet its obligations. Indeed, the relationship between Parliament and Government in trying to manage the business of government is a significant one, so we will only make a decision on the basis of that assessment and of Members being consulted. A decision will be made at the proper time. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross was right to say that the decision is likely to be made not in this Parliament, but early in the next one.
We have had sensible discussions on the education centre. As a member of the House of Commons Commission, I can say that we have rightly identified how we can proceed in a way that represents the best available option. In principle, it is absolutely the right thing to do. We want as many young people as possible to have a direct experience of Parliament, which they will carry with them through their lives. We are aiming for 100,000 young people, but it is a shame that we cannot aim for 600,000. On that basis, we could say to every young person in this country that at some point during their school lives, they would have an opportunity to visit Parliament. To be as ambitious as we are is the very least that we should set out to do.
The House will have noticed in the medium-term financial plan that there is a reference to further pressures, including the Government’s agenda on public engagement, which we are keen to push forward. I will not elaborate, but I am talking about things such as the public reading stages of Bills. I am keen to work with colleagues from across the House on the further development of our petition system, including the Government e-petition system, which will make it easier for the public to engage with us. It will be readily accessible and will help the public to understand that they are petitioning Parliament and Government on their issues—not one or the other. There will be an enhanced expectation about and experience of the response, and a hope that the matter will be taken up and debated in Parliament.
On behalf of the Commission, I want to emphasise how useful this debate has been in helping us to consider the report of the Finance and Services Committee and to frame a response to it. Support for the motion today would represent an endorsement of a plan for the sustainable delivery of high-quality services to the House, while making the necessary and proportionate contribution to savings in administration expenditure in public services. I ask the House to support the motion.
By my count, some 14 or possibly 15 Members—in addition to the Front Benchers and me—have taken part in the debate. It has been constructive, not only because of the support that has been given to the motion and concepts that have been proposed but in how disagreement has been expressed. I would have liked to have acknowledged the contributions of every Member who spoke, both those who expressed differences of opinion and those who expressed support, but given that we are a little past 2.15 pm, may I do that collectively? It has been an extremely good and fulfilling debate and I will ensure that where I made the odd mistake—I have subsequently been inspired with the answers—Members receive the information in writing. My strong sense, which I hope is not misplaced, is that the House feels favourably towards the motion, so I urge Members to support it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House notes the medium-term financial plan for the House of Commons as set out in Appendix A to the First Report from the Finance and Services Committee, HC 754; endorses the intention of the Finance and Services Committee to recommend to the House of Commons Commission a House of Commons: Administration Estimate of £200.6 million, which includes funding for the proposed Education Centre; further notes that, in line with the target for the Savings Programme, this is consistent with a reduction of 17 per cent in real terms since 2010-11; and further endorses the intention of the Finance and Services Committee to recommend to the Members Estimate Committee a House of Commons: Members Estimate of £33.3 million.