Review of Management and Services: Report to the House of Commons Commission Part 12




12.1    Actual and forecast demand for services is a key element in planning. It immediately raises the questions of how far demand can be managed, and the extent to which it should be met. Demand for some House services (or the extent to which that demand can be met) is relatively inelastic. To take two examples; only a certain number of Private Members’ Bills will get into Standing Committee and require all the associated services; and, no matter what the demand for meeting rooms, the supply is finite.

12.2    Alternatively, the requirement for services may be driven by activity, not demand: the daily Hansard will be the length required by proceedings; variations in demand will be limited to the numbers of copies required.

A case study: Library research services

12.3    There has been significant growth in demand for some services. Library research services are a case in point and one worth examining in some detail. In 1979 the Library logged 5,700 research inquiries; by 1998 the figure had risen by some 155% to 14,700. The trend continues upward; and “logged” research inquiries are only one area; the research service deals with some 15–16,000 “quick inquiries” a year, and inquiries dealt with by other parts of the Library are running at about 60,000 a year. For some time now, the resource implications have been a matter of concern.

12.4    The Library is well aware of the situation, and has given a great deal of careful thought to it. One line of approach has been to manage demand:

  • offering training for Members and their staff on the use of Library services. There may be other sources of information more easily and cheaply available which will provide what is wanted just as effectively. Library customer research has demonstrated that even those Members who make extensive use of Library facilities may know relatively little about routes for finding information other than the ones they are used to
  • managing individual queries: a question may seek more information, and so involve more work, than is necessary to provide what the Member really needs
  • managing services to provide more economical responses. For example, as an alternative to the more expensive bespoke research response, the Library has produced a range of “standard notes”. These cover the most frequently asked subject areas, are posted on the Intranet, and are regularly updated. It is interesting to note, though, that one of the few criticisms of Library services detected by the JLA survey was a wish for a more focused (and, no doubt, bespoke) response to research queries

12.5    Another approach is to limit response to demand. With the endorsement of the Information Committee, the Library has identified categories of request which do not clearly relate to a Member’s Parliamentary duties, and which will receive a limited response, or no response. In practice, however, very few enquiries fall into this category. These restrictions are thus more about the propriety of use of resources than about limiting demand.

12.6    It does not appear that present means of managing or limiting demand will have a marked long–term effect on the rising demand for Library resources. We have been aware during our inquiry of a widespread feeling that the level of demand contains a substantial element of abuse; that Members’ staff are using Library services without proper authorisation from their employer. The level of abuse actually seems very low. Library staff are well aware of the possibility, and when necessary will ask for appropriate authority. But even this means of policing applies to a relatively small number of cases and, if the authority is forthcoming, the request is met anyway.

12.7    Some 32% of logged inquiries come directly from Members, and about 62% come from members’ authorised agents, mainly secretaries and research assistants. (The remaining 6% is accounted for by select committees and the other House Departments.) The real question is not one of abuse by Members’ staff; it is about the effect that the employment of staff has on demand. At one end of the spectrum a staffer may simply be the conduit for a Member’s verbatim inquiry; at the other, the staffer may have a subject or case delegated by the Member. This may give rise to a number of complex inquiries which will in fact be initiated by the staffer, but still under the Member’s authority. There are at present 1,950 Members’ staff, and when operating in either mode they will for practical purposes no doubt be treated as if they were Members.

12.8    There are two ways of tackling the resource implications. One is at the operational level, through establishment of priorities, efficiency savings and enforcement of rules. If this cannot satisfy demand without unacceptable burdens on staff, the problem can be solved only at strategic level, where the choice must made between additional resources or the level of service which can be provided with existing resources. This type of assessment will be one of the key elements to be considered in the strategic plan which we recommend later in this Report.

12.9    However, addressing the “free good” deals with only half the problem. A more profound difficulty is in the relationship between the taxpayer’s support for Members individually and on a House basis through the Administration and Works Votes.

The Members’ Vote and the Office Costs Allowance

12.10    The Members’ Salaries etc Vote was not part of the Ibbs recommendations and so was not a formal element in our review. However, throughout our inquiry it has been clear that the Office Costs Allowance (OCA) provided from this Vote is having an increasing effect on the Administration Vote and the services which that Vote funds.

12.11    The OCA was introduced in October 1969 and is available to each Member to cover office, secretarial, research, equipment and other costs. It stands at £50,264 for 1999-2000.

12.12    The use made by Members of their OCA impacts upon the Administration and Works Votes in a number of ways:

  • information technology and support, especially related to the wide variety of ways in which Members’ office IT is used (and the JLA survey showed that Members’ staff were significantly heavier users of IT than Members themselves)
  • accommodation: often depending on constituency location. Members with distant constituencies are likely to base some or all of their staff there; Members within easy reach of London can more easily base their staff at Westminster and not have to pay out of the OCA for accommodation and other services which their colleagues would have to provide in constituencies
  • research and other information services: the original intention was that the allowance would give Members their own research resource, with the expectation that this would reduce demands upon research facilities provided by the Library. The reverse seems to have been the case
  • security: checks, photopass provision and administration
  • catering
  • DFA services: payment of salaries, expenses and fees; administration associated with contract, job descriptions, pensions and redundancy. We also note that the SSRB has suggested that the House authorities might wish to consider whether additional independent personnel advice should be provided for Members and their staff
  • training: not only formal courses (such as on the PDVN) but also staff time spent on briefing or familiarising Members’ new staff

12.13    It should be noted that location of staff in constituencies will still place demands on IT support if they are connected to the PDVN via a remote link. There are at present some 1105 PDVN connections to staff in constituency offices. The effect on information services may be to increase reliance on what is placed on the Intranet.

12.14    We express no view upon the level or purpose of the OCA itself. It is for the Review Body on Senior Salaries to make recommendations, and for the Government and the House to take the necessary decisions. The difficulty is that changes in the level and use of the OCA have an unpredictable multiplier effect upon the very expenditure which, in this Report, we have sought to make more cost-effective and planned. And paradoxically, it is the House itself which approves both categories of expenditure. The problem is compounded by several factors:

  • the level of constituency work. Our inquiry showed growing emphasis upon constituency casework. Of its nature this is difficult to chart accurately, but some of the influences upon it may be:
    • increasing expectations on the part of constituents
    • electoral considerations (nothing new, but some party strategies in the present Parliament may have had an additional effect)
    • changes in sitting patterns, and hours of sitting, releasing Members from specifically Parliamentary activities
    • the speed of information technology contributing to expectation of faster responses

    Devolution seems unlikely to have a significant effect

  • Unpredictable changes in Members’ staff. Members value their flexibility in employing (and changing) their staff. But new staff usually start from a low level of knowledge of the House and its services, which makes them “inefficient customers” of those services: they do not know what is available or where to find it, and (from information services particularly) they often ask for more than would an experienced staffer. Some Members rarely change their staff; others do frequently, so benefits from training and familiarisation vary
  • the OCA is a total, without subheads. This gives Members the flexibility they need, but it creates planning problems: the split between staff, IT and office costs, with the on-cost implications of each, may be different in each case. For example, the Members we interviewed employed between 1 and 6 staff. The split may also be varied each year by Members’ individual decisions. Decisions on whether staff should be based at Westminster or in constituencies will also play a part, but there are likely to be constraints on rapid change
  • increased demands for staff: in 1996 the SSRB were advised by their consultants that, on average, a Member needed the equivalent of 2 to 2.5 full-time staff, and the SSRB recommended an OCA increase to accommodate this. Evidence presented to the SSRB’s latest review suggested that this element should be increased; but the SSRB reported that the matter lay outside their current remit. If present trends continue, however, this pressure is likely to remain
  • availability of accommodation: it is possible that improvements in accommodation, including the occupation of Portcullis House, may encourage some Members to relocate staff now in constituencies back to Westminster

12.15    As long as demands upon House expenditure are made in the ways we have described, these matters will remain issues in the long-term planning of services and facilities.

12.16    For its own purposes the House administration needs to be in a better position to gauge the likely effects of changes in the level and pattern of use of the OCA. The Director of Finance and Administration advises the SSRB, so far as possible, on the implications of likely recommendations; but we believe that better and more comprehensive information will be needed to inform strategic judgements at Commission and Board of Management level.

12.17    Representations have been made to us on behalf of Members’ staff on their conditions and status, urging central employment, with the staffing element removed from the OCA (as in Ireland, Belgium and Sweden, for example). This option was considered by the Review Body on Senior Salaries, but in their Report No. 43 (March 1999) the SSRB concluded that they should not make such a recommendation at this time. In our judgement, these issues have much in common with those raised by the separation of the Votes: as long as Members have their present responsibilities for their staff, the role of the House administration will be very limited.

12.18    Responding to Members’ staff as customers on behalf of Members is a different matter. The views of Members’ staff were canvassed in the JLA survey, and will no doubt be taken into account in the action plan to be formulated by the Board of Management. We trust that Members’ staff will be consulted in the follow-up surveys we have recommended

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Prepared 26 July 1999