HC Deb 29 June 2004 vol 423 cc151-4
29. Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North) (Lab)

What plans he has to propose the removal of the term "stranger" from the Standing Orders. [180767]

33. Ann Coffey (Stockport) (Lab)

What action he is taking on the recommendation of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons to end the use of the term "stranger". [180772]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain)

I intend in due course to table for the consideration of the House a motion to amend the Standing Orders to remove the references to "strangers". I intend to discuss with you, Mr. Speaker, whether that change might also be reflected in the names used for parts of the Palace and in other usage in the House.

Ms Buck

When my constituents come to Parliament as my guests, they are treated like royalty and fed lavishly at my expense—at least, some of them are. However, when they make their own arrangements to attend Parliament, all too often they are left queueing in the rain and labelled as "strangers". Although House staff display exceptional courtesy and efficiency, my constituents are treated as the institutional equivalent of the Ebola virus. Is not it time that the House abolished the concept of "strangers"? Will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will make the speediest possible moves to bring this House into the 21st century?

Mr. Hain

I agree with my hon. Friend, in every respect. The prospect of being treated like royalty makes me wish that I was one of her constituents. Interestingly, the "Oxford English Dictionary" states that the parliamentary use of the term "stranger" refers to

one who is not a member or an official of the House and is present at its debates only on suffrance".

That is entirely the wrong message to give to our voters and citizens. This is their House of Commons and we are here at their permission. They are not strangers. They are citizens and voters who are entitled to be here and to be treated properly.

Ms Coffey

I welcome my right hon. Friend's reply in relation to the use of the word "stranger", but does he agree that other strange words are used in this place, such as the term "honourable Member"? Is there any support for a change that would allow MPs to be addressed by their names, without the use of that archaic and unmodernised term?

Mr. Hain

That is a revolutionary suggestion, but we should take matters one at a time. Let us get "strangers" consigned to the history books. I understand that the issue of right hon. and hon. Members has been considered in the past by the Modernisation Committee and the House, but it was not taken forward. My hon. Friend is free to continue to campaign for change.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)

How many complaints has the Leader of the House had from visitors to this House about use of the term "stranger"?

Mr. Hain

In the evidence that the Modernisation Committee took, it was deeply resented by virtually everybody—especially younger people—who came to give evidence to us. It emerged as an issue in our inquiries. People queue up to enter the Palace sometimes in the rain, as my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) said, although that problem will be overcome by the new visitor reception facility. When they get in, they feel, in the words of one person who spoke to us, like aliens rather than citizens who are entitled to be here as of right. It is their Parliament as much as it is our Parliament. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to stay in mediaeval times, that is a matter for him: we are going forward into the modern era.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) (Lab)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a vital difference between gesture politics and genuine change? Are we not in danger of mistaking the two? Perhaps it would be simpler to stop applying the word "stranger" to members of the general public—who are now corralled in unacceptable conditions in this place—and apply it to Members of Parliament who increasingly find the Chamber a place of great strangeness.

Mr. Hain

In the sense that too many Members find it strange being in the Chamber because they spend too much time in their offices, I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. However, I am sure that she will agree that the reforms recommended by the Modernisation Committee will be a huge advance in reconnecting Westminster with the voters.

30. Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab)

What steps he will take in response to the report by the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons on "Connecting Parliament with the Public". [180769]

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain)

I intend to discuss with you, Mr. Speaker, with my colleagues on the House of Commons Commission, and with other parliamentary colleagues, how best to approach the Committee's recommendations.

Mr. Lazarowicz

I urge my right hon. Friend to give enthusiastic backing to the implementation of the recommendations in the report in their entirety as soon as possible. He must know that the combined forces of bureaucratic inertia, backwoodsmen, backwoodswomen, and old and young fogeys could delay the changes for years and years. I suggest that he give Members an early chance to debate and vote on the proposals, so that they can be implemented before the next general election. Taking issues one at a time as he suggested in an earlier answer could result in the 35 recommendations in the report taking several decades to implement.

Mr. Hain

I am with my hon. Friend on the need to move as quickly as I can, but many of the decisions are for other bodies in the House, including the House of Commons Commission and other Committees. However, his essential point was that we should no longer give the impression that we are a private club for Members of Parliament. The House of Commons should be open and inclusive, and connect as much as possible. The Committee has made a series of recommendations, including having staff on hand to welcome visitors and encourage them to take the opportunities available to them in Parliament, a new visitors' centre, sending a new voter guide to every 18year-old, modernising our websites and using the education unit for outreach work, as the National Assembly for Wales has done far more effectively than we have so far. The report has far-reaching implications for connecting Parliament with the electorate in a modern way.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall) (LD)

On our electors witnessing what we are doing here on their behalf, I endorse what the Leader of the House has just said. Given that the number of occasions that they may do so may decrease—for example, it may not be possible in future for them to observe the Prime Minister appearing before the Liaison Committee—will the Leader of the House pay particular attention to those elements of the package from the Modernisation Committee that improve access online? That can be introduced relatively quickly and cheaply and is already probably much more useful to hundreds of thousands of our electors than attempting to come here, which is more difficult.

I also ask the Leader of the House to consider improving the press facilities in the House, which are also covered in the report. If and when there is a visitor centre, can we please get rid of the—

Mr. Speaker

Order. One supplementary is enough for the Leader of the House to reply to.

Mr. Hain

I very much agree with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) on his point that millions of people who may never have the chance physically to visit the Chamber could do so through the internet, through online consultation and a much better website. One of the criticisms made by the Modernisation Committee was of the existing parliamentary website. The Committee suggested that it needed upgrading in various respects. That would enable many more people to make a virtual tour of Parliament, which I know the hon. Gentleman strongly supports, thereby gaining a much greater understanding of our parliamentary democracy.

On press facilities if the hon. Gentleman is referring to a more co-ordinated media operation for Select Committees, Standing Committees and the other work of the House that goes unreported, we recommend that.

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