HC Deb 31 January 2002 vol 379 cc504-20 5.33 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 Summer Line of Route—The 2001 Opening and Proposals for the Future (House of Commons Paper No. 433). This is the fourth time, and perhaps the last for the time being, that I have come before the House to present a report of the Administration Committee on the summer opening of the Line of Route. I should like to begin by expressing my thanks and those of the Committee to all those staff of both Houses of Parliament whose hard work contributed to the success of the 2001 opening. The efforts of the visitor manager, the Serjeant at Arms, the director of catering services, the director of finance and administration, and their respective staffs, the security force and the blue badge guides are very much appreciated. I also thank my colleagues on the Administration Committee for their contributions to the report, which was agreed unanimously, and the Leader of the House for making time available for this debate.

On the report, hon. Members will have noted my Committee's two main conclusions: that the 2001 opening was a great success and that, as a result, the summer opening of the Line of Route should be made permanent. As it outlines, Line of Route tours were offered to the public between Monday 6 August and Saturday 29 September 2001, with the exception of Friday 14 September when hon. Members returned to debate the terrorist outrages in the United States. Some 86,284 visitors toured the Line of Route over that period, an increase of 110 per cent, over visitor numbers in the summer of 2000. A further 12,500 people visited Westminster hall and Portcullis House free of charge during the London open house weekend.

The business plan for the 2001 opening specified a challenging target of 85,000 visitors. That the number of visitors exceeded that, despite the problems dogging the tourism industry last summer, is a sign of how well the tours were received. In fact, sampling of visitor response cards and comments in the visitors' book showed that 95 per cent, of those responding said that the tours had greatly exceeded their expectations.

My Committee considered a selection of comments from the visitors' book and I can confirm that the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with many stressing the importance of the summer opening continuing. Received wisdom in the tourism industry suggests that each satisfied visitor may recommend the visit to 10 others, creating a vast potential demand for the Line of Route. If, however, we are to sustain a high level of visitors, it is crucial that the marketing operation begins as soon as possible, which is why I am so grateful for this early debate.

As the summer opening has run successfully for two summers, we recommend that it be placed on a permanent footing. It would send out the wrong signal about Parliament's accessibility and desire to engage the public were we to decide not to continue with the immensely popular tours. Such a decision would not be understood.

We are not implying that all possible lessons have been learned over the past two years, but if the summer opening is made permanent, it will create a stable and certain basis on which officials of both Houses can best plan and carry out the summer opening. For example, criticisms of the summer opening were mainly about ticketing arrangements which, as any hon. Member who wandered through Westminster Hall this summer will have noticed, were less than ideal. In the context of a permanent summer opening, House officials will be able to review options for the permanent siting of a ticket office, which will address the problems observed this summer. Of course, my Committee will expect to be kept fully informed of the deliberations and plans of officials.

Hon. Members can be assured that the Committee was adamant that the summer operation must operate within certain constraints. The Palace of Westminster is primarily a place of work and the summer opening must not interfere with that work or constrain the ability of either House to sit at any time. This summer's events, with the recall on 14 September, reinforced the importance of that criterion. Arrangements must not constrain the Parliamentary works programme; nor must they impinge on the current rights of Members to sponsor visits to the Palace or on the important work of the parliamentary education unit. Our report laid down a fourth criterion, which was of course implicit at the time of previous openings: that any arrangements for the summer opening must not impede the application of appropriately high levels of security within the parliamentary estate.

I now turn to the thorny issue of ticket pricing. I realise that views differ on both sides of the House. Members will recall that both trial summer openings operated to a planned deficit. The £3.50 ticket price reflected only the charge for the blue-badge guide; the rest of the operating costs were met by the merchandising operation and a net sum from the Votes of both Houses—limited to £232,000, with the Commons taking a 60 per cent, share. Effectively, through the House Votes, the United Kingdom taxpayer subsidised each visitor to the summer Line of Route. In 2000 the notional subsidy per head was £6.26; in 2001 that was reduced to £2.31, largely owing to increased ticket revenues and savings on overheads.

Of course there is always scope for greater efficiency, but the fact remains that should the agreed deficit approach be continued, the United Kingdom taxpayer will continue to subsidise summer visitors, at least half of whom are thought to be from overseas. For that reason my Committee recommends that visitors be charged a realistic rate for summer tours of the Palace—a price that would recoup the costs of the summer opening.

I make no apologies for repeating what was said in the Committee's report, as it is crucial. We are committed to the principle of free democratic access to the Houses of Parliament". That is in paragraph 23. Paragraph 24 states we do not believe that charging a realistic price for summer tours of the Palace encroaches upon the rights of the public to visit Parliament". I remind Members of the many opportunities our constituents have freely to view this place at work, and to engage with their Members of Parliament by listening to debates, attending meetings of Standing and Select Committees, meeting their constituency Members, participating in sponsored line-of-route tours, taking part in lobbies and participating in education-unit activities. Nothing in our proposal would impinge on any of those crucial rights. We propose the charging of a fair price for additional access—and a guided tour—when the House is not sitting, and an end to the subsidy of visitors and tourists by taxpayers.

We estimate that the charges would be £7 for adults and £3.50 for those receiving concessions. Carers and the under-fives would not be charged, and we envisage discounts for family groups. I invite Members to compare those charges with charges for similar attractions in London. For example, Buckingham palace charges £11.50 for adult admission, Westminster abbey charges £9, and St Paul's cathedral charges £7.50 for admission and a guided tour.

I hope Members will agree with me, and with my Committee, that our proposed charges for tours guided by professional blue-badge guides through this wonderful building still represent value for money. The ticket price will cover the cost of employing guides and of additional security, and additional staff costs. I am thinking of ticketing facilities and extra costs imposed on the parliamentary works directorates resulting from the summer opening.

Any revenue from merchandising could in future be ploughed back into improvements in the infrastructure and facilities of the Line of Route. As Members will see in the report, the merchandising operation in 2001 learned from that of the previous year and offered a reduced, but more popular, number of souvenir lines for sale. Although there was a net profit of £10,000, there is still scope for a higher spend per visitor. Accordingly, we have suggested that a new souvenir range addressing the wants of summer visitors be considered.

Hon. Members will no doubt ask themselves about the impact of any modernisation initiative. The Leader of the House has already helpfully stated that the recess this summer will follow its usual pattern, so the question does not arise for 2002. We rely a great deal on the flexibility of our officers and staff. I am confident that, should the pattern of the summer recess alter, it is possible for the summer opening to operate around it. The infrastructure of the summer Line of Route does not demand a long period of setting up or striking, as was shown when the House sat one day in September last summer. It would be possible to open the Palace to visitors in August and again in October.

My Committee expects to be kept fully informed of the plans of the Line of Route steering group to that end. As hon. Members will know, any decision on the operation of the Line of Route must be agreed by the House of Lords. Throughout our deliberations, we have kept the House of Lords Administration and Works Sub-Committee fully apprised of progress and our conclusions. I understand that that Committee awaits the decision of the House of Commons on the future of the Line of Route with interest.

I do not wish to detain the House further, but I hope that hon. Members will feel able to support the unanimous report of my Committee. Should it be approved, we can look forward to many more visitors enjoying the tours of the Palace and all its splendours, and finding out more about the work that we all do here. I commend the report to the House.

5.47 pm
Martin Linton (Battersea)

I have recently re-read the debate of 26 May 1999, when the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) tabled a memorable amendment, which was accepted. Before coming to the House with proposals, it was incumbent on members of the Administration Committee to ask whether we had met the concerns of everyone who spoke in that debate and whether they would be happy with our arguments.

I must admit that I found it a little difficult to fathom some of the arguments advanced in that debate. For instance, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) who, sadly, is not here, explained that he had visited 30 state capital buildings in the United States, and looked forward to visiting the remaining 20; they were all free so, by extension, our Parliament should always be free to visitors. He did not mention the fact that some of those buildings are not the tourist attraction that the House of Commons is; never mind.

Having tried to fathom the right hon. Gentleman's argument, I moved on to that advanced by our former colleague, Dale Campbell-Savours, who represented Workington. He recounted an incident in which a senior Member tapped him on the shoulder after he had introduced a particularly incendiary and revolutionary proposal to start sitting at 10 o'clock and finish at 6, and said You cannot change things … that have been traditions for decades."— [Official Report, 26 May 1999: Vol. 332, c. 404.] Mr. Campbell-Savours apparently took that advice and believed that it would be wrong to have a summer opening of Parliament. Again, I found it difficult to understand his reasoning.

My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) recounted that when he was a lad in Wimbledon he travelled up to the House of Commons in summer and visited it for free. He argued that war memorials were free, so Parliament should always be free for visitors. He failed to reveal the fact that it is still free to visit Parliament whenever the House is sitting. However, the Committee has been able to deal with the argument that he advanced.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will no doubt explain to the House how far we have been able to allay his fears. I can only say in advance of hearing what he has to say that he seemed previously to have two main arguments. First, he argued that the summer opening, which had been proposed but had not yet happened, might be the thin end of the wedge and that we might end up charging people to visit at Easter, Whitsun or Christmas. Indeed, he seemed to fear that we might even charge them for visiting while the House was sitting. I hope that he feels reassured that that has not happened. Despite two summer openings, people have not been charged outside the period when the House has traditionally been closed anyway. I hope that he acknowledges that the policy has not so far been the thin end of any wedge.

As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman's other fear was that the change would lead to the contracting out of many of the services involved, which are better performed by servants of the House. I do not know whether he objects to the use of Ticketmaster to issue the tickets for tourists, but apart from that, I think that all the other services have been provided in house. The report does not propose mass contracting out, but in any case, I do not know whether that is still a live fear in his mind. I shall be interested to hear whether he still has any of the concerns that he expressed in speaking to his amendment.

In so far as other speakers expressed concerns, they related mainly to the analogy with free access to museums. As I have a very modest role at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, I felt that there was an onus on me to consider whether, as we have now introduced free entry to national museums— I am glad that we have done so— the same principle should apply to the House of Commons. I see a world of difference between the two. Museums and galleries are sources of information that one visits not only once in one's life, but regularly. The reason why we believe in free access to museums is the same as the reason why we believe in free access to information and knowledge: museums and galleries are there to inform. The same principle has never been applied to heritage sites. For instance, the Tower of London is a heritage site. English Heritage has many sites where it charges the public for access. Nobody has ever suggested— I have never heard such a proposal from the hon. Gentleman or anyone else— that it is wrong to charge for access to such a site, whether it is Old Sarum at Salisbury or anywhere else. There is a difference in principle.

There is still free access to Parliament as a working building. People can sit in the Strangers Gallery, attend a Committee sitting or see their MP. The only thing for which there is a charge— it applies at any time of year— is a guided tour. When this place is open, people are charged only for the tour. The principle that the Committee seeks to establish is that in the one recess in which the House would normally be closed to the public, the small on-cost of making tours possible should be borne by the person who enjoys the tour.

That principle is also accepted by the British museum. People can visit for free, but if they want a guided tour of the museum, they pay a fee of £8. People can visit the British library for free, because it is a library, but if they want a tour, they pay a charge to cover the cost. People can visit Somerset house for free if they are visiting it on business, but if they want a tour, they pay. Indeed, the same is true across the square in Westminster abbey. Worshippers visit the abbey for free, but if people want to visit as tourists, they pay £9. We are simply abiding by that principle. The House of Commons is open in the summer. As a Member who represents a nearby constituency, I come here every weekday apart from, perhaps, during a fortnight in August. The place is open and I can take people around the building. I can use it all the time, but it is not open to the extent that it could deal with a constant stream of tourists without employing extra staff.

When I first came here, I thought that it was a crying shame that the place was closed throughout August. Every day thousands of tourists milled around Parliament square looking rather puzzled because the House of Commons, which they had imagined they could visit, was closed. Because of that strange anomaly, the House was persuaded to open— in a half-hearted way in my opinion— on a trial basis in the summer of 2000.

Tickets were available only in advance. People had to telephone. They could not come to the House of Commons and buy a ticket. About 95 per cent. of foreign tourists will go to the place they want to visit and buy a ticket there. Under that scheme, they had to telephone in advance, pick the tickets up in Regent street and find their way here. The Speaker had to intervene during that summer because it was so ridiculous that people could not buy tickets. She insisted that some tickets were available at the House.

In the summer of 2001, the scheme was, I am glad to say, repeated. This time there was a ticket office on-site. As a result, the number of visits more than doubled. Bizarrely, the ticket office was sited in Westminster Hall. People had to go through security at St. Stephen's entrance to get into Westminster Hall, queue for a ticket, go back out of St. Stephen's entrance, go to Black Rod's entrance, queue again and go through security again before starting their visit. Not surprisingly, they found that very frustrating but that was the only way it could be done, given the fact that the House had not agreed to a permanent scheme.

In the summer of 2001 a flat-rate charge of £3.50 was levied, a modest sum when we consider that a visit to the Banqueting hall down the road costs £3.90 and the Banqueting hall is hardly more than a single room— a very nice room but it is not to he compared with the House of Commons. A visit to Westminster abbey costs £9, to the London Eye £9, and to Buckingham palace £11.50. A visit to a commercial tourist attraction such as Madame Tussaud's costs about the same, as does a visit to the Tower of London.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the tourists who came here during the summer were happy. Indeed, they were ecstatic and flabbergasted. The survey of visitors shows that 95 per cent. said that the tour exceeded their expectations. Clearly, having only paid £3.50 they did not expect much. If one reads their comments, one will see that surprise coming through time and again. Despite 11 September, visitors filled 80 per cent. of available capacity over the whole summer. On many days there was queueing in Parliament square. A visitor from Virginia in the United States wrote, Wonderful tour PS I'm so glad I finally got in! People's main complaint was not the charge of £3.50 but the fact that they had to wait so long to get in. By charging only £3.50, there was a loss of £200,000 on the operation. It seems extraordinary that anyone can operate a tourist attraction such as the House of Commons and make a loss. There were queues in Parliament square and £200,000 was stuffed into the pockets of overwhelmingly overseas tourists, who enjoyed coming here. Most people from this country will visit when entry, although not the tour, is free.

We have established the principle that this is just to do with summer opening and the costs associated with keeping the building open when it otherwise would not be. We have established the fact that, in the rest of the year visits will be free; that the autumn educational tours will also be free; that even in the summer Members of Parliament can take guests around for free; that the only cost charged to the tourist is to cover the extra cost of keeping the House open that one month; and that the alternative is either to make a huge loss for no particular reason, or— this would be criminal— to close the building when hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists are in the area. Given all that, I think that we have made a powerful case for charging a reasonable sum, which will still be modest when compared with all the neighbouring tourist attractions and cheaper than the Government charge for visits to most heritage sites.

This is a phenomenally popular tourist attraction. I shall quote some of the comments made by visitors. I shall quote them in sequence, without editing them or leaving any out. They said, "The tour was magnificent", "brilliant", "Well worth visiting", "It would be useful to have a guide in Italian", "Excellent tour", "Great place to visit", "Wonderful tour". That last comment was from the Americans who said that they were glad to have finally got in. The comments continued, "Well worth a visit", "Most enjoyable", "Excellent tour", "very good", "very interesting" and so it goes on. There is not a single word of criticism, other than about the standard of the toilets.

I am not saying that we should charge people more just because they enjoyed it, but since so many people want to come, they enjoyed it so much and the charge was so much less than for comparable places, it serves no purpose to charge a deliberately low or loss-making price. I hope that the Committee has persuaded those who had concerns before that there is no danger of extending this principle. It is different from the principle of free museums. It will enable us to open this place for the tens of thousands who want to come here in the summer, without imposing a cost on the taxpayer.

6.2 pm

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire)

I pay tribute to the members of the Select Committee on Administration who have prepared the report. Most of the departmental Select Committees are high profile. Some of them appear to travel frequently and they are widely regarded as prestigious bodies. The domestic Select Committees do not have such a high profile and are sometimes taken for granted. They perform an essential role and, on behalf of the Opposition, I should like to express our thanks and appreciation to all members of those Committees, from whichever party, for their diligence, dedication and hard work.

I am broadly supportive of the report and I shall not seek to divide the House. However, I have some concerns and wish to make a number of observations and comments. It is right that the Administration Committee has as its primary objective the smooth running of this building as a place of work and that any arrangements put in place for visitors must not constrain Members in the discharge of their duties. Also, any such arrangements during these difficult times, must not breach our security. In my view, such considerations must remain at the forefront of any debate on public access to the Palace of Westminster.

The hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) will be pleased to know that I am also firmly of the view that the opening of the Line of Route for visitors who are not accompanied by their elected representatives should be self-financing. I do not see why the taxpayers of east Yorkshire, or anywhere else, should subsidise visitors from other parts of the country, most likely, it appears, from the affluent south-east, or from any country overseas, whether affluent or not.

I refer the House to sections 2 and 5 of the report which deal with duration, volume and costs. I am pleased to see the Leader of the House in his place. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) referred to his recent modernisation proposals. However, I wonder whether the Committee— in calculating its conclusions and projections— properly reflected on the proposal, announced by the Leader of the House, to change the timing of our summer recess so that, apparently, the House will sit during September. That will surely have a serious effect on revenue, but it is likely to do little to reduce administrative costs.

The report refers to setting up a permanent visitor management office, and we are entitled to ask whether that will prove viable. Given that the House will sit for three weeks in September from 2003 onwards, should not the proposal for a visitor management office be revisited and perhaps abandoned? We should not proceed with any proposal that would leave the British taxpayer out of pocket.

The Committee might therefore need to re-cost some of its plans before announcing the ticket price, and I look forward to hearing the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne on that issue when she sums up. If the figures do not add up, we have two options: to increase the proposed admission fee to cover all the costs, or to abandon the experiment. I prefer the former option, but I would rather accept the latter than allow the proposals to become a drain on the public purse.

I refer hon. Members to paragraph 25 of the report, and in passing I express my surprise— and some concern— at the following, almost throwaway sentence: We suggest that the House authorities explore means of accepting payment in euros as well as sterling. No, no, no. Why on earth should we? This new, unliked and floundering currency is not legal tender in the United Kingdom, and I hope that it never will be. We should have none of it.

Martin Linton

Does the right hon. Gentleman not acknowledge that every other tourist attraction in London will accept euros by next summer? It is completely contradictory to argue that we should be commercially minded and not accept an extra cost, but that we should not accept euros.

Mr. Knight

In this House, we lead and not follow. If current trends continue, the euro equivalent of a £7 admission fee, if it were accepted in good faith on a Monday morning, might be worth only a fraction of that amount by the time the attendants have cashed up and got to the bank. Why should we have to stand any financial loss caused by a continuing lack of confidence in this dubious currency? The case has not been made for this mother of Parliaments to accept anything but our own currency from any visitor, and I hope that we shall hear no more of this unnecessary and rather offensive suggestion.

The Line of Route to which the report refers is the long-established and widely accepted route that Members are accustomed to and prepared to tolerate. In paragraph 37, the Committee points out that it is not suggesting extending the route, and it is correct, as some Members might find that unacceptable. However, I am rather concerned about the wording. The steering group is expected to keep this matter under review", and apparently may decide to add to the Line of Route. I sincerely hope that no additions will be contemplated or authorised without reference to the Committee that my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne chairs, and ultimately to the House.

As at present, the proposed Line of Route will end in New Palace Yard, which is the last area of the parliamentary estate that visitors see before they leave. For how much longer will it look as if it is part of a film set for a new production of "Steptoe and Son"? We are right to be concerned about security, but why should the House have to tolerate the hideous concrete blocks that are scattered seemingly willy-nilly across New Palace Yard? They are not present at the entrance to the Lords, where an altogether more satisfactory arrangement exists. There, a metal barrier drops flush to the ground when vehicular access is required. I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne why an identical arrangement cannot be introduced here, and as soon as possible.

Apart from blighting our grade I listed building, the blocks mean that negotiating access to and egress from New Palace Yard is like taking part in an advanced drivers obstacle course, especially for people driving wide and long motor vehicles. The blocks should go forthwith. If necessary, an increased police presence should be provided until a more sophisticated security scheme can be put in place.

Subject to my comments being satisfactorily answered by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne when she replies, I hope that the House will agree to the report.

6.10 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I do not intend to follow the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) in his limousine, nor to respond just yet to the hon. Members for Battersea (Martin Linton) or for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), the Chairman of the Committee.

By way of introduction, I want to say that, despite comments to the contrary about my past involvement in these debate, I yield to no one in my admiration for this place, as both building and institution. I want as many of my fellow citizens and visitors from other parts of the world to experience it to its full extent.

However, people did not always admire this building. Yesterday's edition of The Times contained a reprinted leader that originally appeared on the same date in 1861. Headed "The Decay of Parliament", it stated: It is fortunate that we English are not superstitious people. If we were given to omens we might be scared out of our senses by the decay of our Houses of Parliament. At a moment when representative institutions are breaking down in America, the House just newly built for the Lords and Commons is crumbling away in preternatural ruin. It went on: At last, after some four centuries, Parliament was burnt out, and it was resolved to build a magnificent Palace expressly for the sittings of the Imperial Legislature. At a cost perfectly fabulous, the structure has been raised; but scarcely have the workmen quitted the building when its walls are found to be externally in a state of decay". The leader explained that a commission had been set up to travel the length and breadth of the British Isles to find appropriate stone with which to build this great institution. I do not know the membership of that commission, but I do know a little about how both ends of this place work and I suspect that it contained a number of hon. Members. I suspect too that, as they went round the country, those hon. Members were more interested in making sure that stone from their particular areas was selected. As was remarked to me earlier today, they may also have discussed the matter over a great deal of claret.

Apparently, the commission eventually recommended what was thought to be an entirely new and imperishable stone, such as would last for ages without decay or repair … Commissioners were specially appointed to purvey this desirable material. After extensive and laborious researches, they succeeded in discovering a quarry which was said to satisfy the prescribed conditions, and the Houses of Parliament were erected accordingly. However, the 1861 leader added: The river front of Sir Charles Barry's edifice bids fair to crumble away in the Thames within a few years after its completion. It concluded: We must stop the decay somehow, for we certainly cannot afford new structures of that kind every 20 years. Fortunately, in more modern times we seem to have looked after the building rather better. It is in that context that the hon. Member for Broxbourne and her Committee— rightly, I believe— have sought ways in which more people can enjoy it. I have no disrespect for the work that the Committee has done, and any minor criticisms of the report that I may make should in no way be taken to seek to undermine that work.

My first concern refers back to the debate mentioned by the hon. Member for Battersea. I am concerned that hon. Members should steer this exercise, whether it be temporary or permanent. Will the steering group, which is mentioned in passing, include members of the hon. Lady's Committee? It is important, for a number of reasons that have been adduced by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire, that Members steer the exercise. It must not simply be left to the Officers. I hope that that will mean strict adherence to the principles set out in paragraph 14 of the report and the criteria in paragraph 23. They have been referred to already, and I believe them to be extremely important.

This issue was at the forefront of Members' minds during the debate to which the hon. Member for Battersea referred. It is the thin end of the wedge in the way in which the House would be available to our constituents and in taking away from Members control over constituents' access. That is why I believe that in making a temporary expedient permanent, we should take stock of what is happening. The thin end of this wedge is still quite thin— the report's appendix refers to 26 full days and 20 half days. We must think hard about how that may be affected by the change in the recess arrangements in 2003.

The hon. Member for Battersea referred to the extent to which what he called contracting out might take place. I call it old-fashioned privatisation. I know that under new Labour it is called contracting out, but to me it is privatisation, just as it was when the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) was a Member of the last Conservative Government. I am glad that a major change of emphasis has taken place in 2001. The proportion of the income coming from the direct sales by the House has increased and sales by Ticketmaster, the privatised institution outside the House, have gone down. In round figures, in 2000, Ticketmaster sold £115,000 worth of tickets, which decreased to £72,000 last summer, while our direct sales went up from £5,000 worth of tickets— this is just a temporary expedient— to £152,000. Those of us who want the House to have home rule over its own institution are reassured by that welcome change of emphasis.

I accept the point made by the hon. Lady and her Committee that the subsidy from the House's Vote has been dramatically reduced, and that is to be welcomed. I accept that it would be reasonable to make it revenue-neutral in 2002 for the simple reason that we have, in capital expenditure, provided a wonderful new visitors centre. I hope that we will soon be allowed to look at it. We have spent quite a lot of money on a visitors centre which, while it will be of use to our constituents during other times of the year, will have an important role this year. If anybody asks why the price went up in 2002, the answer is because at long last we have some decent loos. The major criticism of many visitors is that we did not before, so that is a step in the right direction. That is the rationale for the increase in costs.

I do not share the view of the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire about the possible extension of the route into Portcullis House. Whenever I take constituents around the House I like them to see that we have good British architecture in 2001 and 2002 and that Parliament was rather more open-minded about commissioning good modern architecture than some of our immediate predecessors. The fact that Portcullis House was a runner-up for the Stirling prize last autumn was a great achievement not only for the architect but for the House. Many minor problems are being encountered there, such as handles on doors that no one with arthritis could possibly use to get out of an office in the event of fire. Basically, it is a handsome building which is doing its job well. I hope that the security problem, which I understand to be the major difficulty, can be resolved, and that we can include Portcullis House in the tour.

I also hope that we will ensure that the security issue is dealt with properly as regards ticket sales. It makes no sense to bring people in through the security system to buy their ticket only for them to have to go out again. The hon. Member for Battersea made a fair point. The Committee is trying to deal with it and I hope that they do.

Those are my two major qualms. Beyond those, the major concerns were expressed on both sides of the House when we voted on the proposal and when, uniquely in that Session, although those on both Front Benches were in favour of the motion, the majority of Members were on my side and voted for my amendment— I have never had that experience before and doubt that I will again.

At the time of that debate there was a concern that we were commercialising the House. We were putting the work out to tender and reducing the respect that our fellow citizens and visitors would have for it. A sub-current of the debate was that many hon. Members thought that the Department of the Serjeant At Arms and other offices of the House were being privatised. Someone referred to it as a sort of "Ofdesk", and said that we would then have, "Housetrack" as a privatised company running the show. We have a visitor manager, which sounds as though we have gone down that track, but basically the Administration Committee has done an important job on behalf of the House and has responded to the concerns and anxieties of hon. Members and I wish the report well.

6.21 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg)

I am pleased to speak after the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), and to endorse what he said. I think that the concerns that were expressed in that debate three years ago have been met judging by the experiments of the past two summers and the report that is before us. I voted for the amendment that the hon. Gentleman proposed two and a half years ago.

I will not be tempted by the Conservative spokesman, the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), to debate the euro. Suffice it to say that I very much look forward to his hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) robustly defending the Administration Committee report in saying that the euro will be accepted as payment in the summer.

First, I will make some general and brief remarks about the report and respond to the points made by the Liberal Democrat and Conservative spokesmen about the proposals for the summer recess. I am not convinced that it will be a major factor although I agree that the Administration Committee should address it. It is not proposed that the length of time that we are in recess should be reduced; the time will simply be configured differently. The right hon. Member for East Yorkshire is right that there will be less time and, therefore, less revenue in September, but that will be compensated for by extra recess time in July. The revenue implications may even be positive— there may be larger tourist numbers in July than in September.

First, I thank the hon. Member for Broxbourne and other members of the Administration Committee for the work that they have done over the years in producing the proposals for the summer opening. The matter was first debated in the House in 1999 when the Committee produced its earlier proposals. At that time, the Committee noted, in its first report for the 1998–99 Session, that for over 20 years casual visitors and tourists have been denied the opportunity of visiting the Palace and of seeing the home of Parliament and its treasures. This is a situation which the Administration Committee wished to see changed to enable as many people as possible to see the two Houses of Parliament. The House then asked the Committee to re-examine its proposals for summer opening of the Line of Route. As has been explained today, hon. Members were concerned that there should not be undue restrictions on such an important symbol of democracy, not only for this country but for citizens throughout the world.

In 1999, the House decided that it wanted other options to be explored and costed. When that had been done, it was decided to open the Line of Route with the arrangements that have been in force for the past two years. As the hon. Member for Broxbourne set out clearly, that decision has resulted in two extremely successful summer openings.

My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who is not with us today but is a member of the Administration Committee, described the £3.50 entrance fee as the best deal in town."—[Official Report, 26 February 2001; Vol. 363. c. 674.] when we last debated this matter. Clearly, that assessment is endorsed by the Administration Committee in the report before us.

Between summer 2000 and summer 2001, the number of visitors has more than doubled. More than 86,000 visitors toured the Line of Route in the summer of 2001 and 95 per cent. of those who commented considered that the tours had greatly exceeded their expectations, a similar satisfaction rate to that in 2000 despite the greatly increased pressure on capacity. As the hon. Member for Broxbourne said, the House should be grateful to all those—the staff of the House and the excellent guides— who have worked hard to make the openings such a success.

The motion invites the House to make the opening of the Line of Route permanent, but to do so on a different basis from the experiment and to return to the principle that underlay the Administration Committee's first proposals. The suggestion is that the system should no longer rely on a subsidy from Parliament. The Committee recommended: Ticket prices for visitors should be set at a level to recoup the cost of running the summer opening. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the then Leader of the House, said when the principle of reopening was debated in May 1999, the matter is one of genuine difficulty and delicacy. She said: 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."—[Official Report, 26 May 1999; Vol. 332, c. 390.] Now, as then, Members will have to decide where the balance lies. This is a House matter, and there is no Government position. If the House divides, I will vote for the report, for the reasons set out by the hon. Member for Broxbourne and other speakers in the debate.

The Palace of Westminster is a workplace and those who visit to participate in our work, or to see us at work, will continue to have free access, as they should. It is easy to underestimate the extent to which the House is accessible during the times that we sit. Visitors are free to come to debates or attend Select Committee hearings as they wish. Our constituents can call for us in the Lobby. It is vital, as all speakers in the debate have said, that this free access to the proceedings of the House and its Committees is maintained. The Administration Committee's proposals reflect that.

However, the House is not a museum; there is no such free access during the recess, when the House is not at work, and there has not been such access for many years. Indeed, before the Administration Committee raised the matter in 1999, access was limited to the guests of Members of Parliament, and to people on education unit tours. People want to see the Palace itself for many reasons—not only to see us at work.

People who visit in summer do so as tourists. There are good reasons for wanting to do that: a sense of history; a sense of the importance of our democratic institutions; and a desire to admire the work of Barry and Pugin. Those are all perfectly legitimate reasons; indeed, I do not see why we should not support the opening on the ground that we, as Parliament, should do our bit for the tourist industry in London.

I hope that the tours will lead to a greater understanding of this place and I welcome that greater access on principle. None the less, as the Committee noted, it is reasonable to ask those who want to visit the Palace as a tourist attraction to pay a fee that covers the cost of so doing. The Administration Committee's proposals will simply mean that those who visit the Palace of Westminster during the summer reopening will not be subsidised by the UK taxpayer to do so. The entrance fee will be set at a level which recoups opening costs, not to make a profit.

I hope that the new scheme will also have the effect that—as recommended by the Committee—the infrastructure and facilities of the Line of Route will be improved by ploughing back any proceeds from merchandising. It is far easier to support spending on improvements for visitors when the operation is not subsidised. That could benefit all visitors to the Palace, not just those participating in the tours.

I share the widespread concern in all parts of the House that the facilities offered to visitors are far from adequate. Although the new visitor cafeteria, which is due to open shortly, will go some way towards improving that, far more could and should be done. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, in his proposals to the Modernisation Committee, said: A dedicated Visitor Centre could put the building and its history in the context of Parliament's place in the constitution and its importance as the expression of our democracy. I am grateful to the Administration Committee and especially to the hon. Member for Broxbourne for their continued examination of this issue. The proposals offer a fair balance between the need for access and the legitimate interests of the UK taxpayer so I support the motion.

6.29 pm
Mrs. Roe

The debate has been useful and interesting. I thank hon. Members for their views and comments. I shall respond briefly.

I very much value the support of the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) as a member of the Administration Committee. In this debate, his analysis of past concerns was thorough and his responses and further comments were most constructive, especially as regards the recommended charging policy. I am most grateful to him for his contribution. He made one point that I should like to clarify. There are tours in Italian, French, German and Spanish, although demand has been higher than supply. Increasing—indeed, doubling—the amount of foreign language tours is being considered for 2002.

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) was extremely kind in his comments about the work of the Administration Committee. On behalf of the Committee, I thank him for that and for his support for the report. He sought reassurance on any proposals by the Line of Route steering committee relating to the extension of the route. We would certainly expect any such proposals to come back to the Administration Committee. There could be minor alterations owing to the works programme—the Committee will keep an eye on that—but any major initiative would certainly come back to us.

My right hon. Friend mentioned payment in euros. Ultimately, that is not a matter for the Administration Committee, and I understand that the relevant House authorities are now considering the question of accepting payment in other major foreign currencies, which would have an effect beyond the Line of Route. I shall say no more on that matter.

The Minister has already picked up the point about the possible changes—nothing has, after all, been agreed—to the timetable of the summer recess. I partly covered that matter in my opening remarks. If we have a permanent arrangement, we shall certainly be able to be flexible—more flexible, in fact—in relation to any changes that might be introduced. No such changes are expected for this year.

I want to put on record that neither my Committee nor I are responsible for any large blocks of concrete or anything else in New Palace Yard. I am sure that those who are responsible for them will read with interest the comments of my right hon. Friend. I understand that the structures are not permanent, and I am sure that further proposals will be made on the matter in due course.

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) for his support for the report. He will acknowledge that we have in the past had many discussions on this issue, not only in the Chamber but outside as well, and I have been extremely grateful for his guidance on how best we might go about this business. I also welcome his comments about ticket sales, and about the input of the House of Commons. We were also pleased to see that input, and we hope to continue it and to make it even better.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the extension of the Line of Route. The Committee has already considered Portcullis House in that regard, but there are security difficulties involved. It is important, therefore, that the Committee should consider any extension carefully, for reasons not only of security, but of any staffing costs that might be involved. This is not a closed door, however, and we shall return to this question if we feel that anything can be taken in that direction.

On the hon. Gentleman's question of double entry, and the security issues surrounding people going in and out several times, we know that this has caused grave frustration for visitors. We are instructing the Line of Route steering committee to consider a ticketing office, which we hope would prevent such problems. That question will then have to come back to the Administration Committee for us to consider.

Mr. Tyler

May I, as I omitted to do so earlier, apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton), who had hoped to be here? [HON. MEMBERS: She is behind you.] My hon. Friend has appeared. I now apologise for missing that fact.

The hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) has just referred to the steering committee. I mentioned earlier that it was not clear to me, having read the report, whether there are Members of the House—or members of her Committee—on the steering committee, or whether it is just an officer group.

Mrs. Roe

The group consists only of Officers, but of course they are accountable to the Administration Committee, so we shall consider carefully any proposals and recommendations that they make, and a case will have to be made for them. The membership of the steering group is listed in the report. They are very responsible Officers, and I am certain that any proposal that they make to the Administration Committee will have been thoroughly thought out.

I am grateful to the Minister for his support, as I said, and for his confirmation that any modernisation proposals will not interrupt a Line of Route programme and that times will not be reduced but merely rearranged.

I hope that the House will endorse the Committee's recommendations and allow the summer Line of Route to continue. The amazing reaction of visitors during the summers of 2000 and 2001, which, according to the visitor manager, is probably unrivalled by that of visitors to any other attraction in the country, points the way to the right decision, which is to acknowledge the success of the two trials and open the summer Line of Route to visitors on a permanent basis.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House approves the First Report from the Administration Committee on The Summer Line of Route— The 2001 Opening and Proposals for the Future (House of Commons Paper No. 433).

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