House of Commons Commission (Annual Report)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:45 pm on 3rd November 2005.

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Photo of Martin Linton Martin Linton Labour, Battersea 3:45 pm, 3rd November 2005

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.