Review of Management and Services: Report to the House of Commons Commission Part 15



The House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978

15.1    We have sought to avoid the need for legislation, and are confident that our recommendations can be implemented within the framework of the 1978 Act.

The House of Commons Commission

Role and operation

15.2    This must remain the overall supervisory and policy–making body. It is of the right size and is fully able to exercise the necessary authority. The heavy commitments of Commissioners mean that a substantial increase in volume of business or frequency of meetings is not realistic. Provided the Finance and Services Committee plays its full part, and works closely with the Board of Management, we think only a small increase in Commission business will result from our recommendations.

15.3    It is important that all the Members of the Commission should, as at present, be people with real and extensive knowledge of the House.

15.4    Commission time is at a premium, so:

  • business must be thoroughly prepared for Commission consideration
  • there must be tough notice periods for Commission papers, to allow Commissioners to prepare and, when necessary, to ask for further briefing or analysis, and for that briefing to be prepared. This will feed down the line in terms of lead times for Committees and Departments
  • there must be an authoritative — and consistent — filtering of less important business; a matter should go to the Commission because no–one else should take the decision, not because no–one else can be found who is prepared to
  • with the same aim, the Commission should delegate authority to the Finance and Services Committee, or to the Clerk, to approve variations to plans and estimates within prescribed limits. We envisage that this will not be a blanket authority, still less a statutory delegation, but part of the decision–making process, varying case by case
  • where possible, it should be normal practice to provide the Commission with valid costed options (not thinly disguised Hobson’s choices)
  • the Commission should agree a longer–term programme of meeting dates. This will encourage more orderly preparation of Agendas, and Committees and Departments will be able to aim over a longer period at a submission for a specific meeting


15.5    If the Commission is to operate in the way envisaged by Ibbs, it must have appropriate political and official support. Experience has shown that the post–Ibbs system is not providing this. We consider the question of political support at paragraph 15.17 (Finance and Services Committee); and the question of official support at paragraph 15.38 (the Clerk of the House).

15.6    The Secretary to the Commission has a crucial role. He should retain his present confidential and personal relationship with the Commission. He should be supported by, and able to draw upon, the resources of the Office of the Clerk (see paragraph 15.46); but he should not be part of that Office.

Strategic assessment

15.7    With the development of more corporate and long–term thinking in the Board of Management, and the improvement of financial information, the Commission is increasingly in a position to take a strategic view. However, matters coming to the Commission are naturally predicated on previous decisions, which encourages an incremental approach. The Commission should consider and approve a strategic plan as a framework within which the Board of Management can work.

15.8    The strategic plan will have a number of elements:

  • overall policies for the provision of services
  • long–term resource priorities
  • development priorities, including the introduction of new services
  • approach to House–wide issues
  • the extent to which elastic demand should be met
  • response to factors outside the control of the House administration, such as the implications of changes in the Office Costs Allowance

15.9    The Board of Management, the Office of the Clerk and the Department of Finance and Administration will support the Commission in this; and we suggest that the plan should be formulated before the end of the present Parliament, so that any necessary changes may be put in place for the next Parliament.

15.10    There will be a substantial amount of work involved, and this may mean some compromise between tackling individual areas, where policy development is most urgent, and a fully co–ordinated set of policies. However, the strategic overview implied by the latter must be achieved — not least to make the most effective use of resource accounting and budgeting. Once in place, the strategic plan will need annual updating in the context of the integrated four–year review of financial plans.


15.11    The information made available to the Commission should be improved. Commissioners should have a high–level version of the Board of Management monthly report (see paragraph 5.46) in an easily assimilable form with a brief commentary. Periodic comparison and benchmark information might also be helfpul.

Public profile

15.12    We have noted that the Commission remains a shadowy body to many Members, and that it has not taken the more public profile recommended by Ibbs. We think that there is a balance to be struck. A higher profile could well encourage lobbying of a sort which would short–circuit and confuse the proper routes, and which might make it difficult for the Commission to deliberate in the conditions of absolute confidentiality and frankness which serve the House well.

15.13    In terms of information after the event, on the other hand, some changes might be made. The Commission’s deliberations are recorded in considerable detail in minutes which go only to the Commissioners themselves. This is right: not only does the Commission deal with matters of considerable sensitivity, but in general the decision–making process is not helped by subsequent dissection in a wider forum.

15.14    The Secretary of the Commission informs key players of Commission decisions very quickly after a meeting, in the form of the briefest of notes, with oral explanation where necessary. We have some sympathy with those who feel that they could implement Commission decisions more effectively if they knew more of the background. “Part I (confidential) and Part II (public) minutes” have been suggested, but we do not think this is a practical solution. The Office of the Clerk will have the task of following up Commission decisions with Departments. We think this process will provide much of what is needed. In addition, as we suggested in paragraphs 11.19ff, certain Commission decisions that have implications for Members might be made available via a supplement to the Whip and on the Intranet.

15.15    The Commission Annual Report should reflect improvements in financial and other information as these are made, and should set out the main elements of the strategic plan, and the parts Departments will play, once it is in place.

15.16    The arrangements for oral and written Questions to the Commission appear satisfactory. Important Answers should be included in the Whip/Intranet exercise.

The Finance and Services Committee

Role and composition

15.17    The Ibbs F&S concept was a good one, but it has not worked in practice, and its aims must be achieved in another way. Experience has shown that political preparation and support for the Commission needs to be more focused, and the body responsible for it needs to have a much closer relationship with the Commission.

15.18    The Finance and Services Committee should be smaller, and act as an Executive Committee of the Commission. Its members should include two Commissioners: one as Chairman; the second, we think, should be the Leader of the House, as in the 1992 Parliament. Their involvement in, and direction of the work of the Committee will ensure that the Committee operates in accordance with the Commission’s wishes. In turn, the Commission should be able to have absolute confidence in the Committee’s advice.

15.19    We think an appropriate membership would be seven (two Commissioners, three back–benchers and the Government and Opposition Deputy Chief Whips), with a quorum of three. The Commission’s views on the back–bench nominations will be very important; it will be for consideration whether the nomination Motion for F&S should be made formally on behalf of the Commission.

15.20    The duties of F&S are made explicit in S.O. No 144. However, it may at the request of the Commission have to perform a wider range of functions than are listed there, and the Commission must be able to task it. The terms of paragraph (1) of the Standing Order could thus be greatly simplified; “to consider expenditure on and services for the House, subject to directions from the House of Commons Commission”.

15.21    It will be important for F&S and the Board of Management to meet jointly from time to time, possibly on strategic issues, but perhaps with a looser agenda. This should be on the terms of close co–operation appropriate to executive and non–executive directors.


15.22    The Chairman of F&S will continue to be a key figure. We have considered the use made by some Parliaments of Quaestors: Members with special responsibility for House administration, or for particular areas of it. Such Members have a quasi–executive function, and the system allows a degree of political authority to be sought without involving the slower machinery of committees.

15.23    We think that the Chairman of F&S should take on a role of this sort but without formal executive powers. He or she would be available for consultation and guidance: in the preparation of matters for the Commission and F&S; to the Clerk; and to the Chairmen of domestic committees. His advice and authority would assist the House Service in responding to suggestions and complaints from Members. He would be entirely in the Speaker’s confidence, and would be able to share some of the Speaker’s burdens of this type of business. He could be Deputy Chairman of the Commission if the Commission saw fit.

15.24    The Chairman of F&S should be a senior Member of the House with long experience, and commanding wide respect. A modest amount of staff time (supplied by the Office of the Clerk) might be necessary to help the Chairman to cope with the work involved. The duties of the post raise the question of whether the Chairman should be paid and, if so, at what level. We think it would be appropriate for this to be considered by the Review Body on Senior Salaries should they revisit the broader issue (Recommendation 8 on the subject was not pursued in their Report No. 36 of July 1996).

15.25    We would expect the Chairman of F&S to keep in close touch with the Chairmen of the Domestic Committees, who will have an important part to play in the new arrangements.

Powers, information and support

15.26    F&S should continue to have all the normal powers of a Select Committee in the unforeseen event that they were needed; but we envisage that it would operate in an exclusively deliberative role. It would invite any Member or Officer it wished to assist it — including, when appropriate, Chairmen of Parliamentary Parties, Whips, or Chairmen of domestic committees. Its approach would be pragmatic.

15.27    F&S should have the monthly high–level report prepared for the Commission, expanded as necessary to meet F&S’s requirements. The Committee will have a role in monitoring progress towards performance targets, and challenging where necessary.

15.28    The F&S minutes will be working documents, not vehicles for wider information. It would, however, be able to select items or decisions for wider Whip/Intranet circulation, as we outlined in paragraphs 11.19ff.

15.29    From the management point of view, however, there should be the maximum transparency. F&S minutes should go to the Commission, to the Board of Management, and to other managers and budget holders as necessary.

15.30    The Secretary of the Commission should continue to be Clerk of F&S, underlining the close relationship between the two bodies.

The domestic committees

Formal or informal?

15.31    We have identified a number of ways in which the domestic committees have not always operated according to the Ibbs prescription; and we note the warning in the Ibbs Report that “for the changes suggested by this review to succeed it will be important that the new arrangements should be set out clearly and unambiguously and then adhered to”.

15.32    During our inquiry we encountered a considerable body of opinion which favoured the abolition of the domestic committees, or their reconstitution as informal consumer groups with wider membership, perhaps including staff.

15.33    On balance, however, we consider the present domestic committees to be a useful part of the system, both as representatives of views in the House, and as a means of involving Members directly in advising on the provision of services. All are concerned with matters which affect Members directly, and they are also invaluable in considering and advising on “political” matters which may not always have direct expenditure implications, many of which fall to the Administration Committee. The ability of the Chairmen of the domestic committees to answer written Questions is also a factor.

Addressing the problems

15.34    The problems we have identified in the operation of the domestic committees should be addressed as follows:

  • it must be clearly understood that the committees should operate according to the Ibbs prescription. Their main role is to make policy recommendations, for eventual consideration by the Commission. If they discuss executive matters, they do so as consumer groups in close consultation with the appropriate Officers of the House, who remain responsible for the delivery of services. This does not affect any matters formally delegated by the Commission (see Annex D)
  • a detailed statement of their role and method of operation, taking into account other elements of the revised system we recommend, should be authorised by the Commission. This will help both the Committees, and the Officers of the House with whom they deal, to be clear exactly where they stand
  • Although Ibbs stressed the necessity of close consultation with appropriate Officers of the House, the relationship — even in informal meetings — tends still to be one of Committee and witnesses. For the relationship to succeed, it will need to be much more one of executive and non-executive directors jointly discussing problems and working towards solutions
  • The power of the domestic committees to appoint specialist advisers, although not extensively used, reflects the polarisation which has occurred. If outside advice is required, it would be far better for both Members and Officers to draw upon it in the same way; and it need not be obtained via the formal appointment of a specialist adviser. We also observe that Heads of Department have continuing responsibility for advice; outside advisers do not. We therefore recommend that the power to appoint specialist advisers should be removed
  • We expect that the domestic committees will operate even more on an informal basis than has been the case so far. It is nevertheless possible that they may need to use formal proceedings. We therefore think it appropriate that they should continue to have the formal powers of sending for persons, papers and records, communication of evidence, and holding joint meetings
  • the Board of Management and Departments will operate within a strategic framework laid down by the Commission. The domestic committees will therefore need to be aware of that framework and of overall policy priorities, so that they can see how their recommendations fit into the big picture (and are aware of the implications if a recommendation is at odds with broader priorities) A corollary of this is that the Commission should be able to instruct domestic committees (for example to consider particular matters) as well as delegating authority to them
  • to maintain co–ordination within the strategic framework, no Departmental paper should be submitted to a domestic committee without being approved by the Board of Management, or under arrangements made by the Board
  • domestic committees should be aware of expenditure implications of their recommendations. F&S will continue to advise the Commission on expenditure implications and priorities, but any recommendation from a domestic committee to the Commission or F&S should be accompanied by a formal assessment of costs and benefits
  • Members and staff could be made generally aware of the work of the domestic committees through the Whip and Intranet (see paragraphs 11.19ff) including views and recommendations (with sensitive material excluded), and, especially, notice of matters which were to be considered. This would allow timely representations to be made
  • the need for greater experience in financial and management matters in the Clerk’s Department may make Clerkships of domestic committees appropriate fast–stream development posts


15.35    We suggest that the Commission might review the operation of the domestic committees towards the end of this Parliament or early in the next. If our suggestions for reinforcing the Ibbs prescription have not worked, then it may be time to consider some more informal arrangement.


15.36    Ibbs thought that “within a few years” it would be possible to incorporate the broadcasting of proceedings into the remit of the Administration Committee.

15.37    We think that this time has now come, and recommend that the Broadcasting Committee be abolished.

The Clerk of the House


15.38    If the services of the House are to be strategically planned, and delivered in an effective and co–ordinated way, there must be one person who can ensure that policies are implemented across the House Service; and one person must be eventually accountable for the performance of that Service as a whole.

15.39    Ibbs was clear that the Clerk of the House should be, in effect, the Chief Executive of the House Service. We are firmly of the view that this remains the correct solution. Rapid change over the last two to three years has meant that the present Clerk is in fact operating as the Chief Executive. Many of the recent improvements in management and governance have been driven by him, and the role of the Clerk is now much more than the primus inter pares described by Ibbs.

15.40    We are well aware of other models of governance, and we examine them further in Annex G.

15.41    But our view is that radical change is not necessary. There is no longer the situation of near–crisis which Ibbs found. The Ibbs settlement was broadly correct, and has been more fully realised over the last two to three years. With the efforts of those involved, it has delivered major improvements. The priorities now are enhancements of strategic and financial planning, management information, value for money and corporate working. With the recommendations that we are making, the present framework is perfectly capable of delivering these.

15.42    In addition to those that may flow from our recommendations, the House Service will have to cope with major changes in the near and middle term, related to such matters as: resource accounting and budgeting, devolution, Modernisation Committee recommendations, Lords reform, the impact of human rights legislation, accommodation moves, IT developments, data protection, and freedom of information. In these circumstances, fundamental governance change of doubtful validity would be unnecessary and irresponsible.

Executive authority

15.43    As we noted in paragraph 4.62, two types of change are necessary to support and extend the role which the Clerk of the House is now playing. The authority he is able to exert must fully match the responsibility he carries; and he needs appropriate staff support.

15.44    The first should be achieved by giving the Clerk formal line responsibility for the other Heads of Department. The present informal arrangements must be replaced by a system which makes clear that he formulates their job descriptions and objectives; they report to him; and he is able to direct them and appraise their performance. The Clerk will be able to inform and consult the Commission in this process.

15.45    In some respects this will not be a very substantial change. We envisage that it would be done by a new Instrument of Delegation made by the Commission. Heads of Department should have a right of access to the Commission on matters which are of vital importance to their Departments and in respect of which a difficulty cannot be resolved in any other way. The Instrument of Delegation could make this explicit.

Office of the Clerk

15.46    The Clerk’s role is already an onerous one, combining executive responsibilities and the affairs of the House.

15.47    We recommend the establishment of an Office of the Clerk. This Office, whose staff will need to be of the highest quality, will assist the Clerk, but will also support the improved decision–making structures which will follow our recommendations. In particular it will:

  • support the work of the Clerk of the House and the Chairman of F&S in administration business
  • support the Clerk in House business with a Private Secretary function (as for the Clerk’s Permanent Secretary equivalents in Whitehall)
  • help co–ordinate the work of the Board of Management and F&S in serving the Commission
    • co–ordinate submissions, and set in hand work required to underpin decision–making
    • chase progress
    • provide support for the Commission as requested by the Secretary to the Commission
    • provide a secretariat for the Board of Management
    • keep in close touch with the work of domestic committees, with a member of the Office in attendance at meetings.

15.48    The Office’s workload will be substantial, but it should remain small (we envisage three administrative and two support staff) and its members should be selected by the Clerk. The Head of the Office should not normally be a member of the Clerk’s Department. The Office should be located close to the Clerk.

15.49    Salary costs on the illustrative basis of 1xSCS (Grade 5), 2xBand A2 (Grade 7), 1xBand B2 (Grade 10 HEO) and 1x Band C (Grade 2 Secretary) would total about £170K. This will be an additional cost, but for something we are sure is essential; no corporate body of the size, complexity (and political exposure) of the House Service would operate without a central resource of this kind. In any event, we think it a reasonable challenge for the administration to finance the Office out of savings elsewhere.

15.50    The House’s spending and administration is of disproportionate interest to the media. A corporate function which is needed, and which is available nowhere in the House at the moment, is a means of dealing with media inquiries which need official responses or statements of policy. An ad hoc approach has considerable dangers. We emphasise that this is not about “press relations” or pro–active briefing. What is essential is that any statement is authorised, co–ordinated, and given at a single point. The detail of this will need further discussion, but the Office of the Clerk could play a useful co–ordinating role.

The Board of Management

15.51    The Board should continue to perform its Ibbs role as the point at which estimates, budgets, performance targets and actual results are brought together. It should have a close relationship with F&S, meeting jointly when necessary. It will expand its developing role in strategic planning and in consideration of House–wide issues.

15.52    We envisage that the Board will make its methods of operation still more flexible, continuing its use of working groups and outside professional advice, and co–opting others such as the Directors of Works and Communications when required.

15.53    The Board should develop and extend its use of preparatory and supporting committees. Up to now the relationship has been principally with PMC and PMC(F). We would prefer to see a greater equivalence between these two and the other cross-departmental groups. Renaming would underline this change, perhaps along the lines of: manpower, finance, IT, accommodation, printing and publishing. Whether they are called committees, groups or management groups is a matter of taste; but the names should be consistent.

15.54    We are sure that the present ad hoc Information Working Party will be needed in the long term. It should become the sixth subject group reporting to the Board of Management; and it would be sensible for information within the organisation as well as for the public to be part of its remit.

15.55    We would expect the Board increasingly to task the groups with preparatory work, and to refer detailed questions to them for analysis and advice. The membership of the groups should not be immutable, and could be varied by the Clerk, consulting the Board as necessary.

15.56    The responsibilities of the groups may need to be varied; for example, as manpower planning techniques develop, it may be more effective to link this with other planning undertaken by the finance group.

15.57    In the 1997-98 Commission Annual Report the activities of the PMC and the Information Systems Steering Group were reported in separate annexes. We think that the work of all the groups should be reviewed in the Commission Annual Report; but, to reflect the corporate nature of the exercise, this should form part of the Board of Management’s contribution.

15.58    The existence of the subject groups should not prevent the Board establishing other bodies for particular tasks; but in every case a “sunset clause” should make their continued existence subject to review by the Board.

15.59    We would expect to see cross–Departmental project structures and processes used where appropriate. This has already been the case for IT convergence, for example; and a project group is being formed to handle accommodation changes. A prime candidate for project treatment would be the implementation of resource accounting and budgeting; and there will no doubt be others.

15.60    There is at present no effective mechanism for the regular formal review of major capital expenditure. This task should be carried out by the Board separately from its consideration of wider expenditure plans and estimates. We envisage that the Director of Finance and Administration would prepare an annual report on capital projects (defined by appropriate characteristics and thresholds) for consideration by the Board. This report, with the Board’s views and recommendations, would be submitted via F&S to the Commission. It will be important to time this exercise so that any decisions can be taken into account in the preparation of Departments’ business plans and of the Estimates.

15.61    The revised Commission Instrument of Delegation will need to reflect the developing role of the Board.

15.62    The Board should be supported by the Office of the Clerk, and a member of that Office should be its Secretary.

15.63    The Clerk of the House, as Chairman of the Board, will need to act in a wholly corporate, House–wide way. He cannot do this if he is also responsible for the interests of his own Department. The Clerk’s Department should therefore be separately represented, by an Officer at SCS Band 6 (Grade 2) level nominated by the Clerk.

15.64    Although the Clerk naturally remains as head of profession in view of his unchanged Parliamentary responsibilities, management matters should devolve to the Board representative to the extent necessary to make the Clerk’s overall load manageable.

15.65    As we noted in paragraphs 4.63 and 4.72, members of the Board of Management will need to enlarge their management skills and knowledge. This process should extend downwards into Departments to improve the quality of management and to aid succession planning.

15.66    Board Members other than the Clerk may need to delegate some of their Departmental functions if their Board workload requires it.

Departmental structure

15.67    We have considered carefully whether there should be a reorganisation of House Departments. Options might include:

  • increasing the number (perhaps with the PWD and PCD becoming independent Departments)
  • reducing the number, for greater simplicity and fewer reports to the Clerk. Options here include making the Refreshment Department a Directorate under the Serjeant at Arms, and moving the Official Report into the Clerk’s Department
  • an explicitly service–orientated grouping (including works, catering and housekeeping) under an Officer other than the Serjeant (although, as will be clear from our discussion in Annex G, this would involve extensive consequential change)

15.68    We do not yet think there is a basis for an informed decision on this:

  • the outcome of the review of the different elements of the Serjeant’s Department must be available, and its recommendations evaluated
  • our other recommendations need to bed down so that better financial information can inform decisions
  • we believe that there should not be more turbulence than will result from our present recommendations
  • unit cost and other information will inform a view on outsourcing, which could have structural implications
  • a piecemeal approach is not an option; any change will impact on the rest of the organisation and must be done as a package.

There may prove to be a case for change, however, and we suggest that the Commission considers the matter again in time for any new structure to be in place early in the next Parliament.


15.69    We noted in paragraph 5.24 that the value for money (VFM) studies recommended by Ibbs had in fact fallen to the Internal Review Service (formerly Internal Audit), assisted by NAO personnel. Little work of this type has been undertaken:

  • a VFM audit of Library research services was not carried through
  • a study of heritage assets was completed
  • a review of day–to–day maintenance of the Parliamentary Estate is in progress.

We do not include the mid–term review of Portcullis House, which is not strictly a VFM study.

15.70    We think that a greater emphasis on VFM work, with the assistance of the NAO, would give the Clerk of the House greater assurance both as Accounting Officer and in respect of his overall responsibility for the House Service. It would also provide greater resilience to external challenge.

15.71    It must be recognised that some activities will be more suitable for VFM examination than others. For example, direct support of Parliamentary business, and the implementation of the House’s decisions, may be amenable to examination of economy and efficiency; but effectiveness, as it tends to “worth”, may not be appropriate.

15.72     The control and direction of audit deserves further examination. The Clerk of the House and the Finance and Services Committee approve the internal audit programme, and it is to them that reports are made. There must be an audit committee function, but it does not seem to us to have been performed by F&S as at present constituted.

15.73    There would be merit in separating the audit function from the tasks of the “new” F&S, and in taking the opportunity to improve governance arrangements by including an external element, in line with best practice elsewhere. We therefore recommend that an Audit Committee be constituted, with the following membership

  • a member of the Commission as Chairman (who should not be a member of F&S)
  • a second member of the Commission (again, not a member of F&S)
  • the Clerk of the House
  • the Director of Finance and Administration
  • someone with appropriate qualifications from outside the House

15.74    The Internal Review Service would make its reports to the Committee, which would also approve the audit programme. In doing so, it would take account of any views expressed by F&S and by the Commission. Management letters and any other external audit material would be made available to the Committee. The Committee would produce an annual report, which would be appended to that of the Commission. Direct line responsibility for the Internal Review Service would remain with the Clerk of the House.

15.75    The Ibbs Report took the view that value for money studies should be subject to review by the Public Accounts Committee as part of its annual programme of work. This has not happened (not least because of the paucity of VFM material). In our view, the Audit Committee should report to the Commission, which would be able to take any further action required. Taking the special circumstances of Parliament into account, we judge that this would provide adequate separation of authority.

“Broadly in line”

15.76    Section 2(2) of the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978 provides that the complementing, grading and pay of staff in the House Departments and, so far as consistent with the requirements of the House, the other conditions of service, should be kept “broadly in line” with those in the Home Civil Service.

15.77    It was suggested to us during our inquiry that this provision had been interpreted too narrowly, and that some initiatives in the Civil Service, especially in the personnel field, had been applied inappropriately to staff of the House. We therefore took Counsel’s Opinion on the construction of this provision.

15.78    On the basis of that Opinion, we are able to say that the decisive factor should be the judgement of what is appropriate to the service of the House. This would include not only the “requirements” foreseen in the Act (which seem to have been based mainly on exigencies such as sitting hours) but any other factor related to the special characteristics of the House service.

15.79    Changes in the Civil Service have widened the range of comparators in recent years; but in any event we consider that there should no statutory barrier to policies best fitted to a Parliamentary service.


15.80    The recommendations of this Review are a carefully considered package rather than an á la carte menu. Most are interdependent, and will need to be implemented as a whole. We now turn to the means of doing so.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 26 July 1999