HL Deb 06 March 1992 vol 536 cc1109-16

11.36 a.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Waddington)

My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purpose of Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interests so far as they are affected by the Bill at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This is a short Bill but an important one for both Houses. Before describing its provisions, I owe the House a short explanation of its origins, which lie in the Ibbs report to the House of Commons Commission in 1990. Sir Robin Ibbs and his group proposed a radical change in the way services are provided for the House of Commons, in particular that it should take over responsibility for its own works and printing services. Noble Lords will be aware that we subsequently decided to follow suit and a number of steps have already been taken to give effect to the proposals.

The Offices Committee has restructured itself. New financial management proposals have been put in hand. A Director of Works for both houses has been appointed. We are well on the way to ending the allied service arrangements under which the Department of the Environment and Her Majesty's Stationery Office previously looked after our works and printing. I am glad to record the welcome co-operation which we have received from my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Controller of HMSO in moving towards an orderly transfer of Vote provision for those services, the target date for which is 1st April.

I am also glad to say that the two Houses are moving closely in step. One of the more notable events has been the drawing up of an agreement between the two Houses about how joint works services are to be financed and managed. Copies of this Memorandum of Understanding, signed by the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees from this House and Mr. Speaker from the other place, have been placed in the Library.

This development is in fact a logical extension of the agreement of 1965, under which the House assumed control of those parts of the Palace of Westminster occupied by the Lords. The Lords and Commons are now taking on responsibility for the maintenance of the building; but it remains a Royal Palace and it has therefore been necessary to ensure that Her Majesty the Queen is content with what is proposed. Her consent on Second Reading, which I announced before I began my speech, is in this instance no mere formality and I am grateful to Her Majesty's advisers for their assistance in bringing the scheme to the stage it has now reached.

I should emphasise that, although full Vote control will pass to the two Houses on 1st April, the works services themselves will be taken over physically at a slightly slower place. Arrangements have to be made for the transfer of the Parliamentary Works Office from the Department of the Environment to Parliament and for some recruitment. This process will be complete by the end of the next financial year at the latest. For pay and rations purposes, the staff will become part of the Department of the Serjeant at Arms in the House of Commons, but for all practical purposes, they will be staff serving both Houses equally.

I now come to why we have to have a Bill. With the two Houses in control of their own accommodation and works services we shall become the owners and leaseholders of property, not the Palace itself of course but buildings like Abbey Gardens and Norman Shaw and the parts of Millbank that we are going to lease. There will be work contracts to enter into, and we may wish on occasion to sue contractors —they may even wish to sue us.

That is where we get into deep legal waters: and the fact of the matter is that neither House constitutes a legal persona, able to do the sort of things one inevitably has to do as the owner of property. It is not an entirely new problem and I have to concede that up to now we have somehow managed to muddle through. Clerks of Parliaments have for instance entered into contracts making themselves personally liable, which has been very brave of them.

But it is agreed by all who have studied the problem that a proper solution must be found before major services can be taken over and valuable properties acquired on behalf of both Houses. Various possibilities have been canvassed. The one that has finally commended itself is to establish a corporate body for each House in the form of what is known as a corporation sole. The appropriate office holder in this House to have that responsibility is the Houses's senior permanent Officer and Accounting Officer, the Clerk of the Parliaments. In another place the Corporate Officer will be the Clerk of the House of Commons, or the Under Clerk of the Parliaments, as he is correctly described in the Bill.

The accounting officer duties of the two Clerks will be burdensome and all legal documents will be in their names but under the Bill their functions as Corporate Officers may be carried out by the Clerk Assistant or any other Officer of the House authorised by the Clerk, including in particular the Director of Works.

The establishment of the two corporations is the heart of the Bill, but later clauses provide for the making of the necessary transfers of property and of the rights and liabilities connected with it. There is also a provision to limit the effect of Section 21 of the Crown Lands Act 1851, which is the piece of legislation by virtue of which the Secretary of State exercises his present functions within the Palace of Westminster.

There is another part of the Bill which needs some detailed explanation. Clause 4 rectifies an anomaly which has been encountered in other contexts where civil servants have been transferred to new undertakings in the public service. Under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981, purely technical redundancies can arise for people who, to all intents and purposes, will be doing the same job under essentially the same terms of service. Here, employees of the Parliamentary Works Office in the Department of the Environment are to be transferred and become employees of Parliament, and Clause 4 extinguishes any resulting technical redundancy rights. I can assure the House that the clause will have no effect at all on actual terms of service or on pension rights, and if by any chance any transferred employee were later to become redundant his rights would not be affected in any way.

I shall now go very briefly through the clauses. Clauses 1 and 2 establish the two Clerks as corporations sole, and I congratulate the Clerk of the Parliaments on his corporation —I mean, incorporation. Subsections (6) and (7) of each clause make it clear that the Corporate Officers do not enjoy Crown immunity unless Her Majesty provides otherwise by Order in Council.

Clauses 3 and 5 provide for the Secretary of State to make a scheme or schemes for the transfer of property, including rights and liabilities, from the Department of the Environment to the two new Parliamentary Corporations. Clause 4 contains the employment provisions which I described a few moments ago.

Clause 6 ensures that gifts expressed as gifts to the House of Lords or the House of Commons have effect as gifts to the Parliamentary Corporations. Clause 7 contains transitional and consequential provisions, including the one limiting the effect of Section 21 of the Crown Lands Act 1851 which I have already described.

This may be the moment to acknowledge our debt to those who over the centuries have cared for the Palace of Westminster, beginning with the Clerk of the King's Works who 600 years ago was the predecessor of the Secretary of State for the Environment. Coming to the present day, we should express our gratitude to all the staff of the Parliamentary Works Office who keep this business in good order through storm and sunshine.

Finally, I wish to draw the attention of the House to the fact that this, although procedurally a government Bill, has all-party support and in another place was unusual for having as supporters, except for Mr. Speaker, every member of the House of Commons Commission.

I am sure that the whole House will welcome this Bill and I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Lord Waddington.)

11.45 a.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the House for explaining a short but complicated Bill. As he said, it is a step in the implementation of the Ibbs Report. We are indebted to Sir Robin Ibbs for guiding us along the road to a more modern system. As the noble Lord said, a number of important steps in relation to services have already been taken.

My first reaction on reading the Bill was to ask why legislation was necessary to readjust the responsibilities for the various services, but, as the noble Lord has explained, works contracts, leases and property must be someone's responsibility. The obvious person to undertake that responsibility is the Clerk of the Parliaments in this House and the Senior Clerk in another place.

The point is especially relevant in the House of Commons, which has a changing Membership which ceases to exist when Parliament is dissolved. We are on the threshold of such a proceeding at present. They have coped up to now because the Secretary of State for the Environment has held the property. As the noble Lord explained, in the Bill we are giving the respected Clerk of the Parliaments new responsibilities and a new title. He is to become a corporation sole. Let me say at once that he does not look like a corporation sole. We shall continue to think of him and refer to him as the Clerk of the Parliaments.

The noble Lord took us through the clauses, and I should like to ask him some brief questions. First, what is the purpose and significance of the provisions in Clauses 1 and 2 which refer to Crown immunity? I note Clause 1(6) in particular. It would be helpful if he could give us some short clarification. I turn to another point; namely, the control of the Palace of Westminster under the new system. The powers of the Corporate Officer are listed in Clause 1(3). The words: for any purpose of the House of Lords", are used. We note that the building—the Palace of Westminster—remains the property of Her Majesty the Queen. It is the appurtenances and responsibilities we find in Clause 1 which fall upon the shoulders of the corporation sole.

The noble Lord will confirm that until now the Secretary of State for the Environment has been involved and interested in all the matters we are now discussing. He has been responsible for the maintenance of the property, the contracts and so forth. The House must assume that when the Bill becomes law the Secretary of State for the Environment will have no responsibilities here. The Clerk of the Parliaments and the Members of the House will have all the responsibility. Is that not the core of the Bill? In that case, this is a welcome step forward, for it must be right that Members of both Houses, not the Executive, should be responsible for their respective parts of the building.

We are of course worried about the effect of the Bill on the staff of both Houses. Here, Clauses 4 and 5, dealt with by the noble Lord, are relevant. Will the staff of the Parliamentary Works Office become members of the new Parliamentary Works Directorate? I listened carefully to the noble Lord and I assume that he can confirm that the Transfer of Employment Regulations will apply here.

As concerns costs and expenditure—and this is a matter of central interest to all of us—I understand that the House of Commons will bear 60 per cent. of the costs and that this House will bear the remaining 40 per cent. That will be of interest to noble Lords.

Finally, the noble Lord referred to the history of the Clerk of the King's Works and said that the Bill brings 1,000 years of history to an end in the sense that the Royal Servants will no longer bear the responsibilities. As regards the Clerk of the King's Works, 600 years of history terminate with the Bill. If that is so, it means that in a small and technical Bill we are writing a footnote in parliamentary history.

On behalf of my noble friends, I welcome the Bill as a step forward in the right direction. I was a member of the House of Commons Commission when it was set up in 1975 and I am glad to he associated in a small way with the passage of the Bill. I must stress, however, that I support the noble Lord in what he said, namely that it is crucial that if the Palace of Westminster is to be run efficiently and properly, then the two Houses must go forward hand in hand and in complete understanding. Otherwise, the roof of the building may fall in. I wish the new arrangements all success and the Bill a fair passage.

11.51 a.m.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I shall be brief in dealing with this short but in its way important Bill. It is based on the Ibbs Report, as both the noble Lord the Leader of the House and the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, said. Judging from what the Ibbs Report had to say, it changes our long overdue financial arrangements. The report states: Good financial management systems … do not exist. The House lacks most of the financial management tools which are now common throughout both the private sector and the public service. Full costs are not brought together, nor are comprehensive budgets prepared for the various activities. Heads of Department are not required to work towards financial targets. Forward plans, long or short term, are not regularly prepared; and there are no reports of achievement against requirement. Financial management information is not routinely provided in a … usable form. There is no professional financial advice available". This relates to an organisation which is never slow to criticise the financial management of other organisations with which it deals. So something along these lines is plainly long overdue. It is surely a step in the right direction. It is much in the spirit of the present Government and of us on these Benches to put the responsibility on to people who are directly concerned and who should carry that responsibility.

Thus we must welcome the change which brings control over the building—not the fabric of the building but all else —into the hands of the people who will use it. We welcome the new role of the Clerk of the Parliaments as the corporation sole. Is it spelt S-O-L-E or S-O-U-L? I am not sure. In any case, we welcome his introduction and installation in this new position. I hope that it will not land him in any more personal liabilities. We know of the liabilities that are now under the Charities Bill being pushed, for example, on to voluntary trustees. Are similar liabilities being put on to the Clerk of the Parliaments? If he goes wrong and runs into any kind of debt or gets into trouble under employment law, who is responsible? Is he personally responsible? Are we all responsible? Or what happens?

It is good that we shall have direct control over our physical environment. Since we are talking about the physical environment, I shall not lose this opportunity to ask that when we obtain control a high priority should be given to doing something about the appalling ventilation in this Chamber? I am not the only person, I am sure, who finds that after an hour and a half in the Chamber I run out of oxygen, if not out of steam. I have to go out—but not into the bar —to recover; outside I recover in a quarter of an hour. It is not the impact of your Lordships' speeches; I am sure that it is the impact of the lack of oxygen in the Chamber. I do not believe that it would pass under the health and safety regulations. We talk a great deal about the health and safety of workers and do precious little about ourselves. Now that we have control, I hope we shall do something quickly.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, we all note the remarks made by the noble Baroness. I have a great deal of sympathy with what she said. The Clerk of the Parliaments will have no doubt whatever as to what will be one of his first duties after taking on these onerous responsibilities on 1st April. The office is spelt like a fish, S-O-L-E, I am pretty sure.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, for his comments on the Bill. I understand why he began by wondering why it was necessary to have legislation at all. The Government started by wondering whether legislation was necessary but the noble Lord explained very clearly indeed why it is. I mentioned in the course of my remarks what a bizarre situation it was that Clerks, when entering into computer contracts and the like, take the responsibility entirely on their own. Of course any sensible person would know that they were not standing on their own; somebody was standing behind them. But in law they were standing entirely on their own.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked about Crown immunity. I am glad that he did. The provision in the Bill appears as a result of an amendment moved in another place by the Chairman of the Accommodation and Works Committee, Mr. Ray Powell, who is a Member of Parliament. The reason why he moved it is that present planning law does not apply to this Royal Palace. Of course when one thinks in terms of new parliamentary buildings, whether they are on Bridge Street or anywhere else, without a provision like this one would be in a position where planning law did not apply to the main parliamentary building but it did to the offshoots. It seems sensible that the same procedures which are designed to avoid any conflict with the planning authorities should apply in the case of any new buildings.

As the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, said, the Secretary of State for the Environment has been responsible for the maintenance of the building. From now onwards we shall be responsible. That seems entirely right. The staff who are now employed by the Department of the Environment will become employees of the Parliament Works Directorate. The provisions in Clause 4 are merely designed to avoid a technical redundancy taking place when staff cease to be employees of the Department of the Environment and become employees of the directorate. But they will be employed on precisely the same terms of service and will not be disadvantaged in any way at all.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, referred to 600 years of history. First of all, it was the monarch, then a servant of the monarch and then it was the Clerk who looked after this Royal Palace and took on wider responsibilities. Eventually it became a Minister of the Crown. There was the arrival of the Ministry of Works at the beginning of the war which later became part of the Department of the Environment. All that long history has come to an end and we ourselves are now taking responsibility for these matters, and quite rightly so.

The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, was absolutely right to remind us of the stinging criticisms of the way in which some of our affairs are managed. None of us here had any doubt at all of the wisdom of the proposals made by Sir Robin Ibbs and his committee. As was said earlier, we have wasted no time in taking all the necessary steps—apart from this step of legislation—to implement his proposals. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and to the noble Baroness for their comments. I am glad that the Bill has received the warm welcome it deserves.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I hope the noble Lord can help me as regards Clause 6 of the Bill. The question I am asking may be irrelevant, in which case the noble Lord will tell me so. On the matter of gifts to the House of Lords, I should be interested to know whether, as regards pictures or gifts of that kind, the Corporate Officer of the House of Lords will have charitable status. That makes a considerable difference to the donor.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I am advised that he would not have that status.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, that is rather a serious state of affairs.

The Earl of Selkirk

My Lords, I apologise to the Minister as I did not realise we were going to discuss this Bill today. The Bill seems to impose responsibility on the Clerk of the Parliaments for everything. Is that reasonably fair? Will he not have an advisory board or some general board to direct him? I refer to an example that I have used before. The situation over car parking at the House of Lords is unreasonable. If one does not arrive two hours before the House sits, one cannot park one's car. The issue has been raised on many occasions. It is purely a matter for the works and buildings committee. I doubt whether it should be the responsibility of the Clerk of the Parliaments. There should be other mechanisms to deal with those matters. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me an idea of how these matters will be managed.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I can satisfy my noble friend's query. At the present time the Clerk of the Parliaments only acts in accordance with our wishes as expressed through the various committees of the House. We have restructured our committees to make them more effective and to bring them more in line with the Ibbs proposals. However, the situation will not really change. The Clerk of the Parliaments has always done his level best—I do not believe he has ever failed—to reflect the wishes of noble Lords. When he acts as a corporation sole, he will in effect act in accordance with our wishes as expressed by Members of the relevant committees of this House.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, I wish to emphasise what the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, said about trying to obtain what most of us have been trying to obtain for a long while. If anyone wants to come and sit beside me he will have to sit in an appalling blast of cold air. When the House is full, there is a blast of hot air. The heating is the wrong way round. There is a lift out in the corridor that we have complained about for years. However, nothing has been done. There is a room along the corridor that we gave to the House of Commons. I do not know how long ago it was when that occurred. The House of Commons has now acquired an enormous palace across the road and has never inquired whether we want our room back. If we now have the power to sort out these matters, we should get on and do so.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, the right thing for me to do is to ensure that the noble Lord's remarks are conveyed to the relevant committees of the House which are responsible for the various aspects of the running of the House to which the noble Lord referred.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.