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Column 1030trouble as a Liberal Democrat for saying that, so I withdraw it. I was getting carried away with my own rhetoric. The clean feed is as important to Whips as it is to other Members, and the sooner we have it the better.
Critical mass is an important element to the success of any proper network. The faster that people are signed up and make use of the network, the more use it will be to all of us. Between now and the next election will be a critical period for us. If we can use the intervening two or three years to put the core infrastructure and training in place, when the new intake comes, as it will, the new Members will be much more willing to embrace the system if we can offer it to them with training as soon as they arrive here. That is a great opportunity that we must not miss. If we do, it will be another four or five years before we have the same opportunity.
I am grateful for the work that has been done. This is an encouraging report, which I hope the House will embrace with enthusiasm.
Mr. David Shaw (Dover) : I join those hon. Members who have paid tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) who has worked hard on the Information Committee in the past few years and with whom I have had regular discussions about the progress of the work. I am not a member of the Committee but I have taken quite an interest in the parliamentary data and video network. It is important. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) for the way in which he introduced the report today.
It is a good report which covers a number of aspects of the parliamentary data and video network. It leads hon. Members into a difficult area in a readable manner.
I pay tribute also to the staff who work on the parliamentary data and video network and to the consultants. Although they are not official House of Commons staff, they make it possible for us to join the network, and they work hard to connect our offices to it. I have had some favourable experiences. I am glad that my staff are connected to the network, and that I even have my own sub-network below the PDVN that allows me to communicate directly with my staff. I look forward to getting full control of the system this summer, to reduce the 80,000 pieces of paper that I estimate go through my office in a year. If we are honest, as I am sure we are, I am sure that we would admit that the odd piece of paper occasionally goes missing. How much easier it would be if many of those documents could be electronically captured and accessed with modern technology. I hope that will be one of the benefits of my office going as near-electronic as it possibly can in the next 12 months. The proposal before us is modest. It is a question of catching up not with 1994 but with some years back. Members of Parliament are dangerously behind in relation to the rest of the country. University students and others have moved on to electronic networking in their universities and beyond, to communicate worldwide. I am working with a number of schools in my constituency to help ensure that their pupils will be at the forefront of information technology education, so that Dover can attract the employers of the future. We want to compete for jobs with not only Europe and the rest of the country but--dare I say it--with my colleagues in the House in
Column 1031attracting the employers of the future, who look for young people trained in computer technology. It will be no use if Members of Parliament do not take the lead. Our constituents expect us to do that, and to understand the technology.
I examined, as an accountant might do, the cost of the proposals. For a few years, it might cost £3,000 per annum per Member of Parliament. I remind the House that many of our constituents possess £3,000-worth of electronic equipment in their homes, perhaps without realising it--let alone in their offices. One pensioner wrote to me about his NICAM stereo video recorder, which cost more than £1,000. He is not particularly well off but is housebound, and regards that piece of equipment as important to him. If one adds the value of other domestic electronic equipment to be found in the homes of many of our constituents, it totals a considerable sum.
The proposed expenditure is small by comparison with businesses. If one visits a senior manager's office in one's constituency or in the City, one will see secretaries using electronic equipment worth £20, 000 or £30,000 that serves to connect the office with any part of the world. Many secretaries in London and throughout the country communicate on behalf of their bosses and companies with offices in Japan, America and elsewhere.
It is important that Members of Parliament consider the PDVN not only on an insular basis, in respect of the House and Westminster, but how it might be used in communicating with the rest of the world.
It is no good, however, if in doing so we set up a system that--according to the timetable in the report--might be installed by the year 2001, when many of our constituents have been using it since 1990 or 1992. The system must be modern and appropriate, and must enable us to communicate better with our constituents and take up their cases in Whitehall as soon as possible. We should accept nothing less than a one-year timetable ; otherwise, perhaps heads should begin to roll.
I do not mind if it takes a little over a year if the excuses are good, but I do not think that "There is a lot of asbestos in the basement of the House of Commons" or "This is an old building" are acceptable excuses. We must find ways of modernising the building to meet the needs of the modern age. I am fed up with the mice in the Tea Room and the quill pens in the Library : we should be operating in a proper environment, facing the electronic age and obtaining speedy questions to the representations of our constituents. Electronic mail and the PDVN must be introduced rapidly. I am not referring just to communications within Westminster ; I am thinking of communication with Government Departments when we take up our constituents' cases, and communication with those constituents. The United States Congress has just begun an experiment. Through the Internet, a number of Congressmen are now receiving electronic mail from their constituents, and Congress committees can be contacted by that means. I know that because I recently joined the Internet, and have been communicating not only with people in America but with people all over the world. I have taken evidence for the Select Committee on Social Security from Americans whom I contacted by posting to a news group : ordinary American citizens have contributed information about the American child support system by that method.
Column 1032All that is possible, but we are taking things far too slowly. We are not obtaining information that is available in the rest of the world. As my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) said earlier, we should be putting the Library on to the PDVN and making all its services--briefs and reports, for example--available to hon. Members in their constituencies. Hon. Members such as myself whose offices are in Millbank should be able to gain access to our offices from the Library via the PDVN when there are a large number of votes, as there will be in the next few weeks : there should be terminals in the Library for that purpose.
The PDVN should be wired up to the Internet as soon as possible. The Internet is connected to some 2 million computers worldwide, and 40 million people are believed to have access to it. It has contact with 60 countries, and I understand that it is connected to 18 coffee houses in San Francisco. As the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) pointed out, there is a British system--Janet and Super Janet--which could be connected with the PDVN, and would provide a number of services for university students. Not only would it allow them to send questions to Members of Parliament ; it could be a two-way process, allowing Members of Parliament more access to research work in universities and colleges.
Some hon. Members will be concerned about the security implications, but we should consider all the possibilities. Unless we establish the right operation in the House of Commons, we shall not even begin to do that. It is perverse that I can read President Clinton's diary and find out his appointments-- [Interruption.] --perhaps not all his appointments-- when all too often I am not informed about when Ministers are coming to my constituency.
We must address the issue of the PDVN and the Government databases. There are all sorts of databases in Whitehall that the Government make available to corporations and the corporate sector. Use of the databases is charged at £60 or £70 an hour and Members of Parliament do not have access to them under the present arrangements. That is wrong. We must have access to all Government databases so that we know what statistics and information the Government are producing. The PDVN must be made accessible in some way--I accept, in a secure way--to the public. We have to find a secure way of separating use by Members of Parliament from public use. There are companies that have worked out how it can be done. I understand that DEC has resolved the problem in America for its access to the Internet. It has set up a separate and secure access system.
Since I have been on the Internet I have noticed a number of people out there who want access to Hansard . Many people have asked whether they can access the work of Parliament and the Government. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) because one learns something new from every debate. I had not fully appreciated the significance of the fact that "HMSO" appears on the bottom of Hansard . I was shocked to learn that as a consequence we have now given up the copyright. That is totally unacceptable. We must take back that copyright. We must make Hansard available not just to members of the British public but to members of the public all over the world who want to see what the British Parliament is up to.
We are the mother of Parliaments and we are regarded by many people in the Commonwealth countries and in many of the 60 countries on the Internet as a Parliament
Column 1033that debates issues of the day in a way that they would like to discover. We should be making available to the rest of the world our debates and discussions. We must continue to be a leading Parliament.
I should like to see us using our PDVN to access information in Europe. I want to have more control over Brussels. I am not satisfied with our control and influence over European issues in European debates. We should connect our PDVN so that we can access databases on the continent.
Parliament is about conveying information. It is about using our speeches and words in our constituents' interests. It is about controlling the Executive and controlling the use of information that should rightly be available to Members of Parliament. We must move forward. The report is about moving forward and we should fully support it and the work of the PDVN.
Several hon. Members rose
Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore) : I do not understand why the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) objects to the provision of mice in the Tea Room. He should come to the Labour side where we have two who entertain us regularly after 11 o'clock. We have no objection to some of the mice in the Tea Room.
I am a member of the Finance and Services Committee, and I am pleased to support the motions in the names of the Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) and my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). I congratulate them on their hard work and progressive achievements. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish for presenting the report. I thank all the staff who have helped in the production of the report. I know of the tremendous amount of work that has gone into the production of the report and the motions. When we read the documents and the report, it is easy to appreciate the large amount of work that has been done by everybody. I am pleased that some of the hon. Members involved have been mentioned. We will all benefit from the reports.
The reports and resolutions to which the motions refer contain important proposals to provide hon. Members with the technological means to cope with the ever-increasing burden of parliamentary duties. The sooner the benefits of the proposed PDVN and the related facility of the clean feed of parliamentary proceedings are made available, not just to hon. Members and their staff in the outbuildings, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) said, in the Palace of Westminster itself, the better. I say that because we share an office upstairs above the No Lobby and we would be grateful for the provision of such facilities. I have the honour of being Chairman of the Accommodation and Works Committee. I have been privileged, along with my colleagues and their predecessors, to have played a part in on-going efforts to bring
Column 1034accommodation and facilities for hon. Members, their staff and House staff up to a reasonable standard. That has meant the acquisition and development of a number of outbuildings near the Palace of Westminster--an exercise which has recently yielded 127 extra offices for hon. Members at 7 Millbank and which will reach its culmination in 1999 when the exciting new parliamentary building, designed by Michael Hopkins and his partners, becomes available to hon. Members. Perhaps, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will have noted that the facilities mentioned in the report will not be installed until seven years after 1999.
In recent years, enormous strides have been made to improve the standards of hon. Members' office accommodation, which has now transformed the parliamentary estate into a campus of buildings. That welcome development emphasises the need for modern and effective methods of communication, and dictates that the technological means to bring about better communication must be in place as quickly as possible.
I emphasise, however, that most major works projects in Parliament are necessarily limited to the summer recess. That, coupled with the need to minimise inconvenience, means that some projects need to be phased over more than one summer recess and, in some cases, over more than one year. It is important to understand that the programmes of work inevitably cause disruption and mean that Members and staff have to be relocated temporarily while their offices are refurbished. My Committee has foremost in its mind the need to ensure that disruption is kept to a minimum and has instructed that all necessary steps, including consultation with those who will be affected, be taken to achieve that aim. That requires the co-operation and understanding of those involved. The report states that 327 hon. Members replied to the survey, and just over 50 per cent. stated that they wanted the facility. Members must appreciate, therefore, that there will be some disruption to their normal working life, even though it might be in the summer recess.
I pay tribute, and it is rarely paid, to the Serjeant at Arms, the Deputy Serjeant at Arms, the Deputy Assistant Serjeant at Arms and particularly to Judy Scott Thomson and all the staff. They should be congratulated on the work that they have undertaken in speedily, readily and efficiently informing hon. Members of disruption while works are carried out.
Hon. Members will recall that in March 1992, after the House had approved the Ibbs report but before the establishment of the Finance and Services Committee, the House approved the design of the new building in the first debate on a report from the Accommodation and Works Committee. My colleagues on the Committee and I will continue to monitor the progress of the new building. Should the House so decide, we will play our part in planning for the introduction of the new network of services as quickly as is practicable.
As for the video side of the network, I accept the importance of Members being able to receive a televised clean feed of parliamentary proceedings in their offices, and I hope that serious consideration will be given to providing a satellite as well as a terrestrial broadcast. The value of regular televised news broadcasts was proved during the Gulf conflict, and Sky already provides a satellite service to the television viewing room. I hope that that aspect of television viewing can be incorporated into the planning for television reception for Members.
Column 1035I should say a lot more, but I realise that time is moving on, and my colleagues want to participate in the debate. Finally, I must point out that, as a result of the introduction of the overdue new facilities that we propose, some Members may not attend the debates in the Chamber. We all appreciate that Members serve on Committees. I refer in particular to the Leader of the House, whom I see so often in Committees that I attend ; he cannot be expected to be in the Chamber all the time as well.
I hope that people outside the House of Commons appreciate that Members of Parliament have other duties to perform, and realise that they may be serving the House and yet not in the Chamber. I hope that the media will play their part in ensuring that people outside Parliament understand that dilemma confronting Members of Parliament, and will not expect them to be in the Chamber for each and every debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller)--my fellow vice- chairman of the parliamentary information technology committee--my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) and the Leader of the House on their speeches and the clarity of their remarks. Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) said, some of the material is not clear. I am looking at the PDVN pilot technical review, and it looks as though what is being proposed is the tree and branch network, the branches being twisted pair. The old annunciators use one twisted quad, and the proposed network looks somewhat long in the tooth even now.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East said that it took as long to cable this building as it takes to cable a major city. He is right, but that is only because of the method selected for this building. That need not be the same as the method selected for the outer buildings. As a result of the recommendations of the old Computer Sub-Committee, which I had the honour to chair 10 years ago, and which produced the original report, they were designed to take those possibilities on board.
This building is technically an extremely difficult building to cable--but cable technology has not stood still in all that time, although to read the document one might think that it had. There have been developments such as blown fibre cabling ; fibre optic cable can blown through existing conduits without disturbing anything. If a fibre optic cable comes in contact with a 250-volt bare wire, nothing happens : it is a better insulator than the insulation round the cable. So we do not need to worry about that.
We could use far more inventive ways of cabling the building. I grant that that would cost a little more because of the cost of terminal equipment, but much of that cost would be saved. I note that another part of the report deals with the fire alarm system, the security system, the telephone system, the data system and the video system. They can all go through the same fibre, and still leave masses of spare bandwidth capacity, if it is done on a
Column 1036switch star rather than a tree and branch basis. I am sorry to have to use such terms, but there is no other way of describing the systems.
We do not know what our successors in Parliament will need in 10 or 15 years' time. Things have changed dramatically in my 15 years in the House. The amount of paperwork, the things with which we have to deal and the information to which we need to have access have increased ; the rate of change has been logarithmic and will continue. The people sitting in our places in 10 to 15 years' time will have a different perception of the system.
The system must be resilient to technological change, so it must have the inherent bandwidth capability to take those developments. The system proposed at present, especially in this building, will not be able to do that. The position is easier in the outer buildings because they have wiring trays. It is difficult to cable in this building, but if we were imaginative, if we used new cabling technologies and if we were prepared to pay a little extra--although we could consider hanging the other systems on the fibre optic system--we would not have to wait until it was nearly time for me to retire before getting the system in this building. We could have such a system quickly and reasonably inexpensively, and we could get it done without detriment to the architectural heritage of this building, which is extremely important. We can get it done to cope with the reasonable needs of our successors in 10 to 15 years' time. 9.30 pm
Ms Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen) : I endorse the thanks given to hon. Friends, other hon. Members and staff of the House who have made this debate possible. I have a particular interest in it. I first came to the House more than 20 years ago as a secretary. In those days, secretaries did not have individual telephones and we still used manual typewriters with carbon paper and flimsy copies. We have moved on, but not far enough.
The Information Committee report concluded :
"We recommend the phased introduction of a full Parliamentary Data and Video Network. It is a principal function of Parliament to oversee the actions of the Executive. Members have a responsibility to represent their constituents effectively. In both these key areas, we consider the provision of a full network would greatly increase the efficiency with which the House operates and the capacity of Members to cope with increasing workloads."
Before compiling the report, the Information Committee conducted a questionnaire among Members of Parliament. More than 50 per cent. returned the questionnaires and more than half expressed a wish for the direct reception of the televised proceedings of the House. Direct access from their personal computers to the Official Report was requested by more than half who replied and almost as many required access to POLIS--the parliamentary on-line information service. Many showed an interest in having direct access to external information services, such as the FT Profile which provides the ability to search for and retrieve the full text of items drawn from daily newspapers and other publications.
The pilot scheme, to which hon. Members have already referred, has been successful and has been used extensively by members of staff as well as by Members of Parliament. Among the benefits of a full network would be direct access at any time to the Library and other information services, both from within and outside the parliamentary estate.
Column 1037As other hon. Members have said, such a system is especially important for Members who feel it increasingly important to have constituency offices. The majority of Opposition Members have such offices and I believe that many Conservative Members do as well. The use of electronically stored newspaper reference services, such as the FT Profile, and services now available on compact discs and CD-ROM in the Library are seen as a major benefit. CD-ROMs, although not necessarily providing full information, are cheaper as once they have been purchased, their use involves no further cost. Such cost considerations must be a major factor in any decision on the future expansion of the service.
I believe that the service would enable hon. Members and their staff to make more effective use of their time and resources, which are always fully stretched, as we know. It would also help, certainly in the initial stages, to reduce the demand from Members on overworked and over-burdened Library staff who provide an excellent service for us all, but who must surely long for the day when we do not have to bother them with more trivial inquiries. That would no longer be necessary if all hon. Members had access to the data and video network.
We are sent here by our constituents to represent their interests. We have a duty to ensure that we can do that as effectively as possible. As the Information Committee report concluded, the provision of a full network would greatly increase the efficiency with which the House operates and the capacity of Members to cope with the demands of their constituents.
Therefore, we have a duty and a responsibility on behalf of our constituents to do what we can to ensure that a full network is provided for all hon. Members and their staff without further delay. I hope and feel that that is the mood of the House tonight. 9.34 pm
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) : The Select Committee on Information was my first taste of the Committee process in the House after I was elected in the 1992 election. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller), for his sterling work in chairing the Committee and, indeed, to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who moved the motion, because he has also done a tremendous amount of work on behalf of fellow Committee members.
I joined that Committee as a result of a conversation with the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) in which I expressed my frustration, as a new hon. Member, about the inadequacies of information technology in the building. At that, the hon. Member for Jarrow invited me to join the Select Committee on Information, and, as hon. Members will know, invitations from the hon. Member for Jarrow are not readily refused. I was delighted, because not only did I find myself at the heart of the debate about information technology, but, of course, because the Committee has important responsibilities in respect of the Library, which provides a sterling service for us all. The hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) made an interesting comment on the possibilities of what can happen from his house because of the evolution of IT systems. I find it quite extraordinary in this day and age that the gas board cannot lay a gas main to provide a
Column 1038service to my house, yet I can communicate with my constituency office and with my parliamentary office using the parliamentary data network in its pilot form. That network facility would greatly improve the efficiency of the operation of Members of Parliament and, indeed, improve the efficiency of the communication of information to our constituents, who are entitled to receive all information which emanates from this place.
Only this week, I have needed to write a complicated letter in relation to a case which is currently in front of the Police Complaints Authority. That letter related to an enormous amount of files, some of which were here and some of which were in my parliamentary office. Instead of having to wait until next weekend, when I could get my hands on all the documentation, it was possible to put together the documents, have the letter typed at the other end, and have it checked, printed and signed by me at this end. Our constituents ought to demand such a service from us and I know that, increasingly, they will do so, because that is the sort of service that they will get from companies operating in the big, wide world outside.
The Committee looked at the network and studied a number of examples of what happens in other countries. My hon. Friends have mentioned the Canadian system and the United States system, but one incredible statistic in the report is that, of all the countries in Europe, with the exception of one--Turkey--we do not have a parliamentary network. That is an extraordinary omission on our part and we are doing an enormous disservice to the efficiency of our offices and our constituents by not joining the current part of this century, let alone looking forward.
One of the most basic facilities that I use heavily, which I commend to hon. Members to improve effectiveness, is the ability to control one's diary from three places simultaneously. It is an incredibly powerful tool. It needs some managerial control, or all sorts of people may end up controlling one's diary, but, with proper control, such facilities are possible.
Recently, I found that I needed to communicate with an organisation in Geneva, with which I have had a number of contacts over the year. I did that simply by sending an E-mail message. It cost little more than the price of a local telephone call for the message to get into the Geonet network and be picked up by the mail box holder at the other end. It is a secure system ; it works ; it is efficient ; and it is cheaper than transmitting all the message in a conventional telephone conversation. That is the sort of technology that this place needs.
The services of the Library have been mentioned at length. The provision of those services through an extension of POLIS will be of enormous benefit to hon. Members on both sides of the House. I shall refer to the comments that have been made about cabling and the timetable. It is clear that we should examine--what my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam), with his expertise in telecommunications, said is right--the cable technology of tomorrow in the context of all the low-voltage services that we need around the building.
Column 1039has a long lifespan ahead of it because, unlike many other areas of technology, it is very much the limit of known transmission knowledge, without going into the wireless field which would present us with all sort of other problems, although that might have to be examined. The services that we must examine in that context--the network, fire services, telephone services, television, clean feed, and security-- can all be dealt with in one cable network.
As a member of the Information Committee and an enthusiast for dragging this place into the 21st century--although I believe passionately in the need to protect the integrity of old buildings--I could speak at length on this subject, but I realise that other hon. Members want to get in before the end of the debate. I shall therefore conclude my remarks by saying that if we, as
parliamentarians of one mind, are determined to drive the programme forward, we can cut down the time that is needed to develop it. On that basis, I commend the report of the Information Committee to the House.
When I entered the House, having worked as a computer network manager previously, I must confess that I was somewhat taken by surprise at the low level of development of information technology systems in the House, the variety of systems in use, their incompatibility, and the virtual absence of training for hon. Members and their staff. I suspect that we all know what the results of that have been : inefficiencies of various sorts, equipment bought which is probably not very good, poor usage of systems and duplication of effort--an enormous waste of time by people searching for the same information.
Of course, this place uses and generates a vast amount of information. As several hon. Members have already pointed out, if one looked at any public or private sector organisation, one would see that we are years behind in the development of information systems. I am sure that hon. Members realise that the network will not cure all ills. I am sure that the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) knows that it is perfectly possible to lose a piece of data just as comprehensively in a computer system as it is to lose a letter on paper.
I shall speak briefly about two issues. The first is the data services which are to be available. I think the core services listed in the recommendations are sensible, but I shall refer--as has been mentioned earlier--to the question of updating POLIS. That has been long overdue and as it develops it will improve access to other parliamentary information. That is where I think the priorities ought to be in the first place--on Library briefings and the inclusion of the full text of Hansard . As services such as those develop, and as access is gained to other external services, we shall find that--unless we get on quickly with the installation--first, we discourage users, and secondly, that the technology will be virtually out of date before the system has been completed.
The second issue is the question of training, and there are a number of aspects to that. The first aspect is persuading people to use the facilities which are available and showing them what is possible. I am a little disturbed
Column 1040that the Finance Committee has suggested that none of the training should be provided directly for Members without the funds coming out of office costs. There is a case for providing some basic training free to improve people's efficiency and to ensure that they are able to use the network efficiently.
They must know what is available and how the software can be used. We will improve the network's efficiency if we do that. I shall be certainly concerned if people are not to be barred from access to the system while they are untrained. What will the effects be of large numbers of untrained people using the network ? That will have consequences for the efficiency of the system for everyone else. If we are to consider extensions of the network into expensive external systems, databases and E-mail, it is almost essential that training is forced. If people are not trained, we shall have inefficiency and greatly increased costs, which will be money wasted.
I shall make my final point because we wish to hear from the Chairman of the Finance Committee before the debate closes. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson) mentioned that this is not just about producing systems for the convenience of Members of Parliament but about increasing our efficiency and enabling us to deal with our constituents better. We shall be able to produce answers quickly and get at the information that is needed to produce those answers quickly.
Another important aspect of our job is the ability to keep track of what the Executive is doing.It is important to bear that in mind. Someone listening to the debate might have thought that we were talking about our convenience and whether we could watch Sky Sport. While I very much like to do that, although some bits of it may irritate my staff, I am more interested in having parliamentary systems which enable me to do my job efficiently for my constituents.
Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West) : First, I apologise to the House for arriving late to the debate. I have been abroad on parliamentary business and my flight was late coming back. The second, and much more serious, thing for which I ought to apologise is the fact that I am perhaps the only layman in a Chamber of experts. I feel rather like Daniel in the lions' den.
Luckily the Finance and Services Committee have taken a course which was acceptable to the House--otherwise, I have a feeling that I would have been howled down. With the support of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) and the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell), the Finance and Services Committee has come to the right decision.
This, in fact, is the first occasion on which the House has had a debate such as this on a new service since the foundation of the Finance and Services Committee. The Committee was given the task of looking at the financial and administrative implications of recommendations made by Committees such as the Information Committee and the Broadcasting Committee. Like other hon. Members, I congratulate the Chairmen of those Committees on the splendid work that has been done. The Committee has considered the network in detail, both the justification for it and the cost of its provision. Given the hour and the fact
Column 1041that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) hopes to reply to the debate, I will not go into that in great detail. The Committee accept the benefits and those colleagues who are more technologically minded than I am, will understand them better than I do. We accept the argument that Members should be provided with additional modern facilities to help them, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) rightly said, in their parliamentary duties, not just to have a bit of fun.
This is a complicated matter and costs are extremely complicated. We shall monitor developments closely each year as we look at the works programme and prepare the estimates that go to the Commission. We must be guided by the Information Select Committee and by officers of the House as to what services can be funded on the network. We do not, of course, want to overburden that system and its staff. We shall have to consider that factor every year in the estimates. I note in particular what the hon. Member for Walthamstow said about training and obviously my Committee will consider that in the light of today's debate.
I am rather less keen on the clean feed than any other Member in the Chamber now, but I accept that the overwhelming majority of people want it and that the overwhelming majority are very upset about the seven-year rule. The Finance and Services Select Committee obviously understands that and we shall ask the Director of Works to report to us in the autumn about how a new timing might be achieved. I understand that it is the wish of the House to speed up all this work. The House would also agree, however, that we do not want to alter works projects at the last moment. We must go through the planning stages to avoid waste and create proper control. With that proviso, the Finance and Services Select Committee supports the various projects. In doing so, I hope that the Committee is acting not only as the watchdog of finance in the House, by trying to get good financial management, but as the supporter of improved services for Members to help them to carry out their parliamentary duties.
In common with other hon. Members, I hope that the House will agree to the motions.
I always warn people that it is very dangerous when the House of Commons appears to be unanimous on something, because it means that trouble is afoot. We should be clear that, although a great deal of support for new services has been expressed by the hon. Members in the Chamber tonight, some of our colleagues are more cynical and sceptical about the proceedings. It is important that the enthusiasts should win those Members over.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) was a little unfair when he criticised the Executive for trying to slow the process down. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) was also a little unfair when he blamed officers of the House, because I think those individuals were won over to the benefits of change some time ago. It may be true that the
Column 1042Clerk at the Table is not waiting to punch the Votes and Proceedings of the House into a computer, but an awful lot of officers of the House see the benefits offered by new technology. We should be clear that, in many ways, it is our colleagues who are the biggest problem. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) could tell us how difficult it occasionally is to persuade an hon. Member to move from one office to another. That is the major problem about the time scale. If everyone who spoke in the debate does his bit to persuade other hon. Members that putting up with a little inconvenience during a recess is worthwhile for the benefit of everyone else, we could make a great deal of progress. I do not want to go into the technical issue of which cabling system should be used, but it is most important that the House keeps continually under review what is the most practical option. It is important that it considers the use of radio LAN because that could be a possibility for some parts of the building.
I do not think that I am leaking any information if I say that, on Monday, the Information Committee will be considering a report from the Department of the Official Report about the possibility of having the preceding five days' Hansard on the network. That would be very useful.
I should like to able to report to the House that the teething problems with POLIS 3 have been solved. Negotiations are going on in that respect and I hope that, by early next week, those will have been successful and progress will be made.
We shall have to return to the training issue. The more people want to be connected with Internet, the more important training will be. The House must now make it clear to the country that we want to serve our constituents better. The network will give us the information to do our two key tasks--taking up constituents' problems and scrutinising the Executive- -more effectively. I hope that the House will approve the motions tonight.
Question put and agreed to.
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. Kirkhope.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn-- [Mr. Kirkhope.]