HL Deb 08 July 1976 vol 372 cc1337-49

4.40 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, I wonder whether we might return to the somewhat less controversial question of the commentary box. First of all, may I join with the noble Earl in extending my very hearty congratulations to Lord Jacobson on his maiden speech. It has been my privilege and honour to know him over very many years as one of the greatest journalists in Fleet Street, not only in the political field but in every field of journalism. We are very pleased to have heard him and his maiden speech, and look forward to hearing him often again.

My Lords, the debate this afternoon is really about the positioning of the commentary box in this Chamber, although the Report deals with the commentary boxes in both Chambers. Although a Member of the other place for a number of years, I think I should perhaps concentrate on the positioning of the box in this Chamber as we now see it in the mock-up. May I say at once that I would regard the proposed position in the Press Gallery as the best possible position, if not the only possible position, in which to put the commentary box in this Chamber. The idea, advanced by some members of the Committee and since, that the box should be sited above the Throne, seems to me impossible in almost every respect. In that crow's-nest position up there, on the very special occasion, for example, when Her Majesty is personally here in Parliament addressing both Houses of Parliament, they could hear her but not see her. Their general view would be of the top of the Lord Chancellor's wig, while everyone realises that his face is very much more attractive. It is true to say, of course, that from there they would have a better view of the Cross-Benches; but, all in all, including the reasons given by the Department of the Environment, I am sure that the right position for the box is in the Press Gallery.

The noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, asked for further improvements and suggestions. I think one improvement would be to take away, and to take away for all time, the somewhat grotesque wings on each side of the box which have been described as brass railings. I know the Royal Fine Art Commission recommended them, and I think Lord Aberdare said that they could be reduced in size. I ask : Why is it necessary to put them there at all ? They add to the cost—they are to be made in brass, so I understand—and they will further impede the view from the Press Gallery. Aesthetically, they do nothing. So why have we fallen for the idea that we should have those brass railings, the wings on each side ? Is it because they were recommended by the Fine Art Commission?

A further point made was that the box, sited as it is in the Press Gallery, would encroach on the Press reporters' space. But I ask your Lordships: Does it really ? How often do we see the Press Gallery filled with reporters? On occasions, yes. There are probably seven there at the moment. There is a lot of room for very many more than seven, even with the box. I have been looking at it during the last week, and I think that there are, on average, five reporters in the Press Gallery at any time listening to debates in this House—it is probably true to say because there is less to report from this Chamber than from the other. It might equally be true to say that we are probably less newsworthy. We are certainly much quieter; there are not so many incidents to report.

I think we need carefully to consider the size of the box, as has already been mentioned, because in addition to the two commentators, one for the BBC and one for Independent Radio News, one has to think in terms of the people who will be in and out of the box. They will be changing shifts—commentators cannot go on indefinitely—and there will be the need occasionally for a technician to visit the box. A further point is that with new commentators working in the box—commentators who have not seen much of this Chamber—they will not readily and at once recognise which noble Lord is speaking. Even with a list of speakers in front of them for a normal debate, noble Lords often change their positions in the list by agreement among themselves, so on occasions it will be necessary for someone knowledgeable of the House, who knows the Members of the House, to pop in and out of the commentary box and advise the commentators on who is in fact speaking at any given moment. This, of course, can be done by the servants of the House, who know almost all of us. We have nothing similar to The Times book, which is so helpful in the other place; and in the other place even a new Speaker has to have someone below him advising him who is rising in his place to address the House.

All of this adds up, in my view, again on average, to something like three and a half people in and out of the box in any one hour. I hope the space is large enough for them, because, if it is not, working in the box is going to be most uncomfortable. I think we should go ahead during the Recess with the permanent box, in the hope that it will be ready for when broadcasting starts; but would make the point that if we ever think in terms of a temporary structure there instead of the permanent one, not only will it be more expensive still but temporary structures have an awful habit of becoming permanent, and it is going to be there for a long time.

The estimated cost is about £30,000, but that does not include air-conditioning, and air-conditioning is absolutely essential. The box also has to be sound-proofed; so, really, £30,000 is just a guide. If we can save on those two wings, which I do not particularly like, we might save some money to go towards the additional things we need for the box itself. The structural cost of the box, of course, and of the ancillary accommodation outside—because we do not end when we put in two commentary boxes, one here and one in the House of Commons; there has to be a central unit outside—will, I hope, be provided out of public funds. It is not unreasonable to expect the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority to provide all the electrical equipment and to pay for the commentators, the staff and the hardware, but the accommodation itself should, I think, be provided out of public funds.

Of the ancillary accommodation which is mentioned in the Report, I think from the point of view of Independent Radio News, of which I know best, serving something like 19 stations throughout the country, they would require about 400 square feet of space for their central unit to receive the Tannoy system from the Chamber and the commentator's voice from the commentary box, and to do some taping and some editing. The BBC, because of their Overseas Service and because they have a much larger radio coverage, would probably need much more. All of this should really be within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster; but it cannot be at once and this we have to face up to, so we shall have to use temporary accommodation. I know that Bridge Street is in mind and that Norman Shaw North, the old Scotland Yard, is also in mind; but these central units are vital, and it is important that the working conditions in them should be right.

The other piece of accommodation in terms of which I think we should be thinking, and which we shall certainly need, is a small studio and control box ; because, having commented on a particular speech from another place or from this House, a Member of Parliament or a noble Lord may be required at once, because of something he has said, to mention it further, in the case of a Member of Parliament for the benefit of his constituents and, in the case of a Member of this noble House, for people who are interested. He will need to be interviewed in a small studio by someone who is doing the reporting either for the BBC or for Independent Radio News.

My Lords, radio is a very good medium for Parliamentary coverage. I have myself never held the same view about television, because we are told that if we televise Parliament we must televise it warts and all, and I am afraid some of the warts in another place—and I was there a long time—are not always very attractive; at least, they were not to me. I know that mine is the minority view, and probably the majority one is better, that if you cover anything you should cover it as it is; but an edited version of the proceedings in Parliament, plus full coverage on certain occasions such as the Budget speech in another place or Her Majesty's speech here, which are so important that they should go out live, and of course a daily edited version at night, will add to an interest in Parliament and will add to its prestige and the regard in which it is held.

Given the right conditions of storage we could tape and keep a number of tapes for a considerable length of time. At the moment in the electronic field, in good conditions magnetic tapes can be kept for 20 to 25 years, and in the best conditions probably for much longer. But in that field everything is changing so rapidly so that it would be possible, in my view, in a decade or so to build up a kind of oral history where you could turn back and listen to speeches made in the years before. That may be a pipe-dream, but I believe it to be possible. This is the sort of thing we ought to bear in mind. I hope that all the necessary work for the two boxes can be carried out during the Recess; that temporary accommodation can be provided for the central units, and that in the autumn we shall be able to start with complete coverage of the broadcasting of both Houses of Parliament.

4.51 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to associate myself with other noble Lords who have congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Jacobson, on his maiden speech which contained so much of interest delivered in such a charming manner. I am sure that we all hope to hear often from him again.

Like other noble Lords, I think we owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, and his associates in the Committee for the work they have put into this plan which we are now discussing. It is clear from what we have heard today and to anybody who has read the Minutes of Evidence that it is a most perplexing problem. As the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, said, when referring to the problem in this place: Is this a place of work or a monument ? That is one of the problems. As one who is in favour, and always has been in favour, of every feasible method of reporting Parliament to the people, I spoke in favour of Lord Shepherd's Motion on 16th March when it was readily agreed by the House that we should go ahead with sound broadcasting. But I emphasise the word " feasible ".

The Report recommends structural work which is represented by the mock-up and which has been fully described; but beyond the £30,000 estimated cost it is well to remember that elsewhere in the Papers there is a reference to the back-up to which I think the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, referred in his speech where it sets out that in Bridge Street there is an estimated expenditure for Editorial and Production of £272,000. Of course, it is fair to recognise that with the other place undertaking broadcasting such expenditure is going to have to be necessary. I imagine that any share of it attributable to the House of Lords will be only fairly small: because that background is necessary whatever happens in this place. In other words, if we do not go ahead, by how much would the Bridge Street expenditure be reduced? I do not imagine that that situation is going to arise, judging by the speeches we have heard this afternoon.

When we considered the matter in March, 1 confess that I visualised our own Hansard tape would be the main source of any broadcast and would only require a commentary upon it. if that is so, is there any need for such a large structure as is contemplated for representatives not only of the BBC but also of the IBA? After all, the BBC is the only body which is required, as an obligation, to report to the public daily on the proceedings of both Houses of Parliament. If that is the case, is it necessary to provide for any other? Is there any guarantee that we will get anything like the coverage from other authorities that we get from the BBC, as of right? It is clear that any broadcasting of any tapes of House of Lords' proceedings can, occupy only a very few minutes in any one day (or, perhaps, in any several days) superimposed upon " Today in Parliament " and the ordinary radio programmes.

That, presumably, means that this commentary box may not be used for some considerable time daily. On the other hand, it can be used, I imagine, for the ordinary correspondents of the BBC who do the " Today in Parliament " and " Yesterday in Parliament " programmes.

My Lords, I carried out a reconnaisance of the Public and the Press Galleries myself yesterday evening and I found the structure, even in the modified form, quite disturbing. For instance, the only part of the House that can be seen by anyone seated in the centre of the Public Gallery is that portion from here (where I am speaking, in line with the middle of the Table) to the Throne. They cannot see the Front Benches. I shall return to that when referring to the speech of my noble friend Lord Cathcart, but that is a serious problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, referred to the few members of the Press who are there, because from the Press seats which are behind the present mockup, they are unable to see two-thirds of the Chamber. It is worth remembering that although there may not be many members of the Press present at any time on an ordinary day, there comes the time, on special occasions, when, I think, the front row of the Public Gallery must be reserved for the Press, and particularly the overseas Press; so that one must remember that the Press have their rights. Another point which occurs to me is that whereas the noble Lord, Lord Jacobson, said that the Press cannot publish much about Parliament today, that does not mean that the Press correspondents in our Press Gallery do not send out matter daily in very great measure and that the sub-editor's blue pencil deals with most of it. I feel that the mock-up even in modified form is somewhat unacceptable.

I was going to say that I felt on balance, like the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, on one occasion during the taking of the evidence when the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips, said that there is a problem with the Lords because it was the unanimous decision of the Lords that there should be broadcasting. of the House. My noble friend Lord Aberdare said: It is true to a point, but if we produce a monstrous structure people might reverse their previous attitude and decide they did not want it in those circumstances. That is true enough. For that reason I was heartened by my noble friend Lord Cathcart's speech; because it is clear that he feels as I, and I am sure, many other Members of this House feel: that the conditions in the Public Galleries could be improved by careful redesigning of the structure which they have in mind.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Winstanley, mentioned that one solution might be to raise the height of the seats in the Public Galleries so that if the front is sloped forward (as my noble friend Lord Cathcart suggested) there would be better vision for people in the centre of the Public Galleries. They would be able at least to see the Front Benches. The problem to my mind is that whereas as it stands today it is not worth continuing with this present box—and I feel almost ashamed to say that because your Lordships know that I have been a keen advocate of the broadcasting of Parliament by radio and television—by restructuring the box, as the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart, indicated, sloping of the roof, et cetera, it would be acceptable. Then we can create a situation where this place would indeed be a place of work as well as a monument.

5 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise for speaking without having given notice. This morning I was at a meeting of an official body, and the meeting was expected to continue well into the afternoon, otherwise I should have put my name down to speak before the debate. I agree strongly with what my noble friend Lord Jacobson said in his admirable maiden speech. May I add my congratulations to those which have already been expressed by noble Lords to him, especially since I was at one time a journalist serving under his excellent editorship on a very good magazine which unfortunately was, like so many others, killed by its proprietor. I agree with him regarding the value of broadcasting as a means of communication between Parliament and the general public and as a means of stimulating—perhaps reviving —interest. I believe there is interest because although there is a great deal of apathy and a great deal of scepticism about politics and politicians among the general public—particularly among the young—never in my experience have we seen such tremendous queues of people—constituents of Members of another place, tourists from Britain and overseas—waiting to get into the public galleries of both Houses. That indicates a readiness to be interested in politics and even in the much-abused politicians.

I do not have very much to say on the limited and technical aspect of what we are discussing this afternoon. But it is not going to be easy to make the commentary box both unobtrusive and inoffensive. We are likely to find ourselves engaged in controversy regarding the embellishment of the Box. We should not go too far in the direction of pseudo-Puginesquerie. That might be a very dangerous experiment. But an absolutely bleak Box would not look very attractive. Plainness rather than Puginesquerie is to be sought. I hope that great care will ill be taken in the embellishment.

I support this Report because it is a first step to the full broadcasting of the proceedings of both Houses by television. It is now something like 10 years since I was chairman of a Select Committee of another place which, after exhaustive interviewing and investigation—seeing everybody from both broadcasting organisations and so on—came down unanimously in favour of the broadcasting of Parliament. In the first instance of course there were to be edited extracts televised in the evenings since it was not possible to contemplate a live broadcast of the whole proceedings as had been proposed or preferred by some.

My noble friend Lord Aylestone said just now that he was against the televising of Parliament and that he held a minority view. But he holds what was the majority view in the other place. The first proposal for televising the House of Commons was defeated by only one vote, partly because in commending it to the House, Mr. Crossman leaned much too far backwards to state the other case in fairness to it (which was characteristic of him) and partly because two honourable Members of another place, endeavouring to fly home to Glasgow, found that their aircraft had been grounded because of fog and returned to the House of Commons to vote against the proposal. Perhaps that was providential. Since then, the House of Commons has shown itself even more conservative than your Lordships' House is apt to be, and has repeatedly voted against the proposal. I am sure the televising of both Houses of Parliament in some form or another will come to pass— probably not in my lifetime but perhaps by the end of the century.

5.7 p.m.


My Lords, I also apologise for not putting my name down on the list of speakers. I was under the impression that members of the Joint Committee were not able to speak in this debate. I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Jacobson on his splendid speech. He told us that he had not spoken often before. Some of us who have had the pleasure of hearing him on other occasions know that that is not strictly correct. We hope that we shall hear him many times again in this House. When one contemplated the Joint Committee it seemed an impossible task to produce a Report which would satisfy every Member of your Lordships' House, the Commons, organisations like the BBC and IBA, the Department of the Environment, the Royal Fine Art Commission and the unions. It appeared that something of a modern miracle would be needed if such a report were to receive unanimity. I am delighted to hear today that your Lordships have, so far as I can see, not entered any caveat against the proposition which the Report puts forward.

As I performed—as I so often do—the role of the rogue elephant on the Committee, I should like to underline what two noble Lords have said. Why do we have to have the neo-Gothic monstrosity to adorn the Box ? After all, we have not had a brass rail round the Press Gallery, so it could be said the Gallery has been out of keeping with the rest of the House for a long time. We have had the pleasure of looking at the faces of members of the Press, and we hope that they have had the pleasure of looking at us. It seems to me that the brass rail is an unnecessary expense and adds nothing to the attraction or value of the box. I am not clear why we should be disturbed about an unadorned box. When we look at the costing, it seems we should consider carefully whether we want to spend another £4,000 on something which is going to obstruct the view of people sitting in the Public Gallery. It is going to perform no useful purpose other than to fit in with what is really neoGothic.

The Minister who came to the Committee to give us his valuable advice seemed extraordinarily down to earth. He was not happy about the cost. He asked for a breakdown of the cost and this proved extremely useful. He was anxious that the matter should be dealt with speedily as are many of your Lordships. It was a pleasure to serve on the Committee. It seemed eminently practicable and anxious to make progress. I am delighted that your Lordships have so far appeared to give almost universal support to this Report.

5.10 p.m.


My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, requires my assistance in getting this Motion through your Lordships' House this afternoon. However, as Leader of the House, I feel that I ought to intervene in a matter which has a direct bearing upon the building, the environment and also, I believe, on the atmosphere in which our debates take place. I will be frank with the House. When I saw the report and the illustration while I was in the United States, I was very uneasy. It seemed to me to dominate in a very marked degree. When I came back, I persuaded officials to see whether it was possible to put some form of model in the Gallery to give us a real indication, so that we did not have to rely just on an illustration.

I agree very much with my noble friend Lord Jacobson, who spoke, in his very notable and pleasing maiden speech, of the importance of the media and of bringing Parliament to the people. We have therefore to recognise that if this is to be achieved, proper working conditions have to be provided, and there must be an opportunity of both hearing and seeing who is speaking and also of being able to pick up any of the little nuances and interchanges that may be taking place in other parts of the House. Therefore, quite clearly, the commentators' box must have good visibility. I believe there is no place in the Chamber other than in the centre of the Press Gallery, as recommended by the Committee.

I must say that I share the feelings of my noble friends Lord Aylestone and Lady Phillips, and indeed others, about the brass railings which are suggested. I wonder whether, before putting them in, we could see what the box looks like without them: then, if we feel that it is too prominent, perhaps we might consider whether the brass railings should or could be put there. I feel that with a structure of this kind, which is to form part of a very ancient and beautiful building, we should move with a little caution.

With the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, and others, I must say that I am particularly concerned about the consequences to the Public Gallery. The Public Gallery is an essential part of Parliament, but I have to admit that even without the box the visibility from the Public Gallery leaves a great deal to be desired, and that the mere construction of the box makes only a small material difference in the visibility from the Public Gallery. But, like the noble Lord, Lord Ferrier, I also went up there and moved around. Fortunately, the Gallery was not too full, and I noticed that there were some aspects where I believe improvements might be made. I have to tell your Lordships that I am very conscious of the Public Gallery and believe something ought to be done, whether or not there is a box there. Therefore, I have asked for a feasibility study to be undertaken immediately to see what can be done to improve the conditions of the Public Gallery. I cannot make any predictions or promises about what solution will come out of this, but I can say that it is being looked into.

I have really nothing further to say, except that I believe there is no place at all for the proposed box other than where the Committee have recommended it. However, I would suggest to the Committee that we should move with a little caution with regard to embellishments and developments, bearing in mind that sometimes simplicity has a great deal more beauty than ostentation.


My Lords, I am sure that I can say with absolute confidence, on behalf of my fellow Members on the Joint Committee, that we are most grateful to all your Lordships who have taken part in this debate. It has been most constructive and will be extremely helpful to us in our future deliberations.

May I join with the rest of your Lordships who congratulated the noble Lord, Lord Jacobson, on his excellent maiden speech. He said that he was more accustomed to the written than to the spoken word. I could not help thinking, as I listened to his speech, that if some of those who are more often used to the spoken word would follow his example of clarity and brevity, we should all be better served. The noble Lord raised two points. The first concerned the question of temporary accommodation for editorial and production staff. He may like to know that the Joint Committee have already had a meeting with the unions concerned, who were most cooperative. They have accepted the fact that they may have to work in temporary accommodation, in conditions which are not too good, until permanent accommodation can be made available for them. He also drew attention to the need for speed. Certainly, this is very much in the minds of the Committee, and that is why we are anxious to get your Lordships' agreement today, so that the commentators' box can be installed with the east possible delay.

May I take up a couple of points made by the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone. I think he was a little rough on the Royal Fine Art Commission. Of course, only three representatives of the Commission were concerned, because the whole Commission could not be spared; and they specifically said that they were not insistent on the brass rail being carried the full width of the Gallery. The noble Lord the Leader of the House referred to this aspect, and I am quite sure that it would be right to proceed as he has suggested; namely, that we should proceed by steps and not necessarily put the brass rail the whole width of the Gallery until we see how the box looks without the rail I understand that the brass rail was suggested because it appears from old documents that there was once a brass rail there, and so it was thought that to put it back again might help to disguise the commentary box.

My Lords, I do not think there is anything else I need say, except to reiterate that we shall study most carefully the very constructive comments that have been made in the course of this debate.

On Question, Motion agreed to.