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29 Oct 2002 : Column 730—continued

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. The hon. Gentleman has run out of time.

6.2 pm

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): I intervene in the debate as a member of the House of Commons Commission. Under statute, the Commission is responsible for the House's finances and employs almost all its staff. We do not take any collective view on the merits of the Modernisation Committee's recommendations. I know that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House are interested in the effects that the proposals will have on the House administration and on the services that the House provides. I am also aware of some concerns expressed by Members and by staff, which have been reflected in the questions put by my hon. Friends and responded to by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

The implications of the motions before us are obviously of great importance to the Commission, and we and the Board of Management, chaired by the Clerk of the House, have given them considerable thought. It is extremely difficult to assess the full implications of the changes at this stage, mainly because there are so many variables. I shall give four brief examples.

First, I noted the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) on when Select Committees may meet. Select Committees may decide to meet much earlier in the day. If they do, there may be difficulties for staff who would have longer journeys to work, and possibly a longer working day. As my right hon. Friend has said, it is up to Committees to decide when they meet. The Commission cannot anticipate: we have to react.

Secondly, many House staff are not allowed to take leave when the House is sitting. If the windows for leave narrow, that rule may have to be changed. In turn, that may require additional staff to provide cover.

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Thirdly, at the moment the summer recess is a key period for major works with minimum disruption. All of us who happened to be here over the summer will have seen one of the largest building sites in Europe. September sittings will reduce that period, so there may be a cost premium, which in any year will depend on the nature and extent of the works. However, if we have a calendar for the year ahead, the ability to make firm plans will offset that perceived disadvantage.

Lastly, the earlier finish on Tuesdays and Wednesdays will probably affect the need for catering services in the evenings, but by how much will depend on how many Members, their staff and the staff of the House eat here after the rising. September sittings may redress the balance somewhat.

It will be clear to the House that the effect of these proposals will depend crucially on how the House, Committees and Members adapt to any new arrangements. The House is not just an organisation: it is also a living organism and, because of its nature, is not easily predictable. However, I can assure the House that we, as Commissioners, and the Clerk and his colleagues are on the case, if I may use the jargon from the television—which we do not always watch in the evenings between votes.

On finance, the Commission will try to meet any additional requirements in the current financial year from resources already allocated. In December, we will consider the House's estimate for 2003–04, and will have the opportunity to make financial adjustments then. In the longer term, we will make any necessary provision in the three-year financial plans, which will be approved next summer.

As for the staff, we must ensure that we remain good employers. That is a matter of concern, and my right hon. Friend referred to the Commission's strong involvement in that. If the House approves the motions before us, the proposals may well make life easier for many staff. If they do not, we must ensure that those staff are not disadvantaged or demotivated, and that services continue to be delivered to the present high standards. That is a priority for the Commission and the Board. If problems arise, they will be discussed with the staff affected and with the trade union side.

Mr. McLoughlin: Does the hon. Gentleman think that the new arrangements will reduce or increase the running costs of the House, bearing in mind the fact that the Leader of the House has said that the facilities that are currently open until 10 pm or 11 pm will remain open in the future?

Mr. Bell: I have already said that we will make any necessary provision in the three-year financial plans, which will be approved next summer, in the light of the decisions that the House makes tonight. If additional resources or staff are shown to be required in particular areas, we will provide them.

My right hon. Friend also raised the question of how we can become more accessible to our constituents. He mentioned a glass-fronted gallery that would enable constituents to see hon. Members in action. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) called it a glass menagerie. However we describe such a proposal, the fact is that earlier sittings of the House will

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limit constituents' tours on those days. Hon. Members will know—my right hon. Friend has confirmed this—that one of the Commission's announced strategic aims is to increase public access to the House and knowledge of its work. Non-sitting Fridays will make up some of the shortfall, but we are also costing Saturday opening for visitors, and we are discussing those matters with the authorities of the House of Lords.

The long-term parliamentary calendar recommended in paragraph 74 of the Modernisation Committee's report would greatly help our long-term planning. I am sure that the House is pleased to hear my right hon. Friend's statement that provisional dates for recesses up to October next year will be announced in his business statement on Thursday. I know my right hon. Friend is well aware of the importance of ensuring that that is rolled forward every two months or so.

I hope I have made clear the strong concern felt by the Commission and the House about the effects on staff, facilities and amenities of any decisions that we make today. That concern will continue in the light of any such decisions. I commend the views of the Commission to the House.

6.10 pm

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): Two of the most misleading words in the political dictionary are Xreform" and Xmodernisation". They are nearly always used to camouflage proposed changes with ulterior and concealed motives, and both therefore feature prominently on the cover of the report that we are debating.

We do not need to agree with the grand old Duke of York that any change at any time is always for the worse to know for a fact that some changes are not for the better. As our constituents find in their personal lives, changes are indeed often for the worse.

The House of Commons has been continually reforming and modernising its procedures and perquisites since Dick Crossman was Leader of the House in the 1960s. I remember listening to debates almost identical to this 40 years ago. When morning sittings were introduced they were a total flop: not only lawyers and stockbrokers like me but a great many Labour trade unionists and the like did not attend in the mornings. The Wilson Government quickly dumped the whole idea, and everyone agreed that Dick had been too clever by half. I hope that these proposals will have the same fate—although I do not think there is anyone quite as clever as Dick Crossman in the present Government.

As the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) pointed out, the object of the exercise should be to improve scrutiny of the Government by Back Benchers. These proposals will have the opposite result. When I first arrived here, Ministers of all parties were genuinely in awe of the House of Commons. I am bound to say that I have never grown out of that myself.

In his retirement, Harold Macmillan told me that he was seldom able to lunch before the then twice-weekly Prime Minister's Question Time, so tense did he always feel at the prospect of facing questions from the House. It would be encouraging to think that the proposal to take parliamentary questions before lunch was motivated by kindly considerations of that sort, but I very much doubt it. I am told that Ministers eat only

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sandwiches nowadays; moreover, their general behaviour demonstrates a complete contempt for the House and an absolute preoccupation with the media. That, in fact, is what lies behind all these proposals. Ministers have no great love of Parliament as an institution.

The proposed batch of so-called reforms will undoubtedly make things worse. The imposition of a permanent maximum 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches will greatly increase the influence of the Executive and reduce the power of the Chamber.

It is a mistake to assume, as someone did earlier, that all parliamentarians are equal. We are all equal in the sight of God, but we are not equal as parliamentarians. Some parliamentarians are very much abler and more experienced than others, as well as being better speakers. They are the ones whom the House and the country want to hear. The modern development whereby speakers are selected—largely by a computer, I understand—on the mathematical basis of how often they happen to have spoken during the current Session, rather than on the basis of whether they have a special contribution to make, is not desirable, and is one reason why the House is usually almost empty of all but those who think they will be called to speak.

If we want to improve the standing of Parliament, we should understand that the hours during which we sit have almost nothing to do with it. What will determine Parliament's status are the personalities of those elected to this place: their distinction, their experience, their character, their independence and their capacity for oratory—heart-moving oratory. Since Tony Benn left the House, there is hardly anyone capable of producing that.

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