HC Deb 27 June 1974 vol 875 cc1905-13

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services in their Second Report."—[Mr. Bottomley.]

11.57 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Lambeth, Central)

The House ought to be acquainted with what it is doing in being called upon to decide whether to accept the Second Report. According to paragraph 33 on page 11: The cost of operating the underground car park will fall upon the House of Commons vote and its control will be the responsibility of the Serjeant at Arms. It goes on to say that it will be necessary to put the work out to contract, and according to paragraph 34 the contractor's staff will have to undergo training and familiarisation with the special needs of the House in the underground car park where their duties will be very different from work in other car parks outside. The Committee expresses the hope that the underground car park should not be brought into use until 1st October 1974. I very much doubt whether the work will be completed by then. There have been many delays for a variety of reasons. The final cost has not yet been estimated. The cost was to have been £1.3 million, but it is already twice that amount and we still do not know what we are letting ourselves in for. That is why I have grave doubts as to whether the Second Report should be accepted.

12 midnight.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

I wish merely to make one inquiry of the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bottomley) concerning the car parking provision in that part of the present space provided in Old Palace Yard. I understand from the report that this will be used primarily for House of Lords car parking. But it is obvious that, at times, severe congestion arises round St. Stephen's entrance, with many hon. Members coming into the House for Divisions.

May we be told whether provision will be made for the large number of cars which drop off and pick up Members and visitors, and whether space will be provided for cars coming in when Members are taking part in Divisions?

12.1 a.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Lipton), I wish to draw attention to a matter to which this House will agree if it approves of the report.

I welcome the new arrangement which is proposed for the little courtyard at the back of New Palace Yard which is known as Mr. Speaker's Court. Any hon. Member who has ever dared park his car there without being one of the privileged class who are supposed to use it will know what happens.

Perhaps I may recount what happened to me when I parked my car there about a year ago. First, an attendant told me that I could not park there. I asked him what rule said that I could not, and I was told that the Serjeant at Arms said that I could not. Naturally enough, my rejoinder was that I made rules for the Serjeant at Arms, and not the other way round.

Being the cussed sort of person I am, from then on I insisted on parking my car in Mr. Speaker's front garden. Then a policeman left a very respectful note on my windscreen which said: Sir, do not park your car here again. The next day when I parked it there, I had a communication from the Inspector of Police, who told me that it had always been the case that Members like me could not park their cars there. Everyone else accepted it. Why did not I? I asked what was his authority for this. He said that it had always been the case. I told him to report back to his superiors that I intended to continue to park there until my attention was drawn to a rule to which I had contributed.

Following that, I was sent for by none other than my Chief Whip. After 15 minutes of conversation, I made it clear that I did not feel that it was appropriate to be whipped upon such a matter.

Next, I had a half-hour discussion with Mr. Speaker's secretary, and the final stage was that I had a very pleasant drink with Mr. Speaker.

I have never come across anything like it since first hearing Stanley Holloway's monologue entitled, "Sam, Sam, pick up thy musket". Since then I have occasionally parked my car in Mr. Speaker's Court to emphasise that the rules of this building must be made by the Members.

There is a more serious message, however. As a result, the rules were studied. According to rules which were never made formally but just grew up over the years, the list of those who could use Mr. Speaker's Court was found to be extremely long. It seemed to include absolutely everyone in the House except me.

I am glad to say that this mighty matter was referred to the Services Committee, and clearly it has looked into it very carefully. I draw the attention of hon. Members to the Committee's very sensible recommendation, first, that there should in future be no distinction drawn between Privy Councillors, who were one of the privileged class in the past in this respect, and other Members; and, second, that no distinction should be drawn between Ministers and other Members.

Every time the House comes across a distinction being drawn between the prefects in this House and the "fags" it ought to react and stop such a distinction being drawn. I am glad to see that that little incident has resulted in this modest advance of democracy and egalitarianism in the matter of car parking. I thank my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Services Committee for achieving that.

The Minister of State, Department of the Environment (Mr. Charles R. Morris)

I would wish to comment briefly on the Second Report of the House of Commons Services Committee.

I was very impressed with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham). Listening to his comments I felt that he appeared to be the odd man out, who wants to be the odd man in so far as Mr. Speaker's Court is concerned. I recognise that the accommodation in Mr. Speaker's Court is ultimately a matter for Mr. Speaker's decision, as indicated in paragraph 16 of the report.

I am aware that the Lord President of the Council has thoughts in that regard.

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)

That is not what our hon. Friend said.

Mr. Morris

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury was indicating the difficulties with which he found himself confronted as a result of the fact that the Speaker exercises the decision as regards who should use Mr. Speaker's Court in terms of the allocation of car parking space.

In this regard the Lord President of the Council has some thoughts on this matter which he would wish to place before Mr. Speaker on the proposals for restricting the parking of ministerial cars in Mr. Speaker's Court before any final decision is made.

My other comments concern the recommendation in paragraph 7 of the report that car parking in Broad Sanctuary should be retained for parliamentary use after the underground car park has come into operation. We all appreciate the difficulties which hon. Members, and particularly staff, suffer when the House sits late. If the House so wishes we can arrange for parking to remain available in Broad Sanctuary, on a strictly temporary basis. I am bound to point out, however—and I hope every hon. Member of the House will agree—that this important site in the very heart of our capital city cannot remain indefinitely as an open air car park. Various proposals have been made about its future from time to time since the war. It is unnecessary for me to discuss them now, except to say that car parking on the present basis is not one of them. For that reason alone we could accept the recommendation only as a temporary expedient.

There is also a more fundamental point. Much has changed since the House first considered the possibility of building the underground car park. Not the least of these is the general attitude towards the use of private cars for travelling to work in cities, and particularly in London. I noted the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Lipton) in this regard. As a reflection of this changed attitude the Greater London Council is pursuing policies aimed at restricting such use as far as possible. We and our predecessors have co-operated by, for example, restricting parking in the Royal Parks. Against that background, I must ask the House to consider very carefully whether we can possibly justify any addition to our present net parking capacity of 760.

It is true that those who really need their cars to get home after late night sittings rarely add to rush hour congestion, but, despite the confidence expressed in paragraph 10 of the report, that our needs are well understood, it would be folly to ignore the considerable criticisms both from within and outside the House when it was decided to build the car park. I suspect that there will be considerably more criticism now that it has been built at a cost of £5,000 or so for each individual car parking space. The car park, however, is now a fact.

In general, I accept the proposed allocation of car spaces recommended in the report. For the future, I hope that the Services Committee will give further consideration to the possibility of finding other means of getting people home who live at a distance, rather than that we should appear to encourage yet a further proliferation of private cars.

It is expected that the underground car park will come into operation by 1st October.

12.11 a.m.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham West)

There is still one point to which the Minister did not reply. Paragraphs 33 and 34 of the report do not make sense. Paragraph 33 says that Government or House of Commons staff will not be able to operate the car park, because The special requirements of parliamentary use demand a high standard of servicing"— that is a fine comment on Her Majesty's Government— and the attendants will need to be highly skilled at their job. The implication is that any attendants employed by the House of Commons would not be.

Paragraph 34 says: It will be necessary, once the contract has been let, for the contractors' staff to undergo training and familiarisation with the special needs of the House. … In other words, they are incompetent. These attendants cannot be employed by the Government or the House or the Parliamentary Commissioner because people from outside are more skilled, yet when they are employed they will have to be trained by the Government because they are not skilled enough. Paragraph 33 simply contradicts paragraph 34. I hope that this point will be answered.

12.13 a.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

Although the report gives what the Committee was advised were the minimum requirements for car parking in and around the Palace of Westminster for Members and staff, it also makes recommendations about allocation. I stress that we shall be watching the situation as it develops. I think that that takes care of some of the Minister's observations.

The Minister said that we could have the temporary use of Broad Sanctuary for the staff and others until it was built over or laid out as an open space. The Services Committee, as the servant of the House, is content with that, because it looks as if we shall have the use of it for at any rate the foreseeable future.

The Committee will also take note of the points raised in the debate and listen to representations from users in future. That takes care of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English), who said that the Committee was out of touch with Members. I think that it will get plenty of advice from hon. Members as experience develops in the use of the car park.

My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) asked whether arrangements for hon. Members arriving for Divisions at St. Stephen's entrance would be in any way altered by what we are proposing. The answer, as I see it, is "No".

Mr. Moate

I was saying that the present arrangements are increasingly unsatisfactory, and that a larger number of cars than ever before seem to congregate there. The police are helpful, but there is congestion there which I should have thought could be relieved by allocating a small part of the yard for temporary parking at least.

Mr. Cooke

There is a small part reserved for visiting ambassadors. Unless they are all there when there is a sudden Division, there should not be too much congestion. But we appreciate that there are certain problems in some places, and St. Stephen's entrance is certainly one.

The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) retailed his interesting experience at the hands of Mr. Speaker and the Serjeant at Arms. We recognise that Speaker's Court is part of Mr. Speaker's territory, and the Services Committee, being the servant of the House, is charged with the job of advising Mr. Speaker on matters connected with it. Mr. Speaker asked our advice on how he could be assisted in making the best use of that courtyard.

In times gone by Mr. Speaker enjoyed the use of a substantial mansion as part of the Palace of Westminster, and from an historical point of view there were Speaker's Court, Speaker's Green and Speaker's Steps. As for Mr. Speaker's House, it has been considerably truncated over the years, and the Library and other Departments have benefited immensely by successive Mr. Speakers giving up parts of Mr. Speaker's House. If we regard the State rooms as being common to all and used for public purposes, there is practically nothing left in Mr. Speaker's House in terms of his own personal purview.

Although it is necessary for the Serjeant at Arms to live on the premises, his residence has been cut down to the absolute minimum. A large room was cut off not long ago and is now used for State occasions by Mr. Speaker.

If hon. Members experience difficulties or trouble with Departments of the House they have a remedy in appealing to the Chairman of the Services Committee. He will, I am sure, do his best to investigate particular problems. When there is difficulty between an hon. Member and a member of the staff it must be remembered that the member of staff is doing his duty. If we have not given that member of staff the correct instructions we ought to look at the matter.

We do not want to be inflexible in the running of the car park, and we shall review the system after it has operated for a full Session.

If I dare mention the Serjeant at Arms again, the report of the Services Committee says that it may be necessary for him to make suitable ad hoc parking arrangements on certain occasions on a temporary basis. Adjustments of this kind will have to be notified to the Services Committee and the whole picture will be reviewed after a full Session.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House doth agree with the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services) in their Second Report.