|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : I apologise to the House for coming late into the debate, but I have been in my constituency. I should like to make a few observations on the report and, having listened to previous contributions, perhaps make some points of my own about
Column 995the way in which hon. Members are treated in this place, especially Back-Bench Members. Of course, it is primarily Back- Bench Members who are taking the opportunity of having their views heard this morning. Frankly, I do not believe that this is the best way of finding out the views of Members generally. Friday debates often tend to be characterised by vast acres of empty green Benches and this place takes on the appearance of the legislative equivalent of the Marie Celeste. It would have perhaps been better if we had had a debate which involved more hon. Members. We should, perhaps, have extended the debate on Thursday when we were discussing procedures generally. Having said that, one should not complain that one has the opportunity to stand up and put a few points to the Minister, which will, perhaps, be taken into account.
I welcome the new facilities with which we shall be provided. Who would not? It would be a surly and fairly ridiculous Member of Parliament who was completely content with our present facilities. So many complaints are voiced by Members one to another and one clearly realises that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with our working conditions.
Unfortunately, perhaps, Members of Parliament are not the most popular group in our society. I do not quite know why that is, but it is a fact. There will be some people outside who, if they were to listen to the debate or if it were to be reported, would say, "They are just a bunch of whingers. There they are, going on again about themselves and their resources." I must join with Conservative Members and make it quite clear that this is not just a good occasion to whinge. We are whingeing--if indeed we are--because many of us consider that we are prevented from doing the sort of job that we want to do on behalf of our constituents. That is what it is all about. We do not ask for enhanced facilities in this place because we want to luxuriate in them but because we want to do a better job for our constituents.
I take the points that were made by Conservative Members. Some of the office facilities for hon. Members are so appalling that we would not tolerate them outside this place, and many of us would demand that something be done. As Members of Parliament, it is always easier to demand that something be done for other people than it is to say that something should be done for ourselves. Quite frankly, if we are not capable of delivering decent facilities for ourselves to do a better job, perhaps we are not in a good position to demand them on behalf of other people.
In welcoming the new facilities, I emphasise that the debate is not about our wanting better conditions for ourselves, to wine and dine and thoroughly enjoy ourselves, it is about us being able to do a better job for our constituents.
In a debate some years ago, I referred to the Palace of Westminster as a legislative slum, because, behind Barry and Pugin's neo-gothic splendour of the Palace of Westminster, some appalling conditions exist, and Members' staff and the workers in this place must endure them. For example, one has only to see the conditions downstairs in the basement for those who work in the various restaurants and snack bars to realise just how unacceptable such conditions are for any group of workers. Several improvements have been made, but, quite frankly, because of the antiquated nature of the building,
Column 996it is almost impossible to raise the standards of the work place to the necessary levels that we would want. From the plans, I note that we shall ensure that those who provide the valuable support services that Members of Parliament need will be given adequate, bearable and good working conditions in the new building.
I referred to this place as a legislative slum. When we give guided tours, many of our visitors are quite surprised at the bare facilities in the Chamber. There is nothing on which to rest papers, and there is no way in which to have an allocated position. There are many touching little customs and traditions in this place. There cannot be one Member of Parliament, wherever he or she stands on the political spectrum, who has not pointed out, sometimes with pride and sometimes with total disbelief, the two red sword lines along the Floor of the Chamber. We point out these things, and we find such traditions amusing, supportive of the system, or whatever else, depending on our political views. But that is not what it is all about. It is about this place being a workplace for us to do a proper job. Quite frankly, we do not have the facilities in this place to do a proper and effective job.
My first place for working here was down in the cloisters. "Cloisters" is a rather fancy word for "corridor". Because we are not subject to Acts of Parliament such as the shops and factories legislation and the various fire regulations, which we insist that others should adhere to, we endure terrible facilities downstairs in the cloisters. If there ever were a fire in the cloisters, we would not face the odd by-election, we would face a mini-general election. If fire officers were rigorously to apply fire safety regulations, they would close the cloisters and, probably, other large sections of the Palace of Westminster.
The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) mentioned Westminster Hall and asked why we cannot make greater use of it. On many occasions when we have discussed facilities generally, I have asked the Lord President of the Council why we cannot use Westminster Hall more effectively and extensively. It is a wonderful space. Architecturally, it is a glorious space. It is the oldest part of the Palace, and it is an architectural wonder, but, at the same time, it is a terrible waste of space. Westminster Hall was where it all began. Westminster Hall used to be the nerve centre of the Palace of Westminster. It is a great shame that it is badly under- used at the moment. Because of problems elsewhere, some exhibitions are going on downstairs, tucked away in the corner. Amnesty International has an excellent exhibition there at the moment. I hope that all hon. Members will have a chance to visit it. That is only a temporary use of the Hall and we should consider its far more permanent use as an exhibition space. I have said that we ought to put on concerts there or allow dance groups to use it for rehearsals.
When I was chair of the arts committee of the GLC the greatest scandal in the arts in London generally was not just the inadequate funding level but the lack of space in which to exhibit works of art by our young artists and sculptors and space for dance groups and emerging musicians to use. Some Conservative Members--not necessarily Conservative Members who are here for this debate--have said that that is not a fitting and proper use for Westminster Hall.
The previous Leader of the House said that one of Westminster Hall's greatest attractions was that it was so large and empty. That is an elitist point of view and is not
Column 997acceptable, given the great lack of space in the capital city for the arts functions for which I would like to see Westminster Hall used. Anyone who has read Pepys's diaries will know that Westminster Hall was a thriving centre of activity and that all sorts of things went on there in earlier centuries. We should try to restore some of the vibrant life that used to exist there and get it back there in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Another point that I would like to make while I have this somewhat unexpected opportunity to speak in the House is that I entirely support Conservative Members who talk about the inadequate resources that they are given for secretarial and research facilities. I am not whingeing but I find that hon. Members who tend to complain about inadequate resources are usually those who are doing the hardest work. That tends to unite the House. Many hardworking hon. Members in all parts of the House rightfully complain about the inadequate funds for research and secretarial assistance.
One does not want vast retinues of secretaries and researchers, but one wants an adequate level. It is anachronistic that, in terms of research and secretarial resources, all hon. Members are treated in exactly the same way whatever the work load. I come from a very deprived area of London, but I know that some Conservative Members have similar problems in their constituencies. We have enormous problems. In a place such as Newham I am almost loth to encourage people to come to me. So many people find their way there anyway that I do not have to encourage them, but I should like to be able to do far more to get people to come to me, write to me or visit me in my constituency office. I find it necessary to keep a full-time office in my constituency because that is where my problems are. I am loth to go out of my way to encourage people because I do not have the resources and facilities to deal with the additional problems that would surface.
I feel some resentment from time to time because I know that I am being given exactly the same resources as a Conservative Member in a leafy rural constituency whose only weekly problem is perhaps to decide what fete or sale of works of art to open at the weekend. I have to deal with problems that come in by the sackload. It is silly to think that all Members have an equal work load when we know that that is not the case. I do not quite know how one would go about it, but somehow the facilities and the resources that Members are given should in some way be linked to the work load that they have to bear. That seems perfectly reasonable. We would consider it totally reasonable outside the House. Why do we not accept in the House so many of the things that are considered reasonable and which we impose on or suggest for people outside? It is nonsensical that we should treat ourselves differently, especially when that operates to our disadvantage in terms of the resources we can provide for ourselves to enable us to carry out our job. The best way to make Members one of the better liked groups in our society rather than one of the least liked is to ensure that we are seen to be doing more of a job more efficiently on behalf of our constituents.
There is another issue that I wish to raise on the role of Members of this place, if only for the reason that I was unsuccessful in catching the eye of the occupant of the Chair during a recent procedure debate. The House is a place that penalises the hard worker in two ways, one of which I have referred to already. It penalises the hard
Column 998worker in the Chamber in our proceedings. It is fairly easy to catch Mr. Speaker's eye on a Friday morning when everyone else has cleared off. That is all right for those of us who are prepared to attend on a Friday, but it is not merely a matter of making speeches. The idea is to make a contribution that has some influence and will have some effect on the deliberations of the House.
I find it frustrating when I want to speak in a debate--I hasten to say that I am not whingeing, because I am called fairly regularly--and I am told by your good self, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or by Mr. Speaker, that there is a long list of hon. Members who wish to participate in the debate and that I have already spoken on several occasions in other debates. I know that Mr. Speaker keeps a fairly close tally of the number of times that Members speak. Then I am told that Mr. So and So or Ms. So and So has not spoken so far in the Session--it may be that we are nearly at the end of it --and that preference must be given to him or her. It is a funny old workplace where the person who turns up regularly is told, "I am sorry but you will be penalised for attending regularly", whereas the person who turns up intermittently has the fatted calf killed for him. It would be a strange workplace where the regular worker who turned up to clock on was told that there was something wrong with him, while a colleague who had not turned up for weeks was given free bacon sandwiches by the gaffer. I find that a strange way of treating hon. Members.
Those who do not turn up regularly in this place should not be rewarded by being able easily to catch Mr. Speaker's eye. Surely they should be penalised. Someone should say to them--perhaps the Whips--"If you don't turn up here more often, don't expect to get in on debates very easily. You will have to give way to those who have spoken on more occasions than you because they are doing a more regular job, if not a better one. We reward regular attendance."
Mrs. Gorman : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that he is retelling the tale of the Prodigal Son? He is complaining that he is undervalued, although he is always doing his bit, when the black sheep who comes back occasionally is rewarded. There is more joy in Heaven over one sinner who repents--it is something like that--than over all those who slog away at the workplace all the time. That is life.
Mr. Banks : The hon. Lady has mixed up a number of biblical analogies. I have always felt sorry for the brother of the Prodigal Son. We have one or two prodigal sons and one or two prodigal daughters in this place, and I would not alter any of my remarks about the way in which they are treated. If they cannot be bothered to come here, or if they can find other things to do, they should not expect preferential treatment when they do attend. Unfortunately, they do enjoy preferential treatment.
In addition--I must throw this in--there is the nonsensical notion that Privy Councillors should be given precedence during a debate. That has not been the practice during this debate but it applied during the recent procedure debate to which I have referred. We see phoenixes rising from the ashes of their political careers to give us the benefit of their experience. They then disappear until they choose in a few weeks' time to participate in another big debate. I find that unacceptable.
Column 999enthusiasm for giving priority to those who attend regularly runs away with him. The logical extension of his argument that those who are here more often should be called to speak more often is that those who say more should be rewarded more. I sincerely hope that he is not advocating that those who speak most should receive further preference.
Mr. Banks : Of course I did not mean that. If hon. Members were paid by the word, I suspect that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) would be a millionaire by now. There are many hon. Members who manage to say very little in a great deal of time. I do not want to fall foul of that myself. I welcome the new proposals and I hope that the arguments and discussions about who will carry them out and how fast that can be done will be cleared away quickly and that we can go into the new facilities and be better able to do our jobs as Members of Parliament--of whatever party--who are trying to represent our constituencies.
The Property Services Agency and the Minister have lost an excellent opportunity by not considering the use of county hall, on the other side of the river, to provide facilities for Members of Parliament. I know that the Government want to turn county hall into a hotel. A previous Secretary of State for the Environment said that he would like county hall to be taken down brick by brick because it represented something odious to the Government. We all remember the battles that were fought in the Chamber-- which will continue to be fought--over the Government's abolition of the Greater London council. Since city-wide Government has not yet been restored to the capital--which the next Labour Government will do, or perhaps even a future Conservative Government, when the present Prime Minister has retired to Dulwich or wherever else she has managed to get a free house--county hall could be used for public offices. In the meantime, it stands empty, waiting for its future inappropriate use as a hotel--which will involve great difficulties. The Government could decide to use the facilities at county hall for Members of Parliament. If Members of Parliament were able to use the excellent facilities there, that would satisfy many of the points that I have raised about the lack of resources and facilities here. When the Minister makes his winding-up speech, I hope that he will tell us whether consideration has been, or will be, given to the use of county hall as offices for Members of Parliament or as public offices for others in this area of London. I know that he is involved in discussions on the future use of county hall.
Mr. Richard Holt (Langbaurgh) : I apologise for not having been here at the commencement of the debate. I did not think that I would be called to speak on this subject at all, but I wanted to throw in my pennyworth. I enjoyed hearing the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks)--as I always do. He and I are two of the most assiduous hon. Members and we could name the dozen or so hon. Members who attend regularly. I sympathise with many of his remarks. However, it is far worse to be a Government Back Bencher than an Opposition Back Bencher in that an Opposition Back Bencher has much more freedom to speak than we do. We are restricted to
Column 1000four speeches a year, except on a Friday. If one represents a north-eastern constituency, as I do, one is in the north-east most weekends so one is rarely here on a Friday. Our opportunity to speak is therefore restricted. That is not about what we are supposed to be debating today--which is accommodation.
I wonder how many hon. Members have considered the matter in relation to the changing role of Members of Parliament--which is important. Members of Parliament today are very different from those of 20, 50 or 100 years ago because most of them are full-time working Members of Parliament who do not have outside activities and who are constrained to working here.
Unlike most places outside, we debate our salaries, conditions and working environment. I wonder why we were pitched at the third tier of a civil servant's salary? Perhaps they wanted to ensure that we were not pitched at a higher level for office accommodation and back-up facilities. Civil servants would not work in these conditions. Sir Humphrey would find a way of buying the Dorchester and putting his staff in there.
I should tell my new hon. Friends that I entered the House of Commons at the age of 52--a geriatric by modern standards. Before then I worked as a personnel manager in industry. I spent 25 years interviewing people and trying to put them into the right jobs. They had to decide whether to accept the terms and conditions of employment. If some of the senior people whom I have engaged were expected to work in the conditions in which Members of Parliament must work, British industry would have lost many of them. They would not tolerate working in such conditions. For one thing, it is impossible to think properly when one has to share an office with three other people, the telephone is ringing constantly and there are many other interruptions.
Some people say that we can do our thinking in the Library, but it is pretty well occupied end to end. A casual visitor to the Library who simply wants to write a letter has great difficulty finding a desk that is not already occupied. It is hard to find somewhere in the building where one can sit down quietly and read an important report so that one can take it in.
When I first entered Parliament I had an office in Norman Shaw building. For a short time--it was only two days before I took action--I had to share an office with my hon. Friend the present Under-Secretary of State for Health. I assure hon. Members that that was no joy. I now enjoy shared facilities with a very compatible friend.
We have an excellent Library with a first-class staff, but it must be the only Library in the United Kingdom that allows its patrons to smoke.
Mr. Holt : I smoke a cigar occasionally, so I shall not go down that path. The hon. Gentleman believes that our Library is good, but he should visit the library of the American Congress to see how it works. Its facilities are mind-boggling, To understand the difference is like trying to understand walking on the moon.
Mr. Wilshire : I, too, have visited the library of Congress. I wonder whether my hon. Friend had the opportunity to ask the United States service to provide information on a subject, in the way that we ask our
Column 1001Library to provide information? I was able to compare the information provided here, with our rudimentary facilities, with that provided through the magnificent facilities of Congress. It is a tribute to our staff that the information that I obtained here was almost as good as the information that I obtained there.
Mr. Holt : That is a compliment to the staff, not to the facilities. Our facilities are inadequate and I would argue that with anyone. Too many people are trying to use too small a facility. As our jobs grow and we perform more and more full-time work as Members of Parliament and require back-up facilities, we need research assistants to help us. I defy anyone to know everything about everything all the time.
Recently, I got into trouble because I did not know at the drop of a hat what a Macmillan nurse was. I am sorry, that information had not registered with me. There are all sorts of things that we would like to know about the nurses' dispute. We need research assistants to examine those matters for us. I have been here for only five and a half years. I must wait another 14 years before my research assistant will be allowed to use the Library. I do not even have a desk for my secretary and I have been here five and a half years. My secretary must use my desk, which I can use only after 7 pm when she has gone home if I want to write personal correspondence to my constituents.
I am used to industry and commerce, but I could not work in an environment if my office was in one building and my secretary was elsewhere, for instance in Norman Shaw. It is very stupid to ask Members of Parliament to work in such conditions.
Although I have not read the report properly, it seems that we will continue to have pigeon holes. The system will be no better for our successors. I remember the arguments from the former right hon. Member for South Down, Mr. Enoch Powell. He did not want a secretary, an office or a desk. He believed that we should all be in the Chamber participating in debates, creating legislation and orating. That is how it used to be ; it is not how it is now. We must rationalise and work in modern circumstances.
I have a small personal point to make with reference to a comment made by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West. I need to have a drink when I speak because I am a diabetic. I have special permission from Mr. Speaker to bring a drink into the Chamber and I can poke it under here and have a drink if I want one. However, I should not have a drink in the Chamber.
Mr. Tony Banks : I thought that I would give the hon. Gentleman a chance to have a sip of his water. I did not realise that one needed Mr. Speaker's permission to bring a drink into the Chamber. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is correct in that. I assure him that secreted away under here I have a small hip flask and I once brought a carton of orange juice into the Chamber. I tucked it away down here and looked down from my papers and had a quick suck--of the the orange juice of course.
Mr. Holt : I am grateful for that moment's break. I do not want to enter into a huge argument with the hon. Gentleman, but I believe that we are not allowed to eat or drink in the Chamber. I remember walking into the Chamber one day with a drink and I was stopped by the gentleman outside whose job it is to ensure that the rules
Column 1002are maintained. As a consequence I asked for permission, although I will not pursue whether I needed to do that. My point is that we do not have the facilities for a drink. The Front-Bench speakers may get dry mouths and can have a drink. The Back Benchers cannot. Water is provided, but that is not cooled and probably has stood for three days. Nevertheless, there is water for the Front Benches. The office conditions for our staff are even worse than ours. The conditions would not be acceptable to the inspectorates in industry and commerce let alone to the would-be employee. However, our secretaries must work in the most appalling conditions. Before I became a Member of this House I had a secretary working for me in industry and commerce. She thought that it would be marvellous to come and work with me here after I was elected as a Member of Parliament. Alas, she is no longer with me. She could not tolerate the working conditions. She put up with them for four years in the hope that some day they would be better, but she did not see the day coming before her retirement and she is only a young lady. She chose to work for a major institution in the City, where the conditions she now enjoys are similar to those she had when she worked for me in industry and commerce. I am sure that these conditions stop many potentially high-flying people from working for us as secretaries. We need good secretaries. Any Member of Parliament without a secretary, except for Mr. Enoch Powell, who says that he can cope without a secretary to assist him with his diary and all our other tasks, is not doing the job properly.
With our allowance we can buy either a new typewriter, which our secretary requires because--with the number of letters that she has bashed out, she has worn out last year's model--or we can buy something electronic, such as a computer or fax machine--
Mr. Holt : Yes, indeed--or have a research assistant. We can pay peanuts invariably to some aspiring young politician to work himself silly in the hope that one day he may have these inadequate facilities as a Member of Parliament. We should have better facilities for research assistants. I do not have one, but if I did I would have to ask him or her to share the shoe box upstairs with my colleague, my secretary and myself. There is nowhere for research assistants to go all day, every day to work, unless they work for a Member who has been here for a long time, and are consequently given a special pass.
While we are involved in a bit of a bitching session, perhaps I may put in a word about the lifts. I hesitate to mention this, but they are so jinxed and so often out of order. Two days ago I was in a lift with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) and his guide dog and we pressed for the first and second floors. It did not stop at the first floor --it has a mind of its own and is never adequately repaired--but went straight to the second floor where I was getting out. The hon. Gentleman was in a difficult position because we did not want to risk him being caught in the lift, so I moved him into the next door lift which has double sliding doors which are not easy for a sighted Member, let alone a non- sighted Member. Why do we have such inadequate lifts after all these years? Has somebody only recently invented the lift or is it considered
Column 1003that it is all right for us to walk up and down three flights of stairs every time we come in and out of the building? We must have this looked into seriously.
Throughout the long summer recess the lift was out of action for maintenance. Perhaps the Property Services Agency was working on it. I do not know. But as a member of the Select Committee on the Environment I have examined the workings of the PSA, particularly in relation to the new gaol building programme, and I know that nothing coming from the PSA will surprise me. It is amazing that estimates for building prisons can be 85 per cent. below the final cost. That led to repairs and rectification work. The original distance between the upright bars on stairs was found not to be correct ; if people had walked up and down the stairs they could have slipped through them. Additional bars have had to be inserted, at enormous cost to the ratepayer. It has put back the programme and has led to prison overcrowding and all the other problems that we could do without. The thought of the PSA's inadequate prison building programme makes me shudder when I think that it may be given the responsibility to provide our facilities. Two things could happen. First, the facilities that the PSA provides will not be right. Secondly, they will cost twice as much.
I do not want Parliament to become a place where Members can do their weekend shopping. I sympathise with my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) and her cats, but this is a legislative building. If one visits legislative buildings in other parts of the world, one finds that they have marvellous facilities for all sorts of things, but I have not yet observed that they sell cat meat. That would be a retrograde step.
Miss Widdecombe : My point about cats was partially, but not wholly, frivolous. Those of us who are both full-time Members of Parliament and single and who work in this place from 9 o'clock in the morning right through until 3 o'clock the next morning occasionally need to buy a few unusual goods, largely because we have been too busy to do our normal shopping. Is it unreasonable to ask that personal necessities should be sold in one small area when posh Parker pens and souvenirs are already being sold in another area?
Mr. Holt : No, I do not intend to give way. I am still answering the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone. I had to spend three or four hours at that hospital. I could not say, "Look, I am such a busy, important person that I have to be in the House of Commons from 9 o'clock in the morning until 3 o'clock the next morning. Therefore you will have to open the hospital on a Sunday so that I can have my X-ray then." It does not work like that. We have to achieve a balance. We do not do the same thing all day, every day. If we intend to make a speech on a particular subject, we probably spend two or three days on research ; we think about and work in advance on what we intend to say. We
Column 1004know that we shall be unable to go shopping. But that does not happen all the time, and we make arrangements to go shopping within normal constraints.
I do not believe that this building is the right place to go shopping. Where would it end? There would be a greengrocer's shop here, and every other kind of shop. That would be completely wrong. I do not accept that hon. Members have no leisure time. I am a full-time Member of Parliament, but I have plenty of leisure time. I am going to the theatre tonight. If I so wanted, I could do my shopping tonight. That does not make me a bad Member of Parliament. It makes me a balanced Member of Parliament. An unbalanced Member of Parliament is one who spends his or her time from 9 o'clock in the morning until 3 o'clock the next morning working and working and never having a change.
Mrs. Gorman : Is not my hon. Friend a married man? My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) made a valid point about women Members of Parliament. We are responsible for remembering that the toothpaste has run out. I am sure that many of our male colleagues have wives to do the shopping for them. The whole point about shops, though, is that it is expected that shops will be provided at the bottom of the new building. The question is what those shops should provide. My proposal was that when leases are allocated a variety of facilities should be borne in mind. They should include a general store, a chemist's shop and other facilities that women Members of Parliament in particular would like and would find most useful.
Mr. Holt : I take my hon. Friend's point, but I hope that she takes it to heart, as queen of the market forces, that if market forces dictate that every one of the shops sells cheap junky souvenirs, that is what will happen. She cannot have her cake and eat it. She cannot suggest a planned economy, saying what should be in the shops, and then say that she believes in market forces for office rents. I do not accept that duplicity.
We are here today to express our personal views about our accommodation. I do not believe that we want to get involved with shops. I believe that we want better facilities for ourselves and for our secretaries, research assistants and other staff. We cannot concern ourselves about whether a person is married, single, male or female. In this non-sexist age, we must concern ourselves with Members of Parliament.
Mr. Tony Banks : I must say that I enjoyed the hon. Gentleman's put- down of his hon. Friend, although I have some sympathy with the point that she raised. However, as was said earlier, shops are not meant to cater only for the needs of Members of Parliament but for the thousands of people who will work in the new facilities. Quite frankly, if we are talking about market forces, Mr. Enoch Powell always detested the souvenir stand downstairs, but it actually makes quite a lot of money. Therefore, it would be possible to square the circle and solve the problems that exist on the Conservative Benches. If there were adequate facilities within this building or the new building for people to buy groceries and other things, those facilities would also make money and Conservative Members would be satisfied and would not be falling out with each other.
Column 1005I do not have a public school background, therefore I did not have the pseudo-advantages of learning of some of the things that go with a public school background, but I know that this establishment is run as an extension of a public school. We have our juniors, our seniors, the prefects and the remove. We have some quaint and ancient traditions and I would not wish too many of them to be done away with. But I wonder why, in this modern day and age, we have the anachronism referred to by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West of catching Mr. Speaker's eye and why we have to stand up and sit down like recalcitrant school children in order to do so. Why do we not have the facility of putting our hands up?
Mr. Holt : It just shows my luck as usual. Perhaps while we are talking not about what happens here but only about what happens in the new facilities, I can ask whether we are to contemplate installing the facility of listening to the debate taking place in the Chamber? Are we to have closed-circuit television to enable us to do so? Why do we not consider the electronic advantages that would flow from the new building into this building so that we would not have to stand up and sit down like recalcitrant school children, but prearrange with Mr. Speaker that we would be speaking between 7 pm and 9 pm, instead of having to do what we do now and sit here from 3.30 pm until perhaps 8 pm or 9 pm waiting for a six or seven minute slice of time? That is totally wrong. It is part and parcel of the frustration. If we had decent offices with decent facilities and modern communication, we would all be much happier.
We know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have not heard the debate up to now, and that is not your fault, but almost everyone who has spoken has spoken in a bitching manner. No one has been enthusiastic about the situation as it is or as it will be.
I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister winds up the debate he will not talk of next week or next year. I hope that he will realise that Westmister Hall has been around a long time and that, whatever decision we ultimately take, it will be around for a long time. 12.35 pm
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West) : On behalf of the Opposition I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) and the Committee on their work. I am glad that the Leader of the House has been able to rejoin us because I may want to call on him. I am waiting for further information. We welcomed his initial contribution to the debate. I also echo the tribute paid to the late John Silkin for the work he did while Chairman. There are few people who could be more suitably described as "House of Commons men" than John. This morning we have inevitably had to talk about our own experiences and some of the discussion may, from the outside, seem somewhat trivial. However, we are talking of working conditions not just for ourselves but many others.
Column 1006About 4,000 people other than Members of Parliament work here. Therefore, when we describe the conditions that affect us, we are describing the better end of the conditions because those who work for us, often including the civil servants working within the building, have even fewer adequate facilities. However, that should not blur the fact that we are dealing with a historic and highly prestigious site and what we put on that site will be part of our heritage.
We are here to consider and approve--I am sure that we shall do so-- something much more modest than that because we are asked only to endorse some calls for action and no one is suggesting that we should not. The suggestions are that we should carry out preliminary design work, undertake a study and carry out a feasibility report. No one finds that exceptionable and we would probably all endorse the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore who was astonished to discover that, although he understood that the work was to go ahead on an anticipatory basis five months ago, up to now, very little, if anything, has happened.
As has been suggested, the conditions here are appallingly inadequate. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore mentioned each member of staff having 60 sq ft. Conditions will get worse as Members need to employ more staff and more equipment is used.
It is interesting that conditions are so bad that our work force is exempt from the protection of employment conditions that we have enacted for everyone else. Therefore, they work for us at a legal as well as physical disadvantage. The hon. Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) gave us the benefit of his experience in industry. He said that he has been here five and a half years and does not even have a desk for his secretary.
After I had been here for six years I did not have a desk for myself. I came in 1964 and in 1967 I became a Minister. That was the first time I had any territorial claim on the Palace of Westminster. However, the accommodation was not for me but went with the office. When the great British electorate made an ill-considered decision in 1970 I found my total claim on the House of Commons had been contracted to a pile of cardboard boxes tied up with string with "A. Williams" written on the side and "To be collected" in small print underneath. The trouble was that there was nowhere to take those boxes. I had to do what one or two other hon. Members had done. I explored the building and I found a corridor above the Aye Lobby, so in 1970, I bundled up those papers and walked up to the corridor. There were some tables there and I just put my papers on them. I began to get courteous notes from the then Serjeant at Arms, or one of his deputies, asking if I would be kind enough to move the papers so that someone could dust around them, and I equally politely said that the moment that I was provided with somewhere to put the papers, I would gladly move them. Two years later, the war of attrition paid off, so by 1972, although I did not get an official desk, I was allowed to continue squatting and the Serjeant at Arms' office said that it would even give me a filing cabinet. Eventually, those two corridors had to be pressed into use. It was not until 1974, 10 years after I entered the House, when I again became a Minister, that I had a desk that belonged to me in the House of Commons. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore paid tribute to Mary Frampton. Some of us signed an early-day
Column 1007motion because we did not want her to feel that her departure was unrecorded by the House. I understand that she, whom I have to thank for that first filing cabinet--the endorsement, the rubber- stamping of my squatting in the Palace of Westminster--is to grow shrubs. I would love to be a fly on the wall as she is talking to those shrubs. I suspect that she will have the tidiest shrubbery in the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore is too solicitous for the well-being of the Leader of the House. Much as we all love and respect the right hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend should not be deceived by the little slum along the corridor. That is for presentation purposes only. He does not want us to think that our landlord is living in better conditions than we are. I would gladly swap with him if, in addition to the meagre office that he has here--it is twice or three times the size of those that we have--I also had the rather decorative little cubbyholes on Whitehall to which he is able to retreat. Sympathy by all means, but let us make sure that it goes where it belongs, which is here with most hon. Members. The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) put forward a proposition, which I do not think she meant frivolously, that it might make more sense to give people money to rent their own accommodation, rather than providing it here. I understand the doctrinal element behind this suggestion, but there is a practical point. The real difficulty in this place, and one of the constraints that faces everyone in planning for accommodation, is that whoever has accommodation has to have accommodation that is available at all hours of day and night and that is within a sufficiently short distance for hon. Members to be able to get from there to the House within the time allowed for a Division. The longer we extend that time, the longer we extend the sittings of the House of Commons. A private market solution might make sense if we were working normal office hours and could persuade the Chief Whips on both sides to be courteous enough to ensure that there were no Divisions during those times. However, as their only delight and pleasure in life seems to be a sadistic joy in calling Divisions at the most inconvenient time for Members, I can only conclude that the hon. Member would be playing into their hands if she were successful in the campaign that she has mounted this morning.
Mrs. Gorman : Would it not be nice to be treated as a grown-up and given the option of either taking facilities here or being allowed to choose facilities? At the moment, rooms are allocated in a primitive way-- that is, on a pecking order basis of a lovely room if one is a Minister, and nothing much if one is not.
Mr. Williams : When there is so little accommodation, there has to be some sort of order. My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore can tell us how difficult it is to determine who should have what. We have all been, as we see it, the victims of inadequate resources here. That is another possibility and I suggest that the hon. Lady takes it up with the Lord President of the Council.
I used to have an office in Norman Shaw, but I left it because I found that it was hopeless for me. By the time I got over here for a meeting, with another meeting in an hour's time, I would have to decide whether I went back to my room or stayed here. We find ourselves picking up
Column 1008a newspaper, or, if we are unusually diligent, wandering into the Library. We may sustain ourselves with a cup of coffee, but we waste a great deal of time. If that option is adopted, surely hon. Members will say that, in addition to having accommodation outside the House, they still need somewhere where they can rest their briefcases within Division bell distance. We would end up with hon. Members wanting the best of both worlds. They would want the money for outside accommodation and, at the same time, a base available to them in the Commons.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) has designs on Westminster Hall.
Mr. Williams : My hon. Friend put forward some colourful and interesting propositions for its use. However, once again, the great problem that we have all had to face over the years is the overriding problem of security. We could reconcile some of his wishes with some of those of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). Hon. Members who have had to show parties around the building have been apologetic and ashamed because they have had to keep groups of pensioners or young children waiting in pouring rain to go through the security screen when there is all that empty space where we could have a bank of security screens and people could wait under shelter. I put it to the Lord President that the way in which we treat our constituents who come here to see Parliament is a public scandal. We treat them as if they were privileged to come and look when, in fact, we are privileged to be here. They are entitled to come and look and we should make the facilities available for them to do so. We want people to show an interest in Parliament. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consider that matter seriously and discuss it with those of his colleagues responsible for such decisions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West floated the idea of a constituency means test, which he admitted would be rather difficult to adjudicate. I regard that as an even more impossible task than allocating rooms in the House in any sane way and I suspect that we shall be unable to make progress on that proposition.
Mr. Tony Banks : It would not be a question of giving Members of Parliament tranches of money because that would be too difficult. Members would have staff allocated to them through the Fees Office and would take those members of staff only if they felt it was necessary to do so. That would be a way of dealing with the problem. A Member could say to the Fees Office, "I think I can justify four members of staff working for me." No doubt there would be some empire-building by some hon. Members, but those Members who do not want large numbers of staff would not abuse the system.
Mr. Williams : Obviously, local government has a far greater ratio of saints than does central Government. I am touched that the faith built up by my hon. Friend during his period working on the GLC leads him to think that our colleagues would behave in so judicious and forthright a manner.
My hon. Friend also said that some Members are not as effective as others because they do not make as many speeches. I regret the fact that some hon. Members make even the few speeches that they do make, but I do not think
Column 1009that my hon. Friend would agree that the sole measure by which we should judge the contributions of hon. Members to the House of Commons is the number of speeches that they make here. My hon. Friend makes many speeches, but we are not all able to sustain the quality of contribution that he is. We would therefore be setting a false criterion by which our constituents would judge us if we were to take up his suggestion. His ideas about the use of county hall are well worth while and are worth investigating further. Perhaps the Minister will comment on that.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West, I am disappointed that every time we discuss, consider or have a report on progress, there appears to be further slippage to report. I suspect--though I hope not-- that today we shall hear about a further retreat of our timetable. We have a unique opportunity to contribute to the smooth running of future Parliaments. We owe it to them to give consideration to all aspects.
The catering facilities have also been mentioned, and all of us are daily aware of the difficulties experienced by the catering staff in meeting the enormous demands of the House of Commons. I hope that when new facilities are envisaged across the way that they will be available to everyone who works here. We need adequate resources for hon. Members, but I hope that the resources in the new building will also be available to those who work in the House, as certain parts of our cafeteria and self catering area are at present.
I noticed in the report--or it may have been evidence given to the Committee on behalf of the Catering and Refreshment
Department--mention of the possibility of private dining facilities. I hope that we will regard that as low priority until we have ensured that the real and legitimate needs of all those who work in the House are served. We should not just consider our needs, as we are a small fraction. The catering requirements within this building are enormous and until those are fully met we should not be giving much priority to the provision for outside or private dining groups, even if they are lucrative.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow referred to exercise facilities. The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) was a little disdainful about that in her comments. Having been here only a short time, she is lucky that she has not suffered the ravages which the sedentary existence in this place imposes upon most of us. My hon. Friend made a realistic point. I am not suggesting that there should be lavish facilities. I believe that they should be health-based facilities. As the Leader of the House will confirm, most of us are in this building between 9 am and 10 am and are still trapped here most evenings until some time after 10 pm. Even where there is the will, it is virtually impossible to find the opportunity to keep oneself in sensible physical trim. It is not an exotic demand by Members of Parliament, but a sensible one. I am sure that I shall make a great many enemies, in saying that those facilities should be considered, even if it means that those who like shooting have to give way to those who like surviving.
Several hon. Members have gone out of their way to pay tribute to the House of Commons Library. We must differentiate between the activities of our Library and the normal library service. We have a wonderful back-up service. In fact, the Library is the source of rapid information for a large number of hon. Members on a large number of subjects. By the nature of our business, it