Official Report

– in the House of Commons at 10:06 pm on 3rd April 1995.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bates.]

Photo of Mr Patrick Thompson Mr Patrick Thompson , Norwich North 10:09 pm, 3rd April 1995

I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate this evening's Adjournment debate about Hansard and related issues. I am especially grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science, for being here to reply to the debate and I look forward very much to hearing what he has to say. I am also pleased to see my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Congdon) and for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman) in the Chamber, and I hope that they will take an interest in the matter.

Hansard is essential to the work of Members of the House. It is also highly important to our constituents, who need to know what right hon. and hon. Members say in Parliament. The dramatic fall in Hansard's circulation in recent years, the decline of parliamentary reporting and the lack of in-depth coverage of the House's proceedings in the press have together significantly weakened the working of democracy in this country.

I am especially pleased to start the debate as a Member for a Norwich constituency. It was in Norwich that Luke Hansard was baptised and where he served his apprenticeship to a printer before coming to London in 1774. Here he became one of the commercial parliamentary printers contracted to Mr. Speaker to publish the papers of the House. Those were straightforward papers—the journal, votes and Bills—necessary for the work of the House. What was said by Members in debates continued to be regarded as confidential and strictly reserved for the ears of other Members. I suspect that there may be occasions nowadays when the thought crosses the minds of some right hon. and hon. Members that it might be better if that continued to be so.

It was not until the first decade of the 19th century that unauthorised verbatim accounts of proceedings by William Cobbett began to appear. From 1807 onwards, those were published by Luke Hansard's son Thomas, who took over the whole operation from 1812. Since that time, the name Hansard has been synonymous with the publication of a clear and independent record of the proceedings in the Chamber and in our Standing Committees. It is a tribute to the achievements of the Hansard family, of Her Majesty's Stationery Office and of its highly proficient staff for many decades that the title Hansard has been adopted for the reports of proceedings in other legislatures throughout the world.

Norwich's historic connection with Hansard was reinforced in 1968, when HMSO transferred its headquarters from Atlantic house in Holborn to Norwich. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to the work of my constituents and others in Norwich who work in the HMSO organisation. I thank also those members of staff at HMSO who have helped me in preparation for the debate.

It is in HMSO's parliamentary data centre that the copy sent from the Hansard editorial staff here is converted from continuous text into columns and pages, scanned for quality control and delivered in hard form to HMSO's parliamentary press for printing, finishing and distribution the following morning. I do not know whether I am allowed to pay tribute to those who are present taking down the proceedings right now, verbatim, at the same time as I am referring to other people associated with Hansard. Written answers have to be typeset before being converted into columns and paginated, while proceedings in Standing Committees also require typesetting.

Getting Hansard to our breakfast tables is therefore a complicated and costly operation. It is an operation that I believe is essential to the workings of democracy in Britain. The electors who send right hon. and hon. Members to represent them here are entitled to know what decisions we have taken and why. The arguments that we have made to one another, the challenges that we have made to Ministers and their responses, the votes that we have recorded, all belong in the public record. That information makes us truly accountable to one another in the House and should make us accountable to the wider public, beyond these walls.

Unfortunately, access to information about the proceedings in the House and the reasoning behind parliamentary decisions has become more restricted. Sixteen years ago, Hansard had a circulation of 10,500 copies, covering proceedings in both Houses. Now, its daily sales are of about 5,500 copies, and most of those—some 85 per cent.—go to officials and Government Departments, with the remainder going to institutions and corporate bodies. Many public libraries, academic institutions and individuals have ceased to take Hansard altogether.

There can be no doubt that the major reason for the decline in the circulation of Hansard has been its pricing policy. In 1979, Commons Hansard cost 45p. By 1983, that had more than trebled to £1.50. Now it is £7.50. The Hansard for the other place costs £4.20. Few public or academic libraries can afford to pay nearly £12 a day to learn what happens here.

I understand that the decision was taken in 1983 to withdraw the subsidy of £6 million a year which HMSO was then receiving to support the publication of Hansard. That process was completed in 1992. No announcement of that decision was, so far as I can discover, ever made in the House. Right hon. and hon. Members never had the opportunity to express their views on its merits or on its inevitable consequences. It is interesting to note that the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) tabled a written question on this matter in November 1993. The figures that he obtained confirm the information that I have given in this debate.

It is not acceptable for the citizens of this country to have to pay seven times what Americans and Germans pay for finding out what happens in their legislatures, eight times what Canadians and French people pay and 14 times as much as Australians have to pay.

The fall in the circulation of Hansard has been compounded by the changes in parliamentary coverage in the press. Twenty-five or 30 years ago, the quality broadsheets, if not the tabloid press, gave proceedings in this House much more coverage than they do now. I know that that is true because I took the opportunity to do a certain amount of research into this subject some six months ago. The Times, for example, some years ago, quoted directly from the speeches of right hon. and hon. Members in some detail. It is very rare indeed for it to do so now. The quality press now prefers to produce the diaries of parliamentary sketch writers. Serious reporting has given way to a preoccupation with knockabout comedy and juvenile witticisms.

Of course I accept that there are programmes on the radio and television which are specifically devoted to covering parliamentary proceedings. That is all to the good, but they cater for people with specialised interests, not for the general run of viewers, whose attention—or perhaps that of news editors seeking spectacular rows—is aroused only for snippets of debates in the House or in Committee which are carried on the main news bulletins.

It is no good complaining of course about the preferences of the broadcasting media or of the newspapers. They have their own agendas and rightly so. The House must make its own views felt, at least on the issue of Hansard, in which we have a locus.

Hansard should be more readily available. That means lowering its price, if necessary by subsidising it from parliamentary rather than Government funds. The House should consider whether copies of Hansard should be supplied to the major public libraries throughout the United Kingdom at a price equivalent to the marginal cost of production. That would make it readily accessible to a very large number of people whenever they needed to discover what the House had heard, decided and done.

Why should Hansard not be available, for example, on the Internet, perhaps at a modest charge to subscribers?

Photo of Mr David Congdon Mr David Congdon , Croydon North East

My hon. Friend was talking earlier about cost, which is an important factor as, indeed, is accessibility. Does he agree that if Hansard were put on the Internet, it could possibly be made available more cheaply and—perhaps even more beneficially—made far more accessible to people?

Photo of Mr Patrick Thompson Mr Patrick Thompson , Norwich North

I certainly accept my hon. Friend's point. I know also that my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) is particularly interested in the information being available on the Internet, and cheaply. If electronic communication represents the future, the representatives of the people of this country should be among the first, not the last, to use it.

Parliament is the linchpin of democracy in Britain. In this Chamber and in another place, the range and scope of the laws and regulations that people have to obey is continually being extended. Their continuing consent depends on their ability to scrutinise the activities and decisions of their Members of Parliament. That has become harder in recent years. It should—it must—become easier in the future.

Photo of Mr Nigel Forman Mr Nigel Forman , Carshalton and Wallington 10:19 pm, 3rd April 1995

I strongly endorse what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), who has put a powerful and well-researched argument to the House. I hope that the Minister will pay particular attention to his implicit suggestion that the subsidy should be restored to Hansard so that it can be made available to the general public, libraries and others at a more competitive price which is more akin to the price in other countries. And if money needs to be found for that purpose—if it is not possible or tenable to find it from Exchequer sources—we should look to Parliament's own revenue-generating capacity. As I understand it, the Kiosk and one or two other places here make a handsome profit; perhaps we should look to them to find the necessary subsidy that would enable us to bring Hansard to the attention and use of a much wider public.

Photo of John Horam John Horam , Orpington 10:20 pm, 3rd April 1995

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) for drawing attention to an issue that is of concern to both sides of the House. It was fascinating to hear of the links between Norwich, Hansard and its printer and publisher, HMSO. As we know, Norwich is a fine city, and HMSO is not the least fine of its occupants. Indeed, this very morning I was extolling its excellent recent progress to a conference on pay and grading delegation in the public sector.

My hon. Friend has raised important issues, focusing on the premise, with which I very much agree, that Members of the House must be properly accountable to their constituents; and that the people of this country must have the opportunity of following what goes on here and what Members say in Parliament. That principle is at the heart of our democratic system of government.

I too regret the increasing tendency in the press to trivialise our proceedings, and I believe that Parliament should be covered more thoroughly and seriously by the media. I was impressed by the way my hon. Friend collected his information on that subject.

I also believe that Hansard is an essential and high-quality service. The service provided to the House by the Editor of debates, in collaboration with HMSO, matches the best in the world. Many legislatures manage to issue their record of proceedings only some days after the event. Obviously costs, and therefore the cover price, could be substantially reduced if hon. Members were prepared to contemplate a diminution in the standards to which we have become accustomed. But I do not favour going down that route; nor do I believe that such a move would attract significant support anywhere in the House.

In order to guarantee the breakfast-time delivery of the previous day's proceedings, HMSO has made a heavy investment in plant and equipment in central London, which is costly to maintain. The facilities are fully stretched each night when Parliament is sitting but cannot be used to full capacity at other times, particularly during the recesses.

To deal with this problem the Government are introducing a new arrangement in the 1995–96 estimates, permitting HMSO to seek non-Government work to fill spare capacity. I am hopeful that that will lead to the more effective use of HMSO's facilities and thereby spread the fixed costs of the installation over a wider base. That, I hope, will lead to the lower costs with which my hon. Friend is concerned. It will be one more step in a progressive programme of service improvements and cost reduction.

Following investment authorised by a Committee of the House, for example, the Editor of debates has, for more than a year, been providing copy to HMSO in electronic form, instead of typescript and manuscript. That eliminates the need for typesetting and it has opened the way to substantial savings in production costs.

At the same time, HMSO has subjected its Hansard printing operations to the full rigours of competitive market testing—an exercise which has demonstrated that there are no private sector printers capable of producing Hansard more cheaply or efficiently. The successful in-house bid has led to the rationalisation of production facilities and improvements in productivity.

A second market test—of the keyboarding of written answers—led to another innovative in-house bid by HMSO that resulted in new investment in modern data technology and much greater cost-effectiveness. New proposals for changes in the pattern of working at the Parliamentary Press, that will further improve productivity, are under discussion with union representatives.

The desire of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North to see an increase in the circulation of Hansard is, I am sure, understandable, strong and widely shared. It is so strong that he is prepared to contemplate the reintroduction of a general Hansard subsidy or wider recourse to differential pricing, with parliamentary and Government users paying a higher price than external purchasers, such as public libraries.

That raises two questions: is subsidy the most desirable way of keeping costs to the customer under control; and would a general subsidy lead to a marked increase in the readership of Hansard among our constituents? My hon. Friend rightly observed that Hansard is no longer heavily subsidised by the taxpayer, as it was until only a few years ago. As my hon. Friend said, at its peak the subsidy was as high as £6 million a year. At that time, circulation was nearly twice what it is now.

I remind the House that the present cover price of £7.50, which finally eliminated the need for general subsidy, was introduced as long ago as November 1991. There has been no increase in the past three years, and I am pleased to tell the House that HMSO has pledged that there will be no increase during the life of the present Parliament. That amounts to a five-year price freeze, which is all the more remarkable given the continuing increases in the price of paper, which alone have added about £1 million to production costs over the period to which I have drawn attention.

Ever since the general subsidy was eliminated, HMSO has been funding from its overall revenues the heavy investments in new equipment, rationalisation and relocation to which I have referred. As a result of these investments and action by the House, there is a real prospect that the publication of Hansard will become profitable in 1996, for the first time ever.

It may therefore be possible to go one better than a price freeze. I am pleased to tell the House that HMSO is discussing with House officials the possibility of a price reduction. These discussions are not sufficiently advanced for me to go into more detail tonight, but I understand that the issues concerned will be brought before the relevant House Committees in the near future.

As you know, Madam Speaker, since April 1992 the House has taken financial responsibility for its stationery and printing needs, including Hansard. The House authorities, principally the Commission, chaired by you, Madam Speaker, and advised by the Administration Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin), are therefore actively involved in any decision on the future pricing of, or distribution policy for, Hansard. That means that the House has a role in the pricing of Hansard.

I remind my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North that the Government still provide a subsidy that enables HMSO to supply Government publications to public libraries at half price. I do not think that that is generally known. That subsidy applies both to Hansard publications, which are already slightly discounted, and to the bulk supply terms offered by HMSO for those who take omnibus collections of publications. That means that members of the public throughout the country are able to consult Hansard and other Government publications in libraries, which have been supplied at prices ranging from only 25 per cent. to 45 per cent. of face value. That can be a reduction of 75 per cent. That is a real public benefit, which makes a practical contribution to promoting open government, and which represents a base on which I would be prepared to build. I think that these arrangements go some way to meeting my hon. Friend's laudable objectives. Indeed, if my hon. Friend takes into account all the discounting that can happen both on the weekly Hansard and on the daily Hansard, he will find that it comes very close to the marginal costs that he mentioned.

I have already mentioned that during the many years when Government provided a substantial subsidy, the circulation of Hansard was, nevertheless, modest. Regrettable though hon. Members may find it, sales of Hansard to the general public have always been extremely small. As my hon. Friend has said, no less than 85 per cent. of sales are to official users—Government Departments and so forth—and the remaining 15 per cent. largely comprise libraries and other institutions and commercial organisations, rather than individual citizens. Circulation among individuals is not very different now, with a price of £7.50, from what it was when the price was 45p. The reduction in sales over the past 10 years or so, to which my hon. Friend referred, has come about mainly as a result of fewer sales to Government Departments. I read nothing into that; that is the fact of the matter.

It is certainly true, as my hon. Friend observed, that many overseas legislatures publish their official report at lower prices—sometimes considerably lower where a subsidy applies. However, despite these lower prices, very few countries manage to sell more copies of their official report than does the United Kingdom. Indeed, one legislature that makes its proceedings available free of charge has almost the lowest public readership of all.

This apparently perverse logic may be explained by the results of some market research which was undertaken by MORI last year, under commission from HMSO. MORI found that although most members of the general public were aware of the existence of Hansard, there was much less interest in reading it in its present form whatever the price might be.

I normally reserve a healthy scepticism for the results of public opinion polls, but I have to confess to an uncomfortable feeling that there may be something in the proposition that although the average citizen no doubt wishes to keep abreast of the main elements of parliamentary business and might well want better newspaper coverage, as my hon. Friend said, he or she may be rather less interested in a verbatim transcript—which is what Hansard is—of our proceedings.

As my hon. Friend said, radio and television programmes devoted to parliamentary proceedings cater for a small and specialised market. I think that most hon. Members will agree that Hansard inevitably falls into the same category.

MORI's other findings included the fact that more than half of present subscribers regarded Hansard as being either "very good" or "fairly good" value for money. In fact, most users of Hansard were less concerned with the cover price than with the cost of employing people to go through its pages to find the issues of interest to them. The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this is that the presentation of information that follows the exact order of business in the House is, in practice, not very user-friendly—at least for people who are not Members of the House of Commons.

MORI's overall conclusion was that the market for Hansard as a complete publication in its present verbatim form is, therefore, extremely limited, although the market for some of the information it contains is potentially large. What is needed, therefore, is a means of extracting bespoke information relevant to the needs of individual users and presenting it to them either electronically or by printing on demand. Most users would be prepared to pay more for such a service than they pay for the present Hansard. The point is that there would be an opportunity to generate more revenue and, therefore, the possibility of reducing further the price of Hansard if we could achieve such a bespoke information source.

My hon. Friend also mentioned the attractive possibilities now opened up by the Internet with its potential for fast transmission of information to a wide audience. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Congdon) also commented on this. HMSO is exploring these possibilities, in conjunction with the House authorities. But it needs to be borne in mind that a continuous stream of undifferentiated data is no more user-friendly on screen than it is on paper so there will be a need for careful presentation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East said, the key is to make the information more accessible. That would require us to put in sophisticated software to make Hansard as user-friendly on the Internet as we would wish it to be.

HMSO now publishes Hansard in CD-ROM form. This enables the proceedings of a complete Session of Parliament, amounting to some 20 million words, to be captured on a 5-in disc. The sophisticated retrieval software of CD-ROM allows users to look up within seconds what any hon. Member has said on any given subject at different points in time and for a long period. That is a sobering thought, but such technology clearly has the potential to meet the needs of Hansard's customers very effectively. I know that HMSO and the House officials will continue to work to develop service improvements to meet those needs and to ensure that Hansard continues to play a central role in the life of parliamentary democracy.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Eleven o'clock.