House of Commons Commission (Annual Report)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:04 pm on 3rd November 2005.

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Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Liberal Democrat, North Devon 3:04 pm, 3rd November 2005

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.