HL Deb 20 July 1995 vol 566 cc378-83

3.33 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham)

My Lords, I beg to move that the Fourth Report from the Select Committee on House of Lords offices be agreed to.

Moved, That the Fourth Report from the Select Committee be agreed to (HL Paper 84).—(The Chairman of Committees.)

Following is the report referred to:

1. Annual Report and Accounts The Committee approved a draft Annual Report and Accounts for the financial year 1994–95. The Report and Accounts will be published and circulated in October.

2. Bequest The Committee agreed that a bequest of £45,000, left by a Mrs. Dearsley for the maintenance of the Palace of Westminster, would be spent on stained glass windows to replace those missing from the openings opposite the bookstall in St. Stephen's Hall.

3. Changes in the provision of vaccination services The Committee agreed that members and staff of the House should be advised to use the vaccination service provided at St. Thomas' Hospital rather than that provided by the Civil Service Occupational Health Service. This would result in savings to the Administration Vote without any loss in the quality of service to the House.

4. Annunciator in Princes Chamber An annunciator will be installed in the Princes Chamber so that the duty whip and other Lords can know how business is progressing in the Chamber.

5. Handrails in Chamber Handrails will be installed in the Chamber to facilitate access for disabled and other persons.

6. Summer works programme The Committee has noted that the relocation of numerous offices during the summer recess, in addition to a heavy parliamentary works programme, will affect adversely those using the House in August and September. Disruption will be kept to a minimum. Details have been circulated.

7. Painting of the House in session The Committee was informed that Mr. Andrew Festing has been commissioned to undertake the painting of the House in session. The work is likely to be completed by early 1997.

8. Disabled lift in Westminster Hall The Committee approved the installation of a lift at the Grand Committee Room staircase in Westminster Hall to improve disabled access.

9. Refreshment Department Pay Following the conclusion of the review of grading in the Refreshment Department, the Committee agreed: —the establishment of a fifth House of Lords Catering Grade for Senior Chefs de Partie; —the regrading of the following posts:

—the application to junior chef and cook posts of the provisions already agreed for other former industrial staff, namely extra pay points and a simple staff reporting system; reduction in hours of work to 41 gross, 36 net by April 1997; and cash incentives to give up cash and weekly pay; —the replacement of current Catering Manager grades by new House of Lords Chef and Catering Manager grades 1–4; —the regrading to Grade 7 of the post of Superintendent of the Refreshment Department; —the appointment of an additional Executive Officer and Assistant Banqueting Manager; and —the appointment of a Manager, Chef and eight other staff to serve the new outlets in the South East Return in March 1996.

10. Private Bill Fees The Committee agreed that with effect from next session the fees payable at first and third readings of private bills should be increased from £2,500 to £3,500; and that other fees should be increased proportionately.

11. Staff of the House The Committee agreed: —the extension of the post of Administration Officer to September 1998; —the payment of a 22 per cent. share in the salary cost of a new Grade 7 to be appointed in the House of Commons Information Systems Office; and —the appointment of an additional Library Clerk.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, I have in the past drawn attention to my impression—I put it no stronger than that—that reports of this nature seem to come before the House just before we rise. Tomorrow we shall receive the Liaison Committee report. That impression has been denied by the authorities, but I am tempted to do an analysis.

I should like to refer to paragraph 6, "Summer works programme". It talks of the relocation of offices and a heavy parliamentary programme. It says, Disruption will be kept to a minimum". I should like to know whether or not the House authorities realise what disruption is caused. I raise the matter because I gain access to my office by means of lift HOP13. I wrote to Black Rod asking for a history of the breakdowns for the lift and was supplied with a list of the breakdowns from July 1994 to July 1995. There were 31 entries in total, of which eight said the lift was running on the arrival of the fitter and three said the lift was stopped for a survey; so we are really only talking about 20 registered breakdowns over a year.

I showed the list to other Members who use the lift regularly. It was received with both incredulity and derision. Those of us who have to use the lift know that it can break down three or four days on the trot. I ask therefore how the House registers the disruption which is caused in the way of works and whether the authorities are aware of to how much trouble Members are put.

The other point I wish to raise concerns the "Painting of the House in session"—paragraph 7. That is the wrong title. It should be, "Painting of Members of the House in Session who are prepared to pay £130". The way in which the House approaches this matter is undignified and unworthy. A number of paintings of the House in Session appear around the building. Sometimes a great occasion is chosen. But on every occasion, so far as I can make out from my limited knowledge, a reasonable portrayal is made of the House as it actually is.

It is possible that people who attend this House perhaps once or twice a year will be seated in a prominent position because they have paid their money, whereas other people who regularly service the House, but find that this is an objectionable and mundane way of making selections, will not be featured. Further thought should be given to this matter. When the issue was first mooted in the House, I asked what criteria were to be used for selecting people who were to appear in the painting, and quoted from experience in another place on a similar issue. No proper answer was given then and I hope that the Chairman of Committees can respond today.

We are saying that what might be (for reasons that are well understood) the last time this House will be painted in its present form and set-up is to be represented on such a mercenary basis. I cannot understand why more thought and imagination cannot be given to this. We are told that the painter has been commissioned to do the work; presumably the fee has been arranged on the basis of the number of people who indicated that they are prepared to pay. No doubt somebody will suddenly realise that some prominent Front-Bencher or Government Minister has forgotten to put his name in, and he will have to be added. The whole thing is a mess. I suggest to the Chairman of Committees that during the Recess he might informally contact his colleagues to see whether some better criterion cannot be established for carrying out what may be a valuable historic painting.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, in relation to the first point of the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, I was anxious that your Lordships should not go away for the Summer Recess without an opportunity to receive the report of the Offices Committee. It took place after the usual scheduled and timetabled series of meetings of the sub-committees in the first place, followed only last week by a meeting of the Offices Committee. I sought to place the report before your Lordships at the earliest moment in order that your Lordships should have an opportunity to see it and consider it before we rise tomorrow for the Summer Recess.

In relation to the question of disruption, extensive consultations have taken place in that regard. Great consideration has been given to those matters, both by the Administration and Works Sub-Committee of the Offices Committee, the Offices Committee itself and others in authority in the House. It is recognised that with a series of works operations on this scale designed to improve facilities for your Lordships and, through your Lordships for the public as well, there was bound to be considerable disruption. However, as a result of measures taken, the disruption will be kept to an absolute minimum. If any noble Lord feels incommoded either now or as work develops, the appropriate department will do its utmost to seek to deal with the problems as best it can.

So far as the lift is concerned, if your Lordships and the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, will forgive me, I shall not detain the House on the detail of the matter, partly because I do not have all of the details myself anyway. But I shall, if need be, look into them after your Lordships have considered the report; and if there is some useful information that I can give the noble Lord, I shall certainly ensure that that is done.

The noble Lord asked about the painting. This matter has received very thorough consideration both by your Lordships' advisory panel on works of art—in effect, a sub-committee of the Offices Committee—and the Offices Committee itself. Perhaps I may say at this point that I am very grateful indeed to the chairman of the advisory panel, the noble Earl, Lord Gowrie, and to the members for the exemplary work they have been undertaking on this matter.

There were two fundamental matters, among others, for consideration. Those were very much in the minds of the Offices Committee, the advisory panel and those who have been considering the question of the painting. The matter of the painting has, of course, been approved in principle by your Lordships. The considerations are, first, that it was thought very strongly by those concerned, and by a sizeable number of Members of your Lordships' House not directly involved in the arrangements, that the painting should be self-supporting, as indeed the painting was in another place, and that it would be wrong, particularly at this time and when other matters are in the public mind, for this to be in any way, other than for partial and absolutely necessary purposes, a drain on public funds. It was thought that that should not be done and that the painting should be self-supporting. I appreciate that that will not be wholly acceptable to everyone. The noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, has made a perfectly understandable point and he is not alone in his view. I am conscious of that. But it was felt that this would perhaps be the best way of meeting two rather essential criteria whereby the public were not put to expense other than for partial and absolutely inescapable purposes.

Perhaps I may revert to the figure, which I know is not a popular matter with the noble Lord, Lord Cocks. I should make it clear for the benefit of your Lordships that the figure proposed is not £130 but £150.

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, with regard to the painting, will the same arrangements be made as were made in 1962 for the painting by Alfred Thomson which hangs in the Cholmondeley Room? The placing of the figures was done through the usual channels, which seems to me the only fair way to do it. Can we therefore ensure that the number appearing in the painting is restricted to those who are regular attenders of the House?

I wish to make a small point about the bequest. It is a very generous bequest and I am so glad that it is to be used in the way proposed. However, I do object to the rather discourteous way in which the lady who left the money has been described. Could we not have found out her Christian name, or her husband's name, or how she wished to be described? I do deprecate the way she is described as "a Mrs Dearsley". I have come across this outside the House in connection with charitable bequests. It is a modern fashion which I deprecate. The House might begin to make a good example in this respect. I absolve the noble Lord himself whom we know to be the most courteous of Peers. But whoever wrote that description or was responsible for the information might be reminded about a more courteous way of describing people.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, on the noble Lord's second point, I thank him for his kind words about me. However, I see the draft report beforehand and therefore I would have had—indeed, did have—an opportunity to attend to the wording. Had I noticed the point I would certainly have taken what the noble Lord has said into account. I agree with him; there are better ways. I have no doubt that as this matter is carried forward a proper means will be found to express our warm thanks to Mrs. Dearsley. I am sure that we are all very grateful—and no doubt those in another place are as well—to Mrs. Dearsley for this bequest which will be for the benefit not only of the Palace but of people generally who will have the advantage of seeing these panels when they are eventually in place.

On the noble Lord's first point, he is correct that it is through the usual channels that these matters are being done. The particular additional point he mentioned will be taken into account.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I ask the indulgence of the House to use this occasion to draw the attention not only of the Offices Committee but of the Government themselves to the appalling acoustic conditions in some of the committee rooms upstairs. Anyone who has been a member of any of the Select Committees, no matter what kind they may be, is well aware of this. It is often quite difficult not only to hear witnesses, some of them from other countries; it is sometimes very difficult even to hear one's colleagues across the table. I am quite sure that they can always hear me, but that is another question.

The acoustic conditions in the committee rooms is a disgrace to Parliament—an absolute disgrace. There should be proper amplification facilities so that all witnesses can be heard and all the members of the Select Committees can be heard by one another. This has been mentioned in subterranean channels for a long time. I am sure that most members of Select Committees will entirely agree with me.

It is not as though it would cost a large sum of money. Perhaps I may address myself to the Government here. It would cost but a small fraction of the 16 per cent. of the European Parliament's expenditure on equipment where the lush facilities would be the envy of any Member of your Lordships' House or indeed another place. It should be possible to provide reasonably adequate facilities in the committee rooms upstairs. We should not have to apologise when, as happens quite frequently, people from abroad are giving evidence. It is most degrading to have to say, "Would you mind speaking up a little because the acoustic properties of this room are very bad?" They would not endure it in the European Parliament for 10 minutes. They would have a deputation to the various committees and next day workmen would be swarming all over the place in order to provide quite expensive facilities.

May I ask that this matter at last be given some attention? Even if it costs a small fraction of the annual sum that we waste in many quarters of the European Community, it is something we ought to do for our own honour and efficiency and for the perpetuation, we trust, of a decent form of audible democracy in our country.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, with your Lordships' leave, let me say that it is a blessing that we are never in any danger whatsoever of not hearing the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, on whatever matter it may be. I am in some difficulty here. I am in danger of transgressing the rules of order of your Lordships' House because the point raised by the noble Lord, does not feature in this report. I would be in grave danger of severe criticism were I to indulge in discussing all matters which did not arise on a particular report, but which were raised simply because they were not there.

Had I been able to remain within the terms of order, and had I—as I am always anxious to do—been able to assist the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, I would have said to him in those circumstances that we are all very conscious indeed of the difficulties as regards the acoustics in various parts of your Lordships' House, not least in the Committee Rooms and one in particular which the noble Lord has not mentioned; namely, the Moses Room. Extensive activities have taken place over the years to try to improve these matters. We know that some improvements have been made. I take the noble Lord's point. I cannot guarantee that we shall be able to put in further improvements or the volumes of money which the European Parliament might be able to put in. We shall look at what the noble Lord has said and see whether further improvements can be made in future.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge

My Lords, may I return for a moment—it is a long time since we discussed this point—to the matter raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, about buying a position in the picture? It seems to me to be an absolutely improper idea. I would like to be in the picture, but I would not dream of paying money to do so and I hope that nobody else will.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I have already explained that quite considerable attention has been given to this point. I sought to explain the way in which it arose. I know that your Lordships—including myself—are not invariably guided or persuaded by what happens in another place, but that is what happened there. We need to be very conscious of demands on public funds.

On Question, Motion agreed to.