Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House takes note with approval of the Second Report of the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services) (House of Commons Paper No. 256).—[Mr. Biffen]
§ Mr. Roger Sims (Chislehurst)
I suspect that our debate this evening will not be found on the front page of the tabloids tomorrow morning. We shall probably be fortunate if it merits even a line or two in the so-called heavies. That is unfortunate, because part of our discussions will be devoted to the work of all-party groups, of which, according to the Select Committee report that we are considering, there are some 180. It is perhaps inevitable that the party system under which our politics are run, the configuration of this Chamber and the fact that there is somewhat selective broadcasting of our debates, such as the debate yesterday, give the impression to our constituents that we as Members of Parliament are constantly at odds with each other.
The fact is, as we know and they do not, that a great deal of work is done across the party line, and in the many all-party groups in which are represented Members of Parliament who may belong to different parties but who have certain interests in common, and who work together to further those interests. Those all-party groups serve an important, valuable and vital role in our parliamentary system.
Allied to the all-party groups are a number of what might be described as political interest groups, which involve not only Members of Parliament but outsiders who meet here to discuss matters that particularly interest them with Members of Parliament. There has been a notable proliferation of such groups in the past few years, and that development has been the subject of some criticism. I do not concur in that criticism. The more that Members of Parliament work together across party lines on nonpartisan issues, the better. The more that Members of Parliament meet those affected by our decisions, listen to their views and take those views into account, the better. However, the proliferation has caused problems, not the least of which has been the sheer difficulty of finding rooms within the Palace of Westminster and the outbuildings where the groups may meet.
The House should congratulate the Services Committee on having sought to grasp that nettle and made various proposals. In particular, the Committee has sought in some way to codify the various groups. It attempts to distinguish between groups involving only Members of Parliament and those that involve strangers—as we call them. It has also suggested a priority booking system for accommodation. The system seems logical and workable. We shall find out when we try it.
It is, however, unfortunate that the Committee did not resolve the important issue of nomenclature. Paragraph D on page x of the report suggests:The term all-party group should be applied only to those bodies consisting solely of members of this or both Houses … Bodies which admit non-members … should be styled parliamentary groups.The use of the expression "parliamentary group" has increased in recent years. If the report is adopted as it stands, the use of that expression as applied to groups containing non-Members will be officially recognised. The word "parliamentary" implies that the body that it 1363 describes is either an integral part of Parliament or very closely connected with it. The word "Parliament" is often used to describe the buildings in which we meet, but Parliament was not destroyed by the fire of 1834. Parliament is an assembly—a unique body of people. I am jealous of Parliament and of its standards and reputation. I hope that I shall not appear to be unduly self-important, or to be standing on my dignity, when I say that I am proud to be a Member of Parliament. I believe that that feeling is shared by many hon. Members, whether they entered the House a year ago, or 10 or 20 years ago, or more. It is an honour and a privilege to be one of the 650 people who represent millions of our fellow citizens. I wish to protect Parliament, and its name. The expression "parliamentary" should be used sparingly, especially if it is to be used in any formalised or official way.
Some of the party groups or so-called parliamentary groups—I quote from paragraph 2 of the introduction to the report—were believed to be using the House's status, as well as its heat, light and space, for purposes which were non-parliamentary".On page 1 of the report, a letter from the Parliamentary Labour Party refers to:The way in which unofficial bodies use the House of Commons connection to imply greater status than they would otherwise have.I do not suggest for a moment that many of these parliamentary groups should be criticised. Most of them are entirely respectable. There is, for example, the parliamentary all-party penal affairs group. That is a group in which I have some interest. I make no criticism whatsoever of the activities of that group. It is a well-conducted and well-informed group which carries out some very good work and has produced some useful documents.I have attended a number of its meetings. One might say that I was a member of the group, but here another problem arises—how to define a member of a so-called parliamentary group. Members of the all-party groups which cover various countries attached to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter-Parliamentary Union are always invited to make a nominal subscription. There is, therefore, a membership list. I know, because I am treasurer of such a group. However, many of the other groups are simply groups of interested people. There is a general invitation to Members of Parliament to attend meetings.
Those Members of Parliament who attend may not be specifically members of the group. Should there be a stipulation that such a group should contain, say, five or 10 hon. Members or Peers? Most of the meetings of the penal affairs group are held in the Jubilee Room. They are usually attended by two or three hon. Members—sometimes more, or sometimes only one—together with perhaps a handful of Members of the other House. The meetings are also attended by probation officers, magistrates, social workers, people from the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, court clerks and prison officers. They are all interested in the issue under consideration—penal affairs. However, should such a group be called a parliamentary group? Does it merit that description simply because it meets within this building? Does it merit it simply because a few Members of Parliament attend its meetings? If, instead of meeting in the Jubilee Room, the group met in Central Hall across the road, would we describe it as a parliamentary group? 1364 If we must call a group "parliamentary" simply because a few hon. Members belong to it, virtually any group of people including a few hon. Members could describe it as a parliamentary group. Let us suppose that a number of people who are interested, in writing—in good books—get together and form a group and meet regularly at the Savoy hotel, and that the group includes—as it well might—some hon. Members. Such a group would not—surely—be called a parliamentary group. However, if that group moved a short distance up the river and tied its meetings in the conference rooms of Norman Shaw North, I presume that it could be called a parliamentary group.
By all means let us use the term "parliamentary" for groups of Members of Parliament. All-party groups could certainly be described as all-party parliamentary groups, because they are composed of hon. Members of this House. However, the expression should rarely be used for any other group. The report proposes a system of registration. If we have to give groups names I suggest that they be known as registered groups. That would distinguish them. I recognise that some groups such as the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee are old established, reputable and might fall foul of my amendment. That is why I said that the expression "parliamentary" should be used only rarely for groups that do not consist solely of Members of Parliament.
The report proposes that the Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee should oversee implementation of the regulations in the report and be empowered to operate according to the spirit rather than to the letter. I should be content for that Committee to use discretion about the use of the word "parliamentary". If the report is not amended, all sorts of groups could call themselves parliamentary, with all that that implies and, more importantly, all that that appears to imply outside the House.
I assume that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the Serjeant at Arms will draw up detailed regulations and publish them. I hope that my right hon. Friend and the House will accept my amendment and that the regulations that are to be published later reflect the spirit of what I have said.
§ Mr. John Silkin (Lewisham, Deptford)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) for his description of the report by the Sub-Committee on Administration and Accommodation, of which I am the Chairman. We felt that the problem had been growing in difficulty and importance for so long that it was best, at the earliest opportunity, to provide the House with a report that it might digest. We therefore reported about nine months ago to the Services Committee, which reported to the House about eight months ago. There has been a long gestation during which the problem has grown.
Hon. Members might be surprised at the number of ad-party groups. We have only unofficial figures because there is no system of registration. It is fairly accurate to suggest that there are more than 80 groups linked by a common interest—often an industry—and another 100 which are based on an interest in an overseas country. As the hon. Gentleman said, some are under the aegis of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association or the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The problem arises from groups competing for a finite number of Committee Rooms. Moreover, they are in competition at popular times of the 1365 week with Committees of the House, party meetings and other committees. Although a limited system of priorities operates, there are still difficulties. Important party bodies have had difficulty in securing rooms. We all have experience of that. The groups have also experienced difficulty. The pressure is such that, if a House Committee displaces a group's meeting without much notice—the rules properly allow for that—the meeting often has to be cancelled because no alternative room can be offered. We must develop a system that as" nearly as possible satisfies both of those conditions.
As the hon. Member for Chislehurst said, there is strong justification for all-party groups. The hon. Gentleman gave a valid and rather splendid example of what might have been a parliamentary group were it meeting in the House but which was not because it met in the Savoy hotel. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman was not criticising the Savoy hotel. Although all-party groups have no organic connection with the House, they have been recognised as part of parliamentary life for many years. We ought not to disturb that recognition. It is important for hon. Members to maintain their links with outside bodies. If we do not do that, we become too inbred and repeat too much of what we have heard before.
§ Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) that groups have proliferated. The right hon. Gentleman has just used the word "recognised" and my hon. Friend used the word "registered". I have read the document carefully, although I have left my monocle and glasses behind so I cannot see as much as I would like. Who will do the recognising and the registering? That is not clear from the document.
§ Mr. Silkin
The rules for regulation and registration—I shall deal with enforcement later—will be matters for the Services Committee. If the House accepts the motion, the immediate provision of terms of registration will fall to the Sub-Committee on Administration and Accommodation. I hope that the rules that it provides will be generally satisfactory.
Links with all-party groups are part of the life of the House. They must not be severed, but we must keep a balance. I understand what the hon. Member for Chislehurst said. He wants to preserve those links while preserving the dignity and life of Parliament. We must take the principle that parliamentary accommodation should be used for parliamentary purposes. The proposal is that there should be an ordered priority in booking rooms in which groups that have given undertakings about their general structure and activity, and which can therefore be considered to have linked themselves to Parliament, should have relative priority in booking rooms. The proposal has the additional benefit of dealing with the criticism that too many non-Members of either House can become involved in activities in the Palace of Westminster.
We have been told of meetings at which strangers have addressed strangers with or without the presence of hon. Members. We have heard rumours that some strangers might even have been charged for entrance to group meetings. We believe that the remedy lies first in real all-party groups being distinguished from parliamentary groups that admit strangers to their membership. 1366 Secondly, an all-party group would have to consist of hon. Members of more than one political party. It would be restricted to Members of this or both Houses and there would be no registration formalities. Parliamentary groups would have to register. They would include people who are not hon. Members, although they would have to be open to all hon. Members. Moreover, they would have to have at least five Members from the party in government and five from the parties in opposition. If a subscription is to be charged to hon. Members, it should be limited to a token amount.
Finally, there should be an explicit undertaking to respect the rules. That would ensure and guarantee the parliamentary nature of the occasion. The benefit of registration is that there would be a form of relative preference in booking a Committee room. The absolute preference, given to House Committees and subject only to the lien enjoyed at certain times in certain rooms by the meetings of the three largest parties, would continue. If a room were required for such a meeting, all other bookings, no matter when they were made, would be overridden.
A relative preference would be given to single party groups, those groups confined to two or more parties, all-party groups, recognised parliamentary groups and individual hon. Members who are meeting their constituents or those directly connected with their constituency. Those bodies or persons would enjoy their existing long-standing right to book Committee Rooms from recess to recess and from Easter to the summer.
No other bookings, for example from a non-registered parliamentary group, would be accepted until a calendar month before the intended meeting. Meetings which by their character or registration are demonstrably parliamentary would have a place higher in the queue than others.
I told the hon. Member for Chislehurst that I would deal briefly with enforcement. We have deliberately made no provision for enforcement. Hon. Members must draw the attention of the Services Committee to instances where they believe that the rules or the spirit of the rules have been broken. That is how we normally order our affairs and no other form of policing would be acceptable.
Having made that point, I feel that I am slightly begging the hon. Gentleman's question, which was what was the definition of "parliamentary". A parliamentary group is one in which the element of parliamentary interest outweighs the group itself. He cited the Penal Reform group. I would cite the Disablement group. There is a distinct parliamentary interest in those groups, which means that there is every reason why their meetings, although attended by few hon. Members, should be held in the Palace of Westminster and not in the Savoy hotel.
§ Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)
Some members of the Ghana parliamentary group are Members not of this Parliament, but of the Ghanaian Parliament. When Ghana has a Parliament, the difficulty does not arise, but there have been periods in the history of Ghana—there is one now—when its Parliament has been abolished. At such times those people are no longer Members of Parliament as such. I hope that to fulfil the wish of the Ghana parliamentary group, whose interest is basically with the Ghanaian people and in the parliamentary structure, that that unfortunate happening would not mean that the group would cease to meet the definition of the Services Committee.
§ Mr. Silkin
A parliamentary group is one in which the Parliament concerned is the United Kingdom Parliament. There are a number of overseas groups where the strict definition may not always be applicable. However. I take the hon. Gentleman's point.
The hon. Member for Chislehurst must forgive me when I say that we are getting into deep waters by making the distinction for which he asks. I ask him to reconsider his amendment and to wait and see how the proposals in the report work. He is asking too much of the Administration and Accommodation Sub-Committee at the moment.
There is a further disadvantage. There is nothing to stop such a group from calling itself a registered parliamentary group. The hon. Gentleman, Mr. Speaker or I could not intervene and prevent it from inserting the adjective "parliamentary". Any group can call itself parliamentary if it so wishes. We cannot tell some groups that they are all-party groups or parliamentary groups, and others that they are only registered groups because the Sub-Committee on Administration and Accommodation has so decided. That is a recipe for disaster.
§ Mr. Sims
I do not wish to prolong the argument. I do not quarrel with the Sub-Committee's distinction between groups which consist solely of hon. Members and groups which contain other elements. My point related to the wording used to describe them—the classification of those groups. I agree with the rest of the report.
§ Mr. Silkin
I well understand that. My point is that the judgment which he asks us continually to make may be difficult to make. I cannot see any way of stopping people from inserting "parliamentary" into a description of their group. I think that it would be best to see how the proposals in the report work. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be willing to withdraw his amendment. We in our turn will undertake to keep it under constant review and to reconsider it in the House if events justify it.
I started with the question of timing, and I shall finish with it. We had hoped that the proposals would be implemented at the beginning of the 1984–85 Session. It is a long time since the Services Committee reported. In view of the time that has elapsed since the report was made, perhaps we should consider deferring its implementation until January 1985. That would allow full time for parliamentary registration and for the other formalities to be carried out.
§ Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)
All hon. Members will agree that the second report of the House of Commons Services Committee is a most useful document. The House owes a debt of gratitude to the right hon. member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) and his colleagues, who have done the work that has led to the report's publication. I am sure that hon. Members present would like to congratulate him on his lucid presentation of the report.
I had looked forward to the right hon. Gentleman making his maiden speech from the Back Benches, where some of the most distinguished hon. Members habitually sit. I am surprised that he is still on the Front Bench. His eminence deserves that position. Whether he is on the Back Benches or on the Front Bench, it is good to see him in such good form.
1368 The report has its origins in the determination on the part of a number of senior hon. Members to bring about a change in the way in which we carry out part of our work. Those particularly involved were the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party, his predecessors, to whom I wish to pay tribute, some prominent Opposition Front Bench Members, including the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), and many of my colleagues in the 1922 Committee. Our objective was clear to curtail, if not to prevent, the abuse of the facilities of Parliament by outsiders. The process began more than five years ago. The need was obvious then and it has become more acute since. It led first to the establishment of a small group of hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Mr. Cope) the acting Chief Government Whip, and subsequently to this report. All those who played a part in the process deserve the appreciation of the House. This debate, too, should be welcomed. It is essential that prompt action follows the long period of gestation.
We have an undoubted dilemma in the House. As the mechanics of democracy—its proud, enthusiastic practitioners—we must all insist that nothing should be done that would make it more difficult for members of the public to meet their parliamentary representatives at any time to discuss with them the issues of the day, to hear their views, or for us to render account of our motives and actions. The House of Parliament exist by courtesy of the people of our nation. They are our Houses, I agree, but they are first for the transaction of the business of our nation and for the individuals who comprise it. We are their representatives and we must have proper facilities to do our work—unmolested, but I would not say undisturbed. We are their servants and they, our electors, must have full access to us at all times. Indeed, I would argue further that it is our special duty in a democracy to do our best to involve members of the public to the greatest extent possible in our work. It is a daily necessit) that we ensure that their participation in our work is brought about on the widest possible scale.
All that is clear and indisputable. However, common sense dictates that there must be orderliness. Inevitably, therefor, there must be physical limitations on access. This place is not Wembley stadium; it cannot accommodate 100,000 people at any one time. The dilemma for us comes in deciding where to draw the line of regulation and limitation.
Since I entered the House of Commons, and especially during the past 10 or perhaps five years, two new factors have intervened, or perhaps two old factors have become much more important. The first is the growth of the organised lobby, which is perhaps inevitable. Perhaps because of the increased influence of Government, which now reaches down to touch every corner of our daily lives, it is inevitable that groups of people will wish to come together inceasingly to influence what we do. Some my argue that the growth of the organised lobby is valuable, for good Government depends on well-informed representatives, and those who lobby us do much to improve our knowledge.
However, as the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford correctly said and as the report shows, there has undoubtedly been much abuse of the willingness of Members of Parliament to help outside bodies to present their cases. The report substantially understates that abuse; 1369 I think it is formidable and it must be brought to an end. I warmly endorse the statement in paragraph 3 of the report that,parliamentary accommodation should be used for parliamentary purposes.The report is absolutely right to differentiate between those activities which are essential to the effecient functioning of Parliament and those which are purely ancillary.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) spoke, with his usual ability and clarity, very much to the point at issue. We all know how necessary it is to give proper priority to party committees, to such all-party groups as Select Committees, and to all-party committees such as the British-American parliamentary group, the national groups or the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee; but, with my hon. Friend, I put a large question mark against ancillary groups.
On the subject of lobbies and their growth, my advice to my right hon. and hon. Friends is simply this: Members of Parliament should be a little more cynical about lobbies and pressure groups than we have hitherto been. We must adjust our attitudes now that there are so many of them, and we must be more selective in our readiness to listen. That is the first new, or changed, factor.
The second new factor relates to security. The security system now must be different from what it was only a short time ago. There is an overriding need for competent security in this place on a continual basis, and all of us who have recent events very much in mind would agree with that. We must show much greater sympathy with the work that the Serjeants at Arms and the police must do on our behalf, and we have a duty to make their task easier than it is at present. In the general interest, we must be much stricter than we are about the right of admission to this place. There is no sense in the modern context of saying to everybody, as we appear to do now, "By all means come into this place as of right." For that reason, I wholly agree with the spirit of my hon. Friend's remarks when he spoke to his amendment.
We could argue the matter this way or that way, and could draw the line a little on that side or a little on the other; the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford was right to say that we should mull over these matters more quietly and perhaps consider them in cloistered session. We would be justified in reflecting a little on what we have allowed to happen in this place. We allow secretaries, research assistants, and people who work in the Library not quite unrivalled access to all parts of the building, but much freer access than they used to have. I begin to wonder whether we are not allowing the people who work here the right almost to take over the place. We would be much healthier and better able to do our work if we introduced much stricter rules about where people might go. After all, the House depends largely on the ability of Members of Parliament to communicate together privately in rooms and corridors. The corridors are not for gossip among Library assistants, nor are they places of access for secretaries with their papers.
I hope that everything that we do in future, and the consideration given by the Select Committee on Services to our affairs, will begin from the premise that we cannot possibly do our work in the way in which we need to do it in the national interest unless we reserve this place primarily for ourselves.
1370 I end as I began by welcoming the report. It has taken a long time to produce. In my view it is not as strict as it ought to be because we must come to terms with these two new factors. In that context I hope that we will be very strict about who we allow to come here and who we allow to interfere with the work that we must do in the nation's interest.
§ Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)
I am grateful to those who organise affairs for allowing us to have this debate. This is a House of Commons matter, but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) rightly reminded us, essentially we are here as guardians of the public interest. Although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) said, the matters we are discussing will not hit the headlines, we should be aware that we are looking not just after our own interests but also the interests of this place on behalf of the people.
The fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton is here is something which every hon. Member welcomes and notes, because, above all else, he is a parliamentarian. He is diligent in his duty not only on behalf of those whom he chairs as chairman of the 1922 Committee but also and always in his dealings with the hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Dormand) in the work that they do not only on behalf of Back Benchers but on behalf of the institution of Parliament.
I very much agree that, welcome though the report is, in many ways it is modest and very polite about some of the abuses that we know have been going on, both commercially and quasi-politically in the name of this Parliament building.
This is an all-party occasion and it would be unfortunate if I said anything to ruffle anyone's feathers. However, we have seen how some local authorities—I shall mention no names—have almost deliberately sought to create groups with outlandish names and titles in order to provide a forum for minority groups. We all support the rights of minority groups, but in some cases this has got completely out of control. If we are to follow the report's proposals—and let me be quite ridiculous—a group representing "Left-handed Lesbians Against the Bomb" would be dignified with the title "parliamentary group". That is not the way to help solve this problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst made that point extremely well.
I hope that his amendment will be withdrawn only on the strict understanding that the Services Committee will take seriously the view that has already been expressed and which may well be repeated again. It is not a matter of great secrecy if I mention that the Select Committee on Members' Interests, on which I serve, has been looking at the question of lobbying. I very much agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton said. There are quite disgraceful abuses of the word "Parliament" and of the use of this building. I really do fear that the title "parliamentary group", rather than solving the problem, will make it worse.
I intervened briefly in the speech of the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) and asked him to amplify his views on the use of the phrase "registration". I fear that we may compound the problem rather than solve it by referring to a registered group. We would thereby be dignifying people in the knowledge that not only are they allowed to call themselves a parliamentary group but that they can say that they are on 1371 the register. One can envisage certain public relations companies claiming that not only are they a parliamentary group but that they are "registered" parliamentary groups. That makes the matter even worse.
We all know how journalists like to have a hook on which to hang a story, and they like to have a title on which to hang the name of a Member of Parliament. It does not matter whether the Member of Parliament is chairman, deputy chairman or secretary of X, Y or Z parliamentary group, because many of us know that many of our all-party groups and party group sub-committees are less important than their titles imply. It is because we are presumably trying to stop the abuse or misrepresentation that we know takes place in the House in the use of the name "parliamentary group" or "all-party group" that we are here tonight.
There was a story in The Times "Diary" only today about a public relations company which apparently tried to invite all the members of a Select Committee to a dinner in order to put across the case on behalf of a pharmaceutical company. That sort of activity could well be aided and abetted by following the example of registering the use of the word "parliamentary".
Another point that has been touched on this evening relates to bilateral groups. I hope that if I mention that no one will think that I am washing dirty parliamentary linen in public. However, in the past year or so it appears that the usual channels have, for the best of reasons, decided to tighten up on the formation of bilateral parliamentary groups, by which I mean, in the terms of the report, not parliamentary but all-party groups—in other words, groups for Members of Parliament of both Houses exclusively which seek to take an interest in and be nominated as being interested in a particular part of the world.
I, with others, wanted to form an all-party ASEAN group because the Association of South-East Asian Nations is a particularly important grouping of nations, as hon. Members will know. As two member countries are members of the Commonwealth and three are members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I had to go to considerable length with the IPU and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to register the group. One of those to whom I spoke and from whom I had to seek permission did not know what the initials ASEAN represented. Therefore, we must consider the matter carefully.
Yesterday on the all-party Whip there was a meeting of the all-party Taiwan group. Her Majesty's Government do not have any diplomatic relations with the regime in Taiwan. I wondered whether it would appropriate if an all-party group for northern Cyprus were to be formed. That country has recently declared itself an independent republic. I wonder whether we shall find an all-party group for Khalistan, the nation which the Punjabis wish to fall.
I raise those matters because they are relevant to the same problem. It comes back to the question about registration. I see that the report assumes and states openly thatAll-party groups under our recommendations would need to consist of members of more than one political party … there should be no question of the speakers being members of the group itself.It goes on to refer to the fact that they would not need to be registered. In effect, there is a form of unofficial registration being organised by the Whips at the moment which is not entirely satisfactory. Whatever arrangements 1372 are made for all-party groups—groups comprising mainly members outwith the House—they could also be considered for the formation of new all-party parliamentary groups which apply to Members of Parliament. One has to be careful when using the language that we normally use because the document is changing our normal language and that puts us into even more difficulty.
The report is important. It is the first time that: the House has discussed a report which deals with an abuse which we all know exists. I am worried about the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst. He made the point well. The adjective "parly" is not one that we should use to dignify a group without careful consideration. I urge my hon. Friend either to move the amendment or, if he withdraws it, only to do so in the tight of clear assurances that the point will be considered before any system is put into operation.
§ 9.8 pm
§ Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)
I agree with many oF the anxieties expressed in the debate by my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) and others. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) my eyes fell on the clause in paragraph 2 which says:Some of the groups were believed to be using the House's status …After that phrase the report confined itself to the status conferred by the accommodation in the House, which perhaps is not surprising as the inquiry was carried out by the Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee of the Services Committee. As the debate has shown, hon. Members are concerned about much wider issues than accommodation. The description "parliamentary group" confers considerable status on any body using it. The media assume that such a group carries considerable weight.
I wish to mention two so-called parliamentary groups that have hit the headlines during the past year, but which many hon. Members would not regard as parliamentary groups in the commonly understood sense. Indeed, they are not mentioned in the fact sheet compiled by the Public Information Office, which lists about 80 groups. Unfortunately, I was unable to speak to the officers of the two groups before the debate. It is difficult to discover who they are.
One of the groups is described as the parliamentary group video inquiry. Hon. Members may recall that it created something of a rumpus when it produced apparent evidence that the overwhelming majority of children aged six years—and even under that—had seen pornographic videos. Various independent commentators who made their own inquiries produced contradictory evidence. The group's inquiry was carried out by a body that had little to do with Parliament. I understand that its chairman was a peer but that no hon. Member of this House attached his name to the inquiry. Yet that group probably received as much publicity during the past year as any Select Committee of the House, all-party group or party committee.
The other group is something called the parliamentary road safety advisory council. I do not know whom it advises, but it is not this House. I do not know what entitles it to call itself a council. One might think that road safety was not a contentious issue, but that group has said 1373 that it is in favour of a number of contentious recommendations such as the compulsory wearing of rear seat belts. No doubt many hon. Members would agree with that, but many would not.
The fact that it is described as an advisory council lends a certain legitimacy to it in the eyes of the media. A television programme during the past month, which I did not see, devoted a great deal of attention to its report. Those who saw the programme or read about it in the press assumed that it was an official body. The report has probably attracted more attention than the official inquiry into road safety carried out by the Select Committee on Transport. Yet that group is not listed in the fact sheet supplied by the Public Information Office of the House.
For those reasons we should be concerned not only with accommodation but with the status conferred on a body that describes itself as a parliamentary group. Such groups would have no great problem with accommodation, but they also have no problem attracting a great deal of media attention because they are thought to have official status. I welcome the report and its recommendations but I hope that further attention will be given to the concerns that have been expressed so eloquently about the wider issues.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
This debate is long overdue. I speak as the chairman of the parliamentary scout group and it seems that the group would meet the criteria which has been set out. I have, therefore, no qualms about the criteria, and the fact that you, Mr. Speaker, allow the group to make use of the Speaker's House for its annual tea party shows that it is recognised as a legitimate body.
I speak also as the treasurer of the all-party industrial safety group. To my knowledge the group has not met for years and it seems that I am a treasurer with no funds. I am not quite so confident that the safety group would fulfil all the requirements that have been set out. I am not sure that all its members would be prepared to fork out £2, for example. I am concerned with safety in many areas, especially in the air, and to my knowledge the group has never directed itself to air safety. It seems that it would have a large question mark placed against it.
I would not object to the placing of that question mark because if we are to eradicate abuses we must be ruthless in the way in which we consider the intentions of groups, their history, what they are going to do and what they have done. The thoughtful speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) dealt effectively with that issue, as did the introductory remarks of the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin).
I believe that there is general concern about the way in which this place is being used. As we walk along corridors we see people we do not know and do not recognise. The 1374 lobby is growing that promotes commercial or political interests in peculiar forms. The members of that lobby are not using the House as Members would like it properly and effectively to be used.
The parliamentary scout group meets once a year officially for its annual general meeting. It meets also as and when it is judged that imminent legislation is likely to have a major impact upon the scout movement. The group's object is to look after scouts' interests in Parliament. That means that it does not need very often to make use of parliamentary facilities and that is true of other groups. It should be recognised that this place is under pressure when legislation is introduced that is likely to have a substantial effect on the interests of various groups. When that happens there will be a number of meetings and at other times there will be few meetings. That is why the amendment, which was so well presented, is one that I can support. There must be a tightening up of criteria, which is why I drew attention to the safety group. As I have said, I doubt whether it could meet the criteria if we accept the amendment. It is on that basis that I accept the amendment.
§ The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)
I had no intention of participating in this debate, but in response to such pressure who I am to resist? My hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Mr. Sims) has also suggested that I comment. I want to make it clear that this is very much a House of Commons occasion. We are debating a report from an appropriate Services Sub-Committee. The right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) has said that he will take account of the representations about nomenclature. I hope that in that spirit we may proceed without a Division, because this is a most tangled subject to which we have been—I would not like to say lackadaisical—insufficiently expeditious. On reflection, we might believe that we could have been more expeditious. Tonight we have the opportunity to take matters forward. On the basis of experience and taking account of the points that have been argued, I hope that we may do so without a Division.
§ Amendment to the Question made.
At end add
'but considers that any group falling outside the recommended definition of all-party groups should not be entitled to use the term "parliamentary" but may be described as a registered group. '.—[Mr. Sims.]
§ Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this House takes note with approval of the Second Report of the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services) (House of Commons Paper No. 256) but considers that any group falling outside the recommended definition of all-party groups should not be entitled to use the term "parliamentary" but may be described as a registered group.