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Parliament (Joint Departments) Bill [HL]

Volume 689: debated on Thursday 1 March 2007

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I am moving the Second Reading as Leader of the whole House, as this is a parliamentary measure, not a government one. This short Bill follows agreement by the two Houses in 2005 that there is a need for a unified structure for information systems and information technology services under a single official accountable to both Houses of Parliament.

The House of Commons and the House of Lords are separate employers, and there has never yet been a joint department serving the two Houses that is accountable to both. On 1 January 2006, a new joint department was established as a department of the House of Commons on an interim basis. The aim of the new department is to address modern IT needs and to allow improvements in IT services to the two Houses and to individual Members. The Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology service—PICT for short—has House of Lords staff loaned to the House of Commons on a time-limited basis. When the House Committee agreed this arrangement in 2005, it emphasised that the temporary arrangement was only acceptable in the short term.

The Bill is necessary to ensure that the two Houses of Parliament may set up a joint department, with staff employed by the corporate officers of both Houses. The two Houses are separate employers and are separately referred to in a range of employment legislation, so much of the Bill is devoted to ensuring that staff in a joint department would continue to be protected by such legislation.

The principle of a fully joint department for ICT has been supported by the House Committee and the House of Commons Commission. One reason for the creation of a joint ICT department is to improve the management of computer services to Members of both Houses, and to deliver a more efficient service.

Staff representatives in both Houses have been consulted fully. A principal aim of this short Bill is to protect staff rights. For example, in relation to the pay, conditions and pensions of staff in joint departments, Clause 3(2) makes provision similar to that in the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978. Clause 4 and the schedule will ensure that the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006—TUPE—will apply to transfers of staff between the two Houses and a joint department. Paragraphs 3 and 4 of the schedule are concerned with transfers that occur when functions are allocated to a joint department—for instance, when that department is first set up. Paragraphs 5 and 6 deal with the eventuality that functions being exercised by a joint department might be allocated elsewhere—for instance, to one or both Houses—or might even cease to be exercised at all. In all those cases, the allocation of functions which leads to staff being transferred into or out of a joint department, from or to one or the other House, will be treated as the transfer of an undertaking, so that TUPE will apply to the transfer of the staff concerned.

Most other aspects of staff representatives’ relations with management are covered by non-statutory Whitley Committee arrangements, as has been customary in the Civil Service. Those arrangements are well established in both Houses and the corporate officers are committed to agreeing a suitable extension of the Whitley system to cover a joint department.

Bills relating to the internal administration of Parliament are rare. The most recent precedent is the Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Act 1992. Because of the difficulty in finding parliamentary time, the Bill has been drafted in a way that is not limited to IT but which will allow further joint departments to be developed should the two Houses agree. Neither House has any such plans for a further joint department at present. Clause 2(3) provides the safeguard that when taking any significant decisions on a joint department, the corporate officers may act only with the approval of the House of Commons Commission and of the House of Lords on a recommendation of the House Committee. The House Committee was keen for the new interim department to be set up on a permanent joint basis as soon as possible. To that end, all the provisions of the Bill will come into force on Royal Assent.

This is a short Bill with a limited subject matter. It is intended to assist the smooth operation of a key aspect of parliamentary administration.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Amos.)

My Lords, I hope to be as brief as the noble Baroness. I suspect that this may be the only time this month that we have a debate on a proposal affecting Parliament that attracts so few speakers. It may be the only debate on the future structure of Parliament in which I carry the noble Lord, Lord McNally, with me, but I live in hope. I have an interest in the Bill from the perspective of the problem it addresses and the general provision that it introduces. I have only two points that I wish to raise, one concerning each aspect of the Bill.

I fully appreciate why the Bill is necessary. It is only in the past few years that Parliament has begun to get its act together on its information and communication technology. In the early 1990s, it was essentially falling behind, not helped by the Information Committee in the other place rejecting a recommendation for central provision. This was changed only at the end of the decade and central provision actually introduced after the 2001 election. Thanks to the Cummins report in 2004, the need for a more unified management structure in the provision of ICT was grasped. The problem in getting some coherence in the delivery of ICT has been not only the separate structures of the two Houses but also the complex management structure of the other place. Cummins provided the spur for the creation of a single joint-House service and we now have, as the noble Baroness said, the Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology—PICT—service, brought into being at the beginning of last year. I do not propose to go into detail because the background and the need for a joint service are provided in a very good article by Richard Ware, PICT's director of resources, in volume 24 of the Table last year.

The case for a joint service is, I think, clear and compelling. As the noble Baroness said, PICT was created on a temporary basis, pending legislation. The Bill will create the basis for it being a permanent body. As she said, it is important that those serving Parliament through a joint department enjoy the same employment rights as those serving each House. I think that there is agreement on all sides that this provision, embodied in Clauses 3, 4 and 5, is right and necessary.

I want to take this opportunity to encourage PICT to continue to make up for lost time. There is much that still needs to be done. The Parliament website has been overhauled but there is still much to do. We need to exploit new technology to ensure that people are aware of what we do in both Houses as well as utilise it for greater involvement by people who have knowledge and views useful to both Houses. Some committees have experimented with online consultation. We need to build on this and look at novel ways of harnessing technology. There is no reason why we should not be ahead of the game, rather than having to play catch-up.

I turn to the general provisions of the Bill, embodied in Clauses 1 and 2. The Bill is brought in because of the creation of PICT but, as the noble Baroness has explained, it can be utilised in the future to create other joint departments. There is already substantial co-operation between the Houses on a range of matters, necessarily so. There may well be occasions in the future where a joint department may be appropriate. The letter from the Clerks of the two Houses says that,

“neither House has any such plans as present”,

but I accept that it is prudent to make provision now.

Given this general provision, it is important that safeguards are written into the Bill. I therefore very much welcome Clause 2(3), which ensures that approval is sought from each House. The provision is somewhat asymmetrical, in that the approval of the other place is given through the House of Commons Commission, whereas here it is given by the House on the recommendation of the House Committee. I am not quite sure why the approval of the other place is not given by the House itself, but that is more appropriately a matter for Members of the other place. I think that the arrangements for the approval of this House are entirely appropriate.

Accountability is provided in that the head of a joint department is accountable to the corporate officer of each House. I assume that to be the case from the wording of the Bill. Once a joint department is in place, I am not quite sure what will happen in the event of a disagreement between the corporate officers. That might merit some reflection. My principal point, though, concerns what happens beyond formal accountability to the corporate officers. It is very important that a joint department reports regularly to both Houses on what it is doing. There is the danger that a joint department may become a little detached. There needs to be not only formal reporting to the corporate officers but a wider reporting to both Houses, and a recognition that the joint department exists to help the Members of both Houses in fulfilling their responsibilities.

Indeed, there needs to be a responsibility not only to report but to listen and take account of concerns. I appreciate that any concerns may be raised via the corporate officers. However, we should give some thought to how to ensure that a joint department is responsive and recognises its responsibility to Members. We may also need to give some consideration to how to ensure that those employed in a joint department, especially those recruited from outside Parliament, are trained in the nature and responsibilities of both Houses. They need to utilise their expertise in a very particular environment and it is important that they are sensitive to it.

Those are the only points I wished to make. I appreciate the need for the measure but I felt that it merited at least some comment.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, has ruined my first line as I, too, intended to speculate that this might be the last time for a while that we were on the same side on House of Lords matters.

These Benches welcome the Bill not only for what it does for ICT but because it holds out the prospect of further co-operation. I have often thought that we should look a lot more carefully at introducing more operations in a whole range of services in order to save taxpayers’ money and improve the service to Members of both Houses. Dare I suggest that one day we might even have joint catering in this building? Noble Lords can see that I am already gearing up to be in a radical frame of mind in 10 days’ time.

The only warning that I offer on how joint departments are managed is that it is important to get the right ethos in the staff. By that I mean that priority should not automatically be given to the House of Commons, with a joint department seeing the House of Lords as a secondary responsibility. But that apart, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, the Bill gives us a chance to get ahead of the game in using new technologies both in the service of Members and communicating with the outside world. It gives us a very welcome opportunity to keep open the prospect of having other joint departments.

My Lords, every now and then we turn from telling other people, particularly the Government, how to run things and talk about the running of Parliament itself. Now, for a few minutes, is such a time and the working machinery of this great Parliament sticks up a little into the light from the depths in which it is usually shrouded.

Originally, of course, Parliament was all one and I suppose that it was run by the Clerk of the Parliaments. The name of the office is still with us, but for many centuries this House has acquiesced in the Commons having their own Clerk—that must have been a revolution in its day—and an increasingly separate organisation.

Today we are reversing that process just a little and providing for the unification of services answerable to both Houses. It is a sensible thing to do, but it would be surprising if there were not some hesitation about how far the process might go. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, has already demonstrated that. Both Houses pride themselves on their individual character and position and the Bill is widely drawn. It is true that any department can be made joint by the Clerks with the agreement of the House of Commons Commission on the one hand and of the whole House of Lords on the other. Like my noble friend Lord Norton, I am not sure of the reason for that distinction, but as presented in the Bill it is asymmetrical.

It is true that some services are already joint. Security is inevitably indivisible. The head of security and his staff operate for both Houses. The works and estate services are common to both. The Parliamentary Archives are now jointly run; the exhibition held recently showed us that. The new visitor facilities—we have looked forward to them for some time—are to be joint. There is already the joint service for Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology. It is this latter alone which is proposed to be under the joint command structure in the Bill. It is right that it should be and I support that.

What about the other services? Neatness would suggest sometimes that existing joint services should be brought under the same umbrella. However, I have never been one for disturbing arrangements which work well simply for the sake of neatness. I do not think that the rearrangements always deliver what is promised. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, has suggested that some other services might be made joint. His radical suggestion was the Refreshment Departments. Other people speak of the Libraries being blended, particularly when the Law Lords have departed and that aspect of our Library becomes more separate. I should be against either of those services being amalgamated. I see no advantage in size.

The Lord President and everyone else will know that the House will watch these arrangements carefully and will be prepared to defend its ground. There will be arguments about efficiency, which in other circles is often promised and less often delivered when amalgamations take place. The differing character of the two Houses is precious to the Members of both Houses. I speak of the present character of this House, realising that in the next two weeks we shall be discussing the possibility of a different character for it—one much closer potentially to that of the Commons. But even if the second House were to be fully elected, I believe that it would want to retain its separate identity. Indeed, I believe that it would fight to exert its independence and to gain the equality that the legitimacy of election would confer, and it would be right to do so. I do not think that that changes the point I make.

If we go on in much the same way as we do at present, the Lords will remain conscious of its position as the junior partner to the Commons, which inevitably has more resources, more political muscle and more ambition. The Lords will need to watch its position, not only when changes in scope are proposed but in normal running when there are problems about a joint department trying to serve two masters. Of course, holy writ, as well as my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, warns us about the problem of serving two masters, but it will be present sometimes.

We welcome the Bill. We are certainly content for the PICT function to be jointly controlled, as set out in the Bill. We particularly support the clauses protecting the staff during the changes, which are obviously necessary. We will watch very carefully any attempt to use the Bill in other areas.

My Lords, it is a rather good feeling to be in a situation that I am very rarely in, which is to bask briefly in the harmony and agreement that there is around the Chamber. I thank noble Lords who have spoken for their support of the Bill.

I will try to address the questions that have been asked. In so doing, I reiterate that this is about a joint department. We in the House of Lords will ensure that the needs of this House are guarded very jealously; the noble Lord, Lord Cope, is right that Members of this House will be watching very carefully what happens in the way that the service is delivered. On the issue of the wider safeguards, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, it is for another place to decide its process, as he indicated. It is important for this House that it is the House that makes the decision, on the recommendation of the House Committee.

On accountability—reporting to the corporate officers of each House and what happens if there is a disagreement—from time to time the two Houses have different priorities, and we have seen that in operation. That has always been the case. In certain circumstances, difficulties have been resolved by one House, for example, taking responsibility for the lion’s share of the funding or staff resource that is provided. That already happens with individual IT projects, where one House will have a much greater interest than the other. The principle of having a joint department, which is about the two Houses working much more closely together, is something that we will all want to see enshrined.

In terms of that being extended to other services, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is being particularly radical in raising the issue of the Refreshment Department. My experience of raising the possibility of one or two parts of our refreshment services being shared is that the idea tends to disappear into a very large black hole and never reappear. Both Houses will watch how this develops, and other possibilities for joint departments may well come up in the future. I would be a very brave woman if I were to make any suggestion about what that future might be in terms of time.

The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, asked about the director of PICT. He will be a member of the Management Boards of both Houses, which is important; and PICT activities will be included in the annual reports of both Houses. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, asked about training. Arrangements are being made for training for PICT staff about both Houses so that they appreciate and understand the different cultures of the two Houses.

I think that I have addressed all the points and questions that have been raised. Once again, I thank noble Lords for their support for this measure.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.