Administration Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 13

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Administration Committee

on Monday 24 October 2011

Members present:

Sir Alan Haselhurst (Chair)

Rosie Cooper

Thomas Docherty

Mr Kevan Jones

Tessa Munt

Nigel Mills

Bob Russell

Mr Dave Watts

Mike Weatherley

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Simon Blackburn, Head of Visitor Services, Houses of Parliament, and Aileen Walker, Director of Public Information, House of Commons, gave evidence.

Q38 Chair: Thank you very much indeed for joining us this afternoon. You are acquainted with the nature and scope of this inquiry that we are undertaking. I wonder, Simon, do you want to make any opening statement?

Simon Blackburn: I will, if I may, Sir Alan. I have to say, it is very strange as a career clerk to find myself on this side of the horseshoe. There are three main parts to Visitor Services, which I hope have come out in my paper. The first is visitor access and information, which is our bread and butter work, day in day out getting people into the Palace and Chambers. The Paper includes a worked example of some of the pressures that the entrances are under at sitting times. I think it is important that we consider access to the Palace in the broadest manner possible. It is possible to get visitors to use different entrances as long as security within the building is okay, and there is a means of taking them safely from whichever entrance they do use to wherever they are required without them going into an area where access is not controlled. But wherever they are brought into the building I want them to get a high-quality welcome. While we are talking about different entrances, you will be delighted to hear that I can answer some questions on Black Rod’s Garden Entrance and pass swiping there, if you want, later on.

I mentioned a high-quality welcome, which means a friendly welcome. When you arrive you do not just meet a policeman with a gun, there is somebody to talk to you, somebody managing the queue, somebody showing you the way and somebody giving you information. Only about seven years ago, if you wanted to go into the Gallery you were queuing outside in the rain and there were no Visitor Assistants helping you and telling you why there was a queue or what was going on. So we have moved on a long way, but there is still further to go My team is also responsible for the tour script, the other visitor information, the material we give visitors-leaflets, pamphlets-and obviously we welcome any feedback or ideas you have on those.

The second main limb of Visitor Services is the sponsored tours. Hopefully the Paper shows that they do not cause huge queues as they tend to arrive at different times to the main business of the Houses. Tours are now led by qualified guides. You will be familiar with the Central Tours Office, who book tours for your guests. They are absolutely flat out. Demand is huge, and we know we cannot meet the demand. That is not helped by the occasions when Members flout the rules, and perhaps something we might discuss is the impact of new sitting hours, which I think the Procedure Committee is looking at. If you went to a nine to five sitting day then we would have some interesting dilemmas about when to bring in your guests for tours.

Q39 Rosie Cooper: Would it not be easier to close the place down?

Simon Blackburn: Sorry?

Q40 Rosie Cooper: Would it be easier just to close the doors? I hate to be such a bother.

Simon Blackburn: It would depend whether the House of Lords was sitting; we could show them round there. But it is a dilemma.

The third limb is commercial tours. We have been doing that for 12 years now. They are award winning; we have had excellent feedback. Starting in Westminster Hall has some pros and cons. A benefit for us is a nice, dry marshalling space, where if people arrive early they can have a drink and use the toilets. Is the shop in the wrong place? Yes, absolutely; if we could go downstairs and move it now, as a Committee, I would be delighted to help you do that. Do we make enough from catering and retail? Probably not; industry standards suggest that about 40% of visitor spend should be on catering and retail and we know it is not.

We now have a well-established summer programme, so we have extended that on to Saturdays. We are looking at specialist tours, including art and architecture. But we are a long way from somewhere like Buckingham Palace. In its summer programme it handles about 64,000 people each week. Our capacity is 18,000. It has economies of scale that we cannot begin to benefit from. So perhaps we could look at the way we give people tours. Perhaps there should be more self-guided tours. That was ruled out by the Administration Committee back in 1999/2000, so maybe you would like to revisit that as part of your inquiry.

I would like to end by emphasising that we are not standing still, and we are very keen to hear your suggestions for further improving the service.

Q41 Thomas Docherty: Just a couple of opening questions. I am conscious that a number of colleagues will want to come in. You will be aware that the Procedure Committee is simultaneously doing an inquiry into sitting hours, and there are many options on the table. One which some Members are supporting is moving the sitting hours of the House to, for example, starting at half-past 9 on a Tuesday and running through to 6 pm to enable them to get to the theatre or whatever else they want to do in the evenings. You can see where I am lying with this one: what would be the impact on your department’s ability to bring visitors into the House if every day bar Monday there was a 10.30 kick-off, or even a 9.30 kick-off in the House?

Simon Blackburn: To some extent we have that on Wednesdays, where the House of Commons sits early, but the Lords do not sit until after lunch. We can bring people in and they get a smaller tour. They can see the Royal Apartments and the House of Lords, so there is something we could offer them. Capacity would decrease, but I think the Procedure Committee is also looking at moving Friday’s business, seeing whether that business could be moved to another time in the week. If we knew that the House of Commons would never sit on a Friday, for example, then we could programme more tours for Friday mornings without running the risk of then losing that Friday once the sitting calendar was announced. So there are pros and cons.

Q42 Rosie Cooper: Closing the doors is really an option.

Simon Blackburn: Not as far as I am concerned. Bringing people in is absolutely at the heart of what the House should be doing, so I really do not want to close the doors.

Q43 Thomas Docherty: I am conscious that you are a Clerk and thus skilled in the non-answer, but if I look at pages 3 and 4 of the Paper that you very kindly prepared, you set out a table of events on a typical Tuesday, which run between 3 o’clock and half-past 7 or 8 pm. I think there is some debate about prioritisation, and there are different sides. If we asked the Banqueting Service, they might suggest that their events as revenue raisers are important. Select Committees clearly are a distinct parliamentary activity, but lots of APPGs and receptions are not strictly parliamentary activities. Have you had dialogue with your colleagues in Banqueting Services and elsewhere about how you manage those queues and conflicting demands? And if so, what consensus if any has broken out amongst the departments?

Simon Blackburn: We have not had dialogue. As it stands, Visitor Services is there to manage what happens. Banqueting is allowed to bring in whoever it wants, and we make sure that that happens to the best of our ability. There is a forum, which I have touched on in the Paper-and John Pullinger was here last week in his role as Chairman of the Parliamentary Visitor Board-which brings together facilities, security, banqueting and so on. But no, as it stands, we see ourselves as an enabling part of the organisation, and once the people are invited in we help them get in.

Aileen Walker: Just before Simon joined Visitor Services the Parliamentary Visitor Board did look at this issue of banqueting, APPGs and Members’ meetings. The events calendar, which is reproduced in this Paper, sets out what we know in advance is coming, but there is no central body that organises everything. Visitor Services organise Members’ visitors and commercial visitors; the catering and retail departments organise the banqueting. We did ask the Banqueting Departments in both Houses to do a study for us to see whether there is anything that could be managed, and some staggering of events was introduced. But it did not make an appreciable difference because there are so many people coming at meal times, reception times.

Q44 Thomas Docherty: But Mrs Walker, when you and I and Mr Weir were sitting on the first sub-group, it struck me as the first time-and it was-that the various functions had got together to discuss some of those issues. And this surprises me. It is clearly an ongoing problem, and yet the House authorities are not talking to themselves.

Aileen Walker: I think the House authorities are talking, but without a Member instruction as to a priority, which group of guests or visitors should get precedence, there is a limit to what the authorities can do.

Thomas Docherty: Okay, that is a fair point.

Q45 Mr Jones: Perhaps the answer would be to actually spread people around the entrances. I had a reception here a couple of weeks ago for Cardiac Risk in the Young, a charity I am involved with. If I had told everybody that they should arrive through Portcullis or a different entrance to spread it out that would have been helpful, surely? I know that at the same time as that reception there were at least two other receptions on. Surely it would be best to spread the load around; if I had told that charity, for example, "Make sure guests arrive through Portcullis rather than Palace Green," would that not have helped in trying to spread the load at certain times?

Simon Blackburn: Absolutely. There are times when it would, and that is why I touched on needing a means of securely getting the guests within the Estate to wherever they want to be. But then there are times of day when, at the same time as these people are coming in, there is a queue at Portcullis House and a queue at Black Rod’s Garden.

Q46 Mr Jones: Yes, I appreciate I was going to get that; you cannot avoid that because of the numbers. But I think that would at least be a start, trying to spread people around so you have an idea. For example, if you expect 100 people to turn up at Palace Green or Portcullis or one of the other entrances, you could be ready for it. I think most charities and most Members who were having events like that would co-operate and include it on the information that went out. At least you would be able to spread it out.

Can I just pick up on a couple of things? First of all, I think the introduction of the Visitor Assistants has made a real difference. I know when I was first elected, frankly, you got a route off the policeman and this, that and the other. The assistants are well turned out, which I think is important in terms of presenting the face of Parliament, but also very helpful, especially if you have got visitors with disabilities. They are very knowledgeable, so credit to them for what they have done.

Can I just touch on a couple of issues you mentioned? One is about Members abusing the system. Mr Docherty and I had cause to raise the case of one particular Member who tends to bring about 100 of his constituents in unannounced. What is your way of dealing with that? The other issue is the shop. Where would you ideally put it? Regarding the Saturday offer, which obviously gives you flexibility to use Saturdays, is there any possibility of using Sundays as well, perhaps during the summer when there are a lot of tourists in London? I know the poor Visitor Assistants will not thank you for having to work Sundays. Has the possibility of having a Sunday offer as well for the tours been looked at?

Simon Blackburn: I will take those questions in turn. When Members abuse the rules, we ask the Serjeant at Arms to contact them, and it is the same process as when there is a breach of any rule in the House. I do not get involved in discipline.

Q47 Mr Jones: How often does it happen?

Simon Blackburn: During my time in this role I was asking the Serjeant to write a couple of letters each week, in the summer recess.

Q48 Mr Jones: Was it the same Member?

Simon Blackburn: No, it was never the same Member more than once. But that just means we are not necessarily catching them. We do not dedicate resources to the problem by sending people out there spotting-maybe we should.

Where would I put the shop? This might be a question for Mr Morgan, when you speak to him in a moment. Ideally you would put it just before people leave the building, which means in the current Estate it would be in Westminster Hall or one of the rooms off it. In terms of Saturdays and Sundays, we have looked at it. The overtime costs for security in particular would mean that we would struggle not to lose money on the operation. The Serjeant at Arms will be able to give you more information about the security costs.

Q49 Mr Jones: Now that we have this very sophisticated key system, is there not a way of reducing security costs by locking off more of the actual route on a Saturday or Sunday?

Simon Blackburn: It is just the cost of the staff on the X-ray machines and those on the route themselves.

Q50 Bob Russell: I have one observation. I am concerned that another Committee of the House is considering changing the sitting hours on a Tuesday, if that is what I heard correctly. It does strike me as a lack of joined-up thinking within the House, if that is the case. I am sure you can remember, Chairman, when the House did have different sitting hours on a Tuesday, which turned out to be something of a disaster, and we reinstated what we have now. It would cause me serious concern if we altered Tuesday’s hours, not only for the reasons that have been said here, but also because it would virtually destroy the whole concept of visits from the constituencies, schoolchildren, retired pensioners groups and what-have-you. Tuesday morning is now basically the only day when a Member of Parliament can welcome constituents for morning tours, unless they come up on Sunday night to be here for Monday.

Kevan Jones has now left his seat, but I need to ask through you, Chairman, whether there would not be serious security concerns if outsiders were coming for events in this building via Portcullis House and vice versa. My understanding is that the free movement of those other than pass holders from Portcullis House into the main Palace is not allowed, so I do not think there is a question of dispersing people for events here via Portcullis House because of all the security considerations. Apart from moving the souvenir shop to a more acceptable location, I think we now have a very successful formula; the Education Service, the tour guides and those who welcome the public should be congratulated. I am anxious that in trying to increase numbers and revenue we may in the process lose what we already have, and I think we need to be very careful. Let’s go with what we have got, improve it where that is possible, but please do not try and completely restructure it because I think we would end up with something that we may not wish for.

Simon Blackburn: I agree with a lot of what you have said. In terms of what we could do on Tuesday mornings, I should have said before that it is not impossible to look at, for example, education groups coming in and watching the live feed and having some commentary on that. So perhaps they do not see the entire building, but there is more explanation of what it is you are doing.

Q51 Bob Russell: I will come back on that. I think part of the experience of the visit, particularly for youngsters, is to go into the Main Chamber of the House of Commons. They might as well stay back in the constituency and watch it on television if they only see a live feed. It is physically going through that Chamber, where the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition have their Wednesday morning exchanges, that is the important part of the visit, and there are all the other aspects that go with this place. The fact that the Chamber is not in use does not mean to say that Parliament is not operating. There is a whole range of Select Committees and other meetings going on, Chairman. If another Committee of the House is considering destroying Tuesday, are we going to have joined-up thinking with this other Committee, whoever they are?

Chair: I think the purpose of these sessions is to ask questions of our witnesses really.

Bob Russell: I am defending what we have got.

Chair: Yes, but I do not think we want to get too involved with what the Procedure Committee is doing. Anyone who is aware of what they are up to and does not like it has the opportunity to make representations to it, and to do so, if I may respectfully say so, very quickly indeed. I take it we would have a view as to the optimum balance between access to the Palace for our constituents and the sitting hours. Hopefully we will come out with fairly definitive views on that.

Bob Russell: Well my views are now on the record.

Chair: Absolutely. But you will not always find the Chairman so tolerant.

Q52 Tessa Munt: Can I just offer my congratulations to the Education Service, which has been nothing but absolutely brilliant? Can I pick you up on a couple of things I think you said, which may conflict slightly with points that you have made at other times? Do I sense that you were saying there is no real priority system? Or is there one, but you are just trying to get everybody through as fast as you possibly can? Is the priority system just for you to get people through?

Simon Blackburn: There is the priority system that is set out in the Paper, which applies to business guests-so, for example, people advising Ministers. They go to the front of the queue for security. What I meant to say was that there is no system of prioritising room bookings or anything like that. We could in theory have simultaneous events in every single banqueting facility, every single committee room and the Jubilee Room, and every other room you can think of, for which people were invited into the Palace. We do not prioritise why we bring people in.

Q53 Tessa Munt: I am sure you have a view on what the priority might be.

Simon Blackburn: I do personally, but I think it is a decision for Members to make.

Q54 Tessa Munt: Indeed, I am completely aware of that. I do not know whether you are allowed to give a view, but certainly I would imagine if there is food involved you want to get people in faster than if they are sitting and talking, but that might clash with other departments in the House.

Simon Blackburn: When all-party groups host a talk that is not necessarily attended by Members of either House, you have to look at why that is taking place here and not, for example, in a university or a think tank. That is the one example I would give.

Tessa Munt: Are we allowed to ask, Chairman, for the views, or is that our job? It just strikes me that people actually do the job-

Chair: We are taking evidence, and we shall come to a view.

Q55 Tessa Munt: Yes, fine. Well maybe you would like to send us your views, because I am sure you have experience of it. You mentioned Buckingham Palace having a capacity of 64,000 guests per week, and that our capacity is only 18,000, and there is no way we could possibly do that. Can you just outline for me in words of one syllable what restrictions or constraints forbid us from doing 64,000 per week. I am not saying we would want to; I would just like to know.

Simon Blackburn: My understanding is that when the House debated having a commercial opening in addition to the sponsored tours, which was back in 1999/2000, a lot of Members were opposed to the idea that anybody should be charged to come into this building for any reason. A compromise was reached that you would be charged to go on a tour and you were paying for the tour guide, but the access to the building was free. We technically still operate on that basis. You could change that and charge people to come into the building, and then charge extra to have a tour guide. You could also have a self-led tour, which is how Buckingham Palace works, or one of those audio guides that you often see in museums or art galleries. We have not crunched the numbers, but I think you would probably be able to get through slightly more people if that was the case. It would then move to an operation where, instead of having groups of 25 going round with their own guide, you would have what a museum would call a gallery assistant or warden based in each room to answer questions. That is a different way of doing things, and I think we have reached a point now where we need to examine whether that is a different way of offering what we do.

But to go back to the point that was just made, what we have at the moment is award- winning and very successful, and you do not want to make wholesale changes to it and risk losing the good will we have and not winning the awards that we are winning.

Q56 Tessa Munt: I would be quite interested in having your views generally, because we have an award-winning place. I am sure we can constantly change without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Simon Blackburn: That is also one of the reasons so far why our plans for expansion have been adding to the range of tours, for example, specialist tours of the art collection in Portcullis House. We are offering a larger range of things and keeping that core product to the high standards that we have developed.

Tessa Munt: I am based in No. 1 Parliament Street, and it is never a problem for me to get people through because there is that little lobby area and they just whistle in. We seem to have a couple of people on a desk there; I am not sure what their purpose is when you are already in, because you are held in the airlock if you are a visitor anyway. But it seems an eminently sensible place for MPs to bring their single guest, or couple of guests, in.

Simon Blackburn: I entirely agree. I use it myself; even sometimes when I am based in the Palace I arrange to meet people there if they are coming from Whitehall. If you can help us get that message out to your fellow Members that would be very helpful.

Tessa Munt: Yes, it would need a bit of management, I suppose. We might have to make the airlock a bit bigger, but that is not impossible.

Q57 Chair: Am I right in thinking that the story of Parliament is best told from the South end to the North? What I am getting at is that this trailing of people through the building takes time and is often very difficult to manage. People do not walk at the same pace, you can lose them, and they inevitably stop and look at the wonders they are seeing, thinking that they may not see them on the way back, despite whatever instruction they have been politely given. Have we not got to set our sights on getting the line of route reorganised to what it was before?

Simon Blackburn: There is a very strong argument from the South end to the North. I should point out the Hansard Society has published a report today which suggests North end to the South. If we start at Black Rod’s Garden Entrance we have the issue of making sure that the people who are waiting to do their tour can wait in a comfortable environment, and go to the toilet without having to be accompanied by our staff because the toilets are in a secure area of the Palace.

Q58 Chair: Forgive me, you are imputing into my question that I think that Black Rod’s Garden is the only answer to it. I am merely asking you a basic question. Should we not aim at having the tour moving from South to North as it used to do, and is that not the logical pathway?

Simon Blackburn: The view coming round the corner from St Stephen’s Hall into Westminster Hall is a brilliant thing to show people. To have that as the tour finale would be perfect.

Q59 Chair: With the shop and the cafeteria at the end, at the moment. The other question is about the Cromwell Green Entrance. Mr Spellar is not able to be with us today, but he feels strongly that, even as it is, it is underused. In your view, is it possible by certain changes within it that one could achieve a faster flow of people? We understand from Mr Pullinger-you may have seen the evidence-that the projected number of 1,000 per hour is down to 500 per hour.

Simon Blackburn: To be honest, Visitor Services treat that building almost as a black box. We get people up to the door and then take them back again once they are out the other side. You would be better off asking the Serjeant at Arms and speaking to the experts about how the security operates. My understanding is that the second camera in there, which you saw, is just a back-up camera in case the first one breaks down, and that is why it is not used.

Q60 Chair: So you would encourage us to look at that?

Simon Blackburn: Absolutely, yes. But I am afraid I cannot answer.

Q61 Chair: No. This is a question I put to Mr Pullinger for his opinion last week. Would it help if we could physically separate out, as we used to do-and have the black cabin at the other side of St Stephen’s Entrance-those who were coming for specific purposes such as to give evidence in Select Committees from those who were coming on the tours?

Simon Blackburn: The people who are coming for Select Committees already go straight to the front of the queue and have no delay whatsoever. It delays the main queue. Would more search lanes help either in the building or in a separate building? At peak times, yes, of course they would. There are costs, and again the Serjeant at Arms can tell you how much it costs to staff a security lane. Would we get permission for a black cabin?

Q62 Chair: We had it before. It strikes me that if one of the two lanes down at the Cromwell Green Entrance is deliberately being maintained for fast-tracking you are reducing capacity. It must be, or there would be no point in doing it.

Simon Blackburn: We are making the queue longer and thinner, because once they get to the door, as you saw for yourselves, everybody has their photo taken. Having two streams of people coming up to that does not reduce the rate at which they take photos.

Q63 Thomas Docherty: This is a quick one, on the issue of witnesses. Why can’t you talk to the Select Committee Clerks and just agree that any witnesses would go to, for argument’s sake, Portcullis House, and be met by someone from the Clerks’ office to be taken to their Select Committee? Is that not the obvious joined-up thing that this place does not do?

Simon Blackburn: I can certainly talk to them. I do not think anybody has ever suggested that before. I am not sure all Committees have the staff resources to do that, especially when they have a stream of witnesses arriving at different times, but we can ask the Committee Office whether they are able to do that. Lords Committees may not want their visitors going in at Portcullis House.

Q64 Thomas Docherty: To be fair, that is not our problem. That is the Lords’ business.

Simon Blackburn: But that goes back to the point I tried to make at the start. I think visitors have to be treated in the round. You may need to sit down with the Administration and Works Committee and share some of these things with them because we would still need the fast track at Cromwell Green for the Lords Committee witnesses, even if your witnesses were going to Portcullis House.

Q65 Chair: We come up against this question: often we cannot afford what might be the most convenient way for valued visitors, in whatever category, to come into this building, or to do the things that would make their actual passage through the Palace better. Is this not true, and this it not an uncomfortable situation?

Simon Blackburn: Yes, and yes.

Q66 Rosie Cooper: I will start very positively. I have to agree with the comments made about the Education Service, it is absolutely superb. All the work that has been going in is really, really good.

I would like to just ask you very quickly a number of questions. I believe the core business is the work of this House, and I am crazy enough to think that when people are coming to meet MPs, or going to Select Committees, they should not have to wait up to an hour or more on occasions. People with a disability just cannot stand that length of time in a queue. You just said that people who are coming to see MPs or going to Select Committees are moved to the front of the queue. Can I tell you that I have numerous examples where that is not true and/or the policemen have put people back in the queue, and I just could not wait any longer to see them?

Simon Blackburn: Are they giving evidence to a Committee?

Q67 Rosie Cooper: No, not just people giving evidence, people coming in to meet MPs. For example, if I have a meeting at 3 or 4 o’clock, or whenever it is, it has happened on a number of occasions that they have thought arriving three quarters of an hour early would be fine. One person came out of the queue, spoke to the policeman because they were worried about how late they were, and they were told to go back into the queue in their position. I could not wait any longer and did not see them. That is wasting my time and their time. It is absolutely crazy.

Simon Blackburn: Can I set up a meeting with you outside of this meeting to discuss that, because that is very concerning.

Q68 Rosie Cooper: Absolutely, I would be very grateful for that. Could you talk about Black Rod’s Entrance, and why Members with passes actually have to use it three times? In your report you talk about the idea that to get people through more quickly they should perhaps not have bags. How are you going to handle even the thought of stopping people bringing bags into the building? And finally I wanted to ask, you talked about MPs flouting the rules, and I heard Kevan give an example of somebody bringing 100 people.

Mr Jones: It was me actually, I think.

Rosie Cooper: Could you describe other examples of flouting the rules because I have not got a clue? I cannot get one person in.

Simon Blackburn: On Black Rod’s Garden Entrance you will remember that everybody used to go through the same doorway, which meant that if there was a queue of non-pass holders waiting to come through you would have to elbow your way through that queue and wave your pass at the security officer. We now have a situation where we have separated pass holders and visitors. Visitors now have two search lanes, so we get people through more quickly. They also have a much better waiting room, and they do not have pass holders elbowing their way through.

To do that we have had to automate the pass holder entrance, which means swiping your pass, and it is not always getting checked by a security officer. My understanding is that the advice of the security officials is that to avoid tailgating you have to go through several different doorways, and then you have that final inner doorway that also has a pass control on it, because otherwise visitors who come through their room would be able to get into the Palace without being supervised as they went in through that final door. If we were not dealing with a Victorian Palace and people who stopped us from knocking doors through walls where we wanted to, we would not have that situation.

Q69 Rosie Cooper: Okay. What I cannot get is: using what you have just described, I can understand you might use your pass twice. But you are talking about three times. Flash, flash, and then you do not just use the door that you are talking about, the final door; you have to punch in a number. Why three times?

Simon Blackburn: As of last week you do not punch in that number. They have changed it, they have made it easier. They have listened to what we have been saying. It is not ideal, but they have made a step in the right direction.

You also asked about bringing bags into the building, which I am not sure I covered in my Paper.

Q70 Rosie Cooper: Sorry, I may have read it-

Simon Blackburn: Is it Mr Speaker’s statement?

Q71 Rosie Cooper: Yes, I may have read it somewhere else, sorry.

Simon Blackburn: My reading of the statement suggests that there will be a risk assessment for Select Committee hearings. So to use this one as an example, I would like to think that you were not a high target, and I was not a high target, so members of the public would be allowed to come in with bags. It is very high-profile events, for which the assessment is that there is a risk to the witness or to Members, where people would not be allowed to bring bags in. My understanding is that they have not yet worked out how that will be managed. It is a new idea and they need to work out how to do it.

An example of flouting some of the rules is that, over the summer, a Member had invited a group down and had asked their staff to take the people round. Knowing that they were not allowed to take round more than six, their staff got two of their friends who worked for different Members, and took them round in three groups. That would have more or less worked if they had stayed as three groups, but as soon as they started going round they clumped together as one big group. The problem is that the tour guides are trained, and one of the things they get trained on is how to manage groups of people and not get in other groups’ way, and how to communicate without disturbing others. When you have large groups being led by Members, Members’ staff and other pass holders, they get in the way, stand in the wrong places, and make it hard for the people who have paid to hear what we are wanting to tell them. This slows the flow of people down.

The best example I can give you is the mark where Black Rod knocks on the Chamber door. A trained tour guide will point that out and say, "As we walk past it, have a look at this," and not stop there because it is blocking a doorway. An untrained person will stand in the doorway with their group of people and clog up the entire route.

Rosie Cooper: Might I just ask one further question.

Chair: Quickly, because I am trying to move on now.

Q72 Rosie Cooper: Very quickly, you talked before about people changing the way tours are done, people guiding themselves with perhaps information on disc or a cassette or whatever. How would that work security-wise? To me this is both ends of the spectrum; we are trying to keep everyone locked down, and now we are saying, "Well as long as you have got this, away you go."

Simon Blackburn: We have now got to a point where trying to leave most of the visitor route is quite hard. There are access controls on most of the doors, which are activated during recess periods. They tend not to be on when the Houses are sitting. To be clear, there would still be staff in every single room. There would be a security officer in every room, as now. We would still have guides along the route to answer questions, but we would not have such a staff-intensive operation, and we would make the guided tour a premium product that people might be charged more for.

Q73 Rosie Cooper: Have you worked out how much that might be?

Simon Blackburn: No, it is in our business plan for next year to work out how this might work.

Chair: Thank you very much indeed. If we could have Matthew Morgan and the Visitor Assistants, please.

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Matthew Morgan, Tours Manager, Houses of Parliament, Hannah Lister, Visitor Assistant Supervisor, Houses of Parliament, Mark Cullen, Visitor Assistant, Houses of Parliament, and Aileen Walker, Director of Public Information, House of Commons, gave evidence.

Q74 Chair: Do you want to start with some particular comments?

Matthew Morgan: Yes, a couple of quick words. Some of this Simon has already covered in his statements, but I wanted to talk about my role, what I do and some of the challenges and strengths in what we do. My role is Tours Manager, which is something I have been doing for just under 12 months. It looks after two facets: the Members’ tours, the tours that you and peers sponsor; and also the commercial tours that we run.

The commercial tours in some ways, especially as we are moving much more into an era of income generation, are those that face the greatest challenges. Ironically, the things that are strengths are also challenges. For example, we have got such an iconic building, which is a World Heritage Site, and also a working building, with a real living history, which is something that people are really interested in.

Mr Jones: Like you, Bob.

Matthew Morgan: From that point of view, the balance between the iconic building and the security issues that we have to face around that, the conservation issues we have, and the fact that we are also within a building that is working and living, is difficult to get right. We have to be able to deliver tours that generate income and are of interest to people, but also manage to walk that balance between making sure we can do all the other things that need to be done within the building.

That is also difficult in the economic era we are in now. Talking about income generation, we are a working building, but I think it is also worth recognising that within those barriers we are also a visitor attraction. We have to look at things within that remit. Other visitor attractions in periods of economic downturn like this will not cut back services. So we need to do more things, do more interesting things, which is why since 2010 we have introduced Saturday opening and are introducing the Portcullis House art and architecture tours. Later next year we will be doing art and architecture tours of the House of Lords and the Royal Apartments. We also want to work with the Catering and Retail departments to do more joined-up thinking, as has already been said today, such as running some joint events so that people coming to a tour can maybe go for an afternoon tea as well. We are also working on some premium tours.

This is a really successful formula that has worked very well. We have won two awards this year, which is excellent. The easy assumption would be that it is because we have got a fantastic building, which we do have. But so do Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey. The reason we won these awards is the service and the staff that we have. I think the biggest advance in welcoming visitors into the building has been the Visitor Assistants, and they are one of the key reasons why the product is so successful and has won those two awards.

I would like to extend the invitation to my colleagues to introduce themselves as well.

Hannah Lister: I am Hannah Lister. I have worked here for the past two years. I am now a Supervisor of the Visitor Assistants, and I line manage six of them. My day-to-day duties are co-ordinating tours and specialist talks for particular events, and I have a particular emphasis on helping with the Education Service, to liaise with managers there to get Visitor Assistants on board with their specialist tours and talks as well. Another sideline of mine is to get all of the Visitor Assistants dressed perfectly in this great uniform that Mark is sporting there next to me. I will pass you over to Mark.

Mark Cullen: My name is Mark Cullen. I am a Visitor Assistant and I have worked in the Houses of Parliament for four years in that job. Like all the other Visitor Assistants, my job is to welcome visitors into the Houses of Parliament, and direct and escort them around to their destination. It is also to engage visitors, to inform, inspire and promote Parliament. To do that, we inform people of the debates in the public galleries, and the Committees, and get people to see those. We also take visitors on tours around Parliament, work closely with the Education Service taking school groups on education tours, and also assist with the commercial tours on Saturdays and through the summer.

Q75 Chair: How many Visitor Assistants are there now?

Matthew Morgan: There are 35.

Q76 Chair: Is that enough?

Matthew Morgan: You can always have more.

Q77 Chair: I am looking for an educated estimate.

Matthew Morgan: To be honest with you, every single year we have increased our numbers because it has been such a success. We have got VAs working in the Education Service, at Black Rod’s Garden Entrance, at the Central Tours Office and the Information Office. I firmly believe that you cannot make the best use of all the security entrances with the number of VAs that we have now. If you want more use of those different entrances then you do need more VAs to back that up.

Aileen Walker: The last increase in VAs was as a result of a Member request. Because they are regarded as very useful, helpful and well-informed, a Member asked if they could be available in the evenings until the rise of the Houses. So the last increase was at a Member’s request, so that we could staff until the Houses rise.

Q78 Chair: How far is the whole exercise affected, putting it in a neutral word, by what presumably is the unquantifiable number of small tours undertaken by Members and their staff? Do you have a feel for the numbers, or for the fact that there are a lot of people moving around who have not come through the system, because they are twos, fours and sixes?

Matthew Morgan: Smaller groups are something that we can manage. On the commercial tours we put a limit of 30 permits for six people for a day. But we have many more people coming through on a commercial tour day; it can go up to 3,000, which is about double the capacity on a Members tour day. It is a challenge, certainly. We do not have people policing the line of route to ensure that people are standing in the right place or that people are not blocking up different areas. However, we teach the tour guides how to manage groups around other small groups. For example, if a group of six is standing in a place that might be slightly difficult, you would not go and stand right next to them. You would find an appropriate place where you could still deliver the tour. Smaller groups are manageable. The larger the groups the more difficult it is to manage, which is why we do set the limit of six people per pass holder.

Q79 Bob Russell: I understand why you want to limit the freelancers, if you like, of Members of Parliament and other pass holders, so I hope that can continue to be accommodated. What would happen to visitor numbers if you had Tuesday mornings taken away from you?

Matthew Morgan: As Simon said, if the Commons were to sit early, for example at 10.30 on a Tuesday morning, as it currently stands that would mean there would be no access to the House of Commons, Members’ Lobby, the Voting Lobbies and the Chamber itself-that end of the building. We could get the same number of people into the building as we do on a Wednesday morning, for example, but they would not be able to see that part of it.

Q80 Bob Russell: Do you agree that one of the prime reasons people like to have tours of the Houses of Parliament is to go into the Chamber of the House of Commons to see where the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition perform?

Matthew Morgan: I think it is fair to say that if you are coming to the Houses of Parliament you would be interested to go into the Chamber of the House of Commons.

Q81 Bob Russell: So if Tuesday was taken away from the hours of availability, that would not be a good move from your point of view.

Matthew Morgan: Members tours are heavily oversubscribed. Some people are happy to take a tour to see whatever part of the building they can, and they do very much enjoy that tour. But there are a number of people who come wanting to see the House of Commons Chamber and the House of Lords Chamber, so that would undoubtedly increase the pressure on other parts of the week.

Q82 Mr Jones: Can I first of all just say to Simon, that I think there has been a vast improvement since we have had Visitor Assistants? I can remember the days when we did not have them. Hannah, you are doing a very good job, making them all turn out looking very smart. One aspect that I have found valuable, and I think other Members have, is when you have got visitors with special needs and disabled visitors. I think you handle that very well. Frankly in the past there was nothing here for them. You stick with them and schedule lifts and things like that. It is a very valuable service to Members.

Matthew, can I just ask about income generation? I understand what Simon said about opening the entire building up on Saturdays and Sundays. You have also done some experiments with bespoke tours. A lot of attractions, whether they be country houses or anything else, do have bespoke tours for specialist groups who are prepared to pay to see certain things. The obvious thing I think of, for example, is the Record Office in terms of the bills, etc. Do you think there is an option at the weekend to do bespoke tours for people who are perhaps interested in architecture or the bills, and sell it to them as a specialist thing? You are probably not talking about vast numbers, but some of those people might pay quite a bit of money for a tour like that. Would it be possible to do that type of thing?

Matthew Morgan: Yes, absolutely. This is something that we are actively looking into at the moment. When I am talking about doing these bespoke tours, half the thinking behind those is initially to get the product right. Once you have got the product right you can see whether you can extend that to a more specialist and premium market, which there undoubtedly is. We get a number of people asking for exclusive tours of Parliament. There is definitely a demand out there. If you can deliver something which is outside of the expected, then people will be interested in that.

Q83 Mr Jones: And pay for it.

Matthew Morgan: And pay for it, yes.

Q84 Tessa Munt: Maybe I should have read it, I don’t know; I could not pick it up exactly, but what is the earliest tour you can do in the morning?

Matthew Morgan: At the moment it is 9 o’clock.

Q85 Tessa Munt: And what is the latest time you can start a tour?

Matthew Morgan: Five o’clock.

Q86 Tessa Munt: And what time does that tour finish?

Matthew Morgan: That tour will finish at 6.15. We also run something called Extraordinary Line of Route tours, and they are in conjunction with banqueting functions and can run right through till 7 o’clock, starting at 7 o’clock and finishing around halfpast 8.

Q87 Tessa Munt: Sorry, they can run through till 7 o’clock?

Matthew Morgan: Because they are tied in with banqueting functions, they will start either before or after a function. If a banqueting function is not starting until about 7 o’clock at night, tours will not run after that, but they can start before that, which means starting at 7 o’clock for about an hour and a quarter.

Q88 Tessa Munt: Why do we not run them in the evenings?

Matthew Morgan: We do run them in the evenings.

Q89 Tessa Munt: No, generally. I mean you are saying that is an extraordinary arrangement.

Matthew Morgan: Yes, that is correct. It is certainly something we can look at. The difficulty at the moment with opening the line of route entirely for the same sort of number is the staffing levels. But in terms of exclusive or specialist tours, that is a time that you could run them.

Q90 Tessa Munt: It strikes me that if we have a numbers problem, we have got people who want to come here, we certainly sit until 7 o’clock, finishing at maybe 7.30 or 7.40 on a Wednesday. It wouldn’t strike me as being unreasonable to run tours. I accept your point about staffing. Of course you would need staff. But am I misunderstanding? Are there any barriers to running tours into the evenings on a Wednesday evening and extending your Friday and Saturday service to a Wednesday evening?

Bob Russell: Are you aiming for 24 hours?

Tessa Munt: No, no, reasonable, personally.

Matthew Morgan: I think there is certainly potential for that. I would be surprised if there would be the same level of demand to do that on a week-to-week basis. If you look at the opening hours of other institutions that are running tours, it is unusual to be, on a week-to-week basis, running tours from 8 or 9 o’clock. Access to the gallery sharply decreases as you get later into the night. So you could certainly do it, but I would be surprised if the demand was the same.

Q91 Tessa Munt: Why does access to the gallery sharply decrease as the night goes on?

Matthew Morgan: Because fewer people come along and express their interest to come into the public gallery.

Q92 Tessa Munt: But if we were running tours, people could go into the Gallery, say, on an ordinary evening. Are you saying that on a Monday or Tuesday evening people do not want to go?

Matthew Morgan: I just mean that if you compare, for example, the numbers of people who will be coming along and wanting to go into the Public Gallery during the core hours of the day, and those who do so late at night, the number is reduced. I think you would see a similar trend in guided tours.

Q93 Tessa Munt: What is people’s understanding of what they can have when they first make contact with you? I am quite interested to know whether people feel they can walk into the Chamber any old time or not. I would imagine that most people would be quite surprised that they can go into the Chamber.

Matthew Morgan: You have the informed sector of society who will know what they are coming for and what they will see, and have even specified the debate and the time that they want to come. You will also have a number of people both from this country and from overseas who will not be aware of what they can see and do, but know that they can get in some way or other, and that is why the Visitor Assistants are here: to give them that information about what they can come to see and do.

Q94 Thomas Docherty: Correct me if I am wrong, Mrs Walker, but does some of this not go back to the discussions that we had around the cost? If we were running regular free-to-air, so to speak, tours when the House is not sitting on the evening, the Serjeant at Arms, whoever he or she may be in the future, may take a view of the cost of doing that. If tours run during the day when the House is sitting, am I right in thinking that the Serjeant at Arms effectively pays for that security out of his or her general pot? But if we were to go for a Wednesday or Thursday night round of tours, would the Serjeant-at-Arms come back to yourselves and say, just as there has been a discussion about banqueting security, there would have to be an additional security charge? Is that fair?

Aileen Walker: We did have that conversation, and yes, there would be additional security costs. But that is not to say that we could not cover the additional security costs; we would just have to work out what they were. We only relatively recently put forward the evening tours; the Exceptional Line of Route tours that Matt mentioned. Until that time we were not exactly sure how many tours there were in the evening. We now have a better idea; we have been collecting data. We now know what the situation is, and as part of our business plan going forward we are looking at opportunities for further tours on a charged basis.

Q95 Thomas Docherty: On a charged basis, not a free basis.

Aileen Walker: Yes.

Q96 Tessa Munt: But then of course you might have the opportunity to open the cafeteria and have the gift shop open, and to really stick people for a few extra bob.

Aileen Walker: Yes, but there are a lot of things that have to come together to make it work, and we are working on them.

Tessa Munt: That would pay, perhaps, for some of the costs of having the place open.

Q97 Chair: Can I ask Hannah whether there are difficulties sometimes with the customers? Do you have any real difficulties or challenges?

Hannah Lister: We definitely come across difficulties with people wanting to access the whole of the Palace, and to be able to wander off by themselves, which is obviously never going to be feasible as it is a working building. Generally, the main difficulties are ensuring that people understand absolutely everything that is going on inside the Chamber before they go to watch a live session, which we are really trying to improve with our Question Time talks. They are available for the first 20 people coming in to watch debates in the Commons Chamber. We go through a few procedures with regard to behaviour inside the Chamber so that people understand exactly what is going on. A lot of people are not aware of certain procedures: of people standing up, of having to ask the Speaker to talk, effectively. I know they seem like minor things, but a lot of people are not aware of all those different things.

Tessa Munt: I thought you meant general bad behaviour. Forgive me.

Q98 Bob Russell: Chairman, there is virtually a total ban on photographs, which I fully understand in Westminster. I am just wondering whether you could consider the possibility, as often happens in tourists visiting locations, of a professional photographer who actually takes the photographs of the lucky people with Big Ben in the background, or whatever. I just flag that up as a suggestion to be looked at so that people have a photo souvenir of their visit to the Houses of Parliament.

Chair: Well we are not sufficiently interested in taking pictures of ourselves with our visitors.

Bob Russell: I am not in the business of the cult of personality.

Chair: Tessa, quickly, because I want to move on.

Q99 Tessa Munt: One other thing. How many areas of the House have a loop system?

Matthew Morgan: For the guided tours we have induction loops, so if someone is going round on a tour, the guide has a microphone and everyone else can then take these induction loops round with them. So they can have the full guided tour and get the same experience.

Q100 Tessa Munt: And there is never a problem with getting access to that?

Matthew Morgan: No, it is something that we have only brought in in the last year or two. But we certainly have sufficient stock to ensure that if people want them they can access them. I think that is something that has improved over the last few years, but is still something we could definitely do better, and something we are working towards.

Q101 Tessa Munt: Do we publicise that? I am sure we do, but is that very obvious to people who are inviting guests in? I was not aware of that.

Aileen Walker: It is on the website, and it is also in the leaflet that I think you have in your bundle as well.

Q102 Chair: Hannah, you wanted to say something?

Hannah Lister: I was just going to add to the information about the induction loops. I have recently been liaising with Katherine Pyle, who is part of the Diversity Team, who wants to get more signage across the line of route and throughout the whole Palace so that people are aware they can just go up to a Visitor Assistant at the desk and they will have induction loops readily available. I have recently given a demonstration of how they work, and this is being passed on to Visitor Assistants, Blue Badge Guides and the in-house Yellow Badge Guides who come through, so they are aware of what the situation would be should they need to use them.

Q103 Chair: Thank you very much indeed. Aileen, now.

Aileen Walker: Can I say just one thing in summing up, please? A couple of years ago we did have a fairly fundamental review of visitor management in the Palace. Picking up on something that Mr Docherty mentioned earlier, if it were as simple as simply moving some guests to a different entrance, I assure you, we would have done that. We have looked at it. The fact is that there are so many people coming to Parliament all at the same time. Not all the time, there are peaks and troughs, but there are certain days and certain times of every day when there are just more people than we can physically get into the building.

Q104 Thomas Docherty: But not witnesses, Mrs Walker, to Select Committees. On the whole, thankfully, they are planned some time in advance by the Clerks. What we are suggesting is that if, for arguments sake, the EFRA Committee or the Defence Committee has outside witnesses coming in, all it needs is for the Committee Clerks to liaise to meet them, or have someone to meet them at, for example, Portcullis House at 1.30 to make sure they get through, and then take them to the appropriate room. That was what I was asking.

Aileen Walker: I am not aware that there are problems with witnesses, because they are fast-tracked whichever entrance they come to. But I just wanted to make it clear that we have actually done all that we can do, looking at all the entrances and doing everything that is within our power in the administration to make sure that it is running as efficiently as it can.

Q105 Mr Jones: Is there anything that we could do as Members to encourage visitors to use alternative entrances? I suggest people come through Portcullis because it is easy to get in, but are there other entrances that would be easier for you?

Aileen Walker: The suggestion from Miss Munt is a good one-that if you are personally meeting guests, then 1 Parliament Street is probably underused. Portcullis House is not underused; it has large queues as well. But that is the one thing that would be helpful, yes.

Q106 Chair: Thank you very much. Can we now take you, Aileen, on the Education Service?

Aileen Walker: Yes.

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Aileen Walker, Director of Public Information, House of Commons, and Tom O'Leary, Head of Education and Public Engagement, House of Commons, gave evidence.

Q107 Chair: Aileen, do you want to make an opening statement?

Aileen Walker: I will ask Tom, who is Head of Education, to make a few comments.

Tom O'Leary: I thought I would take this opportunity to quickly recap on the recent developments the Education Service has made, within the current constraints on the Estate, just to remind us of the current position. In terms of pure numbers, in 2005-06 we had about 11,000 children coming in through the Education Service. That then rose to 17,000 in 2006-07, then 31,000 in 2007-08, and 37,000 in 2008-09, and then we peaked at 40,000 in 2009-10 within the current constraint of the rooms we are using, which is the Macmillan Room, 1 Parliament Street, and also a Committee room on a Monday and a Friday in Portcullis House.

We had a slight drop in 2010-11 due to the new sitting times. We hope to recover that position this year. This Committee recently granted us the use of the Grand Committee Room on a Friday and Monday morning. We do not know yet because we are trialling different ways of getting groups into that room, but we hope to be able to get up to about 45,000 once we get full use of that room and are able to exploit it.

This is not just about numbers. We have completely changed the way we deliver our services and have made great improvements to the quality of education we are delivering. We have revamped the programme, we train our staff differently, and we do an enormous amount of work to ensure that pupils coming in have a high-quality experience. We are pretty much making use of any room across the Estate we can get hold of. There is a risk in this because we are becoming quite disparate in terms of our delivery; there are operational challenges if we are delivering out of rooms across the estate; and all the reasons we need an Education Centre have not gone away. There are no toilet facilities dedicated to schools, and we still do not have a lunch room, so if a school party comes in here in the middle of the winter and it is raining outside, we cannot let them stay in the building and eat their lunch. That really is not acceptable for schools.

In the rooms we use, the minute we finish teaching they are used by someone else-in the case of the Macmillan Room, for evening functions-so we cannot keep equipment in there very easily. We are trying to increase the quality of education in workshops. A lot of the equipment we use in workshops-for example, interactive whiteboards and voting pods-has to be wheeled out and put out of the way, and that creates extra pressure on the staff. We cannot put children’s work up; we cannot have displays that reflect the type of work we are trying to do.

One of the highlights of coming into Parliament is meeting a Member of Parliament. The additional capacity that tends to come on line is when Members of Parliament are not using rooms, so we are bringing in more pupils on a Friday when Parliament is not sitting, or when a room is not in use on a Monday morning. We appreciate that that is not ideal because Members of Parliament are not always available, or not very often available, to meet those groups, so there is a challenge in that. So we are still incredibly keen to see a dedicated Education Centre realised. It would take us to 100,000 users per year from the position we are currently in, and we are really looking forward to it when that is feasible and it can happen.

Q108 Mr Jones: I was a member of this Committee in the last Parliament when we agreed that. What has happened to it?

Tom O'Leary: I understand Mr Pullinger explained that at last week’s meeting. Do you want me to recap on that?

Q109 Mr Jones: Yes, sorry.

Tom O'Leary: There are two reasons. The space that was identified was the Lower Secretaries area. It was part of what is best described as a housing chain of moves of members of staff including the renovating of Derby Gate. That project did not go ahead for financial reasons, and so it involved moving members of staff out of that space. We then tried to look at that project in isolation without it being part of what I have called the housing chain. Through further investigation into the architecture and the structural issues, because that space is underneath the Chamber, we were told that it was not really possibly to use that space for education in a sensible way. So we lost the space that we were very hopeful would give us an Education Centre. So we are back to renewing our search for an ideal space, but it is incredibly hard to find a space in Parliament. So a feasibility study is under way to try and find a space for us.

Q110 Mr Jones: It is obviously a key job that you are doing. One of the problems I have representing North Durham is the cost of getting kids here, especially in a constituency like mine, where disposable incomes are not very high. In the report we did in the last Parliament we talked about some subsidy or help for those groups. In 10 years here, I have had perhaps less than half a dozen organised tours because of the cost. Is that something that we could be looking at? How you would help to support those?

Tom O'Leary: The travel subsidy was signed off by this Committee in the last session, and it has changed the pattern of visits. Zone A is basically Greater London and the South East, and the percentage of visits from there reduced from 70% of our visits to 50%, which is broadly representative of the population density in those areas. Zone B-I can send you a map of where these zones are-is the Midlands. We increased that percentage from 28% to 42%. And Zone C-which is heading up towards Scotland, Cornwall and parts of Northern Ireland-has gone from 2.2% to 7.6%. Those figures fluctuate because we cannot control who is booking at the moment, but that is now broadly representative. And in Zone C up to 70% of travel costs are paid, so that has had a real impact in increasing the number of visits from there.

Q111 Mr Jones: And is that on a first-come, first-served basis?

Tom O'Leary: It is, yes, in the nature of booking school visits.

Q112 Chair: But if the economic clouds lifted, where would you look ideally to place a designed Education Centre?

Tom O'Leary: It is a good question. There are potential opportunities on the fringe of the Estate, but to be honest I am not an architect. I do not understand the difficulties. I see a space and I think, "Great, I could put an Education Centre in there," and then I find that there are all sorts of reasons why that is not possible.

Q113 Chair: But as an integral part of the arrangements you make for visiting school parties is a tour of the Palace, would it not be logical to be thinking in the direction of Black Rod’s Garden or Victoria Gardens?

Tom O'Leary: I understand that Mr Pullinger raised that at the last meeting. I understand there are potential opportunities to go there.

Aileen Walker: Ideally, yes; that is the prime space for it for all sorts of reasons, assuming we do have the facilities, security and access that we would need.

Tom O'Leary: One of the real challenges we have is that sometimes a space is suggested, and it has to be near access to the tour route, it has to be near the toilets, we have to be able to get people through the secure entrances, they have to have somewhere to eat lunch, and we have to get them out of the building again. So there are all sorts of difficulties in terms of where we might place it. Around Westminster Hall is one of the perfect spaces for us; you have already got public access into there, so you are not trying to put visitors into a space that is insecure. When we deliver school visits within Portcullis House we have to escort them through non-visitor areas into the Palace to get on to the tour route, so there are always inherent challenges in where we might put it.

Q114 Chair: How generally does it work between yourselves and the rest of the tours? Do you have to notify numbers? Have you got an allocation for a certain number of schools, regardless of the demand on you? Is there a ceiling limit on the number of parties you can feed into the system as opposed to what is coming in in all other ways?

Tom O'Leary: We have a set amount of delivery we can do, which is constrained by the amount of rooms that we can deliver school visits from. We then work extremely closely with Visitor Services and Visitor Assistants, some of whom you have just met, who then deliver those tours for us. So we work in tandem with them in order to do that. But we are booking many months ahead, which is what we have to do for schools to plan their visits, so it is extremely rare that we would bring on to the tour route any school groups that we did not know about for months in advance.

Q115 Thomas Docherty: I am not encouraging officers of the House to go on trips overseas, but I am slightly baffled. This is a problem clearly that other parliaments and congresses and assemblies have around the world. It strikes me we are spending a vast amount of time wrestling with it. How do, for example, the Congress in the United States do it?

Tom O'Leary: They spent hundreds of millions of dollars creating a Visitor Centre.

Bob Russell: I think Mr Docherty is angling for a site visit.

Tom O'Leary: We do look at how other Parliaments across the world deliver this, and I think we have some quite unique challenges to do with being in this amazing building and having a very large population. Bear in mind that, even if we get the Education Centre with 100,000 children coming through the door each year, birth rates at the moment are around 600,000 or 700,000 per year, so you can immediately work out there is another 500,000 children who are not getting in. It is the sheer volume and the fact that we are in this building; the immediate space around us is incredibly tightly controlled and heritage controlled. Other Parliaments, I certainly have observed, have a lot more flexibility in order to create spaces and deliver things, and some of them have smaller populations and can just fit them in.

Q116 Chair: Were you to get the Visitor Centre, is it credible that with all the other constraints in the Palace you could manage 100,000? Is that still an aspiration?

Tom O'Leary: We believe so, yes. Some of that does involve taking existing CTO groups, as we call them, and Members tours, which are for school children. We would then add an education element and basically enhance and increase the quality of that visit. There is the limit of the capacity of the line of route. We cannot go beyond that; we are ultimately constrained by that.

Mr Jones: You are talking about money. I think the House of Lords Committee had a daft idea, which we quashed in the last Parliament, of building some subterranean Visitor Centre under Victoria Tower Gardens, which I think would have cost an absolute fortune and would not have worked. But I do think we need to press this in our report as a priority because open access to this place for young people should be seen as a priority. One of the problems we had last time with the House of Lords was in terms of making space available. As you suggest, possibly some space-it does not have to be in this part of the building, but at the other end-would be made available. So I think in our report we need to reflect that this is education about the entire building, not just the House of Commons.

Q117 Tessa Munt: I just wonder whether in fact, if we had a review of the grace and favour residences that are used-bearing in mind we have pending changes of staff-some of the buildings that are used to the benefit of members of staff on this Estate could become staff offices, thereby freeing up other spaces in other parts of the Estate that could be used as education facilities. Look at the sheer numbers: if you are aiming for 100,000-good on you, I think that is fantastic-we have to make our move and not have single people using vast resources in terms of land and space.

Tom O'Leary: I have not actually commented on this, but there is a huge demand for this. It is not just us trying to push it. When we opened telephone lines we recorded 21,000 phone calls in the space of three hours. A lot of those would be people ringing back, but that gives you an idea of the sheer volume of people wanting to get in, and it is very frustrating for us not to be able to serve that demand.

Tessa Munt: We certainly have to work out what our priorities are, I suspect.

Chair: Thank you very much indeed.

Prepared 22nd May 2012