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

Supporting individual Members and their staff

95. The Serjeant at Arms Department provides many of the vital support services, including accommodation, IT and mail, which are essential to the work of Members. The Department of Finance and Administration administers Members' salaries, allowances and pensions, supports Members in employing staff, and also oversees the provision of medical services to Members. The specialist services provided by the Library to Members are covered in the previous section (see paragraph 72).

During the year, the Serjeant at Arms Department let a new contract for the cleaning of public and common areas of both Houses which will achieve efficiencies of over £100,000 per year (above and right).

Offices and related services

96. The parliamentary estate comprises nine buildings centred on the Palace of Westminster. The Serjeant at Arms has the responsibility of providing offices and facilities for almost 4,000 people, including Members and their staff.

97. As well as meeting the daily office requirements of Members, the Serjeant at Arms Department manages internal, directly employed, cleaning services for Members' offices and other areas of the House of Commons. During the year a review of these services has been completed with the aim of increasing levels of cleaning productivity, and thus value for money, while maintaining an equitable employment regime. Following agreement with the trades unions, the internal workforce is to be reduced from 61 to 52 by natural turnover.

98. The Department also manages the contract for the cleaning of the public and common areas of both Houses. A new contract was let during the period which achieved efficiencies of over £100,000 per year by combining two major, and a number of minor, contracts. Since coming into effect the contract has clarified responsibilities and simplified management.

99. A new contract is being let for photocopiers provided for the use of Members and their staff. Following discussions with Members' staff on the photocopier user group, a demonstration of potential replacements was arranged to which Members and staff were invited. Feedback was obtained and this is being used in conjunction with price information to decide on the supplier. The new machines will be in place by the end of the summer recess.

100. During the past year, a set standard for Members' and Members' staff office furniture and furnishings has been introduced and trialled during the re-occupation of the recently refurbished Norman Shaw South building. The set standard is flexible and will be reviewed from time to time. The aim is to provide Members and their staff with appropriate resources to allow them to function efficiently on the estate while meeting the Serjeant at Arms' obligation to meet budgetary constraints.

Car and cycle parking

101. The House of Commons' underground car park is a valuable resource with spaces for 496 vehicles. There is evidence that usage has recently diminished, which may be due to the introduction of the congestion charge. The current security climate has prompted a review of the security arrangements for vehicles, and the car park area is now patrolled by security officers. The needs of cyclists have been met by the provision of additional cycle racks in Star Chamber Court.

Mail services
102. Mail services are currently provided to Parliament by Royal Mail. There are three post office counters on the parliamentary estate and a sophisticated mail delivery service is provided to meet the requirements of each individual Member. Following representations from Members, a 7 pm mail collection from all 17 main post boxes in Parliament was reinstated in October 2003.

103. A project group, led by the Deputy Serjeant at Arms, has been set up to consider future mail arrangements. Security considerations require proper off-site screening arrangements, and negotiations are being conducted with other organisations with similar requirements to set up joint cost-effective facilities.

Committee and meeting room bookings

104. The Serjeant at Arms' room booking service takes bookings for all meetings of Committees and All Party Groups, as well as Members' private meetings and meetings organised by House staff on official business. There are twenty-two Committee Rooms, four multi-function rooms and twenty-three smaller meeting rooms across the parliamentary estate. Between them, the rooms can provide live television broadcasts, simultaneous translation, conference, reception and video conferencing facilities. Approximately 1,100 bookings were taken each month the House was sitting during the report period. Electronic signs have been installed in the Palace at the pulpits on the Committee Corridors and at access points to the main corridor. These displays provide current information for Members, staff and visitors about all Committee meetings and about private meetings in Committee Rooms.

Members' computing and IT support
105. Computer equipment for Members' offices is funded from the Members Estimate, but the work involved in identifying and supplying standard equipment and in connecting it to the Parliamentary Network falls to the Parliamentary Communications Directorate (PCD), under a service level agreement. PCD is managed by the Serjeant's Department and provides services to both Houses. On the Commons side PCD is funded from the Administration Estimate, with a small proportion coming from the Members Estimate. PCD supports a network of approximately 6,000 users in both Houses, many of whom are based outside Westminster.

Key initiatives

106. During 2003/04 a number of important Member-related IT initiatives have been developed and delivered. These have been in addition to the normal training of new users of the Parliamentary Network (1,033 delegates trained) and the supply, set-up and support of new equipment for Members (630 items delivered and installed). New developments have included the initiatives detailed below.

Remote access

107. To improve the service to remote and mobile workers, a new and improved remote access service has been piloted and delivered during the year. The service offers broadband access to the internet and secure encrypted access to the Parliamentary Network and runs on the standard parliamentary computers that are either loaned to, or purchased by, Members. Take-up of the service was optional and by the end of January - the planned end-date for the project - 310 Members had taken advantage of the new service; converting a total of 646 PCs. For users in areas where broadband is available, the new service is reported to be a marked improvement on the previous remote access service.

108. In addition to the above, PCD has also piloted a remote access service that can provide secure access to the Parliamentary Network from any internet-ready PC, anywhere in the world. This will be particularly useful for Members who are working away from Westminster, their constituency or indeed their home. The service is expected to be announced and launched in summer 2004.

Management of electronic information

109. Members now have improved access to corporate storage facilities for their electronic information. This has the benefit of ensuring that data is properly backed-up and easily retrieved in the event of accidental loss. The service takes advantage of a new parliamentary back-up service that PCD has introduced during 2003/04 known as VBAC, which avoids the use of traditional tapes and offers much higher levels of service than the previous method could provide.

110. Last year's report referred to the interim measures being taken to provide some relief to the small number of Members and their staff who receive large quantities of unwanted email, known as spam. Whilst those measures provided some temporary relief, the problem continues to be a significant irritant for many. With the support of the Information Committee, PCD is currently in the process of procuring a new spam management service and aims to implement it in summer 2004. In the meantime, guidance has been issued to help mitigate the problem at a local level.

Customer services and training

111. IT-related customer services for Members and their staff were further developed in 2003/04. Targeted surveys of the top twenty, and twenty least frequent, callers of the PCD Helpdesk have been undertaken and very helpful feedback received. This, taken with PCD's existing "Drop-in" centre, regular newsletters and one-to-one meetings with customers, demonstrates PCD's commitment to developing and maintaining excellent communications with those who use its services.

112. In the autumn of 2003 a new training service was launched for Members' staff, which includes IT training. The actual training and administration of the service is undertaken by a third party company and has the advantage of being able to offer training sessions away from Westminster. This is seen as a particularly important development since it is often very difficult for Members' staff who work in constituencies to find the time to travel to attend relatively short training sessions. The service is in its early stages and will be developed further, possibly to include computer based training and training over the internet.

Network performance

113. The Parliamentary Network is now extremely reliable, as the following chart shows.[15] A major upgrade was undertaken over the summer of 2003 to improve reliability and availability still further, and to enable future IT requirements to be supported. Upgrades to the main telephone switches were also successfully undertaken during the year.

Members' salaries, allowances and pensions

114. Members' salaries, allowances and pensions are paid from the Members Estimate and administered by the Department of Finance and Administration (DFA). The Estimate has separate governance arrangements from the House's administrative expenditure, and is reported on separately. The annual accounts for 2003/04, which will contain further information, will be published in the autumn.[16] Members are entitled to a range of parliamentary allowances including a staffing allowance, an incidental expenses provision and an allowance for overnight stays away from their main home. They are also provided with centrally-purchased computer equipment on loan (see paragraph 105).

115. A major development during the year was the establishment of the Members Estimate Committee, to oversee the policy relating to Members' allowances, on 29 January 2004. The Advisory Panel on Members' Allowances, which was established in 2001 to advise on the application and development of the new allowances system, now primarily provides advice to the new Committee.


116. DFA has continued to develop its advice-giving services in order to inform Members of their entitlements to pay and allowances. The Green Book was revised and issued to all Members in July 2003. Guidance is given on personnel issues through the Personnel Advice Service. Financial budget statements on the staffing allowance and the incidental expenses provision have been issued to Members during 2003/04. The department has also continued to publish factsheets and booklets for Members in order to inform them about their entitlements. These are available both in hard copy and on the intranet. Early in 2004/05 weekly events for Members and their staff are being held in the e-Library in Portcullis House during the parliamentary term on a wide variety of topics ranging from Freedom of Information to the implications of the Disability Discrimination Act.

117. One of the future developments of the HAIS 2 project (see paragraph 199 and page 57) is to explore the potential for Members to have secure access to their own financial and HR information.

Members' staff

118. The number of paid Members' staff increased by seven per cent to 2,446 at the year end, as shown in the chart below. Not all Members' staff work on the parliamentary estate, but the continuing increase in the number of Members' staff (unpaid, as well as paid) puts pressure on a range of services, particularly accommodation and catering in Westminster, unless more choose to work principally in the constituency (see paragraph 29).

Medical services for Members

119. An increasing range of medical services is provided by the House Service for Members. A new acute GP service, for use by Members and Peers unable to access their own GP, was established in December 2003, in partnership with a local surgery, for a six month trial period. Confidential medical assessments for Members have been expanded to encompass cardiac risk lifestyle screening, following a successful trial. This is also available to House staff aged over 55. Other services provided for Members are advice on health and safety matters including training for their staff. A minor treatment service is available to Members and all those working on and visiting the parliamentary estate (see paragraphs 212-13).

An increasing range of medical services are available for Members, including confidential medical assessments and a trial GP service.

15   In the chart, figures are based on total working hours during the year and degraded service is counted as unavailable Back

16   The accounts for 2002/03 were published in December 2003, HC 68, 2003-04 Back

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