HC Deb 12 July 1985 vol 82 cc1383-448

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Sainsbury.]

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

The House is indebted to the Chairman of the Accommodation and Administration and Library Sub-Committees, the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin), and the Chairman of the Computer Sub-Committee, the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam), for the reports that their Committees have prepared and laid before the House.

The fact that the debate arises on the Adjournment will permit a wide-ranging consideration of the issues relating to the work of Parliament and will enable the Services Committee to take account of the views expressed in considering how best to take forward what has been proposed.

I begin with a general observation about the costs of Parliament; it is to those costs that certain of the proposals will have to be related. I say that because Parliament in the main is not cash-limited in its budget and therefore there is need for conscious self-restraint.

The House might wish to reflect on the fact that, for the four years 1981–82 to 1984–85, total identified costs for the Houses of Parliament, excluding MPs' and peers' pay and allowances, rose from £35 million to over £48 million, a rise in cash terms of 35 per cent. In the same period, Members' salaries rose by 23 per cent. and Members' allowances from £.10.2 million to l5.9 million, a rise of 50 per cent. Overall, the costs of Parliament, including pay and allowances, rose in cash terms by 38 per cent. in those four years. That was against public spending generally in cash terms having risen by between 25 and 27 per cent. Thus, it is not a question of parliamentary squalor amid public affluence. It is a formidable demonstration of the rising costs of this place.

Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

Does that include the costs, including travelling expenses, of Select Committees?

Mr. Biffen

It includes certain aspects of the costs of certain Committees. The compliance cost of Select Committees on Government Departments is not included in the figure and, if it could be assessed, I suspect that it would drive the figures even higher.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

To put it in perspective, what was the equivalent cost of living increase over that time? That will show the extent of the real increase.

Mr. Biffen

I shall have that figure by the end of the debate. The real comparison is the rise in the costs of Parliament relative to the rise in public expenditure more generally.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

Can my right hon. Friend identify, among the compliance costs, the cost of answering parliamentary questions?

Mr. Biffen

I had not briefed myself on that fascinating point. The rise in the number of questions has not been all that dramatic in the recent past. Nevertheless, that is a factor in the rise in costs. That there has been a rise is undeniable, but I think sometimes that if, overall, the rise in the number of parliamentary questions — I say this in the presence of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)— is modest, at least he has done his best to see that it is on a rising trend.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

The cost is decreased if the questions are answered truthfully. There are two types of question — very costly requests for statistics, and questions on matters of policy. Most of my questions have been policy questions, which means that Ministers actually need to use their brains to answer them, rather than extremely expensive statistical questions. If and when I ask for statistics, I ask for them to be given if they are conveniently available.

Mr. Biffen

I do not think that it would be helpful to get into the more metaphysical aspects of parliamentary questions, but the hon. Gentleman makes a wholly valid distinction. The House will have to consider whether the facilities increasingly available through the Library POLIS arrangements can replace much of what would otherwise be available through Government Departments as a possible means of making savings.

I had no idea that my casual, tentative, almost anodyne observations about the cost of Parliament would release so much passion so early in the debate. In view of the pattern of rising costs, it behoves us all the more to be vigilant, especially as the future development of the Bridge street site is likely to have a considerable impact on the costs of Parliament.

The report of the Computer Sub-Committee on Members' requirements for information technology recommends a computer system for Members' use to provide word processing facilities, an electronic mail system and access information services such as Ceefax, Oracle and the Library POLIS system. The system would be phased in over four years and would necessitate recabling throughout the Palace and the outbuildings. In the final phase, the annunciator system, which will also require recabling, would be added to the new cabling network. The Sub-Committee acknowledged in paragraph 84 that those two reasons for recabling were related by proposing the integration of a new annunciator system into the local area network. The first phase of implementing the Sub-Committee's recommendations would include a pilot project involving 36 Members to see how the facilities might be used.

At a time when we are still at the planning stage of the new parliamentary building, it is particularly helpful that the Sub-Committee has identified the possible information needs of Members. Some Members feel that the development of parliamentary outbuildings should be used so that the Palace itself is primarily reserved for Members and staff are accommodated elsewhere. In those circumstances, a Member's ability to communicate quickly and easily with his staff located in another building will be especially important. I note that the recommendation in the report would facilitate that communication and I am sure that many Members will show great interest in that.

The other dimension to the development of the Bridge street site is financial. In approving the Third report from the Services Committee in 1982–83 on phase 1 of the new parliamentary building, the House committed the Government to substantial capital expenditure. At present, although we may estimate the costs of this, we cannot be sure. I suspect that our estimate will be too low and that unforeseen expenses will arise. We therefore need to be cautious about committing ourselves further financially.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be criminal not to build in at this stage all the foreseeable developments required for the next few years rather than having to put them in at infinitely greater expense a few years after the new building is completed?

Mr. Biffen

The use of the word "criminal" shows the exaggerated emotion attending this subject. I am concerned to put before the House the challenges contained in the report by the Sub-Committee. The timing of these matters is vital and must be related to the plans of the Department of the Environment and the Property Services Agency for the building work and the rewiring of the annunciator system. To put in a whole range of sophisticated equipment ahead of time in the hope of achieving cost savings in a fast-moving area of development runs the risk of the equipment becoming obsolete in a very short time. I am not taking one view or the other. I am simply saying that Members must treat this subject with as much care, caution and prudence as if their own money were at stake.

We also cannot look at the costs of implementing these recommendations by comparison with future expenditure alone. Here I must sound two notes of caution. The first concerns the place of the annunciator system within the scheme proposed by the Sub-Committee. I understand that the present annuciator system is within five years of the end of its natural life and that installing a replacement system would mean recabling the whole Palace. In planning the recabling, it clearly behoves us to take into account the prospect of installing computer terminals in Members' offices and to choose the cabling and layout accordingly.

That does not mean, however, that we need to install the computers themselves as the recabling is carried out. Provided that the capacity is there, we can build the computer facility into the system at a later stage. Indeed, I very much hope that the next development will be discussions between the Services Committee and the Department of the Environment. I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment will be keen to see what common interest can be established in developing a new wiring system both to serve the next generation of annunciators and to provide terminals for the provision of a computer system able to respond to Members' needs.

My second point in this connection also concerns costs. The total cost of implementing the report's recommendations is estimated at slightly over £5 million, but that figure does not include costs which cannot be accurately gauged at present. Those unquantified costs include the building work associated with the recabling. Given the nature of the Palace and the need to protect the fabric of the building, Members will appreciate that these may well be substantial.

I conclude my remarks on the report of the Computer Sub-Committee in a spirit of gratitude for its work, matched by a belief that its proposals must now be tested against available financial resources.

In the report on research assistants and the growing demand that they make on the facilities of the House, the right hon. Member for Deptford expressed the concern that the number of passes issued to Members' staff had risen by 23 per cent. in the past 10 years to a total of 1,061 in May 1984. That concern prompted the investigation and led to the recommendations in the report. The report recommends that no more than 150 passes per calendar year and no more than 50 at any one time should be issued to temporary researchers from overseas who will be here for less than four months. Otherwise, temporary research assistant passes should be issued only if the Member undertakes that the individual in question will be employed for more than four months. Those who do not qualify in either of those categories should be issued with a temporary secretary pass and should no longer be able to use the branch Library either in person or by telephone.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many temporary assistants and researchers are unpaid or low paid? Does he further agree that hon. Members have many more than are necessary but, if they had proper secretarial and research allowances, there would be a reduction in the number of such unpaid and low-paid assistants?

Mr. Biffen

It is attractive to make the proposition that yet more allowances for Members of Parliament would result in fewer research assistants. Many of the research assistants who come within that category are brought here for other reasons and I suspect that, even with greater allowances, the problem would remain. I note what the hon. Lady says and I look forward to hearing her speech, but I have a feeling that what she said could engage the comments of the right hon. Member for Deptford, who has looked into this matter a great deal more deeply than I have. I must admit that I am somewhat cynical about the supposition that increasing allowances would result in a diminution in the number of low-paid or unpaid research assistants.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the present system means that hon. Members with other financial resources can get much of the work that they need done without reliance on facilities and employees here? Does he agree that the system therefore discriminates according to the income of hon. Members, which is unfair? Does he agree that, if British education institutions regularly and routinely supplied people as part of their course, we should not need students from overseas? As long as those overseas students come free and British people cannot afford to work for nothing, we are bound to look for assistance where we can get it without having to cough up for it.

Mr. Biffen

I am reasonably relaxed about all this, but it is not my report. I knew the House of Commons before we were flooded with research assistants, and Governments had a rougher, tougher time then. The idea that, to do our job, we must be buttressed by a growing army of well-paid or unpaid research assistants is just one of the current fashions. There may be many arguments about how we might have to add to the facilities for Members of Parliament and I am happy to hear the debate, but we are discussing a report prepared by the right hon. Member for Deptford and his colleagues and I suggest that we should proceed in that context. I am listening in a spirit of good nature, but I am not bowled over by the proposition that the good work of the House rests on an amplitude of research assistants.

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

When, on 3 June, the right hon. Gentleman replied to the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels), who suggested that all hon. Members should have one research assistant who should be paid, he said: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but perhaps it would be better elaborated in the debate that has been promised on the second report of the Services Committee, dealing with research assistants."—[Official Report, 3 June 1985; Vol. 80, c. 17.] Since that is this debate, will the right hon. Gentleman now elaborate on whether he agrees with his hon. Friend?

Mr. Biffen

No. I am anxious to hear my hon. Friend elaborate a sentence into a speech. When I have had the advantage of that, perhaps I shall be able to reflect the better.

Although adopting these recommendations would check the growth in the number of temporary researchers from overseas, it would have little effect on other groups. The report does not attempt to interfere with an hon. Member's right to engage staff. That is understandable, as there is nothing new in Members being assisted by researchers and no such restriction has previously been thought necessary. In the light of the arguments that have preceded the debate, however, I feel that the recommendations do not entirely allay the anxiety about the number of staff employed by individual Members.

The pressure on the Library and other facilities could be lightened significantly only if more restrictive controls on the number of staff were accepted by the House. We have had some suggestions about how that might be done. As the debate proceeds, the House will be able to judge the whole issue and whether it merits further consideration. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Deptford will he marking concern on this matter and I strongly hope that his Sub-Committee will consider any anxieties that are expressed today. Suggestions for a further restriction could proceed only when there have been widespread considerations by the appropriate Sub-Committee of the Services Committee and when the House is clearly sympathetic to any recommendations it makes.

The main theme of the debate is the desire of hon. Members to use efficiently the resources at our disposal to serve constituents. Both reports deal with how that might be achieved, though in different ways. The report of the Computer Sub-Committee suggests means by which information can be more readily accessible to hon.

Members and communicated more efficiently. The report on research assistants exposes the problems that can arise from the pressure which their conscientiousness can put on finite facilities. The questions that it raises and the solutions that may be proposed deserve our further attention, and I have no doubt that we shall return to them. Meanwhile, I hope that the House will have a constructive and informative debate.

9.56 am
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin), my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) and the members of their Committees for the work that they put in to prepare these reports.

There are already too many ill-informed critics who are eager to denigrate the House of Commons by overstating its cost to the community, and it might have been better if the Leader of the House had quoted the real costs rather than the inflated costs in regard to the past five years. Inflation accounts for probably half of the increase that the right hon. Gentleman announced. The right hon. Gentleman's experiment — Select Committees — which I welcome, as they have been a success, account for pan: of the 38 per cent. increase. The increased cost imposed by the average hon. Member in the past five years is therefore fairly modest.

I was fascinated to note that the right hon. Gentleman, who is usually so urbane and controlled, managed his only moment of passion when he harked back to the good old days of his parliamentary youth. I am sure that we all want to accommodate a more up-to-date attitude. What the two studies reveal goes far beyond their remit. They reveal the three areas of inadequacy that we have all come to expect — inadequacy of accommodation, inadequacy of staff facility and resource and the almost non-existent support facility.

The Leader of the House mentioned the 23 per cent. increase in passes for members of staff. As the report states, our discussions are trammelled by the fact that we shall not have much more accommodation before 1990. Therefore, we must consider the present accommodation in the Palace of Westminster. We all recognise the pressure that our present problems have put on the Library, the photocopiers and even the catering facilities in the House.

However, most anxiety has been expressed about the short-term overseas interns, as they are described. I do not believe that the House has faced the problem that the increase in such research assistants reveals. Does it disguise a real need for more resources, as I believe is the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd), and is it a cheap way of avoiding a resolution of the real problem by using ill-equipped amateurs, insead of professional researchers, to provide information? We have ignored the question of how we should allocate, among Members, this marginal accretion of our research resources. Marty hon. Members may not want overseas students to help them. I would rank myself among those, because I am too lazy to discipline myself to make proper use of them.

While those extra resources remain available, we should turn our attention to ensuring that they are fairly allocated among hon. Members. They should not be allocated on a personal dispensation basis. If passes are to be rationed to 150, the decision as to who should have those passes should not be left to a couple of people, although I appreciate their difficulties and do not criticise them in any way. If we follow the report's recommendation, as I believe we must, we shall put the disposal of those 150 passes not in the hands of a Committe of the House or of the institutions which provide the assistants, but in the hands of one or two Back-Bench Members who, for the best of reasons, organise the courses that bring those students to Britain. We are not only disguising a deficiency in the facilities that are available, but we are in danger of perpetuating an arbitrariness in the way in which we allocate those part-time, ill-equipped researchers.

Mr. James Hill (Southampton, Test)

I was approached by outside sources to take on a part-time researcher from America. The small print at the bottom of the letter said that, as a Member of Paliament, I would receive an honorarium of £150. Has the right hon. Gentleman come across that practice?

Mr. Williams

I have not, but it is interesting. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Member for Deptford will have come across it in his investigations, and he may care to observe on the effect of that in his speech.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Would my right hon. Friend allow me to correct a wrong impression that seems to have gathered pace in his comments and in the comments of the Leader of the House? Hon. Members on both sides of the House have worked hard to make the opportunity of working as interns to Members of Parliament available to British students. Programmes at Leeds university and the City of London polytechnic, in which I have been involved, enable British students to work here. They are working here in increasing numbers and are largely replacing students from overseas.

Mr. Williams

I shall deal with that point later in my speech. I recognise the role that my hon. Friend has played in trying to interest British universities in taking up this facility, should it continue to exist.

If the use of such interns disguises a real need, the House must decide whether that is the best way to deal with it. Are we simply providing training for students from institutions to which the House has no commitment and no obligation? It is an arbitrary allocation of a highly valuable benefit, which is no doubt used as an inducement by the institutions to which the facility is made available. Hon. Members who have had such students working for them say that they are pleasant, industrious and willing to help, but they also say that they have often had to provide a tutorial role and have had to spend much time finding work that the students can do.

If we are saying that the House exists as an adjunct to a few American universities, so be it. But I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and with the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) that we should try to ensure that such a valuable training facility is offered first to our universities. The fact that we must employ overseas students highlights an inadequacy in our universities, not a lack of industry on the part of those who organise such courses. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield explained when I discussed the matter with him, British universities do not have the modular system adopted by the Americans, and it is not so easy for their courses to be structured round long visits to the House of Commons. If, as the report envisages, we continue to allow such temporary access, I believe that British colleges should be made aware of the fact and should be invited to put forward propositions for accommodating their students within the system. We should not allow it to continue as a perk to a few American colleges to which we may be indebted for the free service, but to which we have no obligation.

The fact that I have no expertise in and limited knowledge of information technology is rather sad, since I was the Minister responsible for the microprocessor application programme in industry. However, when I talked to top industrialists about the application of information technology, my inadequacies were largely concealed by their ignorance. The House of Commons is still at the abacus stage in its application of information technology to back-up facilities. Such technology offers us not just the facilities of the great universities, but information storage and retrieval at unrivalled speed.

I was astonished by the comments of the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) this morning. I thought that since he had seen fit to give his opinion to the nation, he might have condescended to do the same for the House. I have never heard such twaddle as I heard him speak this morning on the BBC. There he was — the great intellect — sitting and thinking great thoughts. He said that we do not need researchers and that he is against all this nonsense. He said that the role of a Member of Parliament is to point out to the Government what they said previously and to show how that is inconsistent with what they are doing now. He said that hon. Members need all their time to think, and seemed to believe that it was inconsistent to do that and to have research assistants.

Mr. Dalyell

Remembering that it is 12 July, I wonder whether the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) is marching with the Orange bands.

Mr. Williams

Such an activity would match the intellectual content of his performance this morning. If one followed the logic of the right hon. Gentleman's comments, one would go to university, sit one's final exams in the first week, and then study for the next three years because one's great thoughts should not be trammelled by information or by data. It was a most absurd, damaging and irrelevant contribution to the subject.

Our trouble is similar to that of industry: we are dealing with unprecedented rapidity in the evolution of technology. Nearly every product that comes on to the market is obsolescent the moment it appears. Its successor is already on the drawing board. Industry finds there is never a right time because there is always something better around the corner, and does not know what is the best time and place to carry out major investment.

We are perhaps fortunate in having a decision imposed on us by the need to turn our attention by 1990 to the new parliamentary building. That is a critical element in our considerations of the type and range of facilities we offer and when we offer them. Most of the population of the same age as the average Member of this House is blind about the new technology. There are people like my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon who are very knowledgeable and can do their own programming and do everything required to make full use of these facilities. But that is not the case for the average Member or even for the majority of Members of this House, nor is it the case in much of British industry. Industry buys the equipment that is able to use the technical resources now available.

In a way, that relates to the other report. If we are to have the information technology facilities envisaged by my hon. Friend — and I am not suggesting that should not happen — it may be that the introduction of the new technological resource will add to the pressure for back-up staff who will be able in the short term to help Members make use of the new information facilities available to them. I suspect this problem will gradually disappear. We have to plan for new generations and this is where 1990 becomes relevant. At successive elections a new generation of Members will be increasingly at ease with the new technology and will not need such back-up support from staff. They will automatically expect the availability of the new technological resource within their workplace.

Mr. Soley

I support what my hon. Friend has been saying. I have had an Apricot computer for just over a year and have found out, not surprisingly, that my PA and researcher use it more frequently than I do and to good effect, and that is very helpful to me.

Mr. Williams

If my hon. Friend had a 13-year-old son or daughter, as he might have, he would find that child using it even more than any of his assistants and utterly at ease with it. It may well be that what we need for the average Member in the short term, as the report touches on, is the word processor with memory and so on. That would make an enormous difference to the way in which many of us carry out our work. We then have to plan further ahead for the correct facilities. Because 1990 is the deadline, in the interim period we should be looking for the minimum capital investment or commitment, so that we can put the latest state of the art into the new building. In the interim period we should have the minimum fixed capital equipment needed to enable Members to obtain the data they require.

I am not in favour of imposing on Members a choice of equipment. When eventually a facility is available it must be for the Member to decide whether he wants his system to be compatible with the system operating here. It would be wrong for the Fees Office to say, "What you intend to buy is not compatible and will not be admissible". On the other hand, it would be a foolish Member who bought equipment that was not compatible with the system introduced into the House.

Mr. Wigley

On this matter of compatibility, will the hon. Member accept there is a need to consider it not only in the context of the Palace of Westminster and the new building, but also bearing in mind that some Members have their own installation in their constituencies? I have a £7,000 installation which my partner was good enough to invest in to support our work on a parliamentary level. There must be compatibility with the constituencies, and that means linking a telephone line into any system here.

Mr. Williams

That is correct. Whatever decision is ultimately taken on any system will be wrong, because any system adopted here will be transient and that is a result of the nature of technology. Whatever system is adopted here will impose a discipline on each Member, both in terms of his constituency activities and his House of Commons activities.

The new building will give us a focal point in time to which we should relate. My hon. Friend recognised this in his report and the Leader of the House also recognised it in what he had to say. We should not make our decision on the basis of intimidation through ill-informed comments from the press about expenditure. In fact, we are talking about relatively small sums of money in national terms, as I intend to show.

The two reports reveal the appallingly low level of expectation here as compared with comparable parliamentary institutions, or even certain major local government institutions, within this country. We should bear in mind that we are talking about facilities not just for 640 Members, but for a Parliament legislating for 55 million people. When we assess the cost it is not just the cost divided by the number of legislators. One has to recognise that Members of Parliament are the main channel, on behalf of their constituents, for dealing with abuses and they are the main channel of access to Ministers. Therefore, the cost has to be seen in terms of the whole country and the facilities that Parliament provides for the country, rather than as a per capita benefit for individual MPs.

If we take note of ill-informed criticism it will not be just our loss; it will be our constituents' loss. It will also be Parliament's loss because, unlike the Leader of the House, while I recognise that. Parliament has always had its phases of effective operation, it is possible to improve upon the effectiveness of Parliament and the quality of our operations here. Take, for example, the simple situation which happens many times a week — the presentation of statements to the House. We get approximately three hours notice and the average Member has no prior knowledge of what is to come. He does not have the benefit the press has, and an Opposition Member has about one hour's advantage if his opposite number is generous enough to ensure that the copy arrives on time.

Parliament needs to respond quickly, and it is no good saying, as the right hon. Member for South Down said in his radio contribution this morning, that Members should go to the Library to get the information they need. If we tried to form a queue at the Library on every statement to obtain the information we feel we might need in order to deal with each statement, the queue would be substantially uncatered for and the statement would be completed.

Mr. Sheerman

Is my hon. Friend aware that there are 18 researchers in the House of Commons Library for 650 Members? Is he further aware that in a Select Committee a succession of evidence is presented by major Departments, and my own experience of three years in the Public Accounts Committee was that one needed some research even to know what penetrating questions to ask?

Mr. Williams

That is exactly right. My hon. Friend reveals what most of us accept. Considering that there are only the 18 staff, what is remarkable is the quality of service that they manage to provide. Whenever I have asked the Library for information, I have always been astonished by the willingness and speed with which the staff have attempted to obtain it for me.

Mr. Onslow

With respect, the hon. Gentleman is on a false point. By their very nature, statements in the House attract the attention of hon. Members who specialise in the subjects concerned, and they can be expected not to need to go back to square one and research. It would be unreal to suppose that every hon. Member should be armed with a brief covering the subject dealt with in a statement when, apart from anything else, we all know that only a small number of hon. Members with an interest in the subject are likely to be called to make an instant reaction to a statement.

Mr. Williams

I ask the hon. Gentleman to think back to his Shadow days, for example. In general, the role of the Chairman of a specialist Committee and the role of an Opposition Front Bench spokesman is to have as much information as possible relating to the work of the relevant Department. Even so, any Department is so wide-ranging in its activities that to have such information is incredibly difficult. I ask him also to remember that Front Bench spokesmen get an hour's notice of what is contained in a statement and can ensure that their response is relevant to what the Minister says in his statement. The Back Bencher has no prior knowledge of the contents of a statement and is at a grave disadvantage. Speedier access to information would be of great value to him.

I think that I have made the points that I wanted to make in a debate that is not intended to reach decisions. I wanted to throw in a few random thoughts on both aspects. The reports are useful but, by the Committee's remit, are too restricted to cater for the solution of the problems that they tend to reveal. They reveal that hon. Members still need proper office and secretarial facilities in their constituencies. They still need proper office, research and secretarial facilities in London. We have not even addressed ourselves to how we ensure proper and adequate communication between this Parliament and what is happening in the European Parliament.

10.23 am
Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

I am rather surprised that the debate is taking this form, because I had a feeling that it might have been more constructive if we had had an opportunity at the outset to hear from the Chairmen of the Committees which produced these reports rather than having to put a number of questions to them and then, in the light of their replies, possibly come back to them. As it is, I fear that the form the debate is taking may handicap earlier speakers, because we want to hear from the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) and the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) about their reports.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

The hon. Gentleman should not make the mistake of assuming that only the Chairmen of the Committees are capable of explaining the reports. The other members of the Computer Sub-Committee are here and are more than able to explain what is proposed and so enable hon. Members to make up their minds before I reply to the debate.

Mr. Onslow

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his modesty, but I should still like to hear from whichever of his colleagues he thinks is better able to present the report before I make any critical remarks about it. We are forced into this position, and I do not think that it will improve the structure of the debate.

I agree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about the need to be cautious in committing ourselves to future expenditure and about the imperative of treating the money involved as if it was our own. There are tests of cost effectiveness and value for money which need to be applied to both reports and which I hope to outline briefly.

I am surprised by some of the presentation of the argument on temporary and unpaid research assistants. I regret the importation of this curious word "intern". If there was an accurate description in English which we could recognise, it might be "casual apprentice". "Intern" carries with it an implication of expertise which almost by definition these people do not have. They come here to learn. They come here to be taught. Some hon. Members are fortunate enough to be offered a small fee for teaching them. But the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) put his finger on it when he admitted that he is too idle to discipline himself to make proper use of them — in other words, to teach them what they should do.

I do not see this place as pre-eminently or even peripherally an institute of higher education for undergraduate aspirants to the world of politics —[Interruption.] I am not interested in their nationality. Anyone who wants to learn about politics can find better places in which to do it than the House of Commons.

Mr. Sheerman

That is an interesting thought.

Mr. Onslow

At least it has got the hon. Gentleman thinking.

I wish to ask one fundamental question about the report on information technology. Why is it presented to us without the methodology? Where is chapter 1 of the report? In trying to analyse the value of the report, I wanted to see on what it was based, how large the sample was and what questions had been asked of the hon. Members who contributed to it. The only enlightenment that I could find is contained in page 3 of volume II: Chapter One outlines how we conducted the study. It goes on to admit that the sample is biased towards those more favourably disposed toward the use of Information Technology. Turning back to the list of the contents, I see: Chapter One: survey of methodology [Not printed: summary only]. That is a pity. If I were a director of a company which had a report submitted to it recommending major expenditure of a significant kind, and the people putting it up said, "We shall not bother to show you the methodology because you will not understand it," my reaction would be, "I am sorry, but I need someone else to advise me. I am not prepared to take this advice on trust."

Mr. McWilliam

I am certain that an hon. Member of the hon. Gentleman's experience knows that those papers not printed in reports are made available in the Library. He can gain access to them any time that he likes.

Mr. Onslow

But what consolation is that to members of the public who want to see the basis on which we make our report? I am sorry, but that will not do.

In reading through the report, I tried to deduce how many hon. Members had made an input to it. I can find only eight besides the hon. Member for Blaydon and his colleagues on the Committee. I do not regard that as a representative sample of opinion or experience in the House, and the report is fatally flawed as a result. All its recommendations and findings on the needs of Members of Parliament and the justification of the costs are open to question on those grounds. That is why I should have liked to hear the hon. Member for Blaydon present his report. I should have liked his answers to those questions before I was obliged to make my remarks.

Looking through the report and trying to find the justifications in it, I am further disappointed. We are told on page vii: institutions outside the House are busily embracing this technology as a business standard. It adds that the House will need to keep up with such advances if it is to play its full political role: The growth of statistical data available and the mass of other information with which all Members must deal makes the speedy introduction of an effective information technology system of vital importance. There is a tremendous dialectical leap there. It is a major non sequitur. I can put it best by saying that we are not a business organisation. Hon. Members, for whatever reason they come here, may make policy decisions, but they do not make executive decisions. Therefore, we have no need for the type of information which in business is essential to good executive decision-making.

Nor has it ever seemed to me to follow that the more information available to anyone, the wiser he becomes. There is no necessary connection between those two states. No doubt there are some hon. Members who benefit from having more information. However, a mass of information presented to me does not necessarily make me any more competent in my judgment.

Mr. Soley

That is a rather silly argument. Of course an hon. Member can be flooded with information and use it badly, but if the information is well analysed he tends to use it better. If we follow the hon. Gentleman's argument to its conclusion, we end up banning schools because it is obvious that any education is bad.

Mr. Onslow

I do not think that the House should concern itself with education. The hon. Gentleman's intervention does nothing to rebut my argument that the processes which are appropriate to business do not apply to the House. We have certain quite different functions and needs. To apply the business analogy is to mislead the House. I have nothing against word processors. I have a daughter who teaches people to use word processors, and I regard them as a very useful tool, but I do not believe that the advantages set out in paragraph 16 on page ix are so compelling as to justify all the expenditure that is outlined there. A rapid response to constituency inquiries does not depend upon the possession of a word processor by an hon. Member, if the information required needs to be obtained from a Ministry or a local authority. Having a word processor on one's desk would do nothing to speed up that process.

Mr. Simon Hughes


Mr. Onslow

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman, because I have a great deal to say.

We should not kid ourselves that this is a significant advantage and that it will improve our performance. Nor do I think that effective cross-indexation systems or access to wire services are so important as to justify massive expenditure, even though it might enable the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) to get the cricket scores without having to take his pocket television set everywhere with him.

The report contains a certain amount of disproportion, which is not surprising, because it is pre-eminently written by the producer side of the information technology business. The user side has not come across as effectively as it might. That is no doubt the fault of the House, because the number of hon. Members who responded was relatively small and largely confined to those who are specialists in information technology and extremely interested in using it. I doubt very much whether that applies to all hon. Members.

Mr. Williams

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when deciding who should take part in the pilot study it is important to include not just the computer "buff", but a fair cross-section of hon. Members?

Mr. Onslow

It is essential to do that, and I should have thought that it was self-evident. I am glad to have the right hon. Gentleman's support. The pilot study might also show that the number of hon. Members now in the House and those in future Parliaments who might wish to use information technology remains a very small proportion of the total membership and that the need for which provision must be made is very much less in both cost and physical terms than has been suggested. It is possible that the provision of information technology facilities for 20 per cent. of all hon. Members might meet all forecastable needs. We need to find out about that before we spend large sums of money. That would be done in business, and in our continuing approach to the subject I hope that we shall be thoroughly businesslike.

Mr. Sheerman

The hon. Gentleman says that Members of Parliament should be allowed to have the facilities that are useful to them rather than that we should impose upon all hon. Members the responsibility of moving parliamentary neanderthal man into the high technology area. He is only saying what many Members of Parliament have said for some years, which is that hon. Members need to operate in the way that suits them best.

Mr. Onslow

Of course, but the argument in the report is that provision should be made for high technology on the same scale as when the new office buildings were provided. A large number of Hing cabinets and expensive shelves and cupboards were installed, which most hon. Members do not use, so we ought to relate supply to the perceived demand, which I submit is very much smaller than the report suggests. All hon. Members work in different ways. There is no typical Member of Parliament. Every hon. Member should be free to organise his life in what seems to him to be the best way. We should not force technology upon Members of Parliament if they do not want it.

Dealing with the report on research assistants, I should have liked to ask the right hon. Member for Deptford who chaired the Sub-Committee whether, in his opinion, the opinion sample taken was adequate. As far as I can see, he received only 15 replies to the invitation to make a contribution. If that is the full extent of the input of hon. Members to these findings, I cannot accept the proposition that that is an adequate sample.

The report does, however, contain one interesting piece of statistical information, even though I suspect that it is now out of date. It relates to the number of secretaries and research assistants employed by hon. Members in 1984. It is to be found on page 4 of the minutes of evidence. The most significant statistic is that over 400 hon. Members do their job satisfactorily with the assistance of only two staf —presumably either two secretaries, or a secretary and a research assistant. That is the kind of factual evidence upon which some of the conclusions in the report ought to have been based.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

It is important to bear in mind that when the report refers to two secretaries or to two research assistants it very often means half a secretary and half a research assistant. That is all that one can possibly afford.

Mr. Onslow

I am not aware that the report establishes that these figures are resource limited. I see no evidence to that effect, nor do I see any evidence of whether the hon. Members who figure in the returns employ secretaries who do not possess House of Commons passes but work in the constituencies. We are concerned with the pressures on facilities in this building and the reasons for those pressures. I should have liked research to be carried out into the number and work load of research assistants and secretaries who are employed by the 100 or so hon. Members who need three or more of these people. I should like to know why those hon. Members feel that they need those resources. Sampling on that basis would have told us much more about the decision that we need to make. That decision will demand either the provision of more facilities, or the limitation of access. The burden of the report is towards limitation of access, for reasons which I think are sound, but the report's recommendations do not go as far as they might.

Mr. Simon Hughes


Mr. Onslow

No, I have given way several times.

If further work had been done, it would have been possible to break down the requirements to the point where the solution could have been seen more clearly, but already there is evidence to suggest what the solution is. Most hon. Members do their work with two staff. Why, therefore, should increased pressure be put upon the facilities of the House in order to accommodate those other Members of Parliament who, for reasons which we do not know, feel that in some cases they must have up to six research assistants or secretaries with passes which give them access to parliamentary buildings?

Most hon. Members to whom I have spoken would settle without question or dissent for the proposition that any Member of Parliament should be free to organise his support staff as he likes and to employ them where he likes, but that it would be fair if access by his staff to this building were limited to two, which would enable one secretary and one research assistant to come to Parliament, if they wished. Why should the others? What is the need? Where is the requirement? It is not clear to me, and it does not seem to me to follow from the report. I hope that in due course my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will put down a motion to that effect. It might do a great deal towards helping to solve that part of the problem. Even if it were arbitrary in its application, it would correspond to the majority need and would be seen by most hon. Members to be fair.

Another clearly perceived problem about research assistants involves their interests. The subject is dealt with in the first report from the Select Committee on Members' Interests. In considering the limitation of access and the accreditation of research assistants to hon. Members, we should also accept the Select Committee's recommendation: We recommend that the holders of permanent passes as Members' secretaries or Members' research assistants be required to register any gainful occupation which they may pursue other than that for which the pass is issued, and that a copy of the Register should be placed in the Library". Research assistants who are given passes include people who are not really working for hon. Members; they are working for themselves. I pass no value judgment on their work, but they do not work for hon. Members. They may be working for a body like Age Concern or for a commercial organisation. Those facts should be known and I suspect that my proposed limitation would do much to reduce the number of research assistants in the House working for charities or commerical organisations. I believe that that is a desirable objective and I shall be interested to hear the views of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

The other matter that arises from the report of the Services Committee is security. This subject is not wholly within the Committee's remit, but it was appropriate for it to be raised. The pressure on facilities must create security problems. Those who are responsible for security arrangements become overloaded, as do so many of our other facilities, including catering, photocopying and so on.

It is important that the House should note that aspect. It is accepted that photo passes are necessary for all those except members of the public who come here only occasionally and for private purposes. Has consideration been given to requiring everyone except hon. Members and staff of the Departments of the House to wear their passes? It is common practice in commercial organisations for passes to be worn, to enable people to be identified and their reason for being in an office to be known. If that possibility has been considered and rejected for the House, I should like to know the arguments that were used. If the idea has not been considered, I hope that it will be.

Many of my colleagues believe that we need to exercise much more self-discipline in the burdens that we impose on this building and in our demands for resources and the expectations that we arouse among our staff and others. Until we appreciate that fact, we shall not be able to come to terms with the facilities which it is reasonable to expect the taxpayer to give us.

10.44 am
Mr. James Tinn (Redcar)

When we show visitors round the House, we usually show them in the Princes' Gallery the model of the Palace of Westminster as it used to be and tell them how the belated action by the Treasury of getting rid of wooden tally sticks and the false economy of using them as fuel in the boilers of the House of Lords resulted in the pipes overheating and most of the building burning down.

I am glad that that happened, because I suspect that if it had not the Leader of the House would have been telling us today how desirable it was that we should have a new building, but that there was a lot of public opposition to the idea of a tower with a clock at the top and that, in any case, we could not afford it now. That is the substance of the Government's response to the Select Committee's report, and it is disappointing.

Politicians have endlessly lectured industry about the need to modernise. Industry is at least trying to catch up, but we are being discouraged from setting an example. We lead the world in the use of computers in our schools and we have every right to be proud of that fact. Children at primary school can grapple with the complexities of computers. Are hon. Members so technologically illiterate that we cannot use them?

There have been criticisms in the press about our proposed expenditure. I cannot think of any section of the community that is less qualified than the press to criticise others on this matter. Where the press has high technology, it does not dare to use it and most parts of the press do not have that technology and do not even aspire to acquire it. If we are foolish enough to take advice from the press, I hope that industry, commerce and the rest of the country will not do so.

I had the pleasure of serving on the Computer Sub-Committee and we spent many hours taking evidence, not only from hon. Members who were good enough to make thoughtful and detailed contributions to our consideration, but from a wide range of people from outside, including users, suppliers, designers and programmers of equipment.

The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) mentioned the comparatively small number of hon. Members who gave evidence to the Sub-Committee. The small response was understandable, bearing in mind that only a small number of hon. Members were acquainted with computers. That number is growing quickly, but when we started our deliberations few of us had a great contribution to make. I learned a lot not only from other hon. Members, but from the evidence of outside witnesses.

I think that my colleagues on the Sub-Committee will agree that we were impressed on our visit to the Canadian Parliament where we saw the installation of a system which we believe to be relevant to our needs in at least two ways. The Canadian Parliament suffers, as we do to an extent, from having its functions dispersed over a number of buildings. Indeed, it is probably even more inconvenient for the Canadians, given the Canadian winter and the problems of communication and keeping in touch are particularly difficult. Many of us also have to do much of our work at our desks, quite a distance from the Chamber and the centre of activity.

The second way in which the Canadian system is relevant to Westminster is its comparatively low cost. Clearly, shrewd and efficient bargaining had taken place between representatives of the Canadian Parliament and various contractors, particularly in the cabling of the system. The original tender was rejected and the work was carried out at a fraction of the first estimate.

I became interested in this subject three years ago when home computers were first coming on to the market. I believed that they could be used for Members' purposes. Since then, I have been experimenting with my work stations at home and in Parliament based on the BBC micro.

The Leader of the House has rightly said that we should be as careful with public money as we are with our own. I assure him that I and a number of other hon. Members spend a fair proportion of our own money on these activities. We do not complain about that, but we certainly have not been squandering our own or taxpayers' money.

For the benefit of any hon. Members who may not have a great experience of using computers, I shall briefly refer to the purposes for which I am using my system. Its word-processing application is of overwhelming importance. It is a delightfully speedy process. I find myself writing more letters because it is easier to explain a difficult point as the words are printed on the screen almost as my mind conceives them. Consequently, I am using this facility more and more, rather than depending on my secretary. The computer is useful to write letters to my constituents, and to compose speeches and press handouts.

My computer system has useful fringe benefits. I have developed a program that enables me to call up a large number of addresses, not just alphabetically, as in the ordinary address book, but in categories of interest or location. This is the well-known data retrieval facility. I have adapted a similar program that enables me to find —provided I have put the information on the computer — all the press cuttings and articles that I have considered would be useful in the future. Often hon. Members file these articles somewhere and can never find them again. This simple process enables me to feed into the computer the source of an article and what it is about. Long after I have forgotten the article I can find a reference to it on the computer and use it in preparing a paper on that subject.

The computer's summary of my current case work is useful, not least when a Department replies some months after my original letter was sent. Sometimes a Department inconsiderately does not mention the name of the constituent concerned but simply states, for example, "Replying to your letter of 3 March". The Department assumes that it does not have to tell me on whose behalf I wrote or what the letter was about. In such cases, the names are readily available on my computer.

I have another index that tells me whether I have already signed an early-day motion. This is most useful when hon. Members ask me to put my name to their motion. I do not have to trouble the Table Office unnecessarily.

Access to Prestel, Ceefax, Oracle and mail boxes will be most useful to hon. Members. I hope that, eventually, hon. Members will have access to the updated POLIS when it becomes more user-friendly.

The computer diary provides a back-up to my own personal diary. One's personal diary, which may remain unopened on one's desk or closed in one's pocket, is therefore useless. My computer diary bleeps to give me sufficient time to get across to the House to fulfil an engagement. It provides me with a printout of appointments, including a selection of these appointments —for example, it is useful if I want to know how many speaking engagements I have. If I cannot remember when I have arranged to see the director of education, I simply type in "education director" and the date comes up on to the screen.

These are well-known uses, which I have enumerated only because they may not be known to all hon. Members. Of course, they may be known to those hon. Members who are here. I believe that this facility is admirably fitted to meeting the needs of the House and is not confined simply to business uses. I warmly support the report's recommendations. I am disappointed at the initial response of the Leader of the House, and I hope that a different response will be forthcoming.

10.55 am
Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford)

I am grateful to be called so early in the debate and am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Redcar (Mr. Tinn). He has resolved a mystery that has been puzzling me for some time, but I did not like to ask him about it. I am accustomed to hearing a "Beep, beep, beep" in the middle of meetings. I now know that it is the hon. Gentleman's diary telling him that he should be somewhere else. I am doubly appreciative of the fact that the hon. Gentleman, who is one of the valued members of the Library Sub-Committee of which I have the honour to be Chairman, continues to stay for the rest of the proceedings. His commitment to the running of the House is shown by his participation in the Computer, Catering and Library Sub-Committees.

As Chairman of the Library Sub-Committee, I want to bat on behalf of the Library. The Library is often taken for granted. It is sometimes seen as a fine suite of rooms along the riverside frontage of the House and a corridor containing many books. That is as far as people's perception goes. The Library has greater functions and facilities than normally manifest themselves to hon. Members and the public.

We are debating these issues on an Adjournment motion. This is an opportunity to air opinions. I believe that there is a need for urgent consideration and commitment to the future, especially in relation to accommodation facilities. We are under distinct pressure, and I hope that my remarks on the Library will demonstrate that.

The report recommended that certain steps should be put in train immediately after the Easter recess. Unfortunately, this is our first opportunity to consider the report. The pressure does not lessen with time; it increases. Would it not have been better for the report to be dealt with on a motion that enabled positive action to flow from it, if the House agreed, rather than have what is, in effect, a talking shop motion?

The wide issues which have already been brought to the surface in this debate need careful consideration. I understand that the information technology report does not necessarily lend itself to a motion that invites instant action. Nevertheless, hon. Members have stressed the need to grapple with the issues.

I am concerned that the Library should not be taken for granted. It has a finite level of resources which are voted by the House. It exists to serve the House to the best of its abilities. It is my pleasure to be able to compliment members of the Library staff on their phenomenal achievement. An interesting analysis of this achievement shows that in every Parliament the level of inquiry rises above the level of inquiry experienced in the previous Parliament and increases steadily through the ensuing Parliament, so that, in the past six Parliaments, there has been a steady increase in the use made by hon. Members of the research facilities of the Library.

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. The distribution of the use of the Library by different Members is as skilled in this Parliament as it was 20 years ago, but the more exotic services are still used by a small minority of Members. However, they must still be provided. Is that not a lesson for the information technology services?

Mr. Shepherd

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. He is right. I observed that the demand on the Library facilities achieves a new plateau after every election that is above the previous plateau, and then demand increases during the course of that Parliament. Sometimes, it tails off marginally at the end of a Parliament, but the following Parliament asserts a yet new level.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I readily agree with the hon. Gentleman's compliments to the Library staff. It is one of the finest libraries in which I have worked. Is the hon. Gentleman satisfied that the staffing resources in the Library are able to cope with the increased demands, or do they require more staffing?

Mr. Shepherd

The answer to that will become more apparent as time goes on. I do not want to give a categoric answer on this point because we have problems on where we go from here and how we cope in the time until 1990. The Library understands the problem, and when phase 1 of the new Bridge street parliamentary site came up it became apparent that we should try to secure part of that site for future development of the Library services. I was very glad that the House saw fit to accept that recommendation, and we are now well in hand with the creation of a bigger and better Library facility involving the capability for bigger and better research output in the future. However, that will not happen until 1990, so my concern is what happens between now and 1990, and how we overcome the problem of the steady increase of work required by Members and asked of the House of Commons Library.

Part of the growth—I cannot quantify how much—has come about because of the increase in the number of research assistants. Whether research assistants raise the points that they ask hon. Members to place on the Library, or whether they place inquiries themselves on the Library is not clear. However, we know that 80 per cent. of requests are placed direct on the Library by hon. Members and 20 per cent. by research assistants. We have to recall that before 1977 the branch Library did not exist. Now, the branch Library in Norman Shaw North is so heavily under pressure as a consequence of the growth of the number of research assistants and facilities that it is essential that we take action to contain this problem, pending at least 1990. It may be that, come 1990, we shall have a bigger problem which requires yet further thought. This is some of the thinking behind the recognition of the problem.

When we took evidence on the loading in 1984, we found that there were 252 research assistants with temporary passes category 9D. In 1985, in an update, we have found that there are 295, which is an increase of 43, so the problem is now more difficult to cope with than it was when we first took evidence. The branch Library reports to me that things became worse up to Easter of this year, with the January to April term particularly difficult, with severe overcrowding in the branch Library.

At that time, six organisations were sending American research assistants. The problem has eased since Easter. Only one organisation has research assistants here under informally agreed procedures. I understand that there are 15 or 20 freelances as well. There have been no contacts with the other groups. About 35 overseas research assistants are using the Library — let us call them temporary research assistants—who are, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), personal apprentices.

The branch Library feels that it can cope with the present circumstances, and the report came to that view as well. However, when more than 100 overseas research students had access to the branch Library facilities, the branch Library could not cope. Whether research assistants in that category come from the United States, the United Kingdom, Iran, India or anywhere else, the loading on the staff in the branch Library is high because of the high educational input that has to be made for most of the time that the research assistants are with us.

Once again, it is a tribute to the patience and quality of the branch Library itself that its members are able to cope without going completely out of their minds. We owe it to them to recognise this problem and to make their lives as reasonable and easy as possible.

I am not agin research assistants per se. However, I should like it to be recognised sometimes that they are not necessarily all research assistants but are more personal assistants. We might make life a little easier for ourselves if we were to refer to them as personal assistants, because often the personal assistants are those who direct the Members' inquiries towards the source of resolution rather than initiating inquiries themselves.

The Library is a finite entity and there is nowhere for it to go. Therefore, we have to make it possible for the Library to survive until 1990 without the level of service falling or hon. Members' reasonable expectations being disappointed. That is why I want an urgent and early implementation of the recommendations in our report on Members' accommodation, called "Members' Staff: Pressure on Accommodation and Facilities".

In the meantime, we must direct ourselves to the restriction. The report has various ideas about restriction. It is worth while bearing in mind the fact that this concept is not new. Although in theory the 650 Members could have 650 secretaries and 650 research or personal assistants, we do not all have one of each, although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woking remarked, some have more than one of each. Therefore, we already have a certain self-denying ordinance.

A long time ago, before we had additional facilities in the branch Library, the Library recognised that research assistants would require access to the main Library. We restricted the numbers of research assistants to 200, and that restriction was accepted by the House. A rule was added that there should be no more than 15 research assistants in the main Library at any one time. Since that restriction was introduced, not more than 15 have been required to be in the main Library. There has been voluntary restraint, and in some respects the pressure has not been as high as it might appear to be.

It is also interesting to note that many of those people on the 200 club list are no longer research assistants. There are a number of secretaries on the research assistants' list with access to the Library. That is possibly a manifestation of a changing scene. The emphasis is moving away from the main Library to research at arm's length through the Library's research facility, which has grown so remarkably over the past few years.

There are 10 fewer permanent research assistants than there were a year ago. Someone who is described as a research assistant on the 200 club list may be a secretary who has the added convenience of being able to pop into the Library and look up "Who's Who" rather than have to go somewhere else.

I have put down my markers as to the implications, of any changes that may be brought about. We can get ourselves into 1990 provided that there are no major changes. However, I have noticed, as I have no doubt my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will have noticed, that there is an early-day motion on the Order Paper with about 200 signatures which asks for increases in personal research facilities. If we accept that—I do not advocate that we should or should not—we may blow the Library and its ability to cope with the load that we put on it. We must recognise that point and be prepared to deal with it.

As there is no way in which the Library can expand physically over the next five years until 1990, the House would be well advised to consider that point before leaping in in a way that could lead to a major growth in the work being placed on the Library.

Mr. Sheerman

I have carefully followed what the hon. Gentleman has said. He has advanced a logical and sound argument. Why are the Library resource parameters unbreakable? There is a good building to let opposite the Abbey, near the accommodation that we already rent. Why is there such tremendous pressure on resources? Why do we not rent that building and put in some extra staff so that Members can obtain the facilities that they want now instead of having to wait until 1990? Temporary measures can be taken speedily.

Mr. Shepherd

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I work within the constraints placed on the Library at the moment and I report on those constraints. If the House feels that that is what we should do, it will no doubt take the necessary steps. The House cannot expect a much greater expansion of Library services within the present structural framework. The Library is already a Gulag Archipelago of little bits deposited over five sites with tenuous lines of communication that cause a great deal of manpower wastage just getting information from point A to point B.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young), who has responsibility for the Property Services Agency is not here. I had hoped that he would be, so that he could accept my thanks on behalf of the Library for making available the resources necessary to implement paragraph 26 of the report in advance of the recommendation being adopted, so that improvements can be made this autumn to the fifth and sixth floors of Norman Shaw North. That is good, and no doubt when he reads the debate he will take on board the appreciation of the Library staff, the Chairman and Committee who find that a substantial boost to morale.

I wish to deal briefly with the information technology report and its implications for the Library. This has been mentioned, but there should be no expectation that increased availability to Members of information technology will reduce the Library's work load. It will not. I am confident that it will increase it. The Library experts advise me of that, and I have every reason to believe them to be correct.

That new dimension constitutes a considerable extra facility for Members. They will therefore expect a new dimension in services from the Library. The flexibility given by electronic mail will improve matters. One will be able to put a request into the system out of hours and possibly receive a response out of hours. That will mean that we are not so dependent upon the availability of research staff over the desk.

I sound, however, a note of caution about the cost of Parliament. My right hon. Friend mentioned this. We are letting Members loose with a not inconsiderable spending power in terms of their access to various databases. We have two types. We have the POLIS system which is good, and I can see that being accessed for the most part by the Library's research staff, although as time goes on more Members will get the hang of accessing it, so the demand on the system will increase. That has a not unreasonable cost implication. Prestel, Ceefax, Oracle and all the other proliferating databases are paid for by the minute. It will be easy to get the habit of dabbing into those databases regardless of the cost. We must bear that in mind. It amounts to an open cheque book.

If we decide to go ahead with the system recommended, can its designers bear in mind the fact that we shall have to arrange for Members and staff to become acquainted with it so that they can understand how to obtain the best value from it? We do not want to spend money regardless and get it wrong. We all work differently. We range around the buildings. We are peripatetic. We do not want to be pinned down to a work station. I agree with the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) who spoke on the radio this morning. I do not want to be pinned down to a desk. I want to be able to be in and out and around. We must remember the need for simplicity, reliability and flexibility.

The Library is the biggest and oldest user of information technology within the Palace. It has an immense well of expertise which must not be overlooked. The strengthening of the links between the Sub-Committees is welcome, as is the strong professional connection. I urge that that close cohesion and cooperation is engendered at all stages as we move into these curious uncharted waters which face us. The benefits to the House will be enormous if we get them right. There will be confusion if we get them wrong.

11.18 am
Mr. John Silkin (Lewisham, Deptford)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd). I do not believe that there is any Member of the House who will not echo the justified praise he has given to the Library and the staff. We are all greatly indebted to them, and it is right that that should have been said today. I am also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the part that he played in the joint deliberations, because he is one of the begetters of the report. The Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee and the Library Sub-Committee joined to consider the matter because plainly the pressure placed on the Library facilities by research assistants and others is of great importance. I express the gratitude of the other half of that Committee for the work that was done by the Library members.

I find it odd that the deliberations of the Computer Sub-Commmittee should have been put together with those of the joint Accommodation and Administration and Library Sub-Committees. However, that is the way in which the Leader of the House works. He is a man gifted with the ability to see 101 different things all at the same time. If that is the way that he enjoys a debate, who am I to interrupt his fun?

I find myself obliged to spend a short time talking about the Computer Sub-Commmittee's report only in so far as it affects the Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee. I promise the House that I shall go no further than that.

The House will appreciate that the annunciators are nearing the end of their life in their present form. The report accepts that we will not be able to continue with the present system for very much longer. This presents us with the choice of using a system which employs the existing cabling or examining another system, considering the possibilities of a different sort of cabling and assessing the advantages that that might give to Members in future. It would be futile to reject the pilot study that the report suggests. To use the term "criminal" to describe such a rejection would perhaps be going too far, but it would be rather a stupid thing to do. There must be a thorough examination and I emhasise that that is essential.

The hon. Member for Hereford said a great deal for me and for the Committee when he talked about research assistants. He observed that one of the recommendations was that the report should be put into effect immediately following the Easter recess. It seems curious logic to say that we must deal with the matter of research assistants immediately, so let us adjourn the whole issue without voting on it. Surely we must hear what the House has to say. I suggest that the issue will be taken up not at Easter, not when the House goes into the summer recess and not at Christmas but at some time in the Greek kalends, when the Leader of the House or his successor will suddenly say, "Perhaps we should do something about research assistants". At that moment perhaps the bright idea will occur to the right hon. Gentleman or his successor to set up a joint committee to examine the issue and report on it. In the meantime nothing will be done.

The joint Sub-Committee had a problem which has been solved in the past. It faced the difficulty of bringing together three distinct issues. It was a more difficult task than bringing together one or two opposing points of view in the same area. When there is a point of view and an opposing point of view on much the same issue, the old British habit of compromise can be introduced and a resolution can be achieved in that way. Instead, the joint Sub-Committee had to consider three distinct factors. The first factor was the freedom of hon. Members to choose what employees they wish to have to assist them with their work in the House. This freedom of choice, which has been recognised for centuries, is vital. The second factor was the need of hon. Members to do their work in such a way as not to conflict with the work of other hon. Members. If certain services are overloaded and the result is that some hon. Members are not able to do their job, it is clearly necessary to find a satisfactory balance. The third factor was the need of hon. Members to be informed. I understand why the Leader of the House does not wish hon. Members to be quite as well informed as he is. However, it would be difficult for them to be so even with 100 research assistants.

Do we want to return to the days when there were no Select Committees? Do we want to return to the days before the introduction of information technology? Do we want to return to the days when Ministers used to write out by hand all their own statements, as they did in the 18th century? I remember reading that one of the troubles with the French Revolution that caused everyone to execute everyone else was that those in authority had to do all the work themselves. They had no secretaries to assist them and consequently they were worn out. That does not seem to be a useful way of conducting our labours.

When I was the Chief Whip of the Labour Government I took the view that it was not useful to go through the night discussing legislation. I am glad that the House has somewhat changed its view on all night or very late sittings. Things are still quite bad but they are not as bad as they used to be. The Leader of the House must accept that there are changes and that change will continue.

I am surprised that the Leader of the House did not seek a decision on the modest proposals that are contained in the report. As I have said, the Committee had three different factors to consider before coming to a decision. It had to make the judgment of Solomon, in effect. The Leader of the House, who has a sense of history, knows that the judgment of Solomon was never carried out. I wish that he had not taken that precedent so much to heart.

Dr. Godman

My right hon. Friend has said that there is a need for Members to be informed. Will he acknowledge that it is essential that we are informed? We must all be well briefed. But how useful is a temporary research assistant in this endeavour? In paragraph 16 of the report we find that a witness talked about temporary research assistants disappearing just when they are beginning to get used to our work. At that stage a completely new lot of assistants arrive with little knowledge of Parliament and its work. How useful is a temporary temporary research assistant?

Mr. Silkin

The answer lies with Members themselves and not so much with research assistants, provided that they are of reasonable quality. My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) made a fair and reasonable case but I must quarrel with him gently on one issue. Research assistants do not beg to be allowed to come to this place and there are fewer research assistants than Members. We must recognise that Members want their assistance. If Members did not want temporary temporary research assistants, they would not be available and they would not come. I know that the Leader of the House is a great believer in the free market economy and the laws of supply and demand. I am worried that he has not taken that point firmly to his heart. I think that he is beginning to slip; he is becoming slightly Fabian.

Mr. Williams

My right hon. Friend will recollect that I made two optional interpretations. I said that it was likely that the existence of research assistants—they have been called angels—was disguising a need that the House should face. In that way I was agreeing with my right hon. Friend's argument. I think that the need should be met properly.

Mr. Silkin

I did not think that it was for me or for the joint Sub-Committee to go into the broader question of whether we have all the research assistance that we need in a modern age. I know that that question exercises the minds of a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House. Any visit to Congress or to some European Parliaments convinces one that we are 100 years behind the times. However, it would not be appropriate to take up that matter now.

Mr. Sheerman

My right hon. Friend is aware that Members need the help of research assistants. There are some who want to make American research assistants scapegoats for the resources that we have in this place, but Members with common sense do not take on anyone who will be a nuisance. They take on assistants because they desperately need help, whether that is at the level of photocopying, "gofering" or for a myriad of different jobs that the modern legislator has to undertake. These assistants provide a valuable service and they are not pests.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

And they are free.

Mr. Silkin

The fact that they are free makes them to most hon. Members rather more desirable. If the House wishes—it will at some time, of that I am convinced—to provide the funds in such a way that will not penalise hon. Members, I am sure that hon. Members will take on assistants of a more permanent nature. However, I am not altogether convinced that that would be desirable.

I like the idea of people, so long as they are competent, coming from the former colonies and elsewhere and learning a little about democracy. It is good for them and it is good for the United Kingdom. Provided that they are properly treated, they are our friends for the rest of their lives.

We point out in our report that they come not only from the United States. They come from Iran—I should have thought that Iran had a lot to learn from Britain — Korea, India, Germany and many other countries. The fact that they come from those various places is valuable from our point of view.

Mr. Onslow

So that the passionate intervention of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) does not discolour the true picture, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that much evidence was given to his Committee by people who were able to evaluate, from a detached point of view, the work of assistants? Will he confirm that that evidence showed that many temporary apprentices were seriously under-employed and were in some cases used mainly to collect and open mail and take messages? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it does not contribute greatly to understanding between nations if somebody who comes here to undertake such work is treated as a dogsbody?

Mr. Silkin

That is so, but that is a criticism of the hon. Member concerned rather than of the assistant, and it is not my purpose or that of the Committee to spend time criticising our colleagues. We could of course do that, but the House would then have to set up a sub-committee for that purpose.

Given that we have limited facilities — the hon. Member for Hereford faced up to this in the Committee and in the House today—what are we to do? We must have some form of rationing. That was an issue that we had to consider. We must give hon. Members the freedom of which I spoke and the right to be fully informed, if they wish to be informed, but we must not overload the various facilities in such a way as to cause a nuisance to other hon. Members.

In particular cases a nuisance can occur. The hon. Member for Hereford put the Library first, and so do I, because that is the core of the learning and of any ability that we have to serve our country. There are other facilities, such as catering. The hon. Member for Hereford, being a member of the Catering Sub-Committee, has experience of that. It is not good—I put it no higher than that—if we and others who are more permanently employed are not able to have proper refreshment facilities because of the presence of people who are here for only a short time.

Another factor which comes up more and more these days— in the Accommodation and Administration and Library Sub-Committees it comes up almost every week —is the overloading and over-use, and sometimes the perhaps improper use, of photocopying machines. There must be a limitation of use. That is what we have tried to deal with, though we accept that it must be a sensible limitation, and that is why we have made our recommendations on that type of subject.

In the course of making those recommendations, we were enormously impressed by one group of producers of overseas assistants, Educational Programmes Abroad, because it had a disciplinary basis; it taught its young people something about the House of Commons before they came here and impressed on them the need to conform with certain standards. I suspect — as I believe the Committee did generally — that where our colleagues have justifiable complaints, too often they arise because of young people not being employed on that sort of collective basis, but being employed willy-nilly by hon. Members for a short period and never really learning what this place, its traditions and importance are about. That is why we were impressed by those who were willing to adopt a disciplinary code.

Mr. Sheerman

Does my right hon. Friend agree that several programmes exist by which students are supplied to the House and that rigorous procedures are carried out under those programmes, including visiting constituencies and party conferences and having intensive meetings, before students are let loose in this place?

Mr. Silkin

To be fair, I agree that it happens in a limited number of cases, and we made that point. We were impressed by those cases where that happened. That is why we made our recommendations on the subject and recommended, for example, that there should be a limit on the number of temporary research assistant passes.

I agree with the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) that the phrase is a misnomer in that they are not necessarily research assistants. "Personal assistants" might be a better description. I am not sure about the use of the word "apprentice"; hon. Members, rather than those whom they employ, are sometimes more likely to be apprentices.

Mr. Simon Hughes

While accepting that research assistants should be here for a longer time, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that any hon. Member should be permitted to have more than one at any one time? I am also worried by the use of the word "employed" because some of us need responsible and capable people who are willing to give perhaps two days a week for a year or two without payment, and it may be necessary for us to employ somebody else for another two days a week without payment. They are not, in the strict use of the word, employed.

Mr. Silkin

We were essentially talking about passes being issued to people from overseas. There is no such restriction on passes being given to people from these islands.

Mr. Onslow

I am interested to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that no consideration was given to restricting passes for assistants unless they happened to be of overseas origin. Was that a conscious and deliberate decision by the Committee in approaching this subject? Did the right hon. Gentleman or his colleagues consider my proposition—I thought that it would be the fairest, if the roughest and readiest solution—that there should be a limit of one secretary and research assistant with passes, or at any rate two personal staff, per hon. Member, however many others hon. Members might employ outside?

Mr. Silkin

We considered among ourselves whether it was possible to make such a numerical decision, but came to the conclusion that it was not. Practicalities affect the question of home-produced personal assistants because, as was pointed out earlier, British universities do not at present regard work experience as part of courses. Therefore, the question does not arise to the extent that it does with American universities which, very sensibly, include this kind of activity in their work programmes. Working in this place cannot be substituted for a summer term at Oxbridge or anywhere else, even if the student is reading politics or philosophy. In that regard, we are way behind the United States. The practicalities therefore led us in the direction that we took.

I believe that the recommendations are fairly clear. It is a pity that the House was not given the opportuniy to get on with the job and simply to pass them. It can always say that the recommendations do not go far enough and that we wish to return to the matter again, but the present method tends to prejudice the possibility of getting on with things.

The hon. Member for Woking was the only hon. Member to raise the important question of security. Here we are in some difficulty. I believe that we are all too lax about security. We accept the need for it, especially after the dreadful occurrences in Brighton last year, and we know that the House is vulnerable but we seem not to take the matter personally to heart as much as we should. If Members are to have the freedom, which in my view they should have, to choose whom they employ to help them, the onus of dealing with the security aspect must fall on them. It was a difficult matter and we included it late in the day following the Brighton outrages. I hope that we have got it right, but I believe that in the end the onus must be on Members to see that it is dealt with properly.

We are dealing not with a compromise but with three essential rights that a Member of Parliament should have —the freedom to choose those who help him, the need to be informed and the need not to interfere with or damage the work of his colleagues. I hope that we have got this reasonably right but I have no doubt that the House will return to it time and again over the years. I venture to suggest that we shall never reach a permanent solution because I do not believe that such a solution exists.

11.42 am
Sir Paul Bryan (Boothferry)

The hon. Member for Redcar (Mr. Tinn) was disappointed with the attitude of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I was well pleased with it, as it seemed entirely reasonable. At a time of so much administrative change it is as well to have a sensible pilot at the helm. I was, however, disappointed with the speech of the hon. Member for Redcar, as he appeared not dissatisfied enough with the status quo.

The hon. Gentleman made sound comments about the future; but I wish to consider how things can be made more tolerable in the five years during which we shall have to live with the present conditions, which are very difficult to improve, until the new building is available in 1990. I was pleased that my hon. Friends the Members for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) and for Woking (Mr. Onslow) addressed themselves to the problem of what can be done now to make things better.

The lot of a Member of Parliament has improved a great deal since I arrived in this place 30 years ago. We are much better paid. We have allowances for secretaries, for research assistants, for living in London, and so on. Even our wives have travel vouchers. All those things were unheard of 30 years ago, as was the help that we now obtain from information technology. Life is also harder. There is greater pressure from constituency work and correspondence, and parliamentary hours are longer. Our constituents are better informed and the demands of the House are much greater. All those things are inevitable and it is no use deploring them. I wish to deal with the tribulations that we have brought on ourselves and about which we may be able to do something.

The use of one or several research assistants per Member of Parliament is a new phenomenon and a perfectly natural development to meet the increased pressure. Some Members, because of the nature of their work, can fully employ one or several research assistants. Others, however, get such an assistant and then find that they cannot fully employ him or her, so the poor research assistant is set to work brewing up large numbers of questions to some miserable Minister in an attempt to fill up the time. Some Members may ask as many as 200 or 300 questions. As surely as night follows day, if one asks hundreds of questions one's correspondence and surgery work will double. The research assistant will then be overworked. The Member then engages another.

Does all this make one a better Member of Parliament? In my view, asking 500 questions does not make one a better Member of Parliament and may actually do a great deal of harm to this place in the process. Whether that is the right or the wrong way to behave, however, the result has been that there are now many more assistants. The research assistants did not come here uninvited. We have caused the problem. If the cafeterias are full to overflowing and the Library or the branch Library becomes a bedlam, that is our doing, for better or worse and whether we wished well or ill; it is up to us to do something about it.

As no additional accommodation will be available for several years, I believe that all of of us — the Government, the Services Committee and Members—must agree to lay down some rules now to stop the rot that we ourselves have started. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Woking that until we have a great deal more room Members should in general be limited to one secretary and one research assistant each. I say "in general" because clearly exceptions will be necessary for shadow Ministers and so on.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Woking also pointed out, those Members who rightly and worthily use all the information technology available often do not appreciate that a large number of Members get on perfectly well without all that and are not bad Members of Parliament as a result. For instance, 241 Members have no research assistant. They do not pay their secretaries £12,000 per year, so they could afford research assistants if they wanted them. The amount of research assistance available outside the House is often underestimated. I have been interested in Honk Kong for many years, but I do not have research assistants gathering information for me about Hong Kong. The high commission provides an endless supply of press cuttings, and many other organisations provide any information that I need. In the modern world, a large number of organisations, trade associations and trade unions are becoming very good at this kind of work and a great deal of information can be obtained in that way.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that hon. Members should be made entirely dependent on vested interests? The sources of information which the hon. Gentleman suggests we use often have a financial interest.

Sir Paul Bryan

The hon. Gentleman must not go through life terrified of these people. We get information from whom we want and judge it according to who supplies it. Hon. Members are supposed to have sufficient judgment to sort out what information is good and what is bad. I am unalarmed by that consideration.

There is quite a considerable discrepancy between the numbers of permanent or temporary secretaries, and permanent or temporary research assistants as stated in parliamentary answers and by the Serjeant at Arms. That discrepancy reflects the ebb and flow of students, but there is no doubt that the trend is constantly and rapidly upwards. According to figures supplied to me by the Serjeant at Arms, there were some hon. Members with nine, 10 or even 14 research assistants on 1 May. Hon. Members are entirely welcome to such numbers of research assistants as long as they are watered, fed, accommodated and car-parked somewhere else than in the Palace of Westminster.

Students are welcome if we can give them the sort of education and treatment that they deserve, but it is quite apparent that we cannot. My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford gave many sensible reasons for that. I should have thought that, for the time being, the flood of students should be stopped. If we had the accommodation and the facilities, it would be very nice to be able to help them with their education by a few months attachment to this historic place. However, we are unable to supply such a favour in present conditions. At the moment, the arrangement is inconvenient to us and positively unfair on House of Commons staff in the Libraries and restaurants. Moreover, I should have thought that the students must leave with a less than favourable impression of the mother of Parliaments.

As for parliamentary questions, I can express an interest or lack of it, in that I have never been a prolific questioner. I have asked very few during the past year. What are the further thoughts of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House on the uncontrolled growth in the number of questions? The latest figures show that it costs £67 to answer an oral question and £41 to answer a written question. For that reason alone, there must be a limit to the number of questions that can be asked.

We are equipped with an admirable reference library and it is hard to see any justification for 800 questions a year. Three hon. Members asked 800 questions in the last Session. That meant that each hon. Member's questions cost at least £33,000 to answer. I cannot believe that that is right or that our constituents would think it reasonable. I am sure that if the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) were here he would jump to his feet to explain the virtue of his various questions. Oh, here he comes. I am not suggesting that the questions are good or bad, but there is no disguising the fact that some of the questions now being asked are largely a publicity stunt or, more worthily, a method of holding on to a marginal seat.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels


Sir Paul Bryan

There is no reason why the Government or taxpayers should pay for that.

Mr. Simon Hughes

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the Government made the disclosure of information an automatic part of their processes half of the effort that hon. Members have to go to to extract information, often getting no answer the first time, half an answer the second time and an unsatisfactory answer the third time, but eventually the facts, would not be required?

Sir Paul Bryan

I can only tell the hon. Gentleman that Back Benchers in all Parliaments of which I have been a Member have never been satisfied with the answers they get from Ministers. Even if unbelievably Ministers gave entirely satisfactory answers, nobody can persuade me that that would reduce the number of questions that are asked.

Mr. Dalyell

I make this point quite quietly. Yes, I tabled a great many questions on a particular subject because it was clear that the Government were not being candid. The cost of those questions, in so far as it was a cost, was not the difficulty of getting information, as the information was readily available in the Ministry of Defence, but the fact that Ministers did not want to reveal the truth and therefore had to synchronise one answer with another. The quick response to the hon. Gentlemfan is to suggest that he reads Ponting's book, especially page 129. If the hon. Gentleman had sat through the 11 days of the Ponting trial in court No. 2 at the Old Bailey, he would have seen the extent of the dissemblement. That is the justification for asking so many questions.

Sir Paul Bryan

So that I can get on with my speech, let us all agree that the hon. Member for Linlithgow is a bargain for the nation at £33,000.

Mr. Dalyell


Sir Paul Bryan

Can my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House explain what are the alleged arrangements for the control, if that is the word, of visitors to the Palace of Westminster? The scene on the Terrace of the House of Commons is often not attractive, especially in summer. It gets overcrowded and some visitors seem to stay there drinking for hours at a time with no host Member of Parliament in sight. I am aware of a regulation which provides that no guest should be left for more than 15 minutes, but who enforces such a rule? Is it not time that a specially selected and tactful policeman was asked to inquire from time to time what right people have to be in various places? I do not mean just the Terrace, as we often see characters who seem quite at home in parts of the House which we all think are supposed to be preserved for hon. Members.

To follow what the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) said, should we not consider the machinery of our parliamentary housekeeping? Does it operate with sufficient urgency? The Select Committee whose report we are discussing was appointed on 28 March 1984. It first met on 6 June 1984 and it reported on 31 January 1985. Yet here we are discussing the report 15 months after the Committee was set up, but only on a motion for the Adjournment. Therefore, we have no prospect of doing anything before Christmas at the earliest. If we continue at that pace to pursue the reform of the administration of the House of Commons, matters will get much worse before they get better.

11.59 am
Mr. Stephen Ross (Isle of Wight)

Some of the speeches so far from Conservative Members remind me of the last time we debated our salary increases. The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Chope), for instance, who had just been elected, said that we should set an example to the nation and not increase our salaries above a certain amount. Then I discovered that he is a barrister. The impression that some people do not live in the real world has been given again today. Many have numerous directorships.

I have never before taken part in such a debate, and I do not suppose I will do so again, but I shall embark on a litte personal pleading. I remind the hon. Member for Boothferry (Sir P. Bryan) that since Mr. Arthur Lewis, the former Member for Newham, North-West, left the House, the cost of answering quesions has probably decreased substantially.

Last summer, after the debate on our car allowances, I was so disgusted by the fact that Parliament increased allowances to people with large cars that I wrote to the Leader of the House. I said that, although it was probably good for my soul to accept a cut, because I drive a Mini Metro, it did not enthuse my bank manager.

The problem for many Opposition Members and for a growing number of Conservative Members is that we cannot afford to employ research assistants. I disagree with one part of the Select Committee's report. Paragraph 6, at the top of page vi, states: We challenge neither the figure itself'— the secretarial and research allowance— nor the view … that it would be wrong to interfere with the individual Member's right to engage staff. I do not disagree with the latter part of that sentence, but I believe that we should challenge the secretarial and research allowance, which at the time was £12,400, but which has recently been increased to just over £13,000. The allowance is inadequate and bears no relation to the population of one's constituency.

Mr. Silkin

For the record, we did not challenge it because it was not within our terms of reference.

Mr. Ross

I readily accept that. I thought that I might be ruled out of order if I mentioned the subject without saying that it was covered in the report.

I challenge the allowance because it is inadequate, especially when one has a large constituency. My constituency has the largest electoral register, with about 100,000 people. That creates a large work load, especially when 26 per cent. of the electorate are retired, people who tend to write long letters. There are also three prisons in my constituency whose inmates seem to have adopted me as their constituency Member.

I must employ two secretaries—one in the House and one in my constituency—which makes it impossible for me to consider engaging a full-time research assistant. I am already in debt because I employ two secretaries. It is time that that point was made in the House. If one wishes to play a proper role in the House, as I try to do each day, by sitting on Select Committees and Standing Committees, one suffers from the lack of a research assistant. I could do a much better job if I had a full-time assistant.

Another problem is that one is often asked questions by one's constituents, most recently especially on immigration matters and the lists of restricted drugs. In most cases, one does not know the right answer—one would be a fool to pretend otherwise—so one passes the letters to Ministers, whose civil servants must provide the answers. Since the immigration rules change frequently, to be sure of getting the right answer one must always pass the query to the Minister concerned. We are taking up an enormous amount of the time of civil servants, and if we had effective research assistants we could do more for ourselves.

I took on board the request made by Ministers a couple of years ago for hon. Members to deal more with the local representatives of the Department of Employment or the DHSS. I have always had the facility of telephoning them. I even telephone prison governors so that I can avoid writing letters to the Home Office. But that all takes time, and it would save money if the allowance were increased to enable us to employ full-time research assistants.

At present, I am using a temporary, part-time researcher on one project, and I would regard any restriction on my ability to do that as completely unacceptable. Most of the American students of my acquaintance have been surprisingly good at their job and quickly find their way around the House. I hope that they will continue to come, but I agree with the report that there probably is a need to restrict their numbers, at least until we have improved premises, which we should have had long ago.

I cannot understand why we are not able to make use of some of the empty rooms in the vicinity of the Palace of Westminster. There are some in Bridge street and, as the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) who is not in the House at present, pointed out, there are also some over by the Abbey.

Why do we always come last in the list of priorities? I have just seen the office blocks which have been renovated at huge cost for Ministry use. One only has to go down John Islip street to see that. It does not make much sense. I trust there will be no further delays in the building programme, and the words of the Leader of the House suggested that that was his wish too.

Page 12 of the report states that, because the number of permanent research assistants is limited to 200, those Members unable to get a permanent pass apply for a temporary one. It seems unfair to limit the number of temporary research assistants, but the problem is really pressure on facilities, as has been illustrated in this debate. That can be relieved by limited access to them, and we will have to see to that. Evidence was also given on that point to the Committee by the Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff. On page 19 there are recommendations for devising a method of such limitation, by restricting the hours or the days on which temporary research assistants can carry out research. I accept that restriction. That raises the question of the need for research to be carried oat urgently, perhaps when a statement is about to be made and someone wants a quick answer to a query. A special pass could be used in the Library for that purpose.

Vandalism and the need to restrict the Library to academic use were two other subjects discussed. Of course blatant vandalism must be dealt with severely. One way to curb unauthorised use of the Library is to have the Member state the nature of the research he wishes his assistant to accomplish; that could be put on the pass provided. It is a bit bureaucratic, but we have to adopt procedures of that kind if we are to relieve the Library of some of the pressures. I accept everything said in the debate so far about the Library. It is the most magnificent facility we have, and I always tell visitors about it. There is no doubt that socialising is going on in the Library. There is evidence of that, and the Librarian should be authorised to order out anyone who is not on Library business or who is causing obstruction.

We know about strains on the canteen and it is fair to point out that the House is not obliged to provide eating facilities for temporary research assistants. Unfortunately, we have not provided adequate facilities in the precincts of Westminster. There is a facility on the other side of the road, but it is rather expensive. People visiting the House, particularly children coming in with lunch packs, have nowhere to sit. Far too many people are going round the House and that ought to be discussed some time. It is impossible to take visitors around without being in a crush all the time, and we ought to think about restricting numbers. I know there is some temporary restriction now.

When visitors have finished their tour, where do they go? If they are with children, where can they sit down and have a meal? We have not thought that through; nor have we thought through the traffic congestion and all the coaches parked outside. There can be 40 or 50 at any one time in Millbank and Whitehall alone. Members should take on more responsibility for the work of their researchers and the use they make of facilities in the House. Perhaps we should consider assigning temporary research assistants either on a morning or afternoon privilege, so that half could use the facilities in the morning and the rest could use them in the afternoon. At other times they would have to work outside the Palace of Westminster. My temporary researcher comes to me out of working hours and starts at about 6.30 in the evening.

Evidence was also given that the problem about research assistants had lessened during the last year. That information was also given to the House by the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd). Perhaps we are being a little unkind in some of our criticisms. The situation has improved slightly. It may be that some of that comes from the publicity given to the report in the United States of America. A very full report appeared in the American newspapers, and that has probably been taken on board. I hope that the message that got across was not that we were anti-American students. I welcome them from all parts of the world. It is part of the job of the Palace of Westminster, the home of democracy, to be open to such people if we can accommodate them.

I congratulate the Committee on its work. I am grateful to it. I agree with the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) that we should come to some conclusion today and not put it off yet again. I found the report sensible and acceptable, but it would be more meaningful if we had a proper allowance so that hon. Members could employ researchers. That is now controlled by the Fees Office, so it should not be abused. I am one of the 200 signatories of that early-day motion.

I accept that most of my colleagues are getting themselves computerised and that probably I have to do the same. The sooner we introduce the recommended system based on the Canadian experience, the better. But I am no expert in these matters, and I hope that later in the debate one of my hon. Friends will catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

12.12 pm
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

I apologise through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the House for the fact that I have to leave before the end of the debate. I apologise especially to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) and the Leader of the House. I undertake to read the report of the rest of the debate.

At the risk of causing a sharp intake of breath, I have to declare a slight interest in that in my name there are five researchers' passes. One or two of my hon. Friends have asked, "Why five?" I shall briefly explain.

The first of those five is a full researcher's pass which is held by my wife, who is my secretary and my personal assistant. In passing, I may be able to do a service to other hon. Members who employ their wives by putting it on the record that this is not, as is popularly believed outside the House, a way for a Member of Parliament to enhance his salary by using his secretarial allowance in that way. In my experience, most hon. Members who employ their wives do so at less than those ladies earned before starting to work here. When I am asked why, I give the answer that will be agreed by every hon. Member who does the same. It is the only way that I can get someone to work for me 17 hours a day and six days a week for the money. It is also the only way that some of us manage to see our wives.

The second and third of my researchers' passes go respectively to a student from Surrey university who pays a visit here once a week and spends half an hour in discussion with me because he is working on a specific research project. He has the pass to enable him to gain access to the building for that period without an inordinate delay at St. Stephens's Entrance. The other goes to a similar student from London univeristy who is studying economics and working for me on a similar basis.

One young lady from my constituency who helps with constituency work has a pass and uses it on the three occasions a year when she visits the building, again to help with access.

Finally, I have an American student from the educational programme abroad, who obviously also needs a pass.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) was right to say that—apart from my wife— these people are not researchers. They are personal assistants. However, the machinery of the House at present is such that the researcher's pass is the only identity document readily available. The proposal to introduce a temporary secretary's pass will undoubtedly be the solution. I suggest to the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) that perhaps a personal assistant's pass as an identity document might serve not only that useful purpose but also help to allay some of the misconceptions that have grown up around these batteries of people who patently are not researchers, as I have demonstrated in my own case. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford said, there is a fundamental difference between researchers and personal assistants.

I, too, thank those genuine researchers who serve all hon. Members in the Library. They provide for Back Benchers a Rolls-Royce service. At very short notice they provide detailed answers to very tricky questions. I do not believe that the individual research worker of any hon. Member could begin to match the service that is provided by the Library.

As for the service that I have received since I entered the House two years ago from students who work on the educational programme abroad, the American students are much derided, particularly by more senior hon. Members. During the last two years I have engaged six American ladies and one American gentleman. Without exception they have all been personable, enthusiastic and willing to learn. They have helped both me and the only permanent member of my team, my wife. They have done dogsbody work.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) is no longer in the Chamber. He said that they could not learn from doing this kind of work. I do not agree. They run errands and do filing: they fetch and carry between the Norman Shaw building where my secretary's office is located and my office in this building, but we make considerable efforts to ensure that they have an opportunity to learn about constituency work and parliamentary work and we provide them with opportunities to witness debates in this House.

I share entirely the view of the right hon. Member for Deptford that investment in overseas students can only be worth while in the long term. This is the mother of Parliaments and the greatest of all Parliaments. The more people understand that and learn from it, the better. I am grateful to the Services Committee for its recommendations. I have no interest other than that I use the educational programme abroad service. The students are carefully picked. I hope not only that we shall continue to enjoy their good service but that they will continue to benefit from the lessons that this House can teach them.

There is a legendary minute in the diary of a west country political association which said that the normal arrangements would be made for the Member of Parliament's "annual visit" to the constituency. Since that minute was written, nearly 100 years ago, I suspect that parliamentary life has changed a little. It is no longer necessary, in the main, for constituents to come to the House if they wish to see their Member of Parliament. Most hon. Members hold political surgeries and pay regular visits to their constituencies. Very often they live there, too.

The need for information technology in the House of Commons to service the changing role of the parliamentarian is paramount. I shall not dwell on this point in depth, because my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Lloyd) who is the Chairman of the all-party Committee on information technology is to speak in the debate. If we are to be fought by the Executive with word processors, we must be able to reply and to fight fire with fire. I mean no disrespect to this Executive; this is an all-party issue. However, the "people up there", when responding to the inquiries of ordinary Back-Bench Members, increasingly use all the technology that is available to them. Every hon. Member knows that, when faced with a number of inquiries on the same subject, a Department will fire off a standard letter, containing, say, paragraphs 1, 3, 5 and 9 and a personal note at the end. That does not always answer the questions that we are asking.

It has been suggested that research is not necessary for us, and that we do not need information. I have great respect for the hon. Members who have said that, but whenever there is a Minister on the Front Bench there is at least one researcher, called a civil servant—and often four or five — sitting in the Civil Service Box. The Executive has a Rolls-Royce machine looking after it. If we are to serve our constituents in the way in which I wish to serve mine—I am not exceptional; there are 650 of us trying to do the same job—we need the machinery to enable us to do it. That will require information technology and people.

A United States Congressman told me yesterday that he had 14 staff. I do not want 14 people working with me, but I should like to be able to afford to pay two. To forestall questions from Labour Members, I should say that the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Dubs) and I were outside the Chamber whipping in hon. Members when we last discussed finance for research and secretarial assistance. We must have adequate funding for those facilities.

We are in the people business and, with due deference to information technology, we should not forget that fact. Most of our constituents do not want to be answered by machines; they want to be answered by people. If we are to answer people with people and still spend as much time as possible in the Chamber, we must have the necessary back-up.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) is not here. On Radio 4's "Today" programme this morning, he made some remarks that I can describe only as sanctimonious and offensive, and it is a gross discourtesy to the House that he is not present to hear what hon. Members think of his comments. I put those comments on record so that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to read them in Hansard. The right hon. Gentleman said that hon. Members who were unable to work without research assistants were incompetent. I have described how the nature of our role has changed. Another apocryphal story is that hon. Members used to put post aside for three or four weeks in the belief that if there was no second letter the matter was not urgent and the correspondence could be put in the dustbin. Nowadays, most hon. Members like to answer their mail. If we are to do that and still have time to serve on Back-Bench committees, Standing Committees and Select Committees and to do all the other things that hon. Members are required and want to do, we need back-up. It is a question of the service that hon. Members are required and wish to provide to their constituents.

Some hon. Members wish to bring televison into the Chamber and some wish to have radio broadcasting piped through the annunciator system. Those developments will involve information technology, but they would do more than anything else to drive hon. Members from the Chamber. Our staff outside the Chamber allow hon. Members to spend time inside. I believe passionately that those staff must be paid for.

12.23 pm
Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)

The hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) is more representative of at least the younger generation of hon. Members than is the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell). The hon. Gentleman illustrated well the variety of roles of research assistants. I have quite a number of people working with me on various projects. They come to see me in St. Stephen's house without requiring a pass and, by arrangement with the attendants downstairs, they come straight to my office. There is no problem. If officials of the House and the Services Committee would consider discriminating between various types of research assistant, the apparent problems could be ironed out.

The Computer Sub-Committee has done the House a service in producing this report. By making specific recommendations it has concentrated the minds of hon. Members and the House authorities on the types of facilities that might be provided for hon. Members. I think that the hon. Members for Woking (Mr. Onslow), for Havant (Mr. Lloyd), for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) and for Redcar (Mr. Tinn) do not greatly disagree. I think that we all recognise the diversity of the interests and needs of hon. Members. It is a matter of working out how that diversity can best be served.

The Committee specifically recommended a wide-band local area network, with minicomputers at the nodes, and that every Member be provided with a £5,000 terminal. This would enable Members to receive not only the annunciator service and the public television channels in their offices, but any television channels generated within the House from the Chamber or Committee Rooms. The same terminal could double as a word processor and an electronic mail terminal for transmitting and receiving messages, and for tapping into information services such as Prestel and POLIS — Parliamentary On-Line Information Service—which is provided by Scicon on contract from the Library.

We do not necessarily have to accept that concept. It was based on a system installed in the Canadian Parliament, which is a less lavish model than the range of services provided by the United States Congress. After the Canadian service was designed, and while the Sub-Committee was working on its report, the microcomputer revolution swept into many hon. Members' offices. The increase in the secretarial allowance and the authorisation to use it for the purchase of office equipment enabled many hon. Members to buy microcomputers, which their secretaries and research assistants use mainly for word processing. The most widely used machines are the Apricot and the BBC Micro, both of which are capable of doing serious parliamentary and political work.

In 1983, after the pioneering work by my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar, I encouraged Labour Members to use the BBC Micro because that machine had a professional capability which was most widely used by their constituents and constituency parties and could, therefore, act more fluently as a means of communicating with them. Some Labour Members, like my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), use Apricot. Conservative Members were encouraged to use one by discounts organised by the Conservative party. I do not think that users of either machine have regretted their choice.

The hon Member for Woking regretted the fact that evidence was not taken by the Sub-Committee from a wider range of hon Members, and I agree. It is fair to remember, however, that the installation of microcomputers was proceeding while the Committee was at work. My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) was most communicative about the extent to which the Committee's likely recommendations had an effect on the decisions that hon. Members made during the Committee's work. After its report was published, the Committee sent a questionaire to all hon. Members on the use that they were making of microcomputers. No doubt those replies are being analysed and will be available to the House.

Mr. McWilliam

To save time later, I assure my hon. Friend that we have received the replies. We are collating them and will publish the report shortly.

Dr. Bray

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

An essential feature of Parliament is its communications with the outside world. That communication activity should be a major consideration in the design of communication and information services in the House. It should be as open and accessible to the outside world as possible. If an information service is valuable to hon. Members, the chances are that it will also be valuable to outside users. The more that it is used outside the House, the more useful will be the service to hon. Members. Hansard, for example, is no longer required reading for Ministers or senior officials, even in the Department responsible for a particular debate. Permanent Secretaries often do not even read speeches by their own Secretaries of State. Lobby journalists do not bother to scan Hansard, so that the value of speaking in a debate has been much diminished.

Likewise POLIS, because it was constructed mainly on bibliographical principles, is almost unusable for political purposes and is of little use outside the House. An hon. Member who is steamed up with Mr. Speaker or Mr. Deputy Speaker because yet again another hon. Member has been called before him might try using POLIS to prove that a certain hon. Gentleman is always on his feet. He will first have to find a member of the Library staff who can find her way round the labyrinthine code. The printout will be yards long. However, before he writes a powerful letter to Mr. Speaker, I advise the hon. Gentleman to take the precaution of looking up that huge catalogue of speeches by the offending Member, because many of those which are solemnly recorded in POLIS include such gems as "Rubbish" and "Bring back Cecil" with, of course, full bibliographical references.

Most of the really useful services in the House are used by only a small proportion of Members. Annie's Bar, the Library, and particular services provided by the Library are examples. The same applies to computer services in the House. Any attempt to build up a standard service for Members will result in their being treated as low-grade clerks in social work departments.

Many computer companies would cheerfully stuff the House full of techno-junk with terminals gathering dust on Members' desks while other Members cadge access to useful services outside the House for which the House will not pay because not enough Members are interested. That is what I have been doing for 23 years.

Surely the right approach is to start from where we are and to build on what we have. Let us provide a simple electronic mail and parliamentary information service, readily available and installed, and operating through Prestel or BT Gold or some private service with communications software for the BBC Micro, the Apricot, the ICL and IBM PCs and possibly two or three other micros in common use.

Any hon. Member would be able to look up information, using his own telephone line installed at his desk in the House or outside. We should also let the public in. The House telephone exchange would not be involved. The overloading of that telephone exchange could arise only because of negligence, misuse, or by leaving equipment connected by mistake. Many solutions are in common use.

I checked with Lexis, the legal information computer service, now the only on-line legal information service operating in Britain. The highest number of lines that it has ever had connected simultaneously, with all the lawyers and legal organisations and the Government using the system, is 29. The House might establish a similar service which is accessible to the whole country. All that would certainly not justify yet another Department stuffed with more staff to clutter the Corridors.

In five or 10 years' time electronic media will be the prime form for the storage of and access to information, with print being only a supplementary form. A computer Department would be no more appropriate to the House's needs than a typing pool for all Members and all Departments would be now.

A computer Department concept is a relic of the old days of the mainframe. I remember my days in ICI, where I used to work 30 years ago. The computer Department established a priesthood, a bureaucracy, which stood between the real user of the system and the actual application that he wanted to get on with. The position today has drastically changed. It is possible to have and to operate open systems to which anyone can connect as a user or provider of information. It is possible for those services to be accessed by different grades of user paying different tariffs for different kinds of services. It is possible for access to be provided throughout the country over the public telephone network. It is possible for those services to have any required degree of confidentiality.

I checked with the IBM (UK) sales director about the volume of business on micros versus mainframes. He estimated that, for the first time, in 1985 the value of sales of micros and terminal equipment will exceed that of mainframes and associated bulk storage devices. Even for the manufacturers the position has flipped, from the mainframe centralised service to the micro service under the control of the end user.

The advice that the House gets from the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency still reflects the old world. The CCTA is nothing like as good on micros and their application and extension as it is on mainframe systems. It learnt bitterly the lessons of the original attempts at PAYE computerisation, the computerisation of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Centre, Swansea, and of the Department of Health and Social Security at Newcastle. Today, the computerisation of PAYE is being superbly tackled.

However, in the provision of micros for running as essential a service for the Treasury model in the Treasury itself, the arrangements were made by the economists in the Treasury direct with the university outside, with the CCTA coming nowhere near. Such flexibility should be available to all Departments of the House, and certainly to all hon. Members. We cannot be cabined and confined to a particular channel of provision which some organisation in the House thinks it can provide for all needs.

Services should be developed for the business of the House as we conduct it. The Order Paper, next week's business, the state of Bills and so on are the basic material for the information service. The parliamentary unit being set up at Warwick university to give Select Committees and hon. Members access to all the United Kingdom national economy models is an example of the next stage of the work. The House of Commons Commission has budgeted £70,000 a year for five years to build up that unit to provide access to the testing of policies and alternatives on all the mainstream models of the United Kingdom economy. That service can be provided from outside the House, just as any other facility in the House which hon. Members, their staff, Committees and so on will have access to can be provided.

There is also the Central Statistical Office data bank, to which there is access in a room in Norman Shaw North used by the statistical department of the Library. Members of the staff sit there surrounded by all the volumes of the CSO publications. The cost of using the service provided by the commercial firm SIA, which has exclusive rights to the CSO data bank for the exploitation of its material, are so high that the Library staff will access the CSO data bank only two or three times a week. It is much quicker and cheaper for members of staff to get the volumes from the shelves around them.

Members do not have that facility. They do not have all the statistical publications on their shelves. They do not have big enough offices. Therefore, they cannot have access to the CSO data bank. However, the CSO data bank is available on floppy discs which the Library could tuck under a table anywhere in the outlying offices of the Library, with a facility for hon. Members to dial into the micro. They could have a service which is better than that on line to the SIA mainframe, which is so expensive that hon. Members cannot be allowed to use it.

The Clerk's Department has not put up the text of Bills, amendments or statutory instruments on the main legal information service, where they would be a great facility to those outside interests which want to see what Parliament is about and to have an up-to-date picture of the state of play on a Bill. It would be just as easy for the Clerk's Department to send off material and have it mounted in a data bank from which the printed copies could be made as it is to provide it to the printers today. The Clerk's Department should organise that. It should not be farmed out at prodigious cost to the Economist Intelligence Unit or some such great worthy organisation which will come up with a pompous solution which shows that it does not understand how the Clerk's Department works. It can be done. There are Clerks who are computerniks equal to any hon. Members who have spoken in the debate. The Clerk's Department could do that within its own resources.

The annual volumes of the Estimates are available in the Vote Office. They give hopelessly inadequate detail of the expenditure plans for major Government programmes. The hon. Member for Woking is interested in defence. The Navy's full procurement programme of all the ships that it buys each year is voted in one figure. The Ministry of Defence is prepared to provide the detail, and it is available. It is not confidential or secret, but it is not included in the Estimates. If it were included with comparable detail under other heads, it would become far too voluminous to publish. That data could be made available on a data bank. It could be accessible to Members and outside organisations. There is no reason why that should not be done more economically than the publication of those prodigiously expensive volumes.

Any four-year, £5 million programme aimed at putting a black Model T Ford on to every Member's desk is doomed to obsolescence before it starts at a time of such rapidly moving technology. The House should slip more comfortably into the computer age. If each Member an each Parliament was allowed to spend the £5,000 a year on the 1990 equipment and services that he needs, he would obtain far better value. We are, after all, a Parliament of Members, not a bureaucracy. The computer has got out of the bottle and democratised itself. It cannot be stuffed back by men in grey flannel suits. We should allow hon. Members the resources to use the new information technology effectively in the service of the House.

12.43 pm
Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant)

The hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) always entertains and interests the House, especially when he speaks on a subject of this kind. If I may be permitted two preliminary reflections, the first is that on occasions such as this one realises that the House is not divided among members of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal or any other party. It is divided between conservatives and radicals. Even conservatives and radicals do not necessarily agree with one another.

I agree to a considerable extent with the hon. Gentleman. However, I do not agree with his condemnation of the scheme that we saw operating in the Canadian Parliament, to which I shall come in a moment. I share his objective. I do not believe that that objective would necessarily be prejudiced if we followed that example. He said that we do not want techno-junk, and of course we do not. There is a great deal of it about. One of the main grounds for much of the criticism of computerisation generally, let alone computerisation of the House, is that it gives rise to wasteful expenditure and the creation of computer junk.

The other general reflection which occurred to me arose from a remark of the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin), who said that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has a great sense of history. Sometimes history is valuable in providing us with a perspective. I recalled as he was speaking that I had read not long ago a comment of the great historian Gibbon on a man called Peter of Amiens. Gibbon's phrase was: Whatever he wished he believed and whatever he believed he saw in dreams and revelations.' Most of us in our own particular way are vulnerable to that same characteristic. We wish for things and we tend to reinforce our wishes by choosing evidence selectively to support the view that we seek to put forward. Peter of Amiens had another characteristic, which Gibbon described as that vehemence of speech which seldom fails to implant the persuasion of the soul. The Sub-Committee on which I had the privilege of serving provided an exceptionally interesting opportunity to see what is happening in Washington and Ottawa. Alas, it seems that its report is insufficiently vehement to persuade my right hon. Friend that something must be done quickly. The Committee struggled manfully, if that is the right word, to produce its report before Christmas 1984, but seven months have passed since the report was first before the House.

If we look back to the time when we realised that other major legislatures were moving forward on the information technology front, we are reflecting on a lapse of time of about 15 to 20 years and not one of seven months. That is the disturbing discovery that we made when were were in Washington. There is an old saying that one can take a horse to water but cannot make it drink. If one applies that saying to information technology and politicians, it would be appropriate to say that information technology can be introduced to politicians—the most exciting, dramatic and revolutionary development in man's intellectual endeavours since Gutenberg—but to get them to accept it and understand it is a problem to which even the gods themselves on Olympus would find no obvious or easy solution.

Some weeks ago I wrote in the House magazine that I thought I had heard the rumble of a bandwagon beginning to roll. I was wrong. Instead I heard the rumble of the tumbril. No bandwagon was beginning to roll and there is no evidence yet, despite what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said, that it is about to do so. This is exceptionally disturbing.

I cannot continue without paying my own tribute to what has been done for us with limited resources within a restricted scope by the staff of the Library. Shortly before the debate began, it published an excellent and useful pamphlet entitled "Information Technology: the Role and Services of the Library Department". It is remarkable what we have succeeded in doing on a shoestring. In some ways we can take pride in that, but is it enough? That is the question to which the Computer Sub-Committee addressed itself. It is said that comparisons are always odious, and I accept that comparisons with Congress immediately expose anyone who draws them to the remark that the United States is five times as rich as the United Kingdom and that a Congressman has responsibilities that are different from those of Members of this place. It is said that any such comparisons are invalid. I do not accept that. There are things we can and should learn from both Congress and the Ottawa Parliament.

I tend to apply the one-eighth rule. We have a population that is one quarter the size of the American population and perhaps we are only half as rich. Whenever we consider the allocation of resources for something which is a good idea and whenever it is to be found in the United States, the one-eighth rule should apply.

The Congressional brochure on information systems refers to office automation, electronic mail, survey processing, electronic voting and word processing, all of which are available to every member of Congress, and adds: These were only concepts ten years ago. For Members of the House of Representatives they are now a reality. There is no such reality here. In my judgment and that of the Sub-Committee, there is no reason why that reality should not exist here, and we put the time scale for it at three years.

It was predictable that hon. Members would say that what we were proposing was, in the current national context, extravagant. I accept that all expenditure is extravagant and that what we propose must go through that mill of criticism. However, resource constraint is visibly less of a problem in some spheres than in others where the contribution made by the resources created is likely to be dramatic, effective and necessary.

Some hon. Members—for example, my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow), who I regret is not in his place—have implied that what we propose is not necessary. That claim cannot be sustained. The Sub-Committee found that the Canadian system—I remind the House that the Canadian Houses of Parliament were built at roughly the same time as ours and that their parliamentary procedure is roughly the same, being modelled on ours—made the most remarkably efficient use of resources and was a system which seemed, at least as a start, to provide us with a substantial proportion of what we had seen supplied in the United States Congress at hundreds of times the cost. We did not return and say, "We must do what Congress has done." We said, "Let us at least do what our daughter Parliament in Ottawa has done, because it has been done extremely well and we can learn from it."

Dr. Bray

I do not think—though I shall have to check—that the Canadian parliamentary system gives its Members of Parliament access to the up-to-date models of the Canadian economy. That is an example of how the Model T Ford does not meet the requirements of Parliament today.

Mr. Lloyd

I, too, must check on the exact procedure, but I believe that at least one of the 32 channels in use when we were there enabled the Member of the Canadian Houses of Parliament to gain direct access from his computer or word processing system in his office to all the major databases to which that Parliament had decided that its Members should have access.

Dr. Bray

There is a distinction between a database and a service. A service which gives Members access to the benefits and costs of alternative policies is much more sophisticated than a database.

Mr. Lloyd

I accept that qualification, and if the system does not provide the quality or range of service which the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) thinks is necessary, we can look into that when we decide to do something. I am not saying that, because this is something, we must do it. It is an effective and convincing system and I would have thought that the criteria which he suggested could be applied in our thinking on this issue. If it means modifying the Canadian system, let us modify it and make it better, so that it achieves the more wide-ranging and desirable objectives that the hon. Gentleman has in mind. I fear that we are a long way from action. So far, it has been exhortation, information and discussion.

Last week the Economist published a survey of the approach by the City of London to information technology. That is relevant to what we are considering, not least because of the similarity of the problems and scale of resources being deployed, and I shall return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking about our not being a business. The article commenced: Selecting the right tools takes time, money and a clear view of the future. All are in short supply. Yes, all—including a clear view of the future.

What is the City of London spending to ensure that its decision-making process is relevant to the present? The survey estimates that about 5,000 firms in banking and finance had spent more than $2 billion on installed computer equipment by the end of 1983 and perhaps $2.3 billion by the end of 1984. The total is expected to reach $3.7 billion by 1988. The report goes on to describe what some of the smaller segments of the City and the financial information world are spending on information technology. Barclays bank alone, a major British bank, spent £100 million in 1985 and NatWest plans to spend £600 million in the next five years.

It may be argued that those are business organisations using that investment to earn and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Woking has said, we are not a business, but let us consider what the House spends in other directions. Only yesterday it was suggested in Standing Committee that coal subsidy is likely to be about £2.2 billion. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services has announced a £2 billion social security uprating and I do not dispute the merits of that. Closer to home, the revamping of the stonework of this building, which cannot be postponed, is costing £8 million. We must relate the proposed expenditure of a mere £5 million to the primary purpose of parliamentary government and the efficiency of this great institution. We achieve a better perspective by relating that modest sum to the primary purpose of ensuring not only that this institution functions efficiently but that its credibility survives.

A long time ago, Machiavelli said: Nothing is more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the emnity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old system and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain from the new. I believe that that applies from start to finish in most of our debates about the application of information technology in the House.

From time to time, especially in summer, we observe the large flow of tourists who go first to the Tower of London and then to the Palace of Westminster. Mercifully, the original function of the tower no longer exists but a fascinating ceremonial function survives. People who come here, however, expect to see more than the ceremonial function and the splendid neo-Gothic structure. They expect to see three other things, too.

First, they expect to see a level of freedom of speech attained in few other institutions in the world, including our daughter Parliaments, and we are proud of that. Secondly, they hope occasionally to witness the rare phenomenon that can be seen only in a Chamber such as this — the quality that I would describe as political courage. That quality is rare, but it exists in the House. It would be invidious to name current Members on either side who exhibit it, but I am happy to refer to those who have passed through this place and who showed it in considerable measure. One thinks of Jain Macleod, Aneurin Bevan, Manny Shinwell and many others. Thirdly, the voters who send us here and who then come to see what we are doing expect to see this place acting with relevance and efficiency in its handling of the problems of the state. During the past 10 or 15 years, there has been a perceptible fall in our credibility when it is judged by that criterion.

I have a great affection for this place. The qualities that I have mentioned are such that no democracy can survive without them, but we shall not survive if our credibility falls so far that, when we are considering major legislation, which increasingly involves the most significant scientific and technological components, they are able to say, "Yes, they make very interesting speeches but they are not informed. They do not know. They do not have the information that they need successfully to monitor and check the Executive." That is why I tell my hon. Friend the Member for Woking that we are indeed a business—we are in the business of government. It is the most important business in the land and we shall discharge it responsibly and skilfully, as our constituents expect us to, only if we have all of the tools necessary to monitor the work of the Executive. That is the function of Parliament and we cannot discharge it without information technology.

1 pm

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

It is difficult to follow such a powerful speech. I agreed with almost everything that the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Lloyd) said. When the Leader of the House recalls what has been said and reads what has been said in his absence, he will realise that the debate has not degenerated into an orgy of anti-Americanism, as some feared, and that we have not fallen into opposing camps. If there are opposing camps, they are not to be discerned by the line that divides the Chamber. Hon. Members on both sides of the House want this legislature to play a proper role in modern government.

If we constructed a continuum of legislatures, the most powerful would be Congress and the least powerful would be the Supreme Soviet. I regret that we are probably nearer the Supreme Soviet end of the continuum in terms of influence. One of the reasons for that is that, although we are spending money updating the crumbling outside of the building, we have not taken time to update the internal crumbling by developing procedures such as a proper Committee system.

Now that we have a Select Committee system, we think that we have arrived for the next 30 years. I inform the House that I am doing some research contrasting the defence committees in 30 Parliaments. I can say without fear of contradiction that, although our Defence Select Committee is important and useful and one of the better of our Committees, we have about the weakest defence Committee in the Alliance and democratic legislatures. We cannot sit back and relax in the glory of what has been established. We must improve our procedures but, above all else, we must make ourselves more professional.

I believe that the Leader of the House will recall with regret his assertion that staffing is one of the current fashions. Adequate staffing is not a fashion but a prerequisite of a modern, efficient legislature. I do not mean merely the proper staffing of Select Committees or the Library. I endorse the eulogy of our staff in the Library. They are wonderful but, in terms of numbers, they do not compare favourably with almost any other legislature that I have come across, although they compare very well in terms of quality. I am expected to feel guilty about wanting to use researchers and about going back and forth to the Library, but we shall be doing our job if we push the Library to its limit, have full access to technology and have the best possible staffing arrangements.

There are people who want to be professional, but we have what I call the Daily Telegraph philosophy of government. An editorial in that newspaper a few years ago said that all a good Member of Parliament wants is a good typewriter and a good secretary. The right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) epitomises that view. He sits in the Library and writes his speeches using his own brilliance. The rest of us are not so fortunate. We need information. It was ironic that the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) denigrated research and then criticised the Select Committee for not having researched the subject properly. He cannot have it both ways.

It is important to recognise that our staffing arrangements are deficient and that we do not compare favourably with the legislatures in America on in Canada, which is a comparable legislature in structure, size and ethos. Yet it is light years ahead of us. The National Assembly in France and the Bundestag are much better staffed than is the House of Commons. It is all right for people to say, "We are going down the road towards the United States Congress." We do not compare favourably even with our parliamentary colleagues in Germany, France and Canada, let alone Congressmen.

Many hon. Members have mentioned American research assistants. I am partly guilty, if that is the right word, of instigating the system and of being one of the first to benefit from the entry of American interns as far back as 1976. I have been working, in a non-financial capacity, with educational programme abroad. As a student of the American west, I believe that American students here form part of what I would call the "Billy the Kid complex". By that, I mean that in the 1880s, any unsolved murder in the south-west of America was attributed to Billy the Kid. Here, if a photocopying machine breaks down, if something disappears or if the lights go out, it is attributed to the American students who, it is said, are flooding the place.

This morning, we heard a great deal of nonsense about catering facilities. Although stopping Americans using our canteen facilities might improve Anglo-American relations, I should stress that they are not allowed to use the Strangers cafeteria. A security man guards access to the restaurant facilities. Americans cannot use the Library and have limited access to some parts of the House.

The latest manifestation of the Billy the Kid phenomenon was on the front page of The London Standard a few days ago. It relates to the Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, who sports the most famous eye since Nelson or Harold, and it states: Mr. Lamont is said to have told colleagues he got it"— his black eye— when he walked into a door left open by his American research assistant. I have not the slightest interest in whether the Minister walked into someone's fist or into a door but, if he was looking for an excuse, why did he not use one of a hundred other explanations instead of blaming his American research assistant?

That is a humorous example, but it demonstrates this phenomenon that pervades the House, partly because many hon. Members, research assistants and the police have an interest in ensuring that foreign research assistants are kept to a minimum.

I could not function as a Member of Parliament without access to good research assistance. We are given the magnificent sum of about £12,000 a year to pay for a secretary, out of which we must pay national insurance contributions and about £2,000 for equipment. That does not allow us enough over to use the Brooking Institute for research. Far from making matters worse for the British taxpayer, the use of such research assistants from America or from any other source saves the British taxpayer from the natural consequence of the growth of the legislature. Those who are unenthusiastic about research will not seek out an intermediary and say, "Would you find me a research assistant, because I am desperate to have one?" If they do not want free assistance, they will not approach my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) or me. However, those who want research assistance and who cannot afford it have their natural desire for more staff dampened by access to free advice and assistance in the form of foreign or British students.

The people who come in are criticised and alleged to be CIA or KGB spies. Goodness knows what such spies would expect to find in this place. Another criticism is that they are badly dressed, but in many ways they are the best dressed people in this place. They are also alleged to be rather stupid or clueless.

To any hon. Member with an American or British intern who does not meet that Member's requirements, I say clearly, "Throw him out". If a Member retains a student who does not meet his requirements, he has no right to hold a scarce seat in the building. If an education institution allocates a duff student who is not interested, is only here for a holiday, is not prepared to work and does not know much about the subject, a Member should not use that institution again and should tell his friends not to use it. If an institution cannot deliver the goods in terms of good quality students, Members should have nothing to do with it.

Many myths are circulating and some have been mentioned today. Democracy is expensive — one has only to rattle off the cost of this place to see this—but the prerequisite of democracy is surely not Members of Parliament getting their information simply by reading The Guardian or the Daily Telegraph in the morning and then mouthing off. Government and society are getting much too complicated for that. Even in the 19th century the position was too complicated, and we cannot get away with it any more. We need a good system and adequate staffing. If we do not get such staffing, power is going to drain away from us to the Executive even faster. No wonder the Government do not want to see us having more staff, because the fewer staff we have the less burden we are to them. They can cope with the silly Guardian inspired or Daily Telegraph-prompted parliamentary question. What they cannot cope with is the well-researched question in Select Committee or the Member of Parliament who has researched his information. That does not come by osmosis on the Library floor; it comes as a result of somebody working and providing the Member with the information.

There are, however, legitimate criticisms. The numbers of foreign students are too high and must be restricted. I totally endorse the recommendations in paragraph 24, especially 24(3). On the matter of Educational Programme Abroad, when there was a minor crisis in 1977 EPA said, "All right, if there are any problems we have 30 students here" —there were only 30 American students around at that time" — "and the EPA will voluntarily reduce the number to 20." That was what it did. Whenever there is a problem the EPA is very quick to respond in order to avoid the kind of hassle that could emerge.

Allegations about spies have never been substantiated. There are worries about security, as there should be, but where there is anxiety why not follow the suggestion of the EPA and Rochester university? They say, "Why not subject students in the USA to a form of security vetting within the USA before they come here?" Legitimate means are available to do that. My right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin), in a speech I greatly admired, said the onus for security ought to be on the Member. I do not agree entirely. I could know that a student had been checked by university authorities, but I have no absolute guarantee that that person does not belong to a subversive organisation.

If the Leader of the House wants a guarantee that subversive individuals will not infiltrate the House, he should consider the suggestion for some form of vetting abroad. If the students do not wish to submit themselves to that in the USA because it would violate their constitutional principles, then they need not come here, because if they want to come they will have to meet the requirements laid down by the House.

Mr. Shepherd

Paragraph 23 of the report addresses itself to that and the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) also talked about it. Does the hon. Member not feel that the ultimate responsibility must lie with the Member himself? It is up to the Member to check whether or not a student has been through a security vetting and to take responsibility for the outcome. He cannot pass the buck to somebody else.

Mr. George

Perhaps the real answer lies in a combination of both our approaches. Ultimately, the Member must be responsible. However, a very good suggestion has been made. There could be some form of additional information presented to the Member or to the House authorities before the necessary pass was issued. If there is any concern about security, other methods must be explored.

Organisations are sometimes criticised for bringing American students here. If they and we are prepared to meet the criticisms as far as possible, that should remove the criticism levelled against them. There are crises. The photocopying equipment often breaks down. I have already written to the House authorities having had a minor altercation with a photocopying machine two nights ago. To my knowledge, no American was within 50 yards of the machine at the time, and I accept total blame for its breakdown.

The problems of dining facilities have been over-exaggerated, because students are barred from them at set times.

Some hon. Members say that they cannot see how the students are useful. A lot depends on the use made of them. If they are good and if the sponsoring organisation is competent, they are very useful. If the sponsoring organisation is competent, it will have put the student through a preliminary reading test in British politics. Before coming here he will have to have shown a knowledge of British politics.

The report contains considerable detail about the work of the Educational Programme Abroad. It has a lengthy induction course, and a system of lectures in British politics throughout a student's period here, and every effort is made to try to meet the objection that these young people are coming here with very limited knowledge. If other schemes cannot meet those requirements, it is their problem, and hon. Members should not have recourse to those students.

If a Member of Parliament knows how to use him, a student can be of inestimable value. Anyone who is interested, as I am, in foreign affairs and defence looks for a student who intends to do a master of arts degree course in international relations and not one who specialises in social security. If the student's interests are matched up with the Member, that overcomes the alleged mismatch of competence.

I am pleased that much of the paranoia expressed in the press about foreign interns has not been repeated today. There are problems, and it would be foolish to close our eyes to them and to the people expressing those criticisms. If this report is implemented, it will go a long way towards assuring Members of Parliament and the public that the criticisms are not entirely valid.

What is far more important is that we must get it across that the foreign student coming here and paying thousands of dollars for the privilege of working for a Member of Parliament is a temporary phenomenon until we have adequate resources to employ our own full-time staff. Until that day comes, I remain grateful, as many other hon. Members are, to anyone. British or foreign, who is prepared to give up his time and put his expertise at my disposal and that of the House and my constituents.

1.14 pm
Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr. Lloyd), I am an enthusiast for information technology. In fact, I was enthusiastic about it before the term was invented. In my hon. Friend's terms, I consider myself a radical.

It should be recognised that information technology is not necessarily good for everyone, especially for every hon. Member. Comparing the work of Members of Parliament with that of company executives or officers in local government, it is not as self-evident as it is in those cases that information technology will be an absolute advantage to hon. Members. In both local government and private companies there will inevitably be a repetitive pattern of activity that is ideally suited to computerisation. In Parliament, however, no two days are the same. Constituency cases vary so much that the scope for computerisation is not so great as it is in organisations of the kind I have mentioned.

The Committee that considered the information technology needs of hon. Members failed to recognise that fundamental questions need to be asked before coming out wholeheartedly in favour of an integrated system, but this is what it did. Many, if not most, of the facilities to which both the Committee and the hon. Member for Redcar (Mr. Tinn) referred are already available. They can be obtained by using the individually chosen equipment of hon. Members, many of whom have either word processors or microcomputers. They could gain little by having an integrated system or local area network. As for word processing, standard letters are useful for dealing with standard problems, but many constituency cases vary from the norm.

We also have to ask ourselves a fundamental question about the free post. Members of Congress in the United States can make almost unlimited use of free post and send out many standard letters. We have not yet defined what is a circular and what is an item of correspondence. Because of the new technology, we may need to consider a new definition.

There is no reason why hon. Members should not use electronic mail to talk to each other either by means of their microcomputers talking to other microcomputers directly or by using a mail box system, such as British Telecom Gold. An internal electronic mail system, a local area network, could be justified only if it was interactive to the extent of allowing parliamentary questions to be put down on the Order Paper electronically from one's desk, or of allowing names to be added to early-day motions, or of allowing new early-day motions to be tabled. But do we want that to happen? That question has not been asked.

Reference has been made to the fact that too many parliamentary questions are asked, at enormous cost. There is a motion on the Order Paper about too many early-day motions being tabled, so would it be advisable for us to provide the means for many more of these activities to be carried on, as they undoubtedly would be, without giving a great deal of thought to the matter?

The other main reason for the provision of microcomputers and computers generally is access to data bases. Hon. Members could use POLIS and other data bases without the kind of multi-million pound system that has been recommended.

As for that part of the report which refers to the implementation of these proposals, the Committee's proposal is that 36 hon. Members should take part in an initial pilot scheme. But would not the 36 hon. Members be the ones who have already shown a great interest in computerisation? What are they supposed to do with the equipment that they already have? Are they expected to get rid of it because it is incompatible with the common system?

We should adopt the suggestion of the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) and build on what we already have. Information technology in the House should be promoted, but only on an evolutionary basis. We should not throw out what has already been achieved by adopting a completely new system. The technology is changing. There will probably be greater compatibility in five years' time and many of the proposals of the report may not be necessary then. The Economist Intelligence Unit report suggests the introduction of a minicomputer system, which now looks out of date, and we may find that the proposals of the Computer Sub-Committee will also look out of date in three years' time.

On Members' accommodation and facilities, I have had mainly good experience of British and American research assistants. I do not believe that they are best used in examining detailed Government policies before hon. Members come into the Chamber to make a speech. I find that they are particularly useful for doing work on constituency problems, to make it less necessary for hon. Members to have to trouble Ministers. Much ministerial and Civil Service time can be saved.

Many hon. Members do not make good use of research assistants. They can be particularly helpful in dealing with constituents' problems and delving for information that hon. Members could find but for the lack of time that afflicts so many of us.

Of course, some temporary research assistants are would-be permanent assistants who are waiting for one of the 200 permanent passes that enable them to use the main Library at certain times. However, not all permanent research assistants who have worked for an hon. Member for more than a year use the main Library. Our current definitions are not helpful and, as the Librarian pointed out, some hon. Members hang on to permanent passes because they may need them at some time in the future.

The present system could be refined and improved even before any major changes are contemplated. The problem is that the sort of rules proposed in the report would be arbitrary and unfair to many hon. Members. The report proposes a four-month time limit on the employment of research assistants, but I can find no logical justification in the report for that recommendation. There is also a proposal that limits should be imposed on the number of permits issued. That would be unfair, because if I wished to offer a temporary position to a researcher in, say, two or three months, I could not give him or her a guarantee that a pass would be available at that time. There is no suggestion that passes could be reserved in advance.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) proposes a limit of two passes for each hon. Member—one for a secretary and one for a research assistant. That would probably hit hardest senior Privy Councillors and some former Prime Ministers who tend to maintain larger staffs.

My hon. Friend the Member for Boothferry (Sir P. Bryan) suggested tht there should be exceptions to the rule, but all hon. Members are supposed to be equal and I see no reason why some should be excluded from a rule. That is another reason for not adopting rules that would be unfair to some hon. Members.

Mr. Simon Hughes

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the four-month limit. If we are trying to increase the number of British students who help us, perhaps a three-month limit would be more logical, because that would be more compatible with the length of a term in an academic year. We may need to ensure such flexibility if we are to get good people for a sufficient time, while taking into account other demands on their time and our ability to employ them.

Mr. Waller

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Three months would be more sensible than four months, but unfairnesses and anomalies would still arise, and I should like to see some justification for such a rule before it was introduced.

Some hon. Members want to have two researchers each on one day a week. They would not be able to do so if a rule limited them to only one research assistant. Although, superficially, the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for Woking looks attractive, it has many drawbacks.

The right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) suggested that the Leader of the House might not want other hon. Members to be as well informed as he obviously is. Perhaps more pertinently, one could ask whether the Executive, which will have to foot the bill, wants to give a bigger bite to the parliamentary watchdog. I wonder whether that question will be answered.

1.30 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

This morning at 7.20 I burst the proverbial blood vessel when I heard the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) on the radio. He is sui generis, but he is also a Privy Councillor. Had he not been a prominent Privy Councillor, he could not have argued as he did. Incidentally, if he had had better research, he might have known a little more about the biochemistry of human embryos.

I preface a question to the Leader of the House with a small tale. I was in the Table Office struggling with those very clever Clerks about questions on "that ship". The right hon. Member for South Down came in and I said to him breezily, "Enoch, you need Greek iambics to get anything on the Belgrano out of Ministers." Quick as a flash he said. "Greek iambics should be applied to everything in life." But government is not just about debate. Does the Leader of the House agree with the views of his former colleague? I detected a Powellite view in what the Leader of the House and the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) said. Does the Leader of the House agree, or disagree, with the right hon. Member for South Down? We deserve to be told.

The Library is not just an educational institution. The House of Commons Library is not the Library of Congress. Are we expecting our Library to perform a tutorial role for research students? Many extremely gifted and clever people work in the Library, but I am not sure that the Library has a tutorial role. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) referred to the "Billy the Kid" aspect. Is it true that certain research students have torn pages out of library books and documents?

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

indicated assent.

Mr. Austin Mitchell

Why take the hon. Gentleman's word for it?

Mr. Dalyell

I have looked at the documents listed. In a letter the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) stated: Dear Major Le Fanu, It is with some reluctance that I write to you, but I have for some time, together with a number of colleagues who have offices in Norman Shaw North, been concerned not only about the number of American Research Assistants, the hours which they work, the facilities which they use (sometimes, I am reliably informed, for their own purposes and that of a Member of Parliament)". At least my questions, about which I am sensitive, are my own.

In my defence, if I ever ask for statistics, I am scrupulous about asking for "conveniently available" statistics. Ministers are entitled to give answers stating, "The answer can be obtained only at disproportionate cost." If that happens to me, I take it like anyone else, because I am sensitive about Civil Service costs. The proviso is that a Member could challenge such an answer and ask Mr. Speaker whether he thought the answer was unreasonable. That would be the safeguard for hon. Members.

The Table Office should be out of bounds to anyone other than a Member of Parliament. If research assistants have to deliver questions, a delivery box should be located elsewhere in the building. It is wrong to expect the Clerks to spend time negotiating the format of questions.

I do not intend to be the school sneak, but I said to a friend, a member of the Conservative party, "I see that you have tabled a very interesting question on subject X." I was met by a bewildered, blank look. I said, "Yes, pursuent to one of mine". Somewhat sheepishly he confessed that his research student must have tabled it. It transpired that my friend and political opponent had signed a number of blank question forms. That really is naughty. Questions should not be tabled without the Member being certain of what is involved, otherwise costs v, ill be increased.

I know that the pot and kettle syndrome applies to questions, but I am concerned about more open government. This would reduce the cost of questions. I have the experience, unforgettably and indelibly imprinted upon me, of those 11 days in court No. 2 at the Old Bailey during the trial of Clive Ponting.

I do not know whether the Leader of the House will be pleased, because what I am about to say could damage both him and me, but I agree that Government did have a rougher time in the past. In our parliamentary youth there was a great deal more scrutiny. Particularly under his Government, the politicisation of the Civil Service has occurred.

Much is said about merit awards for civil servants. On what grounds? Because they agree with Ministers, and particularly with what Ministers think the Prime Minister thinks? What about the business of catching the Prime Ministerial eye for Civil Service promotion? If resources are to be devoted to scrutiny and to the work of the House I should like an inspectorate-general, or something of the kind, to whom civil servants can go if they think that they are being abused in the answers that they are supposed to give to parliamentary questions. That might be regarded as fanciful. I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) is smiling, but let me tell him that I am in the exalted company of Sir Douglas Wass, the former head of the Treasury, who takes roughly the same line. Questions are costly when there is something to hide.

I gave my word to my hon. Friends that I would sit down after eight minutes, and that I shall do now.

1.38 pm
Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

I am glad finally to be called to take part in an important debate on accommodation. We should be debating not only accommodation for Members' staff but accommodation for ourselves. At the turn of the century there were 670 hon. Members, in 1918 there were 707, in 1945, 640 and in 1983, 650. From what I can ascertain from my own research, in days gone by people managed all right. If anybody should be looking for better accommodation it is Members and not their research assistants or secretaries. I have sympathy with the secretaries who work in overcrowded conditions.

In days gone by Members did not have a desk or an office. Until 1969 they were not even allowed to use the phones free. The secretarial allowance did not come in until 1969 when it was introduced at £500. It has risen considerably since, but we must keep the issue in proportion.

It is a privilege to be a Member of the House. We should not come here with caps in hand demanding extra money and extra resources without carefully thinking about what the House costs to run the country.

In an answer from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House only yesterday, I was told that 273 hon. Members had their own room, 242 shared their room with one other, 30 with two others, 32 with three others and 62 with four or more others. Most interesting of all, 11 hon. Members do not have accommodation, although there are no doubt reasons for that. We should be examining that problem before considering the problem of accommodation and facilities for research assistants and secretaries, although there is overcrowding in the House.

Members of Parliament did not even get paid until 1912, when they received £400. They now receive over £16,500. One of the problems is that, with so many research assistants, the House costs the country more. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said that four years ago it cost £35 million to run the House. That increased to £57 million in 1984–85. Research assistants have contributed to increasing that cost.

I felt as though I had been hit when my hon. Friend the Member for Boothferry (Sir P. Bryan) spoke about the number of hon. Members' questions. I confess that I ask a large number, but I do so in the interests of my constituency, because I have a marginal seat, and because I plan my campaigns. I believe in self-interest and self-survival! The report is already out of date. Research assistants seem to be breeding like rabbits. The figures rise alarmingly year by year. The report shows that in 1985 two hon. Members had 9 research assistants, one had eight, four had six, three had five, nine had four, 235 had one, but 310 had none. The 310 who have managed without the permanent services of research assistants have not endangered their survival nor discredited their useful role.

Unlike any other hon. Member in the Chamber, I have been a research assistant in the House. That was in the days when the Norman Shaw North branch Library was not even properly opened. There were only 12 of us for the whole place, and only the Government and Opposition Front Bench spokesmen had them. It is unacceptable that we had, as I was told in a parliamentry answer on 3 June, 452 research assistants in 1984, and have 469 in 1985. That increase is worrying.

This is a rare occasion for me, but I reinforce the view of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). Some research assistants are putting to the Table Office questions that hon. Members have never seen. I know that several hon. Members sign blank forms for tabling questions, and the research assistants do the rest, which is wrong. We are intelligent enough to think up our own questions.

It is fair to say that research assistants have clogged up this and the peripheral buildings. My secretary has to share a room in Deans Yard with a number of research assistants and the secretaries of two other hon. Members. It is overcrowded and the secretaries therefore cannot get on with their work. That office was the attendants' cloakroom and WC.

The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) said that I had said that each hon. Member should have no more than one research assistant. Let me put it another way. Each research assistant must be paid. Of course, everyone likes something for nothing, but we are seeking long-term improvements in the House. We need research assistants who can help us perform our duties.

I am worried about the temporary research assistants who seem to be rushing all over the place. I remember in 1976 two American research assistants being caught on the fifth floor of Norman Shaw using baths belonging to the staff. Things may have changed since then, but I am worried that not all of them respect the facilities that are available. They might block the photocopier or disrupt the normal affairs of the day. No one would deny that the Library research assistants do excellent work. There are only 18 of them, but they play a marvellous role. They know what they are talking about and they are obliging to anyone who asks them for help.

I am worried by the report's suggestion for a number of temporary research assistants. I do not agree with that. There will be no proper control over them. The report recommends that research assistants should be properly vetted and that hon. Members should be responsible for them. That is a good point.

I accept that some research assistants will be doing serious work which might advance their studies. The idea that we should allow in temporary research assistants for up to 16 weeks is completely unacceptable. It is a student summer vacation job, and I do not think that the House should permit that.

I regret the fact that the lobbyist has not been considered. I know of one case where the research assistant is the managing director of the company of which the hon. Member is a director. It is strange to have a research assistant who is the hon. Member's boss outside the House whereas the reverse applies inside the House. It is worrying that such people should have access to such valuable facilities within the House. They can pay for POLIS and other data, but why should they have unlimited access to the building and to any Government publications? That costs them nothing, but it costs us and the country a great deal, and it benefits their public relations company. The point was not covered in the report, and that is a serious omission.

I am anxious about the number of identity passes that are issued. So far this year 1,081 identity passes have been issued. There were 1,061 issued in 1984, but only 916 in 1982. As the report correctly points out, that number of people imposes even more pressure on inadequate facilities. There are too many temporary pass holders. In 1982 there were 77 and in 1984, 308.

Excessive demands are made on the Library. The report states that 9,408 calls were received in 1976, when I was working in the House, and in 1984–85, 50,000 calls were received. Of those, 10,500 were from research assistants. In 1976 they made only 144 calls. Is that fair to the Library staff? Is that the right way to run Parliament?

Access to the Library must be more carefully monitored. Access to the Library by research assistants is allowed only on Mondays and Fridays between 10 am and 12 noon. As the Library is closed, they do not have access on Saturdays. Major statements are made during the middle of the week. It is then too late to obtain a brief from the Library. Unless we are doing our duty here on a Friday, Parliament is off for the weekend and access to the Library on the Friday is not of much use. For those reasons, the research facilities of the branch Library are used. It is far too crowded.

All research assistants should be employed for a fixed period and should be paid. I do not want to see cheap labour employed. I am not saying how much they should be paid because that is a private matter between a research assistant and the Member concerned.

I ask the House to consider who is taking advantage of whom. The research assistant comes cheap and is a willing hand. He is bubbling with enthusiasm and thinking up parliamentary questions. What does he gain out of his position? He has free access to the House and is able to mix with senior Members. He receives help with research projects that will probably help him in his law and politics degree at the London School of Economics. I agree with the hon. Member for Linlithgow that papers disappear from the Library. I know that research assistants use the telephones for non-parliamentary work.

It is interesting that 192 hon. Members do not employ secretaries. However, 15 secretaries work for two hon. Members each and one secretary works for three hon. Members. There are 342 secretaries working for and helping one hon. Member each. Apparently 612 secretaries have been issued with photo identity passes. That information was contained in an answer that I received from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House yesterday. Secretaries should be given first consideration, not research assistants, if we have them.

Our crowded facilities demand that action be taken. I do not know whether the number of research assistants will be limited to 100. Equally, I do not know whether our secretaries will be moved out of the Palace to the Norman Shaw building and other peripheral buildings while we, the Members, remain here. I am not here to debate that issue at any length. When the Bridge street building is opened in 1990, presumably there will be an opportunity for secretaries to be situated outside Members' offices. I put that forward as a suggestion. That will make it possible for the Member and his secretary to work closely together. However, I do not know whether that will be done.

I am concerned about the growing number of other staff in the House. There are 931 staff and officers. There are 705 who work for the associated agencies, such as the police, the firemen and those responsible for the property services. There are 315 staff and officers in another place and 82 research assistants and secretaries.

An old chestnut that I continue to raise is that the House is working longer hours. I have studied the figures right back to 1900. I believe that the presence of research assistants has contributed to the House having to sit longer. We seem to be rising later. In 1984–85 the average time of rising was 12.52 am and the latest time of rising was 8.44 pm the next day. Also, we are sitting on more days. We sat for 213 days in 1983–84 and 198 in 1974–75. I agree that hon. Members are busier now than before and that they receive 14,500 letters daily on average through the House of Commons sorting office. I understand that 6.5 million postal items were received here last year.

There are more Bills for Members to consider and it is clear that the day is becoming a busier one. We spent 555 hours considering Government Bills in 1983–84 and only 469 in 1980–81. European legislation is taking too much time. We must ask ourselves how we can improve our facilities. The answer might lie in bringing in computers and having easier access to Government records. That will help, but I ask that the House revise its sitting hours. In 1902 the House sat between 2 pm and 11.30 pm. In 1939 to 1945 the time of rising was changed to 10.30 pm. Since 1945 we have retained that rising time but, of course, the House sits regularly beyond that hour. I urge my right hon. Friend to bring the sitting to an end at 12 o'clock midnight at the latest. If he considers the possibility of morning sittings under Standing Order No. 2, I shall be with him all the way.

I urge my right hon. Friend carefully to consider the new telephone system that is to be introduced. I know that the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) is ready to speak on the subject. I am aware that we are in the computer age, but I understand that the cost of the new telephone system will be £2,037,000, which is incredible. It is an extravagance that we do not need. We can buy our own calculators and digital alarm clocks. The new system is unnecessary.

This House has slowly moved into the 20th century. We have certain privileges. Whatever we say of them, I am sure that we should all fight at the hustings to return here and to those privileges—in other words, to do the job under the conditions that now exist. That is why I urge caution before any changes are made. We want Parliament to be kept in check both financially and politically.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. The wind-up speeches are expected to start at about 2.10 pm. Four hon. Members still hope to speak in the debate. I hope that I shall be able to call all four.

1.56 pm
Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

Following the 20-minute speech by the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels) in which he urged hon. Members to make briefer speeches, I hope that when he next gets his research assistant to prepare his speech it will be much briefer.

We are today debating essentially the role of the Member of Parliament, and we have heard some neanderthal views on what that role is or should be. We perform a collection of roles. I am the representative of Grimsby and of the interests and industries there; I am a focal point for the problems of my constituents, problems which they bring to me in large number; I regard myself as a party man—that being an essential part of our job because we were elected on that basis — and that involves advocating the policies of the party; I am a Committee man and a legislator; I am a generalist, practising general supervison over the Executive; and I must increasingly be a specialist, concentrating on certain areas, if I am to help make progress in a modern society. I am also a public figure. Some like that and some do not. It is one of the accidents of the job. Being a public figure, one gets mail and business associated with being in that position.

We have so many jobs to do that keeping up with them is not the simple task that the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) made out on the radio this morning, in a contribution that has hovered over this debate. For us to keep up with any or all of those jobs in a modern society, with all its complexities, we need much more assistance than was available in the past or than is provided by the House.

It is up to us how much we do, and there is little check on performance. It is for us to decide how many roles we tackle. If we decide to make the best of as many of those roles as possible in the service of our constituents, we should be provided with the tools to do that job—to do it in our own way and on the basis on which we have decided to tackle it.

It might help if I related my experience. Like most others, I started out as a Member of Parliament with one secretary. She was based in Grimsby because the problems are there and people came to my door with them. That secretary found quickly just how much work was to be done. A section in the book by Philip Williams on the life of Gaitskell tells of a Leeds Member of Parliament who, in the 1950s, received 50 letters a month. I receive 50 every day or two. My secretary in Grimsby soon found that she needed somebody to do the typing while she tackled the problems.

I need somebody in London to do the necessary research for the multifarous problems that arise daily or weekly in the House. I also need someone to type for me in London; typing has to be done both here and in the constituency. The Member becomes a sort or perambulating centre. I need a nucleus of organisation from which to perambulate as I go to Committee and other meetings and drive to Grimsby and tackle all the other tasks.

When it comes to providing the backing that we need, this is a legislative slum, the mother of sweatshops rather than the mother of Parliaments. Most other parliamentarians have far better backing. Such facilities as are provided here are under strain. To blame American researchers, when we have called in people from the new world to redress the inadequacies of the old, is monstrous. We have turned to American researchers because they do a good job and we need their services.

I admit that there are problems, including problems of turnover. The Library staff must help the assistants, because they come and go. They would have to help any research assistants who came for only three or four months. The problem has nothing to do with Americans but with the inadequate provision by the House of Commons.

If the facilities are under strain, let us expand them. It is ludicrous to say that the Library is a finite resource. There are 250 rooms in the Palace of Westminster available for hon. Members. It seems that 144 rooms in the building are used for accommodation, some of them only occasionally for that purpose. Why cannot the Library expand to fill the space available?

Why is it made so difficult for us to do our jobs? Queueing time to take visitors around the House has now extended to half an hour because of slow search procedures, not to mention the time spent chasing around to get tickets. Numerous problems are caused by aging and inadequate accommodation. If the House would provide the proper facilities and staff to make the job easier, we might have a right to complain about the Americans who have done so much to ease the problems generated by the present system.

On information technology, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) that personal computers should be provided for Members as quickly as possible, each choosing his own computer. The House could use its purchasing muscle as an institution to obtain those facilities more cheaply and the money that would otherwise have been spent can be used to help to provide services for those computers.

We are becoming overworked and bogged down in detail and we are struggling in our inadequate fashion to survive by taking on American research assistants or whatever other staff we can find. It is up to the House to allow us to do the job that we believe is necessary to serve our constituents as they deserve.

2.1 pm

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

Having listened with interest to later contributions, I apologise for not being present when the Leader of the House opened the debate. I wish to comment briefly on the information technology aspect. First, however, I echo the excellent comments of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman, who seems to be addressing the needs of the House in the modern age. Some of the comments of Conservative Members were more like babblings from the palaeolithic ooze.

Serving a modern democracy and modern needs means the provision of sufficient staff and adequate conditions for them. I cannot allow this opportunity to pass without commenting, as other Members have commented, on the disgraceful conditions in which we expect staff to operate. I agree with the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels)—this is the only point on which I agree with him—that conditions for Members may be inadequate, but that conditions for staff are nothing short of disgraceful. The staff have to work in hen coops, the noise level is intolerable and it is virtually impossible for them to do their jobs, which usually command salaries which would be unacceptable elsewhere. For far too long we have relied on their enthusiasm rather than providing decent conditions. Members also need decent allowances to pay their research and clerical staff properly.

I believe that the Sub-Committee reached good and farsighted decisions on what should be done about information technology. Out of the alternatives before it, it chose to allow flexibility for Members to link their own personal computers to a local area network. I believe that that decision is appropriate and correct, although it is contrary to the recommendations of the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Two small points, however, deserve further attention. First, although the report is a good one, I believe that it gives insufficient attention to that aspect of a Member's work which, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby stressed, relates not to his job in the House, but to his activities in relation to his constituency. I should have liked more attention to be paid to whether it is possible to set up a communications network with a constituency, to do constituency work more efficiently. Some recommendations were made about hardware, but software is at least as important. Although we might be able to get away with flexibility on hardware, it would be sensible to have much less flexibility on software, because that is the point at which we can have an appropriate interface.

As for funding, we have not taken on board the considerable difference between new technologies and present equipment. We are talking of an outlay of at least £2,000 or £3,000 to equip a Member of Parliament. Although it is accepted that a computer has a life of only two or three years in the present environment, we have no mechanism for allowing for depreciation of that equipment. If we ask Members of Parliament to pay such large capital sums, we should have a system which enables us to allow depreciation for two or three years to accumulate the necessary sum.

I congratulate the Committee on coming to broadly the correct conclusion.

2.6 pm

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

The things that disturb me most about what the Leader of the House and some of his hon. Friends have said is that they appear to believe that we can have democracy on the cheap. If we start from a low base and operate from a legislative slum, we must expect costs to rise rapidly. We must also expect the quality of our democracy to be poor if we do not have the necessary resources. When I hear some Conservative Members say that a few filing cabinets are not used properly, I fear that we are being taken back not to the 19th century but before then.

The Leader of the House has a respect for the House which I understand, accept and encourage. He must remember the aims of the people who inhabited this House in the last century. They were higher than they are today. He should try to match that quality rather than take us back, on the assumption that we can repeat something rather than move with technology.

As is stated by an early-day motion which I and several other hon. Members of all parties tabled a few weeks ago, and which has attracted more than 200 signatures,, for Members who want it, the House should aim for a minimum of one secretary and one researcher and allowance for equipment and accommodation. If we fail to aim for that as a minimum, we shall continue to misuse students and people from companies who are used as professional advisers. Students and advisers are becoming the red herrings of this argument.

A good secretary is worth between £8,000 and £12,000. Taking account of the movement of prices between 1984 and 1985, I pay an amount similar to that recommended by the Top Salaries Review Body for secretaries in the House. I bought a computer, for which I spread the payments over two years to try to keep within my budget — a loan which I had to take out and pay back by monthly instalments from my allowance. I now find—I hope that the Leader of the House is listening carefully, because I and other Members are coming to see him on Monday about the allowance—that, allowing for my secretary's salary for the rest of the year, I must draw from my salary to pay any new expenses until April next year. When the Leader of the House hears me playing a violin outside his flat at 6.30 pm next Monday, I hope that he will be fairly generous.

I have a researcher who works for me voluntarily. He is highly qualified, like my secretary, and would be able to earn a good salary outside if he could get a job. I cannot pay him a salary, although I pay as much as I can towards his expenses in coming here and doing the work. The nonsense is that by the time I have paid for a good secretary—who could earn more outside the House than she gets from me—and for my computer, plus the odds and ends that come up from time to time, I must pay for everything else out of my pocket. That is wrong.

The number of hon. Members employing secretaries increased from 30 per cent. in 1971 to 99 per cent. in 1982, and the number employing research assistants increased from 9 to 58 per cent. during the same period. There is no reason to believe that the problem will go away, and to blame the problems of the House on increasing staff is like blaming unemployment oil the unemployed. The hon. Member for Boothferry (Sir P. Bryan) said that we cause work by coming here and doing our jobs. If we follow that logic to its conclusion, the first mistake that we all make is to get out of bed in the morning. Obviously, we must cause work when we come here. If you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Clerks and hon Members had not got out of bed this morning and come here, there would have been no work for anyone. We must remember that the priority of this place is to be a democratic legislature, with the resources to do the job properly.

The Top Salaries Review Body accepted that the secretarial and research allowance should be about £13,650 at mid-1984 prices. I would have wished to quote from that report, but, in view of the time, may I simply ask the Leader of the House to examine the sections dealing with secretaries and their salaries and the allowance for office equipment?

Why will only 200 permanent research assistant passes be issued at any one time? If we aim to have one assistant per Member, we should provide enough passes for that. The legislatures in Australia, Canada, the United States, France and Germany pay their members a decent rate to do the job properly.

I could have said much more on the subject, but the most important thing is for the Leader of the House to live up to our traditions and to ensure that he provides hon. Members with the facilities to do their job properly in the way that they wish, and to maintain the high standards that have been set.

2.11 pm
Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

I kept my brief remarks until near the end of the debate because it was important that as many hon. Members as possible should have an opportunity to speak.

The report with which I am most concerned—the one on information technology — does not deal with information technology. It deals with solving problems for Members and with solving the problem of our increasing caseload. It deals with the problem of our increasing work load in relation to the increase in central Government. Problems have been caused by the additional work that we must do following the introduction of the departmental Committee structure. We have problems with the speed at which things happen and our need to get information quickly. Another problem is the geographical distribution of hon. Members and the fact that our constituents expect to see us regularly, which was not the case in the past. Therefore, although we must spend a great deal of time away from this place, we must still be able to deal with any problems that arise.

The Economist Intelligence Unit produced a report based on a survey conducted among hon. Members at the end of the previous Parliament. Many of those who took part in the survey are no longer Members of the House. Indeed, many of those who entered the House after the last election have considerably more knowledge of and skill in information technology than Members who came in even during the previous Parliament.

The Select Committee decided that there had been a change in conditions and that we should do something about it. We took much wider evidence than appears in the report. We took informal evidence, too. Earlier, someone said that hon. Members must ensure that they have word processors. that can take on the Goverment's word processors. One of our informal evidence sessions included an examination of the information technology system in the Cabinet Office. It is reasonable to ask that hon. Members be similarly or at least as well equipped.

The report made several recommendations, which can be broken down into two parts. First of all, the report was written to be as transparent as possible in terms of finance and in terms of those things we do not know and cannot find out without a pilot. The first stage was the suggestion of a pilot scheme. That will run in conjunction with the planning of the second stage, which is the main scheme.

The main scheme will have to take place in some form or other within the next four years, because the annunciators are running down. They work on the 405-line television standard and the only people making sets to that standard are the Swiss. We cannot buy them in Britain any more. There are various estimates of the cost, but to put a new annunciator into somebody's room where there was none before would cost about £1,000. It is daft to install 1959 technology in 1985. We might as well have the best technology available to us. The report is clear that the House of Commons is not the test bed for anybody's state of the art. What we want is tried and tested hardware and software applied by people who know what they are doing.

An important part of the report is that which deals with management structures for the system. We have not suggested setting up a massive new department in the House. We suggest buying in the talent we need for the length of time we need it, and for no longer. There are two reasons for that, and the first is that we must get the best possible people. The other reason is the sheer problem of accommodation. We do not have the room to set up another department. If every Member who has a secretary located that secretary somewhere in the parliamentary buildings, they would have to double up on desks and work in shifts. There are insufficient desks for all the secretaries of Members.

The other report deals with pressure on Members' accommodation. I was privileged to serve on that Committee as well, and should like to pay tribute to the speeches by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin) and the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd). They complimented the Library staff and if anything they were understating, because we get a far better service than we ought to expect, given the conditions under which we make people work and the kind of salaries that we pay. I cannot compliment them highly enough. We will have convergent technology, because the information technology for Members, and the Library and the telephone system will all come together.

At the moment we are negotiating a new contract for the POLIS system. The present contract had run out and we had to extend it for a year. We worked closely with the Library Sub-Committee and meet jointly with it and the Accommodation and Administration Sub-Committee. This report is a modest one designed to address a specific problem, and I cannot understand why we are debating it on the Adjournment of the House. We ought to have had a statement from the Leader of the House saying, "This is being implemented tomorrow because the problem is pressing." One or two aspects of the information technology report need to be explained a little further. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) and others expressed the need for open-system architecture so that our machines, in our constituencies or wherever they are, can have access to the system. That is not precluded by the report. We have suggested a technical working party to get over those problems. There are one or two other aspects as well. I am grateful for the views of Members' staff as well as the staff of the House. We had evidence from the trade unions and met the secretaries' council on two occasions, and we took on board some of the views they put forward. The most important one is that, until we get the new building and start reconfiguring the accommodation, there is potential for some difficulty, with large numbers of printers concentrated in a small area. We need that flexibility of accommodation to solve the problem.

We cannot have flexibility of accommodation if we do not go ahead with the main scheme. Unless we have an effective electronic mail system and an annunciator system which gives us all the information that we need where we need it, we shall be restricted in the places where we can locate Members and staff. It could especially frustrate the design to get all the Members into the House and all the staff out of it and into the new building. To achieve that objective, it is no good starting to cable this place in four years' time, because phase 1 will be complete. What is more, an electronic mail system does not operate if most people do not have access to it. It does not operate on the basis of a small group. To give us the flexibility of use of the new accommodation as it comes in, we need to make a start now.

That brings me to one or two remarks of the Leader of the House and several other hon. Members. We have been told that there is great demand for public funds. We have been told that much work needs doing and that the money is not available. That is a very dangerous argument coming from any Government. I remind hon. Members that the duty of Back-Bench Members is not strictly that of Government and Opposition. As Members of the House, we have a duty to scrutinise the Government's expenditure. However, the Leader of the House is saying, in effect, "We shall continue to be the Executive and to deny you, the Members of the House, the money for the research assistance and the information technology equipment that will enable you to scrutinise effectively." A great many hon. Members speak about the need for more research assistants and secretaries. Currently, it costs £150 per square foot per year to accommodate a research assistant or a secretary in the kind of accommodation that we shall be putting up. I contend that by implementing the information technology report we shall reduce the pressure for more researchers. We do not have to reduce it by very many at £150 per square foot per year to pay for the lot three or four times over — to say nothing of the secretaries—and the Leader of the House has not taken that into account when doing his sums for this project.

There are other aspects, and we need to take more evidence. We need more information. We need to talk to the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment. He has written to us and wants to talk to us. We shall do that.

As for any detailed consideration of the work to be done in the House, no one needs to tell me about the difficulty of cabling in a building of this description. When I was an apprentice, I lost a cable in the middle of a five-foot thick wall in the National Library of Scotland. That taught me two lessons. The first is not to lose cables. The other is that my vocabulary was extended quite a lot when the foreman discovered what had happened. I know the difficulties involved, but that is what the technical working party is about. There is no case for Members of Parliament, who are not qualified, to sit around talking about how we get over the technical problems of cabling the building.

I have seen the way that the cabling was done in the Canadian Parliament building. It is a very similar building to the Palace of Westminster. The layout of the adjoining buildings is similar to the layout of our own outbuildings. The problems are the same. In Canada, it has been managed very elegantly.

Finally, I pay tribute to the marvellous contribution to the debate of the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Lloyd). All the members of my Committee have given me great support, and I am very grateful to them. The Leader of the House cannot say that money is not available for the pilot scheme. The new telephone exchange was estimated to cost £2.25 million. We got it for just over £2 million. There is enough money left in the kitty to pay for the information technology pilot scheme. It could be started now. I do not understand why the Leader of the House will not authorise it. All I can suggest is that it is because the Treasury has told him that it wants £250,000 back from the House of Commons.

2.25 pm
Mr. Biffen

I have restricted my reply to five minutes, not out of disrespect for the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) but out of the belief that this is an occasion when the House will wish to participate as widely as possible in a debate about this building and its arrangements.

I have been asked to provide two figures. First, on the significance of Select Committees and their cost to Parliament, I understand that it is between 1 and 1.5 per cent. of the total cost of running Parliament, exclusive of the salaries and allowances of hon. Members. Secondly, the cost of Parliament is rising at about double the rate of the rise in the retail price index. The figures will be placed on the record because they are of general interest. I shall see what can be done by way of a written answer.

The debate has ranged widely and has been a very good blood-letting circumstance. Reference was made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley) to a point that is not dealt with in the two reports, namely, the value of secretarial and research assistance. I understand that the hon. Member is to see me on Monday evening. I look forward to that fraternal occasion, so perhaps we may reserve the further exchange of pleasantries until then.

At the heart of our interest in the information technology report is our belief that the construction of the Bridge street site will provide Members of Parliament with an opportunity to repossess the Palace of Westminster. It is a considerable ambition and has to be related to projections of expenditure and of the budget of the Property Services Agency. I noticed that the hon. Member for Blaydon was keen to regale us with tales from his youth as an apprentice electrician. Had he been an apprentice accountant or an apprentice book-keeper, he would have known that he could not be quite so lighthearted about the financial implications of the proposals. Hon. Members must look for evolutionary change, a point that was mentioned by the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray), and try to achieve as broad a consensus as possible.

As for research assistants, the debate demonstrated that there is no such thing as an average Member of Parliament. It is an abstract concept. We have the combined experience of 650 people who adopt completely different approaches to work and completely different attitudes to what constitutes good parliamentary tactics. There needs, therefore, to be a measure of understanding so that what is deemed to be essential for one hon. Member does not necessarily impinge upon another who does not particularly want to use these particular adjuncts and aids.

I recognise the limitations of an Adjournment motion, but the question of research assistants is one where conditionality already exists. We are not talking in absolutes; we are talking about redefining the conditionality that attaches to research assistance. So I thought that there was some merit in having a debate to discover whether anything further could be taken into account before resolutions are put to the House to deal with the problem that has been so helpfully addressed by the Committee under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Mr. Silkin). I hope that I can atone for any lassitude in these matters by saying that we can come back to the House, with a view to taking some decisions, in the reasonably near future.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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