House of Commons Commission Twenty-Seventh Annual Report

Providing information and access for the public

The Education Unit organised events throughout the year to increase student understanding of the role, work and history of Parliament.

118. 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.

119. 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

120. Wherever possible, the House's public information and access work is informed by two themes: strengthening public understanding of, and engagement with, the House's scrutiny function, and clarifying the distinction between Government and Parliament.

121. In June 2004, the Modernisation Committee published its report Connecting Parliament with the Public.[21] GIP has been responsible for co-ordinating action on those of the Committee's recommendations agreed by the Commission, on behalf of the Board of Management.[22] Key recommendations on which progress has been made include:

  • an additional staff post in the Education Unit, to focus on outreach to young people and liaison with local education authorities. The post is expected to commence in Autumn 2005;
  • an extension of the Education Unit's autumn visits programme to provide year-round visits to Parliament for young people. These will start in the 2005-06 academic year (see paragraph 146);
  • the production of a new voters' guide to be sent to all young people on or around their eighteenth birthday, from early 2006 onwards;
  • the production of a weekly newsletter aimed at the non-specialist reader, summarising forthcoming business, to be made available both in print and electronic form. A pilot newsletter has been produced since February 2005;
  • the establishment of a Media and Communications Service for the House of Commons, to take a more proactive role in promoting the House and its work (see below);
  • further improvements to signage around the parliamentary estate;
  • consideration of Saturday opening for visitor tours;
  • removal of the term "strangers" from the House's Standing Orders, and the renaming of the 'Strangers' Gallery' as the 'Public Gallery';
  • an upgrading of the Parliament website, with significant investment in systems and staff (see below); and
  • online publication of the Hansard report of proceedings in the Chamber throughout the day, to be piloted later in 2005 (see paragraph 47).

Media and communications

122. A centrally co-ordinated Media and Communications Service was established in October 2004 to:

  • promote better public understanding of, and engagement with, the work of the House and its committees;
  • provide a modern, professional media service for journalists and serve as a central point of contact for media enquiries;

provide media and communications advice and support where requested to all House departments and committees; and

  • work with officials across both Houses to improve public information and access.

The team now consists of six staff, three of whom focus on promoting better understanding of the work of select committees (see paragraph 69). A secondment to the Media and Communications Service from the House of Commons Information Office commenced in June 2005.

Providing information to the public
House of Commons Information Office

123. 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 2004/05 the Information Office received 53,245 telephone enquiries and 4,822 written enquiries, most via email. In 2004/05 the telephone enquiry bureau answered 88 per cent of calls within 20 seconds, the best performance ever.

124. The Information Office provides a substantial amount of interpretative material on the Parliament website. The amount of material on the website has increased, as has its use, particularly since the site was redesigned in 2002. This may help explain the continuing reduction in enquiry numbers shown in the chart below.

125. The Information Office produces a range of publications, including the Weekly Information Bulletin and a series of over 60 factsheets. During the year approximately 280,000 factsheets were accessed from the Parliament website (see page 25).

126. During 2004/05 the Information Office was closely involved in the House's preparations for the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. New procedures are now in place and operating smoothly, and the Information Office keeps in close contact with other departments and the Freedom of Information Officer (paragraphs 130-134).

Parliament website

127. In 2004/05 there were over 29 million 'requests' for information from the Parliament website, 16 per cent more than in the previous year. This again demonstrates the extent to which, for many members of the public, the website is the preferred medium for accessing information about the House.

128. A number of incremental enhancements to the website have been made, including a new email alerting service to which users can subscribe, an upgrade to the search engine, and improvements to the content and clarity of the top-level pages. A programme of improvements to the content of the site is in development, including a select committee calendar and list of current inquiries; a 'news page' for select committees with daily changing content; progress towards a higher level of Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB) certification; and a glossary of parliamentary terms.

129. Qualitative research was commissioned in January 2005 on how the website could more effectively reach out to young people and other non-specialist target audiences, and to consider whether there is a case for continuing to maintain a separate educational site. The results of this research are now being used to inform the planning of the site's development. A bicameral web development project board, chaired by the Commons Librarian, was established in April 2005 to oversee the major enhancements to the website and intranet that are underway or are currently at the planning stage, including the radical redesign recommended by the Modernisation Committee and endorsed by the House.

Freedom of Information and Data Protection

130. The Freedom of Information Act 2000, which applies to both Houses of Parliament as well as to a wide range of public bodies, came into effect in January 2005. As well as introducing new rights of access to information, it also formally applied the Data Protection Act to Parliament.

131. Preparations for the implementation of the FoI Act continued throughout 2004; a group of senior Commons officials, chaired by the Clerk of the Journals, co-ordinated work and monitored progress. The main aims were to ensure that the House would be ready in all respects for the coming into force of the FoI Act; that all staff would be aware of the Act's requirements, and that key staff were trained; that detailed guidance was available (both in hard copy and on the intranet); and that procedures were in place to handle requests properly and efficiently. These aims were achieved.

132. The Act requires public bodies to prepare a publication scheme, showing the information that they will routinely publish. This requirement was applied to Parliament in November 2002; the House of Commons publication scheme has been available since then on the Parliament website and in booklet format. A new class of information on Members' allowances, and details of the House's internal procedures for handling requests, were added to the scheme in late 2004 (see paragraph 115).

133. Records management has continued to be of fundamental importance for both FOI and Data Protection preparations and the working group has supported to the records management initiatives being led by the Parliamentary Archives (see paragraphs 182-185).

134. During the first three months of 2005 (after implementation of the FOI Act), the House received an average of around ten requests per week which required formal handling under the Act. However, the vast majority of routine requests for information continued to be dealt with as part of normal activity (for example, the House's Information Office handled an average of 33 requests a week).


135. The arrangements for televising 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.

136. 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, in October 2004 the House expanded its 'webcasting' service so that either video or audio coverage of all committees which are meeting in public is now available on the Parliament website and on the intranet (see overleaf).

137. The Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) archived 2,078 videotape recordings of proceedings during the year, an increase on the previous year. The number of requests for recordings of extracts of proceedings was also up: the Unit completed 780 orders compared with 718 in 2003/04. Almost half the orders came from Members of the two Houses, 27 per cent from commercial organisations and nine per cent from broadcasters - a balance which remains largely unchanged year on year. The PRU has been re-equipped to offer most modern formats, providing recordings on tape, CD and DVD and both electronic and 'hard copy' still pictures taken from video coverage.


138. Since October 2004 the webcasting service, part-funded by the House of Lords, has streamed 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 and audio coverage of all other committees which are meeting in public. Designed by specialist suppliers working closely with the Broadcasting Unit and with PCD, it is thought to be the most ambitious project of its kind to be undertaken by any legislature worldwide.

139. As many as fifteen meetings have been webcast simultaneously and each week webcasts an average of more than 70 hours of video footage from the Commons and Lords chambers, twelve hours of video footage from Westminster Hall, 20 hours (eleven meetings) of video footage from committees and a further 45 hours' committee coverage in audio only.

140. The service attracted 300,000 individual visits during 2004/05, with around 5,000 external users accessing the archived files monthly. The service is also "multi-cast" - delivered to 3,500 desktops via the parliamentary intranet. Set piece debates can attract significant audiences: on the day of the March 2005 Budget statement the House of Commons recorded 4,785 individual accesses in a single day, averaging over 17 minutes each, with 54GB of content and 1,389 hours of material streamed in total.


141. Figures for the record breaking Prevention of Terrorism Bill sittings earlier that month were even higher. On Thursday 10 March 3,568 individual visits were recorded, each lasting an average of about eighteen minutes. Interest increased as the sitting stretched into the following day, with 6,740 visits being recorded for Commons proceedings and 5,920 for the Lords on 11 March.

142. Designed and supported by specialist suppliers working closely with the Broadcasting Unit and with PCD, the service is now being upgraded to meet the aspirations of the six million UK internet users who now have access to broadband. The installation of webcameras in committee rooms to increase video coverage is also under consideration.

Parliamentary Bookshop

Over the past year the Parliamentary Bookshop has developed a number of briefing and alerting services for customers.

143. The Parliamentary Bookshop provides access to parliamentary and Government documents to professional users from close to the Houses of Parliament and to the public at large. Business activity has continued at much the same level as last year. Over the past year, a number of briefing and alerting services have been further developed for customers and are now on offer. Work is also in hand to redesign and update the Bookshop website.

Providing information to targeted audiences

Parliamentary Education Unit

144. 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, which was re-launched in August 2003.

145. During 2004/05, the Unit launched the first two publications in a new series aimed at the eight to twelve age-group: Wise up about Parliament and General elections explained. Further titles will be produced in 2005/06.

146. For over 20 years a major feature of the Education Unit's work has been the autumn visits programme, which includes a question and answer session with a guest speaker, usually a Member of Parliament, and a tour of the Palace of Westminster, and which is aimed at sixteen to eighteen year olds studying politics or related subjects. Plans are currently being prepared to extend the programme so as to offer a year-round service from autumn 2005. An additional staff post has also been created to focus on outreach to young people and liaison with educational authorities, following a recommendation by the Modernisation Committee (see paragraph 121).

Hansard Society projects

147. The House partly funds some projects run by the Hansard Society. During the year, this funding has contributed towards one completed project (Connecting Communities), which has been followed by a one-year project (Enhancing Engagement), and a long-term, continuing project (Heads Up).

148. 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. Its findings have informed the planning of a number of House services, and were reflected in the Modernisation Committee's report on Connecting Parliament with the Public. The project also led to a booklet entitled Your Parliament, a valuable addition to the House's publicly-available information sources. Enhancing Engagement has been building on this programme and will develop practical proposals to bring Parliament closer to the public, especially those least engaged in the political process.

149. Heads Up ( is an innovative project based on a moderated online forum where students can debate topical issues relating to the work of the Parliament.

Official visitors
150. During the year the House welcomed official visitors from some 82 countries. The visitors included fourteen Speakers and Deputy Speakers and over 500 parliamentary officials. In addition to organising the programmes of many of the official visitors and contributing to other programmes, the Overseas Office arranged short attachments for clerks and officials from other Parliaments.

151. The Overseas Offices of the House of Commons and House of Lords arranged the programme for the parliamentary commemoration of the centenary of the Entente Cordiale in 2004. The Commons Office assisted the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) with its regular Westminster seminar, the annual UK visit, and its first seminar on Corruption, Human Rights and Party Politics, all of which were attended by delegates from many Commonwealth Parliaments. It also contributed to several of the programmes organised by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and, with the Speaker's Office, began preparing for the G8 Speakers' Conference in Glasgow in September 2005.

152. The head of the Overseas Office is secretary to the Society of Clerks-at-the-Table in Commonwealth Parliaments. The Society met in Canada in August 2004 under the auspices of the CPA annual conference.

Parliamentary libraries: international links

153. Library staff continue to participate actively in the Section on Library and Research Services for Parliaments of the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), and staff of the House attended the Buenos Aires conference in August 2004. In November 2004 the Library hosted (jointly with the House of Lords) a conference on meeting users' needs for the European Centre for Parliamentary Research & Documentation (ECPRD). 66 people from 50 organisations, mostly Parliaments in Europe, attended, 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 over 200 specialised enquiries from parliaments in other countries.

Visitor Management

154. There were approximately 450,000 visitors to Parliament in 2004/05, of which some 207,000 were conducted on tours organised by the Central Tours Office; 127,000 visited the Chamber galleries; and 9,000 students attended programmes organised by the Education Unit.

Visitors to the public gallery

155. 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 250 people, including those allocated to Members' constituents on a rota basis. There were 126,781 visitors to the galleries during the year, with the vast majority entering via the public queue.

Central Tours Office

156. The Central Tours Office (CTO) organises public access to the Palace of Westminster via Members' sponsored tours and the annual public summer opening. It is well established after two years of operation and is developing its broader role by working with other offices in both Houses to develop a co-ordinated visitor service strategy for Parliament. The CTO has also had strong input into the design of the new visitor reception building, which will be built on Cromwell Green, off Parliament Square, and will manage the new team of visitor assistants based around this facility.

Members' tours

157. The revised Commons' sitting hours reduced the availability of 'full' tours, incorporating both Chambers, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The CTO has worked with Members to make the best use of the time available. In consequence, the drop in total visitor numbers experienced in the first year of revised hours has been reversed, with 113,778 visitors booked to tour compared with 105,529 in 2003/04. The return to later sittings on Tuesdays is expected to ease the pressure for tours on Mondays. As before, most bookings are made by Members of the House of Commons. There remains significant underuse during recess periods and lower usage on days when only tours of the House of Lords are available.

Summer opening

158. The Palace was open to paying visitors on 30 full- and 18 half-days between 24 July and 2 October 2004. 93,314 people visited, the most to date. Snapshot surveys of public opinion showed that levels of satisfaction and perceptions of value for money remained very high. CTO controlled operations produced a surplus of £113,000 but this was more than offset by security, cleaning and maintenance costs. Ticket prices have been held since 2003 and will again be unchanged this year on account of the major construction works due to take place in the House of Commons Chamber. The summer opening will run this year from 2 August to 5 October.

Retailing and merchandising

159. Work has continued in 2004/05 to review and develop the range of House of Commons souvenirs and 32 new lines were introduced including a number of seasonal products. The development of merchandise using images from the Works of Art Collection has also continued, with proceeds from this range benefiting the Speaker's Art Fund.

160. Visitors to Parliament may usually purchase souvenirs from St Stephen's Bookstall, which is located on the visitor route in St Stephen's Hall. With the increase in the number of visitors taking tours in the morning and an expansion of the range of merchandise available, sales have increased by eighteen per cent in two years to £45,000 in the nine months of trading in 2004/05. The bookstall was closed for three months while the shop in Westminster Hall was open.

161. During the period of the summer opening, the temporary Westminster Hall shop generated sales of £178,382, an increase of fourteen per cent on the previous year. The visitor capture rate increased again, from 28 to 30 per cent, while the average customer spend remained constant, at £6.38. The shop continued to trade during the September sitting period, producing sales of over £15,000, a 40 per cent increase on 2003. Trade during the period of the summer opening generated an overall surplus of £60,355, an increase on the previous year of 26 per cent.

162. Following the successful, experimental, opening of the shop in Westminster Hall in December 2003, the shop opened from the end of November 2004 through until Christmas, providing visitors, Members and staff with an enhanced retail facility. Sales of over £93,000 were made during this period. The shop also opened for two weeks during the period of the Hansard Society exhibition in Westminster Hall, before the summer opening, and generated sales in excess of £25,000.

163. At year end, income from the sale of merchandise (excluding the Parliamentary Bookshop) was in excess of £947,000, nearly six per cent more than last year, returning a net contribution of over £250,000 to House funds.

164. The larger shop in Westminster Hall not only provides a better facility for visitors, but by drawing people down into the Hall, brings attention to the Jubilee Café which reports an increase in the number of customers using the café, when the shop is open. 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, and caters for general visitors to the House and galleries as well as visitors booked on Members' tours during the rest of the year.

165. The Café is busiest during the summer opening, when it catered for an average of 320 covers per day in 2004, compared to 385 covers per day in 2003. During the rest of the year, an average of 190 covers per day was catered for, 36 per cent more than in 2003. This level of business, allied with a continuing focus on opportunities to make cost savings, enabled the Jubilee Café to make a modest, but increased, contribution to House funds for the second year running, of just under £12,000.

21   HC 368, 2003-04 Back

22   HC 69, 2004-05 for the Commission's response to the Committee's report Back

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