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23 Oct 2008 : Column 150WH—continued

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There was an enormous increase this year in the number of young people who had the opportunity to come here as part of our educational visits programme. The number was up to 29,000 this year, compared with 17,000 in the previous year. I pay tribute to all those involved in the programme. The increase has been largely due to the introduction of the new educational visits programme, which allows us to welcome up to six groups of school or college students every day. It was much more limited in the past. However, I know from my constituency, which is both in a deprived area and at a considerable distance from Westminster, that for many schools there are practical difficulties to getting here in time, early enough in the day, and financial issues to be dealt with. The Administration Committee has recommended that the House offer some subsidy to offset the cost of travel and I very much look forward to seeing the outcome of the pilot project, which has already started. For those who cannot travel to Westminster, this year “Parliament in Your School” was launched. It provides teacher training and workshops in schools around the country.

The Tebbit review identified the parliamentary websites—there are in fact three of them, which may be an issue in itself—as the “key element” in developing stronger links between Parliament and the public. The main Parliament website has always been comprehensive—perhaps even too comprehensive. Almost every paper produced in this place finds its way on to the website in one form or another, but for many years it was simply an online collection of parliamentary papers, with little form or structure. For some time the accuracy of the search engine was only one in five or between one in five or one in four—about 22 per cent. It is a delight to see that accuracy has zoomed up to 86 per cent., but we still need to do more to make it easier for ordinary members of the public, who are not experts in parliamentary process or procedure, to find their way through the website. Incidentally, I think it would be useful for Members if the intranet were sometimes swifter in finding information so that we could find out earlier in the morning what was going on that day.

The look and feel of the website is much better. The front page contains more information about key events, and it is updated five times a day, although perhaps that needs to increase yet further. The new legislation gateways draw together all the information about each Bill in one place, which makes it easier to follow a single piece of legislation. Those improvements have been reflected in an increase in use of the website from 6.8 million hits in 2003-04 to 8.8 million last year.

Although we have made great progress, there is still a great deal more that could be done with the website. In particular, we still need to make it easier for the public to scrutinise their individual Members. For instance, we might find some way to make it possible—not just the next morning when Hansard is published, but perhaps later the same night—for people to see exactly how their Member of Parliament voted in a Division. That information is available to the House; we should find a way to make it available to the public.

Mr. Prentice: My Friend is familiar with the charity that runs the website It does not cover Members’ work in Committee, for a technical reason that I have never fully understood. Why cannot
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the House authorities liaise with the people who design and run TheyWorkForYou to get that information on to the web? It currently gives a distorted impression of the contributions that Members make at Westminster.

Chris Bryant: I have had a couple of meetings with the people who run that website. My hon. Friend makes an important point. He may recall that when the site was originally set up, it listed Members in a hierarchy according to how often they had spoken, how many questions they had tabled and things like that: one, two, three, four, five, all the way down to 646. TheyWorkForYou learned pretty quickly that what that meant was that some hon. Members—I do not want to impugn individual Members’ reasoning—were making interventions to keep their tally high. From my experience of my own speeches, a 58-minute speech is no better than a three-minute speech, and five interventions in a debate are normally no better than one.

I think that TheyWorkForYou has taken that on board, and I know that it is seeking a way to take on board other issues so that Members’ effectiveness, efficiency and contributions are reflected fully. Every one of us contributes in a completely different way. I should be happy to meet TheyWorkForYou again.

We also need to do more to make the intranet easier for Members to use. I am intrigued by the number of former Ministers who have come up to me and said, “I have no idea how to table online. I’ve spent the last hour and a half on the intranet trying to work out how precisely to do it.” We need to make it more intuitive.

The House service has continued to work to make the House greener, as the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire said. This year, it succeeded for the first time in securing 100 per cent. of the House’s electricity from sustainable sources. It is important that we do not underestimate the tremendous challenge of delivering modern energy efficiency standards in a mid-Victorian palace. On Mondays, it is often freezing cold, and then by Thursday afternoon, just in time for business questions, it is boiling hot. We all understand the problems with the building. When I went to visit the Clerk of Legislation earlier this afternoon in his eyrie above the roofs of the Palace, I was struck by how problematic the roof’s state of disrepair is. It is rotting in vast areas, and we will have to address it soon. Historic underinvestment may prove our downfall, as the hon. Member for North Devon said.

I congratulate the staff of the House on their achievements this year. We have made significant strides forward. As I said, this place functions well only if the whole team—that includes everybody from the people who work in the gym to the catering department, the Vote Office, the Tea Room staff and the doorkeepers—can play their full part in a happy, effective and efficient working environment, and we try to achieve that.

There are big challenges ahead, not least of which are the building itself and making Parliament more comprehensible. Often, I feel that history hangs over us in this place. We are, after all, standing now between a statue of Cromwell and the place where Charles I was tried before his execution. I always think that we should embrace our history and be proud of it, but we should also learn from our historical mistakes so that we can reshape our future.

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3.25 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate and to follow the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons and my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey).

I start the thanks, which are no less meaningful for being formal, with a warm thank you to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon for the diligent, friendly way and the lightness of touch with which he carries out his responsibilities to colleagues. As others have mentioned, he is sometimes in the firing line, which is understandable, although he is of course a volunteer, so one should not be overly sympathetic. He always seeks to answer questions, take up issues and ensure that Members are listened to respectfully and their points of view are taken into account. That is valuable.

The work of Malcolm Jack and his colleagues on the senior management team and that of the whole staff is hugely appreciated. We all know that, but it cannot be said too often. The report gave us the figures for last year: there were 1,696 full-time equivalent staff and about 2,700 staff in total, including full-time and part-time staff, looking after us. That is a huge army of people doing all sorts of different jobs. I share the view of colleagues that it was nice to see that breadth and diversity of activity reflected in the report.

I find the report fascinating. Anybody with any interest in our proceedings should read it. It is full of an enormous amount of interesting, accurate and up-to-date material, and it reflects the diversity of what we do extremely well. I commend it. I also commend it because it is printed on recycled paper—I checked at the back—so it passes the test, even though it is very good quality paper.

My new researcher, a keen, enthusiastic and mischievous individual called Tim Swain, pointed out that I should not be complimentary about the report in case people thought that I was being so kind only because my picture appears in it. He made this note to me when thinking of things that I might contribute:

Although not quite like former Ministers, I am, I hope, one of those who do not pretend any huge competence in the world of technology. I try to learn more all the time, and I did indeed go to IT training to pick up my PDA—my personal digital assistant, which is photographed there, which I now use and which works—and to ask one of the team to come in during the summer to upgrade my computer skills. I have never done anything formal in relation to computers; I have just struggled my way into working out how to do e-mail and the rest. As the Deputy Leader of the House said, every exercise in accessing new bits of kit is therefore a voyage of discovery.

Our system gets ever better. I have spoken to colleagues who look after the website. It is much better than it was, but there are occasions when I think that I am doing the right, quick and obvious thing to get hold of information about today’s or the following day’s business, and I cannot find it. If I cannot find it easily, others may struggle, and people who do not know our system may struggle more. We need to do more to make that bit of our work more accessible.

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I have two light-hearted comments to make before the more serious ones. In debates such as this, we always end up getting slightly diverted into the life of the community. I had not known about the issue of pricing in the Portcullis House restaurant, which means that one cannot mix and match. I am sure that it will be sorted now that the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire has raised it.

That brought to mind a family holiday about four years ago. We were in Forfar, in Scotland. On Friday night we decided that we wanted fish and chips, so we went into the middle of Forfar. There was a wonderful sign that read something like “Fish and Chips—Hugh Anderson, BA”. Clearly, one could qualify in that to the highest standard. Whether his BA was in fish and chips or something else we never learned, but he was indeed advertising his expertise.

The uses to which this building is put are wonderfully diverse. On Tuesday, I attended a debate in this Chamber on violent crime among young people in London. It was a very well attended debate with a broad, cross-party consensus. Before that, the last time I was here was for a meeting of the relatively new all-party group on conflict issues, looking at the Georgia and Russia situation. Present were representatives from the Russian, Georgian and other embassies. This Parliament does its job when it acts as the fulcrum and the focus of such debates, and brings people together—not just elected Members, but everyone else who makes use of our services.

I intend to pick out a few things for commendation, make a few observations, reflect on a couple of things and then make a few suggestions. In doing so, I shall try to keep within my 20-minute time limit, as I did last year, which was the first time that I took part in this debate, like the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire. This year, with the Leader of the House being absent—she is unwell today—I am the longest-serving Member in the Chamber. Over the quarter of a century that she, I and others have been here, the services have improved a great deal. It is not the services that have caused the thinning on top for any of us, I do not think, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House is not too hopeful that the same will not afflict him when he reaches the right age!

I commend some really good things: the assistance now provided to visitors, which is a new service, is really good and well appreciated. Those providing the assistance are courteous and friendly, and the service is well used. I underline the fact that there has been a huge increase in visitor numbers, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. The increase is extraordinary—from about 7,500 in 2003-04 to 30,000 in the year on which we are reporting. Of course, we want to ensure that that includes people not just from London and the south-east, but from the whole country. I know that the House is very conscious of that.

The Education Service is really good and does its work excellently. Last year, it held an open day reception. I caught people out on a couple of quiz questions that I bowled at them and to which they did not know the answers—I think that I asked who was the youngest female MP to have been elected to Parliament. My punishment was an invitation from the service to table questions for its Christmas quiz, which is fine. I shall be happy to join people there, if I am allowed.

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I join other hon. Members in their commendation of the Library, which has invariably been the most first-class of services, remaining so at all times and at whatever notice. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Gladys, our colleague who works in the Members’ Tea Room, who is pictured in the report. On the previous page is Helen Holden from the Library—she will be embarrassed that I am mentioning her, but it is right that I do—who is also a constituent of mine. Like Gladys and others, she does great work in her community, too, and is a really competent member of staff. All the Library staff are of that quality and as courteous. They are much appreciated.

The debate packs, which are a novelty and a one-off this year, have been really good. They have been well used and produced very quickly.

Chris Bryant: One group has not so far been mentioned: the cleaners. In my experience, they are very loyal to this building and take their work very seriously. They think of themselves not just as cleaners, but as servants of the House. I hope very much that we will respect them with honour.

Simon Hughes: The cleaners were on my list; I was just coming to them. Those in the cleaning, catering and maintenance departments do extremely important jobs. Inevitably, many of them are constituents of mine, too, because my constituency is nearby. I see them working diligently early in the morning and late at night. In that context, I would like to refer to a slightly more hard-edged issue.

There has been a dispute between some of our contractors and the House, as was brought to my attention by one of my constituents. I would be grateful for an update on that from my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon in his winding-up speech. Are we in sight of resolving that dispute? There have been disputes in the past and issues about pay of cleaning staff and so on.

My general view—my hon. Friend could link this to his answer to my first question—is that we should seek to ensure that as many of our staff as possible are employed by us directly rather than as agency staff. I appreciate that here we have cyclical patterns of work—by definition, the House does not sit every day of the year, and therefore in the summer, for example, we do not need all the catering staff. However, I would be grateful to know whether it is the policy of the House of Commons Commission increasingly to employ people on our own payroll. I assume that that is more cost-effective and results in better and more committed staff, who are much to be appreciated.

There have been some really good innovations in the past few years, including the exhibitions downstairs in Westminster Hall, which form part of the Education Service. There was one on the Act of Union, and another two in the year covered by the report. They were really good, interesting, informative and appreciated. I think that Westminster Hall is now used to better effect for educational purposes and for lobbies such as the one yesterday for pensioners. It is now a gathering place for lobbying groups and for education and exhibitions.

The art and photographs exhibited cyclically are hugely appreciated. We have the fantastic Gerald Scarfe cartoon exhibition in Portcullis House with really engaging, informative, educative and historical exhibits. There
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have been others—I think that the photographic exhibition on Disraeli and Gladstone was the last one. They are hugely welcome and add to the appropriately educative experience. Having said that, there was a glitch with the blessed water fountains in Portcullis House during the “Open House” weekend in September. As part of that weekend, Portcullis House was open, which is as it should be. We were open to the public, who could go up to the first floor and see the paintings and Select Committee Rooms, which is to the good.

I would like to plug something that has already been to Committee and been rejected. There is a suggestion that for a year we could have a composer in residence, as other public institutions have. I commend that idea. Live music is now occasionally played here—there was some earlier this week—in a way that does not distract Members or interfere with their work. We also need to be seen to be embracing the other arts in a set of buildings that themselves contain some fantastic art and architecture.

I commend the one-stop shop, which is very useful. On that I agree with the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire. It was slow to take off and relatively underused over the summer, when it was glad of customers. Such things are a matter of habit, though. I have had to remind myself not to walk over to 7 Millbank and instead to go and chat to people downstairs. That is a very good service, and I am grateful that it is there. It is a good innovation and I appreciate it.

There is a note in the report about an apprenticeships scheme. On that subject, my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon answered a written question from the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) on 2 June:

I commend that. Obviously, it benefits people in my borough. It is very important that we do our bit, both for apprenticeships and for employing people with disabilities. Are we up to the recommended national level? We were not when I last checked. Do we employ our fair share of people with disabilities and at all levels appropriate to employment in the House?

I endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire on the ethnic mix of our work force, which is generally good—I have seen the figures. However, generally, those figures are biased towards the lower pay-grade end of the employment. Obviously we look to have a staff team that reflects the great diversity of Britain at all levels and as soon as possible. I would be grateful for some commendation of that.

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