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11.11 pm

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I intended to go home, but an hon. Member persuaded me to stay and vote against the motion. However, I shall not oppose it. It is

18 Jan 2000 : Column 811

interesting that I do not see the Member in question in the Chamber. I am persuaded that before us is a long overdue measure. As I have said in the House previously, as many others will have done, we came here as children or young people and were thrilled by the place. That memory remains very much with me. I went on a tour without any organisation. I joined up at the Victoria tower and was allowed through. The system worked but I accept that the volume of visitors was different and that there had not been the terrorist regime that has blighted the past 20-odd years.

When I first visited this place, I remember the guide telling us how Ministers used to put their feet on the Table. Since the television cameras have come into the Chamber, Ministers no longer do that. However, the information intrigued me, and I was enthused by it. For the next 28 years I tried to get elected to this place. Having been elected, I rushed into the Chamber and sat down on one of the Front Benches. I put my feet up and found that they would not reach the Table. Somehow I had always felt that I would never be a Minister. I shall leave Front-Bench positions to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office and the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young).

The tourist industry in London is well organised, with companies bringing people in from other continents. What safeguards will there be to ensure that tickets are not booked up on an organised basis so that they are all swiftly taken? That would mean that ordinary folk--perhaps small families coming up from other parts of the United Kingdom or from other parts of the world--who express an interest will be told, "I'm awfully sorry, madam, but all the tickets have been taken for today." I am nervous about that. Entrepreneurs and business managers in the big London hotels or cruise line companies will ensure that all the tickets are taken. That will be the first thing to hit the Sunday newspapers after a few weeks, and we will all be embarrassed.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: There is to be a review.

Mr. Mackinlay: I do not think that we should wait for the review. We should anticipate problems, and I hope that the one to which I have referred will be considered now.

I had not realised until this evening that merchandising is so important. My view is different from that of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). I agree with him, however, that there must be quality products on sale that are appropriate to the House, but they must not be bland. By contrast with the shop in the House of Lords, I regret to say that the products in the Commons shop are bland and expensive. I have drawn attention to that in an early-day motion. I regret the fact that the House of Lords shop is so superior to ours in its range of quality products, many of which are very attractive. Some heads need to be banged among members of our Catering Committee.

I do not have confidence in the Catering Committee when it comes to dealing with this matter, and I hope that that will be taken on board. I am told that the running of the House of Lords shop is largely delegated to the folk who work in it, which is a good idea--better than managers on high salaries and hon. Members. I hope that that will be borne in mind.

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It is long overdue that people should have access to this place. I know that it is a corny phrase, but it is the people's palace. I always say that to the people whom I bring to the House. In the seven years I have been a Member, I have never paid for a guide. Although there is a danger of my being the most highly paid tourist guide in London, I get an enormous thrill from acting out Speaker Lenthall's speech in St. Stephen's hall and from showing people the Crypt, which I know will not be part of the Line of Route. It is an important part of our job to ensure that everyone has access to this mother of Parliaments.

11.15 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): We have got ourselves in a dreadful muddle, and I suspect I know why. We cannot leave this place alone. We cannot let things be. We cannot allow things to remain as they have been, when they are reasonably or perfectly satisfactory. Everyone must now keep changing things, fiddling with them and adjusting them. I suspect that that is the main reason why we are faced with such an unsatisfactory muddle.

An example of that is the argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) delivered with virtually a straight face. We were told not to worry--there will not be an admission fee, and people will just be charged for a guide. To the extent to which that was put as a serious argument, and in the expectation that those of us who opposed it last summer will now be for it, that is a distinction without a difference. It illustrates the difficulty into which the Committee has got itself.

My hon. Friend says that the House is to blame--that her Committee came up with some good ideas last year, which the House was disgraceful enough to reject. The Committee has had to come back with less good ideas, which we are asked to accept this time round. I do not accept them this time round, because they are still unsatisfactory.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) asked in an intervention whether other similar bodies did what is being proposed. I believe I am correct in saying that my other favourite legislature, Congress in Washington DC, does not charge for admission and does not require people to have guides. I have gone on to Capitol Hill many times, gone through security and been able to guide myself round the building.

That, I thought, was right and appropriate. If it is possible in Washington DC, I should have thought that we could manage something similar in this place, without all the paraphernalia laid out in the report.

Dr. Palmer: Did the right hon. Gentleman happen to be present when one of the visitors attempted to assassinate a member of the House of Representatives with a machine gun, and instead wounded several of the staff?

Mr. Forth: I was not there at the time, but whether the gentleman with the gun would have been deterred by a charge for a guide, I am not entirely certain. I do not see the validity of what the hon. Gentleman is trying to tell me.

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The other spurious argument that we are offered this evening is that this is only a trial. We have all heard that before. We were sold that pup when the televising of the House was proposed. That was supposed to be an experiment. We are being sold it again with the ridiculous and expensive alternative Chamber that has been wished upon us. We are told that that is an experiment. You know and I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it is nothing of the kind: it was declared a triumph some time in the summer and made permanent.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, gave the game away. I noted his words carefully. He said that he knew that the proposal was only a trial, but he hoped that it would be extended. If that is not prejudging and giving the game away, I do not know what is.

Let us make no mistake about it: if we support the motion tonight, which I hope we will not, we will be in a mess; we will be kidding ourselves, our public and our voters, and the change will almost certainly be permanent in one form or another. The proposal is unfortunate, and I hope that the House will not feel obliged to support it tonight. It can be put on ice.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: I am surprised that my right hon. Friend has not asked one question. A range of figures has been discussed--in the previous report, £5-plus per person. Now that the proposal is for a guide ticket, no one has said what it will cost individuals who visit the Palace of Westminster. We heard a price of around £2.50 mentioned--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is far too long.

Mr. Forth: I do not know the answer to the question. It is significant that no one else, except perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, knows.

Mr. Heald: The appendix to the report explains that the cost would be between £2.50 and £3 per visitor.

Mr. Forth: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I do not know how he is able to say that, because if there is no mechanism for control or regulation, the charge could be any amount of money.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: I always believed that the right hon. Gentleman opposed regulation.

Mr. Forth: I oppose regulation and am an unrepentant advocate of the free market, but I was trying to answer my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) by pointing out that we cannot know the figure because it would be unregulated and would thus find its own level. We are operating in the dark.

For all the reasons that I outlined, I remain completely unconvinced. If we have the opportunity for a Division, I shall vote against the report.

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11.21 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): We are discussing the mother of Parliaments. We have talked about not knowing whether the cost of visiting this place will be £2.50 or £3. We have considered additional merchandising and said that it should not be tat, as if that were important. However, if we wish to promote representative democracy, we want as many people as possible to visit us here--whether we are working or not--on six or even seven days a week. I oppose charging.

During the summer, educational facilities are made available. Many youngsters visit the House, and several hon. Members give up their time to talk to school pupils and explain what we do. We do that to promote representative democracy, which we demean by talking about charging £2.50 or £3 for small groups of people, many of them tourists on package tours. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) was able to visit Parliament when he was a youngster, and get in without being part of a guided tour. He was so excited by what he saw that he ended up on the Government Benches, albeit below the Gangway.

We should do all that we can to excite people of all ages about our work here. If we turn Parliament into a theme park, with a little tuck shop where we sell souvenirs--any old tat with a portcullis for which we can charge twice as much as it is worth--we do Parliament and democracy a disservice.

I shall not vote in favour of or against the proposals. I emphasise that we ought to consider what we do to encourage people to vote. Tomorrow, we shall again consider the Representation of the People Bill. Voting statistics show that people are turned off by representative democracy.

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