HC Deb 22 December 1983 vol 51 cc572-4

Motion made, and Question proposed, That paragraph (12) of Sanding Order No. 103 (Select Committee on House of Commons (Services)) shall have effect for the remainder of the present session of Parliament as if the words 'within the United Kingdom' in line 54 were omitted.

—[Mr. Biffen.]

10.55 am
Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

I do not wish to stand in the way of hon. Members wishing to speak on the Adjournment, but I am sorry that the Leader of the House has not offered to give the reasons behind a change of considerable importance in the Standing Order.

No doubt there are precedents for Select Committees taking evidence outside the realm. I believe that for the most part they have been restricted to British installations or other interests located outside the kingdom, although there may be other precedents going wider than that. Nevertheless, I submit that, prima facie, the taking of evidence outside the jurisdiction by Select Committees of this House always requires justification. It is a quality of the Select Committees of this House that the House has armed them with powers to enable them to carry out their duty to the House, but those powers can be exercised only within the jurisdiction. Prima facie, therefore, it is undesirable—unless it is absolutely essential that they should take evidence outside the realm.

A further consideration is that we should certainly never wish a Committee of the House seeking to take evidence on our behalf to encounter any obstruction or refusal to answer questions. If Select Committees are sent into foreign parts to take evidence, there is no way in which we can preserve the expression of our sovereignty that they should embody.

I hope that the Leader of the House will therefore oblige us with a brief outline of the imperative grounds on which the amendment to the Standing Order is based.

The Lord Privy Seal arid Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

Perhaps I may respond to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) with a brief explanation of the decision that gave rise to this request to the House.

The Computer Sub-Committee of the Services Committee feels that it would be useful, in discharging its tasks, to have the opportunity to examine the use of computers by legislative assemblies in other countries. With this in mind, it intends to pay a brief visit to North America early in the new year. The motion before the House would allow it to do so.

I believe that it is appropriate for the Sub-Committee to be able to inform itself in that way and the Services Committee has given its approval. I therefore commend the motion to the House.

Mr. John Mc William (Blaydon)

As Chairman of the Computer Sub-Committee of the Services Committee, I plead guilty in face of the admonition from the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). We wish specifically to visit Washington and Ottawa, for two reasons.

First, experience in the United States has shown that the cost to the United States Government of the infonnation technology provisions for members of its legislative assembly is greater than the entire cost of providing for the Palace of Westminster, all its staff and all its Members.

That example needs to be examined to discover what the Americans did wrong. I am confident that we shall have no difficulty in obtaining the information that we seek.

Secondly, we wish to visit Ottawa to study specific measures that have been taken in the provision of information technology in linking building within a 10 km radius and providing enhanced information technology facilities for members of the legislative assembly there.

The Sub-Committee is engaged in preparing a report for the House on the information technology needs of Members, probably the last that we shall undertake for the next 20 years. It will have to be made for that period and, therefore, will have to be as well-researched as possible. The Economist intelligence unit information technology system, Informatics, which did the original study funded by the Department of Industry did not have any evidence from other Administrations, which is why we wish to make the trip.

I think the House will agree that the order is limited to this session.

Mr. K. Harvey Proctor (Billericay)

I do not wish to delay the House in moving to important private Members' business, but may I ask my right hon. Friend to answer a number of questions which immediately occur to me? What is the cost to public funds of this visit to the United States of America? How many people are going? What positions will they hold? What attempts have been made to obtain the information, that people believe might be obtained personally in the United States of America, by other means—letter, telephone or through our embassy officials, for whom we pay substantial sums of money, presumably to obtain such information from other countries? It is outrageous that we should have this proposition put before us just before Christmas. The importance of the subject was not fully known throughout the House before the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) raised the matter, otherwise it might have gone through rapidly on the nod. I am sure that the House is indebted to the right hon. Gentleman that it did not. I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend, with the festivities almost upon us, would give some meaningful answers.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I do not wish to delay the House more than a moment or two, but we rarely have a chance to discuss this important subject. Two or three years ago my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) wished to put through a motion that created the information technology, which is now of great use to hon. Members. He wished to do so without debate. There were objections at the appropriate time for a number of months before we had a debate. During the course of that debate I pointed out that the extensive machinery which was about to be installed, and which is now so useful, was outside the control of the House in that the House was electronically linked with an establishment in Milton Keynes on which we rely for a great deal of our indexation. At the time I asked that we should retain at least one set of the older technology manual typewritten indices. The Services Committee did not see fit to agree to my request for that insurance. The result is that some of the most useful visual indices, which do not rely on electronics, have disappeared from the Library. I regret that, and believe that the policy was wrong.

If the House agrees to send hon. Members of the Services Committee to Washington to see what went wrong there, I hope that the cost of reinstalling and maintaining such simple facilities that we have had in the House for many years, and which have been discontinued, will be re-examined.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Mr. Speaker, is there any provision within the rules of the House for these proposals to be withdrawn from the Order Paper so that we may have a fuller discussion of a subject that clearly causes anxiety to both sides of the House? In local Government, the trip would be described as a junket, although I am sure that it is not. There would be headlines in newspapers asking how much it would cost ratepayers. That is a legitimate question. We need to know how much the trip will cost the taxpayer. I believe that this motion should be withdrawn from the Order Paper.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As this is the last day before the recess, will the Leader of the House withdraw this motion so that it can be further considered?

Mr. Biffen

The work of the Computer Sub-Committee is of great significance to the House. I should not wish its work to proceed amid any misunderstanding or resentment. I believe that the questions that have been fairly put require better answers than I can give. I shall be perfectly candid about that. Therefore, I believe that much the most sensible way to proceed is to withdraw the motion and table it when the House resumes.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.