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6.21 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg): I am pleased to speak after the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), and to endorse what he said. I think that the concerns that were expressed in that debate three years ago have been met judging by the experiments of the past two summers and the report that is before us. I voted for the amendment that the hon. Gentleman proposed two and a half years ago.

I will not be tempted by the Conservative spokesman, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), to debate the euro. Suffice it to say that I very much look forward to his hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) robustly defending the Administration Committee report in saying that the euro will be accepted as payment in the summer.

First, I will make some general and brief remarks about the report and respond to the points made by the Liberal Democrat and Conservative spokesmen about the proposals for the summer recess. I am not convinced that it will be a major factor although I agree that the Administration Committee should address it. It is not proposed that the length of time that we are in recess should be reduced; the time will simply be configured differently. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire is right that there will be less time and, therefore, less revenue in September, but that will be compensated for by extra recess time in July. The revenue implications may even be positive—there may be larger tourist numbers in July than in September.

First, I thank the hon. Member for Broxbourne and other members of the Administration Committee for the work that they have done over the years in producing the proposals for the summer opening. The matter was first debated in the House in 1999 when the Committee produced its earlier proposals. At that time, the Committee noted, in its first report for the 1998–99 Session, that

The House then asked the Committee to re-examine its proposals for summer opening of the Line of Route. As has been explained today, hon. Members were concerned that there should not be undue restrictions on such an important symbol of democracy, not only for this country but for citizens throughout the world.

In 1999, the House decided that it wanted other options to be explored and costed. When that had been done, it was decided to open the Line of Route with the arrangements that have been in force for the past two years. As the hon. Member for Broxbourne set out clearly, that decision has resulted in two extremely successful summer openings.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who is not with us today but is a member of the Administration Committee, described the £3.50 entrance fee as

when we last debated this matter. Clearly, that assessment is endorsed by the Administration Committee in the report before us.

Between summer 2000 and summer 2001, the number of visitors has more than doubled. More than 86,000 visitors toured the Line of Route in the summer of 2001 and 95 per cent. of those who commented considered that the tours had greatly exceeded their expectations, a similar satisfaction rate to that in 2000 despite the greatly increased pressure on capacity. As the hon. Member for Broxbourne said, the House should be grateful to all those—the staff of the House and the excellent guides—who have worked hard to make the openings such a success.

The motion invites the House to make the opening of the Line of Route permanent, but to do so on a different basis from the experiment and to return to the principle that underlay the Administration Committee's first proposals. The suggestion is that the system should no longer rely on a subsidy from Parliament. The Committee recommended:

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the then Leader of the House, said when the principle of reopening was debated in May 1999, the matter is one of genuine difficulty and delicacy. She said:

Now, as then, Members will have to decide where the balance lies. This is a House matter, and there is no Government position. If the House divides, I will vote for the report, for the reasons set out by the hon. Member for Broxbourne and other speakers in the debate.

The Palace of Westminster is a workplace and those who visit to participate in our work, or to see us at work, will continue to have free access, as they should. It is easy to underestimate the extent to which the House is accessible during the times that we sit. Visitors are free to come to debates or attend Select Committee hearings as they wish. Our constituents can call for us in the Lobby. It is vital, as all speakers in the debate have said, that this free access to the proceedings of the House and its Committees is maintained. The Administration Committee's proposals reflect that.

However, the House is not a museum; there is no such free access during the recess, when the House is not at work, and there has not been such access for many years. Indeed, before the Administration Committee raised the matter in 1999, access was limited to the guests of Members of Parliament, and to people on education unit tours. People want to see the Palace itself for many reasons—not only to see us at work.

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People who visit in summer do so as tourists. There are good reasons for wanting to do that: a sense of history; a sense of the importance of our democratic institutions; and a desire to admire the work of Barry and Pugin. Those are all perfectly legitimate reasons; indeed, I do not see why we should not support the opening on the ground that we, as Parliament, should do our bit for the tourist industry in London.

I hope that the tours will lead to a greater understanding of this place and I welcome that greater access on principle. None the less, as the Committee noted, it is reasonable to ask those who want to visit the Palace as a tourist attraction to pay a fee that covers the cost of so doing. The Administration Committee's proposals will simply mean that those who visit the Palace of Westminster during the summer reopening will not be subsidised by the UK taxpayer to do so. The entrance fee will be set at a level which recoups opening costs, not to make a profit.

I hope that the new scheme will also have the effect that—as recommended by the Committee—the infrastructure and facilities of the Line of Route will be improved by ploughing back any proceeds from merchandising. It is far easier to support spending on improvements for visitors when the operation is not subsidised. That could benefit all visitors to the Palace, not just those participating in the tours.

I share the widespread concern in all parts of the House that the facilities offered to visitors are far from adequate. Although the new visitor cafeteria, which is due to open shortly, will go some way towards improving that, far more could and should be done. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, in his proposals to the Modernisation Committee, said:

I am grateful to the Administration Committee and especially to the hon. Member for Broxbourne for their continued examination of this issue. The proposals offer a fair balance between the need for access and the legitimate interests of the UK taxpayer so I support the motion.

6.29 pm

Mrs. Roe: The debate has been useful and interesting. I thank hon. Members for their views and comments. I shall respond briefly.

I very much value the support of the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) as a member of the Administration Committee. In this debate, his analysis of past concerns was thorough and his responses and further comments were most constructive, especially as regards the recommended charging policy. I am most grateful to him for his contribution. He made one point that I should like to clarify. There are tours in Italian, French, German and Spanish, although demand has been higher than supply. Increasing—indeed, doubling—the amount of foreign language tours is being considered for 2002.

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) was extremely kind in his comments about the work of the Administration Committee. On behalf of

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the Committee, I thank him for that and for his support for the report. He sought reassurance on any proposals by the Line of Route steering committee relating to the extension of the route. We would certainly expect any such proposals to come back to the Administration Committee. There could be minor alterations owing to the works programme—the Committee will keep an eye on that—but any major initiative would certainly come back to us.

My right hon. Friend mentioned payment in euros. Ultimately, that is not a matter for the Administration Committee, and I understand that the relevant House authorities are now considering the question of accepting payment in other major foreign currencies, which would have an effect beyond the Line of Route. I shall say no more on that matter.

The Minister has already picked up the point about the possible changes—nothing has, after all, been agreed—to the timetable of the summer recess. I partly covered that matter in my opening remarks. If we have a permanent arrangement, we shall certainly be able to be flexible—more flexible, in fact—in relation to any changes that might be introduced. No such changes are expected for this year.

I want to put on record that neither my Committee nor I are responsible for any large blocks of concrete or anything else in New Palace Yard. I am sure that those who are responsible for them will read with interest the comments of my right hon. Friend. I understand that the structures are not permanent, and I am sure that further proposals will be made on the matter in due course.

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) for his support for the report. He will acknowledge that we have in the past had many discussions on this issue, not only in the Chamber but outside as well, and I have been extremely grateful for his guidance on how best we might go about this business. I also welcome his comments about ticket sales, and about the input of the House of Commons. We were also pleased to see that input, and we hope to continue it and to make it even better.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the extension of the Line of Route. The Committee has already considered Portcullis House in that regard, but there are security difficulties involved. It is important, therefore, that the Committee should consider any extension carefully, for reasons not only of security, but of any staffing costs that might be involved. This is not a closed door, however, and we shall return to this question if we feel that anything can be taken in that direction.

On the hon. Gentleman's question of double entry, and the security issues surrounding people going in and out several times, we know that this has caused grave frustration for visitors. We are instructing the Line of Route steering committee to consider a ticketing office, which we hope would prevent such problems. That question will then have to come back to the Administration Committee for us to consider.

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