House of Commons Commission - Twenty-Third Annual Report

Twenty-third Annual Report 2000-01

House of Commons Services
         12.  The Finance and Services Committee has responsibility for detailed scrutiny of the House's budget. Its practice has been to examine the Estimates figures in the context of the three year expenditure projection submitted by the Board of Management in the summer, concentrating principally on changes to those projections in the autumn when the draft Estimates are prepared. The Committee's report on these matters to the Commission forms an important part of our control of the overall expenditure of the House. The Committee has also considered the financial aspect of particular matters referred to it by the Commission. The Chairman of the Committee is a member of the Commission, providing a necessary link between the two bodies.
         13.  The Domestic Committees have continued to provide advice and act as a channel for Members' views about House services and other matters which form the subject of this Report. The Commission acknowledges the advisory work of the Domestic Committees.
Introduction for New Members
         14.  We welcome the measures put in place by the Departments of the House to assist new Members in the new Parliament. These have been on a more comprehensive scale than hitherto and we are sure they will assist new Members to take up their duties effectively.
Management of the House
         15.  We reported last year on the presentation of the Braithwaite Report on management and services and the debate on it in the House in January 2000. The changes proposed in the Report were made in the context of improved administrative and financial management which had been put in place by the Board of Management over several years from the time of the Ibbs Report, agreed to by the House in 1991. However, the Braithwaite review revealed a number of organisational weaknesses which needed addressing. Among these were the audit function, more effective centralised management control and the need for strategic planning.
         16.  The first of the two Braithwaite recommendations mentioned in the previous paragraph led to the setting up of the Audit Committee, which was appointed by the Commission with two Commissioners as members, including the Committee's present Chairman Mrs Angela Browning and Mr Archy Kirkwood. The Audit Committee's first annual report is appended to this Report [see page 86]. We are grateful for the careful scrutiny which the Committee undertakes in this area and for the work of its first Chairman, the Rt Hon Sir George Young, during his time as a Commissioner.
         17.  The Office of the Clerk is now well established as a vital link in the co-ordination of House administration and services, ensuring more efficient handling of the complex issues surrounding them. A Communications Adviser has been a useful addition to the office.
         18.  On strategic planning, we note the progress being made by the Board of Management to integrate the business planning of each department into an overall strategic plan for the House. We welcome that move toward more comprehensive and effective management which we expect will go hand-in-hand with the provision of high quality service to Members and best practice employment of staff. We note from the Report of the Board of Management that levels of activity are up in almost all areas.
         19.  On the structural side of the administration, the new Legal Services Office is proving to be a very useful service for the Clerk of the House and the House service in general, which we welcome.
Information Systems and Information Technology
         20.  We continue to attach considerable importance to the need for Parliament to be properly supported by an efficient information system. On 30 November 2000, the Information Committee published its Second Report of Session 1999-2000, Information Technology provision for Members. The Committee agreed with the Parliamentary Communications Directorate that development of the Parliamentary Data and Video Network (PDVN) was complicated by the great diversity of IT hardware and software in use by Members and their staff. At present, Members are responsible for buying their own equipment using the Office Costs Allowance, which is borne on the Members' Vote. The Committee recommended that standardised IT equipment and software should instead be provided by the House. It may now be possible to implement a recommendation on these lines following a sympathetic response from the Senior Salaries Review Body (SSRB), which reviewed parliamentary pay and allowances (Report No. 48, Cm 4997-II). A decision of the House on this important matter is imminent.
         21.  The Committee also called upon the Government to make available funding for a "Virtual Private Network", which would offer Members more secure and reliable access to the PDVN from their constituencies, something that is now of considerable concern. We trust that the fullest consideration will be given to the possibility by government.
         22.  More generally we welcome the development of an IS strategy for the House as a whole. We consider this to be a matter of high priority and noting its potential expenditure implications, we intend to conduct a review of this subject during the next financial year.
Line of Route tours
         23.  In January 2000 the House approved a Report from the Administration Committee recommending that, on a trial basis, the Line of Route be re-opened to visitors during the Summer Adjournment. Between 7 August and 16 September over 40,000 visitors took part in such tours. They were escorted by Blue Badge Guides, for whose services visitors each paid £3.50.
         24.  Based on the responses from visitors, the Administration Committee concluded that the tours had been a considerable success in terms of value for money and the quality of both the tours themselves and of the guides. The Committee has, therefore, recommended that the experiment be repeated during the 2001 Summer Adjournment. We acknowledge the achievement in re-opening the Line of Route during the Summer Adjournment, although it will be for the House to take the final decision whether to make the opening permanent.
Portcullis House
         25.  The project has been completed on time and within budget. All the offices in the building, which has accommodation for 210 Members, have been allocated and Members and their staff have moved in. Committees of the House have started to use the committee rooms; the building has now become a visible and indispensable part of the House's facilities. Details of the occupancy of Portcullis House are contained in the report of the Board of Management but we record our appreciation of all those who contributed to ensuring that it was a relatively smooth process.
         26.  Shortly after publication of our last Annual Report, the House was given leave to appeal the interim damages granted by the Judge in the case of Harmon CFEM Facades (UK) Limited -v- The Corporate Officer of the House of Commons.
         27.  During August, an out-of-court settlement was reached at a figure of £5.26 million. As made clear in parliamentary answers, the settlement was made in the light of legal advice and in the knowledge that because of Harmon's insolvency the House would recover nothing, whilst incurring further substantial legal costs by proceeding with the action.
Printing and Publishing
         28.  The Printing and Publishing Management Group has continued to provide effective supervision in the area of printing and publishing and the increasingly important area of electronic publication. We note and welcome the fact that the savings resulting from the new contracts awarded to The Stationery Office are estimated to amount to £2 million even though the number of several categories of House documents has continued to grow in excess of original estimates. We also welcome the developing scheme to move origination of the content of the Vote Bundle under the House's direct control.
Information for the Public
         29.  We are pleased to note that since our last report considerable progress has been made on developing and coordinating a strategy for provision of information to the public about the House. The Group on Information for the Public (GIP) has played a vital role in this important area of communication with the public and ensuring that Parliament's role is more clearly and widely understood. We strongly support this initiative.
Freedom of Information
         30.  With the passing of the Freedom of Information Act in November 2000, there has been a need for Parliament to assess how it can best deal with requests for information under the Act, bearing in mind the exemption of parliamentary privilege. A Freedom of Information Officer is to be appointed and work is continuing among a group of officials in the House who are in touch with a similar group working in the Lords.
Personnel Matters
         31.  The Commission, as part of best employment practice, is concerned with ensuring that the House service is open, fair and non-discriminatory. We also endorse a challenging programme of equal opportunities and diversity measures put in place by the Board of Management, which includes a training programme for senior management. We will be kept informed about this policy and its implementation.
         32.  House-wide personnel matters are co-ordinated by the Planning and Management Committee (PMC) and we are grateful for its work in the development of pay and personnel policies appropriate to the needs of the House. Further details of these matters, which include important health and safety policies, childcare arrangements and a proposed audit of stress, are described in the Board of Management's report.
Whitley Committee
         33.  Negotiations on pay and conditions of service and consultations on the issues outlined above, and other matters not requiring Commission approval, were conducted through the recognised unions, the main Whitley Committee and its Sub-Committees.

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Prepared 17 July 2001