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Thursday 19 October 2006

[John Bercow in the Chair]

House of Commons Commission

[Relevant document: Twenty-eighth Report of the House of Commons Commission.]

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

2.44 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): It is a pleasure on behalf of the House of Commons Commission to introduce the report and start the debate this afternoon. I welcome the opportunity to do so just 10 days after the House came back from the recess, the report having been published in July, shortly before we rose for the summer. I will be pleased to attempt to answer in writing after the debate those questions that I cannot answer during it, and to circulate that information to all who participate.

The report before us is similar to those in previous years, but I remind hon. Members that the work of the House is now organised according to three primary objectives and six supporting tasks, as set out on page 17. The report includes more useful data tables than in the past, and for the first time gives a brief report of the Commission’s activities, at paragraphs 7 to 12, as well as those of the House of Commons service. On page 7, a magnificent shot of this debate last year shows me speaking before an even more packed Public Gallery than we have on this occasion!

A theme of last year’s debate was the need for a further review of the management of the House service, following the Braithwaite review, which reported in 1999. I can announce today that the Commission has appointed Sir Kevin Tebbit to review the implementation of the Braithwaite report on the management and services of the House. As hon. Members will know, Sir Kevin retired recently as permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence. His review will cover whether the expected benefits of the Braithwaite changes have been realised, what further actions are required to achieve the objectives laid down in the House’s outline strategic plan, and whether the current arrangements are adequate to realise the objectives stated in the resolution of the House of 26 January 2005 relating to connecting Parliament with the public.

The full terms of reference are published today in a written answer. Sir Kevin will be supported by a small group of officials. His work will start later this month and he is expected to report in the middle of next year. Sir Kevin and his team are keen to hear the views of hon. Members on both sides of the House, their staff and the staff of the House.

Since the previous debate, the new Administration Committee is no longer really new. I subscribe very much to Mr. Speaker’s tribute, in his foreword to the report, to its “useful and challenging” role. The Commission attempts to respond to reports from the
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Administration Committee using the same mechanism—though not always, I hope, quite the same tone—as Ministers use to respond to Select Committee reports. The conclusions and recommendations of the Administration Committee are taken very seriously, and many are being followed up at the moment, including those on services to new and former Members and catering services, to mention just two. The recent report on accommodation will be considered by the Commission at its next meeting. I thank the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) and his colleagues on the Administration Committee for their work.

At the beginning of the report on pages 19 to 24 there is an environmental report, for which I make no apology. That was stimulated in part by a report last year by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), to which I replied at some length and published a response on the Commission website, but in truth we were already moving in the direction in which he pointed us. We now have challenging targets, in particular in view of the power attributable to the ever-growing volume of electronic equipment used throughout the estate, and the simple fact that the main building, wonderful though it is, is not necessarily state of the art in environmental performance.

We are already matching central Government targets, but we can do better. In particular, we can recycle more paper, as accepted in paragraph 53 of the report. I draw attention to the note in Mr. Speaker’s foreword that the Commission is to make carbon-offset payments in respect of air travel on parliamentary business. The prospects for photovoltaic cells on the roofs of the building and for using more grey water are being actively pursued.

If I may, I shall say a few words on the basic tasks of the administration. The report sets out the somewhat astonishing rise in parliamentary questions and early-day motion signatures since the election. This September’s experiment in tabling written questions during the recess and obtaining answers seems to have gone down well, which is in no small measure due to the work of House of Commons staff at every stage of the process—fortunately, the rules did not appear to allow for questions to me.

Hansard is now making the full transcript of proceedings available on the web within three or four hours of delivery, and the process of bringing in-house the origination and setting up of the vote bundle is complete, bringing substantial savings on printing and publishing. All vote papers are now originated and paginated in-house and sent to the printer as they are ready, and material is also produced directly for the web. In addition to the substantial savings of previous years, on a straight, like-for-like comparison, publishing the same information as before, savings of £1.56 million have been achieved in this financial year alone. The House is now in a much stronger position to ensure security of supply. If necessary, all the business and legislative papers needed to enable the House to function effectively can be produced and printed wholly on the parliamentary estate through the combined efforts of the Office of the Editorial Supervisor of the Vote and the print services section of the Vote Office. Business as usual sounds easy, but it is not.

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The past year has seen the establishment of PICT—the Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology service. PICT is not a magic wand and the report is up-front at page 45 about the problems that it inherited. However, I have been impressed with the professionalism of the new department and the determination of its staff at all levels to provide the best possible service, including, crucially, in constituency offices. The Administration Committee has started an inquiry into the provision for and by the House of ICT services and equipment, with particular reference to those for Members and their staff. Any Member who has observations to make on ICT might like to respond to the Committee’s invitation for representations.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I shall in due course submit a written submission, but I agree entirely with what the hon. Gentleman says. The system has been better, but I have been impressed by how much help we have had both in the constituency and here from PICT staff. My one criticism is that there appear still to be problems with compatibility between the estates. For those of us who work here, in the constituency and at home, as many of us do, the system does not seem to do quite the same things in those different places. Notwithstanding my earlier credit, if we could get PICT to look at that problem, that would be helpful.

Nick Harvey: I take the hon. Gentleman’s point entirely. There certainly have been problems with remote access, so I am pleased that there seems to have been significant improvement in that respect, but further improvements could no doubt be made on compatibility.

The new voters’ guide, “Voting Times”, was launched in July and has now been sent to nearly 100,000 new voters across the United Kingdom. For hon. Members who have not seen it, I should explain that it is a colour broadsheet and is personalised to each individual who receives it. It is intended to encourage more new voters to ensure that they are registered to vote and to use their votes at the next general election. It is expected to reach a minimum of 432,000 18-year-olds in its first year. The proposals for the publication came from a report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, which was debated by the House in January 2005, when there was a large vote in favour.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): The new voters’ guide is an excellent initiative and has gone down very well. During one of the Committee meetings when the guide was debated, I asked how in the period running up to elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly we would ensure that there was no confusion, because of references to a general election, but I note that the new voters’ guide does not refer to either of those devolved bodies. Will the hon. Gentleman respond to that question today or come back to me about it later?

Nick Harvey: I recall the hon. Gentleman raising the point. I think that it was felt, when the publication was finalised, that our locus was to concentrate on the work
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of the Westminster Parliament. If there are ongoing issues that might confuse people, I shall certainly take them on board. If I can cast any more light on the issue, I shall come back to him in due course.

Mr. Speaker wrote to all Members before the guide was launched. The Commission has agreed that “Voting Times” will be sent out until the next general election. The estimated budget for that period is £2.3 million plus VAT, which is roughly £1 for each person to whom it will be sent. Follow-up research will be carried out in October and November next year to assess the impact that it has had on those who receive it and, if necessary, to allow minor amendments to be made. Alternative versions of “Voting Times” in Welsh, in easy-read format and on audio CD have been prepared and can be provided on request.

I shall conclude with a few points at random from the report. I am delighted to report that the House was re-accredited with Investors in People status, and that managers are committed to addressing areas of weakness in personnel management. Of course, there will always be problems and difficult issues in such a large and diverse work force. The programme for a radical redesign of the website is under way. Hon. Members might have noticed the changes that were introduced in September, which are a harbinger of the more radical reorganisation to come. The new Session will see a change in the way information and documentation on legislation are presented.

Sitting here, as we are, in Westminster Hall, the works around us on the new visitor reception building are evident. The building is due to open at the start of the new Session next month. I recommend that Members turn to page 82 of the report to see what the Hall looked like without a floor. Much of the works have been completed, but the visitor reception centre is not quite ready. The Commission is keen that that important new facility should be fully ready for service at or soon after state opening, but there will be a formal opening of the new building early next year.

On a lighter note, the House’s engagement with the world of contemporary art continues—sometimes on a rocky path. One such highlight is recorded in the photograph on page 83 of Grayson Perry with the large etching that is now in Portcullis House. Our thanks go to the hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) and his colleagues on the Works of Art Committee.

The report conveys something of the variety of issues with which the Commission and the House of Commons service have had to grapple in the past year. We thank previous members of the Commission for their work, including the right hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon), who served a full year, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), and Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, all of whom stepped down during the period of this report, and we thank the recently retired Clerk of the House, Sir Roger Sands, for all his work with the Commission. I cannot end without thanking our recently departed Commission secretary, David Natzler, and the excellent staff who worked with him. David served the Commission with a great readiness to help everyone, a sure deftness of touch and, on occasions, a very welcome sense of humour. His reward has been a
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promotion to head up the Table Office—I am assured that that is a reward—and our best wishes go to him in that role, and to his successor with the Commission, Andrew Kennon.

2.57 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): This is the first occasion on which I have spoken about a report of the House of Commons Commission, and—I say this rather shamefacedly—it is also the first time that I have spoken in Westminster Hall, so this is my maiden outing after 27 and a half years in the House.

The report emphasises something that most of us in the House take for granted—the work of the staff of the Commons, and the Lords for that matter, in many different Departments, who ensure that the operation of the British Parliament is as efficient as it can be. Only when we see the problems that arise in overseas Administrations do we realise what we take for granted. Our Rolls-Royce administration and much of the support beneath it should not be taken for granted; it is the result of a high level of expertise, dedication and experience from the staff in all Departments.

I echo the remarks of the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), and thank the staff of all Departments for their work, so much of which is unsung. When I compare how life was when I came to the House in 1979—it was not as good then—I realise that a big difference is that the only outstations then were in the Norman Shaw building, so most of the House staff were in the Palace. The Library research staff were here and so were the Fees Office staff and others, so we were much more likely to meet members of staff than we are now that a good part of the Library is across in Derby Gate and a good part of the administration is in 7 Millbank.

I endorse all the other comments made by the hon. Gentleman, and there is no need for me to repeat them. I am a new member of the Commission, but I have been delighted to make what contribution I can.

I want to highlight two areas. The first is the so-called “Braithwaite two” programme in respect of House governance. The administration of the House has changed markedly over the years to take account of the fact that we are in an ancient building but have to keep up with the times, and of the many more pressures on Members of Parliament today compared with 30 years ago and before.

When I take guests through this House, I sometimes show them the bank of telephone booths that are located halfway up the staircase on the way to the Chamber. I explain that just before I came into the House, they were the phone service for Members of Parliament. Moreover, a man with a tin used to be there, and he collected the money from any Member of Parliament who dared make a trunk call. I remember some of my Scottish colleagues explaining to me how if, in a moment of madness, they decided to make a call about a constituent to the social security office in Glasgow, they could see that the amount they were trying to save for the constituent was being spent out of their own pocket on the phone call.

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All that has changed, but the change in technology and the huge change in expectations partly caused by that has meant that the pressure on Members is much greater. I sometimes produce another figure. While doing work on how Members of Parliament have had to become more professional, I obtained figures from the Post Office about the number of letters received by Members of Parliament in the early 1960s. On average, they received between 15 and 20 a week, and Members had to pay for their own stamps. It was still the age of deference, when people did not trouble their Member of Parliament that much and if a Member went to the constituency once a month they were regarded as a “good constituency Member”. There are true stories, not just apocryphal ones, about people on both sides of the House who thought that their constituents were lucky if their MP went to the constituency once every six months or less.

There has been a dramatic change accompanied by much higher expectations. There are many paradoxes. For example, there was greater respect for Members of Parliament when they were doing much less work. The idea that there was a golden age of accountability is nonsense: in the old days, there were many fewer written and oral questions; with so many Members of Parliament having a job to go to before they came here, there was far less scrutiny of Ministers; and, until the great reforms undertaken by Lord St. John of Fawsley in 1979-80, there were no departmental Select Committees and just one or two standing Select Committees.

All that has changed. That change has been accompanied by a large increase both in the work load of Members of Parliament and the support that must be offered to them if they are to work effectively in their twin tasks of representing their constituents and holding Government to account. That is bound to mean that we have to keep the administration of the House under constant review.

I am glad that “Braithwaite one” has been successful and, as I know him, I am delighted to endorse the decision of the House of Commons Commission to appoint Sir Kevin Tebbit to run this review. He is a very distinguished and experienced public servant. His previous job was perhaps an even greater challenge than doing a review of the House of Commons: he was permanent secretary in the Ministry of Defence.

My second point relates to the chapter beginning on page 49, entitled:

In some respects, the wheel is turning full circle. Immediately post-war, and following the terrible ravages of that war, huge idealism was invested in the United Nations and there was a broad and deep consensus about the importance of education for citizenship. The United Nations associations were active in many parts of the country. There was no national curriculum, and civics, as it was then called, was a core task of almost all schools. In any event, one in 11 people belonged to a political party, which meant that most families—a broader family involves more than 10 people—had direct knowledge of the operation of a political party. That has changed.

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Paradoxically, bringing Parliament closer to the people by the introduction of first radio, then television, has, to some extent, not been paralleled by an understanding of the work of this place, except as a kind of series and soap opera. Alongside that, there has been a drop-off in the amount of both specific citizenship education and the education on citizenship one can glean from television, radio and the print media. I am glad that five years ago we decided to include citizenship in the national curriculum. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) asked me about that in business questions today. We have some way to go to ensure that it is taught effectively.

I am particularly glad that the House, led by the House of Commons Commission, now recognises that an explicit part of its work is ensuring that the public, who, after all, are our employers—they determine who we are and what we do—know what we are doing and ensuring that a new generation of employers have a much better idea of what we are here for and how we go about it. I am particularly pleased about the voter pack that is sent out to new voters, and I am glad that moves are afoot greatly to improve the parliamentary website. We are also obviously within spitting distance of getting the visitor reception centre opened downstairs.

I have no doubt that there will be a lot more that we have to do in this respect if we are to achieve a situation, which applies in some countries but ought to apply in all, where there is real understanding about the work of parliamentary democracy and the institutions that comprise it. Without such a situation, our democracy will start to wither. The day-to-day work of the Commission takes place in the tower that houses Big Ben. Meeting, as we do, in the Speaker’s Study, we can seem a bit distant from that, but it is central to directing and leading this matter. I commend the report.

3.8 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Thank you for the opportunity to comment on the 28th report of the House of Commons Commission, Mr. Bercow. May I begin by giving the apologies of my right hon. Friends the Members for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean)? The fact that I, in my junior status, am responding today does not mean that Conservatives place a lack of importance on the works of the Commission and on this report. I am delighted to represent my two colleagues on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

We heard eloquently from the two previous speakers about the importance of the report. It now covers a full range of specialised services that are needed to support a very modern Parliament. We have heard from the Leader of the House about some of the new challenges that we are facing. He led us a little down memory lane, talking about how life was when he began in Parliament.

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