Orders of the Day — Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Bill

– in the House of Commons at 9:58 pm on 24th February 1992.

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Order for Second Reading read.

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), Chair, Privileges Committee 10:21 pm, 24th February 1992

I have it in Command from the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The House will have observed that the names of all the present members of the House of Commons Commission except yours, Mr. Speaker, appear on the back of the Bill as supporters. Their support, which I appreciate, demonstrates that this is an agreed measure.

This is a short, technical Bill which the House of Commons Commission, as well as the authorities in another place, have been advised is necessary to enable further progress to be made in implementing the Ibbs report on House of Commons services. We had hoped to avoid the need for a Bill and have looked at various ways of doing so before finally accepting recently that the legislative route was the only one to overcome the problem.

In accordance with the timetable recommended in the Ibbs report, responsibility for works, and vote responsibility for stationery and printing is due to pass to Parliament on 1 April this year. The relevant estimates have already been presented. As things stand, there is a problem because there exists no legal persona in either House to whom property, leases and contracts can be made over. The House will quickly recognise the quite serious practical difficulties to which that could give rise. The solution, encapsulated in clauses 1 and 2, is to constitute the Clerks of each House as corporations sole under whose authority these and similar functions in other spheres of parliamentary activity, such as broadcasting and information technology, can be carried out.

The remaining clauses make provision for the takeover of works services. The Commission is grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and his Department—and, indeed, to Her Majesty the Queen's advisers—for their co-operation in facilitating the transfer and helping with the preparation of the Bill, which has been quite a complicated operation.

Two other provisions are of particular note. Clause 4 rectifies an anomaly, which has been encountered in other contexts, where civil servants have been transferred to new undertakings still in the public service. Under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981, purely technical redundancies can arise for people who, to all intents and purposes, will be doing the same job under essentially the same terms of service. The clause extinguishes any resulting technical redundancy rights—and I stress the word "technical". For those who continue in their jobs, there is clearly no case for contemplating such rights. I can assure the House that it has no effect at all on actual terms of service or on pension rights or on the rights of any employees if they are actually made redundant at any time.

I might also mention at this stage—although the point is not affected by the terms of the Bill—that the House of Commons Commission has accepted that, on 1 April, all the new employees of the House will retain their existing trade union affiliations if they so wish. In due course, proper recognition procedures will have to be undertaken and the arrangements for trade union representation assimilated into the House's existing structure, with whatever amendments may prove necessary. But, as I have said, nothing in the Bill will pre-empt this process.

Finally, I should mention the issue raised in the amendments to clauses 1 and 2 tabled by the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell), in his capacity as Chairman of the Accommodation and Works Committee, and my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), to whom I am grateful. Let me make it clear that the Government accept the amendments. I agree that it would be awkward and anomalous for the Bill, through the provisions removing Crown immunity from the corporate officers, to force upon the two Houses the necessity to apply for planning, listed building and building permission for any works schemes on land that we will own outside the Palace itself.

The suggestion is that appropriate provision to make exceptions for those purposes—but not for other purpose—should be included in an Order in Council subject to the negative procedure in both Houses. What we are doing in the amendments is providing for the possibility of meeting the wishes of the Accommodation and Works Committee.

As I have said, the Bill has the support of the House of Commons Commission and I commend it to the House.

Photo of Mr Bruce Grocott Mr Bruce Grocott , The Wrekin 10:25 pm, 24th February 1992

It is something of a pleasure to be speaking from the Dispatch Box on a Bill among whose sponsors are listed my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), in the near-certain knowledge that that Bill will pass on to the statute book. This is the first time that I can recall that happening for some time—although after 9 April it will, of course, be happening regularly and that is something in which to rejoice.

As the Leader of the House said, this is a small but important measure. Not being a member of the House of Commons Commission—and in that I am almost unique among those present—I was surprised to discover that it was necessary to introduce a Bill to enact what was basically a fairly simple measure.

The Bill was designed following the Ibbs report to bring us perhaps not into the 21st century but just about into the 20th century. I hope that I shall not sound a sour note if I say that even this little Bill appears to be trying to make us preserve the fiction that the really important House is the one down the corridor. Is it purely churlish on my part to ask why the other place is dealt with in clause 1 while this place is dealt with in clause 2? Why is their Lordships' corporate officer described as the Clerk of the Parliaments and ours as the Under Clerk of the Parliaments?

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn , Newport West

Deeply demeaning.

Photo of Mr Bruce Grocott Mr Bruce Grocott , The Wrekin

It is deeply demeaning, as my hon. Friend says. Perhaps as we stumble towards the 21st century, we shall come to accept that this place is marginally more important that the other place.

The Leader of the House touched on an extremely important matter on which I should like something placed on record. We are dealing not just with equipment and powers in this small Bill but with people's careers and livelihoods. We are dealing with the staff who will be affected by the change and I understand that they will include as many as 70 non-industrial civil servants and 120 industrial civil servants. I seek confirmation from the Leader of the House—either now or at a later stage in our proceedings, which will doubtless be fairly short—and an absolute assurance that the staff have been consulted at all appropriate stages in the development of the proposals and that, in any subsequent decisions affecting the staff, there will be full consultation with the staff affected and the relevant trade unions.

In particular, can the Leader of the House confirm again—I am fairly certain that I heard him say precisely this during his opening remarks—that there will be absolutely no adverse effects on the terms and conditions of employment of staff, including working hours, holiday entitlements and pension entitlements following any transfer of staff? Will the right hon. Gentleman also confirm their right to continue to be represented in negotiations by the trade union of their choice?

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), Chair, Privileges Committee

Perhaps I can clarify the position. As I said, clause 4 does not affect the pension rights and so on of those who are transferred. With regard to trade union recognition, any recognition negotiations after 1 April will be conducted by the transferred staffs' existing trade unions and through the consultation machinery to which they have become used.

Photo of Mr Bruce Grocott Mr Bruce Grocott , The Wrekin

I am grateful for that confirmation.

As I did not speak in the debate on the Ibbs report, I must state that the Bill is not a sterile piece of legislation although it certainly does not make good bedtime reading. It does, however, have some important functions. I hope that it will be a move towards our having far better and more satisfactory working conditions, not just for ourselves, but—far more importantly—for those who work for us and those who visit the Palace of Westminster. Given that the Ibbs report found that no fewer than 69 per cent. of hon. Members thought that the Palace was a poor place in which to work, it should not take too much to begin to improve that position.

I want particularly to emphasise the need for improved working conditions for those who work for hon. Members. We are not looking for glossy paradises in which to work ourselves—far from it. We want minimum conditions in which we can operate and good conditions for our employees. In particular, I want to underline the appalling lack of facilities for visitors to the Palace who still have nowhere satisfactory to wait when they come to tour the House of Lords and the Commons. They have no proper refreshment facilities and I hope that, as a result of the Bill and similar decisions, there will be substantial improvements in that respect.

I am not asking for vast amounts of money to be spent. However, I hope that some areas of the Palace of Westminster can be used more effectively than they are at present. I am not convinced that Westminster Hall is used as effectively as it might be. I am certain that there are parts of the Palace which very few people know exist. One of the joys of being a member of the Select Committee on Broadcasting was that we found a huge area, to which I have referred before, above the Central Lobby which no one knew existed before. It contained the odd plank, bucket and a half empty tea cup. That huge space had not been used before and it could have been used to accommodate the control room for the television studios and also a couple of television studios.

When we finally get control over our own affairs—the Bill goes part of the way towards achieving that—I hope that we shall be able to use most effectively all the accommodation presently available in the building. I will raise one other potentially divisive note: I wonder whether the balance of accommodation in the Palace between the amount used by the House of Lords and that used by the House of Commons has changed this century. In asking that question, I break all the rules, because it is a question to which I genuinely do not know the answer. The balance of power between the two Houses has changed this century and the balance of work rate has also inevitably changed this century. I wonder whether the use of the accommodation in the Palace of Westminster reflects the work required to be performed by the two Houses.

We must work towards raising our facilities up to minimum standards for ourselves, staff and visitors. We should also try to improve facilities. The Leader of the House touched on that matter.

I look forward to the time when—I am not alone in saying this—hon. Members will have in their rooms the clean feed of the televising of the proceedings of Parliament. It is odd that we can see them via satellite but we cannot do so from a direct feed to our offices. It is odd also that Ministers can do so in their offices but the rest of us cannot. I look forward to resolving that matter in due course.

This debate is related to what we shall debate next Monday, which is the procedure of the House of Commons. I do not think that all improvements will necessarily mean additional costs. There are many things that we could do which might reduce costs. For example, why are we here at 10.35 pm debating this matter? Why could we not do so in the morning?

Photo of Mr Bruce Grocott Mr Bruce Grocott , The Wrekin

I shall sit down and be quiet if my two or three minutes over the limit enable us to debate such matters at 9 am instead of at 10.30 pm. They would be three minutes of my time most usefully spent.

With those comments, in particular those underlining the staffing queries, I am happy to support the Bill.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 10:35 pm, 24th February 1992

Although technical in character, the Bill is the expression of a fundamental change in the way we organise our affairs in the House of Commons. It is part of a process of taking control of the buildings into the hands of hon. Members, a process that began in 1975 with the setting up of the House of Commons Commission, which took the employment of staff under the control of hon. Members. That is not a nominal process, as it would be if the House of Commons Commission were merely a Government body. It is a process in which there is wide representation, indeed, a majority of interests other than those of the Government. That should remain a characteristic of the bodies through which we carry out the responsibilities expressed in the Bill.

For Parliament to be independent, it must regulate its own affairs independently of the Government of the day. The Government come to Parliament to bring forward their legislation and to be answerable to Parliament, but Parliament must control its own affairs. It is therefore a happy occasion that there are the names of members of the Government, the Opposition, Liberal Democrats and other Back-Bench Members on the Bill. That is a necessary feature of the process of ensuring that Parliament is genuinely independent and in control of its own affairs.

Photo of Mr Barney Hayhoe Mr Barney Hayhoe , Brentford and Isleworth 10:36 pm, 24th February 1992

I endorse what the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has said. Such matters are deeply for the House of Commons, not just Front-Bench Members. It is right and proper that there should be brief interventions from Back-Bench Members in support of the measure. I certainly endorse the commendation of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Boswell.]

Bill immediately considered in Committee.