I beg to move,
That this House
notes the medium-term financial plan for the House of Commons Administration as set out in Appendix A to the First Report from the Finance and Services Committee (HC 691);
endorses the intention of the Committee to recommend to the House of Commons Commission a House of Commons Administration Estimate 5 for 2013-14 of £220 million;
notes the intention of the House of Commons Commission to make savings of 17 per cent in real terms from 2010-11 level by 2014-15 in line with the wider public sector;
and endorses the Savings Programme as set out in Appendix B to the report.
May I begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for having allowed this debate to proceed and by thanking you, Mr Speaker, for having encouraged me to go ahead and seek it? It might be helpful to say at the outset that I intend to address: first, the reasons for having this debate; secondly the principles behind the savings plan and the medium-term financial plan; and, thirdly, some of the detailed issues. I will then say something briefly about the amendments. It might be helpful to tell the House that I hope to make progress in the first part of my speech, but will welcome any interventions in the second.
The debate is something of a first, so let me begin by setting out why we are having it and what I hope it might achieve. Its purpose is to set before the House the advice that the Finance and Services Committee will give the House of Commons Commission on the administration estimate, which is the estimate of funding required to operate the House. I stress that it is neither the Members’ estimate, which concerns all the parts that affect us, such as our staffing and other arrangements, nor the capital estimate, which affects the refurbishment of the House. The administration estimate is for the running of the House itself. The Committee will also advise the Commission on the underlying financial plans, including the activities, strategies and principles that have informed the savings programme. This is an opportunity for Members to debate and, if required, to vote on the proposals.
The Finance and Services Committee, which I have the honour of chairing, has scrutinised with considerable care over some period of time the financial plans and savings proposals. Our findings and recommendations are set out in our report to the House. Our terms of reference charge us with advising the Commission, which is the statutory body required to take the decision, so this is the opportunity for Members to debate the advice that the Finance and Services Committee proposes and to amend that advice if they wish. For the first time, they will be taking a full part in the debate about how House services are provided.
I am pleased to see that there are three amendments and that Members wish to engage in the process. I look forward to the contributions that are to come. I believe that this is an important step in wider scrutiny of how we operate internally and it is therefore important to us and our constituents. I also believe that it is an important debate for our staff and the management of the Palace. I want to reiterate the tribute I paid in a recent Westminster Hall debate: we are served by dedicated and loyal staff who take immense trouble to ensure that we are looked after. They undertake their duties with great efficiency and the minimum of fuss and they are led by a team of officials and managers who set out to satisfy us and who usually succeed. I want to place on record my appreciation of all they do, which is, I am sure, shared by Members on both sides of the House.
At a time of financial constraint, it is wholly right and proper that we are seen to be seeking to operate in the most cost-effective way, consistent with our overarching parliamentary duties of scrutiny, legislating and representing our constituents. To achieve this, we have set a savings target of a 17% reduction in the estimate from the baseline estimate of 2010/11, which was £231 million. By 2014-15, the estimate will need to be £210 million to achieve that target. We are on track to achieve that and the estimate of £220 million, which we are advising the Commission to accept, undertakes that task.
From the outset, it was agreed that simply salami slicing 17% of everything across the board would be inconsistent with achieving the targets for quality of service that we require. Each area of activity has therefore been carefully considered and analysis was made of what was required and then of how to achieve it. In management speak, it is called re-engineering, but I was determined to try not to get that in—I have clearly failed. That is at the heart of the plans to deliver an improved service for our parliamentary duties in a more effective and efficient way. I should stress that our goal is as much quality of service as efficiency and the core principle that has informed all the activities is to ensure that parliamentarians can properly, fully and effectively carry out their duties in this place and can do that at the best value.
Now that I have set out the broad principles behind the plan, let me touch on some of the key areas. I preface that by saying that a considerable amount of saving has already been achieved by simply looking at what we do and how we do it and working out how it can be done better. In addition, the House has adopted the same strictures on pay as the civil service and I draw Members’ attention to the appendices that analyse many of these areas. Today’s proposed estimate of £220 million is, as I have said, a stepping stone on the way to £210 million in 2014-15. The proposals for achieving it are set out in appendix B.
The first key area is what is known as market testing. It is completely appropriate for any organisation to consider what it does and how it might best deliver what are known as the non-core activities. In this place, an obvious example is the Travel Office, where we employ travel professionals on a competitive basis to provide the best service for us. At the other end of the scale are core activities, which are the things that our House service does and that we would never expect to be done by anyone else. They are core to delivering the service. In between, there are areas that are vital to us but not necessarily core activities. Those are the areas where it is proper to see whether an in-house service is providing the best value. The concept behind market testing is to ensure that the services we provide internally are benchmarked against outside provision to show that we have the best value for money.
Detailed analysis of the potential to market test in four areas of the House service, including catering, has been completed. We have reached a point where the in-house teams have developed thorough plans for making improvements and reducing costs internally and have conducted market research to provide comparators. Staff in the areas concerned have been closely involved and have come up with imaginative solutions, supported by people with expertise from outside.
Our colleagues on the Administration Committee have considered the internal improvement plans for catering and have welcomed their approach. The decision now is whether to proceed with the improvements in-house or formally to test the market with the possibility of those services being outsourced. I observe that the Chair of that Committee, Sir Alan Haselhurst, has tabled an amendment based on a meeting the Committee had earlier this week. I would certainly be minded to accept it and I believe that it is acceptable to other Members of the Finance and Services Committee with whom I have been able to have a word. I look forward to hearing his speech in due course.
The second key area is what is known as print to web. The aim is to move to a more digital-first approach to publishing, with less use of paper and hard copy. The printing of the soft-bound weekly Hansard has already ceased. Some while ago, under the previous estimate, we gave up publishing the weekly compendium of early-day motions. We are considering written questions, which will not be published in the daily Hansard from 2014 but will be published far more quickly and accessibly on line. Clearly, in this project it is important that the quality of the digital access is improved to ensure that the quality of the overall service is better as a result. It is a classic example of the quality of service being the more important goal rather than the saving. As a result of the initial work, nearly £2 million was saved. In the last year, about £1 million was saved and in the coming year, more than £1 million will be saved. If this year’s plan is accepted, we will already have achieved a saving in excess of £5 million.
The perhaps slightly contentious part of all this concerns the leather-bound volumes of Hansard. I have written to all those Members who find this a deeply cherished part of their parliamentary experience. Only 14% of Members currently subscribe to the service and, of those, only a small number feel that it would be a gross inconvenience to lose it. We have negotiated a discount and the bound volumes will be available to Members who wish to purchase them, but for the rest, we will be making a saving of some £970,000 a year by discontinuing them.
May I reassure my hon. Friend that that is a reasonable saving? I discovered early on in my 39-year parliamentary career that the accumulation of bound volumes of Hansard was not very practical from a domestic point of view.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I can tell him that I have had particular praise from the wife of one hon. Friend, who thanked me profusely for having relieved her of the duty of piling those up in the loft. So all in all, it is a wise move but, as I say, for those who wish to continue to receive bound volumes of Hansard, we have made provision for them to be purchased.
The next point that I would like to touch on is the provision of ICT. The aim here is to move to a more cloud-based system. This will allow Members to access all the services they need from virtually any equipment they choose to use. It moves the security aspects—one of the most important points—from their individual pieces of hardware on to the cloud system. So cloud e-mail and office services which are designed to provide flexible access from anywhere and virtually any device should be a truly enabling feature for Members.
As a Member who is trialling the use of iPads in Select Committee—which, by the way, is proving very effective—I can report that we cannot put information on the cloud at present because the servers for Apple products are in the United States and are therefore covered by the Patriot Act. That presents some interesting problems. Has the Committee given any thought to how we can solve them?
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The Committee is not yet engaged on the Patriot Act. What we are engaged in is ensuring that these questions are asked of Parliamentary ICT. That is the important point. PICT is currently running what is called the cloud-readiness project to look at all these issues. If we want to arrive at the point where all the benefits that I have sought to outline are available to us, ensuring that the system is secure and that storage and transmission facilities are available are clearly prerequisites for any provider of cloud services. If a provider cannot offer that, it will not get the custom.
As someone who, when she was a Minister, was responsible for the early stage of planning of the census, where we came across a similar problem with data storage, issues of privacy and the US Patriot Act, may I ask the hon. Gentleman to make sure that he asks the appropriate questions to ensure that when we finally get a cloud, it will be a cloud whose storage is in the UK so that we can avoid the Patriot Act issues?
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady. Had I not thought of those questions before, it is now firmly planted in my mind to ensure that they are all properly asked.
The last point that I wanted to touch on is the plans to increase revenue. The Administration Committee has done considerable work on this, and we had a debate in Westminster Hall which featured that topic. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden
(Sir Alan Haselhurst), the Chair of the Committee, will speak in this debate and I am sure that he will cover this in greater detail. It is also the subject of an amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Robert Halfon. Notwithstanding the fact that I am about to disagree with him, I respect hugely the point that he puts and I am extremely grateful to him for having raised it in the debate. It is one of the core points and it is absolutely right that we as Members should discuss that. He has therefore done us a service by tabling the amendment, and I am grateful that it has been selected. However, I will now proceed to disagree with him, if I may.
The House has operated a number of facilities for staff, visitors and Members, including cafes, restaurants, bars and shops, for a considerable length of time. I hope it will be uncontroversial to affirm that these should be correctly priced and effectively costed. All these are details that the Administration Committee goes into. However, the Palace not only houses Parliament, but is a world-class heritage asset and one of the United Kingdom’s leading visitor attractions. I suggest that as such, we have a duty to make the Palace available to visitors who want to visit it, and an equal duty to ensure that the cost of that does not fall on the taxpayer, but is recovered from those visitors.
The key point is to ensure that there is no conflict between Parliament as a working institution and the Palace as a world-class visitor attraction, so I shall set out my principles in that regard. They are three. First, Parliament is a working institution and while it is sitting, those activities take precedence over any other activity. Secondly, all citizens have the right to visit their Parliament and to engage with their Members of Parliament and the parliamentary process without any charge at any point. Thirdly, subject to those first two principles, the Palace is a world heritage and tourist asset which should be made available for tourist visitors, provided that the costs of such provision are recovered and not passed on to the taxpayer.
I believe—and I think this is where I fundamentally disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow—that provided we have absolutely ensured that parliamentary proceedings are sacrosanct and that citizens can visit the Palace without a charge and without fear of a charge, we have a duty and a right to open it to wider visits and to charge to recover the costs.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In his document he talks about respect for Parliament. This sums up the nub of my argument. The effect of what he proposes is that people who are rich, such as corporates that can pay more money, will have special privileges to get into the Palace of Westminster. That is what I find objectionable. I do not make the distinction between when Parliament is sitting and when it is not sitting.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I entirely respect that point of view. I just fundamentally disagree with it, in the nicest possible way. Let us take, for example, the fact that we are putting up the prices for commercial filming in certain parts of the Palace. We have done that for many, many years. All that we are currently doing is making the prices roughly equal to the charges for any other commercial activity. Let us consider another example. My fellow Commissioner, Mr Doran, is Chairman of Mr Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art and has done a power of work to open up the art work in this building by offering specialist tours in secure areas to people who would not otherwise be able to get there. Those tours mean that members of staff have to be assigned to that duty. The choice, it seems to me, is that we either recover the cost of those members of staff so that we can widen the access, or we do not do it and do not pay the staff so that we can stay within budget. An ever-increasing openness of the Palace that takes no account of the costs is plain wrong.
Surely this is about striking the right balance: the costs should not fall totally on the taxpayer, but at the same time the charges must not be so high that only the rich can afford them and people are deterred from coming here.
I completely agree. There is a need for balance. I cannot give an assurance on the part of the Commission, or indeed any sister Committee, but my view is that we should proceed gently and with caution, just as we did when we introduced charging for entry during the summer recess. We opened up the Palace hugely to tourists and charged a fee that was broadly in line with what people pay to access other tourist attractions. That seems to be the right and proper way to do it. It also creates employment, which I think is good news. My view is that we should do it, but let us move at a reasonable, considered and measured pace without rushing into anything. I would certainly advise whoever introduces it that going with the grain of what has been said is the best way forward.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend—I call him that because he serves with me on the Finance and Services Committee. I absolutely agree. I read in one of the newspapers that it was proposed that someone from Disney World do something in Westminster Hall. That is not on the agenda and never has been—if it was, I would join my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow in the Lobby like a shot. What we are talking about is the recovery of cost for the proper opening of the Palace to visitors. There will come a moment when it is a matter of judgment in some areas, but I believe that we are capable of making those judgments sensibly when we get there.
I find myself in sympathy with both sides of the argument; I very much see the point my hon. Friend is making, but I also sympathise with the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend Robert Halfon. Will my hon. Friend consider some sort of sunset clause that would allow Parliament, after a period of time, to reflect on how well the changes have operated so that, if some of the concerns that have been raised appear to have been justified, we might consider changing once again?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. I observe in passing that I have managed to attract both sides of the argument—clearly, I am sitting in the right place in the Chamber. I do not think that a sunset clause is necessary, because it is my hope that we will regularly, perhaps annually, have a debate of this kind. If at any time we reach a point where Members clearly feel as our hon. Friend the Member for Harlow feels, that debate would be the time to say that enough is enough. If we reach that point, I am confident that is precisely what the House would do. That is the reassurance I can offer my hon. Friend.
Does my hon. Friend agree with the following two points? First, we are privileged to work in a palace, rather than some modern, purpose-built place that would be a lot cheaper to run, so we must find some way of defraying the costs of maintaining and repairing it, and it is right that not all of that cost should fall on the taxpayer. Secondly, we are also privileged to enjoy many services, functions and eating places. Unless we can find a way of generating more revenue to support those facilities, we will lose them, because the public will not stand forever for that being subsidised to the extent it has been in recent years.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those comments. On his point about catering “subsidy”, the actual sale prices in most of our outlets are comparable to either, in the case of the dining rooms, private sector outlets or, in the case of the cafes, a normal work canteen. The prime cost is that of food, which in the trade we used to call the kitchen cost, and that is comparable to similar commercial operations, so the gross profit, or kitchen profit, is comparable. The problem is that we occupy the facilities for only part of the week, so for the remainder of the week they cost money because they are serviced and there are staff. Therefore, the gross profit is insufficient to cover the total fixed cost, and on that basis we have a subsidy. I think that it is an appropriate subsidy, particularly if we are looking at this debate. Equally, his point that we should be reasonably expected to reduce that subsidy by the way we operate in order to give the best value is absolutely correct.
I am happy to agree with the hon. Gentleman.
I am conscious that I have occupied the crease for far longer than I had intended and do not wish to upset you any further, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I will crack on. My last point regarding the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow is that it essentially asks for more time. I say to him, with the greatest respect, that I have spent two years circulating e-mails, writing reports and seeking to consult Members, some of whom have engaged and some have not—he has been a great engager. We have had a Westminster Hall debate on the matter and today we are debating it in the Chamber on an amendable motion. It does not get any better than that, as far as parliamentary time is concerned, so I suggest that now is the time to make the decision, whatever the House chooses.
Two other amendments have been tabled. I have already referred to that tabled by my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Haselhurst, who chairs the Administration Committee. I believe that other members of the Committee are content to accept it if the House wishes. The other amendment was tabled by my hon. Friend Adam Afriyie and relates to an extremely important point about the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. I know he is hoping to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I will not go into detail. Suffice it to say, on the basis of the briefing he gave me, I have talked at length with officials and am certain that we will be able to secure the necessary discussions between him, his board and the relevant people to ensure that those points are properly taken on board. I hope that the result will be the correct accommodation.
Members have an historic opportunity to take their destiny in their own hands in considering what services we want and how they should be funded. I am delighted to see so many Members in the Chamber and delighted that there are so many amendments, even though I ask the House to reject at least one of them. Let us have a debate, make a decision and settle the matter. I end by thanking the members of the Finance and Services Committee and the officials who have helped them, both at Management Board level and below, to ensure that the work we have done has been thorough and solid, which has enabled me to lay before the House a report and plans that are well considered, well structured, thoroughly thought through and that, I think, offer a solid way forward. I commend them to the House.
Order. For the convenience of the House, I will make it clear that I will call the amendments selected to be moved formally at the end of the debate so that we can deal with each of them in order. I hope that is clear. Given the time constraints on this afternoon’s business, there will be a 10-minute time limit on all Back-Bench speeches.
I would like to thank the Chair of the Finance and Services Committee, John Thurso, for his useful introduction to the debate. I do not particularly want to go into the amendments; I will decide accordingly when the time comes and vote one way or the other.
Mention is made in Appendix A of the Committee’s report that by 2015
“The House of Commons will be valued as the central institution in our democracy”.
That is stating the obvious. Whether it is valued or not, or savings are to be made or otherwise, I have always thought that this place is the basis of our country’s democracy; I am unaware of any alternative institution that ensures the democratic process and the rule of law. The appendix also refers to Parliament having
“the accommodation it needs to operate in a modern democracy.”
That subject is my main reason for wanting to speak in this debate.
First, let me say that I entirely accept that savings need to be made. It would be a rather odd situation if we were urging savings everywhere else and ourselves took the view that that would not be appropriate in the Palace of Westminster. That is not necessarily to say, by any means, that I agree with everything that is being suggested.
Aspects of the way in which this place is run and managed sometimes rather surprise me. For instance, I came into my office in late autumn, when there is no necessity for any central heating, and was surprised to find that it was on at full blast and would have been for some days. Obviously, I took appropriate action. I am not suggesting for one moment that central heating should be reduced for those who work day in and day out in this place—Members’ staff, officers, and employees of all kinds—but perhaps some savings could be made in a way that would reduce public expenditure. I certainly would not have liked to pay the heating bill for my office out of my own pocket, nor would I want to claim for my constituency accommodation money that was not justified.
There should be no ambiguity about what I am going to say about cleaning, so let me point out that I am a lifelong trade unionist and a member of the GMB, and I am pleased about that, but, as my hon. Friends will know, I would say it regardless. Conservative Members might take a different view, but be that as it may. On page 18 of the report, there is a recommendation to reduce the number of cleaning staff directly employed by the House and not to renew existing employment contracts. I am concerned about that. Four or five years ago, there was a row about the terms and conditions of service of cleaners not employed by the House of Commons being far inferior to those of cleaners who were directly employed. There was a demonstration, and a lot of pressure applied both inside and outside the House, and the necessary changes were made. The cleaning contract for the House of Commons is with KGB; I am not making that up. Presumably it is not the organisation that became so notorious over 70 years!
When the Leader of the House winds up, I would like him to say whether the same conditions of service for cleaners directly employed by House of Commons apply to those who are on contract with KGB. Is there sickness pay? Is there any pension arrangement? Are their conditions in any way worse than those of directly employed cleaners? I believe that there is no difference in terms of hourly payment, but I am concerned about their conditions of employment.
I now come to my main point. The sum to be saved by 2014-15 is about £20 million, in round terms. However, figures that I have obtained from the Library, and which are in the report, show that spending on the maintenance of the Palace averaged some £30 million in each of the past three years. That, of course, was for both Houses. The contribution made by the House of Commons was, I think, somewhat more than half; in round figures, it was about £54 million, which is a very considerable sum. We know that the maintenance is absolutely essential—it is not done for the sake of it—because this building would not be able to operate on a daily basis if it were not undertaken. That is not in dispute; I am in no way challenging it, and no one else is likely to do so.
Another report, “Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster”, makes alarming reading and shows why the House of Commons must at some stage, I hope in the near future, make a decision on this building. It says that water penetration is widespread throughout the building, including the House of Commons and the House of Lords, that asbestos is equally widespread, that the building’s mechanical and electrical services are very defective, and that in some areas there is a high fire risk. Another area where essential maintenance is needed is the roof of the Palace, which causes the water penetration and so on. We are not debating that report today, but passing reference is made to it in the report before us.
There is no doubt that we all agree on the savings, but are we going to grasp the real issue that this 19th century building is not fit in any way for the 21st century? We must recognise that we can keep on spending the money on maintenance year in and year out, but, inevitably, the upshot will still be that a complete overhaul, with all the absolutely essential work that is necessary, will need to be undertaken. Moreover, it will undoubtedly have to be done with Members and everyone else having been evacuated from the Palace; it cannot be done while people are working here, even in the summer recesses—as we all know, if an emergency arises the House is recalled at a moment’s notice. I hope that it will be possible for a decision to be reached in time for the necessary work to begin in the next Parliament. Having known over the years how reluctant the House of Commons is to reach a decision, I very much doubt that that will occur, but I certainly hope that it will be done by 2020.
I am sure that the Leader of the House has read the report to which I referred and will recognise that I am not exaggerating about the overall work that needs to be done. Although I can sometimes be accused of exaggeration by Conservative Members, I do not believe that I am exaggerating now. Yes, it will cost a lot of money, but, as I have illustrated, we are spending money year after year on essential maintenance work. I agree that there must be savings; for the reasons I have stated, I will not oppose the recommendations in the report. However, the House should, as quickly as possible, reach a decision on the bigger, absolutely essential job of making sure that this Palace is fit for purpose.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend John Thurso, because this is the first time that the House has been able to examine, after a considerable degree of preparation and consultation, what is, in effect, its budget. This is an important occasion, and it may well be one that can be repeated on an annual basis.
Some people, when they look at the suggested savings, might think that we are dancing to the Executive’s tune and that that is not what a legislature should do. In fact, one can see from our spending plans that there are ways of making changes and savings that bring us up to date in our operations, even if we are in a 19th century building. The trouble is that everyone has their own ideas about savings, and what pleases some will not please others, according to their particular pattern of working. At some point, a package needs to be decided. It is not necessarily just a question of cutting or of doing things in a different way; the other ingredient can be to generate income.
We should not over-emphasise the public’s reverence for this building, as my hon. Friend Robert Halfon has done in the past, because I suspect there is a lot less reverence for the catering deficit, which was £5.9 million at the start of this Parliament and which the proposals will, if carried, bring down to at least £4.4 million for 2012-13. If there is doubt whether we can press ahead with the full programme for the restoration and renewal of this building—a matter to which Mr Winnick has just referred—it is because of the fear that the public will be concerned about the costs involved. I think that the public look to us to act in a responsible and, I would hope, business-like way.
I want to concentrate on catering and retail, bearing in mind the thrust of my hon. Friend’s amendment. Clearly, we felt that the catering subsidy could not be ignored. We were not exactly helped by the Commission’s decision to impose a 10% price increase at the start of this Parliament, before the Administration and Finance and Services Committees were in place. That got us off to a difficult start. I wish it had left it a little longer. It has resulted in some perverse effects.
People think of this place as 650 Members of Parliament, but there are in fact 13,000 pass holders, not all of whom have the same income as MPs. A few have higher incomes, but for the most part they are on much lower incomes, and outlets have seen a reduction in footfall. Members of Parliament also entertain their constituents here and are finding that it has become much more costly to do so. We should not create a regime that makes Members hesitate to bring in guests because of the facility costs in certain outlets.
Income generation is an important element in achieving our objectives and we can do it through both catering and retail. I do not think that a considered approach to the issue should be dismissed—as my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow seems to wish—as commercialisation, as though it were a vulgar activity. If, in his own words, this is the people’s palace, I do not see why we should not widen access, especially when our facilities are not needed by us.
My right hon. Friend has said that some of the proposals are justified because Members are finding the restaurant prices too high. What he is saying is that it is okay to bring in companies to have special access to our facilities, because that will help Members reduce their bills. How can that be right and how would members of the public react to such a proposal?
My hon. Friend is both unfair and wrong. I said that one effect of the price increases has been felt by colleagues, but that a much greater effect has been felt by lower-paid pass holders in this palace—I was more concerned for them. The fact of the matter is that large organisations, be they charitable, private sector or nationalised, have access to this place already, and we take a great deal of revenue from them. All they need is the fig leaf of sponsorship from a Member of Parliament. The proposals simply say that access could be achieved without the presence of a sponsoring MP. There is no actual difference with regard to the ability to access the palace.
I am worried about the IPSA effect—the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority—on our budgeting arrangements. I believe that the change to Tuesday’s sitting hours has been effected by those colleagues who have found themselves without support for accommodation in central London. I must not impute motive to them, but 43 out of the 96 people affected by that IPSA regulation voted for the change in hours. I can understand why, but it has a serious effect on revenues. On Tuesday evenings this place is now deserted, and on Tuesday mornings we now have great difficulty in bringing in visitors from our constituencies, which is something that many Members value. That is also a question of access.
The Administration Committee has looked—indeed, it is still looking—at how our facilities can be better used. As a general approach, I honestly do not see what is wrong with that. First, I would like to think that Members themselves would use the facilities more often—that would be a start. The Committee, together with the catering management, is trying to find innovative ways in which we can hold Members here more often to take advantage of the facilities and, therefore, make a contribution to revenue, but allowing public access is the other way. Other Parliaments do it. Indeed, in the Parliament of Quebec, the public are able to book a table in the restaurants not only when Members are not present, but on days when the Parliament is actually sitting. I am not suggesting for a moment that we go that far, but the idea that this is a revolutionary or demeaning move on the part of the Palace of Westminster is entirely wrong.
Is it wrong to host civil ceremonies? Is it wrong to develop specialist tours, such as a works of art tour? Is it especially wrong to hire out the facilities? That is what we already do, but we could do more of it. My amendment to the business improvement plans simply draws attention to the valuable work done by the management in that direction, and I believe that that should be given the fullest opportunity to work before we consider any outside catering or similar. Let us put that to the test first—that is the gravamen of my amendment.
I absolutely endorse what the right hon. Gentleman has said, although I hope that my testimony to the work that has been done was implied in the fact that I said that the business improvement plans should be given a chance.
Turning to the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow, I am speaking ahead of him, but he has helpfully sent round an e-mail indicating the thrust of what he intends to say. As I have indicated, I do not believe that “commercialisation” is a dirty word. I think that we should adopt a business-like approach, respect taxpayers and recognise that they are concerned about what this place costs, and, at the same time, widen access for many more of those taxpayers. The fact is that we do not yet have a proper visitors centre. We have talked about it in the past and there is a motion in its favour dating back some years, but we have shied away from the cost of it. We ought not to have people standing in a queue outside in all weathers, waiting to get into this building. It is a serious interference with their rights and, in part, probably, the true business of the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross mentioned film crews when responding to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow. There is nothing new about film crews using the Elizabeth Tower—that has happened before. All we are talking about is charging a proper fee. As I have said, rooms can be hired out already—what is wrong with that? The demand for commercial tours is ever greater, so why should we not satisfy it? Of course, if we meet that demand, there is wear and tear and it is reasonable, on the whole, to find the income to deal with that.
If that is wrong or demeaning, would my hon. Friend extend that description to the sale of souvenirs? We could be accused of going down market by doing that. When I first came here a long time ago, the only gifts available were bottles of whisky and packets of cigarettes. Souvenirs have been extended a great deal since then. It gives great pleasure to people to have the opportunity to buy such things. We could certainly sell a lot more of the gifts that we have. We are doing it, revenue is going up, and I do not see why we should not take every single opportunity proposed by the report.
We are talking, as I said at the beginning, about the House’s budget, which has been laid out in detail. If we take out any item, we must consider the alternatives. I say respectfully to my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow that some of the alternatives that he put forward in the debate on the Clock Tower to save £469,000 a year would, if debated individually like the Clock Tower charges on that day, be heartily rejected by a large majority of his colleagues. The idea that we should cut down on parliamentary outreach at a time when we are trying to extend the idea of what this place is throughout the country or that we should cut down further on overseas trips and delegations, which would hit at the very purpose of our Select Committees, let alone other groups in this House, is all wrong.
It is absurd to suggest that there has been no consultation before today’s debate. The Administration Committee consulted, listened and put forward a sensible plan that we would defend to the hilt. We cannot afford to delay. We need to have a budget in place.
It is right that we are looking at a financial plan for the House that makes 17% savings. Given that all our constituents are seeing cuts to the public services that they receive, they would be incredulous if we said that we could not find any way to make savings in the way that this House operates. It is right that we are trying to do so.
It is right that we are having this debate and that Members are being allowed to vote on how much money is spent on the administration of this House and in what way. Having been in this House for 20 years, it seems unbelievable that we have never had this opportunity before. It is right that we have it today and that we should have it in future years.
It is also right that a fundamental principle of the proposals is that any reductions in spending should not reduce the ability of MPs to do their job and to hold the Executive to account. That has been a fundamental principle throughout the discussions of the Finance and Services Committee.
I commend the way in which the Chair of the Finance and Services Committee has conducted this operation. The way in which he has led the discussions, involved members of the Committee, tried to reach consensus, and gone outside the Committee to try to engage Members in a number of forums, both collectively and individually, has been an excellent example. He has alluded to the fact that he has not always received a massive response to those attempts to engage and gain views, but he has certainly done his best to do so. The issues before us are detailed. In general, the way in which we have approached them has been excellent.
We have been assisted by the advice of the management of the House. I put on the record my thanks to them for that. They have come forward with reports, alternatives and detailed analysis. In the past, I have sometimes questioned the way in which the management of the House have operated. Sometimes they have provided alternatives to Members, but sometimes the process has been very opaque. On this occasion, they have been detailed and helpful. They have certainly operated in a very professional manner.
I pay tribute, as did the Chair of the Finance and Services Committee, to the staff of the House as a whole. The service that they give us is excellent. They are thoroughly professional and very committed to supporting our work as Members of Parliament. The way in which they have been involved in the process has been good. I talked to union representatives the other day. They are clearly not happy about every single proposal and they do not necessarily agree with all the reductions, but they are appreciative of the way in which the process has been conducted, both on the part of Members and in the way in which management have sought to engage with them.
I draw attention, in particular, to the business improvement plan, which has involved a great deal of discussion with staff representatives to try to get consensus and agreement. That has largely been achieved. I support the amendment tabled by the Chair of the Administration Committee because, given the extent of the commitment from management and staff representatives to that process, if we said today that we would go ahead with market testing without giving those proposals a chance to be implemented to see whether they work, it would be a breach of trust with everyone who has engaged so willingly in the process to try to reach a successful conclusion.
A fundamental principle is that we must not make savings or reductions in expenditure at the expense of the pay and conditions of the lowest paid workers in this building. That would be completely wrong. I worry that we would be doing that if we went to market testing, on top of the savings that can be made through the business improvement plan. Indeed, I hope that at some point we will commit ourselves to a living wage in this place, so that people who face the very high costs of living in London can be paid a little more for the work that they do for us.
Finally, I come to the amendment tabled by Robert Halfon. Like the Chair of the Finance and Services Committee, I understand why he has raised the idea, but I think that he is wrong. I subscribe absolutely to the three principles that the Chair of the Committee laid out. Of course this building has to be open and available for Members of Parliament to do their job. Nothing should be put in the way of that and we obviously have first call on the use of this building. Of course it is right for this building to be open and available for constituents to visit us and see how we work.
However, when people come in simply as visitors, I see no reason why we cannot charge them, just as they can be charged by Westminster abbey or Buckingham palace. I really do not see the difference. This place is expensive because of the nature of the building. It is a world heritage site. People come here just to admire the building or to look at the art collections and other things. It is reasonable that we should ask them to make a contribution. The Chair of the Administration Committee is right that many organisations already pay to use this building. They rightly and properly get the sponsorship of an MP, who signs a form to enable them to do that. Why should they not be able to use the buildings at weekends when the place is empty and contribute towards the costs of running the place?
There is a fundamental flaw with the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Harlow. It would be wrong to agree to a spending plan today without agreeing to the income proposals on the other side. If we did that and the income proposals were rejected in a further debate, we would have agreed a net spending level that was not sustainable. We would then have to increase the level of net spending, in which case we would not make the 17% reductions, or agree to other specific spending reductions to allow for the income that we would not raise. It is important, if we are to have a serious debate about the financial plan and come to a serious conclusion—as I am sure we will—that we agree to the totality of the plan, including the spending proposals and the income proposals. That is why I will vote against the hon. Gentleman’s amendment if he presses it.
However, I support all the provisos put forward by the Chair of the Finance and Services Committee. We must continue to monitor the situation to ensure that the principles that he rightly laid out are adhered to.
Order. To allow enough time for the last debate in the House this afternoon, the winding-up speeches are due to start at 2.40 pm. I am reducing the time limit to eight minutes because I can see eight Members standing and I want to finish at a reasonable time.
I rise to speak to amendment (a), which would insert in the motion after “sector” the words
“agrees that the saving to the annual budget of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) by 2014-15 should be no greater than the 1.4 per cent saving cited in the Savings Programme as set out in Appendix B (Table 3, item 3) to the report”.
The amendment appears on the Order Paper in my name and in those of many colleagues who have a keen interest in and concern for the future of science in Parliament. This debate marks a watershed moment for science in Parliament. Depending on the way in which the budget changes are introduced, there is a danger that they could spell the end of science in Parliament as we know it. I shall elaborate on that in a moment.
I thank the Chair of the Finance and Services Committee for presenting such a well considered report. The report recognises the financial pressures on this place and skilfully manages to identify sensible cost-saving and efficiency measures. It intends not only to reduce expenditure, but to improve the level of the services that are available to Members. It is self-evidently a carefully thought through and well balanced report, and it benefits from a great deal of consideration. I also pay tribute to the House of Commons Commission, which is ably chaired by Mr Speaker. There is no doubt that he and other Members of the House have the best interests of this place in mind.
I commend fellow members of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology board on their dedication to science, which I am sure they will make clear later today. I also recognise the hard work and commitment of John Pullinger who heads the Library services, his staff, Chris Tyler, who is the new director of POST, and the expert staff who keep parliamentarians informed on scientific matters. Finally, I say a quick thanks to the Campaign for Science and Engineering, the Royal Society, research councils, many distinguished scientific bodies, and distinguished peers for their input and support.
We have come a long way since the days of the debate on genetic modification, and hon. Members are far more informed than they once were on issues that used to create partisan rivalries and arguments on ideological grounds. Nobody would wish to see science in Parliament undermined in any way, and this debate is a chance to ensure that science and reason prevail in future Parliaments.
As Chair of the POST board, I urge the House of Commons Commission to take note of this debate. We are in danger of sleepwalking into drastically reducing science and technology services for Members at a time when scientific issues are rising up the political agenda and becoming increasingly important in public policy debates, and I therefore draw the attention of the House to my amendment. The third recommendation in table 3 on page 20 of the Finance and Services Committee report refers to a total saving of £98,000 by 2014-15. I am aware of talk behind the scenes about potentially removing a senior position within POST to try to fulfil that reduction in costs, or of moving a member of POST to the Library. In previous, carefully conducted consultations on the matter, the option of removing staff from POST or of reducing POST services came at the bottom of a list of dozens of options. I hope there will be further meetings following this debate, and that we will get to the nub of the issue, but to depart from that careful thinking, consideration and sensible process of prioritisation would be dangerous. I hope that will not be the case.
The Department for Information Services has a budget of about £20 million, £6 million of which is for the Library and research budget. POST has a budget of just £570,000, so to remove £98,000 from its budget seems deeply disproportionate. I am sure that is not the intention, however, and I hope we can resolve the issue. It would be the biggest cut to the smallest body in the Department for Information Services. All hon. Members recognise the economic realities that we face, and I, the POST board, and those who work at POST recognise that we need to make a contribution, which we are happy to make.
POST is vital for many reasons. I do not have time to run through them all, but they include its independence, balance and authority, which are critical to improving the use of science and technology in Parliament. POST never offers policy recommendations; it is non-partisan and its analysis is entirely impartial, while recognising that science and technology has a key role to play in public policy making. It plays a vital horizon-scanning role for Parliament, and identifies topics that will be upcoming in the near future and about which Members of Parliament and peers will need to make decisions. POST is rigorous and professional—that is important—and all its publications are peer-group reviewed. All its events are open to outsiders as well as Parliamentarians, and furthermore, it creates a great network and makes connections with other members of the science community in Britain.
Rather than mere assertions, I will provide some facts. More than 1 million POST notes were downloaded from its website over the past year; 80% of Members use POST notes twice a year or more, let alone parliamentary researchers and peers. One thousand people attend POST events each year, and for every POST note written, 15 external contacts are formed, amounting to several hundred new contacts each year. Above all, through its fellowship scheme, POST leverages in a huge amount of external resource that can be used in the Library and to support Committees. At last count, that incoming resource amounted to approximately £300,000, which could be said to substitute the £570,000 taken up by POST’s budget. POST is the golden goose; it is the gateway and platform for leveraging in external scientific support.
John Thurso has gone some way towards this, but it would be helpful if he could clarify, unambiguously and sooner rather than later, a precise figure or percentage for the future budget, so that the POST director and board can make decisions about work programmes and how to leverage in external support.
I have a couple of observations and then I will draw my remarks to a close. The most important point concerns the removal of a senior post from POST.
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention; she is absolutely right. The Science and Technology Committee is among many Committees of the House, and the other place, that are supported by the external resource that POST brings in.
Savings could be made to the Library and research budgets in other ways, and I will provide a couple of examples for consideration. The A2 post in the Library is equivalent to a civil service grade 7 post—staff who would normally have people reporting to them. I do not suggest the removal of those posts or that anyone who is currently in that job should see their salary reduced or the grading changed, but by introducing, through natural wastage and replacement, a B1 rather than A2 position, over five or six years one could save up to £0.5 million a year without diminishing the service to Members.
POST is an independent body and provides a very different service to that of other Library research services. POST advisers spend 10% or 20% of their time—between £50,000 and £100,000-worth of resources—working for Select Committees and other bodies within Parliament. Finally, a reduction to POST’s budget contradicts the Government’s position on science and that of the Labour party. We need more science in Parliament, not less, and I look forward to future discussions.
It is a pleasure to follow Adam Afriyie. I will be mentioning his constituency in my remarks, which were written before I realised that he would be speaking before me, although I am happy to take any credit for the choreography.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate on mid-term financial planning. Most hon. Members share the view that it is an honour to work in these magnificent buildings and surroundings. I am fortunate because my constituency is only three miles away, and I think that I have personally guided between 5,000 and 10,000 of my constituents round these buildings over the past 15 years. My majority is 7,000 and I do not think those numbers are unconnected. It is a privilege to show people round, and when I tell them that I spent 23 years in the London fire brigade, and say that this is the best fire station I have ever worked in, they all recognise that that must be a matter of fact. I want to keep it that way; I want to keep these buildings here, so I disagree with some of the comments made by my hon. Friend Mr Winnick.
I wish to speak about fire safety. All hon. Members know the history of fire in this place, and the great fires of 1512 and 1834 were central to these buildings. I speak as a member of the parliamentary fire safety committee, which is chaired by Mr John Borley. I thank him and Ms Charlotte Simmonds, who is also on that committee, for helping me to prepare these remarks.
I wish briefly to raise three issues and ask the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House, and John Thurso and his colleagues, to respond, or at least to be aware in future discussions of the matters I am about to raise. The Leader of the House will be aware I have tabled three parliamentary questions this week on fire safety. The three issues I want to raise must be dealt with in the financial envelope of the House. They are: first, the evacuation arrangements from Parliament and the Chamber; secondly, the level and lack of take-up of fire safety training by MPs, MPs’ staff and House staff; and thirdly, the overall future fire protection spend.
On evacuation, a number of hon. Members in the Chamber now would have been here during the only evacuation that has taken place in anger, when two chaps hit Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister, from the Gallery with three packets of powder. The Speaker suspended the sitting, and hon. Members walked out of the Chamber into the Lobbies. How wrong that was, although we did not know at the time. I should have remembered that it was wrong from my fire brigade training. I was busily writing Her Majesty’s message for the day as Vice-Chamberlain of Her Majesty’s Household. It is a matter of regret that I did not scream out to the Speaker and tell hon. Members to stop. Had the powder been toxin, hon. Members would have trailed it through central London. Nowadays, the Doorkeepers are trained to lock us in. Many hon. Members might not realise that, but if it happens again, we are not going anywhere.
That is the situation in a bio-terrorist attack, but if there is a fire, we need to evacuate. How many Members of Parliament since 2010 have even thought about evacuation from the Chamber? I propose that we have an evacuation of the Chamber and the Galleries to test our procedures, perhaps on a Thursday afternoon, which is when we debate Back-Bench business. We could extend the debate for 30 minutes to accommodate the evacuation. There would be some cost, but it would not be great.
Such an evacuation needs to be considered. It is not health and safety overkill. Subsequent to the fire at Windsor castle—I said I would mention the constituency of the hon. Member for Windsor—Her Majesty personally participates in evacuations when she is there. If it is good enough for the Head of State, it should be good enough for parliamentarians. We ought to understand the procedures to keep ourselves, members of staff and visitors safe.
On training, the parliamentary intranet home page features an A to Z index, which lists fire safety awareness training for MPs, MPs’ staff and House staff. The training provides simple awareness of whichever building people occupy—exits, muster points, safety procedures and so on. It is simple, useful and effective. It is money saving, but it could also be life saving, and it takes fewer than 10 minutes. The number of MPs who have undertaken the training is three; the number of MPs’ members of staff is 52; and the number of House staff is 714. That is 0.5%, 2.8% and 35% respectively, which is not good enough. To escalate those numbers considerably, I ask all hon. Members in the Chamber to find 10 minutes next week to take the training—it takes no longer than that—but more importantly, they should ask their staff to do it, because they would be looking after their safety.
Evacuation marshals are needed in most parts of the parliamentary estate. There have been several evacuation drills recently—colleagues would have participated in them—and we should thank all the volunteers who undertake those duties on top of their normal work, because they, along with others, look after us. All fire safety legislation has come about because of a tragedy or disaster. Therefore, I appeal to all hon. Members to think about fire safety.
Finally, on future fire safety improvement works, the proposed medium-term financial plan includes £20 million for fire safety improvement works on the parliamentary estate from 2013 to 2017. Key aspects of the works include the fact that work is required in advance and as part of renewal works. In addition, fire safety works in advance of any renewal works will aim to minimise disruption to Members, but they should be aware that some disruption could be necessary. Fire safety works in advance of any renewal work will seek to achieve value for money and avoid nugatory spend. Clearly, the programme has been agreed, and I hope it will be delivered, but if the plan proposed by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross is not approved, future fire safety improvement works will be in jeopardy and the future of the Palace will be brought into question.
I should say a quick word on the performance of the fire safety section and those who work so assiduously to protect us. Despite ageing infrastructure and systems, improvements to the management of fire safety have resulted in a 94% reduction in fire incidents and a 54% reduction in false alarms on the estate since 2005-06. Parliament experiences in the region of 200 to 300 false alarms per year on the estate. Although they are managed, only about 15% result in evacuation. Colleagues will be aware of the Fire Brigades Union lobby of Parliament yesterday concerning cuts in the fire service throughout the country, some of which—I suspect—are inevitable. One London fire station suggested for closure is Westminster, which will obviously cause concern to those who take an interest in fire safety in Parliament.
In conclusion, we should commend those key members of staff who work so hard to keep us safe. I ask the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and his colleagues to keep sight of the fire budget in their financial planning to ensure that these buildings are protected for hon. Members and generations to come. I fully support the report’s recommendations and hope the House does likewise later.
I congratulate my hon. Friend John Thurso on his work and on how he has brought his business experience to bear for the benefit of the House. I am glad we are having this debate. It has been a long journey from the 1970s, when I was involved in the House of Commons Commission when it was first established. Nobody then had an idea how the House’s money was being spent, but now we are at the point where the House makes its own decisions, assisted by my hon. Friend and the Finance and Services Committee.
As Chair of the Liaison Committee, I need to ensure that the necessary cuts to the House budget—they are necessary to ensure we co-operate with the rest of the system in austerity—do not reduce the effectiveness of Select Committees and hamper us in our efforts to hold the Government to account and engage the public in our work. Subject to the Committee, I make decisions about travel and other expenditure. We try to steward our resources as carefully as we can, but the Committee has looked more broadly at resources, including in a report published today on Select Committee effectiveness, resources and powers.
The report reviews how Committees go about their work and the importance of it. We took a great deal of encouraging evidence. Academic research has indicated that Committees are successful in influencing Government and public debate, and that we play an important part in promoting public engagement with the parliamentary and political process. Of all the work that MPs do, the work of Select Committees is among the most accessible to the public, because we deal with subjects that relate directly to people’s lives, and our inquiries draw constantly on the evidence, and often the oral evidence, of people who experience the laws we pass. My Committee—the Justice Committee—regularly has in front of it victims of crime, ex-offenders and all kinds of people who bring their life experience to bear on the processes of the House. As much as possible, Committees take their inquiries out of Westminster, giving people who feel remote from the House of Commons the opportunity to see that our work is relevant and important to them.
Chapter 6 of the Liaison Committee report states:
“While committees greatly value the service they receive” from the House service and external advisers,
“there has been concern among some chairs about turnover of staff in the Committee Office, the balance between generalists and specialists among committee staff, and the flexibility of the House Service to respond to the changing requirements of committee members. We have also been concerned to ensure that the current programme of cuts to the overall budget of the House of Commons should not damage our capacity to carry out effective scrutiny.”
Another concern of Committee Chairs is the increasing burdens on their staff and constituency staff that arise from the increased expectations of them—they are now directly elected. Some of those costs should fall on the House budget rather than the budget provided to assist Members in their constituency work. The Liaison Committee report notes that the Committee Office is embarking on a change programme following a review under the savings programme. Its objectives include making oral and written evidence to Committees accessible to the public, so that they can read it quickly and easily online. With that goes an end to the routine printing of written evidence. Some Committees have found that difficult to accept initially, but because of how people access information now, it is a logical and cost-saving way to go.
Another objective is to provide Committee members with easier access to Committee documents so that they can be read any time, anywhere, and that is part of using IT more effectively. Committees, as Andrew Miller indicated earlier, are experimenting with paperless operation—indeed, he has his iPad in front of him now—but not all parts of the parliamentary estate are equipped for this purpose. This presents a real problem, and we may have to spend in order to save, by ensuring that wi-fi is available, for example, and Committees can make the transfer from paper to online.
The programme seeks to make better use of staff resources, for example by reducing the effort now devoted to preparation for printing. These sorts of actions can reduce costs and use resources more effectively. The Liaison Committee welcomes the programme as an opportunity to improve and modernise the service that the Committee Office gives Committees and the public, but we emphasise that it is important that it should be shaped not just by the need to produce savings, but by the longer term goal of increasing Committee effectiveness.
Our report recommends more stability in Committee staffing; the ability to recruit some Committee Clerks directly from outside; greater flexibility in bringing in outside experts; and a modest increase in the number of media officers to enable us to have the work of Committees better explained and properly understood in the media.
In the longer term, we would like to see funding for additional staff in Chairs’ offices, for the reason I gave earlier, and we look forward to a positive response from the House of Commons Commission to our recommendations on resources in due course.
We conclude, in chapter 6 of the report:
“Now may not be the best time to argue for increased resources, but it should be the long-term goal of the House to build up the capacity of select committees, to improve their effectiveness and status, to increase their powers and influence, and to improve their efficiency by providing chairs and staffs with accommodation and infrastructure to enable them to hold Government to account.”
When the House decided that the Chairs of Select Committees should be elected in secret ballot by the House as a whole, and that all members of Select Committees should be elected by the Members in their party, again in secret ballots, the House made an important decision about the role that Committees play. That decision has had a real effect on Committees’ self-confidence; on the way the Government treat Committees; how Committees are seen outside; and Committees’ ability to function independently and provide a scrutiny process that is different from the partisan argument about broad political policy issues that dominates the reporting of Prime Minister’s questions and such events. It is increasingly recognised what an important part of the parliamentary process the Select Committee system is, and the way in which we shape and use our resources needs to reflect that importance.
I am happy to support the amendment tabled by Adam Afriyie, but I also congratulate John Thurso on a thoughtful report and the work of his Committee. He could shave a few pence off the House of Commons print budget by shortening the name of his constituency, but that is not the only inconsistency that I want to bring to his attention. He spoke with some expertise on the issue of generating income. He has now heard the contribution from the hon. Member for Windsor on the role of POST, and I hope to point out the inconsistency of the position that has been adopted in the report in respect of that budget head.
I am the chairman of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, which is the oldest all-party group. It was formed in 1939 and its first report was on the role of brown bread in the war effort. I therefore declare an interest. Some of my predecessors had a cross-party discussion with Baroness Thatcher when she was Prime Minister, and from that the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology was formed. It was originally an external body funded through a charitable organisation, with the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee appointing the trustees. Lord Morris, who was one of the trustees, sadly died recently, and his contribution to that body was exemplary, along with that of others on a cross-party basis.
That charitable body, which has received significant funds over the years from the Wellcome Trust, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation and others, put all the original money into the pot that created POST and still supports some of its activities. Incidentally, I have a responsibility in that regard, because the PSC will appoint the successor to Alf Morris. The project that we conducted through POST in Africa was entirely funded through that process. The point has been made that this House has influence well beyond the shores of the United Kingdom, and when I was in Uganda with the Select Committee, I was delighted to meet a fellow who had been on one of the POST fellowships through that scheme.
The scheme has leverage, but to lose senior posts will do a disservice to that, and that is the point that I want the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross to consider. There are 32 letters in that constituency name—it is even longer than Ellesmere Port and Neston. Every senior post in POST levers in a number of research fellows, and that is a contribution to the House in kind from the wider research community that should not be underestimated.
We have some wonderful people on the Library staff, starting with our chief librarian, John Pullinger. He has just had the honour of becoming president-elect of the Royal Statistical Society, following in the footsteps of the late Harold Wilson. The team John leads have an extremely difficult job, and having the extra leverage from the work done by POST makes a significant difference.
The PSC recently asked Lord Oxburgh to conduct a review of what is happening with science in Parliament. It has just been published and we are working on it. Lord Oxburgh identified the importance of the role of POST in helping to inform Parliament about scientific matters, and I am happy to make that report available to the hon. Gentleman and his Committee.
The hon. Member for Windsor referred to the external views that have been expressed. A letter was sent yesterday to Mr Speaker in his role as Chairman of the House of Commons Commission which is signed by some extraordinarily eminent people, including the director of the Science Museum Group; the managing director of Sense about Science; Lord Krebs, who is my opposite number in the Lords; and Harry Kroto, a Nobel laureate. They all signed a letter pleading with Parliament to think again about how it carries out this work. I urge the Speaker to place a copy of that letter in the Library because it informs this debate in an important way.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very rational argument for POST and I am listening to it carefully. Is there not perhaps a more symbolic argument to be made at this juncture of our country’s development and given the need for science and technology? We could learn from the fact that the Government exempted science and technology from their cuts. It would be hugely symbolic if we were to cut POST more than other areas—and it would just be wrong.
I could happily have a debate with the hon. Gentleman about whether flat cash is a cut or not, but in the spirit of working together on a collegiate basis on this matter, I am happy to agree with the point he makes.
All parties in this House regard the science base of the nation as critical to our success in the future. It therefore behoves us to have a better understanding of science. If we do not find better ways of engaging with the science, engineering and maths community, we will be doing ourselves a massive disservice. There are some fantastic schemes. The Royal Society pairing scheme got a good airing on the radio last week. A number of projects are run by a wide range of all-party groups to help to inform parliamentarians. For example, the next meeting of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, on
There are hugely important challenges that none of us, whatever our backgrounds, are properly equipped to deal with. Even if one was, in a previous life, working in a STEM background, inevitably one falls behind the times when one spends any time in here. I urge the House to take the matter seriously. I invite colleagues to support the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Windsor, and adopt what is a very important report.
The two Chairs have covered the main points and, with the limit on time, I thought I might touch on some aspects of amendment (b)—not to oppose it, but to provide a tiny warning.
The package coming forward is a general public sector savings package that is in line with the target. The difference this time is that the report, and the thinking behind it, are being discussed in the Chamber. It has also been put together under a new attitude, which is to seek to provide better and more efficient services at less cost to meet the target. As has been mentioned, the officials putting the package together have worked very closely with staff and unions. In fact, many of the ideas for change have been derived from staff undertaking the service. That has enabled staff redeployment within the House of Commons service, rather than redundancies. Although hon. Members may not be aware of it, many services are already contracted out. Many services will come up for renewal, and, in the present atmosphere, they may well bring savings to themselves. In the event of franchising out, staff could of course move to the new provider with TUPE protection, or move within Chamber services themselves by redeployment.
The possibility of market testing has been extensively researched. The team undertaking it have had a free hand to assemble a business development plan. Outside private sector support and advice has been utilised. Market research to provide benchmark information has been undertaken, and that has given the Commission a forward-looking financial information system that it will be able to use to gauge whether it is worth market testing. Obviously, there has to be an in-house bid and the research will give such a bid a competitive edge.
While I understand the thinking behind amendment (b), I suggest caution. First, it seeks to tie the Commission and reduce its flexibility to choose the time of testing, if indeed that appears to be the choice to go for. Secondly, it may well delay savings. Some of the services projections indicate that the private sector could contribute to much lower costs in the latter half of a contract. That means that if tendering was chosen in some cases, the sooner this is undertaken the sooner we will get savings. Thirdly, from my own experience, outside advice on costs or savings always overestimates costs and if the service is tendered and, crucially, if the private sector bid, they have a benchmark that they know they can come in under. Finally, any outside bidder will know from the business improvement plans the bid level they must beat to win if we follow the amendment. I therefore hope there is some caution before we adopt amendment (b). Much credit must be given to the Administration Committee for looking at business improvement plans, efficiency savings and better use of our facilities. The House has already had a debate on this a few weeks ago.
I am concerned about amendment (c), tabled by my hon. Friend Robert Halfon. He appears to have missed the opportunity, but is now asking us for a second time to present before the House. Most of the areas in which he calls for commercialisation already happen in some way or other, although to a lesser degree, and therefore with less financial advantage to the House, but with no reduction of facilities to hon. Members. I hope he feels able to not press his amendment. The Administration Committee is suggesting careful extensions of our underused facilities to the UK public. Obviously, that would need to be done in a careful way, as indeed it is currently, so as not—if I may use the well-worn phrase—to bring the House into disrepute. I hope he realises that what he is proposing will result in further delay. It will be unsettling to staff. It will reduce the savings, because they would not be brought in earlier in the financial year, and that would mean further savings from other areas to meet the target.
The report comes as a package. That means that if there is any cherry-picking of specific items that reduce savings, they will need to be compensated by savings in other areas. I hope that when my hon. Friend stands up to speak, he thinks about that carefully before he puts his proposal. I hope that the House will approve the motion without amendment, so as to give the Commission a chance to consider points raised while retaining the flexibility to act appropriately on various aspects of the programme to the benefit of the House budgets and of Members’ services and staff.
The hon. Gentleman has just beaten me to POST. The Commission will look at what was said. The Chair of the Finance and Services Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, has already made it clear that he will look closely at that with the Committee, so I will not comment on the details of that particular amendment. I am concerned about amendment (b); amendment (c) is destructive.
I rise to speak in support of amendment (b). We have a responsibility to the colleagues we work alongside who provide such an excellent service: the office keepers, the attendants, the security staff, and the catering, retail and cleaning staff. Many are members of the Public and Commercial Services Union, and I chair the PCS parliamentary group.
We need to acknowledge that there is a problem inherent in the proposals. The cuts are now going beyond efficiency savings and will have an impact and reduce services. That will increase pressure on staff, which, if we continue on this course, will eventually lead to a reduction in morale. The message I am stating is: so far, but no further. There is an excellent industrial relations climate in this building. The staff have worked with management and have avoided compulsory redundancies—any redundancies have been on a voluntary basis. If the proposals go any further, I fear that that industrial relations climate will be damaged severely.
There are a number of questions I would like to pose with regard to staffing that are not contained in the report, but we need to look at them in the future. Some have been raised by my hon. Friends. My hon. Friend Mr Betts raised the issue of the wages we pay in this building. It would be useful to know how many of our staff, both directly and indirectly employed through contractors, are paid the London living wage. I do not believe that it is morally acceptable for us to pay staff poverty wages, which is what they are if they are below the London living wage. It would be useful if we could have that information. Then the Commission and the various Committees serving it could look at a timetable for achieving the London living wage for all staff we employ, either directly or through contractors, in this building, and that could be reported back to the House.
I am concerned to ensure that our staff have decent working conditions with decent terms of employment. My hon. Friend Mr Winnick raised the issue of sickness and pensions. It would be invaluable if we could have a detailed report back on what sickness pay and access to pensions there is for all staff, whether employed directly or through contractors. I fear that there are some who have no access to full pension entitlements and that there is discrimination particularly between those who are directly employed and those who are employed by a contractor.
I want our staff work in safe and hygienic conditions, whether in work and rest areas. The issue of asbestos has been raised already, but other health and safety issues need to be addressed as well, and Members need to be informed of that. It is important that we commit to ensuring that our staff work suitable and flexible hours so that they can cope with caring and parental responsibilities. The cutbacks and privatisations so far have undermined some of that commitment in the past, so I hope that these cutbacks go no further. The introduction of zero-hours contracts as a result of past privatisations, and now their extension, particularly within the catering sector, is unacceptable. That employers can award contracts with no commitment to minimum hours undermines the security of income for staff employed on that basis. Such contracts should play no role in the employment of staff in the building.
There also have to be sufficient staff numbers in the building to provide the services we need. The business improvement plans might have been worked up by staff and agreed by the unions, but, to be frank, they have been worked up on that basis to avoid market testing. I am concerned that the current reductions are placing an unacceptable burden on existing staff—the attendants, the reception staff team, which will be cut by one third, and some of the security staff and office keepers. Furthermore, there is an equalities issue, because the posts being considered for market testing and some of the cuts are being incurred in areas where there is the highest number of staff from ethnic minority communities. That only increases the problem of a lack of representation from ethnic minority community members within the building.
I will support amendment (b), because it would resist market testing, but I ask Members not to underestimate the sacrifices being made by existing members of staff. Their hours are increasing and their work is more intense. There are fewer members of staff, and they have more duties to cope with. There will come a breaking point, if we pursue this salami-slicing—these cutbacks and privatisations—and it will undermine the morale of our loyal staff who we have all complimented today. At some point, we have to accept that there is a cost to democracy, and instead of arguing out of self-interest, we have to argue for our staff in order to ensure that they are paid well and work in decent conditions. Members of staff serve us well and take pride in their work, and we should take pride in them. We have a responsibility to protect them.
I am pleased to speak in this debate, and I offer my heartfelt congratulations to John Thurso. He has a thankless task, but he always deals with me with respect and understanding. I greatly admire the work he does; I simply disagree about the emphasis.
I welcome much that is in the report, and it is rare that I disagree with my constituency neighbour, my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Haselhurst. We have worked together on other matters, but I disagree fundamentally with some of his arguments. As far as I am concerned, there are three issues: first, as I have said, our respect for Parliament; secondly, the precedent that the Commission’s decisions might set; and, thirdly, the need for savings. I am not against savings. I believe that we should have savings; I just dispute where those savings should be made.
The issue of respect is incredibly important, because Parliament is not a stately home or a tourist attraction like many of our other tourist attractions. It is not a hotel or a conference venue. It is a very special place and the foundation of our laws and democracy, and so it needs to be treated differently. Yes, we could make a lot of money by allowing companies to hire out rooms, letting people hold weddings here and allowing film people to use Elizabeth Tower, but, once we set that principle, where do we stop? The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross is incredibly enlightened, and I believe him when he says that these changes will be limited, but who is to say that someone less enlightened will not in years to come extend the principle still further?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden said, “Well, we already have business sponsored by Members”, but most of that is politically related. We reached a compromise: we allow business to enter Parliament when sponsored by Members and when Members are there, and it is usually related to their activities as Members of Parliament. That is different, however, from allowing businesses to hire out rooms or from giving people special access, because they are rich, to see paintings that my constituents, who are not rich, who are on £20,000 a year, cannot see. This is our Parliament, our democracy, and we pay for it through our taxes. It is not like going round a stately home. That is why I feel so passionately about it.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden criticised what I said during the campaign to stop charges for Big Ben. I said much of what I said then for the same reasons I say what I say now. He talked about overseas trips. The whole House will recognise the incredible work that he has done in the Commonwealth and elsewhere, but if we asked taxpayers whether we should shave a few percentage points off overseas trips—I will come on to savings in a moment—or give people privileged access to the Houses of Parliament, I know what they would say.
Once we set the precedent, where do we stop? Do we have rollercoasters outside? [Laughter.] Members may laugh at the suggestion, but once we agree the principle that we become nothing more than a theme park, we create a dangerous precedent.
It does not help the quality of debate to start using terms such as “theme park”. My hon. Friend has a vivid imagination, if he believes that any of us are interested in going in that direction. What is being proposed is an enlargement of what we do already. The logic of what he is saying, particularly about businesses coming in, is that hon. Members should be prevented now from allowing these functions to take place, and that is irrational.
This is where the disagreement lies. I think that we have reached a happy compromise and that we should go this far and no further. The Commission is suggesting that businesses will have special privileges to hire out rooms. My right hon. Friend said that if people are rich they should be able to see some special paintings in the House of Commons. That is wrong. This is our Parliament. We should not make a distinction between people with money and people without when deciding who sees which parts of Parliament.
I turn to savings. I have already talked about overseas trips: if a small percentage—20%, for example—was cut, we could save £250,000 a year. Another £50,000 a year is wasted on food waste. Have we ever considered closing one of the dining rooms, for example, because often the dining rooms are not used?
My hon. Friend has touched on a key point. He says that the dining rooms are not being used. If he comes in here during recess, he will see people who have bought relatively cheap tickets—compared with other buildings they could visit—and are coming through and enjoying themselves. They are not rich people. If he walks a little further, he will also see empty rooms that could be used—but are not—to the benefit not only of the public but of the House’s finances.
The effect of what my hon. Friend says is that rich corporations and rich people would have privileged access.
As I understand it, the report suggests cutting corporate initiatives by 10%. Why not cut further, saving £300,000 a year? Trimming the overseas trips and delegations paid for by the taxpayer, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden is so keen to preserve, would save £250,000 a year and leave 70% of the original budget intact. Trimming parliamentary outreach by just 20% would save £388,000. I welcome the Commission’s massive efforts to reduce the amount spent on printed publications, but why on earth do we continue to spend money printing a daily Order Paper and a daily Hansard, which could easily be done online? A lot more could be done in that area.
As I said, I disagree not with making savings but with how they are made. I suggest that the Commission has gone for the easier option of giving companies special access to Parliament, allowing filming and so on, because it means they can avoid making tough decisions that would hurt Members not the taxpayer. That is why I have objections and why I tabled my amendment (c).
The issue of consultation has been raised. I respect hugely what the Commission has done to keep Members informed, but we should not just have a three-hour debate in one afternoon on a report that has, in essence, become a de facto decision. Rather, Members should be able to consider options for different savings, such as those that I have suggested, and then vote on them.
In conclusion, I have tabled my amendment so that the Commission can come back with more detail and so that the House can be given a vote exclusively on commercialisation. I do not say it should be banned completely—I tried to make my amendment as moderate as possible—but the issue should be considered more carefully, because I believe we are opening a Pandora’s box. I want my constituents to have exactly the same rights to come to Parliament as every other constituent, and not just because they happen to have a big wad of money in their pockets. That is why I make the argument I am making. [ Laughter. ] Ms Eagle laughs. I am absolutely amazed that Labour Members, who believe in equality, want to go down the path of giving big corporations special access to the House of Commons.
The hon. Gentleman is using the exaggerated example of big corporates visiting, which is a worst-case scenario that the Commission has been careful to rule out. He really must not caricature something that is far less of a problem than he is making out.
I thank the hon. Lady but I disagree, because the thrust of the report will have the effect of allowing companies and people with money to go and see special paintings, or whatever it may be, and will deny people who do not have money from having full access to the House of Commons.
I urge the House to think again so that we can consider the issue carefully, main item by main item, because I believe that, if passed, this budget will fundamentally change the nature of the House of Commons and how people access this Parliament.
It gives me great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Robert Halfon in this afternoon’s debate.
I think I speak for everyone inside and outside this Chamber when I say that the principle that constituents can visit Members of Parliament freely and have access to their Parliament—this is the people’s Parliament—whenever it is sitting is absolutely sacrosanct. Although I have not entertained as many constituents as Jim Fitzpatrick—my constituents have to travel some 360 miles to visit me in Parliament—they come on a weekly basis. Indeed, at 5.30 this afternoon I will be meeting another group of constituents. Being able to welcome my constituents is a fundamental part of my job as a Member of Parliament, as it is of all other Members of this House. My constituents can turn up unannounced and demand to see me—and they do; one visited me yesterday from the Fire Brigades Union—or, like the constituents I am seeing later this afternoon, they can make planned visits. They will have free access to me and to this Parliament. Indeed, I am sure that each of us spends considerable amounts of time taking people on tours around this splendid, wonderful building—we all share an immense sense of privilege to be able to work here—and we show them whatever paintings they want to see, which are freely available. [ Interruption. ] I am so pleased to see that Members are nodding.
I am sorry, but I am very disappointed with my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow, who I feel misrepresented the case entirely. What is being suggested—after a huge amount of tireless, thoughtful, painstaking work over two years by my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Haselhurst and many other Members from across the House with years of experience and great regard for this place—is a way of responding to the sensible approach of both making efficiency savings and reducing costs, in line with every other part of the public sector, and looking at increased revenue opportunities. Those opportunities are very sensible. When this Parliament is not sitting and is in recess, the building is largely unoccupied.
Frankly, I do not think people will have any objections, especially if we cast our minds back to the splendid opening ceremony of the Olympic games. A highlight of that was seeing our great Queen being prepared to be part of a James Bond film. I think we all enjoyed that moment enormously, so I have no objection if a film maker—one of these rich, nasty corporates, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow branded them—wants to spend several hundreds of thousands of pounds filming a James Bond film using Big Ben, a great national icon of which we are all proud. I think nobody would object to that, and we could use the money to reduce the considerable upkeep and running costs of this building without going to the taxpayers. I represent a very poor part of this country, where average incomes are well below the national average. I do not want to have to go to them and say, “Please will you give me more of your hard-won cash in taxes?” to pay for this place when we have perfectly sensible and reasonable means at our disposal to generate some extra income.
I also trust the great consideration of my colleagues who work hard on the Select Committees that scrutinise and come up with such proposals. They will not degrade
Parliament; they will consider each opportunity on its own merits. That is the safeguard we have now. The Administration Committee has to consider every request to film in this place or do something extraordinary with it, and it does so very carefully. My hon. Friend the Member for Harlow has every opportunity to come along to the Administration Committee—all the sittings are in public—and make representations if he feels, as he said he did, that creating such opportunities will take Parliament in a direction that he feels uncomfortable with. We have plenty of safeguards in the current structures for arriving at such decisions, so I think he is worrying unnecessarily and, if he does not mind my saying so, rather over-egging the pudding.
Having had the privilege of serving under my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden on the Administration Committee for two years—I am no longer a member—I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow that in our right hon. Friend we have a Chairman of great wisdom who is very balanced and has a huge regard for this place. He would not do anything to turn this place into a Disneyland or a theme park, or any of the other extraordinary allegations that my hon. Friend made.
I would also like to speak in support of amendment (a) tabled by my hon. Friend Adam Afriyie—under whose chairmanship I have also had the great honour and privilege of serving—on the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Like many other colleagues, I arrived in this place as somebody who had studied humanities. I had little experience in science and technology, yet so much of my work as a Member of Parliament relies on a broad, but sometimes quite detailed, understanding of science and technology and how they inform our decisions in this place. I think we all agree that we want to be evidence-based policy makers, which is why the excellent work that POST does in producing POST notes to inform our work is so important. Being on the board and reading those notes enables me to do my job of representing my constituents so much better than if POST did not exist.
I hope, therefore, that some of the assurances that we have heard this afternoon about continued investment in the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology are borne out, because if anything we do not spend enough on POST or supporting the Select Committee on Science and Technology in its work with scientists and those involved in technology outside Parliament to bring all that expertise and knowledge to bear on the important work we do as legislators.
I very much hope that we will not have to divide the House this afternoon on amendment (a), and that in the wind-ups we will hear a clear reassurance, on behalf of the Commission, that POST’s budget will not be cut.
I congratulate John Thurso on occupying the crease in so elegant a fashion, and on presenting this detailed report in such a way that those listening could understand and appreciate it. I should also like to thank whoever is responsible for ensuring that the Chamber is freezing as we are debating cost savings today. I would have brought my fingerless gloves with me had I known it was going to be this cold, but at least no one can accuse us of not practising what we preach.
I welcome this opportunity for the House to debate the House of Commons Administration financial plan. We are broadly supportive of the direction that it sets out. Alongside the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, many other Members are involved in the detailed work of the House Committees, including that of the Finance and Services Committee, the Administration Committee and other behind-the-scenes Committees. Right hon. and hon. Members do a great job, unsung, behind the scenes. When I first came into the House, I had no idea how it ran itself, and it has taken me quite a few years to understand the complex behind-the-scenes nature of how it all works.
No; even though I am now on the Commission, I am not at all clear how things work and how things pop up.
It is important that we have managed to have a debate on the Floor of the House about these estimates, and I hope to see such debates repeated in future. I hope that that will give some reassurance to Robert Halfon that we will have many more opportunities to return to these issues. He will be able to track them as we go through the savings programme.
In the context of any savings programme, however, we must bear in mind the function of this House. The House is here to hold the Government to account, to scrutinise legislation and to challenge Ministers. The work of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee during the inquiry into phone hacking was one of many examples of the Select Committee structure enabling Members to hold public and private bodies to account in a way that does our democracy proud. That is an integral part of the scrutiny function of the House, as Sir Alan Beith said. It is essential that that function is not enfeebled by the savings programme.
Therefore, we on the Opposition Benches fully support the principle, which the Committee endorsed, that any cost savings must not adversely affect the ability of the House and its Members to carry out their parliamentary functions. That is a fundamental criterion for the work as it progresses, and we must always bear it in mind as we keep an eye on the programme’s progress. This building is not here to sell guided tours or afternoon tea. It is a working Parliament and we are elected to represent and serve our constituents, and to fulfil our constitutional duties. The House has to be resourced sufficiently to allow Members to discharge their duties to the electorate and to hold the Government to account.
We recognise the need for the House to examine cost savings. Given the cuts that are being imposed across the public service in the rest of the country, it would be folly to do otherwise. Many of the suggestions put forward by the House Committees and authorities are sensible, and, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said, there has been widespread consultation, not least with the staff of the House and with the trade unions that represent them. I believe that a reasonable approach has been adopted to the challenges in making these savings, which is why the Commission has endorsed them.
I recognise that some of the changes to Hansard and the provision of bound volumes concerned some Members, but the print to web programme offers significant savings without impacting on Members’ duties or on their ability to do their job. Better use of IT services offers savings and will enable Members to work more effectively and productively, especially when they are not in their Westminster base. That will, however, depend on a good, secure and reliable delivery of digital services, be it by web or by cloud—the British cloud, as it was described earlier. I receive either intermittent or no wi-fi signal in my office, so I know from personal experience that there is still some way to go before that vision is achieved, and I look forward very much to the proper introduction of the print to web programme. There is some way to go yet.
The House is right to examine options to charge for services—indeed, we have charged for some services for many years—but we should proceed cautiously. I echo the emotional worry expressed by the hon. Member for Harlow in that regard. The Commission has therefore approached this matter very carefully. We have had detailed discussions about how it should be approached. We should not commercialise this place, but that does not mean that we should not open it up and make a reasonable charge to cover the cost of the access that is being given, so long as we do not put in jeopardy the principle that all our constituents should be able to interact with us in Parliament without charge. That view has been expressed strongly on both sides of the House today. I believe that we have got the balance about right. I certainly hope that the hon. Gentleman and other Members will keep a close eye on how things go, and that they will give the Commission their views as the programme proceeds.
The House should not look for savings by cutting wages of low-paid staff or by outsourcing their employment. Too often, when budgets are constrained, the brunt of cost saving is borne by low-paid staff who see their terms and conditions worsened, their employment contacted out, or their wages frozen or cut. I therefore have considerable sympathy with the points made by my hon. Friend John McDonnell and others on both sides of the House who pointed out the debt that we owe to our staff in the Palace of Westminster, and the high standard that we have come to expect of the work that they do. Nor should we forget that the duty of those in this House is to hold the Government to account and to represent our constituents. That is why it is important to ensure that savings do not impact on the ability of Members to fulfil our duties.
One of the big changes introduced during the previous Parliament was to open up this place and expand our educational visits programme in order to improve the experience for visitors. That increased the cost of running the building, but when I was first elected to Parliament 20 years ago, the opportunities for schools to visit and learn about how Parliament worked were much more restricted. At a time when we need to work even harder to engage young people in the political process, spending money to enable school groups to visit Parliament is totally justified. It is a necessary investment in our core democratic purpose. The House must ensure that Members can discharge their duties, but it must also ensure that the public can fully and properly engage with their Parliament.
Given that the House of Commons is making significant savings, it is worrying that the cost savings are not being shared equally between the two Houses. The Committee’s report highlights a number of issues that need to be resolved by discussion with the other place. This democratically elected Chamber is bearing the brunt of the cost savings. It is neither a desirable nor a sustainable position when the unelected House is not putting its shoulder so firmly to the wheel.
It is time that we examined the costs associated with running two different but parallel administrative services for the Commons and the Lords. It is an absurdity that this duplication has persisted for so long, and we should be aiming to end it. I am certain that, with ingenuity and good will, that could be done without impacting on the privileges of either Chamber. It would surely deliver considerable efficiencies. This is urgent work, and we should be proceeding with it as soon as possible. The existence of two separate administration services for both Houses is just one area where modernisation is both overdue and could offer huge efficiency savings.
In the 20 years in which I have been a Member, much has changed and much has improved. I would like to pay tribute to Mr Speaker’s work in driving the modernisation of how we work, but we need to recognise that much can be done to improve the scrutiny of legislation, to strengthen the work of the Select Committee system and to ensure that the Government are held properly to account.
We broadly support the recommendations of the Finance and Services Committee. We welcome the chance to debate and scrutinise the report in the Chamber. The House of Commons is right to be making savings at a time when cuts are being made across the public services, but it is important that Members’ capacity to fulfil their duty is not impeded. We are elected to do a job, and it is important that the House is resourced to enable Members to do so.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I do so on behalf of the Government to make clear our support for the work the House is doing to ensure it meets the necessary savings in the broader context. Mr Betts and the shadow Leader of the House made that clear, too, recognising the need for financial savings right across the public services. As Leader of the House and on behalf of the Government, I also want to reflect on how the House can best achieve those savings.
I would like to say a few words of thanks to the Backbench Business Committee, not least for scheduling this debate, and I congratulate John Thurso on securing it and on the manner in which he introduced it and, as others have said, guided so well the discussion and work to this point. The way in which the Backbench Business Committee has opened up debates in this
House has been positive, enabling us, as in this debate, to have a similar impact on House administration. It is not only for us, but for members of the House service and the public more generally, to see how this House is managed and administered in order to deliver something that is not only effective but value for money.
We welcome the level of savings entered into by the House of Commons Commission. Clearly, 17% reductions by 2014-15 relative to 2010-11 are broadly in line with savings across the 2010 spending review, which identified that, other than for protected areas of expenditure, departmental budgets would on average decrease by 19% over four years.
It is important to recognise that this is not the beginning of the process; it is the next stage of it. The House of Commons Administration has already made considerable progress in achieving savings, as Members have said, through voluntary exits, discontinuing printing of documents and improving contract management. We can now see examples of how, as the Commission agreed at the outset, savings should be achieved through detailed analysis of services, and delivered to arrive at something better, not just cheaper. From the Finance and Services Committee report we can see the emergence of more such opportunities, not least if we look at the ICT strategy in the table on page 15. There is clear evidence of how that might make a considerable difference, not just on print to web, but as the Committee’s Chairman said, in relation to such things as cloud computing. That can make a big difference not only in how we access our responsibilities more effectively but by enabling us to rethink the way in which the physical estate is managed in order that we may deliver our responsibilities.
Innovation has to come, too, in respect of visitors to this building, their access and facilities. The Administration Committee set out how to achieve that in its first report of this Session. It was a very good basis on which to proceed. It is not the subject of the report before us, but the income generation associated with it is an integral part of the process of achieving the medium-term financial plan.
I listened carefully to my hon. Friend Robert Halfon. Many Members have illustrated that the risks and concerns that he raised would not be valid on the basis of the way in which the Administration Committee is proceeding. I say gently to my hon. Friend that he underestimates the importance to all of us, and to our constituents, of opportunities for access. We can provide access individually as Members, as Jim Fitzpatrick has so famously done, but I meet so many constituents who have visited this place without my knowing they had done so. It matters to them that they can access their Houses of Parliament, because so much of their history is here. That is true not just for the people of this country, but for those of many other countries around the world.
I particularly echo the point rightly made by the shadow Leader of the House that as we develop visitor access and facilities, it allows us to boost the opportunities for educational access. Progress has been made, but we all know we want to do more. If we could one day be confident that we could arrive at a position whereby at one point in their educational experience, every young person in this country had had access to their Houses of Parliament on at least one occasion, it would be a dramatic thing to have achieved. We are, however, an order of magnitude away from where we need to be to make that happen.
Mr Winnick raised major issues about the repair and renewal of the House. Part of what we are doing in the medium-term financial plan and in achieving savings will help us better to understand what the shape of repair and renewal for the future will look like. Today and for the foreseeable future, however, we are not yet in a position to make decisions about any of those options, other than to have made clear—for this House and the other place—that we do not want the building of a new Houses of Parliament somewhere else, separate from this place. Much more work needs to be done on the question of how we can sustain this House in the long term before we can look at the options ahead of us.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. There are options ahead of us, one of which would entail such a “decant”, as it has been called; the other of which would not. We have a great deal of work to do before we know which of them is the best option for this House to meet its responsibilities and for value-for-money purposes.
It has already been demonstrated that House staff are able to deliver excellent service in challenging times, and that their participation in the savings programme has been instrumental. It is axiomatic in any walk of life that if we want to deliver the best possible service, the people who are best equipped to do it are the people working in that service at the front line: they understand it; they can bring forward some of the best ideas for making it happen. The medium-term financial plan is about showing how the business improvement plans— my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Haselhurst further illustrated them—can achieve that. We should engage the staff fully, listen to them, and work with them. This is not about Members, intimate though we are with how the House works, deciding everything. It is about our working with the staff in challenging times, and recognising that we can achieve not just financial savings but a re-engineering—to use that unfortunate term—of the way in which we do our business.
I agree with Andrew Miller that staff in the Committee services and others will need to take a positive and constructive approach to new technologies and new ways of working. I think that many of them are already doing that, and that they will all make a great contribution in the future.
Let me finally say, on behalf of all of us on the House of Commons Commission, that this debate has been immensely helpful in enabling us to understand what response we should make to the Finance and Services Committee, and that we will take full account of all the points that have been raised. I find myself thinking of that famous remark by Sir Winston Churchill:
“We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”—[Hansard, 28 October 1943; Vol. 393, c. 403.]
It is tempting to think that very little should change in a building of this character, but change is inevitable, and I think that in this instance it will be positive.
I am extremely grateful to all Members who have spoken. In the short time that is available, I cannot answer all the questions that have been asked, but I undertake to write to every Member.
A very good point about staff contingencies was made by both Mr Winnick and John McDonnell. I will respond to them fully at a later stage, but I can tell them now that all staff of the House are paid more than the living wage if they are not in apprenticeship or training.
Before the debate, I was asked by a colleague how I thought it would go. I said “I have not the slightest idea. It could be a damp squib, or it could be a car crash.” It has certainly not been a damp squib—it has been a very constructive debate, which has allowed serious issues to be considered—and it has most certainly not been a car crash, because those issues have been considered very fully.
I urge the House to accept the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Haselhurst. I hope that the reassurance that I gave Adam Afriyie will persuade him not to press his amendment, and I undertake to ensure that the meetings that I promised will take place.
I am very grateful to Robert Halfon for raising the issue he did and for allowing it to be debated. He has done the House a very important service. He has told me that he wants to press his amendment, and I ask the House to resist it, but I hope that the motion will be passed.
Given the assurances that I have received, I am comfortable with leaving it as it is.
Amendment proposed:(b), in line 7, after ‘sector;’, insert
‘is of the opinion that proposed business improvement plans for Catering, Print Services, Cleaning and Office Keepers and Attendants should be implemented before further consideration is given to market testing those services;’.—( Sir Alan Haselhurst. )
Amendment agreed to.
Amendment proposed: (c), in line 8, after ‘report’, insert
‘, save that proposals under the income generation category be deferred for approval to a future date, so that more detailed information is available to Members, and also to give the House a specific opportunity to vote on whether it accepts the increased commercialisation of Parliament.’. —(Robert Halfon .)
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question , as amended, put and agreed to.
That this House notes the medium-term financial plan for the House of Commons Administration as set out in Appendix A to the First Report from the Finance and Services Committee (HC 691); endorses the intention of the Committee to recommend to the House of Commons Commission a House of Commons Administration Estimate for 2013-14 of £220 million; notes the intention of the House of Commons Commission to make savings of 17 per cent in real terms from 2010-11 level by 2014-15 in line with the wider public sector; is of the opinion that proposed business improvement plans for Catering, Print Services, Cleaning and Office Keepers and Attendants should be implemented before further consideration is given to market testing those services; and endorses the Savings Programme as set out in Appendix B to the report.