School Visits

Leader of the House – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 7th September 2004.

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Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield 2:30 pm, 7th September 2004

To ask the Leader of the House what plans he has to make proposals to help schools outside London and the south-east of England with costs of visits to Parliament.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Parliamentary Secretary

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for his interest in the subject.

In its recent report on connecting Parliament with the public, the Modernisation Committee recommended an extension to educational facilities at Westminster—but it felt that as the vast majority of young people would not have an opportunity to participate in a school visit, the priority should continue to be to improve the parliamentary website and the outreach work.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. Has he seen an article in The House magazine, headed "Parliament's past for pupils"? It says:

"Every schoolboy and girl is supposed to know that Parliament has been a central institution of the English, then British state for over 700 years."

Does the Minister accept that not only should information be available on the website and from the excellent education unit in the House of Commons, but school pupils should be able to come and see Parliament here in London? It is easy enough, physically and financially, for pupils from schools in London and the south-east to be brought here, but it is very difficult in constituencies in the north and others many miles from London. What action will the Minister take to enable funds to be available to schools so that pupils can be brought to the House of Commons?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Parliamentary Secretary

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will take firm action. I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing the matter to the House's attention. Unfortunately, that magazine is still in the in-tray, not yet in the out-tray, but I will certainly read the article.

This is not a case of either/or. There is virtue in improving and encouraging access for school visits, and the Government agree with the hon. Gentleman that that is very important. However, there is also virtue in the outreach work and the website. The Modernisation Committee has reported on the matter and made suggestions and the House of Commons Commission is considering the recommendation for an increase in the education unit's budget. I am sure that we would all welcome that.

Perhaps we will read in the Modernisation Committee's report of the excellent measures that have been taken in Wales. The budget has been increased by half a million pounds, and increasing our youngsters' knowledge of the work of Parliament is of course paramount.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

Given that Parliament has legislated for school pupils to learn about citizenship, is it not important for our wonderful education unit to work with the curriculum co-ordinators in schools to deliver a citizenship curriculum? Should not we in Parliament ensure that such assistance is given?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Parliamentary Secretary

That is an excellent suggestion, and I acknowledge the role that my hon. Friend has played in the road show by encouraging greater interest among, and the education of, our young people. The Modernisation Committee report examined how we can ensure that the work of the Department for Education and Skills—which recommended that we re-examine the balance of a citizenship curriculum—of the education unit and of Parliament is co-ordinated to ensure that such information is passed on to our young people.

Photo of Mr Paul Tyler Mr Paul Tyler Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I very much welcome the Deputy Leader of the House's balanced response—as he says, this is not an either/or situation—but does he accept that in terms of cost benefit, easy access through the internet to this House and what happens here is surely our prime priority? Does he also accept that it is preferable, if we can, to take Parliament to the people, rather than expecting them to come to us?

I illustrate the point by drawing the hon. Gentleman's attention to the approach of the Swedish Parliament—I visited it last week—which has a Parliament week and Parliament places in local libraries in different parts of the country. Would that not be a very suitable way for us to take Parliament to the people—perhaps in the week leading up to Guy Fawkes day?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Parliamentary Secretary

My geography is not perfect, but my guess is that the hon. Gentleman's constituency is even further away from here than mine, so he speaks with some authority. [Laughter.] I am certain that it is further away—I was being polite, as hon. Members know. The website is being examined—it is a very good one, but it is now acknowledged that it needs improving—and, of course, the webcasting of Parliament's proceedings, which also improves access, is up and running. This issue is a priority—and as the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged it is not an either/or situation. Taking Parliament to the people, encouraging greater awareness of it and encouraging young people to vote are very much a part of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House's strategy for reconnecting Parliament with the public.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller PPS (Team PPS), Department of Trade and Industry

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: online services are mission critical to the development of modern educational methods and they should be welcomed. They have radically improved services and the ability of people in remote areas to access this place. However, in considering this important question, will my hon. Friend examine the impact that the changed sitting hours have had on the ability of young people who have to travel long distances to access this House—for example, those who have to travel from the constituency of Mr. Tyler?

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Parliamentary Secretary

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I am pleased to note that the House is debating how we can improve such education and access, rather than whether we should do so—an argument that we had 10 years ago. I can reassure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has had meetings with the visitors' manager, and that the central tours office has made changes to improve access for people from remote areas and for those who live in constituencies far away from the south-east. This is a gradual process, but things are moving in the direction that my hon. Friend wants.

Photo of Oliver Heald Oliver Heald Shadow Secretary of State (Justice), Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

Websites are obviously an excellent thing and some of the other associated ideas are important, but there is something special about visiting this place, particularly for school students. I invite the Deputy Leader of the House to do a little work, to look at the scheme used in Australia and to provide the House, through the Modernisation and Procedure Committees, with a range of options and costings, so that we know what it would cost to give young people a little extra help and let them see what a living democracy is.

Photo of Phil Woolas Phil Woolas Parliamentary Secretary

That is a very good suggestion, particularly the idea that I should study the Australian method; perhaps that could be arranged. But seriously, the shadow Leader of the House's suggestion is very good and my right hon. Friend will want to look at it.