Backbench Business — House of Commons Administration and Savings Programme

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 2:22 pm on 8th November 2012.

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Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow 2:22 pm, 8th November 2012

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.