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Westminster Hall

Thursday 23 October 2008

[Miss Anne Begg in the Chair]

House of Commons Commission

[Relevant document: 30th Annual Report of the House of Commons Commission, HC 710.]

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

2.30 pm

Nick Harvey (North Devon): It is a pleasure to introduce the 30th annual report of the House of Commons Commission, published in early July and covering the financial year from April 2007 to March 2008. It marks 30 years since the passage of the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978. Only 22 Members of the current House were here then, and I doubt whether even they can remember a time when the House did not manage its own affairs. A decade earlier, Richard Crossman, as Leader of the House, recorded in his diary having to go with a begging bowl to the Treasury to appeal for a couple of extra Clerks. Since then, responsibility for the parliamentary budget and managing its own affairs have been regarded internationally as signs of a proper arm’s length relationship between legislature and Executive, but that is not an easy task, as the Commission’s annual report makes clear. Indeed, the report shows just how complex the task is.

My hope for the debate is that it will provide an opportunity for the Commission to hear what hon. Members think about the running of the House. In my introductory remarks, I shall say a little about the reorganisation of the House service since the Tebbit report, the impact of the various freedom of information cases and the review of Members’ allowances on the Department of Resources, the PICT—Parliamentary Information and Communication Technology—health check, the mechanical and engineering works feasibility study and the major works that lie ahead of us, and the new visitors entrance on Cromwell Green.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I do not intend to interrupt my hon. Friend again, and I am grateful for what he and his colleagues do. I just want to place it on the record that although he is right to remind us that 30 years ago we took control of our own affairs, there is one remaining matter, certainly in the Commons, which I raised with the Deputy Leader of the House this morning. The Commons does not yet organise its own business. That is in the Government’s hands, but some of us hope that the decision taken 30 years ago, although not my hon. Friend’s responsibility, can be extended so that we manage not only our own estate, but our own business.

Nick Harvey: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I would not for one moment disagree with what he says, but I think that the matter that he raises lies within the responsibility of the Procedure Committee, rather than the House of Commons Commission. No doubt he will pursue it there in due course.

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There have probably been greater changes in the internal organisation of the House service in 2007-08 than there have been in any other year since 1978 or possibly even further back. Pages 15 to 17 of the report set out clearly the main events. Two years ago in the equivalent debate, I announced the Commission’s intention to appoint Sir Kevin Tebbit to review the management and services of the House. This time last year, the Commission had just received his report and was about to start putting it into effect. Tebbit noted that

He concluded:

Last year, I said that the Commission would focus on implementing the Tebbit recommendations that were

The start of January 2008 saw the six House Departments reorganised into four. We have also seen the passage of the Parliament (Joint Departments) Act 2007 to put PICT on a proper legal footing as a joint Department for both Houses.

The vision for the House service now is:

A clear example of the House service operating in a more joined-up way is the new Members Centre in Portcullis House, which opened in July. That provides a single point at which hon. Members can seek advice and information on allowances, IT, research and facilities. I hope that hon. Members who have not yet visited it will do so.

Alongside the organisational changes, the House has recruited from outside John Borley to the new post of director general of the Department of Facilities and Mel Barlex as director of the parliamentary estates directorate. I shall return later to the subject of buildings and works.

I do not want to stray beyond the scope of the debate on the Commission’s annual report into the realms of the Members Estimate Committee, but I would like to refer to that Committee’s report, which had a big impact on the administration of the House. Many of those in the Room know only too well that the Commission has a dual identity and meets also as the Members Estimate Committee. The House service supports the payment and record keeping for expenditure on that estimate. In the past year, freedom of information requests and the review of allowances have put enormous pressure on the Department of Resources in particular. Additional staff may yet be needed in that area. The Commission appreciates that and will keep that need for resources under consideration. I thank the staff in the Department of Resources, particularly Terry Bird, the director of operations, for all the assistance that he has given us during the past few months in this work.

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Let me move on to information and communications technology. We have seen the creation of PICT, a joint Department serving both the Commons and the Lords, and we saw the passage of an Act about the organisation of Parliament itself, which is quite rare—it happens only every 15 years or so. In previous debates, a number of hon. Members have raised IT issues, and the Administration Committee reported on that subject last year. In accordance with recommendations from the Tebbit review, PICT was put through an external health check conducted by the Cabinet Office. The health check notes how much has been achieved since PICT was formed nearly three years ago. However, it also says that more progress is needed and recommends that projects be subject to clear business ownership and direction and that the effectiveness of individual relationships and governance arrangements be reviewed regularly.

The Commission accepted the recommendations from the Administration Committee. We continue to value that Committee’s continual scrutiny of the service. PICT will come back to the Administration Committee and the Commission on service provision in constituency offices.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): In many respects, I am very complimentary about what has been done, because the system has improved dramatically—it had to improve dramatically—but I am really looking to the future. I would like to raise another IT-related issue, which perhaps I will be able to intervene on later, but my main concern at the moment is the capacity of the system. Given the number of people gaining access to it, which seems to grow exponentially, the system is sometimes quite slow, even on the Westminster site.

Will the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) comment on what testing has been and will be undertaken to see how robust the system is? I ask that because without the IT system, an MP cannot function. Some of us might regret that that is the case, but the reality is that if the system is down for even a matter of hours, it can sometimes lead to disarray.

Nick Harvey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observation that PICT has improved dramatically. I believe that he is right. I recognise entirely that there are times when the service is slower than we would like, but I sincerely believe that those occasions are now fewer and further between. The hon. Gentleman nevertheless makes a good point about the number of people using the system, and the capacity issues that have resulted, and I shall flag those up with PICT to ensure that they are central to its thinking. However, I say with some confidence that the resilience of the system is something that PICT takes seriously. It is very much part of its brief that it should get ahead of the game and that the two Houses of Parliament should avail themselves of the latest developments in ICT and not drag behind them. I shall flag up those points with PICT and ensure that they are part of its thinking.

I was speaking about the parliamentary estate. As I have said, the new vision statement for the House service talks about supporting the operation of the House while maintaining a world heritage site. Hon.
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Members may be aware that last week I answered a parliamentary question about the feasibility study for the mechanical and electrical project. I said:

Normal practice, as Members know, is that major works are undertaken in the Palace of Westminster only during the summer recess, but so huge and extensive is the scale of the work planned that we believe that a range of options should be carefully and seriously considered. My answer continued:

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman may intend to speak about this subject, but I have always believed that we should locate Parliament out of London—perhaps in York or similar places. Are we to have a vote on how long the move will last, and what the preferred location will be? I have here a BBC report saying that the cost of the work could be a staggering £350 million. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm or deny that? What representations are we making to the Treasury to ensure that the costs will be fully underwritten?

Nick Harvey: I shall take the hon. Gentleman’s first and last points together. This is a sovereign House, and it is in a position to debate anything it sees fit to debate, and to raise the necessary funds to do what it needs to do. It is not possible at this stage to say with any certainty what the cost will be. That is one of the factors that the feasibility study to which I referred will need to explore; and it will need to come back to the House with a clear explanation of the cost implications of doing the work continuously in one go rather than interspersing it over the summer recess, perhaps—who knows?—for 20 or 25 years.

As for other locations and how long such a decamping might last, those are exactly the sorts of things that the feasibility study will consider. It is not possible at this stage to pre-empt that exercise and to anticipate the sort of conclusions that it might reach. However, when we receive the information, we will certainly share it with those Members who wish to know, so that everyone has a clear understanding of what we are doing and what factors led to those conclusions, and so everyone can see the logic involved.

I emphasise that the House will be asked to move out of the main building if that option significantly reduces the cost, the time and above all the risk. Staying here and trying to do it over a succession of summer recesses is not an easy, low-risk option. Much of the mechanical and engineering infrastructure dates back to the late 1940s. It is perhaps already 30 or 40 years beyond its
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proper life expectancy. There is a real danger that if anything should go fundamentally wrong we would not be able to repair it in a timely fashion in order to allow the House to continue going about its business. One of the factors that the feasibility study will obviously have to consider is the risk entailed in choosing to do the work slowly rather than in pressing ahead and doing it more quickly.

The mechanical and electrical works comprise all the support systems that enable us to work in the building. They include hot and cold water systems, steam, mains cold-water incoming services, fire mains, gas, compressed air, vacuum, electrical power, lighting, building management systems, communications, security, fire detection, voice alarms, air conditioning, mechanical ventilation, refrigeration, chilled water services and drainage. We are talking about the complete works, and it is all in need of renovation.

It is a major project. I cannot anticipate how much it will cost, but it will be hundreds of millions of pounds. It will be a serious challenge for the House to seek funding for that at a time of economic restraint; and it is essential throughout any such operation that we maintain an effective Parliament. It will be a huge endeavour for the Commission, for the Committees of the House and for all the staff of the House services.

One major works project that has caused the Commission concern over the past year is directly behind you, Miss Begg—the new visitor entrance on Cromwell Green. It is now open and working reasonably well, but as Members know it was late and over budget. The Commission received regular reports late in 2006, when it became apparent that the project was slipping. The appointment of a recovery project manager brought things under control and enabled the entrance to open in April this year. The Commission was concerned about the project and was determined to see a robust “lessons learned” review.

I set out the main conclusions of that review in a written answer on 14 July:

It is essential that we learn the lessons from a project of that scale before embarking upon the huge project that I have described. With the mechanical and engineering works involved, that is clearly on another scale altogether.

One works project completed during the past year, which does not seem to have been criticised in the media, was the £8 million spent on refurbishing the Press Gallery and creating the new Moncrieff’s refreshment area.

This year, I have answered questions on a wide range of issues, including food allergies, the new pass system, bottled water—several times—child care, the new visitor
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entrance, escalators and carbon offset. That shows the range of services needed to support a modern Parliament. The Commission’s task of administering the House has never been more complex, but with the commitment of the House staff, I am confident that we will tackle the major tasks ahead.

I should like to end on a note of thanks to our staff—

Several hon. Members rose

Nick Harvey: Perhaps hon. Members are saying, “Not so fast”.

Mr. Prentice: There has been a great deal of comment in the press about asbestos in the parliamentary estate. I am not entirely sure where we are on the matter, so will the hon. Gentleman enlighten us?

Nick Harvey: The hon. Gentleman is right. Asbestos remains a problem that has the potential to complicate the large project of mechanical and engineering works that I have been describing. It is taken very seriously by the new appointees to whom I have referred, and we will be doing everything that we can do responsibly to sort out lingering asbestos problems, on the basis of whatever technical advice we receive. The potential of asbestos to complicate the anticipated works is not to be underestimated and it will have to be factored in as the project is designed.

Mr. Drew: I have one specific inquiry on parliamentary questions, to which the hon. Gentleman has not referred. I know that they are not necessarily his responsibility, although he does have to answer the odd one. One source of angst among MPs is that sometimes when we table an accepted parliamentary question, it seems to disappear into the ether. My record time between tabling a question and receiving an answer is 10 months, and even then the reply that I received told me that the answer could only be provided at disproportionate cost. I hate to think why it took 10 months to find that out.

Would it be possible to produce a database that would keep a name-and-shame record? The database could include a record of legitimate parliamentary questions that go month after month without being answered. I accept that things occasionally go wrong, but I think it would help Departments if they could see that they have a number of questions that have been unanswered, say, for more than six months, which they ought to do something about. More particularly, it would allow Members, who sometimes table a lot of questions, to keep a record.

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): Order. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman make a speech, as his interventions have been somewhat long.

Nick Harvey: I cannot give an answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question off the top of my head. Certainly, it cannot be technically difficult to maintain such a database, although I would be surprised if we do not, in effect, already do so. The greater question is who would follow up the unanswered questions within such a database. Perhaps it is a question of ensuring that there is wider access. I will investigate the matter and write to the hon. Gentleman about it.

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