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3 Dec 2009 : Column 152WH—continued

The Members Centre in Portcullis House has well and truly bedded in and is used extensively by Members and their staff. The staff of Hansard continue to impress. Their accuracy has improved, according to the annual report. I will leave it for others to decide whether that is because the staff have improved or because the former
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Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) makes fewer contributions.

Members have tabled some 85,000 parliamentary questions in the past year, which is a phenomenal number to deal with. All the questions have to be processed and dealt with accurately and efficiently. I take this opportunity to say that that task has been well achieved. It is a pity, however, that the Ministers who reply to the questions do not do so with equal accuracy and timeliness of response, but perhaps that is beyond the remit of the debate.

Additional pressure on staff has also been felt by those who look after the various Select Committees. In particular, the addition of Regional Select Committees, which have been boycotted by the Liberal Democrats and my party, has provided extra background work. Staff have to go to the various venues and service the Committees, and there is a cost of some £1 million plus. None the less, all credit to the staff for dealing with that extra work.

Reference has already been made to the work that is so urgently required on the building and on the infrastructure across the parliamentary estate. I hear the words of the hon. Member for North Devon, but perhaps he will tell us, if possible, the precise sum of money that is envisaged today for the overall works, some sense of when a decision might be made about whether we will all move to another place for a given period, and if so how long that period might be, and whether work will continue to be done during the recess? It would be helpful if he provided further clarification on those points, but I appreciate the difficulty he has.

Asbestos is another issue. I would like to know whether any cases of asbestos affecting members of staff have arisen. We are aware of asbestos in large parts of the estate, but it would be interesting to know whether it is having a direct impact on staff.

Accommodation is an ongoing problem for Members and their staff. I am pleased to see in the report that that issue is being addressed and that efforts are being made to secure further accommodation.

One area of concern is the fact that there has not been the reduction in energy use that we would have liked to achieve; in fact, there has been a 6 per cent. increase. I accept that the size of the estate has also increased, but given that all of us in this place are in the business of asking people outside to try to conserve energy, we need to lead by example. Although I accept the reasons for the increase, perhaps we need to consider the matter again so that we can truly speak and set an example.

Mr. Heath: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is picking up on the same point that I did. However, I do not think that the issue is about the size of the estate, because the energy use is expressed per square metre. There has been a like-for-like comparison.

Mr. Vara: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says and perhaps the hon. Member for North Devon might be able to say in his winding-up speech whether there is
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any particular reason for the increase-this may be a one-off year. He might also say whether there will be a reduction next year.

The security aspects of the House are, of course, tremendously important. I commend the Serjeant at Arms and her team, and all the police and security staff who work so hard in trying to keep this place safe. That being said, we must remain vigilant, and the two rooftop protests in the past year showed that there can be no let-up and that security arrangements must be kept under constant review.

Particularly because of the negative publicity that this place has encountered in the past few months, but also because of the importance of engaging with the public at a time when communications are improving so greatly throughout the globe, it is important that the methods with which Parliament engages the public are always kept under scrutiny. I am pleased to say that the new visitor centre seems to have had much success. As well as providing enhanced security, it offers better reception and information facilities for those people who visit this place.

I think that the 1 million-plus visitors who have been through the new visitor centre would certainly have better comments to make about their visit than those who visited under the previous arrangement. Tours of the Palace of Westminster are always popular and 130,000 MP-sponsored tours is certainly no mean feat.

I am also pleased that the exhibitions that we hold regularly in various parts of the estate are continuing. Often, they are sponsored by Members, and they are a valuable way to ensure that charities and similar organisations that would not otherwise receive showcase publicity have the opportunity to receive such publicity when they hold an exhibition on the estate.

Education is always a matter of importance. I am delighted that there were 36,000 school visits to the Palace last year, which is an increase of about 25 per cent. It is worth noting that, when it comes to elections, young people aged between 18 and 24 are the most disenchanted group of people and the group least likely to exercise their vote. So, it is important that we try to engage an interest in the world of politics among those young people, because what happens here impacts on their lives.

I repeat that I am particularly pleased that we have had so many school visits. If the hon. Member for North Devon is able to enlighten us further, I shall look forward to hearing about the progress of the feasibility study for a dedicated education centre. I believe that that centre, if its construction goes ahead, is proposed for 2012-13.

Furthermore, I very much welcome the travel subsidies that have been provided for schools outside London for visits to Parliament. On the first day that the subsidies were available, it was good to see that they had all been taken up; that is certainly a good sign for the future. Again, it would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman said how many schools made use of the subsidies and in what areas they were located, whether in outer London or much further afield. It would also be helpful to know what types of school-primary, senior and so on-arranged visits.

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As always in this debate, I conclude by thanking all the people who really make this place work, in addition to the House of Commons Commission and the Management Board. The list is extensive, but it includes the cleaners, the caterers, the Clerks and the support staff. They are the people who rarely get a mention and who-dare I say it?-perhaps are not thanked as often as they ought to be. Consequently, it was good of the Clerk of the House to invite some people who have served in the House for a long period to an event that simply marked their service. It is no bad thing that, as life gets more complicated, rushed and stressful, all those in a position of seniority take the time to thank all the other people who make their lives that much easier.

3.4 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons (Barbara Keeley): I am pleased to be debating the House of Commons Commission's annual report under your chairmanship, Mr. Sheridan.

This Monday was the 10th anniversary of Westminster Hall first being used as our second debating chamber. In 1998, the Modernisation Committee recommended establishing Westminster Hall for that purpose. I understand that the recommendation was not met with great support across the House. However, I think people feel that this one-time innovation has been a great success, notwithstanding the small number of Members who have joined us today for this debate.

I, too, congratulate the House of Commons Commission on the hard work that it has put in during what we all recognise to have been a very difficult year. In addition, I thank the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) for representing the Commission in five oral question sessions and for answering 198 written parliamentary questions; it is an impressive amount for the small team dealing with them and for the hon. Gentleman.

I, too, thank Dorian Gerhold, the Clerk to the Commission. For their work as members of the Commission, I also thank the Leader of the House of Commons, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman); the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the shadow Leader of the House of Commons; and my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell). Finally, I thank Mr. Speaker for his work as Chair of the Commission.

The Commission works to ensure that the House of Commons supports the important work of Members of Parliament in serving their communities, and I commend its work. We could not do our work without the work that supports us.

I know that staff of the House and members of the Commission have worked very hard recently. All Members who are present today have touched on the difficulty of resolving the issues related to freedom of information and Members' allowances. I hope that the measures we have already taken, and the measures we will continue to take, ensure that we can rebuild the reputation of the House after the crisis that engulfed us earlier this year.

As the hon. Member for North Devon indicated, the report we are debating relates to the financial year 2008-09, which was before the issues related to allowances emerged. The important themes in the report have
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already been referred to, but they are greater accountability in Parliament, better outreach and better engagement with the public. They have been the focus of much of the Commission's work.

The annual report details many successes in that work, from the opening of the new Members Centre-given the comments today, Members are clearly very happy with it-to the efforts to widen access to the House for schools. I will return to the point about schools.

On the issue of supporting scrutiny, the annual report refers to the establishment of Regional Select Committees-a new challenge throughout the year. Setting up those Committees established for the first time a means to ensure regional accountability of the work of Parliament. I believe-others may not agree-that those Committees have made an excellent start in their task of scrutinising regional development agencies. The other side of that work was ensuring that the regions were in a good position to tackle the economic downturn.

Continuing the regional theme, the House agreed to establish Regional Grand Committees. Staff of the House then acted quickly to establish the infrastructure that would allow the work of the Committees to begin as soon as possible. Since March, all but one of the Committees have met and a third of MPs eligible to attend have attended their sittings. We can look at those Committees in more detail in a year's time, but I understand that their overall tone was good-humoured and that there were lively question and answer sessions. I thank the doorkeepers, the Clerks of the House and everyone else who supported those Committees.

I commend the approach that the House has taken generally to new ideas and trialling those ideas. It would be easy for a long-established organisation to be bogged down in convention, but the report shows that staff and Committees of the House are always trying new things. For instance, a number of improvements have helped to support the legislative process. The Public Bill Office undertook an experiment in providing explanatory statements on amendments to three Bills in Committee. That trial was extended to all Public Bill Committees in February.

The Equality Bill, which was considered on Report in the House yesterday, was also the first Bill in the Session to contain interleaved explanatory memorandums throughout the Bill. That important trial was conducted to make Bills more accessible to the public. The other thing about the Bill was the easy-read version-another important innovation.

Engaging and communicating more effectively with the public are essential to the work of the House, and we must continue to give them high priority. I know that Mr. Speaker, as Chair of the Commission, does so.

Other Members touched on the launch of the new website, which was an achievement. Although there are reservations about it, we seem to agree that it is now more accessible and that it should help the public. Just before I came to the debate, I spent a little time looking at some of the new things on it, and it is much clearer. In terms of outreach and extending access, there is much more interesting information on it for the public. A couple of weeks ago, we had the state opening of Parliament, and the website had an interesting item showing the Queen's Speech from 1958. There is also a YouTube video of the Lord Speaker talking about the state opening.

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The decision to add a YouTube channel was another positive step, which will enable more people to engage with the debates that take place on the Floor of the House and to learn about the different services of the House and the different events and occasions that take place here. As Members will have found, there is great interest in the 150th anniversary of Big Ben, and there is a lot of focus on it. There are some wonderfully informative videos about Big Ben and the clock tower on the website, as well as question-and-answer sessions with Mr. Speaker. Overall, the improvements to the website have made it simpler for Members to use, but there is obviously always extra work that can be done with IT.

On IT generally, I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), but the issue perhaps needs more focus. As the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara), said, PICT has definitely improved its services, although there had been considerable cause for complaint.

I would highlight a number of issues. I agree that we need to get better value for money for our equipment. One evening recently, I was here until quite late and I found two Members from the 2001 intake complaining that the IT equipment in their constituencies was virtually unusable. I felt that the laptop issued to me in 2005 was getting out of date, but I was horrified to learn that they had laptops from 2001. My early career was with IBM, and employees there would not keep laptops for such a long period and expect them to keep working.

With a major contract with one supplier, we must look to get better value for money and more frequent replacements. In the summer recess, my laptop played up to such an extent that I was not really able to get on with much work. If we carry on with the surveys, I think that we will find that there is a continuing complaint about access from our constituencies. My constituency office has not had much access to IT over the whole of the past week and a half. I am not yet a BlackBerry user, but personal digital assistants and BlackBerrys would help to improve Members' productivity.

Like other Members, I want to talk about encouraging access and visits from schools. As an MP from the north-west of England, I would like much more to be done to encourage schools from outside London to visit Parliament. The costs and time required to travel here from the north-west, and the difficulty of fitting in with the visiting hours of the House, make it virtually impossible for schools from my constituency to come down here.

Mr. Heath: As a Member from the south-west, I am sure that we have many of the same difficulties. One thing that makes visits even more difficult is the fact that so many of the visitor slots are taken by more local MPs. That is particularly true of slots later in the day, which people arriving from the country's further recesses would actually be able to take advantage of. Members who are trying to arrange tours from further afield should have some priority.

Barbara Keeley: I very much agree. I really promote visits to the House when I visit schools, but I get a look of blank incomprehension when I describe the details of what they would entail. Only one or two schools
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from my constituency have made it down here. Generally, schools have to leave at four or five in the morning, which is just not possible for young children. We must do something about that.

The work of the education service on this issue is important. The Administration Committee suggested a pilot to subsidise school travel to Parliament, and I understand that it was fully booked on the first day, which suggests that there is tremendous demand out there. Indeed, I understand that schools that do not normally visit Parliament have made bookings under the pilot, but we could do a lot more. We need to help young people to learn about Parliament and the work that goes on here. We could and should carry on doing more to improve access from the regions.

Like other Members, I want to touch on the recent pilot use of the main Chamber by the UK Youth Parliament, which can only have helped matters. The material, the videos and everything else about the event shows that it was a great success. It was a historic occasion, and the young people were very impressive when they delivered their speeches. I hope that we will enable the young people in our Youth Parliament to make their debates an annual event.

The outreach programme was launched in 2008 to spread awareness of the work and relevance of Parliament. It has involved giving training sessions on the workings of Parliament and on how individuals can become involved, as well as holding exhibitions, and I agree with the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire that that is vital. Those exhibitions and that information need to go around the country.

As historic institutions, the Houses of Parliament are the subject of many academic studies. We should also refer to the parliamentary archives, which provide an important service to the large number of visitors that they receive each year. It is important that the wider public understand the historic significance of Parliament, and work such as the collaboration between the archives and the BBC's "Who Do You Think You Are?" programme can only have done wonders for Parliament's profile. That mixing of a popular programme with the work of the archives is key, and I hope that it encouraged more people to visit. The House also continues to give grant in aid support to the History of Parliament Trust, which does vital work.

The Overseas Office assisted with 124 visits from overseas groups last year, and I recently met a delegation from Vietnam. I also met the Deputy Speaker from Ghana, and it was very interesting to see the different way in which they legislate there. Indeed, the Deputy Speaker gave me a couple of ideas, which I hope that we might take forward. Such visits provide the opportunity to share experience and knowledge from different legislatures, which is important.

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