HC Deb 20 January 2000 vol 342 cc1062-93

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kirkwood.]

5.44 pm

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (on behalf of the House of Commons Commission)

It falls to me as the member of the House of Commons Commission who speaks for the Commission on the Floor of the House to introduce what is an important debate, where we will seek to review the management and service processes that are applicable to the House of Commons.

I am grateful to the Leader of the House for finding time for the debate. I know how difficult it is to find precious Floor time to discuss such matters. I am also grateful that we are able to have this debate on the Adjournment, allowing the broadest possible debate, so that the Commission may have the advantage of the broadest possible canvass of hon. Members' views.

I realise that we are subject to time constraints, and I hope that hon. Members who have taken the trouble to attend the debate will be prepared to wait and see it through to its logical conclusion.

Whatever else may be in doubt, it is difficult to take the view that this debate is premature. It is now 10 years since the House last examined these important matters, and, in this day and age of perpetual modernisation and exponential change, surely it is right for us to take stock of how we run the House of Commons for ourselves, for our constituents and for the wider British public.

It is also true that few hon. Members come to Parliament intent on making any great career out of stock control systems for the Refreshment Department. However, many hon. Members freely give their time to assist in the efficient management of the House, and we are very grateful to them for all the work that they do.

The House of Commons is a unique institution in more ways than one, and it has its own very real structural difficulties and environmental constraints. The fact that it works as well as it does is testimony to the dedication and commitment of the staff who serve us at all levels within the precincts of the Palace and the House of Commons.

I do not wish to detain the House, but should like to make one or two introductory remarks that set the context of the debate.

On 26 October 1998, on a recommendation from the Clerk of the House, the House of Commons Commission appointed Mr. Michael Braithwaite, formally a partner in Deloitte and Touche, to undertake the study. He was assisted, crucially, by Mr. Tony Newton—Lord Newton of Braintree, Leader of the House from 1992 to 1997—and, additionally, by three officers from different Departments of the House.

The study took eight months and cost about £77,000. The team reported to the Commission on 22 June 1999. The Commission immediately considered the report at no fewer than three meetings in the summer, and the report that we are now considering was published in full immediately thereafter.

The inquiry that the Braithwaite team undertook was much longer and much more detailed, ironically, than the Ibbs inquiry which it follows up. The team took a great deal of written evidence and interviewed no fewer than 105 people, some on two or more occasions, including current and former Ministers, Chairmen, heads of department, senior officials, and, importantly, 40 hon. Members, selected carefully to match the current composition of the House in age and length of service. The list of the interviewees is shown at annexes A and B in the report.

The team was also helpfully able to include questions of its own in the enormously detailed quality of service survey, which was conducted among all hon. Members, early last year, by Janet Levin Associates. All the results of that survey were made available to the inquiry team. In making international comparisons—which the team did—of parliamentary administration in other parts of the world, it had the help of no fewer than 14 overseas Parliaments.

It was an extremely thorough exercise, and hon. Members are most grateful to Michael Braithwaite and his team for their work, which was discharged timeously and with enthusiasm, great sensitivity and great skill. As I said, certainly the Commission is extremely grateful for the work that Mr. Braithwaite has done.

The Commission regard the report as a very professional piece of work: it is constructive and a sound basis on which we can take the debate forward. We have not, however, taken a formal view of the report's recommendations in advance of today's debate. However, after the report's publication, in the summer, we invited all hon. Members—and everyone else—to give us their views.

We received a very useful paper from the Finance and Services Committee, and one letter from a member of the public—good for him!—but nothing else from which to believe that the report has stirred up a great storm of controversy. Nevertheless, I stand to be corrected on that later in the debate.

As to the next steps, the Commission will meet again after today's debate to decide how to take matters forward. The Braithwaite team described the recommendations as a package rather than a menu, but I should like to reinforce very firmly that that does not mean that the report is a take it or leave it option. It simply means that any changes to the recommendations would need to be balanced elsewhere to ensure a consistent approach.

I shall not take the House through the report, because we do not have time, but it has a clear summary on pages 9 to 14, as well as a list of recommendations. However, I should like to set the report in context.

The Ibbs report 10 years ago considered the management of the House's services and the direction that was available from Members. It found profoundly unsatisfactory elements in the responsibilities and structures then in force and in the way operations were discharged. The so-called Ibbs settlement provided a clear way forward that separated the formulation of policy from the delivery of services and, crucially, gave the House responsibility for its accommodation and works. We tend to forget what a huge cultural change that was. The House had quickly to take responsibility for all its finances. That was a major challenge for the administration.

The Braithwaite team concluded that the Ibbs settlement sent the House in the right direction, but found that its implementation was patchy for a long time after the agreement. That is covered in parts 4 to 7 of the report.

More encouragingly, there has been faster progress recently. The report goes out of its way to pay tribute to the present Clerk of the House, his predecessor Sir Donald Limon and the Director of Finance and Administration for the major improvements over the past two or three years, which the team helpfully analysed at some length. The report also acknowledges the substantial contribution made by Members of Parliament as individuals and as Chairmen and members of Committees.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

The Ibbs report was valuable and changed the way in which many matters were dealt with. One of its aspects was the communications problem. That is a serious problem, because many Members of Parliament know little, if anything, about the work of the Commission. That gap remains. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) answered only 14 questions throughout the previous Session, all of which were written questions. Is there a way of dealing with that criticism, which Ibbs made so many years ago?

Mr. Kirkwood

I am grateful for that helpful intervention. The right hon. Gentleman has identified one of the Commission's areas of concern. The Braithwaite report makes some serious suggestions to address it. It is a long while since Members of Parliament had time to go through the written answers in Hansard to stay in touch with what is happening. There are some important suggestions about putting information on the intranet or, by agreement, carrying the basic recommendations and outcomes of some of the Committees, including the Commission, in the weekly Whip. We understand that there is a lack of communication. The Braithwaite report identifies the need for improvement and makes some positive suggestions, which I hope will be put into effect. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is a distinguished and experienced parliamentarian, for drawing that point to the attention of the House.

The Braithwaite report updates Ibbs 10 years on, clarifying many changes that have been made since then. It highlights the important new role of information technology and the introduction of resource accounting and budgeting that we are all facing. Above all, it points out that expectations of accountability and transparency in the governance of public bodies are far greater than ever. We parliamentarians must ensure that we are beyond criticism in that respect. The report aims to give us the means to do that.

The report has several key elements. First, it stresses the importance of strategic planning, with suggestions on how to put the House of Commons Commission in a better position to discharge that function and with a framework within which the rest of House policy can be conducted.

Secondly, a much closer relationship is felt to be necessary between the Commission and a slightly smaller Finance and Services Committee, and better support for both these bodies is a key recommendation of the report. Thirdly, a clearer role for domestic Committees is recommended. It is recommended that we go back to the Ibbs scheme, giving the Committees a clearer role in policy formulation but not encouraging them to get involved in Executive and operational areas.

Fourthly, better information for Members—the point that the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) mentioned—on the planning and delivery of all services across the gamut of the House's work is referred to. Fifthly, reference is made to the improved operation of the Board of Management, and proper support for the Board of Management and for the Clerk of the House in trying to develop the corporate thinking and approach to the management of services in the House of Commons.

Sixthly, formal recognition of the Clerk's role is an essential element of the report, in terms of directing the House and reflecting the Clerk's actual role and the way in which he has done his work over the past three years, consolidating the primus inter pares role that he has discharged in the past. Finally, reference is made to the improvements in value for money and audit, including the crucial recommendation that we appoint some kind of audit committee to bring accountability up to date.

All these elements are crucial planks of the Braithwaite team's report. It is an incremental, not a radical approach. Braithwaite builds on the Ibbs settlement. It is not as radical as Ibbs but, as the report itself makes clear, it does not need to he because, over the past few years, the culture and approach to the management and delivery of services has changed out of all recognition.

In many cases, Braithwaite's recommendations are merely designed to buttress achievements already made or progress already under way. It is important to note that Braithwaite warns that the House's service will have, and is having, to cope with major challenges in its ordinary work—never mind management changes—through the introduction of resource accounting and budgeting, devolution, modernisation, Committee changes, the implications of House of Lords reform, the impact of human rights legislation, accommodation moves, information technology developments, data protection and freedom of information.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion)

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman and to you, Madam Speaker, for not being here at the start of the debate.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned IT. The Braithwaite report recommends that the responsibilities of the Broadcasting Committee should be transferred to the Administration Committee. In view of the comments on the advances in IT, does the Commission consider that if the Broadcasting Committee should cease to exist, it would be more appropriate if its functions were transferred to the Information Committee, rather than the Administration Committee?

Mr. Kirkwood

I am well aware of that argument. If this is phase 1, that question is for phase 2. I give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that, when the appropriate moment comes to decide important issues such as that, proper consultation will be carried out. The arguments are compelling.

Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale)

Does the hon. Gentleman share my frustration about the recommended existence, post-Braithwaite, of the domestic Committees, given that, identified within the Ibbs and Braithwaite reports, there is still a problem in terms of confusion in line management, accountability and the transparency of the role of domestic Committees? Would the hon. Gentleman and the Commission consider a more streamlined approach, with none of the domestic Committees, so that the responsibility would clearly lie with the newly outlined Central Management Committee?

Mr. Kirkwood

I understand what the hon. Lady says, and the report says that we should try to redefine and crystallise the role of domestic Committees to try to get them to be policy advisers, rather than interfering—if that is not a pejorative word—with operational functions and executive work, which should be the task of the professionals. The main thrust of the recommendations in the report is that we should try to refocus that work, as the Committees still have a valuable role to play.

The work of the domestic Committees, however, will have to be considered carefully during the rest of this Parliament. The view was expressed in the consultation process that we would be better off taking a radical approach to domestic Committees. I agree with the hon. Lady that the membership of the Committees has shown a worrying tendency to churn. There is no consistency, people have other priorities and corporate knowledge is not built up. That is worrying. The short-term proposal in the report is clear—we should keep the Committees but try to redefine their role. If the situation does not improve, we may need to reconsider in the not-too-distant future.

Progress has been made recently, and that view was strongly supported by the views of Members in a survey conducted by Janet Levin. Ten years ago, only 31 per cent. thought the House was a very or fairly good place to work, in terms of its accommodation. That has now risen to 70 per cent. Of those Members who said in the survey that they understood how the House services are managed, 79 per cent. said that they thought that they were well managed. We are a demanding group of customers and those figures represent a considerable achievement by the Clerk, the heads of Departments and the staff of the House.

We must not be complacent. The report also makes it clear that improved structures and methods are needed to ensure that progress does not falter, and that more is now expected of a public body, in terms of value for money and clear aims and accountability, than 10 years ago. It also makes it clear that the working environment will continue to change—for example, because of the impact of technology on information, communications and knowledge systems. As I said earlier, our expectations will also continue to increase, alongside those of our constituents.

The report seeks to equip the House with the means to meet some of those new challenges. After this debate, the Commission will be better placed to decide how to take matters forward. Should the report be implemented, in whole or in part, the process of implementation—which is contained in part 16 of the report—will be transparent, and Members and staff will be fully informed about it and will be able to comment on, and contribute to, it as it proceeds.

Doing nothing is not an option. The report's recommendations amount to a touch on the tiller, not a fundamental change of course, and I look forward to responding to the points raised in this debate. I commend the report to the House.

6.2 pm

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

I welcome the report. We should all be grateful to the staff of the House in every Department, because they go out of their way to please Members of Parliament in every way that they can—and I can say with confidence as chair of the parliamentary Labour party that it is not always easy to please Members of Parliament. The staff of the House work hard and try hard, and nothing that I am about to say should be taken as a criticism of them. Nor should it be taken too much as a criticism of the House of Commons Commission, because it has a difficult task, for two reasons. First, it is hard to achieve a structure of management that works for a place such as this and protects the rights and interests of Members. Secondly, and particularly important, it is difficult to engage the interest of Members in this issue until they complain about the structure.

Members do complain about the structure, and the most frequent complaint is that nobody understands how the management system of the House works. That complaint comes from old and new Members alike. It would be easy to claim that it was Members' fault for not making the effort to find out, for not speaking to members of the Commission or for not answering the surveys and questionnaires that are sent out from time to time. However, the more fundamental problem is that the system that we have adopted is not the right system. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) that we need only a touch on the tiller. We need a more radical approach. I do not suggest that we sweep aside everything we have, because it has many good aspects, but it is not working and I shall give evidence for that statement later.

The problem is—the hon. Gentleman touched on it—there is no clear perception of who is in charge of what in the House. That is the key problem. The report wrestles with that problem. A number of the answers in annexe C show the difficulties encountered by the House and the Commission. That annexe continually emphasises the difficulty of communicating with hon. Members, and how hard it is to get an impression of how well the House is run.

The report compares the task of managing the House to trying to manage accommodation for 659 small companies. I understand that analogy, but consider it mistaken, as it leads one in the wrong direction. It gives the impression that Members of Parliament might be considered as 659 market stalls under a dome, and that the task of the management of the House is to ensure that the roof does not leak.

I prefer to think of the House as accommodating 659 individuals—or several thousand individuals, given our capacity to have a split-personality mode—with different needs at different times. The management of the House provides a common structure through which all our needs—whether they involve catering, cleaning, repair works, or security, for example—can be met.

The problem is that the House retains a system of management that resembles an old-style local authority before the introduction of chief executives. There are a number of Domestic Committees that want to, and try to, do their jobs well, without getting too involved, as the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire noted. However, given their structure, it is almost inevitable that they do get too involved.

Lorna Fitzsimons

Does my hon. Friend agree that a prime example of the policy and management confusion that he has described is the decision by the Select Committee on Administration that 259 requests for on-site child care facilities amounted to insufficient demand?

Mr. Soley

I was not aware of that decision. As an aside, I can say to my hon. Friend that I do not think that it is a good idea to give responsibility for the media to the Administration Committee, as the report states that there should be a media department in the chief Clerk's office—the office of the Clerk of the House. That would be another example of duplication of effort.

The old local authorities worked quite well in their day, but the more complex decisions get, and the more intense the demands on management become, the more likely it is that that model will break down. Above all, the need for a central, focal point where people can complain becomes increasingly necessary. That is vital: hon. Members from all parties feel that there exists no such central point to which they can resort for help.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is extremely important to have one person who has complete and utter responsibility for all the arrangements in the House? Does he also agree that the difficulty is compounded by the fact that hon. Members also have constituencies elsewhere in the country? Many of us have to run two offices simultaneously, yet in the past the administrative arrangements in the House have not acknowledged how important that is for our work.

Mr. Soley

I am sure that hon. Members must retain overall political control of the management of the House. We must not lose that power, and I shall suggest how that might be achieved in due course.

I felt that it could not be accidental that so many hon. Members should ask me—especially since I have been chairman of the parliamentary Labour party—about whom to contact about problems in the House. Over the past day or two, I have asked more than 40 hon. Members from all parties to tell me whom they would turn to if they had a problem with the management of the House.

Of the hon. Members that I approached, 25 replied that they would contact the Serjeant at Arms. Another 15 came into the "don't know" category. They were the closest runners up, but the trend was all in their favour and I suspect that they would have ended up leading the field if I had asked the same question of more Members. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be pleased to know that she led the field among the also-rans. She had four nominations. You, Madam Speaker, had two. I, as chair of the parliamentary Labour party, had three. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire had one—that was because I asked a Liberal Democrat Member who knew that the hon. Gentleman was on the Commission. The regional Whip and the Chief Whip were also mentioned.

The most important thing about the question was that, with one exception, nobody gave the right answer, given what the report recommends and says is happening already. More important, with the exception of the person who mentioned the regional Whip, everybody hesitated, paused and struggled to work out the answer. They did not say "The Serjeant at Arms" or even "I don't know" immediately; they would pause first.

I was reminded by the report that the chief Clerk has been the chief executive for the past two or three years. I said to some people—I did not ask everyone—"If you were in any other organisation, whether it was public, private, a local authority or a hospital, whom would you contact?" Without hesitation, they answered, "the chief executive." But when I asked just a few whether they knew that there had been a chief executive here for two or three years, I received replies like, "You must be joking," and "I don't believe you." Rather more worryingly—perhaps because I misphrased the question and asked someone in a slightly conspiratorial manner, "Did you know the chief Clerk is really the chief executive?"—the reply was, "You look tired. Why don't you take a break?" I am all for taking a break; I think that I need one at times in this game.

The essence is that no one knew whom to write to. Yet the report clearly shows that the person to write to is the chief Clerk. Paragraph 9 of the summary states: The Clerk of the House was seen by Ibbs as the chief executive; has assumed this role to a much greater extent over the last two to three years". The report then compliments him on improving the service. I agree—I think that he does a very good job. The report continues: The Clerk needs better support; there should be a small but high-powered Office of the Clerk, which should also co-ordinate the decision-making process and provide support for the Commission, the Finance and Services Committee and the Board of Management. In all other structures, such a person is treated as the chief executive. Someone who knows to write to the head of the catering department will obviously do so. A matter about the service in a dining room, for example, might be addressed to the manager of the catering department or even to the Catering Committee, but many questions are not so clear cut.

A hospital is in many ways similar to this place—because we have to respect the sensitivities of the staff, both doctors and management, but when we have doubts, we do not ask who is head of the oncology department, or who is in charge of the midwives—we write to the chief executive, who then takes the matter up.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I am having difficulty with the hon. Gentleman's analogy, because he is in danger of loading the wrong kind of function on to the person with the senior position on the management board. We often write to chief executives of organisations, but we know very well that consumer relations departments draft their replies for them. We hope that chief executives of organisations are looking to the management priority questions in the longer term, not dealing with every complaint about every department.

Mr. Soley

The right hon. Gentleman is right, but he is not disagreeing with me. I do not expect the chief executive to deal with such matters. I am saying that, when people are unsure who to contact, they contact the chief executive who makes sure that the matter is dealt with by the relevant person in the managerial hierarchy. It is not a question of customer relations. In hospitals, local authorities and big companies, customer relations departments deal only with a certain type of question. If we ask, as we often do, about problems that our constituents have, such as leaky roofs, we write to the director of housing if we know who that is. If not, we write to the chief executive, who then passes the letter on to the relevant manager.

Lorna Fitzsimons

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is a matter of accountability, and not just of responsiveness and the ease with which Members may correspond with a single figure who can field any inquiry? We need to know who is accountable for running this place.

Mr. Soley

I agree, and I am troubled to feel that we may take a wrong turning. There is a lot of repressed demand among Members for knowing how the place works. At present, they—particularly new Members—ask someone such as myself, as chairman of the PLP, or the Leader of the House or their Whip. However, many of the people of whom I asked questions had 15 years or more of service, and they were among the "don't-knows". We are not getting the message across about the management structure. We need a system that people can see and understand so that they may refer to a central point if they are not sure of where in the management structure they should go with a query.

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

I hope not to make a speech because, as a member of the Commission, I am here to listen to Members. My hon. Friend and I have previously discussed my reservations about his approach, but I entirely agree, as does the Braithwaite report, that our arrangements are not sufficiently well known. That problem needs to be addressed, and one reason for proposing a proper office for the Clerk is the attempt to find a means of doing so.

I share the view of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that we may be in danger of taking the wrong route. This is a special, if rather peculiar, place. My hon. Friend will observe that annexe G of the Braithwaite report draws attention to the fact that the Canadian Parliament tried a divided system but has brought it all back together. In addition, the Swedes experimented with a divided system, but have brought it back together. My anxiety is that only one person will be in charge. With the utmost respect to the Clerk's Department, there are occasions on which Members are not entirely sure that the Clerks appreciate our problems as much as we would wish. If we bring in an outside professional, we shall see the same problem in spades.

Mr. Soley

I understand my right hon. Friend's view, which we have discussed. I suspect that our differences are not too great because I certainly do not believe that all that we do now is wrong or that the direction in which we are going is entirely wrong. However, the evidence of my questions to Members has demonstrated that we are failing almost entirely to get across the message about how the place is managed. If my right hon. Friend or the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire conduct the same exercise, they will be astonished by the comments that they hear and will quickly identify deep frustration about how the place is managed and lack of awareness of how to intervene.

I am aware that the report considered experience overseas, and it would be rash to ignore that experience by going our own way. I am cautious about the approach that we should take. It is important that someone at Member of Parliament level—an individual or a Committee—should have overall charge, which is why the Commission is vital. However, as I said in my evidence to the review—I cannot say that my views are shared by the whole parliamentary Labour party, but can say categorically that there is strong dissatisfaction with the management structure—although I should prefer a system that recognises the special nature of this place, the same arguments were used in hospitals before chief executives were brought in. It was said that hospitals should not have chief executives because doctors should make clinical judgments. In this place, people say, "You can't have a chief executive because we are politicians and we have to relate to our constituents." However, the two are not incompatible. There could be a chief executive who deals with straightforward general control of management and who is accountable—whether for leaky roof, the overall running of the catering department and so on. On the other side, there would be the Clerks doing the things that they do so well: the servicing of Members' work—the all-important core work of the House, in the Chamber, in Committees and so on. We should still need some domestic Committees, although we are all agreed—including the Braithwaite team—that there are too many of them. They are too varied and sometimes it is unclear whether they are making policy or solving day-to-day problems.

If we set up the system that I described, we would have a senior parliamentarian—who is, at present, rightly you, Madam Speaker—as Chair of the Commission. The members of the Commission would be crucial to the system. I do not propose that as a perfect model, but it would be a way of bringing together the roles of a chief executive and the Clerks.

We are in danger of taking a wrong turning in this matter. Paragraph 9 would inevitably drive us towards—as it indeed confirms—a much more powerful Clerk's Department, which would be responsible for the management. However we dress it up, that would be true. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire and other members of the Commission should think about that. If people ask me whom they should contact and it is not immediately obvious, I tell them to write to the chief Clerk. If that becomes the thing to do—especially if there is, as I suspect, some repressed demand—the chief Clerk will have to do much more such chief executive work.

Paragraph 9 points out that the Clerk's Department will have to be expanded—so it will. If we all took the approach that I described, the chief Clerk would quickly demand those extra resources that the report states are necessary. In a year or two, the chief Clerk would have so much to do to ensure the proper management of the House and to check—as required under paragraph 9—that other Departments are doing their job properly that he would have too little time to give to the all-important work of the Clerk's Department, not the least of which is reading up, and constantly keeping on top of, parliamentary procedure. That work is incredibly demanding. We should not be asking the chief Clerk to undertake both forms of work.

In a few years' time, we shall have come full circle. The chief Clerk will ask for a deputy to deal with the managerial side. We might as well call that person a chief executive. That is why I say that there is a danger. It is as though the report has set up, almost by accident, the model that I described; matters will drift in that direction, if the chief Clerk is treated as a chief executive as the report recommends.

The debate is extremely important. I should like to think that Members will read it avidly in Hansard tomorrow and, at last, get involved in understanding the management system. I do not think that that will happen, but the consequences of recommendation 9 are that, over time, the chief Clerk will increasingly become the chief executive of the House. He will end up with a double role—trying to do his job as chief Clerk and as manager of the managers.

Sooner or later, we shall have to separate those tasks—just as all other modern organisations, private or public, have had to do. The Commission seems to be taking that route without quite realising it. That is how we shall end up. I would rather that we structured the matter so that we knew that we were taking that course and did not drift into it. The last thing I want to do is to produce such a work load for the Clerk's Department that the Clerks are unable to give time, attention and detail to their Committee and Floor of the House work. If they cannot do that work well, it will do enormous damage to this place.

6.25 pm

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

I have an interest as one of the three parliamentary non-remunerated directors of Parliamentary Broadcasting Unit Ltd. I have also had the privilege, during the enforced absence of the Chairman of the Broadcasting Committee, to act as Chairman of that Committee.

I shall move straight into part of the phase 2 debate that was referred to earlier. I shall comment briefly on Braithwaite's recommendation for the Broadcasting Committee and I shall seek to emphasise the need for a form of scrutiny of parliamentary broadcasting by a Committee. In paragraphs 15.36 and 15.37, Braithwaite picks up the Ibbs report's recommendation that "within a few years" the Broadcasting Committee should be abolished and its remit given to the Administration Committee.

Since the original recommendation was made in 1990, the broadcasting of the House has become infinitely more complex, as have all the communications systems of the House. The Broadcasting Committee is at present engaged in producing a report on the future of parliamentary broadcasting in all its forms. Inevitably—this will not surprise the House—much of that future is likely to be online if we are to give the public access to the information, visually and in sound form, from this place, which we want to reach far more people than it does at present.

I do not have a particular brief to defend the Broadcasting Committee, and I concur with the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Lepper) to the extent that there is a case for placing its remit with the Information Committee, if that Committee's remit is to be broadened to embrace all parliamentary information. I cannot see any logic now in accepting the Ibbs recommendation to hand over the remit to the Administration Committee because the matters are too complex to be brought under that umbrella.

The point—is the only point that I want to make—is that in the course of the Broadcasting Committee's scrutiny of parliamentary broadcasting, we have all become aware of the complexities of televising the Houses of Parliament and then seeking to ensure that the information that is available is produced in a form that can be accessed by many people. At the moment, the House is failing in that because very few people actually have access, although, in theory, everybody does.

We have become aware also of the complexities of producing the signals, producing and editing the material, the nature of the restrictions on shots that are used in the House and a wealth of other considerations and arguments that do not at the moment fit neatly into the remit of any other Committee.

When the Commission considers that matter, I hope that it will take further advice from all members of the Broadcasting Committee, but that, whatever else it does, it ensures that the House of Commons retains full and proper scrutiny of the production and broadcasting of the work of the House, not just in the Chamber, but in Standing Committees, Select Committees and now in Westminster Hall.

6.28 pm

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

I wanted to speak in this debate mainly because I come into the "don't know" category that was mentioned earlier. As a new Member of Parliament, I have found it difficult to understand how the House works. Our greatest challenge is to maintain the unique features of the House while resourcing a modern democracy. I shall seek to constrain my remarks, so I shall miss out huge chunks of my prepared speech because I know that many hon. Members want to contribute.

The essential problem is highlighted in the Braithwaite report, which says: The House has no mission statement; Members of Parliament have no job description. Despite that, the House is a workplace and, contrary to common opinion, MPs have an immense amount of work, so those contradictory statements shed some light on the complexity of the task.

As well as being complex, the resourcing of a Parliament impacts on the quality of democracy that emerges. That is why I wish to speak. I do not want to moan just about the fact that it is the year 2000 and I still cannot get a cappuccino in the canteen.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

That is shocking.

Ms King

It is shocking sometimes.

I want to consider what it is reasonable for MPs to expect and how the failure to meet those expectations can lessen our ability to serve our constituents. I apologise for not being an expert on the running of the House; I do not know who is responsible for what. All I know is that I believe that the system must change. I am an expert on that. As the Braithwaite report says: Each Member of Parliament is an expert on what he or she wants from the system, and what the system should provide. I readily admit that, from a managerial point of view, having a client group of 659 stroppy politicians who earn a living from shooting their mouths off must be an unsavoury nightmare. Nevertheless, as a new MP. I wish to take this opportunity to say what I want from the system.

In general terms, I want an environment in which both parliamentary scrutiny and individual constituency inquiries—the two halves of our job—can be pursued, and I want an environment that saves me time. The environment in the House is not conducive to time saving. MPs are very rich in many respects, but we are paupers in terms of time. We do not have any.

In specific terms, I want to make the best use of technology. That has been an absolute and diabolical failure in the House. I have an office that is still not cabled and I find that ludicrous. If I worked in any other environment or for a company that thought of itself at the leading edge, I would have that facility. I understand that there may be good reasons for having offices that are not cabled, but surely, in the 21st century, the problems need to be overcome. Our constituents suffer as a result.

Secondly, I want to have the moderate conveniences that most of the working population take for granted. Again, a decent cup of coffee comes to mind. Although that is a trivial and irrelevant point at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, it can become a pressing problem at 3 o'clock in the morning when it is our job to scrutinise important Government Bills in a Standing Committee. Although it is always useful for MPs to be awake while they scrutinise Government legislation, I freely admit that the point that I have just made is not the most important one.

Therefore, I shall turn to the most important point. The most important thing that I want from the system is that it does not drive me out of my job as a Member of Parliament because I wish to balance my work and family life. In the past, women often found that increasingly difficult. Women do not often have a wife—a prerequisite for these jobs.

Men have similar problems, too. Any decent man, I am sure, wishes to spend time with his family. However, the work-life balance is one that every workplace and every employer must tackle. The Braithwaite report says: the House has to square the circle: there must be strategic planning, effective management and financial control, but in an environment which is sensitive to the needs of Members and of the House as a whole. Until recently the "needs of Members" meant the needs of men. It is astonishing that we still do not have a creche. I have not investigated the matter recently, but do we still have a shooting gallery? That was the position when I arrived in the House, but I do not know whether it still is.

The management of the House has a responsibility to make itself receptive to elected representatives that have either family responsibilities or simply the desire to have a life. [Interruption.] Radical, is it not? Such a conducive environment relates to a myriad of different facilities—everything from child care to toilet and sleeping facilities. I was at the French Parliament recently. It has rooms that French Deputies can book at the beginning of an all-night session. [Interruption.] I shall not comment on Conservative Members' remarks on the sleeping habits of foreign Members of Parliament.

Working hours, working days, holidays and information technology facilities are all part of a conducive environment. Some are considered by Braithwaite, but others are not. The report considers them with its managerial scope, but they are affected by a political scope, too I shall omit everything else that I wanted to say about information technology. I acknowledge the work of the Parliamentary Communications Directorate and that great strides have been made. However, until we deal with the office cost allowance, we shall never have an effective IT department that can meet our needs.

As for the future, it is obvious that the trend is greater research work and more members of staff needing more support. Politicians must accept that they will have to give up their territorial claim over the office cost allowance if they want the House, in managerial terms, to be able to deliver the quality of IT support that we need.

We must embrace the corporate strategy and promote a corporate identity. There are many factors that militate against that, not least 659 Members of Parliament. As I have said, I am not an expert on who controls these matters; I do not have time to be. I represent 120,000 people, some of whom are among the poorest in the country. All of them live in a borough that has been recently ranked No. 1 in the deprivation index. It is my responsibility to be an expert on the solutions that make their lives easier. It is someone else's responsibility to be an expert on the solutions that make my life easier.

I do not know who these magical people are. But wherever they are in their different Committees and Departments, and whatever their different roles, most of them who have influence will hear the debate or read these words. Those of them with a determination to find solutions to service a modern democracy will overcome the disparate nature of the House of Commons decision-making procedure. They will overcome the temptation to say that it is somebody else's responsibility—it usually is—and they will also overcome the temptation to shore up the status quo. They will do all of these things so that the House can serve all its parliamentarians, even those—dare I say it—who have a life outside Parliament. Do not underestimate the importance of the task. It represents the difference between representative democracy being a slogan or a reality.

6.37 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

I agree with much that the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) said, but if she leaves it to unknown people on Committees to achieve the things that she wants, they will never happen. I bear the scars from the Administration Committee and the Accommodation and Works Committee during my 19 years as a member of the House of Commons Commission, I can tell the hon. Lady privately why we do not have a creche and precisely who was responsible for ensuring that we did not have one. We are talking of responsibilities that should not be left to those who lack radical passion.

My having served on the Commission for so long is probably a disqualification from taking part in the debate. I shall exculpate myself by saying that my years of service did not make me feel that we should leave everything as it is. Indeed, they were years that were marked by a constant battle to do what was said to be impossible.

It was said that it was impossible for the House to take control of the buildings in which we meet and that that was a responsibility that the Government would never relinquish. When Geoffrey Howe was Leader of the House, he decided that he wanted to appoint Sir Robin Ibbs, and it was a good idea to do so. He asked whether we would support the appointment and I said, "Only on condition that we can have the future of the buildings addressed in the Ibbs report." At that stage, the House took control of its own buildings, taking a step that it had been told it could not make.

We were told that it would be impossible for the House to introduce its own vote covering its own expenses. None the less, we do so. We have done it ever since the Ibbs report. Everything that we suggest in this area tends to be impossible until it is demonstrated that it can be done.

The Braithwaite report refers to the fact that it took six months to set up the Finance and Services Committee. Why was that? The report does not reveal the reason. In fact, it was because the Government of the day insisted that the then Leader of the House had to chair the Committee. Chairmanship could not be released into the hands of Back-Bench Members. We put up a fight and said, "No, we are not going ahead unless it is done as Ibbs said, with a Back-Bench Member doing that job." That battle was eventually won.

It is now suggested that the Member who chairs the Finance and Services Committee should be paid a salary. I remember saying at the time, "You have either to pay this person a salary or give him the best room in the building, otherwise you will never get anyone to take on the job." To be done properly, it requires a great deal of time and attention. It needs to be a priority activity. I see the post as a more important one than it has been up to now. It has not developed to the extent that Ibbs said that it should.

I see also the holder of the post can be of considerable assistance to you, Madam Speaker. Members do not always realise what a submerged iceberg of work surrounds the Speaker's role in the management of the House and in the House of Commons Commission. The Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee can be of invaluable assistance.

It is extraordinary that the minutes of domestic Committees were denied to the Braithwaite inquiry. It revealed some of the problems that we experience in relating the Commission's work to the domestic Committees. I am not surprised that the domestic Committees found it difficult to adjust to the advisory role that Ibbs recommended, and the massive turnover of Members cannot have helped. However, those involved in selecting people for ministerial posts must have regard to the need for a corpus of experienced Members on a Committee. The Commission has such a corpus, but the domestic Committees, like the Select Committee on Social Security, which my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) chairs, do not. There has almost been a total turnover of members of that Select Committee since the general election. It is impossible to run an efficient system in that way.

The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) pressed the case for a separate chief executive. The hon. Gentleman was the reincarnation of our former colleague John Garrett, who pressed that case for many years. I have much sympathy with him. Until recently, those who reached the post of chief executive by becoming Clerk of the House had been recruited and trained for a different role. In recent years, it has been acknowledged that those who become Clerk of the House will become chief executive. That has been reflected in the work of recent Clerks of the House.

It is not the most logical arrangement, but the alternatives do not convince me. To put it in basic terms, which the report expresses in more flowery language, why appoint two people to grade 1 jobs when one person can do both jobs? The Clerk of the House has to be of senior status because he has to defend the rights of the House against the Executive. That job cannot be downgraded. The chief executive needs to have senior status, too. I am inclined to keep the current system as long as we can make it work.

When we examine political responsibility, perhaps we should consider the bureau and quaestor systems to which the report refers. Earlier this week, I was in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, and I noted that it had moved towards such a system—it has a formalised bureau system. Some hon. Members claim that the Speaker should not play such a demanding role in the executive management of the House, but the Scottish Parliament has established such an arrangement. My colleague, Lord Steel, who is the Presiding Officer, retains the role of Chairman of the Bureau and is recognised by all Members of the Scottish Parliament as the apex of the structure that manages the Parliament's functions. That seems to work.

Hon. Members would probably find the allocation of more individual responsibility for different activities, such as that of the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee, easier to tackle. We could make changes to ensure that the system provides the services that hon. Members need. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) made wider suggestions, which were outside the remit of the report, for changes to the way in which we manage time. However, if we are to make some of the fundamental changes that the House needs, we would have to persuade the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and his one or two colleagues who occupied the House's time for most of the earlier part of this afternoon that there are more important things in life than taking up time.

The call upon the House's services will remain excessive until we manage time more effectively. That was outside the remit of the report, the purpose of which was to try to develop a sensible, properly accountable management structure for those who serve the House. The report is on the right lines.

6.44 pm

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

Before I became a Member of Parliament, I was a systems analyst. Reading the Braithwaite report was therefore interesting. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) made most of the points that I intended to make, so I shall be brief. I endorse all her comments, especially those on the creche and the office allowance, which needs reform. The current allowance leads to poor research support for Members, because of the turnover and constraints.

It is crucial that our constituency offices are recognised. The Commission must take that on board, especially in relation to the IT recommendations in the report. They need to do that.

The suggestions for dealing with information technology do not take into account the speed of change. I hope that the Commission will take that on board, particularly in relation to training, support for Members and support for staff who provide support for Members.

With regard to value for money audits, at the time of the Ibbs report, that was the convention in government. Local authorities were urged to undertake value for money studies. We have since moved on to a system of best value, and the Commission should consider best value as the way forward, rather than value for money audits.

6.45 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

What depressed me when I first read the report was the statement in paragraph 23 that the status quo is not an option. The process of change needs support or it may falter". The report would say that, would it not? If we ask management consultants to produce a report, they must refer to the inevitability of change because that is how they earn their living. In the context of the ghastly modernisation fetish that the House is undergoing, a report must almost inevitability refer to the benefits of change.

In the early days of the European Community, as it then was, the analogy of a bicycle was always used. We were told that, as in the case of riding a bicycle, if it did not keep moving forward, it would fall over. That was presented as the reason for the need constantly to drive forward and constantly to change, which was usually dressed up with words such as "progress", "improvement" or "modernisation".

Ms Oona King

Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that change cannot help but come when, for example, the number of women Members has gone from one in 10 to one in six? Does he recognise that women have certain needs, such as child care facilities?

Mr. Forth

No. I am one of those people who is gender blind. I want neither more nor fewer women Members. The electorate decides how many there are, and the institution goes on, I hope, relatively unchanged and unaffected. I do not regard that as an issue.

Funnily enough, I did agree with one thing that the hon. Lady said. She said that one of the things that we suffer from—this may be one of the key problems of the House—is the lack of a mission statement. I use that ghastly phrase because it sums up the position reasonably well.

As I see it, the real difficulty with the way in which we in the House work is that it is not clear whether our objective is to deliver a service to the taxpayer at least cost, or whether it is to spend as much money as possible on ourselves because we are basically not accountable.

I know of little or no transparency. If, like the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley), I went round and asked the first 50 hon. Members whom I bumped into how much it cost to run this place on an annual basis, I doubt whether any would guess within £100 million a year, yet our main responsibility is supposed to be accountability to the taxpayer for what is spent at large in government. I do not detect that sense of responsibility or accountability among us as a body for what we spend on ourselves or allow, demand or encourage to be spent on us.

The report does not tackle a fundamental problem—how we see our responsibilities to the taxpayer being discharged in the very conduct of our business. However splendidly the Commission may work, I am not convinced—because I do not know enough about how it works—that that is in the forefront of its mind when it goes about the strategic planning that may or may not happen. Of that, I have some doubt as well. I suspect that that is where the difficulties arise.

When I turned to page 131 with a sense of excitement and looked for sharp-edged, hard-hitting, punchy recommendations, I felt somewhat let down. Frankly, it is not that impressive. There are many words and many recommendations, but I doubt whether many will be helpful. For example, we read: The Commission should have a high-level version of the Board of Management monthly report". I do not know what that means. It may mean something to the people who wrote it, and I hope that it means something to the people at whom it is directed. To state that the Finance and Services Committee "should monitor progress towards performance targets" is hardly profound and does not carry us much further forward. I was not immediately impressed by what I read, but hope that the recipients of the report find it more inspiring and useful than I did.

May I make a radical suggestion? Here, I belie my suspicion of change. Given that a lot of what has been said during this brief but valuable debate revolves around the fact that Members themselves are unaware of the domestic Committees and the Commission, they almost certainly do not know who sits on those Committee, what their objectives are or what they do, unless they have seen all that rising before their horrified eyes in the form of Portcullis House—£250 million, thanks very much. Apart from that, there is not much awareness among Members of what those shadowy bodies do.

That takes us to transparency and accountability, which the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow touched on. My suggestion is this: instead of appointing those Committees and the Commission in such a mysterious way, which is how much of what happens in the House works, why not elect them? Members should stand for election to the Accommodation and Works Committee, the Catering Committee and the Finance and Services Committee and issue programmes of aspirations. They could say to their colleagues, "I would like to sell off Portcullis House and give the proceeds back to the taxpayer," or, "I should like caviar to be available in the Tea Room." That would encourage accountability and a sense of purpose in the process. To answer the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush, we would know whom to talk to because we would have voted for them. There would be a direct connection between Members and those who purport to represent them and act on their behalf.

I suspect that a reason why the system does not work, as so many colleagues have said so eloquently, is that there is no connection between us—the humble punters—and those important people who do that vital work on our behalf. I make my suggestion to those who will mull over the debate and then carry us forward in the exciting, dynamic way referred to by the report. Perhaps we should bring a bit of democracy and accountability to the House of Commons. What a radical thought. We have spent some productive time today talking about the electoral process between us and our voters, of which we are all very proud and with which we are very familiar. Let us transfer that same process to the House and have a properly transparent and accountable system with electoral legitimacy. That would shake things up pretty well.

6.52 pm

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) is becoming a dangerous radical, which will obviously result in my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) being elected to take charge of the coffee-making facilities. I say to her that we should put on record our thanks to the staff of Hansard, the Parliamentary Communications Directorate, the Library and the Department of the Serjeant at Arms, who have radically transformed information technology in the House over the past few years.

A few months ago, I had the privilege of attending a conference in Paris with the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan). We discussed the development of IT in Parliaments with colleagues from across Europe and I am pleased to report that a good number of them asked how we were making radical steps forward such as ensuring that Hansard is freely available on the web to every citizen. We should develop initiatives quickly and improve facilities in such ways. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow that we need to drive forward the cabling programme, but she should reflect on the fact that we are dealing with a grade 1 historic building that includes asbestos used in post-war development. Furthermore, there are 659 Members who will not be too keen to move out of their offices when that work needs to be done.

Having said that, I want to put down a few markers to the Commission in respect of the IT work. Strategic planning has to be at the core of such activity and we have to make sure that Departments and Members understand that their IT preferences cannot drive that strategy. We must identify the desirable outcomes, and then ensure that the information technology strategy accords with them. I am afraid that, in part, we have failed to do that in past years. We have made significant progress in this Parliament and the last, but the strategy still needs to be sharpened.

For once, I entirely agree with what was said by the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale), who is not present now. I believe that there is a case for strengthening the base of the Information Committee, and encompassing the functions of broadcasting. That will require careful thinking in regard to the Commission's role.

May I correct something that was said by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith)? Not all Committees refused the documentation to which he referred; in fact, I do not believe that the Information Committee was asked for the minutes. It would certainly have made sense to make them available, because it would have underlined the existence of a strategy.

We need to encompass the whole process of changed management throughout services in the House. However, the House must realise that, if we are to deliver the change demanded by my hon. Friends the Members for Bethnal Green and Bow and for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White), we must understand the financial implications. That was one of the issues that arose in Paris. Parliaments must realise that the modernisation of their ability to communicate with the outside world will cost money. We must ensure that the public, as well as us, have confidence in the services that we have introduced.

6.57 pm

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

I believe that the House should adopt the Braithwaite report, and recommend the Commission to do so. We should implement the report as soon as possible, and we should go beyond it.

There are always arguments against change and reform, some of which we have had this evening. The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) was engaged in the endless search for perfection, and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) in, perhaps, a deliberate attempt to sabotage effectiveness. There is the loss of ancient privileges and perks; and, of course, there is the fear of the unknown. For the past 20 years, the House has swept aside such arguments when they have been advanced by local government, the national health service, the public utilities, companies and financial institutions. We would have none of that nonsense, and we should have none of it now. The fact is that we desperately need a strategic and coherent view of what is going on behind the scenes, and we have not got it.

There are many flaws and problems, most of which were identified in the Ibbs report 10 years ago. At that time, "unco-ordinated", "unaccountable" and just about every other adjective expressing derision were heaped on the running of the system. The Braithwaite report is full of diplomatic language; it wraps things up a little; but it must be said in all honesty that the shambles of 10 years ago has simply become the incomplete shambles that we have now.

There is plenty of evidence in the report to back that up. According to pages 151 and 152, Commission does not yet provide strategic direction and Domestic Committees continue to seek executive roles". It goes on for page after page. It states that its recommendation for the publication of Commission minutes has not been implemented, and that there is no strategic direction. There are dozens of examples, which we all have. My favourite concerns the Annunciator and the work of the live channel: the wording is still in upper case, because, we are told, it is impossible to put lower-case print on to the screen. Goodness knows why that is so.

There are overlapping Committees. There are confused priorities. There is no one in charge. The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst drew our attention to some radical suggestions, but he failed to draw attention to the fact that the Commission should set its calendar of meetings in a—

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