Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) : I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) not only because I agree with much of his speech but because I have the greatest respect for the work that he has done with the all-party group following your previous leadership, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I am pleased that the Parliamentary Secretary initiated the debate, for two reasons : first, because he now sees the industry as being peopled by "hard -pressed British farmers". Opposition Members and, no doubt, some Conservative Back Benchers, will repeat that phrase when we debate hill livestock compensatory allowances later in the year. Secondly, his robust and realistic attitude on animal welfare is welcome to many hon. Members and, I am afraid that I must say, it is in contrast to the attitude of his Minister. On 24 February, I suggested to the Minister that she should
"address her mind particularly to the differences between the animal welfare standards that we seek to achieve in this country, which are on a different time scale to those that are being sought in other member states."
That comment was made with particular regard to the pig sector. She replied :
"On animal welfare, the hon. Gentleman is right that our producers do not have a level playing field. I make no apology for that. I am glad that this country has a strong and well-developed animal welfare lobby. We must live with that concern, which is so strongly felt by British people."
A few minutes later, in answer to a different question the Under-Secretary said :
"We remain anxious to ensure that an equal regime is in place throughout the continent."--[ Official Report , 24 February 1994 ; Vol. 238, c. 420 -23.]
The core of tonight's debate is how to achieve that consistency. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will persuade his boss that that should be the core issue for us all.
It clearly would be absurd if hon. Members or, more generally, animal welfare organisations adopted a blinkered, little-Englander attitude that effectively was hypocritical, and that suggested that by just improving matters in this country we could persuade other countries in the European Union to follow our example. We are in a single market and it is absurd to imagine that that attitude will achieve any improvement.
As the hon. Member for Thanet, North said, it seems hypocritical for those who are concerned about the welfare of calves to spend so much time concerning themselves with conditions in this country that we do not use all possible leverage in the Council of Agriculture Ministers
Column 1005to achieve improvements throughout the single market. Cleaning up our act in the United Kingdom would simply be wasted energy if we did not, at the same time, try to make a real start on the Augean stable on the continent.
That is why the timing of the regulations is so important. Are we considering the regulations because Ministers feel that there is no real prospect of making major advances across the whole Union ? After all, they are six months late ; under the directives, they were due on 1 January. Are we doing so because we expect that, under the German presidency which starts at midnight tonight, there will be less or more progress in future ? If we are seeking to lead, we must have a view about the best way to ensure that the regulations are replicated as soon as possible throughout the Union.
Of course it is to be welcomed that we are seeking to implement the directives, but the key issue remains : will the way in which we tackle the subject secure any real advance throughout the Union ? It is true that, under subsidiarity, which is possible in this area, some member states can adopt stricter regulations than others. So be it--somebody must lead--but to be so far ahead that we are not leading anyone else at all would be dangerous.
There would be no point in any British Government leading from the front and merely taking British farmers along with them into the wilderness. Unfortunately, a balance does not seem to be struck in the regulations and in the negotiations that take place, of course, behind closed doors in the Council of Ministers.
On a number of occasions, the National Farmers Union has rightly said, "If you impose on British farmers regulations that they are simply unable meet on grounds of cost, you will merely drive them out of the market and let in others with lower standards in other parts of Europe." Animals in Europe clearly would not benefit from such a development.
The hon. Member for Thanet, North advanced a convincing argument on battery cages. I very much endorse his comments. We must be careful that we do not proceed so slowly by evolution--by tweaking here and tweaking there--that we end up with a cost that has no real benefit. Constantly amending and altering regulations may in the long term be more costly to the sector than the complete removal of battery cages according to a reasonable time scale. The most dangerous situation is that our industry is constantly having to adjust slightly at great cost, while other countries either lag right behind or are able to make a transformation in one step.
I very much endorse what the hon. Member for Thanet, North said about the total unrealistic attitude to inspection in schedule 1. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has made a good case on the matter and I hope that we shall not mislead animal welfare campaigners or, indeed, the poultry industry by suggesting that the schedule somehow is adequate.
The schedule 2 regulations make it clear that the objective should be to ensure that calves should be able to hear, smell and see other calves, but the way in which the regulations spell that out will not implement that objective. Farmers have a right to be concerned that the cost to them has been anticipated and that the Government are prepared to put something in place to ensure that they are not out of pocket as a result.
Column 1006Many hon. Members on both sides of the House would like to know why no effective action is being taken to prevent the export of 450,000 calves to systems that are clearly regarded by hon. Members and many others in the country as being inhumane. I endorse the comments that have been made by many hon. Members about labelling, but that is not sufficient to tackle the present problem. Clearly, United Kingdom regulations alone are meaningless if we seek such restrictions without at the same time tackling the conditions in which the calves will be treated when they reach a continental rearing system.
Mr. James Paice (Cambridgeshire, South-East) : My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) said that he would rather see calves in veal crates in this country than in veal crates in Holland, because at least here we could be happier that they were being properly monitored. However, if I have understood the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) correctly, he is saying that we should have ways of stopping the 450,000 calves being exported to Holland and elsewhere, primarily in veal crates. How could one do that within the single market, other than by persuading the whole Community to give up crates ? The hon. Gentleman seemed to accept that we should work towards giving up crates throughout the Community, but he also seemed to suggest that there was something that we could do on our own to stop the practice.
Mr. Tyler : I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman misunderstood me. I agree that that has to be done within the framework of the single market and the European Union mechanisms. I was about to say--I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree with me--that it does not seem clever to me to take unilateral action and ban the export of calves, if by doing so we simply encourage livestock producers and those who are responsible for some of the conditions that we regard as inhumane in the other continental countries to expand their production. In present circumstances, if we were suddenly to ban the export of all livestock, including calves, the Germans would be laughing all the way to the bank. What would that achieve for the welfare of calves or for the livestock producers of this country ?
Secondly, I do not believe that the regulations go far enough to ensure that calves are provided with clean and dry bedding. That seems a basic essential, and one that all those concerned with the issue have actively drawn to the Minister's attention. Nobody in the livestock sector feels that compliance would be too onerous. Thirdly, I believe that the RSPCA's view that calves need to be fed at least twice a day for the first two weeks of their lives would be accepted by most farmers and livestock producers. They would regard it as sensible husbandry. There would be great support for that. The regulations insist only on feeding once a day, and I hope that the Minister will be able to satisfy us that that is really sufficient, and is not merely the barest minimum necessary to ensure freedom from hunger.
Much has already been said about pigs, and I do not wish to detain the House unnecessarily. We must recognise that there is a huge problem here and, as I have said to the Minister before, the pig sector, which has been going through a tough time throughout the United Kingdom, bitterly resents the fact that they are working not only to a different timetable but in a different direction altogether from their competitors in other member states. I hope that
Column 1007when the Minister replies he will be able to assure us that, following the change of presidency, he will press the new holder to take a much more active role to examine ways in which the other member states can come closer to our time scale.
With farrowing crates and weaning, there is a genuine dilemma. Those who know a little about the subject--I confess that I do not know a great deal, although my retirement job could be to keep pigs--tell me that it is a satisfying occupation, as a former Prime Minister would be the first to agree. At farrowing and at weaning there is a genuine welfare dilemma between the welfare of the sow and that of the piglets. I am not sure whether the regulations take that fully into account. They certainly do not spell it out, and I know that many farmers would agree with the concerns expressed on the subject.
As for tooth clipping, we can all argue about whether it should be done at three, five or seven days or older, but the critical question is : who is to do it ? It should be someone who is competent and has the necessary experience, expertise and training. That raises a general problem not fully addressed by the regulations. I believe that all people who handle livestock should have access to a recognised system of training, testing and qualification. That should be the basic essential, and it would meet a lot of the public concern.
As the hon. Member for Thanet, North said, tributes have been paid to the Farm Animal Welfare Council and its five basic freedoms ; yet we must admit that the regulations do not provide those five basic freedoms--nor, of course, do the current objectives of EC directives or of the discussions taking place in the Council of Ministers. We are a long way off.
It would be deplorable if in any way the passage of the regulations meant that Ministers were prepared to relax their efforts in the EU, and were prepared to say to their colleagues in other member states and in the states seeking to join the Union that the situation is now less urgent ; less of a priority. The regulations represent a short step in the right direction, but there is a great deal still to be done.
The critical issue is surely the fact that we cannot expect producers in a single market to adopt higher and higher welfare standards at higher and higher cost to themselves, and potentially to their customers, if they cannot see real improvements among their competitor countries as well--that includes third countries outside the EU that are increasing their exports into the Community. As has often been said recently, both by the Commissioners and by Ministers, they are trying to open up markets to other producers, especially producers from the former communist countries of eastern Europe. But in those countries welfare standards, like environmental standards, are way below ours. It would be unreasonable to raise that iron curtain at the risk of doing huge damage to our livestock producers.
I believe that the five freedoms suggested by the FAWC are important, and that we should keep them in mind. But I seriously question whether the role of the FAWC can be maintained if we pay lip service to those objectives yet go such a short way along the road towards achieving them. Perhaps the time has come to have an independent animal welfare commission, which many organisations outside the House, and perhaps hon. Members too, would feel had more credibility, and which would be able to speak out
Column 1008publicly when it felt that the Minister or the EU was not making sufficient progress towards achieving the five freedoms.
I agree with much of what has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House, but I take issue with practically all of them when they say that standards will be changed by the various pressures that they describe. They have expressed many pious hopes, but I would like to illustrate my point with an example.
If we asked the chairman of one of the big retailers his view on animal welfare, we would get an answer that would please us. That is not unexpected, but we must bear in mind the fact that it is not the chairman of the big retailing company who actually buys the meat. The person who buys the meat is the meat buyer, who takes his instructions from a manager, who in turn has a clear directive from the board of directors of his company to make a profit. So, notwithstanding all the pious hopes expressed tonight, I have to remind the House that the commercial reality is that, with most of what is bought and sold--not only meat and meat products but other products freely bought and sold in the market--price is a very important consideration.
I want to draw the attention of the House to the parlous state of the pig industry. The hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) gave us the figures for pig production in the European Union. He explained how our production has fallen by 5 per cent. over 20 years, while that of our neighbours in Holland has increased by almost 100 per cent. in the same time.
I draw the House's attention to some other statistics. The first interesting statistic is the index of producer prices for agricultural products in the United Kingdom from 1985 to 1993, which starts in 1985 with a producer index of 100. For pigs, the index had risen by 1993 to only 101.2--in other words, the figure had scarcely changed for eight years. There can be scarcely any other product bought and sold in the marketplace today for which there has not been a substantial increase in price, or certainly an appreciation in price far greater than that experienced in the pig industry. I draw to my hon. Friend the Minister's attention the fact that the pig industry is technically very efficient compared with the industries in Denmark, France and the Netherlands. The number of pigs sold per sow per year is higher in this country than in the others. Our food conversion ratio is better and our labour costs are better. On so many counts, our industry is far more efficient than that of our competitors.
We have a food and drink trade deficit of about £6 billion per annum ; we still import 50 per cent. of our bacon ; and, as anybody interested in agricultural matters knows, we have a surplus of home-grown cereals. Those three facts are three compelling reasons for helping rather than hindering the British pig industry. If the regulations are enforced unilaterally, as seems likely, we shall almost certainly see the increased importation of pork and bacon and a bigger surplus of home-grown cereals. I point out that those cereals are likely to be lower in value than previously and we shall see a larger trade gap.
Column 1009My hon. Friend the Minister, who follows these matters closely, will agree that there will also be a knock-on effect on the abattoir sector where there has been massive capital expenditure to comply with the latest EC regulations. That in turn has created serious overcapacity, which is the inevitable consequence of modernisation. Nobody modernises and reduces capacity. With the installation of more sophisticated machinery and systems, capacity is increased. Yet all the time, the abattoir industry suffers from a shortage of livestock. That is a feature of the industry that the regulations will accentuate.
Pig farmers are unlikely to upgrade when they are already losing money. The additional costs under the regulations are estimated to be between £2.70 and £3 per pig. As several hon. Members have already pointed out, our competitor nations are not following suit. It may be of some interest to know that last week, I visited the largest pig abattoir in Europe. Its throughput is almost double that of any abattoir in this country. One of the major secrets of its success is that it has guaranteed throughput. The abattoir is geared up to and bears the overheads for the slaughter and processing of 50, 000 pigs per week. Unless the abattoir processes that number, the economics of running it does not stack up. The Danes are in the happy position of knowing that each and every week roughly 50,000 pigs will go through the abattoir. No British abattoir can make that assumption, and that creates a huge problem for the industry.
The regulations will do nothing to stop the rush of public companies leaving the slaughter industry. The end result will be serious for the domestic pig industry and for the domestic meat industry. The end result will be that there will be no pig processors with the financial muscle to match their continental competitors. The pig industry has seldom, if ever, asked for help. It has stood on its own feet. There has been no subsidy. I invite the House and my hon. Friend to compare that with the position in other European Union countries where there is state aid, as we know. Our pig industry has fought its own battles. I draw the House's attention to the fact that it has a pre-eminent position in the world in terms of its breeding and husbandry knowledge and technology. The pig industry has solved its own problems. I need refer my hon. Friend only to the action taken by the pig industry, at its own expense, to eradicate Aujesky's disease. The pig industry is content to go on standing on its own feet, fighting its own battles and solving its own problems. What the industry does not need and what it cannot afford is to be made to carry an unfair handicap. The regulations are an unfair handicap because they are being implemented in this country six or seven years before implementation in other countries of the European Union.
The Minister knows my views on welfare. The role of Government and the role of politicians in this area is, without doubt, to strike a balance between what is demanded by the welfare lobby and the commercial realities of the industry. If the welfare lobby had its way entirely, there would be few home-produced eggs and scarcely any home-produced veal, and practically every last slice of bacon would be imported. In those circumstances, where would all those foods come from ? The answer, which is a plain as a pikestaff, is that they
Column 1010would be imported from countries where the high standards of welfare that we want in this country, but which we are introducing prematurely, simply do not exist.
I urge the Minister to consider the practical benefits of a thriving pig sector in British agriculture : supplying a market in which the United Kingdom is not self-sufficient, consuming cereals for which there is no other demand, creating year-round permanent employment, sustaining a domestic abattoir industry and maintaining the United Kingdom's pre-eminent position as a leading exporter of breeding stock.
I urge my hon. Friend to give the House an assurance that the regulations will not be implemented unless and until the rest of the European Union does the same. I believe that failure to give that assurance means that the Minister will carry a heavy responsibility, the consequences of which will be with us for many a year to come. I ask my hon. Friend to be brave and resolute in defence of a vital British industry and to consider the requests and the pleas that have been made, not only by the British Pig Association, but by the National Farmers Union and other bodies representing the british farming industry.
Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton) : My hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) made an excellent speech and I pay tribute to him. Labour is now radical on animal welfare issues. Incredible and unimaginable cruelty is associated with intensive farming methods--none more so than with battery cages. I was disappointed that the Minister effectively said that battery cages would never be abolished. My hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe said that, under Labour, they would be phased out and that we would try to take Europe with us on that issue.
The A-frame cages are appalling ; they are the size of a piece of A4 paper. There is no space for the birds to spread their wings and there is chronic overcrowding. The birds cannot exhibit natural behaviour and they suffer injuries and ill health, as has been said. Salmonella, chicken cancer and herpes-related diseases spread as a result of the overcrowding. In those intensive conditions, there is a prospect of those diseases spreading rapidly to other birds, which would also affect human health. There are alternatives to that process, so battery cages should be phased out over a clear time scale.
This is not the time to talk about the transport of live animals, but those freedoms to which the Farm Animal Welfare Council referred--freedom from hunger and thirst and from distress, and the freedom to behave normally-- apply to transportation as they do to battery hens and to other intensively farmed animals. We are moving further away from those freedoms and actions against cruelty to appease Europe's peasant farmers and, indeed, the rich boys in the farming industry.
On issue after issue, especially the transport of live animals, we have given up our animal welfare provisions and got virtually nothing in return. The gap is exceptionally wide. On transport, for example, we had a limit of 12 hours before animals were fed, rested and watered. It should be eight hours, as the welfare organisations, such as the RSPCA, suggested. In Europe, the limit is 24 hours and the compromise, apparently, is 22
Column 1011hours. Europe continues to use battery cages, and, as has been said, will export the produce. There has been no significant progress in Europe to get rid of battery cages.
It is right that we have a veal crate ban and that is a credit to the Government, but the countries in the European Union still use them and there will be pressure on us to lift that ban--commercial pressure at least. We do not transport live horses for slaughter, but, again, there will be enormous European and commercial pressure for that to come about. We are not carrying Europe with us.
The Government refuse to use any muscle on the issues that matter, yet the European Community directives are unacceptable. We should be using the veto on many of the associated issues until an agreement which has animal welfare as a high priority is hammered out. That is the only way in which the United Kingdom can take the lead. The Government should commit themselves to the Amendola report, which redefines animals as sentient beings and not as agricultural products. I urge the Minister to make that commitment.
I noted the views of the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) on battery cages. The Government do not consider that a ban at this stage would be appropriate, for reasons which the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well. It is also fair to say that I hope that the hon. Gentleman realises, although sometimes I am a little concerned about what he knows and what he does not know about the agricultural world--I am sure that he knows--that all systems of egg production carry some welfare risk. It is extremely difficult to discriminate between one system and another.
We have a good programme of research in that area and we are seeking, and we shall continue to seek, changes. Since the hon. Gentleman asked, I especially emphasise the nature of the change that we want. For battery cage systems, we are seeking an increased area per bird. We are also seeking environmental enrichment of cages by, for example, including perches and scratching bars, which is one of the points rightly made by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale). We also expect the proposals to take account of the welfare needs of those laying hens which are not kept in battery cages.
By and large, the hon. Gentleman made a reasoned, sensible and well- informed speech, until the end of his remarks, and I shall deal with that matter in a minute.
Taxation is, of course, a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor, but I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's views are drawn to his attention. I do not expect that the hon. Gentleman knows, but it is accepted that any non-therapeutic procedure, such as tooth-clipping and tail-docking of piglets, always gives cause for concern. Anyone who deals with pigs will know that it is not always possible to limit the effects of aggression by other means.
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about marketing. Food For Britain is an extremely important and successful operation dedicated to exporting British agricultural goods abroad. It is doing a very good job. My right hon. Friend the Minister has made marketing the
Column 1012absolute top priority for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. I also note the further points that the hon. Gentleman made on that matter.
The only truly fatuous part of the hon. Member's speech was about animal transport. It is a matter of regret that my meeting with the welfare lobbies led to what is, fundamentally, a major breakdown in trust between them and my Department. For instance, I do not think that I shall be able to take the Compassion in World Farming organisation as being a credible witness on any of those matters again in the future.
The picture that the hon. Gentleman portrayed of my right hon. Friend's position at the meeting in Luxembourg was quite ridiculous. My right hon. Friend negotiated there, she saw the situation move in our direction, and she rightly took the opportunity to move along those lines. It is quite plain that we have now made progress and that there will be further progress in future.
Mr. Morley rose
Let me now deal with the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, North. Along with other hon. Members, I wish to pay tribute to his work as chairman of the all-party welfare group, because his comments were measured, humane and sensible, but extremely robust. He is also totally straight, and we know where we are with him.
On the transport of animals, my hon. Friend portrayed the case exactly as it happened. The tribute that he paid to my right hon. Friend the Minister is entirely justified. Of course, I accept that my hon. Friend, with his strong views, and with the dedicated and principled stand that he takes, will not be fully satisfied by the regulations. I listened carefully and made a note of what he said, and I especially note his views on battery hens.
I endorse what my hon. Friend said about the RSPCA and its food labelling initiative. However, on the general point of labelling, marketing is, essentially, a matter for the industry. It is not a principle of general United Kingdom food labelling law that information about methods of rearing or the type of animals should be required on food labels. However, voluntary indications of rearing methods are permitted, subject to the general provision--the point made by hon. Friend--of the Food Safety Act 1990, which prohibits the use of false or misleading descriptions of foods.
I share my hon. Friend's concern about some of those matters. I give him my word, at this Dispatch Box, that he may be reassured that we shall promote the very best standards of this country throughout the European Community, and that is the declared aim and intention of my right hon. Friend the Minister and of all of us who are involved in animal welfare matters.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) talked about hypocrisy. Whenever Liberal Democrats start talking about hypocrisy, I am reminded of the man who talked of his honour, but the more he talked of his honour, the faster we started counting the spoons. There is not a hair's breadth between my right hon. Friend the Minister and myself on the matters before us. She has been doing precisely what every hon. Member in the House would want her to do--proceeding in a robust, but sensible and pragmatic manner and trying to make realistic achievements in a very difficult forum. I note the
Column 1013points that the hon. Gentleman made about schedule 1, about calves' bedding and feeding practices and I shall draw them to the attention of my hon. Friends who are responsible for those matters. The hon. Gentleman also asked what other welfare measures we are producing. We are proud of our presently high standards, but, of course, it would be complacent to suggest that they are not capable of further improvement. We have undertaken--I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) will be pleased--not to introduce any new measures on a unilateral basis if that would undermine the competitive position of UK producers. As a member of the European Union, we see the way forward as being through pan-European legislation and our aim is to see our own high standards accepted and adopted by our European partners.
In a bit of unbelievable waffle, the hon. Member for North Cornwall talked about the need for an independent commission on animal welfare. There already is one : it is called the Farm Animal Welfare Council. It is an independent body made up of members representing many areas of interest. It has total freedom to report, to recommend and to publish all that it does.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow made an important speech. I accept and understand his concerns, and those of the farmers whose interests he spoke about today. However, I do not accept that high standards of welfare are inimical to profit. Indeed, at the Norfolk show today, I was shown by a major supermarket some excellent welfare-friendly pork which is achieving remarkable results in its stores.
I note my hon. Friend's views about the pig industry and I endorse them. It is a splendid operation and we value it. My hon. Friend is right to mention the difficulties in the abattoir sector. I note all the points that he made, and I can assure him that we will bear them in mind.
I urge the House to adopt these important regulations which will be of great benefit to animal welfare in this country. I thank hon. Members for taking part in such an interesting and well-informed debate.
Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Welfare of Livestock Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 14th June, be approved.
[Relevant document : Part of the Minutes of Proceedings of the Finance and Services Committee on 21st June (House of Commons Paper No. 518- i).]
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) : I beg to move, That this House approves the First Report from the Information Committee, on The Provision of a Parliamentary Data and Video Network (House of Commons Paper No. 237), and the First Report from the Committee of Session 1992-93, on The Provision of Members' Information Technology Equipment, Software and Services (House of Commons Paper No. 737).
That this House takes note of the recommendation contained in the First Report of the Broadcasting Committee, House of Commons Paper No. 323 of Session 1991-92, that a clean television feed of proceedings in the Chamber should be made available to Members in their Parliamentary offices on completion of the Parliamentary Data and Video Network ; but endorses the Resolution of the Broadcasting Committee of 27th June, set out in the Minutes of Proceedings of the Committee, House of Commons Paper No. 533-i, that, in view of the information now available about the likely timetable for installing the network, work should be undertaken separately from the network with a view to supplying a clean feed to Members with offices in the Parliamentary outbuildings from the beginning of the 1994-95 Session, and thereafter as it becomes technically feasible in each outbuilding, with the aim of completing the process by the end of the Summer Recess of 1995, and that the House authorities should examine the scope for accelerating the provision of a similar facility to Members with offices in the Palace of Westminster, as part of the programme for establishing the network.
Mr. Bennett : I shall start by conveying to the House the apologies of the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) who is not here. I think that he is lying flat on his back. He has had considerable trouble with his back over the past few months, and has had treatment for it--I am not sure whether he had an operation yesterday. I am sure that the whole House will want to wish him well.
We should be especially grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Many hon. Members, having spent two years working away to prepare a report for the House, would have liked to have their moment of glory and present it to the House. It would have been easy for the hon. Gentleman to say that we should put off the debate for a week or two, in which case he might well have been here to move the motion himself. However, he was especially keen that the report be approved as soon as possible, and that is why he asked me if I was prepared to move it on his behalf.
In moving the motion, I thank the specialist advisers to the Information Committee, Professor Bob Hynds and Mr. Philip Virgo, the Clerk of the Committee, and a large number of officers of the House who provided information and helped us a great deal in preparing the report. I also thank Richard Morgan, the computer officer, other members of the Information Committee and the user group that was set up, whose members provided us with a great deal of valuable information on the way in which networks work. In that regard, I thank especially Mrs. Bray and Mr. Crum- Ewing, representing the Westminster branch of the Transport and General Workers Union and the Secretaries and Assistants Council.
When I first came to the House some 20 years ago, I was a little surprised in some ways to find that there were still old scratchy pens in the Lobby and the Library, and there
Column 1015was still an ink monitor. I notice that the ink monitors still work their way through the Lobbies occasionally ; the Library has moved on from scratchy pens to biros, although sometimes they disappear more quickly than the scratchy pens.
That was about the only concession to modern technology within the building at that stage. One rarely found any computer screens. Even 10 years ago, it was not easy to find computer screens. However, if one now goes down through the Library, almost every desk has a computer on it ; in many of the Departments of the House, computers are fairly commonplace, and the Departments are making excellent use of them.
Some hon. Members will have noticed the big improvement in Hansard recently. It used to be frustrating that Hansard finished reporting the day's proceedings soon after 10 pm. On many nights now, it is able to report almost to midnight, although the House has not been sitting until that time lately. It is fairly rare for there to be a carry-over from one day to the next in Hansard . That is a tribute to both the people who work in Hansard and the way in which they use the new technology.
Many of the Select Committee reports are now produced by the use of computers. That has cut down the repetitive typing work involved. We can see computers in the Serjeant at Arms' Department and in almost every other Department.
I suppose that the biggest improvement is the number of computers on the desks of hon. Members and their secretaries and researchers. Ten years ago, if we heard hon. Members, researchers or secretaries talking about computers, it was usually with a measure of fear and trepidation--they were wondering whether they could possibly give them a go. Nowadays, they are much more likely to be talking about which programme they should be using and how to get the best out of the programme to improve their efficiency. The House has accepted personal computers.
What we are talking about today is how to get the benefit of all those developments to help hon. Members' with their constituency work and to enable them to be properly informed so that they are better able to scrutinise the Executive--how we can bring it all together and get the full benefit of it. It is clear that that can be achieved only with a network.
We have now had an experiment. It took the House of Commons a long time to agree to an experiment, but just before the 1992 election it was agreed that there would be one. We have now done that experiment and the report on it is before the House tonight. Of course, there were some problems with the experiment--I would not claim that everything went perfectly--but it was extremely useful. Having looked at the report, the House has the opportunity to see the potential of the network.
The first thing that we must accept is that setting up the network will be expensive. There were a lot of fears in the Committee as to how much it would cost. The report makes it clear that it is difficult to come up with the precise cost for the network because of all the other implications, such as the fact that this is a historic building. I do not think that we have to worry too much about what happened 100 years ago ; we must worry more about what happened 20 years ago in terms of the problems that arose when asbestos was found, and the fact that it was sealed up.
Much of the cost of putting in the network simply relates to putting the building into a good state of repair
Column 1016and ensuring that we have the best facilities in terms of fire warnings, the telephone network and so on. I do not think, therefore, that hon. Members should be too worried about the cost. I have also noticed that as regards computers--they represent one of the few areas in which this has been happening--there has been a tendency recently for costs to come down rather than go up. I believe that the problem of cost can be overcome. I am delighted that the Finance and Services Committee supports the Committee's recommendations and that in the end the Government will not veto the expenditure.
The other worry from the Committee's point of view was the time scale. There are many worries about that. In many ways, it hinges on the attitude of hon. Members. Looking around the Chamber, I suspect that most hon. Members who are here tonight are probably sympathetic to the idea and would be happy to be moved out of their office for a weekend, or perhaps even longer, to facilitate the introduction of the network. Other hon. Members-- probably those who are not present tonight--are less sympathetic to such moves.
The time scale comes down to the extent to which hon. Members, their secretaries and researchers are prepared to put up with disruption while the cabling work is carried out. I hope that there will be fairly rapid movement. I hope that people will be so keen to be on the network that they will be prepared to put up with more disruption. However, that is clearly a question of balance. So far, I have talked about the first report--that dealing with the provision of a parliamentary data and video network. We are also considering the report from the last Session which dealt with the more difficult issue of the original recommendation of the top salaries review : instead of hon. Members' having an allowance to buy the computer equipment they needed, the House should provide them with it. The Committee again took fairly detailed evidence and, in the end, came up with a compromise. The Committee felt that it would be better to leave it to Members to decide at their individual discretion where to make their purchases, but that the House should offer a general recommendation. That is a sensible compromise. When I first became involved with computers, I was very worried about them, but I was persuaded that using an Apple Mac machine would be easy. I do not think that I was actually told that any idiot could find his way around it, but that is what was implied, and it has given me some computer literacy.
It would be unfair on new Members coming into the House and to people coming to work in the House who had just started to master a particular computer system if they were then told that they had to standardise on a particular system which was provided by the House. When members of the Select Committee were in Canada taking evidence, we got the impression from some Canadian Members of Parliament that the fact that their House prescribed particular pieces of equipment and computer programs was rather restrictive.
I could speak at length about the reports, but I am conscious that we have a very limited time. As the mover of the motion, I shall be able, with the leave of the House, to respond to points raised during the debate. I shall finish with just one comment about motion No. 5, which deals with the live feed. That is tied in with the other motion because, unless we get the network, it will be very difficult to ensure that the live feed is available.