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

Providing information and access for the public

120. The Commission recognises the importance of improving public understanding of, and engagement with, the work of the House. The Board of Management acknowledges that this requires close co-ordination between departments responsible for visitor access, retail, education, information, the website and media activities, where appropriate with the House of Lords. The Group on Information for the Public (GIP), which is comprised of senior officials, co-ordinates this area of work on behalf of the Board.

Line of Route tours in Members' Lobby and (right) Central Lobby.

121. The group focuses on four main strands of work:

  • strategy and management;
  • public access to the Palace of Westminster;
  • publishing - both print and website; and
  • broadcasting and media.

Communications strategy

122. Research commissioned by the House has shown that there is significant scope for strengthening public understanding of, and engagement with, the House's scrutiny function, and for clarifying the distinction between Government and Parliament. These two themes inform the House's public information and access work wherever possible, and provide the basis for prioritising any new public communication initiatives.

123. The House now employs a small team of media and communications specialists. The House's media liaison work is overseen and co-ordinated by the Communications Adviser and her assistant. The Commission is separately advised by the Commission Media Adviser. A Select Committee Media Officer post was created in October 2003, to provide media and communications advice and support to six select committees: Constitutional Affairs, Defence, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, International Development, and Public Administration. This experiment was successful and two similar posts, to be created later in 2004, will ensure that all select committees have specialist media support and advice (see paragraph 65).

Providing information to the public
House of Commons Information Office

124. The House of Commons Information Office answers enquiries from the public which relate to the work, publications and history of the House of Commons. During 2003/04 the Information Office received 59,373 telephone enquiries and 5,347 written enquiries, most via email. In 2003/04 the telephone enquiry bureau answered 86 per cent of calls within 20 seconds, the best performance ever.

125. The Information Office provides a substantial amount of interpretative material on the Parliament website. The amount of material on the internet has increased, as has its use, particularly since the 2002 redesign of the website. This may explain the reduction in enquiry numbers shown in the chart below.[17]

126. The Information Office produces a range of publications, including the Weekly Information Bulletin and a series of over 60 'Factsheets'. During the year approximately 440,000 Factsheets were accessed from the Parliament website (see page 22). In 2003/04 the Information Office produced a new leaflet, You and Your MP that explains the role of Members both in Parliament and in relation to their constituents. This leaflet is available in fourteen languages.

127. During 2004/05 the Information Office will be involved in the House's preparations for the implementation of access rights under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. This will involve significant staff training and the revision of training and guidance materials.

Parliament website
128. In 2003/04 there were over 25 million successful hits on the Parliament website, a 74 per cent increase on 2002/03, demonstrating the extent to which, for many members of the public, the website is the preferred medium for accessing information about the House.

The Parliament website received over 25 million hits in 2003/04, a 74% increase on 2002/03.

129. When the main parliamentary website was redesigned in 2002, the aim was to provide a starting point for improvements rather than a finished product. With 9,000 pages on the primary site and over a million pages of linked publications for the Commons alone, the site is a substantial reference source.

130. However, more needs to be done to render the site more usable for the casual rather than expert user. Further enhancements which would partially achieve this aim, and which can be made without significant resource implications, are under development and expected to go 'live' in autumn 2004. More far-reaching changes, requiring additional resources, will be possible once the first phase of the PIMS project has been completed at the end of 2004 (see paragraphs 83-4).

Freedom of Information

131. Preparations for the implementation of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act in 2005 continued during 2003/04. A cross-departmental working group of senior Commons officials, chaired by the Clerk of the Journals, has met at regular intervals throughout the year to co­ordinate preparations and to monitor progress.

132. The publication scheme requirements of the Act came into force for Parliament in November 2002 and the House of Commons scheme has been available since then on the Parliament website and in booklet format. New material relating to finance and personnel issues was added in July 2003 and December 2003. Work is in progress to add a new class for Members' allowances information in late 2004 and to add to the information available about procurement.

133. One of the priorities for the year has been to raise staff awareness of the Act, in order to identify new material for the publication scheme and to establish where new policies on disclosure need to be developed. This awareness programme included, for example, a workshop for procurement specialists to discuss and develop a draft policy and a more general session attended by over 90 members of staff which focused on records management issues, particularly relating to email correspondence.

134. The other main priority has been to consider the application and administration of the two exemptions which relate specifically to Parliament. Both the parliamentary privilege exemption and the effective conduct of public affairs exemption are absolute exemptions for Parliament, as certified by the Speaker of the House (or the Clerk of the Parliaments for the House of Lords). Work is underway to describe some of the types of information which might fall into these categories and to develop the process for issuing certificates so that information about these arrangements can be explained to the public in the publication scheme. Work is continuing on the development of policies for the handling and recording of requests and on the application of fees.

135. The FOI Act will apply the Data Protection Act 1998 formally to Parliament in 2005. The House appointed a Data Protection Officer in 2003 and he is coordinating preparations for the implementation of the Data Protection Act with the FOI working group.

136. Records management continues to be of fundamental importance for both FOI and data protection preparations and the working group has lent its support to the records management initiatives being led by the Parliamentary Archives (see paragraphs 189-92).

137. The arrangements for broadcasting House proceedings, a partnership between Parliament and the major domestic broadcasters, guarantee 'gavel to gavel' coverage of both Chambers and of sittings of the House in Westminster Hall. Together this represents a total of more than 80 hours core coverage a week.

138. Committee television coverage is limited to those meetings which broadcasters consider sufficiently newsworthy to justify the extra costs. On average about a dozen select committee meetings are now televised each week. The deliberations of standing committees do not translate as easily to television and broadcasters rarely request coverage. However, the House is moving towards a situation where either video or audio coverage of all committees which are meeting in

public will be available on the Parliament website and intranet (see below).

139. The Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) archived 1,828 videotape recordings of proceedings during the year, 15 per cent fewer than in 2002/03. The Unit also completed 718 orders for recordings of proceedings, a two percent increase on the previous year. 46 per cent of orders were from Members and Peers, 27 per cent from commercial organisations and nine per cent from broadcasters - a balance which remains largely unchanged year on year. The PRU provides recordings on tape, CD and DVD and also runs a videoprint service offering still pictures taken from video coverage.


140. A permanent webcasting service was launched in October 2003, as The service, part funded by the House of Lords, builds on a pilot which went live in January 2002, streaming on the internet live audio-visual coverage of the House of Commons, House of Lords, sittings in Westminster Hall and a number of select and standing committee meetings.

The permanent webcasting service, launched in 2003, delivers up to 30,000 viewings a month for around 10,000 individual users.

141. Although only a simple service, making use of signals already available to broadcasters through existing televising arrangements, the pilot scheme attracted more than 200,000 visits to the site within the first year and in the run-up to the war in Iraq up to 600 people were logged on at any one time.

142. Following a review it was agreed that an enhanced version of the pilot project should be established as a permanent service. Designed by specialist suppliers working closely with the Broadcasting Unit and with PCD, this now offers live audio-visual coverage of all televised proceedings in both Houses, both on the floor of the House and in committee, a total of up to seven simultaneous webcasts. There is now captioning and identification of speakers in the two Chambers and a limited archive which stores material for on-demand viewing for the following fourteen days.

143. New channels offering audio coverage of all other committees meeting in public, supported by information pages about the committee being webcast and its work, were launched in January 2004, initially as a 'next day service' accessed via the archive but with plans to go live. By March 2004 the service was recording a total of about 70 sessions/meetings a week.

144. Further improvements are planned over time but the service is already well used - delivering up to 30,000 viewings a month via the internet for an average of around 10,000 individual users. During 2003 upgrading of the Parliamentary Network by PCD allowed to be carried on the parliamentary intranet for the first time.

Retailing and merchandising
145. A detailed review of merchandise was undertaken during 2003/04 to overhaul the product range: slow selling items have been removed, new lines have been introduced or are under development, and better targeting of the market has been achieved by recognition of the differing needs of various customer groups. More seasonal lines have been introduced in order to refresh the range, in particular specific lines for Christmas and Easter. Work has also started in developing a new range of merchandise using images from the House of Commons Works of Art Collection: Christmas cards were the first items in the range and further items will be introduced during the course of 2004. Proceeds from this new range of merchandise will go to the Speaker's Art Fund.

During 2003/04 a detailed review of merchandise has resulted in an overhaul of the product range (right).

146. As part of a co-ordinated approach to the development of retail and merchandising activities, management of the visitor's bookstall in St Stephen's Hall transferred to the Refreshment Department in April 2003. This has allowed a wider range of souvenirs to be added to the guidebooks and postcards sold from the bookstall, which, together with an increase in the number of visitors taking Members' tours, has led to an increased turnover of 17 per cent in this venue. This has in turn enabled economies to be made by the closure of the separate souvenir kiosk in Westminster Hall.

147. A larger range of souvenirs from both the House of Lords and House of Commons was available to the public through the summer opening shop in Westminster Hall and this delivered a 25 per cent increase in turnover compared to 2002. The visitor capture rate increased from 24 per cent last year to 28 per cent in 2003, with average spend per transaction increasing from £6.19 to £6.38. Merchandising operations contributed a net profit of almost £48,000 towards the cost of the summer opening (see paragraph 167).

148. On an experimental basis, the format of the Westminster Hall summer shop was repeated in December 2003 for the Christmas period, giving the visiting public an opportunity to buy from this wider range of giftware as well as offering an additional service to Members and staff. The Christmas shop in Westminster Hall took over £60,000 and led to an overall 23 per cent increase in income from the sale of souvenirs House-wide during December.

149. At year-end, total income from the sale of merchandise (excluding the Parliamentary Bookshop) was over £895,000, returning a net contribution in excess of £255,000 to House funds in 2003/04.

Parliamentary Bookshop

150. The Parliamentary Bookshop provides access to parliamentary and Government documents to members of the public and professional users from close to the Houses of Parliament. Business activity has continued at much the same level as last year, reflecting the reduced demand for papers from professional users, but a sustained level of interest from callers to the shop. The e-trading facility put in place last year has generated only modest sales directly, and those mainly from the UK rather than overseas as anticipated. The number of people that telephone the shop to pursue inquiries after having first looked at the website has been more significant, however, thus ensuring that the site is contributing directly to the objective of providing additional opportunities to emphasise education and information for the public.

Providing information to targeted audiences
Parliamentary Education Unit

151. The Education Unit works on behalf of both Houses of Parliament, providing resources and support for teachers and students to increase their knowledge and understanding of the role, work and history of Parliament. The Unit offers a range of services including booklets and posters, visits programmes, videos and an education website for Parliament, at The website was re-launched in August 2003. While many of the existing activities and features were retained, the refreshed site makes basic explanatory material about the work and role of Parliament more prominent and provides better access to materials provided for teachers.

The Education Unit works on behalf of both Houses of Parliament to provide educational resources and support, enabling students to increase their knowledge and understanding of the role, work and history of Parliament.

152. During 2003/04, the Unit developed a new colour booklet, An Introduction to Parliament, to complement its Parliament Explained series aimed at older secondary school students. This has also been produced in a bilingual Welsh/English version.

153. For over 20 years a major feature of the Education Unit's work has been the Autumn Visits Programme, which is aimed at 16-18 year olds studying politics or related subjects. Four sessions are run daily, each with four elements

  • a welcome and introduction;

  • a video presentation;

  • a question and answer session with a guest speaker - usually an MP or Peer; and

  • a tour of the Palace of Westminster emphasising the work and role of Parliament.

154. Due to the introduction of September sittings the 2003 Autumn Visits Programme ran for fewer days than in previous years but with a higher maximum attendance per session (96 rather than 80). These changes were only partially successful and further restructuring of the Programme will take place in 2004.

Hansard Society projects

155. The House has granted £50,000 per year, for three years, to the Hansard Society to help fund two outreach projects which complement initiatives organised by the House itself.

HeadsUp is an online resource, run by the Hansard Society, to promote political awareness and participation among young people.

156. HeadsUp ( is an online resource to promote political awareness and participation among young people. Its centrepiece is a moderated online forum where students debate topical issues that relate to the work of Parliament.

157. The Connecting Communities project aims to build stronger links between Parliament and members of the public, through a series of structured visits to Parliament supported by an educational pack. The project focuses on giving people the tools to play an active role in national decision making between elections but has also already provided useful feedback for the development of the House's own services for the public.

Official visitors
158. During the year the House welcomed official visitors from some 84 countries. The visitors included 24 Speakers and Deputy Speakers and over 220 parliamentary officials. In addition to organising the programmes of many official visitors and contributing to other programmes, the Overseas Office arranged short attachments for clerks and officials from other parliaments.

159. The Overseas Office assisted the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) with its regular Westminster seminar and the annual UK visit, both of which are attended by representatives of many Commonwealth Parliaments. The Overseas Office also contributed to several of the programmes organised by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

160. The head of the office is secretary to the Society of Clerks-at-the-Table in Commonwealth Parliaments. The Society met in Bangladesh in October 2003 under the auspices of the CPA's annual conference.

Parliamentary libraries: international links

161. The Library continues to participate actively in the Section on Library and Research Services for Parliaments of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) and in the European Centre for Parliamentary Research and Documentation (ECPRD). Staff of the House attended the Prague and Berlin IFLA conference in August 2003 and participated in seminars hosted by the ECPRD. The Library also works with the Inter-Parliamentary Information Services Forum which promotes co-ordination between the information and research services at Westminster and their devolved equivalents. During the year, the Library answered around 200 specialised enquiries from parliaments in other countries. It continued a programme of co-operation with the Hungarian Parliament which has, in part, supported the establishment of a new research service there from February 2004.

Visitor Management
Visitors to the public gallery

162. Tickets to view proceedings in the Chamber of the House are available to guests of Members of Parliament, visitors from overseas, specialist press and members of the public who queue to attend each sitting. At any one time the galleries provide seating for around 250 people, including those allocated to Members' constituents on a rota basis. The average number of people visiting the galleries each month was 12,000, with the majority entering via the public queue.

163. A temporary security screen has recently been installed in front of the Strangers' Gallery (see paragraph 181). It has not detracted from the visibility or audibility afforded to visitors and everything possible has been done to ensure that its construction is sympathetic to the architectural environment of the Chamber.

Central Tours Office

164. The Central Tours Office (CTO), which organises tours of the Palace of Westminster sponsored by Members of both Houses and the summer opening of the Palace, has now successfully completed its first full year of operation. As reported last year, initial problems caused by staff shortages at inception were soon smoothed out and the administrative systems introduced to provide the tour booking and guide allocations services to Members are operating efficiently.

Members' tours

165. Some dissatisfaction has been expressed about the limited availability of "full" tours (incorporating both Chambers) on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, which is necessitated by the revised Commons sitting hours. The revised hours had an impact on total visitor numbers, but careful management led to a significant increase in visitor numbers in the first three months of 2004 compared to the same period one year earlier. In total, there were 105,439 visitors booked on Members' tours in 2003/04, an increase of 5 per cent on the preceding year. 86 per cent of all tours were taken by Members of the House of Commons. There remains significant unused capacity during recess periods and in tours which only take in the House of Lords. The introduction of timed tours has had the desired effect of reducing crowding along the route.

166. New guides have been recruited, but numbers are still lower than desirable. The CTO is working on guidelines about monthly working hours in order to encourage more current House staff to apply to work part-time as guides.


167. The CTO now also has responsibility for the opening of the Palace to paying visitors during the summer and conference recesses. The Palace was open to paying visitors for 45 days (29 full, 16 half) compared to 48 (29 full, 19 half) in 2002. Nonetheless the 2003 season was the most successful yet, with the total number of visitors up 5 per cent to 86,806, an all time high. Net (post commission) income from ticket sales was £502,583.90 against an operating cost of £455,493.49, a surplus of £47,090.41. This compares with a shortfall of £45,966 in 2002. The shop and café added a further £47,844 surplus, a rise on the £23,569 surplus in 2002 (see paragraph 147). The summer opening showed an overall surplus for the first time in 2003. This was largely due to a revised pricing structure, which allowed for the headline admission charge to remain the same as in 2002. It will again remain unchanged in 2004.

168. A survey of visitors showed an overall satisfaction rating of nearly 90 per cent, which is extraordinarily high for such a site. Value for money also scored very highly.

169. The summer 2004 season will run from 24 July to 4 September and 18 September to 2 October. Tickets have been on sale since November 2003. The temporary ticket office will reopen for "walk-up" sales in late June.

Jubilee Café
170. Located off Westminster Hall at the end of the parliamentary tour route, usage of the Jubilee Café has consistently grown since its opening in May 2002. Two distinct annual trading periods have emerged, each with a different primary market: the Jubilee Café provides a facility for paying visitors, mainly tourists, during the summer opening of Parliament, but caters for general visitors to the House and galleries as well as visitors booked on Members' tours during the rest of the year.

The Jubilee Café catered for an average of 385 covers per day at the height of the summer opening.

171. The café is busiest during the summer opening, when it catered for an average of 385 covers per day in 2003. Higher usage, increased customer spends and a tight control of staff costs led to a modest contribution of £9,300 being returned during the 2003 summer opening, compared with a small deficit in 2002. During the rest of the year, covers in the Jubilee Café averaged around 140 customers a day, with an unpredictable and sporadic business pattern over the course of any day. Although it is expected that usage will increase with better marketing and growing awareness of the Jubilee Café, business levels are unlikely to match those experienced during the summer opening until visitor reception facilities are relocated (see page 62).

17   The chart does not show the number of written enquiries before 2001/02, because the basis on which such enquiries were recorded was changed in that year Back

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