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Westminster Hall

Thursday 16 December 2004

[Mr. John McWilliam in the Chair]

House of Commons Commission (Annual Report)

[Relevant document: Twenty-sixth Annual Report from the House of Commons Commission, Session 2003–04 HC 791.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Hain.]

2.30 pm

Sir Archy Kirkwood (representing the House of Commons Commission) : It is a great pleasure to be here this afternoon for a novel, if not unique, parliamentary event, and it is my pleasurable duty as spokesman for the House of Commons to introduce a short debate on what we in the Commission consider to be a very important document, namely the annual report that the Commission laid for the financial year 2003–04. It is the 26th annual report but the first to be debated. That is progress, and I am looking forward to what I hope will be a constructive exchange of views with colleagues who take an interest in such matters, so that we can make better future provision in the Commission for hon. Members, because that is one of our core tasks.

If Members find that this event is of value, I hope that they will be prepared to make it an annual event. If it is to be made an annual event for the value that it provides, it might be easier to do it slightly earlier in the year. The report has been in existence for some time. I acknowledge the persistence—if I can put it that way, positively—of a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who have been suggesting for some time that this should happen. It is a tribute to their perseverance that we have managed to get to this afternoon. We on the Commission certainly value it: feedback is crucial to our success in delivering service provision in future, and there is, after all, no more direct means of obtaining feedback than conducting an open, grown-up, adult debate, in which we can respond to points that are made.

Before I go any further, I should like to say—because it is too good an opportunity and Mr. Speaker does it in his foreword—on behalf of the Commission how much we owe to our 1,400 to 1,500 staff at all levels throughout all departments of the House for the dedicated service that they provide to hon. Members in the service of the House. They are frequently engaged in levels of service quite beyond the call of duty. The last demonstration of that that I personally saw was on 21 October, when, the House will remember, we disclosed for the first time levels of allowances on the internet. The Department of Finance and Administration, and the team that was put together to oversee that project—which it did with consummate professionalism—worked enormously hard, and we, as Members of the House, rightly want to recognise examples of that kind, which happen day in
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and day out. I am very happy to start by echoing the tributes that Mr. Speaker gave to the staff for the year 2003–04 in his preface.

The annual report is an important document for us. The entire statistical base of what it contains may be found in annex 1 starting on page 65, which looks at activity and performance measures. Of course, there is a lot more to it than that, but that gives a range of the areas that we cover. The publication of the annual report has been a statutory requirement since the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978, which set up the Commission. It has evolved in recent years into a more accessible, more readable, much more useful document, which enables hon. Members, year on year, to monitor progress and see the direction of travel of the programme for activity, and enables people to measure our delivery in a much more coherent way. It is also a document of record: it will enable people to look back from the future and will allow the outcomes that we are trying to achieve and the progress that we are trying to make to be tested against the plans that we set out. More than anything, over the past few years the annual reports have demonstrated beyond any doubt, certainly in my experience as a commissioner, that we are now significantly more professional as an institution and that best practice is the order of the day rather than the exception. We are engaged in a much more coherent set of planning objectives than ever before.

I do not want to go back too far, but the provenance of the current set-up can be found in the 1990 Ibbs report. The House commissioned Sir Robin Ibbs to carry out a report on the management of the House and its facilities, and that was the start of the move away from federated independent departments of the House operating entirely on their own—when I was elected in 1983, a vestige of that method of management was still extant. The management suggestions made by the Ibbs report started to change the situation seriously for the first time.

The next step came eight years later in November 1998 when the House of Commons Commission instituted a review of the outcome of the Ibbs report, which was led by an external management consultant, Mr. Michael Braithwaite. He and his team published a report in the summer of 1999, and some hon. Members here today were present when that was debated in the House in January 2000.

Braithwaite focused our attention on a number of key themes to do with getting better strategic planning and trying to anticipate events and therefore control them rather than respond to them on a day-by-day basis. Next year, the House of Commons Commission will consider a new strategic plan to run from 2005 to 2010 following the plan adopted in 2001. The bones of the plan adopted in 2001 are carried in the report on pages 12 and 13, and that is still the plan on which we are operating. Next year, we will look to adopt a five-year plan running from 2005 to 2010, and I hope that this debate will help inform hon. Members on its contents.

The Braithwaite theory was firmly based on a corporate approach, which has spawned a new way of looking at the whole hierarchical structure of the management of the House. The Clerk of the House is now formally recognised as a chief executive, and he has a small office to support him in that role. The Board of Management has a full-time secretariat backed up by a
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series of management teams and groups in such areas as human resources and ICT provision. There is an annually updated corporate plan; if hon. Members have not yet seen it, they may take it from me that it repays careful study. Approval of expenditure and oversight of major projects are key focuses for senior management. The best example of that is the high-level Information Systems Programme Board that has been put together to manage the implementation of information technology projects, which are now such an integral part of the work of the House.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I apologise for missing the start of the hon. Gentleman's speech. I am drawn to the last sentence of the first paragraph on page 28 of the report, which states:

As much as I have welcomed the improvement, we are effectively treading water—the service is no better in terms of time. It is very frustrating for hon. Members when we try to do our work from a distance. We need a root-and-branch overhaul. The people who run the service are very nice and try incredibly hard, but the system is not fit for purpose. Will the hon. Gentleman comment on that?

Sir Archy Kirkwood : I absolutely accept that, and I know that the hon. Gentleman speaks in the best interests of the development of the service as far and fast as possible because he has been in the vanguard of that argument. Although it is nothing technically to do with the Commission, the Members' estimate proposal from the Senior Salaries Review Body will provide a little extra support in some of the provision of technology in future, which might help. The hon. Gentleman's basic point is that the broadband internet support is still not right. We have a lot of work to do, and we are putting together House-wide provision of ICT services. I know that there is a commitment from the professional staff at the Parliamentary Communications Directorate to address that.

One problem is that now that BT has introduced bundle loops, getting from Ettrickbridge to the Westminster servers takes someone here, there and everywhere, and sometimes we are not always in control. However, the hon. Gentleman's point is very well made, and he is talking to someone who has the same interest at heart. We have actually spent an enormous amount of money, as can be seen from the graphs on the connections that we have made. However, that progress is not fast enough, particularly if we are thinking about encouraging Members to take their constituency work more off site. We need to do more if we want to be successful in that, so the point is very well made.

I was talking about some of the consequences of the Braithwaite report. The only other significant one is the better information that Braithwaite himself thought was necessary for both Members and staff, as well as managers, in developing the work of the institution of Parliament. I hope that Members feel that the Commission report that we are debating today is one of
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the fruits of that suggestion. It is an attempt to achieve greater openness about how we conduct our business. On behalf of my colleagues in the Commission, I answer a considerable number of written and oral questions, and the Commission now publishes brief minutes of its decisions. There is also now a Services Information Group, which for the first time is seriously looking at the information that we make available to Members and their staff about the services provided by the House authorities.

The fruits of those changes started to be noticed when the Commission conducted a survey in 2003. There were of course complaints, to which we have tried and continue to try to respond, but generally speaking the satisfaction ratings from the survey of services demonstrated a recognition that the Palace of Westminster and its precincts are becoming a useful place in which to do business.

However, for those who study such things, the last sentence of the Braithwaite review recommended:

The Commission has not reached a corporate view on that. There is no magic about the figure of five years—indeed, Braithwaite came eight years after Ibbs—but we are aware that there is a degree of turbulence in the House, some of which I referred to earlier. Plans are available for progressing the formation of a new joint IS/IT service across both Houses, and Hansard has recently been through a major review. The Library's change project, which is a fundamental review of how it conducts its business, is ongoing, while the Refreshment Department is dealing with the practical consequences of reduced subsidies, which we have tried to achieve for some time, and has altered service levels because of the sitting hours. A welter of change is taking place—[Interruption.] I do not want to provoke the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack).

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): My hon. Friend—I call him that deliberately today—will register that many of us long to return to those sane, civilised hours that allowed the House to function properly and allowed people to have good social contact with one another in the evening. They were the hallmark of a civilised Parliament, which now we do not have.

Sir Archy Kirkwood : I might be ruled out of order if I followed that, but the hon. Gentleman is an eloquent advocate, as always, of the time-served traditions and culture of Parliament. I have heard him on the subject before, and he is very persuasive.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I hope that we shall not go too far down this line.

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I could say something about the terribly civilised hours that we have now and how they could become even more civilised, but instead I shall make a point about the Refreshment Department. With the reduction in subsidies, it has come to light that a huge amount of money is spent in that area, and it seems to many of us that great inefficiencies are built into the system. There have been proposals to merge the Refreshment
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Departments of the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and on the face of it that is an efficiency that should have been implemented a long time ago.

Sir Archy Kirkwood : I think that that point is recognised, but I ask the hon. Lady to be a little more patient, because we have to take a final decision about the hours before there can be a final conclusion on the Refreshment Department. However, I anticipate that that decision will not be long in coming. The Leader of the House may say something about that later. I am sure that the hon. Lady is right that there are possibilities for efficiencies. I just hope that the IS/IT joint programme that we are working on goes as sweetly as I pray it will, because it would be a good example of what could be achieved in other areas. However, we must hasten slowly, because there are many sensitivities between the two Houses, of which I am sure the hon. Lady is as aware as I am.

We have been talking about examples, and I was saying that there may well be a case for taking a limited look at things and perhaps even concluding before the end of this Parliament, so that we are in a position early in the new Parliament to introduce small but significant changes. I am thinking, for example, of how we might streamline the Domestic Committee structure and of how the advisory Committees work. More than anything else, we must ensure that individual Back Benchers believe that they can play a part in decision making and have a strong consumer input into what goes on.

I shall comment briefly on the Members' estimate. Hon. Members participating in this debate will be aware of the difference, but there is genuine and understandable confusion about where the administration estimate ends and where the Members' estimate begins. The Commission has responsibility for the administration estimate in its entirety, but it has no responsibility for the Members' estimate. That estimate, as hon. Members will know, covers the payment of parliamentary salaries and pensions, expenses, centrally provided IT equipment and associated items, including Short money. The Members' Estimate Committee, which we set up in January 2004, simply interprets House resolutions on allowances. It has no further remit on that. It cannot set levels or rules, but it can refine the administration and implementation.

The Commission has a restricted ability to finesse what is done in the Members' estimate. That estimate is laid by the Treasury, working within central Government expenditure guidelines. It works on the basis of estimates of future expenditure that are provided by the authorities here, but the expenditure on Members' expenses and allowances is driven by salary levels fixed by the House and by the take-up of allowances. It is worth remembering that although this aspect of the debate is important, we have only a glancing responsibility for the important spend in the Members' estimate.

I have said that so that I can put the following point on the record. We recently established a Members' Estimate Audit Committee to try to deal with some of these matters. The Committee is chaired by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who is present and who does a first-class job. We also have the benefit of two external appointees, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree with me that
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those two experienced people play a very positive role. I am sure that the House would want to pay tribute to Sir Thomas Legg and Mr. David Taylor, because they give of their time freely and bring a valuable new perspective to the Members' Estimate Audit Committee.

There are four priorities in the current plan and they are the core of everything that we are trying to do. They set the strategy and can be found on pages 14 to 25. The first priority in relation to House functions is

which involves ensuring that business is efficiently conducted—that it is business as usual. That sounds like an easy task, but it is not always.

Secondly, Members' support is covered in pages 26 to 30, and includes Members' staff.

Joan Ruddock : This may seem a small point and not entirely connected, but the question of recycling facilities in the House concerns many hon. Members who are keen environmentalists. Much progress has been made, but many hon. Members and their staffs are not doing enough, and even today there are places where the recycling facilities are not clearly marked and not very accessible. There is also a continuing concern about the recycling of all the machinery that we eventually throw out from this place—and not just from Members' offices.

Sir Archy Kirkwood : That is a valuable and important point, which anticipates what I was going to say in relation to the built environment. The whole question of maintaining the heritage has a much greater environmental performance dimension than it used to have. It is a question of getting Members to change their own culture. We try to set the targets; they are all in the annual report. The hon. Lady is, however, absolutely right that there is still a long way to go before we are perfect. Portcullis House, as a modern building, gives us the chance to improve matters. However, the rest of the precincts are a real challenge because of the Victorian heating systems that we had. We have just replaced the gas boilers and that has made a difference. We are solicitous of trying to improve, and the hon. Lady's point is well made.

I was talking about support for Members and their staff. It is undeniable that the work load of ordinary Back-Bench Members of Parliament has spiralled exponentially over recent years, in terms of their case load and the responsibilities that they carry. We try as best we can to mirror that increase and to match it with increased services, but that gets increasingly harder to do. We can do it only by finding more efficient ways of working, but it is an important core part of our activity.

Accessibility to the public—providing information and access for the public—is increasingly a priority area for us. That is covered on pages 31 to 38. In future, the Group on Information for the Public, and other associated parts of management within the institution, will have to do more and work harder, because we all recognise that there is public disenchantment, and an alienation from the electoral process. We need to make the building much more accessible. That is a key priority area, both for the rest of this programme and for the programme between 2005 and 2010.
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Joan Ruddock : May I ask the hon. Gentleman for his indulgence again? I appreciate this opportunity—we have not had it before—to debate the report. I should like to make a point about the parliamentary website. Many members of the public find it extremely difficult to negotiate that site. One needs to be a parliamentary researcher to gain easy access to the things that we as Members need, but the site should be for the public and in my view it does not serve the public's purpose.

Sir Archy Kirkwood : For the third time, I concede the point that the hon. Lady makes.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

Sir Archy Kirkwood : May I finish the point? It is true that one needs residual knowledge to get any real value out of the existing site. It is being redesigned; I promise that we are on that case. There is a huge volume of data on the site, but it is very difficult to navigate. We do not have any of the flash technology that young people in particular are used to, but it is coming. However, it will take a little while. I wanted to say a word about that later; again, the hon. Lady anticipated my remarks.

Mr. Lazarowicz : My point related to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) raised. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman, like me, is an occasional user of the Scottish Parliament's website. Although that website deals with    an institution whose responsibilities are less comprehensive and complex than ours, does he agree that it is a good example of a website from which we could learn much? Perhaps that could be taken into account in the developments that he is talking about.

Sir Archy Kirkwood : I know that that is an example that we have been looking at. I am not too proud to take best practice from anywhere—even from the Scottish Parliament. We were able to build our building at slightly cheaper cost, on time and on budget; nevertheless there are lessons that we can learn.

The built environment is the fourth and final core task.

Mr. Drew : On access for the public, I would not want to lose the change to the tours, which has been very helpful. I speak as someone who used to get into a total panic about them. Some hon. Members still wish to take their parties round, and they can still do that, but the change has helped. The fact that, at the end, we can disappear into the Jubilee café and give our guests a cup of tea has radically changed things for the better for Members.

Sir Archy Kirkwood : I think that that is true. The Visitors' Unit that we have set up and the reception security unit, which we have now been given the authority to get on with—it is well under way, and I hope that it will come on stream soon—will provide a much better welcome for people queueing. I recently discovered that many of them think that they are coming into Westminster Abbey, so it will be quite handy to have someone asking, "Where are you headed?
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If it's a Committee Room, can I help you?" rather than have people standing for an hour and a half in the rain, only to be told that they should be across the road.

Mr. Drew : We could start charging.

Sir Archy Kirkwood : Do not say that twice; it might put the idea into someone's head.

Sir Patrick Cormack : We could give them evensong!

Sir Archy Kirkwood : Yes, we could even give them evensong. May I try to make a little progress? I have nearly finished.

Moving on from the four priorities, which we are still working on, and which we hope to develop and refine for the next five-year plan, we have to deal with significant change. Hon. Members would think it remiss of me not to mention the changing security environment, which has significant budgetary impact. We are trying to deal with that as best we can.

There are some circumstances in which the risk analysis from the professionals is such that there is almost a compulsitor to spend whatever money it takes to keep Members, their staff and the visiting public safe in the current environment. We are dealing with that; it is a difficult issue to deal with. Perhaps we need to do a little more to find a process that gives people confidence that they know what is going on without giving the game away to those with evil intent who are determined to do us down. We need to think about that process more carefully.

The Speaker is the person responsible for security, subject to advice from the Joint Committee on Security. The hon. Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth), who chairs the JCOS, has accepted that we need to be a bit more open about the membership of the Committee, so that Members can approach the people serving on it who are doing that important work on behalf of the House. We need to find some way of giving people confidence that they know what is going on without making ourselves more vulnerable by making public the arrangements that we have in hand.

On change, the second item that I cannot escape mentioning is freedom of information. Transparency is absolutely essential. We were ahead of the game in our publication of allowances on 21 October. I think that that was the right thing to do, although it was quite an uncomfortable experience for some Members. It is impossible to anticipate the level of requests that we will receive come January 2005 when the Freedom of Information Act 2000 is fully implemented, but we will need to treat and consider each and every request carefully and deal with it in a professional manner. We have management processes in hand to deal with that.

The whole issue of corporate governance has changed since the introduction of resource management. We now do all our assessments on the basis of risk analysis, which is now a very sophisticated part of corporate planning. Things have changed enormously since the old days when the internal review service was the only way of keeping us secure in the knowledge that our processes were fit for purpose. We now have a much
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more developed, in-depth system, which gives advice to the management team and the Clerk, and that will continue to be developed.

Finally, to look forward to changes, we are still in the process of acknowledging and dealing with the devolution settlement to Scotland and Wales, and we, as an institution, still have to keep our relationship with the European Parliament in mind and evolve it as the process unfolds. I was going to make a point about internet services, but we have probably covered it, except to say that, if one is looking for things to do this weekend, there are some really interesting browsing opportunities. There is www.parliamentlive.tv, which has webcasting; we can watch ourselves, and indeed can watch this very debate.

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas) : May I inform the hon. Gentleman that this debate is being watched on Catalonian TV through the website feed from Parliament?

Sir Archy Kirkwood : That encourages me greatly. It would be remiss not to say a word of welcome to our friends from Catalonia.

The Parliamentary Education Unit has been doing splendid work through www.explore.parliament.uk. I know from my constituency, and I am sure that it is reflected in other Members' experience, that schools are taking great advantage of their ability to find out much more about what we do in Parliament. That is obviously a good thing. Finally, the Hansard Society is doing excellent work with www.headsup.org.uk, a website specifically targeted at young people, which tries to make our business relevant to them.

There are challenges for the future. In the coming year, there will be preparations for a new Parliament, which is being and has been carefully thought about. In 2005 or 2006—whenever it comes—that transition will be done as efficiently as in the past, and that is a big challenge for the House management.

As I said earlier, we hope to make real progress with the visitor reception centre over the coming months. There have been two important new senior staff appointments. Major-General Anthony Peter Grant Peterkin will join us in January as the Serjeant at Arms and will be a significant influence on the development of services. We look forward to working with the new Librarian, John Pullinger; I am sure that the Library service will benefit from his fresh thinking.

Sir Patrick Cormack : Would this not be an appropriate moment to put on record our thanks to the retiring Serjeant at Arms for all he has done?

Sir Archy Kirkwood : I had that in mind so to do. I think that we will get a chance on Monday to record formally tributes to him, and I hope that colleagues will take the opportunity to do that. The Serjeant at Arms has been a faithful, loyal and efficient figure, with whom it has been easy to work on the development of services—certainly during my time in the Commission. We all look forward to the opportunity to pay tribute to him and to Priscilla Baines, one of the first people I met when I came to work for David Steel in this place in August 1971. I am older than I look. I used to be able to say that with confidence.
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We are making progress, although not as far or fast as everyone would like. From time to time we all have our difficulties, whether with technology, catering services or whatever. However, we are now a much more professionally based service because of the professionalism of our staff. However, we need to do more and continue to get feedback from Members. We are often castigated as a shadowy body. Now, that might be true for—no, I will not say it. I carry no shadow myself. It is time that the Commission did more, within what is reasonable, to make our work more available to Members. Opportunities to get feedback, such as this debate, are important to enable us to improve.

3.3 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain) : Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me so early in the debate. I shall make only a brief contribution. I regret that I cannot be present for the whole debate because of a ministerial commitment. My hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will reply to any issues raised for me as Leader of the House; many may also be raised for the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood), who speaks for the House of Commons Commission.

As a member of the Commission I welcome this debate, and as Leader of the House I was pleased to arrange it. I hope that it becomes an annual fixture. I hope, too, that it will arouse interest from right hon. and hon. Members when they realise that this is an important occasion, on which we can hold the Commission to account. I was grateful for the introduction by the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire. I am sure that my fellow commissioners would agree that he will be sorely missed when he stands down at the end of this Parliament. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]

The hon. Gentleman mentioned that there was some uncertainty about sitting hours. Without going into detail, I can confirm that the Modernisation Committee's report on the sitting hours will be published in the week that we return after Christmas. I intend the House to have an opportunity firmly to resolve that matter before the February recess.

This debate provides us with an opportunity to acknowledge the excellent service that we are given by the staff of the House, as the hon. Gentleman said. The Commission's annual report for the financial year 2003–04 outlines the great range of activities that are carried out on our behalf and demonstrates how effectively the staff of the House have responded to the new challenges and changing needs. The change in sitting hours, for example, has required considerable change in working practices. So, too, has the reduction in the catering subsidy and the greater exploitation of information technology, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) addressed earlier. I believe that hon. Members from all parties will join me in congratulating our staff on all that has been achieved. As Mr. Speaker said in his introduction to the report:

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excluding the Leader of the House, of course. It is, therefore, positive to report that customer feedback last year shows that 75 per cent. of Members who responded found the House a good or excellent place in which to work.

The report also highlights areas where further change is envisaged and I should like to mention three major challenges for the future. First, there is the matter of greater engagement with the public. In June, the Modernisation Committee, which I chair, published a report called "Connecting Parliament with the Public", which concluded that the House should do more to make itself more accessible to those outside, to make itself more easily understood and to make it easier for people to understand the work of Parliament, and should communicate information about its activity much more effectively.

This year was the most successful ever for visitor numbers. There were 93,314 visitors—7.5 per cent. more than last year. I pay tribute to all those involved in arranging such visits and tours. I am also grateful to my colleagues on the Commission for their recently published positive response to the Modernisation Committee's recommendations. Some of the recommendations have already been implemented and others, such as a radical and much-needed upgrade of the website, are in planning. Other recommendations involving significant new expenditure, such as a new voter's guide for all 18-year-olds, are matters for the House to decide. I hope that the House will respond positively to proposals for a full visitor centre to follow the new reception facility on Cromwell Green.

Mr. Lazarowicz : On the voter's guide, which I strongly support, it is right that the House should decide, but when will the House have an opportunity to make that decision?

Mr. Hain : I hope that that will happen at the same time as we debate sitting hours, when we have a chance to address House business. As I have said, I am an enthusiastic advocate of the voter's guide. I am worried about the degree to which young people are in almost complete ignorance of the way in which our parliamentary democracy works. There is a lack of engagement with it and a lack of knowledge about it. A letter from the Speaker, containing a short guide to the way that parliamentary democracy works and explaining young people's role as citizens and new adults, would be a good way to connect Westminster's work to the individual new voter.

Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. Before I call the hon. Gentleman, I apologise to hon. Members. I have a terrible cold, so I am sorry if I keep exploding and spluttering. It is not in any way a response to anything that they might have said.

Ian Stewart : And if I cough and splutter back at you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, it is no reflection on your chairmanship.
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Does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House accept and understand that although getting the Speaker to write such a letter would be welcome and a step in the right direction, we need a consistent and persistent long-term educative strategy that raises public awareness in general about the relevant role of and need for an MP service and a parliamentary system?

Mr. Hain : I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. For too long, there has been a lack of citizenship education in our schools. As a Government, we are dealing with such matters and I am sure that the new Secretary of State will want to study the points outlined in the Modernisation Committee's report in that respect. If we are to have a fully functioning and live democracy, it is important that we engage whole swathes of young people who are not at all connected to parliamentary democracy. We should also make sure that this place makes more effort to engage with schools and youngsters generally.

When the Modernisation Committee visited the National Assembly for Wales, we found that it had a much bigger budget for education than that of the United Kingdom Parliament although it serves only 3   million, not 60 million people. We saw a class of youngsters engaging in a lively, non-party—but political—contest. The Assembly undertakes outreach work with schools, the like of which we have not even begun to consider. I see that as a major priority for our Parliamentary Education Unit if we can expand it and if the extra resources that we need can be invested in the unit.

Mr. Drew : I wish to congratulate the Parliamentary Education Unit. It is one of the best aspects of Parliament. It is so good because it strives for quality. In reality, we need more quantity. It chooses a few schools, but somehow we must get some balance into the way in which the unit works and ensure that materials are readily available for it. There are some good materials, but they are not accessible enough. All schools should have such materials available to them.

Mr. Hain : I can only agree with my hon. Friend. I join him in congratulating the Parliamentary Education Unit on its work. The burden of the Modernisation Committee's report, with my strong backing, is that the unit needs to do much more and to be given extra resources by the House to enable it to do so. That is an urgent priority because the democratic gap that is opening up in our society between young people and the rest of the democratic system is worrying. The IT access that the House provides needs to be updated. The website has been pretty abysmal. It needs to be much more user-friendly, accessible and attractive, especially to young people. The truth is that, however much outreach work is conducted by the unit or by schools that visit this place, they reach only a fraction of youngsters, whereas through the internet we could reach millions of youngsters if we could give people a much greater and more attractive access to the House's work.

Mr. Drew : I agree with my right hon. Friend. One way in which such matters can be pulled together is through the Youth Parliament. A view was taken that it was playing at politics. Through working with my member
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of the Youth Parliament, I really believe that we are on to something. We ought to see the connectivity between what we are trying to do in our Parliamentary Education Unit and the fact that the Youth Parliament should be given more emphasis in generally bringing young people into the democratic process. We must make it clear that the parliament is making decisions that affect lives; it is not making superficial decisions. What does my right hon. Friend think about that?

Mr. Hain : My hon. Friend makes another valid point. The Modernisation Committee took evidence from members of the Youth Parliament and my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House has engaged directly with it, too.

The second issue that I want to raise is security. We must reconcile greater accessibility with the need to maintain the security of this place in the face of the changing threat from terrorism. I have made my views on the security of the Palace well known. I welcome the recruitment of a parliamentary security co-ordinator who will cover both Houses.

The third main issue that I want to raise is our management processes. It is now five years since the Braithwaite review of management and services. I believe that in the next Parliament it may be time to revisit the issue and to consider whether our management structures require updating to fit the 21st century. We may also need to consider how best we ensure that hon. Members' views and needs are taken fully into account, while allowing professional managers sufficient freedom to manage effectively.

I welcome this opportunity to put a few points on the record and I look forward to reading the record of what I hope will be an excellent debate.

3.15 pm

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I, too, welcome this first debate of the Commission's annual report and I congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) on the comprehensive way in which he opened the debate. I should also like to join the tributes that have been paid to the Clerks and to other staff of the House, who do such an excellent job. I also want to mention Robert Rogers, who was the Secretary of the Commission for most of the period that we are covering, and his successor, David Natzler, who gives the Commission tremendous support.

I agree with the Leader of the House that we must ensure that Members of Parliament and those who visit this place are safe. I also welcome the decision to have a security co-ordinator. I am pleased that we have not changed the essential responsibilities within the House in that process. It is important that there is clarity both in the Serjeant at Arms Department and about the arrangements at the other end of the building, and that the responsibilities are well known. The additional co-ordination will bring something extra and something that is extremely useful to the process.

I could not agree more that we need to improve education and education facilities in the House. The Parliamentary Education Unit does a fantastic job, but it needs to have the resources to take that further and to be given precedence within the House in terms of
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accommodation and space, so that when it has parties here, it knows that it is not going to be bounced out of the room and that it can do what it needs to do. It should have that little bit of precedence. If it were a choice between a foreign delegation, a tourist or a group of young people who are learning about their democratic heritage, I would opt for the young people every time. We must connect with the young people of the country and ensure that they know what their heritage is.

I also think that we can do a lot more with the website, and I particularly like the idea of expanding the online forums. In relation to the Communications Bill two years ago, we had an excellent online forum, which was moderated by the Hansard Society. Everybody agreed that it was a fantastic success. It opened up the doors of Parliament to interest groups and individuals who wanted to contribute to the process of making law. We ought to take that lesson from that Bill, which involved such a success, and do more of it. It is a sadness that we have not been able to take that further. I know that work is being done on the website and that Ministers are also interested in the idea. I hope that it will lead to more open dialogue about Bills.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire mentioned the Audit Committee, which I chair, and I should like to say a little about it. I want to thank Mark Egan, who is its secretary and who does a great deal of work. The Committee gives advice on internal review and audit matters to the Commission.

During the past year, we have been trying to concentrate on certain areas. One is risk management, where there is the need to get in place proper plans to ensure that the major risks to the system are properly appreciated in all Departments of the House. We will be continuing with that vigorously over the coming months. Other such areas are value-for-money studies and core audit work. We are determined that they should have a proper focus.

3.19 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.34 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Heald : The Audit Committee is anxious to concentrate on risk management, value-for-money studies and core audit work. I pay tribute to the work undertaken by the Internal Review Service. In the past year, it has been thought right to introduce a new, independent, outside partner to strengthen the team and to give it a diversity of talents and skills. A new partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers, will be assisting us in the audit work that is necessary and the review work that the Internal Review Service undertakes.

I join in the tributes to Sir Tom Legg and David Taylor, our external members, who provide the Committee with invaluable advice, and to representatives of the National Audit Office, who attend our meetings and who provide a sounding board of what is the best practice externally. This year we agreed to an assessment of their effectiveness as our external auditors, so we will audit the auditors, which is a first for the Audit Committee. Although there is always more to
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do, particularly so in the audit function and with the new risk management requirement coming on-stream, I feel that we have made good progress, and I thank the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, the other Member of Parliament on the Audit Committee.

I welcome this debate, which is the first of what I hope will become an annual event. I repeat my earlier points about connecting with Parliament, the Parliamentary Education Unit and the security co-ordinator.

3.36 pm

Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab): Through you, Ms Anderson, I send our compliments to Mr. Deputy Speaker, who had to leave the proceedings due to ill health—his nose was running.

Today's opportunity to discuss the House of Commons Commission and its work on our behalf is long overdue. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) and the Commission for all their work. I have to tell him, however, that it needs to be more accessible and still more transparent. That is the clear message from hon. Members who have spoken in the debate.

I compliment the hon. Gentleman on being the only Member of the House who was prepared to stand up and argue the case on behalf of hon. Members, explain our role and say why we need certain resources to carry it out.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire did a fantastic job in standing up for Members of Parliament. Many of the rest of us took to the airwaves and defended the fact that we made a fundamental mistake in allowing the budgets that are used to pay our staff and run our offices to be called expenses, when in fact they are allowances, as we all know. Neither my hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) nor I pay our staff out of expenses; we pay our staff a wage to do a job of work on behalf of the people we represent. Does he not think that we should retitle that budget head?

Ian Stewart : I concur absolutely. We Back Benchers were doing exactly what my hon. Friend says, and my compliment was because the representative of one of our official bodies took the trouble to explain the matter. During that difficult phase for those of us who want the integrity with which we try to carry out our job to be seen, it struck me that we do not judge a bus driver's income on the basis of his or her salary plus the cost of the bus, the diesel and the maintenance. There is an educative case to be put, to which I will return.

Mr. Salter : Does my hon. Friend agree that you could judge the worth of a journalist, particularly a tabloid journalist, on the size of his expense account?

Ian Stewart : I could not possibly comment. However, I suspect that my hon. Friend is correct.

I shall comment on the subjects in the annual report in the order in which I found them, starting with Members' computing and IT support. IT support is something of a misnomer. Things have greatly improved over the last
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five years: Members used to have an allowance from which to pay staff salaries and rent for offices and, if there was anything left, they would decide what IT equipment to buy. Now, the House provides a set package, which is much more acceptable, although in my view the package is too limited. The misnomer is "support".

The Parliamentary Communications Department does an excellent job in restrained circumstances. It has a tight mandate—essentially, its job is to install equipment in Members' offices and to get the cables to the equipment. It is not to help Members with software problems or to install software that Members may wish to use. I call for the PCD to establish a Members' IT unit, like those units that I understand each Government Department has. We should enable the PCD to run a Members' IT unit, which would be a great step forward to people such as me who are computer illiterate. There has also to be a change of attitude in the House towards modern technology. I understand the caution: this place was not built for modern technology. The PCD was given a brief to build part-solutions on top of part-solutions and, in effect, that has been a mess. What other hon. Members have called for, which I support, is a complete review of our approach to modern technology in the Palace and our constituencies. That means giving the PCD the proper resources that it needs to carry that out.

I shall give some examples, although I know that time is limited today. The world of technology has become pervasive. Computers are now hand-held, and we are able to communicate effectively from one side of a Room to another, yet we still have a system in Committees and in the Chamber where Ministers have to send Parliamentary Private Secretaries with a piece of paper to the box where civil servants sit, and the PPS has to return with the answer on a piece of paper and give it to the Minister. There is no reason why there should not be tablet computers in the Dispatch Box or on the Table. The civil servants could write on to their tablet computer in their own handwriting and the answer would be then received in text by the Minister at the Dispatch Box. Pilots of such a system must be carried out. I understand Mr. Speaker's concern about misuse, but the time is now right to carry out pilots that would at least enable the House of Commons Commission and the relevant Committees to evaluate properly where we are with technology today and what use of it is appropriate in the House.

The next subject dealt with in the report is Members' salaries and allowances. I remind hon. Members that during the debate on the Senior Salaries Review Body report, it was made clear that not one Member of Parliament made a submission about their own terms and conditions—not one. In the main, the submissions were about Members' staff's terms and conditions—trying to sort out historical problems that mean that staff cannot be paid at the appropriate grades and/or benefit from staff development. The decisions that we as a House made in the face of the SSRB report have made a great improvement in terms of resources, but they are still not sufficient to meet the historical problem whereby senior members of staff with expertise and experience cannot accrue the right grade and the fact that there is still no mechanism for staff development. Those issues still need to be examined.
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There is another issue about Members' staff and MPs' terms and conditions. When I wanted to make a verbal submission to the SSRB—I was the only Member to do that—I had to fight and complain to do so. Having got in to see people directly, I learned quite a bit from them, and I hope that they learned something from me. When I made an application to see all the data that the body had received about all the issues with which it was concerned, I was told that it was not allowed to give me access as a Member of Parliament. That is outrageous and I hope that the Commission will look into that situation. In the light of freedom of information legislation, it should be illegal. I hope that, when in the next Parliament an MP asks for access to information that the body is using to make its decisions and recommendations, we will all have equal access to it.

I fully support the House making publicly available information about our terms and conditions as MPs. I have always supported that transparency, but the lesson that we must learn from the recent exercise is that there is no use in laying bare basic statistics about salaries, expenses and allowances if we do not have an educative process to explain why MPs need them, what an MP's service means and what it costs to provide that service to our constituents. We must implement a long-term strategy to raise public awareness about what an MP's role is, what our service comprises, what it costs, why it costs that, and why it is necessary in view of the concept of citizenship and our parliamentary democracy.

We heard earlier in the debate from the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire speaking on behalf of the Commission, the Leader of the House and others that Parliament has an Education Unit. Its work is first class, but understated. It is important that more and more MPs know of that work and make use of it. I am all in favour of the further dissemination of it through the internet and any other mechanism, but it cannot stand alone. It must be seen in the context of a wider educative strategy to raise public awareness about the role of Parliament, MPs and supporting staff.

A strange issue of space arose during the SSRB debate. The public have long been aware that there is an issue of space in the parliamentary estate, and my suspicion is that there will always be an issue about office and facility space. However, instead of manoeuvres such as forcing MPs either to dismiss staff in London or move them out to the regions, which may be completely impractical, we should be open, transparent and honest with the public about why we may need more space within or adjacent to the Palace boundaries. Some years ago, when Portcullis House was built, I predicted that within 10 years the 200 MPs housed there would have to be reduced to 100 because as electronic casework increases, the need for more members of staff will increase, which will mean less room for MPs. That is a consequence of the success of modern communications. I may be wrong in my judgment, but I am not wrong about the drift of my prediction. We need a proper assessment and transparency as part of the wider public educative strategy that I mentioned earlier.

My next and, hon. Members will be pleased to know, second to last point relates to medical services. Historically, we have had access to a GP in the House, but it has always struck me as strange that we have access to professional, qualified medical practitioners, yet they have never been able to prescribe for us on the
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health service or refer us to hospital if such attention is needed. I raised that with the appropriate Committee, which has made a deal with a local GP service in Westminster, but I have used that service and found that it is an acute service. It is somewhere to go to with a broken leg or finger, but it does not carry out the functions of a normal GP. I would transfer to a local GP, but we cannot get access to or register with them. Will the Commission see whether the service of the GP in the House can be enhanced to include prescribing and referral? There is a community of thousands of people here at Westminster, which is akin to what a local GP would have in any of our constituencies, so there is a rationale for examining the issue further.

My final comments regard training for MPs' staff and MPs. I was appalled when I came here in 1997 to find that there was no training for MPs. I was appalled that no one explained what our role was or how we should carry out our basic functions. Some of us had never run budgets or done casework before, and the truth is that most people were left to sink or swim based on their own experience or nous. That was not acceptable, so I encouraged others to set up an education and training system. Through self-interest, I intended it to be for MPs, but we soon realised that MPs' staff needed training first. That system was established through the European Union-funded ADAPT programme as an external social partnership. After the two-year pilot, we managed to get it into the House through the 2001 SSRB report.

To be frank, most MPs knew and perhaps still know nothing about it, but it is an in-house service—I will come back to the word "service" in a moment—currently called the parliamentary learning and development project. I drew attention to the word "service" because there are people who do not want MPs to have those facilities—to have access to training. That is why the system is called the parliamentary project. To me, the word "project" has a sniff of the temporary about it. I refer to it as a parliamentary service because I believe that it is a fundamental service and that it should be not only permanent but developed further.

Currently, the service provides with an external contractor training on how to use computers. It is excellent stuff, first-class training and very important, but the second and third phases of the idea have never been addressed or implemented. The first phase, which we are still in four years on, is about basic awareness of what facilities exist and how to use information and communications technology. The second phase was to develop what I refer to as core MP service materials—that is, training materials on how to do casework, how to set up an office, how to be a good employer, health and safety and so on. We need to reach that stage. I suppose that I am extreme in my view, but I would go to the third stage, which would involve a distance-learning system accessible by MPs and staff that allowed us to train in any parliamentary subject that we chose, to whatever level we saw fit. For example, I am not an economist; I cannot even count properly—[Laughter.]—but let us say that I wanted to major in Treasury matters because those matters concern every aspect of our work. Why should I not have access to training so that I as an MP can understand Treasury matters and take part in votes and debates on a more informed basis?
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I am sorry that I have taken up so much time and covered so many issues, but I promise the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire that if we make this debate an annual occurrence, I will try to restrict my comments. However, I will certainly still comment and I will welcome the opportunity to do so.

3.57 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) because I agree with many of his comments—I do not intend to repeat them—and I want to pay tribute to him. He has played a unique role as a pioneer in trying to ensure that we all, as hon. Members, and our staff are better trained for the extraordinarily difficult job that we now face in this place.

The hon. Gentleman made extremely important points about the future of the project, of which he is the godfather, if that is still a polite expression to use. I also agree with what he said about the Senior Salaries Review Body. We all, I hope, learned something from the exercise earlier in the autumn, and I hope the board did too. There were mistakes in how it went through the process of analysis, not least, as he said, the fact that it was not made clear to hon. Members who might have an interest what data it was taking into account in its recommendations.

I want to comment more widely. At the outset, my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) referred to the role that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) and I have played. We have performed a duet of sorts over a number of months, across parties, in seeking such a debate. I congratulate the Leader of the House on making this opportunity available; we have waited 25 years for it.

I am a historian rather than a professional politician by background, and surely the greatest irony of all is that the House of Commons was set up to hold people to account for the expenditure of taxpayers' money, yet the work of the Commission was the one issue on which the House never had an opportunity, for all those years, to hold to account those who spend the taxpayers' money. It might be churlish to say so, but the debate is better late than never. I hope that in future years the Leader of the House, or his successor, ensures that such a debate takes place soon after the publication of the annual report, when the figures and information given are more relevant and up to date.

One or two Members have had to leave, but I want to pay tribute to Members who sit on the House of Commons Commission. It is an extraordinary fact that those who chair debates—not the most exciting of a Member of Parliament's duties—and those who sit on the Commission, but not ex officio, are not given any extra reward. Doing such things on behalf of the House is a role for unsung heroes and heroines. As a House, we apparently think it important to encourage career development for those who are not going to be Ministers, so we provide rewards for the Chairs of Select Committees. There must be a case for doing the same for those on the Commission and, Ms Anderson, for those who chair debates and Standing Committees.
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On the whole, we get very good value for the money that taxpayers entrust to us for running this place. The cash outturn is £140 million—a big sum—but when we look at the report, we recognise the extraordinary range of activities that that has to fund. The key issue is that we should be given this opportunity annually to satisfy ourselves that we are getting good value. Given my role in the House, I happen to keep a close eye on a lot of the House's activities, but the report is a revelation. I thought I knew how this place operated, but I learnt an awful lot. I suspect that that would be even more the case for Back Benchers.

Before I turn to my main points on this report, I want to illustrate the deficiency—the lack of real accountability—by referring to the frequent items on the vexed issues of security and risk management. The relevant pages are 36, 40, 56, 58 and 62. The Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire referred to those issues. I   sincerely believe that whatever eventual conclusions are reached as a result of the security review referred to in the report, it is essential that the House as a whole owns the measures taken. We should all feel involved in the exercise and feel that the right balance has been struck.

Obviously, it would be inappropriate to go into any detail, and in any case I am not in the loop. I am not involved and have no idea of the precise proposals under consideration. However, those in the loop must surely be conscious that this is no ordinary private or commercial institution; it is not even a Department. The report's very proper emphasis on the right of every British elector to access his or her parliamentary representative as freely as possible so as to know what we do here on their behalf and to seek to influence our decision making is crucial. That must be the overriding consideration, which becomes even more vital to the health of our parliamentary democracy when our basic freedoms seem to be under attack.

I hope that the decision-making process will ensure that the balance of the risk is studied with exemplary care. To take extreme examples, creating a fortress mentality with a metal, concrete or armed barricade that stretches right around Parliament—including around the frontage on the River Thames—seems to me as inappropriate as going to the opposite level of surveillance and simply scrapping all visitor identification passes.

In recent weeks there have been swarms of police and security officers in the building, most of them here for the first time, looking as lost as some of those whom they were seeking to guide and check. That has hardly increased Members' confidence. In the past, I sought to find out how many security passes—apparently, some 14,000 are issued for these buildings—go astray each year, and I thought that a reasonable request. However, although we had figures for Departments, we never managed to get a figure for the House. The peripheral security of the buildings is probably the most critical issue. I am not expert, however. All I say is that we all have a responsibility, as well as a right, to be involved in that process. Somehow or other, we have to find ways to make that happen. As is so evident from the report, those are difficult considerations to balance. I pay tribute to the care with which various groups—shadowy groups, admittedly—in both Houses have had to grapple with that dilemma.
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Clearly, there are no simple and speedy solutions. However, handing over the responsibility for parliamentary security to the Home Office—even with a new Home Secretary—and to the Metropolitan police, rather than leaving it with the much maligned men in tights, was never going to be satisfactory, not least because the police failed to act on a clear tip of a likely security breakdown on the day of the hunting incursions.

I believe that our staff, who of course cannot speak up on their own behalf, owe us nothing in terms of how they have looked after us. They have often been in difficult, if not dangerous, situations and have been maligned for what might have happened rather than being given the credit and congratulations they deserve.

As the report makes clear, such matters remain political. The House must be given the opportunity to strike the right balance between risk and representative access. It must be a matter for the Commission to decide how best to build that consensus across the House, and I know that the members of the Commission are giving thought to it. I do not know the answer, but I beg them to think carefully whether, through the various party mechanisms, there may be a better way to ensure that we all feel involved in the exercise and feel that we own the outcome. Simply briefing the great and the good will not be sufficient.

My main theme is to relate the work of the Commission to the work of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, to which the Leader of the House, who chairs that Committee, made reference. In the difficult security context to which my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire referred, I am most concerned that both Houses of Parliament should take positive steps to meet the challenge of people's disengagement with the political process.

I believe that there is no real evidence that the public are any less concerned than in previous generations about the big issues that affect them individually or as families, or about those that they see as being of national or international significance. The invasion of Iraq, whatever views people take on it, has demonstrated that there is just as active an involvement in issues in the body politic as there ever was. However, the problem is that so many people have lost confidence in the political institutions that they feel should represent them and address those issues.

There is also real confusion among all age groups about the relative responsibilities of the Government and Parliament. A number of hon. Members will have heard me say this before, and I hope they will forgive me if I refer to it again. I was intrigued when looking at the No. 10 website—it is excellent, and I hope that those who are redesigning the parliamentary websites take note of it—to see a lovely series of photographs showing a day in the life of the Prime Minister. Hon. Members will understand that what I am about to describe might be slightly out of date: the photographs show Alastair Campbell coming in before breakfast, then the Prime Minister spending five minutes with the Deputy Prime Minister, and Alastair Campbell coming back again after breakfast. So it continued through the day. It was fascinating.
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However, perhaps at quarter to 12, suddenly there was no one sitting behind the desk at which one had seen the Prime Minister having all those discussions, and the caption underneath said, "The Prime Minister has now left to go to the House of Commons." There was no explanation of why he had gone to the House and no reason given for why the Prime Minister—everyone thinks he is the Government—should have any relationship at all to that place down the road. That was symbolic of the real but unfortunate confusion out there among the public about the relative roles of Parliament and the Government in a parliamentary democracy. We do precious little to help people to understand that.

That feature has been removed from the website, perhaps because it is now so difficult to keep up with the people going in and out of No. 10. Its sell-by date might therefore have been reached. However, I return to the point that the section on pages 31 to 38 on providing information and access to the public—to which my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire made reference, as did the Leader of the House—and most specifically objective 6 on page 61, are critical for the reasons mentioned in interventions and by the hon. Member for Eccles.

It is fascinating that there is a group from both Houses within these buildings that is given the task of working out how best to promote and explain Parliament and listen to the public. That is the Group on Information to the Public—the GIP. The experts are all here this afternoon, but there are approximately 650 other Members and I bet that only a handful of them have any idea that the GIP exists, let alone to whom it is responsible. What is so interesting is that it is run by Officers of the House. There is no Member involvement at all.

Whatever else we Members of Parliament are good at, I should hope that we know something about the relationship of the political system to those it serves—the public. It is critical that the GIP should be given some responsibility by and accountability to a group of Members, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire takes that point up. Since it serves both Houses, as I understand it, it would be interesting if the GIP were answerable to a Joint Committee, which would then be answerable to us as Members of the House. I do not mean any disrespect to the experts, but if that is such an important role in the two Houses of Parliament, Members should be involved in it.

I hope that I am not breaking some terrible rule by referring to this, but when the GIP's existence was mentioned during a meeting of the Modernisation Committee, we who had been studying the issue for some months in preparation for the report that came out in the summer were amazed at its role and one or two people looked as though they had never heard of it.

Our report makes a number of recommendations. It has been published since the Commission's annual report, so I would not have expected my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, who is speaking on behalf of the Commission, to refer to it, but I hope he finds time to mention it at the end of the debate.

We put the emphasis on the cost-benefit value of online contact, as opposed to trying to invest in elaborate facilities in this group of buildings. I played a
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role in developing that and was delighted that the Leader of the House picked it up and ran with it. If we are lucky, the Chancellor, whoever he or she may be, will one day sign off a huge sum for a new visitor centre, but it will take time to get the money in place, find the right site and develop it. When it comes it will be of value, but I wonder whether in their school career 5 or even 2 per cent. of my constituents, or those of any hon. Member in the Chamber, will find it of benefit to go to the visitor centre and see Parliament. It will still be a rather remote place with rather remote things going on in it.

All the time, particularly as the hon. Member for Eccles emphasised, more people are becoming attuned to working online. My constituents in North Cornwall are far more likely to understand and input into what is happening in Parliament if that is online, rather than just going to a visitor centre. The parliamentary website already has 25 million hits, which is a huge number and an increase of 74 per cent. on the previous year. At the moment, that is an extrapolation beyond the usual connections. People are becoming used to getting information online when they want it and in the form they want it. Everything that has been said this afternoon by a number of hon. Members about improving the quality of our website, particularly the ease of navigation, is critical. It will be good value for money.

I am not saying that we should not have a visitor centre, but if we have a spare £1 million—I hope the Deputy Leader of the House has his cheque book in his back pocket—let us improve the website facility and ensure that the access across our nation is as good as it can be, whether in Eccles, Roxburgh and Berwickshire or North Cornwall, because that is the practical way to explain what we are doing and to enable our constituents, not least students, to input into it.

I endorse what has been said about the Education Unit. I brought a representative group of teachers, advisers and governors involved in the education process, all of whom are involved in the citizenship syllabus, to meet the Education Unit. First, they were not aware of its existence. Okay, Cornwall might be a bit backward, but those people had other considerations, such as examining other websites and material, which is flowing into those courses. Parliament did not seem to be very high on the list. Secondly, they were impressed with the quality of material. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) referred to that. The Education Unit produces superb material, but the problem is that it is simply not yet getting to where it needs to be. Thirdly, having seen the quality of it, they went back—I know, because I have met some of them since—and are now using it. However, they also endorse what has been said about the inadequacy of the online facilities to back up the material.

I want to discuss one other issue of importance and then return to where I started. Reference has been made to the extent to which there is a totally integrated approach between the two Houses of Parliament on the issues of security and IS/IT. One hon. Member—the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), I think—said, "Well, why didn't we get round to doing something about catering?". Clearly, there would be real economies to be made if we could bring the facilities
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together. I do not think that our noble Friends at the other end of the building have quite different dietary needs from ours; on the whole, the ones whom I meet are reasonably human. I hope it is possible to combine the catering facilities; there would be benefits.

Even more importantly, the way that information is provided in the two Houses could be brought together. That does not just mean the Libraries, which work as if there was a Berlin wall between them. The website is a joint operation, but all the information that emanates from Parliament should be provided in a co-ordinated, integrated way.

We have those examples and, in terms of updating the management structure, to which the Leader of the House referred, and the new strategic plan, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire referred, we should make it a cardinal objective that the two Houses of Parliament must work better together.

That brings me to my final point. This is not just a matter of good management-speak or of tidying up. To my mind, it is critical that Parliament as a whole is more effective at holding the Executive to account. Too often—this was particularly true in the debates on reform of the House of Lords, to which I hope we return before too long—there was some assumption that the two Houses were in competition. That should not be the case. There may be occasions when we have differing views, but Parliament as a whole has a responsibility together to ensure that the Executive of the day are doing their very best to serve the nation.

Surely the best way to improve the standing of Parliament is to ensure not only that the message that we produce is as impressive as it can be, but that the means by which it is communicated are as effective as possible. That must mean that the two Houses of Parliament have to work together, rather than against each other.

4.18 pm

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I shall try to be brief. I am conscious that this debate is being webcast to Catalonia and that other hon. Members want to contribute.

I commend the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) and the Commission on the annual report, particularly on its clear and concise presentation and layout, which is really quite refreshing. In my maiden speech, back in July 1997, I called for House of Commons papers and publications to be written in intelligible, plain English and not in some sort of impenetrable code. Too many of our proceedings and too many of our publications are still shrouded in language and practices that are woefully out of date for a modern, 21st-century legislature. However, that does not apply to this annual report.

I shall concentrate on two issues referred to in the report that have also been the subject of extensive deliberation by the Modernisation Committee, of which I, like the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), am a member. They are the sittings of the House and how we communicate with the public. Both topics have been debated extensively by Parliament.

Page 31 of the annual report has an entire section on providing information and access for members of the public. I was pleased to find out that we have a
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communications strategy. It is fairly recent, but it is informed by professional advisers and is to be commended. I was delighted to read that the House of Commons Information Office, received some 60,000 inquiries in 2003–04. That is down from 100,000 in 1999–2000, but as the report goes on to explain, that is probably due to the success of the parliamentary website. I understand the complaints made about the website and the difficulty that some people have in navigating around it—people who include my staff and myself, as I cannot switch on my computer. Notwithstanding that, it is remarkable that our Parliament has secured something like 25 million live and successful hits on its website.

I can remember debates about the dangers of broadcasting Parliament that took place when I was a British constitution student, I think, or perhaps during some other period of my life. I think that it was Joe Ashton who said that if we broadcast Parliament, we would be invaded by abseiling lesbians or some other form of lesbian. However, although Prime Minister's Question Time might not be much more than a pantomime, I have been pleasantly surprised by the tone, content and quality of debate in the House of Commons in the short period that I have been here. I see no evidence that the tone, content and quality of debate has been reduced in any way, shape or form as a result of Parliament's proceedings being broadcast.

Particularly for our audience in Catalonia, I should mention webcasting. I am not entirely sure what that is, but I am impressed to learn that during the one time when I thought that this place really was the cockpit of our democracy—that is, in March last year in the run-up to the votes on whether we should invade Iraq—some 600 people were logged on to the webcast from the Houses of Parliament at any one time. We have an audience out there; we have a fan base. A lot of people are interested in what we are doing, not just those from special interest groups or lobbying organisations. We should be proud of the progress that has been made in communicating what we do and the business of the House to the public.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall—I will call him that, because I consider him a friend—alluded to "Connecting Parliament with the Public", as did the Leader of the House. That report was not as strongly worded as some other Members or I would have liked. I will come to that later, particularly when we talk about postage and how we communicate with our constituents. The report certainly recognised the value of the Parliamentary Education Unit. When we took evidence from the staff of the unit, it was interesting to see the scales being lifted from the eyes of Committee members, who suddenly realised what a fantastic job the unit had done. With the limited resources available to it, the unit was able to provide 80 to 96 sessions as part of its autumn visits programme. If we divide that among 659 MPs, it is quite clear that some 16 to 19-year-olds are getting a fantastic service through the Parliamentary Education Unit, but that its resources are not nearly enough to allow it to reach out in the way that all of us who are serious about having citizenship education expanded would like it to.
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One of the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee's report was that we and the Department for Education and Skills should

We have had debate after debate in this place about low voter turnout. I worry about that as much as anybody else. I have worked as hard as any Member to communicate and to make this place and the job that I do come alive to the people whom I represent. I never cease to be amazed at the look of wonderment on young people's faces when I bring them to the Houses of Parliament for the first time. We are taking something out of the newspapers and off the television screens and making it feel real. As we said in the Modernisation Committee report, we should be building into citizenship education as much access to this place and its workings as possible. That is why I very much support the idea of a live gallery. At the top of the Chamber are the areas—I think they are called Special Galleries—reserved for VIPs, who are not always that important. They occupy space that we could use to allow young people to go through the Chamber and see it in operation—perhaps from behind a glass screen, just to keep out Countryside Alliance and Fathers 4 Justice. Young people could actually see the place in operation as part of their tours.

It always seems a great shame to me that when young people or visiting parties come round the Houses of Parliament, they do not see it in action. They are actually seeing a building and seeing history—but this place is about making history, as well as a place where history was once made. That brings me on to a point that caused some consternation to the forces of reaction on the Modernisation Committee and among some of the more traditional elements within the Houses of Parliament: that is, the idea that perhaps Members of the UK Youth Parliament, or even citizens of this country, could, on occasion, actually be allowed to park their bottoms on the green benches.

We are very serious, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, about encouraging the UK Youth Parliament and its representatives in our localities. If I or anybody else here visited the United Nations, I could probably sit where the Secretary-General sits. If I visited the Welsh Assembly, which I have done, I could sit where the First Minister sits. If I visited the Senate, I could occupy senators' seats. Is it not frankly offensive that that is not possible for visitors to the House of Commons, because we have tradition? Of course we have tradition. We have a tradition of putting people up chimneys. We have all sorts of traditions that we should have got rid of a long time ago—fox hunting was one of them. After long discussions with the people who organise the UK Youth Parliament, I believe it would be a tremendous asset if, from time to time—not on a Wednesday, but perhaps on a Saturday or a Sunday, or a Friday when we are not sitting—young people could have the experience of being on those green benches and debating as we do, in that cockpit, in the mother of parliaments, in the House of Commons.
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That is all about how Parliament as a whole communicates, but what about how we as Members of Parliament communicate with our constituents? For all the webcasting and broadcasting, Members of Parliament are still the gatekeepers of this place: we are still the primary point of contact between Parliament and our constituents. That is what we are here for. The annual report shows that despite all the advances, the good old-fashioned Royal Mail is still by far the most common means of contact, the most used method of communication between members of the public—our constituents—and parliamentarians. The Commission's annual report tells us that Parliament now boasts no less fewer than three post office counters and 17 main post boxes with a 7 o'clock collection. However, how effective, sensible and logical the rules governing the use of House of Commons stationery are has been a matter of great debate among members of the Modernisation Committee and MPs in general.

The current position is confusing, to say the least. I believe—and the Modernisation Committee conceded this point, although it did not come up with much of a recommendation—that the rules are in urgent need of clarification. They really do need to be made clear. We talked earlier in the debate about the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the returns that were published. It is quite incredible that of 659 MPs, some showed a nil return on the use of House of Commons postage. I do not mean to insult anybody, but I have to ask: how can a Member of Parliament get through a year and not write a letter? If anyone can tell me, I really would like to know.

Ian Stewart : There is a misconception. Some Members of Parliament have stocks and so do not need to request more envelopes in a certain period.

Mr. Salter : And some Members of Parliament probably need to be put in stocks. That was a marvellously diplomatic explanation, well put by my hon. Friend.

The range is incredible. No business would give half its sales force a target of nothing and the other half a target of £41,000. I would query either end of the spectrum, although I am more sympathetic those at the high end. I pay tribute to those hon. Members who work hard to communicate with the people whom they represent. The disparity and the evidence that the Committee took tell us that hon. Members are interpreting the rules in many different ways.

I wish to state for the public record why I think the rules are confusing and where changes need to be made. Three main categories are laid down in the rules, the first of which is that Members' use of freepost


I absolutely agree with that, except for the point about surveys. If we cannot carry out surveys of opinion—not political opinion, but opinion on an issue—how on earth can we be expected to respond to consultations,
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White Papers or Green Papers, on which the Government seek views and opinions and often do so through MPs?


The note to the Select Committee continues:

Let me give some absurd examples. I am an enthusiastic user of the House of Commons freepost. I have a large database containing the names of people who have contacted me. I have gone out of my way to ensure that petitions, tear-off slips and survey forms come back through my constituency office, so that I have such contacts. I am therefore in a lucky position in that I can consult my constituents legitimately, using the House of Commons freepost. But should I have to do all that? Should we be running around collecting signatures on petitions against sin to build our databases, so that we can have a sensible dialogue with the people whom we represent?

There have been proposals to close four post offices in my constituency, although I managed to win one of the fights. Huge public interest was shown in the matter. I am supposed to report back to Postwatch and the Royal Mail with the views of my constituents, yet I cannot write to people in the area to ask what those views are.

Janet Anderson (in the Chair): Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Commission has no direct responsibility for the use of free postage. I have allowed him some freedom to elaborate on his point because I understand how important it is to hon. Members, but I should now be grateful if he would conclude his argument fairly briefly.

Mr. Salter : I was flowing really well. Not only was I right, but I was about to conclude my remarks. To repeat—no, I will not. As elected representatives, we are put in the position of doing a lot more than was expected of us many years ago. When my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, then the Home Secretary, introduced
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a debate on electoral reform—a debate that I am glad to say we have not had for a long time—he cited figures from the House of Commons post office for which the House of Commons Commission has some responsibility. They showed that, in the 1950s, the average number of communications with Members of Parliament was between 50 and 20 per week. In those days, a communication would have been a letter. My mum and dad would not have written to a Member of Parliament; they might have asked the vicar or a doctor to do so on their behalf, but they would not have done so themselves. That was something that the gentry did. Life has moved on, however, and the latest figures show that between 300 and 500 communications—faxes, e-mails or letters—are received a week. Our resources have expanded. We have a lot more staff, which is good. We have excellent facilities in much of the Palace of Westminster to house our staff. But do we have the wherewithal through the postal system to be effective representatives? I argue that we do not.

I am conscious that other hon. Members want to speak. I conclude my central argument by saying that in the United States of America there is unlimited ability to communicate in a non-partisan, non-party political way with a congressman or senator's constituents. In New Zealand, representatives are allowed two mailings a year and in Canada, four mailings a year. I am not arguing that the taxpayer should fund party political campaigning, but that if it is okay to distribute something through the IEP, it must be okay to distribute it through the House of Commons postage-paid service. The rules need clarifying so that we can provide the communication and representation that should be expected from us in a modern democracy.

4.36 pm

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Like others who have spoken in the debate, I welcome the opportunity to discuss the work of the House of Commons Commission. I endorse the suggestion that we should have a yearly debate on the Commission's annual report. As the only hon. Member left in the Chamber who is not involved with what the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) probably wishes he had not called "shadowy committees", I am provided with a useful opportunity to raise issues that would otherwise not be so easy to raise.

Although for some unaccountable reason the press benches are empty, this is one of the most important debates this week, as it is about improving the way in which we operate as an institution, and, above all, the way in which we communicate with the public and have a dialogue with our electors. That is one of the most pressing tasks of all who are concerned about the health of our democracy, for reasons that several hon. Members have already given.

I want to concentrate on the third core task of the Commission: providing information and access to the public. In doing so, I pay tribute to work that is done by the staff of the House. I also pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire and to the members of the Commission. I was elected to Parliament at the last general election, three and a half years ago, and I have very much appreciated the advice and support that the staff gave to me as a new Member finding my way round this institution.
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I shall concentrate not just on information issues and access to the public but on the kind of issues that are relevant to me and the people whom I represent. My constituency is geographically situated 400 miles from London—in a part of the UK where, as a result of devolution, the democratic parliamentary system is much more complex.

In that respect, I am glad that the Modernisation Committee report "Connecting Parliament with the Public", referred to several times in the debate, points out in paragraphs 24 to 27 that only a small proportion of students or members of the public are able to visit Parliament. The report refers to ways in which it is possible, through various forms of outreach work, to reach members of the public throughout the UK. The report contains some very interesting material about the work done by the National Assembly for Wales—the fact that it has an education officer based in north Wales, for example—and reference to work done by the Scottish Parliament with a partner network of local authority libraries.

I was pleased with the content of at least the first half of paragraph 27 of the Modernisation Committee's report, which states:

I agree with all that, but it is a little surprising that a somewhat illogical jump appears to be made in the next sentence of the recommendation from the Modernisation Committee:

I fully support the idea of such a scheme, but it is a bit odd that, having spoken positively about the possibility of undertaking some form of outreach work, and in particular an educational roadshow, the Committee goes on to say that that is not the right thing to do at this time. Perhaps it is simply that I am unable to understand the inherent logic in the Committee's recommendations, or perhaps some late drafting amendments have given rise to a lack of consistency in the recommendations. If any hon. Member can enlighten me on that point, I shall be happy to hear from them.

Mr. Tyler : I hope that I can help. What we had particularly in mind was that there were already units, staff and mechanisms undertaking similar, or at least parallel, educational activities. As I think hon. Members are aware, we saw what the National Assembly for Wales was doing with local authorities and we thought that, instead of jumping in de novo and not benefiting from that experience, it might be useful to work with it to ensure that the whole hierarchy of governance is fully explained to Of course, that would apply in Scotland too.

Mr. Lazarowicz : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for explaining the rationale behind the Committee's thinking—although, with respect to the Committee, I have to say that "jumping in" is not the phrase that first comes to mind when considering the speed with which
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the House is adopting a strategy of openness towards the public. It is important to make use of resources and other organisations with which we can work to give more information about our work as a Parliament. I see nothing wrong with the suggestion that we try an educational roadshow and I urge the Modernisation Committee, and the Commission, as the body to which it directs its recommendations, to consider that point again.

In the face of a generally good report from the Commission, I shall refer briefly to the Commission's response to the Modernisation Committee's recommendations in the report to which I referred. I am disappointed that the Commission has only agreed to go as far as funding an additional staff post in the education unit. The Commission says that it will consider the views of the House before any further consideration of an educational roadshow is undertaken. Clearly, my view is that we should consider that type of work sooner rather than later.

As I have suggested, these issues are important for the UK and UK hon. Members generally, but they are particularly important for those of us who come from parts of the UK that have devolved systems of government. It is important that electors and young people in my part of the UK, in Wales and in Northern Ireland understand the role of the Westminster Parliament—the UK Parliament—in the context of the new devolved arrangements. I referred earlier to the Scottish Parliament's website. I may be seen as someone who is prepared to defend the Scottish Parliament in all respects, but in fact I am not one to defend everything that the Scottish Parliament has done in the past few years. Certainly, the experience with the building was not one of its high points. I understand that the Palace of Westminster took some 40 years to build in the 19th century and went over budget many times, so I am not sure that we are in any better position.

I am not going to defend everything that the Scottish Parliament has done, but one of its success stories has been its outreach work, including its dialogue with the public, with the community and with schools and other education outlets throughout Scotland, which I note the Modernisation Committee examined with some interest. Without going into its recommendations and report in detail, the Committee provided some very interesting material describing some of the work done by the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, and I hope that the Commission will consider the experience of Scotland and Wales in more detail, because there is much that can be learnt from it.

We read that the National Assembly for Wales organises stands at public events. Why can we not do that sort of thing from the House of Commons? I was interested to see that the Scottish Parliament sent one of its Committees to a meeting outside Edinburgh in a more remote part of Scotland as a way of extending its activity outside the Scottish capital. Its education unit also organised a whole series of activities before the Committee went out to that particular locality, including meetings with schools and other organisations, to explain what the Committee would do to allow the local communities a wider context to understand the Committee's work.
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Committees at Westminster visit different parts of the United Kingdom from time to time, partly as a way of showing our wish not to be too London-centred. I would not quite call these visits royal visits, but in my experience they are often visitations from the centre, whose context and connection with the local community is at that point often very tenuous and depends very much on the work of the local MP, who may or may not choose to publicise that Committee's involvement and arrival in his or her constituency. So let us learn from the successes of parliamentary institutions and Assemblies in other parts of the UK.

Of course issues of cost are involved. We cannot spend unlimited amounts of money trying to improve our engagement with the public—although engaging properly with the public is so important that we could usefully spend money on it—but we could work with local authorities. Some local authorities are good at publicising what they do; others need to do more to publicise what they do. The Electoral Commission also needs to do more to publicise voter registration. Why do we not talk about a roadshow, perhaps as a trial, at a major railway station in London or another major city, giving information about voter registration from government at different levels, and see how that more direct engagement with the public works? We might then overcome what many Members have described as the alienation and distancing of the public from government.

Again, let us consider the work done by the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament at their own information centres. Could we not work with those organisations, if they were happy to, to ensure that information about Westminster is available in the information centres of the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament? There was not much information at the last information centre I visited, which was in Edinburgh. Equally, there is not much information in Westminster about the devolved institutions. We should perhaps be talking about ways of trying to use these outlets to explain more widely the workings of our parliamentary system, particularly the parliamentary system as changed by devolution, which is relevant to Members from those parts of the UK with devolved institutions.

That leads me on to a point on which I would appreciate a response from the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire, either today or in due course if he cannot reply in the debate. I am concerned that when we are talking about work with schools, it should not be work with schools just in England and should not be directed to fit in only with the English national curriculum. That is clearly where most of its work will be directed, but the national curriculum does not apply in Scotland. I am pleased to see that the Commission accepts in its response to the Modernisation Committee's report that there should be an additional staff post in the education unit whose principal focus is to build links with local education authorities. I hope that I can get an assurance that that will include authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and not just those in England.

The Modernisation Committee recommended that Ministers in the Department for Education and Skills re-examine the balance of the citizenship curriculum. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West
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(Mr. Salter) referred to that earlier. Of course, the curriculum is a devolved matter in Scotland, and one would not be surprised if in Scotland the major focus in that subject was the Scottish Parliament rather than Westminster. However, we should seek to ensure that an element of that curriculum covers the work of the UK Parliament. I hope that the Commission and the Leader of the House will make an approach to the devolved Administration to ensure that as the curriculum develops to take on citizenship issues in Scotland, it will take account of the role of Westminster and UK MPs. It is unacceptable that we make no attempt to explain to school students and young people in my constituency how the UK Parliament relates to them. As a Member, I clearly do that, but we should also do that from Parliament.

I have one word of slight reproach to the Deputy Leader of the House, who has otherwise played an excellent role in supporting the wider access that I want to see. I am a little concerned that when I asked for representations to be made to Education Ministers to the effect that more emphasis should be placed on Parliament in the school citizenship syllabus, the written answer that I received referred only to the Secretary of State for Education and Skills. My question had been specifically directed at "Education Ministers" to make the point that I was not asking just about Ministers in the UK Parliament. I hope that the Deputy Leader and Leader of the House look at how such an approach can be made to Ministers in devolved Administrations as well.

My final point as a Scottish Member is to suggest that we consider some way of making it easier for groups of electors and potential electors—including school and other students, and young people—to visit Parliament and see it in operation. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West that although it is true that many more millions of people can see what we do through the information that is available online and that we should be trying to improve that kind of accessibility, it is equally true that a visit to the House of Commons by individuals and groups of electors is something for which there is no real online substitute.

It is obviously easier for my hon. Friend's constituents to take the 25-minute journey from Reading to Paddington and then come here than it is for my constituents and others who are further afield. Is there not a way of providing some form of financial assistance to make it a little easier for groups from further away to have educational visits to the House to see how we operate and have the direct experience that is so important? All sorts of difficulties would be involved in such a scheme, and we would have to ensure that people did not misuse it, but we should certainly examine ways of doing it. I understand that the European Parliament has a scheme in which some support can be given for such a visit.

I shall give an example of why that is worth examining. In my constituency, there is an excellent group called the Pilton Elderly Project that works with the elderly. Over the past few months, it has run a pensioners political education group, with about 20 pensioners studying local government as well as the Scottish and Westminster Parliaments. Councillors, the MSP and I have been to talk to them, and they have carried out other educational activities. They intend to
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visit the council and the Scottish Parliament, and they want to visit Westminster. Various forms of sponsorship may be available to them, and I am helping them in their attempts, but it is not that easy for a group of about 20 pensioners to visit London to see Parliament operate. We should consider ways of making that possible, perhaps even through the establishment of an independent trust to support organisations wanting to see Parliament in operation.

Those issues are of particular concern to me as a Scottish Member, but I shall finish with general comments about the trend of the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee, the proposals in the Commission's report and the subjects that we have been discussing today. My general message to the Commission and the Modernisation Committee would be "full steam ahead". The Modernisation Committee has made many good recommendations. Some have been diluted a little once they have been filtered through the House of Commons Commission, and by the time they get to the House they could be diluted further.

We must try to take account of the wide range of Members' views on how to modernise, change our practices and open up to the public. However, we must avoid allowing those Members who are the least open to change to determine the speed at which we move forward. Many Members want us to open up the way that we relate to the public, and they want change to happen more quickly. I have been here only for three and a half years and was under no illusion that this was the kind of place in which operational change occurs over-rapidly. Nevertheless, the speed of change should not be determined by the slowest animals in the pack, particularly when some of those animals, with deepest respect, are dinosaurs.

4.58 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): First, I apologise to the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) and to you, Ms Anderson, for not being present for the whole of the hon. Gentleman's speech, particularly his kind words to me, which I would have appreciated hearing. I also apologise to the citizens of Catalunya for the repeated reference to them as the citizens of Catalonia as we broadcast to them, but I am sure that they will forgive us for that.

I am pleased that the Leader of the House found time for this debate. It is important for two reasons, over and above the intrinsic merit of discussing the contents of the report in front of us. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) referred to the Lib-Lab pact that we engaged in when looking at requests for debates on the work of the House of Commons Commission. There seems to be a lacuna in the rules of the House when it comes to securing such debates. After a number of requests, I eventually hit on the idea of requesting a debate on the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978, which gave rise to the Commission, and including the Commission's report in that debate, but that was getting away from the point.

The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire answers written and oral questions from Members, but if a request for an Adjournment debate on the content of any of those questions is made, it falls, because the
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Chairman of the Commission is not a Minister, and a request for a debate must be matched with a relevant Minister to answer it. There is no Minister to answer such a debate, ergo there cannot be a debate. I find it a little puzzling that Members are not able to debate—

5 pm

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

5.30 pm

On resuming—

Janet Anderson (in the Chair): I remind hon. Members that the debate could, in theory, continue until 6.15 pm. However, Members may want to bear in mind that there is likely to be a Division at 6 o'clock.

Dr. Whitehead : Thank you, Ms Anderson.

I was saying a moment ago that I found it a little puzzling that there can be no debate if there is no Minister to answer it. It seems that Members cannot debate on our own initiative matters that centrally concern the way in which we work and the service that we provide to the British public. A review of House rules may resolve the issue at some point. However, in lieu of such a resolution, having this debate today—albeit at the instigation of the Leader of the House—is very welcome. In the absence of a procedure that allows Members themselves to instigate debates, the Leader of the House might consider making a debate such as this on the House of Commons Commission an annual fixture. That has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members this afternoon, and I warmly endorse that idea.

This debate is important not only in providing a forum through which we can review the Commission's work over the past year, but in placing that work in the wider context of the overall direction and development of the management of the House. As this year's report states in paragraph 13:

The 2001–02 report indicated that it continued to work within the development of a strategic approach to planning House services. That report tells us that a five-year strategic plan covering the years 2001 to 2006 was drafted and adopted in October 2001. The outline of that plan is set out in pages 12 and 13 of this year's annual report. However, the report does not make clear what work has been done to develop strategic planning beyond 2006, which, it will be noted, is fast approaching. On pages 52 and 53 of the report, it is suggested that some strands of work are under way, but not a new version of the 2001 strategic plan.

To return to the Braithwaite report, that was commissioned in October 1998 and reported to the House of Commons Commission in June 1999. Its brief was to look at all aspects of House management and produce recommendations, and it produced some 99 of those. The thrust of many of them was that the House of Commons should move towards corporate working, and that there was an urgent need to address the
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challenge of the IT age and the increasing demands on the House to undertake reform of the structures of House management so that that could be achieved.

As hon. Members have mentioned, that followed an earlier review—the Ibbs review—some 10 years before, now about 15 years ago. One might say that that started the process. The report came at a time when change was clearly desirable. Although, as far as I am aware, we have not had any debate on the House of Commons Commission annual report, we did have one in 2000 on the Braithwaite report, during which a number of items relating to the Commission were raised. During that debate the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) said:

Of course, I merely quote that and do not necessarily endorse it. However, it is fair to say that there has been great progress in the modernisation of the management of the House since then, and the report reflects that. Many, if not most, of the Braithwaite report's recommendations have, over time, been implemented. Among other things, that is reflected in the increasingly positive views, mentioned in the annual report, of House management and services.

My question is about how we progress for the future. The Braithwaite report set out one recommendation that has to date not been implemented: the last recommendation, number 99, which states:

That was written in 1999. It is now almost 2005, a year from the end of the 2001 five-year plan. Would it not be good practice if a further review were commissioned? Such a review would, I am sure, reflect on the enormous steps forward that the House management has already taken. However, it might look not only at the generality of management but at some specifics.

Let me cite a few examples.The committees and Departments of the House are set out in an annexe to the report, but they do not match in any way the House Committees that enable Members to perform a role as far as accountability is concerned. The problem, as I see it, is that a number of decisions seem, in effect, to fall between committees. They are properly discussed and progressed by the management structure within the House management, and within the workings of the House of Commons Commission. However, for various reasons, they do not emerge, or emerge only partially on House committees.

One example of that is the recent proposal to put the postal service within the House out to potential private contract. That is a potential decision of considerable importance to Members, although I understand that that has not reached the agenda of any Members' Committee. Is that a problem? Does structure seriously undermine accountability? Are there better ways in which the work of permanent staff and that of Members' Committee might be aligned? I do not know the clear answer to that issue, but a review might be able to consider it.
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Do we need a person who is clearly and unequivocally designated as chief executive? I notice in the annual report this year that the Clerk of the House is designated in brackets as being also the chief executive. Would there be particular advantages in a separate person being designated the chief executive? Is the Clerk finding those multiple roles difficult? Would the prediction in the 2000 debate of my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Coleman) perhaps be true? He suggested:

Do we need a separate chief executive? I do not know the answer to that question either, but it is a proper thought for a further review—a new Braithwaite—to bear in mind.

Hon. Members have asked whether there should be a strategic expansion of the education unit to cater with the demand from schools, both within the House and proactively through roadshows. Will there be more media strategy in future, so that in addition to Departments, Parliament can place its affairs into a proactive, 24-hour media world? Those are meaty questions for the future of the management of our House and for the workings of the House of Commons Commission.

We have also had debates elsewhere in this House on the future of security and, in that and other contexts, the issue of working with the management of the other place. So there are a number of issues that are of strategic importance to the Commission and we would be well served by a new Braithwaite report, which the original Braithwaite report itself suggested should be undertaken after five years. I believe that it would be to the advantage of the working of the Commission and the future of the House if that were done.

5.39 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Phil Woolas) : I want to make a few remarks, because I believe that this debate is unique. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead) and the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Sir Archy Kirkwood) said, it will be wound up, quite rightly, by the spokesman for the House of Commons Commission, not by a Minister. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has asked me to confirm the Government's commitment to have an annual debate on the House of Commons Commission report, preferably as soon after its publication as possible, so that hon. Members can be involved in that debate. We see great advantage to all concerned in doing that.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend asked me to emphasise our commitment to take up recommendation 99 of the Braithwaite report—that it be subject to a review. That was intended to be done in five years, which would have been in July this year, but my right hon. Friend believes that the beginning of the next Parliament provides the best opportunity for that
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review. It is interesting to note that although the Braithwaite report was a report to the House of Commons Commission, it was requested by the then Leader of the House. Only in that way could we have the debate on it. That reflects the difficulties facing us. I am sure that the spokesman for the Commission is well aware of that point.

I will make a couple of general points and a couple of specific ones. There has been a great consensus in the debate that we need to update our management and accountability structures. If I say "modernise", I might alienate some hon. Members—although I see that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) is not in his place, so I shall say "modernise". We need to do that, not only for reasons of efficiency and effectiveness, but because the assumption that the general population in this country support our particular system of parliamentary democracy is, as time goes by, withering. It is withering because the main intellectual context in which this House has always been able to command huge support among the population is provided by the second world war—the era that re-established the sovereignty and the importance of this place. There is no hon. Member left in this House who fought in that war. Time goes by and younger generations come through, and if we assume that they have the same commitment to and understanding of the benefits of our parliamentary democracy system, we are deluding ourselves.

The collapse of the Berlin wall is also important. Like many hon. Members present, I am one of the generation who were brought up hearing our parents utter the very good political adage: "If you don't like it here, you can go and live in Russia." Russia did not have parliamentary democracy, and I understood what they meant.

Mr. Heald : They were Conservatives.

Mr. Woolas : They were good, working-class, Labour people, but that type of support for parliamentary democracy can no longer be taken for granted. A vacuum is being created that anti-democratic forces will fill unless we as a Parliament, and the political parties in here, justify the system that we have.

The Commission's report is excellent and, as has been said, is very well presented. It is full of positive information and has a strong story to tell, but underlying the report is an increasing need to promote the benefits of parliamentary democracy and of the role of Members of Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has two particular priorities. One is the Education Unit and the work that it does—the outreach work and the education. The second is the communications strategy. That takes in the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) about the number of people who can have access through electronic as well as physical means. We want to push those two priorities forward.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart), who has followed these matters, particularly in relation to the Senior Salaries Review Body and the provision of hon. Members' staff, facilities and salaries, made some important points. Although the SSRB is an independent body and I do not wish in any way to undermine the
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independence of its operation, I assure Members that the Government are seeking to ensure that the appropriate lessons from the recent SSRB review are learned. We are discussing the review with the SSRB.

Some of the points that my hon. Friend raised fall under the remit of the Members Estimate Committee—a new body whose membership parallels that of the House of Commons Commission. Increasingly, there is an overlap between the responsibilities of that Committee and the Commission. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire is well aware of that and will want to reflect on it.

Finally, the Government see the way forward as a process of evolution, in line with many of the things that my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test said. If anyone wants some interesting reading over the Christmas period away from modern political biographies or 1990s political diaries, they could read the 1968 publication of Ted Short's memoirs. The book explains in detail how he and the then Leader of the House, Herbert Bowden, had a fight on behalf of MPs in the House of Commons with the then Lord Chamberlain, who was responsible for all matters to do with Members' estimates and the provision of facilities for MPs. Such things were not even the responsibility of the House of Commons then, but of the House of Lords, and in those days, Members had to pay for their own postage. We have post offices in the Palace because Members had to buy stamps when they wrote to their constituents.

Our system has evolved through the creation of the House of Commons Commission, the 1978 Act and the Ibbs and Braithwaite reports. The logical next step would be further transparency; clarity of structure for decision making and policy making in the House by Members and Members' Committees under the auspices of the Speaker and the Commission, which is the executive body for the running of the House of Commons; and a management structure that reflects that and leads to the chief executive officer that hon. Members have proposed.

I shall finish by thanking you, Ms Anderson, for calling me to make those few remarks, and by wishing everyone a happy Christmas.

5.48 pm

Sir Archy Kirkwood : With the permission of the House, in these final moments I wish to wrap up our important and helpful exchange. I would prefer to deal more extensively in writing with the majority of the detailed points that Members have made. I guarantee that I will do some homework on, think carefully about and respond to the many valuable contributions.

First, just a couple of things off the top of my head: I would want to leave the House with a clearer impression than was perhaps suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who said that there is a Berlin wall between the two Houses. I understand why he says that—it certainly was true in the distant past—but there are now some good examples of joint activity and joint management initiatives in areas such as joint purchasing and the Refreshment Department. The Libraries work together much more
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closely, and, as I said earlier, the information services and information technology services are in the middle of creating a new, completely fresh bicameral service for both Houses. We should watch and learn lessons from that model.

On security, we need to think carefully about processes. My hon. Friend said that perhaps the Whips or someone else should be involved. We understand that a gap needs to be filled and we should reflect on that at our leisure—but not be too leisurely—to deal with it.

The question of postage is important. I agree with the hon. Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) that there is complete and total confusion, and it is important that we get this right. He might like to know that the Administration Committee is actively engaged in an inquiry on the matter, and I hope that that will result in clarity and guidance for us all. Those will be welcome when they come.

I understand from the comments that hon. Members have made that they want to press ahead and develop the Education Unit, because there is much potential there to develop. As has been acknowledged, we have approved an outreach officer for the unit. As a member of the Commission, I would be disappointed if that outreach officer did not come back with some well founded, well researched projects that would require additional funding, which the Commission could take forward in a relatively short time. I look forward to that happening.

The roadshow is potentially an important idea, but we would prefer to wait and see what the National Assembly for Wales makes of the evaluation of its project. That may involve some delay, but if we can get the benefit of that experience, it will encourage us to develop the idea for ourselves more fully.

The Education Unit is a UK-wide unit. The hon.    Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mr. Lazarowicz) was right in saying that we must ensure that it is equally accessible and caters for everyone. We take visits from Scottish schools, and the unit's promotional literature has—to be fair, only recently—been made compatible with all parts of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom. That is an important marker of the fact that the unit has links across the whole United Kingdom and that we must reflect that carefully in everything it does.

I would characterise the debate as indicating that there is a great deal of overlapping activity, which the Commission sometimes struggles to deal with by itself. We have only the administration vote in our power and, more than anything else, we deal with the consequences of other people's decisions. If people decide that the sitting hours are going to change, we have to reflect that. If the catering arrangements change, we have to deal with that. If the security arrangements or the rules on freedom of information change, we have to reflect that and respond to it. We cannot control the Members' vote.

I join in the tributes that were paid to the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart) for the work that he has done on training. For much of that work to be done properly, there would need to be an overlap between the Members' vote, over which we have no control, and the administration. The administration vote could put the services in place, but it would be difficult to achieve
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an MPs' service of the kind to which he aspires—as we all do, because that would be a sensible move. We are constrained in our ability just to say, "Let's do that, plan it and pull the money from both those votes, because taken together we could get more than double the advantage by using the money sensibly." We cannot do that.

Returning to the sensible point made by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), perhaps in the Braithwaite 2 period, from 2005 to 2010, we should say to ourselves, "Is there a case for bringing the Members' vote in-house?" That is strong meat, Ms Anderson, because it would mean taking control of our own allowances, our own pay, our own pensions and all the rest of it. That is not something one would want to do casually. However, it is one of the main blocks facing the Commission in trying to achieve aspirations that have been rehearsed this afternoon. Braithwaite 2 might be the opportunity to do just that. If we have the acknowledgement of the Leader of the House that that is necessary, that is positive.

As I said earlier, there is work that can be done in the run-up to the next election. We do not know how long that will give us, but there may be enough time to make some marginal improvements. However, come 2005–10 and early in the new Parliament, we must all participate in the new project—I hope that everyone present will participate positively, as they have this afternoon. It will take place over a five-year period, during which some of those much bigger issues can be addressed more systematically.

Ian Stewart : I thank the hon. Gentleman for his acknowledgement and for his explanation. However, if we wait until 2010, some of us will have left the House. Is it not within the ability of the powers that be—those who administer both votes—to talk to each other about
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such matters? In the SSRB debate, we changed some things that were recommended by the SSRB, so we have that power. Let us have the sense to act more quickly.

Sir Archy Kirkwood : I want to respond to that bona fide plea; I promise to respond to it. However, we will think about the matter more carefully, because it is not as easy as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

I did not know that the SSRB had denied the hon. Gentleman access to the data and that is something I want to reflect on. We all want to reflect on the SSRB process because it did not give people a proper chance to see what was coming this time; I think everyone recognised that. Pressure was put on the Government when the problem was not their fault and even the SSRB was not particularly satisfied with the process. We need to reflect and the next triennial review will have to be much more open so that people have a chance to make timeous representations and we are not left with a result that satisfies no one.

This has been a helpful debate for the Commission and I am grateful to colleagues who made suggestions for improvement. We will go away and provide detailed answers in so far as I can provide them with the help of the staff. We have made progress and it is excellent news if such a debate is to be an annual event. If that is a commitment, it is worth having. If there is an opportunity for marginal change in the short term and, more importantly, a Braithwaite 2 report covering 2005–10, that is a target we should keep in mind.

We should encourage all hon. Members here today to participate actively in that review because it will do nothing but good and will be a continued improvement to the governance of the House of Commons.

Question put and agreed to.

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