§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chapman.]6.54 pm
§ Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)
Many of those interested in the provision of computer services to hon. Members will probably have groaned inwardly and silently when the Leader of the House stated that the House would debate the fourth report of the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services) of Session 1989–90 tonight, on the grounds that it would come on at a late hour. Clearly, the Leader of the House knew something that we did not.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for finding the time to debate the report, because I know that many Select Committee and other reports vie for time for debate on the Floor of the House, and not all are successful. Therefore, speaking as the Chairman of the Computer Sub-Committee, I am grateful to the Leader of the House for finding time for the debate this evening.
I know that we are debating this matter on a motion for the Adjournment, but I hope that we shall hear from the Leader of the House that, as long as there is general approval for the unanimous recommendations of the report, the right hon. Gentleman will move to expedite its recommendations and to put into motion the work that can be started immediately to improve services for hon. Members.
Almost exactly six years ago—in July 1985—the House debated an earlier report from the Services Committee on the same subject, also on the motion for the Adjournment. Sadly, no action was taken on the recommendations in that report, but I hope that we shall have more success following our deliberations this evening. Six years on, we are debating a much more modest set of proposals about the use of computers by hon. Members.
The report originated with the Computer Sub-Committee, the Chairmanship of which I inherited from my hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). The Sub-Committee is concerned with the provision of computer services for Members and Officers. It meets only rarely, but nevertheless it has done important work on behalf of the House. It is worth noting that the budget for expenditure on computers for staff in the House totals £3.2 million for the current financial year, but that there is no budget for the provision of computers from central funds for Members. That is an eloquent comment. We are obviously willing to invest significant sums for services for Officers, but nothing like the same approach has been taken yet on behalf of Members.
I have described the report as "modest"—and it is certainly much more modest than I would have liked. I make extensive use of computers in my own offices, here and elsewhere. I know that some people manage without them, but I find it hard to understand how. As Chairman of the Computer Sub-Committee, I was persuaded to seek a unanimous report—to go for a consensus report—and to achieve the support of hon. Members of all parties; that is what I did, and we are now considering the report.
The appearance of the motion on the Order Paper a full year after the report was approved—I suppose that by parliamentary standards that counts as expedition—encourages me to think that, on the one hand, I am fortunate, but that, on the other hand, the other Select 710 Committee proposed by the Leader of the House—a Committee on procedures in the House—cannot come a moment too soon.
The report builds on the work of the Computer Sub-Committee during the 1983 Parliament. That Sub-Committee was ably and enthusiastically chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (:Mr. McWilliam), and its report, "Information Technology: Members' Requirements", was agreed in December 1984 and debated in July 1985. The report drew on the results of a detailed study by The Economist intelligence unit on Members' information technology needs.
The 1984 report proposed the phased introduction of a local cable network based on broad-band cabling throughout the Palace of Westminster and its outbuildings, with a view to giving all Members, their staff and the Departments of the House access to centrally generated information services such as POLIS and a wide range of commercial services and databases.
During the debate on the report, suggestions were made that the Sub-Committee had not consulted widely enough among Members at large. Other criticisms, too, were made, including some rather cranky views, such as that Members did not really need computer systems or word processing, and that those who did were a tiny minority. It would be nice to think that those ideas had bitten the dust, not least because, for our most recent study, we again examined Members' circumstances so as fully to inform the work of the Sub-Committee before producing our report.
For example, we conducted another survey along almost identical lines to the earlier survey. The results are summarised in paragraphs 14 to 16 of our report, and are set out in more detail in page 13, at the back of the volume. They show what can be described only as a staggering increase in the use of computers by Members on both sides of the House.
§ Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)
As the hon. Gentleman said, the report is already a year old. Does he have any more recent information on that trend?
§ Dr. Cunningham
I have only anecdotal evidence, but it all suggests increasing use of computer systems of various kinds by Members and their staff. It is impossible to keep updating the information in reports in the hope that one day they might be debated on the Floor of the House. I take the intention of the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) to be supportive, in that he agrees that those important developments continue to gather momentum.
Of the 355 Members who returned the questionnaire, 293 were already using computerised equipment of some kind and a further 21 were planning to do so. Even if no account is taken of the non-respondents, more than a year ago 48 per cent. of all Members and a clear majority of Back Benchers had entered the world of the late 20th century and introduced some kind of information technology appliance into their offices. In other words, the use of computers and word processors had increased threefold in the five years between the earlier report and the report now before the House.
The basic point is clear. When the Sub-Committee discusses Members' information technology needs, we are not hypothesising about something that will happen in the future: we are talking about what has already happened and is a continuing trend. A majority of Members now, use 711 computer systems, as, of course, do all modern businesses, educational establishments and people in industry, commerce and administration throughout Whitehall. The House is engaged in a catching-up exercise on behalf of Members, in the interests not only of more efficient offices here—and, one hopes, more effective scrutiny of Ministers from time to time—but of providing a more efficient service on behalf of our constituents.
Computers and word processors are now almost a routine part of office life in Westminster, and I hope that we shall agree tonight that we need to take certain steps—I emphasise that they are modest steps—to regularise the situation. The House has a responsibility to decide how best those formidable services can be provided for Members, and what we can do collectively to help colleagues to take full advantage of what computer systems have to offer.
We accept that the priority is the need to provide proper offices for Members. Like many other Members in the Chamber today, I have been in the House a long time, yet we still have not achieved the modest goal of providing an office for each Member. I accept that as an objective of the House administration, but we should also accept the need to provide proper computer and information technology systems for all Members.
I acknowledge the debt that we owe the Leader of the House and his immediate predecessor for adopting a new and more energetic approach to improving the workings of the House in all its aspects. However, in this case, the most remarkable aspect of the growth in the use of computers by Members is that it has happened entirely as a result of individual decisions. Members have acted on their own behalf, not because of any collective decision or provision at Westminster.
Of course, the piecemeal approach has had a price in terms of public expenditure. First, there is no guarantee that the equipment bought through the office costs allowance is the best available, the most suitable in the circumstances, or the best value for money. Secondly, piecemeal individual purchases of computers, word processors and fax machines guarantees that, in terms of public expenditure, the worst bargain is probably struck.
As paragraph 31 of the report explains:no other large scale user of computers (whether in industry or in government) would countenance off-the-shelf purchase at standard retail prices when contemplating the acquisition of many hundreds of machines.Yet that is how equipment is provided here. People make individual decisions and go out and acquire what they think is the best buy off the shelf. If bulk purchasing were available, the cost to the public purse would be significantly reduced, without necessarily eliminating choice for Members. The same considerations apply to the maintenance of equipment.
Page 34 of the report describes the Computer Officer of the House as suggesting that savings of at least 30 per cent. could be made by central purchasing of computers. He cites a saving of almost 70 per cent. in maintenance costs if there were some collective provision.
Thirdly, Members buy expensive equipment, yet often use it only in routine and basic ways, such as for word processing, keeping personal records and filing, whereas 712 they could use the same equipment to tap into the vast amount of information available on public and commercial databases.
That happens because we have failed collectively to provide an efficient system whereby all our machines could talk to each other and use the computerised information systems available in the House, in Government and in the outside world. So there is huge under-utilisation of even the resources that we have.
The Sub-Committee's report makes a number of proposals to address the inadequacies of the present system. As I said, they are extremely modest proposals. My personal preference would be for the House to accept full responsibility for the provision of computers and associated equipment for all Members' offices and to establish a comprehensive network to support the machines. However, I have been persuaded that, for the time being, we should not seek such an all-embracing and comprehensive approach—hence the line taken in the report.
Our first proposals are designed to ensure that there is proper provision in the Palace and outbuildings for the transmission of computer data between Members' offices, and between Members' offices and the wide range of data services now available. We therefore propose, at paragraph 44, that discussions should be held between the Parliamentary Works Office, the Computer Officer—to whom I pay tribute for his excellent work in servicing the Committee and in providing advice and information to the House more widely—the Communications Manager, the Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency and appropriate commercial contractors, to identify the type and capacity of cable required to meet the long-term needs of the House for the transmission of both data and television signals.
A consultants' study of the recabling of the House and surrounding buildings for staff services and the annunciator service has already been commissioned. That is an important and useful development, but it is also important to recognise that we shall need to recable the House for the annunciator and Library services and for other services. It would be nonsense and short-sighted not to take into account, before that decision is made, the needs of hon. Members for information technology services. We would expect the consultations to lead to an early decision to introduce a new broad-band cable throughout the Palace and the outbuildings which would meet the needs of the House for the foreseeable future.
There are additional reasons for introducing such a cable, not directly connected with computers. The Services Committee has recently been under great pressure from hon. Members who understandably want access to terrestrial, satellite and cable television in their offices. Some hon. Members already have access to some of those services in existing buildings, but the majority have not. Moreover, from October, those hon. Members who are lucky enough to have palaces in phase 1 of the new building—[HON. MEMBERS: "Palaces?"] I meant "offices"; it was a slip of the tongue. It may be a palace, but it is no prize.
Such hon. Members will already have annunciator screens doubling as conventional television sets that can carry all terrestrial television services and one or two satellite services. In the rest of the buildings, the annunciator system is now antique and is extremely expensive to operate and maintain, especially given that 713 every single replacement has to be tailormade because the existing annunciator screens can no longer be bought off the shelf.
A new cable throughout the buildings would therefore serve three separate and important functions: to link Members' computers into what could develop into a computer network; to provide all Members' offices with access to commercial television services; and to provide the framework for the replacement of the annunciator system.
The Committee's second main proposal, at paragraph 57 of the report, is for the establishment of a working party to draw up specifications for the interfaces required between Members' work stations and the cable system, and to draw up a list of approved types of computers, word processors and other standard office equipment. Among others, the working party would include representatives of the Library, whose POLIS system is the most obvious readily available database to which hon. Members may wish to have access. The vast majority of hon. Members who replied to the questionnaire last year wanted access to the POLLS service.
Such provision may in itself cut public expenditure by reducing the cost of Members' gaining access to the information that they require. For example, many questions may not need to be tabled, and the necessity for reports to be commissioned on behalf of Members' may be eliminated. That means that there is a potential benefit in cost terms, too.
A list of approved equipment would be the first tentative move towards the standardisation of equipment in Members' offices and, as the report says at paragraph 60,would be an interim stage towards the likely ultimate objective of transferring responsibility for the purchase of Members' basic equipment from the individual Member to a central fund".At that interim stage, we could begin to see the advantage of central purchasing and maintenance under an arrangement which allowed Members to buy equipment through a central agency, preferably the Computer Officer, and to buy into standard maintenance and training contracts, thus saving considerable sums.
The report goes on to say that the House may well wish in future to take the "final step" towards the central ownership and maintenance of computerised office equipment, but that is not recommended now; nor is it an inevitable consequence of what the Committee proposes.
I remind the House, however, that such a move would not exactly be revolutionary. It is the common practice in many Commonwealth and European Parliaments, and as long ago as 1987, the Top Salaries Review Body expressed the viewthat there would be considerable advantages in the central provision of equipment by the House, especially in terms of standardisation and bulk buying".For the time being, we do not propose that the House should go down that road, and we respect the right of those hon. Members who wish to continue to bang out their constituency mail on ancient manual typewriters or to have the right not to be connected into any on-line information system. The fact that the equipment is there in Members' offices and ready to tap into does not mean that Members are obliged to use it.
However, an agreement that only certain types of equipment may be purchased through the office costs allowance would be a small step in the right direction, because it would mean that we could move towards 714 compatible systems throughout the House. It would also probably not be that painful for individual Members. Our survey last year suggested that the overwhelming majority—93 per cent.—of computer equipment was already IBM PC-compatible, so a good deal of basic standardisation is already taking place through hon. Members' own decisions.
The House will be wondering what all this will cost. When I took over the chairmanship of the Computer Sub-Committee, I was warned that cost would be the big stumbling block in the way of anything that we thought of proposing. Since then, the Parliamentary Works Office has done some basic sums for us in March this year, it concluded that about £1.5 million would provide us with a new cable, completely new annunciators capable of carrying television pictures, and facilities for connecting all equipment to the cable. Given that the annunciator system is now life-expired and will have to be replaced, by the Government's own admission, in the next few years, the total sum about which we are talking is relatively tiny.
Let me put the sum of £1.5 million into a wider context. The Members' pay and allowances vote for 1991–92 is £57.5 million. The vote for the House of Commons administration is £44.25 million and the parliamentary works vote is £29.36 million. Set beside those sums, £1.5 million to purchase the kind of cabling that we suggest—some of which will be necessary in any event—is a modest sum, and no one could describe it as an outrageous drain on public expenditure.
In return for that sum, the House would acquire the basic framework into which we could build a computer and communications network to suit the changing demands of Members during the next few decades. It seems to me a small price to pay, and the taxpayer would be getting better value for his money than under the present arrangements for such expenditure. Of course, the ultimate objective—which may not gain favour with every hon. Member—is more effective scrutiny by Members of what happens here, and more effective representation of our constituents.
§ Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that spending that amount of money would undoubtedly bring significant savings? For example, telephone bills would be much smaller because people would use far fewer outside lines to get back into what they could access internally.
§ Dr. Cunningham
I am happy to agree with that point, although it is difficult to quantify the gains at this stage. When I was elected 21 years ago, Members did not even have their own telephones. There may even have been a time when Members provided their own telephones. I do not know whether that is the case. Perhaps I should ask the Library to check. It seems preposterous now to propose that a telephone cabling system should not be provided for our use and the use of our staff. I am sure that, in a few years, when people look back, they will see that we took an inordinately long time to modernise the way in which we provide information to Members and researchers.
I believe that the Leader of the House will want to respond positively to the report, as he has responded positively to other suggestions for improvements and progress in the way in which the House manages its affairs. I certainly hope that he will respond positively. The most positive step that he could take would be to make it clear 715 that, following this debate, he will initiate the necessary action with the House of Commons Commission and other committees to make progress on implementing the recommendations.
The report concludes in paragraph 68:The House cannot continue to adopt a wholly amateur approach to the use of new technologies which are already the standard tools of work in industry, business, education and government services of all kinds throughout the developed world".Members' actions show that we believe that there is a need to move forward and become more professional in our approach. All that is needed is the collective will on the part of the Government and the House of Commons Commission to allow that more professional approach to be adopted.
We do not expect Members to rig up their own telephone lines, as I said a few moments ago. We should no longer expect them to rig up their own computer systems. From time to time—indeed, more regularly than ever as the general election approaches—I talk to business men and women who look forward to a change of Government. While they do not all necessarily support my view, they have one view in common when they come to the House. They never cease to be amazed at the quaintness and faded gentility of the place and the appalling lack of services and facilities in the offices in which we work to represent them, their employees and our constituents. In the main, they go away thinking that Parliament is always at the forefront of demands that other organisations, establishments and groups reform themselves. In this respect, as in some others, they think that it is about time that we reformed ourselves for a change.
§ Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)
Until he made his last few comments, I had been about to say that I entirely agreed with everything that the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) said. Clearly, I must dissociate myself from the only mistake in his whole speech. He will not win the next election. However, I am sure that he will take everything else in the spirit that I intend. I support everything that he said about the matter that we are debating.
When I first entered the House in 1987, I was luckier than many of my colleagues, in that I had used a word processor before. Apart from that, I was computer-illiterate. I suppose that there are those who would say that I am illiterate, but for the purposes of this debate let us settle for computer-illiterate.
As all my colleagues will know, when I first arrived I was provided with a desk, a telephone, two filing cabinets and a not ungenerous office allowance. But otherwise, I was utterly and completely on my own. Four years later, I have two Amstrad minicomputers, a word processing package, a database and a modem link to the Parliamentary On-Line Information System. I hasten to add that I am one of just 49 Members who have taken advantage of the opportunity to be linked up directly to POLIS. To this day, I am slightly amazed that all that technology works. Whether it works well is a different matter, but I am constantly amazed that it works.
It is clear to me that my computer equipment enables me to do things that I could not possibly do otherwise.
716 However, I am conscious that I am not getting the best even from my fairly small basic personal computer. There are still things that I do not understand about my word processing package. Many a time when I am using it, someone comes along and says, "Why are you doing that? All that you need to do is the other." I am still learning, four years on.
I know now that, when I set up on my own small database which I had bought off the shelf, I did not do it properly. Some 10,000 records later it is rather difficult to alter. But perhaps someone knows different and can tell me how to alter it—one of the points that the hon. Gentleman made. I have yet to get to grips with POLIS.
To obtain all that equipment set me—or the taxpayer—back £5,000. I have not the faintest idea whether it was good value for money. I have no means and no knowledge to test that. Such a tangle does the mother of Parliaments no credit whatever. When other people can put men on the moon, many an office in the House still has steam-driven typewriters, as the hon. Gentleman said. It really is not good enough.
Therefore, I welcome the debate and I support the proposals in the report. However, I am appalled that nothing seemed to be done after the debate in 1985. I hope that this time we shall not have a rerun of what happened then. In supporting the report, I wish to explain three matters as they seem to me. I shall state, first, why I believe that we need to change; secondly, what seems sensible for us to do; and, thirdly, how we should make those changes.
The reasons why we need to make the changes have been well set out in the report and by the hon. Gentleman. If we follow his Committee's recommendations we shall end up as better legislators and better representatives of our constituents, irrespective of our party. We and other people will be able to judge whether the money we spend gives us value for money.
How would we become better legislators? First, we would be better informed. It is amazing that events can take place in the world outside and we do not know about them. My leg is always pulled when I complain that I do not have access to television. People say that all that I want to do is stay up late at night and watch what I read about in the newspapers. But I can work here all day and not know the first thing about some major news item, because I am confined to the Chamber or my office. I do not regularly have access to the world outside. If we were better informed, we should be better legislators.
Secondly, it would be easier for all of us to do research. The hon. Gentleman said that there would be fewer demands on House of Commons staff. I am convinced that that is right. I am very conscious of how often I ask other people to do something which I know could be done more simply if only I had the means to do so. There would be enormous savings. We would also be encouraged to do more research. Sometimes I am reluctant to use the time of a member of the Library staff to research a matter which I consider interesting but relatively trivial compared with the demands of others. We would be able to do more and better research if we could do it ourselves.
One advantage about which the Government—whatever party is in power; this is not a party political point—may not be so keen is that we would be better legislators because the system would bring us closer to the Government and the Departments. It would make us much more able to ask questions, exchange information and go back and ask again. We would no longer have to 717 exchange interminable letters and wait a long time for the replies. We would be better legislators if we were closer to the Government.
Why would we be better representatives? I am sure that, given a system that we all understood and could plug into, we would give our constituents a quicker and fuller response to their inquiries. We would be in a much better position to seek help from them if we could communicate with people. We would find it much easier to communicate with our constituents. How often are we criticised for being remote and out of touch? It would be easier for constituents to communicate with us.
I know of 10-year-old constituents who are capable of faxing information who are amazed when I look blank and say that such things do not happen here. We have all known occasions when people want to fax important information to us and we have scratched our heads and replied that we are not sure how that could be done. If we had a cabling system, as proposed by the hon. Member for Copeland, we should be better able to communicate with our constituents and they with us.
Value for money is important. If the proposed system was installed, we could make better use of our time. At the moment, there is a quaint tradition of pieces of paper rushing around the Palace after us. I pay great tribute to those who try to find us in appalling circumstances, but it does us no credit that we communicate with each other in this place by means of little bits of paper. Sometimes they do not catch up with us for several days.
The new system would also make better use of the time of our staff. How many of us have had to dispatch someone from Abbey gardens, to Dean's yard, Norman Shaw North or to the Palace? If one totted up the amount of time spent obtaining information it would be clear that obtaining it via the cable system suggested by the hon. Member for Copeland would represent a sensible saving of taxpayers' money.
I am equally convinced that we would use our allowances in a different way if the new facilities were introduced. Bulk purchasing would save money, as would the standardisation of equipment. I am also sure that there would be less wastage. I do not know whether some of the things that I did were a waste of money, but I am sure that others have done what they thought to be right only to discover, through no fault of their own, that their system is not compatible with others. They may discuss the matter with colleagues and discover that, had they done so earlier, they would have done things differently.
We may argue about whether we can quantify the cost of telephone calls—the hon. Member for Copeland is right that we may be unable to do so—but I am certain that the proposed new system would result in getting more from the same amount of expenditure. I am sure that that would happen even if we did not reduce the individual allowance to pay for the central funding of the system. I believe that, under the new system, we would get more from the current level of expenditure and that is just as important as a value-for-money exercise, as is one to discover ways in which to spend less.
What should we do? Certainly we should do more than we did in 1985. However, we should do nothing until we have wired up the system. No matter how hard an individual may beaver away, we cannot do anything until we are linked with the central system. The wiring up of the system must be top of the list.
718 Standardised, specially designed equipment is just as important as the ability to bulk purchase. The word processing packages, mail boxes, message systems and diary systems should be specially designed for us and centrally available. We must also have a comprehensive database system. POLIS is all right up to a point, but it simply tells us where to look in Hansard for what we want—it does not tell us what is in Hansard. A comprehensive database system would go way beyond POLIS, useful though that is.
We should ensure that all the facilities can be accessed from each of our constituencies—that important point was not stressed in the report. Increasingly, individual Members are taking the view, often rightly, that a better service to constituents can be given if staff are based in the constituency rather than here. Whatever we set up in the Palace, it must be readily accessed from our constituencies.
We must ensure that help is provided for all hon. Members. When I came to the House, I considered myself lucky, as I knew a little about word processing. We must establish a proper system to help hon. Members make better use of the equipment available. They should understand what they might need in the future. The starting point for that system must be an invitation for bids for its design and development. Despite what the report says, I do not want another in-house Committee to be established which will run for years. It is no good lion. Members scratching their heads about what will happen next. We should go to the experts straight away. They should design and develop what we need for the future.
We should set up a central purchasing system as quickly as possible because, even if we do not follow some of the other proposals, that would be a sensible step ahead. We must establish urgently advisory as well as training services for hon. Members and their staff—it is probably more important to train our staff to use the equipment. That training and advice must be basic as well as advanced and readily accessible to all.
I have explained why I believe that we should support the report and why the Government should take firm action. I believe that that action will make us better legislators and better representatives. It would also help us to achieve better value for money. It only remains for me to comment on when we should act—in a word, now. If we leave it just for a moment, it will be too late. The longer we wait, the greater the waste. The longer we wait, the longer constituents will go on receiving less than the ideal service that they have every right to expect. The longer we wait, the longer we will miss an important opportunity to enable us to ensure that our legislation is of the highest quality. We pass up such an opportunity at our peril.
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
My speech will echo largely what has already been said. The work that has been done by the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) and his Sub-Committee is to be warmly welcomed. It is not typical of him to have such radical notions about making fast progress—that is in no sense a criticism—but I wish that he had used his considerable energy and resourcefulness to push the conclusions of the report further. However, he has explained his reasons, and I accept them.
I agree with the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) that we are not talking about a minor, technical 719 matter. We must decide whether such new services would make us better legislators and more readily acessible to the outside world. I have been a Member of the House for two Parliaments—other hon. Members have been here much longer—and even in that time I have noticed a dramatic increase in the volume of paper that is pushed across our desks. It is difficult to be sure that one has dealt conscientiously with all that paper unless one has the best and most modern information technology systems available.
I do not believe that it is particularly difficult to work out what we need. The work of the Committee has been signal in that regard, as it has identified that we need a broad-band cable network throughout the precincts of the Palace and outstations such as Norman Shaw North.
The hon. Member for Copeland was right to say that some of the work could be done in parallel with other projects—for example, the replacement of the annunciator system. I hope that the Government will be able to take decisions quickly enough to achieve the cost benefits that would accrue from cabling the network and replacing the annunciator system quickly. Presumably that means that that would be done within months rather than years.
We have already had a delay of six years since the last report, which is a great shame. I do not know who is to blame for that, and I know that processes in this place work exceedingly slow, but we shall stand condemned of unconscionable delay if we do not seize the moment to make the progress that the Committee indentified as possible.
The Committee report makes a telling point when it alludes to what is being done in sister parliaments on the other side of the Atlantic and in Europe. Although the precedent may not be entirely in point, it is clear that there are many lessons to be learned. In the main, those countries are miles ahead in terms of what is available to us. It is a great shame that the mother of Parliaments should not at least try to keep up with the times.
As a Scot who represents a rural area in south-east Scotland, I find it most frustrating that, for many weeks of the year, I am at home. I am not on holiday, but Parliament is in recess. Everyone understands that there is a substantial difference. I find it frustrating and difficult to continue the amount of work that I can achieve in Westminster when I am in my constituency for the long summer recess. If I had the advantage of the technological facilities that are now readily available, as a matter of course, even to medium-sized businesses in my constituency, I would be better able to continue the work that I would like to do. Increasingly, people seek access to me by fax machine or electronic mail, but I cannot respond to electronic mail. Although POLIS has limitations, access to it would allow us better to scrutinise the Executive which, after all, is what this place is supposed to be about.
I should not like anything that I have said to be taken as a suggestion that information technology can replace the invaluable personal service that we receive from the Library, the Computer Officer and others. However, much of the strain could be taken from them if hon. Members could use the machinery and the information technology themselves.
I am less worried about staff being trained. Staff have more time than we have and, in my experience, they are 720 more concerned with text generation. I am interested in having more access to data. Therefore, although I accept that training is an essential part of the whole package, when I try to persuade my colleagues to move into information technology and supply themselves with IBM-compatible personal computers, those who have had no access to information technology are confronted by a fear barrier.
Once one has established the difference between a disk operating system and a piece of software, one is halfway there. It takes no more than two hours if one applies one's mind to it. Most of my colleagues are intelligent enough to master that. A wee bit of push and access to a couple of hours' training by experts, just to cross that initial fear barrier, would generate not simply the threefold increase noted in the report—dramatic though that is—but much more.
The hon. Member for Copeland is absolutely right to say that the standardisation and centralisation of the hardware would have massive advantages in terms of system commonality. There may be a price to pay—and I note that the report rightly says that that would not necessarily mean limiting ourselves to a single supplier, which would be wrong. Apricot and Compaq—both well established firms which produce machines in this country to a high standard—provide a range of machines.
However, if we could achieve some sort of standardisation and if serving Members knew that there were three or four industry-standard software packages, they could be given a great deal of help and become confident. If they found that there was a quirk in their software package, a quick telephone call would sort it out because they would be dealing with only two or three industry-standard software packages. So a great deal could be gained from standardising the hardware and some of the software packages.
I spend some time following developments in information technology as best as I can. I must confess to the hon. Member for Copeland that I was among those who did not return the last questionnaire because I was too busy trying to move the paper across my desk. To that extent, I stand condemned. However, the hon. Gentleman can add me to the list of people who have machines and try to stay at the forefront of the technology. I must admit that even I find it difficult to work out whether there is an advantage to acquiring DOS 5 as apposed to DOS 3.3, but the experts would no doubt argue for hours about the relative merits.
If I could telephone an expert and say, "I have the standard hardware package and a couple of standard word processing and software packages—is this sensible?", the answer would be yes or no. That would avoid my having to spend hours reading computer magazines on train and plane journeys between my constituency and Westminster, so there are massive advantages to be had.
The Committee's work is valuable, and I hope that we shall not waste any more time. There are many reasons for proceeding, as the Select Committee suggests, as soon as possible. I almost said that I have only an academic interest in who is in Government after the next general election, but that is not true. If I have any influence in the next Government, one of the first measures that we should introduce to this place is a longer-term, more visionary approach to providing facilities for hon. Members who are re-elected.
721 I hope that tonight's debate will make it easier for those of us who are re-elected and any new Members to start afresh and be confident that, in the four or five years of the next Parliament, facilities will be available to enable us to act in a modern way, represent our constituencies and scrutinise the Executive to the limits of our power. I hope that that will be provided centrally by the Services Select Committee with the information technology that best enables it to do so.
§ Mr. Gwilym Jones (Cardiff, North)
I am sure that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) was right to suggest that he had only an academic interest in the outcome of the next general election. I am confident that my colleagues and I will still be on this side of the Chamber and that the hon. Gentleman will still be on the other side gazing across at us. That is the only note of dissent which I wish to enter with the hon. Gentleman.
I join the general welcome that has been given to the report on computer services for hon. Members. It is unusual for me to become enthusiastic about a Select Committee report, but perhaps I am jaundiced by my membership of the Welsh Select Committee. I must admit that I read the original report when it was published in 1984. I was then a new Member of Parliament, and I was struck by what the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) described as the faded gentility of the old-fashioned way in which we carry on our business.
I was excited by what I read in the original report, and thought of the possibilities that the new world of technology would open up. I hoped that it would equip us all and make us better legislators. Inevitably, press coverage of our consideration of the matter at that time was typified by a journalist who picked up a comment in the report about an hon. Member who said that his greatest need in new technology was to have a working telephone.
I was fascinated to hear that my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) is linked up to the POLIS system. In 1984, I thought that we could have such links and indulge in our justified professional curiosity in pursuing matters about which some hon. Members are reluctant to trouble the excellent staff of the Library. We do not want to bother them with every question that occurs to us and some ideas are inevitably left behind. To have an opportunity to fish through POLIS or, better still, an expanded database, to pursue all the questions that hon. Members with a lively genuine interest should want to pursue would be a real addition. I express no criticism of the service that we receive from the House of Commons Library, which provides us with excellent briefings, but, six years after the original report, nothing has happened.
I was struck by what the hon. Member for Copeland said about money, of necessity, being spent on providing computer services for staff and Officers of the House, but not for Members. I also noted the validity of his comment that better value for the taxpayer could be achieved by the use of common equipment from which hon. Members could select how to meet their needs.
Those of us whose secretaries and research assistants are not based here, in the Palace of Westminster, but who choose for good reasons to locate them in our constituencies provide a saving to the House. However, it 722 is not a total saving to the taxpayer, because we make provision for our secretaries and research assistants in our constituencies from our office costs allowance.
I have long noted that there is a difference in cost share—those Members who, like me, choose to base their staff outside the Palace of Westminster end up being treated unfairly, because they are making office space available in the Palace by purchasing or renting it elsewhere. We also provide the heating, lighting and cleaning in those outside offices, so that it does not have to be provided for us within the Palace. If they were based here, our secretaries and research assistants would have the basic issue of equipment—a desk, a chair, a filing cabinet and carpet to walk on—for which the cost of provision and maintenance would be borne by the Palace. That issue should be examined, and consideration given to whether the office cost allowance should be extended for those Members who choose to provide those expenses outside the Palace.
Another issue closely linked to the provision of computer services is the opportunity that could be taken to provide the Government telephone network for all of us with staff in our constituencies. The most common telephone call I make is to my secretary in the constituency. I try to take advantage of the GTN by dialling 7, so that the cost falls on the Palace of Westminster switchboard as a local call. However, that does not work the other way, and my secretary's call to me is her most frequent telephone call. If all Members were provided with a GTN system in their constituencies, that would provide a saving. Such an operation must be introduced if the report is to be implemented and we are to derive the benefit of the equipment and technology, both here in the House and in our constituencies.
I listened with the greatest of interest to the news that the new offices will have annunciators the double as commercial televisions. The absence of the availability of commercial televisions to us when we are in our offices or in the Chamber inevitably leads us to be in an ivory tower—often on the wrong occasions. We need the source of information on which so many of our constituents depend.
I am sure that Members have often returned home to their constituencies at the weekend to be asked whether they saw a certain television programme such as "Question Time"—one of the most obvious examples. Obviously, many Members will not have seen it because they were in the Chamber or travelling home on Thursday evening. That gap in our knowledge probably leads people to suspect us of being in an ivory tower, because it is not one known to our constituents.
A couple of years ago, I visited the new Parliament in Canberra. In providing a brand new Parliament building which is designed to be good for at least another 200 years, the Australians have taken the opportunity to provide all the latest facilities. There is a television link to the Chamber in the office of every Member, and all the other channels are available. I should think that the Whips would very much want the same system to be introduced here. In Australia, they know in advance who is to speak next and have control of their own television camera so that they can pan round the Chamber to see if the next speaker is in his or her place. If panic sets in because he or she were not there, the problem can be easily overcome.
There are a number of such examples, of which that is but a small one, of how televising the Chamber and the other use of commercial channels would be helpful. The 723 only danger is what that system might do for attendance in the Chamber. If there were more opportunity to view it from outside, from offices, attendance in the Chamber might be as low as now or even lower, except at peak times when doughnutting might take place.
I am enthused about the way the report points the way forward, and I hope that we shall make progress, and not continue the lack of advance of the past six years. As other hon. Members have said, we should seize the opportunity to make progress—and the word should be "now", not "tomorrow".
§ Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)
When I first arrived in the House in 1983, I took as much advice as possible from colleagues already here on what it was essential to know in order to function in this place. I was told that, provided one found the loos, one would be able to function in all ways as a perfectly adequate Member of Parliament. Therefore, the range of knowledge that I did not immediately acquire was substantial, and among the information that I was not given early on was which computer one should buy to be an effective Member of Parliament.
I went to a person whom I thought could give advice, someone who had been a fellow councillor on Reading borough council. I said to him, "You know about computers, Geoff." He said, "Yes, I do. You need a Commodore." Therefore, I have been incompatible for the past eight years. As one who feels for those other Members who found themselves in a similar position, I felt it appropriate to say a word or two on this important subject.
I came into the House in the 1980s. With the exception of the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Cunningham) and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, I think that all those participating in the debate come from the more recent intakes to the House. We have been struck by what the report says about the services available to parliamentarians in other countries. I could not help noticing what the report said about Italy. It stated:The situation in the Chamber of Deputies is very similar" to that in the Senate.The central computer is an IBM 3090 Model 120S (shortly to be replaced by a Model 150J). Linked to this are two smaller systems, an IBM AS/400 Model B60 and an IBM 4381 Model 91 with altogether around 150 terminals, dedicated to supporting substantive (i.e. non-administrative) Parliamentary work. And the 12 Party Group offices are equipped with IBM PS/2 Model 60 Personal Computers and printers (not all linked to the central computer). There are also personal computers linked to the central system in each of the 13 Permanent Commission offices. Finally, the Chamber Research Department has a Phillips P7000 computer with 20 terminals. Deputies have access to all these facilities. As in the Senate, they make no contribution to their cost.There are many other examples in the report that illustrate how far ahead other legislatures are. Why? It is fairly obvious that there is a generally low level of service to Members of this House across the board, and the computer service is no exception. Equally, if the number of hon. Members attending this debate is anything to go by, one must admit that there is a low level of interest in the subject. Why?
724 It would have been interesting if the Committee had looked at the relationship between the use of computer equipment and length of Members' service. I suspect that the more recently elected Members are those more likely to use computer equipment. That means that, over a period, as Members retire, so the percentage of Members who understand and want to use computers will progressively increase. It may not simply be a matter of educating existing Members, but may also involve the gradual turnover as new Members come into the House with each general election. That must mean that the level of understanding of information technology is rising all the time.
Having said that, I agree with the Committee that we should not go down the road of exercising compulsion as to the equipment that right hon. and hon. Members should use. Instead, we should provide in every office the plug that will allow the right equipment to be attached. That is not to say that every Member of Parliament should have a computer of one type or another. I support bulk purchase, but only on the basis that it offers the full commercial advantage that usually accrues from that practice—and not because we want to dictate to right hon. and hon. Members, who must continue to be their own men and women in deciding what is appropriate for them.
Recently, we have seen an enormous growth in the number of fax machines in the Palace. Perhaps we should switch soon to the bulk purchase of that equipment, in order to give Members of Parliament the advantage of so doing. I see no reason why we cannot do that immediately, because it would not require any increase in the availability of networking. Perhaps the Chairman of the Computer Sub-Committee, the hon. Member for Copeland, can comment. I hope that suggestion will find favour with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.
Right hon. and hon. Members also need a closed user group to operate a telemail system such as Telecom Gold. The antiquity of the methods that right hon. and hon. Members use to contact one another now is extraordinary. It is almost impossible to get a message to another right hon. or hon. Member, whether they are in the Palace or elsewhere, unless they happen to be answering their phones. It would be far preferable to leave a telemail message, which one could be certain of being received by either the Member of Parliament or his or her secretary.
All that would add to the potential use of a system. We must ensure that the broad band network under consideration will be of sufficient capacity to meet future needs, not only because, as years go by, more and more right hon. and hon. Members will want to use the system, but because the volume of the potential usuage will grow. There is a danger that sufficient capacity will not be provided in the broad band network to meet all the possible uses that will emerge. All offices in the Palace and in the outbuildings should be network-linked, and we should plan ahead for such an arrangement as it comes on-stream.
I do not believe, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Jones) suggested, that the availability of Chamber television coverage in the offices of right hon. and hon. Members would result in a lower attendance in the Chamber itself. I recall the argument that the televising of our proceedings would have a bad effect on the behaviour of right hon and hon. Members. That has been shown not to be true. Nor do I take the view that the provision of televisions in our offices would affect our 725 attendance in the Chamber. Instead, that facility would allow right hon. and hon. Members to keep in touch. I share the view expressed by others that right hon. and hon. Members are often the last to know what has happened in the Chamber or elsewhere in the world.
In recent months, I have questioned my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about the provision of Sky satellite television to right hon. and hon. Members who ought to have access to the full range of stations. United Artists recently made a proposal concerning parliamentary proceedings. That is a good step forward, and I hope that the proposal can be extended. I also hope that we may enjoy news coverage not only by CNN, as we did during the Gulf crisis, but by Sky News, which is the British 24-hour news station from British Sky Broadcasting.
Right hon. and hon. Members could also have access to the video recordings, and with the right technology, would be able to call up on their own screens a news item or coverage of a particular incident in the House. One would not have to wait until tomorrow's newspapers to try to catch up, learning at second hand what had happened, according to the media. Instead, one could quickly reference an incident to which another right hon. or hon. Member or a constituent had drawn one's attention. Not to put too fine a point on it, such a facility would allow a Member of Parliament to check whether he was attacked during his absence from the Chamber in the way that a news report alleged earlier the same day or the day before.
Work also needs to be done on developing software that will enable right hon. and hon. Members to enjoy the full value of the hardware that might be the subject of bulk purchasing. Other hon. Members have referred to software that can serve as an electronic diary, handle a Member of Parliament's casework and so on. We probably all share the same needs in that regard. I see no reason why work on the provision of such software should not begin immediately and continue apace.
I believe that the cost of such an operation would be perfectly acceptable in political and economic terms. Mention has been made of cabling costs of £1.5 million. The cost to the public purse of the necessary hardware and software would be greater—but still a relatively small sum in comparison with the figures suggested by the hon. Member for Copeland. Members of Parliament would then be able to do a better job of representing their constituents and of controlling the Executive. I do not believe in the conspiracy theory that is sometimes advanced, to the effect that the Executive want to prevent Back Benchers from doing their proper job of monitoring the Government's work. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is anxious to reassure us that that has never been in his mind.
An opportunity to replace the ancient annunciator system would permit a move in the direction suggested by the Committee. I share the hope that the process of improvement can be speeded up. It is a long time since the issue was last raised in the House, and a long time since the report was published. In fact, it was 16 days less than one year ago.
When I was a newcomer to the House, I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Department of Trade and Industry to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker), who was then Minister of State for Information Technology. He set in motion a revolution that introduced information technology to primary and secondary schools throughout the country. 726 The first children to benefit from that development of the mid-1980s could be among those who become Members of Parliament in the general election after next. That generation will be amazed to discover that we have taken so long to reach technology conclusions that are so obvious, so right and so necessary.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will not suggest the establishment of half a dozen working parties to analyse the findings of the Sub-Committee. In my view, its work is excellent and stands on its own merits, and it ought to be . acted upon without further delay.
§ 8.8 pm
§ Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre)
I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs), who drew attention to the fact that we are having this debate nearly a year after the report was published. If nothing else, that shows the lack of importance that right hon. and hon. Members—given all the other things that are happening—attach to computerisation. That is a great pity. My first thought on reading the report was that it was very difficult to discuss networks before considering office accommodation. Some of us share offices that are some distance from the Palace. However, I realise that that is often an excuse for doing nothing.
Before coming to the House, I was in the computer industry for some years where I learned that one cannot wait for the next development but that decisions have to be taken and acted upon. Networks are invariably changed a few years after they are installed. I was at the sharp end of the computer industry, buying machines and trying to predict consumer demand, and I found that it was difficult to predict the way in which industry would move.
Desk-top publishing hit us almost before we realised it. Portability took rather longer, but it is now gathering momentum and might have changed earlier decisions on the report. The development of the fax machine in the past year has been quite extraordinary in terms of cost and extra facilities. That creates new demands and new ways of looking at problems associated with computing.
We should first create a network which should at least cover all hon. Members' offices and be flexible and simple. It should contain a database which can be expanded to incorporate extra facilities. It could contain our electoral rolls, because at present we spend a great deal of time trying to find out whether someone who has written to us is a constituent.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon spoke about messages. Our message systems are efficient in their own way, but it is extraordinary that we cannot make use of the advances in computer technology to provide a more up-to-date message system. Extra information through television and radio channels needs to be provided in a much more user-friendly way. The network must be created as soon as possible.
I entirely agree with what has been said about training and advice. The problem encountered when introducing a new computer system to a company is that people are ignorant about its potential and about the sort of software, hardware, printers and peripherals that are needed to do the job properly. I suggest some sort of advice centre so that hon. Members can discuss their needs in a meaningful and knowledgeable way rather than in the somewhat amateurish and ignorant way that people tend to go about 727 it at the moment, which is to ask a friend for advice. When one asks a friend about a good idea, one does not always get the correct answer.
Overall, the report is good, and I wish that we had taken action on it before now. Having installed the network and made use of the advice centre to gain more knowledge about what we want, a basic personal computer, obviously IBM compatible, and a printer should be made available to each Member, and that should not affect the secretarial allowance. Hon. Members can experiment with the system and decide what they need because London Members will probably require a different set-up from Members with constituencies such as that of the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham).
Whether we like it or not, over the next 10 years every hon. Member will spend more money on electronic apparatus of one sort or another. In five or six years, we shall be using devices that we cannot even imagine now. I am sure that, five or six years ago, many hon. Members had never even seen a fax machine let alone used one.
Beyond the basic provision, there must be an element of choice. A classic example is the huge advance in the memory capacity of portable computers. The other day, I saw one that had 70 or 80 Mb of memory on a 586 chip. Such a technological increase is quite astounding. Bearing in mind the needs of hon. Members' in their constituency offices, their offices in this place and in their homes, portability will become more and more important. With the basic system in place, hon. Members may wish to use their secretarial allowance to buy other highly portable electronic devices.
I hope that the debate will help us to arrive at a firm conclusion along the lines that I have suggested. As I said, we should make progress with the network and training and with the provision of basic computer facilities. When hon. Members have gained some knowledge, they can make their requirements known and will be able to buy peripheral equipment to fit into the system.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John MacGregor)
The hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) spoke about the time at which the debate started. I had no idea when it would start. Given that we were dealing with Lords amendments and in view of the amount of business on the Order Paper, we might well have embarked on the debate in the middle of the night. I am glad that we did not, because this is an important debate, which deserves an appropriate time.
In holding the debate today, I was implementing a promise given to the hon. Member for Copeland that I would use my best endeavours to debate the report before the summer recess. As the hon. Gentleman said, compared with debates on some other Select Committee reports we have made rapid progress on this one by having the debate within the year in which the report was published.
My hon. Friends the Members for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) and for Wyre (Mr. Mans) complained about delay and said that we should move more swiftly. In endeavouring to hold the debate before the recess, I had it in mind that we would be able to make swift progress on the report's recommendations. I am delighted to see that 728 there has been general agreement on all matters except the result of the next general election. However, that is not material to the debate. Hon. Members feel that these are important matters and that it is imperative to get on with them.
The House owes a debt of gratitude to the hon. Member for Copeland and his Sub-Committee for their work in producing the report, in assessing the current use by hon. Members of computers and similar equipment, for making what the hon. Gentleman described as modest proposals for co-ordination in the use of such equipment, and for making progress in the House. The Sub-Committee has pointed the way in practical terms to the establishment of an information technology network which will enable hon. Members to communicate efficiently with colleagues and constituency offices. Other ways in which it will assist hon. Members have been mentioned in the debate. It will also enable hon. Members to take advantage of the powerful information services that are becoming available in the public and private sectors.
The hon. Member for Copeland referred to last year's survey of Members' computer equipment. That revealed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre pointed out, that many colleagues have used the opportunity of the improvement of the office costs allowance to increase the use of computers, word processors, fax machines and so on which are now penetrating the work of Members' offices. As the hon. Member for Copeland said, we are now talking about issues facing the average Member with an average office. We are no longer dealing with the frontiers of new technology but with the ordinary reality of the day-to-day work of most offices, most other business sectors and, as the hon. Gentleman said, education.
I have already said that most hon. Members who have spoken in the debate referred to the desirability of the House reaching decisions that would lead to early action to implement the recommendations of the Computer Sub-Committee. I fully support the Sub-Committee's proposals. I share the enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Copeland for moving more quickly than his report advocates, although he made clear the reason for going at the pace he suggested—the need to obtain unanimous support. Like the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), I well understand that.
We are at a most important new stage in the evolution of the services provided for the House as a whole. The problems raised by the previous report of the Services Committee, to which reference has been made, were frequently quoted during the Ibbs inquiry to illustrate the need for the establishment of a more coherent structure for decisions concerning new services for the House. We already have in place a new director of finance and administration to implement part of the Ibbs report. If the House agrees, I hope that in the autumn we shall have the new Select Committees, including the Finance and Services Committee. That will enable sensible and coherent decisions to be made and full account to be taken of their costs.
Moreover, decisions will be made more quickly than has been the case in the past. My preference is for the more expensive decisions—I stress the more expensive decisions—that face us on the issue to be delayed until the new Ibbs arrangements can be in place and decisions taken through them. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who I know has had to leave the debate, that that is no reason for delay. He called for action now. 729 The Ibbs system will enable us to take those decisions more quickly and efficiently. I hope that the bulk of the decisions can be taken in that way. However, I believe that we can make useful progress towards implementing the report before we reach that point in the autumn. I shall return to this matter at the end of my speech.
As several hon. Members have made clear, there is now wide acceptance in the House of computers, word processors and so on. They are becoming increasingly normal in the day-to-day traffic between Members, Government Departments and officials of the House. The Computer Sub-Committee has also demonstrated that many Back Benchers—I suspect probably the majority by now—have made extensive use of their office costs allowance to purchase such equipment. Many would also like access to information services, such as the Library's POLIS service, and to some commercial information services. The steady improvement in the office costs allowance that has taken place during the lifetime of this Government has helped Members to make use of the new technologies. What we are talking about now is how to proceed further.
If I may follow up what the hon. Member for Copeland said in relation to the previous Services Committee report and the reaction to it, the feeling was that one had to bear in mind the fact that there are still some hon. Members who do not want the new technologies to be imposed upon them. My feeling, and that of most hon. Members who have spoken, is that the number of such Members of Parliament will decline substantially. However, their attitude has to be taken into account.
On the whole, I think that the Computer Sub-Committee has got the balance about right. It was right to say that the building will need to be re-cabled soon for the sake of the annunciator system. I share the Sub-Committee's view that it would be wrong to do so without making provision for the transmission of computerised information services. I am sure, too, that the Computer Sub-Committee was right to emphasise the potential advantages—a point made by the hon. Member for Copeland—of scale in the hulk purchase and maintenance of new office machinery through some sort of central agency. Equally, I am certain that the Sub-Committee was right not to suggest that we are ready to move over to a system in which office equipment is provided from central funds, with individual colleagues no longer having the choice about what equipment to purchase, let alone whether they want such equipment at all. My hon. Friends the Members for Swindon and for Wyre laid emphasis on the need for individual choice.
The overall aim of the Services Committee is set out in paragraph 28(c) of its report. I quote it because, although I was not a member of the Committee, its policy has my unqualified support. The Services Committee says that the objective is thatthe House should now adopt as long-term policy the aim of providing the best available information technology services for Members from central funds, while at the same time preserving a reasonable degree of individual discretion Kn the choice of systems for use by Members and their staffs.That general aim was endorsed by all hon. Members who spoke in the debate. It represents an important declaration of intent by the House to accept responsibility for ensuring the best possible computer services for Members, in much 730 the same way as we have now accepted responsibility for providing a minimum standard of basic office accommodation for all Members and their staff.
As has been pointed out, we are not talking just about equipment for individual Members. We are talking about POLIS and various other services that can be plugged in. When I re-read the Computer Sub-Committee's report, I was struck by the wealth of communication and information services that would become available through the establishment of a network. The memorandum from the Library—reproduced on pages 40 to 46 of the report —mentions the vast range of services to which I have just referred. I agree with all those who have said that this will improve the way in which we do our jobs and how we communicate with our constituents.
The Sub-Committee's report also argues in favour of a new cable network for the very straightforward and practical reason that it would simultaneously provide the framework for information technology services and enable the annunciator system to be replaced and all Members to receive the whole range of public service television broadcasts in their offices. I am wholly in favour of that development, particularly since some Members—notably those who will have offfices in the phase 1 building from October—either have or will have access to such services.
Paragraph 47 of the Sub-Committee's report suggests that the main costs of the installation of a new broad-band cable should fall on the Vote of the House of Commons Commission rather than on the parliamentary works budget. The Sub-Committee may be right about that. Indeed, I suspect that it will be right, although discussions need to be held between the parties concerned. Until now, these costs have been seen as falling on the parliamentary works budget. It is likely that that budget will become part of the responsibility of the Commission in the near future. We shall still have to justify the expenditure and ensure that a proper attribution of costs is made, but I believe that that is the way that this matter will proceed.
That brings me to the point about which I was asked by the hon. Member for Copeland—the main proposals for immediate action, contained in paragraphs 44 and 57 of the report. They are for discussions to identify the kind of cable needed for a network and for a working party to recommend a shortlist of approved equipment. I believe that these matters could now be put in hand very swiftly. I take the general endorsement of the report by hon. Members as a clear indication that those hon. Members who have an interest in these matters approve of the report and want us to get on with it.
In the light of the debate, therefore, I propose to ask the House of Commons Commission to authorise the limited amount of expenditure that is needed to allow the initial studies proposed by the Sub-Committee to be undertaken as a matter of urgency. Once the various working parties have reported to the Computer Sub-Committee—or to its post-Ibbs successor—the way should be open for a firm recommendation to be made to the Commission, with the advice of the Finance and Services Committee, to allow planning for a new cable network to be put in hand. I am advised that these initial studies should be speedy affairs. Therefore, I hope and expect that serious plans for the cable network should be put in hand in the autumn.
731 I hope that I have given the hon. Member for Copeland the response that he sought. Again, may I say how grateful the House is to him for the work that he has done. On that basis, knowing that there is a different type of Adjournment debate to follow, I beg to—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)
Order. Before the Leader of the House does that, I see that the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) wishes to reply.
§ Dr. Cunningham
The speech by the Leader of the House was excellent news for hon. Members, and I warmly welcome his positive response to the debate. In 21 years in the House, I cannot remember a single occasion on which everyone who followed me in the debate agreed with me —it is worth putting that, if nothing else, on record this evening. I suppose that I should enjoy it while it lasts, because I do not expect it to become permanent.
The speeches of the hon. Members for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), for Cardiff, North (Mr. Jones) for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) and for Wyre (Mr. Mans) and of the Leader of the House were well worth listening to. I am grateful for their kind comments about the report which reflect not only on me as Chairman of the Sub-Committee but on all members of the Sub-Committee, whom I thank for their work. It is appropriate also to place on record our thanks to the Clerk and to the advisers to the Committee. Clearly a report that can command such unanimous support as this one has considerable merit, if not a unique character.
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for obviating what may have been a problem, in that this has been a debate on the Adjournment and not a debate on a motion to take note of the Committee's report. I look forward to working with the right hon. Gentleman on the Commission and elsewhere in order to make the urgent progress which hon. Members so clearly desire.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.8.30 pm
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Motion No. 6 was not moved. Will the Leader of the House explain why? The motion was on the Order Paper and there was no announcement, until recently, that it would be withdrawn. Did that happen because there would have been time to debate that normally procedural motion? It is almost certainly the truth that it could have been objected to after 10 o'clock, so the Government would not normally have withdrawn it.
As the main subject of the procedural motion, to limit the debate to an hour and a half, is to take place tomorrow night—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Member is now seeking to debate the motion. The motion was not moved, so I am obliged to proceed to the next business. If the hon. Member wishes to raise a point of order, I will hear it.
§ Mr. Cryer
Indeed, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will the motion be on tomorrow's Order Paper? The business for this week has been settled and announced by the Leader of the House. If the motion is on tomorrow's Order Paper, will time be allocated for debate in the usual way before we move on to the business that is to be regulated by the motion?