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Martin Linton (Battersea): I have recently re-read the debate of 26 May 1999, when the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) tabled a memorable amendment, which was accepted. Before coming to the House with proposals, it was incumbent on members of the Administration Committee to ask whether we had met the concerns of everyone who spoke in that debate and whether they would be happy with our arguments.
I must admit that I found it a little difficult to fathom some of the arguments advanced in that debate. For instance, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) who, sadly, is not here, explained that he had visited 30 state capital buildings in the United States, and looked forward to visiting the remaining 20; they were all free so, by extension, our Parliament should always be free to visitors. He did not mention the fact that some of those buildings are not the tourist attraction that the House of Commons is; never mind.
Having tried to fathom the right hon. Gentleman's argument, I moved on to that advanced by our former colleague, Dale Campbell-Savours, who represented Workington. He recounted an incident in which a senior Member tapped him on the shoulder after he had introduced a particularly incendiary and revolutionary proposal to start sitting at 10 o'clock and finish at 6, and said
My hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) recounted that when he was a lad in Wimbledon he travelled up to the House of Commons in summer and visited it for free. He argued that war memorials were free, so Parliament should always be free for visitors. He failed to reveal the fact that it is still free to visit Parliament whenever the House is sitting. However, the Committee has been able to deal with the argument that he advanced.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall, if he catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will no doubt explain to the House how far we have been able to allay his fears. I can only say in advance of hearing what he has to say that he seemed previously to have two main arguments. First, he argued that the summer opening, which had been proposed but had not yet happened, might be the thin end of the wedge and that we might end up charging people to visit at Easter, Whitsun or Christmas. Indeed, he seemed to fear that we might even charge them for visiting while the House was sitting. I hope that he feels reassured that that has not happened. Despite two summer openings, people have not been charged outside the period when the House has traditionally been closed anyway. I hope that he acknowledges that the policy has not so far been the thin end of any wedge.
As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman's other fear was that the change would lead to the contracting out of many of the services involved, which are better performed by servants of the House. I do not know whether he objects to the use of Ticketmaster to issue the tickets for tourists, but apart from that, I think that all the other services have been provided in house. The report does not propose mass
In so far as other speakers expressed concerns, they related mainly to the analogy with free access to museums. As I have a very modest role at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, I felt that there was an onus on me to consider whether, as we have now introduced free entry to national museumsI am glad that we have done sothe same principle should apply to the House of Commons. I see a world of difference between the two. Museums and galleries are sources of information that one visits not only once in one's life, but regularly. The reason why we believe in free access to museums is the same as the reason why we believe in free access to information and knowledge: museums and galleries are there to inform. The same principle has never been applied to heritage sites. For instance, the Tower of London is a heritage site. English Heritage has many sites where it charges the public for access. Nobody has ever suggestedI have never heard such a proposal from the hon. Gentleman or anyone elsethat it is wrong to charge for access to such a site, whether it is Old Sarum at Salisbury or anywhere else. There is a difference in principle.
There is still free access to Parliament as a working building. People can sit in the Strangers Gallery, attend a Committee sitting or see their MP. The only thing for which there is a chargeit applies at any time of yearis a guided tour. When this place is open, people are charged only for the tour. The principle that the Committee seeks to establish is that in the one recess in which the House would normally be closed to the public, the small on-cost of making tours possible should be borne by the person who enjoys the tour.
That principle is also accepted by the British museum. People can visit for free, but if they want a guided tour of the museum, they pay a fee of £8. People can visit the British library for free, because it is a library, but if they want a tour, they pay a charge to cover the cost. People can visit Somerset house for free if they are visiting it on business, but if they want a tour, they pay. Indeed, the same is true across the square in Westminster abbey. Worshippers visit the abbey for free, but if people want to visit as tourists, they pay £9. We are simply abiding by that principle. The House of Commons is open in the summer. As a Member who represents a nearby constituency, I come here every weekday apart from, perhaps, during a fortnight in August. The place is open and I can take people around the building. I can use it all the time, but it is not open to the extent that it could deal with a constant stream of tourists without employing extra staff.
When I first came here, I thought that it was a crying shame that the place was closed throughout August. Every day thousands of tourists milled around Parliament square looking rather puzzled because the House of Commons, which they had imagined they could visit, was closed. Because of that strange anomaly, the House was persuaded to openin a half-hearted way in my opinionon a trial basis in the summer of 2000.
Tickets were available only in advance. People had to telephone. They could not come to the House of Commons and buy a ticket. About 95 per cent. of foreign tourists will go to the place they want to visit and buy a
In the summer of 2001, the scheme was, I am glad to say, repeated. This time there was a ticket office on-site. As a result, the number of visits more than doubled. Bizarrely, the ticket office was sited in Westminster Hall. People had to go through security at St. Stephen's entrance to get into Westminster Hall, queue for a ticket, go back out of St. Stephen's entrance, go to Black Rod's entrance, queue again and go through security again before starting their visit. Not surprisingly, they found that very frustrating but that was the only way it could be done, given the fact that the House had not agreed to a permanent scheme.
In the summer of 2001 a flat-rate charge of £3.50 was levied, a modest sum when we consider that a visit to the Banqueting hall down the road costs £3.90 and the Banqueting hall is hardly more than a single rooma very nice room but it is not to be compared with the House of Commons. A visit to Westminster abbey costs £9, to the London Eye £9, and to Buckingham palace £11.50. A visit to a commercial tourist attraction such as Madame Tussaud's costs about the same, as does a visit to the Tower of London.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the tourists who came here during the summer were happy. Indeed, they were ecstatic and flabbergasted. The survey of visitors shows that 95 per cent. said that the tour exceeded their expectations. Clearly, having only paid £3.50 they did not expect much. If one reads their comments, one will see that surprise coming through time and again. Despite 11 September, visitors filled 80 per cent. of available capacity over the whole summer. On many days there was queueing in Parliament square. A visitor from Virginia in the United States wrote,
"PS I'm so glad I finally got in!"
We have established the principle that this is just to do with summer opening and the costs associated with keeping the building open when it otherwise would not be. We have established the fact that, in the rest of the year visits will be free; that the autumn educational tours will also be free; that even in the summer Members of Parliament can take guests around for free; that the only cost charged to the tourist is to cover the extra cost of keeping the House open that one month; and that the alternative is either to make a huge loss for no particular reason, orthis would be criminalto close the building when hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists are in the
This is a phenomenally popular tourist attraction. I shall quote some of the comments made by visitors. I shall quote them in sequence, without editing them or leaving any out. They said, "The tour was magnificent", "brilliant", "Well worth visiting", "It would be useful to have a guide in Italian", "Excellent tour", "Great place to visit", "Wonderful tour". That last comment was from the Americans who said that they were glad to have finally got in. The comments continued, "Well worth a visit", "Most enjoyable", "Excellent tour", "very good", "very interesting" and so it goes on. There is not a single word of criticism, other than about the standard of the toilets.
I am not saying that we should charge people more just because they enjoyed it, but since so many people want to come, they enjoyed it so much and the charge was so much less than for comparable places, it serves no purpose to charge a deliberately low or loss-making price. I hope that the Committee has persuaded those who had concerns before that there is no danger of extending this principle. It is different from the principle of free museums. It will enable us to open this place for the tens of thousands who want to come here in the summer, without imposing a cost on the taxpayer.