Parliament (Joint Departments) Bill

Part of the debate – in a Public Bill Committee at 1:56 pm on 7th June 2007.

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Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham 1:56 pm, 7th June 2007

I, too, rise to support the Bill, which brings us from the 19th to the 20th century, although not quite into the 21st century in the way that matters are organised in this place.

I am relatively new to the House, having been a Member for only six years. When I first arrived, I was  amazed to be told by someone from PICT that I had a House of Lords computer. When I asked how he could tell, he replied, “Because the tick in the left-hand corner is red and it should be green.” When I asked what on earth difference it would make to the operation of the machine, he said, “None whatsoever. But we will have to get you a new computer because you have a House of Lords one.”

That is the nonsense we are dealing with at present and I agree with the hon. Member for North Devon that people outside this place just cannot understand it and they have a vested interest in what is done here. As legislators, we are, rightly, under increasing scrutiny and we must remember that taxpayers’ money is being spent. The idea that just because things have always been done in a certain way that is how they should continue to be done is crazy.

I did not agree with the hon. Member for North Devon that these things should be done by evolution, or natural progression. There needs to be a stampede; when the Bill is passed, we should take a radical look at how the two Houses operate

I take catering as an example. The Administration Committee carried out an inquiry into the catering services in this House. The other place wants to keep its catering services separate. It would be thought ludicrous to put an artificial invisible line down the centre of a local government building and to run catering in different ways at each end of that building, but that is the situation that came to light in this House.

Although there is now more joint working of both Houses on procurement, I had to laugh when I saw that a deal had been done on dry goods and certain vegetables but that other products were excluded. It must cost the taxpayer a fortune not to take advantage of the economies of scale in joint procurement.

Likewise there is another issue that we are under a lot of scrutiny about all the time, and that is subsidy. In catering, for example, we are being told that it costs the taxpayers to feed us as Members of Parliament. However, when someone tries to find out how the subsidy is worked out, there is great difficulty, because Members of the House of Lords can eat in our cafeterias; I remind them occasionally that we cannot eat in certain parts of the House of Lords. I also ask some of them, “How much subsidy are you taking up?” That is the ludicrous situation that we are in. We cannot really bottom down explain to the public exactly what this place is costing, because of the archaic way in which it is organised.

The system does need looking at radically. Certainly, catering is one department that could make significant savings in terms of staffing, including senior management, but also in procurement and other areas. There is another issue. This process is not just about taxpayers getting value for money from this place, but about disputes. One dispute that took up some time in our Committee last year was that involving the cleaning services. In our House, the cleaning services are contracted out, but they are not contracted out in the other place. So there is a situation whereby people in the same building are on different terms and conditions, and that is absolutely crazy. Again, the idea that there is one building with different people doing the same job but on different terms and conditions is absolute nonsense. Also, in areas such as training and trying to get more professional  staff, surely bringing people together on joint training budgets is the obvious way forward.

I very much welcome this process for PICT, but I would also like to see something done very quickly seriously to address the powers that the Bill gives both Houses to merge other departments, with the exception of the Clerks department. I also think that we could not only get things done more efficiently, but it would make it a lot easier in terms of explaining to the taxpayer about value for money.