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Column 1017Some people have said that, if hon. Members can watch proceedings in the Chamber in their rooms, they will not bother to come to the Chamber. It is interesting to note that Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from 3 o'clock to half-past 3, the two occasions during the week on which Members can do just that--sit in their rooms, put on BBC2 and watch the proceedings--are when the Chamber is actually at its most crowded ; people do take the trouble to come.
I find it odd that if I am able to get home early to the Barbican, I can, if I want, watch what is going on in the Chamber because it is on the network there, but I cannot watch it in my office in the House. I realise that it can be argued that it would be fairer if everyone were able to have that facility. I certainly hope that the House will approve both motions tonight.
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton) : May I first take the opportunity to thanthe hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) for his generous remarks about my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) ? The remarks were well deserved, given the amount of work that my hon. Friend put into the report. I am sure that he, like me, is grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kindness.
My main role in the debate is simply as Chairman of the Broadcasting Committee and as a member of the Finance and Services Committee in relation to the motion standing in my name on the Order Paper concerning what the hon. Gentleman just referred to--the provision in Members' offices of what is known as the clean feed of television pictures from the Chamber.
Let me take the opportunity to pay tribute to the helpful work, in the Broadcasting Committee's consideration of matters, of the Clerk to the Committee, David Doig ; of the present supervisor of parliamentary broadcasting, Margaret Douglas ; of her predecessor, John Grist and of our other adviser, Bob Longman, in enabling us to consider these matters.
Before I set out as briefly as I can the complicated background to the motion, I should just like to note--perhaps more in my role as Leader of the House--that this is the first debate following the creation of the new structure of domestic Committees after the recommendations in the House of Commons services report, known as the Ibbs report, with the House's assumption of financial control for its own accommodation and works.
The new service--in this case the parliamentary data and video network--is proposed by the relevant domestic Committee. The views of the Finance and Services Committee are available and the House is invited to give a general endorsement, which I hope will happen later this evening. Thereafter, the details of the implementation are a matter for decision by the Finance and Services Committee and the Commission.
I should perhaps say to the House that my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee, hopes to be able to come to the House tonight in time to contribute to the debate, but he has been delayed on his way here. If
Column 1018he is not able to speak, I may--with the leave of the House and as long as I do not shut out other speakers--speak later on behalf of the Committee.
Since the televising of the House's proceedings was approved on a permanent basis three years ago, there has been steady pressure from different parts of the House for Members to be able to follow events in the Chamber from their parliamentary offices. Even though the convenience of having the facility is obvious, it is fair to say that hitherto not all Members have favoured such a development. The division of opinion in the House was reflected in the Select Committee on Televising of Proceedings of the House, as it was then known, when it first considered the issue in July 1990.
While acknowledging the benefits that access to the clean feed would bring to Members--particularly those in the parliamentary outbuildings--the Committee rejected the idea on three main grounds. These were : the possible adverse effect on attendance in the Chamber ; the possible element of intrusiveness in offices shared by more than one Member or in offices where there was only a thin party wall ; and the cost of the necessary wiring and sets.
Two years later, what is now the Broadcasting Committee--which I now chair- -reconsidered the subject following further representations from Members and decided that the position taken by its predecessor was no longer tenable. There were two main reasons for that change of heart. The first was that the availability to cable subscribers of the parliamentary channel's continuous coverage had brought home to many Members the existence of a facility which others could have, but to which they were denied access in their offices in the House. The second related to technological developments within the House, notably the proposed installation of the parliamentary data and video network which we are debating tonight.
As the Committee put it,
"we believe that the deliberate exclusion from the proposed . . . network of the live pictures of the House's own proceedings would strike increasing numbers of Members as increasingly odd". The Committee was undoubtedly right in that.
The Committee attached one important condition to its recommendation that the clean feed be included in the package of services. That was that, in order to avoid creating different classes of Members, the clean feed should not be available to any Members in any part of the estate until it was available to all Members in all parts of the estate.
That is where matters stood until the publication of the recent report of the Information Committee, to which the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish spoke just now. On the basis of more up-to-date evidence than was available to the Broadcasting Committee in 1992, the Information Committee invited the Broadcasting Committee to reconsider its recommendation on the clean feed on the grounds that the likely time scale for completing the installation of the PDVN was now significantly longer--up to seven years-- than was the case when the Broadcasting Committee first discussed the matter.
In agreeing to the Information Committee's suggestion to reconsider, the Broadcasting Committee recognised two main areas of concern. One was the overall timetable for the installation of the PDVN in which the clean feed was to be included, and the other was the position of Members in outbuildings. Those in offices in Norman Shaw north
Column 1019and south were seen as being at a particular disadvantage, as compared with colleagues both in the House and in other outbuildings with more modern facilities.
The Broadcasting Committee therefore asked the Director of Works to look at the feasibility of adopting a different approach which would achieve an accelerated provision of the clean feed to all parliamentary outbuildings. I would like to express my thanks to the Director of Works for the prompt way in which he has responded to the Committee's request and come forward with new proposals.
The proposals, if implemented, would mean that Members in all the outbuildings would have access to the clean feed by the end of the summer recess of 1995. The cabling work to achieve that would be carried out separately and in advance of the installation of the PDVN as a whole. But as a significant proportion of the cabling and ducting work can later be used in connection with the PDVN, the additional unavoidable cost of an accelerated approach to the clean feed is estimated to be very small in relation to the project as a whole--£60,000 to £70,000. I hope that the House will agree that that is a relatively modest sum for a worthwhile improvement in the services available to Members.
The detailed costings will, of course, have to be considered by the Finance and Services Committee and the House of Commons Commission, which Madam Speaker chairs. As the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish mentioned, I should point out to the House that some hon. Members may face some disturbance twice--once while the work on the clean feed is carried out and then again when the full network is installed. It is hoped that that disturbance can be kept to a minimum by concentrating work as far as possible during recesses--in particular, the summer recess.
The Broadcasting Committee accepted the revised proposals as a sensible compromise, which meets the legitimate concerns of Members with offices in the parliamentary outbuildings. In some cases--for example, No. 1 Parliament street and No. 7 Millbank--the necessary wiring is already in place and little or no additional work is needed. The Committee therefore also decided that it would be sensible if the feed were made available in each outbuilding as it became technically feasible, starting from the beginning of the next Session, 1994-95. That does not, however, affect the overall target date of the end of the 1995 summer recess for the completion of the process outside the main building. In effect, we are talking about a project to make the clean feed available to all the outbuildings in the course of the next Session of Parliament.
For Members in the main building, for whom access to the Chamber is much more convenient, the Committee has expressed the hope that the timetable for installing the PDVN, and with it the clean feed, can be speeded up. The Director of Works is already in the process of reviewing this matter, although I obviously cannot predict or pre-empt the outcome.
Those conclusions of the Broadcasting Select Committee are embodied in a resolution contained in the extract from the Committee's minutes of proceedings, which have been laid before the House. As the proposal from the Committee affects the convenience of individual Members and has possible implications for the way the
Column 1020House works, it is clearly right that any decision in principle should be taken by the House as a whole. It is for the House to decide where the balance of advantage lies.
For my part, speaking in my capacity as Chairman of the Broadcasting Committee, I hope that the House will approve the motion standing in my name, as well as the other motion. At the same time, I should like to express my personal hope that the House will accept the propositions put before it by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish.
Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East) : I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) for introducing this important debate. In common with him, I support all three resolutions.
Before I proceed to discuss the matters of substance, I should like to identify the parliamentary Opposition with the remarks made by my hon. Friend and by the Leader of the House about the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller). We wish him a speedy recovery and we regret that he cannot be here tonight.
I should also like to thank the Leader of the House for usefully sketching in the background to the debate and, in particular, explaining the background to the Broadcasting Select Committee resolution which is before the House for consideration.
The House has been asked to express a view on a range of issues and our debate is helpfully informed by reports from the Information Select Committee and the Broadcasting Select Committee. We also have before us the resolution from the Broadcasting Select Committee, to which I just referred. Less excitingly for those in favour of reform, or any progress, we have before us the minutes of the Finance and Services Select Committee.
It seems perfectly clear that the majority of Members wish to retain freedom of decision-making in the provision of office equipment. That, frankly, does not surprise me. There are a range of reasons for that. The obvious ones are that different Members prioritise their work in different ways ; different constituencies require different priorities from their Members of Parliament and some Members have support from other sources, whether commercial, through their own professional lives, or perhaps even from their own constituency parties, which are able to provide office equipment and other support that other parties and other constituencies cannot provide.
On page 7 of the Information Select Committee report, the consultants who recommended central provision of equipment claim that Members of Parliament wish to move from the 651 "tiny businesses" model towards a company model. That is highly unlikely to be true, and the responses from hon. Members which are quoted in the appendix to the report do not bear it out. The Committee accurately assesses the views of Members in paragraph 19 on page 7 and in subsequent paragraphs.
Hon. Members mistrust central provision and I think that they are probably right to do so. Decisions on matters of this kind should not be handed over to the Executive or to the Government's business managers--by which I mean the Executive and the Government business managers of whatever party and not just the present regime, although on previous occasions I have noted its authoritarian tendencies. In my view, Members should safeguard what independence of
decision-making they have. Each of us
Column 1021should be allowed to do the job that we have been elected to do to the very best of our abilities and we should each make our own decisions on how best to go about that.
I do not believe that there is much of a future for shared computer systems paid for from our allowances. The submission in appendix 15 of the Information Select Committee report, submitted by Consort Systems Ltd., suggests that we could all put our information on the same computer and ensure through encryption that the data files created and used by members of one political party could not be accessed by members of another party. The company goes on to recommend that different constituencies within the same political party could, however, readily transfer between their respective computers, should they wish to do so. That recommendation slightly misses one or two nuances about this place.
It occurred to me, however, that if we had such arrangements in place in the Treasury, a joint paper could be issued on its attitude to a single European currency. The Chancellor could make his amendments to the document, the Chief Secretary could then make his, and so on : the result would be one document, but its contents would depend on who got to it last.
A separate debate has been conducted on what should be provided physically for Members here in the parliamentary estate and what should be paid for separately out of our allowances. The Information Select Committee report cheerfully refers to equipment for Members' constituency offices. The truth is that there is no guaranteed provision of a constituency office for a Member of Parliament. London Members can use the House of Commons offices, but the rest of us have to pay rent, telephone bills, cleaning costs and equipment and staffing costs from our existing secretarial allowances.
There is a strong case for reviewing what hon. Members are expected to be able to do and what they should have provided for them in their constituencies and at Westminster. The conditions in Parliament are primitive when compared with other legislatures. For example, we are provided with telephones, but even in this day and age, if we want a facsimile machine, we have to go out and buy it. The parliamentary estate will, of course, provide us with the telephone link and cover the bill, provided it is run from the House.
The report from the Information Select Committee makes some useful suggestions about training and maintenance. Once those
recommendations were in the hands of the Finance and Services Committee, however, it said that they would have to be paid for from existing office costs allowance.
The Information Committee report also contains a recommendation that lists of available equipment should be made available to Members. So far no one seems to have come up with a good reason why that suggestion should be thwarted, so perhaps that reasonably harmless recommendation might get implemented, unless its inclusion was an oversight on the part of the Government's business managers. That brings me to the twin and related issues of the cabling of the parliamentary estate and access to the clean feed. In paragraph 7 on page v of the first report of the Select Committee on Broadcasting, we are told :
"Whilst it would, in theory, be possible relatively quickly to provide the clean feed to Members' offices in those buildings (for
Column 1022example, No 1 Parliament Street, No 7 Millbank and Speaker's Court) which are already cabled for the purpose, it would clearly not be an economic proposition elsewhere in the Parliamentary estate to undertake this work as a separate project in advance of the main cabling exercise described in the preceding paragraph."
That turns out to be completely untrue, as the resolution from the Committee meeting of Monday 27 June makes clear and as the Leader of the House made clear tonight.
The resolution is the unanimous view of the Committee and is presented to the House as such. Although I support it, it represents a compromise. It is intended to be as fair as possible to hon. Members in parliamentary outbuildings. The proposal is to bring the parliamentary feed to all the outbuildings by the end of the next Session and to bring the feed on stream at the beginning of the next Session where that can be done, notably at 7 Millbank and 1 Parliament street.
That raises a further question about making television services as well as the clean feed available to Members of Parliament. The retention of existing annunciators seems archaic and almost beyond reason. The sets cost more than conventional TV sets and convey hardly any information. Only a place like this could invent such an obtuse and pathetic method of conveying information. Those who favour the system can no doubt find someone else who wants to buy it. Members of Parliament should have direct access in their offices to the clean feed from the Chamber, terrestrial television, Sky News and Sky Sport, as well as the central computer network support identified by the Information Committee. We should also have the same written statement as we have now, or something similar, to tell us what is happening in the Chamber.
An entire major British city can be cabled in a shorter time scale than that proposed by the Director of Works, under the direction of the Accommodation and Works Select Committee, for the Parliament building alone. I had an opportunity to listen to the matter being debated in detail in the Broadcasting Select Committee and I proposed that we bring in the private sector to do the job. My proposal was enthusiastically supported by the parliamentary Labour party representatives, but resisted by the forces of reaction represented among Tory Members We did our best to make progress but were constantly told that progress could not be made. I do not believe a word of it. The suggestion that it would take seven years to cable this building was absolutely ridiculous.
A further obvious thought is that the provision of support for Members of Parliament is decided in an episodic and essentially random way. This building and the collection of outbuildings surrounding it are not suited to the running of a modern Parliament. The failure to make a structured provision to support Members of Parliament exacerbates those problems. Every now and then, Back-Bench Members raid those issues and try to improve their lot. The Executive and the Government's business managers then try to claw back any gain that the rank and file have made.
Unfortunately, it is in the Executive's interest to keep other Members of Parliament as under-resourced as possible, so a huge fight is put up over relatively minor issues such as the provision of the clean feed. We are told that it is too difficult to provide the clean feed in Members' offices ; yet every Ministry already has it. The Executive's professional advisers can monitor the Chamber at their convenience and entirely at public expense. The security
Column 1023services, in their nice building south of the river, can also enjoy the clean feed, which is beamed across by satellite. But Members of Parliament cannot follow business in the Chamber while they work on other matters in their offices.Those arrangements clearly illustrate the priorities of the Executive. We should stand up for ourselves and assert the priorities of the House.
Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green) : I agree with the recommendations made by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and I thank him for putting the case on which my colleagues on the Committee and our Chairman, who I hope will shortly be recovered, joined him for some two and a half years in careful study. The hon. Gentleman is an expert on the matter and I pay tribute to him for tutoring me on many aspects on which I was previously ignorant.
The experience of the Select Committee, which considered the recommendations for the information technology network, or PDVN, led us to concentrate not just on providing services for those who were technologically minded but on trying to make the technology really available and useful to hon. Members and Departments of the House, bearing in mind that hon. Members were not always computer literate and that therefore any system that we recommended must be user friendly.
Our recommendations were based on a pilot scheme, on which I was honoured to serve, the aims of which were primarily to decide the usefulness of the services provided by the network, the network's security, quality and technical reliability, the quality of training which hon. Members might receive, the quality of help desk facilities that hon. Members might need or encounter, and possible new services which might be available through the network. Colleagues on the Select Committee were not all experts or so- called computer buffs. Although many were experts, we were extremely careful to make recommendations that were useful and helpful to hon. Members. Above all, we strove to ensure that the network and services, if recommended and adopted by the House, would be of real service to hon. Members, that they would be user friendly, and that those aspects of particular use to Members were concentrated on first. Typically, those would be the help desk and training, aspects of the parliamentary on-line information system, POLIS, easy access to information services such as news bulletins' easy access to procedural matters such as the selection of amendments which come before the House and in due course better access to Hansard . The ability rapidly to transfer information between hon. Members, their staff and the House, and in due course their constituencies, was also considered at length. We considered carefully the provision of video facilities, television, teletext, the annunciator system, and so forth, bearing in mind that our recommendations should stand the test of time and be improved as and when new technology and finances were available. One of our principal objectives was to make the work of hon. Members and their staff in the House more time-effective so that they could serve their constituents better. I am happy to commend the motions to the House, but I am extremely grateful for the motion commended by the Leader of the House because, throughout the Committee's
Column 1024deliberations, I raised the matter frequently and was particularly concerned about it. It would be illogical to have a first-class PVDN system, a network and computer access to news bulletins without being able to watch our proceedings in the House.
The Leader of the House rightly referred to different classes of hon. Members--some with clean feed and some without. An invidious position has arisen whereby, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) pointed out, Ministries and others have the clean feed while hon. Members, whose job it is to scrutinise everything that goes on in the House and particularly what is produced by the Executive, do not. Furthermore, the custom has been broken so that the Whips Offices have the clean feed while some senior hon. Members, such as Chairmen of Select Committees, do not. I am therefore particularly grateful to the Leader of the House for commending the motions. I hope that the House will approve them and I commend them both to the House.
Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South) : I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) chose the right target in blaming the Government for all the difficulties in the development of the field that we are discussing. I have known sufficient Leaders of the House and Ministers who have tried to press things on both sides of the House over the years. I am afraid that the administration of the House of Commons is the real obstacle--the vested interests built up in this place, with which hon. Members do constant battle. They are perhaps winning more than they used to.
Mr. Newton : If the hon. Gentleman will kindly allow another intervention, I refrained with great difficulty from intervening in the speech of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown), and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) because, given how helpful I have been about this lot, I thought that the criticism was a bit unfair.
It is right to leave the provision of equipment to the individual responsibility of Members, to finance under their own office costs allowance. Individual procurement has produced, in recent years, a far faster rate of penetration of new techniques in the House than it would have done if there had been a centrally provided House of Commons service on the pattern of some past proposals that have been put to the House, which I, in those days, opposed.
It is a rapidly moving sector. Individual Members have their existing stock of equipment ; they have different requirements ; they have different types of software. It is sensible to leave it to their initiative, with the wide range of advice available to Members. I see no harm in having registered suppliers. It helps to get Members going. It helps to introduce new technologies. The multi-media field will grow. Members will need help in getting their compact discs going on their machines and
Column 1025so on, so there should by all means be some registered suppliers. However, those suppliers will never be able to compete with the prices that one can obtain in the mail order pages of the computer magazines, which we all buy on our way to and from our
I see no harm in site licences for commonly used software, but Members will quickly drift away from any site licence standard. Some of them will want to upgrade faster ; others will want to move more slowly, and any central licence provision would not cope with the variety of Members' needs ; but that does not mean that, if there were a site licence, it would not meet the needs of some. Training is always valuable, and I am sure that the idea of partly providing that in house and being prepared to buy in training facilities to meet peak demands, as at the beginning of a new Parliament, is a good idea.
As to the PDVN, on the initial question of the content of the services, yes, the live feed and the television access are obviously of common importance. However, for evidence of the data services available, we are indebted to the evidence from our own staff, from the representatives of the Transport and General Workers Union and the Secretaries and Assistants Council, who provided one of the only two lists of actual services that appear in the records of the Committee.
The Library, which provides the other list, makes an important distinction, on page 102 of the first report of the Information Committee 1993-94, between the "minimum services", which should be provided without a doubt-- POLIS, CD-ROM server, Library and Statistical Section servers and so on-- and what it calls "desirable services".
I think that the "desirable services" are essential for the development of an open and developing system : for example, the independent access by Members to the Press Association's Telpress service, the access to electronic mail--external electronic mail, not internal House of Commons electronic mail--to Internet, of course to JANET and to Super-JANET and the possibility of fax transmission, inward and outward, and fax storage.
The range of information services that will be available electronically will increase enormously in future, as almost all printed material is now generated by electronic means and the electronic form of it will become available to networks. I find it extraordinary that we have allowed the situation to develop where our own Library does not even have a site licence for access to Hansard .
We may be right in having forgone setting up the House of Commons Library as a copyright library, in the way that the Library of Congress is in the United States, but for us not to have access to the record of our own words is a bit rich. We should certainly make it a condition that all Her Majesty's Stationery Office-generated material should be available, free of charge, to Members through the House of Commons, in the same way that printed material is. On the openness of services, the practical freedom with which that will operate will depend enormously on the use of industry- standard software and hardware in this place. I confess that I am more than a little alarmed at the jargon in the technical report on the actual type of network to be installed in annex A on page 15 to the memorandum from the Director of Finance and Administration and the Computer Officer. I am not sure, from that, the extent of fibre-optic use in the network and the extent of coaxial
Column 1026cable or even twisted pair, but we are already wide users of fibre-optic networks in our own offices, and for that not to be the standard that is used throughout the building and outbuilding and so on seems absurd.
When, in my constituency, all my constituents will be on fibre-optic networks shortly--the United Artists network--they will want personal interviews with their Members on their own private channel in the Netherton ward of Motherwell on a Friday evening. I shall be happy to provide that, provided that that link is into my office, both at home, where it will be provided by United Artists, I am sure, and also from this place.
It is not only the hardware that needs to develop rapidly in terms of industry standards, but the software and the types of software that will be required. Nowadays, we have authoring systems with the capacity to produce those clever information booths, such as we have down below in the Meteorological Office weather forecasting terminal. The authoring of that type of service--public access, public inquiry systems and so on--will be well within the capacity of the good, competent research assistants that hon. Members on both sides of the House employ in large numbers.
We are in a hugely rapidly moving field, and unless we have open and industry-standard systems, Parliament will lag far behind. I think that the spirit of Members--it is clearly and well set out in the report--is to open it up and let it rip. I am sure that the my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East is right--seven years is nonsense.
Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet) : I join in the tributes that have been paid to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) for the hard work that he has put into the preparation of the report. Given the speed of the cabling operations that are now under way in Leeds and Bradford, I like to think that, even if he is lying on his sick bed, he may be watching our proceedings at this moment. Whether that will hasten his recovery is a different matter.
There is no job specification for a Member of Parliament. Each of us chooses to do our job in the way that we best deem fit. For many of us, if not for all, a PDVN system is a fundamental necessity to do the job that we think we ought to be doing.
It seems to me that four specific aspects are crucial. The first is what we as individuals want out of the system. Members may want different things ; they may want electronic mail or access to databases. I find the British Rail planning system quite useful--when the trains are running. It is good that we can have bolt-on services ; they will give Members for the first time the chance to operate in an IT framework--most commercial and industrial organisations would have taken that for granted a decade ago.
We shall now be able to link the various services available in Westminster, in the Library and in Whitehall, and that will give us easier and more rapid transfer of knowledge, which will be all to the good. As a result, we will be able to respond much more quickly to the needs of our constituents.
Increasingly, Members of Parliament want constituency offices with which they can communicate electronically.
Column 1027Nowadays, our secretaries often work in the constituencies, so Members want their post dealt with there but printed out here, so that it can be sent off expeditiously. There is no reason why that should not be done.
I find access to the system from home invaluable at weekends and during recesses, particularly when I cannot use the excellent services of the House Library but want access to the latest information. I hope that Library briefs will be available on the system before long. I would find them extraordinarily useful when I am rung up by a local radio station at 8 o'clock in the morning and asked to contribute to a programme in an hour's time. It would be very useful to check information that may be discussed on the programme.
It must therefore be obvious that the Committee was absolutely right to dismiss out of hand the idea of central planning of what should be available. That will enable each of us to add to the system the peripherals that we find suitable. I am beginning to experiment with the CD-ROM drive and Hansard on them, and that too is valuable. I am sure that others will find it advantageous as well. When the Committee visited other Parliaments to see their networks and to examine how they worked, I was struck by the arrogant element in the decisions by other Administrations to tell their Members what they needed--the poor dears could not understand the systems for themselves, so they had to have what was given them. It was noticeable that the equipment lacked the capacity to keep up with the times and could not reflect sudden changes, or indeed, provide Members with what they would have chosen had they controlled their systems and budgets themselves.
Similarly, it is absurd that Members cannot have a clean feed at the earliest possible opportunity. When it was put to us that the system would take about seven years to put in place, I was as horrified as everyone else. I do not think that any of us would be able to force a change of view, but in the Committee we expressed our horror at that delay. As has been said already, it would take that long to cable a major city in the United Kingdom. That cannot be right. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will give the matter serious consideration, and will press for whatever is needed to bring in a modern system at the earliest possible date.
The pilot scheme has proved a great success with the hon. Members who participated in it. The measure of that success is the number of other hon. Members who are asking to join the system, but who, because of its limited budgetary arrangements, cannot do so. We have a flexible and easily adapted system for the future, and I hope that the House will give it its warmest approval this evening. 8.53 pm
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire) : As a serving member of the Finance and Services Committee, I should like to make a brief contribution. Earlier, the Leader of the House said that this was the first debate following the creation of the new domestic Committees recommended in the Ibbs report, and it is therefore something of an historic occasion.
The motions before us have been produced by the House's own domestic Committees, charged with the duty of giving detailed consideration to all these issues. They have produced immensely useful work, and we should pay
Column 1028tribute not only to the hon. Members for Denton And Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Keighley (Mr. Waller) but to the members of staff who assisted the process. The tributes to them all are well merited. We are engaged in an important process, in which the House has the chance to take a view on the work of the Committees, so that their recommendations can be returned and implemented by the Finance and Services Committee and by the House of Commons Commission. This is the first evidence we have had that the Ibbs committee procedure is working, and I pay tribute to the Leader of the House for making as much progress as he has. He was made responsible for bringing the process together and for setting up the system. The comments made earlier, to the effect that the right hon. Gentleman is responsible for the delay, were very far from the truth.
I was heartened to find in 1984, only 12 short months after my election to this House, that we were turning our attention to what I considered the important question of information technology. Unfortunately, nothing happened for the next 10 years, until the creation of the Ibbs Committee system and the new urgency with which the Leader of the House and the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee dealt with these matters. That is all to the credit of the right hon. Gentleman. He will excuse me if I say that he is no power user of personal computers ; he may be a powerful PC, but he himself would acknowledge that he is not a power user of PCs.
I am pleased that we have come so far so fast. It has been intimated that it may take seven years to implement the full system, and the Committee has found that acceptable. Now it is for the House to take a view, which is what we have been doing this evening. I am sure that the Commission and the Committee will pay careful attention to what has been said here.
I was impressed by the speech of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown). It is good to know that the official Opposition are so progressive. Some senior members of the Opposition--indeed of all parties-- are Luddites, but we have to learn to live with these technologies as best we may.
Mr. Kirkwood : I can only hope that the PDVN assists the process. We need continually to investigate better ways of doing our job. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves) was right about that, and the hon. Member for Elmet (Mr.Batiste) also had some important things to say along the same lines. If one wants to improve the legislative process, the scrutiny of the Executive and our ability to represent our constituents' interests, we must always seek ways to improve the efficiency of this place.
Information systems which enable us to make better use of our time and resources must be embraced and welcomed, as far and as fast as resources allow. The transfer of information between Members and their staff and between Westminster and our constituencies will, during the next two or three years, become increasingly important. Looking at the matter the other way round, the prospect of not accepting the recommendations and abandoning the
Column 1029work that has been done is inconceiveable. The only question is how far and how fast we make progress. I hope that the House will assist that process by accepting the recommendations.
I have two caveats. First, I do not know what other hon. Members think, but being over-ambitious about targets with information technology can lead to grief. We must become accustomed to the idea of developing individual systems in order to meet particular needs. There are particular needs within the Departments of the House, within the offices of Members of Parliament and within the offices of the shadow administration and Ministers. They will all need their own refined systems to do their particular work.
What encourages me more than anything else about the burden of the report is that we are concentrating on getting the infrastructure right. I am sure that we should concentrate our resources on the main information byways and highways and getting in the cabling. I agree that we should be looking at fibre-optics as well. None of those things should be left out of the equation.
However, the main thing is to put in the infrastructure so that the basic system exists into which people can dip, using and developing it in an individual way to the best of their ability and according to their needs. The core services proposed are an essential minimum in order that the system can be developed.
The House will have to accept that some physical disruption will be inevitable if we are to speed up the introduction of the core system. I for one, as a member of the Finance and Services Committee, am prepared to face up to that. We also have to accept that there will be teething problems. But that is a small price to pay for the advantages that a properly run and used system can bring. The Finance and Services Committee considered the matter long and hard, and I am convinced that the investment is justified on a cost-benefit analysis in the long term.
As was mentioned earlier, the training element must not be overlooked. That is as important an investment as the infrastructure. The rate at which the system can be expanded and developed depends a lot on training.
I have two grouses that were referred to earlier, but which I wish to underscore. I make a particular plea for POLIS 3 to be developed as quickly as possible. It is a matter of some disappointment to hon. Members that we do not have access to the benefits and advantages of the higher specification of the system that was described as POLIS 3.
A particular plea must also be made, which I hope will go out from the debate, to the Commission and to the Finance and Services Committee, for better and direct access to Hansard on line. As the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) said, it is ridiculous that we do not have access to downloaded texts from the Official Report .
If people are complaining that Whips have access to clean feed, at least it tells me, as a member of the usual channels in this place, where my 22 Members of Parliament are or are not at a given time. If we put cameras in some of the Bars, such as Annie's Bar, that would also help the Whips. I would go for full surveillance on some Back-Bench Members. [Interruption.] I may get into