It is a pleasure to introduce the 30th annual report of the House of Commons Commission, published in early July and covering the financial year from April 2007 to March 2008. It marks 30 years since the passage of the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978. Only 22 Members of the current House were here then, and I doubt whether even they can remember a time when the House did not manage its own affairs. A decade earlier, Richard Crossman, as Leader of the House, recorded in his diary having to go with a begging bowl to the Treasury to appeal for a couple of extra Clerks. Since then, responsibility for the parliamentary budget and managing its own affairs have been regarded internationally as signs of a proper arm's length relationship between legislature and Executive, but that is not an easy task, as the Commission's annual report makes clear. Indeed, the report shows just how complex the task is.
My hope for the debate is that it will provide an opportunity for the Commission to hear what hon. Members think about the running of the House. In my introductory remarks, I shall say a little about the reorganisation of the House service since the Tebbit report, the impact of the various freedom of information cases and the review of Members' allowances on the Department of Resources, the PICT—Parliamentary Information and Communication Technology—health check, the mechanical and engineering works feasibility study and the major works that lie ahead of us, and the new visitors entrance on Cromwell Green.
I do not intend to interrupt my hon. Friend again, and I am grateful for what he and his colleagues do. I just want to place it on the record that although he is right to remind us that 30 years ago we took control of our own affairs, there is one remaining matter, certainly in the Commons, which I raised with the Deputy Leader of the House this morning. The Commons does not yet organise its own business. That is in the Government's hands, but some of us hope that the decision taken 30 years ago, although not my hon. Friend's responsibility, can be extended so that we manage not only our own estate, but our own business.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I would not for one moment disagree with what he says, but I think that the matter that he raises lies within the responsibility of the Procedure Committee, rather than the House of Commons Commission. No doubt he will pursue it there in due course.
There have probably been greater changes in the internal organisation of the House service in 2007-08 than there have been in any other year since 1978 or possibly even further back. Pages 15 to 17 of the report set out clearly the main events. Two years ago in the equivalent debate, I announced the Commission's intention to appoint Sir Kevin Tebbit to review the management and services of the House. This time last year, the Commission had just received his report and was about to start putting it into effect. Tebbit noted that
"the way in which Members work has itself been changing, notably in the extent of their involvement in constituency issues and in other forms of interaction with the public. These put new demands on the House Service."
"To the extent that we have criticisms, they arise largely as a result of the federal nature of the House Service—seven semi-autonomous Departments. It would be beneficial, in our view, for the capacity which exists to be brought together and directed more corporately to achieve higher levels of performance and efficiency."
Last year, I said that the Commission would focus on implementing the Tebbit recommendations that were
"most significant to the delivery of services to Members."—[Hansard, Westminster Hall, 18 October 2007; Vol. 464, c. 317WH.]
The start of January 2008 saw the six House Departments reorganised into four. We have also seen the passage of the Parliament (Joint Departments) Act 2007 to put PICT on a proper legal footing as a joint Department for both Houses.
The vision for the House service now is:
"To create a unified parliamentary service which provides first class advisory, executive and support facilities to the House, its Members and the public whilst maintaining a world heritage site".
A clear example of the House service operating in a more joined-up way is the new Members Centre in Portcullis House, which opened in July. That provides a single point at which hon. Members can seek advice and information on allowances, IT, research and facilities. I hope that hon. Members who have not yet visited it will do so.
Alongside the organisational changes, the House has recruited from outside John Borley to the new post of director general of the Department of Facilities and Mel Barlex as director of the parliamentary estates directorate. I shall return later to the subject of buildings and works.
I do not want to stray beyond the scope of the debate on the Commission's annual report into the realms of the Members Estimate Committee, but I would like to refer to that Committee's report, which had a big impact on the administration of the House. Many of those in the Room know only too well that the Commission has a dual identity and meets also as the Members Estimate Committee. The House service supports the payment and record keeping for expenditure on that estimate. In the past year, freedom of information requests and the review of allowances have put enormous pressure on the Department of Resources in particular. Additional staff may yet be needed in that area. The Commission appreciates that and will keep that need for resources under consideration. I thank the staff in the Department of Resources, particularly Terry Bird, the director of operations, for all the assistance that he has given us during the past few months in this work.
Let me move on to information and communications technology. We have seen the creation of PICT, a joint Department serving both the Commons and the Lords, and we saw the passage of an Act about the organisation of Parliament itself, which is quite rare—it happens only every 15 years or so. In previous debates, a number of hon. Members have raised IT issues, and the Administration Committee reported on that subject last year. In accordance with recommendations from the Tebbit review, PICT was put through an external health check conducted by the Cabinet Office. The health check notes how much has been achieved since PICT was formed nearly three years ago. However, it also says that more progress is needed and recommends that projects be subject to clear business ownership and direction and that the effectiveness of individual relationships and governance arrangements be reviewed regularly.
The Commission accepted the recommendations from the Administration Committee. We continue to value that Committee's continual scrutiny of the service. PICT will come back to the Administration Committee and the Commission on service provision in constituency offices.
In many respects, I am very complimentary about what has been done, because the system has improved dramatically—it had to improve dramatically—but I am really looking to the future. I would like to raise another IT-related issue, which perhaps I will be able to intervene on later, but my main concern at the moment is the capacity of the system. Given the number of people gaining access to it, which seems to grow exponentially, the system is sometimes quite slow, even on the Westminster site.
Will Nick Harvey comment on what testing has been and will be undertaken to see how robust the system is? I ask that because without the IT system, an MP cannot function. Some of us might regret that that is the case, but the reality is that if the system is down for even a matter of hours, it can sometimes lead to disarray.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his observation that PICT has improved dramatically. I believe that he is right. I recognise entirely that there are times when the service is slower than we would like, but I sincerely believe that those occasions are now fewer and further between. The hon. Gentleman nevertheless makes a good point about the number of people using the system, and the capacity issues that have resulted, and I shall flag those up with PICT to ensure that they are central to its thinking. However, I say with some confidence that the resilience of the system is something that PICT takes seriously. It is very much part of its brief that it should get ahead of the game and that the two Houses of Parliament should avail themselves of the latest developments in ICT and not drag behind them. I shall flag up those points with PICT and ensure that they are part of its thinking.
I was speaking about the parliamentary estate. As I have said, the new vision statement for the House service talks about supporting the operation of the House while maintaining a world heritage site. Hon. Members may be aware that last week I answered a parliamentary question about the feasibility study for the mechanical and electrical project. I said:
"Much of the mechanical and electrical system within the Palace of Westminster has now exceeded its economic service life and major modernisation work is urgently required. It is becoming increasingly difficult to manage the existing services and to replace, repair or extend them as required in an efficient and effective manner and there is a growing risk that breakdown in essential services could not be quickly repaired. The complete project will take many years and involve considerable cost. The Commission is concerned to ensure that the mechanical and electrical modernisation is carried out in the most economical way consistent with enabling the House to operate properly."
Normal practice, as Members know, is that major works are undertaken in the Palace of Westminster only during the summer recess, but so huge and extensive is the scale of the work planned that we believe that a range of options should be carefully and seriously considered. My answer continued:
"The Commission (working with the responsible bodies in the Lords) are therefore ordering a detailed feasibility study to examine whether substantial savings in cost, time and risk could be made by moving some operations of both Houses out of the Palace for a period to enable modernisation to be carried out continuously until its completion."—[Hansard, 15 October 2008; Vol. 480, c. 1254W.]
The hon. Gentleman may intend to speak about this subject, but I have always believed that we should locate Parliament out of London—perhaps in York or similar places. Are we to have a vote on how long the move will last, and what the preferred location will be? I have here a BBC report saying that the cost of the work could be a staggering £350 million. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm or deny that? What representations are we making to the Treasury to ensure that the costs will be fully underwritten?
I shall take the hon. Gentleman's first and last points together. This is a sovereign House, and it is in a position to debate anything it sees fit to debate, and to raise the necessary funds to do what it needs to do. It is not possible at this stage to say with any certainty what the cost will be. That is one of the factors that the feasibility study to which I referred will need to explore; and it will need to come back to the House with a clear explanation of the cost implications of doing the work continuously in one go rather than interspersing it over the summer recess, perhaps—who knows?—for 20 or 25 years.
As for other locations and how long such a decamping might last, those are exactly the sorts of things that the feasibility study will consider. It is not possible at this stage to pre-empt that exercise and to anticipate the sort of conclusions that it might reach. However, when we receive the information, we will certainly share it with those Members who wish to know, so that everyone has a clear understanding of what we are doing and what factors led to those conclusions, and so everyone can see the logic involved.
I emphasise that the House will be asked to move out of the main building if that option significantly reduces the cost, the time and above all the risk. Staying here and trying to do it over a succession of summer recesses is not an easy, low-risk option. Much of the mechanical and engineering infrastructure dates back to the late 1940s. It is perhaps already 30 or 40 years beyond its proper life expectancy. There is a real danger that if anything should go fundamentally wrong we would not be able to repair it in a timely fashion in order to allow the House to continue going about its business. One of the factors that the feasibility study will obviously have to consider is the risk entailed in choosing to do the work slowly rather than in pressing ahead and doing it more quickly.
The mechanical and electrical works comprise all the support systems that enable us to work in the building. They include hot and cold water systems, steam, mains cold-water incoming services, fire mains, gas, compressed air, vacuum, electrical power, lighting, building management systems, communications, security, fire detection, voice alarms, air conditioning, mechanical ventilation, refrigeration, chilled water services and drainage. We are talking about the complete works, and it is all in need of renovation.
It is a major project. I cannot anticipate how much it will cost, but it will be hundreds of millions of pounds. It will be a serious challenge for the House to seek funding for that at a time of economic restraint; and it is essential throughout any such operation that we maintain an effective Parliament. It will be a huge endeavour for the Commission, for the Committees of the House and for all the staff of the House services.
One major works project that has caused the Commission concern over the past year is directly behind you, Miss Begg—the new visitor entrance on Cromwell Green. It is now open and working reasonably well, but as Members know it was late and over budget. The Commission received regular reports late in 2006, when it became apparent that the project was slipping. The appointment of a recovery project manager brought things under control and enabled the entrance to open in April this year. The Commission was concerned about the project and was determined to see a robust "lessons learned" review.
I set out the main conclusions of that review in a written answer on
"The repeatedly escalating costs and continued slippages in this project have raised serious questions about project management competences in the House service. A number of key steps have already been taken. As part of a reorganisation following the review by Sir Kevin Tebbit it was decided to create a reunified Parliamentary Estates Directorate and recruit senior managers with appropriate skills. The Directorate is now under the direct responsibility of a Director General of Facilities. As part of their recruitment, both new postholders have been required to demonstrate competence, and personal track records of delivery, in the areas of estates and works matters. Further improvements relating to transparency and control of projects are underway, and these will take account of recommendations for future practice from the Post-Project Review."—[Hansard, 22 July 2008; Vol. 479, c. 984W.]
It is essential that we learn the lessons from a project of that scale before embarking upon the huge project that I have described. With the mechanical and engineering works involved, that is clearly on another scale altogether.
One works project completed during the past year, which does not seem to have been criticised in the media, was the £8 million spent on refurbishing the Press Gallery and creating the new Moncrieff's refreshment area.
This year, I have answered questions on a wide range of issues, including food allergies, the new pass system, bottled water—several times—child care, the new visitor entrance, escalators and carbon offset. That shows the range of services needed to support a modern Parliament. The Commission's task of administering the House has never been more complex, but with the commitment of the House staff, I am confident that we will tackle the major tasks ahead.
I should like to end on a note of thanks to our staff—
There has been a great deal of comment in the press about asbestos in the parliamentary estate. I am not entirely sure where we are on the matter, so will the hon. Gentleman enlighten us?
The hon. Gentleman is right. Asbestos remains a problem that has the potential to complicate the large project of mechanical and engineering works that I have been describing. It is taken very seriously by the new appointees to whom I have referred, and we will be doing everything that we can do responsibly to sort out lingering asbestos problems, on the basis of whatever technical advice we receive. The potential of asbestos to complicate the anticipated works is not to be underestimated and it will have to be factored in as the project is designed.
I have one specific inquiry on parliamentary questions, to which the hon. Gentleman has not referred. I know that they are not necessarily his responsibility, although he does have to answer the odd one. One source of angst among MPs is that sometimes when we table an accepted parliamentary question, it seems to disappear into the ether. My record time between tabling a question and receiving an answer is 10 months, and even then the reply that I received told me that the answer could only be provided at disproportionate cost. I hate to think why it took 10 months to find that out.
Would it be possible to produce a database that would keep a name-and-shame record? The database could include a record of legitimate parliamentary questions that go month after month without being answered. I accept that things occasionally go wrong, but I think it would help Departments if they could see that they have a number of questions that have been unanswered, say, for more than six months, which they ought to do something about. More particularly, it would allow Members, who sometimes table a lot of questions, to keep a record.
I cannot give an answer to the hon. Gentleman's question off the top of my head. Certainly, it cannot be technically difficult to maintain such a database, although I would be surprised if we do not, in effect, already do so. The greater question is who would follow up the unanswered questions within such a database. Perhaps it is a question of ensuring that there is wider access. I will investigate the matter and write to the hon. Gentleman about it.
I was concluding my remarks by thanking the staff of the House service. I would particularly like to put on record the Commission's thanks to Andrew Kennon, who has served as our Clerk for the past couple of years. He has had an eventful time in that post, and we are particularly grateful to him for going the extra mile on so many occasions—there have been an astonishing array of headaches for him to contend with. Even when he has been away from this place on holiday, he has not been beyond the reach of mobile phones disturbing him and causing him to re-engage with parliamentary matters at times when I am sure he did not want to. He has been a very good Clerk to the Commission and we are grateful to him and all the staff in his office who help out, and to Louise Sargent, who processes the various questions that are tabled to the Commission. We wish Andrew Kennon every success in his new post at the Journal Office.
It is always a pleasure to follow Nick Harvey. Broadly speaking, the Conservatives welcome the report—the content tells us that it has been a busy year. Many of the points that I would have liked to make have already been covered by the hon. Gentleman, so I do not intend to detain the Chamber for long. I may simply refer to what he said, or make an additional point here and there on other issues.
I begin by thanking everyone responsible for the form of the report. It is a substantial piece of work and much effort has gone into its production. I thank Mr. Speaker; the Leader of the House; the shadow Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend Mrs. May; the hon. Member for North Devon; and the other members of the Commission for their contributions. While I am thanking people, I also thank the hon. Member for North Devon for so frequently fielding questions on this subject—sometimes hostile, usually friendly—in the Commons. I also give a big "thank you" to everyone on the estate who makes MPs' jobs that much easier in all that we do. The list is endless, but I include security, catering, cleaning, admin and Library staff, and a host of others.
All hon. Members hear their colleagues muttering about how the House is run, so it is a little disappointing that those people decide not to comment today when they have the opportunity to do so. I will try to remember some of their comments when I can, but their non-attendance is regrettable. I hope that that is noted.
I heard what was said on refurbishment. Clearly, it will need to be kept in check. I understand that some 500 miles of cables, pipes and so on need to be replaced, and that the renovation works will be the largest since 1947. This is a massive undertaking that will require enormous planning. Given that the process of government must continue during such a long period of refurbishment, we all look forward to seeing the feasibility report when it is eventually produced. As has been mentioned, I look forward to contributing to the process and inviting other hon. Members and colleagues to have their say. I include staff in that, because it will very much be a joint enterprise—we have to work together, and the opinions of all concerned, not only Members, will be required.
I welcome the continued efforts of the House authorities to improve the support services that we use in all that we do, particularly the one-stop shop in Portcullis House. It is interesting that many more people tend to go there nowadays than in its early days, although I suspect that one reason why people do not use it as much as they could is habit—some are used to picking up the phone or going to No. 7 Millbank to have a chat. However, it is a gradual process and things are improving.
The new joint IT department, which was formed last year, is doing well, and no doubt the Commission is looking at other things on which both Houses can work productively together and ensure that there are economies of scale without impacting on the quality of service. Before I start getting letters from trade unionists, I hasten to add that if there is any talk of further co-operation between the two Houses, it is taken as read that all concerned will be consulted, including trade unionists, who will no doubt get a say on things on behalf of their members.
I was pleased to see in the report that the catering and retail service achieved a five-star food hygiene rating from Westminster city council, for both front and back-of-house areas. On catering, may I venture to proffer a bit of advice on something that is often mentioned by colleagues and their staff who use the Debate restaurant in Portcullis House? It is one thing that I wish some hon. Members had come here to voice their concerns on.
The restaurant has a pricing system whereby people are charged not on what they want to eat, but on the pricing of set meals. If there is a set meal for chicken and rice and a set meal for fish and chips, someone who wishes to have fish and rice is penalised because they have to pay for two main meals. The Debate restaurant is the only place that I know in which one cannot buy what one wants and just pay for that particular item.
May I suggest that we investigate the matter? I understand that, in the scheme of things, that is not as big an issue as refurbishment, but I am simply passing on the message that is regularly brought to my attention by hon. Members and, more importantly, by their staff. It is the staff who use that facility most.
The hon. Gentleman is obviously very interested in catering matters. Does he share my concern that the viability of catering facilities for hon. Members—I am thinking about the Dining Room—is questionable? When I go into the Dining Room on a Wednesday evening, very few hon. Members are there. It is busy on Mondays and Tuesdays, but it can be a desert on Wednesdays. Has he any figures on the amount of money that is required to subsidise hon. Members dining in the old building?
Being a mere shadow Minister, I have no access to such figures, and as far as I am aware they were not in the report, but perhaps picking one weekday evening is being somewhat selective. Certainly, hon. Members eat breakfast in the Dining Room. Those who live in very distant constituencies use the catering facilities regularly, whether it be Wednesday evening or Friday morning. We need to consider the catering facilities as part of an overall picture, rather than considering who is eating there on a Wednesday evening. None the less, I hear what has been said, and no doubt those concerned will have taken the matter on board.
I note that the report comments that of those members of staff who took the trouble to answer the questions about diversity and background, some 22.1 per cent. were from the non-white community. I am pleased to see that the Management Board has taken note of the fact that the vast majority of that 22.1 per cent are in the lower-paid areas. I hope that the board will continue to monitor the situation and seek to improve it, rather than just saying that it is concerned about it.
I am not in any way suggesting that we should have positive discrimination. I am first in line against such discrimination, but given that FTSE 100 companies have non-white board members, I hope that the quality and talent of such people can also be utilised in running the House of Commons.
Public engagement is another vital area with which the House authorities are concerned, particularly given the very low standing that politics has with the public at the moment. The Visitor Centre is proving a great success, although it is a shame that its design means that many people still have to queue in the wet when it rains.
I am pleased to see that last year's comments about the parliamentary website have been taken on board and that there has been a substantial improvement, particularly with regard to the interactive virtual tours. I hope that the situation will be monitored, because there is still room for improvement of navigation and search facilities.
I believe that we are all of one mind when we welcome the smooth transition to the new security passes, and I think that we are all in favour of having the additional photograph of visitors on temporary passes, which can only help in the current uncertain climate.
May I also welcome the fact that last year was the first full financial year in which all electricity used on the parliamentary estate came from renewable sources? I support the ongoing efforts to improve recycling rates and welcome the introduction of biodegradable biothene bags to be used for souvenir and bookshop items, rather than the standard plastic bag. That shows the House of Commons authorities leading by example.
I looked back to see what I said in last year's debate on this subject. I suggested that the House authorities should consider introducing a greener procurement agenda for those who supply goods, services and materials to the House. I suspect that that matter is still under consideration. If I were dealing with the Government, I would say that it has probably been ignored, but given that the House authorities are more neutral in their dealings, I hope that it will continue to be reviewed.
I am nearing my conclusion. I simply want to say that it is good to see that some of the Modernisation Committee's recommendations have been taken on board, particularly with regard to Public Bill Committees and additional research papers following the consideration in Committee of major Bills.
I also extend my thanks to the Table Office for the additional work it has taken on with regard to the topical questions and all the procedures and ballots that are involved. I welcome the fact that hon. Members now have access to their speeches by e-mail before publication.
In conclusion, I reiterate my thanks to all those concerned and simply say, "Keep up the good work because there is a lot of it to be done."
I, too, congratulate the members of the Commission and all those who work for it. In particular, I thank the Secretary of the Commission, Mr. Kennon. Before he took the job, he had dark hair; it has now gone grey. I merely note that Nick Harvey used to have a full head of hair and is now going slightly bald. The shadow Deputy Leader of the House is follicularly challenged as well. May I suggest that Simon Hughes is going the same way? I am not sure what happens to ginger Members of the House when pressures mount.
I am sure that the House will do all it can to ensure that Mr. Vara can have fish and rice, although it seems somewhat un-British not to have fish and chips.
It might be a small point, but I want to put it on record that I was simply articulating the views of various colleagues and their staff and that it was not my personal view.
I am troubled about this only because my father's best man was called Mr. Thomas. Anyone who goes into any fine fish and chip shop will see that Preston and Thomas is the greatest manufacturer of fish and chip shop fryers, and I do not want his business to be harmed by our rowing back on fish and chips.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Devon and all the members of the Commission on the excellent report that outlines a landmark year in the history of the House of Commons service. I particularly liked the fact that this year's report has photographs of many of the people who work in the House. I do not mean Members of Parliament or peers, but people who do the really hard graft, ensuring that we are able to do our job. My favourite photograph is of Gladys Dickson from the Members' Tea Room. All the hon. Members will concur when I say that she is one of the people who definitely lightens our day, and I know that she does a great deal of work in her own community outside this House. We should always pay tribute to those who make this building work when we are merely swanning around.
The Commission's work is vital. We must ensure that we have an efficient House that provides value for money for the taxpayer; that we have effective management, so that everyone who works for the House can do their job effectively and enjoyably and feel that they have a full share in the team, because that is the way the building works; that we have a transparent organisation, so that the public know what we are doing and can be assured that they are getting value for money; and that this is a secure working environment for everyone—of all the buildings in the world, this one probably has the tightest security. All of that must happen in the context of protecting the reputation of the House. If its reputation falls, the business of politics—seeking to achieve democratic ends for our constituents—can only be undermined.
In the past few years there have been significant reforms of the way in which the House manages its affairs. The reforms carried out in response to the Tebbit report could be the most significant changes to the service in living memory. Although Sir Kevin's recommendations have been implemented quickly and effectively, they draw on previous recommendations for incremental reform, which began with a review in 1990 by Sir Robin Ibbs and were continued in 1999 and 2000 by Michael Braithwaite. The creation of four new departments, in place of the previous six, and the establishment of a smaller management board with a more corporate outlook will lead to the provision of services that are more focused on the changing and increasingly complex needs of Members.
I am, however, reminded of the first debate in which I spoke in the House, on the Ofcom paving Bill, which reduced the six bodies that looked into broadcasting to one. The Whips persuaded me to take part because no one else was going to. I said that I thought that that would be more consistent and coherent and added that, to use a valleys word—as in the south Wales valleys—it would be "tidy", which also applies precisely to the present case. Unfortunately, Hansard recorded me as saying "To use a valet's word, it will be 'tidy'." I see how Hansard got there; valets do tidy up—but we do not have many valets in the valleys. I hope that Hansard got all my uses today of "valley" and "valet".
The role of a Member of Parliament has changed dramatically in recent years. The balance today between constituency work, legislation and scrutiny of Government is completely different from the work of, say, Stafford Cripps in the 1940s; if he ever visited his constituency—perhaps once a year—a brass band would turn out to welcome him, and when he left two days later he would be sent home with a spring in his step and the Bishop of Bristol to accompany him. None of that happens today, because the job has changed completely. Recent research by the Hansard Society found that Members elected for the first time in 2005 spend about half their time on constituency work, so changes in the working practices of the House, improvements to staffing and office resources and the availability of information technology have changed the way in which we work, as have our constituents' expectations of what we can do for them. It is vital that we do not shy away from that, but we must make sure that Members of Parliament can do that other vital part of their job: scrutinising the Government and ensuring that the legislation that goes through the House is the best legislation, the right legislation and legislation that will stand the test of time.
I am looking at the statistics for the House of Commons Library. Is not the productivity of the staff remarkable? For research papers on major Bills, published before Second Reading, the figure was 100 per cent. this year, last year and the year before, and so it goes on. This year's figures, against the target of delivering 97 per cent. of Members' inquiries with a deadline, and 98 per cent. of those without a deadline, are staggering. We should congratulate the staff.
My hon. Friend is right, as he sometimes is. The truth is that we all owe an enormous debt of gratitude to those who work in the Library. I have always found them exemplary in seeking to meet whatever timetable I have set, which is a remarkable feat. They are always intelligent, on time, and precise. In some regards we have helped them with that, because the pre-legislative scrutiny process that we have introduced enables them to gain a more coherent view throughout the legislative process.
The way in which we engage with the public is an area of the Commission's work to which individual Members attach great importance: the survey of services conducted by the Commission found that of the three core objectives it was the one that hon. Members thought needed most attention. It is a question not only of how we carry out the aspects of our work that are intended primarily to reach out to the wider public—welcoming visitors, providing educational services to schools and maintaining a first-rate website, which are all important in their own right—but of ensuring that the issue of public engagement permeates all that we do. If Parliament is incomprehensible to the wider public we have failed in the job we are trying to do. Long gone are the days when just issuing a statement in Parliament, making a speech or for that matter legislating was enough to transform society. We have to be able to take society with us if we want to enhance legislation.
When I was first elected I became aware of how incomprehensible Parliament and politics could be to the public. I was so excited that I had been elected that I wrote to the Minister for Europe informing him that I spoke Spanish and French and would be only too happy to help if I could offer any assistance—very puppy dog-like. The Minister's office rang back saying that he would be delighted to see me for tea. That evening I went home, very excited, and told my partner, "I'm going to see the Minister for tea." He replied, "There's a Minister for Tea?" Sometimes Parliament is not quite as incomprehensible as it seems but there is a process that we need to go through to make the drama of politics here as readily understandable to as many members of the public as possible.
Some procedural reforms, such as the introduction of evidence-taking Public Bill Committees, bringing the sitting hours of the House more closely into line with working patterns in the outside world, and the introduction of topical questions and debates have contributed to making the House more accessible and relevant. One area in which I should still like us to do more work is in bringing the work of Committees more into the public domain. Some of the best debates—the sharpest and clearest examinations of legislation—happen not in the House but in Committee. Journalists often miss that; if we can find ways to bring that process more clearly into the public domain we should do so.
I hope that the House will soon have an opportunity to consider the Procedure Committee's proposals on e-petitions—another procedural innovation that would make it easier for us to engage with the wider public. The hon. Member for North Devon has already set out some of the Commission's key achievements in that context, but the Group on Information for the Public, led by the Director General of Information Services, has led the work on three fronts: first, and very importantly, welcoming visitors to the House; secondly, education and outreach; and, thirdly, improving information on the internet. It is important that we provide a good service to people who visit this place, whether they have come to see Parliament in action or just to see the Palace as a historic building. The House's education and outreach work, and the use of the internet, will, I suspect, contribute most to the nurturing of the link between people and their Parliament.
There was an enormous increase this year in the number of young people who had the opportunity to come here as part of our educational visits programme. The number was up to 29,000 this year, compared with 17,000 in the previous year. I pay tribute to all those involved in the programme. The increase has been largely due to the introduction of the new educational visits programme, which allows us to welcome up to six groups of school or college students every day. It was much more limited in the past. However, I know from my constituency, which is both in a deprived area and at a considerable distance from Westminster, that for many schools there are practical difficulties to getting here in time, early enough in the day, and financial issues to be dealt with. The Administration Committee has recommended that the House offer some subsidy to offset the cost of travel and I very much look forward to seeing the outcome of the pilot project, which has already started. For those who cannot travel to Westminster, this year "Parliament in Your School" was launched. It provides teacher training and workshops in schools around the country.
The Tebbit review identified the parliamentary websites—there are in fact three of them, which may be an issue in itself—as the "key element" in developing stronger links between Parliament and the public. The main Parliament website has always been comprehensive—perhaps even too comprehensive. Almost every paper produced in this place finds its way on to the website in one form or another, but for many years it was simply an online collection of parliamentary papers, with little form or structure. For some time the accuracy of the search engine was only one in five or between one in five or one in four—about 22 per cent. It is a delight to see that accuracy has zoomed up to 86 per cent., but we still need to do more to make it easier for ordinary members of the public, who are not experts in parliamentary process or procedure, to find their way through the website. Incidentally, I think it would be useful for Members if the intranet were sometimes swifter in finding information so that we could find out earlier in the morning what was going on that day.
The look and feel of the website is much better. The front page contains more information about key events, and it is updated five times a day, although perhaps that needs to increase yet further. The new legislation gateways draw together all the information about each Bill in one place, which makes it easier to follow a single piece of legislation. Those improvements have been reflected in an increase in use of the website from 6.8 million hits in 2003-04 to 8.8 million last year.
Although we have made great progress, there is still a great deal more that could be done with the website. In particular, we still need to make it easier for the public to scrutinise their individual Members. For instance, we might find some way to make it possible—not just the next morning when Hansard is published, but perhaps later the same night—for people to see exactly how their Member of Parliament voted in a Division. That information is available to the House; we should find a way to make it available to the public.
My Friend is familiar with the charity that runs the website TheyWorkForYou.com. It does not cover Members' work in Committee, for a technical reason that I have never fully understood. Why cannot the House authorities liaise with the people who design and run TheyWorkForYou to get that information on to the web? It currently gives a distorted impression of the contributions that Members make at Westminster.
I have had a couple of meetings with the people who run that website. My hon. Friend makes an important point. He may recall that when the site was originally set up, it listed Members in a hierarchy according to how often they had spoken, how many questions they had tabled and things like that: one, two, three, four, five, all the way down to 646. TheyWorkForYou learned pretty quickly that what that meant was that some hon. Members—I do not want to impugn individual Members' reasoning—were making interventions to keep their tally high. From my experience of my own speeches, a 58-minute speech is no better than a three-minute speech, and five interventions in a debate are normally no better than one.
I think that TheyWorkForYou has taken that on board, and I know that it is seeking a way to take on board other issues so that Members' effectiveness, efficiency and contributions are reflected fully. Every one of us contributes in a completely different way. I should be happy to meet TheyWorkForYou again.
We also need to do more to make the intranet easier for Members to use. I am intrigued by the number of former Ministers who have come up to me and said, "I have no idea how to table online. I've spent the last hour and a half on the intranet trying to work out how precisely to do it." We need to make it more intuitive.
The House service has continued to work to make the House greener, as the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire said. This year, it succeeded for the first time in securing 100 per cent. of the House's electricity from sustainable sources. It is important that we do not underestimate the tremendous challenge of delivering modern energy efficiency standards in a mid-Victorian palace. On Mondays, it is often freezing cold, and then by Thursday afternoon, just in time for business questions, it is boiling hot. We all understand the problems with the building. When I went to visit the Clerk of Legislation earlier this afternoon in his eyrie above the roofs of the Palace, I was struck by how problematic the roof's state of disrepair is. It is rotting in vast areas, and we will have to address it soon. Historic underinvestment may prove our downfall, as the hon. Member for North Devon said.
I congratulate the staff of the House on their achievements this year. We have made significant strides forward. As I said, this place functions well only if the whole team—that includes everybody from the people who work in the gym to the catering department, the Vote Office, the Tea Room staff and the doorkeepers—can play their full part in a happy, effective and efficient working environment, and we try to achieve that.
There are big challenges ahead, not least of which are the building itself and making Parliament more comprehensible. Often, I feel that history hangs over us in this place. We are, after all, standing now between a statue of Cromwell and the place where Charles I was tried before his execution. I always think that we should embrace our history and be proud of it, but we should also learn from our historical mistakes so that we can reshape our future.
I start the thanks, which are no less meaningful for being formal, with a warm thank you to my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon for the diligent, friendly way and the lightness of touch with which he carries out his responsibilities to colleagues. As others have mentioned, he is sometimes in the firing line, which is understandable, although he is of course a volunteer, so one should not be overly sympathetic. He always seeks to answer questions, take up issues and ensure that Members are listened to respectfully and their points of view are taken into account. That is valuable.
The work of Malcolm Jack and his colleagues on the senior management team and that of the whole staff is hugely appreciated. We all know that, but it cannot be said too often. The report gave us the figures for last year: there were 1,696 full-time equivalent staff and about 2,700 staff in total, including full-time and part-time staff, looking after us. That is a huge army of people doing all sorts of different jobs. I share the view of colleagues that it was nice to see that breadth and diversity of activity reflected in the report.
I find the report fascinating. Anybody with any interest in our proceedings should read it. It is full of an enormous amount of interesting, accurate and up-to-date material, and it reflects the diversity of what we do extremely well. I commend it. I also commend it because it is printed on recycled paper—I checked at the back—so it passes the test, even though it is very good quality paper.
My new researcher, a keen, enthusiastic and mischievous individual called Tim Swain, pointed out that I should not be complimentary about the report in case people thought that I was being so kind only because my picture appears in it. He made this note to me when thinking of things that I might contribute:
"Point out your appearance on page 44. Note the irony that you appear to be attending IT training!"
Although not quite like former Ministers, I am, I hope, one of those who do not pretend any huge competence in the world of technology. I try to learn more all the time, and I did indeed go to IT training to pick up my PDA—my personal digital assistant, which is photographed there, which I now use and which works—and to ask one of the team to come in during the summer to upgrade my computer skills. I have never done anything formal in relation to computers; I have just struggled my way into working out how to do e-mail and the rest. As the Deputy Leader of the House said, every exercise in accessing new bits of kit is therefore a voyage of discovery.
Our system gets ever better. I have spoken to colleagues who look after the website. It is much better than it was, but there are occasions when I think that I am doing the right, quick and obvious thing to get hold of information about today's or the following day's business, and I cannot find it. If I cannot find it easily, others may struggle, and people who do not know our system may struggle more. We need to do more to make that bit of our work more accessible.
I have two light-hearted comments to make before the more serious ones. In debates such as this, we always end up getting slightly diverted into the life of the community. I had not known about the issue of pricing in the Portcullis House restaurant, which means that one cannot mix and match. I am sure that it will be sorted now that the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire has raised it.
That brought to mind a family holiday about four years ago. We were in Forfar, in Scotland. On Friday night we decided that we wanted fish and chips, so we went into the middle of Forfar. There was a wonderful sign that read something like "Fish and Chips—Hugh Anderson, BA". Clearly, one could qualify in that to the highest standard. Whether his BA was in fish and chips or something else we never learned, but he was indeed advertising his expertise.
The uses to which this building is put are wonderfully diverse. On Tuesday, I attended a debate in this Chamber on violent crime among young people in London. It was a very well attended debate with a broad, cross-party consensus. Before that, the last time I was here was for a meeting of the relatively new all-party group on conflict issues, looking at the Georgia and Russia situation. Present were representatives from the Russian, Georgian and other embassies. This Parliament does its job when it acts as the fulcrum and the focus of such debates, and brings people together—not just elected Members, but everyone else who makes use of our services.
I intend to pick out a few things for commendation, make a few observations, reflect on a couple of things and then make a few suggestions. In doing so, I shall try to keep within my 20-minute time limit, as I did last year, which was the first time that I took part in this debate, like the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire. This year, with the Leader of the House being absent—she is unwell today—I am the longest-serving Member in the Chamber. Over the quarter of a century that she, I and others have been here, the services have improved a great deal. It is not the services that have caused the thinning on top for any of us, I do not think, and I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House is not too hopeful that the same will not afflict him when he reaches the right age!
I commend some really good things: the assistance now provided to visitors, which is a new service, is really good and well appreciated. Those providing the assistance are courteous and friendly, and the service is well used. I underline the fact that there has been a huge increase in visitor numbers, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out. The increase is extraordinary—from about 7,500 in 2003-04 to 30,000 in the year on which we are reporting. Of course, we want to ensure that that includes people not just from London and the south-east, but from the whole country. I know that the House is very conscious of that.
The Education Service is really good and does its work excellently. Last year, it held an open day reception. I caught people out on a couple of quiz questions that I bowled at them and to which they did not know the answers—I think that I asked who was the youngest female MP to have been elected to Parliament. My punishment was an invitation from the service to table questions for its Christmas quiz, which is fine. I shall be happy to join people there, if I am allowed.
I join other hon. Members in their commendation of the Library, which has invariably been the most first-class of services, remaining so at all times and at whatever notice. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Gladys, our colleague who works in the Members' Tea Room, who is pictured in the report. On the previous page is Helen Holden from the Library—she will be embarrassed that I am mentioning her, but it is right that I do—who is also a constituent of mine. Like Gladys and others, she does great work in her community, too, and is a really competent member of staff. All the Library staff are of that quality and as courteous. They are much appreciated.
The debate packs, which are a novelty and a one-off this year, have been really good. They have been well used and produced very quickly.
One group has not so far been mentioned: the cleaners. In my experience, they are very loyal to this building and take their work very seriously. They think of themselves not just as cleaners, but as servants of the House. I hope very much that we will respect them with honour.
The cleaners were on my list; I was just coming to them. Those in the cleaning, catering and maintenance departments do extremely important jobs. Inevitably, many of them are constituents of mine, too, because my constituency is nearby. I see them working diligently early in the morning and late at night. In that context, I would like to refer to a slightly more hard-edged issue.
There has been a dispute between some of our contractors and the House, as was brought to my attention by one of my constituents. I would be grateful for an update on that from my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon in his winding-up speech. Are we in sight of resolving that dispute? There have been disputes in the past and issues about pay of cleaning staff and so on.
My general view—my hon. Friend could link this to his answer to my first question—is that we should seek to ensure that as many of our staff as possible are employed by us directly rather than as agency staff. I appreciate that here we have cyclical patterns of work—by definition, the House does not sit every day of the year, and therefore in the summer, for example, we do not need all the catering staff. However, I would be grateful to know whether it is the policy of the House of Commons Commission increasingly to employ people on our own payroll. I assume that that is more cost-effective and results in better and more committed staff, who are much to be appreciated.
There have been some really good innovations in the past few years, including the exhibitions downstairs in Westminster Hall, which form part of the Education Service. There was one on the Act of Union, and another two in the year covered by the report. They were really good, interesting, informative and appreciated. I think that Westminster Hall is now used to better effect for educational purposes and for lobbies such as the one yesterday for pensioners. It is now a gathering place for lobbying groups and for education and exhibitions.
The art and photographs exhibited cyclically are hugely appreciated. We have the fantastic Gerald Scarfe cartoon exhibition in Portcullis House with really engaging, informative, educative and historical exhibits. There have been others—I think that the photographic exhibition on Disraeli and Gladstone was the last one. They are hugely welcome and add to the appropriately educative experience. Having said that, there was a glitch with the blessed water fountains in Portcullis House during the "Open House" weekend in September. As part of that weekend, Portcullis House was open, which is as it should be. We were open to the public, who could go up to the first floor and see the paintings and Select Committee Rooms, which is to the good.
I would like to plug something that has already been to Committee and been rejected. There is a suggestion that for a year we could have a composer in residence, as other public institutions have. I commend that idea. Live music is now occasionally played here—there was some earlier this week—in a way that does not distract Members or interfere with their work. We also need to be seen to be embracing the other arts in a set of buildings that themselves contain some fantastic art and architecture.
I commend the one-stop shop, which is very useful. On that I agree with the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire. It was slow to take off and relatively underused over the summer, when it was glad of customers. Such things are a matter of habit, though. I have had to remind myself not to walk over to 7 Millbank and instead to go and chat to people downstairs. That is a very good service, and I am grateful that it is there. It is a good innovation and I appreciate it.
There is a note in the report about an apprenticeships scheme. On that subject, my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon answered a written question from Mr. Willetts on
"For the past five years the House has also run a 'pre-apprenticeship scheme' sponsored by Mr. Speaker. This scheme offers students from Southwark an opportunity to spend one day per week for one school year in a work area of their choice. The scheme is being further developed for October 2008 so that the students who come to the House—around 10 to 12 per year—will spend two years here rather than one and will complete the first level of a modern apprenticeship."—[Hansard, 2 June 2008; Vol. 476, c. 568W.]
I commend that. Obviously, it benefits people in my borough. It is very important that we do our bit, both for apprenticeships and for employing people with disabilities. Are we up to the recommended national level? We were not when I last checked. Do we employ our fair share of people with disabilities and at all levels appropriate to employment in the House?
I endorse the comments made by the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire on the ethnic mix of our work force, which is generally good—I have seen the figures. However, generally, those figures are biased towards the lower pay-grade end of the employment. Obviously we look to have a staff team that reflects the great diversity of Britain at all levels and as soon as possible. I would be grateful for some commendation of that.
I am keen for my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon to respond on a particular improvement that we must make. We do very well when visitors are in the building, but often it takes ages for them to get in. I was about to write formally on the issue, but did not do so because of this timely debate. I have received two significant complaints in the last two weeks about the time it takes to get people from the beginning of a queue into the building. Yesterday, pensioners who came to lobby told me that they were in the queue for an hour. Some were quite elderly and relatively disabled. A couple of weeks ago, people coming to a 6 o'clock meeting to which I was invited arrived before the meeting, but were unable to get through the system until quarter to 7. They observed that other visitors who were here to look at things and had no time commitment were moved past them.
We need a system like those in airports that can identify people who have an appointment at a particular time and ensure that they are processed quickly. That cannot be beyond the wit of our system. I ask my hon. Friend to raise that issue and for somebody to write to me and other hon. Members present to confirm that that will be done and that we will have a more user-friendly and efficient system for processing people. I understand that there are peak times, but I do not think that we manage this as well as we should. If that is people's first experience, it will take them a long time to recover, however good the experience is when they get through the door.
On current matters, I repeat the comment that is often made that we do not handle child care as well as we should. The issue with the crèche is ongoing and goes back before my hon. Friend's time; perhaps he will touch on it. Colleagues in my party have asked me to raise it and I am happy to do so.
I have been asked to raise two issues on access to information. First, there is a strong feeling that we should allow clips of parliamentary debates to be used on YouTube and elsewhere. This issue is like the record of votes. That should be possible in a modern age. I am not bothered about the technical rules on the issue. Such websites are where people look for things and it would be good for Parliament if clips could be put on them.
Secondly, I understand that something we cannot do is make Bills available on the website. There is a campaign called "Free our Bills! The Nice Polite Campaign to Gently Encourage Parliament to Publish Bills in a 21st Century Way, Please. Now." Apparently, it is not possible to get hold of a Bill and download it easily. I have not tried to do that, but others would find it useful. If that can be done, can it be done as soon as possible?
My hon. Friend pointed out that in the future the big issue may be whether we can stay in the building. The House authorities appear to be dealing with that in the right way in doing a survey. As a London MP who is in and out of the building every week of the year, I know that a huge amount of work is done in summer. However, I can see the logic of the argument that there might be a better and more cost-efficient outcome if all the work were done in one go without having to stop and start several times. That would be the logical outcome and there are available options.
May I add another query that I hope the hon. Member for North Devon will enlighten us on? When the work is carried out will there be disruption to traffic because of the need to install cabling and utilities under the road? That would have a far greater impact on the area than just affecting the work of Members of Parliament, their staff and the House authorities.
That is a highly relevant consideration. It would be appealing and attractive to move to York, and I would have no objection to that in principle. I thought that Mr. Prentice would argue that we should go to Lancaster, or at least to his side of the Pennines. Clearly that is unrealistic if we are just talking about moving out of this building while the people in the surrounding buildings stay.
There are two obvious places where negotiated residence might be possible. One is the conference centre over the road and the other is the buildings of Church house, where Parliament has gone before. That would give the Church an opportunity to move out of London and go around the country for its Synod meetings, which might be a good thing for its mission.
A linked question was put to me by a colleague whose background is in the construction industry. Apparently, the procedures in the House for placing building contracts have changed. I was asked to ask what are the forms of contract in general terms. Do we have a big contract that is left to somebody else to subcontract or do we manage the subcontracts ourselves? What are the regular processes to ensure that delay and overspend are spotted early in a contract and that we do not get to the stage that we did with the new entrance, which caused us some grief?
Environmental issues are rightly seen as important. There is significant detail on them in the report. My hon. Friend the Member for North Devon has probably answered more questions on such issues in the last year than on anything else. I strongly reinforce the plea for an end to bottled water and for the use of tap water. That is a campaign that I have been running for 25 years in public life. I understand that, by and large, the quality of bottled water is not as good. If I was not in this place, I would be in trouble with bottled water companies. We must move on this issue and I hope that my hon. Friend can help with that.
I saw something in London city hall that I have been urging: on the lifts is a little sticker asking, "Is your journey really necessary?" Every day I tell off young, fit and healthy members of staff for using the lift to go one, two or three floors. Can we have a campaign that discourages people from using lifts when they do not need to do so and that encourages the use of stairs? It is an abuse of our energy and environment that people use lifts so lazily and carelessly. I am keen that we do something about that.
The report is good on the places we source our food from. The meat is bought in Britain, which is excellent, particularly given the current climate. I do not mean that in a xenophobic way. I welcome the idea that we have Spanish and Italian weeks in the restaurants. However, can we make every effort to ensure that we buy British where possible for our materials and foodstuffs? We have a duty to the workers who elect us to do that wherever we can.
Finally, over the past year, we have seen significant changes in the structure of the building and the structure of how we run ourselves, as my hon. Friend said. Those are not things that the outside world notices, but they were carefully thought through. I believe that there are now nine departments, which is a considered response.
The outward, visible sign of the House authorities has traditionally been the Serjeant at Arms. In the last year, we have said goodbye to one Serjeant at Arms and welcomed the first female to the role. I thank the outgoing Serjeant at Arms and repeat the warm welcome to Jill Pay. She is very much appreciated, as are her staff. It is important that we have confidence in the people we work most closely with, however much they have authority over us in various guises and on various occasions.
It is a privilege to be elected to this place. It is a privilege to serve people from here. It is in their interests that we take this debate and these issues seriously. We have a duty to be as efficient as we can with our time and with their money. It is they who pay for this place and for us all to be here. We therefore owe it to ourselves and to them to ensure that we do this job properly. We must be able to report back that we are as careful as we can be with the public resource and as diligent as we can be in doing our jobs properly.
With the leave of the House, I thank you, Miss Begg, the three Front Benchers who are here and the two Back Benchers who came in and made interventions.
I undertook to go back to Mr. Drew on a couple of points and did my best to deal with the points raised by Mr. Prentice, except for his remark about the Members' Dining Room. I entirely take his point that there are times in the week when the Members' Dining Room is used less heavily than others, but, overall, it has a much healthier bottom line than used to be the case. Although it might look, operationally, to be on the same footing on Wednesday and Thursday nights as on Monday and Tuesday nights, that is not the case if one scratches below the surface a bit. Catering in there remains a huge logistical headache, because staffing levels might be set for a Monday or Tuesday night, and supplies of food might be ordered on the assumption that there will be a full House, but then business might collapse and there might be nothing. On the other hand, one might proceed on the basis that nothing very serious is coming up, but then a political issue might kick off and suddenly all three parties keep people here all evening and freezers have to be delved into. It is not an easy operation to run, but I repeat that the bottom line is healthier than it was.
I have noticed that outside organisations come in and use the facilities here. That must be taken on board. I, for one, have attended Saturday evening dinners in Dining Rooms, at which the room has been entirely full, and we have all attended receptions between dining hours. They add to the financial equation.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. All that certainly helps the bottom line.
I shall devote a few minutes to some of the points that the three Members who are still present have raised. I thank Mr. Vara for his supportive remarks about the improvements to the House service and for his broad endorsement of our approach to the feasibility study into the big mechanical engineering project. I shall address his points on that now. As far as I know, it should not involve any major works in terms of the supply of services to the Palace, as it is overwhelmingly about the infrastructure within it. However, when we modernise and improve our infrastructure, if there is anything in the pipeline, by way of outside enhancements, it would make sense to do those things at the same time. In terms of the overall logistical headache, however, I do not think that that is a particularly huge element.
Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that I am convinced that the Management Board takes ethnic employment very seriously. It is true that we do much better on those numbers at the lower levels in the House, as he has said, but I am absolutely confident that the board shares his, my and other Members' desire to see that spread all the way up, and that, without forcing the issue, it is determined that we will get there.
My hon. Friend Simon Hughes talked about disabled employment. I was rather surprised to hear that the last time he looked we were not meeting quotas, because I had thought, when I answered questions on this issue, that we were well ahead on recognised national numbers. I will check that and come back to him.
May I reassure the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire that the commitment to greener procurement has not been kicked into the long grass? We are now procuring all our electricity from renewable sources, as the Deputy Leader of the House has pointed out, and we are doing many other things to ensure that we have greener procurement policies.
I had a great deal sympathy for the points that the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire made about the pricing structures in the Debate restaurant, and have fallen foul of them myself on occasion. I shall report it up the food chain, as it were, and I shall try to get the matter looked at. However, I have found that a little bit of haggling at the till can prove quite productive if one goes about it in the right way.
The hon. Gentleman kindly said that there have been improvements to the website but highlighted the need for further improvements to navigation. I shall ensure that those remarks also go back to those responsible. He also commented on people getting wet while they queue to come into the building. It makes sense for me to address, with that issue, the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey about the time that that takes.
The new Cromwell Green entrance was built to speed up considerably the process of getting people through what is an enhanced security procedure into the building, and there are more channels open at any one time than there were before. That has been quite a major undertaking, and achieving a further exponential improvement of the sort that my hon. Friend has called for will probably require another investment on that sort of scale to bring people through somewhere else. I do not think that it is possible to get people through the Cromwell Green entrance any faster, but they are coming through much faster than they were under the previous systems.
My hon. Friend acknowledged that there will be bulges when big lobbies are on, and I am afraid that unless we are to reduce the level of security, it will be hard to do very much, in an instant way, about that. He asked about having fast and slow tracks for people who do or do not have timed appointments, but that system is already operating. That is the purpose of the barrier that goes down the ramp—one side is for those who are queuing speculatively to come in, and the fast track is for those with timed appointments. If people with timed appointments have gone into the wrong queue, I suggest that there has been some miscommunication at the top of the ramp. Perhaps the situation has not been fully explained to them, or perhaps they have come during a bulge, when the fast and slow tracks are not operating quite as they should.
I pursue this matter only because I am clear that everyone in the case that I have mentioned did the right thing. Let me quote from the letter. The writer said that
"on arrival at the security barrier at 5.55 pm I informed the police officer there of the time and place of the meeting I was attending, and showed him the Agenda. He told me to join the queue. There were two queues, but I was given no guidance as to which queue to join. Not knowing that there was any difference, I joined the right-hand lane, as the queue was shorter. While I waited, all the people who had been in the left-hand queue when I arrived were processed by security, and then so were all the people who had joined the left-hand queue since I arrived. It was clear from their conversations that many of them did not have an urgent or important engagement."
It goes on:
"No one was managing or policing this distinct lack of British fair play or seemed to know what the criteria for priority were."
Clearly, that was not being done properly, and there needs to be a queue for those with appointments and a queue for those who are coming for a general visit. That needs to be rigorously, carefully and politely managed.
I am disappointed to hear what my hon. Friend has said. He has read from a letter that clearly contains a considered report of what happened. If he has not already done so—I am sure that he has—I strongly urge him to feed that into the House authority so that it can consider the matter. He said that the visitor arrived at 5.55 pm, but if, by any chance, they were planning to attend something at 6 pm, that is far too late to be arriving. I advise anyone who comes to see me to allow at least 20 minutes to get through security, and I would strongly recommend that organisers of all events, and all hon. Members who are expecting visitors, advise people coming here to allow that sort of time. It simply would not be possible, in any system that I can imagine, for people to get through in five minutes. I am disappointed if the twin-track approach is not working as well as it should, but I reassure my hon. Friend that it is there.
On the issue of people getting wet, I am afraid that they do. It would have been nice to build a ramp with a cover over it, but, thinking back to the amazing headaches that we had with the heritage lobby about building it, I shudder to think how much more trouble we would have had if we had attempted to put a cover over it. As I said in my opening remarks, it is a world heritage site and a grade I listed building, so I do not think it feasible to provide a cover for the queue.
I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for his kind remarks about the House service, and reinforce what he said about our appreciation being due to staff at all levels and every function within the House. He was quite right to pay tribute to them. The Deputy Leader of the House rightly points out the changing role of MPs, how different that role is from years ago and how much greater the constituency element is than would have been the case in the past. I repeat that it is very much recognised that information and communications technology services to constituency offices need a great deal of further improvement. He will also draw some comfort from the fact that the House endorsed the idea of central procurement of constituency offices from 2010, and the work to bring that about is being taken forward now. However, it is of course only a few years ago that the Senior Salaries Review Body in its report legitimised, recognised and flagged up the need for resources to go into constituency offices at all, and we have come some way since then in quite a short time.
I am very keen that the new constituency arrangements come into operation as soon as possible, and I am grateful for the collaboration of the staff who have said that they are happy to help. I want to put on record my repeated keenness that that work moves as quickly as possible, because for many of us it would be really helpful to have the new regime, which will link the space that we have to the money available in a way that is fair across the House and to everybody. If my hon. Friend can encourage the greatest expedition of that work, it would be really appreciated.
I repeat my enthusiasm to see the system trialled, piloted, to have problems smoothed out and to have it functioning in time for the intake of new Members after the general election, because that will be important.
The Deputy Leader of the House also rightly pointed out the importance of our outreach work. He paid tribute to the new visitor attendants, as other Members did, and he made some very positive remarks about the expanded education service. As we have all noted, there are more and more people coming through into the House. Those arrangements are very successful, and I thank all those staff who are involved; perhaps I did not thank them as fully as I should have at the beginning of the debate.
The Deputy Leader of the House also made some complimentary remarks about the website. It has improved but, as all Members have said, websites cannot stand still—we must constantly seek to make further improvements to them.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey also paid tribute to the improvement in the services over the 25 years that he has been a Member. I am sure that it is quite true that there has been improvement, and all of us can see that.
My hon. Friend also asked me about the cleaning dispute. There is a limit to what I can say about that. The House is not a party to the dispute, which was raised by the trade unions with the new contractor, but I will say as much as I helpfully can. A new contractor was appointed from
All the workers coming over from the previous contractor to the new one are, of course, afforded the full protection of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) provisions. I believe that I can fairly say that, in practice, there are fewer problems than the unions felt there would be at the outset. That is not to say that the dispute is entirely resolved, but the number of staff who are not happy about the arrangements being offered to them has diminished considerably. Some staff have taken other posts with the previous contractor; some have taken different posts with the new contractor; and others are being marshalled into one particular part of the estate and one particular part of the contract, where their preference for a different working system is being accommodated. I hope that good progress is being made towards a resolution of the dispute. However, I must repeat that the House is not a party to that dispute—it is a matter between the contractor and the work force.
In answer to my hon. Friend's supplementary question, there is certainly no policy intention to shift towards internal employment of cleaners. I think that I am right in saying that the contracting out of the cleaning service happened at least 25 years ago, and I do not think that the House would seek to bring back cleaning staff within its own staff. That would certainly not be cost-effective, as many other organisations have found.
My hon. Friend asked a number of other questions, the origins of which I possibly recognise. He asked about child care. That issue is something that arises from time to time. It was last looked at, in a very comprehensive way, in 2003, when a survey of all users of the estate was conducted. It was found then that there was a strong preference on the part of people working here who had young children that, instead of having child care facilities on site here, they would much rather have support through vouchers for facilities nearer their home. Many of our work force live in outer London boroughs, and they simply do not want to drag small children on the underground or public transport system and put them into a nursery in Westminster; they would much rather use facilities near their homes.
It has been agreed in principle that there ought to be child care available for Members, as well as for members of staff and House staff. The Administration Committee is currently conducting another review and, I believe, another survey to see if the addition of that element of child care or any change in the view of the rest of the users of the estate since 2003 would imply any greater demand for facilities here. That research will be concluded in the next few months.
A number of Members have said to me that, when there are suddenly unexpected votes and other parliamentary activities that have not been anticipated, some Members with small children find themselves in need of child care at short notice. I think that the House authorities recognise that issue. We are trying to see whether there is some ability to provide sudden, ad hoc and emergency child care facilities within the House, dedicating some space for those facilities and training some House staff to provide that child care. That work will be carried forward as best we can.
I hesitate to get into the issue about video clips and hosting them on third-party websites. I have been asked about it on the Floor of the House and I have faithfully reproduced the answers that officials provided. I cannot pretend entirely to understand those answers and, having offered them, I am invariably besieged by letters, e-mails and complaints from all over the country and, indeed, from all over the world from self-styled IT experts, assuring me that what I am saying is absolute codswallop. For fear that that would happen again, I shall demur from going further into the matter. I know where my hon. Friend got that question from, and I will do my best to facilitate some further dialogue between those Members who wish to use video clips and House officials.
I feel similarly hesitant about addressing the issue about the format of Bills. Again, I have had an answer from officials that does not seem to convince a number of other people, so further dialogue will be needed.
On new contract methodologies, we are determined to learn lessons from things that have gone wrong in the past, which is why we commissioned a report. However, when contracts are above a certain size, we are bound by the same procurement regulations as everybody else.
We are conscious of food miles; it is a factor that is part of our procurement policy. I also take my hon. Friend's point about lifts. It would be good for us to encourage people not to use them when it is not strictly necessary.
Finally, on the vexed issue of bottled water, I have been personally sympathetic to those who raised that issue. I confess that I was quite sceptical about the first report produced by officials for the Administration Committee. The new Director General of Facilities, who is also sympathetic, has looked into the matter in some detail and has produced another report.
It is perfectly feasible for us to provide tap water, but it is not quite as straightforward as it might look. Of course, putting water from a tap into a jug is a perfectly straightforward exercise, but keeping it supplied to Committee Rooms all over this building and in Portcullis House and ensuring that it is fresh, cold and palatable and that the jugs and glasses are clean is not entirely without logistical difficulties. It would be possible for us to turn over to use tap water, but it would cost us, surprisingly, quite a lot of money. That is something that the Administration Committee is looking at afresh, if I can put it that way, and we look forward to hearing from it in due course.
I thank all the hon. Members who raised questions, and I will attempt to write to people on any unanswered points. I thank you, Miss Begg, for presiding over our proceedings.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Four o'clock.