House of Commons (Services)

Bills Presented – in the House of Commons at 7:28 pm on 17th January 1991.

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Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 7:28 pm, 17th January 1991

I beg to move, That this House takes note of the Report to the House of Commons Commission on House of Commons Services (House of Commons Paper No. 38). This may seem a distracting day on which to consider the management of the House of Commons, but perhaps there is a certain symbolic value, because at the very time that our country has been compelled to go to war, we nevertheless attend to the needs of democracy in our determination to ensure full democratic debate on this and other issues, and that our democracy is well and efficiently served.

Before examining the background to the Ibbs report and the detail of what is proposed, I want to place on record the gratitude of the House of Commons Commission for the enormous effort put into the report's preparation by Sir Robin Ibbs himself and by the efficient team of officers and civil servants who worked with him, and to the staff of the House, who co-operated so readily with him.

The Commission decided in late April last year to invite Sir Robin Ibbs to lead a team to undertake a review of management and decision-taking responsibilities for services to the House. The team's report was ready for consideration by the Commission by mid-October. It is short, concise and clear. It is based upon a great deal of information, and draws on interviews with more than 80 individuals, yet it is readable and to the point.

The report's recommendations provide a framework for action, but leave the Commission to fill in the details. Most important, the report seems to reflect, with considerable accuracy, the worries which hon. Members have about the way in which services are managed. Its recommendations are, accordingly, realistic, and in most respects they are likely to find favour with hon. Members on both sides of the House. If hon. Members care to look at the summary of recommendations, or at the report in more detail, I think that they will find that, in his aims and his attempts to improve the quality of services and decision-making procedures, Sir Robin and the committee have identified faults about which they are concerned.

The present administrative arrangements derive their authority from the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978. That was based largely upon the recommendations in a report to the then Speaker, Mr. Selwyn Lloyd, by a Committee of Members, chaired by Mr. Arthur Bottomley, who is now Lord Bottomley. At that time he was the hon. Member for Teesside.

The Bottomley proposals were concerned, first, to preserve the traditional independence of Departments of the House, to ensure that all the principal officers retained their direct access to Mr. Speaker and their ability to give entirely independent advice to all other hon. Members. The result was the creation of a federal administrative structure, albeit dedicated to the creation of a common service for the House.

The second, and the most important, feature of the Bottomley proposals was the existence of the principle that hon. Members should control their own services. Therefore, under the 1978 Act, the House of Commons Commission was established to act both as the employer of permanent staff of the House, and as the body responsible for the preparation and presentation of the estimates required to meet the costs of the House of Commons.

Having served on the Commission since it was created, I am tempted to think that it is the Commission's quiet efficiency that has led to the fact that 37 per cent. of hon. Members claim that they know nothing at all about it, and 13 per cent. have never even heard of it, according to the Ibbs report. Surely that demonstrates the quiet competence with which the Commission goes about its work—there may be other reasons, in which case they will emerge during the debate.

The Commission has two important features which are not as widely appreciated as I think they should be. The Commission does not have a built-in Government majority. It is chaired very effectively by you, Mr. Speaker, and your political independence is assured. It also consists of the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and three other hon. Members appointed by the House. From the beginning it was accepted that these three would represent, respectively, the Government and official Opposition Back Benches and the other parties in the House. Therefore, the Commission includes only two hon. Members from the Government side and three from the Opposition. As a result the Government cannot, even if they would seek to do so, control the Commission's decisions.

Secondly, in financial matters—with which the Commission is largely concerned—that independence from Government is of crucial importance because, almost alone among the public service votes, estimates for the administration of the House are presented to Parliament not by the Chief Secretary but by you, Mr. Speaker, on behalf of the Commission. This would be of little significance if the Commission were not genuinely free from Executive control, but because it is, over the years it has been able to increase staff levels, where necessary, to meet the increased demands of hon. Members for services from the House Departments.

The Commission has refused to be drawn into the formal constraints of the Government's cash limit system, and has judged the need for staff increases on the merits of each case.

Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Is there any guarantee that at some future date the Commission will not be cash-limited? Is anything about that written into its articles of association or founding documents?

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The fact that the Commission is not in the cash-limiting system preserves the Commission's right to present its own estimates to the House. That right will be preserved even, as I shall explain later, in respect of those functions which the Commission will acquire if the recommendations in the report are carried out—functions which are now carried out by Government. Although the financial arrangements for those services which relate to the building will be different, the Commission will still preserve the right to present its own estimates.

The Commission has been able to contribute directly to addressing the balance of advantage between Parliament and the Executive. It is very much to the credit of successive Leaders of the House that they have, in my experience, always supported the Commission's independence and have backed it in resisting pressure from successive Chief Secretaries to reinstate Treasury control over the expenditure of the House. It is especially remarkable considering the ministerial experience of the previous four Leaders of the House—all of whom have served as Treasury Ministers—which is an argument for gamekeepers turning poachers.

Nevertheless, there are certain important constraints on the Commission's freedom of action. First, we are required by statute to ensure that the pay, grading and conditions of service for staff of the House are kept "broadly in line" with those in the home civil service. Secondly, the Commission does not seek financial provisions for entirely new services which have not been approved by the House. Far and away the most important constraint is the limited range of services for which the Commission is responsible. That is the source of much of the confusion to which I referred earlier and the reason why so many hon. Members do not know what the Commission does. The Commission has not been responsible for maintaining the building in which we work, as that has been the responsibility of Government, in the form of the Property Services Agency —which is now Property Holdings. The Commission is, therefore, responsible for less than half the expenditure on House of Commons services. The Ibbs report seeks to address that constraint in particular.

The conclusion of the report which has attracted the most attention is the "almost universal dissatisfaction" among hon. Members about accommodation. The report recommends that responsibility for the House of Commons part of the parliamentary works budget should therefore be transferred to the Commission—probably with effect from the beginning of the financial year starting in April 1992.

In practice, it seems likely that for the time being the day-to-day provision of parliamentary works services will continue to be done by the staff of the Parliamentary Works Office. It is important to emphasise that the criticisms of the accommodation services, which are detailed in the Ibbs report, are criticisms of the decision-making system, not of the staff of the Parliamentary Works Office. Like so many other servants of the House, the PWO staff give loyal service to Parliament, despite the ambiguity of their present status, in which they seek to serve the House and the wishes of hon. Members and of those in another place, but are employed by and directly responsible to the Secretary of State, not to the House.

Photo of Mr John Garrett Mr John Garrett , Norwich South

Does the hon. Gentleman construe the proposal that the House of Commons Commission should take responsibility for the votes for the premises to include the change that the staff of the House of Commons would be protected under health and safety legislation and food hygiene legislation, which does not apply on these premises at present because they are under Crown immunity?

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

That is not a direct consequence of the proposals in the report. The question is rather more complex than the hon. Gentleman suggests, which is why I hesitate to give an off-the-cuff answer. The legal definitions on which the Commission has sought advice are very complex. The Commission sought to act on the same basis as it would have acted upon had we been fully subject to that legislation. The hon. Gentleman raises a proper matter, which is actively and often considered by the Commission.

As a result of the proposed transfer of responsibilities for the buildings and accommodation services, the report recommends the appointment of a director of works and supporting staff in the Serjeant at Arms' Department. The expectation is that the director of works would provide similar services for the other place.

The transfer of responsibility for the works programme will involve a significant increase in the financial responsibilities of the House of Commons Commission. From the beginning of the Ibbs inquiry, the Commission has recognised that that may require a more formal arrangement with the Treasury.

Annex F of the report sets out a possible basis for agreement with the Treasury in respect of the works budget alone. That does not affect any of the existing arrangements about the rest of our expenditure. It will involve agreement between the Commission and Ministers about the long-term rolling programme for expenditure on buildings and accommodation services, and about the size of the annual estimate for the works vote. However, the Commission will remain free to submit what it regards as an appropriate estimate to the House, and it will be for the House to resolve any disagreement that might arise with the Treasury. Treasury Ministers have now agreed that the responsibility for the works budget should be transferred on that basis. It seems unlikely that, in practice, any disagreements will arise between the Commission and the Treasury which cannot be resolved before the annual estimates are published.

In addition to the works budget, the Ibbs report proposes that the Commission should take full responsibility for all other House of Commons expenditure, apart from hon. Members' salaries and allowances. The other main item will be the cost of printing and publication of House papers and the provision of stationery and office equipment, which is currently met by Her Majesty's Stationery Office on "allied service" terms. In addition, it is proposed that the Commission should assume responsibility for the Commons component in the grants in aid to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the British American Parliamentary Group and the History of Parliament Trust, and for the cost of publicity services provided by the Central Office of Information.

The second major, far-reaching recommendation in the Ibbs report flows from the conclusion that the House lacked most of the financial management tools that are now common throughout the private sector and the public service. The report refers to the absence of readily usable, comprehensive cost information", and concludes in paragraph 17: At a time when the need to demonstrate cost-consciousness is widely accepted, not least by Parliamentary Committees, arrangements in the House, far from setting a standard for others to follow, are a complex anachronism. A complete overhaul of financial systems is an inescapable necessity. The report therefore proposes the introduction of a comprehensive financial management system in the development of an enhanced corporate management role for the Board of Management. House Departments will in future be expected to budget more effectively, to seek to meet performance targets and indicators and to report regularly to the Commission and the House on their success or otherwise in meeting the objectives set for them.

Photo of Mr Raymond Powell Mr Raymond Powell , Ogmore

Did the inquiry find that previous Governments had been mistaken in regard to the allocation of funds, especially for accommodation? Is that why the accommodation that Members require has not been provided, and is it why the central complaint in the report relates to the lack of such accommodation?

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The hon. Gentleman—who is very knowledgeable about such matters, because of his Committee service—must draw his own conclusions about the effectiveness with which the report deals with that complaint. His view, however, is echoed by many other hon. Members, especially those who have been in the House for a long time. Implicit in the report is a belief that it would have been much better had the maintenance, improvement and extension of our buildings been the subject of a proper system of management and control run by the House itself, with the House determining its priorities and ensuring that they could be met over a period.

To cope with the more demanding financial regime, the report proposes the appointment of a new director of finance to head the reorganised Finance and Administration Department, and the introduction of improved financial information and management systems in all Departments of the House. At the same time, the National Audit Office will be invited to take a much closer interest in the financial administration of the House.

The main initiative for the appointment of Sir Robin Ibbs to lead the inquiry came from the former Leader of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe). During his short but productive tenure, the right hon. and learned Gentleman became acutely aware of the difficulties involved in improving facilities and services for Members in the face of the multitude of decision-making bodies in the House. I recall discussing with him, for example, the request often put to us for a créche or day care facility for the children of staff. Let me leave aside for the moment the arguments for and against that proposal; the number and complexity of the bodies involved in assessing such a proposal is mind-boggling.

The former Leader of the House met many such requests, and was under sustained and increasing pressure from Back-Benchers on both sides of the House for better accommodation and services. He was made only too aware of the lack of a central focus for decisions. The effect of the Ibbs proposals will be to establish the House of Commons Commission as just such a focus, although it is important to emphasise that the Commission will not be acting on its own.

Valuable work is at present undertaken on our behalf by the Services Committee and, in particular, by the Sub-Committees of that Committee. The right hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Orme) and the hon. Members for Cheltenham (Sir C. Irving) and for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) carry especially heavy responsibility on behalf of the House, both advising on Members' needs for services and, not infrequently, giving what amount to directives to the Departments of the House and others responsible for providing those services.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

The Ibbs report recommends the replacement of the Services Committee by four free-standing Committees, plus one rather important Finance and Services Committee. It is proposed that the membership and chairmanship of the two groups should be interlocking, and that they should make recommendations to the Commission.

What are the distinct advantages of that system, as opposed to any modifications of the present one? The absence of comment on the work of the Services Committee, much of which is done by word of mouth, is testament to its present efficiency, and I cannot for the moment see any benefit in the Ibbs proposals.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The key disadvantage of the present system is the lack of any clear focus of responsibility on determining priorities and assessing how recommendations can be acted on, how requests can be met, how funds can be found and what costs can be reasonably incurred. I do not think that the House can advocate procedures for others to ensure that costs are provided efficiently and cost-effectively and then not adopt such procedures itself.

In many instances, the wishes and ambitions that are expressed through the Committees—particularly the Services Committee—cannot be met by those Committees, which may not be part of any mechanism whereby such requests can be dealt with. No one starting afresh would set up such a system to ensure that money was spent well and wisely on the provision of services for Members.

The Committees to which the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) referred—the freestanding Committees that would replace the Services Committee Sub-Committees—are designed principally to represent the interests of Members, as consumers of the services provided for the House. In addition, a new Finance and Services Committee, on which each of the new "consumer" Committees will be represented, will act as a filter for financial advice to the House of Commons Commission. The Commission has felt the need for a more effective filter for such advice, although it is advised very effectively on demands for specific services.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland

In his opening remarks, my hon. Friend pointed out that the present Commission has an interesting party balance: at least the minority parties are represented, as my hon. Friend is now eloquently showing. Will the new proposals give a proper place to the interests of minority parties?

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Naturally, I agree with my hon. Friend that this is an important matter. It was certainly considered when Sir Robin and his team talked to Members in the House and prepared their reports. In those discussions, it was felt—I shall continue to express this view on the Commission—that minority parties must be represented, certainly on the Finance and Services Committee, and perhaps providing a Chairman for one of the specialist Committees. I am sure that my hon. Friend's point will be noted.

What is important is that, ultimately, one body—the Commission—will carry responsibility for decisions about services and the allocation of resources to them. At present, responsibilities are so widely diffused that it is often impossible to know who is answerable for what. I suggest that any hon. Member who doubts that should attend Monday's Question Time and note the amazing overlap of responsibility between myself answering on behalf of the Commission, the Leader of the House and the hon. Member for Cheltenham, who replies on behalf of the Catering Sub-Committee from time to time.

Photo of Mr Peter Thurnham Mr Peter Thurnham , Bolton North East

If there is to be a sharper focus on costs, what is likely to be the impact on catering losses? I understand that there is a true loss of £2·5 million, which works out at about £100 a week per Member while the House is sitting.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The hon. Gentleman should recognise that the House catering services are a major facility, although they are used primarily not by Members but by their staff and the staff of the House. It is important that those services are provided cost-effectively, and that the extent of any subsidy that is thought appropriate—as is often the case in many commercial and industrial concerns—is fully understood and properly accounted for.

Hon. Members may know that the Commission has recently received a separate report from outside consultants on the management of the Refreshment Department. That report was placed in the Library. The Commission is to consider representations from Members and staff on that review. The Commission has a continuing concern to ensure that the catering services are efficiently and cost-effectively provided. It is our view that the structures proposed under the Ibbs report will provide the most effective framework within which that can be done. The report does not address itself to all the questions that have to be considered in restructuring the management of the refreshment services, but it provides the best overall framework within which it can be done.

The Ibbs reforms will place responsibility for the Refreshment Department, as for other services, squarely on the shoulders of the Commission. But the new Select Committees will have a vital role in advising the Commission about how the services of the Refreshment Department, and other Departments of the House, should be organised to meet Members' needs.

The overall aim of the Ibbs report is to produce a single, coherent structure responsible for funding services for the House, and greater efficiency and accountability in the delivery of services. I believe that its implementation will assist the process of democracy by ensuring that the facilities Members need to represent their constituents and to bring the Executive to account can be provided efficiently and cost-effectively. The Commission looks forward to considering the views of hon. Members on the various aspects of the report, which we commend to the House.

Photo of Mr Michael Jopling Mr Michael Jopling , Westmorland and Lonsdale 7:51 pm, 17th January 1991

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has given us a most helpful introduction to this debate by explaining, as a member of the Commission, how he sees the implications of the Ibbs report. It is a welcome document. As the hon. Member said, it is necessary for things to be changed. I see it as a natural progression in the management of the affairs of the House from former days, when it was a royal palace where Parliament was present on sufferance, through to the proposal under which Parliament will have control of its own domain.

I remember, when I first came to the House, that one of the first steps in this direction was the setting up by the late Dick Crossman of the Services Committee in 1965 or 1966. All I remember is that I was a member of that Committee for a number of years in the 1960s. It is right to make this further move, partly because of the massive growth in the cost of Parliament to public funds, and it is right to have it under what appears to be more sensible control.

During his introductory speech, the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed did not say how big the Commission should be. I hesitate to become involved in this, but I wonder whether only six members will be enough when one considers all its new, large and important functions. It might be better in the future if it were rather larger.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed pointed out the result of the MORI poll, which demonstrated the view of virtually all hon. Members that the accommodation in the building is abysmal. I know that those who have to deal with accommodation do a heroic job in spreading around among a number of demanding people a very limited amount of accommodation. You and I, Mr. Speaker, in previous incarnations have had some experience of dealing with the demands—they can be extremely bad-tempered—for accommodation. It is absurd to expect hon. Members to work, as they do, in corridors, cubbyholes or cleaning cupboards, particularly with the new pressures that have been placed upon them over the years.

I welcome what is being done to improve that situation. I have not been to look at the new office premises that have been constructed across the road, because I do not particularly want the inconvenience of crossing the road to get to my office. However, I hope that the Commission or whoever deals with these matters will not go mad. It is easy for authorities to go mad in supplying what is said to be adequate accommodation.

I remember about 25 years ago going to visit one of the office buildings adjoining the Capitol building in Washington just after it had been built. I was taken into one of the new offices by a friend of mine, who was a distinguished Republican Member of the House of Representatives from California. He was the ranking Republican on the maritime committee and the second ranking Republican on the foreign relations committee.

He showed a number of us the absurd bank of safes that had been constructed. He said that the committees received some confidential documents but we were looking at a massive bank of safes in a fairly large room alongside his office. He ferreted in his pocket and produced some combinations, opened the doors and invited us in to see that the safe space was too large for his needs. We all went in and found that all he kept there were two bottles of whisky and one bottle of gin.

I hope that that sort of thing will not happen here. I hope that there will be some sensible prudence in ensuring that hon. Members have acceptable office accommodation.

I want to draw my principal point to the attention of the Commission and the Government. I want to put down a marker on behalf of a number of groups referred to in annex D to the Ibbs report, to which the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred. Those groups are the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the History of Parliament Trust and the British American Parliamentary Group, of which I am the honorary secretary. Those four bodies are currently grant-aided bodies in Parliament, sponsored and directly paid for by the Treasury.

A year or two ago—I forget exactly when—the Treasury proposed a change in the system of support for those bodies. It suggested that the support should be shifted to the budget of Parliament. The executive committees of those four groups came to the conclusion that that was not a good thing. We had a meeting with the Treasury and, after discussions, it was agreed about a year ago that it was better to leave the funding with the Treasury and allow it to continue to sponsor the four groups.

Immediately after that, we had the Ibbs report, which in annex D seems to suggest again that the costs be transferred from the Treasury to the House of Commons Commission. Since the publication of the report, those four groups have had a meeting, at which I presided, to discuss the report. All four groups took an open-minded approach to whether it would be sensible to move the support and funding from the Treasury to the Commission. There are strong arguments both ways.

However, two of the executive committees that I know well—the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association executive, of which I am a member, and the British American Parliamentary group—have not yet discussed in detail the decision about which way we should move. Although Ibbs has recommended that, I hope that the Commission and the Government will not embrace it but will, please, engage in discussions with representatives of the four groups to try to reach agreement, which should not prove too difficult.

There are several problems. For instance, all the groups have substantial membership from the House of Lords. Therefore, joint funding from the House of Lords and the House of Commons would be a problem. That problem could be overcome, but it would arise if we moved to obtaining funding from the Commission's budget.

The groups receive grant from the Treasury, which leaves them to manage their own affairs. If we changed to support from the House of Commons Commission and the House of Lords Commission, if there were to be one, would it lead to a loss of autonomy? Would it mean that ultimate responsibility for the management of the groups passed to, perhaps, the Clerk's Department or the new reinvigorated Services Committee? Here, again, a further problem arises with arrangements for accommodation and staffing.

Those problems must be resolved, and I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will agree to discussions with the four groups to try to work out the most sensible and reasonable solution to what is not too serious a problem. However, we do not want the problem pre-empted by decisions being taken without discussion.

Photo of Mr John Garrett Mr John Garrett , Norwich South 8:01 pm, 17th January 1991

I find the Ibbs report disappointing, although it is a useful start to a discussion on these important issues.

It is true that the terms of reference of the Ibbs team were restricted, but the report is superficial and fails to follow through its own logic. Its most culpable fault is that it is too deferential to the established order.

The central feature of House of Commons services is that they are well administered. Hon. Members get all the service we could possibly ask for from the Clerk's Department, the Library, the Refreshment Department and the Department of the Serjeant at Arms. The House is well administered but poorly managed, due to an amateurish House of Commons which has never sought to improve the services of the House.

Sir Edmund Compton's report on the same subject in 1974 got much closer to the central issue. Its key passage states: My assessment of Members' requirements of service from the staff of the House is that the time has come for a significant shift of activity from procedural services to administrative and management services—that is, to develop the organisation and staffing of the services that support and assist Members in their life and work in the House. That led Sir Edmund to the inescapable conclusion that the services of the House had to have a chief executive. That still seems to be true, and to be the logical conclusion of the findings of the Ibbs report. It is dismissed by the Ibbs report in a single line.

We may not have to look too far to find out why the Ibbs team did not take up the possibility of a chief executive. The Compton report's recommendation produced an irate response from the then Clerk of the House, who wrote a furious memorandum to the Bottomley committee, which considered the report, claiming that what happened in the Chamber was of paramount importance, that it dwarfed all else in the service of the House and that that made him the senior officer of the House. He suggested that all Departments report to him.

It is true that, as accounting officer, the Clerk is the senior officer of the House and, nowadays, de facto chief executive, but in recent years the Treasury has greatly enlarged the role of all accounting officers. In 1866, when they were invented, their job simply was to sign the accounts as correct, but nowadays the Treasury memorandum on the duty of an accounting officer requires an accounting officer to ensure that all managers under his command—his or her command; there is one female permanent secretary—should have objectives, performance measures and management information systems.

The Clerk of the House, with all his heavy and complex procedural duties in direct service of the House, as well as running a complicated Department of his own, cannot fulfil those terms of reference. He cannot act as a managing director of an institution that costs more than £130 million a year to run.

Worse still, the Ibbs report proposes that ultimate responsibility for management should continue to be shared between you, Mr. Speaker, who would handle non-financial matters, which I suppose includes labour relations of 1,000 members of staff, and the Clerk, who would handle financial matters. You, Mr. Speaker, know best. I know that you cannot intervene in this debate, but you will agree that you are in no position to act as chief executive, bearing in mind all your many representational duties and the fact that, since the televising of the House, you have become a substantial international figure. With all the demands on your time, it is ridiculous to require you, with the Clerk of the House, to act as the managing director of an institution which costs more than £130 million a year to run.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I am glad that my hon. Friend has given way. I assure him that I have not consulted the Clerk or you, Mr. Speaker, on what I am about to say. Is it not possible that the former Clerk may have been over-egging, but justifiably egging, the pudding? Although a chief executive may be more efficient in dealing with technical matters and the matters of importance that my hon. Friend mentioned, is it not vital that services be oriented to the demands of the Chamber and what happens here, not to the administrative convenience of a chief executive? Therefore, the priorities of serving the House must be related to the services required by Members, as seen by the Clerk and by Mr. Speaker.

Photo of Mr John Garrett Mr John Garrett , Norwich South

No, my hon. Friend is quite wrong. He confuses the Chamber with the House.

Photo of Mr John Garrett Mr John Garrett , Norwich South

It does not all happen here. It happens in Committees, in our constituency case work and in the way in which we relate to the communities that we represent. The Chamber is no longer necessarily the focal point of the House of Commons. My hon. Friend may think that, and when he makes his speech he can explain why he thinks so. I referred to the Compton report, which said that the procedural demands of the House should no longer be paramount—a conclusion with which I agree.

Most of the Ibbs report is taken up with describing the chaos of the accounting systems. There is no costing, no planning and no budgetary control and its analysis of the antiquated systems that we operate is very useful. The Ibbs report is right to propose that all House of Commons services should be brought under the control of the Commission.

It is ridiculous, for example, that we do not have control of this building. It points out that the costs of the House are covered by seven votes, for which responsibility is distributed among five accounting officers. Those seven votes cover our expenditures, but not all the accounting officers are in the service of the House.

That still leaves Members' pay and allowances with the Treasury. It is wrong that the Executive should impose conditions of service on the legislature; only a supine legislature would allow that. All the costs, including Members' pay and allowances, should come under the control of the Commission.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should express the present position a little more clearly. The Top Salaries Review Body makes recommendations about Members' pay and allowances, and the House determines whether those or other recommendations should be acted upon, sometimes in defiance of the Government's wishes. The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point about whether it would be appropriate to bring that duty within the Commission's responsibility, but there is another view—that it is better for the recommendations to come from an outside body and have them determined on the Floor of the House.

Photo of Mr John Garrett Mr John Garrett , Norwich South

I am familiar with that argument, but, more often than not, the amount of money given to Members of Parliament in, for example, allowances is determined by the Government and is not determined often enough by the House.

The Ibbs report creates the position of director of finance—which is necessary—but makes him adviser to the Clerk. If accounting and budgeting matters are so bad, I believe that the director should be independent.

Ibbs also creates a director of works with, I am glad to see, a direct labour organisation—which is also necessary—but makes him report to the Serjeant at Arms; so an Officer with a proposed annual spend of £35 million and a backlog of work involving no less than £220 million will report to an Officer of the House whose spend is £3 million. I believe that that director should be independent, too.

There is a great silence at the centre of the Ibbs report—the Comptroller and Auditor General is missing. There is no doubt that, since the National Audit Act 1983, the Comptroller and Auditor General is an Officer of the House. He is an expert on financial control. Why is he not therefore on the Board of Management? The reason is that the Treasury has never accepted him as an Officer of the House and would strongly resist any such formal appointment.

The top structure for the management of the services of the House should be six departmental heads and should include a director of finance, a director of works and the Comptroller and Auditor General—all under a chief executive reporting to the Commission. I do not think that, with a chief executive charged to improve the services of the House, it would have taken the 30 years it took to establish the need for and location of a new parliamentary building. After all, it took only 15 years to build the entire Palace of Westminster.

If I understand the Ibbs report correctly—perhaps someone will explain to me if I am wrong—a further weakness is that it proposes the abolition of the Services Select Committee, although it appears to recreate it as a Finance and Services Select Committee. The proposed new Committee is a management body, preparing estimates, advising the Commission and carrying tasks out on its behalf. It is not a Select Committee, holding hearings, examining witnesses and producing reports and recommendations for change and improvements on behalf of the House—it would not be empowered to do so.

We know from the Ibbs recommendation that the proposed Committee should move away from a process of taking evidence. It would be there to serve, not prod, management. The House would thereby lose its only machinery for advocacy in these matters. In my view, the distinction between the providers and the users of services—us, through the Services Committee—should be clear, with the users being empowered to produce reports on the services required for Members, based on the examination of evidence put before them.

The Ibbs report also took the MORI survey of Members' opinions at face value, without looking into services that Members need but did not have sufficient knowledge to articulate that need or were not asked about. The poll showed that Members cared most about accommodation and catering. Both those problems are largely dictated by the size and age of the Palace of Westminster, and, until new buildings are available, they will have to be lived with. However, there is no reason why the people who work in this place should be under Crown immunity from health and safety and food hygiene regulations. There is no reason why those regulations cannot be made to apply to the staff of the House.

For someone trying to do a professional job as a Member of Parliament, another issue, which was missed by Ibbs, looms much larger—the primitive state of the information technology available to Members. Information technology services here are pathetic, and there have been several reports on this matter. The Government have always refused to upgrade our office equipment or even to discuss it.

The only information technology we have is a telephone line and the annunciator system, which is 30 years old and costs nearly £200,000 a year to maintain. Each box costs £1,000 because it is obsolete and has to be converted from a 425-line television set. Not long ago, a junior Minister in the Department of the Environment had the temerity to say that no replacement was necessary.

Worse still, the new building across the road is not cabled for the information technology services that we need. We need a properly cabled parliamentary estate so that we each have work stations provided by the House for word processing, for paging, for electronic mail, for accessing the Library and for a clean feed from the Chamber, as other legislatures in France, Germany, Canada and the United States have. Every attempt by the Services Committee to improve our information technology equipment has been refused by junior Ministers at the Department of the Environment, which is an abuse of Parliament.

The Ibbs report left far too much power with the Treasury. It frequently referred to the oversight of the Treasury and to arrangements for making applications for funding to the Treasury. There is a serious defect in arrangements that allow the Executive to control and ration expenditure which makes the legislature effective.

There is no evidence that the House would be profligate but for Treasury control. The House of Commons Commission has a reputation for miserliness. Look how it recently refused funding to enable Select Committees to take evidence in Europe. The Commission should be trusted to produce a plan for the development of services and directly present all the estimates for what we need to the House for its approval and its works should be scrutinised by the Services Committee.

The real problem is that Leaders of the House are not, on the whole, defenders of and advocates for the services that support the House, but are primarily concerned to defend the interests of the Executive. Perhaps the new Leader of the House will be different, but I very much doubt it. We should establish our own unilateral declaration of independence and have a Commission that is responsible for all our costs, puts them to the House and lets the House vote on them.

Photo of Mr Ian Lloyd Mr Ian Lloyd , Havant 8:16 pm, 17th January 1991

To a large extent, what the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) said in both parts of his speech was music to my ears. I shall not be tempted to follow him in the earlier part of his speech, except to say that he reinforced a conclusion which I reached many years ago—virtually all political problems are boundary problems. The moment the boundary is moved, all hell breaks loose.

I could not help but profoundly concur with the hon. Gentleman's comments on information technology. I was a member of a Committee which went to Canada many years ago and produced the report to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and I was also a member of the Committee which produced the subsequent report which said that it was time we began to look towards the 21st century with equipment comparable to that available to our colleagues in Canada and, more recently, in Canberra. That is essential. Whether we go back to the original Services Committee or whether we accept the Ibbs proposals, this must be a high priority in our thinking.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) used an interesting phrase when discussing the history of the House of Commons Commission. He referred to the balance of advantage between Parliament and the Executive. I share the view that the responsibility of the House for its expenditure should be total, detailed and visible, and that we should be responsible for it and no one else. The dilemma arises for a simple, fundamental reason—after every general election, whichever party is returned to power, the Executive is, as it were, carved out of this place by caesarean section, which creates a fundamental dilemma. Once that has happened, there is a marked change in the general character of this place. I do not see how that will be easily remedied or altered. However, we must accept that that does take place and that the basic responsibility of the House of Commons for the control of the expenditure of the nation is in a rather unsatisfactory state.

If, as has been implied this evening, the efficiency of that control demands that we as a parliamentary body and as a legislature should decide which instruments and information we need, no part of the Executive should have any say in that. If we should be extravagant or wasteful in providing ourselves with expenditure, we alone should be answerable to the nation for that extravagance. As the hon. Member for Norwich, South has said, we should not be able to blame a junior Minister for acting in between what we want and for applying his ruling to the Treasury.

We are all indebted to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed for his useful and comprehensive survey of the Ibbs report. The report is long overdue; it will be much discussed and there will be many views about it. I merely conclude that, in my experience of this place, a change in the procedures of the House is the only event that requires a longer gestation period than that of the elephant. It is very slow.

I support the main recommendations of the Ibbs report because we must move quite fundamentally. The House must take a stronger grip on its own affairs. Whether we accept the new structure proposed by Ibbs or some other structure that will eventually evolve, it must, in the words of the Ibbs report, respond adequately to Members' needs and to determine priorities between them. I want to turn now to such a priority and I want to begin by declaring an unusual interest. It is not a personal or financial interest, but an interest in a subject that I believe to be a fundamental necessity for the House. I have the honour at present to be the president of the parliamentary and scientific committee and the chairman of the principal organisation about which I shall speak —the parliamentary office of science and technology. That is the technical limit of my interest which I felt that I should declare. It is entirely altruistic.

There is more than palpably today a fundamental need in all modern democratic legislatures for scientific information of the highest quality, relevance and objectivity. I can give two examples which may be of interest to the House. The Gulf war suggests to us that all modern weaponry is fundamentally dependent upon the most advanced science. The House has to decide, at least in principle, on the weaponry with which our armed forces are equipped and whether that weaponry is appropriate and cost-efficient. It will interest the House to know that one of the current projects of the parliamentary office of science and technology is on the inter-relationship between defence, and civil science and technology. That report has yet to appear, but we are working on it.

On the political side, I refer to the political impact of all the scientific work on DNA—deoxyribonucleic acid. In that context, the parliamentary office of science and technology is in the process of producing a report on research in the national health service. However, I can probably illustrate the political significance of that rather more vividly than those dry titles might suggest by referring hon. Members to an article that appeared in the most recent issue of New Scientist and referred to a gentleman by the name of John Moore. I wonder whether many hon. Members have heard of a Mr. John Moore —apart from our own colleague. We shall hear a great deal more about him because the case that is described in the magazine is fascinating and will have far-reaching effects on public and political life.

It is an extraordinary story. Mr. John Moore had an oversized spleen, which grew from 0·5 kg to 6 kg. When doctors took it out of his body, they discovered that he had produced a unique type of white blood cell. Given modern technology, scientists decided that that unique type of blood cell would probably be very effective against many other diseases and possibly even against cancer. Using modern technology, the scientists have taken that blood cell and reproduced it on a large scale. Two companies are now selling it.

The sale of that commodity—if I may call it that—has aroused immense interest in the United States and the case has even reached the Supreme Court because Mr. John Moore thinks that it belongs to him and the scientists think that it belongs to them. Naturally, the public think that it should belong to them. This is precisely the type of problem and dilemma that scientific research, not least in biology, will present to us. It is interesting that a senior legal analyst at the United States office of technology assessment—to which I will refer in a moment—said: Few people have thought through all the arguments and the many different ways of interpreting existing laws. I want to give the House a brief history of the parliamentary office of science and technology. We have based it unashamedly on the American example, as I have said many times. We first discovered the American office in the early 1970s. A number of us visited the office in 1986 and we made a recommendation to the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), that our legislature needed a similar office. She was sympathetic, but reluctant to do anything other than suggest that the parliamentary and scientific committee should take full responsibility for the development of such an organisation.

We said, "Right, we accept that challenge" and there was only one way in which to do that. We had to go outside both Houses of Parliament to the rest of the country and seek financial support from industry and from foundations such as Nuffield, Leverhulme, Wellcome, the Royal Society and the British Association, all of which were generous. We received surprisingly generous support from Members of both Houses—although proportionately that support was small—and we even received some support from universities and polytechnics. As I am sure you are aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, POST has, as a result, produced 20 briefing papers on a wide variety of subjects and only yesterday it produced its first major report, which I have here, entitled "Technologies for Teaching", which is a subject of great current interest.

We have also introduced the concept of the Westminster Fellow. Young scientists of some experience attach themselves to both Houses of Parliament, under the umbrella of POST, for a brief period and are financed by POST. We reached the position where we proved that such an organisation could work, that it was required and that Members of Parliament found it of great interest—and not only Members of Parliament. We have had requests for papers from as far afield as the United States and Australia as they are regarded as being of considerable quality.

I was instructed to explore the possibility of some form of central funding of a service for Parliament by Parliament itself. I wrote to the then Leader of the House, who is now Secretary of State for Energy, and asked him what he thought he could do about this proposal. His successor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe), replied and gently equivocated. He said, "Not now. We do not think that the time has come."

I was then instructed to write to the Commission, as the Leader of the House had also suggested. I was told, "Not now. Everything is in the melting pot. Sir Robin Ibbs is doing an inquiry. Why don't you write to Sir Robin Ibbs?" I wrote to him and he sent me a polite letter saying, "This is not a matter for me." So it goes round and round. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed spoke about the great diversity of responsibility and that was shown in this instance. Improved arrangements for considering the provision of new services are most certainly required.

Where do we stand now'? Our Parliament is well known to be a long way behind the United States legislature, which is the prime example of a legislature with an advanced technology assessment facility. That organisation employs a staff of 200 for technology assessment alone, with a budget of $20 million. I have never argued that we should even begin to approach that level. It is not required and it would not be appropriate; it would be extravagant in relation to our national resources. I would not dream of making such a case. But what about Denmark? The Danish Parliament has a technology assessment staff of 11 and spends 10 million to 12 million krona per annum. France has a staff of six and spends 6 million francs per annum. Germany spends DM2 million on its parliamentary assessment facilities. The Netherlands —a much smaller country than the United Kingdom—has a staff of nine and spends £1·5 million. The European Parliament—one of the most recent to embark on this path —has a modest staff of five and spends about 500,000 ecus, which is equivalent to £350,000 to £400,000.

It is interesting to note that all the technology assessment organisations to which I have referred are properly funded by the Parliaments that they serve. Ours is not. Those of us who believe that such facilities are necessary find it difficult to imagine going back to all the organisations which said, "We think that this is a good idea. We shall support it on an experimental basis and, if Parliament likes it, Parliament must fund it," and say, "Parliament likes the service. We find the reports and service that POST now supplies to Select Committees and other bodies valuable, but you—private industry and the foundations—must go on paying for it." That is illogical and, in my judgment, we should change it.

I come to my final comparison. Japan has decided that its Parliament must have an organisation of technology assessment. I hate to think what the funding for that will be. It will certainly be on a very generous scale—not surprisingly as the Government science budget is now running at about 780,000 million yen per annum, which I believe is equivalent to about £3 billion. According to the latest figures, total research and development expenditure in Japan amounts to about £32 billion.

My plea is simple and fundamental. The parliamentary office of science and technology is not just another peripheral committee. It is an organisation established by the oldest all-party committee of both Houses—the parliamentary and scientific committee, which was 50 years old last year—to supply both Houses of Parliament with a basic information service. POST has operated on an experimental basis for nearly two years with the support of the country. It needs to be firmly established on a long-term basis. It needs to be properly funded by Parliament as the basic information service for Parliament. That needs to be done as soon as possible. By that, I mean not tomorrow or next year, but now.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Shadow Spokesperson (Transport) 8:32 pm, 17th January 1991

When I first joined the House of Commons (Services) Committee, I had certain illusions about what I could achieve by attending its meetings, held once every eight weeks or whenever the Committee decided to meet, and the meetings of the Catering Sub-Committee, the only Sub-Committee of which I was a full member, which met whenever the Chairman thought it appropriate—often, it seemed, determined by the number of wine tastings that needed to be held rather than by the need to deal with real issues concerning food. I thought that I could do something to change the way in which the House was run. I have been under that illusion ever since I was elected to this place.

I am still committed and determined to ensure that, even if the Ibbs report is not the answer to everything, we treat it at least as the best starting point that we have had for a good many years. I have the distinct impression that the Committees on which I have served provide us with little more than a history lesson. One goes along only to be told, "This matter was raised back in 1950", or, "We thought of having a new office block then." When the managing director of ICL in my constituency came to the House for a meeting, he burst out laughing when he saw the annunciator screens. We are constantly told that people have tried but failed miserably to get anything done to change the way in which this place works. That is simply because there has never been the political will to do anything about it. Quite apart from anything else, that is one of the main reasons why we have so few women in the House. As was said earlier, one has to be almost mad to work in this place.

We need decent working conditions not only for Members of Parliament who are elected to serve democracy but for their staff and all those behind the scenes—those who run the Library so efficiently, those in the Fees Office who deal with our expenses so well and those in the Refreshment Department who do their best to provide food. I am not advancing an elitist argument and saying that we should do something for Members of Parliament alone. I am talking about all the people who work here. Hon. Members almost live here, as well as working here. Sometimes, I have been here for 17 hours at a stretch. I have taken the one bed available, perhaps to get three or four hours' kip before coming to the Dispatch Box. Often, I have had to get into that bed when it has just been vacated by another lady Member who was about to come to the Chamber for a debate. That is an absurd way of going about our business.

I am not being sensationalist in suggesting that we should consider the number of premature deaths among hon. Members—even during my short time in this place. If we are serious about the House and about democracy, we must take all those points on board.

The way in which the House is run is nonsensical. We are all elected to represent our areas, and we may have 70,000 constituents or more. We do not have the tools to do our job. No authority—other than one cash-starved by central Government—and no private company would expect its managing director or its employees to do their job, with all the targets that they must achieve, in such conditions. Like everyone else, hon. Members want to do a good job. We want to serve our constituents well. To do that, we need the tools. That applies not only to us but, for example, to the Refreshment Department staff. They need changing rooms and somewhere to which they can go and have a break. At the moment, they sometimes have to go to the ladies' toilet because there is nowhere else.

We also need somewhere to meet our constituents. It is all very well having banqueting rooms that one can book for a prestigious do at £15 or £20 a head. But what about the pensioners who legitimately want to lobby their Members of Parliament? Where is one to take them? One cannot even give them a cup of tea. It is no good saying, "The building is too small; we can't do anything about it." We have been waiting for the new building for years and the plans may be put back again. What difference will the extension of the Jubilee line make to the new building programme? We have nowhere to bring pensioners, school children and those who legitimately wish to lobby their Members of Parliament as part of the democratic process.

What do we need to do our job properly? What do the staff need? We need an office. I do not want to share with four other hon. Members and their researchers an office in which I have to climb over bags and bins and piles of paper to get to my desk and where there is not even room to sit at my desk. I do not want my research staff to work in such cluttered conditions. When someone comes to this place and goes beyond the lovely, well-appointed state rooms for which the House is so special they find a different story. I am often told off for raising questions about lights that do not work on the stairs behind the corridor, but if my colleagues break their wrists or injure themselves in other ways when walking down unlit corridors or over threadbare carpets there is no possibility of compensation and no one has responsibility.

If there is no way in which the Serjeant at Arms, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Commission, the Leader of the House, the Chairman of the Services Committee or the Clerks can get the lamp changed, the matter should be brought to the Floor of the House. I note the almost superficial way in which the Ibbs report refers to that. We raise matters on the Floor of the House and in questions only when we have failed to get anything done because the system does not work.

We need to have our offices and all the stairways properly cleaned. Every time I go into the Tea Room I am aware that we cannot even sort out who is responsible for what. The Catering Sub-Committee is responsible for cleaning one part of it. The PSA and someone else at the Department of the Environment is responsible for cleaning other parts.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

My hon. Friend is right.

The areas where we eat food would be closed by environmental health officers if they were in any other public place in the country. The Ibbs report does not properly address that issue. The problem relates to Crown immunity as much as anything else. I have raised the matter in the Chamber on numerous occasions. The previous Leader of the House said that he was aware of the problems that result from Crown immunity, but I have seen no progress in having it removed.

I am mindful that when it was proposed to remove Crown immunity from hospital kitchens an enormous amount of work had to be done and new equipment brought in simply to comply with basic standards set by the legislation passed in this very Chamber. Yet we cannot even look after our own interests. There is a double standard. We simply cannot provide decent and safe conditions for not only Members but all the staff of the House and the members of the public who come here on many occasions.

I could go on at length but I am mindful of the time. In view of the large number of premature deaths among Members of Parliament, we should consider our working hours. Some people might say that it was not within the terms of reference of the Ibbs report to consider working hours, but it should have dealt with the matter. The way in which the House is run and its management is to be handed over to a Finance and Services Committee which will have executive powers. The hours during which the House operates and the way in which Committees and the business of the House are run will have a direct bearing on its work. It is high time that we reviewed the demands that are made on us. We often sit continuously for many hours. That must be urgently reviewed. Everyone who has a job to do in the House must have proper working hours.

I cannot stress strongly enough our lack of concern about healthy eating and meeting basic food regulations in the House. It is not on anyone's agenda and I do not see it on the agenda of the Ibbs report. Nor is it strategically placed on the agenda of the Touche Ross report which can be found in the Library. The report was published partly in consultation with the Ibbs committee. Linkage seems to be the word at the moment and there is linkage between the two reports.

I can almost see hon. Members saying to each other, "I hope she will not talk about healthy eating again." I have raised the need for healthy food many times in the Catering Sub-Committee. I feel like a previous Prime Minister who, when asked what he had achieved in this place, said that he had set up cats' eyes. Sometimes the only thing that I feel that I have achieved is to introduce fresh salads in the Tea Room. Yet quiche is still served off hotplates. Proper attention is not paid to refrigeration. We do not have proper advice about the environmental health standards which apply in every other workplace in the country.

The House should not be treated differently and people should not be ridiculed for raising serious issues such as I have raised. As we have seen in the other place, serious problems of food poisoning and salmonella can result. We should not have to wait for such problems to arise before something is done.

No one seems to be responsible for cleaning in the House and it seems that no one has ever wanted to have the responsibility. I wonder whether the Ibbs report can even begin to introduce integrated management of the House. If the proposals for a new Committee are accepted, the Commission or the executive officers with responsibility for formulating the new system of management must take an integrated approach. They must make sure that the Committee has properly set out terms of reference. It should not consider the purely financial or accounting aspects of issues. It must consider how the House can comply with all the health and safety at work regulations and be a place in which people can work and members of the public can visit us in safety, as they rightly wish to do.

I could relate many occasions when we have spent hours talking about whether we should hang 79 portraits in the Harcourt Room rather than dealing with basic matters of food hygiene. However, to do so would not take the debate any further. I simply stress that we must do something about Crown immunity. I heard the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) say that it is too complicated an issue to go into. However, we have removed Crown immunity from hospital kitchens and incinerators. We have made headway in the prison service, as my hon. Friends will testify. I see no reason why the Palace of Westminster, where the legislation of this country is passed, should be exempt from the basic safety procedures and health and safety at work requirements which govern every other place in the country. I hope that something constructive can come from the report.

Photo of Mr Colin Shepherd Mr Colin Shepherd , Hereford 8:46 pm, 17th January 1991

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in this important debate. I recognise the intensity of feeling of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley). Having served with her for some time on the Catering Sub-Committee, I know full well her commitment and sense of purpose in these matters. I hope that she will forgive me if I do not pursue her line of argument. However, some of my remarks will impinge on what she said.

I express my thanks to Sir Robin Ibbs and his team for the way in which they conducted their inquiry, listened to the many representations made and discussed their findings with those who had made them before the report was published.

I also pay my compliments to the House of Commons Commission for the way in which it has worked. As the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, it is not the highest-profile body in the House, but it has had to do a tremendous amount of work since it was set up. Those charged with that authority have a substantial burden. I give a broad welcome to the findings of the Ibbs report.

There is no doubt that the speech of the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) will bear close reading by the management side—what I would call the professional side or administration—rather than the Members of the House. He made some good observations which may be a little astringent in the light of what Ibbs set out, but they are nevertheless worthy of attention.

I read the Ibbs report as a member of the House of Commons (Services) Committee since 1979, who has served on the Library Sub-Committee, the Catering Sub-Committee, the New Building Sub-Committee and the Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee in the intervening years. It is a terrible catechism. The Ibbs Committee listened to my observations about the necessity of having larger sub-committees or larger committees studying the various sectors. There is a need to ensure that the hon. Members selected to serve have a substantial interest in the committee, or there will be a low attendance and the committee will not achieve the level of debate which is essential to proper decisions. I know full well the difficulty of securing a quorum when there are other pressures in the House. It is frustrating not to have the extent of attendance at a Select Committee meeting to enable it to discuss in the depth which one would like the problems on the agenda for the day.

The hon. Member for Norwich, South said that the abolition of Select Committees was not a good thing. Select Committees and the Sub-Committees of the Services Committee have worked best in my experience when they have been in deliberative rather than investigative mode. That is not to say that they cannot switch into investigative mode when it is appropriate. We have achieved our best work when discussing matters in conjunction with the professionals of the House. If necessary, we have set up the procedure in such a way so as to examine the professionals of the House and other witnesses, and reported accordingly.

That is the way in which we have progressed in respect of the Library. With the team work which has been built up as a consequence we have been able to sustain the high level of services offered by the Library to which tribute is rightly paid in the report. I thank the hon. Member for Norwich, South for his reference to the quality of service provided by the Library and accept it on behalf of the Library staff, who will be heartened by that recognition.

I like the concept of the new structure because I think that it will more accurately define the area of work with which we are involved. The five sub-committee structure has been woolly and inconclusive, indeterminate and generally speaking not satisfactory. Sir Robin Ibbs makes the point in his report that at the main Services Committee the only people able to contribute are the Members of the sub-committee who have an awareness of the issues involved. That means that for the most part the Services Committee is irrelevant. Therefore, it would be appropriate to increase the size of the sub-committees, or turn them into committees, with a head committee to co-ordinate and gather together the input of the other committees. To that extent, it is a tight operation which is capable of delivering service well from the point of view of hon. Members.

On the financial side, that would also have the effect of imposing on the other sectors the disciplines that we have used in the Library for some time, whereby we use the financial estimates of the Librarian as a mechanism for studying priorities and the effectiveness of policy over the preceding year and for looking forward to the forthcoming year. It has been an effective mechanism for scrutiny.

My hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Sir I. Lloyd) spoke about the relationship between the Executive and Parliament. I am attracted to the concept whereby the Executive is even more separated from Parliament. The recommendation by Sir Robin Ibbs that the House of Commons Commission takes on board full responsibility is to be welcomed.

Reference has been made to the phase 1 Parliament street building. It may be frustrating to hon. Members, and it is certainly frustrating to me as I have been involved since its inception, that it has taken nearly eight years to get to the present stage. It is a miracle that it ever happened at all. We worked very hard under the able chairmanship of the late John Silkin to pull together the details, to get the proposal through the House, to wrap it all up and get it out to contract, but the dead hand of Treasury kept interfering and we had to cut back on this and that. Admittedly, we will have new accommodation, but it will not have the facility for information technology, the facility for document transfer between the two buildings or the subway concept, which would have been superseded by the Jubilee line changes anyway. Those points had to be trimmed back. The building is coming, but it is a miracle. I look forward enormously to the opening of the new research library which will be there.

I welcome the Ibbs report broadly, but I want to put down some markers. The first relates to the Refreshment Department, which has been mentioned in the debate. It is particularly frustrating. We are all, as consumers of food, enormously expert. We have a range of differing tastes, requirements and shapes. The subject of the Refreshment Department is fraught with difficulties.

I joined the Catering Sub-Committee before it had been restructured, when the interest payment on the overdraft was greater than the entire turnover for the year. It was a shambles. We had misunderstandings, as was indicated earlier in the debate; it was felt that the entire subsidy related to 600 Members when the Department actually feeds 3,500 people every day. It is a very difficult area in which to work. The Ibbs report has not taken on board that nicety.

When we started in 1979—I say "we" because I joined the Sub-Committee at the same time as my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Sir C. Irving), under whose able chairmanship it has been transformed over the last 11 years—we could get nothing done to improve facilities for staff, for catering, for equipment or for hon. Members. The Property Services Agency always said that that was impossible and that we did not have the money. Things were restructured and changes made in 1980. The staff element was taken on board and the Refreshment Department is now subject to a vote in the House as though it was any other works canteen. We were then free to adopt a trading policy that would develop certain resources. Armed with those resources we were able to go to the Parliamentary Works Officer, the PSA and the relevant Minister at the Department of the Environment and say, "We have money from our surplus to be able to do this work. Where is yours?"

As a consequence of the restructuring, we have been able to undertake many changes. We forget what some of them were and some have never been seen or understood. Consider, for example, the £1 million or so that was spent on ventilation of the main kitchens. Ten years ago those kitchens were places where even galley slaves should not have worked—they were awful. Now they are a lot better. They are not the best, but goodness gracious me, improvements have been made. We have also improved the Tea Room, but I accept that there are still improvements to be made.

The frustrating thing is that we have been unable to achieve the improvement, that we want and for which my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham has been pressing for the past 10 years—improvements in the changing and rest room facilities for the staff. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North said, those facilities are still a disaster area. We must resolve that problem.

I am worried about the reference in the Ibbs report to this year's accounts and the £300,000 trading surplus. The inference is that, somehow or other, that surplus should go to the Commission because it could then carry the finance for the entire Palace of Westminster. If that happened, the emphasis of representations from Members to the Catering Sub-Committee would be for price reductions in services or for pegging the price of a cup of tea so that the surplus was reduced and we did not have to pass the money on. If that money was passed on, we might no longer be able to deploy it to good effect in the Refreshment Department. It might be used to sort out requirements in other parts of the House; after all, we are part of a system of conflicting requirements.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Shadow Spokesperson (Transport)

Although I accept what the hon. Gentleman said, does he agree that it is extremely important that the full accounting procedures of the Catering Sub-Committee should be published in more detail than at present?

Photo of Mr Colin Shepherd Mr Colin Shepherd , Hereford

I do not disagree. There is no reason why we should not have full accounting procedures for the Refreshment Department and for them to be published in whatever detail seems appropriate.

I am worried about the attitude of Members serving on the Catering Sub-Committee. If it was felt that any trading surplus could not be deployed for the benefit of the Refreshment Department, problems might arise. It is tempting to try to take that trading surplus because we obtain a good income from, for example, the kiosk. That was a marketing initiative developed to hold down prices for Members in the Members' Dining Room and for the Press Gallery.

The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North mentioned banqueting facilities. In 1980 we put up the price of the banqueting facilities—we almost doubled them and added in our own birthdays—to get a major contribution to the price that we needed to charge Members and staff for the services that we offered and that they could not avoid consuming.

I am worried that we may throw away the banqueting facility and other marketing initiatives which generate funds that can be properly and usefully deployed towards improvements and the provision of better standards of service and facilities for people employed for long hours in this place. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, who represents the Commission, should take account of that important point.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) was right to mention what I consider to be the curious inclusion of "parliamentary bodies" in the Ibbs report. Their presence is anomalous and there is no rhyme or reason for their inclusion except perhaps that the Treasury was interested in divesting itself of responsibility.

Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I understand that the genesis of this proposal was a Treasury afterthought. It was a tidying operation undertaken by someone who did not know how such bodies operate, but who thought that their inclusion made a tidier administrative arrangement.

Photo of Mr Colin Shepherd Mr Colin Shepherd , Hereford

The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely valid point and it is interesting to have that confirmation. It could only have been a tidying up exercise as it is singularly inappropriate for the grant in aid to such bodies as the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the British American Parliamentary Group and the History of Parliament Trust to be so included. They do not represent services provided to Members but are things that Members do while they are here. The purpose of the Ibbs report and our debate tonight should be the business of providing facilities and services to Members, and operating the Palace of Westminster. Therefore, it is totally anomalous to waste time even thinking about such groups. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will recognise the powerful point that I hope I have made.

I must stop now because I have spoken for longer than I meant to—I apologise. There is an opportunity to make changes that could be helpful to the Palace of Westminster and Parliament, so we should get on with the job.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South 9:06 pm, 17th January 1991

The right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) reminded us that we have gradually taken over aspects of the royal palace. We owe a debt to people such as Charlie Pannell and Arthur Bottomley, who has already been mentioned. I foresee my hon. Friends the Members for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) and for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) coming within that tradition. They are right to goad us and enliven our debates as they do.

I am a little worried about a number of issues, and will rapidly outline them in staccato fashion. Has the relationship between the Lords and the Commons, particularly in respect of the building, been satisfactorily determined by the proposals? It is not within our powers. It is morally right and necessary that, if we do not come within the health and safety at work regulations and the provisions for food safety for a good reason, we parallel them as far as practically possible. Nothing else can be acceptable, and that must be achieved within a certain timetable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North mentioned our staff. Why is there still no creche in the Palace of Westminster? I do not understand why, and perhaps the Lord President will tell us why when he winds up. If there is room for a television control room and other facilities, surely we can provide a creche, because the lack of one affects our staff more than us. I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the Crown Agents building which is almost opposite the Victoria Tower. I am not sure of that magnificent building's future, but it might be useful for a number of different purposes.

I am glad to see you, Mr. Speaker, back in the Chair, and I shall revert to the point I made when I interrupted my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South, who —I am sorry to say—is not present. As he rightly said, it would be intolerable for the Clerk or the Speaker to have to spend a lot of time on administrative matters—I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South is entering the Chamber on cue. I do not know the amount of time they spend on such issues, and I would not be so impertinent as to ask, but, with the ever-widening responsibilities of you, Mr. Speaker, and the Clerk, I guess that it is happening more often. Decisions are often passed up, and we must, to a degree, protect you from that. To an extent, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South—he is fundamentally right. However, the final judgments of priorities and how things work must be related to the prime Officers of the House—Mr. Speaker and the Clerk. They must advise Members on priorities or make decisions when Members devolve responsibility to the Commission or those Officers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South was wrong when he responded to my intervention. I said that it all happens here in the Chamber; my hon. Friend said that it did not. It may not happen, through the usual channels or in relation to people of influence, but it happens here de jure. My hon. Friend mentioned the powers of the various services committees and subcommittees. The powers that they have, or might not have in future—and which I wish them to retain—are determined by motions on the Order Paper discussed on the Floor of the Chamber.

All sorts of measures go through late at night or at about 3.30 pm at the beginning of public business that deserve examination. They should take place here, and if they do not happen here in fact, they happen de jure. This debate is an example. The Floor of this Chamber is the hub of a many-spoked wheel and the Standing Orders correspond to the ball-bearings in the hub. It must be for the House and its Officers to make the final decisions on priorities to do with services, which provide us with the means of proper debate and decision.

All this may mean some comprehensive financial organisation—but there are dangers, such as those mentioned in connection with the Refreshment Department. And what about Hansard? Is it to be run as a service to Members or as a service to democracy? If the latter, how far should it be subsidised? I remember after the war being able to pick up Hansard on bookstalls for half a crown—quite a lot then. Nowadays one probably could not find it on a bookstall and it would certainly cost much more than half a crown, but with the televising of the House, Hansard will be important. All our papers, such as Command Papers, which are technically papers of the House, are also public papers, so we are paying not just for the House but for democracy.

Despite what the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) said, Ibbs will turn the five Committees into consumer relations Committees instead of Select Committees of this House, armed with all their powers—

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I am glad to hear that my hon. Friend agrees—as, I believe, does the Leader of the House. The Committee may have the powers to investigate and advise the Commission as at present, but their importance should not be diminished, and I am a little uneasy about the future suggested for them.

The services of the House are vital for us to do our democratic job. All too easily, we take for granted the enormous amount of work that goes on behind the scenes in the offices of all our chief Officers and Departments, and of our staff, who perhaps serve us most and are therefore the most deserving. I hope to hear about a creche from the Leader of the House.

Photo of Mr Hugo Summerson Mr Hugo Summerson , Walthamstow 9:12 pm, 17th January 1991

I apologise to the House for the fact that I was unable to be here for the opening speeches.

I welcome this report. When the questionnaire arrived on my desk last summer, I fell on it with cries of joy. At long last, I thought, someone had realised that there are some problems with this place and with the way it works. I filled it in with great relish and gusto.

I had to ask myself what the House of Commons Commission was, because I did not know. No one told me. One of the first things that I learned when I entered this place was that no one tells anyone anything. One has to ask, especially in the Tea Room, where one might hope to find an answer. It seemed to me that these problems arose because no one was responsible for telling anyone anything.

I also had to ask myself what on earth the Services Committee was and how it interacted with the Commission. I found some answers, believe it or not, in the report by Sir Robin Ibbs.

There seems to be no chain of command in the various services. To find out something, Members first have to find out which office deals with it, and then find their way to that office. They then have to discover who in that office can deal with their problem. The trouble is, they do not know who that is. When I first came here, I knew only one Clerk both by sight and by name, and that only because he was a member of the Chelsea reel club.

When I first arrived, I was given a book with the splendid title, "Manual of Procedure in the Public Business". I was told to take it away and read it, but I am afraid that Jeffrey Archer got in my way.

For example, I know that the Librarian is called Dr. David Menhennet. He must be an efficient man, because the Library is one of the best-run services in the House. I have sometimes thought that I would like to send Dr. Menhennet a Christmas card to compliment him and his staff on the wonderful job they do, but I have been inhibited from doing so, because I do not know who Dr. Menhennet is or what he looks like.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

That is the hon. Gentleman's fault.

Photo of Mr Hugo Summerson Mr Hugo Summerson , Walthamstow

Let me develop the point.

There seems to be a great divide between Members and those who supply the services. For example, if the hon. Gentleman goes to the far end of the Tea Room at lunch time, he will be glared at by any number of people who reckon it is their territory. Could he put his hand on his heart and say that he knows who they are, from which Department they come and what job they do?

Photo of Mr Hugo Summerson Mr Hugo Summerson , Walthamstow

The hon. Gentleman has been here longer than I have.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

Yes, and I will stay here longer than the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr Hugo Summerson Mr Hugo Summerson , Walthamstow

Under the heading "Findings" paragraph (d) says: The mechanisms for getting things done are not sufficiently clearly understood or used. Many Members seem ignorant of the routes that are available for solving problems or achieving change within the House. I was grateful for those lines.

I move swiftly to the subject of offices. Offices in this place can be summed up in one word—disgraceful. When one first arrives in the House, the allocation system seems strange. I was told that, not only was there a large and formidable lady in the Serjeant at Arms' Department to be propitiated, but having propitiated her, I then had to propitiate a Whip of my own party, and I did not know whom to go to first.

I would like a fax of my own. One would think that in these days that was not too much to ask, but my office is so small that I have nowhere to put one. Two days ago, I had to send a fax to someone in Saudi Arabia on behalf of a constituent. I had to go to the post office in Central Lobby and send my fax. I was presented with a bill for £9·20 and I then had to return to my office and fill in a form in order to recover the cost from the Fees Office.

I have many more points to make, but unfortunately time is running out. I just want to touch on catering. The catering staff do a good job in difficult circumstances. To give one example, I was in the Tea Room just before lunch time when I saw the lettuce arriving. The lettuce arrived in a yellow plastic bucket half full of water. The lettuce was plucked out of the bucket and deposited in a bowl. When I took some out to put on my plate, I found that everything else was swimming in half an inch of water. I do not blame the staff: that was entirely due to the disgraceful kitchen facilities in this place.

I approve the report and its conclusions. This place is a museum, and that is how it should be in future. We need a brand new facility, and we should leave this place to the Americans and the Japanese.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 9:17 pm, 17th January 1991

I love following the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson). I am surprised that he did not add as one of his demands at the end of his speech a request for a tape so that he could mime to it in the Chamber. If he wants to turn this place into a museum, there will always be a treasured place for him in it, resembling as he does Mr. Neville Chamberlain's parliamentary private secretary.

There is an atmosphere of surrealism in having this debate while all hell is breaking loose in the Gulf. If this debate does not convince Saddam Hussein that we have all taken leave of our collective senses and frighten the life out of him, I do not know what will. But I do not think that we should be in any way critical of the fact that we are having such a debate. It is not an escape from reality, rather a way of making the point that we need resources in this place to enable us to do our job efficiently and to represent the people who send us here.

There is something very therapeutic about having a good whinge, but we must go further. I was struck by the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley), who said that the problem has existed for far too long and that it is time to stop talking and do something about it. I did not fall on the MORI opinion poll with glee and delight, as did the hon. Member for Walthamstow. I do not know what he does for thrills, but filling in MORI opinion polls does not get me too worked up or excited, and perhaps it was remiss of me not to complete that questionnaire. However, when I saw the results, I realised that was unnecessary, because my right hon. and hon. Friends adequately represented my own views. It did not need an opinion poll to discover that 66 per cent. of Members of Parliament think that the accommodation available for them and the staff in this place is absolutely appalling. We know that is true, because we experience it on a day-to-day basis.

We are not asking for luxury suites, only for single offices in which we can work with a couple of staff, and perhaps hold meetings with one or two constituents at a time and talk privately about their personal matters and complaints. It is impossible to achieve privacy in this building. We are not asking for the moon when we make a request to be provided with single offices.

I share an office with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher), who is the shadow Arts Minister. In that one room, he accommodates a small army of assistants, and thanks to a generous £100,000 grant from Paul Hamlyn, my hon. Friend has the la test in super technology. I sometimes find it impossible to find a place at my own desk. The office looks rather like the Pentagon's headquarters for the Gulf action group, with all the lights flickering on and off.

I attempted to find out how I could obtain a single office, and did all the things that it says in the Ibbs report. I went to the Whips, and asked my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) what I should do to obtain one. I did not get very far. Finally, I said to him, "Ray, I will give you a hundred quid if you will let me have an office of my own." He looked at me with total disdain. I am not sure whether he did so because he was totally offended by my suggestion, or because he thought that the amount offered was ridiculously small. In any event, that cannot be the right way to go about securing a facility that should be the right of every Member of Parliament.

A new building is to be available shortly, but it will not be enough. It does not offer enough space to meet our requirements, although it is a handsome building and I commend the architects. That profession usually talks only about the need to construct new shapes, but that building is entirely in sympathy with those that surround it, and I commend the Services Committee, architects and builders concerned.

There is a vacant building available not a hundred miles from here, on the other side of the river, called County hall. Given that the preposterous proposal to turn it into a luxury hotel has hit the deck, is it not time to re-examine the possibility of using that building for our offices? The Services Committee considered that proposal in the past, but there was no chance of it being adopted because of the total opposition by the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), when she was Prime Minister. Thankfully, we have thrown off that particular burden, and as that right hon. Lady is no longer Prime Minister, perhaps we can reconsider the prospect of using County hall, which could be connected to this place by an underwater travelator. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) laughs. I know that the members of my Front Bench can walk on water, but the rest of us would need to use a travelator.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

Except that I cannot see how we could use a ferry when we have only eight minutes to reach the Lobby. My hon. Friend is a cyclist and much healthier than I am, and he could probably manage that—but I do not fancy my chances.

I also think it is ludicrous that all Members of Parliament should be given the same research and secretarial allowances—which I agree are too small anyway—when they have disparate work loads. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South and myself represent constituencies that weigh the votes for the Labour party, and consequently work ourselves to death. I am sure that that is true also of the hon. Member for Walthamstow, though they do not weigh the votes for the Labour party in his constituency. In any event, we weigh our constituents' problems. It is preposterous that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South get the same accommodation as someone who has nothing like the range or degree of problems that we have in Newham.

Every constituency should be examined and banded, and there should be a different way of paying allowances which takes into consideration the problems that hon. Members have within their constituencies—problems that need resources, space and staff to tackle them efficiently. That would not be for the greater glorification of the individual Member of Parliament, but to provide a service adequate to deal with constituents' problems, which is what they expect from their Members of Parliament.

I must sit down now because the Front Bench have demanded it. As you know, Mr. Speaker, I am a loyal member of the party and I always obey the Front Bench. I must warn my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) that there is a feeling afoot that the Front Benches of the Government in office and of the Government in waiting do not want Back Benchers to operate efficiently because they become a nuisance for the Government. They deliberately deprive us of the resources that we all know we desperately need. The time for whingeing is over. Now is the time for action, and I invite my hon. Friend to go to the Dispatch Box and to tell us what the next Labour Government will do.

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chair, House of Commons (Services): Computer Sub-Committee, Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 9:25 pm, 17th January 1991

This has certainly been a lively and amusing debate and has been mainly to the point. We cannot say that about all the debates which take place in this Chamber. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for setting out clearly the background findings and recommendations of the Ibbs report at the beginning of the debate. Like him, I am a member of the Commission; I thought that I had better get that on the record at the outset.

Because of the very serious events in the Gulf, these matters may hardly be at the forefront of many hon. Members' minds, and of even fewer of our constituents' minds. However, they are relevant to us and to the people that we come here to represent. As most hon. Members know, the remit of the report concerns the management and decision-making structure for the services of the House, rather than the services themselves. That is what we asked Sir Robin Ibbs and his colleagues to consider. We thought that, if we got the decision-making process right, it was more likely, although not guaranteed, that we would get the services we need.

Within that narrow but important remit, the report contains a number of specific recommendations, and I hope that the House will support them all. I supported the review at all stages, and I expressed my thanks to Sir Robin and his team.

When the former Leader of the House—the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe)—approached me, I readily agreed that Sir Robin should be asked to conduct the inquiry. He was ably assisted by Donald Limon, John Collins, Diana Goldsworthy and John Woods. I know that they found that the House was full of interesting and well-informed people; I suspect that they found that one or two of them were Members of Parliament.

For some time, it has been evident, certainly to me—it has become more evident since I became shadow Leader of the House—that there has not been a coherent approach to the management of services and the problems that we face in the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) said, the House is not an aggressive legislature. I regret to say that, but it is true, and I have to inform my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) that, if he wants the things that he is talking about, the first step is to elect a Government willing to concede more powers to the House of Commons. That is not easy to achieve, but it would certainly be one of my principal objectives.

Photo of Mr Michael Jopling Mr Michael Jopling , Westmorland and Lonsdale

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the setting up of the departmental Select Committees as we know them has given more power to the House of Commons in the second half of the 20th century than anything else?

Photo of Dr Jack Cunningham Dr Jack Cunningham Chair, House of Commons (Services): Computer Sub-Committee, Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I am a supporter of departmental Select Committees, but I do not really regard the House as having reached the 20th century. We seem to have missed it out, and we shall be lucky if we make it into the 21st, judging by the way in which we conduct our affairs.

The Ibbs remit did not include making us more effective as Members of Parliament. That would have been an impossible task for some, but in any event it is a job that we must do for ourselves. If we do not challenge and scrutinise the Executive as effectively as we should, we ourselves should give thought to how we approach those activities.

The recommendations in the report are, however, a useful first step towards the development of a more coherent approach to the management of our affairs. I certainly believe that no proposal for reforming the House can progress without first addressing the need for an improved administrative framework and decision-making process. Whatever changes we want—and I share the aspirations of many of my hon. Friends and, indeed, Conservative Members—we shall never get to first base without an effective decision-making process.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed spoke of the role played by the former Leader of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East. Let me say again how important his role was, and how important the role of the present Leader of the House will be, in seeing the proposals through. The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked Sir Robin Ibbs to conduct this review, and his support and guidance as Leader of the House and a member of the Commission was unfailing.

The findings of the report, explored by a number of hon. Members, are a graphic illustration of the everyday problems and frustrations that face Members, Officers and staff who work in the Palace of Westminster. I have always recognised that it is a great privilege to be an elected Member of Parliament, but it is no big deal to have to work in the conditions available to us here. The MORI employees who carried out the research that provided some of the back-up for the report must have been wryly amused at some of the things that they discovered here. I found the research itself very useful, but I suspect that the researchers—with the exception of Bob Worcester, who knows this place very well—may have been not only amused but amazed by some of what they found and some of what Members tell them. The list is, of course, familiar to most of us.

At present, Members have no clear understanding of how the policy for services is decided. That is hardly surprising when, as we have heard, responsibilities have been divided between the Select Committee on House of Commons Services, the Leader of the House and the Commission itself. Members, particularly new Members, do not understand the mechanisms for getting things done. That favours what might be termed "those in the know" —and to be in the know in this place usually means having to spend an awfully long time here. The MORI work dramatically illustrates the point: only 14 per cent. of Members with three years' service or less described the House as a good or fairly good place in which to work. The figure rises to 50 per cent. in the case of Members with more than 20 years' service.

Although theoretically I belong to the group of those "in the know", with more than 20 years' service, I share the views of the group of newer Members who find this place inadequate, to say the least. The confusion felt by new Members is particularly familiar to me, because my party won a series of important by-elections last year, and since then I have often been called on for advice by my new colleagues and found them bemused—frequently dazed —by the arcane nature of the House's operations.

The umbrella role for the Commission proposed by the Ibbs report will, in my view, result in a better co-ordinated policy for improving services. I remind the House that we have many excellent and loyal staff here at Westminster. The report makes that clear when it says: There is a reservoir of goodwill among staff, derived from a strong desire to serve Members, which could be directed to greater advantage. The truth is that, although we have many excellent people, they too are frustrated by their inability to give a more efficient and effective service to Members.

When I first came here in June 1970, I was given the distinct impression by some people—I do not intend to name them, and they have all retired now—that this place was not really run for the benefit and convenience of Members. It seemed to have an entirely different purpose in their minds. Fortunately, little of that attitude remains today.

The proposed transfer to the Commission of responsibility for the Parliamentary Works Office may have profound effects upon the industrial staff in the House. In that regard, bearing in mind the good will to which I have referred, consultation with those people through their trade unions and existing machinery will be of obvious importance and significance if we are to achieve the acceptance of the changes that will be essential to their success.

In addressing the attempt to co-ordinate policy for services, it is also important to ensure that it is backed up by requisite increases in funds available to the Commission. I agreed with a great deal of what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South in what I took to be a privileged preview of his imminent book. I look forward to reading the other chapters when he eventually publishes it.

However, I disagreed with him on one important thing —financial control. Central to the report is a clear statement that, if a disagreement arises with the Treasury over the budget, in the last resort it should be resolved by the House. We have argued and fought long and hard in the Commission on behalf of our colleagues to get that agreed by the Treasury, and I think that it is very important. It is set out in annexe F of the report, and it ensures that, in the last resort, if there is no agreement, hon. Members can decide on expenditure.

The Ibbs report suggests that there can be no confidence in the financial management systems of the House as they presently exist. Hon. Members have little confidence that the sums spent are appropriate to the needs of the House or that they are well spent. The report's proposals to reform the Board of Management to provide it with an enhanced corporate management role and to appoint a director of finance are important to the delivery of better services. The report's recommendations, which I touched upon earlier, are an important first step—only a first step—to undertaking the gamut of wider reforms needed to make the House an effective national legislature for the 21st century. Even after these reforms, the House of Commons will remain, to quote Sir Robin, a "complex anachronism".

I share the view of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) that this building will never be adequate to provide the services and facilities that a modern legislature requires. I hope that cross-party consensus on these issues will give us the sort of springboard we need to come to grips in a sustained and prolonged way with the need for wider reform of practices, services and procedures in the House.

The Ibbs report has already kindled debate among Members, particularly Opposition Members but generally throughout all parties, and in the national press on the need for fundamental reform. I recognise that there may be potential conflicts between the role of historic and senior Officers of the House and the new management proposals set out in the report, and the Commission will need to address them.

Hon. Members referred to the lack of a properly co-ordinated information technology service to members. The computer Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on House of Commons Services, which I have the honour to chair, produced a report that made excellent recommendations. It was a unanimous report, and I hope that we shall soon have an opportunity to approve it. I ask the Leader of the House to find time for that, so that, at last, we can begin to tackle that job.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) said, our constituents—who may be elderly and may have travelled for hours to get here—sometimes must queue for hours in the rain or freezing cold. I know that we are addressing that, but it is long overdue. We must address other issues, such as the lack of child care facilities for staff and Members and having to pay to telephone the institutions of the European Community, whereas its members can call us at the expense of their own Parliament.

As the research in the Ibbs report shows, accommodation is the issue that exercises most Members. Their responses are particularly disturbing. Almost 60 per cent. of Members describe the House as a fairly poor place in which to work. Conditions for our staff are even worse. Accommodation is unacceptable and would be seen as such in almost any other institution in the country. Few Members cannot tell at least one horrendous anecdote.

We have the problem of a historic, evocative, architecturally magnificent building, which, internally, will never be adequate to fulfil the increasing demands that are being placed on it. The make-do-and-mend job of buildings here and buildings there will not resolve the problem. I was attracted by what my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) said, and we should reconsider that.

I commend the Ibbs report as a positive approach to the problems and as a good first step. I hope that it will be quickly implemented.

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House Lords (Privy Council Office), Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office) 9:42 pm, 17th January 1991

This is mainly an opportunity for colleagues who are not Members of the Commission to express their views on the Ibbs report, so I have agreed to be brief.

I welcome the debate. The fact that I have arranged it so soon after the publication of the report shows the importance that I attach to the subject and my desire to get on with implementing the report in the light of the general reaction of the House to it.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has outlined the history. It is no criticism of previous reforms of the House to say that it is now necessary to bring our arrangements into line with the needs of the 1990s, both in terms of achieving a modern management structure and of ensuring—here I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Sir I. Lloyd)—that we take advantage of modern facilities to ensure the best practicable service to Members and that we, as Members, carry out our services in the best way for the public at large.

That is the general purpose of the report, but there are two particular reasons why it is important that we give priority to implementing it. First, many hon. Members, and certainly we as a Government, have been urging industry, commerce, the professions and many others to modernise their systems and practices and have frequently legislated to that effect. It must be right that we put our own house in order in the same way.

Several detailed comments on issues, frustrations and dissatisfactions have been expressed. I share several of them, particularly about accommodation. As the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said, the report is on decision-making processes, management structures and financial disciplines, not the detailed issues that the Committees will have to deal with. I agree with the hon. Member that we must get those right first.

I shall preface my second point by referring to the remarks of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed on gamekeepers turned poachers. I am not sure that his remarks were entirely apt, given the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) that the parliamentary bodies might be better if they were still under the control of the Treasury, which is more cost-conscious and tightfisted, rather than the House of Commons. It is important that we carry out our role as leader by fully recognising our responsibilities to the House. That also means that we should all be responsible in our approach. That is why I say with some diffidence, speaking as a former Chief Secretary, that my second point is that one of the Government's hallmarks has been to insist throughout our period in office that we should constantly strive to ensure value for taxpayers' money and to insist on cost effectiveness in our expenditure programmes.

At the same time, Parliament, through the Public Accounts Committee, the National Audit Office and the departmental Select Committees—not always consistently —insists that Departments and other public bodies conform to high standards of financial management and that they discharge their responsibility for spending taxpayers' money by putting strong emphasis on the need to obtain good value for money. That is what we are practising in the Ibbs' approach to the "next steps" programme in the civil service. It is right that we in the House should be prepared to practise what we preach. The Ibbs report gives us an appropriate blueprint.

That is the background and it is why I should like to join with those who congratulated and thanked my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe) on the part that he played in grasping the issue as Leader of the House. As the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said, the Ibbs committee was set up mainly because of my right hon. and learned Friend's initiative. As I was not a member of the Commission at the time, I believe that it is in order for me to compliment you, Mr. Speaker, and the other members of the Commission on taking on board so readily the need to make improvements and on carrying the initiative forward so fast. My right hon. and learned Friend asked me to apologise to the House for unavoidably not being able to be here, but he was specifically anxious to join me in paying a warm tribute to Sir Robin Ibbs and his team, who have done an admirable job not only in getting to the heart of the problems but in presenting their conclusions and recommendations so straightforwardly.

Some hon. Members expressed criticism of the Ibbs report. Of course, it is not a perfect answer, but the general view is that it is a considerable advance. We must bear in mind that Sir Robin Ibbs is a knowledgeable business man with experience in several major companies of the kind of work which he undertook for us. In the short time available, I should like to comment on some points and indicate the way in which we should go forward.

First, in taking up the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd), the new structure which is outlined is a much better one in enabling us to make a clear and proper distinction between the policy-making bodies and committees and the executive bodies of the House. I take brief issue—I fear that I must be brief because of the time—with the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett), who criticised some of the new Services Committee approaches. It is important to recognise that the new Finance and Services Committee will also be a consumer committee in the sense that it will represent Members of the House in making policy recommendations and so on. It has a representational and policy-making role.

I welcome the recommended changes for the Committee structure. The shift from being semi-administrative bodies to more policy-oriented bodies is right, because it separates Members' responsibility for decisions about what services should be provided from heads of Departments' responsibilities for carrying out those decisions. This will provide much needed clarity and a more effective and responsive decision-making structure.

Secondly, I share Sir Robin Ibbs' conviction that appointing the financial director to install sound financial systems and management and, in time, a single House of Commons budget under the Commission's control is fundamental to improving the House's administration. Although the timetable proposed by Sir Robin Ibbs is challenging, I am sure that all involved will do their best to achieve it. This will provide the Commission with the necessary information to reach sensible decisions and, by bringing together responsibility for resources and responsibility for expenditure, will give the Commission the authority that it needs to exercise fully its role for managing the services of the House. That is an important change.

I am sorry that I do not have time to deal with all matters, but I want to commend statements in the report about accommodation. Of course, we all have our criticisms of accommodation—

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House Lords (Privy Council Office), Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office)

I do not have time to go into the hon. Gentleman's point now—[Interruption.] I do not think so. Accommodation was seen in many ways to be the key to many complaints in the House. It is important to concentrate on what the report said about it. Of course, we all know the constraints and the difficulties under which people have had to operate. The important point is that the House cannot take informed and responsible decisions about accommodation unless it is responsible for the works programme and its funding. The importance of parliamentary works is well taken in the Ibbs report.

The approach that Sir Robin suggests, involving the development of a 10 to 15-year rolling programme on which expenditure provision and estimates will be based, will assist the House to order its priorities and demonstrate value for money. If will provide the opportunity to avoid any unreasonable peaks of expenditure and, through the agreement of expenditure programme estimates with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, will allow the House to give full regard, as it should, to the general public expenditure climate in any year. Annex F is an important step forward. I have, of course, discussed the matter with the Chief Secretary and I can confirm, as the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said, that the Government accept annex F as the basis for taking this forward.

Many of our accommodation problems will take time and they are immense. The problems of space and of the availability of space are a key part of them. To be sure of getting the right results, it is vital that there should be a proper long-term plan and that, once funding is obtained, we stick to it. The House will have to acquire professional competence to reach sensible decisions about what is needed and that is where the appointment of a works director is so important.

Photo of Mr John Garrett Mr John Garrett , Norwich South

Controlled by the Government?

Photo of Mr John MacGregor Mr John MacGregor Chair, Privileges Committee, Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House Lords (Privy Council Office), Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Privy Council Office)

Under the control of the House.

In the last minute, I want to refer briefly to how I see matters being taken forward. I have already shown my clear support for the proposals in general and the agreement of the Government as a whole to them. There is, of course, a great deal of detail still to be sorted out, which the Commission will have to do, and a number of the comments made tonight are helpful. We will certainly take them on board and take into account the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling).

There has been a general suggestion of a desire to get on now with the thrust of the report. Two of the first crucial moves will be the recruitment and appointment of the director of finance and of the director of works. Following that, I want the changes in the Committee structure put in place as soon as possible. Subject to the constraints of the parliamentary timetable, I hope that we can get agreement to the changes to the relevant Standing Orders towards the end of the current Session of Parliament so that the new arrangements will be ready for the 1991–92 Session.

I want to tell the House briefly that the recommendations in the report are now also being considered in another place. My right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Privy Seal has informed me that there is little doubt that the other place will wish to co-operate with us in any proposals that we seek to implement.

The report comes at a time when there is much change in the management structures of many different organisations—change frequently brought about, as my hon. Friend the Member for Havant pointed out, by the possibilities of new technology. There is an increasing feeling among hon. Members, which I share, that services for visitors, for Members and for members of staff need to be substantially updated and improved. It is right that we should be getting the House into the right shape, operationally, organisationally and physically, for all the tasks that it will have to perform in the 1990s and beyond. This report and its proposals provide an excellent vehicle for doing just that.

It is worth remembering that the ideas in the report stem largely from the views put forward by many who work in the House. I agree with the hon. Member for Copeland. The changes will be a great improvement. If they work—I believe that they can—they will benefit everyone. The sense of the House has been a desire to get on with the changes in the management systems so that we can achieve the improvements that we seek. In that sense, I welcome our debate and I hope that we can get on with the implementation of the report.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 9:52 pm, 17th January 1991

With the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, I shall answer some of the points that the Leader of the House was unable to fit into his remarks and to speak on behalf of the Commission.

The right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) pointed to reservations about whether the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and other groups that are now funded from the Treasury should continue to be funded in that way or transferred to the House. There was some anxiety about such a change. My feeling is that, in principle, it is desirable for a body representing Parliament to be funded by Parliament rather than by the Executive and that the particular status of the House, with its freedom from cash limits, might, in some cases, be to the advantage of those bodies. However, I recognise that it is a matter of legitimate concern to long-established bodies and the Commission is not trying to push them around. It would be very willing to continue the discussions that are already taking place on that and to proceed only on the basis of a great deal of further discussion where necessary.

The hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett), who has had a long interest in these matters, revealed himself to be—as we all knew he was—a re-advocate of the Compton report of 1974. The proposals in that report were rejected, in important respects, by hon. Members at the time in the form of the Bottomley commission; in particular, the proposal for a chief executive was rejected then. Interestingly, it has now been rejected not by Members of Parliament, but by an outside man with business experience and by his team. They came to the conclusion that, although such a proposal might have been appropriate in a body primarily responsible for delivering services to the community, such as a Government Department or a business, it was not appropriate for the House with its particular responsibility for legislation, and for supervising and questioning the Government. He regarded the federal management structure as more appropriate. He reached that conclusion only after examining the way in which the House operated, and his comments on the matter are bound to be influential.

The hon. Member for Havant (Sir I. Lloyd) supported the main Ibbs recommendations for the same reasons as I did—that the House, not the Government, should be in control of the services that it needs. His interest in technology assessment is well known and often argued. I think that he could advance his case better were responsibility more clearly focused. In the end, it will be for the House to decide whether the facilities that he wants should be funded by the House, on the scale that he and other hon. Members recommend. The proposals in the Ibbs report provide a much better mechanism for giving advice to the Commission on such matters than is currently available to it.

I welcome the zeal and enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) and I hope that they will not be blunted by experience of the long-established institutions and traditions of this place. Such zeal and enthusiasm could be channelled more effectively under a system whereby it was clear who was responsible for getting something done. I take seriously what the hon. Lady said about working conditions, hygiene, cleaning and environmental health.

I did not say that Crown immunity was too complicated a subject with which to deal; I merely said that it was too complicated a subject for me to give an off-the-cuff explanation of precisely how the brief summary that we were given was inaccurate and misleading. Although the matter is complicated, it is important and should be dealt with. With other members of the Commission, I continue to seek further consideration of it and to ensure that, in any case, we act in accordance with the restrictions to which we would be subject if we did not have certain elements of Crown immunity.

The hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) has much experience of the advisory committee approach from his work on the Library Sub-Committee. I was very interested in his comments and in his support for the Ibbs proposals on the basis of his long experience of our committee structure. His comments about the Refreshment Department will certainly be taken seriously when we consider the Touche Ross report on the future of that Department.

The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) referred to the participation of another place. That matter is still under discussion and must clearly depend on decisions made in the other place. He referred to stationery and to the massive increases in the price of House of Commons papers in which the general public are interested. That is something over which, at the moment, we have no control. One of the merits of the proposals is that in future these matters will have to be decided by the House. We will still have to have regard to cost considerations. They will not disappear. The cost of printing will not evaporate when it becomes the responsibility of the House. But at least it will be a matter for the House to decide in a way which has not been possible hitherto—as is the case with some of the other matters discussed.

The hon. Member for Newham, South also made a more general point about Committees. Their importance will continue, but the subject Select Committees should not attempt to manage. A hopeless confusion of minds and responsibilities will be created if Committees of hon. Members who seek better services become, whether by accident or design, a feature of management. That will mean that managers will not take responsibility; they will not be encouraged to exercise responsibility and will not develop their ability to do so.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) kindly owned up to being one of those who do not know much about these things. He illustrated well the frustrations that many Members feel which the proposals go some way to address.

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) made me think that I had better get my diving suit ready for travelling on the underwater travelator that he has in mind. The issues that he raised ranged more widely than the subject of the Ibbs report.

The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) made clear his support for the proposals on behalf of the Opposition. He talked about his own experiences with new by-election victors. I won a by-election in 1973. My seat was one of a series of by-election gains made by my party, the result of which was the increasing overcrowding of a very small room which we shared with my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Sir C. Smith)—another of the by-election victors. I am sure that the House can imagine the increasing compression that occurred in the small broom cupboard that had been found to accommodate us.

The Leader of the House expressed the Government's support for the proposals. I am grateful for the way in which he and his predecessor have pursued the matter and supported what is, without question, a shift in responsibility from the Executive to the House.

This has been a useful debate.

Photo of Mr Colin Shepherd Mr Colin Shepherd , Hereford

Will the hon. Gentleman be so kind as to say what is the next step?

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

The Leader of the House has gone most of the way to explaining what needs to be done and has given a timetable for implementation. Many of the proposals on the management side will be pursued by an implementation officer from among the senior staff of the House. Arrangements are being made to appoint them, as has been said this evening.

The debate has been helpful in giving the proposals a fair wind and I hope that they will go ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,That this House takes note of the Report to the House of Commons Commission on House of Commons Services (House of Commons Paper No. 38).