Sir George Welcomes the Opening of Parliament to Visitors in the Summer
18 Jan 2000
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): I welcome the work of the Administration Committee and the introductory remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe). I am conscious that, on the previous two occasions when the Committee submitted recommendations to the House--on vellum and on the Line of Route--the House rejected them. I hope that it will be third time lucky.
I was happy with the original proposals, for which I voted on 26 May. Those included a charging structure, which meant that both Houses would recover their costs over five years, based on an average payment per visitor of £5.17, including VAT. That would have enabled the House to meet the other claims on its budget over a five-year period, without having to make provision for reopening the Line of Route.
The new report, which reflects the views of the House in that earlier vote and has overcome the fears of some critics, does not put the proposal in a five-year time frame. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne said, she recommends a trial this summer, followed by a review. I understand the reasons for that, but appendix B of the report shows an annual operating deficit of between £200 and £230,000, because the average charge per visitor has fallen to between £2.50 and £2.80, leaving a subsidy per visitor of £2.80.
On top of that, there are start-up costs--£400,000 in the earlier report. Although the second report knocks out some of those costs, I cannot find in it an estimate of the revised start-up costs. That will be of interest to the House of Commons Commission. There will be budgetary implications. At a time when we are urging financial discipline on other public bodies, we should exercise it ourselves.
The principle that visitors should pay, which I support, has been retained, although it is presented not as an admission fee, but as an apportioned share of the costs of a guide. I prefer the original proposals, but I am happy to support the ones before us.
I wish to raise a few points. Will my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne tell us where the new visitors' office--referred to in paragraph 13--will be?
In the original proposals, the House was, in effect, a retailer; we controlled the purchase price and dealt with the visitors. We are now moving into wholesale mode--somebody else will retail the package. The result could be that visitors would pay the fees to which the House objected last May, but the House would not receive the proceeds. The House could find that the retailer has creamed off the difference. My hon. Friend touched on that point. One needs to keep an eye out to ensure that there is no abuse. I hope that, if we discover abuses and that someone else is creaming off the surplus that should go to the House, we shall reconsider the matter with a view to recouping such surpluses.
Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): Is not it fair to ask the guides to police the system for us?
Sir George Young: I am not sure that even the guides will know how much visitors are paying to tour organisers.
Mr. Campbell-Savours: They can ask.
Sir George Young: Indeed. However, my response to the hon. Gentleman's question is no, it would not be fair to the ask the guides, in addition to their other responsibilities, to police the system.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton: Is there not a risk that, by contracting out this new guide system, which will be based in a booking office in the garden of the Victoria Tower--at the other end of the Palace--we might drive up the cost of tours with the current guides of the House, for which Members of Parliament pay? My right hon. Friend appears to believe entirely in market forces in respect of current services and provisions in the Palace of Westminster. Am I right?
Sir George Young: In a word--no. I see no reason why the contractual arrangements between Members and guides should be affected. I see them carrying on in the same way.
My final question to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne is whether Members need to pre-empt all tours on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings in September. I leave that question in her mind, but is the demand from Members such that other groups cannot be allowed to visit at those times? Perhaps the matter will be kept under review.
Subject to the answers to those questions, I shall--this is free-vote territory--support the proposals in the Lobby.

 
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