Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),
That, at this day's sitting, the Motion on Representation of the People Bill (Allocation of Time) and the Motion in the name of the Prime Minister for the Adjournment of the House may be proceeded with, though opposed, until any hour.—[Mr. Dowd.]
Question agreed to.
Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kirkwood.]
§ Madam Speaker
Order. Just a few more Members wish to speak. It is a House of Commons matter, as the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) would agree. I want to hear those Members out. It is right that we should.
§ Mr. Stunell
I do not intend to. I appreciate your protection from my colleague, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood).
We have a string of recommendations, which my hon. Friend described as the first phase, or the first tier of decisions. We should endorse that first tier and encourage him and the Commission to get on with the second tier as quickly as possible.
In all conscience, the House, having turned on every other public body and institution in the country and reformed it over the past 20 years, should be ashamed of its failure to do the same with its own institutions. We want something that is enabling, invigorating and effective, not obstructive, slow moving and ineffective. Therefore, I urge the House and the Commission to implement and to follow up on the Braithwaite report as quickly as possible.
§ Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)
As a fellow Commissioner, Madam Speaker, I propose to say little, but I know that our deliberations will have been illuminated by the debate.
I, too, compliment Michael Braithwaite and his team on the report. It required an unusual combination of skills: insight into the life of Members and the culture of Parliament; and an understanding of modern business management structures. It is a readable document, which has inspired an interesting "Second Reading" debate in the Commission.
1083 I make six quick points. First, devising a management system for the complex business that is the House would be a major challenge in itself, but a management system that incorporates Members at the right place, with all the pressures on our time and sensitivities, requires genius. The difficulty that confronted both Ibbs and Braithwaite was how to insert into a conventional corporate management structure an essentially unconventional non-corporate person—namely, a Member of Parliament, whose predominant interests and commitments lie elsewhere.
Secondly, the report asserts that it is all or nothing. Paragraph 25 states:Our recommendations are an integrated package rather than a list of options.There is a tendency for many reports to say that nowadays. I do not think that that holds true. The report contains many stand-alone recommendations, including cross-posting staff in the House from one Department to another and a foundation period for new staff. Parts 5 and 6 contain a huge number of sensible, stand-alone recommendations, which should not be held up simply because we cannot agree on the macro-reforms.
Thirdly, there are some important issues about the domestic Committees. On Tuesday, we debated an important report from the Administration Committee, to which only three of the nine members had put their name. Select Committees have difficulty with quorums and continuity of membership. The domestic Committees face an even greater problem. Absenteeism on Select Committees has increased from 25 per cent. in 1995–96 to 34 per cent. in 1998–99. The figure for the Select Committee on Education and Employment is 50 per cent. I am happy to say that the Select Committee on Modernisation, on which I sit, has an 84 per cent. attendance rate.
Members of Parliament come to Westminster to represent their constituents, to support the Government or to hold them to account, to specialise in particular policy areas that interest them and to build a political career. There is growing pressure on our time, and that is unlikely to be reversed. Members do not come to Westminster to sit on a domestic Committee. As the pressure on Members' time has mounted, they have cut back on areas that are not priorities.
§ Mr. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)
I will not detain the House long, but the thing that concerns me about the report is its lack of clarity on what is happening to ordinary staff here. Terms and conditions of work change rapidly, yet I could not find out from the report whom, to talk to if I am concerned about someone, say, in the Tea Room who had had their conditions altered, some of the doormen, or a reduction in numbers. There does not seem to be anything in the report that explains how those matters are decided.
§ Sir George Young
It sounds as if the hon. Lady was one of the hon. Members interrogated by the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) and invited to say whom she would go to. The answer that was given by the hon. Gentleman was the Clerk, who will, if not answer the question himself, at least route it in the right direction. However, she has made the point that there is lack of clarity about the management structure.
1084 Against the background of the problem of the domestic Committees, I found it a bold recommendation that we should retain them.
Fourthly, I think that that raises a broader question about an alternative career structure in the House—which recognises that becoming a Minister is not the only way of serving; which recognises that, if Parliament is to do its job properly, it is important to have on both sides of the House hon. Members who do not want to become Ministers; and which recognises the contributions of those hon. Members. Although that takes us beyond this debate, I believe that, if such a structure existed, it would make it easier to deal with some of the problems identified by Braithwaite.
Fifthly, and penultimately, there is the proposal to make the Finance and Services Committee, which is composed entirely of hon. Members, the Commission's executive committee. The criticism of the domestic Committees was that they acted in executive mode, not policy mode. The proposals for the Finance and Services Committee run the risk of magnifying that problem—of muddling up policy and services.
As for paragraph 4.21, I am not sure that these are the right tasks for members. One of them isto carry out individual tasks delegated to it by the Commission".That is meant to be done by members of the Finance and Services Committee, which includes the Leader of the House and the two Deputy Chief Whips. I wonder whether it is really their job to run the Commission's executive missions. Indeed, it seems that the problem is that the Finance and Services Committee, as described in Braithwaite, becomes rather close to the Board of Management.
Finally, I should like to say a word on the Commission. Paragraph 4.6 reminds us of what Ibbs hoped that the Commission would do. The report tactfully suggests that we have not lived up to expectations, and I agree. However, I have some difficulty with the paragraph that asserts that the Commission is of the right size. It consists of the Speaker and five Members, many of whom are doing many other things—not least, of course, Madam Speaker.
It is worth considering the option of a larger Commission, not least because paragraph 15.10 envisages the Commission doing more work. If we had a larger Commission, it would give breadth and depth to our discussion, and we are rather light on newer and younger members.
With those initial thoughts, I welcome the report and look forward to taking forward its implementation with my fellow Commissioners.
§ Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)
It might be useful if I, as Chairman of the Information Committee, were to share with the House some of the Committee's views on the report. Many of the matters that we cover are matters of great concern to hon. Members, and today's debate has reinforced that view in my mind. I should like to try to explain how the Committee sees our role in the context of Braithwaite and of some of the points made in the debate.
We certainly believe that the information technology infrastructure will be increasingly important in the House. We now have more than 300 hon. Members on our 1085 network, and, very importantly, more than 1,000 Members' staff. The vast majority of hon. Members offices are connected, even when certain Members are not using e-mail daily.
The Library facilities changed dramatically and very successfully under the previous Librarian. The facilities will continue changing in that manner, and they are one of the major points of interface for hon. Members with staff of the House. Library staff are used daily by hon. Members, and the Committee could provide valuable input in that relationship.
As for the public interface, we have the Official Report and all the work that its staff do, and the website, which provides a growing public interface. The role of the website needs to be examined, and we require policy input from hon. Members.
As the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) said, as the media change, it would be useful to bring together some of the broadcast functions. In terms of policy, the content that we are making available on web television, the internet and normal television could usefully be brought together. The Information Committee would perhaps not want a role in determining the rules of parliamentary broadcasting, as those could perhaps be best determined elsewhere, but we could play a role in their implementation.
The Committee also acts as a force in putting issues on the agenda. In response to the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King), the Committee regrets that the entire estate is not cabled. However, we act as a force in making it clear that, as a matter of policy, the offices of all hon. Members should be cabled. We do not want the executive role of implementing that policy, and it is certainly up to others to decide whether the money is available and how the policy is implemented. Our Committee does not want to interfere in day-to-day work, but we want to give a clear steer to officers. I hope that they appreciate our clear steers, such as our wish for the offices of every Member of Parliament to be cabled.
To respond to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White), let me sat that we are also putting on the agenda the issue of linking all constituency offices to the network. We recognise how Members of Parliament now work. They might want their constituency staff and their support staff in the House to access their diary system. Officers have got that message clearly from us. That would not happen if there were no Committee to go through the issues.
§ Mr. Miller
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Committee would also like to ensure that the connection to constituency offices is made at no cost to Members?
§ Mr. Allan
Our Committee holds that view; it is for others to decide. We are not allowed to go into the office costs allowance, although we continually touch on it. We are a group of Members of Parliament in a formal setting who are interested in the subject, and that is the view that we are putting forward. Without the strength that that formal structure gives the argument, we might lose something. I am not engaging in special pleading for me or for the Committee; I am merely pointing out that the structure has a valuable role. That is down to the membership of the Committee.
1086 Domestic Committees sometimes have an unfair reputation. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) is one of the star performers on the Committee, but there are many others who come along on a Tuesday afternoon for very little recompense. They get actively involved in letting officers know what Members of Parliament want. That would not happen with a user group or a less formal structure, when only people with complaints would come. Complaints have to get through, but it is important to have a group of people who are actively involved in policy formulation. I am pleased that members of my Committee are able to do that with the dedication that they show.
§ Ms Oona King
Many Members of Parliament want IT support. Has the Committee considered that? In any other company that I have worked for, if my computer broke down, I could contact someone who would fix it. I find it astonishing that, as a British Member of Parliament in the 21st century, if my computer breaks down, I have no recourse.
§ Mr. Allan
This morning, I was speaking with a senior officer from the Parliamentary Communications Directorate about the possibility of setting up a Members' support service. That is on the agenda and a report will be produced. We welcome any input on that.
We are looking for a clearer line of accountability with the Commission. That many also help other domestic Committees. We would like the Commission to come to us with its ideas and ask us, as a group of IT and information specialists, to give our views and do some of the work that it cannot do, because its members do not want to don anoraks and go into such detail. We would also like to have a proactive role and be able to ask the Commission for permission to investigate ideas that have come from Members, such as the radical thought of wanting to use computers in Committee Rooms. Braithwaite recommends clearer two-way communication. We believe that we have such a role, but we would like greater clarity.
We welcome Braithwaite's reference to a formal statement of costs and benefits. We are not responsible for the detailed budget setting, but we can give a view on whether a proposal is good value for money. As specialists, relatively speaking, we can say whether an idea will provide value for money in the service that it will deliver in a way that the Commission might find difficult. We entirely accept that implementation is down to officers, but we believe that we can act as a useful sounding board and a source of ideas and feedback from Members.
We accept that Departments should move to a corporate approach on IT. That has been a problem, but we have had a good example recently of how it can work. The IT convergence strategy and the Y2K issue brought all the Departments of the House and all the IT specialists together. The staff of the House are to be congratulated on their success. That should also be a pointer to how we move forward. Indeed, Braithwaite suggests that we move in that direction.
It is useful to put on record the two small points on which we disagree with the Braithwaite recommendations. He suggests, first, that domestic Committees no longer have specialist advisers. My Committee uses an academic with strong IT expertise. It would feel the lack of any 1087 external expert advice. When the issue is considered further, we hope that our particular requirement for expertise will be borne in mind.
The second point was a suggestion that no departmental paper should come to a domestic Committee before being approved by the Board of Management. We feel that we have a useful role in seeing things early. When something is to be implemented, it should go through the Board of Management, and we do not want to interfere with that executive role. However, we feel that Departments such as the Library should be able to bring things to us at an early stage and get some views before finalising a paper to go to the Board of Management.
With those two exceptions noted, I can say that we feel that the report is a positive way forward. We exist as a group of Members who are keen to respond to exactly the kind of demands that we have had today, to implement them and to bring forward excellent information systems to serve Parliament. We would welcome a clearer relationship with the Commission to achieve that, and I hope that Braithwaite will give us the kind of structure in which we can work. Hopefully, services can continue to improve, as I believe that they have improved dramatically under the excellent offices of recent years.
§ Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)
When I was the Minister responsible for privatising the Property Services Agency, I had the discussions with Sir Robin Ibbs that led to the Ibbs report. The recommendations in the Braithwaite report are rather woolly. It is an informative report, but it is not clear whether the recommendations are as crisp as I would wish.
Robin Ibbs was keen to emphasise the importance of value for money, and made recommendations about a lot of value-for-money studies. This report makes it clear that those studies were never really carried out. That is gravely disappointing because, if anyone in this country should be keen on establishing their belief in value for money, it should be this House of Commons. We take it upon ourselves to criticise Government Departments, Ministers and the public sector for the use and priorities of taxpayers' money, and yet it seems that we are still lax in scrutinising our own expenditure.
The report says that the Members of this House are, in effect, 659 small businesses. One thing is certain—if we were, we would know a lot more about our costs than we do. We would know, for example, what the cost of office accommodation for our secretariat was per square foot. We do not know that and, as we know, if one cannot measure it, one cannot control it. I would like to see more transparency and accountability.
The report asks what will happen when somebody gives in to the pressure for the office costs allowance to increase. It may mean that people will take on more staff, with more demand for accommodation in the centre of Westminster in one of the most expensive office environments in the world. What can we do about that?
I would suggest that the costs of Members' office staff accommodation should be included within the office costs allowance. I suspect that, if hon. Members were given an allowance for office costs to include accommodation for secretaries, research assistants and so on, many would decide that it was more economical to employ those people in their constituencies, as the labour and 1088 accommodation costs are lower. At the moment, all the incentives are the other way, and all the pressure is to have the extra staff employed in or around Westminster.
§ Mr. Chope
I am sure that, if the recommendation were to be taken further, a special case could be made for London Members. However, Members with constituencies like mine—about 100 miles away—will agree that, if I employ a secretary in my constituency, the office accommodation costs, the costs of the photocopier, the costs of the photocopier paper and the costs of the telephone calls and faxes all have to be borne out of my office costs allowance. That is one of the reasons why many Members choose to employ staff at Westminster. If we increase the office costs allowance, and that results in an increase in the number of staff employed by Members, who then expect that those staff should be accommodated at Westminster, there will be no limit on expenditure in the future. If we want a rational approach to dealing with that, perhaps the Commission should consider the method of transparency and accountability that I have suggested.
My final point is a request for information. I do not know how the space in the Press Gallery is paid for. Do the individual newspapers pay for it on a per square foot basis? Who pays for the telephone calls and is there any control over them? If any service is freely available, the temptation always exists to abuse it. In the debate earlier in the week, we discussed subsidising the Line of Route to the tune of £200,000 or more. If we are that strapped for cash, we could start by charging for some of the space that is occupied in the Palace. We could then pay for the Line of Route without undertaking the convoluted process that we discussed on Tuesday night. The idea proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), that we should allow free access to this place to members of the public, might be possible on cost grounds if we recovered costs from users of the building who do not contribute at the moment.
§ Sir George Young
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I understand that the Government have been defeated by 96 votes in a vote on the Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill in the other place. The Leader of the House in the other place has said that the Bill is now damaged irretrievably. She has also said that the Home Secretary will make the Government's position clear. Have you received any indication from the Home Secretary that he plans to do that and, if the Leader of the House of Lords has announced that the Bill is to be re-introduced in the House of Commons, should not that announcement have been made here, not in the other place?
§ Madam Speaker
I have had no information from the other place about the legislation there. Unfortunately, people do not give me information about what is happening in the other place and I tend to have to wait until I read the Official Report the next day. I take the 1089 point that the right hon. Gentleman makes, but I have not been informed by the Home Secretary that he seeks to make any statement to the House this evening.
§ Mr. Tipping
Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it the precedent of the House to have a statement every time the Government are defeated in the House of Lords? If it were, we would not have much time for our own discussions.
§ Madam Speaker
Does the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) wish to wind up the debate?
§ Mr. Kirkwood
Thank you, Madam Speaker. With the leave of the House, I feel a duty to make a brief response to the comments that have been made. I have found this an interesting and useful debate, and my fellow Commissioners will wish to study with great care what has been said.
The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) mentioned confusion, and it is true that some confusion exists. That is unacceptable, and we are determined to do something about it. As the Commissioner who answers questions on the Floor of the House, I am delighted to be asked oral or written questions, but I cannot stimulate them myself. I do not know what questions hon. Members have. The hon. Gentleman said that he was disappointed that he got such a negative response to the rather nebulous question that he posed to his sample of Members. The answer to his question, and for any hon. Member who is confused about where to seek information, is the Commission's annual report, which is a very thorough document. It deals Department by Department with where responsibility lies and it is updated every year. It is an encyclopaedia of information. If anyone wishes to find out anything about this place, they need only take it home to read in bed.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman does.
The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush did not stray far from the general thrust of the report when he suggested that someone should take charge. However, he is confusing a strategic corporate officer who would set a framework within which the whole organisation could work with a customer complaints manager. That issue is dealt with fully in appendix G of the report. If the Clerk of the House were given the 1090 support that the report recommends, he would have it in his power to make arrangements for the appointment of the equivalent of a customer services manager.
I do not think that there is a gulf between the hon. Gentleman and me. The Leader of the House noted that a person brought in from the private sector who was used to employing normal management practices would not last very long in this place. The House has a federal structure, with Chinese walls between Departments. There are also important questions of departmental independence, but the tone of the report is that we should move more quickly than has been the case so far towards a corporate structure. If we adopt that recommendation, and give the Clerk of the House the support that the report suggests, I hope that some of the problems that have been identified will be resolved.
§ Mr. Soley
I agree that the gap between the hon. Gentleman and me is not that great. However, his arguments about Chinese walls and so on reminded me of the arguments used in hospitals and elsewhere to prevent the introduction of chief executives. We are in danger of repeating that error.
My point is that adopting the structure set out in the report carries the danger that the Clerk of the House would become more of a manager, and less of a Clerk. To let that happen would be to lose something very valuable.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that danger, but it is not one that frightens me. If the corporate structure evolves and is properly serviced, one person may end up—in the fullness of time and once people have experience of working in different departments—with the primary management role. In a proper, evolved corporate structure, it is entirely possible that someone other than the Clerk of the House could become the primus inter pares. That is envisaged in the report, although I accept that we must be careful about how we get to that stage, and that doing so will take some time.
Although I do not think that there is a lot of difference between the hon. Gentleman and me, I undertake to ensure that his comments are studied and considered.
The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) is going to be in great demand for service on just about every domestic Committee. Her plea for better use of her time was irresistible, and I absolutely agree with her. I believe that the new intake of hon. Members has made a positive difference to the House. From the point of view of the Commission, I can tell the hon. Lady that the new intake's approach is beginning to percolate through the House in a very positive manner, and I hope that she will be encouraged by that.
It is a shame that the hon. Lady is not wired up. I shall speak to my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), who is not without influence in such matters. I hope that an electrician with a box of wires will appear in her office quite soon.
The report states that the number of parliamentary data and video network accounts has increased by more than 1,000, or 49 per cent., since December 1997, and that the number of Members of both Houses, and their staff, with PDVN accounts has increased by 115 per cent. since December 1997. Those accounts have to be managed, and we have to find the money to pay for that. Staff are 1091 working their socks off to make sure that demand is met, and I am delighted at the support that has been received for the work that is done.
The Commission is aware of the problems. We know that we are not responding fast enough and that there is a long way to go, but we are trying to get there. I hope that the hon. Lady will find some reassurance in the report.
I have to tell the hon. Lady that the Commission can do nothing about the rifle range, which does not belong to the House of Commons. In any case, it could be used as a creche only for children who were long and thin, who were prepared to stay in order and run in an absolutely straight line. The rifle range in fact belongs to the staff: the heritable property of the House does not belong to the Commission.
The Commission is doing its best to build on the very popular staff scheme for child care. Every 18 months or two years, the Commission asks staff about their child care voucher scheme, and they tell us that they are very happy with it. We accept that there is a need to provide such services, and the Commission is doing everything that it can in that respect.
However, I can tell the hon. Lady that everything that she said is in line with the general thrust of what Braithwaite is trying to do. I take her speech as a stern warning that, if we do not do better, faster, we will have her to reckon with in future, and quite right, too.
I am always grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). I learned a lot from him—he was my predecessor on the Commission, and I look forward to picking his brains in the Tea Room at much greater length. I was grateful to his remarks, which added to the debate.
The hon. Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) talked about the office costs allowance. This might seem perverse, but we have no control over it. I want people to understand that. It is right that, if it were increased by 10 per cent. tomorrow, it would exponentially increase the demand to which our works and administration budget would have to respond. If hon. Members want to influence that, they must make their own representations to the Senior Salaries Review Body. A lot of positive work is done; collective group purchasing is available on the PDVN, and that is a welcome step forward. At the next election, there will be a marvellous opportunity—if the will is there and people who feel strongly about this make their representations in the right way, we might get something done positively in the next Parliament, but I do not think that it will be much before then.
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) does not know the cost of running the House of Commons. Page 14 of the annual report gives the figures—it has pie charts, so even the right hon. Gentleman might be able to understand. It has percentages and little coloured graphs.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
The administration vote is £85.3 million. The work services vote is £99.6 million. Taking the office costs member vote into account, the total running costs for last year were £273.9 million. That includes quite a lot of capital expenditure for Portcullis House. We cannot build that fast enough either, but the Braithwaite report does not deal with Portcullis House.
1092 I do not know where the right hon. Gentleman has been for—
§ Mr. Kirkwood
It seems longer to some of us. We elect the membership of these Committees. There are motions late at night, when sometimes even the right hon. Gentleman is in his place. These motions are amendable and debatable.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
I have given the game away, and we are now in for many more hard and long nights. These names are all approved by the House. We could delete one name and add another, and eventually end up with a debate. I think that that answers the right hon. Gentleman's question.
I was grateful for the support that the PDVN received from various hon. Members. I was grateful, too, for the comments of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young). I look forward to working with him to take this process forward.
My hon. Friends the Members for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) and for Hallam both made important points but, again, broadly supported the thrust of the report. I look forward to talking to them informally.
Finally, the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) is a very brave man if he tells his local and regional press sees that there are moves afoot in the House of Commons to start charging their editors to get copy from the Press Gallery.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
I was teasing the hon. Gentleman. It is an important point. I was astonished when I discovered the extent of the facilities up there. We had a look in the previous Parliament and were so horrified by the facilities that we spent a lot of money trying to improve fire safety and other health and safety measures. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] That is a good question.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will be looking in every corner of the estate to try to make the place more efficient in a way that is properly costed and transparent for all our constituents.
This has been a valuable debate and, as a Commissioner, I feel that it has given us something to work on. I have assured hon. Members that we will ensure that progress will be reported religiously and transparently in full consultation. All the points made today will be carefully considered, and we hope to make progress quickly and in a way that people fully understand and can respond to as they think appropriate. Without more ado, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.