HC Deb 18 January 2000 vol 342 cc801-17 10.30 pm
Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne)

I beg to move, That this House approves the First Report from the Administration Committee on the Revised Framework for Re-opening the Line of Route during the Summer Adjournment (HC98). I have to admit to a distinct feeling of déjà vu as I move a motion to approve an Administration Committee report on the Line of Route. On 26 May last year, the House was unable to approve the Committee's original proposals, and we were asked to come forward with an alternative framework.

I am grateful for the determination shown by my colleagues on the Committee, by the former Serjeant at Arms and the director of finance and administration and their staff, and by the consultants. That has enabled us to advance our new proposals—assuming that this House and the other place agree to them—in time for a re-opening this year.

As the House may have heard, Mr. Walker, the director of finance, has been ill and recently underwent a major operation. May I take this opportunity, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to express to him the Committee's best wishes for a speedy and a complete recovery? [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I thank the Leader of the House for making time available for this debate.

I have to advise the House that there is a printing error in the report that could cause confusion. In paragraph 27, the correct financial year is 2000–01.

In drafting our new proposals, the Committee took on board comments made during the debate last year, especially those made by the hon. Members for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), for Burnley (Mr. Pike) and for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). We have listened to the concerns that have been raised, and I hope that hon. Members will agree that we have acted accordingly in response to the wish expressed by the House.

Bearing in mind that any tour of the Palace has to be of a suitable and dignified nature, the Committee has produced proposals that we consider are as limited—and involve as small an investment—as possible. I shall be brief, as time is short and I do not wish to deprive Members of an opportunity to speak. I wish to highlight a few points, particularly those about which the House expressed most concern last year.

As we say in the report, in the previous debate, no objections were raised to the principle of a re-opening provided that it was done on an experimental basis. The House objected to introducing an admission charge to visit the Palace. We do not now propose such a charge. Visitors will still have to pay—

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)


Mrs. Roe

I accept that some right hon. and hon. Members may say that I am being pedantic, but there is a crucial difference. Visitors will be paying not to visit the Houses of Parliament, but for the services of a guide.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

One of the things that troubles a number of hon. Members is that it is hard to see why members of the public should have to make a prior arrangement to come here at a particular time. It is difficult to see why, as with cathedrals and many other public places, they should not simply come to this place as and when they choose during the recess. Why on earth should they have a guide? I, for one, much prefer to go around public places by myself.

Mrs. Roe

Members of the public can come to the House of Commons through their Member of Parliament, as now. They do not need to have a guide. In fact, their Member of Parliament can obtain tickets for them and they can come through the House in the usual way without a guide. Obviously, Members of Parliament can show people round the House themselves, or get a member of staff or spouse to do it for them. However, it was assumed by the Committee that most people who visited during the summer recess would be tourists, and we expected that they would prefer to have a guide. That is why that facility will be available. After we had considered the approach taken by other historic places of interest in London— Buckingham palace, for example—we felt that the proposals were the best way to cope with the numbers that we anticipated would wish to see the Palace. If we have timed and booked visits, there will be no confusion and no difficulty for hon. Members.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

I echo my hon. Friend's comments about the Committee, which struggled with the issues that the House gave us to consider. [Interruption.] Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) would do me the courtesy of listening to my remarks. With the present arrangements, we have a Line of Route because it is right to have some management and supervision—for safety and security reasons—of visitors to the Palace of Westminster. The necessity for some supervision, security and safety means that people should not be allowed to wander unaided around this important building.

Mrs. Roe

I thank my hon. Friend for those comments, which I endorse. The Palace is not a museum with treasures in glass cases or areas cordoned off. It is a workplace, and it is therefore important that groups of visitors are properly supervised. The security arrangements are also important.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Will the hon. Lady make it clear that during August and September it will still be possible for a Member of Parliament or a member of staff to take round a small group without making any payment?

Mrs. Roe

I confirm that that will be the case, as it is now. In August, that facility is available on Wednesday and Thursday mornings and in September, on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings. On those mornings, Members of Parliament will not be inhibited in any way from taking constituents, friends or whoever they like around the House, because nothing has changed. The new proposals are for an additional facility and I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members will feel that we have listened to what they said when we put the issue to the House before.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

In the 1960s, there was a free Line of Route. I realise that interest in Parliament has increased since then, but the proposals will not break entirely new ground and I wonder what arrangements were made in those days. I remember taking the Line of Route from the Victoria tower when the House was not sitting and that the guide was free, although I might have tagged on to another party that had paid.

What comparisons have been made with other Parliaments, such as the French National Assembly, the Bundestag and the Congress of the United States of America? Visits to the White House—I know it is not a legislature—are free—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to continue on those lines.

Mrs. Roe

I am afraid that I did not visit the House in the 1960s but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that it was the murder of Airey Neave and the consequent security issues that caused the Line of Route visits to be stopped. I do not know the exact arrangements that were made, but I will let him know. I imagine that Members of Parliament could do then what they can do now and that that would have been free. I will come to the arrangements made in other countries later, but in general they are all different. I said that there would be no admission charge, and that is the situation at present. Many people already pay a modest charge—to the doorkeepers, to blue badge guides or to the education unit—to take part in tours along the Line of Route.

I cannot stress too strongly that nothing in our proposals will affect the arrangements that apply during the summer or when the House is sitting. Summer reopening will be an additional facility. It is designed to appeal mainly to those who might be termed casual visitors: tourists who come to London. The proposed arrangements will not affect hon. Members' existing rights of access or the autumn visits programme.

Some hon. Members were concerned, rightly, that a summer opening could affect the annual parliamentary works programme. I hope that the House will be reassured that the Committee was advised—by the director of parliamentary works—that the works plan for summer 2000 can be carried out without significant obstruction to the line of route.

The House will be interested to note that the planned works include repairs to the rail around the Throne in the other place, laser cleaning of the stonework in the passage between the Central Lobby and the Members' Lobby, and the replacement of some acoustic tiles. My personal view is that these works may enhance a visit, rather than detract from it. Visitors will be able to see some of the essential repair work that has to be carried out from time to time in the Palace. In any case, many people enjoy watching others at work. That is why there are often spy holes in the hoardings around building sites.

The nuts and bolts of the proposed operation are set out in detail in paragraphs 17 to 20 of the report. I shall not detain the House by rehearsing them at length now. However, to make a visit to Parliament as enjoyable and efficient as possible, it will be necessary for visitors to book timed tickets and a guide in advance of their visit. The operational day will be divided into a series of admissions slots, with a limit on the numbers admitted in each slot. The proposal is that five groups, each of 20 visitors plus a guide, would be admitted at 15-minute intervals.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the guide charge be higher or lower than the charge currently paid by groups who use the service, or will it be about the same?

Mrs. Roe

Charges vary and, because they are private arrangements between hon. Members and others, they are no concern of mine. I have heard that the charge will be slightly higher, but there is nothing to prevent hon. Members from making arrangements with the people with whom they have arrangements at present, on behalf of their constituents and others. Those arrangements will not be changed in any way. The guide service will be an additional facility.

The arrangements that we propose differ from those in operation in any other Parliament in the world. However, our inquiries show that no two Parliaments operate exactly the same system. Arrangements vary greatly, from strictly required pre-bookings to a policy that amounts to little more than "turn up at any time".

Most Parliaments seem to have guided tours, rather than the auto-guides originally proposed by the Committee, and even then there are differences. In Canada, for example, tours are paid for by the taxpayer, and the guides are members of staff of the Canadian Parliament. In Austria, the tour guides are employees of an outside agency, and visitors pay their admission charge of approximately £2 at a reception desk inside the entrance to the Parliament building.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe)

Is the hon. Lady aware that the Association of Professional Tourist Guides in Britain, which is affiliated to the Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union, has strongly welcomed the proposal? It gives the first opportunity for professional guides, trained outside Parliament, to show their skills within Parliament.

Mrs. Roe

I am sure that hon. Members are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that additional information.

Due to the simpler arrangements being proposed, we are looking at an operation that, although cheaper, still is not cheap. Paragraph 29 of the report states that we could be looking at a bottom-line figure of some £138,000— an amount that has not been allowed for in the 2000–01 estimates. However, should the House of Commons and the House of Lords approve the report, I can confirm that it will not be necessary for a supplementary estimate to be put before the House because it will be able to draw upon its central reserve, which is designed to cover matters such as this.

One important way in which the House could recoup some of its outlay is by the sale of gifts and souvenirs. Merchandising is discussed in paragraphs 21 to 25 of the report. The House will have noted that we had misgivings about the consultants' proposal for letting the contract for merchandising. We consider that before any final decision is taken, the views of the experts must be sought. I refer of course to the two refreshment departments, the Catering Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner), and the Lords refreshment sub-committee.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Is my hon. Friend aware that some of us—perhaps only a minority— believe that a widening of the merchandising franchise to enable more and more people to purchase goods from the House of Commons and the House of Lords devalues such items? They are not quite the rarities that they used to be, and are not so well received, because far more people get them than when Members of Parliament were the main purchasers.

Mrs. Roe

My hon. Friend must know that this matter is in the hands of the Catering Committee, not the Administration Committee. However, we believed it important to consult those who serve on those Committees in both the Lords and the Commons to obtain their views on how best to proceed with merchandising. I am sure that his point will be brought to the attention of the relevant Committee chairman.

We must ensure that we obtain the best possible deal for our constituents—the United Kingdom taxpayers. That will be best achieved by the two refreshment departments providing the gifts and souvenirs, rather than an outside company, particularly as the reopening this summer will be purely experimental.

The Committee thought it only right to sound a note of caution about the new proposals. That is set out in paragraph 15. Perhaps our greatest concern was that as there will not be a set charge, as previously proposed, unscrupulous tour operators may see the Line of Route tours as an opportunity to rip off the visitor and charge considerably in excess of the forecast charge per visitor of £2.50 each for participants in an English-language group or £2.86 each in a foreign-language group. No doubt the House authorities will keep a close eye on that, perhaps using spot checks to ascertain how much individuals are being charged. We felt that we should bring that matter to the House's attention. I must stress that our proposals are experimental and can be reviewed at the end of the experiment.

I hope that the House will accept the report. Some hon. Members prefer last year's report and feel that our original proposals were the best way in which to proceed.

Mr. Forth


Mrs. Roe

I assure my right hon. Friend that some Members feel that way. I accept that others may feel uneasy about handing over the guiding of tours of Parliament to an outside agency, but I urge them to give our proposals a chance. Summer reopening would be a trial, and I acknowledge that there are ifs and buts around our proposals. If any mistake is made, or if visitors are being exploited by tour operators, we shall reconsider matters and put them right before the House is asked to make summer reopening an annual event. The House will make the final decision. The matter will come before us again when the experiment is over. In the hope that it will be supported, I commend the report to the House.

10.51 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

Opening the House of Commons and the House of Lords this summer would be an experiment. This is a House matter, and the Government have no view. No party Whip is being applied. There are many differences of view across the political parties, and we have heard some of them already. When the matter was debated on 26 May last year, there were serious differences of opinion. Since then, the Select Committee on Administration has reflected further and produced new proposals. A great deal of effort has been made over a fairly long time, and I am grateful for the Committee's work.

It is absolutely right that there should be greater public access to an important and historic building that is a symbol across the world. I still get a thrill when I walk through Westminster Hall, soaking up the atmosphere. The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) outlined how the new proposals differ from the previous proposals, but the rights of Members of both Houses must be protected, and the parliamentary works programme must go forward as planned.

The proposal is experimental, suggesting a trial only during summer 2000. The Committee was clear on that point. Paragraph 32 of the report states that: a reopening, Summer 2000 should be seen as a trial, and will be subject to review later that year. Lessons will be learned from the experiment, and the House will wish to consider whether summer opening can become permanent or whether there might be possibilities of extending public access at other times of the year.

I strongly support the Committee's report, but will highlight a few proposals. First, if the motion is agreed, the relevant Committees in the other place will consider the matter, and the other place will be asked to agree to a parallel motion. Secondly, as with the previous scheme, some input will be required from the public purse, mainly for security costs. The financial contribution will depend on take-up. That is a matter that the Committee has discussed and considered in detail. There could be an annual operating deficit of £232,000—of which the Commons' share would be £138,000. The House needs to bear that in mind when considering the matter.

As has been pointed out, merchandising must be considered. The sale of souvenirs will help to defray the costs. However, we must ensure that those souvenirs are appropriate and that they reflect suitably on the character of the House and of Parliament. The Committee recommended further discussion of that point.

Whatever the souvenirs that people take away, they will also take away important insights into the work of Parliament, and vivid memories and recollections of the building. Without doubt, this place affects and infects people. I shall support the trial opening. I hope that, in due course, it can be further extended.

10.56 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

I welcome the work of the Administration Committee and the introductory remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe). I am conscious that, on the previous two occasions when the Committee submitted recommendations to the House—on vellum and on the Line of Route—the House rejected them. I hope that it will be third time lucky.

I was happy with the original proposals, for which I voted on 26 May. Those included a charging structure, which meant that both Houses would recover their costs over five years, based on an average payment per visitor of £5.17, including VAT. That would have enabled the House to meet the other claims on its budget over a five-year period, without having to make provision for reopening the Line of Route.

The new report, which reflects the views of the House in that earlier vote and has overcome the fears of some critics, does not put the proposal in a five-year time frame. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne said, she recommends a trial this summer, followed by a review. I understand the reasons for that, but appendix B of the report shows an annual operating deficit of between £200 and £230,000, because the average charge per visitor has fallen to between £2.50 and £2.80, leaving a subsidy per visitor of £2.80.

On top of that, there are start-up costs—£400,000 in the earlier report. Although the second report knocks out some of those costs, I cannot find in it an estimate of the revised start-up costs. That will be of interest to the House of Commons Commission. There will be budgetary implications. At a time when we are urging financial discipline on other public bodies, we should exercise it ourselves.

The principle that visitors should pay, which I support, has been retained, although it is presented not as an admission fee, but as an apportioned share of the costs of a guide. I prefer the original proposals, but I am happy to support the ones before us.

I wish to raise a few points. Will my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne tell us where the new visitors' office—referred to in paragraph 13—will be?

In the original proposals, the House was, in effect, a retailer; we controlled the purchase price and dealt with the visitors. We are now moving into wholesale mode— somebody else will retail the package. The result could be that visitors would pay the fees to which the House objected last May, but the House would not receive the proceeds. The House could find that the retailer has creamed off the difference. My hon. Friend touched on that point. One needs to keep an eye out to ensure that there is no abuse. I hope that, if we discover abuses and that someone else is creaming off the surplus that should go to the House, we shall reconsider the matter with a view to recouping such surpluses.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Is not it fair to ask the guides to police the system for us?

Sir George Young

I am not sure that even the guides will know how much visitors are paying to tour organisers.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

They can ask.

Sir George Young

Indeed. However, my response to the hon. Gentleman's question is no, it would not be fair to the ask the guides, in addition to their other responsibilities, to police the system.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Is there not a risk that, by contracting out this new guide system, which will be based in a booking office in the garden of the Victoria Tower—at the other end of the Palace—we might drive up the cost of tours with the current guides of the House, for which Members of Parliament pay? My right hon. Friend appears to believe entirely in market forces in respect of current services and provisions in the Palace of Westminster. Am I right?

Sir George Young

In a word—no. I see no reason why the contractual arrangements between Members and guides should be affected. I see them carrying on in the same way.

My final question to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne is whether Members need to pre-empt all tours on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings in September. I leave that question in her mind, but is the demand from Members such that other groups cannot be allowed to visit at those times? Perhaps the matter will be kept under review.

Subject to the answers to those questions, I shall—this is free-vote territory—support the proposals in the Lobby.

11 pm

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

In the previous debate on this subject I might have played a major part in defeating the proposal that was before us then. However, it is not my intention to vote against the motion tonight. The Committee has addressed the points that were made in the previous debate and tried to come up with a proposal that deals with some of the issues raised.

I cannot pretend that the proposal is a perfectly satisfactory conclusion, but it is an improvement. We underestimate the symbolism of Parliament not only in this country, but in the whole world. In the second world war, people from throughout the Commonwealth and from nations that lost their freedom looked upon Parliament as a symbol. People should have access to the building so that they can understand the Westminster parliamentary heritage.

I still to some extent hold the view that free access should be available to people from all over the world. However, I accept the point of the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) that the proposal will produce additional access and will not replace any existing arrangements. It will give us an additional 41 days when members of the public will be able to gain access to the building. In that sense the proposal is an improvement, and a commitment has been made to consider how it has worked later in the year.

Although, in theory, I would like people to be able to turn up and visit the Line of Route, I understand why there must be regulation. Those who accompany the groups from our constituencies know the pressure points in the Prince's Chamber and elsewhere. People wait to see the Woolsack, the Lord Chancellor's Chair and the Throne in the other place and they sometimes have to queue. We also face difficulties in this Chamber when everyone wants to see where Black Rod bangs the door. There must be a sensible flow of people through those pressure points, so I understand the need for controls.

I hope that we shall make forms available, so that people can tell us how they think the system has worked. That would be useful. We could ask people to tell us anonymously how much they had paid for their tour. That would provide us with a check on what they pay the tour organisers. If the hon. Lady has not already thought of that point, she might consider doing something along those lines.

I accept what my hon. Friend the Minister said about retailing and merchandising quality souvenirs. We do not want people to buy the tat that they can buy at a cheap market anywhere in the country. We want them to be able to buy good quality stuff that befits the Palace of Westminster and the Houses of Parliament. That is extremely important.

I dismiss, however, the point about security and the £230,000 deficit. I accept that there will be a cost to the public purse, but when we consider what it costs to run this building and Parliament as a whole, £230,000, or any capital cost of setting up the scheme, is chicken-feed. We must enable the people of this country, particularly young people, to see their Parliament, where legislation is made.

We must be a symbol to people from the Commonwealth and other nations, some of which fought, lost their independence or were occupied for a period. In this new millennium we want to send out the message that this place is important, and that it stands for something and will continue to do so. We ought to enable as many people as possible to see this place, so I shall be supporting the motion.

11.6 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I had the pleasure of not only moving the amendment on 26 May but, unusually in this Parliament, of winning a vote. The vote was against the Front Benches, because although they voted in a personal capacity, the Leader of the House and her Conservative shadow voted for the proposals, and it was Back Benchers who voted against them. I was pleased to be able to defeat the establishment.

The vote was not only on the practicalities of the proposals; there was a principle involved. As the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) has just said, a number of Members felt strongly that the way in which we were being asked to proceed would commit us to a course of action not for one year but, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) pointed out, for five years.

That programme had all the hallmarks of something that would expand because the up-front investment would be so great that it would not be viable or economically sound if it were not extended into other parts of the year, into weekends and even possibly weekdays. The fear that Members would not be able to let our constituents come to see our Parliament at work in the long term was behind that vote.

I pay tribute not only to the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) and her Committee but to the Department of the Serjeant at Arms. They have worked hard to try to take on board all the concerns expressed by Members in the former debate. I particularly draw hon. Members' attention to paragraphs 13 to 16 of the report— if they have not read them already—which set out in succinct detail the variants on the previous report. Those paragraphs contain improvements and, importantly, set out the three features that are not now part of the proposals.

First, the scheme does not involve an admission charge per se. Secondly, there will be no booth—no ticketing regime with an elaborate new building in the Victoria Tower Gardens. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) can rest assured that there will not be an excrescence on the parliamentary building at that end of the Palace.

Thirdly, and most importantly, there will still be personal guides. We shall not have those terrible audio machines that go wrong and are not adaptable. Most other attractions in London have now discarded them as not being up to the standard required for a location such as this.

Hon. Members felt that the proposals made in May were the thin end of a very big wedge, and that is why they turned them down by a large majority. On that basis, these proposals are a great improvement on the originals. However, there are concerns, and it would be wrong to let the moment pass without putting them on record. I hope that these considerations will be carefully monitored during the year.

First, the numbers have been dragged out of a hat. I know that the Committee has had expert advice, but the proposed numbers are considerable, and it will be difficult to get them through the House in a comparatively short working day. Secondly, those who already take parties around are concerned about provision for smaller groups, which could be uneconomic under the proposals unless they are amalgamated with bigger groups, but there might then be a problem with different languages.

The costs are set out in some detail, but as hon. Members have already said, they are still rather tentative. That, perhaps, is an additional reason for having only a one-year programme.

Several hon. Members have referred to the possibility that contracting out may lead to profiteering. I think that the hon. Member for Broxbourne is right when she says that we must try to monitor the scheme very carefully. The hon. Member for Burnley is right also when he says that feedback from those who are experiencing the new regime will be the best way of ascertaining whether they are getting good value for money and whether we are offering good value for money.

Finally, and most importantly, there are the efforts that have been made to make the scheme a one-off special and to have a trial period during this particular year. I do not dare mention the M word in the proximity of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth). However, as there is a special exhibition in this building during the year, I think that we will find that visitors will come through during the summer who will want to see it. They will want also to see the working parts of this working building. In the circumstances, I think that a trial period with no long-term commitment is the right way forward.

On the whole, that is the way in which the House works. We experiment, evolve and improve, and we also review. I hope that in addition we shall get feedback from those most concerned. That seems the proper way forward, and I congratulate the Committee on greatly improved proposals.

11.11 pm
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

I intended to go home, but an hon. Member persuaded me to stay and vote against the motion. However, I shall not oppose it. It is interesting that I do not see the Member in question in the Chamber. I am persuaded that before us is a long overdue measure. As I have said in the House previously, as many others will have done, we came here as children or young people and were thrilled by the place. That memory remains very much with me. I went on a tour without any organisation. I joined up at the Victoria tower and was allowed through. The system worked but I accept that the volume of visitors was different and that there had not been the terrorist regime that has blighted the past 20-odd years.

When I first visited this place, I remember the guide telling us how Ministers used to put their feet on the Table. Since the television cameras have come into the Chamber, Ministers no longer do that. However, the information intrigued me, and I was enthused by it. For the next 28 years I tried to get elected to this place. Having been elected, I rushed into the Chamber and sat down on one of the Front Benches. I put my feet up and found that they would not reach the Table. Somehow I had always felt that I would never be a Minister. I shall leave Front-Bench positions to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office and the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young).

The tourist industry in London is well organised, with companies bringing people in from other continents. What safeguards will there be to ensure that tickets are not booked up on an organised basis so that they are all swiftly taken? That would mean that ordinary folk— perhaps small families coming up from other parts of the United Kingdom or from other parts of the world—who express an interest will be told, "I'm awfully sorry, madam, but all the tickets have been taken for today." I am nervous about that. Entrepreneurs and business managers in the big London hotels or cruise line companies will ensure that all the tickets are taken. That will be the first thing to hit the Sunday newspapers after a few weeks, and we will all be embarrassed.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

There is to be a review.

Mr. Mackinlay

I do not think that we should wait for the review. We should anticipate problems, and I hope that the one to which I have referred will be considered now.

I had not realised until this evening that merchandising is so important. My view is different from that of the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton). I agree with him, however, that there must be quality products on sale that are appropriate to the House, but they must not be bland. By contrast with the shop in the House of Lords, I regret to say that the products in the Commons shop are bland and expensive. I have drawn attention to that in an early-day motion. I regret the fact that the House of Lords shop is so superior to ours in its range of quality products, many of which are very attractive. Some heads need to be banged among members of our Catering Committee.

I do not have confidence in the Catering Committee when it comes to dealing with this matter, and I hope that that will be taken on board. I am told that the running of the House of Lords shop is largely delegated to the folk who work in it, which is a good idea—better than managers on high salaries and hon. Members. I hope that that will be borne in mind.

It is long overdue that people should have access to this place. I know that it is a corny phrase, but it is the people's palace. I always say that to the people whom I bring to the House. In the seven years I have been a Member, I have never paid for a guide. Although there is a danger of my being the most highly paid tourist guide in London, I get an enormous thrill from acting out Speaker Lenthall's speech in St. Stephen's hall and from showing people the Crypt, which I know will not be part of the Line of Route. It is an important part of our job to ensure that everyone has access to this mother of Parliaments.

11.15 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

We have got ourselves in a dreadful muddle, and I suspect I know why. We cannot leave this place alone. We cannot let things be. We cannot allow things to remain as they have been, when they are reasonably or perfectly satisfactory. Everyone must now keep changing things, fiddling with them and adjusting them. I suspect that that is the main reason why we are faced with such an unsatisfactory muddle.

An example of that is the argument that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) delivered with virtually a straight face. We were told not to worry—there will not be an admission fee, and people will just be charged for a guide. To the extent to which that was put as a serious argument, and in the expectation that those of us who opposed it last summer will now be for it, that is a distinction without a difference. It illustrates the difficulty into which the Committee has got itself.

My hon. Friend says that the House is to blame—that her Committee came up with some good ideas last year, which the House was disgraceful enough to reject. The Committee has had to come back with less good ideas, which we are asked to accept this time round. I do not accept them this time round, because they are still unsatisfactory.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) asked in an intervention whether other similar bodies did what is being proposed. I believe I am correct in saying that my other favourite legislature, Congress in Washington DC, does not charge for admission and does not require people to have guides. I have gone on to Capitol Hill many times, gone through security and been able to guide myself round the building.

That, I thought, was right and appropriate. If it is possible in Washington DC, I should have thought that we could manage something similar in this place, without all the paraphernalia laid out in the report.

Dr. Palmer

Did the right hon. Gentleman happen to be present when one of the visitors attempted to assassinate a member of the House of Representatives with a machine gun, and instead wounded several of the staff?

Mr. Forth

I was not there at the time, but whether the gentleman with the gun would have been deterred by a charge for a guide, I am not entirely certain. I do not see the validity of what the hon. Gentleman is trying to tell me.

The other spurious argument that we are offered this evening is that this is only a trial. We have all heard that before. We were sold that pup when the televising of the House was proposed. That was supposed to be an experiment. We are being sold it again with the ridiculous and expensive alternative Chamber that has been wished upon us. We are told that that is an experiment. You know and I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it is nothing of the kind: it was declared a triumph some time in the summer and made permanent.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, gave the game away. I noted his words carefully. He said that he knew that the proposal was only a trial, but he hoped that it would be extended. If that is not prejudging and giving the game away, I do not know what is.

Let us make no mistake about it: if we support the motion tonight, which I hope we will not, we will be in a mess; we will be kidding ourselves, our public and our voters, and the change will almost certainly be permanent in one form or another. The proposal is unfortunate, and I hope that the House will not feel obliged to support it tonight. It can be put on ice.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

I am surprised that my right hon. Friend has not asked one question. A range of figures has been discussed—in the previous report, £5-plus per person. Now that the proposal is for a guide ticket, no one has said what it will cost individuals who visit the Palace of Westminster. We heard a price of around £2.50 mentioned—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman's intervention is far too long.

Mr. Forth

I do not know the answer to the question. It is significant that no one else, except perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne, knows.

Mr. Heald

The appendix to the report explains that the cost would be between £2.50 and £3 per visitor.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I do not know how he is able to say that, because if there is no mechanism for control or regulation, the charge could be any amount of money.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I always believed that the right hon. Gentleman opposed regulation.

Mr. Forth

I oppose regulation and am an unrepentant advocate of the free market, but I was trying to answer my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) by pointing out that we cannot know the figure because it would be unregulated and would thus find its own level. We are operating in the dark.

For all the reasons that I outlined, I remain completely unconvinced. If we have the opportunity for a Division, I shall vote against the report.

11.21 pm
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

We are discussing the mother of Parliaments. We have talked about not knowing whether the cost of visiting this place will be £2.50 or £3. We have considered additional merchandising and said that it should not be tat, as if that were important. However, if we wish to promote representative democracy, we want as many people as possible to visit us here—whether we are working or not—on six or even seven days a week. I oppose charging.

During the summer, educational facilities are made available. Many youngsters visit the House, and several hon. Members give up their time to talk to school pupils and explain what we do. We do that to promote representative democracy, which we demean by talking about charging £2.50 or £3 for small groups of people, many of them tourists on package tours. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) was able to visit Parliament when he was a youngster, and get in without being part of a guided tour. He was so excited by what he saw that he ended up on the Government Benches, albeit below the Gangway.

We should do all that we can to excite people of all ages about our work here. If we turn Parliament into a theme park, with a little tuck shop where we sell souvenirs—any old tat with a portcullis for which we can charge twice as much as it is worth—we do Parliament and democracy a disservice.

I shall not vote in favour of or against the proposals. I emphasise that we ought to consider what we do to encourage people to vote. Tomorrow, we shall again consider the Representation of the People Bill. Voting statistics show that people are turned off by representative democracy.

Mr. Pike

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Evans

No. After what people have heard this evening, I suspect that even fewer will vote in future.

11.24 pm
Mrs. Roe

With the leave of the House, I shall wind up the debate. Many hon. Members have made points and it is courteous to try to respond.

The debate has been interesting and I am grateful to all hon. Members who contributed to it. I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for his support and I agree that all the souvenirs that are sold here should reflect the dignity of the House and be of high quality.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) for his support. He raised several questions. I agree that we should monitor carefully any possible abuse of charging by the operator. I made that point and we put it in the report, quite legitimately, to bring it to the attention of the House and so that everybody will know that we shall keep a careful eye on it.

On Members' use of the Line of Route in August and September, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire suggested that every day might not be needed. I have given my word that there will be no change in the current arrangements and my right hon. Friend will understand that this is not a matter that the Administration Committee should consider at this time. Members will have the same opportunity to bring their constituents to the House as they do now.

I thank the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) for his support and also for his suggestion about the survey that might take place among visitors. I am sure that the organisers will note that extremely helpful suggestion.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Will the hon. Lady make it clear to those who operate the system that we will reverse it if they abuse it?

Mrs. Roe

That, of course, is the ultimate sanction and I am certain that the organisers will understand that that is exactly what will happen if they do not toe the line and behave honourably.

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) for his support and also for his advice and assistance during our deliberations while we were suggesting the new framework and when the whole matter was being reconsidered. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) will not vote against the motion and I reiterate that we shall monitor take-up of the tickets. On merchandising, I have already explained that I believe that high quality is very important. The Administration Committee is of course not responsible for that end of the House of Commons' selling programme, which comes under the Catering Committee, and I am sure that the Chairman of that Committee will note the points that he has made.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) argued for visits to the Palace to be totally free, but visits are not free at the moment unless visitors are personally escorted by an hon. Member or by a member of staff. As I said in my opening speech, under the present arrangements many people already pay a modest charge to come through—

Mr. Pike

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Roe

No, because I have only three minutes in which to speak.

Mr. Pike

On a quick point?

Mrs. Roe

I shall give way briefly.

Mr. Pike

In answer to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), will not the overwhelming majority of people—whether they visit the Palace in the recess or at another time or go into the Gallery—come into the building absolutely free?

Mrs. Roe

That is absolutely right, and I am sure that my hon. Friend has taken that point on board.

I find the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst confusing, because I feel that he was suggesting that the guests of hon. Members might pay to come into the House and the general public might not. Surely that cannot be right. Perhaps I misunderstood and he was advocating scrapping the present arrangements so that guests cannot take part in any tour if an hon. Member cannot personally escort them. I find it difficult to understand where my right hon. Friend is coming from.

I reiterate that we propose an additional facility. None of the present arrangements for access will be changed and, as I said in the debate last year, no one will have to pay to see the House or its Committees at work or to meet their or any other Member of Parliament. The arrangements are exactly the same as they always have been.

I hope that the House will not divide, but if it does, hon. Members should be fully aware of the possible implications. The proposal will give many more people—possibly as many as 80 per cent. of whom will be overseas visitors—the opportunity to see the home of Parliament and its treasures. For some, and possibly most, of those visitors, a tour of the Palace of Westminster will be the opportunity of a lifetime. Should the House vote against the motion, there would be no alternative: no amendments were tabled and therefore there would be no advice or instructions for the Committee to follow up. The choice, I regret to say, is not between paying for a guide or providing one free, but between reopening the Line of Route this summer or having to forget the whole proposal.

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 78, Noes 4.

Division No. 33] [11.29 pm
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Kirkwood, Archy
Allen, Graham Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Lepper, David
Atherton, Ms Candy Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret McAvoy, Thomas
Betts, Clive Mackinlay, Andrew
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Merron, Gillian
Browne, Desmond Miller, Andrew
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies (NE Fife) Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Campbell-Savours, Dale Naysmith, Dr Doug
Caplin, Ivor Olner, Bill
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Pickthall, Colin
Clwyd, Ann Pike, Peter L
Crausby, David Pope, Greg
Darvill, Keith Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Quinn, Lawrie
Dawson, Hilton Rendel, David
Dobbin, Jim Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Dowd, Jim Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Fitzpatrick, Jim Sawford, Phil
Flynn, Paul Spellar, John
Foulkes, George Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
George, Andrew (St Ives) Stringer, Graham
Gerrard, Neil Stunell, Andrew
Gilroy, Mrs Linda Sutcliffe, Gerry
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E) Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) Tipping, Paddy
Hanson, David Touhig, Don
Heald, Oliver Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Heppell, John Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas Tyler, Paul
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Watts, David
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Wray, James
Iddon, Dr Brian Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Jenkins, Brian
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Tellers for the Ayes:
Key, Robert Mr. William Ross and
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Dr. Nick Palmer.
Barnes, Harry
Cousins Jim Tellers for the Noes:
Dalyell, Tam Mr. Eric Forth and
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton) Mr. Christopher Chope.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved, That this House approves the First Report from the Administration Committee on the Revised Framework for Re-opening the Line of Route during the Summer Adjournment (HC98).

Forward to