Parliament (Joint Departments) Bill

Part of the debate – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:30 pm on 7th June 2007.

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Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, Parliamentary Secretary 1:30 pm, 7th June 2007

I beg to move,

That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommends that the Parliament (Joint Departments) Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second time.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Weir, and congratulate you on taking forward our discussions on a rather unusual parliamentary procedure. This is only the second routine Bill that has been the subject of a Second Reading Committee since the 1997 general election.

Hon. Members who have been selected for the Committee are therefore special; I know that there will be none of the usual reticence about serving on a Committee. I particularly welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North, who chairs the Administration Committee, other members of that Committee and the hon. Member for North Devon, who has an interest in the matter through his work on the House of Commons Commission.

The Bill derives not from the Government’s legislative programme, but from the decisions made by the Commission and the House Committee in the other place about how we manage our services. It is therefore a parliamentary Bill that is concerned with the machinery of government.

The most recent Bill in that field became the Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Act 1992, which provided the framework for the Clerks of each House to represent the Houses as the corporate officers who, because they represent corporate bodies in law, are able to own property and sign contracts in our interests. The Bill will build on the provisions of the 1992 Act to enable the two corporate officers to act jointly as the employers of staff in a service that would be shared by both Houses.

The background to the measure is that in 2004 the Commission and the House Committee of the other place decided to accept the key recommendations of the review led by the former Serjeant at Arms, Sir Michael Cummins, that the various fragmented units that provided information technology and telecommunications services to the Members and the departments of both Houses should be brought together into a single strategically led department that would be formally accountable to both Houses.

The new service, known as PICT—parliamentary information communication and technology—came into existence in January 2006 as a department of the House of Commons. The existing staff continued to be employed by either the House of Commons or the House of Lords and loaned to the House of Commons, pending the enactment of the Bill. The Bill will allow all the staff  of PICT to be employed on a fully joint basis and will make some necessary provisions connected with that.

The Bill is drafted more widely than that and provision is made for other joint departments to be created in the future, should the two Houses so decide. I stress that there are no such plans at the moment. However, given the rare opportunities to amend the legislative basis on which parliamentary services rest, it seems prudent to the authorities of both Houses to frame the current measure in more general terms that would enable further development, if appropriate, without the need for further legislation.

There would, of course, be broad consultation before any further joint departments were proposed. Such a decision would have to be endorsed by the Commission and I am sure that it would want to consult hon. Members more generally through the appropriate committees, as was the case with the Cummins review and PICT. That would also require the support and agreement of the other place.

Although the Bill is about the principle of joint departments and jointly employed staff, it is appropriate to comment on ICT services for Members because I suspect that many of us are more concerned about the quality and range of the services than the arrangements behind the scenes. Coincidentally, last month, we received the report and recommendations of the Administration Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North, which underlined how critically dependent we have become in recent years on information technology to support our work here in Westminster.

We are also becoming increasingly dependent on IT to connect us electronically with the public through our website and with our constituency offices through remote connections to the parliamentary network. The Administration Committee, at the beginning of its report, commented:

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) services have become critical to the work of Members of Parliament, and this importance can only increase.”

I do not wish to anticipate how the House may respond to the Administration Committee’s recommendations, but I note that the director of PICT and her colleagues worked very closely with the Committee during its inquiry and will continue to do so in implementing any decisions that are made in respect of those recommendations. I understand that the House authorities intend to respond to the Administration Committee’s report before the summer recess.

PICT has already started to make improvements to the services that it offers to Members. Since PICT came into existence on a provisional basis at the beginning of 2006, we have seen the completion of the roll-out of replacement desktop equipment to all Members, the resolution of a persistent problem that was affecting the quality of our virtual private network service, the offer of a personal digital assistant for Members who wish to have one, the extension of the wireless networks to new parts of the parliamentary estate and a significant reduction in the queue time for calls to the 2001 service desk. There has also been a marked improvement in the user training available to us and our staff, including the induction training to get our new staff started quickly on the network. Of course, there is much still to be done, particularly if we wish to  see the standard of network access and support that we now enjoy at Westminster extended to our constituency offices.

It makes no sense technically and economically for the two Houses to manage IT infrastructure separately, and in practice the two Houses have had shared assets and services in this area for many years. The Bill goes a step further in enabling us to employ the expert staff who manage and deliver those services on a joint basis.

Clause 1 sets out the powers that the corporate officers would have in connection with a joint department, including the power to hold land and other property and enter into contracts in connection with a joint department.

Clause 2 requires the corporate officers to exercise their functions jointly and sets out the key principle that in all matters affecting the creation of a joint department and the allocation of its major functions, the corporate officers would act only with the explicit approval of the House of Commons Commission and of the other place.

Members of this House and of the other place will have differing views from time to time about the extent to which it is appropriate and sensible that the two Houses should share services. Clause 2 ensures that the corporate officers can create new joint departments on our behalf only in areas where the two Houses agree to co-operate closely. Indeed, the corporate officers have also given assurances that when exercising their joint departmental functions that are not covered by clause 2(3) they would keep the Commission and the House Committee informed.

There was discussion during proceedings in the other place of the desirability of annual reports being made to each House on the work of a joint department, and the Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Amos, confirmed that such reports will be made to the House Committee from now on. I understand that the Clerk of the House, as corporate officer, will make a similar report annually to the House of Commons Commission. I have no doubt that our colleagues on the Administration Committee will keep a close eye on PICT and continue to monitor its services on our behalf.

Clause 3 establishes that the staff of the joint department will be appointed by the corporate officers, and employed by them under a contract of employment. At present, House of Commons staff are employed under the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978, which requires their pay and other conditions of services to be broadly in line with employees in the home civil service, and ensures that their pension is in line with the principal civil service pension scheme. The Bill applies exactly the same requirements to staff employed by the corporate officers in a joint department.

Clause 4 applies the schedule, which contains detailed measures to ensure that the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 apply to transfers of staff under the Bill, in so far as those regulations would not apply in any event. Clause 5 ensures that employment law that already applies to the staff of the two Houses separately would apply to the staff of a joint department.

House officials have, of course, consulted the recognised trade unions about the Bill. During those  consultations, assurances were given that the non-statutory Whitley Committee arrangements, which are well established in both Houses, will be extended to cover staff in a joint department. There will be further detailed consultation on all the practical matters that flow from the creation of joint employment status. I understand that the matter was again discussed, amicably, at the annual meeting of the House of Commons Whitley Committee last Monday.

This is a short and, I hope, non-contentious Bill. We have a tradition in the House of managing our own parliamentary services in a non-partisan spirit, and of looking after the interests of staff, who serve us with expertise and dedication, even at the most inconvenient hours of the day and night. Given our increasing dependency on IT services, it makes sense for the two Houses to collaborate more closely in this area. The Bill will enable us to do that; it safeguards the rights of our staff and extends to those who would work in a future joint department, the same protections enjoyed by employees of this House alone. I hope all parties will support the Bill.