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Mrs. Roe: On behalf of the Committee, I thank the Visitor Manager, the Serjeant at Arms, the Director of Catering Services, the Director of Finance and Administration and their staff for all their efforts before, during and after last year's reopening. I also thank the Leader of the House for making time available for this debate when I am sure that there are many other pressing demands on the time in the Chamber. Finally, I thank my colleagues on the Committee and colleagues and officials in another place for their constructive advice and comments over the past two years.
At the outset, I want to address some of the erroneous articles that have recently appeared in the media. Anyone who has read our report would be able to confirm that nowhere do we say, or even imply, that visitors found the tours a bore or that the reopening was "financially disastrous". The articles seem to have been written mainly by taking selective extracts from one of the appendices and quoting them out of context.
The general tenor of the articles was that the trial reopening was a failure and did not achieve its targets, but it is misleading to talk of targets when, as summer 2000 was a trial, there were no precedents and it was not possible to forecast accurately what would happen. Surely that was why the House agreed to an experiment--to ascertain how popular the tours would be.
The oft-quoted figure of 55,980 visitors was but one estimate proposed in 1999, and it was based on a 41-day opening period. As the Committee says in the report, it was necessary to reduce that period to 35 days because the other place rose later than anticipated. Furthermore, the 1999 figure did not take into account the education unit's autumn visits programme. Both those factors lowered the total number of visitors.
It is claimed that visitors "shunned"--another word we neither said nor implied--Parliament, as "only" 40,577 people took part in the tours. Far more significant is the fact that the final cost of the reopening was less than anticipated. The figures are set out in paragraphs 6 to 9 of the report. The crux is that the Committee advised the House to expect a deficit of £232,000, whereas the final amount was in fact £209,611, so the cost to the House was £125,767, rather than the anticipated £138,000.
I am most grateful to the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) for suggesting that visitors be asked their views, as the results brought home to the Committee just how successful the experiment had been--indeed, it was so successful that I do not believe that we could justify not reopening the line of route this year.
As I know the House is keen that the parliamentary summer works programme should not be disrupted, I confirm that the major pre-planned programmes will not be impinged upon significantly by reopening the line of route this summer.
The results of the trial, together with the Committee's comments and conclusions, are given in our report. It might therefore be more helpful if I simply set out how the House authorities intend to remedy the few deficiencies that have been identified.
Perhaps the most crucial aspect is how the House authorities are to keep within last year's budget of £232,000 while still improving the marketing of the line of route tours. As was the case last year, the cost of the reopening would be borne by the House's reserve. The key to keeping this cost within last year's budget is to double last year's volume of visitors over an eight-week opening period--provisionally planned to be from Monday 6 August until Saturday 29 September.
I understand that the Visitor Manager is already at work on a business plan and that he is confident we can achieve the 85,000 visitors needed. But--and this is a big but--if we are to increase the number of visitors, we need to be in the market now. This is especially important as extra effort will be needed to attract visitors from overseas and from regions of the United Kingdom other than the south-east. As might be expected, the United States offers a great opportunity to attract overseas visitors and, as far as has been possible without having the agreement of the House yet, the Visitor Manager has been discussing the matter with the British Tourist Authority in north America, which considers that our optimism is well founded.
This year it is intended to introduce tours in languages other than English. Each day at 2.15 pm tours will be offered in French, German, Spanish and Italian, at no extra charge to visitors. The Committee will review the success, or otherwise, of these tours and may, in future years, consider the introduction of tours in other languages--for example, Japanese.
I turn now to the box office operation. This year it will not be necessary to book five days in advance. It is planned to sell about 400 tickets a day from a counter in Westminster Hall. Although we will be using Ticketmaster equipment, these direct sales to the public will not attract a booking fee. For pre-booked tickets which this year will be
I make no apology for again stressing that what the Committee is recommending would in no way affect existing arrangements. A summer reopening of the line of route would be an additional facility and an extra way for visitors to see the Palace of Westminster.
At paragraph 26 of the report, the Committee, after considering the route to be taken by visitors, said that Portcullis House should not, at this time, be added to the tour. We recommended, however, that the building's public areas should be open, free of charge, during the annual London Open House weekend. The Committee is grateful that Mr. Speaker has endorsed that recommendation. I am pleased to advise the House that, in addition to existing access arrangements, members of the public will be able to visit Portcullis House on 22 and 23 September.
As the report notes, the other place has already agreed to a reopening in 2001. The House of Lords has given the proposal a green light, and it would be ironic if the House of Commons were to show it a red light. I hope that the House will approve the report, which is based on responses from visitors. The general public clearly welcomed the initiative, and there would be great disappointment among our constituents and visitors from overseas if the line of route were not to be reopened in August and September. The Visitor Manager has finalised agreements with the tour guides and with Ticketmaster. The advertising is ready, and a public relations statement has been prepared. The Ticketmaster computers are ready to be loaded. All that we need is the House's approval.
As the report says, the Committee is not asking for the trial reopening to be made permanent as there is room for improvement on last year's operation. For that reason, we are asking the House to extend the experiment for another year. Next year, it will fall to me or my successor once again to present the Committee's findings to the House for a decision. Last year we made a good start, and the responses of visitors showed that they welcomed the summer reopening. I commend the report to the House.