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Column 109House of Commons Services
Mr. Speaker : I have selected amendments (a), (b), (e) and (1). I suggest that we have a general debate, and then I will call the hon. Members concerned to move their amendments at the end of it. 10.15 pm
That the Second Report of Session 1987-88 from the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services) on Access to the Precincts of the House (House of Commons Paper No. 580) be approved.
Towards the end of 1987, the House passed a resolution which invited the Services Committee to consider control over access to the precincts of the House, and in particular to consider whether the numbers of Members' personal staff with such access should be reduced, bearing in mind the pressure on the capacity of the facilities of the House.
The catalyst for this resolution was the suspension, at the end of the previous summer recess, of Mr. Ronan Bennett, a research assistant employed by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn). But the inquiry conducted by the Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee, which has led to the report that we are debating tonight, was not directly concerned with that issue. As the House will be aware, the Sub-Committee has considered with great care and in great detail a wide range of proposals for controlling access to the House and has made a number of nicely judged recommendations. I should like to thank the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) and his Sub-Committee for their work. I fully support their report, which was unanimously agreed by the Services Committee, and I commend it to the House. If the right hon. Gentleman is lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, I know that he will wish to outline the detailed recommendations of the report and the reasons behind them. I shall be brief, therefore, particularly as I know that a number of right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak in this short debate.
Broadly speaking, the report's recommendations can be divided into two categories : those that are merely advisory and recommend that the security authorities should consider possible courses of action ; and those which would, if the report is approved tonight, mean tangible changes in practice in the near future.
The advisory recommendations in the report ask the security authorities to consider such points as the possible introduction of machine-readable passes, random physical screening of pass holders, requiring pass holders to wear passes, and the designation of the area around the Chamber as restricted to Members and House staff. Traditionally, Mr. Speaker, the security of the House is your responsibility, but the Committee felt that it might be profitable to study the suggestions that I have outlined. Whether or not they should be implemented is entirely a matter for you.
The other, more tangible recommendations in the report fall into four main categories. The first is those limiting the numbers of research assistants and the use of Table Office and Library facilities by research assistants and temporary secretaries. The second is those designed to limit the activities of commercial lobbyists. The third is
Column 110those concerned with freezing the number of passes in circulation and making more effective the control of them, making sure that passes are returned promptly by those who no longer need them, and ensuring a regular change of design.
Finally, there are recommendations on arrangements for Members' staff, most notably that the number of Members' staff who may hold photo passes should be limited to three, with the Accommodation and Administration Sub- Committee able to recommend to the Services Committee any increase for individual Members where exceptional circumstances justify it. I should like briefly to comment on this recommendation, which I know some Members would find irksome. Let me say at once that the Committee is not proposing a limit on the number of staff employed by a Member, merely on the number that can possess photo passes. If a Member has more than three staff in his or her employment, those without passes could still, of course, visit the House on a temporary day pass or accompanied by a photo pass holder. I would envisage that the right hon. Member for Salford, East, in his capacity as Chairman of the Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee, would look sympathetically on the claims of those members with particular responsibilities, including Front-Bench spokesmen, some senior Members, and minority party leaders, for photo passes in excess of three.
If the House approves the report tonight, I envisage, in accordance with paragraph 60, that the recommendations concerning the number of photo pass holders would come into effect at the beginning of the coming financial year. This would leave a period of two months in which hon. Members should make any arrangements necessary, although, as I have explained, employees in excess of three would still be able to visit the House on the terms for those without photo passes. The beginning of April would also seem to be a good time to introduce the other concrete recommendations, if approved, on research assistants and lobbyists. I am prepared, however, for a measure of flexibility if there are good arguments in favour of it. The ending of the agreements with intern-sponsoring organisations, for instance, might take place in the summer, once this academic year's crop of interns, who may already have made arrangements to come, have gone. I shall listen to hon. Members' views.
I do believe, however, that there should be no unavoidable delay in implementing the measures proposed by the Committee. There is general agreement in the House that there are too many photo passes in circulation and they are insufficiently controlled. There is, moreover, too much pressure on facilities primarily designed for Members' own use. The measures before us tonight offer a realistic package which achieves what I think is a happy medium between an over-relaxed and an over-rigorous approach. For different reasons, either approach would be to the detriment of hon. Members, and I urge the House to support the Committee's recommendations, which strike the right balance.
I shall say just a few words on the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Sir M. Shaw). I have long believed that, if we are to facilitate access to this House by Members of the European Parliament, it would be best to proceed with general agreement in all parts of the House. I am pleased to see
Column 111that the amendment has indeed attracted such support. I believe that there really can be very little objection to an amendment which is so modest in scope. If I understand it correctly, it would, if approved, merely allow MEPs access to that part of the House to which members of the public also have access, except that their photo pass would entitle them to come in at St. Stephen's entrance without having to explain themselves to the police or undergoing a bag search and scan for explosives.
We are talking about giving these very limited rights of access to a very limited number of people--81. They already enjoy these rights, and more, in another place, and I do not believe that any useful purpose is served by opposing this modest concession to our Strasbourg colleagues. They will not, under the terms of this amendment, be entitled to use any of the hard- pressed facilities of the House, and there can be no objection to it. I shall support the amendment, together with the original motion.
I shall not be supporting the other amendments you have selected, Mr. Speaker. The Sub-Committee considered most carefully the restrictions on access to the Table Office by research assistants and on the number of Members' staff who may hold photo passes, and their recommendations were endorsed unanimously by the Services Committee. To reject them now would, especially in the case of the limit of three staff photo passes per Member, substantially alter the nature of the report and even frustrate a large part of its purpose. As for the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) dealing with those who are refused a pass, I have nothing to add to what I said on the subject in the debate on 10 November 1987. Security is a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, and you base your decisions on confidential advice from the appropriate authorities. I do not believe that it is possible to reveal details of confidential security advice without compromising that same security. I invite the House to reject this amendment.
Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East) : I thank the Lord President for his comments and support for the role of the Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee in the preparation of the report, apart from his remarks about European Members to whom I shall refer later. I accept full responsibility for the contents of the report and stress that the Sub- Committee approved its proposals unanimously. As the House is aware, the report has been compiled following instructions from the House that access to this place and the lack of facilities, as well as security, should be fully investigated. I stress that, with over 10,000 passes to the Palace of Westminster, we are reaching breaking point with our facilities and that makes security even more difficult.
For a number of years there has been a steady increase in the number of individuals who have acquired a more or less unlimited right of access to the Palace of Westminster and its outbuildings, and to the various facilities available in the House, while accommodation, library and refreshment service facilities have expanded at a much slower rate.
Column 112Only two months ago the House was debating a report produced a few days earlier by the New Building Sub-Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell). The report emphasised the appalling lack of accommodation available to Members and their staff, even after more than 20 years of development both inside the Palace of Westminster and in the outbuildings. According to the report : "in round numbers, 500 backbenchers presently have access to only 150 single rooms."
Even in 1990, when the present new buildings are in use, only 85 further rooms will be available for Members.
Accommodation and facilities for Members' staff are at least as bad. Our report points out that the House is at present providing only about 400 desks for more than 1,300 secretaries and research assistants of Members. Although the number of desks will have increased by about half in 1990, the number of staff continues to increase.
There are constant complaints from hon. Members on both sides of the House and their staff about the overcrowding of refreshment facilities at all times of the day and night, about the preoccupation of Library staff in dealing with demands for basic information from relatively and sometimes totally inexperienced research assistants, about queues in the Post Office and about the difficulty of getting advice from the Table Office. At the same time Members, often the same Members, insist that services should be improved--that we provide other facilities such as swimming pools, cre ches, shops and hairdressers, in the already overcrowded buildings.
Let me make it clear at once that I am one of those who regard the demand for better facilities as wholly legitimate. I regret and deplore the failure of the House and of successive Governments of both parties to make proper provision for accommodation and services for a Parliament facing the entirely proper demands of the latter part of the 20th century. The overriding priority must be the provision of infinitely better accommodation and other facilities for Members. The pace of development on the Bridge street site is still dreadfully slow, and the Government must realise that Members on both sides of the House are no longer prepared to tolerate such conditions.
The sooner that financial control of our new buildings programme is taken out of the hands of a Government agency and placed firmly in those of the House, the better. [Interruption.] If my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Holland) looks at the record he will see that I have been advocating such proposals for the last 20 years, but we must face the facts as they are now. Paragraph 42 of our report states categorically:
"Members' accommodation remains our absolute first priority, and pressure from Members' staff must be viewed in that light." The same must be said equally of all facilities in the House. Members must have first priority in the Library, the Table Office and the Refreshment Department. If facilities are limited--and they are--we have to make our priorities clear. For this reason we have concluded, some of us very reluctantly, that a limit should be placed on the number of individual staff to whom Members may grant complete freedom of access to the House and its facilities.
Paragraph 54 of our report recommends that no hon. Member should normally be allowed to apply for photo passes for more than three members of his personal staff.
Column 113That does not prevent him from employing more staff ; he can employ as many as he likes. We say that, given the pressures on facilities of all sorts, a limit must be imposed on those who can freely enter the building, use the Library and monopolise the photocopiers and telephones. So if additional members of staff enter the building they will need day passes or they will need to be accompanied. They cannot claim a right of free access to all the facilities.
The limit of three is not draconian. The latest available figures show that only 66 of the 650 Members hold passes for more than the proposed limit. Between them, they account for 360 of the passes issued to Members' staff-- that is, for 25 per cent. of all staff employed in the Palace or outbuildings by hon. Members. A minority of hon. Members on both sides of the House now hold more than three and up to 12 passes each. That cannot continue
Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton) : The Leader of the House said that in certain cases exceptions to the limit of three could be made--for instance, for Front Bench spokesmen and senior Members. Of the 66 Members who hold more than the proposed limit, how many will qualify for the exemptions proposed by my right hon. Friend and the Leader of the House and by how much, therefore, will the limit they are laying down be exceeded?
Mr. Orme : Only a small minority will qualify as exceptions. I will willingly show my hon. Friend the list of passes held now, from which he will see that leaders of parties, and so on, hold more. I shall come on to how we intend to deal with that.
Initially, these proposals will hit some hon. Members hard. Even with the limit that has already been proposed, an increase of almost 50 per cent. in the number of Members' staff is possible, and the strain of that would be intolerable. We must tell colleagues who need more staff with passes that we do not have the facilities to cope with them in this building or in the outbuildings. If every hon. Member exercised the right that some hon. Members have had, we should be walking on the tops of people's heads here.
The limit that we propose is a good deal higher than that preferred by many hon. Members. The right hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) has frequently argued that Members should be restricted to only one pass holder. Although I do not think he would press that view, it illustrates the fact that some senior Members are far from convinced that it is necessary or desirable for Members to have more than the number of passes that we recommend.
Our proposal seems, on all the evidence, a sensible balance. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) pointed out, however, there may be exceptions. Our recommendations provide for the Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee to consider individual requests for exemptions from the rule. We shall certainly consider them, but I warn that good arguments will have to be used. Every case will be judged on its merits, regardless of which hon. Member puts it.
I should add that the proposed--
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) : Is my right hon. Friend not worried that the system that he proposes would produce, for the first time in the House, a prefect-first system? A minority would be able to present a special case. Those Members would be treated in one way and the rest of us would be treated in another. This is a place where,
Column 114basically, hon. Members have had the same resources and the same freedoms. Is my right hon. Friend not leading us down a dangerous path?
Mr. Orme : We have a prefect-first system now, because a minority of hon. Members are taking advantage of the majority. If my hon. Friend studies the figures, he will understand that I am correct. The proposed limit on Members' staff is only a part of a package that is designed at least to slow the rate of growth in the number of pass holders of all categories in the Palace. We propose in paragraphs 47 and 48 that the limits on the number of temporary overseas research assistants--inevitably, we are now calling them interns--which were imposed in 1985 should be rigorously enforced and that the loopholes should be closed.
These assistants are mainly American students who visit us each year. They impose a disproportionately heavy demand on services, especially those that are provided by the Library and the Refreshment Department. For that reason we endorse the recommendations of the Librarian that there should be a further and marginal tightening of controls on the use of Library facilities by temporary staff. I refer the House to paragraph 36 of the report. The limit on the overall number of Members' pass-holding staff may make colleagues think twice before accepting an intern replacement.
We propose what could be the most far-reaching restriction on the growth of pass holders in general. Many organisations, including Government Departments and the media, have been steadily increasing the number of their officials who carry passes to permit them access to this building. We note that about 2,200 civil servants held temporary passes to the building last year, even though many of them were individuals who needed only occasional access to Parliament. Their passes are called temporary, but in practice each one may be held for many years. That is completely unreasonable. The system certainly does not work in the opposite direction.
The media have slipped into the same practice. Most notorious is the BBC, which already holds more than 200 passes. What will happen when television comes into the Chamber, whether it is organised by the BBC or any other organisation? We must take that into account. The trends to which I have referred must stop. In paragraph 59 we propose that the total number of passes held by any outside organisation should be frozen at the present level. If the motion is agreed, it will be possible for outside organisations to increase their allocation of passes only if the Sub- Committee approves. The allocations for new organisations, such as the new television organisations, will require the specific approval of the Sub- Committee. In that way, and for the first time, the right of unimpeded access will be policed and controlled by Members and not merely by officials.
If we are imposing controls on our own staff, the House will agree, I think, that we should have the power to impose similar control on other bodies. That should and would include Departments of the Executive and of the Government.
Mr. Orme : As a start, we shall freeze the number, but then we shall examine the position in more detail. We do not say that that number must remain for ever. We shall want some justification from the organisations for having so many passes. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who is an authority on the media, will advise the Sub-Committee on the best way to organise the matter.
On the growth of covert lobbying in the House, I am sure that I carry with me hon. Members on both sides of the House. The matter has been examined in detail by the Select Committee on Members' Interests, and I hope that the hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) will soon produce constructive proposals from his Committee. But there is too much evidence of abuse at present for us not to take whatever action is open to us now. My Committee has heard of frankly shocking examples of commercial lobbyists trying to infiltrate themselves into the building under many guises.
Hon. Members need look no further than appendix 7 on page 44 of the report to see the example of a lobbyist who, with refreshing naivety, tried to infiltrate himself into the House in the guise of a research assistant to the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop). I should have thought that that was the last hon. Member on whom to try that. The lobbyist's letter hints that the House of Commons is easy game for poachers from the world of public relations.
That practice must be stopped, and our recommendation in paragraph 52 will enable the Services Committee to recommend to Mr. Speaker the immediate withdrawal of a pass where the holder is clearly primarily engaged as a lobbyist. I hope that the House will endorse the proposal, and I should welcome information that will assist my Sub-Committee in carrying it out.
The latter part of the report deals with controls over the number of pass holders for the building. It is one thing to limit the number of pass holders, but quite another effectively to decide how the pass-holding system is maintained. There are two objectives. First, no individual should be issued with a pass giving unlimited access to the building unless there is reasonable certainty that he is suitable to hold such a potentially valuable document. Secondly, our procedures for checking passes must be adequate to ensure that only legitimate pass holders can move freely in the non-public areas of the Palace.
The checking of pass holders has already given rise to great controversy, and is the reason why the Services Committee inquired further into the matter and came up with the present proposals. It is clear that at least some checking is required before the right of access is granted to those who do not have that right by reason of being elected here. All permanent staff of the two Houses are fully checked before taking up their jobs, as are civil servants and the agents of public corporations working in the building. The same rules should apply to all.
I was surprised to discover that overseas staff employed by Members are often subject to no checking. Paragraph 11 of the report recommends that appropriate clearance always be obtained before a photo identity pass is issued to foreign nationals.
Column 116carefully at the practice of employing overseas students? I understand that quite a number of them wandering round the building have been employed by parties.
Mr. Orme : When we examined that issue we found that it was controversial. We said that there must be some right of access, but that it must be properly controlled. In our opinion it had not been controlled. The intention now is to control it. The best way to deal with the issue--my hon. Friend the member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) has tabled an amendment on the matter--is through the security authorities, so we did not examine the matter. Individual security is a matter for Mr. Speaker and, as the Leader of the House pointed out, we did not discuss that in detail.
The Sub-Committee looked closely at various possibilities that might help and has recommended that they should be seriously examined by the appropriate authorities and introduced if they think fit. Those possibilities concern only checking people coming in and not vetting. The proposals include the use of machine-readable passes, the introduction of mechanised barriers at the main entrances to the Palace and the underground car park, the occasional screening of pass holders, as well as the public entering the building, and the possible wearing of passes inside the building. I hope that those proposals will be considered seriously. Some of them are highly controversial, but there is no reason why we should not consider them. If we do not like them, we can reject them, but we should consider them.
The report is, in many ways, a compromise. It is designed to put a modest brake on the number of people with an unqualified right of entry to the Palace and its precincts and it suggests some ways in which the enforcement and policing of the pass system could be improved. It leaves some discretion to the Services Committee which may help to iron out the problems that will, inevitably, arise from its implementation. The report does not pretend to solve all the problems for all time. It is inevitable that the Committee and the House will have to come back to the issues before long, but I strongly urge all hon. Members to give the proposals a chance. It is the nearest that we have come to a comprehensive review.
Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn) : Is it not a pity that some provision was not made in the report for former Members of Parliament? Is it not shameful that although many people can come and go in the House, people who have served honourably for many years do not have access even to the Strangers' Cafeteria? Private companies such as Marks and Spencer and ICI at least give their retired employees better recognition.
Mr. Orme : We have had representations on that, but we have not had time to discuss them. We have also not had time to discuss the question of Members of the European Parliament. As a result, until the matter comes before us we are not in a position to make recommendations, although I note what my hon. Friend has said. Again, the problem is one of pressure on the building and its facilities, rather than of any hon. Members being opposed to such suggestions. The report does not pretend to solve all problems for all time, but it is the nearest we have come to a comprehensive review of access to the building and the attempts to deal with the problems of overcrowding that we now face. With any luck, some of the proposals may be relaxed in the
Column 117future when the accommodation available to the House is significantly improved. But for the time being, some restrictions must be imposed.
I want to comment briefly on the amendments. Amendment (a) seeks to remove our recommendation that the research assistants of hon. Members should not have access to the Table Office during the period of peak activity on weekday afternoons. I have no strong feeling on that, but I must point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North that the Table Office made the proposal and it was supported by the Sub-Committee not only because there have been complaints from other hon. Members of overcrowding in that busy office, but because we desired to stop the overcrowding during the times when hon. Members themselves most needed the advice of the Table Office. The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Scarborough (Sir M. Shaw) is far more significant. Access by Members of the European Parliament was hotly debated in the Services Committee during the previous two Parliaments, but no applications have been made to my Sub-Committee since the general election of 1987. Frankly, I was surprised and amazed to hear the Leader of the House lend his support to what is proposed, because the case for and against providing facilities for MEPs should be properly considered in the Sub-Committee before being submitted to the House.
The amendment is an attempt to carry a decision on a matter of some importance on the coat tails of a quite different debate. I cannot support it. I advise the House that if we are concerned about facilities and overcrowding and if we grant 81 passes, that will be only the beginning. There will be pressure for the use of other facilities and for the staff of MEPs to enter. What special right do European Members of Parliament have for unfettered access to this building? It is completely wrong.
Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South) : Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Sir M. Shaw) does not ask for any facilities to be given to European Members of Parliament? Does he accept that my hon. Friend's amendment proposes much less than is offered by other national Parliaments in the European Community to their MEPs?
Mr. Orme : Other European Parliaments have facilities that are superior to ours. Has the hon. Gentleman not heard the saying about the thin end of the wedge? That is what we are talking about. This is not a personal matter about individual Members of the European Parliament ; it is about our facilities in the House of Commons. I turn finally to the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) which seeks to increase the limit on the number of an hon. Member's pass-holding staff from three as we propose to five. That runs a coach and horses through our main recommendation. We are concerned, for the time being at least, to limit staff to meet the accommodation and other facilities that are available. The amendment would allow a possible further 1,300 pass- holding staff and, if agreed, would undermine the main intentions of our report. I advise--
Column 118part-time? His figure of 1,000-plus is simply not relevant in the case of part-time staff because the full-time equivalent may amount only to three persons.
Mr. Orme : If they have permits to enter, that is all right. It is a matter for my hon. Friend. We are talking about permits that allow people, whether full-time or part-time, access to this House at any time of the day or night.
The report stands well without the proposed amendments. I ask the House to support our modest but important proposals, in the interests of those who work here--both Members and staff.
Sir Michael Shaw (Scarborough) : I support the report and agree with much of what the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) said. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) said, many of his remarks about the amendment are mistaken. Should the amendment be agreed, people will do no more than what they can do now, but they will be able to do it without going through the screening and questioning process that they now must undergo. We joined the Common Market and confirmed that we meant to take a positive role. We confirmed our action by a referendum. Today, we are more than ever committed to playing our full part in the development of the Community. The Council of Ministers meets regularly. Our own Government are robust in not only seeking what is best for the Community but in safeguarding our national interests. It is equally important that hon. Members lose no opportunity to keep in touch with United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament with the same purposes in mind. It is to that end that I have tabled amendment (b).
When I was in the European Parliament, before direct elections, I was strongly urged to become a directly elected Member of the Parliament in 1979. In the end, I decided against it, first, because it would have meant my giving up my Scarborough constituency of which I am fond. Secondly, it became clear that the House was not prepared to offer a helping hand to encourage newly elected Members of the European Parliament to gain access to hon. Members and to their Committees. With an obvious denial of any gesture of welcome, I cannot blame any Member of the European Parliament who concludes that he would rather not come here at all. To say the least, I found our attitude discouraging and frustrating.
The present position is not only discourteous to United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament but harmful to our own interests, whether we are keen Europeans or have hesitations about the way in which the EEC is developing. It must be in our interests that our point of view is put forward in discussions with our colleagues in the European Parliament. Equally, we should seek to understand their point of view.
Many Back-Bench Committees have already welcomed visits by United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament, but their interest in coming to us is greatly lessened by the unwelcome restrictions that are placed upon their access to this place.
To say the least, my amendment is modest. However, it would give United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament an important right--the right of access to the Central Lobby, the Lower and Upper Waiting Halls, and the Committee Corridors. Such a right to come to meet us
Column 119would show them that they are welcome, that they have direct political access to us, and that they are not expected to undergo the searches and questioning that now take place.
My amendment would remedy a disadvantage from which, at present, only our own Members of the European Parliament suffer in their national Parliament. I hope that the amendment will receive full support from hon. Members. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for his kind words about it. If it is agreed, my amendment will encourage closer relationships between ourselves and our European colleagues. It is in the interests not only of the Community as a whole but of this country within it.
I am disappointed in the report, its tenor and what it seeks to do. A report on access to Parliament should be better debated on a more important basis than the number of research assistants Members of Parliament can have.
The public are forced to wait outside, often in the rain, for many hours and then in Central Lobby often for a long time before Members can be found. If they succeed in getting a ticket for the Gallery, they cannot leave the Gallery other than for a short time, they cannot get refreshments on their own and there are no facilities for changing children or leaving them-- [Laughter.] I do not know why Tory Members find that funny. Many of my constituents are appalled at how they are treated and the image that the House presents. They are better received and treated at most town halls than here.
Mr. Holland : Since these considerations do not occur to Tory Members, may I inform the House that today my six-year-old child was ill and could not go to school, so in the middle of the afternoon I was in a dilemma about whether I could attend a committee meeting in the House because I could not leave the child alone in the family room. If there were a creche, I could without question have known that I could attend.
Mr. Corbyn : I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention because it illustrates my point. He is talking about Members' children, whereas I am talking about how the public are treated. I wish that Tory Members would not find this so funny. Some Members are more concerned about keeping an excessive number of passes, possibly for commercial lobbying purposes, than about whether people in the House can do their work properly and the public can enter the place.
Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South) : It should be put on record that we are served by as courteous a group of people as exists anywhere. When the public come to this House, they are treated by the police, security staff and others with great courtesy and complete consideration, often under extreme provocation.
Column 120public. I was not criticising the actions of the police or anybody in their treatment of the public. I am talking about the image that the building presents to the public.
Delegations from the Islington Disablement Association and other groups have come here to see me and it is a humiliating disgrace that to get someone in a wheelchair to Central Lobby to lobby a Member, as is the inalienable right of everyone, he must be dragged all round the car park, put in lifts where wheelchairs will not go, and made to feel exceptional and different. If we in Parliament demand that the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 is put into operation in every local authority and that there should be access for the disabled to every public building, that should apply here in exactly the same way.
There are a large number of dining rooms on the ground floor. They are hired out at great cost for lunches and dinners provided that they are for the benefit of commercial lobbies and firms. There is nowhere that any member of the public can get any refreshment other than from one machine, which often does not work, in the Upper Waiting Hall, if they can find it, unless a Member is available to take them into the Strangers' Cafeteria for a cup of tea. Why can we not have Westminster Hall as a waiting area and provide proper refreshment facilities for the public there?
Anyone who cares to walk around the building and to have a look at staff working conditions would be appalled. It is a disgrace. During the recess I went into the Vote Office and was appalled to see paper stacked up to the ceiling. If I had been a shop steward for them, as I have been in the past in the public sector-- [Laughter.] I fail to see what is so funny about a serious fire risk right underneath this Chamber. The working conditions are Dickensian, to put it mildly. We have low ceilings and a lack of emergency escape facilities because the building has Crown immunity and health and safety regulations do not apply here. However, we demand, quite rightly, that they are applied everywhere else. It is wrong that our staff are expected to work in these appalling conditions.
I want to raise also the question of creches and nursery facilities. In many workplaces--not necessarily only those run by progressive employers-- nurseries are provided because employers understand that enployees have children and that the nursery facilities provided by most local authorities are appalling. Therefore, employers have tried to make some facilities available to their staff. As there are 10,000 staff working in this building, ranging from catering staff to staff in your office, Mr. Speaker, there must be an enormous demand for creche and nursery facilities. However, we seem to have our priorities all wrong. We are more interested in dining rooms where private lobbying can take place than in facilities for the public who come here to see Parliament in operation. We are more concerned to continue the privileges of hon. Members rather than about the needs of staff employed by hon. Members and by the House.
I hope that those matters will be considered seriously. They may have been ignored by the second report of the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services) which we are considering today. I hope that the Select Committee will consider these points properly in future. It is an absolute scandal that Crown immunity denies workers in this building the same rights that they would receive anywhere else under a different employer.
Mr. Orme : I can assure my hon. Friend that his points are not ignored in the Select Committee's report, nor are they ignored in the new building report prepared by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell). We are aware of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and we want to implement them as soon as possible. However, it is a matter of facilities and of getting on with that wretched building over the road.
Mr. Corbyn : That may be so. However, I have been a Member of the House for nearly six years--[ Hon. Members :-- "Too long."] Thanks for that. I have heard for so long all this stuff about looking into the question of access for the disabled and into the provision of creches and nurseries. Why does this Parliament have to operate in terms of the last century? The conditions are appalling and they should be improved.
I have drafted several amendments which I hoped would encourage the House to consider these problems seriously. That may be a vain hope, but one lives in expectation. I will move my amendment later, as you instructed, Mr. Speaker.
My amendment (a) reads :
"Line 3, after be', insert, with the exception of the recommendation in paragraph 33 relating to access to the Table Office by research assistants,'."
I have tabled it for a simple reason. As I understand the proposal, research assistants will not be allowed into the Table Office after 2 pm. I understand--if I am wrong, I stand to be corrected--that the restriction would not apply to staff of Ministers or to the staff of Opposition Front- Bench spokesmen. It would apply only to the staff of Back Benchers. We will have a system of privilege for questions to be planted on Ministers' behalf or whatever else they want done and the same for the Opposition Front Bench spokesmen, but Back Benchers would be denied the right to have a research assistant table a question on their behalf. I do not mind what rules exist, but they should be absolutely the same for everyone.
My other amendments relate partly to my experience concerning the withdrawal of a pass from my former researcher, Dr. Ronan Bennett. If the House accepts the Select Committee report without question, I hope that hon. Members will consider very carefully what they are doing. Implicit in the recommendation on security is that an unnamed person giving unknown information about an application for a research assistant's pass can cause that pass to be refused without the applicant knowing what he is suspected of or guilty of and without the hon. Member knowing what is happening. If we believe in a system of justice, that system must be open and above board. We cannot allow a secret organisation to condemn someone out of hand without any power of redress or that person even knowing the charge against him. Dr. Bennett was told by the House and the Murdoch press that he was unfit to receive a pass to enter the building. At no stage was he or I told anything about the nature of the suspicions or allegations against him. It has happened to me with one of my staff. Would any hon. Member like to have an application for a pass withdrawn and refused with no reason given? If it had happened to any Conservative Members, they would think more carefully-- or at least I hope they would--about the points that I am making.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West) : The hon. Gentleman asked whether Conservative Members would like it to happen to them. I make it clear that, if a member of staff whom I wished to employ did not pass the security services' test, I should be grateful to them.