Parliament (Joint Departments) Bill

Part of the debate – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:51 pm on 7th June 2007.

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Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 1:51 pm, 7th June 2007

It is my pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North. I pay tribute to him and to his Committee for the work that they have done since the five domestic Committees were brought together in giving a lead in all the areas that they are now covering. I am happy to echo the support for the Bill that we have heard from those on the Government and Conservative Front Benches. The measure is very necessary and one that I am only too pleased to support.

An outsider looking in at the Palace of Westminster and at what are relatively small organisations would, in all honesty, be rather surprised by the extent to which the provision of services to the two Houses is conducted in a state of complete separation from each other. There is scope for a lot more joint working than there has been to date. That is something that can, and probably will, happen at a natural pace.

It is not surprising that we have been brought to the point of considering a joint department Bill because of ICT. ICT needs are fast-changing, and trying to sustain two, or—as hon. Members have commented—as many as nine or 10 different ICT units within the two Houses does not make sense. Therefore, I welcome the creation of PICT. I acknowledge readily that there are still problems with the ICT function, that there probably always will be and that there are in any organisation.

Bringing the support service together into one can only help, and I think that it has helped. I pay tribute to the work of those involved in PICT and I believe that it will continue to improve the services that Members of both Houses receive as time goes on. The Administration Committee recently surveyed hon. Members views on  the provision of ICT, as we have heard, and it is the determination of the House of Commons Commission that hon. Members’ concerns will be addressed and that anything that can be put right, will be.

When the decision was taken that it would be desirable to create a joint ICT department, I was astonished to discover that that would need primary legislation, and a certain amount of ad hocery has governed the arrangement over the past couple of years. It was staggering to me that amalgamating two administrative departments would require the national legislature to make time available to pass primary legislation. That is why I applaud those who have introduced a generic Bill that will enable such changes to happen in future, without the need to make time available in the legislative agenda each time that we might want to do this, rather than a Bill simply to combine the two ICT departments.

Speaking entirely personally, I believe there is great scope for more joint working, but there should not be a stampede towards it: these things should happen at a natural pace and we will visit the issues from time to time. The only departments that would be wholly unsuited to joint administration are the Clerks departments; when the two Houses are in disagreement with each other they must each have the service of an independent and separate team of Clerks to deal with the political and constitutional aspects of the matter. However, in principle there seems no reason why other departments could not operate together in the fullness of time.

As we heard from the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire, Members of the other House seem curiously attached to their current catering arrangements and, specifically, to their menus, but perhaps that will not always be so. In any case, the creation of joint departments would have to have the assent of both Houses. However, catering, Hansard, and—why not?—Library services and others could all be operated on a joint basis. As I said, nothing should be done to create a stampede in that direction; these things should happen at a natural pace.

The trade unions have expressed their concern, but I hope that as far as possible those concerns have been allayed, and that the unions are satisfied with the assurances that have been given. It is absolutely the determination of the House of Commons Commission that no staff of either House should lose out in consequence of the proposal. They have the statutory protections of the TUPE regulations and the commitment that negotiations with the trade unions will carry on in the existing way. However, I say firmly on the record, that the House of Commons Commission and, I am sure, all hon. Members, are determined that the staff of the House should not be disadvantaged in any way.

This sensible and necessary Bill is the result of an enlightened decision, and I commend it to the Committee.