House of Commons Commission (Annual Report)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:10 pm on 3rd November 2005.

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Photo of Andrew Stunell Andrew Stunell Shadow Chief Whip (Commons), Liberal Democrat Chief Whip 4:10 pm, 3rd November 2005

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.