HC Deb 26 May 1999 vol 332 cc382-444

5.4 pm

Mrs. Marion Roe (Chairman of the Administration Committee)

I beg to move, That this House approves the First Report from the Administration Committee on the Proposal to Re-open the Line of Route during the Summer Adjournment (HC 394). I am pleased to move the motion to approve the report, which represents slightly more than a year's work by the Administration Committee. I should like to thank my colleagues on the Committee—I am tempted to call them my hon. Friends, as we very much work as a team—for the assiduous way in which they have tackled the subject, and for the spirit of co-operation that has prevailed throughout.

I also pay tribute to Lord Boston of Faversham and his colleagues on the Administration and Works Sub-Committee in another place, with whom we held a most useful and constructive concurrent meeting. Finally, I should like to express my Committee's thanks to the Serjeant at Arms and Black Rod and to their respective staffs, to the other House officials—in particular, the Director of Finance and Administration, who unfailingly and efficiently assisted the Committee—and to the consultants who provided specialist advice.

I shall be brief, as I am sure that many hon. Members will wish to make a contribution, but I very much welcome this debate, as it gives the Committee the opportunity to explain its proposals for reopening the Line of Route, and to clear up certain misconceptions, especially about charging and access. Even after the publication of our report, some hon. Members seem to be under the impression that we are proposing that our constituents should have to pay to come and see the House at work. Let me emphasise that we are not, nor have we any plans to do so in the future, contrary to what seems to be implied in the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and others. I shall address that point more fully later in my speech.

I think that all hon. Members will appreciate the reasons why, for the past 20 years, the only way a visitor could tour the Palace of Westminster was as a guest of a Member of either House or of a member of staff. The Committee considered that the time was now right for the two Houses to reopen the Line of Route to the general public. However, we agreed to the proposal in principle only after we had been convinced that it would not interfere with the ability of Parliament or its authorities to carry out their duties.

The consultants had to take into account some basic but crucial principles. The Palace of Westminster is, first and foremost, the seat of Parliament and a place of work for around 12,000 passholders, if we include contractors, civil servants and the media. Any increase in visitor activity must respect the Palace's primary function and be capable of responding to changes in route at very short notice. That would mean, of course, that, in the event of a recall during the summer, tours might have to be suspended.

The Palace of Westminster is a grade I listed building and a world heritage site. It is of special architectural interest and any proposals, whether permanent or temporary, that would alter the fabric of the buildings or in any way have an impact on the integrity of the site would be subject to prior consultation with, for example, English Heritage, the Royal Fine Art Commission and Westminster city council.

The intensity of use of the buildings, especially when Parliament is sitting, means that all major planned works programmes must be concentrated in the long summer recess: a programme typically involving expenditure of some £12 million to £15 million and involving 600 to 2,000 contractors at any one time over an eight to 10-week period and forming part of a 10-year rolling programme.

In addition, whatever arrangements were proposed to bring about greater openness in connection with public access to the Palace of Westminster, it was essential to safeguard the rights of hon. Members and Members of another place to sponsor visits by constituents and others, and for the parliamentary education unit to continue to provide the schools autumn visits programme. Such arrangements currently give rise to some 120,000 visits a year.

The Chairman of the Select Committee on Information, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), quite properly raised concerns about the autumn visits programme. I hope that our report has reassured him that the autumn visits programme will be unaffected by our proposals.

My Committee was convinced that the criteria to which I referred could be met, and we agreed to the principle of a reopening. Our next step was to consider how people should undertake the tour. We eventually decided that the most appropriate way would be to have groups equipped with individual audio guides, with a commentary available in six languages, organised in conjunction with a system of timed ticketing.

Visitors would assemble in Victoria Tower gardens in groups of 20. To avoid peaks and troughs, groups would be admitted by a timed admission or timed ticket arrangement. The day would be divided into a series of admission slots, perhaps of 15-minute intervals. If the number admitted in each slot were limited, visitors could be spread evenly throughout the day. That system of pulsing visitors along the route would flatten demand to a manageable level, and would be of benefit to the Palace and to visitors.

The tour would take the traditional route through both Houses, and would enable visitors to see some of the most impressive and best known parts of the Palace. It is a shame that visitors would not be able to see the Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft—the Crypt—but it is quite small and completely unsuitable for disabled visitors, as is the Great Clock Tower.

I remind the House that the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 requires all places of interest or historic buildings to make effective provision for disabled visitors, which includes provision for the aurally and visually impaired as well as the mobility-impaired. Given the historic nature of the Palace of Westminster, many areas are inaccessible and cannot be modified. Listing regulations take precedence over the 1995 Act, but every reasonable effort must be made to conform to the Act. Consequently, any systems set up for the summer opening programme would have to make reasonable provision for disabled visitors. All interpretation must have equivalents available for disabled visitors, and access to the building must be as unobstructed as possible.

The House may also wish to note that appropriate arrangements would be made to enable people in wheelchairs to have access to the Palace, and that alternatives to the audio guides would be available for visually or hearing-impaired visitors.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

I have listened to my hon. Friend with great interest. She refers only to the summer recess. What did the Committee decide about the opening of the House at other times? Now that we work in the morning two days a week, the ability to visit the House is considerably limited. Has thought been given to the use of weekends and recesses other than the summer recess, because I believe that the House should be open for visitors at those times if we are to take the line that her Committee suggests?

Mrs. Roe

I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to paragraph 9 of the Select Committee report, which states: The Committee considers that the Summer opening programme should become an annual event, and that, if it were successful, it might be appropriate, in due course, to extend opening to Easter, Whitsun and certain other weekends. This matter must be assessed carefully, and the impact of the opening during the summer Adjournment would not be the same as at other times. We must ensure that the business of the House is not disrupted in any way. We have already thought about that, and no doubt the Committee will examine that when we have had an opportunity to assess the impact of the opening during the summer Adjournment.

Sir Peter Emery

May I extend my question? The movement towards the summer opening is a major programme during an extended period. Would it not make greater sense to experiment during some of the shorter recess periods to see how we cope with that—using existing staff or extra staff and security—before we proceed with this scheme? Although I admire the proposed scheme, I wonder whether it would be better to have some guidance before we jump into the bigger opening programme.

Mrs. Roe

I point out to my right hon. Friend that it was in the mind of the Administration Committee to initiate a scheme that would cause the least amount of disruption to Members of the House and the other place and to staff. It was felt that the summer Adjournment was the best time for us to assess the general public's response and to allow the scheme to settle before any consideration was given to opening during shorter periods. I remind my right hon. Friend that these facilities are expensive. The Committee wanted to do this properly to maintain the dignity of the Palace of Westminster. We felt that it was necessary to allow the scheme to run for eight weeks during the summer Adjournment so that we could assess the public's response and the way in which the system was operated.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Does the hon. Lady agree that the concept of a mini-scheme would be difficult to implement, because in our attempts to achieve an adequate scheme that would satisfy visitors, we have sketched out proposals the bulk of which would incur the same expenditure whether we were providing for a long or a short break?

Mrs. Roe

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. As a member of the Committee, he knows the detail in which we considered this matter. We felt that this proposal was the best option.

The Committee has also made two recommendations which, strictly speaking, are matters for the Commission and the Board of Management. However, because we wanted to ensure that a visit to Parliament would be as memorable as possible, we decided to put down a marker. We considered that the best way to ensure that the Line of Route tours operate as efficiently as possible would be to have a small team of staff whose sole responsibility would be to ensure the tours' success, and to co-ordinate tours with exhibitions and other events planned for Westminster Hall.

Westminster Hall is a 900-year-old architectural gem, and I know that many hon. Members from both sides of the House believe that more use should be made of it for appropriate events. We think that staff should be on hand to assist with visitors' inquiries. Those staff would need to be fully conversant with the Palace's history and procedures. At the risk of embarrassing one particular hon. Friend, I should point out that visitors should not be told that Westminster Hall was the site of the trial of King Charles II.

I now turn to the most misunderstood aspect of our proposals: charging. As we say in the report, a reopening would be a costly project. The latest figures suggest that it would cost £500,000 for the financial year 2000-01 and £350,000 a year thereafter. Those figures represent the Commons' share of the costs only. The total costs would be over £830,000 and almost £600,000 respectively. We did not think it reasonable for costs of that scale to be borne by the taxpayer through the Vote. We therefore concluded, very reluctantly, that the costs should be borne by those who choose to visit during the summer recess.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

As my hon. Friend says, the amount is substantial, but it is less than the House decided a couple of nights ago to spend on an extremely silly and superfluous new Chamber. My hon. Friend was content with that; now she is telling us that the hapless tourist will have to bear huge sums.

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)


Mrs. Roe

The Leader of the House may be able to answer my right hon. Friend more fully than I can.

Mrs. Beckett

I would hate the hon. Lady to be misled by her right hon. Friend. What the House voted for the other evening was a proposal to bring forward expenditure to which the House was already committed.

Mrs. Roe

I thank the right hon. Lady. Let me add that we on the Administration Committee take our duties very seriously. We are always considering ways of obtaining the best value for money, and, when making decisions, we always have one eye on the taxpayer's pocket.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

When we travel around the world, we see—especially in Commonwealth countries—war memorials to thousands of people who gave their lives for this country, and to keep this Parliament free. That is one of the reasons why I have grave doubts about charging some of those who visit this great symbol of democracy. I do not know whether the Committee devoted any thought to that.

Mrs. Roe

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. As I said earlier, it was with reluctance that the Committee reached its conclusions. We did not make our decision frivolously; we went into the matter in great detail. We also made it clear that the present arrangements for constituents to visit the Palace of Westminster would not be affected. This is an additional facility, allowing those with no access to a Member of Parliament to take advantage of the same arrangements. Nothing is being taken away from the present arrangements, which, of course, many Members use every day.

It is estimated that nearly 150,000 people will take part in the tours. As we note in our report, the experience of Westminster Abbey suggests that as many as 80 per cent. of visitors could be from overseas. However, a more strenuous effort should be made to reduce the operational costs outlined in the report. For example, capital costs of some £400,000 for a ticket office, the cost of renting audio equipment and the cost of extra security caused us concern. The consultants, in consultation with the relevant authorities, have been looking for savings and value for money.

The assumptions made by the consultants in their report were in general fairly conservative. Both the costs and the predictions of visitor numbers appeared to the Committee to be reasonable. However, the Committee appreciates that further work is needed. The Finance Office, in consultation with other appropriate authorities in both Houses, will need to develop the financial management arrangements.

The consultants' proposals involve letting some major contracts—for example, for advance booking and ticketing, and for the audio guides. One of the proposals, for merchandising, will be of concern to the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner). He and his colleagues on the Catering Committee must, of course, be asked for their views on the sale of souvenirs during the summer opening. However, I do not think that that should delay the House's approval of our proposals.

We have not recommended specific admission prices, but in paragraph 23 of our report, we gave an estimate of the charges that would be needed to enable us to recover our costs within five years. Adults would be charged £6.50, senior citizens, students and holders of ES40s £4, and children £2. Savings already identified suggest that we may be able to reduce the price of an adult ticket to £5.50, with equivalent reductions for other categories of ticket.

Hon. Members may ask why United Kingdom citizens cannot be allowed free access. The short answer is this: how could someone prove that he or she was a UK resident? A UK passport is no proof of residence—and, in any event, such a basis for free admission would discriminate against foreign nationals legally settled here. I, for one, would not advocate a national identity card to solve this conundrum.

The Committee has agreed that, during August and September 2000, visitors on the Line of Route tours will also have access—at no extra charge—to a millennium exhibition that is planned for Westminster Hall.

Even given the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland, the Palace of Westminster is sui generis: it is unique. We therefore cannot benchmark these admission charges against charges anywhere else in the United Kingdom. I remind hon. Members, however, that Buckingham Palace has an admission charge of £9.50, with no concessionary rates, and Westminster Abbey charges £5. Although there are concessionary tickets for admission to the abbey, a further £2 is levied for the use of hand-held audio-guide wands.

The Palace of Westminster would not be unique in charging for admission. The Dutch second Chamber, the Tweede-Kamer, charges 6 guilders, or nearly £2. In Australia's Parliament house, tours involving languages other than English must be pre-booked, and a charge is applied to tour operators and external organisations wishing to use the service. Although no charge is made for entry to the building or participation in public tours, a charge of 5 Australian dollars per person—again, nearly £2—applies to groups requesting a guide exclusively for them. Revenue from the tours offsets additional labour costs.

I cannot stress too strongly that we are proposing admission charges only during the summer Adjournment. We are seeking to recover incremental costs, not to make a profit. In paragraph 20 of our report, we say: For over 42 weeks of the year therefore, visitors would still be able to participate in tours of the Palace of Westminster, meet their constituency MP or Members of the House of Lords, listen to debates in both Chambers when either or both Houses are sitting, and attend meetings of Standing and Select Committees free of charge. Even during the Summer Adjournment, Members of both Houses would continue to be able to bring in their guests. It is not, nor has it ever been, proposed that members of the public should be charged to see the Houses of Parliament 'at work'. Let me now clarify the issue of access for hon. Members during August and September. No change will be made to the current arrangements. Therefore, on Wednesdays and Thursdays in August, and on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays in September, hon. Members and Officers of the House will still be able personally to escort, or to pay a Doorkeeper to escort on their behalf, groups of up to 16 around the Line of Route, without their guests having to pay over and above what is now an accepted "fee". Similarly, permanent staff will continue to be able personally to escort groups of up to four guests.

Our proposals seek to improve access to the Palace, not to hinder it. Although it would be a matter of regret, should the House be unable to accept my Committee's proposals, the net result might be that the Line of Route was not reopened at all during the summer.

I realise that it might strike hon. Members as strange that a Chairman of a domestic Committee should be arguing against spending public money. After all, are we not the Committees that are spending millions of pounds on Portcullis House, the kitchens and the parliamentary data and video network? Yes and no. None of those important matters is the responsibility of the Administration Committee. Rather, we on the Committee have always sought to reduce House expenditure by seeking best value for money and by encouraging better housekeeping.

Over the past few years, we have initiated, or endorsed, savings on, for example, stationery and car parking amounting to more than £350,000, sometimes in the face of opposition from some hon. Members. It is not therefore new territory for us to be looking after taxpayers' interests.

As I have said, by charging we seek to recover our initial start-up and running costs within five years. However, even after five years, there will still be running costs, and it will therefore be for the present Administration Committee's successor to decide how to meet those costs. I can, of course, assure the House that my Committee will keep an eye on that matter for the remainder of the current Parliament, and will ask the relevant House authorities for regular progress reports.

I realise that some hon. Members may not be able to support our proposals, in particular with respect to charging, but I should like to say that the report was agreed unanimously by the Committee and only after much deliberation and heart searching. I therefore commend it to the House.

5.32 pm
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words in the debate.

I welcome the way in which the Chairman has put the Committee's report to the House and welcome the work that has been done. We should try to enable more people to come into the building and to see Parliament during the summer recess and, indeed, at other times.

When I was a young school boy, I was able, in the days before security had to be so tight, to get on a tram at Wimbledon town hall, come to Westminster, get off at the bridge and walk in here virtually at any time, although in the early years after the war this end of the building was virtually a building site—the Chamber was being rebuilt. Schoolchildren in the London area at that time—when it was much easier and people did not have to worry about the type of thing that might happen to children—looked for places to go. I could go to the Tower of London for free on a Thursday morning. That is no longer possible. All such possibilities have gradually been lost over the years.

It is the question of charging that concerns me. I recognise that Parliament is a working place; we must remember that, but it is an historic building, a great piece of architecture by Barry and Pugin, and we want people to see it. Westminster Hall is celebrating its 900th year; people in this country should be able to see the building. I accept that the proposal will not in any way erode the rights that we have while the House is sitting, or the rights that we have as Members in the months of August and September. The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) made that clear, although there was a slight threat that, if we did not agree to the change, we might lose the rights that we already have in August and September. I do not know whether that was intended, but, near the end of the speech, it sounded as if she was saying that, if we did not agree to the change, we would not retain what we have now—that would go as well.

Mrs. Roe

No. The situation will stay as it is. I was talking about the additional facility.

Mr. Pike

I thank the hon. Lady for that. If she reads Hansard, she will find that her comments could have been read in that way. Her intervention makes it absolutely clear. I am glad that a pistol is not being held to our heads with the threat "Approve the change or you will lose the rights you have in August and September."

It is the question of charging that worries me. I accept and understand why it is being introduced, but one could argue that, if people pay their taxes—about 20 per cent. of tourists during August and September are British—they have a right to come here and to see the building.

I made a serious point in my intervention. I have been to countries such as New Zealand and Canada and seen the war memorials, particularly for the first world war. I ask myself: why did those hundreds of people lose their lives fighting for this country? The first world war in particular was a European war, but people from South Africa, Canada, Australia, India and all over fought to secure victory and to ensure that we maintained our freedom at that time; they did so in the second world war, too. Anyone who goes to France and sees the war graves of the 17,000 who died on this day and the 11,000 who died on that day from the Canadian and Australian forces will be reminded of the sacrifices that those people made.

The important point is that, during the second world war, which I am just old enough to remember, this building, Parliament, the Clock Tower and Big Ben—many people call the Clock Tower Big Ben, but we know that it is the bell—were a symbol of the fight against fascism and the fight for freedom. Parliament and this building represent that. They are a great symbol.

We are not a great nation in a military sense any more, but we sometimes underestimate the regard that many parts of the world have for our traditions. Therefore, many of our traditions are bound within this building and our history over the years that we have sat here. The effect of charging on that worries me.

I welcome the move to enable more people to see the building, but it is the question of charging about which I have grave reservations, partly on behalf of the 20 per cent. of people who are British tourists, and partly on behalf of those people in other parts of the world who may want to visit it. We want them to get to see this place and to recognise what it still stands for in the world.

Hon. Members have their difference of view. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and I have disagreed on many occasions on different things, but we agree about what the House stands for. It stands for democracy more than any other place in the world. It has a role to play. I hope that we find some way in which to enable people to see it for free. There may be a cost to pay for that but, in relative terms, it is minimal. We should be prepared to accept that.

I do not want to delay the House any longer, but those are important issues. That is why, when the amendment is, I hope, divided on, I will support it. A little more thought is needed on why we need to charge people to come into the Parliament of the United Kingdom, which is such a great and important symbol throughout the world.

5.39 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

Like all the issues that we are debating today, the decision on the Line of Route is a House of Commons matter. There is no Government view as such. There is no party Whip. There may be—indeed, there are likely to be—wide diversions of view within, as well as across, the political parties. It is an issue of genuine difficulty and delicacy. No hon. Member would wish to see our constituents denied access to the House—that would be entirely contrary to our parliamentary tradition—but, equally, many may have reservations about whether British taxpayers would wish us to use their money to subsidise access to tourists, primarily from overseas, who may very well be charged for that access by tour operators and organisers outside this place who arrange such visits.

In moving the motion on the Administration Committee's report, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) was admirably clear about what it is that the House is being asked to decide. She made the point-it is worth reinforcing—that we should be adding to opportunities to visit this historic building. The House is not automatically open to visitors in the summer recess, or indeed in any recess. Therefore, by passing the motion, we should be creating new opportunities to visit.

I take and understand the sensitivity of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike). However, with great respect, I tell him that the hon. Member for Broxboume answered his point in her speech, by drawing attention to the fact that the type of visitors to whom he referred—those who, earlier in their lives, might have fought for this place—do not now have the opportunity of visiting the House should they come here as visitors in the summer recess. Although he asked her and her Committee to give the matter further consideration, they have been considering it for a year.

I should also like to highlight the fact that, if we are to provide adequate facilities—such as audio guides in a variety of languages—expenditure of about £500,000 will be required. Studies have suggested and confirmed that, in summer, 80 per cent. of visitors to Westminster are tourists from overseas. The Administration Committee did not feel able to recommend—I understand its view—that taxpayers should be asked to meet such costs.

The Committee has also made it very clear that the proposal to charge for visits, to cover those costs, will in no circumstances affect the rights of hon. Members or staff to arrange or conduct visits for constituents.

This remains very much a matter for the House. In an ideal world, money would grow on trees, and we would be able to admit visitors and provide high-standard facilities for their visits without regard to cost. Sadly, however, we do not live in a world where that is a matter of indifference. We either reluctantly—I think that it would be reluctantly on the part of all hon. Members—decide to levy charges in those specific circumstances, or decide not to open the House further to interested visitors.

In the millennium year—with the House participating in the special commemorative exhibition, the "String of Pearls"—we have a further opportunity to open our doors. Despite the anxieties and reservations that have already been expressed in the debate, I believe that we should, on balance, agree to do so.

Therefore, as I said, although there will be a free vote on the motion, and it is not a matter for the Government, I myself shall support the Committee's recommendations.

5.43 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I entirely agree with the line taken in the debate by the Leader of the House.

I should like to begin, however, by paying a tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) and to her Committee. The House Committees do a great deal of work for hon. Members. They consist of very few members, but devote an enormous amount of time to their work. Perhaps I should declare an interest, as I have been a member of the Accommodation and Works Committee for many years and know something of the work that goes into the type of report that we are considering today. I also know something of the thoughtful care that goes into them. My hon. Friend and her colleagues on the Committee—an all-party Committee—have come up with very sensible proposals, and I really hope that the House will give them a fair wind today.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne reminded us several times in her speech, this is a workplace. It is also, as she again reminded us, one of the great buildings of the world. This is a symbol of democracy; but it is also an architectural gem. It also includes within it Westminster Hall. Probably some hon. Members were in Westminster Hall on Monday, when I was there and Madam Speaker opened that fascinating exhibition on 900 years of the Hall. If colleagues on both sides of the House have not yet seen the exhibition, it will be there for some months, and I urge everyone to go and see it. It is a fascinating and very moving exhibition.

Westminster Hall is the greatest secular building in this country, and has seen more of our history than any other. Perhaps I should add, in passing, that it will see more history on 1 July, when we shall be having a very splendid banquet there. I hope that many hon. Members will come to enjoy the banquet, the first one there since the coronation of George IV, in 1821.

I make those points, with some seriousness, to stress the fact that this is not just a workplace, and that many of those who come here do so primarily not because they are interested in what we do, but because they are interested in what this building represents, and in the fact that it tells the story of this nation's past and the evolution of our democratic system.

Of course it would be quite wrong to charge anyone anything to come and sit in the Strangers Gallery in either the Commons or the Lords. No one is making such a proposal, and I am sure that no one ever would. I assure hon. Members on both sides of the House that, if such a proposition ever were made, I should be the first in the Lobby against it.

We are talking about members of the general public, many of whom will not be British subjects, who want to come in at a time when the House is not in session to admire the architecture and the works of art and to see this place. It is perfectly reasonable that there should be a modest charge for that, to recoup the expenditure that will make the experiment possible.

I should like to make an analogy, which I do not think is too far-fetched. Across the road, in Westminster abbey, a charge is now levied, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne referred. If anyone wants to go to a service at the abbey—there are services there every day—of course he or she is not charged; nor should anyone ever be. However, someone who wants to go to the abbey to admire its art and architecture does pay a modest charge. I think that that is entirely reasonable.

All that will happen here, during those summer months of August and September, is that people will pay a modest charge and be able to come and admire the building. I see nothing wrong with that.

There is also a precedent for the change. Only relatively recently, for security reasons, the practice was abandoned whereby members of the public could turn up on a Saturday, meet a guide outside and visit. I well remember that, in my first 10 years in the House, that practice was possible, and I know many people who availed themselves of the opportunity.

Frequently, even those who come now as hon. Members' guests to look round the Palace of Westminster effectively pay a modest charge. All hon. Members have many parties from our constituencies. In an average year, I have an average of one constituency party—very often a quite large one—every fortnight, and very often more than that. Often, to help one another, one's colleagues will sign up his or her constituents for the other 16 places in a group. Nevertheless, there are sometimes bills of £75 or £100 for three or four guides to take people round, and an hon. Member does not always pay that out of his or her own pocket. Those who come pay, and they do so extremely willingly.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

People do not need a guide.

Sir Patrick Cormack

They do; they must be escorted by either an hon. Member or a guide. One cannot just come and wander round. Members of the public of course have access, through St. Stephen's Hall, to Central Lobby, and that will not change—it never would change. However, members of the public who come to do the Line of Route must be accompanied by either an hon. Member or a member of his or her staff, or by one of the qualified guides. If they are escorted by a qualified guide, a charge is, quite reasonably, levied by the guide.

Mr. Pike

That is not correct. A Member can arrange for a group to go round with a permit in his or her name. If the group do not wish to pay for a guide, they do not need to do so as long as a Member has given them a permit to go round.

Sir Patrick Cormack

If I am slightly wrong, I apologise, but my point is substantially correct. There are very few who would want to do that, because they want the building to be explained to them. I enjoy nothing more than taking parties round. I took one yesterday morning. I love every stone of this building and am very proud of it. I never cease to get a thrill when I walk through Westminster Hall. I never cease to be amazed by the wonderful artistry of Pugin and Barry as I take people round, which I am always happy to do. I like the building so much that I wrote a book about it some years ago, which I commend to hon. Members. It is still in the Library of the House. Perhaps I should declare another interest. I gladly and unashamedly do so.

People need to have the building explained to them if they are to get the maximum benefit from it. The overwhelming majority of those who come are glad to have a guide and very much want one.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

1 apologise for not being here for most of the debate. I have had unavoidable meetings. The hon. Gentleman's argument has been based on the fact that people have to pay at the moment. He said that they had to pay a guide to have access. That is on the record. It now turns out that people do not have to pay. The hon. Gentleman is party to a decision to introduce a charge where previously one was not required. That is wrong.

Sir Patrick Cormack

The hon. Gentleman has come in late and has not listened properly to the point. I made the reasonable point that most people who come for a tour of the House are taken round by a guide because Members do not have time to take them. The guides levy a charge, which is frequently passed on—although not always; I sometimes pay it myself. The proposals that we are debating are not without precedent or analogy.

Mr. Campbell-Savours


Sir Patrick Cormack

We are talking about choice. The hon. Gentleman can chunter away as much as he likes. He is a great chunterer. I shall not be challenged by anyone on the subject of choice. People do not have the choice to see this building in August or September, but, thanks to the modest, sensible, constructive and thoughtful proposals of the Committee, supported by a number of distinguished Labour Members, they will have that opportunity.

I share the reluctance of the Leader of the House about charging. I wish that we could do it all for free, but we cannot, at least until the initial costs have been recouped. I believe that most of those who come will gladly pay, just as they gladly pay to enjoy Westminster abbey, Buckingham palace and a host of other historic buildings throughout the country. One of the main reasons why people come to this country for their holidays is to enjoy our rich heritage of historical buildings and wonderful museums and galleries, some of which are open free, but the majority of which are not. We would merely put ourselves in that category for two months of the year if we adopted the proposal. I have a basic sympathy with the amendment, but it is far better to have the building open during those two months than to have it closed. It is far better to let people come than to keep them out.

I have three important questions for my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, who will briefly sum up the debate. Does her Committee envisage that those who come will all have hand-held guides, or will there be an opportunity for guides to take people round? Many people prefer a human guide to an inhuman instrument. If so, will there be an opportunity for those staff of the House who act as guides in their off-duty hours to do so during the summer? Some of them have an encyclopaedic knowledge of this place and are wonderful guides because they work here and love the place very much. I hope that they will have that opportunity. Secondly, who will do the commentary for the audio guide, how will it be organised and how many languages will it be in? My third question is merely a point of clarification. My hon. Friend made it clear that the rights of Members and senior officers of the staff would remain. They will be able to come at any time to show people round. She said that that would apply to Members' staff. At the moment it also applies to Members' spouses. Will she confirm that that will remain the case? One or two people have raised that with me.

With those brief questions I am delighted to commend the report. Once again, I thank my hon. Friend and her Committee for putting it together. If the House is pleased to approve the report, as 1 trust that it will be, this place will be a welcome addition to the tourist map of London.

5.56 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof: declines to approve the First Report from the Administration Committee (HC394) on the proposal to re-open the Line of Route during the Summer Adjournment until the full implications for entry into the Houses of Parliament at other times of the year, and other options for making these arrangements, are examined and costed. The amendment is supported by a number of hon. Members on both sides, to whom I am grateful. I agree with the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) on two points. First, I agree that this building is a very important architectural masterpiece. I admired it when I was involved with architecture and I still do. It is still an amazing working environment, despite the fact that it is unable to move with the times in some respects, as is shown by the problems of making the disabled more welcome. I endorse the views expressed by others that we should make the building available as much as possible for people to see how it works.

I also agree with the compliments that the hon. Gentleman paid to the House Committees, particularly the Administration Committee. The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) introduced her report with seductive modesty, but I warn hon. Members to look carefully at the small print.

Before I refer specifically to the report, I must deal with three general points, two of which are widespread misconceptions that have been repeated this afternoon. The first is that, somehow, the proposals in the report deal exclusively with August and September and with foreign tourists. Both those arguments are wrong. There are detailed recommendations in the report that apply to other parts of the year and there are important implications for the entry of all persons to the building.

The second misconception is that we have to get on with this. It has taken a long time to reach the Floor of the House. I asked the previous Leader of the House what was going on in July of last year, because rumours were circulating. However, there is no rush. Some people thought that we had to get on quickly because we were going to open the place this August. Nothing will happen until August 2000—14 months hence—so there is time to get it right.

The third point is that there is widespread concern that this is the thin end of a big wedge. Many hon. Members have expressed concern about that in the House and outside. If I were at liberty to do so, I should quote extensively from an important letter from the Finance and Services Committee, on which I serve, setting out a number of reservations. However, as the Chairman is not here, it would be unfair. I hoped that the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) might be present, because the letter expressed important reservations about the report.

The inhabitants of the other end of the building share our concerns, but they keep being told that the Commons has agreed to it, just as we shall no doubt be told that the Lords have agreed. That is not true.

Dr. Palmer

Just to clarify that point, let me say that there were fairly extensive discussions with the equivalent body in the House of Lords and only one member of that body dissented vigorously. The overwhelming majority supported the proposal. Of course, the debate will reveal whether that is the general view.

Mr. Tyler

I understand that the House of Lords has not yet taken a decision, so it has not yet shown where it stands.

I want to deal with the proposals first in relation to the principle; secondly, in relation to some practical issues; and, thirdly in relation to precedent.

First, in paragraph 3, the consultants identified the potential to open the Line of Route on non-sitting days at other times of the year. From the outset, the private consultants whom the Select Committee asked to look at the proposal considered not just August and September, but the whole year. As the hon. Member for Broxbourne said, that is still implicit in the report.

Paragraph 3 also states that the majority of operational services would be contracted out to specialist organisations". Those of us who are suspicious of contracting out, commercialisation and privatisation should look carefully at the small print of the report.

The proposal that is endorsed by the Committee at paragraph 9 of the report is that: the Summer opening programme should become an annual event, and that, if it were successful, it might be appropriate, in due course, to extend opening to Easter, Whitsun and certain other weekends. Where would it stop? We do not know, and it is not spelt out. When I deal with the economics of the proposal, the House will agree that the likelihood is that, once it has started, it will be unstoppable.

In other words, this is a completely new departure. The Select Committee is saying quite blatantly, first, that it is likely to extend throughout the year in due course; and, secondly, that, whatever safeguards are mentioned now, there is nothing to stop the system being extended to sitting days. The Committee can give us all the assurances that it likes, but there is nothing to stop it. Thirdly, it suggests an element of contracting out or privatisation.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Personally, I would be delighted if the proposals were extended to other recesses and weekends, but, in respect of sitting days, the proposal would have to come before the House again and I cannot think of a single hon. Member who would vote for it.

Mr. Tyler

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire is always telling us about precedent. Once a precedent is established for charging for entry into this building, it will be difficult to stop it.

Mrs. Beckett

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify something? He has made a point about the Committee discussing the extension of the proposal throughout the year. It has certainly discussed opening during other recesses and weekends, as he rightly said, but surely he recognises that that would involve an access that is not now available. An incautious hearer might take the view that he is saying that a charge would be made for access that is now available. Surely that access is not now available. I wholeheartedly endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack). It is grossly over-egging the pudding to suggest that the proposal is somehow the thin end of the wedge. I cannot think of any hon. Member who would advocate that we should charge for our constituents to come when the House was in session or who would vote for such a proposal.

Mr. Tyler

I am grateful to the Leader of the House. I shall return to that point in a moment in relation to the economics of the proposal. It is extremely important for hon. Members to recognise that, once we embark on this course, it will become increasingly likely that people will say that the only viable way for it to operate is to extend it as far as possible.

We have already been told that up to a quarter of those who will come here in August and September will be United Kingdom citizens who have already contributed through their taxes to their democracy and are entitled to see where that democracy resides. If the proposal is extended to the Easter and Whitsun recesses, the proportion will rise. We all know that far more of our constituents than tourists are likely to want to come at that time.

I take seriously the point made by the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike). I remember the wartime years only distantly, but I have many relations who served alongside those who fought on behalf of the Commonwealth countries against the Nazi dictatorship. Those people will feel that they are being treated in a rather shabby way if, at the only time that they can come here, they find that they are charged for entry.

Dr. Palmer

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Tyler

I want to make progress as I know that others want to speak.

I know that some hon. Members object to all charging. I do not necessarily take that view. As the hon. Member for South Staffordshire has pointed out, there are already some charges, so that is not the big issue. The issue is whether the proposed method of charging will be worth losing the vital rights of our constituents and fellow citizens to come here free of charge. At the moment, groups from constituencies that are further afield can visit only during the months when we are not sitting, particularly September. A school group from Cornwall might very well come at Whitsun or in September. If it were possible, I would try to make arrangements for them to be escorted round, but that cannot be guaranteed. Increasing numbers of people will find it difficult to fit in with the proposed arrangements.

There are also some practical considerations. In addition to the outside contractors that the report envisages, paragraph 14 proposes that three new staff should be appointed—two senior and one subsidiary member of staff. What will they do for the other 10 months of the year? Will they be fully employed for only eight weeks? That does not seem very economic.

We are told in paragraph 17 that the two month-scheme will cost in the region of £500,000 in year one and £350,000 in the following year, with the Lords making an additional contribution. Within that very narrow margin, the pressure to extend the period will be enormous. Any private enterprise organisation—or any enterprise within the House—would immediately seek to expand the scheme other recesses and weekends. The Select Committee is obviously aware of that. What business would employ staff and equip itself to run an eight-week year? Of course it would immediately try to extend its working year as far as possible. The level of charging is referred to in the report and the hon. Member for Broxbourne said that some savings have already been made. Perhaps we should debate the matter every week so that the cost would come down to nil, as it is impressive that, since the publication of the report just a few weeks ago, it has already been possible to reduce the charge.

Let us consider the figures in the report. A family of two adults and three children would have to pay £14 to get in. That is a substantial sum for a small family. However, if a group or school party were not lucky enough to get sponsorship, a group of 13 young people and three adults would have to pay £45.50. Under the present arrangements, the maximum would be about £20 and would include a guide.

In addition, the report anticipates some 2,000 people an hour coming through in August and September. The hon. Member for Broxbourne and others have said that there will be no disruption to hon. Members' parties coming round. Hon. Members should imagine their own party arriving behind a queue of 2,000 people. How would they queue barge? How would they get preference? Of course the proposals will affect the entry of our constituents, whether we take them round themselves or ask someone else to do it.

There will have to be experts to answer questions. As has already been said, visitors will be equipped with audio guides of a make that I understand has just been thrown out by Buckingham palace and the Tower of London because they do not work properly. Audio guides cannot answer questions, so there will still have to be people to do that. If, as happens every summer recess, the Line of Route changes owing to building work, the audio guide will be useless unless someone is paid to record a completely new message. In addition, if groups are not accompanied by qualified guides employed by this place, security charges will have to increase. There will have to be people to keep an eye on those groups. When they come with our staff or the staff of the House, they are automatically supervised but, if they are unaccompanied, security staff will have to be doubled or trebled, at considerable cost. They will be there for only August and September, so I do not know what preferential rates are to be paid. Or will they be students taking up a holiday job? I have nothing against students, but their professionalism would be nothing like as great as one would expect.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire usually lectures us on the issue of precedent, and I hope that he feels that that issue is entirely appropriate. I believe that, once we start on the slippery slope of commercialisation and privatisation, there will be remorseless pressure to extend the period, to increase the categories that are included—eventually, I see our constituents being included—or to increase the charges; or all three. That will be inevitable once we have said yes.

I appreciate that the Committee has done some useful work, but it has not put a choice before the House. It has not put a choice before the Commission, or any other Committee of the House. We are entitled to a choice, and that is what the amendment provides. It does not call for the whole thing to be thrown out, as important work is being done. However, the House is entitled to know what choices there are and whether we can avoid what seems to be the least-good option.

I believe that we should invite an in-house bid. In their spare time, the staff of the House—as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire acknowledged—provide an excellent service. Why should they be done out of an important role that they fulfil admirably? Why should we not see whether they can provide, on a co-operative basis, an alternative method of dealing with the problem?

I believe that we should examine the costs. It is a fact of life, as the museums have just found, that charging itself costs money. One has to employ more people to handle the money, or use machinery, or a complicated combination of the two. The actual cost of charging is not referred to in the report, and it should be. We should keep supervised tours rather than move to an audio guide system. That would save dramatically on security costs.

If it is felt that the setting-up costs are beyond what we are entitled to consider, we should look carefully at some of the other costs being incurred within this building. I understand that Black Rod in the other place is pushing through a scheme that will cost £2.25 million to apply some cosmetic attention to Old Palace Yard. It has no practical advantage for us, or for our constituents. A small fraction of that sum, dedicated to making this House more accessible to everybody—whether they are from this country or abroad—would be a proper use of public funds.

Our constituents, the electorate, have paid through their taxes for the democratic system. I believe that it would be quite wrong for us to make them pay twice just so they can come and see us and our place of work.

6.12 pm
Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

I have listened attentively to the points made so far, and I declare an interest, in that I am a member of the Committee. I shall not go on at length because the issues are straightforward. In effect, we have three options. The first is the status quo, which is that there is no access, except by pre-planned groups who normally pay for a guide. That means that, if an individual—perhaps one of those referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike); a relative of someone who fought for Britain—seeks to visit the House during the summer recess and cannot contact an hon. Member, he or she will be unable to do so.

The second is to spend £500,000, on our estimate—I assure the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that we looked extensively at alternative costings, and guided groups made up of individual applicants would be more expensive—to provide what would be basically an additional tourist attraction. The third option—the one before us—is that we provide that attraction, but that it should be paid for principally by those who benefit.

As with any proposal for change, there are those, such as the hon. Member for North Cornwall, who propose doing nothing for the time being and awaiting further discussions and developments. They offer the prospect of a better world in which the ideal can be achieved. I have not been in this House for as long as many hon. Members here, but I predict that, if we reject the proposal today, £500,000 will not be found to provide free access for summer visitors, 80 per cent. of whom will be tourists. Politically, it will not happen.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

We have already had five years of revenues referred to by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who said that more than £2 million was available for one project. Why cannot we have that money?

Dr. Palmer

My hon. Friend will be aware from many similar debates on spending issues that each of us can always identify one project, not under discussion, that might be scrapped to pay for the project under discussion. We are unable to assess the scheme to which the hon. Member for North Cornwall referred. If it is possible to save more than £2 million by not carrying out an unnecessary scheme, we should do so.

However, that is an entirely separate issue. We are debating whether we should budget an additional £500,000 to entertain tourists from around the world who will pay sums vastly in excess of the proposed sums to come here in the first place.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)

We are accountable to our constituents. The arguments that we have heard so far have posed two options—no access, or access with a charge. Our constituents will look at that and pose other options. If we are spending millions over the road—for ourselves, in effect—why cannot we find the money to give them access to this House?

Dr. Palmer

I fully agree that public scepticism about the sums spent on Portcullis House is great and will become yet greater when they become better known. However, while we are not debating Old Palace Yard, we are also not debating Portcullis House. We are debating whether we should spend £500,000 to benefit the tourist industry.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall said that we should not be charging our constituents twice—once through taxes, to elect us and to pay our salaries, and once to visit this place. If we were to spend £500,000 on making the scheme free, that is precisely what we should be doing. We shall be charging our constituents to save money for the 80 per cent. of non-constituents who use this facility in the summer.

I would share the concerns of the House if it were suggested that this charge might be made compulsory for our constituents. However, the Committee was careful to stress that there should be no change to the present facility that any hon. Member can take his or her constituents around at no cost and at a time convenient to him or her, whether in the summer recess or at any other time.

We are speaking here exclusively of an additional facility to benefit people such as those referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley, who are not able to visit in an organised group and who wish to visit the mother of Parliaments. If we focus on what the proposal says, there is little that should be controversial. If we focus, as did the hon. Member for North Cornwall, on supposed follow-ons and extensions that might happen in the future, it is possible to conjure up all sorts of alarming potentials. The Committee focused on a proposal for the summer months and said that, if it is a success—only the House as a whole will be able to assess that—we can review whether we should extend the scheme to other non-sitting periods.

I invite the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) to confirm that it is also her view that, before proceeding to any such extension, the House should have the opportunity to discuss it again.

Mrs. Roe

I am certain that the Administration Committee, no matter who is a member of it at the time, would want to have the endorsement of the House for any changes to the programme.

Dr. Palmer

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that clarification.

Mr. Tyler

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the report that we are being asked to approve includes specific reference to extending opening to Easter, Whitsun and certain other weekends", and that, once a considerable sum has been spent on the proposal, the pressure to extend it will be remorseless?

Dr. Palmer

I have heard the hon. Gentleman very clearly, but we must be precise. Paragraph 9 says: The Committee considers that the Summer opening programme should become an annual event, and that, if it were successful, it might be appropriate, in due course, to extend opening to other periods. I have rarely seen more subjunctives in one sentence. I credit the hon. Gentleman and all other hon. Members with the backbone to resist any suggestion that, because we have approved a summer experiment, we have approved all the extensions that he fears.

Those who debate the matter in future can look back at this debate and confirm that we have said in the clearest possible terms that we are talking only about the summer. There are three clear options: do nothing; hope for an illusion; or opt for a scheme that provides a new facility for individual visitors, mostly from overseas.

6.22 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I completely agree with the amendment so ably and eloquently moved by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). I agree with only one aspect of what the report says: that access to the Palace should be maximised for everybody, be they from this country or from abroad.

We have witnessed a rather astonishing outbreak of xenophobia: suddenly, foreigners are undesirables and we either do not want them here or want to charge them. I want to dissociate myself from that view. It is pretty disgraceful stuff. I would like all people—both our voters and taxpayers and, even more, people from abroad—to be welcome in the Palace, in the right circumstances, so that they may see and enjoy that of which we are so proud. That should surely be our main motivation.

Dr. Palmer

When the right hon. Gentleman says "even more", is he saying that we should subsidise foreign visitors at the expense of our constituents?

Mr. Forth

I would not use the word "subsidise" but I would welcome anyone here, be they from this country or from abroad. I go to the United States as often as I can and visit state capital buildings—so far I have visited about 30 and I look forward to visiting many more—and I am not charged there or on Capitol hill in the District of Columbia, because the Americans are proud of their democratic process and proud to welcome visitors, including even me. I am made to feel welcome. They want me to share in the pride that they have in their democratic history and institutions, state by state and at federal level in DC.

Mr. Pike

Should we not remember that foreign tourists spend money here? They support the economy and pay VAT and other taxes while they are here.

Mr. Forth

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We often say in the House how much we want to encourage the tourist trade. If we can offer this place as an additional attraction to tourists, that in itself will do much to encourage that trade, which already generates so much revenue and so many jobs. I have absolutely no problem with welcoming visitors here, be they native taxpayers and voters or visitors from abroad. They should all be treated equally.

Hon. Members have rightly taken an interest in how we defray the costs. My right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) suggested to me earlier today that a much more imaginative and systematic merchandising effort would go a long way towards that. Given the amount of revenue generated in the relatively small retail space currently available in the kiosks, I believe that he is right. We could also offer optional facilities or guided tours at a charge. The Committee has not explored all those avenues as it should.

The point has been made over and over again that taxpayers and voters can always come here courtesy of their Member of Parliament, but the irony is that, if we open up this place during the summer recess, that is the very time when most Members of Parliament are at their least accessible. I put it no more strongly than that and I will not go into any gruesome details, but hon. Members will know exactly what I mean.

We can say, "Don't worry, natives, you'll be able to get in via your MP while all these rotten foreigners are paying," but the occasional voter and taxpayer might have a little difficulty laying hands on a Member of Parliament, especially during the summer recess when hon. Members are busy on fact-finding trips and with similar work.

All in all, I welcome the original intention of the exercise, which was to open up this great building and our traditions to as many people as possible. From that point on, the exercise has gone very badly wrong.

Mr. David Davis

I am a little perplexed by my right hon. Friend's willingness to subsidise an activity. That may be a first. The important point is that there are two decisions, not one. The first is whether we make this place available to the public in the summer. The second, separate decision, is whether we charge. I think that we should make it available, and the costs are all in that decision. After that, any further costs—for letting in foreigners, for example—are near to zero. As he says, better merchandising could meet all the costs of allowing foreign visitors in free. Does he agree that we are making a two-stage decision, the first part of which is to open up our democracy to our own people?

Mr. Forth

My right hon. Friend is right. I am not often heard to advocate the use of taxpayers' money for such purposes and I am usually the first to adopt a market approach. I think that there is a market element in what I am saying. I am trying to strike a balance between maximum access and recouping as much of the cost as possible. It is possible that the scheme could end up generating revenue even beyond the costs that have been identified by the Committee.

I am afraid that, unless I hear something very much more convincing than I have heard so far, my inclination is strongly to support the amendment and to reject the report.

6.30 pm
Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

Like many hon. Members, I agree with much of the report. It is primarily about trying to extend access to this place to people from this country and abroad and, as the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) said, we all welcome that move. When people visit this building—whether they are constituents, friends or tourists—one can see the way in which they are inspired and the great joy that they derive from it. Why are people so inspired by this building? I suggest that it is because this place represents democracy. This is the mother of Parliaments and it represents all sorts of ideals.

I take issue with the report's suggestion that we should charge people to come to this place and feel that sense of awe—whether during the summer recess or at any other time. That is deeply wrong. In essence, it is a matter of principle.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is preparing to ensure that entry to all our museums is free. Yet we are planning to introduce an entrance fee to this great, modern, working museum. We should not charge people to enter this place over the summer. The amounts of money are trivial. The Secretary of State is about to spend millions of pounds removing museum entry fees, while we are about to introduce just such a fee in this place. That is a nonsense.

Mr. Coaker

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Paragraph 19 of the report states: it is now Government policy that institutions such as the Tate Gallery, the National Gallery and the British Museum should not charge an entrance fee". The report points out the contradiction in Government policy, but then goes on to suggest that we should introduce an entrance fee to one of the best museums in the country.

The proposed charges will stop some people visiting the building. Furthermore, I believe that our constituents will react badly to the concept of charging UK citizens or tourists to enter their Parliament. They will be absolutely amazed and bewildered.

Dr. Palmer

Will my hon. Friend not concede that nearly all of his arguments apply equally to Westminster abbey, which is the national centre of our established church where people might wish to worship? People are charged to enter that building.

Mr. Coaker

I might believe that entry to Westminster abbey should be free, but unfortunately I cannot vote on that issue. I have an opportunity to speak in this Chamber about whether we should charge people to visit this place, and an opportunity to vote on this amendment. I intend to seize that opportunity. I believe that the charging proposal is deeply flawed, and I shall support the amendment moved by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).

We either charge people to enter this place or are proud that entry is free. I think we should be proud that entry to our Parliament—the symbol of our democracy—is free, in August, December, March or whenever. Any costs of extending access to this place should be met from the general tax fund. We want to extend access to people and, in so doing, ensure that people are not put off by the cost. We must remain proud of the fact that entry to our Parliament is free.

6.35 pm
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge)

I pay tribute to the hard work of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) on the Committee. All Committees should strive to produce such a succinct report after taking evidence for a year.

I represent a constituency that is situated very close to London—in fact, it is regarded as part of London these days—but that does not mean that my constituents have easy access to this place. Like all hon. Members who have spoken in this debate, I welcome the fact that people will have greater access to Parliament during the summer recess. However, I am fundamentally opposed to charging for that access.

I came to the debate with the idea that only United Kingdom citizens should be allowed free entry to Parliament. However, hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have argued powerfully that free entry should be extended not only to Commonwealth citizens but to tourists, who already pay tax in this country and contribute to the wealth of our economy. Therefore, I have decided not to be xenophobic about this matter.

Mr. David Davis

On this occasion.

Mr. Randall

On this occasion.

I speak today particularly on behalf of families. The school holidays are the only time when many people have an opportunity to travel to London and visit this place. It has been said, slightly glibly, that the entrance charge for a family is not excessive. However, if we add together all the charges at London tourist attractions, the resulting cost is very high. I believe that children should visit this place as part of their education. Charging will dissuade parents from bringing their children to Parliament because they will think that £14 per family is just too expensive.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have argued in support of the amendment, and I should perhaps declare an interest in the debate. I am a retailer, and I believe that we should consider increasing parliamentary retail revenues. I sometimes visit the shop around Christmas. I listen to the ringing of the till and think wistfully of my previous incarnation as a retailer. I think that more could be made of those revenues, which could be improved and used to subsidise entrance fees. I believe hon. Members should support the amendment and consider generating other forms of revenue. We must not rush into charging an entry fee.

6.38 pm
Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

I have been a Member of Parliament for about 20 years. I used to sit three rows behind the Opposition Front Bench and, in my first years in this place, behind me there sat a very wise Member of Parliament named Willie Hamilton—I am sure hon. Members remember him with great affection. I was a young, thrusting Member of Parliament who was trying to do his bit to bring down the Government, and Willie used to offer me some sound advice.

On one occasion, I had some new-fangled idea about modernising Parliament: I thought that sittings should commence at 10 am and adjourn at 6 pm because that was the way in which a civilised Parliament should be run. I remember Willie leaning over, tapping me on the shoulder and saying, "You'll learn, laddie. You cannot change things in this place that have been traditions for decades. If you make changes without full consideration, things will go wrong." This proposal is nonsense, and everyone who has been in the House for a long time knows it.

I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) who was on the Committee. I have been here for 20 years and my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), who intervened on me and who has said that the proposal is nonsense, has been here for 40 years. When I considered the Committee's membership, it seemed to me that several new Members, who have in the past couple of years been elected to the Committee by majority—obviously supported by others, I concede—have taken a view on these matters without recognising the implications of the proposals that they are supporting. They are simply wrong.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) is one of the friendly Members whom we all adore, and I am astonished that he should support this proposition. He did not seem to argue from a position of neutrality; he seemed to believe in the proposal. I find it astonishing that he should take that position.

Dr. Palmer

I am having difficulty in following my hon. Friend's argument. He seems to be saying simultaneously that those new hon. Members who support the proposal are unwise and have not had the benefit of experience, but that support for the proposal from those hon. Members who have been here for a while is merely astonishing.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

It is. That is precisely the point. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire is a wise, older Member, and I am astonished that he should take the position that he has.

I want to take action in the Chamber tonight because I know that, despite what the public think, there are Members sitting in their offices all over Westminster watching our debate. The public seem to think that when the Chamber is empty, no one knows what is happening in the House of Commons, but of course many, perhaps hundreds, of MPs are watching this debate tonight. I say to them, "Please come out of your offices because unless you come and vote against this nonsense, the House will make a ridiculous decision that will make us all look rather silly."

When the public consider these matters, they will ask how it is possible—if this is true, and 1 am told that it is and I have not heard it contested—for Members of Parliament to spend £250 million on an office block for themselves and then start charging the public to come in and see the relics, exhibits and pictures in this place. That is utterly ludicrous.

We talk about charges, but I do not think that Members realise what the charges will be. The charge will be £5.50 for an adult.

Mr. Coaker

It will be £6.50.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I was wrong. It will cost an adult £6.50 to come into Parliament during the summer recess. That is an absolute outrage. We must vote that proposal down tonight. I am told that if my constituents' children cannot get a ticket from me and come to London in a group, they may well have to spend £2 each to get into the House of Commons. That is just plain wrong. I say to my hon. Friends that they should make sure that the Lobbies are tonight full of people who understand the issues and are prepared to reject the whole proposition.

We heard that audio systems will be made available for people to wear so that they will know what is going on in the House. I have been told that those systems were used in Buckingham palace, but they had to be withdrawn because they do not always work. One must be standing in the right position, away from the column or on the correct side of the window. One must stand in a place where the signal can be picked up. People said, "We don't want anything to do with that nonsense. We want the old system of guides or the right simply to walk around, instead of all that high-tech paraphernalia that doesn't work."

This proposal is a foot in the door, and whatever hon. Members say, once we establish the principle of charging in this place, we shall extend it. Let there be no doubt about that. The intention now may not be to extend charging. It never is, but once we begin to charge, the pressure will build up. We shall ask ourselves, "Why don't we build a new exhibit next year, and put the charges up? We'll introduce a new charge for constituents, perhaps of £1, to pay for the new exhibit." Such ideas will start in a little Committee somewhere. Its members will find a justification, such as a need or a new requirement that must be funded, and then impose a new charge.

My final argument relates to the whole question of what we are doing in the House. I do not want to be party to a decision that creates any impediment to the right of people to come here and see what is here. This is the mother of Parliaments; it is the institution that is talked about with respect all over the world, so do we want to get into the squalid business of trade? We cannot associate Parliament with the squalid principles of trade; we must reject all that. I say to hon. Members, "Get out of your offices, get into the Lobbies, and let's have some common sense."

6.45 pm
Mrs. Roe

We have had a useful debate this afternoon, and it is clear that there is still much work to be done. I know that the relevant authorities will have taken note of what hon. Members have said and will address the concerns that they have expressed.

First, I shall deal with the points made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) when he spoke to his amendment. I note that he would prefer to delay a reopening pending further examination of the implications and the options. Although I have every sympathy with his desire to get things right, I remind him that the Committee has been considering the matter for 14 months, and the House authorities still have another 14 months in which to finalise all the arrangements.

Mr. Sheldon

There is a strong case for delay because the matter has not, I think, even been raised with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who is planning to make all museums free. Surely the first thing that the Committee should have done was to ask the Secretary of State for his views on this matter. It would be astonishing if all the museums in the country were open and this one were closed.

Mrs. Roe

I accept the right hon. Gentleman's point. However, my Committee decided to publish its findings in the form of a Select Committee report, thereby making them public—and although hon. Members have spoken in the debate, we have not yet received much correspondence from them. In fact, we have had only one letter. The Secretary of State had an opportunity to ensure that his views were available to the Committee, and he is, of course, still able to do so.

Following the point made by the hon. Member for North Cornwall, I believe that if we delayed and waited until summer 2001 to reopen the Line of Route, we would be in danger of over-egging the pudding. I hope that he will accept my constructive suggestion that he might find it helpful to arrange a meeting with the Serjeant at Arms and the Director of Finance and Administration so that he can discuss the details of his concerns.

The hon. Gentleman made five main points, about the time of year, the unfairness of charging, the waste of staff time, MPs' problems with groups and the costs of charging. All those points are covered in the report. I am a little short of time, but I emphasise to him that the reopening is an additional facility, which would be operated on an experimental basis and, in the first instance, for summer only.

We have discussed paragraph 9 of the report. As the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), who is a member of the Administration Committee, clearly pointed out, the report leaves plenty of room for a proper assessment to be made before we take any further steps. I am sure that the House will make its views known.

Staff will be part of a visitors' office, but they will have many other tasks. They will be required to deal with the millennium exhibition in Westminster Hall, so their duties will not be confined to the Line of Route. Charging will involve some administrative costs, but they will be absorbed in the scheme.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall said that he felt that the proposal was the thin end of the wedge. I hope that he will realise that his fears are unfounded. Of course, the House can come to any decision; any future Administration Committee, with new members, may come to a different decision. I hope that he does not think that something will be slipped through without proper debate, assessment and review.

On the points made about guides, in paragraph 15 of the report, the Committee recommends that suitably knowledgeable staff should be available at the end of the tour in order to assist visitors' enquiries. We hope that those with knowledge and experience of the House will come forward for those duties. Of course, the present guides will still be able to take round parties that have been organised by Members of Parliament, and so on. Their services will still be required.

Some hon. Members, including the hon. Members for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), for Burnley (Mr. Pike) and for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), expressed their total opposition to charging. I understand their concerns, but, on balance, and after much soul searching—this decision was not taken frivolously—the Administration Committee concluded that the cost of reopening the Line of Route would be so great that the fairest way in which to pay for it would be to charge only United Kingdom taxpayers who chose to make use of the facility.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

We have heard that £2.5 million—five years' revenue—is available to subsidise this project. Is the hon. Lady in favour in principle of using that revenue?

Mrs. Roe

It is not my responsibility to decide where that money should be allocated; I am certainly not aware of the reason why it has been allocated. The Administration Committee takes very seriously the duty of obtaining good value for money for its decisions. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I mentioned in my opening speech that some savings have been made. I cannot comment on money that has already been allocated elsewhere.

My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge raised a point about school holidays and family visitors. I repeat that the Committee was very reluctant to recommend charging. It is important to remember that, at present, no one can enjoy the facility during the summer. This additional facility will enhance those already provided.

I am most grateful to the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) for their support. I shall quickly run over my hon. Friend's points, on which he requested some information. Audio guides will be provided. We have been informed by the consultants that they will operate effectively and respond to the needs of visitors. Of course, we shall monitor the equipment and ensure that it reflects the requirements placed on it. There will certainly be opportunities for staff who have knowledge of the House to use their expertise in one way or another if they wish to volunteer to do so in the proper way.

My hon. Friend asked how many languages would be available. The answer is English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. If we receive desperate requests for others, I have no doubt that we would consider them. He also asked whether spouses would still be able to escort guests. I assure him that that will be so. Again, I reiterate that nothing that is in place now will change. We are debating an additional facility for people who at the moment are not able to enjoy this wonderful treasure and piece of history.

I remind the House of four fundamental points. Our proposals represent an additional facility for visitors, especially those who might be termed "casual visitors"—the person who does not have direct access to a Member of Parliament who can organise a tour. There will be no change to the arrangements whereby hon. Members can organise visits for their constituents during the summer. Our constituents will not be charged to see either or both Houses at work.

Finally, and reluctantly, if the House does not approve our proposals—I know that the hon. Member for Workington would like to ransack another budget to meet the costs—the Line of Route will not reopen during the summer. Without that admission charge, reopening it is not an option. I remind the House that the matter must still go before the House of Lords, which will also go through our report. We do not yet know its conclusions.

Mr. Pike

Surely the hon. Lady is misleading the House because, at the end of the day, it is not for the Administration Committee to say that, without charging, we cannot reopen the Line of Route in August and September. It is for this House and democracy to do so. If we say, "Take the proposal back, have another look at it and come up with another one," the Committee will have to take note of that.

Mrs. Roe

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. He will recall that I said that, at the end of the day, the House will decide. In no way would I undermine the House's final decision. We have very seriously considered the figures over much time and come to the conclusion—reluctantly—that in order to make reopening feasible, we will have to charge.

I hope that I have covered all the points raised. I again thank hon. Members for their courtesy and their kind comments about the report. The Committee felt that this was the best way to bring the issue into the open so that everyone would be given an opportunity to see exactly what it was proposing and why. Of course, the matter is for the House to decide, but I urge my colleagues to reject the amendment, thus giving those who at the moment do not have access the opportunity to enter this wonderful Palace.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 119, Noes 36.

Division No. 199] [6.57 pm
Allan, Richard George, Bruce (Walsall S)
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Gerrard, Neil
Ballard, Jackie Gibb, Nick
Barnes, Harry Gibson, Dr Ian
Battle, John Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Beith, Rt Hon A J Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Bennett, Andrew F Gorrie, Donald
Berrningham, Gerald Green, Damian
Brady, Graham Greenway, John
Brake, Tom Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Breed, Colin Hammond, Philip
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Hanson, David
Burnett, John Harris, Dr Evan
Burns, Simon Harvey, Nick
Burstow, Paul Hawkins, Nick
Butterfill, John Healey, John
Campbell–Savours, Dale Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas
Chidgey, David Howells, Dr Kim
Clappison, James Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth Kidney, David
(Rushcliffe) King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Coaker, Vernon Lansley, Andrew
Coffey, Ms Ann Leslie, Christopher
Connarty, Michael Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Cotter, Brian Loughton, Tim
Cousins, Jim Love, Andrew
Davey, Edward (Kingston) Maclean, Rt Hon David
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Maclennan, Rt Hon Robert
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli) McNamara, Kevin
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice McNulty, Tony
& Howden) MacShane, Denis
Day, Stephen Mactaggart, Fiona
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Mahon, Mrs Alice
Fabricant, Michael Marshall–Andrews, Robert
Fearn, Ronnie Merron, Gillian
Field, Rt Hon Frank Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Moore, Michael
Foster, Don (Bath) Naysmith, Dr Doug
Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings) Nicholls, Patrick
Garnier, Edward Oaten, Mark
Olner, Bill Stunell, Andrew
Ottaway, Richard Swayne, Desmond
Paterson, Owen Syms, Robert
Pike, Peter L Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Pope, Greg Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Prior, David Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Randall, John Tonge, Dr Jenny
Rendel, David Touhig, Don
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Trend, Michael
Ryan, Ms Joan Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Savidge, Malcolm Tyler, Paul
Sayeed, Jonathan Tyrie, Andrew
Sedgemore, Brian Viggers, Peter
Shaw, Jonathan Vis, Dr Rudi
Sheerman, Barry Ward, Ms Claire
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Waterson, Nigel
Simpson, Keith (Mid–Norfolk) Webb, Steve
Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns) Willis,Phil
Soley, Clive Tellers for the Ayes:
Squire, Ms Rachel Mr. David Heath and
Starkey, Dr Phyllis Mr. Adrian Sanders.
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Betts, Clive Liddell, Rt Hon Mrs Helen
Boswell, Tim Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Caplin, Ivor MacShane, Denis
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) McWalter, Tony
Chapman, Sir Sydney Mandelson, Rt Hon Peter
(Chipping Barnet) Maxton, John
Cormack, Sir Patrick Pound, Stephen
Cran, James Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Crausby, David Raynsford, Nick
Dowd, Jim Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Gapes, Mike Ruffley, David
Heald, Oliver Spring, Richard
Hill, Keith Tipping, Paddy
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Whittingdale, John
Jamieson, David Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Johnson, Miss Melanie Young, Rt Hon Sir George
(Welwyn Hatfield)
Jones, Ms Jenny Tellers for the Noes:
(Wolverh'ton SW) Mrs. Marion Roe and
Key, Robert Dr. Nick Palmer.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, agreed to.


That this House declines to approve the First Report from the Administration Committee (HC394) on the proposal to re-open the Line of Route during the Summer Adjournment until the full implications for entry into the Houses of Parliament at other times of the year, and other options for making these arrangements, are examined and costed.

  1. Members' Travel 8,357 words, 1 division
  2. cc427-44
  3. Opposition Parties (Financial Assistance) 1,210 words
    1. cc430-5
    2. Select Committees (Quorum) 2,740 words
    3. c435
    5. cc435-6
      1. c436
      2. Conservation and the Environment (Purbeck) 246 words
    8. Mr. Bill Sutherland 3,820 words