HC Deb 26 January 1978 vol 942 cc1782-804

12.1 a.m.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House doth agree with the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services), in their Fifth Report, in the last Session of Parliament, on Computer-based Indexing for the Library.—[Mr. Foot.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

The amendment has been selected.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is the main Question to be proposed and the amendment taken afterwards, or do you wish me to move the amendment now?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The main Question has already been proposed.

Mr. Spearing

In that case, I shall continue, but I had thought that the main Question would be spoken to either by someone from the Front Bench or possibly my hon. Friend the Member for Springburn (Mr. Buchanan). If my hon. Friend wishes to rise, I shall certainty give way.

Mr. Richard Buchanan (Glasgow, Springburn)

I think the understanding was that I would move the motion on the Order Paper.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The position, unfortunately, is that I have called the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). The hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Buchanan) will have an opportunity of speaking in due course.

Mr. Spearing

I beg to move, at the end of the Question to add: Provided that at least one manual system of indexing Parliamentary business and papers is maintained". I bow to your wishes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and continue. It gives me a very good introduction, because I was about to say that we seem to have had a procedural day of it, and this last item is no exception to that unfortunate experience. Not only is this motion for the Services Committee not being moved by either the Lord President or anyone from his Department—[Interruption.] I stand corrected. It was moved by a nod, but it has not been moved in a speech. One would have thought that before an amendment was moved we might have had an exposition of the motion that is before the House. But I will leave that point and move on to the other point about procedure.

I should like first to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Springburn for his very great patience over the matter which we are discussing tonight. The motion first appeared on the Order Paper as long ago as 26th July last year. I also thank for their patience the Librarian and some of his staff, who have borne the brunt of the delay that we have had in the matter coming to the Floor.

It is at this point that I come back to the matter of procedure. On the night of 26th July last, when there was a debate concerning the conduct of hon. Members, this motion was put down. There was also a business motion relating to exempted business. There were three or four items of exempted business which were given exemption. I understand that there had been a request that this item should also be exempted for that night. That view has not been denied by anybody in authority. My hon. Friend and I attended the House that evening, expecting to have a short debate on this matter, without necessarily coming to a division of any sort. But \A e were denied that opportunity because the matter—unlike the two or three others that day, relating to broadcasting, Members' salaries, and so on—was not exempted.

We thought that there was a mistake and we came again on subsequent occasions and found that the subject had not been exempted. Indeed, it has not been given exemption on about 20 occasions. Maybe this is a record—I do not know—but on about 20 occasions I or my hon. Friends or Opposition Members have been here at the hour of interruption and objected to the motion, to which I am moving an amendment, going through on the nod. It may be that the Lord President had his reasons for moving it in this way. That has meant that for six months the proposals of the Services Committee have been effectively blocked. To some extent I have had to bear the brunt of the criticisms.

I am glad to see my right hon. Friend the Lord President present, because my view was that the onus was on him to provide the time. I know that my right hon. Friend is besieged by hon. Members on all sides asking for debates. Every Thursday he is besieged by people asking for time. He cannot give time to everyone. He must provide for Government, Opposition and Supply time. I appreciate his problems.

But if he is suggesting that it is selfish of a person such as myself to block a proposal on 23 occasions in order to get a debate, or if he feels that I am pressing my own particular debate in favour of great matters of the day which demand precedence, I would ask him to think again. It is the case that other hon. Members who ask for debates are asking for debates on subjects that they wish to discuss, either through their own motions or through a motion of the Government. On this occasion the motion was not mine, but that of my right hon. Friend and the Services Committee putting a report to this House.

Although the motion may merit being passed, as I think it will be, it is not acceptable for the Lord President to suggest that the only condition he will accept for a motion that he puts down is that it be passed undebated. Alas, I believe that has been the result of his continued efforts to get this motion through on the nod. He has done that on about 20 occassions. I am sorry that this has happened, but I sincerely believe that my right hon. Friend has seen this matter the wrong way round.

Had he enabled the debate to take place for half an hour at the end of a day, he would not have displaced any other business. This terrible delay would not have taken place had an exemption motion been put on the Order Paper. I am afraid that this debate does not seem to be immune from the procedural problems that we have faced this week neither, alas has every debate this evening.

I turn to the actual subject, that of Library indexing. The Library is part of a hon. Member's tools. It has excellent research facilities and the indexing of this House is part of the Back Bencher's weapon against the Executive. It is the Library's excellent information and research facilities that provide the Back Bencher with his material.

I happen to be a fairly regular customer in the Library. I appreciate what it does and I appreciate the indexes that we have at present. I am not saying for a moment that we should not have some form of computerisation of these indexes. I am not one of those hon. Members who say "No" to every change. But I do believe that if we are to have change, particularly in the tools which Back Benchers use against the Executive, the case for that change must be made out.

Such a case is contained in the report of the Services Committee—House of Commons Paper No. 377, Session 1976–77. It is exactly the same procedure which the Services Committee used when it made out a case for the underground car park, which caused some bother when that proposal also went through on the nod.

It is right that in all matters affecting the ability of Back Benchers to question the Executive we should have the opportunity to put in a word of caution, or ask questions of those responsible for the proposed changes. That is what I want to do tonight. I hope that my right hon. Friend will accept what I think is a reasonable and relatively insignificant amendment.

I first want to refer to costs. As usual in arguments of this sort—people in local government will be well aware of the sort of officers' reports they receive—we are able to compare the manual indexes with the computer system. In the report to which I have referred the computer system comes out with some financial advantage.

I wish to draw attention to the report of the Public Accounts Committee in the 1976–77 Session, House of Commons Paper 536. Civil Service witnesses were being questioned about the average life of computers, and this is set out at Question 3089: What is the average life that you would give to computers? The answer was: Hitherto, we have worked on the basis of an average life of around seven years, but one of the things that we have been doing in the interests of economy is to see whether we cannot stretch the life of the computers that we have got, and we should like to be able to keep them going for more like ten years. But costings in respect of the Library are not related to a period of seven years, which would be reasonable, but 10 years. The Civil Service in its evidence to that Committee was saying "Let us try for 10 years". Therefore, if a shorter period of seven years is taken, it will work out at a considerable sum.

We see from paragraph 16 of the Select Committee report on the Library that over a period of 10 years the computer would cost £1,149,200 compared with a figure of £1,223,000 for the manual alternative. But it must be remembered that computers wear out, and I take it that after a life span of 10 years or so we should need another, whereas the manual alternative would not require the same amount of capital investment.

I question whether the Library costings are fair. We know that when one puts in a computer or goes in for large capital expenditures, invariably costs mount. I am not saying that we should not go in for this process because of that factor, but I ask the responsible Committee to watch the matter carefully because usually hidden escalations must be taken into account.

What also worries me is the fact that the computer will be run and serviced by the Civil Service Department. We all know that Hansard is run by the Stationery Office and that it does the House pretty well, but it should be pointed out in this case that these crucial tools of the Back Bencher are to be handled by an executive agency of government. The difference between the reproduction of Hansard and the installation of computers is very great, indeed. Although there are some similarities, I would point out that there are some dissimilarities, too. It is a matter of principle of which we should not be unaware.

We must also take note of the fact that this is the first time that the Library has sought to put these matters on a computer. In other words, the House of Commons is to be used as a guinea pig and as something of an experiment. I suppose one cannot quarrel about a principle of that sort, but is is a matter in which one should urge caution, because we are heavily dependent on these facilities. Presumably, there will be some spin-off to give experience elsewhere in House in this instance. I am not sure whether we shall be the trial ground for the computer used by the Library.

I understand that the computer will not be on the premises here. Again, that is not a matter of principle, but the fact that it will not necessarily be in the ownership of the Civil Service is a subject for comment. I gather that if we pass this motion tonight, it will be open to the House or the Civil Service to hire a computer from an agency. I believe that these matters should be stated publicly, because they are matters that merit the exercise of caution.

Let us turn to the subject of accessibility. One great advantage of the computer will be that it can reproduce these facilities on desks throughout the House—in the Library, in Norman Shaw House and in centres throughout the precincts. There will be print-off facilities, so that not only will the information be screened but, at the touch of a few buttons, teleprinter will spew out one's Questions from last Session, or whenever it may be, assuming that the programme allows one to do that. Therefore, the programme and the assumptions contained in it will be important. It may not relate to the sort of things Back Benchers want, although I think it probably will.

Nevertheless, it raises much bigger questions if this is to be available throughout the precincts of the House. Will the House make key-in facilities available elsewhere? Will 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office have terminals? Will there be terminals in each Government Department, in the Scottish Assembly, if one is ever set up, or in the European Assembly? Will outside organisations be able to pay a fee and plug into this network?

This is an important matter, because, notionally, this is public information. The index to Hansard is public and is available in public libraries. The House's index is also partly public. It is not private, but it is not accessible to the public, commercial organisations, lobbyists or others with interests. If we have the computer, shall we be asked later to offset some of the cost by hiring the facilities for a charge? Why should we not? It is public information.

While the information is public in the sense that it is not private, access by line, print-out or screen by Government Departments or other organisations would put the private individual at a relative disadvantage, and this is a matter that we should consider carefully. A person with whom I was recently discussing computers pointed out—and I have no detailed knowledge of this point—that we should also consider the question of keys. Will the key code be known to all outside organisations or only to those paying a fee? These matters need clarification.

I had hoped that these topics would be mentioned in the report and it is unfortunate that they were not. I have not mentioned all of them to my right hon. Friend who has been kind in his correspondence with me, because some of the matters have been raised with me only in the past few days.

I think that I have said enough to justify the debate. If we had not blocked the motion on 20 occasions, these questions would not have been asked and they would not be on the record. It is important that they should be asked, because I understand that another Committee has been set up to deal with computer matters in the House. But what about another place? I understand that there are developments involving computers in the House of Lords.

Is it also proposed to introduce a computer into the Vote Office? We know that it has thousands of past and present EEC documents. Are they to be put on a computer? Is that to be part of the link?

How far has the Library Committee gone into the side effects and repercussions of such a system? We know that commonsense decisions often have unacceptable side effects that have greater significance than what was originally foreseen. I can foresee many changes if these marvellous machines are to be made available to hon. Members in many different places and to outside organisations

My amendment does not take account of these fears. It asks only for the retention of a manual index for the time being. Apart from all the other considerations that I have raised, the report would give carte blanche to the Services Committee to decide when it was reasonable for the existing manual index to be phased out. I do not believe that it is necessarily a good idea to allow the Committee to say that the manual index will remain only until it thinks that the new system is working efficiently. That should be a matter for the House and I hope that the Minister will assure us that the manual index, which, once broken, cannot easily be replaced, will remain until another report from the Library Committee or another Committee is brought to the House.

I have asked only for one part to remain, that relating to parliamentary business. My hon. Friend has written to me in answer to a question saying that it would cost £12,000 a year. I do not think that that would be a large sum for the House to pay in order to retain a manual index of the most important part of parliamentary affairs. If we are to spend more than £1 million on computerisation—and I suspect that in the end it will be much more—is £12,000 for a standby asking too much? I do not think so. It is probably rather less than the cost to the public of one hon. Member, his secretary, and his travelling expenses and his living expenses in London. It is not significant in the costs of the House, but it could be very significant in the manner in which it is run and the way in which Back Benchers can keep a tag on the Executive. Every hon. Member who is not on the Front Bench is interested in that.

That is the purport of my amendment. I am not seeking to hold the matter up on any of the other grounds I have mentioned, although I think that they are valid and important in their own right. I have put them only in words of warning. But I think that the £12,000 for manual computing—and, after all, this decision will not have to be taken for some years—is a reasonable and wise request that any Back Bencher would make of the Executive.

I conclude but for one point. We have seen some strange procedural things happening in the House today. I did not for a moment think that I would be the first speaker in this debate. I have pointed out that it took a lot of trouble to get this debate at all. I thought that my right hon. Friend the Lord President was determined to get the motion through without any debate, if he could. He may have had second thoughts.

These facts alone should add greater weight to the plea for the amendment and for future Committees to take careful note of some of the matters I have mentioned and the other matters that will no doubt be brought to their attention.

12.22 a.m.

Mr. Michael Spicer (Worcestershire, South)

I had not intended to intervene, because, as the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) said, his amendment is very modest. But the way in which he moved it and the ground he covered seem to me to call for some comment. I was a member of the informal joint Houses of Parliament committee on computers and am now on the Computer Sub-Committee that has just been set up.

I may be misinterpreting the hon. Gentleman, but although he posed some fundamental questions the tenor of his remarks seemed to be negatived and sceptical, perhaps justifiably. The Chairman of the Library Sub-Committee will make his own case on the short-term efficiency needs for computerisation. Those are irrefutable and were not argued against by the hon. Gentleman, but he said that there was nevertheless a case for a modest manual system to continue alongside computerisation.

It was the much wider issues raised by the hon. Gentleman that seemed to me to be very important and to need some comment. The hon. Gentleman said, I think absolutely rightly, that computerisation of the Library had to be seen as part of hon. Members' tools, as part of their weapons against the Executive. That is absolutely fundamental. I see the role of the new Sub-Committee and the whole issue of computerisation in the House precisely in that light.

Mr. Spearing

Can the hon. Gentleman explain what the Sub-Committee is, who set it up, and to whom it is accountable?

Mr. Spicer

The onus is not on me to say, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that it was set up by the Lord President. It is a Sub-Committee of the Services Committee. The hon. Gentleman was right in pointing out that it was exclusively concerned with the House of Commons. As I have said all along, I find that unsatisfactory for the reasons on which the hon. Member for Newham, South touched. We sat for a year and a half as a joint informal committee with the other place. As the other place is in many respects more inventive than we in this House, it was worth trying to coordinate with that which it was doing. We are already seeing examples, but I shall not bore the House with the problems created by being a separate committee as that is rather a special point.

The most fundamental issue that the hon. Gentleman raised is computerisation for the Library, which will be used for one function. It is to be hoped that it will immeasurably improve the capacity of Members to gain access to information comparable to that held and used, and often used against Members, by the Executive. That is how I view the Library experiment. I see it as one step in that direction. There are many other steps that we shall have to take.

The Library is part of the process of improving the internal information available to Members, but that has to be seen in the context of links to external information, to Government information, to outside agencies and to the EEC. As for the links to the EEC, the other place has advanced considerably further than the House in achieving an effective linking system.

The hon. Gentleman did a great service to the House by raising these issues. However, I was surprised that he did so negatively and sceptically. If we handle matters properly, we are creating an opportunity. If we become clouded in jargon and obsessed by mechanics and complications, and find that there are too many people between us and the system, it will be a waste of money and a great shame. That is the worry that lies behind what is proposed.

Even from the amendment it seems that by doing something logical called computerisation we are making matters more difficult for the Member. If that is what happens, the whole thing should be thrown out. However, leaving aside the information, we should be creating something that makes life much easier for Members. The technology is available. We already have retrievable information systems around us that are easy to interrogate. They enable anyone to ask simple questions and receive direct answers. If the system does not provide a direct answer, we should complain and ask why it has not been programmed properly so as to give the answer.

The purpose of the experiment, and the purpose of setting up all the wider objectives of the committee dealing with computers, must be to serve the House, especially against the Executive. I was saddened by the tone of the hon. Gentleman's speech. I accept that he has conducted events admirably—I accept that the matter could have gone through on the nod—but I am anxious that we should view the experiment positively. bearing in mind the whole time that if it becomes bogged down in technology and impossible for Members to use directly without the assistance of a whole tribe of people, the hon. Gentleman and others will be right to throw it out.

Mr. Spearing

I apologise for again interrupting the hon. Member. I do not think that he could detect anything in my speech saying that we should throw it out, or that it would not be of help to hon. Members. In fact, I went out of my way to say that that was not my purpose. I hope that the hon. Member will accept that. All that I was saying was that there may be certain risks which ought to be taken into account.

Mr. Spicer

I apologise if I have been putting words into the hon. Member's mouth in any way.

What I am conscious of—I am not sure whether the hon. Member was even getting at this point—is that if in this small Sub-Committee we become obsessed with the technology and simply pick this and that just because it looks like the latest technology, that will be dreadful. Our obsession should be purely with the precise point with which the hon. Member introduced his remarks. That is to say, we should be there to try to do something to increase the effectiveness of Members in getting that information which they need in order to question and to carry out their monitoring role vis-à-vis the Executive.

12.31 a.m.

Mr. Richard Buchanan (Glasgow, Springburn)

I am sorry that I seem to be coming in at the wrong end of the debate. However, I do not think that that is anyone's fault.

I listened to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). I hope to take up many of the points that he made. First, however, I thank him straight away for the compliments that he paid to the staff of the Library. They richly deserve them.

One of the reasons why I welcome the debate is that it is one of the few occasions on which we can focus attention on the Library and the excellent job that it does for Members. The content of many of the better speeches made in the House is usually the product of the Library research department. The Services Committee and the Library Sub-Committee are the servants of the House. We seek constantly to improve the lot of the Member in respect of services.

My hon. Friend has done a valuable job in getting this debate. I join with him in deploring the delay that has taken place in this matter being brought before the House.

Hon Members are entitled, for whatever reason they think fit, to have their say in such a large programme as that envisaged in the computerisation of the indexes in the Library. Already we have lost the services of a computer specialist. We have lost seven months. If the House approves the motion, as I hope it will, it will take at least 12 to 18 months before this matter can get under way.

As my hon. Friend said, he has not held up the motion by any opposition to the computer. He has repeated that. But he wants us to retain part of the old manual strip index system. Part of my job tonight is to explain why I think that this is not as easy or as possible as my hon. Friend thinks it is.

I think that there was a genuine misunderstanding at the beginning of this project. I think that it was assumed that there were nine sets of indexes. In fact, there was one set of nine indexes. When Norman Shaw Building was opened, the Library duplicated four indexes in Norman Shaw. But the indexes covered are as follows: parliamentary business, progress of Bills, parliamentary Questions—not indexed but simply listed—Royal Commissions and departmental committees, British domestic affairs, international affairs, EEC affairs, EEC legislation, and science and technology.

What hon. Members have before them in the Fifth Report of the Services Com mittee is the result of a long, cautious and careful look at the use to which computers could be put in the Library to improve and to multiply indexes. I assure my hon. Friend that the Library is not a guinea pig in this respect. The British Library is already looking at a computer. I think that its name is Blaise. The Library of Congress in the United States has it, and Canada has it. We are not pushing the threshold of technology. We are dealing with a well-tried technology.

It is almost 10 years to the day since the Library first considered the question of computers, when the Atomic Energy Authority, with its laboratory at Culham. did a project here. ASLIB spent a year considering the prospect of introducing a computer in the Library. The Central Computer Agency did a survey. The informal joint committee considered the matter, and the Library Sub-Committee and the Services Committee have looked at it very carefully.

My hon. Friend wants to retain the present system, and I hope to give some of the reasons why we do not think it is possible. Apart from the Library—there are five working rooms in the main Library—there is accommodation in the Norman Shaw, North building, and it is to get accommodation in Norman Shaw, South. There are research assistants in Mr. Speaker's slat and on North Bridge. The research assistants and other employees have to trek up and down stairs, in and out of the Library, looking at the manual strip indexes. Indexes are not in the places where they should be. The staff, after they have looked at the index, have to go elsewhere and get the information.

The indexes were set up in 1955. Let us consider the extent to which the work of Parliament has increased since 1955. In 1967–68 the number of Questions was 24,837. In 1975–76, the number had increased to 42,307. In 1964 there were 5,252 pages in Statutory Instruments; in 1974, 8,669. Inquiries answered in writing by the research department amounted to 1,201 in 1966. In 1976 the number was 4,493. In 1968 there were 11,340 incoming telephone calls; in 1976, 46,769. We have joined the Common Market and Stormont has been prorogued. The change in the pattern of Select Committees and the volume of legislation have put an ever-increasing burden on the Library.

When the informal joint committee considered the matter, it was in no doubt about it. Paragraph 17 on page 4 of its report reads: Heavy demands are made on the House of Commons Library. Staff generally satisfy individual enquiries but their speed and ease of doing so is handicapped by the shortage of staff and restricted availability of the tools which they require. It is not possible by existing methods to provide a full set of up-to-date indexes in the Norman Shaw North Library or to provide current indexes in the Library research rooms. It continues: The valuable information which the indexes contain is not exploited to its full potential. In paragraph 18 the committee makes a recommendation: It is essential to introduce a computer-based indexing system at the earliest possible date in order even to maintain the present high level of service. Members are demanding an increasingly exacting service, which the Library must try to anticipate, but there are certain areas in which improvements to the service cannot be achieved without computer assistance … Thas is definite, from the investigation by the joint committee.

If one looks at the Fifth Report, page 5, paragraph, 4 one finds that no improvement can be made by manual methods and that indexing cannot keep pace with the demands made. Paragraph 5 states, Even with the use of an automatic typewriter the system has been under stress, and there has been a marked deterioration in the accuracy, consistency and currency of the indexes. On page 22 it is stated: The Library's parliamentary index no longer provides all the information which may reasonably be expected from it. It goes on: It is not possible to provide any form of regular up-dating service to Members by manual means … very little cross-referencing or overlap exists between the indexes. Some parliamentary questions are entered both on the parliamentary questions index and on the international affairs index. On page 31, paragraph 59 the Librarian states: I could not guarantee continuing to give a thoroughly satisfactory indexing service with the present facilities for more than two or three years. All this comes from a Library staff which is exceptionally well qualified and dedicated to providing an excellent service and from a staff which is expressing fears and apprehensions that the present system of indexing will not meet the requirements asked of it.

I ask my hon. Friend whether he wants to continue with this method of strip indexing. What we propose in the Fifth Report is that the Librarian be authorised to proceed with the introduction of computer based indexing in the Library as soon as possible.

The advantages that we get of introducing this are many. I do not want to speak for long. All the details are on page 6, paragraph 7 of the report, but it might be advisable to get them on record. The following improved facilities are suggested:

  1. "(a) the ability to consult all the Library's indexes from any one of a number of visual display units placed throughout the Library, including Norman Shaw (North), and at other selected locations in the Palace of Westminster
  2. (b) the bringing together of one index of references on a given subject currently dispersed over nine separate indexes
  3. (c) fundamental improvement in the quality of indexing which would permit index searches by:
    1. (i) Members' names, authors' names, etc.
    2. (ii) subject for all items
    3. (iii) specific subjects or combinations of subjects
    4. (iv) restriction of searches by date of publication and type of item, eg statutory instrument or command paper
  4. (d) a central index to parliamentary questions, including subject indexing
  5. (e) equipment to print out search results
  6. (f) printed indexes for internal and (in time) external use
  7. (g) current awareness services, designed to alert recipients to recent material subjects of particular interest to them
  8. (h) a capability for statistically monitoring use of the system."
Those are some the advantages. The index is a vital tool to the Librarian and hon. Members. It should be time-saving and lead us into easier research. We can tell by our own un-indexed library files at home what a bad indexing system is. The manual strip index has served this House very well. My hon. Friend pays a very high tribute to the Library when he wants to retain it.

Mr. Spearing

I am not asking for a retention of the nine aspects covered, only of three—parliamentary business and papers, progress on Bills and parliamentary Questions. That is not even one complete set.

Mr. Buchanan

I said at the outset that my hon. Friend wanted to retain a part of it.

I want to thank on behalf of the Library Sub-Committee the Chairman of the Accommodation Sub-Committee for the effort he is making to accommodate the growing needs of the Library. We are very grateful to him for that—I refer to Norman Shaw, North and South and so on. If hon. Members are to be served without traipsing over to the main Library, they must have the visual units. The index could be consulted in a single search.

From previous statistics I have been given it is seen that hon. Members are demanding more and more of the Library, and none more so than my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South who makes great use of the Library. The joint informal committee and the Services Committee are convinced that this can be done only by introducing computer technology. I think that parliamentary Questions will be the first index that the Library will attempt.

I give my hon. Friend this assurance. The librarians are all very proud of their craft. They will not say that the computer is all right when it is not. They are the people who will be at the receiving end if it breaks down. They will not in any circumstances—and I think I speak here for the Library Sub-Committee as well—permit the manual index to be discontinued until we are absolutely certain that the computer is doing the job it was installed to do. Only after it has been proven and subjected to the stringent tests to which hon. Members and librarians will subject it will manual compilation of the index cease.

My hon. Friend is right when he speaks of the three indexes costing only £12,000, but we feel that this is an unnecessary and expensive duplication. Of course, hon. Members are worried that with the index appearing on a screen they will have to take notes. But there will be a print-out facility and that will enable the Library to up-date much more frequently the cumulative index that hon. Members find so useful.

My hon. Friend asked "Why an agency?". That is general practice in the trade, and other hon. Members are more expert than I in that. But the House of Lords is tuned into the GLC computer. If we had our own computer it would mean that the room in which it was installed would have to be air conditioned and humidity controlled, and we should need highly qualified staff on the premises. Many of the techniques will go to a bureau. This was put to the CCA when it gave evidence. I asked how long it would take and was told that the sooner we got the questions through the better. The evidence continued, on page 18 of the Fifth Report: At this stage we are not to sure what we are going to buy. We are going to go out to industry and we are going to say 'Here is our problem. How would you solve it?'. If, for example, the best solution were that we should go straight to a computer bureau, then there would be much less of a lead time in acquiring equipment. If on the other hand we decided that the best thing to do would be to acquire a small computer and house it on someone's premises, then that may take longer. This is the sort of thing that will come out when we receive the tenders, because each one of these suppliers will have to give us a clear-cut date when they can start operations.

Mr. Spicer

On a point of information. Will the decision to go ahead with the Hansard computer printing process provide any capacity to meet the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) about going outside?

Mr. Buchanan

When that question was put to the CCA, it said that the installation of the computer in the Library would in no way depend on computer typesetting in Her Majesty's Stationery Office or interfere with computer projects envisaged by the Committee. That is normal business practice. I hope that we shall not stick on that matter.

The CCA promised that if there were a breakdown in the computer, it would be repaired almost immediately. But the Librarian and his assistants categorically state that they will be able to provide a back-up service from the printouts without great difficulty. We are dealing with well-established techniques. The Fifth Report sets out in great detail all aspects of the Library proposal, including the cost. Of course, £12,000 may not seem a large sum, but it is considerable.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South will withdraw his amendment and allow the Library to get on with the job of getting the indexes into first-class readable form.

12.52 a.m.

Mr. Jasper More (Ludlow)

I support what has been said by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Buchanan). As he said, the reason for this proposal is the enormous increase in the volume of work with which the Library has to cope.

Without entering into the technicalities, I support the proposal under three heads. First, the manual system will, in the fairly near future, be overburdened to the extent that Members will not get the service to which they are entitled. Therefore, something must be done about it. Secondly, if the Library can introduce the proposed computerised services, it will be able to give to Members a service altogether better in the long run than they have had hitherto.

Thirdly—this is relevant to the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing)—what is proposed is not a sudden conversion. This is a long-term proposal. I understand that it will take some years before the change-over is complete. In the meantime we shall have the safeguards to which the hon. Member for Springburn referred.

In the long term—perhaps seven or 10 years—the system will be more economical than to continue with the manual system. The initial expenditure may be considerable, but we have to look at this matter in the long term. It is on that basis that the Library Sub-Committee puts forward this proposal.

12.55 a.m.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

I am pleased that no one has seen fit to dispute the need for computer-based indexing in the Library or to contribute to further delay in creating it. It is a matter of regret that it has taken so long to reach this stage. I do not apportion blame. A report in 1971 made many of the recommendations being made by the Committee, yet that 1971 report went the same way as many other reports and was consigned to a neat and dark pigeonhole. But the ideas have now been resuscitated, and I hope that we can get ahead quickly with modernising the Library.

The advent of the computer and exotic communications technology seems to have by-passed this place. Although it is quite common elsewhere, it has not been incorporated into the operational procedures of the House of Commons. It is a matter of regret to me that we have fallen way behind that power house of innovation, the House of Lords. The fact that the other place is well in advance of us in the use of this sophisticated equipment is a matter which I regard with considerable regret.

I see the importance of modernising the Library as part of a general process by which this place adapts itself to the needs of a modern legislature. We have heard a great deal about the need for Select Committees to have more power. At long last, we are realising that reforming zeal occurs at infrequent intervals in this House. It may be that we are in a new phase of desiring to revitalise the powers of Parliament and, to my mind, the need for the Member of Parliament to have adequate information is an essential tool in the process of doing the job that we should be doing.

It is imperative that this House becomes more professional. It is important to professionalise our institutions and procedures. It is important to professionalise our offices. I do not think that one secretary is sufficient for a modern legislator. I am not arguing for the development of office staffs that American Congressmen have, but surely the gulf can be bridged between the one secretary of a British Member of Parliament and the 30 staff of a Congressman in the United States.

It is important to professionalise the Library, its staff and mode of operations and, dare I say it, we need to professionalise ourselves in many ways. One is compelled to ask how a group of nonspecialists can function in this modern and technically oriented society. The range of professionalism that we must possess is inifinite and the gulf between the ordinary Member of Parliament and the Executive is so wide as to be almost unbelievable, and it is widening daily. We are at a grave disadvantage vis-à-vis the Executive. It has the information that we largely lack. It has the internal communication that we often lack. It has the secrecy and often the loyalty that we seem to lack.

To assist us in this unequal struggle, we are aided by very able Library staff and often by one secretary. In some cases, we are obliged to rely on the libraries of political parties or pressure groups. In my view, none of this is adequate for the job that we are supposed to do. I am full of admiration for the Library staff. I do not say that simply to pay lip service to them. They are excellent, and I am a frequent visitor to the Library for work purposes as well as more peaceful pursuits late at night.

There have been improvements in the Library over the past 10 years in response to the increasing demands placed upon it. But I wonder whether the changes which have taken place have been adequate. The research staff suffer many of the problems that we do. The work of legislators has increased beyond recognition, and I wonder whether the Library staff or ourselves are capable in the circumstances of handling this mass of information.

I believe that the Library requires more staff, including more research staff, allowing greater specialisation. We have spoken of our own needs, but we must equally consider the needs, demands and satisfaction of those who are professionally competent. They must be given proper facilities and the technology to do the job to their satisfaction as well as to ours.

Computer support is obviously only one component of the present-day development of library and information technology. We are just starting to use videotapes, micro-film and so on. Even the use of photo-copying equipment is not quite as open as some would desire. I believe that we must begin to modernise our operational procedures in the Library.

There are fewer research staff in our Library than a typical United States Senator has. I have seen Congressmen and their staffs at work. I have seen the Library of Congress, and I was overwhelmed by the facilities at Congress's disposal. It has a vast number of highly qualified researchers. Professors at universities find it almost a natural progression to spend some time in the Library of Congress and then go back to their professorial appointments.

Our Library has a quite inadequate number of research staff, but their work is good value for money, and people out- side should not quibble if the Library staff is considerably increased. Set against the might of the bureaucracy, we have totally inadequate resources, and that must be remedied.

Mr. Spearing

Does not my hon. Friend think that, in the light of what he is saying, £12,000 is a reasonable request?

Mr. George

One obviously requires two belts as well as braces for the research facilities. Even the task of properly indexing parliamentary Questions appears to have been difficult for the Library. There are 48,000 Questions annually, and on several occasions the staff has not got round to the indexing as one would like. But the point is that there are so few Library staff.

Let us take as an example scientific affairs and defence. There are four staff available for that compared with the facilities available to the Ministry of Defence, with its large number of libraries and research staff. The Library's international section is very good, but it is thinly stretched. I think that it has three clerks—a continent-and-a-half each. However highly qualified they are, such staffing is inadequate.

While Congress has debated the considerable improvement that could be made in libraries and methods of collecting, storing, processing and disseminating information, we have been left behind. I believe that perhaps 10 years ago the facilities in the Library were on a par with any in the world, and probably infinitely better than most, but I do not think that adequate progress has been made. I hope that the deficiencies in the service will be remedied.

I welcome the Select Committee's Report. I have seen the high quality of staffing abroad, and I think that it could be replicated. Mechanisation must come now. If we decide tonight to go ahead with these proposals, there could be an 18-month delay before we even start, and at least five years before the system is fully operational.

I emphasise the point made by the Librarian in his evidence to the Select Committee. He was asked what would happen if we did not start immediately. He replied: I would say that the fail-safe date in terms of when authorisation should be given for the computer scheme to go ahead is as soon as possible. If authorisation is given in May or June of this year, I would regard it as satisfactory. Personally I very much hope that it will come then. Any delay after that will delay the implementation of the proposals themselves, and it would not be good in view of our essential commitments to the House. The Chairman said: The 'fail-safe' phrase used by Mr. Whitehead I think is very relevant. I understand him to mean ' fail-safe ' in terms of the present system being operated. How long can you continue to give a service with the present facilities, do you think? The answer was: I could not guarantee continuing to give a thoroughly satisfactory indexing service with the present facilities for more than two or three years". and so on.

The situation could be serious not only if we fail to give permission tonight but also if the mechanisation process fails to proceed very swiftly. I reiterate the Committee's conclusions. It is essential to introduce a computer-based indexing system at the earliest date in order to maintain the present high level of services; therefore we must move swiftly towards automation.

This will be no panacea, but I believe that it will greatly facilitate and enhance our work as Members of Parliament. I do not think, as the hon. Member for Newham, South suggests, that we should be too selfish. Information is not the prerogative of Members of Parliament.

Mr. Spearing

I did not say that it was.

Mr. George

I think that we should share our information with others, because this is of reciprocal advantage. We could perhaps allow London University, the Greater London Council, the House of Lords, the media, other libraries, Government Departments, political parties, and so on, to share our facilities, maybe at a cost. I certainly would not oppose the selling of facilities of public information. Maybe they could reciprocate and provide us with information that we require. The information should be widely available to anyone who seeks to obtain it.

I am glad that no one has decided to oppose computerisation. I think it is long overdue. It is not an innovation, as was suggested by the hon. Member for Newham, South. Many other legislatures do this as a matter of course. I hope that it will go ahead speedily and that we can, as a result of computerisation, do justice to ourselves and justify ourselves to our constituents. It will also enable the excellent research staff in the Library to do justice to themselves and to the community as a whole.

1.7 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Privy Council Office (Mr. William Price)

May I simply say that the Government welcome the report and that we would wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Buchanan) and his colleagues for the work they did on it? He has left me in a difficulty—not the first difficulty that I have been in tonight. It is that he has very effectively dealt with the matter. I have a formidable brief in my folder but it is on very similar lines to the case that we heard deployed by my hon. Friend.

I hope that the House will reach a conclusion very rapidly on this matter and that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who has raised the matter quite properly in a long correspondence—no one objects to that—will see fit not to pursue his amendment. We believe that this matter is long overdue and the Government would wish to deal with it as speedily as possible.

Mr. Spearing

Before my hon. Friend sits down, will he answer the questions I asked about access and other matters relating to the use of the computer? Surely someone here tonight has some responsibility and should give an answer.

Amendment negatived.

Main Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House doth agree with the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services), in their Fifth Report, in the last Session of Parliament, on Computer-based Indexing for the Library.