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25. Mr. Ian Bruce: To ask the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission if he will make a statement on the National Audit Office expenditure on value for money inquiries relating to capital spending on buildings.
Mr. Robert Sheldon (on behalf of the Public Accounts Commission): In the absence of the right hon. Member for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern), who is away on a parliamentary delegation, I have been asked to reply.
The Comptroller and Auditor General selects topics for investigation based on a review of all Government spending and the risk to value for money. Where those reviews identify the need to examine the capital spending on buildings, the Comptroller and Auditor General will include studies in his programme. The National Audit Office has published three reports on capital projects: the benefits centre project, the prison building project and the Trident works programme. All were published in July this year.
Mr. Bruce: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. Will the Public Accounts Commission look further, particularly at defence office block building and the enormous overruns which have occurred on so many projects such as the MOD headquarters in Whitehall?
Mr. Sheldon: The hon. Gentleman will know that that is a matter for the Public Accounts Committee, but the Committee does have the power to ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to examine certain projects and to come to a conclusion as to which will be the subject for examination. I shall pass the hon. Gentleman's message to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.
Mrs. Dunwoody: I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend to his new role and I hope that it will presage an unprecedented case of getting accurate answers to questions in the Chamber. Will he extend the role of the National Audit Office to look at the vast amounts of taxpayers' money being thrown away on unnecessary changes to Norman Shaw North, where a listed building is being changed irrevocably in a way which has not been consulted about and which can only damage both the fabric and the use of the House of Commons?
Mr. Sheldon: As I said in reply to an earlier question, that is a matter for the Public Accounts Committee, but I shall draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.
Column 624768 staff. Of these, 308 are qualified accountants and a further 124 staff are undertaking professional accountancy training.
Mr. Sheldon: The staff are doing very well, in fact. Not only are the accountants taking the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy qualifications, but they are becoming chartered accountants. That means that they are able to deal with Government Departments in the same way as the leading accountancy firms in this city are able to handle such matters. That gives the NAO accountants a much greater status and standing, to the benefit of the public administration.
Mr. Winnick: Would it be possible for the NAO to employ sufficient accountants and to have the authority to look into cases where Members of Parliament receive payments from outside sources, the money involved, the services provided and, for example, how much money is given for putting down parliamentary questions? In the absence of any other form of regulation, would it not be desirable for the NAO to have such authority?
Mr. Paul Channon (Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee): Following the approval by the House of the Catering Committee's report on refreshment provision for Line of Route visitors, the amount of financial provision for a visitors centre will be for decision by the Finance and Services Committee and the House of Commons Commission.
Mr. Hain: Is it not an insult to coachloads of visitors, who have often got up at dawn to get here, that they cannot even get a cup of tea in the House? As Westminster Hall is some kind of mausoleum at the moment, why cannot it be turned into an open area with tables and chairs where people can get a cup of tea and a snack? In that way the House would present a warm and friendly reception to visitors instead of a stiff and snotty one.
Mr. Channon: I know that the hon. Member has been pursuing this case for many years and I pay tribute to him for that. He will recognise that the Catering Committee has recommended that the Westminster Hall cafeteria should be converted into a visitor centre. When that is achieved it will meet a great many of the points made by the hon. Member. That cannot be done at once, of course, because 400 people already use that cafeteria and they must be given somewhere else to eat. We cannot let down the staff and policemen of the House by not providing somewhere else for them to eat.
28. Dr. Lynne Jones: To ask the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon- Tweed, as representing the House of Commons Commission what progress has been made in the provision of child care facilities in the Palace of Westminster.
Mr. A. J. Beith (on behalf of the House of Commons Commission): The Commission has arranged for a survey of potential demand for child care provision to be made available in the Vote Office. The Commission wishes to hear the views of Members and I understand that consideration is now being given to the timing of a debate on the matter.
Dr. Jones: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for allowing the publication of that report, which clearly shows that there is a demand for affordable child care facilities. I hope that, following the debate, progress will be made as quickly as possible. When I first came to this place, my youngest son was only two years old. Now he is nearly five. What is holding matters up? If the answer is finance, perhaps we could consider reducing subsidies to the bars so that money can be made available for this very important facility.
Mr. Beith: The normal way in which new or extended services are provided in the House is when the relevant Committee puts forward a proposal and the Finance and Services Committee and then the Commission consider whether it can be financed. That route is not being followed in this instance because the relevant Committee did not agree to the provision of such a service. The matter will therefore be debated in the House and the Commission will consider what to do following that debate.
Berwick-upon-Tweed, as representing the House of Commons Commission what consideration has been given to a minimum wage for House employees.
Mr. Beith: The House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978 requires the House of Commons Commission to ensure that the complementing, grading and pay of staff in the House Departments are kept broadly in line with those in the home civil service. For most staff, the rates of pay are the same as those of the equivalent grades in the civil service. Where variations have been introduced, they have been achieved through negotiations with the appropriate recognised trade unions. No consideration has been given to a minimum wage for House employees.
Mr. Enright: Is it not scandalous that no consideration has been given to this issue when people who serve us and work on an extremely low wage are hard put to it to live in London, which they are bound to do by the very
Column 626nature of their work? I therefore urge the right hon. Gentleman and the Commission to reconsider this issue and to consider carefully what is a fair and just wage for our employees.
Mr. Beith: My earlier answer makes it clear that that would not happen. Rates of pay in the House are, by statute, linked to civil service grades, so we could not introduce a different method of determining pay without changing the statutory basis on which we do it.
32. Mr. Tony Banks: To ask the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee what financial contribution is expected in the current and next financial year from the use of banqueting rooms by outside organisations; what account is taken of this income in the overall financial planning of expenditure on the House; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Channon: In 1993-94, banqueting contributed a net profit of some £200,000 to the Refreshment Department trading fund. In that year, £190,000 was transferred from the fund to the House of Commons administration vote and a further £530,000 was contributed from the fund's accumulated surplus to the works vote. It is too soon to forecast those sums that are to be similarly transferred in the current and coming financial years to offset part of the cost of the Refreshment Department's agreed programme of modernisation.
Mr. Banks: Perhaps we should charge somewhat more for the use of those facilities. Are not some 80 per cent. of all the bookings of private banqueting rooms made by Conservative Members, often on behalf of outside companies? There are examples of Conservative Members using those facilities to raise money for the Conservative party. Why are we no longer allowed to ask the party affiliation of those who book rooms, and why are we not told which organisations benefit? Is that not a further example of sleaze and the fact that the Tory party does not want to give us that information because it will embarrass it?
Mr. Channon: Whatever the rights and wrongs of the hon. Gentleman's allegations and assertions, I am glad to tell him that that matter is the responsibility not of the Finance and Services Committee but of the Catering Committee. I hope that he will address his remarks to the Chairman of the Catering Committee and his colleagues so that they may consider them.
Mr. Lilley: I propose to replace payment by order book and girocheque with a benefit payment card for customers who collect benefit at post offices. This should largely eliminate theft, forgery and fraudulent encashment of instruments of payment. However, most social security fraud arises from false representation of circumstances rather than false identity.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: Will not my right hon. Friend's earlier answer about automation and payment of benefit at sub-post offices be welcomed by sub-postmasters? His earlier announcement presaged the fact that he might introduce a social security benefits card. Will its introduction be coupled with a consultative paper to be issued by the Home Secretary and its results taken into account when the benefit card is issued? Will not any measure that reduces social security benefit fraud be welcomed?
Mr. Lilley: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for welcoming those proposals. I shall proceed with all speed in introducing a more secure method, probably involving a benefit payments card. That will not depend on the outcome of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary's discussions about the possible wider development of a voluntary identity card, although the proposals could be linked if that proved fruitful as a result of those consultations.
Mr. Bennett: How much does the Secretary of State expect the manufacturers of those cards to earn, and how much are they likely to pay consultants to try to get the contract? Is there not scope for increased crime as a result of such cards, given that people in most cities can find opportunities to buy forged passports, car discs and driving licences? Will not the manufacture of the identity cards simply create a new form of crime?
Mr. Lilley: No, that is twaddle. The present system of payment through order books is one of the most archaic and unsecure systems of transmitting money known to man. It is sensible to update it and we are looking for methods that will be more secure. We shall seek competition to keep the costs of that system down, but the system itself will save not merely large sums of money that are presently wasted through fraud and abuse but up to £60 million a year in administrative costs. That must be good for the taxpayer and I should have thought that it would be welcomed by a modern Labour party, were not so many representatives of the old Labour party still around.
Mr. Dykes: I warmly support the identity card proposal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Clifton-Brown). In view of his 1993 Conservative party conference speech, is the Secretary of
Column 628State now satisfied that no immigrants are fraudulently claiming social security benefits from United Kingdom agencies?
Mr. Lilley: I am not sure that I specifically discussed immigration in my 1993 conference speech, or in any other. However, following that speech I introduced a residence test for people coming from the European Community who claim benefits, thereby putting us on a par with other countries in the Community. I know that that will please my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes). It will mean that we are no longer unique in handing out benefits to people who have not made a contribution to this country.
As for those people who come to this country from outside the Community on the express understanding that they will not be a burden on the public purse, I also introduced measures to prevent the payment of income support and housing benefit to them, which had previously been possible through a loophole, so we have clamped down on them as well.
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton): As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) and I told the House last Thursday, we have had further constructive discussions during the summer recess. In the light of those, I hope shortly to have an opportunity to discuss matters with the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), the shadow Leader of the House, to whom I offer my congratulations on her assumption of that position.
Mr. Bruce: I am sure that the Leader of the House is as tired of answering this question from me as I am tired of asking it. I wonder whether the hon. Lady has given him any sign whether, like her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett), she will take two years to be persuaded that progress should be made.
Mr. Newton: My hon. Friend will understand if I concentrate on repeating that I have had some very constructive conversations with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East. I have no reason to suppose that the hon. Lady will be any less constructive, but I suspect that she has hardly had time to catch her breath since her appointment last week and, if she has, I have not.
Mrs. Ann Taylor: Opposition Members want Parliament to work more efficiently, but also more effectively, and we shall co-operate fully to those ends. Does the Leader of the House agree, however, that in doing so we must be mindful of the need to improve accountability, especially by allowing Parliament to scrutinise more closely the activities of those quangos which are causing so much public alarm at present?
Column 629subject matter of the Jopling report, but let us hope that whatever we are able to agree will enable Parliament to do all the things that it wishes to do as effectively as it would wish to do them.
35. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the Lord President of the Council what plans he has to limit the number of oral and written parliamentary questions an hon. Member may ask; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Newton: I have no plans to recommend any changes to the existing arrangements. If my hon. Friend wishes to make proposals, he might wish in the first instance to express his thoughts to my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir Peter Emery), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee.
Mr. Greenway: Does my right hon. Friend agree that Question Time is a uniquely British democratic institution? Will he undertake to safeguard its adversarial nature against any pressures to reduce, terminate or tame it by the Leader of the Opposition or anyone else?
Mr. Newton: I certainly have no personal or ministerial plans to reduce, terminate or tame it, although my hon. Friend must be aware that the Procedure Committee, following many observations from various parts of the House, is currently considering the subject of Prime Minister's questions.
Column 630table questions for Question Time should have the letters "FR" put after their numbers, meaning "fee received", and how much they get paid for them?
Mr. Newton: Ingenious though the hon. Gentleman's question is--I foresaw, if not precisely that question, that some effort might be made to introduce currently controversial matters--I had better fall back on the observation that I am Chairman of the Select Committee on Privileges.
Mr. Hughes: The House will understand the position of the right hon. Gentleman and of his opposite number, who has just taken up her job. However, will the Leader of the House remember the extremely strong views held on both sides of the House? The matter was without resolution for years and years before the Jopling Committee, let alone since. The Leader of the House indicated, without an undertaking, that at the beginning of the new Session--after the Queen's Speech--proposals would be introduced to reform the time of our sittings. Is that still his expected timetable--that something will be announced before the end of 1994?
Mr. Newton: That is very much my hope. I can only confirm it as an expectation when I have had the opportunity for discussions with the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) in her new position. There have been further constructive discussions during the summer. I shall look for an opportunity--I think that I have an arrangement--to speak to the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) on the subject.
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