House of Commons Commission (Annual Report)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:19 pm on 3rd November 2005.

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Photo of Geoff Hoon Geoff Hoon Lord Privy Seal 3:19 pm, 3rd November 2005

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 13 July, we have substantially overhauled the structure of domestic Committees, introducing a new single Administration Committee in place of the five previous Committees. It would be appropriate at this stage to allow those new arrangements to bed down before we commit ourselves to any further full review of those structures, although I note the hon. Gentleman's point that we should at least contemplate having such a review during this Parliament.

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.