The Leader of the House advises me that he must attend to some very important matters later this afternoon. Divisions aside, I hope that he might speak. If he does not, I know that he intends to delegate, which I am sure hon. Members will fully understand.
It gives me great pleasure to introduce the 27th annual report of the House of Commons Commission for the financial year 2004–05. I welcome the opportunity to debate it and the work of the Commission.
I pay tribute to my predecessor, Archy Kirkwood, who served on the Commission and was its spokesman from 1997 to 2005. I am delighted that he has been returned to Westminster and to his political work as a Member in the other place. I now have a clearer idea of how much work the role involved for him—answering oral and written questions, and dealing with various press inquiries, which I recently found myself doing on cleaners, smoking, MPs' expenses and so on. Archy Kirkwood's predecessor was my right hon. Friend Mr. Beith. It seems to be the lot of the Liberal Democrat Member to serve in this capacity, and I am sure that we are pleased to do so.
Some things have changed since the report was published in the summer. We record our thanks to the former Leader of the House, now the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and to the former shadow Leader of the House, Mr. Heald. We also thank Sir Patrick Cormack, who, after serving on the Commission for some time, was replaced this Tuesday by David Maclean, to whom we are grateful for taking on the work.
Since the report was published, there has also been a significant change in the way in which the House operates. The creation of a single domestic Administration Committee brings together the work of five bodies and is chaired by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Doran). It got off to a very energetic start, not least in its determination to communicate more effectively with Members. I am sure that many Members will have seen a good number of missives issued by the Administration Committee, seeking their views on various issues.
Members will have had the opportunity to read the report and learn something about the work of the Commission. A considerable part of my job is to listen to what Members have to say, and to respond orally at the end of the sitting and in writing to anyone who makes points that need to be investigated further. The Commission is due to meet again in 10 days, when it will be possible to report back to the Commission from today's debate.
The Braithwaite report created the structure within which the House and its Officers work. I remind right hon. and hon. Members of some of the history. In May 1990, the Commission invited a team led by Sir Robin Ibbs to review management and decision making for services in the House. Its report, issued in November 1990, sought a more active and strategic role for the Commission, and replacement of the single Services Committee by four or five committees, which was done but was then reversed by the Commission, as I said. It also sought an enhanced corporate role for the Board of Management and for the Clerk of the House as its Chairman, with improved financial management information, a new Department of Finance and Administration headed by a qualified director and a director of works, and gradual assumption by the House of responsibility for all House of Commons expenditure—principally, adding works and HMSO, but excluding the Members' estimate. It took some two or three years to implement the changes that were proposed in the report.
Eight years later, in October 1998, the Commission invited a team led by Mr. Michael Braithwaite to undertake a review of the system of management and decision making for services to the House. That was set up following the work of the Ibbs inquiry. The Braithwaite report was published in June 1999. Broadly, it endorsed, at some length, the Ibbs report and its implementation and called for better corporate information and for the adoption by the Commission of a strategic plan and more performance management. It proposed the creation of an Office of the Clerk—
Just before the suspension, I described the 1990 Ibbs report and the 1999 Braithwaite report on the way in which the House was run. The last paragraph of the Braithwaite report said:
"As a matter of good practice, a review similar to our own should take place in about five years' time".
That was taken to mean a further review of the Ibbs system, set up in 1990. Against that background, calls for "another Braithwaite" could mean a fairly limited review of the Ibbs report's implementation over the past five or six years, a revisiting of that report in full or a completely fresh look at the whole system of governance, presumably starting at the top with the statutory framework of the Commission.
That last option would be an ambitious and time-consuming exercise, and those who seek it will have to make a case for it. Is it necessary? If the problem is that light bulbs are taking too long to be changed or that broadband in constituency offices is causing problems, do we really need to dig everything up by the roots? It behoves hon. Members to say what the problem is in realistic terms, and then we can seek an appropriate scale of review.
Personally, I think that, in the course of this Parliament, we should have the sort of review of whether things are going as envisaged in 1999 that might come up with radical prescriptions if they were plainly called for, but that could also chase down the extent to which the various measures called for in 1990 and 1999 have been taken. By mid-Parliament, the turbulence of the creation of the new Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology—PICT— Directorate should have subsided, and the other recent reorganisations of Hansard and the works and estates directorates will have had time to bed down. By 2007, about the same period will have elapsed from the time of Braithwaite as between Ibbs and Braithwaite.
I will, of course, take back to the Commission remarks made in this debate. In Westminster Hall, some aspects of the complex management of the House are only too obvious. I am thinking of progress on providing a new visitors reception centre just below this Chamber and an improved welcome for visitors in the Hall itself, followed in due course by a full-blown visitors centre somewhere appropriate. Also downstairs is the gunpowder plot exhibition, which will come to its climax—not too explosively, we hope—on Saturday. We hope that, in 2007, there will be an equally imaginative Parliament and slavery exhibition and possibly a marking somewhere of the Act of Union 1707. The volume of work that must be done to keep old fabric together is clear. Hon. Members can see scaffolding in the Hall as we redo gutters and the staircase.
At its July meeting, the Commission adopted a new five-year outline strategic plan to cover 2006–11, as envisaged in the report that we are debating. The text is on the internet. Let me tell those who have not read it that there are some small changes. The four core tasks and five underpinning support tasks from 2001 are replaced by three primary objectives and six supporting tasks, which are broadly similar in content. The eight developmental objectives against which the Commission reports progress on pages 62 to 69 of the report have been replaced for the coming five-year period by six anticipated priority areas, on which work is well advanced and developing with detailed strategies.
I should also draw to hon. Members' attention the 10 principal risks with which the House has to deal, which are set out on page 65. That is not to make people's flesh creep, but to reassure hon. Members that those matters are taken seriously and examined in a professional way.
In the equivalent debate to this last December, it was suggested that insufficient thought was being given to joint working with the House of Lords. I invite hon. Members to look at paragraphs 25 and 26 of the report, as there is already a great deal of joint activity. The estate is jointly serviced by a single estates directorate and a works directorate. A new unified ICT service, whose director, Joan Miller, has just begun work, will provide the IT function to both Houses from a single directorate. As reported in paragraph 49, the two Hansards are co-operating on an in-house pagination project.
There is room for more co-operation. The Administration Committee will no doubt examine the catering arrangements between the two Houses, which already have joint purchasing arrangements. However, we must be realistic. Our colleagues in another place will also have to agree to any new joint service, and the benefits may turn out in some cases to be slight, compared with the risks.
For the new bicameral PICT service to work at its best, we need primary legislation to give it a statutory basis and enable it to employ staff properly. The staff in question are currently on secondment from the Commons and the Lords and their terms and conditions differ. To sort out housekeeping issues we need to get that on a proper footing. I hope the Leader of the House may have some news about progress on finding time for such a small item of legislation.
The Modernisation Committee report, and now the Puttnam report, have been published in the past year. Some good progress can be identified, and that was discussed in a debate in the House in January. The web development project board referred to in paragraph 129 of the House of Commons Commission's report now gives a bicameral focus point for big and not so big enhancements to the website. The prospects for using Parliamentary Information Management Services, which are described in paragraphs 86 and 87, to help external users, will develop in due course. Thoughts are well advanced on the options for a much needed radical redesign of the website; a business case is also advancing.
The work of the Parliamentary Education Unit, another joint enterprise with the Lords, is reported at paragraphs 144 to 146. It is now expanding significantly, with the funding of a year-round programme of visits due to begin in January 2006, and with more staff, making more positive outreach around the UK possible.
The last point related to an issue that concerned me in last year's debate, and I was interested to hear that there will be positive outreach throughout the UK. Can the hon. Gentleman give more detail about what will happen?
I am not familiar with the programmes that the Parliamentary Education Unit has worked up, but I will certainly obtain more detail about it for the hon. Gentleman. What I want to emphasise is that with more resources at their disposal, the unit's staff have the potential and capacity to do a great deal more than they have been able to in the past. I hope the hon. Gentleman will welcome that.
The House's media effort, referred to at paragraph 122, is growing. The Select Committees have media officers, who are already creating a significant impact in obtaining more coverage of the work of the Committees. Lord Puttnam's report made several additional suggestions—in particular, for more pro-active briefing of the press on forthcoming and/or recently completed Commons business. It might be interesting to know what hon. Members think of the prospect of House Officials briefing the press on what interesting business is coming up. I do not know whether we shall invite them to brief on what business will not be so interesting, but I wonder whether hon. Members will feel comfortable with the idea of Officers performing that role. Hon. Members should be aware that today the Lords have been debating the Puttnam report.
Hansard has for several weeks now been available on line when it is sent to the printers, which means it is available only a matter of hours behind real time, rather than the following day. Good progress is also being made with a new voters' guide, to send to new voters as they become eligible to vote. We hope that that will begin to be sent out in the course of 2006.
Estate management entails many different issues, which come to the Commission. Those have recently included smoking, and earlier in the year the Commission took a significant further step to make the estate more smoke-free, not least out of awareness of the secondary smoking threat to its employees, the staff who work here. That is referred to at paragraph 210. The Health Bill that has been presented does not directly apply to the estate, but of course we shall rethink what, if anything, we should do to remain broadly in line with what will be the new English statutory regime.
I cannot add anything to what I said in the House on
The question of the number of Members' staff on the estate still causes some concern, in particular because of the view held by some Members who used to have a limited allowance to provide office accommodation for staff in their constituencies that colleagues whose equivalent staff occupy space in the estate are getting some sort of a free ride. The more we can do to make life easier for staff in constituencies, including a swift postal service between the two sites, the better it is for us all.
I am often questioned about the environmental impact of the estate by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker), who recently produced a 75-page report entitled "How Green is Your Parliament?" The Commission has asked me to reply in writing to the report in due course, but I want to say now that I welcome the work that went into it and am grateful to the Parliamentary Estates Directorate, which laboured to answer 100 or so parliamentary questions on which, I think, my hon. Friend based some of his recommendations. The report contains some useful ideas, which can be taken further.
I am sorry that my hon. Friend's statement about rising energy costs paid no attention to the growing size of the estate. The energy usage per square metre is actually going down, despite the endlessly growing demand for, for example, electrical office equipment.
Given that one of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues—the hon. Member for Lewes—wrote the report, I suspect that we may not have the abrasive questioning that the hon. Gentleman normally applies to Ministers. When Ministers give the answer, "There are some interesting suggestions about which we might be able to do something", that is normally code for, "We are not going to do much about these rather stupid ideas." Will he reassure us that the sensible proposals put forward by the hon. Member for Lewes will be taken seriously?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that having no experience of such ministerial practices, I would not contemplate answering a question in those terms. There are some genuinely useful recommendations in my hon. Friend's report, which are being considered by the relevant Officers of the House. Some will take quite some time to act upon and others will have to be costed, for example. The benefits will have to be weighed against the costs. I mean it quite sincerely and not in the sense described by the hon. Gentleman as ministerial when I say that there are some useful suggestions.
The main building in the estate is obviously large and historical, with all sorts of heritage considerations that might prevent the solutions that would be expected in another office environment. The estate is occupied by not only MPs and peers, but several thousand staff and contractors. The comparison to Newhaven that my hon. Friend made in his report may not be that far off. He and I share the view that Parliament must demonstrate green credentials, and that the individual behaviour of Members and staff can contribute to that, as well as the steps taken by the House as a body corporate. I am also keen to progress with his idea of an annual report on environmental performance.
I end by paying tribute to the staff who work here. This is a professionally managed and staffed organisation that can readily stand in comparison with any public sector comparator. The survey of services carried out in 2003 showed a generally high level of satisfaction with services. Of course, there is always room for improvement and we are keen to be aware of Members' views.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to an important debate on the work of the House of Commons Commission. This is the second such debate, and the first in which I have taken part. I hope that you, Sir Nicholas, and other colleagues will accept my apologies in advance for being unable to stay due to a further ministerial engagement. However, the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons will be in attendance for the remainder of the debate and will respond as necessary to the points made.
As hon. Members will be aware, I am a member of the Commission ex officio as Leader of the House. As such, I am able to represent the Government on the Commission, but I do not view it as my role purely to represent the Government. It is the responsibility of the Leader of the House to take into account the interests of all Members, and that applies very much to my work on the Commission. Therefore, I hope briefly to share my thoughts with Members and to make some observations about the contribution and role of the Government.
I begin by repeating the point made by Nick Harvey, who paid tribute to the work of House staff. We are well served in the House by the officials of the various Departments—the 1,700 people directly employed by the Commission, as well as others—who work professionally and effectively, sometimes in difficult and demanding circumstances.
I, too, pay tribute to the contribution made to the work of the Commission by the noble Lord Kirkwood, the hon. Gentleman's predecessor in his present role. I know that my predecessors as Leader of the House and other colleagues greatly valued the work that he did for the Commission over a number of years, and particularly his role in representing the work of the Commission to other colleagues and to the outside world.
Let me note some of the challenges addressed by the Commission in the period covered by the annual report, as well as the positive steps that have been taken. As Mr. Speaker noted in his introduction to the report:
"2004–05 was the first full year of the new sitting hours introduced in January 2003."
Obviously, the motivation for the changes—however controversial they might seem to some—stemmed from the needs of Members, and it is right that the decision was taken on that basis.
The decision, however, had significant consequences for the working patterns of House staff and the ways in which they prepared for the business of the House and Committees. There were also changes to catering patterns, visiting patterns and so on. Staff have worked hard to make the new arrangements work—we have, of course, made further adjustments to those arrangements—and I thank them for it.
The House administration is also facing further security challenges. This is obviously not the time or place to go into detail about those, but we are aware of the extra effort that has been put in in many quarters to looking after the interests of those who use these buildings. I note that the new post of parliamentary security co-ordinator, which was envisaged at the time of last year's debate on the Commission's work, is now in place.
The Commission has also devoted a great deal of thought to a subject that I regard as of the utmost importance—what we have come to term engagement with the public. If I may, I shall return to that issue towards the end of my remarks.
Other challenges during the period in question include the setting up within the House services of the necessary mechanisms to respond to the requirements of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which came into force for the House at the beginning of the year.
I shall not repeat the helpful remarks made by the hon. Member for North Devon explaining the House's consultative machinery, but I at least owe Members some observations about the reference in the Braithwaite review to a further review
"in about 5 years' time".
Obviously, that would be about now, if we were to take that reference literally. However, for reasons set out in the debate in the House on
I shall repeat some of the points that the hon. Gentleman made about joint working, because a central theme of the changes in House administrative structures that have taken place over the years has been the move towards more co-ordination of the work previously carried out by separate Departments of the House. That has certainly helped to facilitate a more co-ordinated response to the developing and changing needs that Members have expressed.
There has also been something of a trend towards closer co-operation with the other House. As the Commission report notes, there are now many areas of joint working, including works services, communications services, the Parliamentary Archives, the Parliamentary Education Unit, the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology and the Central Tours Office. Further opportunities might arise for such co-operation.
A more recent and potentially welcome development has been the decision of both Houses—led in this House by the Commission—to approve the principle of establishing a unified service for IT and communications between the two Houses. That followed a review by the former Serjeant at Arms, Sir Michael Cummins, and reflects the increasing reliance on shared systems and infrastructure. I am well aware, from parliamentary questions and other representations, of the continuing concerns that some colleagues have about aspects of IT services, such as remote broadband connection to the parliamentary network. Not all those issues are the responsibility of the Commission, but the planned reform of the IT management structure within the two Houses should help to improve the service that can be offered to colleagues.
The Commission's annual report notes that the new service is to be established initially using the present employment structures of the two Houses
"pending legislation to create a firmer basis for joint services in the future."
I must give the usual Government health warning on matters of legislation, and tell hon. Members that the Government can give no undertaking that a place can be found for a Bill to implement that in the near future. I realise that it will be difficult for the joint service to operate fully and effectively under present legal arrangements, and therefore see the case for a Bill. We will, of course, look for opportunities to introduce such a Bill, but I reiterate that I can give no guarantees.
I shall devote the rest of my remarks to the issue of engaging the public, which I regard as crucial, as do other members of the Commission. We all recognise that however we assess levels of participation in the political process—through general election turnout or the number of members of political parties—there will always be a limit to how far Parliament, let alone the Commission, can change things. Much wider forces are at play in society, but there are things that the Government can do. We are committed to the reform and modernisation of the electoral process and the modernisation of government processes. There has been consultation and experimentation with e-democracy and the citizens and democracy strand of the Government's "Together We Can" programme for building community engagement.
There are things that Parliament can do, and I am delighted that the Commission has embraced the process, which it has done since before I became a member. In November last year, it issued a formal response to the May 2004 report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, "Connecting Parliament with the Public", in which it noted the action taken by the Commission in the areas covered by a number of the recommendations.
There are a number of initiatives under way. The first is the work being done on the website. The May 2004 report, reflecting on a redesign of the site in 2002, noted that the website has made
"tremendous advances in recent years".
Since 2002, the world, and public expectations, have not stood still. Even in 2004, the Modernisation Committee noted that
"there is widespread dissatisfaction with the main website", and that
"the website worked well for people who knew exactly what they were looking for, but not for the majority of people."
Since then, there has been another report that links in with that, namely that of the Hansard Society Commission on "Members Only? Parliament in the Public Eye", which was led by Lord Puttnam. Coincidentally, that report is being debated in the other place today, and may yet feature in the remarks of other contributors to the debate; I am certainly interested to hear what colleagues have to say about it. The report stated that the need to reform the website was a constant theme in the evidence that it had received, and it echoed the Modernisation Committee's call for radical reform of the site. I am delighted, therefore, that the Commission is seriously considering that issue and working on a radical redesign project on a bicameral basis, led by our new Librarian John Pullinger.
The Modernisation Committee report also recommended some expansion of the House's communications team; I note that there has been a limited expansion in that area. The need for close thought to be given to communications and work with the media was a central theme of the Puttnam report. Of course, there is scope for wide debate about the recommendations. It may be unduly simplistic to talk in terms of a single communications strategy for Parliament, as the report does, when we are by our very nature, and quite correctly, an amalgam of opposing interests. However, I—and, I am sure, other members of the Commission—will be interested to hear what colleagues here today have to say on that.
There is also a proposal for a new voters' guide to be sent, in the name of the House, to people who are newly eligible to vote to encourage them to register and participate. That initiative, which originated in the Modernisation Committee report, was specifically endorsed by the House in the January debate. Obviously, the guide will have to be carefully designed to ensure that it is relevant and attractive to the target audience. Work on that is in hand. Equally obviously, any such exercise can have only a marginal effect, but even a small increase in the participation of young people of only a few per cent. is worth striving for.
One area in which I am particularly interested is the expansion of the work of the education unit. The Commission initially agreed to fund one additional post to focus on outreach and working with local education authorities. It has, in fact, funded two posts. I am interested to see how that initiative turns out. I feel strongly that working in schools must form part of the solution to the problems we face in promoting a greater sense of engagement. That goes way beyond what the House of Commons can do as an institution, but I am delighted that the Commission is making what could be a very effective contribution.
With others, I pay tribute to the education unit's work throughout the year with schools and young people, including hosting visits from about 9,000 students. I appreciate the fact that many right hon. and hon. Members have given up their time and vacations to speak to those students. It is an important step.
I am under no illusions that colleagues will feel that everything is being done in the way they would like to address all their concerns. I am sure that other members of the Commission would say the same. But equally I hope that my remarks—and those of the hon. Member for North Devon—will reassure them that the Commission is aware of where there are concerns and where further work needs to be done. This debate, which I think we can now say has become an annual one, will help in this process. I look forward to seeing the later contributions from other colleagues.
Thank you, Sir Nicholas. We entirely accept the Leader of the House's excuse. We may see him later or we may not, but we are grateful to him for his participation in this debate.
I wish to follow on from the comments made by Nick Harvey and the Leader of the House. We all serve on the Commission together. Party politics are set aside and we are part of a team working together in the interests of the House. I therefore do not want to spend a lot of time repeating remarks that they have already made. They articulated very eloquently many of the key features of the report, many of which have been very positive about the work of the House and all those who have worked within it over the past 12 months. However, I am sure that you, Sir Nicholas, will allow me to echo their words of thanks to many of those who have been involved with the Commission, the House and the smooth workings of the environment in which we all work and seek to perform our democratic duties.
I should like to single out a small number of individuals. Lord Kirkwood served as a distinguished member of the Commission and was the predecessor of the hon. Member for North Devon. My hon. Friend Sir Patrick Cormack stood down from the Commission in the past week, to be replaced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean). My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire will be much missed on the Commission. He has been a distinguished servant of this House. I know that he is moving to a new role on a different Committee where I am sure he will perform with equal distinction. None the less, the Commission will be a poorer place without him. My predecessor, my hon. Friend Mr. Heald, not only served on the Commission but also served in the role that I now fill as Chairman of the Administration Estimate Audit Committee. He continues to perform an excellent role within the House.
That is enough of the politicians. The most important part of this occasion for Members is to pay tribute to those who make it possible for us to work here. A huge number of people work in all different levels and functions. Well over 1,000 people make the House of Commons tick. Together with their counterparts in the House of Lords, they ensure the smooth running of the Palace of Westminster. They work enormously hard. They deliver smooth services to us at all hours of the day and night, because this remains, despite the changes of hours in recent years, a very unpredictable place.
We saw that back in March when we suddenly found ourselves seemingly sitting endlessly through night after night. It was a bit of déjà vu for those who arrived in this place before 2001. For those of us who arrived in 2001, it was a new experience. The point about that is that the staff simply slotted in and did their jobs, without demur and without complaint. That is the level of professionalism that we all experience day in, day out—whether it is in the Refreshment Department cafeterias, from the doormen who stand outside the Chamber, from the administrative staff who ensure that the services we need behind the scenes take place or the people who work in our postal service.
There is one group I should like to pick out: the security staff who work around the Commons, both those who are dedicated to the Palace and those who come to us from the Metropolitan police. Not only do they do an excellent job; this is a high-risk location. We are in constant danger from those who would seek to do damage to our democratic processes. Every day we walk past those people, standing there on guard. They are willing to put their own lives in danger to protect our democracy. Of all the people who work in the House, we owe them, in particular, a debt of gratitude.
There is another area to which I should like to pay brief tribute. It has been an area of the activity of the House that has made my job much easier, and it has changed the way that hon. Members do their jobs. I refer to the support provided to us by the Parliamentary Communications Directorate. The changes that it has brought about since I became a Member four years ago—networking; improvements to equipment; the arrival of the virtual private network—have made it possible for all of us to do our jobs more effectively and efficiently. That has allowed us to spend more time in our constituencies, but still deliver a high-quality service to our constituents away from the parliamentary infrastructure. The work that that team has done, and the strategic vision of the Commission in the last few years, have made a huge difference. There is much still to be done on that front, and there are many more projects in the pipeline, but that work is a significant part of making the House a more effective place.
I warmly welcome moves to integrate the work of the Commons in that respect with that of the House of Lords. That is an area where it makes no sense to have duplication. We wish to have the most up-to-date and efficient systems, but those should be available with consistent quality and with similar support to Members of both Houses of Parliament.
The hon. Member for North Devon referred to the Ibbs report and the Braithwaite report. He knows that there is much outside pressure for us to continue that process and to have a "son of Braithwaite" in the near future. The Commission must consider that in the next few weeks and months. If one examines those two reports and the more recent report from the Puttnam commission, one sees a genuine desire—as has been the case over a number of years—to make this place more effective and approachable. I pay particular tribute to Lord Puttnam and the work that he and his team did in producing that report. They have provided a number of ideas and thoughts about how we can tackle the issue of disengagement from the political process of people who often do not understand its relevance to them.
There is only a certain amount that we can do directly as a House, rather than as a Government, a political party or a political institution. We should, none the less, seek to do everything that we can to build awareness, understanding and interest in our work. Yesterday provided a good example of how we can do that. Thousands of people gathered for a trade justice lobby, looking for answers. Some of the ideas in the Puttnam report relate to providing better information about what goes on in Parliament. The website is a good example; we can and should ensure that that is the place to go to find out how political issues have been debated. People such as those who gathered yesterday, who have a burning passion on an issue that is of fundamental importance to the country and to our race, have questions and they want to know what is happening in Parliament. They came yesterday in their thousands, got soaked, and spoke to their MPs. Of course, each of us will go back to our constituents and update them on the work that we are doing, but it is our duty to ensure that they have easy access to information about what is going on in Parliament, what questions are being tabled, what debates are happening, and what responses are being given by Ministers so that they can see what is happening much more clearly. Sometimes, people suspect that there are no discussions or debates about those matters. Of course, there are, and the more that we can illustrate those and give people easy access to them, the better.
The hon. Gentleman is right that the meeting yesterday afternoon of the large number of people at the House and their Members of Parliament, facilitated somewhat by the rain, was an important illustration of how the House can make itself much more accessible and user-friendly to those who are petitioning or inquiring about what is happening in the House. Would he consider ensuring that the House of Commons website can be properly linked to the websites of individual MPs, so that all information relating to the House is easily accessible via MPs' websites? Yesterday, when speaking to members of the public, I was struck by the extent to which they had looked at my website before coming to lobby me, as well as visiting the House of Commons website several times.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There is an argument for providing access to the full range of political debate through our website. It is a reality of life today that the number of single-issue pressure groups is increasing, and political issues are debated outside the traditional confines of the democratic process. We need to find a way of ensuring that Parliament is seen as part of the process, and not detached from debates such as that on the environment.
There is much work to be done on the website. I agree about the desirability of improving links with MPs' websites. They tend to be rather buried at the moment, but then a number of things are buried. We need to devote a smart design mind and a smart strategic mind to a project to redevelop the website to make it more approachable. That is the direction in which we are going. I hope that that will contribute towards a final product that will help to make Parliament more visible.
The Puttnam commission's recommendation to ensure that we educate young people better about the workings of Parliament is extremely valuable. It contains some good ideas that merit further discussion by the Commission and by hon. Members generally. I echo the compliments paid to the education service, which is our front line in ensuring that we have high-quality information for young people.
Finally, may I say a few words in my capacity as Chairman of the two audit committees? It is a new role for me; I have chaired only two meetings. The hon. Member for North Devon has also chaired only a couple, so we are learning the ropes. I pay tribute to the two gentlemen who have shouldered the bulk of the work of the Administration Estimate Audit Committee and today have the bulk of the Committee's expertise: our two independent members, Sir Thomas Legg and Mr. David Taylor. They have certainly been wise guides to me in my new role. They have committed a lot of work to the committees over the years and they know their stuff—frighteningly so, sometimes. It will take the hon. Gentleman and me some time before we know as much about the workings of the place as they do. However, they are a good example of how the House can benefit from using the right external expertise in the right ways to ensure that we do things in the most effective way possible.
The committees also offer an example of the continued process of tightening the working relationships between the two Houses. In two weeks' time, we will have the first meeting between the audit committees of the House of Lords and the House of Commons. The initial object will be to share information, but I have no doubt that after that joint meeting we will have a clearer sense of ways in which we can streamline our processes, work more closely together, share expertise and generally improve the workings of the audit teams, who do a great job.
Their work load is scarily substantial—looking at the schedule at my first meeting I saw that there was a huge amount to get through. However, this is a large and complicated place, and doing a proper internal audit on it requires diverse skills and hard work, and necessitates the auditors going into places that I suspect many of us, as hon. Members, will never get to. I am sure that those who have been hon. Members for longer than I have know that there are always people somewhere in the Palace of Westminster doing a job that none of us ever gets to see.
The report is important. It shows hon. Members, those interested in the workings of the House and those who work in the House the real extent of what is done here. It shows that we are part of a complex organisation. It shows that the smooth working of our democracy is dependent upon a team of people who work long hours and who deliver a range of excellent services. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude. The Commission can learn much from what they do and what they advise. We must ensure that we always listen to them, because they have a distinct and important perspective on how we can improve the workings of Parliament. It is an excellent team. It makes the House of Commons work smoothly. That is why we remain the mother of Parliaments.
Walking through Portcullis House on my way here, I passed Guy Fawkes and James I busy in conversation over a cup of coffee at the "Despatch Box"—they were actors employed by the education service—and it struck me that I have seen some differences in my time as a Member.
In this debate, I wear three hats. I was a member of the previous Administration Committee; a former member of the Modernisation Committee, and very much involved in the report on connecting Parliament with the public; and a member of the Putnam commission, which was commissioned last year by the Hansard Society to report on the same subject.
I start by complimenting the House of Commons Commission and its officials on the way in which they have carried out the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee. We made a huge list of recommendations, and the officials put in hand the job of carrying them out with commendable promptness. Indeed, the annual report contains a list of those recommendations that have been carried out.
The report mentions the additional staff in the education unit, up from about four to nine and a half. It tells us of the extension of the autumn visits programme, which used to deal with 6,000 students a year; when the staff are in place, it will have a capacity of about 25,000. We will still have 47,000 young people coming through the House of Commons, so that will meet only half the demand, but it is a fantastic increase.
I am glad to hear that the new voters' guide is coming along; I look forward to seeing it, as I do the newsletter that is already in pilot production. The Media and Communications Service now has three press officers working for Select Committees, which is a total of six staff. That is a great advance, although we should bear in mind that the media and communications department of the Welsh Assembly has about 75 staff, so we are still some way short of our devolved Assemblies.
Improvements have been made to signage around the House. Everyone will know the term "Strangers" has gone from the House under Standing Orders. Several people have commented on the upgrading of the parliamentary website, which is well overdue; indeed, as soon as it is upgraded, we will probably ask for a further upgrade.
A particular hobby-horse of mine is the online publication of Hansard within four hours, and I am glad to hear that it is now happening. I argue that in due course it should be reduced from four hours to two; just as having one's photographs developed was once a 24-hour job, then it took eight hours and it now takes only one hour, so we can probably reduce publication time even more. It is important for outside organisations, and not only for the media. I used to work in the media, so I know how useful it would be to them to have a reliable, authentic version of what has been said in the House within in a time frame that will enable them to use it.
At the risk of sounding greedy, I shall mention some of the recommendations made by the Modernisation Committee that have not yet got on to the "to do" list; I hope that mentioning them today will help. One was a written guide for visitors, with staff on hand to welcome them. I hope that that will come along with the new reception facilities that are to be built during the coming summer. Improved queuing systems for the Public Gallery may come about, but we still have made no progress on an improved viewing gallery.
A "Parliament in action" tour is also proposed for visitors. At the moment, all visitors to Parliament, except young people on education unit visits, are offered an architectural heritage tour with no mention of what the building is for. Some time ago, the Hansard Society proposed that we should offer a tour that involves attending a Select Committee sitting, a Standing Committee sitting or a Westminster Hall debate, or going into the Public Gallery and getting a taste of what the building is actually for. Members would be surprised by how many of the guides conduct the entire tour, which is often fascinating in its historical detail, without even mentioning the fact that we are taking political decisions or that the building has a contemporary purpose.
We also recommended an end to the ban on non-MPs sitting in the Chamber. Almost every other Parliament allows non-MPs to sit in their Chambers. The UK Youth Parliament, for instance, could stage debates in the House of Commons in the long summer recess. Some people thought that recommendation heretical, but I hope that it will be considered.
A website aimed explicitly at young voters was also proposed. I read in the report that qualitative research into that recommendation has now been commissioned, and I hope that that will enable progress to be made on the idea.
A dedicated teaching area for the Parliamentary Education Unit was also recommended. At the moment, the unit has to use rooms that happen to be available in Portcullis House, as nothing is designed specifically for the purpose.
There should be more about Parliament in the school citizenship syllabus. That might be an ambitious target. We now have an outreach worker in the education unit, but there are 2,500 secondary schools in this country. All teach citizenship, but we discovered from the evidence that we heard that most of them are not even aware of the existence of the Parliamentary Education Unit. They certainly have not thought actually of visiting the House of Commons as part of their citizenship syllabus.
Another proposal was that Committees should increase their use of online consultation. That is obviously for the Committees to decide, but it would be good if the House could facilitate that.
There should be an index to the daily part of Hansard, and laptop computers in the Press Gallery. Again, some people believe that to be a step too far, but it would greatly assist the press. I believe that the little gap in front of the Benches in the Chamber is perfect for laptops—not for individual laptops, but for laptops that showed, say, the Order Paper, so that Members could view questions and the agenda for the day without having to take endless sheets of paper with them and leaving them in the Chamber.
The report also proposed better use of the bookshop. The bookshop is one of our best assets. It is outside the Palace and accessible to the public, yet it is the least used of all the shops on the New Bridge road. For every 100 people who go into Boots or Cullens, only one person goes into the bookshop, yet it is the perfect place for people to buy tickets for tours of the House, for the press to collect press releases, and for all sorts of other purposes. I am not criticising the staff of the bookshop—I am sure that they do a good job—but the Vote Office has a prime property on the corner that almost no one ever visits. The report says:
"Business activity has continued at much the same level as last year."
I fear that that is the case.
Another recommendation is the integration of the Commons press, education and communications departments, to which the Hansard Society also referred. At the moment, we have the group of publications—something like that—which works across departments that deal with connecting with the public. The fact is that tours, education and the press are all different aspects of Parliament's connection with the public, and they would be much better served if they were merged into a single department.
Public petitions should be referred to Select Committees. The Scottish Parliament already does that, but no progress has been made on that here.
Standing Committee papers should be merged. I am sure that you will have an interest in this, Sir Nicholas, given your role in the Procedure Committee, but we argued that it is almost impossible for Members of Parliament who attend a Committee of the House to follow what is going on because they need to have open in front of them the amendment paper, the Chairman's selection of amendments, the explanatory notes and the Bill. That is four separate documents simply to follow what is going on.
We could reform the system of publications in the House so that it would be easy to speak to amendments to Bills. We could also have explanatory notes to amendments as well as to Bills. One of the reasons that members of Standing Committees find it almost impossible to contribute is that, although the Minister has a good brief, hon. Members have no explanatory notes and do not know what effect the amendments would have. We should also have a guide for visitors to Standing Committees, who always look bemused whenever I see them; they go out after about 10 minutes, simply because they have no idea what is going on. Sadly, that applies to some hon. Members too. I throw those ideas in, knowing that they will at least be recorded, and people will be reminded of those recommendations.
I shall add a few more ideas from the Puttnam Commission, on which I served. I shall not mention them all—only some of the more prominent ones. There should be a relaxation of the rules on television coverage in the Chamber; few people look at BBC Parliament because it is dull to watch. There should be a relaxation of the rules on filming around the precincts of Parliament. The Administration Committee, of which I was a member, relaxed them in some ways but sadly, not far enough. People are not allowed to take still photographs, which means that many newspapers refuse to use grainy pictures taken from the television monitor and end up using nothing at all. There is a restriction on the number of passes for journalists. Many people complain about the number of journalists here, but the truth is that, because of the restrictions, everything that is said here is reported by the lobby journalists and rarely by the specialist journalists who know about the subject that we are talking about. That has a corrosive effect on the type of coverage that we get in Parliament. It is our own fault because we make it so difficult for them to get passes.
Induction for journalists would be a great step forward. The Modernisation Committee supported, more or less, a new communications department. The parliamentary website should be interactive. I know that in many ways, that would be a hostage to fortune, but sooner or later, we must grapple with the fact that Parliament is here to be interactive with the electorate, so our website should be interactive.
The remit of BBC Parliament should be broadened. At the moment, when there is a Division, nothing happens for that 15 minutes: people watch practically a blank screen. That is because the BBC feels that it is not allowed to interview anybody or explain anything because it has to report what is said and nothing else. However, if there were more flexibility, people might start to find the parliamentary channel quite interesting.
Most controversially, the Hansard Society Commission recommended that the House of Commons Commission be elected by secret ballot. I do not know what members of the Commission present think of that, but as we are all elected by secret ballot, I cannot think of what they would have to fear.
Lastly, it was recommended that the House of Commons be headed by a chief executive who is experienced in the management of complex organisations in the public realm. Hon. Members will be aware that we have a chief executive role: the Clerk of the House is the chief executive under the Braithwaite reforms, but what was envisaged was a dedicated post of chief executive, rather than someone who has that role in addition to the onerous duties of the Clerk of the House.
Nick Harvey asked what kind of review of Braithwaite we should have and whether we should take a completely fresh look. All that I would say is that the Braithwaite review itself said that
"a review similar to our own should take place in about five years".
I do not think that that is much to ask; it would be a good idea. It does not need to be any longer than the previous review, but it should look at the ideas developed in Braithwaite I of a chief executive and corporate management, and take them further. I hope that it will recommend a more specialised chief executive who spends less time in the House and more time running an organisation that has a budget of £320 million and a staff of 1,500. Such an organisation deserves a full-time chief executive.
An objection I have often heard from the able and hard-working Officials of the House is, "Oh for goodness' sake, we are too busy with what we have to do to have another Braithwaite report. Can't we just get on with it?" My response is, "Well, if you find you're too busy to do the jobs you have to do at the moment, that is probably why we need another review of management." The Officials of the House should not feel so hard-pressed by their work load that they are unable to think in the long term. We should not be frightened of involving Members in the administration of the House, as the Hansard Society Commission recommended.
It is easy to make the annual report sound impressive. It has a list of achievements: 8,000 items of computer equipment have been supplied, and we are grateful for that; 9 million spam e-mails have been identified as unwanted, and we are also extremely grateful for that; the number of Members' staff has increased to 2,584, and we could not manage without them; and there were 29 million requests for information on the website, which is a 16 per cent. increase on the previous year. All that is impressive, but on reading the small print one discovers that there is always a danger in boasting of small achievements in a way that draws attention to how small they are. For example, the annual report points out that we are now
"sending memoranda of written evidence to the printers in electronic form."
One would hope so too. A sentence about the job of the Vote Office states:
"The passage of legislation back and forth between the two Houses before agreement is reached, particularly towards the end of a session, continues to be a time of intense activity for the printing services section of the Vote Office."
I am sure that it is very onerous, but only because someone has not thought of having a laptop in the House of Lords and a laptop in the House of Commons that are networked and can save all that trouble.
Great strides have been taken, but we must beware of making out that it is a great achievement simply to use electronic media, because everyone does so. We would not put in annual reports to our constituents that we use e-mails or that we download material in electronic form, because that is taken as a matter of course.
It is all very well to have the electronic capture of Bill amendments, but to admit that we still have not achieved the electronic capture of the Order Paper is a bit worrying. The report says that we have saved £1 million by making our paper more electronic, but we should be trying to achieve two basic targets. First, there should be no re-keying anywhere in the House of Commons. Once something has been committed to a computer once, it should not need to be committed again. That is the principle on which newspaper offices and most other offices work. It should not be difficult for Parliament to do so.
Secondly, we should try to achieve a paper-free Parliament further down the line. There is no need for Order Papers, amendment papers and so on to be churned out on huge quantities of paper every day when we could easily access them electronically. I do not say that it will not take some time to achieve that, but what is important is the information on the computer, not the piece of paper on which it is printed. We should be one of the first organisations to achieve paper-free status rather than the last, as I fear we might.
I apologise if I have taken more than my fair share of time. We should be aiming for a professional Parliament with corporate management and a dedicated position of chief executive.
In response to the hon. Gentleman's point, I put an important proposition to him. Parliament is not a corporate entity; it is an assembly of elected Members of Parliament. Those who work for the House do a hugely important job for us and for the country, but they are, none the less, the servants of Parliament. We, as Members of Parliament, are not servants of a corporate entity. It is important that that point is not missed.
I accept entirely what the hon. Gentleman says. Parliament is not a corporate entity in the sense that it cannot have its own mission statement and its own unified aims. However, it already has corporate management. Braithwaite I recommended that, and it is what we officially do at present, in the sense that all the departments should work together through the House of Commons Commission with a single purpose. However, we do not yet have a corporate spirit among the management. Anyone who has served on one of the domestic Committees will know that if one suggests something, the Officers—who are a joy to work with—will often say, "Well, we will try to persuade the Library of that" or "Yes, I will try to persuade the director of finance", whereas if they were part of a corporate management they would persuade the chief executive and the chief executive would do it. That is not the way of the House of Commons, but we need it to be more like that.
This is an organisation with a huge budget—£320 million—and a huge staff. It has 1,500 of its own staff plus a further 2,500 working for MPs, most of whom are in this building. An organisation that size deserves to have a corporate management that is aware of what it is there for, and a communications department that can oversee all the connections between the House and the public in all their various guises.
We are in danger of being overtaken—indeed, we have already been overtaken—in many areas by our daughter Parliaments in Scotland and Wales. That is because they have had the discipline of knowing that they must justify their existence to the people of Scotland and Wales, and that they therefore have to reach out. They know that they have to do that, and they have outreach, education and press workers. One only has to look at the turnout in elections and the attitude of people to Parliament to see that we, too, should do that. We must focus our minds on justifying our existence, and to do that we must have a completely different attitude to the public.
All of us come here, not to decide how the House of Commons is run, but to play our—no doubt very small—part in deciding how the country is run. I do not want any more than anyone else to spend all my time here on the intricacies of House of Commons administration. However, the only way in which we can avoid having to spend so much time on that and on having to come up with all those small suggestions that sometimes get carried out is if we have a corporate management system and an executive system which we can be confident will do the work that needs to be done.
I welcome today's debate and the report, and thank the staff who work for us, year in year out, often at unsocial hours, and who on the whole provide us with a superb service. There are 1,700 employees of the House and, as has been mentioned, plenty of others who work here as contractors or who provide support services. This year it is right to single out the security staff, who have had to deal with some of the more extreme circumstances that we might face. Although the process is sometimes frustrating for Members of Parliament, it is a vital function, in which staff members' alertness and good sense is put to good use.
Perhaps the central issue for us is what the Commission should do next—or what we should do next with the Commission. The Braithwaite report in 1999 proposed some very important changes. It introduced the idea that we should have in the House one Officer who was in charge, for want of a better term. That led to the creation of a Board of Management and a political process, through the Finance and Services Committee, on which I have been privileged to serve since 2001, which could, so to speak, serve as a first filter for ideas and thoughts forwarded to the Commission.
There have been improvements since then. An organisational improvement of fundamental significance is the fact that there is now a parliamentary security commissioner, with responsibilities at both ends of the building. Although that was controversial, it was a necessary and important step forward. I wonder whether there may be scope for joint appointments of other board members in future. Politically, all the domestic Committees have been brought together in a new Administration Committee. That is also a worthwhile step forward, which will, I hope, lead to improved scrutiny, accountability and delivery.
All of that is all very well, but it is nothing like enough. I am in favour of Braithwaite II, if that is what we are to call it, and I shall probably say things that will be the equivalent of spitting in church. We have been a little self-laudatory in the debate so far. Martin Linton stuck a few pins in, but I am not sure that we have appreciated the gap between the story told in the report and the reality. A couple of examples may show that all is not well with our management, control and political decision-taking in the Commission.
The first thing to which I want to draw attention is the new security screen in the House of Commons. I remind hon. Members that a decision was taken that a temporary screen was necessary. There was some dispute about it, but we had strong advice that a security screen was needed. A temporary screen was erected, to give time for proper consideration of a permanent screen and how to install it. A permanent screen was designed and displayed to hon. Members. There was a good deal of consultation and a vote in the House on the erection of the screen. As it happened, I voted against it, but there was a clear majority for installing it.
The astonishing thing was that when we returned after the recess we discovered that the screen that was installed was not the design that we had approved. No one seems to care. We now have a screen that is not where it was intended to be. We must be the only Parliament in western Europe that, when it takes action to improve public accessibility, produces an outcome that excludes them from seeing half the parliamentary Chamber. We have a £1.5 million blunder. We have put up a screen that we might as well have whitewashed, for all the use it is for seeing hon. Members in one half of the Chamber. The hon. Member for Battersea said that we have not yet implemented a viewing gallery. Too right! We have implemented a screen that is literally that—it screens the House from members of the public.
My second illustration relates to the catering operation and, in particular, to the Members' Dining Room. First, I very much welcome the setting up of the Administration Committee. Perhaps this new combined services Committee will mean that we can break away from the club culture that determines how we take decisions in the House. Those who served on the domestic Committees were, in effect, a trade union group of users, and it is right that we should put things on a more businesslike base.
Secondly, I welcome the cap on the catering subsidy, to which the report refers. I give credit to Sue Harrison and her team for delivering the savings that she was asked to achieve. I also note that the Administration Committee has decided to appoint an external adviser to deal with catering, which is another good step. The fact remains, however, that the catering subsidy for the parliamentary estate is running at £6 million a year. That is without adding the cost of power, light, and heating for the whole catering operation.
The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights the scandalous fact that the subsidy is £6 million, but I have never read anywhere—in this report or even in the minutes of the Catering Committee—how much subsidy per meal that works out at. It was put to me that if we divided that £6 million subsidy by the number of meals that it paid for, we might find that it was cheaper for hon. Members to be taken by taxi to the Savoy Grill.
I assure you, Sir Nicholas, that there has been no choreography between me and the hon. Gentleman, but I appreciate his question, because it brings me to my next point—individual subsidies per meal.
One ingredient missing from the present structure is a way—other than who shouts loudest when the meeting is called—of allocating priorities for expenditure. There are some lamentable examples of that.
I believe that I am not allowed to say what the subsidy per meal is—[Hon. Members: "Go on."] To give an indication, however, I will say that the cash paid per meal in the Members' Dining Room is about one fifth of the cost. That perhaps gives an illustration of the difficulties and gaps that exist.
The example that enraged me—I am happy to say that it has now been dealt with—was highlighted in a report brought to the Finance and Services Committee. The report was about the need to reduce the cost of a bottle of whisky in the House of Commons gift shop, because House of Lords whisky was cheaper and sales were falling. We were therefore about to have a whisky war between the House of Commons shop and House of Lords shop to keep the sales of House of Commons whisky up. Is there a more absurd example? Well, of course, there are lots more, but I have not got the time to entertain you with them, Sir Nicholas.
I welcome paragraph 253, which boasts of the value-for-money exercises and refers to the continued reduction in subsidy. On the right-hand side of a box included below that paragraph, we read that any decision will be subject to review. Perhaps I can leave the House of Commons Commission to think about that, too.
All that I have done is discuss two or three typical examples to illustrate the fact that we do not have a grip on the situation. How can we achieve accountability? How can we set standards for ourselves and not simply impose targets on other people? The Director of Finance, Mr. Andrew Walker, tries his very best, and I have great admiration for what he does, but he can only carry out the instructions that he is given by the Commission, the Finance and Services Committee and Members. If any other public sector organisation budgeted and managed as we do, we would have sent in commissioners to take over the service a long time ago.
When we want improvements—this brings me back to the subject of Braithwaite II—we are constantly held back, inhibited and blocked by our structures. At the heart of it is the problem of the Commission. We have a large budget that is about the equivalent of that of a middle-sized local authority, and yet I do not think that any middle-sized local authority would expect to be run by a group of unelected aldermen chaired by the Pope. That is what we face. Criticism of the organisation is, basically, spitting in church. I am convinced that we need a full review in depth.
We need a Braithwaite II, now or at least inside the next two years. I was disappointed to hear the Leader of the House say that he did not think that that was needed for the time being. We should not let it wait. That would give us a time of study and the opportunity to implement the new structures well before the next general election so that the next Parliament can set out on a better step than we have.
I am looking forward to what my hon. Friend Norman Baker has to say about green issues. I support what the hon. Member for Battersea said about the outstanding recommendations of other reports. In introducing the report, my hon. Friend Nick Harvey brought up an important point about the balance between support for staff in the building and that for staff in our constituencies. We need more balance to put less pressure on the House authorities.
The report is too good to be true. It contains some throw-away comments that are sometimes wide of the mark. Paragraph 42 on page 15 states:
"The publication of a 12-month calendar of sitting days is now well established".
It is not. We have not got it and such statements devalue the report when it is put in front of Members. I have welcomed the opportunity to contribute to the debate, and I shall welcome even more progress made as a result of it.
I am delighted that the debate has assumed the status of an annual debate. Indeed, in his introduction to the report, Mr. Speaker commented that this annual event would be enshrined in the cycle of events in the House. I was also impressed on the way in this afternoon by the superb exhibition that, as Nick Harvey mentioned, has been mounted by the House authorities. It is alleged by those in my family who conduct genealogy that we are directly descended from Guy Fawkes. I do not know whether that is substantially true, but the frisson as I passed the exhibition perhaps says something about it.
The debate this afternoon, among many other things, reflects on the findings of the Braithwaite report. It was stated in that report that there should be a review at about the five-year point. I was pleased to hear the remarks made in that respect by the hon. Member for North Devon. The difficulty is that one would have to do quite a lot of the work of a review in order to make a case that there might be one. I agree that it would be proper to conduct a review in the next two years or so, if perhaps one of a less than fundamental nature, and I hope that that is the way in which matters will proceed. Indeed, regardless of whether one goes into the fundamentals of how the House is organised, I hope that several issues that have already been raised will form part of that process.
I also welcome the news that the new voter pack will be distributed shortly. The pack is important to the well-being of the House in its efforts to ensure that it remains legitimate and that a new generation is able to understand what it is doing when it participates in the process of voting. In addition to distributing packs to young people, it might be an idea to supply individual Members of Parliament with them. They could be given out at MPs' surgeries and at their other local activities.
The Table Office does an excellent job of fielding, making sense of and processing questions. Hon. Members have put on record their appreciation of the hard work of the staff of the House. The Table Office is of particular note. It does an excellent job of processing early-day motions, as well as processing questions, and so on. I see from page 18 of the report that the Table Office processed more than 100,000 names this year, along with 2,000 early-day motions. I shall share a few thoughts on the House authorities' administration of early-day motions and on the existence of early-day motions themselves.
Early-day motions are not a recent phenomenon; indeed,
"Notices of Motions for which no days have been fixed" first appeared on the Order Paper in 1865. Early-day motions codified an earlier practice of putting motions on the Order Paper, some of which would gain a day for debate by the House and some of which would not. The practice in 1865 was not to have "no day fixed" permanently but to hold such motions in abeyance. Several of the early-day motions that were tabled on that basis gained a day for debate in the course of a Session. The term "early-day" was first appended at the head of such motions in the 1940s. The current practice of early-day motions stems from that time. There has been little practical change in the way in which they work, save some further definition about how the title should be arranged and who the sponsor should be.
There has however been a significant change, especially in the past seven or eight years, in the number of early-day motions tabled and the number of signatures attached to them. In order to process all that material, either in written or in electronic form, the Table Office's work load has increased. In the 1939–40 Session, 21 early-day motions were tabled. That rose to about 100 or so per Session in the 1950s, to 400 or 500 in the 1960s, and to 700 or 800 in the 1970s. Just over 1,000 early-day motions were tabled in the '80s and '90s. In the first years of the new century, early-day motions have really taken off—about 2,000 per Session are tabled. Moreover, as I have already mentioned, more people are signing each early-day motion.
As a slightly different way to look at it, the Commission helpfully provides a note in annexe 1 to the report of financial year 2004–05. Records show that from 2000–01 there is a 60 per cent. increase in the number of motions tabled each year up until 2004–05. Similarly, the number of signatories has increased each year from just under 2,000 to more than 3,000. As I have said, that increases the Table Office Clerks' work load. The cost of filing, processing and publishing early-day motions in all forms also increases. No estimate is provided in this year's report of the cost of that entire process, but in 2001 it was estimated that it cost the House authorities £443,000. As the numbers of signatures and motions have increased substantially since then, I imagine that the cost has increased considerably too. It is a demand-led practice. Whatever the volume of early-day motions and signatures stands at, the House authorities are required to administer them, and they do so admirably, as the report outlines.
There are two ways of considering the phenomenon. It could be said that increasing numbers of early-day motions and signatures represent a flowering of an institution of the House. Alternatively, it could be suggested that it represents the industrialisation of the early-day motion process. The coming of age of IT, among other things, has elevated the early-day motion to the status of a must-have campaign tool for whoever is lobbying for whatever it is. A campaign will find a friendly MP to table an early-day motion and will then campaign among its supporters to get as many other MPs as possible to sign it. The early-day motion has changed significantly from being a tool that hon. Members would use to a tool that involves most hon. Members passively. A not untypical response to a postcard campaign by a pressure group is simply to say, "Yes, I've signed the early-day motion", and to take the opportunity to sign a page of the blue sheets, deposit it in the Table Office and add one's name.
We have all seen hon. Members in the Chamber periodically catching up on early-day motions by flicking through the Order Paper with the blue sheets at the back, and signing the motions. As the House authorities' guide to early-day motions cryptically says,
"Members themselves sometimes accidentally sign early-day motions which they have already signed. Any such duplication is filtered out by the Table Office computer system, and only the original signature is printed or counted towards the total number of signatures."
Judging from that comment, that is a more common occurrence than one might suspect.
It is not the only increasingly common practice. Rather like the story about how Trappist monks tell one another jokes, some hon. Members will even write periodically with a list of numbers and the line, "Please add my name to the motions" with the numbers adumbrated in the letter. Some hon. Members will sign perhaps 600 or 700 early-day motions in that fashion in each Session.
I presume that my hon. Friend's stricture on early-day motions does not apply to early-day motion 391, in his name and mine, in support of an excellent private Member's Bill that is due for debate a week on Friday.
It is the same for wines laid down in any collection: some wines will be well laid down and some will not. The early-day motion that my hon. Friend mentions is the equivalent of an extremely fine wine ready for drinking.
The campaigns that I have described are increasingly widespread, especially with the facility of e-mail, whereby supporters can send a standard letter to an MP's e-mail box, the address of which has been supplied by the campaigning organisation requiring signing of the early-day motion in question. The MP's computer resources will then be mobilised to send a standard letter to the computer of the people who sent the request, to say that the early-day motion has been dealt with. Probably neither end of the process involves any human beings. In my postbag over the past few days I have received standard letters or postcards from nine organisations asking me to sign early-day motions. Each postcard has 20 or 30 different addresses attached. I have received e-mails from six other organisations involving similar numbers of people.
The parliamentary website states that the early-day motion is
"a kind of petition that MPs can sign."
That is not a bad description, although it has been rather overtaken by the scale of the industrialisation of the early-day motion. Generally, I do not sign early-day motions, with the exception of the one mentioned by my hon. Friend. However, it is much harder to reply to the postcards and e-mails that I receive—I try to do so on every occasion—by explaining why I do not generally sign early-day motions than it is simply to reply that I have signed them. I suspect that that fact alone lies behind much of the signature expansion that we observe.
The truth about early-day motions—which one has to explain when one replies to those who send postcards and e-mails—is that nothing whatever happens to them. That is often not made clear by organisations that try to persuade people to write to their MPs to ask them to sign them. It comes as a considerable surprise to those who write in when that information is relayed to them. We know that each year 2,000 early-day motions slip off the Order Paper and we await a new batch of 2,000 the following year and so on, for ever. I do not know whether that is a good thing. Early-day motions serve as a means of expression of a sentiment, and some serve as a warning light.
My hon. Friend comes to the nub of the issue. Surely early-day motions have completely lost currency; they have been over-used. Rather than regarding them as political graffiti—a soft option for hon. Members—would it not be better to change the rules of the House to say that an hon. Member may not table an early-day motion unless it has 30, 40 or 50 signatures? If an early-day motion attracted the support of, say, half the House, it could be debated, either in this Chamber or on the Floor of the House. I refer my hon. Friend to my maiden speech on the subject, some eight years ago.
I do not think so; one individually crafted speech turning into two amounts to a small cottage industry rather than to industrialisation.
I mentioned that early-day motions do serve under some circumstances to warn the Government of the day that there is a policy elephant trap ahead. Other than that, they simply come and go, as the seasons wax and wane, in a predictable way.
We face the continuing expansion of a House function that costs more than £500,000 a year but does nothing other than perform the ephemeral function that I have described. That could be achieved in other ways—for example, an electronically self-managed petition billboard on which MPs would be free to place their names if they wished. Indeed, experiments in such activity by the Scottish Parliament are worthy of note. Alternatively, we could decide that early-day motions, as my hon. Friend Martin Salter suggests, ought to mean something, or should have some consequence. We might say, for instance—I know that this is not a new suggestion—that an early-day motion with more than a certain number of signatures could find a slot for debate at an early date, and we might require all those who signed it to be there to listen to that debate [Laughter.] An interesting suggestion.
At present, both the House authorities and hon. Members have the worst of both worlds. We have a system that does not do anything, but needs to be maintained because members of the public perhaps believe that it does something. However, it is a system in which hon. Members can never report back that their signatures did achieve anything—not even something as modest as a debate in the House—because, as we know, the early day is always over the horizon.
I am delighted to follow Dr. Whitehead, and I share his views on early-day motions. I can say with some feeling that they require more trouble than they achieve benefit. The irony is that their impact has become minuscule just as the public have become aware of them, almost in inverse proportions. The only value of early-day motions is that the public believe that they are worth something and therefore that something is happening. Indeed, my early-day motion 598 on Tasmania and the Gunns 20 caused considerable ructions in Australia, mainly because people there believed that it was vital in itself rather than because of its content, which I hasten to add I entirely recommend if Members have not signed it.
As an example of the automation of the early-day motion industry, I have received a number urging me to be present in the House on 11 November in order to support my Bill. It suggests that a button has been pushed without any research.
Indeed. I am happy to assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall be in the House on that day.
I, too, thank the Table Office. I regularly visit it, taking my parliamentary questions there. I am told by one of the staff that they call the days on which I do not turn up Baker days, after Kenneth Baker, and have a day off. I wish that the Table Office were able to secure answers from the Government rather than just replies.
Knowing the hon. Gentleman's commitment to environmental issues and that he will be committed to reducing the use of paper, I am intrigued that he has not yet found the route to the electronic tabling of parliamentary questions.
I prefer the personal touch with the Table Office. I am happy to discuss my carbon footprint with the hon. Gentleman at a later date.
I thank the Library staff, who do a fantastic job. I suggest that, if any Department of the House is understaffed, it is the House of Commons Library. I am grateful for its help, and for the good work done by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.
I welcome the exhibition on the gunpowder plot. It is of particular importance to my constituency of Lewes, which celebrates bonfire night in style. I am happy to say that one member of the bonfire society from Lewes has visited the exhibition and sang bonfire prayers in Westminster Hall—with the consent of the Serjeant-at-Arms, I might add.
I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend Andrew Stunell on the need for Braithwaite II, and what he said about the House sometimes being run in a less than efficient manner. I shall not repeat those comments, but they are entirely valid and I endorse them without reservation.
Mark Lazarowicz suggested that I might give my hon. Friend Nick Harvey an easy time because he is not a Minister and is a member of my party. I shall be doing no such thing: I shall be pursuing these matters with vigour. I welcome my hon. Friend's comments on my environment report, and I intend to hold him to them. Before turning to the environment report, I want to make an observation about the money that is sometimes spent on the House of Commons and the parliamentary estate in general.
We do not always get good value for money from the work that is done here, irrespective of whether it is needed. For example, the covered walkway being constructed next to the Post Office turntable—several poles are now coming out from the walls—is to cost £422,000. If the figure is true, it is astonishing. It has not been rebutted by the House authorities, so I assume that it is right. If so, it is about £400,000 in excess of what it should cost. I recommend that the House authorities buy something from B & Q for about £2,000 and upgrade it slightly. It would probably perform the necessary function, if it needs to be performed—although why we need a covered walkway at that location is beyond me. There is an alternative route if Members are frightened of getting wet. I sometimes think that we are looking for excuses to spend money; it is disgraceful.
I refer my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon to an answer given in the previous Parliament about the cost of refurbishing the lifts in Norman Shaw North, which I use to go to my office—not the cost of maintaining them to ensure that they work, which is perfectly fair, but of the oak panelling inside them. An extraordinary amount of money is spent in a way that would not be spent if it were our own money or if we were personally accountable for it. Nor would the public spend money on such things. We have to be careful that we do not regard spending as having a blank cheque. More needs to be done about that.
I want to spend the rest of my contribution to the debate on the environmental performance of the House of Commons. I would have preferred to have focused on the performance of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, but each House is still dealt with separately. Although some progress has been made to bring matters concerning the two Houses together, it has not happened in respect of environmental matters. It would be nice—if perhaps revolutionary—if we could ask a parliamentary question about the environmental impact of both Houses and for it to be answered in the House of Commons. That might be one step too far for some people, but it would be useful. It seems absurd that we at this end have to ask about waste collection in the Commons and they at the other end have to ask about waste collection in the Lords. However, that is how things are at present. There is a need for more co-ordination with the House of Lords.
I hope that environmental performance will be of interest to hon. Members who are present. In fact, three hon. Members here have an extremely good track record on the environment: two of the Labour Members present and my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove. I hope that the House of Commons Commission will take the issue seriously. Its report runs to 88 pages and has but half a page on the environment, at page 59. Even that half a page exudes complacency about the House's performance. For a start, it refers only to two issues: energy and waste. They are important and I shall return to them, but they are by no means the only issues that are linked to the environmental performance of the House.
Even the paragraphs on the environment are misleading in their complacency. For example, under the heading "Waste recycling", paragraph 234 states:
"In 2004/05 the proportion of waste recycled increased by two per cent to 29 per cent,"— an admirable increase, we might think. However, if we examine the figures on page 74, we see that in the year previous to that the figure was 39 per cent. Therefore, a fair way to describe what has happened is to say that the amount of recycled waste has decreased by 10 per cent. over the past two years. A spin has been put on the figure to suggest that things are improving when, by and large, they are not.
If we are to make progress, we must recognise first that there is a problem and not be in denial about such matters. We have a significant carbon footprint in the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon said, given the number of people who work here, we are equivalent to a small town. We must send out a message to the public that we are taking the environment seriously; that we are putting our own house—this House and our own house—in order and showing how others can respond similarly. The general public take it ill when they hear us in the House telling them that they should save energy, save water and use sustainable transport, if we do not seem to be doing so ourselves. We have an important example to set to others, and we are not setting it at present.
It was absolutely fair of my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon to say that I should be considering energy use per square metre. It is also fair to say that my report, of which he now has a copy, states that only in the last year has energy consumption per square metre declined below the 1997 level. Until 2004, it was well above that level and there has been a fall-back this year, which I very much welcome. However, no real progress has been made over the period. I am afraid to say that examples of energy waste abound, so rather than the Commission saying complacently, "We have a decrease this year, so let us settle for that", it should be considering what it should be doing to save energy elsewhere.
The number of rooms, toilets, kitchens and corridors in which lights are left on all day and night is enormous. If hon. Members do not believe me, I suggest that they take a photograph of Portcullis House at two o'clock in the morning. I have not done so, but I have taken a photograph at 11 o'clock at night and the place is lit up like Crystal Palace. Televisions on stand-by amount to significant carbon usage. Televisions are on all over the place even when the House is not sitting. They switch on automatically in the morning, whether or not someone is in the office, and they stay on after people have left the offices.
I was referring to the stand-by television problem, which does not apply in Portcullis House but does in Norman Shaw and other buildings. I was reflecting on the wasted energy it generates. If one asks colleagues in the House why televisions are left on, one reason given is that they serve as a clock. It is terribly wasteful to have a television on serving as a clock. It would be more effective to have a clock in each room and switch the television off. That is not suggested in the report, but perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon will consider it.
Can the hon. Gentleman help me with a puzzle that has affected me on a number of occasions? If one leaves one's office and turns all the lights off at night, when one returns in the morning, all the lights are on again, owing to some mysterious device.
Exactly. Energy efficiency works in reverse in the House: the policy appears to be to waste it rather than save it. For example, the lifts in Norman Shaw insist on returning to the ground, irrespective of whether anyone is in them. Why it is thought to be useful for them to move when nobody is in them is somewhat beyond me. When I queried it with the Serjeant at Arms, I was told that they had to return to the ground for fire reasons. I am not sure that I understand that; other lifts in the Palace do not return to the ground, so I am not clear why those in Norman Shaw should have special treatment. It seems sometimes that reasons are brought forth to push away an inquiry rather than address it properly.
Returning to the point about energy per sq m, the figure was 328 kilowatts per sq m in 1997–98 and by 2003–04 it had gone up to 357, an increase of about 10 per cent. It is true that last year it dropped to just below 328, but that means that there have been no energy efficient savings of any sort over the entire time I have been in Parliament. That is pretty indefensible.
It is also the case that the energy saving budget, according to figures from the House of Commons Commission, has been cut by 40 per cent. since 1997 from £50,000 in 1997–98 to £30,000 in 2004–05. What possible explanation or justification can there be for spending £422,000 on a walkway that nobody wants, and spending less than in 1997—only £30,000—on the energy saving budget? Furthermore, that budget has to compete with other measures such as water conservation, so it is not even entirely an energy saving budget.
There is clear evidence of waste all around. Another example are motion-sensitive escalators. When they were introduced, I said, "Hooray!" for the one in Portcullis House, which was motion-sensitive, so did not run when nobody was using it. I thought that that was an innovation that we could bring in elsewhere. What happened? The motion sensitivity has been turned off so that the escalator runs all the time, whether or not someone is on it. When I asked why, I was told that a Member or a member of staff had caught her high heel in it and it was thought unsafe, and hon. Members could not cope with the idea of a motion-activated escalator. We can do better than that. An escalator should not be running when it is not required if there is a facility to allow it not to.
On water, the figure is the same. I appreciate that there has been an increase in the number of people in the House—that is a relevant factor—but the amount of water used on the parliamentary estate has increased by more than 50 per cent. since 1997. There is no separate budget for water conservation measures, which compete with energy saving investments for the annual conservation budget. As far as I can tell, there is no real commitment to do anything about that in future. I hope that that will change as a consequence of this debate and other representations from other hon. Members.
There is also the question of waste generation and disposal. We have at last, unlike when I started in this place, two bins in our offices—both the same colour, incidentally, just to make things complicated. One has a label saying "For recycling", and one does not. Many of us naively thought that that meant material put into the bin marked "Recycling" was actually recycled. However, evidence that I have accrued and which has not been denied—I brought it to the attention of the predecessor of my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon, who accepted that it was happening—is that, in a curious arrangement, the office waste is separated and, at least some of the time, the cleaners take it outside and put it all in the same bag, in which it is taken for incineration. That might make us feel better, but it does not help recycling.
No, Sir Nicholas. I shall not go further down that route, although I am tempted.
Even the existing system for dealing with waste does not work and is not adhered to, which is a scandal. There is a dearth of recycling points around the place. There is no co-ordination between the Lords and Commons. Where, for example, can someone recycle material in Portcullis House? It is a brand-new building, and is supposed to be state of the art. Where are the recycling points there? I cannot find them.
I have dutifully collected laser printer cartridges and tried to recycle them. There is, apparently, a facility that one can ring up to have the cartridges collected. My office rang every month for six months to get the laser printer cartridges collected, without success. Finally we found an external contractor to take them away and deal with them properly. The performance on the environment is pitiful and we need to get a grip on it. I hope that we shall.
There are other problems. There is no plastic recycling to speak of in the House. No attempts are being made, as far as I can tell, at waste minimisation, which is, after all, at the top of the waste hierarchy. We heard, properly, from the hon. Member for Southampton, Test about the number of Order Papers or early-day motion booklets that are produced. He is right. People pick them up to see what question 4 is; they go into the Chamber and see it. That is their use for the Order Paper. There must be a better way of going about it. Martin Linton, when he was here, referred to the possibility of information being available in the Chamber. We should think about that, as the present use of Order Papers is wasteful.
Transport is not irrelevant to what we do in the House. I shall perhaps part company with some of my colleagues here. I think it is wrong that Members of Parliament should have free car parking. The Government rightly advocate workplace charging, and we encourage local authorities to go along that road. However, there is a deathly silence about the possibility of workplace charging in this place. Yet in the Abingdon street public car park across the road one will pay about £20 to park for half a day. We should have workplace charging and encourage MPs and staff to come to work by public transport, which serves Westminster very well, both by tube and bus. There are plenty of alternatives. There is no reason for people to come to Westminster by car, as, sadly, they still do in large numbers. We need to tackle that.
We need to deal with the lack of a travel plan for the House of Commons. When I raised that, I was told that hon. Members make their own arrangements. They may do, and I hope that they can be encouraged to make more sustainable arrangements, but what about all the people who work here, who, after all, outnumber hon. Members? We should be making it easier for them to come by public transport as well.
It is not good enough to push the problem on to someone else and say, "It's not our business, guv; someone else can deal with it." I have been encouraged to see the number of people coming to the House by bicycle these days. The bicycle racks seem to be chock-a-block. In fact, we seem to need more. I do not know when they will be coming. Some investment in them, instead of spending of £422,000 on a walkway, might be a good idea.
Is the hon. Gentleman as disappointed and discouraged as I am to find that many of our colleagues in central and west Scotland, and even the north-west of England, fly down here rather than using public transport? There must be something adrift about that.
Thank you, Sir Nicholas. I shall confine my remarks to how people arrive at the House of Commons. I think that that was the point that David Taylor was making. It is true to say that hon. Members should examine the carbon footprint of the means of travel that they choose.
I shall not go on too long, because others want to speak, and I have made my point, but I shall make one last point about procurement—we have a role in that—and water. Over the years, there has been a tendency to use bottled water more and more. Indeed, we are all benefiting from that here in the Chamber this afternoon. It is 461 times more expensive to use bottled water than tap water, which costs about 1p per 10 litres, compared to £25 for the same amount of bottled water. There is nothing wrong with tap water—even from Thames Water. Indeed, my analysis suggests that there are higher legislative standards for the quality of tap water than for bottled, so why do we continually traipse huge numbers of bottles at cost to the environment—through transport—so that Members can have bottles of water in front of them when tap water would be perfectly adequate? We should examine all aspects of our behaviour, but we have not done so.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon to his post. I was asked whether I would treat him as a Minister, and I may say I regard him absolutely as a Minister; he is very ministerial in his approach. I shall accord him that accolade, and treat him as such when asking my questions. I hope that the Commission will reflect on the debate, especially on the important points made by the hon. Member for Battersea about the Braithwaite review, the well made comments of my hon. Friend Andrew Stunell, and on the environmental angle. There needs to be a gear change and a change of behaviour from the Commission on the way in which this place is run.
I am delighted that Norman Baker did not give his party colleague a soft time in his comments, but I must say that it was a pretty bad advert for six years of Liberal Democrat rule. The Lib Dems have had an iron grip on the Commission for the past few years, but, hopefully, things will change.
I am glad that the debate seems to have become an annual debate, but I hope that it does not become a traditional one, in which the same speakers put forward the same points each year and not much happens in between.
Today, I shall concentrate on some areas in which we have not made as much progress as we should have since the last report. I shall inevitably not deal with the areas in which progress has been made, but I recognise that there has been progress. Obviously, the current security pressures mean that there are many pressures on staff and Members. In picking up on failings, I do not wish to minimise what has been achieved.
I am mainly interested in the issue of engaging with the public, and the "Connecting Parliament with the Public" report. My hon. Friend Martin Linton made an excellent and eloquent speech, making a lot of good points, many of which I endorse; indeed, I would make them myself. Some people would probably consider them to be as revolutionary in their way as Guy Fawkes's attempt to change this place, and would probably want my hon. Friend to receive the same penalty, too. However, I want to put on record my support for practically everything he said.
I want to concentrate on issues of particular relevance to those of us who represent constituencies further afield than London and the south-east. That is why I am particularly interested in outreach and how we put into practice the commitment that has been made to develop our outreach work in the education unit and in other ways.
Outreach work is not only an issue for those of us who represent constituencies that are further afield. If we were successful, we would have problems in finding room for the number of people—children or young people, for instance—who want to come to see how Parliament works. Therefore, outreach is in many ways as relevant for schools and communities just down the road from Westminster as it is for those of us whose schools and constituencies are further away, although there are clearly different issues for those of us from further afield.
The Modernisation Committee, whose work is considered by the House of Commons Commission, produced a report almost two years ago that suggested a number of steps be taken to develop the House's outreach work. One recommendation was for the appointment of staff in the education unit, and I welcome that, but there were others. For example, it was suggested that we might want to set up a parliamentary roadshow that could go around the country and give an opportunity for a bit of Parliament to be seen in parts of the country where the public, including children and young people, cannot easily visit Westminster.
However, in the Committee's report, the suggestion that there should be a parliamentary roadshow was qualified with the following comment:
"We recommend that before any further consideration is given to establishing an educational roadshow, the House should examine the scope for a Parliamentary partnering scheme with, for example, local authorities."
That is a good idea in itself, and Members may be aware that the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, and, to an extent, even the European Commission, have partner libraries and outlets where the public can find information about the work of such institutions. However, it is my understanding that we have not even begun to think of how we might do something like that. If we have not even begun to develop a partnering scheme, we appear to be even further from developing a parliamentary roadshow, which was only to happen if we tried a partnering scheme first.
I am disappointed that we have not gone further down that road. There are, of course, resource implications, but leaving aside the fact that it is important to spend money on ensuring that we connect with the public, it is possible to do some of this type of work in a cheap and cost-effective way, and then to build on that in the future.
For example, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have their own information centres that provide information about not only their buildings, which are quite expensive in the case of the Scottish Parliament, but about the political process. At present, precious little in those institutions relates those bodies to the UK parliamentary process, just as precious little here relays what we do in the devolved process. A possibility surely exists for us to have an arrangement whereby those centres and similar facilities provide some information about the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and we provide similar information about their institutions. I do not know whether they would welcome such an approach, but we could think about that.
The question of what we do with the outreach staff we appoint is also important. There would clearly not be much point in members of staff trying to visit every single school in the country, but I hope that we will ensure we are as active in reaching schools and other educational and community organisations that are a long way from Westminster as we are in reaching those that are nearer. That is why I will be interested to read what Nick Harvey writes to me about what we are doing in that respect.
We could do much better in other areas of contact with the public. I had some difficulty last year in getting materials and information from the education unit in some of the main ethnic minority languages. That has improved recently, but the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly of Wales have a range of information in various ethnic minority languages, and we do not seem to have that here, and certainly not in as easily accessible form as in those other institutions.
Outreach workers are important to get to those parts of the country where it is not easy for people to visit Parliament. It is quite easy to get to London from many parts of the United Kingdom, and not particularly expensive, but we should try to facilitate visits to the House of Commons. Despite the advantages of virtual contact with the House of Commons, people can find out some things only by experiencing this place and making the most of a visit. We should try to make it more possible for school groups and other community groups to visit.
The National Assembly of Wales has a travel subsidy scheme, which pays a small amount to subsidise travel for people visiting the Assembly from north or central Wales. Perhaps we should have such a scheme here. If we are not willing to expend our own resources, perhaps we could find a travel company prepared to sponsor a scheme to encourage direct, physical access to the House of Commons by groups of people who may not otherwise be able to come.
It is important to ensure that we stay connected to the public and that we engage them in our work. Hon. Members do that in various ways, but it should not be down just to the initiative of individual Members: it should be integral to the work of the House of Commons.
There is a difference in the information and education work relating to the 20 per cent. of the United Kingdom that has some form of devolution. The material provided for education outlets in those areas should reflect the fact that they have a devolved system. I think that some mention of that is made in the material produced by educational and information sources in the House, but there is not much that tries to bring the two systems together and explain the different forms of parliamentary democracy under devolution.
That is especially important for the new voters guide. If the guide that goes to new voters in my constituency describes itself as a guide to Parliament and refers only to the House of Commons and the House of Lords and there is no mention of the work of the Scottish Parliament and the day-to-day discussions in Scotland, it will cause some confusion. Separate material may have to be produced for the voters guides that go out to people in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. A better solution, however, might be to ensure that the guide sent to everyone in the United Kingdom properly reflects the devolved arrangements, so that people outside Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland understand more about the new political settlement. The Commission must take that issue on board, and I hope that it will do so in due course.
I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Lewes said about the environmental impact of our work in the House of Commons, and about how little we are doing to minimise the damage to the environment that Parliament, like any large institution, inevitably does unless it makes real efforts to minimise environmental damage.
The hon. Gentleman said much with which I agree. I shall not repeat his points but wish to say something about encouraging the most sustainable form of travel for people who work in this place, in whatever capacity. It is always dangerous to refer to personal experience, but sometimes our experiences can highlight defects in the arrangements. I noticed something in the report that highlighted how it sometimes tends to spend a great deal of time emphasising what are quite minimal achievements. Cycling has become more and more popular as a form of transport in London. The section on cycling states:
"The needs of cyclists continue to have priority and a redesign of cycle racks is planned, to maximise parking spaces."
I hope that means cycle parking spaces. In any event, as someone who cycles regularly to the House of Commons, I have not noticed much sign that the interests of cyclists are a priority in this place. Indeed, the recent redesign of part of the surroundings to facilitate understandable security concerns could have been used as an opportunity to facilitate cycle access to the building. Instead, in many ways it is now much harder to get to the building on a bike than it was previously. I can tell those Members who do not cycle that one of the most dangerous parts of my journey is trying to get to the House of Commons from some of the roads in the area. I do not want to dwell on that personal experience, except to use it to illustrate the fact that we do not carry out in practice some of the commitments that we make in theory.
Finally, I want to say something about the cleaning staff in the House of Commons and the dispute that has been going on for some time. As I mentioned, the Commission has been in the grip of the Liberal Democrats for several years. I can envisage the leaflets slamming the Lib Dem poverty pay scandal that would be printed if we were to follow the suggestion made by the Puttnam commission to elect the House of Commons Commission by secret ballot.
Leaving that aside, we are in a dispute with some of the most low-paid people in the House of Commons. The fact that we are unable to come to an agreement on what seems to be a reasonable pay claim is a scandal and reflects badly on the entire House. I happen to be a member of the same trade union as the cleaners, the Transport and General Workers Union. That does not mean that I have an interest in the formal sense, but, like all those in the House who are concerned about employees, I am concerned that we cannot get a satisfactory resolution to the dispute.
I put a question at the relevant time in the Chamber in respect of resolution of the dispute and suggested that a tripartite arrangement be created. I was extremely disappointed that the issue was batted off merely on the basis that it would be too costly to break the contracts and that, in any case, the hourly rates paid are not out of kilter with the rest of the cleaning sector of the economy. That response was profoundly disappointing.
I was not in the Chamber to hear that exchange, but it certainly sounds very disappointing. The hon. Member for North Devon has just taken over responsibility, so he cannot carry personal blame for the problem, but I was disappointed to hear him say that there is no money. To be blunt, that is what is always said by employers in difficult circumstances. A point was made about a subsidy through the catering establishment. If it required my paying 10p extra for a meal to provide a decent settlement in the cleaners dispute, I would certainly be happy to do that.
Has the hon. Gentleman seen the parliamentary answer that I received about the cost of window cleaning at Portcullis House? It said that the cost last year was £115,000. How much of that does he think when to the cleaners?
I suspect not a great deal, but no doubt that is information that the hon. Gentleman will be able to elicit in more detail through his parliamentary questions.
I strongly urge all the members of the Commission to try to find some way out of this dispute, which reflects badly on the entire House. It cannot go on any longer.
This Adjournment debate has certainly showcased the wide range of issues with which the House of Commons Commission deals. I know that our distinguished colleague who speaks for the Commission in the House, Nick Harvey, will want to respond to a number of points. I join hon. Members in thanking the staff for all the work that they do in this place. I know that hon. Members will treat them with courtesy and like the fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters that they are, as we should treat all people, especially those serving the public.
As we are wearing our poppies today with pride, we should thank those members of staff and Members of this House who laid down their lives to defend the democratic principles of this great parliamentary democracy. I also want to pay tribute to former Leaders and Deputy Leaders of the House and to Chris Grayling for his unfailing courtesy. I owe a personal debt to Robin Cook. He was very kind to me when I worked for him first as a volunteer, then as a sub-agent in the year that he was elected to this place, and later as a paid researcher. He is greatly missed.
I want to thank Members who serve on the domestic Committees of the House. They and you especially, Sir Nicholas, have achieved a quiet revolution in this esteemed place, although you may not wish to use those terms in your CV to the 1922 committee. I have certainly witnessed great improvements for new Members. When I was first elected there was no induction course. There was no proper briefing on the work of the Table Office, Select Committees or Standing Committees. For the first few months, I did not have a desk and I did not have a phone, but I had a place to hang my sword. Things have improved greatly, and the Commission should take credit for that.
My hon. Friend Martin Linton and others showcased what has been achieved by the Modernisation Committee in particular. We have achieved much but there is so much more to do. I believe there will be debates in future on reducing the voting age, on regarding voting as the duty of every citizen and on extending broadcasting in particular to all public debates of this House and its Committees.
I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me if I move on quickly. I want to cover points made by hon. Members who spoke in the debate.
My hon. Friend Dr. Whitehead tested us among other things on our knowledge of early-day motions. I know we will want to consider what is done. I think that if it were the view of Members that this should be a proper subject for deliberations the Procedure Committee would consider it. The Administration Committee itself will want to consider some of the other points made.
I take to heart the recycling points made by my hon. Friend Mark Lazarowicz and by Norman Baker, who made a particularly thoughtful contribution. The Commission will have noted his comments and will want to respond. Andrew Stunell raised the issue of the catering subsidy. I speak with some experience on this. When I was first elected as a councillor in Edinburgh, there was a free waiter/waitress service for councillors. I boycotted it. Over time, with the help of colleagues, that got abolished. There is no such free service here, but it is open to those Members who feel that there should not be a subsidy to bring their own sandwiches and not benefit from that subsidy. Indeed, in the month leading up to Remembrance Sunday, they might perhaps put in the poppy boxes an additional contribution reflecting their view of the amount by which their meal, tea or coffee is subsidised.
However, I caution Members against raising these issues in an inflammatory way, although I am not saying that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove did so. It brings us all into disrepute if the subject is not handled with the sensitivity and complexity that it merits. There are 641 Members presently in the House, and 3,000 staff members and others who benefit from the catering facilities. They need to deal with unsocial hours and a lack of alternatives, as security dictates how people can come in and out.
I should be happy to take the matter further forward with the Minister, but he needs to appreciate that the largest subsidy is given to Members, and not to staff.
I know that this has been a matter for consideration in the past, and it is right that it should be given proper attention. I have informed the hon. Gentleman about it, because I realise that the wheels of change in this place tend to turn slowly, and we tend to deliberate for long periods. I have given a way for hon. Members who do not want to wait for change to set a lead, given that they think that the subsidy is wrong. I do not find it as invidious as it was so starkly made out to be, because many staff benefit from it, and I think that that is right. However, his points have been noted by the Commission, and this is, of course, a matter for that body. Like other hon. Members, I look forward to hearing the contribution of the spokesperson for the Commission, the hon. Member for North Devon.
With the leave of the House, I should like to respond to some of the points made in this interesting debate. There has been a great deal of support for some sort of Braithwaite II. A variety of issues have attracted consensus across the House, such as the need for professional outreach so that the House can communicate with the electorate and public as much as possible. There is probably also consensus on some of the environmental points that my hon. Friend Norman Baker made.
I particularly welcomed the Leader of the House's contribution at the start of the debate. He acknowledged that, in his view, there needs to be a Braithwaite II of sorts. There will be a range of views on how fast and how radical that should be, but there seems to be clear consensus that there needs to be a review. I also welcomed his recognition of the need for legislation on the parliamentary information and communications technology issue. I hope that he will be successful in finding some time for that. His remarks on the website for Parliament were welcome, but he was right to say that this is a sector that does not stand still. As soon as we have done one major overhaul, it is almost time to begin the next.
Will the hon. Gentleman carry back the fact that the Parliamentary Communications Directorate has done a remarkable job in improving the service here in the past eight years? However, it needs to complete its work by improving its service to Members in the constituencies.
It is recognised that there is a need to continue improving the service for staff in the constituencies, and I have every confidence that that will happen.
The contribution from Chris Grayling, who spoke for the official Opposition, was also welcome, particularly his remarks about the PCD staff and their work. I will make sure that those remarks are passed back. He was too modest about his work as Chairman of the Audit Committee; he is doing an extremely good job in that role, which is very important. I will say a couple of other things about that in a moment.
Martin Linton told us that the Welsh Assembly has a communications office comprising 75 press officers—or something of that sort. I paraphrase his comments slightly. We might need to share some of the audit expertise of this House with the Welsh Assembly. I struggle to imagine that value for money can possibly be being secured, although one would think that it might get a better press for having invested so lavishly. I think that he may be about to correct me.
Let me correct the record. That communications department includes both the people who deal with visitors and the press office. It is, as it would be here, all people dealing with the public.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. He made an interesting and wide-ranging speech and the best thing would be to write to him about some of the detailed points.
I was pleased that, as a previous member of the Modernisation Committee, the hon. Gentleman felt satisfaction that some recommendations had been implemented. When we get towards having a new visitor centre, some of his points about visitors will be fulfilled. As has rightly been said, some of the other issues he mentioned are not necessarily primarily matters for the House of Commons Commission. In one or two cases, the Procedure Committee would take them forward.
I listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman's comments about televising and relaxing some of the regulations. I have much sympathy with what he said, but one must avoid going too far. When I was in New Zealand a few years ago, I watched televised news reports of events in Parliament there. The Prime Minister had got himself into a pickle in a Committee Room and I was horrified to see that a television crew that was hollering questions was able to follow him down the corridor. One can go too far the other way, but the points that the hon. Gentleman made about the 15-minute gap in coverage on BBC Parliament can, and should, be examined further.
Some of the hon. Gentleman's other points, such as the one about a chief executive of the House, would have to be addressed even were there to be a Braithwaite II. I noted them with interest but I cannot cover all of them. He made points about electronic management. I hope that he is availing himself of the opportunity to table his questions electronically.
I am delighted to hear it. Perhaps, that will contribute towards the paper-free Parliament that the hon. Gentleman anticipates.
My hon. Friend Andrew Stunell made a variety of interesting points. In his remarks about Braithwaite, he was examining the issues at the more substantial end of the scale. In my opening remarks, I said that such a review might take a variety of shapes and sizes. The urging on his part will be noted. There will have to be discussion about the scale, nature, scope and purpose of the review. It is good that there is widespread agreement.
I was a little surprised to be described by my hon. Friend as an elderly alderman.
I am grateful.
My hon. Friend made a strong argument about the catering subsidy. The Deputy Leader of the House has already made his point about the greater number of meals consumed here and said that the greater beneficiaries of this are the staff of the House and the staff of Members, many of whom work long and antisocial hours. The newly formed Administration Committee is about to embark shortly on another review of catering in the House, and these are points that it could sensibly take up.
I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend's point about the calendar of sittings, as I am sure all Members would. He also mentioned the screen. Many of my hon. Friends are concerned that the arrangements for the new screen impair visibility of the nearer half of the Chamber, and some hon. Gentlemen from other parties share the general sense of unease. I will come back to my hon. Friend on that matter, as it will need to be investigated further.
Dr. Whitehead told us that one of his predecessors was Guy Fawkes. The first researcher I attempted to appoint in the House took a very long time to get his security pass because his grandparents had attended Communist party marches in the 1950s and that information was still on file. It is perhaps as well that MPs do not get security clearance for their passes, or the hon. Gentleman might never have got one; they would not have let him in.
The hon. Gentleman made a very interesting speech about early-day motions and the purpose they serve. It is primarily a matter for the Procedure Committee, but the House of Commons Commission would perhaps end up looking at some of the practical issues that arise. Many hon. Members said how important it was to interact with the public in a way that made Parliament mean something to them. Early-day motions and campaigns about early-day motions are one of the few things that go on here that seem to make sense to a lot of the public. If they realised how minimal was the impact of early-day motions, they might well be horrified. There may be better ways of doing such things, but we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater if early-day motions are one of the few things that actually get the public interacting and engaging with Parliament.
As I said, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes has recently published a detailed environmental analysis of Parliament. I have undertaken to respond to that report publicly so that the reply can be seen by everyone. I will send copies of that reply to those who have attended this debate.
I do not intend now to respond in detail to the points made by my hon. Friend, but I want to correct him on one point: he repeated an assertion he has made before, which was that the environmental management of the two Houses of Parliament is not co-ordinated. I repeat the explanation that I am sure he has had before, which is that the environmental management of the two Houses of Parliament is done as one on an estate-wide basis. I note my hon. Friend's dissatisfaction that he cannot ask questions in this House about those aspects that are carried on in the other place, but that is a matter of parliamentary procedure. Perhaps he needs to find someone in the other place who will table the equivalent questions. The management of the Houses of Parliament is done in a completely unified way. There is one estate management process for the entire parliamentary estate.
My hon. Friend also asked about the covered walkway, and I share his surprise at its cost. The Chairman of the Audit Committee is present and will have heard my hon. Friend's remarks. If my hon. Friend has grounds for believing that the contract is overpriced, perhaps the Audit Committee should examine the matter and see whether value for money has been secured.
I do not think that the heritage advisers who have a say over changes in the Palace would take entirely kindly to my hon. Friend's suggestion that materials for the purpose could have been secured from B and Q. One thing that needs to be understood is that it was a heritage requirement that the structure that went up was self-standing. I cannot comment on why that was so, but it was the heritage requirement, and that was undoubtedly one of the factors that contributed to the cost. I do not know or understand why the cost is so high, and I share my hon. Friend's surprise. The best thing would be for the Audit Committee to look into the issue.
It may be within the Committee's scope to do so, and my hon. Friend could invite it to examine that issue at the same time as it looked into the cost.
Mark Lazarowicz has taken an active interest in the question of outreach. As I said, two additional staff have taken up posts in the education unit. In December, the Commission, and possibly the Modernisation Committee, will get an updating report, and we can ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets to see it. We hope that the new outreach staff will have a clear idea of the way forward by then, and some of the suggestions that the hon. Gentleman has made today can certainly be drawn to their attention.
I could reflect on a few other points in the hon. Gentleman's speech, but he raised the issue of the House of Commons cleaners, and I say again that I can add nothing to my responses to questions on
I am grateful to everybody who has contributed to the debate. A string of interesting points have been raised, and the Commission has heard them and will take note. Where unanswered queries remain, I shall come back to hon. Members with such answers as I am able to uncover.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Six o'clock.