Computer Services for Members

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:56 pm on 8th July 1991.

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Photo of Mr Simon Coombs Mr Simon Coombs , Swindon 7:56 pm, 8th July 1991

When I first arrived in the House in 1983, I took as much advice as possible from colleagues already here on what it was essential to know in order to function in this place. I was told that, provided one found the loos, one would be able to function in all ways as a perfectly adequate Member of Parliament. Therefore, the range of knowledge that I did not immediately acquire was substantial, and among the information that I was not given early on was which computer one should buy to be an effective Member of Parliament.

I went to a person whom I thought could give advice, someone who had been a fellow councillor on Reading borough council. I said to him, "You know about computers, Geoff." He said, "Yes, I do. You need a Commodore." Therefore, I have been incompatible for the past eight years. As one who feels for those other Members who found themselves in a similar position, I felt it appropriate to say a word or two on this important subject.

I came into the House in the 1980s. With the exception of the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Cunningham) and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, I think that all those participating in the debate come from the more recent intakes to the House. We have been struck by what the report says about the services available to parliamentarians in other countries. I could not help noticing what the report said about Italy. It stated: The situation in the Chamber of Deputies is very similar" to that in the Senate.The central computer is an IBM 3090 Model 120S (shortly to be replaced by a Model 150J). Linked to this are two smaller systems, an IBM AS/400 Model B60 and an IBM 4381 Model 91 with altogether around 150 terminals, dedicated to supporting substantive (i.e. non-administrative) Parliamentary work. And the 12 Party Group offices are equipped with IBM PS/2 Model 60 Personal Computers and printers (not all linked to the central computer). There are also personal computers linked to the central system in each of the 13 Permanent Commission offices. Finally, the Chamber Research Department has a Phillips P7000 computer with 20 terminals. Deputies have access to all these facilities. As in the Senate, they make no contribution to their cost. There are many other examples in the report that illustrate how far ahead other legislatures are. Why? It is fairly obvious that there is a generally low level of service to Members of this House across the board, and the computer service is no exception. Equally, if the number of hon. Members attending this debate is anything to go by, one must admit that there is a low level of interest in the subject. Why?

It would have been interesting if the Committee had looked at the relationship between the use of computer equipment and length of Members' service. I suspect that the more recently elected Members are those more likely to use computer equipment. That means that, over a period, as Members retire, so the percentage of Members who understand and want to use computers will progressively increase. It may not simply be a matter of educating existing Members, but may also involve the gradual turnover as new Members come into the House with each general election. That must mean that the level of understanding of information technology is rising all the time.

Having said that, I agree with the Committee that we should not go down the road of exercising compulsion as to the equipment that right hon. and hon. Members should use. Instead, we should provide in every office the plug that will allow the right equipment to be attached. That is not to say that every Member of Parliament should have a computer of one type or another. I support bulk purchase, but only on the basis that it offers the full commercial advantage that usually accrues from that practice—and not because we want to dictate to right hon. and hon. Members, who must continue to be their own men and women in deciding what is appropriate for them.

Recently, we have seen an enormous growth in the number of fax machines in the Palace. Perhaps we should switch soon to the bulk purchase of that equipment, in order to give Members of Parliament the advantage of so doing. I see no reason why we cannot do that immediately, because it would not require any increase in the availability of networking. Perhaps the Chairman of the Computer Sub-Committee, the hon. Member for Copeland, can comment. I hope that suggestion will find favour with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Right hon. and hon. Members also need a closed user group to operate a telemail system such as Telecom Gold. The antiquity of the methods that right hon. and hon. Members use to contact one another now is extraordinary. It is almost impossible to get a message to another right hon. or hon. Member, whether they are in the Palace or elsewhere, unless they happen to be answering their phones. It would be far preferable to leave a telemail message, which one could be certain of being received by either the Member of Parliament or his or her secretary.

All that would add to the potential use of a system. We must ensure that the broad band network under consideration will be of sufficient capacity to meet future needs, not only because, as years go by, more and more right hon. and hon. Members will want to use the system, but because the volume of the potential usuage will grow. There is a danger that sufficient capacity will not be provided in the broad band network to meet all the possible uses that will emerge. All offices in the Palace and in the outbuildings should be network-linked, and we should plan ahead for such an arrangement as it comes on-stream.

I do not believe, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Jones) suggested, that the availability of Chamber television coverage in the offices of right hon. and hon. Members would result in a lower attendance in the Chamber itself. I recall the argument that the televising of our proceedings would have a bad effect on the behaviour of right hon and hon. Members. That has been shown not to be true. Nor do I take the view that the provision of televisions in our offices would affect our attendance in the Chamber. Instead, that facility would allow right hon. and hon. Members to keep in touch. I share the view expressed by others that right hon. and hon. Members are often the last to know what has happened in the Chamber or elsewhere in the world.

In recent months, I have questioned my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about the provision of Sky satellite television to right hon. and hon. Members who ought to have access to the full range of stations. United Artists recently made a proposal concerning parliamentary proceedings. That is a good step forward, and I hope that the proposal can be extended. I also hope that we may enjoy news coverage not only by CNN, as we did during the Gulf crisis, but by Sky News, which is the British 24-hour news station from British Sky Broadcasting.

Right hon. and hon. Members could also have access to the video recordings, and with the right technology, would be able to call up on their own screens a news item or coverage of a particular incident in the House. One would not have to wait until tomorrow's newspapers to try to catch up, learning at second hand what had happened, according to the media. Instead, one could quickly reference an incident to which another right hon. or hon. Member or a constituent had drawn one's attention. Not to put too fine a point on it, such a facility would allow a Member of Parliament to check whether he was attacked during his absence from the Chamber in the way that a news report alleged earlier the same day or the day before.

Work also needs to be done on developing software that will enable right hon. and hon. Members to enjoy the full value of the hardware that might be the subject of bulk purchasing. Other hon. Members have referred to software that can serve as an electronic diary, handle a Member of Parliament's casework and so on. We probably all share the same needs in that regard. I see no reason why work on the provision of such software should not begin immediately and continue apace.

I believe that the cost of such an operation would be perfectly acceptable in political and economic terms. Mention has been made of cabling costs of £1·5 million. The cost to the public purse of the necessary hardware and software would be greater—but still a relatively small sum in comparison with the figures suggested by the hon. Member for Copeland. Members of Parliament would then be able to do a better job of representing their constituents and of controlling the Executive. I do not believe in the conspiracy theory that is sometimes advanced, to the effect that the Executive want to prevent Back Benchers from doing their proper job of monitoring the Government's work. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is anxious to reassure us that that has never been in his mind.

An opportunity to replace the ancient annunciator system would permit a move in the direction suggested by the Committee. I share the hope that the process of improvement can be speeded up. It is a long time since the issue was last raised in the House, and a long time since the report was published. In fact, it was 16 days less than one year ago.

When I was a newcomer to the House, I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department of Trade and Industry to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker), who was then Minister of State for Information Technology. He set in motion a revolution that introduced information technology to primary and secondary schools throughout the country. The first children to benefit from that development of the mid-1980s could be among those who become Members of Parliament in the general election after next. That generation will be amazed to discover that we have taken so long to reach technology conclusions that are so obvious, so right and so necessary.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will not suggest the establishment of half a dozen working parties to analyse the findings of the Sub-Committee. In my view, its work is excellent and stands on its own merits, and it ought to be . acted upon without further delay.