Previous Section Home Page

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : The intervention of the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) was interesting. The hon. Gentleman will recall that the hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) identified six Conservative Members of Parliament in 1979 as being unsuitable for office. Would he apply his comments to them as well?

Mr. Corbyn : The House should not pass a report that takes power away from itself and hands it over to the unelected and the unaccountable. It is a serious issue, and I hope that, when we come to amendment (e), which you have agreed to call, Mr. Speaker, the House will recognise that what I am proposing in this amendment is that the reasons for refusal should be made known to the applicant and to the sponsoring hon. Member. That does not appear to be an unreasonable request.

I believe that this House has an awful lot of catching up to do. The conditions under which most hon. Members work are appalling. My hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), who has been here since June 1987, received his desk only this week. [Laughter.] I do not find that funny. I find it disgraceful that, with all the privileges and special rooms in this place, hon. Members can be denied a desk. All of us should be concerned that, when elected to Parliament, we should have the physical conditions to do the job properly. As with every other building, there should be facilities for access of persons of disabilities. This House should be made welcoming rather than daunting to the public, and it should be seen as an open Parliament to which people can come, to watch, to listen and perhaps to understand something of what goes on here. Instead we are secretive, we set up barriers, and we seem more interested in privileges for ourselves than in facilities for the staff or the visiting public.

I hope that the Services Committee will reconsider all these issues and decide that it is time that this Parliament was brought into the second half of the 20th century and made the public place that it should be.

Mr. Speaker : I remind the House that this debate will end at 11.44 pm. I ask hon. Members to bear that in mind when making their speeches.

11.13 pm

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East) : The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) said that he would be brief, but then went on somewhat. What he possesses in verbosity, he clearly lacks in a sense of humour, because he kept saying that he did not find the response of hon. Members funny. Of course, when he said that, hon. Members regarded his remarks as even more avant garde and over the top. What he did not realise was that the House is concerned about the congestion of our physical facilities and the need to have proper control.

All hon. Members will be grateful to the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) for the way in which he and his colleagues on the Sub- Committee presented the

Column 123

report. It has emphasised the need for control, especially over the issuing of passes. That is welcome. The proposals proceed from no limit--a situation which has developed in an evolutionary and unsatisfactory way--to a proper fixed limit, on which the House needs to agree. At present, the proposal, endorsed by the Leader of the House, is for a limit of three years.

I shall refer briefly to one or two other aspects of the report, which I regard as excellent and to which I shall be glad to give my wholehearted support, as, I imagine, will most hon. Members. In paragraph 7 on page vi, one sees that there are 72 different categories of photo-identity pass holders, which is excessive. Again, one commends the Sub-Committee's attempts to achieve a rational control over the entire panoply of passes.

I wonder about the five-year limit on validity of an individual pass for Members contained in paragraph 8. Perhaps that pass should be valid for longer. There are many excellent parts to the report and if previous speakers had not taken up so much time one could refer to them. I am particularly delighted to support the proposals for Members of the European Parliament, which were advanced with a characteristically courteous and gentlemanly approach by my hon. Friend for Scarborough (Sir M. Shaw).

Apart from a couple of small details, that is the only area with which I take issue with the right hon. Member for Salford, East. I hope that I will not offend the right hon. Gentleman if I say that I thought that his attitude in this respect rather curmudgeonly. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough would agree that his proposal was a modest first step and to describe it as the thin end of the wedge is embarrassing to our distinguished colleagues of all parties who are hard-working Members of the European Parliament--although I am aware that this does not affect the alliance. We should be more positive about the proposal and I am glad that the Leader of the House demonstrated some enthusiam for it. I and other hon. Members from all parties have tabled amendments dealing with a slight revision of the limit on the number of passes. Some hon. Members may consider that the maximum number of six passes, as opposed to three, is on the high side. In your wisdom, Mr. Speaker, you have selected the amendment that sets the limit at five--the other amendment proposed four passes--in a word, the middle of the range.

I understand that hon. Members from all parties wish to reassure themselves that they will no longer see strange people wandering around the Corridors and wonder who they are, and that they will not see such people on Corridors that were previously the preserve of Members of Parliament. They understand, however, that it is necessary to exercise a rational and durable control.

The physical restrictions that we intend to place on people are welcome. No access to the Table Office after 2 o'clock on Monday to Thursday is an excellent idea. The quid pro quo must be try to reach the right compromise figure for the number of passes to be issued for all staff members of any hon. Member. Some hon. Members have no such staff--presumably they have a secretary, but they may not have a research assistant. Some may have a part -time research assistant. Conservative Members rightly feel some resentment when it appears that

Column 124

Members of the smaller parties overdo it by issuing far too many passes to their assistants. We acknowledge that they have to cover many more portfolios than the Members of larger parties, but they overdo it and that causes resentment. That does not gainsay the need to try to get the balance right, which is a difficult judgment. I plead with hon. Members to consider seriously amendment (l) which suggests five passes, I believe which is the right compromise. To opt for no limit affords the maximum discretion. Some hon. Members do not want to have research assistants with passes, but others do. We must consider the tapestry of differential requirements. Would it be right to go from no limit to the low figure of three, and, on page xiv, paragraph 54 (iii), build into that limit the dubious idea that the Sub-Committee should recommend to the Services Committee

"an increase in the limit in respect of an individual Member where they are satisfied that exceptional circumstances apply"? I hope that the right hon. Member for Salford, East is not offended by that reference and I am sure that the Committee would honourably and faithfully try to ensure that it was satisfied about those circumstances. Nevertheless, I believe that such a principle is problematical and almost a reprehensible one to attempt to build into the limit. If that increase were limited to leaders of parties perhaps the House could support it, but would that happen? More and more approaches would come from institutional and semi-institutional quarters on behalf of Members who have particular duties--many Members have duties on one kind or another. What about Chairmen of Select Committees or someone who for an operational requirement has three part-time research assistants and one and a half secretaries to cope with the work load? What about those who may be between appointing assistants whose passes may overlap, or long- distance Members who may need an extra person to stay here permanently? London Members might want people in a local office to come here frequently and have proper access to the House. In such cases, the limit of three passes would not be adequate.

It is not right for hon. Members to make the House excessively nervous by saying that, automatically, all hon. Members would go for the maximum limit that we would decide and that three times 650 would be a 50 per cent. increase on the existing figure. If we went to five, as is suggested in amendment (l), that does not mean that there would be 650 times five staff pass holders of one kind or another. Many hon. Members would continue with the existing number of passes. Equally, for all sorts of reasons other hon. Members would have to go above the limit and would be entitled to do that in the pursuance of their work. I know that the House wishes to exercise proper control and that is why the slightly higher compromise limit of four, five or six--in this case five, according to the terms of the

middle-of-the-range amendment--should be seriously considered. 11.21 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : I apologise on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) who is not here. As I have told the Leader of the House, he is on a constituency engagement and I am deputising for him.

Column 125

My hon. Friends and I advocate a limit. The report was precipitated by a security matter and we accept that there should be security in the building. It is right that the House should ensure that people going about their business are strictly protected. For those reasons, we do not contest the ground that restrictions are needed on the huge number of passes that are presently given to nearly 10,000 people in many different categories to allow them to come and go in the House and in the other place.

So far there has been no breach of the rules by hon. Members or by others, and no limits have been applied. There can be no allegation of impropriety, because there has been none. The issue before the House is about the appropriate way to equip hon. Members, primarily, to do the job that they need to do in the House. There is a fundamental question related to the legislative part of the constitution rather than to the Executive sector. We have an excellent Library, but for those of us who have to shadow Departments and for many others with specific duties in the House, there is a need for adequate support to begin to take on the Executive. We need that support in order to do the job properly.

I support the proposal by the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) and commend to the House the proposition that to move from no restriction to a tight first restriction will pose a problem. I remind the House that that is distinct from what we propose in the other categories. As the right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) said, the other categories are to be frozen and not restricted. Members are to be restricted, while Ministers are not. I understand the concern of the right hon. Member for Salford, East that, if we all exercised the right to go to the limit, things would be impossible. The argument against that stands on the basis of the facts of the moment. Many Members have three or fewer pass holders, and only a few have more than the maximum. The hon. Member for Harrow, East and other hon. Members suggested a low maximum, and the likelihood of a coach and horses being driven through a proposal to restrict limits is invalidated by the experience of the House. People choose the number of passes to reflect their circumstances.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives) : Does the hon. Gentleman still have nine research assistants? That was the figure that he gave, to his credit, in his evidence to the Committee. Does he not agree that nine is a ridiculous number for any hon. Member to have?

Mr. Hughes : We proposed a maximum of six, and I have six at the moment. However, two are part-time, and are never here at the same time. All the people who work for me are paid from the Fees Office, and I use my salary to pay people. This is an important issue. If hon. Members choose to use their office costs allowance to employ three or four staff, they have the right to that flexibility, and not to have the number of staff on whom they choose to spend their money restricted by an arbitrary limit.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking) rose --

Mr. Hughes : No, I will not give way again.

This should not be a party political issue. The majority of members of my party have three or fewer pass holders. I hope that we shall not impose restrictions on Members of Parliament when lobbyists and others still have access to the House.

Column 126

The hon. Member for Harrow, East argued for the sensible balance, and I ask the House to support that and to realise that there are many occasions when flexibility, and hon. Member's right to flexibility, is appropriate. I can cite two further examples. One is when a hon. Member has a private Member's Bill. That will inevitably, for a short time, impose extra work. He may need to have somebody here permanently for that time, and may need to have a number of appropriate passes.

Mr. Cormack rose --

Mr. Hughes : No, I must continue.

Another factor is the hours that people can come in. It is not sufficient to say that they can have a day pass. The Member of Parliament may not be here to enable them to get in, or to sign the day pass. There may not be anybody in the office to authorise their arrival when they come. There are many practical reasons why hon. Members should give themselves the flexibility that the alternative proposal of a maximum of five would give.

Many Members of Parliament sponsor three pass holders--well over 100. Well over a quarter of Members of Parliament sponsor three or more pass holders. The evidence of the current practice of the House is that there needs to be flexibility for those who might want to increase the number by one, but find that the motion, if passed unamended, would not allow that. There should be a limit--there is no argument against that--but to restrict that limit to three would inhibit the performance of the duty that is, above all, the principal responsibility of Members of Parliament--to spend our money and meet our needs appropriately, within a properly secure system of allocating passes. I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to support amendment (l).

11.27 pm

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking) : I hope that the House will do no such thing. Although the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) produced a soft-soapy argument for increasing the number to five or six, every hon. Member who exceeds the limit trespasses on the generosity of his colleagues. If the hon. Member thinks about it for a moment, he will see that that is so. We are not seeking to limit the number of research assistants who may be employed by the Democrats, individually or collectively. We are saying that there must be a limit on the number of people who come into the building. That is entirely different, and I deeply resent the hon. Gentleman's attempt to confuse the issue ; it is not worthy of him.

There are a number of good reasons for us to pass the motion. It is a beginning. I agree strongly with the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme). There is plenty of work to be done, but we must stop the rot at this point. The House is becoming liberty hall. There are people roaming around whom none of us know by sight and whom we cannot identify. The police do not know them. Passes are issued to newspaper delivery people who come to the House once a day to deliver two copies of a provincial paper to the Library. That is utterly ludicrous and there must be ways of better arranging our affairs Mr. Dykes rose --

Mr. Onslow : --for security and practical purposes.

I see no objection to the extremely modest proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough, (Sir M.

Column 127

Shaw) that Members of the European Parliament should be put on the same footing as our own staff who have permanent passes. What is wrong with that? We are not suggesting that they be given elaborate facilities, creches, bathrooms or whatever else maybe in store in the new building. We are simply asking that they should be able to come in here without having to hang about for an interminable period at the entrance. As most of us know, they can already come in, by permission of the other place, through the House of Lords entrance and it demeans us that we do not accord them the same courtesy. Mr. Dykes rose --

Mr. Onslow : I hope very much that we shall pass this motion with my hon. Friend's amendment and that the other amendments will be rejected.

11.30 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : The real problem is the appalling conditions in which the House of Commons is expected to work. I can go back to 1950, when I had to wait for a locker. It was 14 years before I had a room, and that was because I was a Minister, and 29 years before I had a room as a Back Bencher. Conditions are appalling for both Members and the staff of the House. When people say that the Executive gets away with things that they should not, it is in part because this legislature--the House of Commons--has neglected to provide itself with facilities to develop. Schoolchildren come round the House in a morning, but it is a disgrace because, when we talk to them afterwards, they do not have the slightest idea what the House of Commons does ; all they know is that Mr. Speaker wears a wig, or that the Mace was dropped in a certain place, or that something happened to King Charles I along the street ; and, in the evening, the Harcourt corridor is full of lobbyists paying money to get their case into the House.

I oppose the report. I am sorry to disappoint my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme), but it is a disgrace for the High Court of Parliament to say that Ronan Bennett was denied a pass, as a security risk, when he had not been tried. I met that man once after the case had come to light. He was convicted--no doubt you will correct me, Mr. Speaker, if I am wrong--and you thought it your duty to take the judgment of the Sergeant at Arms. I do not believe that any elected Member saw the security case. That judgment should not be endorsed by the House, because it could be applied in many ways. The links with the public are the lifeblood of the House of Commons. I have always found it offensive that we talk about the Strangers' Gallery ; it is the "Electors' Gallery." We still say and think in the House, "I spy Strangers" ; it might be better to say, "I've seen an elector." It is the contact with the public that makes this place relevant.

We now have the absolute obsession with security. My right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East served in Northern Ireland, but he must know that security is not a new problem. There was Guy Fawkes. There was the murder of Spencer Percival, but it is incredible to hear hon. Members say that everyone should have a pass and be body-searched. The murders of Airey Neave and Spencer Percival did occur in this place, but are we really describing

Column 128

ourselves as if we were working at Windscale or in one of the high-security defence establishments? We make ourselves ridiculous by talking about that level of security.

We need a new look. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) rightly said that it is awful to see pensioners queueing in the cold when Westminster Hall is empty and only available for a special exhibition for some lobbyist who wants to get his case across to the House. When television comes, I hope that there will be open-circuit television so that they can watch the House while they wait. We should treat them as what they are--our employers. The work of Members has expanded considerably. I suppose that it all began with the welfare state and the Liberal Government of 1910. My dad once told me that after the Lloyd George insurance Act--the National Insurance Act 1911--he was in the Members' Post Office and a Conservative Member came in, threw three letters on the table and said, "Look at that. That is a product of your Government." He also told me that, when women got the vote, the House stopped sniggering about women's issues.

With the expansion in case work, letters and surgeries, how can we keep any Government--Labour or Tory--under control unless we have the facilities? How can it be said that women are under-represented in Parliament when creches are not available? That does not apply only to women Members : as my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Holland) pointed out, men too have responsibilities for their children. Librarians have such responsibilities. But we dismiss them, while letting out the Dining Rooms so that the Refreshment Department can make a profit.

The truth is that we are not a serious Parliament. If Members have not enough room in the House, we should give them grants so that they can have offices elsewhere. I do not work in an office here : I could not get a tenth of my papers into my little room. I got a window about 18 months ago, however.

Members must be given the funds to do their job. My only complaint about interns is that British youngsters are not allowed to come to Parliament. The Americans realise its importance, or at least they go back knowing something about it.

The report is another step towards the subordination of the legislature to the Executive--I say that to my right hon. Friend with deep respect. We are saying that we will let the security services decide who can come in. It is wrong for a Parliament to do that : the security services are employed by the Government of the day, and we know a little about them from recent legislation. We are saying that, because political work has expanded, we will restrict facilities instead of expanding them. But we need not wait for the new building. There are an awful lot of things that we could do. I have always thought that the House of Lords should be put to better use. After all, if we are to let MEPs in on the ground that they have been elected, what about keeping other people out on the ground that they have not been?

I shall vote for the amendment, although not for MEPs, who can come and see Members if they want. There is no reciprocal facility in the European Parliament--not that that matters, as I doubt whether many Members would wish to go there. I think that the amendments of my hon.

Column 129

Friend the Member for Islington, North are amendments of substance, but that the report is inward-looking, restrictive and dangerous. I advise the House to reject it.

11.37 pm

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton) : The Sub-Committee--consisting of members of the Government party, the Opposition and the Social and Liberal Democrats--has, in its unanimous report, done a workmanlike rather than a doctrinaire job for the House of Commons. I am very grateful to its Chairman and members for the care with which they took the evidence and produced the report.

Let me first refer to amendment (a). There are certain times which are crucial in the Table Office. If a Member has not succeeded in getting to the front of the queue to put down a question or motion by then, it is delayed by a day. If it is an amendment, it will become a starred amendment and will probably not be selected for that reason.

In general, research assistants have not the knowledge of procedure that Members have, and if they have unlimited access to the Table Office they are likely to take up far more of the two

Clerks'--sometimes one Clerk's--time than a Member who, knowing far more about procedure, comes in to table a question or a motion. It is important that Members should not lose a crucial day when they wish to table an amendment or question because inexperienced research assistants want to engage the attention of the duty Clerks to find out whether what they want to do is in order.

It is well known that the Library has been grossly abused by visitors who want to use the services of the Library to enable them to write theses for their examinations. It is quite right that the Sub-Committee has drawn attention to that.

The Sub-Committee's report does not deal with an ideal solution in unlimited facilities. It is to do with priority in very limited facilities. It has done a workmanlike job in that context, and it will have my support. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for putting down a motion that we approve, rather than taking note of the report. I hope that the response of the House will encourage him to do the same for other reports of Committees of the House, which yet await decision by the House.

11.41 pm

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby) : I have a larger than usual number of research assistants, but it must be said that several of them are part-time and come in only once a fortnight or once a month. The decision on how many of them I need to do my job is mine, and no one else's. There are many different concepts of what our job is. Are we laymen, specialists, or constituency representatives? It is wrong to impose other Members' views of what the job is on me. I want to do this job and serve Great Grimsby in the way that I think appropriate. I need the staff that I think are appropriate to help me do that job

Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale) : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mitchell : No.

Column 130

Secondly, if the House in its wisdom does not provide the necessary resources and money to allow me to do the job in the way I think appropriate, I should be free to take help from outside, wherever it is available.

Mr. Jopling rose--

Mr. Speaker : Order. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the hon. Member is not giving way.

Mr. Mitchell : If the facilities are strained, it is the responsibility of the House to improve them, not to cut down on their use. By excluding people from obtaining passes, my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) will not get the facilities improved. That will be used as an argument for not improving them. The argument that people are not excluded if they cannot use the the House's facilities is wrong ; they will be effectively excluded, with the exception of those working for the wealthier Members with offices in other parts of town. For us, they will be excluded.

My final point is simple : the trend of the times is that the House is becoming more open, more specialised and more interesting to the public. That means more access for more people and more help to do our job. We cannot stand in the way of that progress. If we do, we shall make ourselves look stupid and be knocked over by it. This is a petty, prejudicial motion ; I hope that the House will oppose it.

11.43 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stafford) : With reference to amendment (b), I must say that co-operation and exchange of information between this Parliament and the European Parliament have become increasingly important in the light of the single European Act and our involvement in the Community.

Having welcomed these provisions in principle, I must add a reservation. This is a one-way arrangement. Access is to this House. The problem is how to gain access to the information that we need about what is happening in the European institutions--information that we need to be able effectively to exercise our judgment on behalf of our constituents. We should seriously consider improving the manner in which we get over to Europe from time to time.

It being one and a half hours after the motion was entered upon, Mr. Speaker-- proceeded, pursuant to the order [27 January], to put forthwith the Questions on amendments selected by him which were then moved.

Amendment proposed : (a), after be', insert

, with the exception of the recommendation in paragraph 33 relating to access to the Table Office by research assistants,'.-- [Mr. Corbyn.]

Question put, That the amendment be made :--

The House divided : Ayes 36, Noes 201.

Division No. 62] [11.44 pm


Abbott, Ms Diane

Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)

Benn, Rt Hon Tony

Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)

Campbell-Savours, D. N.

Clay, Bob

Cohen, Harry

Cousins, Jim

Dalyell, Tam

Duffy, A. E. P.

Fisher, Mark

Flynn, Paul

Gordon, Mildred

Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)

Hinchliffe, David

Hughes, John (Coventry NE)

Hughes, Simon (Southwark)

Janner, Greville

Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)

Kennedy, Charles

Maclennan, Robert

Mahon, Mrs Alice

Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)

Nellist, Dave

Next Section

  Home Page