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30. Mr. Cohen: To ask the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission what resources are made available by the Public Accounts Commission for the National Audit Office to audit the accounts of the Department of Transport.
Sir Peter Hordern (Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission): The National Audit Office budget of £36.5 million for 1994-95 includes provision for financial audit of the Department of Transport, its executive agencies and its sponsored bodies and for value-for-money investigations. The forward investigation programme of the NAO is a matter for the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee.
Mr. Cohen: I thank the Chairman for that answer. May I ask him to have a look at the audit procedures in relation to the Department of Transport's spending on private detectives to spy on anti-road protestors? As far as I understand it, it initially thought that that spending was ultra vires, then subsequently allowed the Treasury to approve it retrospectively. Surely, no one else in the public sector--for example, councillors--would be
Column 1389allowed to approve retrospectively expenditure which was regarded as ultra vires. Surely that is dubious audit practice, which should be looked at.
Sir Peter Hordern: I will ask the Comptroller and Auditor General to have a look at the point that the hon. Gentleman raises, but, as I understand it, the Department of Transport has introduced revised contract procedures and the Treasury Solicitor will be approached and asked for advice as to whether detective agencies should be hired and who would be responsible for appointment of such agencies. I understand that that is the position. If the hon. Gentleman would care to write to me, I shall try to let him have further information.
31. Mr. Win Griffiths: To ask the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission if he will make more funds available for the National Audit Office to extend its oversight of bodies falling within the ambit of the Department for Education.
Sir Peter Hordern: The National Audit Office budget of £36.5 million for 1994-95 includes provisions for financial and value-for-money audits at the Department for Education. The Comptroller and Auditor General has access rights to all universities. He is also the auditor of the funding councils established in 1993 for higher education and for further education in England, Scotland and Wales. A report on the financial health of higher education institutions in England was published earlier this month. Under the Education Act 1993, the Comptroller and Auditor General has access rights to grant-maintained schools and is required to report on his work annually to Parliament. The first report under those arrangements was published in August.
Mr. Griffiths: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply, speedy though it was, perhaps of necessity. Will he ask the National Audit Office to provide more funds so that grant-maintained schools can be audited more effectively? Under the present arrangements--it is made clear in the report to which the right hon. Gentleman referred--19 out of 20 grant-maintained schools were noted to have financial weaknesses. Three of them had qualified opinions from their own auditors. In Wales, serious reservations have been expressed about the book keeping of about half a dozen grant-maintained schools. Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the NAO provides more money, or perhaps gets the Audit Commission involved, as it is in so many aspects of local government?
Sir Peter Hordern: As for the NAO and the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Public Accounts Committee is satisfied with the forward programme and with its budgets. I understand that the PAC has a forward programme for the investigation of several topics. Perhaps I might write to the Chairman of the PAC, who I see in his place, to draw his attention to the hon. Gentleman's remarks.
Column 1390made by the Commission, to improve the access into Westminster Hall for disabled people via St. Stephen's entrance; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. A. J. Beith (on behalf of the House of Commons Commission): No financial provision has been made to improve access to Westminster Hall for disabled people via St. Stephen's entrance because arrangements are made for access via Carriage Gates and New Palace Yard. A stairlift gives access to the Grand Committee Room, and other levels in the Palace can be reached via Star Chamber Court and the No. 1 lift. The Accommodation and Works Committee is currently considering schemes to improve access for the disabled, and a number of schemes have been included in the programme of works for next year.
Mr. Cox: Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that that reply will be received with utter disgust in the House and throughout the country? Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that there are many people who have problems with walking, irrespective of age, who make their way into Westminster Hall via St. Stephen's entrance? Is he further aware that there are 24 extremely steep steps either to climb down or to climb up, which present enormous problems to many people? It is unbelievable, as we approach the 1995, that the Mother of Parliament cannot afford to provide proper access for disabled people. Will the right hon. Gentleman discuss the importance of such provision with his colleagues?
Mr. Beith: I understand that what has persuaded the hon. Gentleman's colleagues and others who are members of the Accommodation and Works Committee to make access for disabled people--it is not available for other members of the public--via Carriage Gates is the practical difficulty of providing good access for the disabled through St. Stephen's entrance, for the very reason that he has given. If the hon. Gentleman has thought of a solution to the problem, I suggest that he directs it to the members of the Accommodation and Works Committee.
Mr. Cormack: Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell), the said Committee has spent hours discussing the matter? One of the problems that we must face is that, when this historic building was built, it was not equipped, obviously, for access for the disabled. We must reconcile keeping the building and allowing proper access to it.
Mr. Beith: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making the point clear. The Commission has shown no hesitation in making financial provision for whatever improvements to assist access for the disabled which its Committees recommend to it.
34. Mr. Campbell-Savours: To ask the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee when financial provision will be made for a live feed of proceedings to be provided to hon. Members in their offices.
Column 1391the works services estimates. By the end of the 1995 summer recess, I estimate that about 550 Members will be able to receive the live feed.
35. Mr. Tony Banks: To ask the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon- Tweed representing the House of Commons Commission, what further plans he has for expenditure on additional Christmas trees in the vicinity of Parliament.
I am grateful to whoever was responsible for the tasteful tree in Westminster Hall, with its multi-coloured twinkling lights. I must tell the right hon. Gentleman, however, that it is not properly dressed. There is no fairy at the top and there are no balls on it, although the Government have dropped so many this year that the tree could have been covered with them from top to bottom.
We could also have a Santa Claus grotto in Westminster Hall, with the Prime Minister sitting in it saying, "Ho, ho, ho" and handing out peerages, knighthoods and places on quangos to his friends in the City. If we are going to go down the pan in this country, let us at least go down the pan with a bit of fun and in the appropriate festive mood.
Mr. Channon: It is abundantly clear that the hon. Gentleman is in an extremely festive mood. If he has some serious suggestions about where there should be more Christmas trees, naturally I will ask my Committee to consider them.
Berwick-upon-Tweed, representing the House of Commons Commission, if he will list the staffing levels in (a) security, (b) health and safety and (c) works in each of the last three years.
Mr. Beith: The figures for staffing levels for the three years 1991- 92, 1992-93 and 1993-94 requested by the hon. Gentleman are as follows: security staff 421, 415 and 407 respectively; health and safety two, two and two and the works directorate 184, 181 and 103. In addition, there are a number of other staff whose duties involve aspects of security or health and safety.
Mr. Steen: Is it not true that there are now three buzz words-- safety, security and hygiene? If one mentions any of those words in the Palace of Westminster, the people with the public purse get glazed eyes, reach for their wallet and are immediately prepared to shell out whatever money is asked for under those three heads. Should we look into the working practices in the Palace of Westminster and consider bringing in one of the better management consultant firms to examine whether this place is overmanned, whether there are too many people
Column 1392in security and administration and whether we could save money in the Palace of Westminster to show that we set standards in this place which others can follow?
Mr. Beith: Whenever accidents occur in any of the three sectors to which the hon. Gentleman refers, the form of questioning to which those who are responsible in any organisation are subjected is quite different from the question that the hon. Gentleman has asked today. The House of Commons Commission, as an employer, must have regard to the safety of its employees in all those respects. However, at the same time, it seeks to pursue cost- effectiveness, and the staff inspector's work assisted in that. Where appropriate, it takes outside advice.
38. Mr. Ian Bruce: To ask the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee what plans he has to finance the expansion of the parliamentary data and video network; and when hon. Members will be able to input data on to the network.
Mr. Channon: Following approval by the House of the Information Committee's report on the parliamentary data and video network on 30 June, the Finance and Services Committee and the House of Commons Commission have approved the necessary funding for the installation of the full PDVN. Members can input data into the network immediately they become users.
Mr. Bruce: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will any finance be available to provide inputting devices on to the network and to allow the use of the network for parliamentary papers and other information, which would cut down on the enormous printing bills in this place and, perhaps, save a few Christmas trees for the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks)?
Mr. Channon: My hon. Friend has raised an important and interesting point, about which I think that I had better write to him. The whole question of printing needs careful study and I shall consider my hon. Friend's suggestion.
Mr. Waller: Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is helpful to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) that the House has endorsed the report of the Information Committee, which allows any hon. Member who has a modem to have access to the network, whether or not that person is in a building which is directly linked to it?
Mr. Channon: The Finance and Services Committee has approved expenditure of £220,000 in 1995-96 on improvements to facilities for the disabled in the Palace of Westminster. Further sums will be available in subsequent years.
Mr. Flynn: What progress has been made in providing facilities for wheelchair users who work in this place, including catering staff, civil servants who cannot gain access to the Box, which limits their chances of promotion, and hon. Members who are wheelchair bound?
Mr. Channon: As the hon. Gentleman is probably aware, a special report by a firm of architects who are specialists in this work was produced to deal with the whole question of disabled people in the Palace of Westminster. I understand that the Accommodation and Works Committee has recently considered the report and it will come forward with recommendations. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Finance and Services Committee has never been backward in providing money to help disabled people.
Mr. Barnes: The failure to offer access to the Palace of Westminster for disabled people was revealed at no time more sharply than during the debates on the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, when many disabled people wanted to be in the Gallery to listen to the debates. As a private Member's Bill, the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, will be debated on 10 February and as the Government are planning to produce their own Bill, can special arrangements, which could be built on in the future, be made to enable the disabled to have access to the House, because the paradox is that that legislation calls for access to buildings? The disabled should also have access to the House.
Mr. Channon: I have a great deal of sympathy for that point of view. Perhaps the hon. Member will address his remarks to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Powell), whose Committee is considering the disabled. We would certainly be only too anxious to advance reasonable sums of finance for that important cause.
40. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee what plans he has for further Christmas decorations in the Palace of Westminster; at what cost; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Greenway: I share the pleasure of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) at the Christmas trees that you, Madam Speaker, arranged for New Palace Yard and Westminster Hall. I respectfully remind the hon. Gentleman that at the top of a Christmas tree there should be a star--
Perhaps funds could run to providing the hon. Member for Newham, North-West with a bow tie for Christmas, with flashing coloured lights on it, as that would be a permanent pleasure to him and to visitors to the House.
41. Mr. MacShane: To ask the Lord President of the Council if he will make it his policy to extend parliamentary allowances to allow the full-time employment, at standard rates of pay, of at least one personal assistant, one research assistant and one constituency case worker for each hon. Member on the basis of direct payment of such salaries, national insurance and pension.
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton): I have no plans to introduce such a system. I believe that the majority of hon. Members would prefer the flexibility of the existing office costs allowance.
Since I was elected to the House six months ago, I have been amazed by the third-world working conditions and staffing arrangements for hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. I have to operate in an office in which one could not swing a dead mouse. I am pleased to see that the Minister for Transport in London agrees with me. I believe that those conditions are a deliberate means of preventing scrutiny of the Executive. All I am asking for is what an ordinary person in our job should have: a secretary, a researcher and someone to help with the constituency case work.
The Lord President and a small number of his colleagues will shortly be sitting on the Opposition Benches and I suggest that they should make preparations now for that eventuality.
Mr. Newton: I had some difficulty in discerning all of the hon. Gentleman's points because of the Christmas background noise, but perhaps I can make three points. First, if the hon. Gentleman thinks that the conditions in the House are, to use his words, "third world", he should have seen what it was like when I came here 20 years ago. Secondly, it was decided recently--I cannot honestly claim as much credit for it as I would like since the House defeated me on the subject--to increase significantly the office costs allowance of hon. Members. Thirdly, to echo what I said in my original answer, it was made very clear in the debate on that increase that hon. Members value the flexibility of the existing arrangements.
Column 1395In the spirit of the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I cannot offer him very much for Christmas, although at the moment there appears to be a vacant space at the top of a tree.
Mr. Newton: I sense some support for my hon. Friend's suggestion-- presumably it comes from those hon. Members who have constituencies like mine where the population has risen dramatically. I would not want to be the Leader of the House who attempted to justify that distinction in a clear-cut manner.
Mr. Skinner: Set against the background that most people who have a job outside this place probably work more than 220 days in a given year, why should Members of Parliament discuss later today a four-day week for themselves? If we could argue for a four-day week for all those workers outside, we could mop up the 4 million people on the dole. Let us get our priorities right and look after our constituents, not ourselves.
Mr. Newton: We seem to have moved a long way from the Christmas spirit that was shown when the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) spoke. My answer is not very different from what I have said to the hon. Gentleman before: he may have his way of working--that is a matter for him--but others have theirs,
Column 1396which includes doing an enormous amount away from Westminster. Most Members of Parliament work a six or seven-day week.
43. Mr. Mackinlay: To ask the Lord President of the Council what studies have been made comparing the workload of hon. Members of the House with members of the legislatures within the United States of America, Canada, Australia and Germany; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Newton: The evidence of the Select Committee on the sittings of the House made some comparisons between the sittings of this House and those of some other legislatures. I am not aware of other studies.
Mr. Mackinlay: While the House sits more than most other legislatures in the democratic western world, is it not a fact that they do half the work that we do because they are parts of federal systems? Does the Lord President agree that, although we try to do a lot more, we do it badly because we are overloaded when compared to Congress, the German La nder, and our Canadian and Australian counterparts?
Mr. Newton: Despite his attempt to justify the thrust of his question, the hon. Gentleman makes the key point. He has obviously looked at the work and found that this House sits more than almost any other. It certainly does not sit less.
Mr. Peter Bottomley: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the House of Commons has more Members of Parliament in relation to population than most other countries? Did we not miss an opportunity to reduce the number when we introduced the boundary changes?
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