Skip to main content

Administration and Works Committee

Volume 742: debated on Thursday 10 January 2013

Motion to Agree

Moved By

My Lords, this is a short and straightforward report so I do not intend to detain the House for long. However, given that an amendment has been tabled to the Motion, I thought that it might be useful if I explained to the House how the committee reasoned its proposals.

As explained in the report, last year, under the chairmanship of my predecessor, the committee was asked to consider an alternative location for holding press conferences following the end of the lease on No. 1 The Abbey Garden. The committee agreed that the meeting room in Fielden House should be used for press conferences in place of No. 1 The Abbey Garden, and that arrangement has worked well since April 2012.

The committee was also asked to consider the appropriateness of continuing to use Committee Room G for press conferences. As the report explains, the committee felt that it was no longer appropriate to continue to use Committee Room G for several reasons. First, the committee felt that it would be useful to draw a distinction between those press conferences that are held by an official committee of this House and those that are organised on behalf on an individual Member. Members of the public often do not appreciate the difference between a parliamentary Select Committee, an all-party group and a collection of Members. The committee therefore felt that it would be sensible to amend the rules so that there was some distinction between them. If this report were agreed to, press conferences held by Select Committees would still be held on the Committee Room corridor while press conferences held by other Members would not.

The committee also considered the practical complications of holding press conferences in the Palace of Westminster itself. Members will know that meeting rooms are often in short supply, especially in the Palace. While there is not a large number of press conferences held each year preventing the use of rooms in the Palace, for some of them this will reduce the burden a little.

Although this may be seen as a relatively minor logistical change, it has been necessary to bring the matter before the House itself due to the fact that Committee Room G was originally included in the rules governing the use of facilities agreed by the House in 2010. As a breach of these rules constitutes a breach of the code of conduct, it is important that any amendments to the rules are agreed by the House and are clear and workable.

It is of course right that Members should be able to hold press conferences in Parliament as part of their parliamentary work, and this report is not intended to undermine that work. Indeed, I understand that there has been an informal suggestion that the meeting rooms in Millbank House could be used for press conferences. That would indeed answer any questions on limited capacity, and I welcome that suggestion. If the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, feels at the end of the debate that he does not wish to press the amendment, and if that suggestion on Millbank House is made, I would be more than happy to take the matter back so that the committee could consider that one specific amendment. I beg to move.

Amendment to the Motion

Moved by

To move, as an amendment to the above motion, to leave out “agreed to” and insert “referred back to the Committee for further consideration; and that it be an instruction to the Committee that any future recommendations allow for Members to continue to hold press conferences in Committee Room G”.

My Lords, as the report of the Administration and Works Committee says, the House agreed on 16 March 2010 that:

“Members may not hold press conferences in committee rooms on the Committee Corridor, but they may do so in Committee Room G and other meeting rooms with Black Rod’s permission”.

That remains the position up until now, except that when the lease on 1 The Abbey Garden most unfortunately came to an end, it ceased to be available. That room held 40 people if the partition between the two rooms was opened up, and tea or coffee could be provided, a facility which is not available in Fielden House, or in Committee Room G for that matter. Now it is proposed that Committee Room G should not be used for press conferences, so that Fielden House will become the only location available to Members, rather than the three that we had before Abbey Garden was relinquished.

The committee says that,

“this arrangement was in place since April 2012”,

but that decision was not published or reported to the House at the time. I only found out about it after holding a press conference on Bahrain in Committee Room G on 23 August and a meeting on 17 September to mark the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Dr Sadegh Sharafkandi, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran, and three of his colleagues at the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin by Iranian agents. On the Friday before the second of these meetings, Black Rod e-mailed me at 1522 attaching a paper he had submitted to the committee and the minutes of the committee’s meeting of 27 March, in which it purported to make the decision that we are now debating.

I telephoned Black Rod’s office at 1550, and when there was no answer I e-mailed him at 1652, saying that I had asked the attendants about transferring the meeting to Fielden House but was told that nobody was going to be on duty there on the Monday evening. In that e-mail I protested through Black Rod to the Administration and Works Committee about taking this clandestine decision without consulting Members. He replied later the same evening saying that as it was too late to change the arrangements for the meeting on Monday, the use of Committee Room G would have to stand. I wrote to Black Rod asking if the committee’s decision would be reconsidered on the grounds that it had been taken without consulting Members and particularly those who hold press conferences, however defined.

The commemoration of Dr Sharafkandi’s assassination was billed as such and the attendance of journalists was incidental to it. I would like to ask the Chairman of Committees whether, if this Motion is carried, it means that Members are not allowed to invite journalists to meetings in the Palace of Westminster that are not described as press conferences. I will come back to that point later. However, it does mean that press conferences have to be held between 9 am and 5 pm, because those are the hours during which attendants are on duty in Fielden House unless special arrangements are made. Fielden House accommodates only 24 people, to the 40 of Committee Room G, and is therefore unsuitable for important events. It is also unsuitable for events that are to be attended by disabled people, because Fielden House is some distance from the main Palace of Westminster.

Part 3 of the report suggests that the House itself might be associated with the proceedings of press conferences. Having held numerous press conferences in Committee Room G, Fielden House and 1 The Abbey Garden, I am not aware that any of them has been reported as an official event of the House of Lords, nor have words spoken at press conferences been attributed to the House of Lords. If evidence to that effect was presented to the Administration and Works Committee it was not thought worthy of mention in its report. I suppose that the risk was purely hypothetical.

In any case, if it suited the editorial policy of an unscrupulous newspaper—non-British of course—the proceedings could just as well be presented as effectively sanctioned by the House if they were held in Fielden House or anywhere else on the Parliamentary Estate. Members of another place have a large number of rooms for press conferences from which to choose. The rooms in which photography and TV are allowed include the Jubilee Room, the Attlee and Macmillan Rooms in Portcullis House, Room C in 1 Parliament Street and the W Rooms. No distinction is made between meetings of a general nature and press conferences.

The risks that are supposed to arise in Committee Room G must affect meetings in any of those locations available to the Commons, although it may be said that it is not for us to compare our decisions with those of another place. Surely it is illogical and perverse to come to a different view from theirs on a matter which is said to have a bearing on the reputation of Parliament as a whole.

The Chairman of Committees wrote to me saying that he would circulate my letter to the Administration and Works Committee for consideration at its next meeting on 23 October last, and after that he wrote again to say that the committee had decided to uphold the decision that press conferences could be held only in Fielden House. In the second letter he noted that the use of rooms for press conferences was contained in the rules governing the use of facilities in the House of Lords, which had been agreed by the House. Therefore the change, to cease using Committee Room G for this purpose, would also need to be agreed by the House. Until and unless that happens the previous rules apply and Committee Room G may continue to be used for press conferences. The suggestions that were made to me during the Summer Recess—that the two meetings to which I referred earlier should have been held in Fielden House—were erroneous, and I should like that to be acknowledged.

It is true that press conferences sponsored by Members often deal with matters that are controversial and of significant public interest. In December, for example, I co-hosted a meeting with Anne Main MP on the outlook for the Bangladesh general election in 2013 and I chaired a meeting on human rights in Gambia. There were no media persons at either of those meetings, as it happens, but on occasion it may well occur that journalists are invited for the contributions that they make to the discussion. For example, I am sure that there must have been meetings on the Leveson report sponsored by Members, in which journalists were invited to participate. Is it permissible for the media to be present at an event as long as it is not described as a press conference? What is the sponsor of the meeting supposed to do if attendees make notes of what is said, raising the possibility that they might give information to the media—or, even worse, take pictures on smartphones that might then be given to the press?

If any noble Lord or honourable Member seeks to use the Palace of Westminster to propagate illegal extremist views such as incitement to racial or religious hatred—as I believe may have occurred in hearings of the committee, although it is not mentioned in its report—the matter should be dealt with ad hoc by the Administration Committee in another place, or by the Administration and Works Committee of this House. We should not shut down the means whereby Members seek to give a voice to legitimate views, particularly of those who are silenced in other countries. This applies also to meetings at which, because of the theme, views may be expressed that would be strongly disapproved of by the majority of noble Lords.

There is a significant appetite among some in the foreign media for the views of oppressed people that are aired at some of the meetings held on the Parliamentary Estate, yet we are now being asked to reduce the number of possible locations of such meetings from three to one—a small conference room at some distance from the Palace of Westminster where you cannot even offer journalists a cup of tea. I suggest that we ought to give thought to ways of expanding the contacts we have with the media, and that reducing the means we now have would be moving in the wrong direction. I beg to move.

My Lords, I shall not detain the House for more than a moment. I have great respect for my noble friend and I listened to his remarks with considerable sympathy. However, I make it very clear that I support the refusal to hold press conferences in Room G. It is one of the consequences of the overpopulation of this House that the number of committee rooms available to noble Lords for general purposes is under great pressure. That being the case, it is right that unofficial press conferences, however worthy—I totally understand the point made by my noble friend Lord Avebury—should be held elsewhere.

I asked my noble friend whether he had considered going to Millbank House. I made inquiries about this. The Archbishops’ Room in Millbank House holds a large number of people, and other facilities are available. It was suggested that access arrangements at Millbank House are too difficult if one wants to have a number of people. I do not accept that for one moment. I was very glad to hear the Chairman of Committees say that Millbank House could be another location. I hope that my noble friend Lord Avebury might be prepared to recognise that that is a considerable step in that direction for which he is calling, and may not feel it necessary to divide the House.

My Lords, I have held a number of meetings in the Archbishops’ Room at Millbank House. You can get at least 30 or 40 people in there—I do not know the exact figure. It would certainly be big enough to contain any reasonable press conference. It is a very good room with a large table and a lot of chairs around it. You can have an extremely good meeting in that room.

My Lords, I support the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. I do so as the Member of your Lordships’ House who has held perhaps the two most controversial and packed press conferences in recent years—after the Dutch MP, Mr Geert Wilders, was banned by the then Home Secretary from entering this country, and, when he had won his appeal against that decision, after he had shown his film, “Fitna”, privately in Committee Room 4 to Peers and MPs.

The Home Secretary’s decision turned the whole saga into a world media event and both rooms at Abbey Gardens were not nearly big enough to hold even half the number of media outlets wanting to attend both events. For the second conference, I had applications to attend from 92 outlets worldwide, including two Japanese film crews, and spaces had to be severely rationed. From that experience, I fear I have to disagree with the key reasoning in this report, leading the committee to cease using Committee Room G for press conferences.

First, it states:

“Whilst it is right and proper that Members should be able to hold press conferences in Parliament as part of their Parliamentary work”—

as the noble Lord, Lord Sewel, has reminded us. What has happened to that? I say hear, hear to it, but it appears to have disappeared and been overridden by less worthy considerations. The quotation continues:

“the House as a whole may not wish to associate itself with the views given in such press conferences”.

At no time during or after the Wilders saga was there any suggestion from anyone that your Lordships’ House associated itself with Mr Wilders’s views. Indeed, my noble friend Lady Cox and I made clear that we ourselves disagreed with some of them, but our overall purpose was to secure his right to free speech as an elected Dutch politician. So that part of the report simply does not stand up. Nor does the next sentence:

“the setting of Committee Room G, right within the heart of the Palace of Westminster, means that it is not always clear from a public perspective that the press conference is not an official event being held on behalf of the House”.

Further down in the report, it states:

“Furthermore, press conferences can attract a large number of journalists and other guests, which can be difficult to manage from a security point of view”.

Committee Room G is not “right in the heart of the Palace of Westminster”. It is on its extreme fringe. It shares its public entrance with the Attlee and Cholmondeley Rooms, both of which regularly handle large numbers of strangers. There is a permanent police presence on duty.

On security grounds alone it would have been better to have held Mr Wilders’s conferences in Room G than in Abbey Gardens or Fielden House. I suggest that this may apply to other controversial guests whom your Lordships may wish to entertain in future. Mr Wilders would not have had to go by a circuitous route to Abbey Gardens with his bodyguard and all the rest of it. My noble friend Lady Cox and I would not have had to walk from the Palace of Westminster to Abbey Gardens under threat of what we were assured would be sniper fire. We would not have had to brave the blandishments of thousands from the English Defence League who were gathered—though I cannot quite remember on which side of the argument. Nor would we have had to fear the thousands of Muslims with whom we were threatened, but who did not in fact materialise.

Surely press conferences are usually confrontational events. Did the committee think of that point? If a press conference is controversial, which is what seems to be moving the committee, then you can bet your bottom dollar that the media will test the controversial viewpoint strongly. How does your Lordships’ House suffer from that? I fear that the conclusions of this report do nothing to support freedom of speech or the reputation of this House. Indeed, I fear they impede it.

Finally, there is the matter of capacity. Fielden House is limited to, I think, 30 people—the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, mentioned 24—but Room G is limited to 45. No doubt more journalists can be accommodated standing, but what about television crews? Fielden House is simply inadequate to hold any but a conference in which the media is not much interested. That cannot be in the interests of your Lordships’ House. Surely we can leave the decision about whether Room G or Fielden House should be used for any particular press conference to Black Rod and the Yeoman Usher. Why would they not get it right? What is wrong with that? I support the amendment.

My Lords, I strongly support the words uttered by my noble friend Lord Avebury following the remarks of the Chairman of Committees. It is a drastic suggestion to exclude the only room within the Palace precincts that would be available for the purposes of a press conference, or for use by any individual Member or Members together for meetings on any cause whatever, in the normal system of booking a room. It would be very drastic if it were completely removed because it is quite important psychologically, for a number of reasons, for a Member to be able to make an application for the use of a room within the Palace precincts. It makes a difference.

I declare an interest having done a book launch of my own, with an outside colleague, in February of last year: we used Room G and journalists attended. The idea that that would bind the House and Members as a whole to the content of my remarks in launching the book, and to other questions that arose from members of the audience, both non-media and media alike, is a most extraordinary suggestion. No such problem exists in the other place, where it routinely happens. However, given that MPs are more active Members, in one sense, one would expect that to be so.

However, bearing in mind that often Room G would be booked up anyway by other Members, and therefore not available if someone applied to use it, not having that choice in the Palace itself would be undesirable. Although I do not wish to comment on the more polychromatic and allegorical suggestions of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, about the content of the meeting to which he referred, the points he made were valid. You must have that option as a Member and, perhaps, to make the choice to go elsewhere, to Fielden House or Millbank House, if you prefer. To narrow down the choice in this way is a strange request in the committee’s conclusions and should be reconsidered very carefully.

My Lords, I share the concern of other noble Lords who have spoken about this paper but, first, I ought to ask the Chairman of Committees: what is the problem that he and his committee are trying to solve? How many press conferences of the kind which will be banned from Committee Room G are held each year?

I know that there is pressure on rooms. I very occasionally hire a room to help, say, with a campaign, but if a couple of journalists happen to turn up, does that make it illegal? When is a press conference a press conference, rather than a few journalists with other people there? I do not know the answer and the Chairman of Committees may be able to help with that.

I do not often agree with the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, but on this occasion I agree about the problems of getting large crowds into Committee Room G, as it says in paragraph 4. Nothing like as many people come into there as come into the Cholmondeley Room for receptions at lunchtime and in the evening. The security arrangements usually handle them fairly well and so the numbers cannot be a reason for excluding people.

The other problem that has been mentioned is the issue of room bookings. If we are to make more use of Millbank and Fielden House, the hours they are available should be appropriate to when the House is sitting. However, surely the booking arrangements for committee rooms should all be done in one place. The booking arrangements for committee rooms in the House are extremely good and efficient now, so why should we have to phone someone else if we want to book a room across there? I know there is pressure on booking rooms but if it is a question of trying to reduce the number of events and press conferences that take place within the House, I would be very surprised if this recommendation would make much difference to the availability of rooms and the demand for them.

I shall be interested to hear from the Chairman the real reason for this and whether he can define what a press conference is that will be covered by this.

My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Avebury, Lord Pearson and Lord Dykes, have all made an extremely strong case, and the committee would be wise to take us back to look at it again.

My Lords, in my opening comments I acknowledged that there had been an error in the way in which the process had moved toward implementation of the original decision by the Administration and Works Committee, in that its recommendation had not been brought before the House as it should have been. Once that was recognised, the decision of the Administration and Works Committee was not implemented. It has been held in abeyance until we have had this debate today. I freely acknowledge, therefore, that there was a fault in the process, which we have sought to rectify by bringing the report before your Lordships’ House today.

There have been three areas of argument on the basis of the comments that have been made. First, let us deal with what is and what is not a press conference. In about 99.9% of cases, it is obvious whether it is or is not a press conference. If Members are in doubt whether the event they are organising is a press conference, they should seek the advice of Black Rod. If they have sought his advice, they are deemed to have complied with the rules and to be in the clear. That is the way to deal with what is a press conference.

One of the other areas is distinction. Is it right that we draw a distinction between those press conferences that are clearly official parliamentary press conferences, which deal with reports issued by Select Committees or other organisations directly responsible to the House, or those press conferences that are held, quite rightly and understandably, at which Parliament provides in some way a platform for other people to give views? That is the argument on distinction. There is a strong case to say that a distinction ought to be maintained; that official parliamentary press conferences take place along the Committee Corridor, where the committees themselves are held, and that the platform type of press conference is held within Parliament though at one remove from the Palace itself.

I am very grateful to the Lord Chairman. As the noble Lord is probably aware, I am secretary of the All-Party Cycling Group. Next week this group will start an inquiry into the provision of cycling facilities, which will consist of between six and eight MPs and Peers, who will produce a report. Do I, as secretary, have to ask Black Rod’s permission to have a press conference to launch that report in the House?

Yes. Not to launch the report in the House; if the noble Lord has a press conference, it would be perfectly possible for him to have it in Millbank House. That would be allowable if the House accepts my suggestion, and if the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, accepts my suggestion, that he does not persist with his amendment, and we take back this report purely on the grounds of enabling the committee to consider the Millbank House option.

My Lords, further to that point; if Black Rod can decide what is and what is not a press conference, why can he not be trusted to decide where it should be held, particularly from the point of view of security, which may be vital to the event in question? It may be clearly more in the interests of security that it should be held in Committee Room G than in either Millbank House or Fielden House.

The extent to which we actually move decision-making away from the Chamber and on to Black Rod is a matter of fine judgment. There are some areas where that is perfectly reasonable, and seeking his advice on whether the meeting that was being held was a press conference, if the Member himself or herself was in doubt, would be helpful because it would mean that the Member was able to ensure that they were not breaching the rules by at least seeking the advice of Black Rod and acting upon it.

Clearly, though, with regard to the business of where that press conference should be held, the rule that we are trying to establish is that it is right to make a distinction between parliamentary press conferences, held to discuss and debate a publication, a report, of Parliament, which will be held within the Palace itself, and what are called platform press conferences where Parliament, quite properly and rightly, is being used to provide a platform for views expressed by people from beyond Parliament. The latter, although held within Parliament, would not be held within the Palace; they would be held in Millbank House or Fielden House, and on the whole people will feel very comfortable with that distinction.

The second argument is about capacity.

I have to say that I thought that this was going to be a short debate, but it is in danger of turning into yesterday’s debate.

I am very sorry to intervene again, and I am grateful to the noble Lord. Do the same rules about the distinction between official and semi-official press conferences apply in the House of Commons? Do Members of Parliament have to ask the Serjeant at Arms if they can book a room within the building?

I am unaware of the precise rules that apply in the House of Commons, but as I understand it the House tends to deal with this matter by having a very strict rule about recording, photography and filming. That is the way in which it has dealt with the problem. There is a very strong ban, as I understand it, on filming in House of Commons Committee Rooms.

On capacity, I understand the concern that the rooms in Fielden House may not be large enough to accommodate a significantly populated press conference, though I have to say that in my experience that does not happen very often in this House. That is why I am very much attracted to the suggestion that we open up rooms in Millbank House, particularly the Archbishops’ Room, which is a large room that can accommodate events, and I would have thought that this would satisfy all the arguments on capacity. On that basis—

From what the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, has informed the House, which is why I put the question to him, the room in Millbank is no larger than the room in Fielden House. It is the same size, so what advantage can there be? We can have two press conferences, but a single large one still cannot be held.

I am reluctant to challenge the noble Lord on that issue. From my somewhat cursory examination of the rooms it looks quite a bit bigger to me, but never mind. As I say, I am more than happy to take the report back specifically on the use of Millbank House if the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, wishes to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have spoken, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Howell, whose influence I hope will lead to a favourable decision when we come to the end of this debate. I am not disposed to withdraw my amendment; I wish to press it to a Division, and I would like to explain why. First, the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees has not dealt with the point that I raised about disabled Members having difficulty getting to Fielden House, and the same argument applies to Millbank House. That has been reaffirmed to me during this debate by a particular disabled Member who says that it is not possible for disabled Members to attend any meetings in Millbank House when there is a threat of a Division because they simply cannot get back from there in time. I suggest that no attention whatever has been given to the argument which I mentioned in my introductory speech: that it is grossly inconvenient and sometimes impossible for disabled Members to attend any meetings in Fielden House and the same applies to Millbank House.

If I have understood the situation correctly, the Chairman of Committees has said that he is prepared to take it back to the committee, including the issue of Committee Room G. Is that not right?

If I could clarify, I am prepared to take back the report purely on the limited area of the use of Millbank House. If, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, persists in his amendment, I will maintain the report and the Millbank House option will not be considered.

In that case, the situation is rather clearer and I had misunderstood. Would it not be more sensible for the noble Lord to take it back to the committee without any restraint on what it can discuss? If we go ahead and, as I think is likely, carry the noble Lord’s amendment, then we are tying the hands of the committee when it needs to take into account the wider issues, including the use of Room G. I should have thought we could proceed on that basis.

My Lords, perhaps I might offer a bit of advice. We did think that the Chairman of Committees had said that he would agree to a reference back to consider Millbank House. However, he said it on the basis of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, not pursuing a vote on his amendment. I sense the feeling of the House would be that, even if the noble Lord were to pursue the amendment to a vote—and he were to lose—the committee might still consider the Millbank House option. Might he not just reflect on that?

I am always happy to reflect. The difficulty is that we have a bit of a procedural problem about the nature of the Motion that is before us. I can give the categoric assurance that, if it is withdrawn, I can do it. However, if the noble Lord divides the House and loses, we will have divided on the report and the report will then be carried. I am sure that the committee would wish to take the sense of the House but I cannot give the cast-iron procedural guarantee that I could if the noble Lord withdraws his amendment.

I am not prepared to accept that undertaking. The argument the noble Lord has advanced that Millbank House is adequate for the purposes of press conferences is spurious. The noble Lord did not even venture to say anything in his intervention just now about the difficulties that disabled Members have in getting to Fielden House. The difficulties they have in getting to Millbank House are no less.

In conclusion, I do not think the distinction between press conferences that are held by an official organ of the House, such as a Select Committee, and those that are held by private Members is fully appreciated. That was borne out by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. No one attributed the views that were expressed at the meeting with Geert Wilders to the House. Nor did anyone think that any sentiments expressed at that press conference either by the noble Lord himself or by his noble friend Lady Cox were attributable to the House. No one has ever said that things that are dealt with at private press conferences are the views of the House. So that was a spurious argument. I believe most people would agree that we should retain the use of Committee Room G and I would ask the House to decide accordingly.

My Lords, it has been possible to clarify in the intervening period what would be the best procedural method to ensure that the House’s will is properly expressed and acted on. In those circumstances, I think that the best way forward is for me to withdraw the Motion and to take the report back purely on the basis of looking at the Millbank House option.

Motion withdrawn.