House of Commons Commission (Annual Report)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:13 pm on 3rd November 2005.

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Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith 5:13 pm, 3rd November 2005

I am delighted that Norman Baker did not give his party colleague a soft time in his comments, but I must say that it was a pretty bad advert for six years of Liberal Democrat rule. The Lib Dems have had an iron grip on the Commission for the past few years, but, hopefully, things will change.

I am glad that the debate seems to have become an annual debate, but I hope that it does not become a traditional one, in which the same speakers put forward the same points each year and not much happens in between.

Today, I shall concentrate on some areas in which we have not made as much progress as we should have since the last report. I shall inevitably not deal with the areas in which progress has been made, but I recognise that there has been progress. Obviously, the current security pressures mean that there are many pressures on staff and Members. In picking up on failings, I do not wish to minimise what has been achieved.

I am mainly interested in the issue of engaging with the public, and the "Connecting Parliament with the Public" report. My hon. Friend Martin Linton made an excellent and eloquent speech, making a lot of good points, many of which I endorse; indeed, I would make them myself. Some people would probably consider them to be as revolutionary in their way as Guy Fawkes's attempt to change this place, and would probably want my hon. Friend to receive the same penalty, too. However, I want to put on record my support for practically everything he said.

I want to concentrate on issues of particular relevance to those of us who represent constituencies further afield than London and the south-east. That is why I am particularly interested in outreach and how we put into practice the commitment that has been made to develop our outreach work in the education unit and in other ways.

Outreach work is not only an issue for those of us who represent constituencies that are further afield. If we were successful, we would have problems in finding room for the number of people—children or young people, for instance—who want to come to see how Parliament works. Therefore, outreach is in many ways as relevant for schools and communities just down the road from Westminster as it is for those of us whose schools and constituencies are further away, although there are clearly different issues for those of us from further afield.

The Modernisation Committee, whose work is considered by the House of Commons Commission, produced a report almost two years ago that suggested a number of steps be taken to develop the House's outreach work. One recommendation was for the appointment of staff in the education unit, and I welcome that, but there were others. For example, it was suggested that we might want to set up a parliamentary roadshow that could go around the country and give an opportunity for a bit of Parliament to be seen in parts of the country where the public, including children and young people, cannot easily visit Westminster.

However, in the Committee's report, the suggestion that there should be a parliamentary roadshow was qualified with the following comment:

"We recommend that before any further consideration is given to establishing an educational roadshow, the House should examine the scope for a Parliamentary partnering scheme with, for example, local authorities."

That is a good idea in itself, and Members may be aware that the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, and, to an extent, even the European Commission, have partner libraries and outlets where the public can find information about the work of such institutions. However, it is my understanding that we have not even begun to think of how we might do something like that. If we have not even begun to develop a partnering scheme, we appear to be even further from developing a parliamentary roadshow, which was only to happen if we tried a partnering scheme first.

I am disappointed that we have not gone further down that road. There are, of course, resource implications, but leaving aside the fact that it is important to spend money on ensuring that we connect with the public, it is possible to do some of this type of work in a cheap and cost-effective way, and then to build on that in the future.

For example, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have their own information centres that provide information about not only their buildings, which are quite expensive in the case of the Scottish Parliament, but about the political process. At present, precious little in those institutions relates those bodies to the UK parliamentary process, just as precious little here relays what we do in the devolved process. A possibility surely exists for us to have an arrangement whereby those centres and similar facilities provide some information about the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and we provide similar information about their institutions. I do not know whether they would welcome such an approach, but we could think about that.

The question of what we do with the outreach staff we appoint is also important. There would clearly not be much point in members of staff trying to visit every single school in the country, but I hope that we will ensure we are as active in reaching schools and other educational and community organisations that are a long way from Westminster as we are in reaching those that are nearer. That is why I will be interested to read what Nick Harvey writes to me about what we are doing in that respect.

We could do much better in other areas of contact with the public. I had some difficulty last year in getting materials and information from the education unit in some of the main ethnic minority languages. That has improved recently, but the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly of Wales have a range of information in various ethnic minority languages, and we do not seem to have that here, and certainly not in as easily accessible form as in those other institutions.

Outreach workers are important to get to those parts of the country where it is not easy for people to visit Parliament. It is quite easy to get to London from many parts of the United Kingdom, and not particularly expensive, but we should try to facilitate visits to the House of Commons. Despite the advantages of virtual contact with the House of Commons, people can find out some things only by experiencing this place and making the most of a visit. We should try to make it more possible for school groups and other community groups to visit.

The National Assembly of Wales has a travel subsidy scheme, which pays a small amount to subsidise travel for people visiting the Assembly from north or central Wales. Perhaps we should have such a scheme here. If we are not willing to expend our own resources, perhaps we could find a travel company prepared to sponsor a scheme to encourage direct, physical access to the House of Commons by groups of people who may not otherwise be able to come.

It is important to ensure that we stay connected to the public and that we engage them in our work. Hon. Members do that in various ways, but it should not be down just to the initiative of individual Members: it should be integral to the work of the House of Commons.

There is a difference in the information and education work relating to the 20 per cent. of the United Kingdom that has some form of devolution. The material provided for education outlets in those areas should reflect the fact that they have a devolved system. I think that some mention of that is made in the material produced by educational and information sources in the House, but there is not much that tries to bring the two systems together and explain the different forms of parliamentary democracy under devolution.

That is especially important for the new voters guide. If the guide that goes to new voters in my constituency describes itself as a guide to Parliament and refers only to the House of Commons and the House of Lords and there is no mention of the work of the Scottish Parliament and the day-to-day discussions in Scotland, it will cause some confusion. Separate material may have to be produced for the voters guides that go out to people in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. A better solution, however, might be to ensure that the guide sent to everyone in the United Kingdom properly reflects the devolved arrangements, so that people outside Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland understand more about the new political settlement. The Commission must take that issue on board, and I hope that it will do so in due course.

I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Lewes said about the environmental impact of our work in the House of Commons, and about how little we are doing to minimise the damage to the environment that Parliament, like any large institution, inevitably does unless it makes real efforts to minimise environmental damage.

The hon. Gentleman said much with which I agree. I shall not repeat his points but wish to say something about encouraging the most sustainable form of travel for people who work in this place, in whatever capacity. It is always dangerous to refer to personal experience, but sometimes our experiences can highlight defects in the arrangements. I noticed something in the report that highlighted how it sometimes tends to spend a great deal of time emphasising what are quite minimal achievements. Cycling has become more and more popular as a form of transport in London. The section on cycling states:

"The needs of cyclists continue to have priority and a redesign of cycle racks is planned, to maximise parking spaces."

I hope that means cycle parking spaces. In any event, as someone who cycles regularly to the House of Commons, I have not noticed much sign that the interests of cyclists are a priority in this place. Indeed, the recent redesign of part of the surroundings to facilitate understandable security concerns could have been used as an opportunity to facilitate cycle access to the building. Instead, in many ways it is now much harder to get to the building on a bike than it was previously. I can tell those Members who do not cycle that one of the most dangerous parts of my journey is trying to get to the House of Commons from some of the roads in the area. I do not want to dwell on that personal experience, except to use it to illustrate the fact that we do not carry out in practice some of the commitments that we make in theory.

Finally, I want to say something about the cleaning staff in the House of Commons and the dispute that has been going on for some time. As I mentioned, the Commission has been in the grip of the Liberal Democrats for several years. I can envisage the leaflets slamming the Lib Dem poverty pay scandal that would be printed if we were to follow the suggestion made by the Puttnam commission to elect the House of Commons Commission by secret ballot.

Leaving that aside, we are in a dispute with some of the most low-paid people in the House of Commons. The fact that we are unable to come to an agreement on what seems to be a reasonable pay claim is a scandal and reflects badly on the entire House. I happen to be a member of the same trade union as the cleaners, the Transport and General Workers Union. That does not mean that I have an interest in the formal sense, but, like all those in the House who are concerned about employees, I am concerned that we cannot get a satisfactory resolution to the dispute.