House of Commons Commission (Annual Report)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:31 pm on 3rd November 2005.

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Photo of Chris Grayling Chris Grayling Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 3:31 pm, 3rd November 2005

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.