HC Deb 18 April 2000 vol 348 cc823-4
45. Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

If she will make a statement on the cost to date of the Westminster Hall experiment. [118171]

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

It is not possible to give a precise estimate of the cost of Westminster Hall itself, because it is housed in a refurbished Grand Committee Room, and that refurbishment would have been done in any event. Similarly, some £71,000 was spent on professional fees, and that would have been incurred in any refurbishment. But my understanding is that expenditure of some £30,000 was incurred in furnishing the Grand Committee Room additionally for the experiment, and that the running costs are some £13,000 a month.

Mr. Paterson

I think that that is a waste of money. I have attended debates in Westminster Hall which have been so poorly attended that there has been no atmosphere whatever, mainly because of the format. My main memories are of tourists in buses passing behind the Minister's head and bemused schoolchildren going out of the squeaky door. Could we not return to the familiar, traditional format of Committee Room 14, which would house all the Members who wished to attend the debates, a format that works and encourages rigorous debate?

Mrs. Beckett

The "traditional format" of Committee Room 14 has been used for a great many Committees. This is a separate feature. I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have found the opportunity for some 200 extra debates over a year as a result of the Westminster Hall operations. If the hon. Gentleman wants to say that value for money should be judged in terms of using time in debate, or indeed the number of hon. Members who attend, he is setting rather a dangerous precedent.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Is it not very unfortunate that Conservative Members seem very widely to feel that the Westminster Hall experiment is a waste of time? Surely, as my right hon. Friend said, it cannot be judged by the money costs? Surely the important thing to judge it by is the way it gives many hon. Members on both sides of the House the opportunity to take part in debates on a far better basis than if we were simply to restrict debates to this Chamber.

Mrs. Beckett

I have noticed that since the Westminster Hall experiment commenced we now have the opportunity to debate about four times as many Select Committee reports as in the past, which in theory is supposed to be to the advantage of the Opposition. Moreover, because our capacity to hold Adjournment debates has increased, the demand for such debates has doubled. Indeed, many Opposition Members, including some who did not vote for the Westminster Hall experiment, make use of it in that way.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I endorse the last comment of the President of the Council? I have attended a number of debates in Westminster Hall—including debates initiated by Conservative Members—which have been excellent. May I draw the right hon. Lady's attention to the original recommendations of the Modernisation Committee in relation particularly to value for money in what we are doing in Westminster Hall, and remind her that the Law Commission said that it was desperate to have more opportunities for non-controversial legislation, tidying-up legislation, to be taken in a forum that would allow debate where a Division was not required? Has the right hon. Lady had any discussion with colleagues or with the other parties to see whether we could use this badly needed improvement to take some of our legislation in Westminster Hall?

Mrs. Beckett

I have not done so since the experiment began, although I am willing to do it as we review its working. One reason for not having done so is that, as the hon. Gentleman may recall, anxiety was expressed in some parts of the House—perfectly reasonably, I thought—that the Westminster Hall experiment would simply be another way for the Government to get through more legislation. So I gave an absolute assurance that the Government would not seek to use Westminster Hall as such a forum, certainly not during the experimental period. Obviously, we would look at that again only if the House so desired.

I accept, however, that the experiment drew on experience in Australia that provides for some uncontroversial legislation to be discussed in such a forum. Perhaps, over time, the House may want that to happen here, because we are talking not about legislation for which the Government might in some other way find time, but about legislation for which the Government—to put it frankly—never find time. I add a caveat, however. Sadly, what the Law Commission thinks is uncontroversial is not always uncontroversial to everyone else.

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