Select Committee on Liaison First Report



Report by Mr Gary Waller, Chairman of the Committee

  1. The Domestic Committee structure which resulted from the recommendations of the team led by Sir Robin Ibbs[80] is relatively new. The 1992 Parliament will be the first Parliament in which the Information Committee and the other Domestic Committees have operated throughout.

  2. The Committee has the normal powers of select committees and some additional powers to exchange information and meet concurrently with other committees and Committees of the House of Lords.[81] The Committee's responsibilities include:-

       - the provision of Library services

       - the provision of computer, TV and video services for Members

       - other information services (including scientific and technological advice).

Library services

  3. As far as the Library is concerned, the Committee's main role has been to express a view on any proposals for changes to the services provided to Members. However at a more general level, the Committee considered the Library's responses to the Value for Money Study of the Library's Research Services, the first value for money study carried out in the House following the recommendation of Sir Robin Ibbs and his team that such studies should be introduced in the House. The study, with the Library's initial response, was presented to the Finance and Services Committee on 25 October 1994 and to the Information Committee on 21 November 1994. The Finance and Services Committee invited the Librarian to submit a further paper on follow-up action after she had considered the recommendations further, in consultation with the Information Committee. The Librarian's further paper was considered by the Committee on 24 April 1995. One of the recommendations of the value for money study was that the Library carry out regular surveys of Members to establish their needs, and whether these needs were being met. The Committee was consulted early in 1995 on the method of conducting the first User Survey, which was carried out by consultants in July 1995. On the advice of the Committee an abbreviated version of the survey's conclusions was sent to all Members, having been considered by the Committee together with the Library's response in November 1995. In connection with a further recommendation of the value for money study, the Committee endorsed in March 1995 a paper setting out the types of enquiry which the Library does not accept or to which only a limited response is provided.

  4. In addition, the Library has consulted the Committee on developments in its use of information technology to provide services to Members and to the staff of the two Houses. With the agreement of the Committee, the Parliamentary On-Line Information System, POLIS, was upgraded, expanded and moved to a new supplier at the same time as it made the transition from being based on a library-managed network to the Parliamentary data and video network (PDVN)[82]. New electronic information services for use by Members and their staff were also considered by the Committee, including the provision of networked CD-ROM and disk services as well as the Parliamentary Electronic Delivery Service (PEDDS) which enables Library Research Papers and other word-processed documents to be accessed from personal computers throughout Westminster. The Committee has been consulted by the Librarian and her staff whenever appropriate.

Computer TV and video services

  5. The years since the Committee was appointed[83] have seen rapid change in the field of Information Technology (IT) and in the use of it by Members, their staff and the administrative Departments of the House.

  6. The majority of the Committee's work has therefore related to the provision of improved IT services for Members and other Parliamentary users. It should be realised that, at the start of the 1992 Parliament, the use of computers by Members was minimal; there was no computer network within the House and the `clean feed' of proceedings was not available.

  7. At the start of the Parliament, a pilot scheme to test the practicability and viability of a Parliamentary Data and Video Network (PDVN) was set up and was closely monitored by the Committee, most Members of which were connected to it. Users were at that time using a DOS-based computer operating system and dialling-in to the network by modem. A full-scale survey of Members' use of IT was commissioned and a PDVN User Group was set up.

  8. As the expansion of IT became more rapid, the Committee considered whether, as recommended in a report by the Top Salaries Review Body,[84] IT equipment, software and maintenance should be provided centrally for Members and their staff. The Committee's First Report[85] opposed the recommendation but supported the provision of a limited amount of training for Members and their staff, paid for from the Member's Office Costs Allowance.

  9. The Committee took evidence on the PDVN from Members and others which led to a Report[86] recommending that a full parliamentary data and video network should be set up. In order to accelerate the provision of the clean feed of proceedings the Broadcasting Committee agreed to relax its rule that the clean feed should be available to all Members at the same time and it was proposed that Members with offices in out-buildings should be given priority for the video network cabling.

  10. The Report (together with the earlier Report on central provision of IT) was debated and both Reports were approved on 30 June 1994.[87] The necessity to cable most of the parliamentary estate meant that the PDVN would not be available to all users until the year 2001 but it was recognised that in the interim users could connect via a modem. It was also agreed that Members should be loaned a modem if they wished to connect from their home or constituency. Training in the use of the PDVN would be provided (and paid for) by the House.

  11. In the period following the approval by the House of the Committee's Report, consideration was given to the data and video services which might be made available on the PDVN, and a concurrent meeting with the Lords Library and Computers Sub-Committee was held, principally to discuss the video services. The Committee also endorsed a trial connection to the Internet in order to assess the implications of connection for the PDVN and its users.

  12. The Broadcasting Committee agreed to transfer to the Information Committee its responsibilities for delivery of the clean feed while retaining oversight of the production of the signal. The Administration Committee agreed that the Information Committee should assume responsibility for television (including the annunciators). A request by the Information Committee, based on the merging technologies of video, data and telephones, to assume responsibility for telephones was declined. The Information Committee decided not to pursue the question with the Finance and Services Committee, preferring to await the appointment of the Domestic Committees in a new Parliament when responsibilities would be re-assessed. The changes of responsibilities mentioned above were the only adjustments during the 1992 Parliament and there were few problems of overlap.

  13. The video network was expanded to provide the four terrestrial TV Channels, Sky News and Sport, CNN and the clean feeds of both Houses together with their annunciator services. Surplus channels on TV sets connected to the network were allocated on a temporary basis to national radio programmes.

  14. The Committee endorsed the reorganisation of departmental responsibility for TV, telephones and data under an Information Systems Office (since renamed the Communications Directorate) and approved the proposed strategy for IT development within the House based on an `Intranet' (ie. a system enabling PDVN users to access the various systems of House Departments and to improve communication and co-ordination between Departments).

  15. The immense expansion of the Internet (doubling in size each year) led to the Committee's encouragement of House officials to consider the creation of a parliamentary web-site on the world wide web. A sub-committee of the Board of Management (the Electronic Publishing Group) recommended the incremental availability of certain House documents (including the Official Report) on a web-site, with those documents being made available, in their original form, free of charge for personal use. Companies and others wishing to provide added value for commercial gain would be required to obtain a licence from the House's copyright agents HMSO. The Committee endorsed the Electronic Publishing Group's recommendations in its first report of 1995-96[88] and the proposals were subsequently approved by the Finance and Services Committee and the House of Commons Commission.

  16. The rapid growth of demand in a comparatively short period (from pilot scheme in 1993 to some 1600 users in 1996) led to various problems of reliability and resilience of the PDVN, culminating in a major failure in autumn 1995. As a result of various studies undertaken by consultants, a major injection of finance (for staff and equipment) was proposed. In order to house the increased numbers of staff, new leased accommodation (in Great George Street) was also proposed.

  17. Although concerned at the vastly-increased cost, the Committee gave its qualified support based on the need to avoid major failures and to improve the service provided to Members. The move to Great George Street was undertaken early in 1997 and the Committee will continue to monitor the performance of the PDVN.

Technological advice

  18. Another area of responsibility of the Committee is for technological advice provided to Members. The Committee set up briefly at the end of the previous Parliament had given a limited endorsement (approved by the House) to parliamentary funding for the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) to be reviewed after 3 years. The Committee considered the matter and took evidence from POST and the Library. The Committee's Report, subsequently approved by the House of Commons Commission, recommended continuation of parliamentary funding for a further five years ending on 31 March 2001.[89]

Staff resources

  19. The Committee was supported by its Clerk and a Personal Secretary with some (shared) clerical support. Both members of staff had other responsibilities. The Committee appointed two Specialist Advisers during the Parliament, one of whom has continued to advise the Committee on technical matters throughout. In spite of this minimal level of support it is not proposed that, given the continuation of the current work level, the staffing levels should be increased.

Overseas Travel

  20. The new structure referred to above[90] gave Domestic Committees the power "to adjourn from place to place" (ie to travel away from Westminster). The Committee has taken advantage of this part of its Standing Order on several occasions and places particular value on the contribution to the opinion-forming process of such visits. For example the visit to the United States and Canadian legislatures in autumn 1993 greatly assisted the Committee in its deliberations which led to the report recommending the adoption of the PDVN, which was subsequently debated and approved by the House.[91] Subsequent visits to other legislatures such as the German Bundestag and to software manufacturers have provided immensely valuable information on the services to be provided on, and the method of operation of, the PDVN. In view of the good value which we consider the House to have obtained from such visits we believe it is important that adequate funding should continue to be made available for overseas travel administered by the Liaison Committee.

Committee responsibilities etc.

  21. The merging and developing technologies in a number of areas allied to the Committee's responsibilities, may mean that it will be necessary, at the start of the next Parliament, to undertake a thorough review of the Domestic Committees and their terms of reference.

80  Report on House of Commons Services HC (1990-91) 38 Back

81  SO No. 125 Back

82  See paras 7 to 17 below Back

83  On 23 June 1992 Back

84  TSRB Report Number 32 (Cm 1943) Back

85  HC (1992-93) 737 Back

86  HC (1993-94) 237 Back

87  Official Report, 30 June 1994, col. 1012 Back

88  HC (1995-96) 328 Back

89  HC (1994-95) 578 Back

90   See para 1 Back

91  Op cit Back

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Prepared 13 March 1997