[Relevant document: Part of the Minutes of Proceedings of the Finance and Services Committee on 21st June (House of Commons Paper No. 518-i).]
§ 8 pm
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
I beg to move,That this House approves the First Report from the Information Committee, on The Provision of a Parliamentary Data and Video Network (House of Commons Paper No. 237), and the First Report from the Committee of Session 1992–93, on The Provision of Members' Information Technology Equipment, Software and Services (House of Commons Paper No. 737).
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
With this it will be convenient to debate the following motion:That this House takes note of the recommendation contained in the First Report of the Broadcasting Committee, House of Commons Paper No. 323 of Session 1991–92, that a clean television feed of proceedings in the Chamber should be made available to Members in their Parliamentary offices on completion of the Parliamentary Data and Video Network; but endorses the Resolution of the Broadcasting Committee of 27th June, set out in the Minutes of Proceedings of the Committee, House of Commons Paper No. 533-i, that, in view of the information now available about the likely timetable for installing the network, work should be undertaken separately from the network with a view to supplying a clean feed to Members with offices in the Parliamentary outbuildings from the beginning of the 1994–95 Session, and thereafter as it becomes technically feasible in each outbuilding, with the aim of completing the process by the end of the Summer Recess of 1995, and that the House authorities should examine the scope for accelerating the provision of a similar facility to Members with offices in the Palace of Westminster, as part of the programme for establishing the network.
§ Mr. Bennett
I shall start by conveying to the House the apologies of the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) who is not here. I think that he is lying flat on his back. He has had considerable trouble with his back over the past few months, and has had treatment for it—I am not sure whether he had an operation yesterday. I am sure that the whole House will want to wish him well.
We should be especially grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Many hon. Members, having spent two years working away to prepare a report for the House, would have liked to have their moment of glory and present it to the House. It would have been easy for the hon. Gentleman to say that we should put off the debate for a week or two, in which case he might well have been here to move the motion himself. However, he was especially keen that the report be approved as soon as possible, and that is why he asked me if I was prepared to move it on his behalf.
In moving the motion, I thank the specialist advisers to the Information Committee, Professor Bob Hynds and Mr. Philip Virgo, the Clerk of the Committee, and a large number of officers of the House who provided information and helped us a great deal in preparing the report. I also thank Richard Morgan, the computer officer, other members of the Information Committee and the user group that was set up, whose members provided us with a great deal of valuable information on the way in which networks work. In that regard, I thank especially Mrs. Bray and Mr. Crum-Ewing, representing the Westminster branch of the Transport and General Workers Union and the Secretaries and Assistants Council.
When I first came to the House some 20 years ago, I was a little surprised in some ways to find that there were still old scratchy pens in the Lobby and the Library, and there 1015 was still an ink monitor. I notice that the ink monitors still work their way through the Lobbies occasionally; the Library has moved on from scratchy pens to biros, although sometimes they disappear more quickly than the scratchy pens.
That was about the only concession to modern technology within the building at that stage. One rarely found any computer screens. Even 10 years ago, it was not easy to find computer screens. However, if one now goes down through the Library, almost every desk has a computer on it; in many of the Departments of the House, computers are fairly commonplace, and the Departments are making excellent use of them.
Some hon. Members will have noticed the big improvement in Hansard recently. It used to be frustrating that Hansard finished reporting the day's proceedings soon after 10 pm. On many nights now, it is able to report almost to midnight, although the House has not been sitting until that time lately. It is fairly rare for there to be a carry-over from one day to the next in Hansard. That is a tribute to both the people who work in Hansard and the way in which they use the new technology.
Many of the Select Committee reports are now produced by the use of computers. That has cut down the repetitive typing work involved. We can see computers in the Serjeant at Arms' Department and in almost every other Department.
I suppose that the biggest improvement is the number of computers on the desks of hon. Members and their secretaries and researchers. Ten years ago, if we heard hon. Members, researchers or secretaries talking about computers, it was usually with a measure of fear and trepidation—they were wondering whether they could possibly give them a go. Nowadays, they are much more likely to be talking about which programme they should be using and how to get the best out of the programme to improve their efficiency. The House has accepted personal computers.
What we are talking about today is how to get the benefit of all those developments to help hon. Members' with their constituency work and to enable them to be properly informed so that they are better able to scrutinise the Executive—how we can bring it all together and get the full benefit of it. It is clear that that can be achieved only with a network.
We have now had an experiment. It took the House of Commons a long time to agree to an experiment, but just before the 1992 election it was agreed that there would be one. We have now done that experiment and the report on it is before the House tonight. Of course, there were some problems with the experiment—I would not claim that everything went perfectly—but it was extremely useful. Having looked at the report, the House has the opportunity to see the potential of the network.
The first thing that we must accept is that setting up the network will be expensive. There were a lot of fears in the Committee as to how much it would cost. The report makes it clear that it is difficult to come up with the precise cost for the network because of all the other implications, such as the fact that this is a historic building. I do not think that we have to worry too much about what happened 100 years ago; we must worry more about what happened 20 years ago in terms of the problems that arose when asbestos was found, and the fact that it was sealed up.
Much of the cost of putting in the network simply relates to putting the building into a good state of repair 1016 and ensuring that we have the best facilities in terms of fire warnings, the telephone network and so on. I do not think, therefore, that hon. Members should be too worried about the cost. I have also noticed that as regards computers—they represent one of the few areas in which this has been happening—there has been a tendency recently for costs to come down rather than go up. I believe that the problem of cost can be overcome. I am delighted that the Finance and Services Committee supports the Committee's recommendations and that in the end the Government will not veto the expenditure.
The other worry from the Committee's point of view was the time scale. There are many worries about that. In many ways, it hinges on the attitude of hon. Members. Looking around the Chamber, I suspect that most hon. Members who are here tonight are probably sympathetic to the idea and would be happy to be moved out of their office for a weekend, or perhaps even longer, to facilitate the introduction of the network. Other hon. Members—probably those who are not present tonight—are less sympathetic to such moves.
The time scale comes down to the extent to which hon. Members, their secretaries and researchers are prepared to put up with disruption while the cabling work is carried out. I hope that there will be fairly rapid movement. I hope that people will be so keen to be on the network that they will be prepared to put up with more disruption. However, that is clearly a question of balance.
So far, I have talked about the first report—that dealing with the provision of a parliamentary data and video network. We are also considering the report from the last Session which dealt with the more difficult issue of the original recommendation of the top salaries review: instead of hon. Members' having an allowance to buy the computer equipment they needed, the House should provide them with it. The Committee again took fairly detailed evidence and, in the end, came up with a compromise. The Committee felt that it would be better to leave it to Members to decide at their individual discretion where to make their purchases, but that the House should offer a general recommendation. That is a sensible compromise.
When I first became involved with computers, I was very worried about them, but I was persuaded that using an Apple Mac machine would be easy. I do not think that I was actually told that any idiot could find his way around it, but that is what was implied, and it has given me some computer literacy.
It would be unfair on new Members coming into the House and to people coming to work in the House who had just started to master a particular computer system if they were then told that they had to standardise on a particular system which was provided by the House. When members of the Select Committee were in Canada taking evidence, we got the impression from some Canadian Members of Parliament that the fact that their House prescribed particular pieces of equipment and computer programs was rather restrictive.
I could speak at length about the reports, but I am conscious that we have a very limited time. As the mover of the motion, I shall be able, with the leave of the House, to respond to points raised during the debate. I shall finish with just one comment about motion No. 5, which deals with the live feed. That is tied in with the other motion because, unless we get the network, it will be very difficult to ensure that the live feed is available.
1017 Some people have said that, if hon. Members can watch proceedings in the Chamber in their rooms, they will not bother to come to the Chamber. It is interesting to note that Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from 3 o'clock to half-past 3, the two occasions during the week on which Members can do just that—sit in their rooms, put on BBC2 and watch the proceedings—are when the Chamber is actually at its most crowded; people do take the trouble to come.
I find it odd that if I am able to get home early to the Barbican, I can, if I want, watch what is going on in the Chamber because it is on the network there, but I cannot watch it in my office in the House. I realise that it can be argued that it would be fairer if everyone were able to have that facility. I certainly hope that the House will approve both motions tonight.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)
May I first take the opportunity to thank the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) for his generous remarks about my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller)? The remarks were well deserved, given the amount of work that my hon. Friend put into the report. I am sure that he, like me, is grateful for the hon. Gentleman's kindness.
My main role in the debate is simply as Chairman of the Broadcasting Committee and as a member of the Finance and Services Committee in relation to the motion standing in my name on the Order Paper concerning what the hon. Gentleman just referred to—the provision in Members' offices of what is known as the clean feed of television pictures from the Chamber.
Let me take the opportunity to pay tribute to the helpful work, in the Broadcasting Committee's consideration of matters, of the Clerk to the Committee, David Doig; of the present supervisor of parliamentary broadcasting, Margaret Douglas; of her predecessor, John Grist and of our other adviser, Bob Longman, in enabling us to consider these matters.
Before I set out as briefly as I can the complicated background to the motion, I should just like to note—perhaps more in my role as Leader of the House—that this is the first debate following the creation of the new structure of domestic Committees after the recommendations in the House of Commons services report, known as the Ibbs report, with the House's assumption of financial control for its own accommodation and works.
The new service—in this case the parliamentary data and video network—is proposed by the relevant domestic Committee. The views of the Finance and Services Committee are available and the House is invited to give a general endorsement, which I hope will happen later this evening. Thereafter, the details of the implementation are a matter for decision by the Finance and Services Committee and the Commission.
I should perhaps say to the House that my right hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee, hopes to be able to come to the House tonight in time to contribute to the debate, but he has been delayed on his way here. If 1018 he is not able to speak, I may—with the leave of the House and as long as I do not shut out other speakers—speak later on behalf of the Committee.
Since the televising of the House's proceedings was approved on a permanent basis three years ago, there has been steady pressure from different parts of the House for Members to be able to follow events in the Chamber from their parliamentary offices. Even though the convenience of having the facility is obvious, it is fair to say that hitherto not all Members have favoured such a development. The division of opinion in the House was reflected in the Select Committee on Televising of Proceedings of the House, as it was then known, when it first considered the issue in July 1990.
While acknowledging the benefits that access to the clean feed would bring to Members—particularly those in the parliamentary outbuildings—the Committee rejected the idea on three main grounds. These were: the possible adverse effect on attendance in the Chamber; the possible element of intrusiveness in offices shared by more than one Member or in offices where there was only a thin party wall; and the cost of the necessary wiring and sets.
Two years later, what is now the Broadcasting Committee—which I now chair—reconsidered the subject following further representations from Members and decided that the position taken by its predecessor was no longer tenable. There were two main reasons for that change of heart. The first was that the availability to cable subscribers of the parliamentary channel's continuous coverage had brought home to many Members the existence of a facility which others could have, but to which they were denied access in their offices in the House. The second related to technological developments within the House, notably the proposed installation of the parliamentary data and video network which we are debating tonight.
As the Committee put it,we believe that the deliberate exclusion from the proposed…network of the live pictures of the House's own proceedings would strike increasing numbers of Members as increasingly odd".The Committee was undoubtedly right in that.
The Committee attached one important condition to its recommendation that the clean feed be included in the package of services. That was that, in order to avoid creating different classes of Members, the clean feed should not be available to any Members in any part of the estate until it was available to all Members in all parts of the estate.
That is where matters stood until the publication of the recent report of the Information Committee, to which the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish spoke just now. On the basis of more up-to-date evidence than was available to the Broadcasting Committee in 1992, the Information Committee invited the Broadcasting Committee to reconsider its recommendation on the clean feed on the grounds that the likely time scale for completing the installation of the PDVN was now significantly longer—up to seven years—than was the case when the Broadcasting Committee first discussed the matter.
In agreeing to the Information Committee's suggestion to reconsider, the Broadcasting Committee recognised two main areas of concern. One was the overall timetable for the installation of the PDVN in which the clean feed was to be included, and the other was the position of Members in outbuildings. Those in offices in Norman Shaw north 1019 and south were seen as being at a particular disadvantage, as compared with colleagues both in the House and in other outbuildings with more modern facilities.
The Broadcasting Committee therefore asked the Director of Works to look at the feasibility of adopting a different approach which would achieve an accelerated provision of the clean feed to all parliamentary outbuildings. I would like to express my thanks to the Director of Works for the prompt way in which he has responded to the Committee's request and come forward with new proposals.
The proposals, if implemented, would mean that Members in all the outbuildings would have access to the clean feed by the end of the summer recess of 1995. The cabling work to achieve that would be carried out separately and in advance of the installation of the PDVN as a whole. But as a significant proportion of the cabling and ducting work can later be used in connection with the PDVN, the additional unavoidable cost of an accelerated approach to the clean feed is estimated to be very small in relation to the project as a whole—£60,000 to £70,000. I hope that the House will agree that that is a relatively modest sum for a worthwhile improvement in the services available to Members.
The detailed costings will, of course, have to be considered by the Finance and Services Committee and the House of Commons Commission, which Madam Speaker chairs. As the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish mentioned, I should point out to the House that some hon. Members may face some disturbance twice—once while the work on the clean feed is carried out and then again when the full network is installed. It is hoped that that disturbance can be kept to a minimum by concentrating work as far as possible during recesses—in particular, the summer recess.
The Broadcasting Committee accepted the revised proposals as a sensible compromise, which meets the legitimate concerns of Members with offices in the parliamentary outbuildings. In some cases—for example, No. 1 Parliament street and No. 7 Millbank—the necessary wiring is already in place and little or no additional work is needed. The Committee therefore also decided that it would be sensible if the feed were made available in each outbuilding as it became technically feasible, starting from the beginning of the next Session, 1994–95. That does not, however, affect the overall target date of the end of the 1995 summer recess for the completion of the process outside the main building. In effect, we are talking about a project to make the clean feed available to all the outbuildings in the course of the next Session of Parliament.
For Members in the main building, for whom access to the Chamber is much more convenient, the Committee has expressed the hope that the timetable for installing the PDVN, and with it the clean feed, can be speeded up. The Director of Works is already in the process of reviewing this matter, although I obviously cannot predict or pre-empt the outcome.
Those conclusions of the Broadcasting Select Committee are embodied in a resolution contained in the extract from the Committee's minutes of proceedings, which have been laid before the House. As the proposal from the Committee affects the convenience of individual Members and has possible implications for the way the 1020 House works, it is clearly right that any decision in principle should be taken by the House as a whole. It is for the House to decide where the balance of advantage lies.
For my part, speaking in my capacity as Chairman of the Broadcasting Committee, I hope that the House will approve the motion standing in my name, as well as the other motion. At the same time, I should like to express my personal hope that the House will accept the propositions put before it by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish.
§ Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) for introducing this important debate. In common with him, I support all three resolutions.
Before I proceed to discuss the matters of substance, I should like to identify the parliamentary Opposition with the remarks made by my hon. Friend and by the Leader of the House about the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller). We wish him a speedy recovery and we regret that he cannot be here tonight.
I should also like to thank the Leader of the House for usefully sketching in the background to the debate and, in particular, explaining the background to the Broadcasting Select Committee resolution which is before the House for consideration.
The House has been asked to express a view on a range of issues and our debate is helpfully informed by reports from the Information Select Committee and the Broadcasting Select Committee. We also have before us the resolution from the Broadcasting Select Committee, to which I just referred. Less excitingly for those in favour of reform, or any progress, we have before us the minutes of the Finance and Services Select Committee.
It seems perfectly clear that the majority of Members wish to retain freedom of decision-making in the provision of office equipment. That, frankly, does not surprise me. There are a range of reasons for that. The obvious ones are that different Members prioritise their work in different ways; different constituencies require different priorities from their Members of Parliament and some Members have support from other sources, whether commercial, through their own professional lives, or perhaps even from their own constituency parties, which are able to provide office equipment and other support that other parties and other constituencies cannot provide.
On page 7 of the Information Select Committee report, the consultants who recommended central provision of equipment claim that Members of Parliament wish to move from the 651 "tiny businesses" model towards a company model. That is highly unlikely to be true, and the responses from hon. Members which are quoted in the appendix to the report do not bear it out. The Committee accurately assesses the views of Members in paragraph 19 on page 7 and in subsequent paragraphs.
Hon. Members mistrust central provision and I think that they are probably right to do so. Decisions on matters of this kind should not be handed over to the Executive or to the Government's business managers—by which I mean the Executive and the Government business managers of whatever party and not just the present regime, although on previous occasions I have noted its authoritarian tendencies. In my view, Members should safeguard what independence of decision-making they have. Each of us 1021 should be allowed to do the job that we have been elected to do to the very best of our abilities and we should each make our own decisions on how best to go about that.
I do not believe that there is much of a future for shared computer systems paid for from our allowances. The submission in appendix 15 of the Information Select Committee report, submitted by Consort Systems Ltd., suggests that we could all put our information on the same computer and ensure through encryption that the data files created and used by members of one political party could not be accessed by members of another party. The company goes on to recommend that different constituencies within the same political party could, however, readily transfer between their respective computers, should they wish to do so. That recommendation slightly misses one or two nuances about this place.
It occurred to me, however, that if we had such arrangements in place in the Treasury, a joint paper could be issued on its attitude to a single European currency. The Chancellor could make his amendments to the document, the Chief Secretary could then make his, and so on: the result would be one document, but its contents would depend on who got to it last.
A separate debate has been conducted on what should be provided physically for Members here in the parliamentary estate and what should be paid for separately out of our allowances. The Information Select Committee report cheerfully refers to equipment for Members' constituency offices. The truth is that there is no guaranteed provision of a constituency office for a Member of Parliament. London Members can use the House of Commons offices, but the rest of us have to pay rent, telephone bills, cleaning costs and equipment and staffing costs from our existing secretarial allowances.
There is a strong case for reviewing what hon. Members are expected to be able to do and what they should have provided for them in their constituencies and at Westminster. The conditions in Parliament are primitive when compared with other legislatures. For example, we are provided with telephones, but even in this day and age, if we want a facsimile machine, we have to go out and buy it. The parliamentary estate will, of course, provide us with the telephone link and cover the bill, provided it is run from the House.
The report from the Information Select Committee makes some useful suggestions about training and maintenance. Once those recommendations were in the hands of the Finance and Services Committee, however, it said that they would have to be paid for from existing office costs allowance.
The Information Committee report also contains a recommendation that lists of available equipment should be made available to Members. So far no one seems to have come up with a good reason why that suggestion should be thwarted, so perhaps that reasonably harmless recommendation might get implemented, unless its inclusion was an oversight on the part of the Government's business managers.
That brings me to the twin and related issues of the cabling of the parliamentary estate and access to the clean feed. In paragraph 7 on page v of the first report of the Select Committee on Broadcasting, we are told:Whilst it would, in theory, be possible relatively quickly to provide the clean feed to Members' offices in those buildings (for 1022 example, No 1 Parliament Street, No 7 Millbank and Speaker's Court) which are already cabled for the purpose, it would clearly not be an economic proposition elsewhere in the Parliamentary estate to undertake this work as a separate project in advance of the main cabling exercise described in the preceding paragraph.That turns out to be completely untrue, as the resolution from the Committee meeting of Monday 27 June makes clear and as the Leader of the House made clear tonight.
The resolution is the unanimous view of the Committee and is presented to the House as such. Although I support it, it represents a compromise. It is intended to be as fair as possible to hon. Members in parliamentary outbuildings. The proposal is to bring the parliamentary feed to all the outbuildings by the end of the next Session and to bring the feed on stream at the beginning of the next Session where that can be done, notably at 7 Millbank and 1 Parliament street.
That raises a further question about making television services as well as the clean feed available to Members of Parliament. The retention of existing annunciators seems archaic and almost beyond reason. The sets cost more than conventional TV sets and convey hardly any information. Only a place like this could invent such an obtuse and pathetic method of conveying information. Those who favour the system can no doubt find someone else who wants to buy it.
Members of Parliament should have direct access in their offices to the clean feed from the Chamber, terrestrial television, Sky News and Sky Sport, as well as the central computer network support identified by the Information Committee. We should also have the same written statement as we have now, or something similar, to tell us what is happening in the Chamber.
An entire major British city can be cabled in a shorter time scale than that proposed by the Director of Works, under the direction of the Accommodation and Works Select Committee, for the Parliament building alone. I had an opportunity to listen to the matter being debated in detail in the Broadcasting Select Committee and I proposed that we bring in the private sector to do the job. My proposal was enthusiastically supported by the parliamentary Labour party representatives, but resisted by the forces of reaction represented among Tory Members We did our best to make progress but were constantly told that progress could not be made. I do not believe a word of it. The suggestion that it would take seven years to cable this building was absolutely ridiculous.
A further obvious thought is that the provision of support for Members of Parliament is decided in an episodic and essentially random way. This building and the collection of outbuildings surrounding it are not suited to the running of a modern Parliament. The failure to make a structured provision to support Members of Parliament exacerbates those problems. Every now and then, Back-Bench Members raid those issues and try to improve their lot. The Executive and the Government's business managers then try to claw back any gain that the rank and file have made.
Unfortunately, it is in the Executive's interest to keep other Members of Parliament as under-resourced as possible, so a huge fight is put up over relatively minor issues such as the provision of the clean feed. We are told that it is too difficult to provide the clean feed in Members' offices; yet every Ministry already has it. The Executive's professional advisers can monitor the Chamber at their convenience and entirely at public expense. The security 1023 services, in their nice building south of the river, can also enjoy the clean feed, which is beamed across by satellite. But Members of Parliament cannot follow business in the Chamber while they work on other matters in their offices. Those arrangements clearly illustrate the priorities of the Executive. We should stand up for ourselves and assert the priorities of the House.
§ Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green)
I agree with the recommendations made by the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and I thank him for putting the case on which my colleagues on the Committee and our Chairman, who I hope will shortly be recovered, joined him for some two and a half years in careful study. The hon. Gentleman is an expert on the matter and I pay tribute to him for tutoring me on many aspects on which I was previously ignorant.
The experience of the Select Committee, which considered the recommendations for the information technology network, or PDVN, led us to concentrate not just on providing services for those who were technologically minded but on trying to make the technology really available and useful to hon. Members and Departments of the House, bearing in mind that hon. Members were not always computer literate and that therefore any system that we recommended must be user friendly.
Our recommendations were based on a pilot scheme, on which I was honoured to serve, the aims of which were primarily to decide the usefulness of the services provided by the network, the network's security, quality and technical reliability, the quality of training which hon. Members might receive, the quality of help desk facilities that hon. Members might need or encounter, and possible new services which might be available through the network. Colleagues on the Select Committee were not all experts or so-called computer buffs. Although many were experts, we were extremely careful to make recommendations that were useful and helpful to hon. Members.
Above all, we strove to ensure that the network and services, if recommended and adopted by the House, would be of real service to hon. Members, that they would be user friendly, and that those aspects of particular use to Members were concentrated on first. Typically, those would be the help desk and training, aspects of the parliamentary on-line information system, POLIS, easy access to information services such as news bulletins' easy access to procedural matters such as the selection of amendments which come before the House and in due course better access to Hansard.
The ability rapidly to transfer information between hon. Members, their staff and the House, and in due course their constituencies, was also considered at length. We considered carefully the provision of video facilities, television, teletext, the annunciator system, and so forth, bearing in mind that our recommendations should stand the test of time and be improved as and when new technology and finances were available. One of our principal objectives was to make the work of hon. Members and their staff in the House more time-effective so that they could serve their constituents better.
I am happy to commend the motions to the House, but I am extremely grateful for the motion commended by the Leader of the House because, throughout the Committee's 1024 deliberations, I raised the matter frequently and was particularly concerned about it. It would be illogical to have a first-class PVDN system, a network and computer access to news bulletins without being able to watch our proceedings in the House.
The Leader of the House rightly referred to different classes of hon. Members—some with clean feed and some without. An invidious position has arisen whereby, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) pointed out, Ministries and others have the clean feed while hon. Members, whose job it is to scrutinise everything that goes on in the House and particularly what is produced by the Executive, do not. Furthermore, the custom has been broken so that the Whips Offices have the clean feed while some senior hon. Members, such as Chairmen of Select Committees, do not.
I am therefore particularly grateful to the Leader of the House for commending the motions. I hope that the House will approve them and I commend them both to the House.
§ Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)
I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) chose the right target in blaming the Government for all the difficulties in the development of the field that we are discussing. I have known sufficient Leaders of the House and Ministers who have tried to press things on both sides of the House over the years. I am afraid that the administration of the House of Commons is the real obstacle—the vested interests built up in this place, with which hon. Members do constant battle. They are perhaps winning more than they used to.
§ Mr. Nicholas Brown
To clear the point up, I think that there is a great deal in what my hon. Friend says.
§ Mr. Newton
If the hon. Gentleman will kindly allow another intervention, I refrained with great difficulty from intervening in the speech of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown), and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) because, given how helpful I have been about this lot, I thought that the criticism was a bit unfair.
§ Dr. Bray
I think, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I ought to sit down at that point.
It is right to leave the provision of equipment to the individual responsibility of Members, to finance under their own office costs allowance. Individual procurement has produced, in recent years, a far faster rate of penetration of new techniques in the House than it would have done if there had been a centrally provided House of Commons service on the pattern of some past proposals that have been put to the House, which I, in those days, opposed.
It is a rapidly moving sector. Individual Members have their existing stock of equipment; they have different requirements; they have different types of software. It is sensible to leave it to their initiative, with the wide range of advice available to Members.
I see no harm in having registered suppliers. It helps to get Members going. It helps to introduce new technologies. The multi-media field will grow. Members will need help in getting their compact discs going on their machines and 1025 so on, so there should by all means be some registered suppliers. However, those suppliers will never be able to compete with the prices that one can obtain in the mail order pages of the computer magazines, which we all buy on our way to and from our constituencies.
I see no harm in site licences for commonly used software, but Members will quickly drift away from any site licence standard. Some of them will want to upgrade faster; others will want to move more slowly, and any central licence provision would not cope with the variety of Members' needs; but that does not mean that, if there were a site licence, it would not meet the needs of some.
Training is always valuable, and I am sure that the idea of partly providing that in house and being prepared to buy in training facilities to meet peak demands, as at the beginning of a new Parliament, is a good idea.
As to the PDVN, on the initial question of the content of the services, yes, the live feed and the television access are obviously of common importance. However, for evidence of the data services available, we are indebted to the evidence from our own staff, from the representatives of the Transport and General Workers Union and the Secretaries and Assistants Council, who provided one of the only two lists of actual services that appear in the records of the Committee.
The Library, which provides the other list, makes an important distinction, on page 102 of the first report of the Information Committee 1993–94, between the "minimum services", which should be provided without a doubt—POLIS, CD-ROM server, Library and Statistical Section servers and so on—and what it calls "desirable services"
I think that the "desirable services" are essential for the development of an open and developing system: for example, the independent access by Members to the Press Association's Telpress service, the access to electronic mail—external electronic mail, not internal House of Commons electronic mail—to Internet, of course to JANET and to Super-JANET and the possibility of fax transmission, inward and outward, and fax storage.
The range of information services that will be available electronically will increase enormously in future, as almost all printed material is now generated by electronic means and the electronic form of it will become available to networks. I find it extraordinary that we have allowed the situation to develop where our own Library does not even have a site licence for access to Hansard.
We may be right in having forgone setting up the House of Commons Library as a copyright library, in the way that the Library of Congress is in the United States, but for us not to have access to the record of our own words is a bit rich. We should certainly make it a condition that all Her Majesty's Stationery Office-generated material should be available, free of charge, to Members through the House of Commons, in the same way that printed material is.
On the openness of services, the practical freedom with which that will operate will depend enormously on the use of industry-standard software and hardware in this place. I confess that I am more than a little alarmed at the jargon in the technical report on the actual type of network to be installed in annex A on page 15 to the memorandum from the Director of Finance and Administration and the Computer Officer. I am not sure, from that, the extent of fibre-optic use in the network and the extent of coaxial 1026 cable or even twisted pair, but we are already wide users of fibre-optic networks in our own offices, and for that not to be the standard that is used throughout the building and outbuilding and so on seems absurd.
When, in my constituency, all my constituents will be on fibre-optic networks shortly—the United Artists network—they will want personal interviews with their Members on their own private channel in the Netherton ward of Motherwell on a Friday evening. I shall be happy to provide that, provided that that link is into my office, both at home, where it will be provided by United Artists, I am sure, and also from this place.
It is not only the hardware that needs to develop rapidly in terms of industry standards, but the software and the types of software that will be required. Nowadays, we have authoring systems with the capacity to produce those clever information booths, such as we have down below in the Meteorological Office weather forecasting terminal. The authoring of that type of service—public access, public inquiry systems and so on—will be well within the capacity of the good, competent research assistants that hon. Members on both sides of the House employ in large numbers.
We are in a hugely rapidly moving field, and unless we have open and industry-standard systems, Parliament will lag far behind. I think that the spirit of Members—it is clearly and well set out in the report—is to open it up and let it rip. I am sure that the my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East is right—seven years is nonsense.
§ Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)
I join in the tributes that have been paid to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) for the hard work that he has put into the preparation of the report. Given the speed of the cabling operations that are now under way in Leeds and Bradford, I like to think that, even if he is lying on his sick bed, he may be watching our proceedings at this moment. Whether that will hasten his recovery is a different matter.
There is no job specification for a Member of Parliament. Each of us chooses to do our job in the way that we best deem fit. For many of us, if not for all, a PDVN system is a fundamental necessity to do the job that we think we ought to be doing.
It seems to me that four specific aspects are crucial. The first is what we as individuals want out of the system. Members may want different things; they may want electronic mail or access to databases. I find the British Rail planning system quite useful—when the trains are running. It is good that we can have bolt-on services; they will give Members for the first time the chance to operate in an IT framework—most commercial and industrial organisations would have taken that for granted a decade ago.
We shall now be able to link the various services available in Westminster, in the Library and in Whitehall, and that will give us easier and more rapid transfer of knowledge, which will be all to, the good. As a result, we will be able to respond much more quickly to the needs of our constituents.
Increasingly, Members of Parliament want constituency offices with which they can communicate electronically. 1027 Nowadays, our secretaries often work in the constituencies, so Members want their post dealt with there but printed out here, so that it can be sent off expeditiously. There is no reason why that should not be done.
I find access to the system from home invaluable at weekends and during recesses, particularly when I cannot use the excellent services of the House Library but want access to the latest information. I hope that Library briefs will be available on the system before long. I would find them extraordinarily useful when I am rung up by a local radio station at 8 o'clock in the morning and asked to contribute to a programme in an hour's time. It would be very useful to check information that may be discussed on the programme.
It must therefore be obvious that the Committee was absolutely right to dismiss out of hand the idea of central planning of what should be available. That will enable each of us to add to the system the peripherals that we find suitable. I am beginning to experiment with the CD-ROM drive and Hansard on them, and that too is valuable. I am sure that others will find it advantageous as well.
When the Committee visited other Parliaments to see their networks and to examine how they worked, I was struck by the arrogant element in the decisions by other Administrations to tell their Members what they needed —the poor dears could not understand the systems for themselves, so they had to have what was given them. It was noticeable that the equipment lacked the capacity to keep up with the times and could not reflect sudden changes, or indeed, provide Members with what they would have chosen had they controlled their systems and budgets themselves.
Similarly, it is absurd that Members cannot have a clean feed at the earliest possible opportunity. When it was put to us that the system would take about seven years to put in place, I was as horrified as everyone else. I do not think that any of us would be able to force a change of view, but in the Committee we expressed our horror at that delay. As has been said already, it would take that long to cable a major city in the United Kingdom. That cannot be right. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will give the matter serious consideration, and will press for whatever is needed to bring in a modern system at the earliest possible date.
The pilot scheme has proved a great success with the hon. Members who participated in it. The measure of that success is the number of other hon. Members who are asking to join the system, but who, because of its limited budgetary arrangements, cannot do so.
We have a flexible and easily adapted system for the future, and I hope that the House will give it its warmest approval this evening.
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
As a serving member of the Finance and Services Committee, I should like to make a brief contribution. Earlier, the Leader of the House said that this was the first debate following the creation of the new domestic Committees recommended in the Ibbs report, and it is therefore something of an historic occasion.
The motions before us have been produced by the House's own domestic Committees, charged with the duty of giving detailed consideration to all these issues. They have produced immensely useful work, and we should pay 1028 tribute not only to the hon. Members for Denton And Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Keighley (Mr. Waller) but to the members of staff who assisted the process. The tributes to them all are well merited.
We are engaged in an important process, in which the House has the chance to take a view on the work of the Committees, so that their recommendations can be returned and implemented by the Finance and Services Committee and by the House of Commons Commission. This is the first evidence we have had that the Ibbs committee procedure is working, and I pay tribute to the Leader of the House for making as much progress as he has. He was made responsible for bringing the process together and for setting up the system. The comments made earlier, to the effect that the right hon. Gentleman is responsible for the delay, were very far from the truth.
I was heartened to find in 1984, only 12 short months after my election to this House, that we were turning our attention to what I considered the important question of information technology.
Unfortunately, nothing happened for the next 10 years, until the creation of the Ibbs Committee system and the new urgency with which the Leader of the House and the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee dealt with these matters. That is all to the credit of the right hon. Gentleman. He will excuse me if I say that he is no power user of personal computers; he may be a powerful PC, but he himself would acknowledge that he is not a power user of PCs.
I am pleased that we have come so far so fast. It has been intimated that it may take seven years to implement the full system, and the Committee has found that acceptable. Now it is for the House to take a view, which is what we have been doing this evening. I am sure that the Commission and the Committee will pay careful attention to what has been said here.
I was impressed by the speech of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown). It is good to know that the official Opposition are so progressive. Some senior members of the Opposition—indeed of all parties —are Luddites, but we have to learn to live with these technologies as best we may.
§ Mr. Nicholas Brown
I do not know how closely the hon. Gentleman follows current affairs, but the Labour party is going through a period of transition.
§ Mr. Kirkwood
I can only hope that the PDVN assists the process.
We need continually to investigate better ways of doing our job. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves) was right about that, and the hon. Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) also had some important things to say along the same lines. If one wants to improve the legislative process, the scrutiny of the Executive and our ability to represent our constituents' interests, we must always seek ways to improve the efficiency of this place.
Information systems which enable us to make better use of our time and resources must be embraced and welcomed, as far and as fast as resources allow. The transfer of information between Members and their staff and between Westminster and our constituencies will, during the next two or three years, become increasingly important.
Looking at the matter the other way round, the prospect of not accepting the recommendations and abandoning the 1029 work that has been done is inconceiveable. The only question is how far and how fast we make progress. I hope that the House will assist that process by accepting the recommendations.
I have two caveats. First, I do not know what other hon. Members think, but being over-ambitious about targets with information technology can lead to grief. We must become accustomed to the idea of developing individual systems in order to meet particular needs. There are particular needs within the Departments of the House, within the offices of Members of Parliament and within the offices of the shadow administration and Ministers. They will all need their own refined systems to do their particular work.
What encourages me more than anything else about the burden of the report is that we are concentrating on getting the infrastructure right. I am sure that we should concentrate our resources on the main information byways and highways and getting in the cabling. I agree that we should be looking at fibre-optics as well. None of those things should be left out of the equation.
However, the main thing is to put in the infrastructure so that the basic system exists into which people can dip, using and developing it in an individual way to the best of their ability and according to their needs. The core services proposed are an essential minimum in order that the system can be developed.
The House will have to accept that some physical disruption will be inevitable if we are to speed up the introduction of the core system. I for one, as a member of the Finance and Services Committee, am prepared to face up to that. We also have to accept that there will be teething problems. But that is a small price to pay for the advantages that a properly run and used system can bring. The Finance and Services Committee considered the matter long and hard, and I am convinced that the investment is justified on a cost-benefit analysis in the long term.
As was mentioned earlier, the training element must not be overlooked. That is as important an investment as the infrastructure. The rate at which the system can be expanded and developed depends a lot on training.
I have two grouses that were referred to earlier, but which I wish to underscore. I make a particular plea for POLIS 3 to be developed as quickly as possible. It is a matter of some disappointment to hon. Members that we do not have access to the benefits and advantages of the higher specification of the system that was described as POLIS 3.
A particular plea must also be made, which I hope will go out from the debate, to the Commission and to the Finance and Services Committee, for better and direct access to Hansard on line. As the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) said, it is ridiculous that we do not have access to downloaded texts from the Official Report.
If people are complaining that Whips have access to clean feed, at least it tells me, as a member of the usual channels in this place, where my 22 Members of Parliament are or are not at a given time. If we put cameras in some of the Bars, such as Annie's Bar, that would also help the Whips. I would go for full surveillance on some Back-Bench Members. [Interruption.] I may get into 1030 trouble as a Liberal Democrat for saying that, so I withdraw it. I was getting carried away with my own rhetoric. The clean feed is as important to Whips as it is to other Members, and the sooner we have it the better.
Critical mass is an important element to the success of any proper network. The faster that people are signed up and make use of the network, the more use it will be to all of us. Between now and the next election will be a critical period for us. If we can use the intervening two or three years to put the core infrastructure and training in place, when the new intake comes, as it will, the new Members will be much more willing to embrace the system if we can offer it to them with training as soon as they arrive here. That is a great opportunity that we must not miss. If we do, it will be another four or five years before we have the same opportunity.
I am grateful for the work that has been done. This is an encouraging report, which I hope the House will embrace with enthusiasm.
§ 9.3 pm
§ Mr. David Shaw (Dover)
I join those hon. Members who have paid tribute to my. hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) who has worked hard on the Information Committee in the past few years and with whom I have had regular discussions about the progress of the work. I am not a member of the Committee but I have taken quite an interest in the parliamentary data and video network. It is important. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) for the way in which he introduced the report today.
It is a good report which covers a number of aspects of the parliamentary data and video network. It leads hon. Members into a difficult area in a readable manner.
I pay tribute also to the staff who work on the parliamentary data and video network and to the consultants. Although they are not official House of Commons staff, they make it possible for us to join the network, and they work hard to connect our offices to it. I have had some favourable experiences. I am glad that my staff are connected to the network, and that I even have my own sub-network below the PDVN that allows me to communicate directly with my staff.
I look forward to getting full control of the system this summer, to reduce the 80,000 pieces of paper that I estimate go through my office in a year. If we are honest, as I am sure we are, I am sure that we would admit that the odd piece of paper occasionally goes missing. How much easier it would be if many of those documents could be electronically captured and accessed with modern technology. I hope that will be one of the benefits of my office going as near-electronic as it possibly can in the next 12 months.
The proposal before us is modest. It is a question of catching up not with 1994 but with some years back. Members of Parliament are dangerously behind in relation to the rest of the country. University students and others have moved on to electronic networking in their universities and beyond, to communicate worldwide. I am working with a number of schools in my constituency to help ensure that their pupils will be at the forefront of information technology education, so that Dover can attract the employers of the future. We want to compete for jobs with not only Europe and the rest of the country but —dare I say it—with my colleagues in the House in 1031 attracting the employers of the future, who look for young people trained in computer technology. It will be no use if Members of Parliament do not take the lead. Our constituents expect us to do that, and to understand the technology.
I examined, as an accountant might do, the cost of the proposals. For a few years, it might cost £3,000 per annum per Member of Parliament. I remind the House that many of our constituents possess £3,000-worth of electronic equipment in their homes, perhaps without realising it—let alone in their offices. One pensioner wrote to me about his NICAM stereo video recorder, which cost more than £1,000. He is not particularly well off but is housebound, and regards that piece of equipment as important to him. If one adds the value of other domestic electronic equipment to be found in the homes of many of our constituents, it totals a considerable sum.
The proposed expenditure is small by comparison with businesses. If one visits a senior manager's office in one's constituency or in the City, one will see secretaries using electronic equipment worth £20,000 or £30,000 that serves to connect the office with any part of the world. Many secretaries in London and throughout the country communicate on behalf of their bosses and companies with offices in Japan, America and elsewhere.
It is important that Members of Parliament consider the PDVN not only on an insular basis, in respect of the House and Westminster, but how it might be used in communicating with the rest of the world.
It is no good, however, if in doing so we set up a system that—according to the timetable in the report—might be installed by the year 2001, when many of our constituents have been using it since 1990 or 1992. The system must be modern and appropriate, and must enable us to communicate better with our constituents and take up their cases in Whitehall as soon as possible. We should accept nothing less than a one-year timetable; otherwise, perhaps heads should begin to roll.
I do not mind if it takes a little over a year if the excuses are good, but I do not think that "There is a lot of asbestos in the basement of the House of Commons" or "This is an old building" are acceptable excuses. We must find ways of modernising the building to meet the needs of the modern age. I am fed up with the mice in the Tea Room and the quill pens in the Library: we should be operating in a proper environment, facing the electronic age and obtaining speedy questions to the representations of our constituents.
Electronic mail and the PDVN must be introduced rapidly. I am not referring just to communications within Westminster; I am thinking of communication with Government Departments when we take up our constituents' cases, and communication with those constituents.
The United States Congress has just begun an experiment. Through the Internet, a number of Congressmen are now receiving electronic mail from their constituents, and Congress committees can be contacted by that means. I know that because I recently joined the Internet, and have been communicating not only with people in America but with people all over the world. I have taken evidence for the Select Committee on Social Security from Americans whom I contacted by posting to a news group: ordinary American citizens have contributed information about the American child support system by that method.
1032 All that is possible, but we are taking things far too slowly. We are not obtaining information that is available in the rest of the world. As my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Mr. Batiste) said earlier, we should be putting the Library on to the PDVN and making all its services—briefs and reports, for example—available to hon. Members in their constituencies. Hon. Members such as myself whose offices are in Millbank should be able to gain access to our offices from the Library via the PDVN when there are a large number of votes, as there will be in the next few weeks: there should be terminals in the Library for that purpose.
The PDVN should be wired up to the Internet as soon as possible. The Internet is connected to some 2 million computers worldwide, and 40 million people are believed to have access to it. It has contact with 60 countries, and I understand that it is connected to 18 coffee houses in San Francisco. As the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) pointed out, there is a British system—Janet and Super Janet—which could be connected with the PDVN, and would provide a number of services for university students. Not only would it allow them to send questions to Members of Parliament; it could be a two-way process, allowing Members of Parliament more access to research work in universities and colleges.
Some hon. Members will be concerned about the security implications, but we should consider all the possibilities. Unless we establish the right operation in the House of Commons, we shall not even begin to do that. It is perverse that I can read President Clinton's diary and find out his appointments—[Interruption.]—perhaps not all his appointments—when all too often I am not informed about when Ministers are coming to my constituency.
We must address the issue of the PDVN and the Government databases. There are all sorts of databases in Whitehall that the Government make available to corporations and the corporate sector. Use of the databases is charged at £60 or £70 an hour and Members of Parliament do not have access to them under the present arrangements. That is wrong. We must have access to all Government databases so that we know what statistics and information the Government are producing.
The PDVN must be made accessible in some way—I accept, in a secure way—to the public. We have to find a secure way of separating use by Members of Parliament from public use. There are companies that have worked out how it can be done. I understand that DEC has resolved the problem in America for its access to the Internet. It has set up a separate and secure access system.
Since I have been on the Internet I have noticed a number of people out there who want access to Hansard. Many people have asked whether they can access the work of Parliament and the Government. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) because one learns something new from every debate. I had not fully appreciated the significance of the fact that "HMSO" appears on the bottom of Hansard. I was shocked to learn that as a consequence we have now given up the copyright. That is totally unacceptable. We must take back that copyright. We must make Hansard available not just to members of the British public but to members of the public all over the world who want to see what the British Parliament is up to.
We are the mother of Parliaments and we are regarded by many people in the Commonwealth countries and in many of the 60 countries on the Internet as a Parliament 1033 that debates issues of the day in a way that they would like to discover. We should be making available to the rest of the world our debates and discussions. We must continue to be a leading Parliament.
I should like to see us using our PDVN to access information in Europe. I want to have more control over Brussels. I am not satisfied with our control and influence over European issues in European debates. We should connect our PDVN so that we can access databases on the continent.
Parliament is about conveying information. It is about using our speeches and words in our constituents' interests. It is about controlling the Executive and controlling the use of information that should rightly be available to Members of Parliament. We must move forward. The report is about moving forward and we should fully support it and the work of the PDVN.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)
Order. Five hon. Members wish to catch my eye and we have about half an hour before we have to wind up. I make a plea for concise speeches.
§ Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)
I do not understand why the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) objects to the provision of mice in the Tea Room. He should come to the Labour side where we have two who entertain us regularly after 11 o'clock. We have no objection to some of the mice in the Tea Room.
I am a member of the Finance and Services Committee, and I am pleased to support the motions in the names of the Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) and my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). I congratulate them on their hard work and progressive achievements. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish for presenting the report.
I thank all the staff who have helped in the production of the report. I know of the tremendous amount of work that has gone into the production of the report and the motions. When we read the documents and the report, it is easy to appreciate the large amount of work that has been done by everybody. I am pleased that some of the hon. Members involved have been mentioned. We will all benefit from the reports.
The reports and resolutions to which the motions refer contain important proposals to provide hon. Members with the technological means to cope with the ever-increasing burden of parliamentary duties. The sooner the benefits of the proposed PDVN and the related facility of the clean feed of parliamentary proceedings are made available, not just to hon. Members and their staff in the outbuildings, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) said, in the Palace of Westminster itself, the better. I say that because we share an office upstairs above the No Lobby and we would be grateful for the provision of such facilities.
I have the honour of being Chairman of the Accommodation and Works Committee. I have been privileged, along with my colleagues and their predecessors, to have played a part in on-going efforts to bring 1034 accommodation and facilities for hon. Members, their staff and House staff up to a reasonable standard. That has meant the acquisition and development of a number of outbuildings near the Palace of Westminster—an exercise which has recently yielded 127 extra offices for hon. Members at 7 Millbank and which will reach its culmination in 1999 when the exciting new parliamentary building, designed by Michael Hopkins and his partners, becomes available to hon. Members. Perhaps, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will have noted that the facilities mentioned in the report will not be installed until seven years after 1999.
In recent years, enormous strides have been made to improve the standards of hon. Members' office accommodation, which has now transformed the parliamentary estate into a campus of buildings. That welcome development emphasises the need for modern and effective methods of communication, and dictates that the technological means to bring about better communication must be in place as quickly as possible.
I emphasise, however, that most major works projects in Parliament are necessarily limited to the summer recess. That, coupled with the need to minimise inconvenience, means that some projects need to be phased over more than one summer recess and, in some cases, over more than one year. It is important to understand that the programmes of work inevitably cause disruption and mean that Members and staff have to be relocated temporarily while their offices are refurbished.
My Committee has foremost in its mind the need to ensure that disruption is kept to a minimum and has instructed that all necessary steps, including consultation with those who will be affected, be taken to achieve that aim. That requires the co-operation and understanding of those involved. The report states that 327 hon. Members replied to the survey, and just over 50 per cent. stated that they wanted the facility. Members must appreciate, therefore, that there will be some disruption to their normal working life, even though it might be in the summer recess.
I pay tribute, and it is rarely paid, to the Serjeant at Arms, the Deputy Serjeant at Arms, the Deputy Assistant Serjeant at Arms and particularly to Judy Scott Thomson and all the staff. They should be congratulated on the work that they have undertaken in speedily, readily and efficiently informing hon. Members of disruption while works are carried out.
Hon. Members will recall that in March 1992, after the House had approved the Ibbs report but before the establishment of the Finance and Services Committee, the House approved the design of the new building in the first debate on a report from the Accommodation and Works Committee. My colleagues on the Committee and I will continue to monitor the progress of the new building. Should the House so decide, we will play our part in planning for the introduction of the new network of services as quickly as is practicable.
As for the video side of the network, I accept the importance of Members being able to receive a televised clean feed of parliamentary proceedings in their offices, and I hope that serious consideration will be given to providing a satellite as well as a terrestrial broadcast. The value of regular televised news broadcasts was proved during the Gulf conflict, and Sky already provides a satellite service to the television viewing room. I hope that that aspect of television viewing can be incorporated into the planning for television reception for Members.
1035 I should say a lot more, but I realise that time is moving on, and my colleagues want to participate in the debate. Finally, I must point out that, as a result of the introduction of the overdue new facilities that we propose, some Members may not attend the debates in the Chamber. We all appreciate that Members serve on Committees. I refer in particular to the Leader of the House, whom I see so often in Committees that I attend; he cannot be expected to be in the Chamber all the time as well.
I hope that people outside the House of Commons appreciate that Members of Parliament have other duties to perform, and realise that they may be serving the House and yet not in the Chamber. I hope that the media will play their part in ensuring that people outside Parliament understand that dilemma confronting Members of Parliament, and will not expect them to be in the Chamber for each and every debate.
Mr. John Mc William (Blaydon)
I preface my remarks by declaring an interest as a Member sponsored by the National Communications Union, because what I say concerns the telephone system too.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller)—my fellow vice-chairman of the parliamentary information technology committee—my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) and for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) and the Leader of the House on their speeches and the clarity of their remarks.
Unfortunately, as my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) said, some of the material is not clear. I am looking at the PDVN pilot technical review, and it looks as though what is being proposed is the tree and branch network, the branches being twisted pair. The old annunciators use one twisted quad, and the proposed network looks somewhat long in the tooth even now.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East said that it took as long to cable this building as it takes to cable a major city. He is right, but that is only because of the method selected for this building. That need not be the same as the method selected for the outer buildings. As a result of the recommendations of the old Computer Sub-Committee, which I had the honour to chair 10 years ago, and which produced the original report, they were designed to take those possibilities on board.
This building is technically an extremely difficult building to cable—but cable technology has not stood still in all that time, although to read the document one might think that it had. There have been developments such as blown fibre cabling; fibre optic cable can blown through existing conduits without disturbing anything. If a fibre optic cable comes in contact with a 250-volt bare wire, nothing happens: it is a better insulator than the insulation round the cable. So we do not need to worry about that.
We could use far more inventive ways of cabling the building. I grant that that would cost a little more because of the cost of terminal equipment, but much of that cost would be saved. I note that another part of the report deals with the fire alarm system, the security system, the telephone system, the data system and the video system. They can all go through the same fibre, and still leave masses of spare bandwidth capacity, if it is done on a 1036 switch star rather than a tree and branch basis. I am sorry to have to use such terms, but there is no other way of describing the systems.
We do not know what our successors in Parliament will need in 10 or 15 years' time. Things have changed dramatically in my 15 years in the House. The amount of paperwork, the things with which we have to deal and the information to which we need to have access have increased; the rate of change has been logarithmic and will continue. The people sitting in our places in 10 to 15 years' time will have a different perception of the system.
The system must be resilient to technological change, so it must have the inherent bandwidth capability to take those developments. The system proposed at present, especially in this building, will not be able to do that. The position is easier in the outer buildings because they have wiring trays. It is difficult to cable in this building, but if we were imaginative, if we used new cabling technologies and if we were prepared to pay a little extra—although we could consider hanging the other systems on the fibre optic system—we would not have to wait until it was nearly time for me to retire before getting the system in this building. We could have such a system quickly and reasonably inexpensively, and we could get it done without detriment to the architectural heritage of this building, which is extremely important. We can get it done to cope with the reasonable needs of our successors in 10 to 15 years' time.
§ Ms Janet Anderson (Rossendale and Darwen)
I endorse the thanks given to hon. Friends, other hon. Members and staff of the House who have made this debate possible. I have a particular interest in it. I first came to the House more than 20 years ago as a secretary. In those days, secretaries did not have individual telephones and we still used manual typewriters with carbon paper and flimsy copies. We have moved on, but not far enough.
The Information Committee report concluded:We recommend the phased introduction of a full Parliamentary Data and Video Network. It is a principal function of Parliament to oversee the actions of the Executive. Members have a responsibility to represent their constituents effectively. In both these key areas, we consider the provision of a full network would greatly increase the efficiency with which the House operates and the capacity of Members to cope with increasing workloads.Before compiling the report, the Information Committee conducted a questionnaire among Members of Parliament. More than 50 per cent. returned the questionnaires and more than half expressed a wish for the direct reception of the televised proceedings of the House. Direct access from their personal computers to the Official Report was requested by more than half who replied and almost as many required access to POLIS—the parliamentary on-line information service. Many showed an interest in having direct access to external information services, such as the F1' Profile which provides the ability to search for and retrieve the full text of items drawn from daily newspapers and other publications.
The pilot scheme, to which hon. Members have already referred, has been successful and has been used extensively by members of staff as well as by Members of Parliament. Among the benefits of a full network would be direct access at any time to the Library and other information services, both from within and outside the parliamentary estate.
1037 As other hon. Members have said, such a system is especially important for Members who feel it increasingly important to have constituency offices. The majority of Opposition Members have such offices and I believe that many Conservative Members do as well.
The use of electronically stored newspaper reference services, such as the FT Profile, and services now available on compact discs and CD-ROM in the Library are seen as a major benefit. CD-ROMs, although not necessarily providing full information, are cheaper as once they have been purchased, their use involves no further cost. Such cost considerations must be a major factor in any decision on the future expansion of the service.
I believe that the service would enable hon. Members and their staff to make more effective use of their time and resources, which are always fully stretched, as we know. It would also help, certainly in the initial stages, to reduce the demand from Members on overworked and over-burdened Library staff who provide an excellent service for us all, but who must surely long for the day when we do not have to bother them with more trivial inquiries. That would no longer be necessary if all hon. Members had access to the data and video network.
We are sent here by our constituents to represent their interests. We have a duty to ensure that we can do that as effectively as possible. As the Information Committee report concluded, the provision of a full network would greatly increase the efficiency with which the House operates and the capacity of Members to cope with the demands of their constituents.
Therefore, we have a duty and a responsibility on behalf of our constituents to do what we can to ensure that a full network is provided for all hon. Members and their staff without further delay. I hope and feel that that is the mood of the House tonight.
§ Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)
The Select Committee on Information was my first taste of the Committee process in the House after I was elected in the 1992 election. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller), for his sterling work in chairing the Committee and, indeed, to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett), who moved the motion, because he has also done a tremendous amount of work on behalf of fellow Committee members.
I joined that Committee as a result of a conversation with the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) in which I expressed my frustration, as a new hon. Member, about the inadequacies of information technology in the building. At that, the hon. Member for Jarrow invited me to join the Select Committee on Information, and, as hon. Members will know, invitations from the hon. Member for Jarrow are not readily refused. I was delighted, because not only did I find myself at the heart of the debate about information technology, but, of course, because the Committee has important responsibilities in respect of the Library, which provides a sterling service for us all.
The hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) made an interesting comment on the possibilities of what can happen from his house because of the evolution of IT systems. I find it quite extraordinary in this day and age that the gas board cannot lay a gas main to provide a 1038 service to my house, yet I can communicate with my constituency office and with my parliamentary office using the parliamentary data network in its pilot form. That network facility would greatly improve the efficiency of the operation of Members of Parliament and, indeed, improve the efficiency of the communication of information to our constituents, who are entitled to receive all information which emanates from this place.
Only this week, I have needed to write a complicated letter in relation to a case which is currently in front of the Police Complaints Authority. That letter related to an enormous amount of files, some of which were here and some of which were in my parliamentary office. Instead of having to wait until next weekend, when I could get my hands on all the documentation, it was possible to put together the documents, have the letter typed at the other end, and have it checked, printed and signed by me at this end. Our constituents ought to demand such a service from us and I know that, increasingly, they will do so, because that is the sort of service that they will get from companies operating in the big, wide world outside.
The Committee looked at the network and studied a number of examples of what happens in other countries. My hon. Friends have mentioned the Canadian system and the United States system, but one incredible statistic in the report is that, of all the countries in Europe, with the exception of one—Turkey—we do not have a parliamentary network. That is an extraordinary omission on our part and we are doing an enormous disservice to the efficiency of our offices and our constituents by not joining the current part of this century, let alone looking forward.
One of the most basic facilities that I use heavily, which I commend to hon. Members to improve effectiveness, is the ability to control one's diary from three places simultaneously. It is an incredibly powerful tool. It needs some managerial control, or all sorts of people may end up controlling one's diary, but, with proper control, such facilities are possible.
Recently, I found that I needed to communicate with an organisation in Geneva, with which I have had a number of contacts over the year. I did that simply by sending an E-mail message. It cost little more than the price of a local telephone call for the message to get into the Geonet network and be picked up by the mail box holder at the other end. It is a secure system; it works; it is efficient; and it is cheaper than transmitting all the message in a conventional telephone conversation. That is the sort of technology that this place needs.
The services of the Library have been mentioned at length. The provision of those services through an extension of POLIS will be of enormous benefit to hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I shall refer to the comments that have been made about cabling and the timetable. It is clear that we should examine—what my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam), with his expertise in telecommunications, said is right—the cable technology of tomorrow in the context of all the low-voltage services that we need around the building.
§ Mr. McWilliam
My hon. Friend should understand that I was talking about the cable technology of today, not the cable technology of tomorrow.
§ Mr. Miller
I totally accept that, but the reason why I used that expression is that I believe it is technology that 1039 has a long lifespan ahead of it because, unlike many other areas of technology, it is very much the limit of known transmission knowledge, without going into the wireless field which would present us with all sort of other problems, although that might have to be examined. The services that we must examine in that context—the network, fire services, telephone services, television, clean feed, and security—can all be dealt with in one cable network.
As a member of the Information Committee and an enthusiast for dragging this place into the 21st century—although I believe passionately in the need to protect the integrity of old buildings—I could speak at length on this subject, but I realise that other hon. Members want to get in before the end of the debate. I shall therefore conclude my remarks by saying that if we, as parliamentarians of one mind, are determined to drive the programme forward, we can cut down the time that is needed to develop it. On that basis, I commend the report of the Information Committee to the House.
§ Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow)
As someone who used the pilot scheme, I am glad to be able to make what will obviously be a brief contribution to what has been a non-contentious debate.
When I entered the House, having worked as a computer network manager previously, I must confess that I was somewhat taken by surprise at the low level of development of information technology systems in the House, the variety of systems in use, their incompatibility, and the virtual absence of training for hon. Members and their staff. I suspect that we all know what the results of that have been: inefficiencies of various sorts, equipment bought which is probably not very good, poor usage of systems and duplication of effort—an enormous waste of time by people searching for the same information.
Of course, this place uses and generates a vast amount of information. As several hon. Members have already pointed out, if one looked at any public or private sector organisation, one would see that we are years behind in the development of information systems.
I am sure that hon. Members realise that the network will not cure all ills. I am sure that the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) knows that it is perfectly possible to lose a piece of data just as comprehensively in a computer system as it is to lose a letter on paper.
I shall speak briefly about two issues. The first is the data services which are to be available. I think the core services listed in the recommendations are sensible, but I shall refer—as has been mentioned earlier—to the question of updating POLIS. That has been long overdue and as it develops it will improve access to other parliamentary information. That is where I think the priorities ought to be in the first place—on Library briefings and the inclusion of the full text of Hansard. As services such as those develop, and as access is gained to other external services, we shall find that—unless we get on quickly with the installation —first, we discourage users, and secondly, that the technology will be virtually out of date before the system has been completed.
The second issue is the question of training, and there are a number of aspects to that. The first aspect is persuading people to use the facilities which are available and showing them what is possible. I am a little disturbed 1040 that the Finance Committee has suggested that none of the training should be provided directly for Members without the funds coming out of office costs. There is a case for providing some basic training free to improve people's efficiency and to ensure that they are able to use the network efficiently.
They must know what is available and how the software can be used. We will improve the network's efficiency if we do that. I shall be certainly concerned if people are not to be barred from access to the system while they are untrained. What will the effects be of large numbers of untrained people using the network? That will have consequences for the efficiency of the system for everyone else. If we are to consider extensions of the network into expensive external systems, databases and E-mail, it is almost essential that training is forced. If people are not trained, we shall have inefficiency and greatly increased costs, which will be money wasted.
I shall make my final point because we wish to hear from the Chairman of the Finance Committee before the debate closes. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Ms Anderson) mentioned that this is not just about producing systems for the convenience of Members of Parliament but about increasing our efficiency and enabling us to deal with our constituents better. We shall be able to produce answers quickly and get at the information that is needed to produce those answers quickly.
Another important aspect of our job is the ability to keep track of what the Executive is doing. It is important to bear that in mind. Someone listening to the debate might have thought that we were talking about our convenience and whether we could watch Sky Sport. While I very much like to do that, although some bits of it may irritate my staff, I am more interested in having parliamentary systems which enable me to do my job efficiently for my constituents.
§ Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)
First, I apologise to the House for arriving late to the debate. I have been abroad on parliamentary business and my flight was late coming back. The second, and much more serious, thing for which I ought to apologise is the fact that I am perhaps the only layman in a Chamber of experts. I feel rather like Daniel in the lions' den.
Luckily the Finance and Services Committee have taken a course which was acceptable to the House—otherwise, I have a feeling that I would have been howled down. With the support of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) and the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell), the Finance and Services Committee has come to the right decision.
This, in fact, is the first occasion on which the House has had a debate such as this on a new service since the foundation of the Finance and Services Committee. The Committee was given the task of looking at the financial and administrative implications of recommendations made by Committees such as the Information Committee and the Broadcasting Committee. Like other hon. Members, I congratulate the Chairmen of those Committees on the splendid work that has been done. The Committee has considered the network in detail, both the justification for it and the cost of its provision. Given the hour and the fact 1041 that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) hopes to reply to the debate, I will not go into that in great detail.
The Committee accept the benefits and those colleagues who are more technologically minded than I am, will understand them better than I do. We accept the argument that Members should be provided with additional modern facilities to help them, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Gerrard) rightly said, in their parliamentary duties, not just to have a bit of fun.
This is a complicated matter and costs are extremely complicated. We shall monitor developments closely each year as we look at the works programme and prepare the estimates that go to the Commission. We must be guided by the Information Select Committee and by officers of the House as to what services can be funded on the network. We do not, of course, want to overburden that system and its staff. We shall have to consider that factor every year in the estimates.
I note in particular what the hon. Member for Walthamstow said about training and obviously my Committee will consider that in the light of today's debate.
I am rather less keen on the clean feed than any other Member in the Chamber now, but I accept that the overwhelming majority of people want it and that the overwhelming majority are very upset about the seven-year rule. The Finance and Services Select Committee obviously understands that and we shall ask the Director of Works to report to us in the autumn about how a new timing might be achieved. I understand that it is the wish of the House to speed up all this work. The House would also agree, however, that we do not want to alter works projects at the last moment. We must go through the planning stages to avoid waste and create proper control.
With that proviso, the Finance and Services Select Committee supports the various projects. In doing so, I hope that the Committee is acting not only as the watchdog of finance in the House, by trying to get good financial management, but as the supporter of improved services for Members to help them to carry out their parliamentary duties.
In common with other hon. Members, I hope that the House will agree to the motions.
§ Mr. Bennett
With the leave of the House, I shall reply to one or two of the points that were made in the debate.
I always warn people that it is very dangerous when the House of Commons appears to be unanimous on something, because it means that trouble is afoot. We should be clear that, although a great deal of support for new services has been expressed by the hon. Members in the Chamber tonight, some of our colleagues are more cynical and sceptical about the proceedings. It is important that the enthusiasts should win those Members over.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) was a little unfair when he criticised the Executive for trying to slow the process down. My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) was also a little unfair when he blamed officers of the House, because I think those individuals were won over to the benefits of change some time ago. It may be true that the 1042 Clerk at the Table is not waiting to punch the Votes and Proceedings of the House into a computer, but an awful lot of officers of the House see the benefits offered by new technology.
We should be clear that, in many ways, it is our colleagues who are the biggest problem. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell) could tell us how difficult it occasionally is to persuade an hon. Member to move from one office to another. That is the major problem about the time scale. If everyone who spoke in the debate does his bit to persuade other hon. Members that putting up with a little inconvenience during a recess is worthwhile for the benefit of everyone else, we could make a great deal of progress.
I do not want to go into the technical issue of which cabling system should be used, but it is most important that the House keeps continually under review what is the most practical option. It is important that it considers the use of radio LAN because that could be a possibility for some parts of the building.
I do not think that I am leaking any information if I say that, on Monday, the Information Committee will be considering a report from the Department of the Official Report about the possibility of having the preceding five days' Hansard on the network. That would be very useful.
I should like to able to report to the House that the teething problems with POLIS 3 have been solved. Negotiations are going on in that respect and I hope that, by early next week, those will have been successful and progress will be made.
We shall have to return to the training issue. The more people want to be connected with Internet, the more important training will be.
The House must now make it clear to the country that we want to serve our constituents better. The network will give us the information to do our two key tasks—taking up constituents' problems and scrutinising the Executive—more effectively. I hope that the House will approve the motions tonight.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House approves the First Report from the Information Committee, on The Provision of a Parliamentary Data and Video Network (House of Commons Paper No. 237), and the First Report from the Committee of Session 1992–93, on The Provision of Members' Information Technology Equipment, Software and Services (House of Commons Paper No. 737).
That this House takes note of the recommendation contained in the First Report of the Broadcasting Committee, House of Commons Paper No. 323 of Session 1991–92, that a clean television feed of proceedings in the Chamber should be made available to Members in their Parliamentary offices on completion of the Parliamentary Data and Video Network; but endorses the Resolution of the Broadcasting Committee of 27th June, set out in the Minutes of Proceedings of the Committee, House of Commons Paper No. 533-i, that, in view of the information now available about the likely timetable for installing the network, work should be undertaken separately from the network with a view to supplying a clean feed to Members with offices in the Parliamentary outbuildings from the beginning of the 1994–95 Session, and thereafter as it becomes technically feasible in each outbuilding, with the aim of completing the process by the end of the Summer Recess of 1995, and that the House authorities should examine the scope for accelerating the provision of a similar facility to Members with offices in the Palace of Westminster, as part of the programme for establishing the network.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]