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23 Oct 2008 : Column 144WH—continued

23 Oct 2008 : Column 145WH

I was concluding my remarks by thanking the staff of the House service. I would particularly like to put on record the Commission’s thanks to Andrew Kennon, who has served as our Clerk for the past couple of years. He has had an eventful time in that post, and we are particularly grateful to him for going the extra mile on so many occasions—there have been an astonishing array of headaches for him to contend with. Even when he has been away from this place on holiday, he has not been beyond the reach of mobile phones disturbing him and causing him to re-engage with parliamentary matters at times when I am sure he did not want to. He has been a very good Clerk to the Commission and we are grateful to him and all the staff in his office who help out, and to Louise Sargent, who processes the various questions that are tabled to the Commission. We wish Andrew Kennon every success in his new post at the Journal Office.

2.54 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey). Broadly speaking, the Conservatives welcome the report—the content tells us that it has been a busy year. Many of the points that I would have liked to make have already been covered by the hon. Gentleman, so I do not intend to detain the Chamber for long. I may simply refer to what he said, or make an additional point here and there on other issues.

I begin by thanking everyone responsible for the form of the report. It is a substantial piece of work and much effort has gone into its production. I thank Mr. Speaker; the Leader of the House; the shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May); the hon. Member for North Devon; and the other members of the Commission for their contributions. While I am thanking people, I also thank the hon. Member for North Devon for so frequently fielding questions on this subject—sometimes hostile, usually friendly—in the Commons. I also give a big “thank you” to everyone on the estate who makes MPs’ jobs that much easier in all that we do. The list is endless, but I include security, catering, cleaning, admin and Library staff, and a host of others.

All hon. Members hear their colleagues muttering about how the House is run, so it is a little disappointing that those people decide not to comment today when they have the opportunity to do so. I will try to remember some of their comments when I can, but their non-attendance is regrettable. I hope that that is noted.

I heard what was said on refurbishment. Clearly, it will need to be kept in check. I understand that some 500 miles of cables, pipes and so on need to be replaced, and that the renovation works will be the largest since 1947. This is a massive undertaking that will require enormous planning. Given that the process of government must continue during such a long period of refurbishment, we all look forward to seeing the feasibility report when it is eventually produced. As has been mentioned, I look forward to contributing to the process and inviting other hon. Members and colleagues to have their say. I include staff in that, because it will very much be a joint enterprise—we have to work together, and the opinions of all concerned, not only Members, will be required.

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I welcome the continued efforts of the House authorities to improve the support services that we use in all that we do, particularly the one-stop shop in Portcullis House. It is interesting that many more people tend to go there nowadays than in its early days, although I suspect that one reason why people do not use it as much as they could is habit—some are used to picking up the phone or going to No. 7 Millbank to have a chat. However, it is a gradual process and things are improving.

The new joint IT department, which was formed last year, is doing well, and no doubt the Commission is looking at other things on which both Houses can work productively together and ensure that there are economies of scale without impacting on the quality of service. Before I start getting letters from trade unionists, I hasten to add that if there is any talk of further co-operation between the two Houses, it is taken as read that all concerned will be consulted, including trade unionists, who will no doubt get a say on things on behalf of their members.

I was pleased to see in the report that the catering and retail service achieved a five-star food hygiene rating from Westminster city council, for both front and back-of-house areas. On catering, may I venture to proffer a bit of advice on something that is often mentioned by colleagues and their staff who use the Debate restaurant in Portcullis House? It is one thing that I wish some hon. Members had come here to voice their concerns on.

The restaurant has a pricing system whereby people are charged not on what they want to eat, but on the pricing of set meals. If there is a set meal for chicken and rice and a set meal for fish and chips, someone who wishes to have fish and rice is penalised because they have to pay for two main meals. The Debate restaurant is the only place that I know in which one cannot buy what one wants and just pay for that particular item.

May I suggest that we investigate the matter? I understand that, in the scheme of things, that is not as big an issue as refurbishment, but I am simply passing on the message that is regularly brought to my attention by hon. Members and, more importantly, by their staff. It is the staff who use that facility most.

Mr. Prentice: The hon. Gentleman is obviously very interested in catering matters. Does he share my concern that the viability of catering facilities for hon. Members—I am thinking about the Dining Room—is questionable? When I go into the Dining Room on a Wednesday evening, very few hon. Members are there. It is busy on Mondays and Tuesdays, but it can be a desert on Wednesdays. Has he any figures on the amount of money that is required to subsidise hon. Members dining in the old building?

Mr. Vara: Being a mere shadow Minister, I have no access to such figures, and as far as I am aware they were not in the report, but perhaps picking one weekday evening is being somewhat selective. Certainly, hon. Members eat breakfast in the Dining Room. Those who live in very distant constituencies use the catering facilities regularly, whether it be Wednesday evening or Friday morning. We need to consider the catering facilities as part of an overall picture, rather than considering who is eating there on a Wednesday evening. None the less, I hear what has been said, and no doubt those concerned will have taken the matter on board.

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I note that the report comments that of those members of staff who took the trouble to answer the questions about diversity and background, some 22.1 per cent. were from the non-white community. I am pleased to see that the Management Board has taken note of the fact that the vast majority of that 22.1 per cent are in the lower-paid areas. I hope that the board will continue to monitor the situation and seek to improve it, rather than just saying that it is concerned about it.

I am not in any way suggesting that we should have positive discrimination. I am first in line against such discrimination, but given that FTSE 100 companies have non-white board members, I hope that the quality and talent of such people can also be utilised in running the House of Commons.

Public engagement is another vital area with which the House authorities are concerned, particularly given the very low standing that politics has with the public at the moment. The Visitor Centre is proving a great success, although it is a shame that its design means that many people still have to queue in the wet when it rains.

I am pleased to see that last year’s comments about the parliamentary website have been taken on board and that there has been a substantial improvement, particularly with regard to the interactive virtual tours. I hope that the situation will be monitored, because there is still room for improvement of navigation and search facilities.

I believe that we are all of one mind when we welcome the smooth transition to the new security passes, and I think that we are all in favour of having the additional photograph of visitors on temporary passes, which can only help in the current uncertain climate.

May I also welcome the fact that last year was the first full financial year in which all electricity used on the parliamentary estate came from renewable sources? I support the ongoing efforts to improve recycling rates and welcome the introduction of biodegradable biothene bags to be used for souvenir and bookshop items, rather than the standard plastic bag. That shows the House of Commons authorities leading by example.

I looked back to see what I said in last year’s debate on this subject. I suggested that the House authorities should consider introducing a greener procurement agenda for those who supply goods, services and materials to the House. I suspect that that matter is still under consideration. If I were dealing with the Government, I would say that it has probably been ignored, but given that the House authorities are more neutral in their dealings, I hope that it will continue to be reviewed.

I am nearing my conclusion. I simply want to say that it is good to see that some of the Modernisation Committee’s recommendations have been taken on board, particularly with regard to Public Bill Committees and additional research papers following the consideration in Committee of major Bills.

I also extend my thanks to the Table Office for the additional work it has taken on with regard to the topical questions and all the procedures and ballots that are involved. I welcome the fact that hon. Members now have access to their speeches by e-mail before publication.

In conclusion, I reiterate my thanks to all those concerned and simply say, “Keep up the good work because there is a lot of it to be done.”

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3.6 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): I, too, congratulate the members of the Commission and all those who work for it. In particular, I thank the Secretary of the Commission, Mr. Kennon. Before he took the job, he had dark hair; it has now gone grey. I merely note that the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) used to have a full head of hair and is now going slightly bald. The shadow Deputy Leader of the House is follicularly challenged as well. May I suggest that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) is going the same way? I am not sure what happens to ginger Members of the House when pressures mount.

I am sure that the House will do all it can to ensure that the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) can have fish and rice, although it seems somewhat un-British not to have fish and chips.

Mr. Vara: It might be a small point, but I want to put it on record that I was simply articulating the views of various colleagues and their staff and that it was not my personal view.

Chris Bryant: I am troubled about this only because my father’s best man was called Mr. Thomas. Anyone who goes into any fine fish and chip shop will see that Preston and Thomas is the greatest manufacturer of fish and chip shop fryers, and I do not want his business to be harmed by our rowing back on fish and chips.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Devon and all the members of the Commission on the excellent report that outlines a landmark year in the history of the House of Commons service. I particularly liked the fact that this year’s report has photographs of many of the people who work in the House. I do not mean Members of Parliament or peers, but people who do the really hard graft, ensuring that we are able to do our job. My favourite photograph is of Gladys Dickson from the Members’ Tea Room. All the hon. Members will concur when I say that she is one of the people who definitely lightens our day, and I know that she does a great deal of work in her own community outside this House. We should always pay tribute to those who make this building work when we are merely swanning around.

The Commission’s work is vital. We must ensure that we have an efficient House that provides value for money for the taxpayer; that we have effective management, so that everyone who works for the House can do their job effectively and enjoyably and feel that they have a full share in the team, because that is the way the building works; that we have a transparent organisation, so that the public know what we are doing and can be assured that they are getting value for money; and that this is a secure working environment for everyone—of all the buildings in the world, this one probably has the tightest security. All of that must happen in the context of protecting the reputation of the House. If its reputation falls, the business of politics—seeking to achieve democratic ends for our constituents—can only be undermined.

In the past few years there have been significant reforms of the way in which the House manages its affairs. The reforms carried out in response to the Tebbit report could be the most significant changes to
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the service in living memory. Although Sir Kevin’s recommendations have been implemented quickly and effectively, they draw on previous recommendations for incremental reform, which began with a review in 1990 by Sir Robin Ibbs and were continued in 1999 and 2000 by Michael Braithwaite. The creation of four new departments, in place of the previous six, and the establishment of a smaller management board with a more corporate outlook will lead to the provision of services that are more focused on the changing and increasingly complex needs of Members.

I am, however, reminded of the first debate in which I spoke in the House, on the Ofcom paving Bill, which reduced the six bodies that looked into broadcasting to one. The Whips persuaded me to take part because no one else was going to. I said that I thought that that would be more consistent and coherent and added that, to use a valleys word—as in the south Wales valleys—it would be “tidy”, which also applies precisely to the present case. Unfortunately, Hansard recorded me as saying “To use a valet’s word, it will be ‘tidy’.” I see how Hansard got there; valets do tidy up—but we do not have many valets in the valleys. I hope that Hansard got all my uses today of “valley” and “valet”.

The role of a Member of Parliament has changed dramatically in recent years. The balance today between constituency work, legislation and scrutiny of Government is completely different from the work of, say, Stafford Cripps in the 1940s; if he ever visited his constituency—perhaps once a year—a brass band would turn out to welcome him, and when he left two days later he would be sent home with a spring in his step and the Bishop of Bristol to accompany him. None of that happens today, because the job has changed completely. Recent research by the Hansard Society found that Members elected for the first time in 2005 spend about half their time on constituency work, so changes in the working practices of the House, improvements to staffing and office resources and the availability of information technology have changed the way in which we work, as have our constituents’ expectations of what we can do for them. It is vital that we do not shy away from that, but we must make sure that Members of Parliament can do that other vital part of their job: scrutinising the Government and ensuring that the legislation that goes through the House is the best legislation, the right legislation and legislation that will stand the test of time.

Mr. Prentice: I am looking at the statistics for the House of Commons Library. Is not the productivity of the staff remarkable? For research papers on major Bills, published before Second Reading, the figure was 100 per cent. this year, last year and the year before, and so it goes on. This year’s figures, against the target of delivering 97 per cent. of Members’ inquiries with a deadline, and 98 per cent. of those without a deadline, are staggering. We should congratulate the staff.

Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is right, as he sometimes is. The truth is that we all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to those who work in the Library. I have always found them exemplary in seeking to meet whatever timetable I have set, which is a remarkable feat. They are always intelligent, on time, and precise. In some regards we have helped them with that, because the
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pre-legislative scrutiny process that we have introduced enables them to gain a more coherent view throughout the legislative process.

The way in which we engage with the public is an area of the Commission’s work to which individual Members attach great importance: the survey of services conducted by the Commission found that of the three core objectives it was the one that hon. Members thought needed most attention. It is a question not only of how we carry out the aspects of our work that are intended primarily to reach out to the wider public—welcoming visitors, providing educational services to schools and maintaining a first-rate website, which are all important in their own right—but of ensuring that the issue of public engagement permeates all that we do. If Parliament is incomprehensible to the wider public we have failed in the job we are trying to do. Long gone are the days when just issuing a statement in Parliament, making a speech or for that matter legislating was enough to transform society. We have to be able to take society with us if we want to enhance legislation.

When I was first elected I became aware of how incomprehensible Parliament and politics could be to the public. I was so excited that I had been elected that I wrote to the Minister for Europe informing him that I spoke Spanish and French and would be only too happy to help if I could offer any assistance—very puppy dog-like. The Minister’s office rang back saying that he would be delighted to see me for tea. That evening I went home, very excited, and told my partner, “I’m going to see the Minister for tea.” He replied, “There’s a Minister for Tea?” Sometimes Parliament is not quite as incomprehensible as it seems but there is a process that we need to go through to make the drama of politics here as readily understandable to as many members of the public as possible.

Some procedural reforms, such as the introduction of evidence-taking Public Bill Committees, bringing the sitting hours of the House more closely into line with working patterns in the outside world, and the introduction of topical questions and debates have contributed to making the House more accessible and relevant. One area in which I should still like us to do more work is in bringing the work of Committees more into the public domain. Some of the best debates—the sharpest and clearest examinations of legislation—happen not in the House but in Committee. Journalists often miss that; if we can find ways to bring that process more clearly into the public domain we should do so.

I hope that the House will soon have an opportunity to consider the Procedure Committee’s proposals on e-petitions—another procedural innovation that would make it easier for us to engage with the wider public. The hon. Member for North Devon has already set out some of the Commission’s key achievements in that context, but the Group on Information for the Public, led by the Director General of Information Services, has led the work on three fronts: first, and very importantly, welcoming visitors to the House; secondly, education and outreach; and, thirdly, improving information on the internet. It is important that we provide a good service to people who visit this place, whether they have come to see Parliament in action or just to see the Palace as a historic building. The House’s education and outreach work, and the use of the internet, will, I suspect, contribute most to the nurturing of the link between people and their Parliament.

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