[Mrs Linda Riordan in the Chair] — Access and Facilities (House of Commons)

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 4th September 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

[Relevant document : First Report from the Administration Committee, Session 2012-13, on Visitor Access and Facilities, HC 13 . ]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Heath.)

Photo of Linda Riordan Linda Riordan Labour, Halifax 9:30 am, 4th September 2012

This morning’s first debate, on visitor access, is slightly unusual, as it is on a House of Commons matter, not a Government one. The winding-up speech will made by John Thurso on behalf of the House of Commons Commission, and I expect to call him no later than 10.50 am, depending on how many other hon. Members want to speak.

There will be time for Front-Bench speeches, should the speakers wish it. The Administration Committee’s report on visitor access is relevant to the debate. The House of Commons Commission response to that report was published at 9.30 this morning and copies are available.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee 9:31 am, 4th September 2012

Mrs Riordan, you and I are in an unusual position, in that for several years our roles were normally the other way round, but I am delighted to see you occupying the Chair. I am aware that this morning’s subject of debate is not exactly at the epicentre of colleagues’ consideration, given other events that may be taking place not too far away from the Palace. However, it is important that we have occasional opportunities to discuss matters connected to Parliament’s operation, rather than those that concern the rest of the country. I hope to show that we are concerned, when we consider access to the building, about the convenience of the public—the people we serve.

The report of the Administration Committee on visitor access and facilities was published in May and, as you announced, Mrs Riordan, the House of Commons Commission has responded. We have published its response and I am pleased to say that the main thrust of the Committee’s recommendations has been accepted. We expect that, if all goes well, £3 million should be raised annually by 2014-15, to help towards the annual £224 million cost of running the House. Although we were open to receipt of evidence and comments from colleagues, the response was not overwhelming. The purpose of today’s debate, as I see it, is to air some of the underlying issues relating to visitor access, so that the unfolding of plans may be further informed.

The Committee’s starting point was to recognise that access to the Palace of Westminster for the various purposes pursued by members of the public can sometimes be very difficult—uncomfortable, even—with no shelter from extremes of weather. Public access was probably not a very high consideration when the new Palace was designed and built by Barry and Pugin in the 19th century, when people did not regularly lobby in their thousands. Parliamentary activity was not as extensive as it has become today, with all the Committees of the House and, indeed, the introduction of this Chamber as a parallel source of debating opportunities. There were not more than 500 all-party groups competing for space and attention. Visits to tour the building were not the feature that they have become today. The use of banqueting facilities was very limited and the education service, with its aim of encouraging school visits, had not been founded. Those and other activities have contributed to an ever increasing demand for access. More than 1 million people have visited the Palace in the past year, and the capacity of our entry points, unfortunately, has not kept pace with demand.

Security is obviously a factor. We must protect the building and all the people who may for one reason or another be in it. The need to ramp up security has led to controls on access that severely limit throughput. Worse than that, on occasions contradictory moves have been made in different parts of the administration of the Palace. On the one hand, there is a desire to encourage people to visit Westminster to see proceedings, or to come on school visits for induction to Parliament by the education service, but at the same time, the physical means of entry have not been expanded commensurately. On occasion, decisions have been made not to expand the entry points on the grounds of public expenditure. The consequence has been queuing. People queuing to get into the Palace are a regular sight, which has led to considerable inconvenience not only for them but for the hosts who handle the queues and for those holding functions in the House where visitors are expected.

The second problem is the inefficient handling of tour parties. The Palace is an almost unique visitor attraction, as visitors are taken through one way, then brought back again. It is an extremely unusual circumstance, which was remarked on by those who gave evidence to the Committee. The introduction of visitor assistants is a positive step. Perhaps they are the parliamentary equivalent of the “games makers”, because they give visitors a warm reception. Overall, however, we do not give the visitor the best welcome. We are strangely reticent about advertising the fact that people can come into the Palace for various legitimate reasons. The notices outside Westminster abbey, not far from us, are an example of what might be done—and I hope will be done—to give simple information to visitors about their rights of access.

We identified the fact that the Palace has a double role. It is primarily a working building at the heart of our democracy: that is unquestionably its prime purpose. However, we recognise that whether we like it or not, it is a leading visitor attraction. People see it and understandably want to share the wonderment of what it represents and contains. The twin roles can more easily be separated when Parliament is not in Session. They can become confused when one or other House is sitting. People want access to view proceedings, give evidence to Committees, visit their Member of Parliament and attend receptions and meetings. Also, many Members want to encourage visitors from their constituencies to come on a tour of the Palace—something that is now further limited by the recent decision of the House to change Tuesday sitting times.

For all the purposes I have just described, entry to the Palace must be free and, one would like to think, unimpeded, although for the reasons I have set out that is not always so. There should be no barrier to members of the public for those purposes. However, Parliament’s role as a visitor attraction is another matter. We are among the top five historical attractions. We could say that visiting has nothing to do with the operation of Parliament—we could disavow it and very strictly define the occasions on which people enter the Palace—but the Committee’s view was that we should welcome the opportunity to be seen in such a light. We could see nothing undignified about charging people who want to come in purely for the purpose of seeing a major historical attraction. There is undoubtedly a demand for visits, which has been created in all manner of ways, and would be further swollen if people passing by realised that there was an opportunity to come into the building.

The Committee felt that a clear distinction should be made, in the way that Westminster abbey makes a distinction—if people wish to attend a service in the abbey, there is of course absolutely no question of charging for access, but if people wish to visit the abbey as a visitor attraction at other times, there is most certainly a charge. We therefore think that we can apply that distinction to the Palace of Westminster. Of course, if we welcome visitors, there will also be a demand from them for refreshment and souvenirs.

We recognise that the whole issue of charging is quite sensitive, but we believe that some clear thinking on the subject is needed. We already charge for commercial tours when Parliament is in recess during the summer and on Saturdays, and for civil ceremonies and banqueting. We are increasingly charging for the specialist tours that have been developed—for example, for examining works of art—and it is thought reasonable to add to such tours opportunities for taking tea or even something more substantial.

However, we touched a nerve with a proposed charge for access to what we are now pleased to call the Elizabeth Tower. A charge for visitors was proposed on no more than a cost-recovery basis, but the House recoiled. Arguably, the Elizabeth Tower is not key to the parliamentary process, so we have blurred the distinction that the Committee felt ought to be maintained. The tower has severely limited capacity and, ironically, the consequence of the debate on charging in the House has been an upsurge in demand. Until then, many people did not realise that such tours were a possibility. It is now difficult to get any slot for visitors from one’s constituency for the rest of this calendar year—opportunities are being soaked up very quickly.

We suggested in our report that the line should be clearly drawn between the Palace as the place of the legislature and as a visitor attraction, and that that distinction ought to be reasonably clear and well defined. We do not feel that we should neglect what is an important source of income that is designed either to help us to reduce the taxpayer’s subsidy or to support the upkeep of this building. It has been reported in the press that the Commission is considering what needs to be done to ensure that the Palace is in a full state of repair, and there will doubtless be announcements about that in due course, but a great deal of work is being done and has to be done to make sure that it operates effectively as the home of Parliament and, indeed, continues to be a place of attraction and beauty for those who wish to visit.

The level of charge that one might apply for visits, whatever the purpose for which visitors are allowed in, is another matter. In evidence to the Committee, we were told that we probably undercharge. One approach is simply to go on cost-recovery; the other is to recognise that we are in a competitive marketplace in relation to visits, so we should consider whether a profit could be made that would contribute to the purposes I have described. I do not think that many people would thank us if, through any kind of neglect or reluctance to spend money, we allowed this building to fall into any measure of disrepair.

As I have mentioned, another source of income connected with visitors to the building is the sale of souvenir gifts, on which we have been half-hearted over the years. If people visit a stately home run by English Heritage, it is impossible for them to escape without going through the gift shop and the cafeteria, and English Heritage freely admits that it makes a great deal of money that way. The public make no complaints about that, because they see it as part of the visitor experience. It has been very difficult to achieve what might be our full potential in that respect in the Palace. Ironically, that is because English Heritage has been especially protective about Westminster Hall, which is the logical place for a souvenir shop. Of course, at one time in its history, Westminster Hall was very commercial, with shops and market stalls, but that was a long time ago.

Undoubtedly, there is a right and a wrong place to put a gift shop. At the moment, it is in St Stephen’s Hall, which is a congestion point, and people do not want to stop there on the tour to decide whether to buy something. People complete the tour in Westminster Hall and a relatively small number go back to the shop, while others go elsewhere, so opportunities are being missed. We are now addressing that, in the hope of increasing revenue and, indeed, of further contributing to people’s pleasure in visiting the Palace. I hope that such a benefit will soon be seen.

Overhanging our whole approach is the question of security. We recognise that a high level of security is needed in respect of all aspects of access to the Palace, but our present entry points are nearly all constrained either through sheer lack of capacity or, as the Committee suspects, in some cases for want of manpower, in that extra security guards mean extra cost. In the Committee’s view, that is not a reasonable ground for holding off improvements to the smoothness of access. At many times, throughput is now very badly hampered. We welcome what the Serjeant at Arms is seeking to do to ease some pressure points, but we think that that can make only a minor contribution to improving the flow. We have made a suggestion about improving the categories for prioritising visitors who should be fast-tracked into the building through the Cromwell Green entrance.

Two major problems persist. One is trying to separate what one might call the urgent visitor—the person who has an appointment with a Member of Parliament or has a commitment to give evidence to a Select Committee—from the rest. It is quite wrong that such people should be held up and, in practice, it is quite difficult physically to separate on the ground the genuinely urgent visitors, who need to be in the building by a certain time, from everyone else. We have proposed a restoration of the cabin that was previously stationed adjacent to the St Stephen’s entrance, which would allow a proper and more physical separation and, at the same time, ease the pressures on the Cromwell Green entrance.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton Conservative, Truro and Falmouth

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for securing this debate and for the way in which he is explaining the work of the Committee in such great detail. I want to emphasise the point that he has just made. Many people come to the Palace for good reason, including helping parliamentarians in their duties in all-party parliamentary groups. Meeting rooms are often changed at short notice. I have seen the most terrible scenes of people, who are giving their time freely, who are often professionals and who have come from all over the country to participate in the work of Parliament, scurrying around the building because they have been delayed on entry and then find that the Committee Rooms are changed at the last minute. I wholeheartedly agree that urgent measures must be taken so that people who are visiting Parliament for business purposes can get on with their work in a timely way.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

My hon. Friend, who is a valued member of the Committee, makes an excellent point. It is a real problem and a source of embarrassment for many Members of Parliament that visitors can be messed around to such an extent.

The second problem is the line of route for visitors. In accordance with telling the story of Parliament, visitors would traditionally begin at the House of Lords’ end of the building and exit through Westminster Hall. Since the introduction of the Cromwell Green entrance, the route has been reversed and visitors are now brought into Westminster Hall first. I repeat what I said earlier: we have the unusual circumstance of having to escort them, at varying pace, right the way through the building, which causes congestion and sometimes leads to confusion. I remember taking a party through the House. When we got to the House of Lords’ end, we found that we were missing someone. That was simply because not everyone keeps the same pace. Despite politely saying, “We must go through, but you will see all this on the way back” people may be suspicious of that and will naturally gaze up in admiration at what they are seeing, and that delays them, which is a general inconvenience to the group. It lets time slip. The professional guides, who are possibly contracted to do two tours for members of the public in the morning, find that their schedule is also held up and the next lot of visitors who have arrived on time are kept waiting until they are free after the first tour. I am happy to say that I am involved in informal discussions with the House of Lords to see how we can tackle this matter and improve the whole visitor experience. I hope something fruitful will come out of those discussions in the not too distant future.

Let me say a brief word about the longer term. Most people would surely agree that a good job is being done by our education service, the information office and parliamentary outreach to engage the public. As elected representatives of the people, we should delight in that fact and recognise that we need to get more people to come here for an understanding of what parliamentary democracy is all about if belief in parliamentary democracy is to be sustained. We worry about people abstaining from voting in elections and so on, but perhaps that is because they do not fully appreciate Parliament’s potential. We should do all that we can to bring Parliament’s role to people’s attention. Nothing is better than for people to come here and learn about what happens and that may light their own ambition to come here in due time as an elected representative.

There is a strong case for magnifying the efforts of the education service, the information office and parliamentary outreach to introduce young people to an understanding of parliamentary democracy through greater access. However, the education service has no proper home within the Palace. It was in 2007 that both the House of Commons and the House of Lords agreed that there should be a proper base for the education service, but it has not yet been achieved.

If we look at what is done in other Parliaments, we will see that we could do better by our citizens if we had a proper visitor centre where a warm welcome could be afforded and a proper introduction to parliament made. Both these functions—the education service and the visitor centre—could be combined in a purpose-built facility, but we have fought shy of the expenditure that would necessarily be involved. We owe it to the public to be bolder in our approach. It is a longer-term aspiration, but it is something that will allow us to look the public in the eye and say, “This is not a matter of aggrandising the position or the comfort of Members of Parliament. This is for you, and you have a right to get the best out of the Parliament that is here.” We should make it clear that they are welcome and when they come here we should handle them in a way that is informative and makes the whole experience something that they will remember for a long time.

We need to be courageous in our approach, and the whole question of access and the reception of visitors deserves much greater attention. I hope that the deliberations of the Administration Committee and the report that we have produced, plus the welcome that it has had from the House of Commons Commission, will alert colleagues to what our priorities should be. We need to move forward in a way that understands the clear distinction that we have tried to emphasise in our report that yes, we are first and foremost a place of parliamentary legislative business, but secondly, that we are seen as the mother of Parliaments and the home of parliamentary democracy, and it is a home to which we should want to welcome people as much as we can.

Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 9:56 am, 4th September 2012

I did not notify you, Mrs Riordan, that I wished to participate in this debate, but the subject of visitor access to Parliament is close to my heart. My right hon. Friend Sir Alan Haselhurst is right to say that this is a place of legislation. It is primarily a place of work. Members are here representing constituents, and most of them want to facilitate access as much as possible. Given the arrangements of this debate, I am not sure how we get a response to our questions, but I will raise a few issues anyway.

In the report, I was struck by the varying ways in which the fast-track scheme can be used. I welcome the idea of giving access to that scheme to members of our armed forces. Those brave men and women serving our country should be able to take up the rare opportunity of visiting Parliament without having to stand outside for an hour waiting to get in. To be honest, I did not even realise that there was a fast-track lane until I read the report. I do not remember it at all. Before I was a Member, I would just hang about in the back.

I read about the capacity flow-through and some of the changes that are proposed to increase the number of people coming through at Cromwell Green and Portcullis House. I was struck by the fact that while 500 people an hour can be processed through Cromwell Green, only 125 people can be processed in Portcullis House, which makes no sense to me. That is far worse than BAA’s operations in Heathrow, which are pretty appalling. We need to understand why the capacity at that entrance is so poor, although I appreciate that there are issues about it being a holding place.

One thing that I often do, and it is mentioned in the report, is to bring people in through 1 Parliament street. I go against the Committee’s recommendation of introducing another entrance facility through the St Stephen’s entrance, even if it was for VIPs. There are plenty of other ways that can be used. Using 1 Parliament street is an appropriate way to bring people into the Palace. I remember going through St Stephen’s entrance, and it always felt very grand, but the opening up of Westminster Hall has been good—although the visual blockage at the top end of Westminster Hall may not be particularly sightly—even though it is not the end with the new stained glass window being erected.

On other aspects of access, to ensure that we do not just focus attention on Cromwell Green, we could let some of the visitor assistants escort people from different entrances through to Central Lobby. At the moment, it is quite easy to say to a constituent, “I will see you in Central Lobby”, because they can just come into Parliament and walk to Central Lobby. The same is true of people attending banquets and other functions. But, quite rightly, nobody can walk through by themselves from Portcullis House to the main palace; they must be accompanied by a pass holder. I wonder if there are other ways in which we can use the existing visitor assistants to facilitate people arriving around the clock.

I have some sympathy with the view that was expressed about the inefficiency of tours. Dare I say that there is also an issue with the timekeeping of some of our guides? Having asked a guide to try to get round in 60 minutes instead of the usual 75 minutes, my guests came back to me 100 minutes later. There is a real inconsistency in how some of these services are delivered: if a guide suddenly extends a tour to closer to two hours than one, that is not great productivity.

I want to mention two issues that are not raised in the Administration Committee’s report. In doing so, I am perhaps straying from the report’s remit, which concerned visitor access and facilities. However, dare I mention first the issue of access to the bars of the House of Commons? We know that there are rules about taking people into Strangers Bar, including about who can purchase drinks. It is beholden on Members to try to respect the rules that exist. It is frustrating to see Members take 20 guests on to the Terrace in the Members-only section on a very busy day. Frankly, to do so is to show bad manners to other Members, as I point out to Members—although not in front of their guests—who do so.

Secondly, regarding other access, a lot has been said already about the education service. I support the development of the education service. Some of the things that we have done with the Speaker’s Council awards have been very good. However, John Thurso, who is a member of the House of Commons Commission, will know that I have asked parliamentary questions in the past about the subsidy that is available to help children to come to Parliament. I am raising that issue again now in a very parochial way, from the point of view of Suffolk, where my constituency is. The constituents of my hon. Friend Peter Aldous, who is my neighbouring MP in Suffolk, live up to 130 miles away from Parliament, and my constituents live an average of 120 miles from Parliament, and yet Suffolk schoolchildren receive no subsidy at all to visit Parliament. If we went the same distance and travelling time from Parliament in the other direction, we would start to reach beyond Birmingham, but the amount of subsidy that is given to schoolchildren from that area to visit Parliament is considerable in comparison to the zero subsidy that is given to schoolchildren from Suffolk. Will the Administration Committee, and perhaps also the House of Commons Commission, look at that issue again? Why is it that schoolchildren in Peterborough can receive a subsidy to pay for up to 50% of their travel costs, even though the time it takes them to get to Parliament by train is less than an hour and Peterborough itself is much closer to Parliament than my constituency?

I have strayed from the parts of the report to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden referred. However, I think that we should try to be as friendly to visitors as possible. I would love it if we started to rename the Strangers Gallery as the visitors gallery, and changed some of the words that are used in Parliament, as we have started to do in our parliamentary procedures. We no longer use the phrase, “We spy strangers”, and we have a different way of referring to visitors. In the 21st century, we can also change the current names of galleries and bars.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley 10:03 am, 4th September 2012

Thank you, Mrs Riordan, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Dr Coffey and my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Haselhurst, who is the Chairman of the Administration Committee.

I have the pleasure of serving on the Administration Committee myself and I think that my right hon. Friend was right to say in his introduction to this debate that the issue of visitor access and facilities is not a great topic of interest either for today or for most Members most of the time. However, it is one of those important issues about how a Parliament runs. Those of us who have a sad busman’s holiday occupation of going round other Parliaments see a very different situation to the one here. We have not just a working Parliament, which people want to see because they have an interest in seeing how the Government work and how laws are made, but a hugely attractive historic building, which people want to see for its architecture and the art that is contained here. That creates twin pressures on visitor access: there is a huge amount of interest from people who want to come here to meet their own MP and see what we do here, but also from those who want to see the surroundings in which we do it.

The Committee rightly brought out that theme in its report. It is quite reasonable to charge people who want to come to Parliament as a tourist, but it is completely inappropriate to charge people who want to come here to engage in the democratic process and to see their MP. If people want to come here to see how Parliament works, how legislation is made or to lobby their MP, they must be able to do so in a timely manner and for free. We cannot and should not charge people to do that, and as far as I know there are no plans for that type of charging to be introduced. However, if people are coming to Parliament to have a tourist experience, they should more than cover the costs to Parliament of their doing that and they should make some contribution towards the upkeep of these historic buildings. I am not recommending that any subsidy should come from that contribution to support the parliamentary function, for which the taxpayer in general should rightly pay. However, the upkeep of these historic buildings needs to be funded somehow.

My right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Administration Committee also worked his way around how we fund the catering establishments in this place. Clearly, visitors have a role to play in that process. We only sit here as a Parliament for about 70% of the year, but we are funding catering establishments to be here for 100% of the year. That is one reason—there are many others—why we have such a large subsidy, or loss, for those catering operations.

I am not one who thinks that MPs should have glorious, luxurious eating establishments, but clearly there need to be catering establishments in a place such as this so that MPs and all their staff have somewhere to eat—and drink too, probably—and so that visitors too can eat. The more use we can get out of those catering establishments when Parliament is not sitting, the less demand we will make on the taxpayer to subsidise them. Hopefully, we will try to neutralise some of the issues that exist. People’s perception of those issues is partly correct, but they are also partly misinformed about where some of the catering establishments’ loss comes from. The more visitors that we can get in, the more we can enable them to be here and make full use of the catering establishments when Parliament is not sitting. That would be a far better situation than the current one.

I can give an example from my busman’s holiday this summer, in the state Parliament in Victoria. We had a free tour of the Parliament; it did not take very long. It was interesting to see the Parliament, but not all that exciting. However, we were then offered the chance to have lunch in the members’ dining room. We went in there, we handed over some identification, we were given a security pass, we could walk through the corridors and, as I say, we could go to have lunch in the members’ dining room while the Parliament was in recess. That is not something that a visitor can do here in this Parliament on spec. I am not necessarily saying that the Members’

Dining Room should be opened all year round for that purpose, but freeing up access and allowing more people to come and see what these House Dining Rooms are like and have a chance to eat the meal that we get to eat would have huge advantages all round. People could get to use the whole place and see it, and it would reduce the amount of money that we require from the taxpayer to subsidise those facilities.

I agree with all the other points that have been made, very articulately, about the importance of educational visits. However, it is very hard for schoolchildren from my constituency to get down here. It is quite hard to get a slot when schoolchildren can come on a visit. I know the organisation that is required to arrange such a visit; people need to be on the phone the minute those slots open to try to get a decent one. Also, visiting Parliament is a long and expensive journey for many schools to arrange, especially when there is not even the budget available to pay for half the travel costs that are still required.

The more that we can do to get children to come to Parliament from other places that are further away in the country than London, rather than just having children from the London area, the better it would be. Children really gain a lot from understanding how democracy works and how important Parliament is; they can see it. In the two and a half years that I have been here, I have had about half a dozen groups of schoolchildren come down to visit, out of the dozens of schools in my constituency. It really is a very small percentage of children who get to do that.

Before I was elected as an MP, I had only been in this building once before, and that was on an organised tour 14 years ago. Visiting Parliament gives people a completely different picture of this place. They come and have the tour, they have the experience and they see how Parliament works; they even see how small the House of Commons Chamber is. People get a very different picture of democracy from actually being here rather than just seeing those clips on a Wednesday night on TV of MPs behaving rather badly at Prime Minister’s questions.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

Does my hon. Friend not see that there is an incongruity in what he is suggesting? I absolutely agree with him that we should maximise the opportunities for schoolchildren to visit Parliament, and that may require subsidy, as it already does to some extent. However, if we simply increase demand without spending money on ensuring that visitors can get into the building, they will not exactly have the best of welcomes. The two things go together.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

I absolutely agree with that point. There are things that we can do in the short term to make access easier. We can make better use of the various large rooms that we have. In this building in particular, we have this room itself—Westminster Hall—that is not used for much of the week. We also have the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Room and the Inter-Parliamentary Union Room, which are also not used the whole time. Those rooms could be used more for educational visits than they are now.

My right hon. Friend was making the point about how we get visiting schoolchildren through security and into this place more efficiently. We must use the existing access routes more effectively; they do not run at capacity.

We do not use No. 1 Parliament street or Derby Gate effectively at all; Derby Gate is a fully effective security access route. There is no particular reason why, especially on days of nice weather, a party could not be led round there, through security and back through the building if there is a queue somewhere else. I know that option was not favoured, but if there is a half-hour or hour wait and accesses elsewhere are empty, there must be a better use for those accesses.

I am tempted to raise one of the thornier issues that affects the running of the Palace. Most people would be surprised to learn that the House of Commons runs half the Palace and the House of Lords runs the other half, and that, at times, never the twain shall meet. We are talking about sensible things such as starting the tour route and putting visitor and education facilities in the right places, but much of that has nothing to do with us. We have no say because those decisions are for the House of Lords.

In the interest of the good, sound, efficient and economic running of this place, we need to make more progress on jointly running catering, visitor access and security through one organisation, rather than artificially dividing them somewhere down the corridor where the carpet goes from green to red. That is an historical anomaly that leads to inefficient practices. We will not resolve those issues efficiently and sensibly until we have one management team running the whole building. We can skirt around that for historical reasons, but at some point, if we really want to address the issues, that point must be settled.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Chair, Finance and Services Committee, Chair, Finance and Services Committee 10:11 am, 4th September 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Riordan. Although this is not the first time that a Commission spokesman has replied to a debate, it has not happened for some while. This is a novel experience for me, and I hope that I do justice to the excellent introductory remarks of the Chair of the Administration Committee and contributions from hon. Members.

I pay tribute to Sir Alan Haselhurst and to the work of the Committee, the members of which are often unsung heroes. Having served on the Committee during the 2005 Parliament, I am well aware of how much work is done. On behalf of the Commission, I assure the Committee that its report and, indeed, its other work are taken extremely seriously. We are grateful for that work, which is extremely helpful in assisting the Commission and management to formulate the strategies and policies that the House management will follow. I am extremely grateful to the Chair of the Committee for securing the debate, and I hope that he will pass on to those members of his Committee who are not here the Commission’s thanks for his and the Committee’s hard work.

The report is an important body of work that will inform Members and management on the principles of the House and the management of visitors for years to come. The report’s first conclusion, which the right hon. Gentleman set out in his opening remarks, says it all. The central idea that has emerged from the inquiry is the critical point that two conceptions of Parliament are required: the working institution and the visitor attraction. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the Palace of Westminster is, first and foremost, a home to Parliament as a working institution, and that all procedures of Parliament are and will remain freely available to all citizens who wish to observe and visit Parliament or their MP. Secondly, subject to that primacy of free access for parliamentary purposes, the Palace of Westminster is a world-class visitor attraction that should be open to visitors, provided that the costs of providing any maintenance and of servicing those visitors are fully recovered from tourist visitors, thus ensuring that no supplementary finance is required from the taxpayer. Those are my words, but I hope that they accurately reflect the Committee’s recommendation and the Commission’s acceptance of that recommendation.

There is an interesting debate to be continued on what “recovery of costs” might mean. Obviously, there is a cash on-cost, because if a visitor walks around, a member of staff is required, and if there are no visitors, there is no staff cost. If there are more visitors, more staff are needed, so there are more direct costs. However, there are also indirect costs: wear and tear to the Palace and other costs that build over time. I argue that there should be full recovery of costs, with a surplus on the operating profit line of the resource account to put against further costs as time goes by, but that is a debate to be had in due course.

I will briefly address several of the points raised by the Chair of the Administration Committee. He highlighted all the important points, particularly the conflicting demand for access. Our business visitors and tourist visitors are often in conflict, and we need to resolve that conflict. Again, as he said, we need to address the challenges of modern security and the way in which queues build up. The recommendations on that are central and have been taken on board, and I shall address them later.

The right hon. Gentleman touched a slight nerve when he referred to the debate on charging for access to what is now the Elizabeth tower, the full consequences of which are only beginning to be understood. He stated that that debate raised awareness, which is a good point, as marketing a free service tends to increase use. The problem now is to deliver on that demand. He also made some good points about interaction with the Lords and the education service.

Dr Coffey raised some extremely good points, particularly on visitor access. She referred to recommendation 3 in the report:

“It is our view that members of the United Kingdom armed forces wearing uniform should…be eligible to be fast-tracked into the House”.

No one would gainsay that recommendation. Particularly in these times, but probably at all times, that recommendation should be given effect. The Commission has directed the Serjeant at Arms to consider all these matters carefully, so although I cannot give a categorical assurance on any particular point, I assure both the Chair and members of the Administration Committee that that recommendation is being seriously considered.

The hon. Lady also talked about children’s access and the fact that children from Suffolk Coastal receive no subsidy. Of course, as my constituency is on the north coast of Scotland, I am literally at the other end of the scale. Interestingly, schools in my constituency receive the maximum subsidy, but I have had only four school visits in 12 years in Parliament, because the part schools have to pay is so great. I suspect that the sum is greater than the full cost for schools from Suffolk, although I do not know that. The way in which we provide sufficient subsidy to ensure that kids from Kinlochbervie, Farr or Golspie—or wherever—are able to get here as easily as kids from Islington or anywhere relatively close by is an interesting conundrum.

Indeed, Nigel Mills also addressed that theme in his excellent contribution, and this goes back to what the Chair of the Administration Committee mentioned and a matter that we on the Committee during the 2005 Parliament discussed at length, but never implemented. Are we going to provide facilities properly designed for education, which includes a proper reception for children and proper areas for classroom activities? I can give no commitment on behalf of the Commission, but I remain convinced that providing the capital expenditure necessary to provide a proper facility—one that would enable teaching to be done comfortably without using other rooms in the Palace, as currently happens, and that would enable children to be looked after properly and taken through the Palace to see what happens—would represent a tremendous addition to our outreach. Obviously, we are in straitened times, but if we accepted that principle—I stress again that I am speaking for myself on this point, not the Commission—it would be a tremendous step forward.

The hon. Member for Amber Valley also touched on the important question of how catering is funded. As a former caterer, that is something that has always fascinated me about this place. It all depends on how we look at it, because if we do a price comparison, many of our dining rooms are in line with commercial competition in the area. The prices are not particularly generous in many outlets, especially in banqueting and some of the dining rooms. The operating profit—what we used to call the kitchen profit, or sales minus food cost—as a percentage is absolutely bang on with commercial percentages found in the industry.

As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the problem is that the profit generated three days a week for 30-odd weeks of the year is expected to fund the building, the catering outlets, the kitchens and the staff seven days a week for 52 weeks of the year. That equation does not work. Consequently, the final bottom line is a negative figure, which implies a subsidy, but it is not a subsidy on a daily operating basis—it is due to how we work. I have therefore always been keen to use the fallow times when staff and facilities are available in a way that would allow the subsidy and requirement for taxpayer funding to be reduced or even eliminated, and that is a critical point.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the question of the relationship between the Lords and the Commons. Again, I have slightly peculiar inside knowledge, in that I served on a Sub-Committee of the House of Lords when I was in the other place. When one sits in the other House, there is a desire not to cede its sovereignty to anyone for any purpose, and that makes negotiations slightly more difficult. I commend the Chair of the Administration Committee on working hard with his opposite number, but I think that we in this House must proceed wherever we can. If we wait for their lordships, we may wait for a long time.

I want to respond to the points raised in the report, and particularly to the Commission’s agreement in principle to a package of measures that will improve the services available to visitors to Parliament and make a significant net contribution to defraying the additional costs to the public purse that arise from occupying the Palace. I stress again that, first and foremost, we are a Parliament providing free access for those attending parliamentary proceedings and meeting their Members. However, as has been pointed out, the building is available thereafter to contribute significantly to defraying costs.

In that light, the Commission has agreed in principle to open for commercial tours during the Christmas and Easter recesses, bank holidays and Sundays between April and October on the same basis that we have opened during the summer for the past decade, and more recently on Saturday. In addition, it has agreed in principle to open for an extra hour on each commercial day of opening; to increase the range and frequency of specialist tours, such as the new art and architecture tour of Portcullis House; to introduce new options for tours, including a short tour of Westminster Hall and an audio-guided tour in addition to the current tour with a guide; to relocate the St Stephen’s shop to the Westminster Hall area; to relocate the bookshop to a more suitable new retail unit at 49-50 Parliament street; to introduce an online retail facility for souvenirs; to develop the range of guidebooks offered for sale following the successful launch in July of a new official guide to the Palace; to develop filming possibilities in the Elizabeth Tower—for the purposes of clarity, I add that that will be charged for—to offer afternoon teas to those taking tours; and to offer the atrium in Portcullis House, the dining rooms in the Palace of Westminster, the Pugin Room, the Jubilee Room and the Terrace Pavilion for commercial hire—I stress on an experimental basis—for two years, on a limited number of occasions when they are not expected to be used by Members. There will be a limited trial in those facilities. Finally, the Commission has agreed to establish or work with an existing small charitable body to raise funds to support the advancement of public education and information on, and access to, the history of UK parliamentary democracy and its processes.

Detailed plans are being drawn up for implementing each of those ideas. The current public-facing services that generate income—visitor tours, catering, retail outlets and so forth—are operated at a net annual cost to the House of £900,000. That includes a small surplus on retail operations, a break-even for the bookshop and a net deficit for visitor services, which represents the cost of free access and tours sponsored by Members. Initial estimates suggest that the proposed activities, as the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden said, would generate an additional £3 million in net income by 2014-15, thus turning the current net cost into an annual net contribution of some £2 million.

The various groups of staff responsible for managing tours, visitor catering and retailing have been brought together under single management, which is expected to bring greater commercial imperative and financial clarity. That has been welcomed by the Finance and Services Committee, which I have the honour to chair and on which the Chair of the Administration Committee also sits.

The Commission is also taking action to tackle the queues for entry that can occur at peak times. We take the issue extremely seriously, and the Commission considers that ideally, apart from on days when there are mass lobbies or exceptional events, people should not have to queue. The search facilities at Cromwell Green have been reviewed by the Serjeant at Arms, and changes have been made to alleviate lengthy queues. In addition, the Serjeant is continuing to explore options for making changes to improve the flow at both the Cromwell Green and Portcullis House entrances.

However, current security requirements pose challenging resource and practical constraints on resolving the problem immediately. As a first step, officials will seek actively to manage the situation, focusing on limiting waiting times to no more than 15 minutes. That might require the House administration to set up a central booking system, as suggested by the Committee, although the Commission recognises that constraints on when activities can take place could inconvenience individual Members.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

Is it not a fact that, as with most security systems, minor improvements to operation can often result in considerably increased throughput? For example, when the Administration Committee went to look at the Cromwell Green entrance, the main bottleneck was at the camera taking photos for passes. It turns out that there is a second camera. Had it been manned, all the security gates could have been operated, which would have relieved the process considerably. It is not about huge capital investment, or even significant manpower investment; it is about better management of the system. It is the same as at airports. They have improved a lot, and our operation needs to as well.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Chair, Finance and Services Committee, Chair, Finance and Services Committee

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely spot on. Indeed, as somebody who flies north and back again every week, I have seen the improvements as people work out how things should operate and make small suggestions about the way they are handled. To take one example, I more often than not go via Gatwick. The way in which Gatwick’s security has improved—from the absolutely ghastly experience of five years ago to the relatively painless experience of today—is an object lesson. There has been some careful capital expenditure on the right kit, but most of all good management. That point has been taken on board, and it is precisely what the Serjeant at Arms and other members of the management are considering. All suggestions are gratefully received. The House management wishes to get people through as quickly as is consistent with decent security.

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee

Will my hon. Friend refrain at this stage from ruling out the possibility of reintroducing a cabin to provide a separate entry, which was a possibility on which my hon. Friend Dr Coffeypoured cold water? As I understand it, the Commission has embraced the idea of mini-tours through Westminster Hall, which would be the way of handling those people, quite apart from any other easing of capacity that it would provide.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Chair, Finance and Services Committee, Chair, Finance and Services Committee

I can certainly confirm that nothing is ruled out. In all my dealings with the officials and management of the House, I have been deeply impressed by how much they are seeking to give effect to our wishes. Clearly, as is apparent from the debate, there are contrary views. It is the job of advisers to advise on the pros and cons; ultimately, it is for Committees and the Commission to come to a decision. However, I assure the right hon. Gentleman that that point will be given active consideration.

I hope that the Committee will welcome the positive response that I have outlined, although it clearly is not possible to resolve quickly all the issues it raised. Paragraph 77 of its report refers to the idea of an education centre, to which I referred earlier. That was endorsed by the House as long ago as June 2007, but despite a number of studies, it has proved very difficult—actually impossible, to date—to find a suitable space for such a facility within the existing secure perimeter. The Commission continues to support the need for an education centre and to look for a suitable opportunity.

Paragraph 36 of the report recommends that the Commission should organise a full debate on its savings programme. In June, the Commission agreed that it would seek a debate in October on the draft savings programme, the administration estimate and the House’s medium-term financial plan. Such a debate will provide an excellent opportunity for hon. Members to discuss the savings programme and to return to some of the issues we have been considering today. It is my hope that such a debate, which would be on an amendable motion, meaning that it could involve votes, would ensure that hon. Members could make a key contribution to the strategic decisions faced by the House.

We have an exceptionally loyal and hard-working staff who are led by a management that, in all my dealings, I have found seek nothing more than to give effect to what we want. However, it is sometimes difficult to be certain of what we want, because the manner in which we communicate, via Committees, is not always the most perfect. A debate in the House will be an opportunity for all hon. Members who have a point of view to express it. It will result in a single decision, as it were, that is made by hon. Members collectively. That will enable those who look after us and the management to operate within a clear strategic framework and to be able to manage much more effectively on our behalf.

On behalf of the Commission, I am very grateful to the Chair and members of the Administration Committee for their report, which is a serious and important piece of work. I am also grateful to hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. I have tried to address the points that have been raised as best I can in the somewhat greater time than I originally imagined I would have, but if there are any further points, I am more than happy to take them up with hon. Members informally, or to respond formally to any written or oral questions.

Sitting suspended.