HC Deb 21 March 1984 vol 56 cc1143-52

10.5 pm

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

I beg to move, That paragraph (12) of Standing Order No. 103 (Select Committee on House of Commons (Services)) shall have effect for the remainder of the present Session as if the words ", Canada and the United States of America" were inserted at the end of line 54. Before the House now is the avowed intention of the Computer Sub-Committee of the House of Commons Services Committee, and I hope not to delay the House on the matter. None the less, when a similar motion came before the House before Christmas some right hon. and hon. Members expressed certain misgivings. It is therefore appropriate for me, as Leader of the House and Chairman of the Services Committee, to outline briefly the reasons for the appearance of the motion on the Order Paper.

The Computer Sub-Committee of the House of Commons Services Committee is currently undertaking a study into information technology and how that technology might benefit Members of the House. In the course of that study, the members of the Sub-Committee have concluded that their investigations should take account of the experience of foreign legislatures in this field. They believe that a good deal is to be learnt from the United States Congress and the Canadian Federal Parliament. They therefore wish to visit those assemblies.

The Services Committee has given its approval to this plan. The present position in regard to the Sub-Committee's ability to travel is, however, that it has the authority of the House to travel only within the United Kingdom. If, therefore, it is to seek approval for the proposed visits, Standing Order No. 103 requires amendment. The effect of the motion is to make the necessary amendment only for the remainder of the current session.

As the House is aware, Select Committees have for many years had authority to travel abroad, and they do so fairly frequently. The Liaison Committee has on behalf of the House of Commons Commission the task of examining applications for overseas travel from Select Committees and gives or withholds approval as it sees fit. There is nothing in the motion to disturb this arrangement, nor in my view would it be right to do so. The Sub-Committee's proposed visit would be subject to that scrutiny by the Liaison Committee in the normal way.

I do not propose myself to explain in detail the arrangements for and cost of the proposed visit. The chairman of the Computer Sub-Committee, the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam), is present and will, I know, be glad to address any questions of that sort that may be raised. More important, the motion before us does not seek the approval of the House for this or any other visit but merely for the amendment to Standing Orders which is necessary before any such visit can be proposed.

If the motion is passed, the Computer Sub-Committee will then seek the authority of the Liaison Committee for the proposed overseas travel, and the Liaison Committee will examine the request in the same way as it now considers other Select Committee requests. On that basis the Services Committee has recommended that the amendment be made, and in that spirit I commend the motion to the House.

10.9 pm

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

The House was very much in the debt of the Lord Privy Seal on almost Christmas Eve when he withdrew a closely similar proposal on 22 December.

In accordance with the Greek proverb, "Second thoughts have been wiser, though not very much wiser", it was feared that what the House might have passed on the nod with the spirit of Christmas would have extended the facility to the whole of the world outside the United Kingdom.

The proposal before the House this evening is more modest. It restricts the Sub-Committee's potential licence for foreign travel, subject of course to the overriding control of the Liaison Committee, to North America—to the United States and Canada. We are able to address ourselves more specifically to the hypothetical utility of the Computer Sub-Committee of the Services Committee adjourning from time to time and from place to place, not only in the United Kingdom, but in the United States and Canada.

Before the Lord Privy Seal set us free for our Christmas holidays on the previous occasion, the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam), the Chairman of the Sub-Committee offered—I was almost tempted to say "was injudicious enough to offer"—some reasons to the House in defence of the proposal. These can now he considered more closely as we have had warning that we are concerned with American and Canadian trips.

Before the hon. Gentleman speaks tonight, one can refer to the observations and reasons that he gave on 22 December. First, he said as regards the United States: experience in the United States has shown that the cost to the United States Government of the information technology provision 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 is something that most of us would have assumed without any detailed knowledge of the circumstances. We would have assumed that the provision of computer technology for the Amercian Congress would be vastly expensive. It excited the curiousity, not unnaturally, of this very active and diligent Sub-Committee of the Services Committee and it wants to go to the United States. Its members want to examine the example of the United States to discover what the Americans did wrong.

It is not in search of information that might be of use to the House that this Dickensian expedition to the United States is to be authorised. It is to find out why the benighted Americans are so benighted, even though we know in advance why. It stands to reason that if one provides computer services to the Members of that—I must be very careful and remember that I am referring to the democratic institutions of a friendly, if not an allied, state. I do not use the word "bloated" which occurred to me but leave reference to the United States Congress without any adjectival qualification.

For my part, I should have thought that any reassurance as to the mistakes that the Americans have made and the cautionary benefit of their experience could have been adequately verified in writing without going to the United States and subjecting the Americans to the humiliation of an interrogation by a Committee of the House on why they went wrong.

I can even imagine that the clerk to the Sub-Committee might write to them and inquire whether they had any ideas about why they had gone wrong. Any attendant information would be printed as an appendix to the eventual report and could contribute to the entertainment of the House. In short, is there really any reason for a trip across the Atlantic to satisfy our curiosity in regard to the United States' experience? I would answer that in the negative.

There is also a question of going to Ottawa. The hon. Gentleman said 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".—[Official Report, 22 December 1983, Vol. 51, c. 576–7.] We are all conscious of the vast extent of that great dominion and the constitutional inconveniences which are imposed upon it by the ocean of solid land by which various parts of it was separated. Even in the wildest imperial dreams of those who wish to build upon the Palace of Westminster, build new palaces of Westminster or build additional accumulations for Members of the House and their staff, research assistants and other hangers-on, I do not think that it has ever been suggested that such additions might go as far as a 10-km radius—that is, about six miles.

Are we seriously contemplating a large excrescence six miles from Westminster and the installation of computers to keep ourselves in touch with what is going on here? It is bad enough when hon. Members exile themselves to the excrescences built on to this ancient edifice and thus fall out of touch not only with their colleagues in the House but with what from time to time might be going on in the Chamber.

I should not have thought that the Canadian experience in coping with the enormous distances with which that country is afflicted would be relevant to any conceivable service or assistance required, or which ought to be acquired, or which anyone otherwise than in a nightmare would imagine could be required, by hon. Members of this House.

Those are the two grounds which have so far been specified for the indulgence that the proposal seeks from the House. I submit that they are entirely insufficient and that, unless the hon. Member for Blaydon, like the Lord Privy Seal but perhaps much more so, has had wiser thoughts he would be wise to request the indulgence of the Lord Privy Seal—a delightful event—for a second time, to withdraw the proposal.

10.17 pm
Mr. Kenneth Warren (Hastings and Rye)

I rise to support the motion, having heard the magnificient speech by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). I thought that I had left him behind some years ago in computer technology, in which I must declare an interest. He rightly says that what is happening in Washington and Ottawa is what we must learn to avoid and perhaps learn from.

It is not sufficient that we should stay in this place and be ignorant of what others are doing and have done. We can surely rise above the faults of those across the Atlantic and try to understand how we can benefit the House and use the technology available across the world to improve the facilities of the House. I commend to the right hon. Gentleman the sentiment that we should have heart. Perhaps that phrase is unpopular now in the United States, but we in this place can believe in ourselves and learn.

I served for many years on Council of Europe committees dealing with information technology and associated subjects. I was very much aware that hon. Members should never turn aside from the facilities available to them, which they may or may not choose to use, because that would be useful to hon. Members in their ability to do the task for which they are sent to their place of congregation, their Houses of Parliament. As a member of the Computer Sub-Committee, I commend this opportunity to the House. We should not neglect it, as it is a chance that may pass us by.

10.18 pm
Mr. James Tinn (Redcar)

I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) on his entertaining speech. I owe him an additional debt as I was one of those who faced the prospect of travelling to Ottawa and Washington in February—a duty that I did not contemplate with eager anticipation. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) will confirm—though not, I hope, repeat—that in my reaction to the idea I used some fairly blunt northern expressions. Nevertheless, for reasons that I shall develop briefly, I was convinced that we should undertake the trip. When it was suggested—not, I am sure, by the right hon. Member for Down, South—that we were seeking some sort of holiday jaunt, I certainly expressed myself in earthier, more Anglo-Saxon terms than are customary in this place.

There are two common sense reasons why the House should approve the visit. So far, the Sub-Committee has travelled only within London and once to Glasgow to look at equipment installed by comparable, though not entirely comparable, establishments. For instance, we spent an interesting half-day with Strathclyde county council. It may be suggested that we should rest on the experience gained from those visits, but the establishments that we visited were neither Parliaments nor legislatures, and I believe that we should study the experience of other legislators and legislatures.

The right hon. Member for Down, South fairly suggested that we could obtain the information by correspondence. A good deal can be achieved in that way, but not sufficient. We need to talk not just to the people who design, manufacture and, above all, sell the equipment but to the people in other legislatures, especially in Canada, who use the equipment so as to discover what the snags are. The right hon. Gentleman spoke as though we were merely going to look at the mistakes. Certainly, we want to learn from the mistakes of others, but we also want to learn from their achievements.

I confess that I now look forward to the visit with a good deal more pleasurable anticipation than if it had taken place earlier, but I urge the House, in all seriousness, to enable a very hard-working Sub-Committee to complete its work by seeking relevant information and experience from at least two legislatures abroad.

10.22 pm
Mr. Rob Hayward (Kingswood)

Since I have been a Member of Parliament I have attended four debates involving some form of high technology—Second Reading of the Telecommunications Bill, Second Reading of the Data Protection Bill, the debate on high technology on 17 February and the debate that has just ended.

When the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) seeks to justify the proposed visit, I shall be interested to hear which hon. Members expect to take part, as those of us who sat for two and a half hours today and throughout the debate on 17 February are constantly amazed at how few Members have any interest at all in high technology in any form. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Warren) has said, if there is such a wealth of knowledge in the Sub-Committee, its members should have come to the debate earlier today or on 17 February to give us the benefit of their expertise rather than allow us occasionally to fill in time. They could surely have imparted that knowledge and their doubts about the operations here before going to the United States or Canada.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant)

My hon. Friend may not realise that I am a member of the Sub-Committee and was present for all the technology debates that he mentioned.

Mr. Hayward

I am aware that my hon. Friend is a member of the Sub-Committee and has attended the greater part of all four debates. I shall be interested to see how many other members of the Sub-Committee can make that claim. I see the hon. Member for Blaydon gesticulating to the effect that he was present for the debate on the Telecommunications Bill, on which he was an Opposition spokesman. However, I shall also judge on the basis of the Data Protection Bill, the debate on high technology on 17 February and the debate earlier this evening.

There is another question. Why choose Canada and the United States? If we are to be confronted by technology, surely the aspects of technology and manufacture can equally be considered in a number of other legislatures, both in and around Europe where they make and install their own equipment and have the facilities. As the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) rightly said, legislators in Ottawa have confronted problems that we should not wish to meet ourselves. The legislatures of Europe might be more comparable with ours than are some of those suggested elsewhere.

10.26 pm
Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

This is the third time this evening that I have sought the indulgence of the House to make a statement, but I could not resist intervening to support the motion, particularly in the light of the speech made by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), which had about it a certain baroque magnificence which we find all too rarely in the House nowadays. It was sheer pleasure to listen to him. While I share the admiration of all hon. Members of those qualities of his speech, I part company with the right hon. Member when it comes to sharing his enthusiasm for the baroque nature of the building in which we live and of some of the institutions by which it is governed.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

It is mock-Gothic.

Mr. Ashdown

I am happy to accept that it is mock-Gothic. I was trying to make my similies match.

There is a computer saying that I know to my cost: "garbage in, garbage out". I have discovered that for myself since owning two computers in the House. It is possible to make major mistakes very easily through not having the information to hand and not having the benefit of the experience of others who have been involved in such things.

Anything that can improve the knowledge of the House before it takes an important step towards what I regard as an essential reform, anything which gives Members information about operations elsewhere, will be of benefit to the Committee and will assist the decision which could have long-term implications for the services that we enjoy, not least those of cost.

It may be, as the hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) has said, that we should not have confined our visits to America and Canada, but at least it is a first step taken, and to an area that I believe has some experience in this technology. The gaining of a wider kind of experience than has, I think, come before the Committee, well served though it has been, cannot but benefit us and protect us from perhaps making the wrong decisions about what can be a key reform for the House.

10.27 pm
Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

The hon. Member for Kingswood (Mr. Hayward) touches rather a raw nerve in me since I was present on 17 February and was prepared to speak at not inconsiderable length on new technology but had time only to declare my interest. I do not, therefore, accept any admonition from him that I was absent from any or all of those debates. I admit that I was not present on the occasion of the debate on the Data Protection Bill, but I was here on the other occasions to which he has referred and I either spoke or attempted to do so. I do not, therefore, believe that interest in high technology in the House is quite as narrow as he would suggest.

As for the right hon. Member for Down, South, he has changed his ground somewhat in his objections to the visit, because on the last occasion he objected to it on the basis that it would somehow be improper for the Computer Subcommittee to take evidence outside this country. I prepared myself with the appropriate section of Erskine May to refute that argument.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

The hon. Gentleman followed me on that occasion. Therefore, when I spoke I was not apprised of the inadequate grounds—which they are—that he would advance. I was able to address myself to those tonight.

Mr. McWilliam

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but I am sure that he will accept that he argued that it was inappropriate for Select Committees of this House to take evidence outside this country. Equally, I am sure that he will accept that on mature reflection, and on looking at the rules, that is not the case. That is not what we are talking about tonight.

We are not asking the House to give us permission to travel overseas. We are merely asking for permission—much more limited than any other Select Committee—to make a bid to the Liaison Committee, purely within this Session of Parliament and purely for one visit, to cover the Unite States and Canada. That is much more modest than the request of any other Select Committee.

The right hon. Member for Down, South also referred to the hypothetical utility of adjourning from place to place and from country to country. That is when he referred to his original objection. This is not hypothetical. The utility is one of learning from other people. I do not think that the font of all wisdom necessarily rests in this place. What is more, we have a duty to seek that wisdom wherever it may lie and try to use it to the benefit of hon. Members.

The right hon. Gentleman also said that America was expensive, and suggested that it would be a humiliation if we asked the Americans what they did wrong. America is expensive, but I do not think that the Americans would be humiliated if we asked what they did and why. I believe that they would be proud to say, "All right, it is expensive, but that is the price of an informed democracy, and it is a price that we are willing to pay." That is one of the options that we must consider when discussing what information should be available to hon. Members.

It may be that that is not a price that we are willing to pay—perhaps it is unreasonable—but we cannot say that until we have asked the Americans why they choose to spend that money and are told the reasons why that price was paid. We cannot pre-judge that situation.

We received written evidence from the Congress and read it. It is one thing to consider the written evidence from officials sitting on Capitol Hill, but it is quite another to speak to the people who must use that system to find out how effective and efficient it is. It may well be that the written submission is biased, given the very nature of the people who wrote it.

The right hon. Member for Down, South made great play about the vast reaches of Canada, and asked whether the linking of buildings within a 10 km—or, six mile—radius was appropriate. We also have buildings within a radius, and we shall always have parliamentary buildings within a radius. The Canadian Parliament has set up a local area network within its parliamentary buildings and has linked them to enable Members of the Canadian Parliament to have the benefit of access to the maximum amount of information available via that network.

It has done something else even more important. It has built in fibre-optic cables alongside the coaxial cables used for the network. There is nothing to tell us why that was done, but we can assume that it was because the Canadians had a very good idea what the future of information technology would be, how much access to such technology Members would want, and what kind of hardware would be required to provide that access. That is an area that we should probe, and we cannot do so in this country. We shall need to see the people who took that decision and find out why they took it.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Warren), who set out our case most succinctly. I can also reveal to the House that my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Mr. Tinn) gave a somewhat understated account of what he said to me when our original intention of going to Canada and the United States in February became known. We did not wish to go to the United States in February because we expected to find conditions there particularly comfortable. We wished to go because we wanted to finish the report for which we had taken so much evidence and on which my Committee colleagues had worked so hard. We wanted to make the report as complete as possible. In order to complete the report, we need the additional evidence which we wish to approach the Liaison Committee for permission to collect.

The report should not be left incomplete. It is unlikely that another such report, involving so many sessions of taking evidence, will be produced in the foreseeable future. The amount of work involved is too great for that to be countenanced.

The decision as to whether we go to Canada and the United States rests with the Liaison Committee. If the House agrees, the Liaison Committee will consider our application in the same way as it considers applications from other Committees. If we cannot make our application stand up, we will be knocked back just as any other Select Committee would be. The House does not have to decide whether we should go. It has to decide only whether we should be allowed to approach the Liaison Committee for permission to go.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 77, Noes 13.

Division No. 198] [10.38 pm
Alton, David Henderson, Barry
Ashdown, Paddy Hind, Kenneth
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Hirst, Michael
Biffen, Rt Hon John Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Hunt, David (Wirral)
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)
Bray, Dr Jeremy King, Roger (B'ham N'field)
Bright, Graham Lamond, James
Butcher, John Leighton, Ronald
Butler, Hon Adam Litherland, Robert
Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M) Lloyd, Ian (Havant)
Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S) Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham)
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S.) Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Coombs, Simon Loyden, Edward
Cope, John McDonald, Dr Oonagh
Craigen, J. M. McWilliam, John
Dalyell, Tam Maxton, John
Dewar, Donald Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
Eastham, Ken Neubert, Michael
Evans, John (St. Helens N) Nicholls, Patrick
Franks, Cecil Norris, Steven
Freeman, Roger Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Gale, Roger Parry, Robert
Garel-Jones, Tristan Penhaligon, David
George, Bruce Pike, Peter
Goodlad, Alastair Porter, Barry
Griffiths, E. (B'y St Edm'ds) Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)
Hargreaves, Kenneth Prescott, John
Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Randall, Stuart
Rathbone, Tim Thurnham, Peter
Renton, Tim Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Roe, Mrs Marion Waller, Gary
Rogers, Allan Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Sainsbury, Hon Timothy Warren, Kenneth
Sayeed, Jonathan Wigley, Dafydd
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Wolfson, Mark
Sims, Roger
Speller, Tony Tellers for the Ayes:
Stradling Thomas, J. Mr. James Tinn and Mr. Gerald Bermingham.
Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Beggs, Roy Molyneaux, Rt Hon James
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Nicholson, J.
Hayward, Robert Powell, Rt Hon J. E. (S Down)
Jones, Robert (W Herts) Rhodes James, Robert
Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh) Stern, Michael
Maude, Hon Francis Taylor, Rt Hon John David
Viggers, Peter Mr. William Ross and Mr. Neil Hamilton.
Tellers for the Noes:

Question accordingly agreed to.

Ordered, That paragraph (12) of Standing Order No. 103 (Select Committee on House of Commons (Services)) shall have effect for the remainder of the present Session as if the words, "Canada and the United States of America" were inserted at the end of line 54.