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19 Oct 2006 : Column 337WH—continued

The challenges that this Parliament is now facing are different, even from those of five years ago. The first such challenge is on information technology and the
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second is on security, which are two aspects that the Commission has handled well. The third aspect, on which I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) focus, related to the environment. I am sure that that would be met with approval by my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron). It is good that this Parliament is leading the way in how we can change our lifestyles and the way we work to meet the environmental challenges that we face today. I hope that such an approach will reflect well with other town halls and assemblies across the country, which perhaps look at us as a yardstick as to how they can improve their services.

Let me turn briefly now to some of the comments that have been made about the detail of the report. My colleagues and I welcome the decision to appoint Sir Kevin Tebbit to review the governance of the House of Commons and to continue the work from the Braithwaite review. It is important that we continue to scrutinise such issues to see how we can change things for the better and be cost-effective.

The Leader of the House said that things were different when he first arrived in the House. Any new intake of Members of Parliament brings with it new ideas about how this place should run, and new hon. Members sometimes need to be put in their place and reminded of the status, stature and heritage of this building. None the less, it would be fair to say that the latest intake of Members has a different set of expectations, particularly on the information technology side, and I am pleased that we are making progress in developing information technology. Many new Members would like a wireless network to be set up, and I hope that we can move forward on that one day.

As I have told right hon. and hon. Members before, we have an opportunity to develop Portcullis House into a little more than the coffee house that it currently is. It is a major focal point, or junction, in our busy lives, but we have not taken full advantage of it in the way that city firms, which are able to receive guests, would have done. We could certainly move forward on that. Indeed, there is not even a clock or a monitor in Portcullis House, and I hope that some of the recommendations that I have made—

Mr. Straw indicated dissent.

Mr. Ellwood: The Leader of the House disagrees, but I can assure him that he will need to take his watch with him if he wants to work out the time in Portcullis House. In addition, there were not enough seats to enable all hon. Members to meet guests in Portcullis House this lunch time, so there are areas in which we can expand services.

I am pleased that we are making progress with the visitors centre, which will be a tribute to the House of Commons. We must strike a balance between dealing with security threats and remaining open to the public, and I am pleased that the centre will soon be open. It will allow us to show the nation, in a more refined way, exactly what we do here.

We have made many advances. Perhaps I can conclude by saying that we are not only meeting hon. Members’ needs, but defending the heritage and integrity of this building. This great place is the mother
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of all Parliaments, but we are for ever helping it to be reborn, and I am therefore pleased to endorse the report.

3.12 pm

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Several hon. Members will be aware that I have participated in debates on the Commission’s reports on a couple of previous occasions. I hope that that reflects not an obsessive interest in the minutiae of the way in which this building operates, but a belief that it is important for the efficiency of this institution to take an interest in its operation. What we do here is an important exemplar to the wider community of what we think and how far we put it into practice. The Commission’s work, with its emphasis on the connection between Parliament and the public, should be of concern to every Member of Parliament, particularly at a time when we are all concerned about the disengagement of many members of the public from the political process.

Before I make a few specific comments on the report, let me say that I recognise the important progress that has been made on several issues since last year. I am thinking particularly of some of the work that has been done on the parliamentary website, which is still in progress, and on environmental and energy issues. A lot of good, important work has also been done on outreach and education, which are particular interests of mine, and there are good signs for the future. I make those comments because I want to concentrate on a few issues on which progress can still be made and I do not want it to be thought that I do not recognise the progress that has been made. I certainly want to put on record my appreciation for the work done by the staff of the House. I should make particular mention of the work done by the Public Bill Office, and the report refers to the assistance that it has given hon. Members who have introduced private Member’s Bills. As many hon. Members will know, I introduced a private Member’s Bill earlier this year, and I had considerable assistance from the staff of the Public Bill Office, which I very much appreciated.

Let me turn, however, to a few issues on which we still need to make progress. One issue, which I have raised before, and on which I intend to be persistent, if not obsessive, is providing access to the building for cyclists, whether hon. Members or members of the general public. I cycle to this building fairly regularly, and one consequence of the undoubtedly necessary security arrangements that have been put in place over the past year is that it is now extremely dangerous for cyclists to turn in to a number of the entry points to the parliamentary estate. Obviously, security concerns must be paramount, but I assume that consideration will at least be given in due course to replacing the current, rather unsightly black metal barriers around this building with more visually attractive barriers. I hope that the fact that we must keep vehicles away from parts of the building will give us an opportunity to make the area around Parliament more visitor friendly and, in particular, more pedestrian and cyclist friendly. When somebody does start looking at the issue of cyclists’ access to the parliamentary estate, I hope that they will bear in mind the need to make the entries into
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the estate a little safer for cyclists. I have made that point before, but in the absence of any specific commitments to deal with it, I make it again today.

I also hope that we can consider providing cycle facilities for the general public. We talk about trying to encourage people to use more sustainable forms of transport to come to this building, and that presumably includes the general public. As we all know, there has been a welcome increase in cycling in London in recent years, and facilitating greater access will clearly involve security issues, but there is nowhere outside the perimeter of this building where cyclists can secure cycles if they want to enter the building as members of the public, to do business or whatever. Again, I hope that that point can be looked at when the appropriate discussions take place with the authorities around Westminster.

Having got that concern off my chest, I want to say a few words about the wider issue of the Commission’s work in promoting public understanding of the parliamentary process, and we are all aware of how crucial that work is at present. The work on the web has been good so far, although it is work in progress. Despite the welcome changes to the parliamentary home page, there are still a lot of problems with the way in which information is provided on the web, as hon. Members will be aware. To some extent, that reflects the way in which we present our business.

Over the summer, I used the new parliamentary website to try to find out what was going to happen on a particular day after the recess. Having tried to negotiate the rather arcane terminology—forthcoming business, future business, the agenda—I can say that it takes some time to find out what is going on even as a Member of Parliament, and we are used to finding our way around the system. Again, I hope that the Commission will look at that in due course.

More fundamental, in terms of the public’s access to Parliament, is the issue of facilities for visitors to the House of Commons and the outreach work that Parliament does in different parts of the UK. The work on the visitors’ centre is obviously good news, and good progress is being made. However, one issue, which I have raised before, is whether we should consider some form of financial assistance for groups, and particularly school groups, that want to visit the House of Commons. Those that come from further afield in the UK will obviously consider whether they will incur a cost by visiting Westminster.

The statistics for visits to the House of Commons by school groups and others show, not surprisingly, that the vast majority come from the south-east of England. That is not surprising and will not change fundamentally. Nevertheless, we could make some efforts, it seems to me, to facilitate visits by school groups from further afield. I am aware that the National Assembly for Wales and, I understand, the Australian Parliament have schemes to provide small amounts of financial assistance to encourage and facilitate visits to Parliament, particularly by school groups from more distant parts of those countries.

As has been recognised, however, not everyone will visit Parliament in person, and the outreach work that we do is of essential importance. I certainly recognise the progress that has been made with the appointment of increased numbers of education staff in this context.
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I know that they have been doing work in areas a long way from the capital, and indeed in my own city. There is still a case, however, for considering the idea raised a few years ago of a parliamentary roadshow where we can present at key public occasions some information about Parliament and its work. It is particularly important that that should happen in areas further afield from London, where perhaps there is less awareness of Parliament’s accessibility.

For example, by way of a comparison, I recently attended and took part in—with my own stall, indeed—the Edinburgh Mela, a big event for the south Asian community in Edinburgh and further afield. There was a Scottish Parliament stall there, with information material. It would clearly not be practical for the House of Commons to provide information stalls at every public gathering in the UK throughout the year, but nevertheless it seems to me that we might consider that approach to promoting greater understanding of what Parliament does, what it means and how people can get involved in the parliamentary process.

I know that such work—outreach and information work—costs more money, and to some extent there is no limit to the suggestions that could be made or the demands that could be made for more information, access and accountability, but within reason I do not particularly mind if we must increase resources in that area. In the end, if we really want to re-engage the public with the political process, that kind of investment seems to me well worth undertaking.

Finally, having said that I will not concentrate on minutiae, I shall take advantage of the occasion to raise one point of internal administration, now that the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) has given me the excuse to do so; that is Portcullis House. If arrangements there are being examined, will someone please pay attention to signage on the first floor there, and try to assist Members and staff in finding their way round the building if they do not happen to come in at the particular point where there are signs? Accessibility to the public is important, but minimising the number of circuits that hon. Members make around the first floor would be a useful step for the Commission to take. I have raised the matter informally before, but as that did not result in any progress, I hope that the Commission can now deal with it in a slightly more formal way, in due course.

3.23 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): In parenthesis before I begin my remarks I want to say how glad I am that I am not the only person who must complete an entire circumnavigation of Portcullis House every time I want to find a room there. One would think that one would eventually learn the geography of the building, but somehow it escapes me—and, I am sure, many other hon. Members.

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate, which may this afternoon be a slightly short one, on the work of the House of Commons Commission. I want to say how much we value the work of the Commission, in the first instance, but, more importantly, the work of the staff of the
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House, who do a remarkable job for us in all sorts of capacities, sometimes in the most trying conditions. I do not think that we have enough opportunity to thank them for their forbearance, patience and unstinting helpfulness to Members of the House.

I particularly make that point in the context of the present security situation, which has already been mentioned. It is a matter of concern that we face a continuing security threat. I do not know whether hon. Members have noticed that the state of alert has been at severe for some time now. Staff must deal with that on a regular basis. I do not want to go into details about what is provided, and how the security of the House is maintained, but I want to say that it is very important that that work is done—and effectively. Sometimes, we do not like the result. Some of us are still not desperately keen on the security screen, but we understand why it is there. Some of us are not desperately keen on the metal barriers, which, I agree, are not a great embellishment to the House, but we understand why they are there, and recognise the need.

Incidentally, and again in parenthesis, with respect to something that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) said, it seems odd to me that this sovereign Parliament sometimes has difficulty in doing what is necessary for the protection of the House, and the better working of the democracy that it embodies, because of the need to defer to a local council—Westminster city council—about planning. I am a great upholder of the rights of local communities to maintain planning, but when that gets in the way of Parliament doing its work, as I believe to be the case in this instance—I think that one argument for the present barriers was the difficulty in getting timely planning consent for a permanent alternative—it seems that things are slightly askew.

As to the work of the Commission, I echo what others have said about the education role. That has really taken off recently, which is extremely welcome, both in relation to the visitors’ centre that is being prepared, and the voters’ guide. I wonder to what extent there was proper communication and consultation with the Electoral Commission before it was produced, because it is a splendid document, and well worth while, but it overlaps with the work of the commission, and I should have expected the commission to make the same point that has been made this afternoon about whether voting arrangements in areas with devolved Parliaments or Assemblies have been properly considered. I understand the focus of the House of Commons Commission, but I also recognise that there is a wider issue.

I also hope that we can make things easier for visitors from our constituencies. My constituency is on the cusp of possibility, as it were, for visits. People can come on school visits from there, but they must leave extremely early in the morning to do it, and they sometimes do not recognise just how early, with the result that we often get groups arriving far too late, having been held up in traffic which they did not realise would be so severe. Of course, the changes in our hours of sitting have not helped that process. Anything that we can do to help school visits in particular, because those are hugely beneficial, is to be encouraged.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) made the point that the lead chapter of the report is about the environment. That is an instance of
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getting one’s defence to an attack in first. I cannot agree with the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) that the House is leading the way. It is not. Let us not kid ourselves. We are not leading the way in environmental matters, but we are beginning to catch up, which is good. That is not to discredit what has been done. I recognise the difficulties that we have with this historic building, but let us also recognise that there is a lot more to do. I welcome what my hon. Friend said about looking further into energy conservation and grey water use, and about the use of unsustainable materials in the fabric of the building. All of those are important ingredients in demonstrating that we live up to our rhetoric on matters environmental. That is of huge importance. It is not just that what we do may be good in itself; it also sets an example and shows our recognition that we can do better in such matters.

Hon. Members have mentioned information technology, and, again, I recognise both the difficulties and the hard work that have been put in to overcome those difficulties. One problem for IT staff is the huge variance in the expectations and expertise of hon. Members from those who have only the haziest idea of what a PC is, let alone how to make it work, to those who expect everything to interface and to provide connectivity of a high order. The difficulty is that in the attempt to find a happy medium between those two extremes we always fall short of what is becoming common practice in the private sector. It is frustrating for many people that we do not have services that are as good as they could be. However, I recognise the work that has been done and the improvements that have been made.

Something that has not yet been mentioned is the work that the Commission has done with the Association of Former Members of Parliament, which is much appreciated. If we can do something in a small way to assist our former colleagues it is right that the Commission does so.

Turning to the review of administration and governance—“Braithwaite two”, as the Leader of the House called it—I was interested to hear that when my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon introduced the item he referred to administration and management, but Braithwaite referred to administration and governance, as did the Leader of the House. Governance is not the same as management; it is distinctly different, but both are important. Sir Kevin Tebbit is an admirable choice to provide a rigorous examination of the arrangements for administration and management, but I am less convinced of his expertise in governance, which is the province of the House.

I hope that the Commission recognises the need for right hon. and hon. Members to be involved in any changes in governance because that might bring the Commission into better contact with Members of the House. Despite the best efforts of my hon. Friend and many others and despite the forms and surveys that are sent out, there is still a feeling among many hon. Members that things happen in this place that they had no idea would happen and they cannot understand why they have happened. They learn about them afterwards and then grumble. I recognise that that is, to some extent, human nature, but if we can find ways of involving the membership of the House at an earlier
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stage, particularly with matters that are highly visible and therefore have an impact on the world outside and about which they will be asked questions, or matters that change the way of life and the way in which colleagues work, that should be encouraged. Sometimes, the Commission, however hard it tries, seems not to be in as good contact with hon. Members as it might be.

I made one detailed note on paragraph 237 of the report, which refers to “delegated resource budgeting.” I wondered at what level that scheme of delegation will apply and at what level budget holders will have discretion presumably to spend within their budget. I am a great supporter of the delegation of budgets whenever possible because it provides for better and more effective management of resources, and I shall be interested to know what is implied by that phrase.

I want to make three final points. First, a long-standing criticism that I hear from colleagues in the House is about the management of public works contracts and the length of time that sometimes seems to be necessary to complete work in the House. That must be qualified by the fact that we are dealing with an historic building and that there are often difficulties that the layman does not see. However, it is important to reach private sector and best public sector levels of performance of contract management and I would like to know whether that is regularly assessed and audited, and whether improvements are possible.

The second is services to Members. Increasingly with the changing membership of the House we need better health service facilities in the House and facilities for Members with families. That has not yet been fully addressed.

Thirdly—I say this with some trepidation—we are engaged in a protracted process, which some would say has been protracted for more than 100 years, of reform of the House of Lords. If there is real progress in reform of the other place, there are implications for the management of the Palace as a whole. I hope that the Commission will continue to work with counterparts in another place to ensure that wherever possible we can integrate our systems and management of shared facilities so that while we respect the different traditions and different ways of working of the two Houses, nevertheless, wherever possible we achieve co-ordination that results in efficiency and effectiveness.

My final point—I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) is not here because I understand that this is her responsibility in the report—is that one of the disappointments is the paucity of information in the annual report of the Administration Estimate Audit Committee which is attached to the Commission’s report as an appendix on page 109. I expected a good deal more detail from the Committee, which is the check and balance within the system to ensure that the Commission and offices of the House are doing their work. The report is skimpy and it would have been a good opportunity for the Committee to publish as part of its report the principal conclusions and findings of the audit reports that it has commissioned and looked at. I commend that practice in future.

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