Select Committee on House of Commons Commission Twenty-sixth Annual Report Report

Introduction by The Speaker

One of the pleasures of contributing this introduction to the Commission's Annual Report is the opportunity it gives me as Speaker to mark the achievements of the House administration over the last year. A parliamentary administration must provide a wide range of services to very demanding customers, and must deliver high quality while coping with the unexpected. This Report shows just how demanding the House of Commons was in 2003/04, and also gives some idea of the remarkable range of expertise which supports the work of the House.

Most areas of House business, including parliamentary questions, early day motions and select committee work, continued the upward trends noted in last year's Report. There were small increases both in average sitting lengths and in the number of sitting days, both in the House and in Westminster Hall. The new sitting hours, introduced on an experimental basis in January 2003, have had varied effects: neutral in some areas of work, but imposing strains elsewhere which have required careful management. The introduction of September sittings in 2003 has had implications for our planning of major works and maintenance projects.

Our stewardship of resources has been cautious. In 2001 the Commission agreed a policy of "modest growth" of £2 million a year, or less than two per cent of administration expenditure, principally to fund improvements in information and communications technology, and to meet unforeseen requirements. Our current three-year financial plans are set in this context. Budgeting has been tight; our cash outturn in 2003/04, at £140.6 million, was 0.1 per cent below estimate, and our resource outturn, at £182.4 million, was 0.2 per cent below estimate.

There can be few groups of customers more demanding than 659 Members of Parliament, each of whom has his or her individual approach to the job, and has different requirements to do it effectively. I was pleased at the outcome of a comprehensive survey carried out in June 2003 which gave Members, together with their own staff and House staff, an opportunity to comment on the services provided by the House administration. The detailed results were encouraging, and overall 75 per cent of Members who responded described the House as a good or excellent place in which to work. A number of constructive comments and suggestions were made, and the Board of Management is now addressing these.

Our other main group of customers comprises the general public and especially our constituents - in many ways the real owners of the institution. One of the four core tasks of the House administration is to provide information and access to the public; and helping people to understand and value the role of Parliament is particularly important at a time when many feel disengaged from the political process. The work of the Information Office and the Education Unit is covered elsewhere in this report; in addition, in the financial year 2003/04 there were 136,000 visitors to the galleries in the Chamber, and some 106,000 people toured the Palace (with 87,000 more during the summer opening). Thanks to the efforts of the Central Tours Office, visitor tours were 5 per cent up on the previous year despite the constraints of the changed sitting hours. The new reception/security building, approved by the House on 11 May, will be an important development in the way in which we welcome visitors.

Increasingly, though, our visitors are "virtual". Hits on the parliamentary website rose to over 25 million in 2003/04, an astonishing 74 per cent increase over the previous year, and this will be an important area for further development. Conventional broadcasting of proceedings is now supplemented by a permanent webcasting service, established in January 2004, which provides access to a wide range of proceedings, including select committee hearings, via the internet. I hope that in this way many more people will be able to see for themselves the variety and relevance of the House's work.

The most important resource of any organisation is its staff, and the House of Commons is no exception. It is again a pleasure to record the thanks of the House of Commons Commission to the staff of the House for what they have achieved over the last year, not always in easy circumstances. In an organisation which relies on high levels of knowledge and skill, the training and development of staff, together with effective internal communications, continue to be high priorities. I was delighted that, following accreditation of individual departments, the House Service as a whole achieved Investors in People status in May 2003.

The publication of an annual report by the House of Commons Commission is a statutory requirement; but it is also an opportunity to explain to those at Westminster and beyond how the work of the House of Commons is being supported; to report on the solid achievements of the past year; and to set out some challenging objectives for the future. This is a process in which all those involved can take some considerable pride.

Michael J. Martin MP

Chairman of the House of Commons Commission

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Prepared 6 July 2004