HL Deb 25 July 1994 vol 557 cc524-9

3.2 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Ampthill)

My Lords, I beg to move that the third report from the Select Committee be agreed to.

It might be helpful to the House if I were to say a few words in explanation of this brief report. This will be the second year in which the House has published an annual report and accounts. Last year's report was welcomed for its comprehensive account of the work of the House, and the financial details were found useful in evaluating how we are striving, successfully I believe, to give value for money. This year's report and accounts will be found to be a worthwhile improvement on last year's pioneering effort and I hope that all Members of the House will be glad to receive a copy when it is distributed shortly before the House resumes in October.

The Parliamentary Data and Video Network has been approved by the House of Commons as well as the Offices Committee and the relevant committees and sub-committees of this House. The network will supply a variety of information services; for example, POLIS— the parliamentary on-line information system—the text of Hansard and many other items of data. In addition there is what is known as the "clean feed". Some of your Lordships may find this a rather curious if not misleading expression so I hope I may be forgiven by those who do know if I explain briefly what is involved.

It has become possible with the televising of Parliament to transmit the proceedings of each House live and unedited by means of clean television feed to all parts of the parliamentary estate as well as to various media and other outlets. Thus it will be possible for your Lordships to watch on television in your offices or other locations the proceedings of the House as they take place. By a large majority the Offices Committee endorsed the provision of clean feed as part of the network, although I have to say that some fears were expressed that the clean feed might reduce attendance in the Chamber and cause inconvenience to those who share offices.

A considerable amount of work to improve access for disabled persons will include the provision of ramps and handrails at important points. The other items of the report are useful measures which will improve facilities and the level of service to your Lordships.

Moved, That the third report from the Select Committee be agreed to (HL Paper 73).—(The Chairman of Committees.)

Following is the report referred to:

1. Annual Report and Accounts

The Committee has considered and approved a draft Annual Report and Accounts in respect of the financial year 1993–94. The Report and Accounts will be published and circulated in October.

2. Parliamentary Data and Video Network

The Committee has approved the creation of a Parliamentary Data and Video Network (PDVN), and has agreed that the television "clean feed" of proceedings in the Chamber should be provided on the Network, as and when cabling permits.

3. Access and facilities for disabled persons

The Committee has approved a programme of works to improve access and facilities for disabled persons.

4. Peers' Cloakroom

The Committee has agreed to proposals for refurbishment in and around the Peers' Cloakroom which will take place during the summer recess 1994.

5. House of Lords Mail Room

The Committee has agreed to proposals to enlarge and reorganise the House of Lords Mail Room in order to improve efficiency and quality of service. As a consequence, certain telephone booths will be removed; but replacement telephones will be located nearby.

6. Annual Report on Security

The Committee has considered the Head of Security's annual report for 1993–94 and has taken note with approval of measures to improve efficiency and economy.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, I should like to thank the Lord Chairman and the committee for the work which has been put into this report and to say that I was surprised when in discussing the clean feed the Lord Chairman said "by a large majority". I thought that the committee was an example to us all of smooth, harmonious, united working and I am sure that that is a very temporary aberration in the sagacity which is distilled. I have good news for the Lord Chairman because I have been a little concerned about the ugly rumour which I have heard in the House that these reports are always presented at the end of the Session in order to minimise discussion and so that they can be virtually smuggled through. I am going to help the Lord Chairman rebut that by plotting out the dates of all these reports over the past few years and their presentation. I shall then be able to show the House that there is absolutely nothing in the rumour.

I wish to make a few points about the latter part of the report. In paragraph 4, on the Peers' Cloakroom, the report states: The Committee has agreed to proposals for refurbishment",. Whose proposals are they? I have to tell your Lordships that I am used to living in fairly reasonable accommodation and when I go around the cloakroom I really cannot see what is wrong with it and what requires to be done. I should like to know just who has proposed that it be refurbished and also—I almost apologise for mentioning this but I am one of those old fashioned people who is concerned about the spending of public money—what is the estimated cost of the refurbishment.

Similarly, in paragraph 5, on the House of Lords Mail Room, the report states: The Committee has agreed to proposals to enlarge and reorganise the House of Lords Mail Room in order to improve efficiency and quality of service". Again I should like to know whose proposals these are and what is the projected cost. I should also like to say that when we talk about improving efficiency and quality of service I hope that there is no implicit criticism of the staff here because I also find the staff most helpful and anxious to oblige in every respect. So I hope that the Lord Chairman will assure us on those points.

With regard to paragraph 6, on security, I do not think it is helpful in this House ever to go into detail about matters of security—they should be pursued in other ways. However, I should like to mention one matter because it is one of absolute public knowledge. I refer to the turnstiles which were installed at the entrance to the Palace from Westminster tube station. I should like to know what the initial cost was. As Members will know, they broke down within weeks of being installed and I was informed that the breakdown was due to the wearing out of an essential part. What kind of design was this? Did the manufacturers bear the cost of repairing it? Noble Lords will know that there was a further breakdown. Just what kind of cost is being borne here? What are the manufacturers carrying themselves? How much longer will we have to put up with the inefficiency there? I very much doubt, in terms of security, whether the turnstiles are an improvement.

Lord Finsberg

My Lords, I wish to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, on one point. I refer to the clean feed. I would find it somewhat surprising if in this building, where those who come here fairly frequently may find that they are in a room with four or five other people, there were not some method of consideration as to whether clean feed is desired. I hope that the Lord Chairman will be able to say to us that before he proceeds with clean feed he will ascertain from all the Members of your Lordships' House who come here regularly whether they desire clean feed. It may be that the majority of the Offices Committee desires it. Indeed, if everyone had a single room, it would be highly desirable. But it will have the effect—there is no argument about it: one has seen it in the other place— of reducing the attendance in the Chamber. Secondly, it will be the source of great annoyance to perhaps a majority of people in one room when two of their colleagues want it on and three of them do not. Are they meant to take a vote each time on a majority? I ask the Lord Chairman to have a further look at this matter before it is foisted on the House.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I agree with the previous speakers in what they say about clean feed. I voiced those objections at the committee of which I am a member. I assure my noble friend Lord Cocks that usually votes are not taken at these meetings, but I believe that a general acceptance bar one was indicated. There is no question but that clean feed could cause great problems because we in this House, unlike most Members of another place, have to endure slum conditions. I call them "slum conditions" advisedly because the description applies only to those who have a room at all. In many cases they are slum conditions. There are six or sometimes seven people sharing a room. There is one cabinet. Even Front Benchers are working in cramped conditions. On top of that, to have foisted on them a decision-making process as to whether we should have clean feed to see what is going on in your Lordships' House is adding insult to injury. Also, it may very well persuade some Members of your Lordships' House, who would otherwise be in the Chamber listening to the debate or who perhaps suddenly wished to take part in it, not to do so.

Although the recommendation in the committee report is that the clean feed proposition should go ahead, I still believe that there is time to reconsider. I understand that it will be many months or years before the system is universally available throughout your Lordships' House. I hope that noble Lords who feel concerned about the matter will voice that concern and that the committee will be able to have another look at it before it is finally inflicted on your Lordships.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, perhaps I may first deal with points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, other than that of the clean feed, a subject which ran through other interventions. As regards timing, the noble Lord seems to have the deepest suspicion that we have brought forward the report as we are about to break for the Summer Recess. The timing of the report is dictated entirely by the timing of the financial year, which concludes at the end of March. The auditors then move in; finally they get close to producing their report. It has not yet been cleared in every instance. That is why the report cannot be published with the accounts this day. That will happen within the next few days. The accounts will be distributed to your Lordships. The noble Lord was rather suggesting that there is something sneaky about the timing of the event; there is nothing in that.

The cloakroom and its maintenance are part and parcel of a 10-year rolling programme. Under the auspices of the Property Services Agency the Palace of Westminster was seriously neglected. We have am accumulation of work which urgently needs to be done. All the sub-committees have agreed that the faster we get on with the work the cheaper it will probably turn out than if we postpone it. There is maintenance to be done that is not necessarily visible to the naked eye. It has to be carried out at some stage. The work to be done this year in the cloakroom is the cleaning and repointing of the stone. There is need for rewiring; the engineering services, in line with conservation policy, require attention. There is also the question of improved lighting and essential emergency lighting in the part of the building which leads to Chancellor's Court. A certain amount of duct casing and panelling needs to be attended to. The total cost will be in the neighbourhood of £46,000.

The noble Lord asked about the Westminster subway. That presented a considerable problem which was not entirely due to the equipment manufacturers, but due largely to the fact that the cards we all carry do not always operate efficiently. The total cost of the original contract was £133,000, the share of this House was £53,000. As the noble Lord is perhaps aware, we split a joint venture such as this 60:40 with another place.

The reorganisation of the mail room is due to a fact of which I believe every single Peer in this House is aware; namely, that the quantity of mail which descends on us all has increased enormously over recent years. Physically, the room is unable to cope with the volume of mail. Therefore, reluctantly, we have to lose the telephone boxes which are immediately adjacent to it. However, two more boxes are to be provided immediately opposite. As the result of a survey it was shown that the three boxes on the other side of the Peers' Lobby are frequently not fully used.

I believe that that deals with the points which the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, raised other than the matter of the clean feed. As the other noble Lords, Lord Stoddart of Swindon and the noble Lord, Lord Finsberg, have mentioned, that was a matter which concerned all the sub-committees and the Offices Committee when brought to it. There is no question that clean feed could have the effect of reducing the need for our presence in the Chamber. But the parliamentary data and video network, as everyone agrees, should be installed. It would be putting our thumb in the dyke if we were to decline to add clean feed to that network. It is to be available. Another place has decided it wants it; therefore it is to be supplied there. It would be standing in the way of progress if we were to decline to have it available to us.

The second point raised by the two noble Lords concerns those—practically all of us—who share rooms. It would be an added inconvenience if some want to watch it and others do not. That applies to the parliamentary data and video network which will contain all sorts of services, some of direct use to the work we all do in the House, but also other services such as the broadcasting channels. Certain of your Lordships may occasionally wish to find out what is going on at Turnberry or Goodwood or some other such place —briefly of course—before reverting to your duties. Presumably, it will be a matter to be decided by those who share the room. I feel certain that your Lordships will find a way forward without too much trouble. I hope that I have dealt with the questions which have been raised.

On Question, Motion agreed to.