HC Deb 27 June 1974 vol 875 cc1913-25

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

12.19 a.m.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

I do not wish to delay the House at this late hour, but the report of the Services Committee contains matters which should be discussed. I begin by declaring an interest. I have a most pleasant office at No. 1 Bridge Street, overlooking Boadicea and her chariot, and I am rather reluctant to depart from those premises. I consider No. 1 Bridge Street a fine building. The report contains a proposal that the Bridge Street premises should be vacated in the near future. What will happen to those premises? Are they simply to be left vacant and to deteriorate and become an eyesore at an important site in the centre of London?

As far as we know, no decision has been taken by the Government about when, if at all, we are to proceed with the new parliamentary building. While indecision remains regarding the new parliamentary building it would be wrong to vacate what I would argue to be good quality accommodation at No. 1 Bridge Street. I cannot argue the same view about Palace Chambers. My impression is that those premises are not of the same standard as No. 1 Bridge Street.

No doubt the accommodation problem has been made more acute by the damage to the Westminster Hall offices, and presumably there is now an increased need for extra accommodation for Members and secretaries. Surely, therefore, it makes much more sense to provide the Norman Shaw (North) premises for secretaries and to maintain the premises at No. 1 Bridge Sheet for the use of Members. To take this type of decision now without having any idea when we are going to the new parliamentary building is wrong. I ask the Services Committee, in view of the new circumstances resulting from the bomb damage, whether it should not think again about the use of No. 1 Bridge Street. Paragraph 7 of the report reads: It is essential that No. 1 Bridge Street and Palace Chambers should be evacuated by Members at the same time as Norman Shaw (North) becomes available for occupation because staff and facilities including telephone lines will have to be removed from these two premises …". I cannot believe that a large number of staff is needed to run No. 1 Bridge Street. That is not an overwhelming argument. Wherever those Members are they will require servicing by a certain number of staff. If the exterior of No. 1 Bridge Street were cleaned up it would be regarded by many people as a very fine building. As it stands, the interior is worthy of preservation. I believe that we are making a mistake in committing the building to dereliction. I do not believe that Parliament should take such a decision without giving it far greater consideration than it has so far received.

12.22 a.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton

I support what the hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) said. It appears that no one who is directly affected by the report has been consulted. Paragraph 7.1 reads: Members and Secretaries now in No. 1 Bridge Street and Palace Chambers should be transferred to Norman Shaw (North) at a date to be agreed with them. …. When are the people who now use No. 1 Bridge Street and Palace Chambers going to be consulted? It appears that no consultation has taken place. It is not yet known when No. 1 Bridge Street and Palace Chambers should be closed. It is not yet known when the Norman Shaw (North) building will be occupied. We are being asked, in effect, to buy a pig in a poke. I think that the Members and secretaries directly concerned should have the opportunity to express their views on the proposals contained in the report.

12.23 a.m.

Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)

I do not wish to take up the time of the House unduly, but I wish to put in a word for the under-privileged who are accommodated in Dean's Yard. What is not clear to me—I hope that we shall have some assurance tonight—is what will be the result for those who are not mentioned specifically in the report. I assume that the occupants of Dean's Yard will be entitled to put in for a transfer to some of the extra accommodation which will be created by the Norman Shaw (North) project, but that is not clear. I assume that that is covered by paragraph 7.3.

I wish to draw to the attention of the House the real problems which many hon. Members face in, as it were, the outer suburbs of Dean's Yard. We are working seven to an office. Any hon. Member who drops into our office when we are all on the telephone will appreciate the problem. The nearest comparison I can think of is a betting shop. I hope that it is not a situation that will continue indefinitely. I am willing to receive an assurance tonight, but if that is not forthcoming I urge the Committee to hoist on board this problem with all speed.

12.24 a.m.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, East)

The report which we are now considering should not be the subject of lengthy debate as the Committee, in Paragraph 2, gives a description of the existing accommodation for the benefit of new Members. If we look further into the report we see that Paragraph 3 reads: In the opinion of some Members many rooms which are now shared, including those in Commons Court which were furnished specifically for use by two Members, should be occupied by one person only. If this is the general view of the House such infilling will not solve the overall problem … I suggest that the inclusion of that sentence means that the Committee is anxious to obtain the observations of hon. Members on the desirability of single rooms.

There seems to be some method of promotion among back benchers. One starts some distance from the House, sharing a room with three, four or more hon. Members, and is then gradually promoted, until one reaches the stage that I have now reached, of sharing with a delightful companion a room in the precincts of this building. But, like the community at large, increasing affluence whets the appetitie for even more affluence. Having achieved the distinc- tion of sharing a room with one companion, notwithstanding her attractiveness, I prefer a room of my own.

If the Committee is indeed asking a question, my reply is that it should, as far as possible, endeavour to provide a single room for each hon. Member of this House.

The Committee, in paragraph 4 of the report, states that Private Members occupy 70 single rooms within the precincts". That is a very small proportion of the total number of private Members. I know that there are single rooms outside the precincts, but, ideally, we should have a single room for each Member within the precincts. It may not be possible to achieve that ideal. However, we should make it clear that that is what we would like.

Mr. Moate

I have asked many hon. Members who have desks in the Cloisters—who possibly fall into the category of Members sharing rooms—about this matter. Most of them expressed the view that they would rather have their desks in the Cloisters than offices of their own in either the new parliamentary building or Norman Shaw (North). The Committee should take their views into account and not automatically accept that all hon. Members want their own offices.

Mr. Lamond

I accept what the hon. Gentleman said. The Committee is asking for views. I can speak only for myself in this respect. I felt it was valuable for the Committee to know that at least one hon. Member was anxious to have a room of his own.

12.28 a.m.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

As a Member who has a room in Bridge Street and a secretary in Dean's Yard I can sympathise with many of the points that have been made.

We have an eminently fine building in Bridge Street, and the accommodation within it is good. The rooms are reasonably large, and certainly soundproof, which is more than can be said of some of the accommodation in this building.

If hon. Members are prepared and willing to work at No. 1 Bridge Street, as I am and as many secretaries are, they should be allowed to do so. It would be an act of gross irresponsibility for Parliament, at a time of national difficulties and when accommodation is not easy to supply, to give up a building of the standard of No. 1 Bridge Street. Many secretaries have worked there for 10 years or more and are quite happy to continue there.

The Minister of State, Department of Industry (Mr. Eric S. Heffer) indicated assent.

Mr. Cormack

The hon. Gentleman's wife is one of those who has worked in that building for a long time. I know that she is happy there. It seems quite stupid to turf her out, or to turf me out for that matter.

I am in favour of the Norman Shaw building. If asked, I should be quite prepared to go there and allow another hon. Member to move into Bridge Street. I do not object to the extra distance from this place. I like the Norman Shaw building—I find it aesthetically pleasing—and should be happy to take my secretary there, not to leave her in Dean's Yard.

We cannot afford to close the Bridge Street building. I am still opposed to the new parliamentary building—indeed, all the arguments deployed a year ago about extravagance and expense are even more telling now—but even its most fervent advocate would agree that, in current circumstances, it is unlikely that work on it will be started for at least four or five years.

Why, therefore, should we move from Bridge Street where many hon. Members and secretaries are perfectly happy? Why not keep that accommodation in good repair? Most of the rooms need only a lick of paint. If we do that we shall be meeting the extremely important point raised by the hon. Member for Oldham. East (Mr. Lamond). Every hon. Member, if he wishes, should have the opportunity of occupying a private room. If he does not want one, fair enough. If a Member prefers to stay in this building and occupy a desk in the cloisters than walk a couple of hundred yards across the road to a private room, that is a privilege which should be accorded to him. There are hon. Members on both sides of the House who have homes in London, or have interests in and around London, and who prefer to work from their homes or City offices. Such people want only a desk, and I do not object to that. But if we keep Bridge Street, Norman Shaw and Dean's Yard, every hon. Member who wants a private room can have one. That would meet the hon. Member's point. So whatever we do with Norman Shaw, let us keep Bridge Street and do not let us set a bad example to the nation at a time like this by deserting a building which is structurally sound and which can provide excellent accommodation and, moreover, in which many people are extremely happy.

12.32 a.m.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I do not normally intervene in debates of this sort, but on this occasion I was incensed by the report, not so much by what it did contain but by what it did not. I wonder how many members of the Services Committee have been to Dean's Yard and seen the totally inadequate space allocated to secretaries, the papers all over the floor because there is no place to store them, no filing cabinets to put them in, and no cupboards. Yet here we are considering closing a building which could be put to good use, is popular, and where the people who are in it want to stay there.

The Services Committee might be comfortable, but there are many people who operate from London, perhaps representing constituencies many miles away, who are totally inadequately provided for, and the closure of the building would only make the situation worse.

12.33 a.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

Perhaps it will help if I say a word now and try, on behalf of the Committee, to deal with some of the points that have been raised. May I first, however, deal with the question of the people who are to be hired from outside to run our underground car park—people who are skilled in car parking? These people have learned their skills outside on car parks. They will have to be trained in the ways of the House of Commons, and that answers the point raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English). I am sorry I did not deal with the point before. If the hon. Member wishes to pursue the matter with us we shall be prepared to do so.

It is the constant aim of the Committee to improve the facilities for hon. Members.

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)

Before the hon. Member leaves the point about the car park, may we be clear about the precise nature of the deal entered into with what I presume to be a private supervising firm? If possible, will the hon. Member give us the name of the firm?

Mr. Cooke

It would probably be out of order to pursue the matter—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

Order. The hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) was making a passing reference to our previous discussion. I allowed him to go on, but he was strictly out of order. No doubt he can see the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) at another time.

Mr. Cooke

In attempting to help the House I have put us into a difficulty, and I must not say another word on the subject. When hon. Members read HANSARD they will see that they will be able to pursue the points they wish to pursue in another way and get the answers they seek.

It is the constant aim of the Committee, which is a servant of the House, to improve facilities for hon. Members and to do so as near the Chamber as possible, at the same time ensuring that those members of our hard-working staff, to whom we might give a little thought for having kept them here late tonight, who have to be within call of the Chamber, are decently provided for. I hope that hon. Members will study paragraph 12 of the report. It outlines a complete refurbishment of all the staff mess rooms near the Chamber. That matter is being attended to.

Some of us remember coming here and and being given a small cupboard, often at floor level. That was all we got. We have come a long way since then, with the help and pressure of hon. Members. When I arrived in the House it was not considered decent to ask for anything more than the cupboard. Now there are many Private Members' rooms within the precincts.

In-filling, which is not popular with all hon. Members, can help, and has helped. More is possible, and the Committee is still exploring this and aims to provide more space close at hand.

There are two factors that we must consider. There is a limit to the violence we can do to this historic building. I see the Minister nodding his assent. He is its jealous guardian, with his officials. They are always helpful in looking at our schemes, which are not dreamt up by the Committee but are often suggested by hon. Members. No hon. Member need fear that if he writes to the Chairman of the Committee his scheme will not be looked into. But we must consider the nature of the building and the high cost of alterations.

After the fire adjoining Westminster Hall we may be able to improve the gutted rooms to provide more and better accommodation. There will be that accidental plus. We acknowledge that it is not possible to provide for all our needs within the precincts. The Committee has been active in securing outbuildings, referred to flatteringly or unflatteringly by hon. Members, until such time as permanent supplementary accommodation, such as the new parliamentary building, becomes a reality. We have No. 6 and No. 7, Old Palace Yard, and No. 3, Dean's Yard, which is a fine building with good facilities, although overcrowded. We intend to retain both those buildings.

I come to Bridge Street and Palace Chambers, which stand on the site of the proposed new parliamentary building. Some of us have our reservations about that building, and I voted against it, particularly on aesthetic grounds. The present buildings on that site look superficially sound. Some are sounder than others, but they are expensive to maintain. I hope that the Minister will intervene if he disagrees, but I think that he will not, because I think that we are at one on this, as we say it on the basis of advice. Some of the buildings are in need of massive works if they are to have a reasonable life, and all the money spent would be wasted if the new parliamentary building were built.

There is also the question of staffing. We are told that we cannot obtain sufficient extra staff of sufficient quality. We are already overstretching staff to cover Bridge Street and Palace Chambers and now we are faced with Norman Shaw.

There is one even more vital point. Hon. Members might say, "Hire staff", but we know that the quality of staff we require—I will not go into the details here—is not easy to obtain, and the staff must be trained. But one of the real difficulties is the question of telephone lines. We do not have enough lines on the House of Commons exchange to provide for a service to Bridge Street, Palace Chambers and Norman Shaw (North). It cannot be done. [AN HON. MEMBER: "Get some more."] We made massive provision for extra telephones, and they have all been mopped up. [AN HON. MEMBER: "Not enough."] The hon. Gentleman is right, and we are making provision for more. There are time lags in these matters. There are not enough lines to keep these buildings going at the same time.

Mr. Cormack

I appreciate my hon. Friend's difficulties, but, with the greatest respect, that is an argument I cannot accept. It seems fatuous in the extreme. We talk as if the £30 million parliamentary building is a realistic proposal, with all the telephone lines we need for it. A year ago we were even talking of its being ready in three years' time—in other words, about two years from now. In spite of that, my hon. Friend says that we cannot maintain Bridge Street. I cannot accept my hon. Friend's argument that it is impossible to find staff. The staff that we need at Bridge Street are not highly qualified. They are nice people, they do a good job and they are courteous in the extreme, but we are not looking for first-class honours graduates, and I do not think that it should be beyond the wit of man to find enough people to man Bridge Street.

Mr. Cooke

My hon. Friend is entitled to his point of view. I beg him to consider the question of security in that building. We do not want to debate that here now.

I can help those who are hostile to the idea of moving out of Bridge Street and Palace Chambers to Norman Shaw—which is what the report says should be done and which I believe should be done—by saying that when Bridge Street and Palace Chambers are given up by the House of Commons they will return to the Department of the Environment, to which they belong. What is done with the buildings then will be a matter of debate, and it will be open to the House, if it so wishes, and to hon. Members to make representations to the Department of the Environment about some future use for those buildings.

This may seem a strange way of proceeding, but the difficulties which I have outlined make it necessary to make this move now. The Minister is nodding his assent, but I do not know whether he wants to intervene. If one wants to make representations that the buildings should be retained for longer than some think they should, the matter can be looked at again.

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

May I, as a former colleague on the Services Committee, ask the hon. Gentleman to confirm that when the original decision was taken to recommend the use of the Norman Shaw building it was in the context of the decision taken by the House of Commons to proceed with the new parliamentary building? If that building is to be delayed, for good reason or for bad, clearly the Services Committee ought to have another think about the evacuation of the buildings adjacent to the House

Mr. Cooke

I thought that I had given the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel), who was such a valued colleague on the Services Committee for so long, the answer to that. He says that these buildings—Bridge Street, Palace Chambers and the others there—should be looked at again, and there is no reason why that should not be done in the light of our experience, but the report says that there should be a tidy operation to get Members—some of whom are reasonably well placed in Bridge Street, but others are not—to go into Norman Shaw.

If Members feel unable to move to Norman Shaw, they should get in touch with their Whips, who look after accommodation matters.

Norman Shaw (North) was formerly the police headquarters and is named after the architect, Norman Shaw. It might be worth saying that the Royal Fine Art Commission, which has been unkindly treated this evening, and every amenity society deplored its possible demolition when a huge Government office complex would have wiped it out, and Richmond Terrace, too. The House of Commons can claim some credit, and I hope that hon. Members will join me in doing so, for the fact that, as a result of pressure in the House, these fine buildings were saved.

We have first-class accommodation for about 128 Members and 130 secretaries, and not in crowded conditions. The Deputy Chief Whips of the Labour and Conservative Parties have inspected the building, and they will bear me out when I say that the conditions there are very much better than those in which most Members work in almost every other place.

The work of preparation is going ahead smoothly, and it is intended—this is the answer to some of the worries hon. Members have—to invite hon. Members who will be moving from Bridge Street and Palace Chambers to view the new accommodation the week after next, and those hon. Members will be receiving letters inviting them so to do, together with other useful information, from the Serjeant at Arms. So those in Bridge Street and Palace Chambers will be given the first chance in Norman Shaw (North). If they wish to reconsider their position and make some other application, they will be entitled to do so, but they will be given the first chance to look at the new accommodation and they will be given priority in its allocation. All other Members of the House will be able to view the new accommodation shortly, but after those who are to be moved out of Bridge Street and Palace Chambers. An announcement about that will be made through the usual channels.

Mr. Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead)

Will my hon. Friend say whether, before the examination of Norman Shaw (North), the Services Committee examined in considerable detail the alternatives of keeping Palace Chambers and Bridge Street, and was it advised that the cost of this would be well over £100,000 more in tarting the place up?

Mr. Cooke

Yes, indeed. Several schemes were considered. The minutes of evidence, if not published, are not confidential, and the Services Committee could no doubt arrange for Members to be informed about this. There were two aspects. One was whether it was worth while to do a decorative tidying up. A decorative tidying up is what has been done to Norman Shaw (North), together with installing some new lifts and many other services. The Minister will confirm that it has cost a prodigious sum. The cost has run over a million pounds, but we believe that the expenditure will be worth while in providing accommodation for a period of years.

Consequential on the acquisition of Norman Shaw (North), some reorganisation within the Palace will be possible and further accommodation near the Chamber can be relinquished by staff for the use of Members in due course—and that means during the course of next year. The Services Committee is always on the look-out for further opportunities to place Members closer to the Chamber, thus bringing about greater convenience and efficiency generally.

If hon. Members have any ideas and will put them to the Chairman of the Services Committee or to myself or other members of the Committee, all ideas will be investigated; because some very useful ideas have come, not from official quarters, but from hon. Members who know the building and its difficulties well.

Norman Shaw (North) will provide two small broadcasting studies—this is in the report—and they will enable Members to be interviewed by BBC and ITV without the necessity of travelling long distances. One can go to College Mews in the rain and see the BBC, but if one wants to go to the ITV companies one must go a very long way, very often, or out into the air.

These will be studios for radio and television for the two networks. They will come into operation, we trust and pray, in the middle of the next year. I cannot be precise about the date. They will be an extension of the facilities of the House and thus come under the same rules as other Press facilities. That is important. If hon. Members will study those words, they will realise what they mean.

I hope that the House will find that there is quite a lot that is encouraging in the report if they read it carefully. I have tried to answer the questions that have been asked.

Mr. Michael Marshall

Will my hon. Friend cast his mind to the problem of Dean's Yard? He accepted that there is overcrowding there. Can he give some assurance with regard to the secretaries and Members now in Dean's Yard?

Mr. Cooke

I have two hon. Friends helping me! I have been asked whether the Committee could do something about the overcrowding in Dean's Yard. The answer is, "Certainly", because the acquisition of Norman Shaw (North) means that we shall be able to make a number of adjustments. However, I cannot help my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) by altering the distance, though we appreciate the fact that it is a long way, and we are seeking to provide more accommodation near to the centre. I have said that several times—perhaps too often—in the course of these remarks.

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East)

One of the problems about Dean's Yard is that there are some Members who are in reasonable accommodation and some are not. The same is true of secretaries. If there are those who are in Dean's Yard and do not wish to move elsewhere, will they be allowed to remain there?

Division No. 60.] AYES [12.51 a.m.
Atkins, Rt.Hn. Humphrey (Spelthorne) Gilbert, Dr. John Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)
Bates, Alf Glyn, Dr. Alan Page, Rt. Hn. Graham (Crosby)
Bottomley, Rt. Hn. Arthur Gray, Hamish Pavitt, Laurie
Cocks, Michael Hamllng, William Prescott, John
Cooke, Robert (Bristol, W.) Harper, Joseph Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal)
Cope, John Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Royle, Sir Anthony
Cox, Thomas Jessel, Toby Sinclair, Sir George
Davis, Clinton (Hackney, C.) Knox, David Steel, David
Dunn, James A. Lamond, James Stott, Roger
Emery, Peter Lawson, Nigel (Blaby) Vaughan, Dr. Gerard
English, Michael Magee, Bryan Weatherill, Bernard
Fenner, Mrs. Peggy Marshall, Michael (Arundel) TELLERS FOR THE AYES
Finsberg, Geoffrey Mellish, Rt. Hn. Robert Mr. Phillip Whitehead
Freud, Clement Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) and Mr. Ernle Money.
Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead) Heffer, Eric S. Skinner, Dennis
Banks, Robert Hughes, Mark (Durham) Winterton, Nicholas
Barnett, Joel (Heywood & Royton) Lipton, Marcus
Cormack, Patrick Moate, Roger TELLERS EOR THE NOES:
Davies, Bryan (Enfield, N.) Ovenden, John Mr. Bob Cryer and
Edge, Geoff Roderick, Caerwyn E. Mr. Russell Kerr.

Question accordingly agreed to.

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