Inside Parliament: Strangers in the House comforted only by words

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Indy Politics
Stephen Goodwin

Tony Benn yesterday suggested that this year's 700th anniversary of the summoning of the first Parliament by Edward I should be marked by ensuring people did not have to stand out in the rain when visiting their MPs.

The lack of facilities for visitors to the Palace of Westminster was raised at Question Time by Anne Campbell, Labour MP for Cambridge, who said 80 primary schoolchildren from her constituency had had to sit outside to eat their sandwiches.

Last July, the Commons catering committee recommended that a cafeteria adjoining Westminster Hall should be converted to a visitor centre.

Studies have been done, but Paul Channon, former Cabinet minister and chairman of the finance and services committee, said it would be "misleading the House" to suggest the conversion was going to happen quickly. Part of the problem, he said, was finding a suitable alternative for the present lunchtime users.

Known as "the policemen's" or "plods'", the Westminster Hall cafeteria is used mainly by staff and provides some of the 4,000 meals a day served up by the Westminster catering operation. There are 31 outlets - restaurants, cafeterias, bars, tea rooms and kiosks - but none are open to unaccompanied members of the public.

Supporting Mrs Campbell's call for better treatment of Westminster visitors, Mr Benn, MP for Chesterfield, said: "We still call them `strangers', we don't call them electors - we haven't caught up with 1832 - and we still allow them to freeze in the streets when they come to visit members of Parliament."

For those visitors prepared to endure the privations and just watch from the Strangers' Gallery, there was little to quicken the pulse. Brian Mawhinney, Secretary of State for Transport, confirmed in a statement that plans for a 14-lane M25 west of London have been scrapped, and later a Government concession to hard-pressed pools companies was added to the Finance Bill.

Both sides of the House welcomed the decision to throw pools companies a lifeline in their struggle against the National Lottery, by cutting their betting duty from 37.5 per cent to 32.5 per cent - a cost to the Exchequer of £30m a year. David Heathcoat-Amory, the Paymaster General, said it would enable the pools companies to maintain their contributions to the Foundation for Sport and Arts and the Football Trust.

Labour used the Bill's Report Stage to mount another attack on executive share options, arguing that they should taxed as income. Tories Barry Porter and Tim Smith, a former minister, conceded, in Mr Porter's words, that it was "not merely the forces of envy and jealously" who had reservations about what was happening in the privatised industries. Sir George Young, the Financial Secretary, confirmed the Government would consider the whole question of executive pay, including share options, in the light of the findings of the CBI-appointed Greenbury committee. But he added: "We need to remember that the main cost of these schemes falls quite properly on those who chiefly benefit from them - companies and their shareholders."

Open government minister John Horam last night criticised the Press for a tendency to trivialise proceedings in the Commons as he responded to appeals from Tory backbenchers for a cheaper Hansard.

The Official Report costs £7.50 a day compared to just 45p in 1979. Circulation has halved over the same period to about 5,500.

Arguing in an adjournment debate for a subsidy, at least for public libraries, Patrick Thompson, MP for Norwich North, said the decline in circulation along with "the decline in parliamentary reporting and the lack of in-depth coverage of the House's proceedings in the press have severely weakened the working of democracy in this country."

Mr Horam pointed out that the £7.50 cover price had been frozen since the subsidy was eliminated in 1991 and that production savings were such that HMSO was now discussing with officials the "possibility" of price reductions.

Mr Horam said he believed Parliament "should be covered by the media in a more thorough and serious way". However he doubted the "average citizen" wanted a verbatim report. Circulation amongst individuals was "not a lot different" from when Hansard cost 45p, and most of the reduction had come about "mainly as a result of fewer sales to government departments".