Review of Management and Services: Report to the House of Commons Commission Annex G


Other models of governance

1.        Before making our recommendations on governance, we considered whether there was a case for radical change. In doing so, we examined a number of other systems of governance to see whether they might be applicable or adaptable to the circumstances of the House.

The “local government” model

2.        This is familiar to the substantial number of Members with local government experience. It was discussed in some of our interviews as a means of involving Members more closely in the administration of the House, but had no significant support.

3.        In essence, this model would imply control of House administration by subject committees with executive powers, reporting to a general purposes committee. Officers would advise the committees, but would be subject to instructions from them.

4.        We see problems of principle and practice in any version of this model. Members of local authorities are not only politically responsible to their electorate; they are legally responsible for their decisions. In certain circumstances, they may be surcharged. No similar responsibility is laid upon Members of Parliament; and primary legislation would be required to impose it.

5.    We very much doubt whether there would be enthusiasm for such a change; but we are sure that it would be improper to confer executive responsibility without it. Accountability would be so diffuse as to be non-existent. There is no parallel with Ministers and Accounting Officers in Whitehall; the framework of statute and convention, together with collective Government responsibility, is entirely different.

6.    In any event, the circumstances are not comparable. The main business of local authorities is the formulation and execution of policy in major areas such as education, housing, planning, transport and so on. One of the principal motives for Member involvement (and considerable commitment of time) is the pursuit of the policies, usually upon a party basis, on which they were elected.

7.    The low level of interest in House administration among Members (except as consumers), the attendance levels in the domestic committees, and especially the high turnover in membership, suggest that this model of governance could not be sustained. It would risk lack of direction, or being in the unrepresentative control of a few individuals.

8.    Subject committees in this model would in practice probably be “departmental” committees. This would emphasise the federal structure and its decision-making compartments; and (even with a general purposes committee) would make the necessary corporate governance harder, if not impossible, to achieve.

9.    We do not think that there are features of the local government model which can be easily or usefully applied to the House.

The “Quaestor” model

10.    This is a system in which individual Members, usually of some seniority, are given extensive executive powers over administration and services. These powers are often exercised in consultation with the presiding officer. This system is used in the French Parliament, for example.

11.    The quaestor system has much to recommend it. The personal focus can make political responsibility clearer to fellow-Members; Officers can work closely with an individual rather than with committees, and get advice or authority quickly when required.

12.    Very few Members are involved in formulating advice or making decisions, which may have attractions from the point of view of achieving a simple system, but is open to criticisms of exclusivity.

13.    Quaestors are found primarily in Parliamentary systems run by a bureau, in the Continental style: a committee of presiding officers and deputies, and leaders of party groups. A bureau will have wide powers over the organisation of business and a range of other Parliamentary matters. There is no Westminster equivalent; and without the overall control of such a body (some of whose Members act as representatives of their parties in the House) we doubt whether the quaestor system can easily be transplanted.

14.    However, to the extent that the concept can be used in the Westminster system, we have sought to reflect it in our recommendations on the role of the Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee. Those recommendations build on the function envisaged by Ibbs, which itself had some elements of the quaestor role.

The external chief executive

15.    This was a suggestion more often made to us and in the JLA survey by Members (although still by very few). This would be an individual, probably from the private sector on a term appointment, brought in to supervise all the House’s services, and responsible to the Finance and Services Committee or to the Commission.

16.    This possibility was mentioned to us most frequently in the context of services such as accommodation and IT, and making sure that complaints were dealt with or did not arise. Although there is a theoretical argument for bringing in a chief executive (which we consider below) the expectations of such an individual seemed to relate more to a customer service manager than to a corporate chief executive planning and delivering the whole range of Parliamentary support, not only services to Members in their offices.

17.    Service improvement is of course a real issue, and one which the JLA survey demonstrates is a continuing process. The Board of Management’s action plan to address points arising from the survey will be a further stage. The substantial progress since the Ibbs report suggests that radical structural change is not required to maintain the process of improvement.

18.    A chief executive with extensive outside experience of corporate governance, of driving costs down and achieving maximum value for money, could no doubt deliver “more for less” - although whether that would be substantially more than could be achieved through initiatives already under way and through the implementation of our recommendations would not be certain.

19.    However, the implications of such an appointment, and perhaps its chimerical nature, need to be considered in rather more detail. The Clerk of the House is at Grade 1 level, equivalent to a Permanent Secretary. This reflects the importance of the Parliamentary and constitutional issues with which he deals, and will continue to do so. A chief executive would therefore be an additional Grade 1 appointment, and would no doubt have to be attracted at considerably more than Grade 1 salary — both of which elements would require to be justified.

20.    Although an incoming chief executive would be familiar with the “transactional” type of business conducted in the Serjeant’s Department or the Refreshment Department, and administrative and financial services, he or she would have no knowledge of the House and its committees: what is required to support business, and how Parliament could develop and be more effective. The Clerk would remain the authority on such matters, and would be seen by staff of the House as being so. There would then be a situation where the chief executive ran administrative services, but was not seen as having authority in the core business; a perfect recipe for sidelining (or conflict). And if the chief executive were to override the Clerk’s Parliamentary judgement, the effect on morale of those employed in the core business would be only one of the potential difficulties.

21.    It is also worth bearing in mind that it is usual in the private sector for an incoming chief executive to import his or her own style and agenda. This may be desirable in a commercial environment, but might not be universally popular with Members. Conversely, many candidates might find the complex constraints of the House frustrating.

22.    It should also be remembered that an incoming Chief Executive would have to become Accounting Officer for the Members’ Salaries etc Vote, an area of particular sensitivity.

23.    It was also suggested to us that the chief executive (either in this structure or in the “twin” model discussed below) should report to a management committee as a single authority. This suggests two possibilities:

  • the management committee is the Commission. We think that this would grossly overburden the Commission, and would not be practical
  • the management committee is not the Commission. In that case there would be little point in retaining the Commission; the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978 would have to be amended, and the Commission’s functions would have to be bestowed upon the management committee. If the Commission were retained, it would simply be a rubber stamp for the decisions of the management committee

A committee which isnot a single authority, but is subordinate to the Commission, is represented by the Ibbs model of the Finance and Services Committee, which is what we have sought to develop in our recommendations.

The Chief Executive and the Clerk as equals

24.    It has been suggested to us that the need to maintain the Clerk’s independence and distinct role could be accommodated in a system where the chief executive and the Clerk were of equal rank; the Clerk would deal with procedural matters and the chief executive would deal with everything else. This might reflect some aspects of models of governance used in health service structures, for example, where professional medical matters are the province of the health professionals, and chief executives deliver the support services.

25.    There is some attraction in the principle of this model of governance; but we do not think that in this form it is easily or appropriately applied to the House.

26.    In the first place, the chief executive would no doubt become Accounting Officer for all three Votes (two after the merging of the House Votes). This would make him or her Accounting Officer for the Members’ Vote (see paragraph 22 above) and also for House expenditure. It would be difficult to separate the functions of Accounting Officer and Corporate Officer, so primary legislation would be needed to amend the Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Act 1992. But although the physical property and contractual part of the Corporate Officer’s functions would be for the chief executive, the copyright and intellectual property functions would be appropriate to the Clerk. It would therefore be necessary to have two Corporate Officers, with some possibility of overlap.

27.    The real problems would come in attempting a realistic separation between “administrative” and “procedural” services, and it is here that the difference from the health service model becomes apparent.

28.    “Procedural” is too narrow a definition. The real split would have to be between “administrative” and “Parliamentary” functions, because the work of the House itself and its Committees would have to be a responsibility of the Clerk and not of the chief executive. The Parliamentary functions would involve

  • The Clerk’s Department, which advises on procedure and business, but which also provides substantial select committee and other administration as an integral part of its work. It also has lead responsibility for printing and publishing, is the supplier of all House and official papers, and deals with inter-Parliamentary relations, including support of the House’s delegations to international assemblies
  • The Library, which provides professional information and research services in close support of the Parliamentary duties of Members. It would be perverse to separate the specifically Parliamentary roles of the Library from its wider information responsibilities, so the Library as a whole would have to be on the “Parliamentary” side of the divide
  • Core Serjeant functions of ceremonial, security and order in the Chamber and Committee Rooms, which are also directly related to proceedings, and would have to be provided by a small Department headed by the Serjeant at Arms, but without his works, communications and housekeeping responsibilities
  • The Official Report, which operates entirely in the support of proceedings

29.    The “twin” model now starts to look rather less logical; the chief executive is responsible for finance, personnel, catering, works, housekeeping and IT, but nothing else. Moreover, the financial authority for the Parliamentary side rests not with the Clerk, who is in operational charge of it, but with someone of equal rank over whom he has no control, and to whom he will be a suppliant in seeking funds for support of the House’s core business.

30.    The scope of the chief executive’s responsibilities now makes his or her Grade 1 level difficult to sustain. Rather more services are run at the moment by three Officers, none of whom is above Grade 3, and all of whom would be required in any new organisation.

31.    There are other objections to this type of structure:

  • it would encourage the development of two different cultures in two separate House services, exacerbating a problem which needs addressing in the current structure
  • it would make much-needed House-wide corporate operation virtually impossible
  • it would not provide greater clarity
  • it would institutionalise the possibility of conflict between the House’s two most senior Officers

32.    We are aware that a few Parliaments (for example New Zealand and the French Assemblée Nationale) have a divided service; but in rather different circumstances:

    In New Zealand the Parliamentary Service is an administrative agency which provides support services, but includes responsibility for the equivalent of the Members’ Salaries etc Vote. The operation is also rather smaller; the Parliament of New Zealand is less than one-fifth the size of the House of Commons.

    In France’s 577-member Assemblée Nationale, the Secrétaire Général de l’Assemblée et de la Présidence is responsible for the equivalents of all the services we listed in paragraph 26, while the Secrétaire Général de la Questure is responsible for finance, personnel, catering, security, works and transport. The two Secretaries-General are of equal rank. However, most of the senior staff in all Departments are fast-stream graduate entrants (equivalent to the Clerk entry in the House of Commons) and move freely between the two services, which are in fact more unified than the structure suggests.

33.    We also note that the Swedish Riksdag is now exploring ways of merging services, and bringing the separate Administration and Finance Agency under the control of the Secretary-General of the Riksdag. The Canadian House of Commons experimented with a divided service, but the experience was not thought to be a success; some of the difficulties we have identified for this model were encountered. The Canadian House has now returned to a system in which the Clerk of the House is in overall charge of all Parliamentary and support services. This is by far the most widespread model in Parliaments of Commonwealth and EU countries.

A “service grouping”

34.    We are sure that the full “twin” or health service model is not appropriate; but elements of this approach may nevertheless be used to group support services at a lower level, with the manager of those services reporting to the Clerk of the House. There has been a trend in this direction since the Ibbs Report: the Parliamentary Works Directorate was placed in the Department of the Serjeant at Arms, as also was the Parliamentary Communications Directorate when it was created. We suggest in paragraphs 15.67 and 15.68 that this should remain an option, but that it should not be part of the immediate changes.

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Prepared 26 July 1999