HL Deb 06 June 1996 vol 572 cc1363-6

3.38 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham)

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

Moved, That the third report from the Select Committee be agreed to (HL Paper 83).—(The Chairman of Committees.)

Following is the report referred to:

1. AVAILABILITY OF PAPERS IN CD-ROM FORM The committee agreed to accept the laying of the appendices to the Scott Report in CD-ROM form. Two paper copies of the 24-volume appendices would be available for examination by Lords in the Library, and the CD-ROM would be accessible through the PDVN. In addition, it was agreed that the Library would introduce a loan service of CD-ROMs of government and parliamentary papers. 2. ACCOMMODATION FOR BLACK ROD The committee approved the purchase of a flat outside the Palace for Black Rod. 3. X-RAY SCREENING OF MAIL AND DELIVERED ITEMS The committee agreed to the introduction of X-ray screening facilities for mail delivered to the Palace of Westminster. The cost will be shared with the Commons in the ratio 78:22, Commons: Lords. 4. REGULATIONS FOR PHOTOGRAPHY, FILMING, SOUND RECORDING, PAINTING, SKETCHING AND MOBILE TELEPHONES The committee approved the issuing of new regulations for photography, filming, sound recording, painting, sketching and mobile telephones in the Palace of Westminster. 5. CD-ROM OF THE PALACE OF WESTMINSTER Subject to satisfactory negotiations, the committee agreed to allow a commercial company to make an interactive CD-ROM of the Palace of Westminster which would focus on the historical and architectural aspects of the Palace. 6. FACILITIES FOR THE DISABLED IN THE PALACE OF WESTMINSTER: PROPOSED TACTILE MODEL The committee approved the purchase of a tactile model of the Palace of Westminster to aid partially sighted visitors to Parliament. The model would be placed at an appropriate point on the line of route, probably in the Robing Room or the Royal Gallery. 7. FIRE PROCEDURES The committee agreed to proposals to paint red lines on the road surface from Black Rod's Garden to the inner courts to aid access for the fire services; and agreed to a proposal to hold a fire practice. 8. 1996 PAY Following HM Treasury's delegation of pay and grading of staff at Grades 6 and below to departments from 1 April, the committee took note with approval of the pay offer to House of Lords staff for 1996. The paybill cost will be 4.99 per cent. 9. LORDS REIMBURSEMENT ALLOWANCES The committee was informed of the annual up-rating of the motor mileage allowance in line with the increase in the retail price index. From 1 April 1996, the rate of motor mileage allowance was increased by 1.2 pence to 47.2 pence for the first 20,000 miles for the period to 31 March 1997. Further mileage in this period would be payable at the rate of 21.7 pence per mile.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, I confine my remarks to paragraph 2 of the report: accommodation for Black Rod. The committee approved the purchase of a flat outside the Palace for Black Rod. I had the opportunity of speaking to Black Rod before the House assembled and was able to assure him that I raised this matter entirely without animus towards him personally and that I was full of admiration for him. Some time ago I asked one of the very senior members of the Offices Committee why Black Rod and the Yeoman had flats within the Palace. I was told that it was a matter of security and it was absolutely essential that they were on the premises in case of emergency or some incident occurring. I am sure I will be told that the House approved this on 5th April 1995 when it considered the Second Report of the 1994-95 Session. I quote the last passage dealing with accommodation: alternative residential accommodation for Black Rod and the Yeoman Usher in the vicinity of the Palace". I must confess a lack of vigilance on my part, because I did not pursue this matter having had that previous assurance about security. I felt that the phrase "within the vicinity of the Palace" must mean somewhere within the confines. I never for one moment imagined that premises were being sought outside.

We should not proceed with this. There is a particularly pertinent reason why. On Monday your Lordships discussed the Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill. During the course of that debate a large number of contributions were made from all sides of the House which touched upon the likely effect of the sale to developers of the married quarters estate. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Bramall, mentioned all those contributions and said that the situation could lead to a national disgrace.

Can your Lordships imagine the comments being made in the barrack rooms and mess rooms when our service personnel, who have this corrosive fear about the roof over their heads, hear that your Lordships' House is sanctioning the expenditure of £385,000 to purchase a flat for one of the staff? It is not just a purchase price of that nature, but there is an on-going revenue cost of £5,000 a year in service charges. I do not wish to be too harsh on the authorities: there must have been an absolutely savage negotiation to get the price down to £385,000, because the asking price was £390,000.

We are supposed to set an example here. How do we tell the bus driver and the nurse paying tax that their money is going on this accommodation? If I were a service wife worried about the prospects—whatever the merits or demerits of the Government's proposals—I should not feel very comforted if I read about this.

Measures of this type are always justified in your Lordships' House, because it is said that we are making more space available for your Lordships. We hear that refrain so often that I wonder how on earth the House has managed to cope with its business over the years until now. That phrase is being used to justify everything that is happening. It has become some sort of formula which has only to be mumbled for the House to give carte blanche to whatever is proposed.

I do not believe that this House is so selfish and demanding that our own needs preclude every other consideration. The effect of this decision, when it becomes widely known throughout the services, will be extremely bad. That is quite apart from the effect on the general public. I ask the Chairman of Committees whether at this late stage the committee might take the matter back and have another look at it.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I hope that the Chairman of Committees will not agree to look at this matter again. It has been looked at over a substantial period of time by an all-party committee of this House. The accommodation requirements of Black Rod and the Yeoman Usher are well known. It is clearly necessary in the interests of the House that they should have accommodation within the House or close to it. This proposal ensures that Black Rod will have accommodation close to the House, which is, as I have said, highly desirable in itself.

All I would say to the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, is that those, like him and myself, who have access to a room in this House should not perhaps be so dismissive of those who do not have accommodation of their own in the House. Black Rod has agreed to move fairly expeditiously to make accommodation available within the House to working Peers. It seems to me that the price of the accommodation that has been negotiated has not been unreasonable, given the price of accommodation in this area. That being so, I very much hope that the Chairman of Committees will maintain the committee's position.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, for having warned me well in advance that he proposed to raise this matter today. I shall try to deal with the points that he has raised and those raised by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. I understand the proposal made by the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, but I should let your Lordships know at the outset that I shall be seeking to obtain your Lordships' approval for this report of the Offices Committee. So that neither the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe, nor your Lordships generally, are under any misapprehension, I should say that I am not defending this policy; I am advocating it, because I believe that it is right.

As the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, said, it stems partly from a decision of your Lordships' House of 5th April last year on the recommendation of the Offices Committee Report of 28th March last year. Your Lordships' House approved this policy. I should like to remind your Lordships of one or two fundamental points in connection with it. The first is that for many years your Lordships' House has provided accommodation for Black Rod and the Yeoman Usher. That has therefore been a cost to public funds. They have hitherto, and up until now, been accommodated within the Palace of Westminster. That must be an expensive way of dealing with the matter.

What we have a duty to do, and what your Lordships' committees have sought to do, is to make the best use of the accommodation within the Palace of Westminster. That leads me to my second fundamental point which has been in the minds not just of your Lordships but of the committees—that is, there has over the past years, particularly in recent years, been increasing pressure to find additional space within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster for your Lordships, Members of the House, and the staff of the House. If the House is to continue with its public duty of serving the nation in the way that it seeks to do, it must ensure that provision is made for Members and key staff within the Palace of Westminster.

I am grateful, and I know that the committees are too, to Black Rod and the Yeoman Usher. First—I believe this partly answers one of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe—they are among the hardest working public servants within the realm. They are tied to this place. They work very long hours indeed. It would not be right for them to cease to be provided with accommodation, if not within the Palace of Westminster, then within very easy reach of it. That is if your Lordships accept this Motion.

One of the reasons why there has been increasing pressure in your Lordships' House to find accommodation for Members and for staff is that the work has been increasing. It has increased tremendously. It is right that people outside the House should be well aware of what is the precise position. As your Lordships will know, it is that this is the second hardest working parliamentary Chamber in the world. It is beaten only by another place which is the longest sitting parliamentary Chamber in the world. Your Lordships' House is the second longest sitting Chamber. With that, and with the number of your Lordships who come frequently and in many cases, contribute regularly to the work of your Lordships' House, they deserve attention.

I am grateful to Black Rod and the Yeoman Usher. I know that the committees are too. This decision stemmed from a decision of your Lordships' House, and all the short-listed applicants for Black Rod's post, when we appointed our Black Rod last year, were told that this move was in the offing. Neither Black Rod nor the Yeoman Usher has waited to be pressed as a result of the decisions of your Lordships' Committee. In fact, over these past months they have taken upon themselves the initiative to pursue that decision. That is very good indeed.

The noble Lord, Lord Cocks, also referred to security. I understand the anxiety about that matter and I am not surprised it has been raised—indeed, I should have been disappointed if the point about security had not been raised. All matters which your Lordships believe to be relevant in considering this proposed move were taken into account and security was one such matter. Neither Black Rod nor the Yeoman Usher, in view of their considerable background, is short of an experience or two in relation to considering security matters.

Therefore, for all those reasons, I have no hesitation whatever in recommending to your Lordships, after the most thorough consideration by your Lordships' committee, that the Motion should be agreed to, including that aspect of policy.

On Question, Motion agreed to.