HL Deb 08 April 1998 vol 588 cc757-62

3.8 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 93).—(The Chairman of Committees.)

Following is the report referred to: The Committee has met and been attended by the Clerk of the Parliaments and the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod. 1. Filming and Broadcasting in the House The Committee agreed to co-operate with a proposal from BBC News and Current Affairs to produce a documentary on the work of the House. Subject to the satisfactory conclusion of negotiations on guidelines, the BBC will commence filming in the general areas of the House shortly after the Easter recess. 2. Message Handling The Committee endorsed proposals to implement the message handling project. Lords may now be provided with pagers, voicemail facilities and a fully integrated message handling system will be in place by the end of the year. 3. Access to the Terrace The Committee agreed to allow Lords staff to use the Terrace of the House during recesses and after 3 p.m. on non-sitting Fridays. This arrangement will be reviewed in the Autumn. 4. MEPs' access to the Peers' Guest Room The Committee agreed to extend for the remainder of the Parliament the arrangement, first granted in 1991, whereby MEPs may use the Guest Room. 5. Works of Art Collection Fund The Committee were informed that, following Treasury approval, the Finance and Staff Sub-Committee had agreed to increase the annual grant from the Works Services Vote to the Works of Art Collection Fund from £15.000 to £28,000 with effect from the financial year 1998–99. 6. Salaries of the Chairman and the Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees The Committee approved revised salaries for the Chairman and the Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees with effect from 1st April 1998. 7. Staff of the House The Committee agreed to make permanent the post of Senior Information Officer.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I should like to make reference to a few items in the report. The first is item No. 1, headed "Filming and Broadcasting in the House". It is a particularly odd coincidence that this should arise in the week when the new schedules of the BBC come into operation—as regards this House, I believe they will come into operation after the Recess—which impinge upon the reporting of "Today in Parliament" and "Yesterday in Parliament". A large section of the public will be denied the reports that they have received in the past. There will be a halving of the audience for our proceedings and the proceedings of the House of Commons.

That will be the case in spite of objections and recommendations made by the House of Commons and, I believe, by this House that the arrangements we have had hitherto should continue because they have proved effective and popular. I believe that the new arrangements, which will not suit many people, are not only a slap in the face for Parliament itself, which will not be as well reported and whose views have been ignored, but also a slap in the face for those staff who over a long period of time have made "Today in Parliament" and "Yesterday in Parliament" interesting and informative for the million or so people who have listened every day.

I believe that the BBC is treating Parliament, perhaps not with contempt but with near contempt. The proposal for a BBC documentary is not per se objectionable to me. If it were properly done I would welcome it, as I think would all Members of the House. But we want it properly done. We want the programme to show the real and essential role of the House in the work of Parliament and government, and the effort which is put in by all of your Lordships—virtually free of charge, if I may say so—with great dedication.

I make that point because, like other noble Lords, I have a long memory. I remember the awful programme made by Channel 4—a parody of the work of this House which is well respected throughout the country. The programme sought to mock the institution and its Members. I expect a better programme from the BBC than from Channel 4, but I hope that the Chairman of Committees will ensure that the programme reveals the real work of the House of Lords and its value to the community it serves.

My second question concerns paragraph 4, which is entitled, MEPs' access to the Peers' Guest Room". The paragraph concerns a proposal to extend the arrangement first granted in 1991. Noble Lords will be pleased to know that I am not suggesting that we should end the arrangement. It has existed for a fairly long time. However, I point out that those facilities are not available to Members of the House of Commons who, I feel, would occasionally like to use the facilities in the Guest Room. What reciprocal arrangements exist for this House when Parliament sits in plenary Session, or perhaps in other places in the European Union? That is a fair question to ask. I hope that I shall be given an answer. After all, the European Union has spent £670 million—of which £100 million is British taxpayers' money—to build a huge new complex in Brussels. It may well be that we could expect some reciprocal arrangements there. That £670 million perhaps puts into proper perspective the amount of money that is spent on these parliamentary buildings to maintain in proper order the great heritage of this British nation. I hope that my noble friend will be able to answer those two questions.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I wish to refer to the same item as my noble friend Lord Stoddart. Under the heading "Filming and Broadcasting in the House" I observe that the whole matter is subject, to the satisfactory conclusion of negotiations on guidelines". I and, I suspect, other noble Lords would like to be informed of the result of the negotiations on guidelines, and to be informed fully as to the guidelines. I hope I shall be informed that proposals will not be implemented until the House as a whole has had the opportunity to consider these matters.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I had not intended to speak in this debate but something that my noble friend Lord Stoddart mentioned prompts me to rise. I believe he suggested that the facilities that we extend to Members of the European Parliament to access our Guest Room should also be extended to Members of the other place. We should bear in mind that those Members of your Lordships' House who were previously Members of the other place have access to the Strangers' Bar in the other place. That is not the case as regards those of us who are not former Members of the other place. I hope that the Chairman of Committees will consider carefully further extensions as regards access to our Guest Room for other parliamentarians.

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I shall respond first to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, and also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, as regards access for MEPs. I cannot give the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, a definitive reply on the question of whether there are reciprocal arrangements. However, I shall certainly inquire into the matter and let him know.

The noble Lords, Lord Stoddart of Swindon and Lord Bruce of Donington, asked about the filming. Your Lordships' committees which dealt with this matter—that is to say, the Administration and Works Sub-Committee and the Offices Committee—were conscious of the problems which arose over the Channel 4 documentary, "Cutting Edge", and the regrettable way in which that programme dealt with your Lordships' House. I believe that it caused considerable offence in all parts of your Lordships' House at the time. Being conscious of what happened then, your Lordships' committees were anxious to avoid any repetition.

As regards the invitation to BBC News and Current Affairs to undertake the documentary, we have nothing to do with the choice in that regard as that is a matter for the BBC; it is not, of course, commissioned by your Lordships' House. However, the BBC certainly appears to your Lordships' committees to have approached the matter in a responsible and serious way and with the intention of properly covering your Lordships' House. That is easy to say, but we need to make certain of it.

It is for that reason that your Lordships' committees decided that a series of guidelines should be agreed between any broadcasting organisation—the BBC in this case—and your Lordships' committees to ensure that the programme is carried out properly. Those guidelines are very strict. A supervisory group has been set up consisting of the Chief Whips of your Lordships' House—Government, Opposition and Liberal Democrat—and a representative of the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers. I too sit on that group. We are assisted by the Clerk of the Parliaments, by Black Rod, by your Lordships' Senior Information Officer, Mrs. Mary Morgan, and by David Batt, the Clerk to the two committees I have mentioned. It is the view of your Lordships' committees that, if any broadcasting organisation will not sign up to the strict guidelines laid down, facilities should not be granted.

There is no way in which we could stop a broadcasting organisation from doing any programme it chose to do, of course. However, if it wishes to have suitable facilities to enable it to do the work better and properly, it must be on the basis of signing up to strict guidelines. The supervisory group which I have mentioned will make certain of that.

The broadcasting producer and his or her assistants will be escorted around the House of Lords part of the Palace of Westminster by Mr. David Batt. They will be accompanied by an officer of the House at all times. Mrs. Mary Morgan will herself take a close interest in the matter. I hope that that provides your Lordships with some reassurance. All who have been involved in these considerations believe that what is proposed is absolutely necessary to make sure that this time we are not let down.

On the question of access for MEPs, which revives a privilege granted by your Lordships previously, I shall bear in mind what the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, said about Members of another place.

The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, mentioned the question of comparative costs as between the new European parliamentary building and the House of Lords. That point is not referred to in the report and so, strictly speaking, I suppose I should not reply to it. However, since the matter has been raised and this may be the only opportunity for some time to refer to it, I sense that your Lordships would wish to give me a moment's indulgence to reply to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord was referring, of course, to the residence of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. I sympathise very much with what he said. I hold no brief for the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, nor indeed for any other Minister, nor, for that matter, for any Member of the Front Benches in your Lordships' House or for the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers, of whose flock I am one, at least for the time being while serving your Lordships. However, I am bound to say that I believe that the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack has come in for a good deal of unfair and at times grotesque criticism from various quarters. In fact, I get the impression from a good many of the reports which I have read or heard that it was he who made the decisions about the refurbishment. Your Lordships well know that that is not the case. The decisions were made by the committees of your Lordships' House and were recommended to your Lordships on 30th July last year. As a member of those committees—in fact I chair the two that I have mentioned—I have begun to resent the fact that the credit has gone, not to the committees, but to the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack.

The refurbishment has been splendidly done; I inspected it on behalf of your Lordships on Monday last. A criticism was raised that it was all being done in one go, and it was said in some reports that it was the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack who required that. That is not so. As a matter of fact, he was willing to have it done in stages. I must confess to your Lordships that it was I who recommended to your Lordships' committees—a recommendation subsequently endorsed by your Lordships—that the work should be done all together, in one go. If the work had been done in two stages, it would have meant two lots of upheavals. It would have meant bringing in equipment on two occasions and taking it out on two occasions. It would have meant bringing in the workforce on two occasions and taking them out again. Your Lordships will not he surprised to know that I made the recommendation on the basis of expert advice from the Parliamentary Directorate of Works. It is obvious that doing it in one go costs less.

With regard to costs, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, perhaps I may say the following, which I wish your Lordships to be the first to hear. Although I cannot give a final figure, the overall cost of the refurbishment will be below the original estimate recommended to your Lordships on 30th July last year.

Perhaps I may make a final point with regard to the paintings. I do not know why the media have taken so long to get round to the question of paintings and other works of art in the residence of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. I felt privileged, with his approval, to make the announcement about the paintings to your Lordships on 30th July last year. Why it has taken the media almost half a year to latch on to that I simply do not know. When I was a broadcasting journalist at the BBC between 1957 and 1964 we took pride in getting our news out fast—commensurate with accuracy. It is not as it was in my day—

I believe that that is all I have to say. I feel much better now. To put it another way, as the late Mr. Gillie Potter said when I was debating with him in the University of London Union in 1954 and misguidedly interrupted his speech rather vigorously, "Well, that's better out than in". I beg to move.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I apologise to the House for returning to this point, but may I take it from what the noble Lord said that the House will have an opportunity of approving the guidelines on the filming and broadcasting proposals outlined in paragraph 1? Can the House as a whole be given the particulars before the guidelines are approved?

The Chairman of Committees

My Lords, that is not the recommendation from your Lordships' Offices Committee. It has specially set up the group, the members of which I mentioned, to supervise the guidelines. The guidelines have to be negotiated. If the group fails to reach agreement with the BBC, there are other good, serious and responsible contenders who would wish to step into any shoes left vacant. I invite your Lordships to agree that these matters require some negotiation. I take the noble Lord's point. But it would be rather awkward to conduct negotiations of that kind across the Floor of the House. Knowing who is involved, I hope that your Lordships will feel confident that the matter will be dealt with in the way your Lordships would wish.

On Question, Motion agreed to.