Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Board of Management

  1.  The central task of the Board of Management is the management of resources to meet the requirements and demands of the House, whatever they may be, on behalf of the Commission. Staff who work in the House of Commons Service are motivated and keen to serve the House and Members as best they can; they do their utmost to adapt to meet whatever new demands the House chooses to make.

  2.  Some of the proposals in the Leader's memorandum (those relating for example to modernising scrutiny of the executive and legislation) are primarily for Members and others to consider. The Board notes that significant increases in the level of pre-legislative scrutiny, sifting of delegated legislation and, to a lesser extent, the use of Special Standing Committees would require increases in staff resources that could not be met within current budgets.

  3.  Other proposals, if taken forward, would have a significant and direct impact on the working life of the House and its staff. These are ultimately matters for the House of Commons Commission, but the Board offers some comments, which it hopes will be helpful to the Committee.

  4.  As a general principle, any significant alterations to the pattern of sitting would alter the terms and conditions of those staff closely involved with the work of the House and its Committees. Carrying such changes through would take planning by management, some investment and the support of the Trade Union Side. The more time the Board has to work with staff to prepare for and effect change, the more efficient any transition will be.


  5.  A more predictable sitting pattern would have positive implications for departments. Advance publication of sitting weeks would enable the timing of major capital projects to be finalised at an earlier stage, and make forward planning of services in general considerably simpler. If the roll-over of bills from one session to the next were to result in a smoothing of the peaks and troughs of work, that would enable departments to make more effective use of their staff.


  6.  There would be cost and service implications should the House choose to sit in September. The Palace is a World Heritage Site and requires a continuous programme of capital works in order to provide a safe and comfortable working environment for Members, their staff and staff of the House. The current summer recess provides a key opportunity for major projects to be completed with minimal disruption. Should the House choose to return in September, it is likely that Members may experience some inconvenience due to ongoing works to the buildings, information infrastructure or refreshment facilities (although every effort will be made to minimise the impact on Members).

  7.  September sittings may also have an impact on staff leave arrangements in certain departments, depending on when the House rises in July. Many staff in the House are permitted to take leave only when the House is in recess, and it may not be possible for all of them to take a summer break in July and August while retaining adequate cover across all offices. Furthermore, it may be that the October "conference recess" becomes a working period for some offices (for example the Committee Office) following activity in the September sitting weeks, and that some of August is taken up preparing for September meetings.

  8.  These factors taken together may mean that certain staff will, for the first time, be permitted to take leave when the House is sitting. This could have an impact on service levels and costs, though these are difficult to quantify (and may be alleviated by reductions in night allowances). Negotiating this with the Trade Union Side will be a challenge for management, and require some lead-in time.


  9.  The Leader's memorandum proposes a change in Wednesday sitting hours, with an earlier start in the morning. Though contentious business would end at 7.00 pm, the sitting itself would end at around 10.00 pm.

  10.  Avoidance of very late sittings might be expected to have a beneficial effect on the work-life balance of staff in all departments whose work is connected with the Chamber, or Members' presence in the House. However, it is also true that these staff have to stay at least until the rise of the House (whether the business is contentious or not), and possibly well after (an hour or more) to finalise Hansard and the next day's Vote Bundle.

  11.  Earlier Wednesday starts would affect staff. Some need to be in well ahead of sittings of the House or its Committees, for example Public Bill Office staff and Hansard reporters can be required an hour before the House/Committee meets.

  12.  It might not, therefore, be possible for current numbers of staff to meet these requirements without breaking the Working Time Regulations. The answer may lie in introducing more flexible working practices, but this will take time to arrange, and could increase costs. If the Wednesday proposal was extended to Tuesdays, the staffing and cost implications would further increase.

  13.  Furthermore, if the Chamber, Westminster Hall and Standing Committees were all to meet at the same time on two days a week, there would be a considerable stretch on those staff resources associated both with procedural services (the Clerk's Department, Hansard and the Department of the Serjeant at Arms) and associated support services for Members (the Library and the Refreshment Department).

  14.  There may also be cost implications for the House, and an impact on required staffing levels, if Refreshment Department takings on Wednesday nights decrease, as they have (dramatically) on Thursdays.


  15.  The Board hopes that, if morning statements are introduced, staff will have as much notice as possible about their timing and number. This will assist managers in planning staff rotas and the Table Office and Vote Office when producing the necessary documentation (eg the Order Paper).


  16.  Earlier delivery of written answers to Hansard would improve the production process and reduce the need for night staff.


  17.  One of the four core tasks in the Commission's strategic plan is "providing information and access to the public". The Board has been working on this for some time; and much of the work has been done by a group of officials reporting to it, the Group on Information for the Public (GIP). GIP has already worked on the pilot of webcasting, and is also currently doing initial work on a Visitor Centre feasibility study. The Finance and Services Committee is planning to look at some of the resource implications of visitor facilities shortly. GIP has been involved in the preparations for opening of the new Visitor Café, due next month.

  18.  The Board notes that there will be knock-on implications for visitor access if the parliamentary timetable, and the House's hours of sitting, are changed. If the House sits from 11.30 am on a Wednesday this will reduce the opportunities for accompanied parties to walk the Line of Route on sitting weekdays. A "split recess" might also affect the summer Line of Route opening (if a suitable six-week block of time in July and August could not be found).


  19.  The Leader's memorandum proposes extensions to the education programme. It would certainly be possible to expand the work of the Education Service, given the necessary resources and agreement from the House of Lords (which currently pays 30 per cent of the costs of the Education Unit). The form of any new services would need careful consideration. In particular, visits to Westminster can only ever reach a minority of pupils—with a bias towards those in the south east. The Unit would be happy to consider what other forms of outreach could also be used.


  20.  The Parliamentary Communications Directorate stands ready to do the long-term planning and testing that this project would require, should it be approved by the House. The software will need to be robust and the hardware secure. The division lobbies are due to be cabled for PDVN access in summer 2003. Any project will have to be considered alongside other major IT and IS initiatives, particularly the Parliamentary Information Management Services project (PIMS), and future developments for card access, authentication and recognition arrangements.


  21.  The Board is happy to meet the challenges put to it by the House. Proposals that would require significant changes to staffing levels and patterns will have to be teased out in some detail with staff and the Trade Union Side. There may be some transitional costs. The Board hopes to ensure that the House retains its reputation as a good employer, safeguards the high motivation and commitment of staff, and acts in a way commensurate with the fact that all six Departments (and the Speaker's Office) hold Investors in People status.

  22.  The Commission has recently agreed a strategic plan for the period 2001-06 based on the current sitting pattern. The cost implications of any changes are difficult to quantify, but it is likely that both the plan and the House's three-year financial projections would have to be revisited if significant changes of the nature proposed in the paper were made.

  23.  This paper will also be sent to the House of Commons Commission.

William McKay

Chairman of the Board of Management

25 March 2002

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