Previous Section Index Home Page

8.42 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): As my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), said when he introduced the Second Reading debate on the Bill, the Parliament (Joint Departments) Bill is unusual in that it is neither a Government nor a Back-Bench Bill, but a parliamentary Bill, concerned with the machinery of Parliament. The Bill has its origins in the decision of the House of Commons Commission and the House of Lords House Committee to set up a joint Department to manage information and communications technology on behalf of both Houses.

We have a tradition in the House of making decisions about the services that we all need in a non-partisan spirit. I am pleased to say that the Bill enjoyed all-party support in the House of Lords, and that was apparent again when the Second Reading debate was taken Upstairs in Second Reading Committee. I am grateful in particular to the hon. Members for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) and for North Devon (Nick Harvey) for their support. I am pleased also to see my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) in his place. I know that as Chairman of the Administration Committee, he has taken a particular interest in parliamentary ICT and in the Bill.

Clause 1 establishes the key principle that there can be joint Departments of both Houses of Parliament. Although the two Houses have long since shared the building, they have always maintained separate administrations and staff. To some extent that must always be so, because there are occasions when the two Houses take contrary positions on the issues before them and require separate procedural support and advice. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly clear that it makes sense for the two Houses to share the management of much of our infrastructure. Until now,
17 July 2007 : Column 245
that has been achieved more or less satisfactorily by one House employing the staff to deliver a particular service and the other agreeing to make an appropriate financial contribution in exchange for a share in the service. For example, the House of Commons has managed the staff who maintain the buildings for both Houses while the House of Lords has managed the staff of the joint parliamentary archives.

8.45 pm

Over the past 20 years, Members of both Houses and the two administrations have become increasingly dependent on ICT services. In response, during the 1990s the two Houses created a combination of joint and separate functions to meet the new requirements. In addition, most of the specialised Departments and offices of the two Houses acquired their own computer applications and staff, all under separate management arrangements. The consequence was that at the beginning of the present decade we had acquired myriad overlapping IT systems and teams. That is why, in 2004, the House of Commons Commission and the House of Lords House Committee accepted the recommendation from the Clerks of both Houses that there should be a single strategically managed ICT service functioning, for the first time, as a joint Department. It was agreed then that the new service called the parliamentary information and communication technology service—PICT—should be set up on an interim basis.

As parliamentarians, we all know that our dependency on ICT can only increase—a point tellingly made in the excellent report by the Administration Committee, “Information and communication technology services for members”. High-quality ICT services are essential for all Members to fulfil their responsibilities to their constituents and in Parliament. That requires careful strategic management on our behalf, and it eminently makes sense for them to be managed on a joint House basis. PICT is already operating in a shadow form, but for the longer term it needs a stable framework for joint employment, which is what the Bill is designed to achieve. Clause 1 therefore establishes the principle of joint Departments, and the remaining clauses flesh out the details.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I welcome the Deputy Leader of the House and congratulate her on her appointment. I did so previously in a Committee Room, but this is her first time at the Dispatch Box. I hope that she and I will be able to work together constructively, as I was able to with her predecessor, the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), in the best interests of all in this House.

As the hon. Lady said, this is not Government legislation but business of the House. As such, it is good to see that it is not contentious and has the agreement of all shades of the political spectrum. Among those who agree with the Bill, I am pleased to see the Chairman of the Administration Committee, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran), and we also have agreement from the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey), representing the House of Commons Commission.

It is not my intention to detain the House for too long, but I should like to make a few comments. As we have heard, the Bill sets up a joint Department for
17 July 2007 : Column 246
parliamentary information and communication technology. It is extraordinary that in the 21st century the Palace of Westminster still operates as two separate units, whereby we have separate entities for retaining staff, signing contracts, holding property and the like. Although there has been very close co-operation, it is good that we are at last getting modern in the Palace and recognising the need for joint Departments.

In the case of information technology, there used to be some nine separate units serving all the various people and Departments in both Houses. In January 2006, it was decided to set up a joint Department, and it is fair to say that on the whole the work of that Department has been very good, subject to the odd error at times, but with constant work on improvement. The vital service provided to all of us was rightly highlighted in an Administration Committee report in May of this year. The report spoke of our enormous reliance on information technology and the work that the staff of PICT do on our behalf in this House, and in our constituencies by way of remote services.

The Bill seeks to formalise the initial Department that was set up by creating one with the power jointly to employ staff, on behalf of both Houses, and to safeguard their rights, as well as to protect the rights of future employees, particularly regarding employment legislation, while ensuring the applicability of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006. The Bill also provides for the corporate officers of the Department to be able to sign contracts and to hold property and the like on behalf of both Houses. Let me emphasise that those corporate officers can operate only with the explicit approval of the House of Commons Commission and the other place.

Finally, the Bill provides for the future creation of other joint Departments, but let me emphasise that such Departments will be created only if there is agreement from both Houses. Given the obvious economies of scale, the pooling of expertise and the likelihood of better services all round, it is good to see that this Bill provides for such a future eventuality. Possible future candidates for joint Departments may well be the proposed parliamentary visitor centre, the Refreshment Departments, the Libraries and the Official Report. Although I understand that there are no plans at present for any further joint Departments, it is worth noting the contents of the Tebbit report on House of Commons management and services, which was published on 18 June. It encourages the House to consider further joint Departments with the other place, but it nevertheless cautions that we should see how this first joint Department operates. With those comments, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall conclude for the moment.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I just point out to the hon. Gentleman, and for the benefit of everyone else, that now we are in Committee, I am Mr. Chairman or Sir Alan rather than Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is just a small point.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): Thank you, Sir Alan. I, too, welcome the Parliamentary Secretary to her new post
17 July 2007 : Column 247
and her first Committee on the Floor of the House. I wish her well because she has an important role to play in ensuring the smooth operation of the House for all hon. Members.

Clause 1 establishes a simpler way of getting joint operations between the two Houses and, as has been said, anyone looking in from outside might be a bit surprised about the situation. However, we have to remember the history of the two Houses and the fact that they are separate constitutional entities. Therefore, over time, they have evolved separate ways of functioning. Now, it makes a lot of sense to bring them together if we can, if we do so for the sake of efficiency and effectiveness.

PICT may have had glitches, problems and so on, but we welcome the extra support that has come from trying to build a larger organisation to support our IT. If I think back over the 10 years since I have been here, I can say that the changes in what hon. Members have been able to do through IT support in remote areas in order to access this building and documents have made quite a difference. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran) recognised that having 650 small businesses to serve is quite a challenge for PICT and it is important to use the new structure to take that forward.

It would be interesting to hear from the Parliamentary Secretary what other joint Departments are in the pipeline. How far advanced are the ideas of setting up other joint Departments to bring other efficiencies to support Members of both Houses? Are there any at the moment, or are we dealing with this Bill purely to ensure that PICT is established, meaning that it will be some time down the line before we see further evolution building on the back of clause 1?

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, North) (Lab): I welcome my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to her new position. It is a much deserved promotion and I look forward to working with her on the Bill and on many other issues in future.

I welcome the Bill, which is long overdue. In my current post as Chairman of the Administration Committee, I have learned that each House jealously regards its distinctive character. It is important to examine ways, as we are doing with PICT, to rationalise—that is sometimes a dangerous word—and improve services. Anyone who reads the Administration Committee’s report on PICT will realise that, even in the short space of time that the organisation has been operating in a unified manner, the service for Members of both Houses has dramatically increased. As the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) said, glitches and problems remain, but we are working hard on them with PICT and improvements will continue. I hope that our report provides a way ahead for that.

On other matters, there is clearly scope for integration. The hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) mentioned some of those that are under consideration. We have co-operated with the other place on several issues, most notably on providing an education unit. We have especially poor services for children who visit this place. By co-operating and co-ordinating, we hope to have an improved education unit in the not-too-distant future.

17 July 2007 : Column 248

I hope that the experience of PICT and developing the education centre will lead to other developments. It makes sense in this modern world that economies of scale will apply to both Houses. Improvements in services should accompany them and I look forward to that.

Helen Goodman: I am most grateful to all hon. Members who have made such kind remarks and for the constructive support that they offer to the Bill.

The hon. Member for Kingston—

Sir Robert Smith: West Aberdeenshire.

Helen Goodman: I am sorry. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that the Bill sets out a general proposition for joint Departments because it took slightly longer to bring forward the measure than would have been the case from a management point of view because of the shortage of parliamentary time. There are no plans for new joint Departments, but if decisions are made later, we will not need to wait for full establishment. I hope that that is satisfactory.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

Exercise of functions of the Corporate Officers

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Helen Goodman: The Bill establishes the principle that there may be joint Departments. For the time being, as we have already said, there are plans for only one—PICT. During our earlier proceedings, Members of both Houses expressed a range of views on the desirability of extending the joint Department model to other services used by both Houses, such as catering, the Libraries and Hansard.

The recent review of management and services of the House of Commons by Sir Kevin Tebbit also encourages us to explore further joint working with the House of Lords in the interests of greater efficiency.

I agree with those who have said that we need to adopt a gradualist approach. Organisational change always needs to be tackled sensitively and with proper planning and consultation. As the Administration Committee said in its recent report:

So the Bill provides for the option of future joint Departments, but it also creates some safeguards. Clause 2 requires that any proposal from the two corporate officers to create or add new functions to a joint Department would have to be agreed by both the House of Commons Commission and the House of Lords House Committee. In the House of Lords, in accordance with the traditions of that House, it would also go to the Floor of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

17 July 2007 : Column 249

Clause 3


Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Helen Goodman: Clause 3 provides some key safeguards for staff who may be moved into a joint Department of Parliament in the future. It provides that pay will be kept broadly in line with pay in the Home civil service, which is already the case for staff of the House of Commons under the House of Commons (Administration) Act of 1978. It provides the same broad alignment for other conditions of service, with the important proviso that arrangements must be consistent with the requirements of the two Houses; and thirdly, it creates an absolute requirement that staff pensions should be kept in line with the principal civil service pension scheme, again a statutory requirement that already exists for staff of the House of Commons.

Mr. Doran: The Minister is aware that the trade unions have an issue with the changes that might occur to their current position. Under the 1978 Act, they have the right to go directly to the Commission and they are concerned that that right will not be preserved. Undertakings have been given that the right will remain, but it will not be a statutory one.

Helen Goodman: The reason we have not been able to incorporate into the Bill the provisions of the 1978 Act that provide formal access for the trade unions to the House of Commons Commission is that, in this instance, the joint Department is the employer. The trade unions have always made their feelings known to the Commission and they will continue to be effective in doing that. The heads of the joint Department will keep the Commission and the House of Lords in touch with what they are doing.

Access to the Commission, as under the 1978 Act, has been invoked on only two occasions, on both of which the issue was remitted immediately to ACAS for arbitration. That is what is proposed in the draft disputes procedure for the joint Department. In practice, there will be no serious lessening of the real and effective rights of the unions. There is also an effective Whitley structure in the House of Commons and a new Whitley structure for the joint Department is in the process of being established. I hope that satisfies my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran).

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4

staff transfers

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Helen Goodman rose—

The Chairman: Order. Before the Minister speaks to the clause, I should mention that if she is going to introduce every clause as helpfully as she is doing, the need for an extensive debate on Third Reading debate may be obviated.

17 July 2007 : Column 250

Helen Goodman: Thank you, Sir Alan.

Clause 4 applies the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 in full to the transfer of staff into a parliamentary joint Department. There has already been a full process of consultation with the trade unions representing our staff at every stage of the exercise. As I have said, both Houses have established Whitley processes, and preparations for a new Whitley structure are being established.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 5

Application of enactments

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Helen Goodman: Clause 5 ensures that the employment law that already applies to the staff of the two Houses separately would apply to the staff of a joint Department. It also provides that other enactments that apply to either House would apply in the same way to something done by or in relation to a joint Department as it would if it were done by or in relation to each House. For example, the Data Protection Act 1998 would apply to data held by a joint Department on behalf of either House in the same way as it would if they were held in each House.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 5 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported, without amendment.

Order for Third Reading read.

Next Section Index Home Page