Parliament (Joint Departments) Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee am ar 7 Mehefin 2007.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

[Mr. Mike Weir in the Chair]

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, Parliamentary Secretary 1:30, 7 Mehefin 2007

I beg to move,

That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommends that the Parliament (Joint Departments) Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second time.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Weir, and congratulate you on taking forward our discussions on a rather unusual parliamentary procedure. This is only the second routine Bill that has been the subject of a Second Reading Committee since the 1997 general election.

Hon. Members who have been selected for the Committee are therefore special; I know that there will be none of the usual reticence about serving on a Committee. I particularly welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North, who chairs the Administration Committee, other members of that Committee and the hon. Member for North Devon, who has an interest in the matter through his work on the House of Commons Commission.

The Bill derives not from the Government’s legislative programme, but from the decisions made by the Commission and the House Committee in the other place about how we manage our services. It is therefore a parliamentary Bill that is concerned with the machinery of government.

The most recent Bill in that field became the Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Act 1992, which provided the framework for the Clerks of each House to represent the Houses as the corporate officers who, because they represent corporate bodies in law, are able to own property and sign contracts in our interests. The Bill will build on the provisions of the 1992 Act to enable the two corporate officers to act jointly as the employers of staff in a service that would be shared by both Houses.

The background to the measure is that in 2004 the Commission and the House Committee of the other place decided to accept the key recommendations of the review led by the former Serjeant at Arms, Sir Michael Cummins, that the various fragmented units that provided information technology and telecommunications services to the Members and the departments of both Houses should be brought together into a single strategically led department that would be formally accountable to both Houses.

The new service, known as PICT—parliamentary information communication and technology—came into existence in January 2006 as a department of the House of Commons. The existing staff continued to be employed by either the House of Commons or the House of Lords and loaned to the House of Commons, pending the enactment of the Bill. The Bill will allow all the staff  of PICT to be employed on a fully joint basis and will make some necessary provisions connected with that.

The Bill is drafted more widely than that and provision is made for other joint departments to be created in the future, should the two Houses so decide. I stress that there are no such plans at the moment. However, given the rare opportunities to amend the legislative basis on which parliamentary services rest, it seems prudent to the authorities of both Houses to frame the current measure in more general terms that would enable further development, if appropriate, without the need for further legislation.

There would, of course, be broad consultation before any further joint departments were proposed. Such a decision would have to be endorsed by the Commission and I am sure that it would want to consult hon. Members more generally through the appropriate committees, as was the case with the Cummins review and PICT. That would also require the support and agreement of the other place.

Although the Bill is about the principle of joint departments and jointly employed staff, it is appropriate to comment on ICT services for Members because I suspect that many of us are more concerned about the quality and range of the services than the arrangements behind the scenes. Coincidentally, last month, we received the report and recommendations of the Administration Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North, which underlined how critically dependent we have become in recent years on information technology to support our work here in Westminster.

We are also becoming increasingly dependent on IT to connect us electronically with the public through our website and with our constituency offices through remote connections to the parliamentary network. The Administration Committee, at the beginning of its report, commented:

Information and Communications Technology (ICT) services have become critical to the work of Members of Parliament, and this importance can only increase.”

I do not wish to anticipate how the House may respond to the Administration Committee’s recommendations, but I note that the director of PICT and her colleagues worked very closely with the Committee during its inquiry and will continue to do so in implementing any decisions that are made in respect of those recommendations. I understand that the House authorities intend to respond to the Administration Committee’s report before the summer recess.

PICT has already started to make improvements to the services that it offers to Members. Since PICT came into existence on a provisional basis at the beginning of 2006, we have seen the completion of the roll-out of replacement desktop equipment to all Members, the resolution of a persistent problem that was affecting the quality of our virtual private network service, the offer of a personal digital assistant for Members who wish to have one, the extension of the wireless networks to new parts of the parliamentary estate and a significant reduction in the queue time for calls to the 2001 service desk. There has also been a marked improvement in the user training available to us and our staff, including the induction training to get our new staff started quickly on the network. Of course, there is much still to be done, particularly if we wish to  see the standard of network access and support that we now enjoy at Westminster extended to our constituency offices.

It makes no sense technically and economically for the two Houses to manage IT infrastructure separately, and in practice the two Houses have had shared assets and services in this area for many years. The Bill goes a step further in enabling us to employ the expert staff who manage and deliver those services on a joint basis.

Clause 1 sets out the powers that the corporate officers would have in connection with a joint department, including the power to hold land and other property and enter into contracts in connection with a joint department.

Clause 2 requires the corporate officers to exercise their functions jointly and sets out the key principle that in all matters affecting the creation of a joint department and the allocation of its major functions, the corporate officers would act only with the explicit approval of the House of Commons Commission and of the other place.

Members of this House and of the other place will have differing views from time to time about the extent to which it is appropriate and sensible that the two Houses should share services. Clause 2 ensures that the corporate officers can create new joint departments on our behalf only in areas where the two Houses agree to co-operate closely. Indeed, the corporate officers have also given assurances that when exercising their joint departmental functions that are not covered by clause 2(3) they would keep the Commission and the House Committee informed.

There was discussion during proceedings in the other place of the desirability of annual reports being made to each House on the work of a joint department, and the Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Amos, confirmed that such reports will be made to the House Committee from now on. I understand that the Clerk of the House, as corporate officer, will make a similar report annually to the House of Commons Commission. I have no doubt that our colleagues on the Administration Committee will keep a close eye on PICT and continue to monitor its services on our behalf.

Clause 3 establishes that the staff of the joint department will be appointed by the corporate officers, and employed by them under a contract of employment. At present, House of Commons staff are employed under the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978, which requires their pay and other conditions of services to be broadly in line with employees in the home civil service, and ensures that their pension is in line with the principal civil service pension scheme. The Bill applies exactly the same requirements to staff employed by the corporate officers in a joint department.

Clause 4 applies the schedule, which contains detailed measures to ensure that the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 apply to transfers of staff under the Bill, in so far as those regulations would not apply in any event. Clause 5 ensures that employment law that already applies to the staff of the two Houses separately would apply to the staff of a joint department.

House officials have, of course, consulted the recognised trade unions about the Bill. During those  consultations, assurances were given that the non-statutory Whitley Committee arrangements, which are well established in both Houses, will be extended to cover staff in a joint department. There will be further detailed consultation on all the practical matters that flow from the creation of joint employment status. I understand that the matter was again discussed, amicably, at the annual meeting of the House of Commons Whitley Committee last Monday.

This is a short and, I hope, non-contentious Bill. We have a tradition in the House of managing our own parliamentary services in a non-partisan spirit, and of looking after the interests of staff, who serve us with expertise and dedication, even at the most inconvenient hours of the day and night. Given our increasing dependency on IT services, it makes sense for the two Houses to collaborate more closely in this area. The Bill will enable us to do that; it safeguards the rights of our staff and extends to those who would work in a future joint department, the same protections enjoyed by employees of this House alone. I hope all parties will support the Bill.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 1:41, 7 Mehefin 2007

It is a privilege and a pleasure to be serving under you for the first time, Mr. Weir, particularly given the special significance of the Second Reading Committee pointed out by the Deputy Leader of the House.

We are having a Second Reading of this Bill in Committee because it is not Government-led, but House business and therefore non-contentious. We are all privileged to be partaking in such a Committee, not only because it does not often take place, but also because the Bill seeks fundamentally to change the way in which the House of Commons and the other place are run.

For years, both Houses have had separate administrations. We are now seeing an evolutionary process in the Palace of Westminster in that for the first time there will be a joint department. As the Deputy Leader of the House said, in the past there has been close co-operation between both Houses, but they have nevertheless maintained distinct units.

It is good that we will be blessed with the opinions of the hon. Members for Aberdeen, North and for North Devon. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to all staff in both Houses who serve us so well, and who often do not get the praise that they deserve. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

The Bill seeks to formalise something that initially started as nine separate information technology units. Those were later merged into a temporary working department. I understand that the Administration Committee looked very carefully into the working of the temporary department, and on the whole gave it its approval, while expressing some reservations about remote services to constituencies. I understand that that issue will be looked at further. The Bill makes provision for future joint departments to be set up without the need for another hearing. As the Deputy Leader of the House said, such joint departments are not currently envisaged, but that is clearly something that might happen; the proposed parliamentary visitor  centre, for example, or the refreshment departments, the Libraries or the Official Report.

I will take a moment to express the concerns of trade unions with regard to the Bill. I am heartened that before the joint department was set up, trade unions were fully consulted—as were the staff—and that any concerns they had were allayed. That being said, it is important to have on record that trade unions still have concerns regarding future joint departments. If those are set up, I very much hope that the trade unions and all staff concerned will be consulted properly and that everything is done in a proper manner to ensure that if redundancies and the like are envisaged, they are dealt with sensitively and carefully. I understand that the other place has stated specifically that it is not interested in a joint refreshment department. As the Deputy Leader of the House said, the Bill requires that both Houses must be in agreement and that such decisions must be debated on the Floor of the House in the other place.

Much that I would have said has already been covered and in the interests of brevity I am happy to conclude my comments by saying that we agree with the Bill and are happy to support it.

Photo of Frank Doran Frank Doran Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee 1:46, 7 Mehefin 2007

I welcome this important Bill and the comments made by both Front-Bench spokesmen about the Administration Committee’s report. As we all know, this is a general enabling Bill, but the focus is bound to be on PICT because it is that department that has led to the need for this legislation.

I will say a brief word about the Administration Committee because it is important in the context of the Bill, because its remit is quite wide. Since the 2005 general election, five domestic Committees have been merged into one, so the Administration Committee now covers virtually the whole territory. Any potential mergers or creation of joint working departments would therefore come within its area of interest.

I think that I can speak for my colleagues on the Administration Committee, many of whom are here, when I say that we welcome the legislation and the opportunities that it gives us. We have already had inquiries regarding the refreshments department—the issue under consideration being whether joint working could lead to better services and more economies of scale. Those are the sort of things that we will be able to discuss when the Bill has received Royal Assent.

It is fair to say that when the Administration Committee took over responsibility for PICT, there was a significant degree of dissatisfaction with the service provided to Members. Many on the Committee will be aware of those problems. The Administration Committee has worked closely with the new department, which was formed after that Committee was created, and I think that we now understand how PICT will operate in the future and we have dealt with most of the major problems. That is a credit to the PICT staff because they have had a difficult time adjusting to the new circumstances in which they found themselves. We have merged two substantial  departments, which provide services to the 646 small businesses in the Commons and however many use it in the Lords. In the main, we are prickly customers—we are very demanding—and PICT staff have worked very hard to deal with the issues raised and with the staff and management difficulties that such a merger creates.

PICT staff have also had to cope with the influx of a new kind of Member of Parliament since the 2005 election. I have been here long enough not to know very much about technology, but the people who came in at the last two elections have much higher expectations than we ever had—the grizzled hon. Members around me. Again, PICT staff have managed to cope with that. Another of our reports looked at the services provided for new Members of Parliament, and the next wave of new Members who come to this place, whenever the next general election is, will receive a much higher level of service, owing to work that is being undertaken at the moment.

I hope that anyone who takes the trouble to read the Administration Committee report on PICT will see that, although we pinpoint problems, we also look ahead while acknowledging the huge improvements that have been made, even in the short time since the new organisation was created. That is testament to the work that has been done by the management and the service.

Finally, I welcome the legislation, as it is part of the process of modernising the Houses of Parliament, which some of us feel is long overdue.

Photo of Nick Harvey Nick Harvey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 1:51, 7 Mehefin 2007

It is my pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North. I pay tribute to him and to his Committee for the work that they have done since the five domestic Committees were brought together in giving a lead in all the areas that they are now covering. I am happy to echo the support for the Bill that we have heard from those on the Government and Conservative Front Benches. The measure is very necessary and one that I am only too pleased to support.

An outsider looking in at the Palace of Westminster and at what are relatively small organisations would, in all honesty, be rather surprised by the extent to which the provision of services to the two Houses is conducted in a state of complete separation from each other. There is scope for a lot more joint working than there has been to date. That is something that can, and probably will, happen at a natural pace.

It is not surprising that we have been brought to the point of considering a joint department Bill because of ICT. ICT needs are fast-changing, and trying to sustain two, or—as hon. Members have commented—as many as nine or 10 different ICT units within the two Houses does not make sense. Therefore, I welcome the creation of PICT. I acknowledge readily that there are still problems with the ICT function, that there probably always will be and that there are in any organisation.

Bringing the support service together into one can only help, and I think that it has helped. I pay tribute to the work of those involved in PICT and I believe that it will continue to improve the services that Members of both Houses receive as time goes on. The Administration Committee recently surveyed hon. Members views on  the provision of ICT, as we have heard, and it is the determination of the House of Commons Commission that hon. Members’ concerns will be addressed and that anything that can be put right, will be.

When the decision was taken that it would be desirable to create a joint ICT department, I was astonished to discover that that would need primary legislation, and a certain amount of ad hocery has governed the arrangement over the past couple of years. It was staggering to me that amalgamating two administrative departments would require the national legislature to make time available to pass primary legislation. That is why I applaud those who have introduced a generic Bill that will enable such changes to happen in future, without the need to make time available in the legislative agenda each time that we might want to do this, rather than a Bill simply to combine the two ICT departments.

Speaking entirely personally, I believe there is great scope for more joint working, but there should not be a stampede towards it: these things should happen at a natural pace and we will visit the issues from time to time. The only departments that would be wholly unsuited to joint administration are the Clerks departments; when the two Houses are in disagreement with each other they must each have the service of an independent and separate team of Clerks to deal with the political and constitutional aspects of the matter. However, in principle there seems no reason why other departments could not operate together in the fullness of time.

As we heard from the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire, Members of the other House seem curiously attached to their current catering arrangements and, specifically, to their menus, but perhaps that will not always be so. In any case, the creation of joint departments would have to have the assent of both Houses. However, catering, Hansard, and—why not?—Library services and others could all be operated on a joint basis. As I said, nothing should be done to create a stampede in that direction; these things should happen at a natural pace.

The trade unions have expressed their concern, but I hope that as far as possible those concerns have been allayed, and that the unions are satisfied with the assurances that have been given. It is absolutely the determination of the House of Commons Commission that no staff of either House should lose out in consequence of the proposal. They have the statutory protections of the TUPE regulations and the commitment that negotiations with the trade unions will carry on in the existing way. However, I say firmly on the record, that the House of Commons Commission and, I am sure, all hon. Members, are determined that the staff of the House should not be disadvantaged in any way.

This sensible and necessary Bill is the result of an enlightened decision, and I commend it to the Committee.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Llafur, North Durham 1:56, 7 Mehefin 2007

I, too, rise to support the Bill, which brings us from the 19th to the 20th century, although not quite into the 21st century in the way that matters are organised in this place.

I am relatively new to the House, having been a Member for only six years. When I first arrived, I was  amazed to be told by someone from PICT that I had a House of Lords computer. When I asked how he could tell, he replied, “Because the tick in the left-hand corner is red and it should be green.” When I asked what on earth difference it would make to the operation of the machine, he said, “None whatsoever. But we will have to get you a new computer because you have a House of Lords one.”

That is the nonsense we are dealing with at present and I agree with the hon. Member for North Devon that people outside this place just cannot understand it and they have a vested interest in what is done here. As legislators, we are, rightly, under increasing scrutiny and we must remember that taxpayers’ money is being spent. The idea that just because things have always been done in a certain way that is how they should continue to be done is crazy.

I did not agree with the hon. Member for North Devon that these things should be done by evolution, or natural progression. There needs to be a stampede; when the Bill is passed, we should take a radical look at how the two Houses operate

I take catering as an example. The Administration Committee carried out an inquiry into the catering services in this House. The other place wants to keep its catering services separate. It would be thought ludicrous to put an artificial invisible line down the centre of a local government building and to run catering in different ways at each end of that building, but that is the situation that came to light in this House.

Although there is now more joint working of both Houses on procurement, I had to laugh when I saw that a deal had been done on dry goods and certain vegetables but that other products were excluded. It must cost the taxpayer a fortune not to take advantage of the economies of scale in joint procurement.

Likewise there is another issue that we are under a lot of scrutiny about all the time, and that is subsidy. In catering, for example, we are being told that it costs the taxpayers to feed us as Members of Parliament. However, when someone tries to find out how the subsidy is worked out, there is great difficulty, because Members of the House of Lords can eat in our cafeterias; I remind them occasionally that we cannot eat in certain parts of the House of Lords. I also ask some of them, “How much subsidy are you taking up?” That is the ludicrous situation that we are in. We cannot really bottom down explain to the public exactly what this place is costing, because of the archaic way in which it is organised.

The system does need looking at radically. Certainly, catering is one department that could make significant savings in terms of staffing, including senior management, but also in procurement and other areas. There is another issue. This process is not just about taxpayers getting value for money from this place, but about disputes. One dispute that took up some time in our Committee last year was that involving the cleaning services. In our House, the cleaning services are contracted out, but they are not contracted out in the other place. So there is a situation whereby people in the same building are on different terms and conditions, and that is absolutely crazy. Again, the idea that there is one building with different people doing the same job but on different terms and conditions is absolute nonsense. Also, in areas such as training and trying to get more professional  staff, surely bringing people together on joint training budgets is the obvious way forward.

I very much welcome this process for PICT, but I would also like to see something done very quickly seriously to address the powers that the Bill gives both Houses to merge other departments, with the exception of the Clerks department. I also think that we could not only get things done more efficiently, but it would make it a lot easier in terms of explaining to the taxpayer about value for money.

Photo of Paddy Tipping Paddy Tipping PPS (Rt Hon Jack Straw, Lord Privy Seal), Leader of the House of Commons, Parliamentary Secretary 12:00, 7 Mehefin 2007

Let me reply very briefly. I should like to thank all the Members who have spoken in support of the Bill. I also thank the Administration Committee for its very useful report, and its hard work, diligence and enthusiasm. As I say, the Commission will seek to respond before the recess.

I should also like to thank the staff of PICT; this has been a period of great change for them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North has said, a great deal has been achieved, but there is much more to be done. The survey of House of Commons services, which was published this week, shows that generally services are good and highly regarded by both  Members and staff, but PICT is an area where there is still need for improvement and change.

Let me make it clear that at this stage there are no plans for further mergers, but I have heard the views of Members clearly and there is real potential for further work. Plans will be put forward and there will be consultation on them.

The remaining issue is the timetable for change. The hon. Member for North Devon told us that change should take place at its natural pace. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham advocated a stampede for change, but he admitted that we have moved from the 19th to the 20th century.

The Palace of Westminster takes a long view of history and those modernisers who want change will have to campaign hard and vigorously, and we are talking here today about only a very small area of change. There is a much wider debate, which will not be long in coming now, about the relationship and composition of the two Houses. That matter is controversial and I will shy away from it now.

Question put and agreed to.


That the Chairman do now report to the House that the Committee recommends that the Parliament (Joint Departments) Bill [Lords] ought to be read a Second Time.

Committee rose at three minutes past Two o’clock.