Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons First Report

3  Learning the ropes

24. Most Members have some understanding of the role of a Member of Parliament when they arrive but not much idea of what it involves in detail.[52] They face a steep learning curve and within days of the election new and returning Members are expected to deal with parliamentary business and the demands of their constituents.[53] Malcolm Jack, the Clerk of the House, said, 'There is a very limited time for new Members to learn about the work of the House before they become inundated with constituency and party obligations'.[54] Clearly there needs to be a fairly intense learning process that helps new Members cope with the first few weeks and months of their new job. There is so much to learn that any initial induction must be followed by a longer period of informal learning on the job.[55] The House authorities and the political parties must support both the initial induction process and the longer-term learning needs of new Members. It became evident to us that effort must also be put into supporting the continuous development needs of all Members and providing information to them. Professor Robert Blackburn, King's College London, said, 'Members should not be instructed on what they should and should not be doing. That is a matter for their own interpretation, and that of their electors, as a political representative in the British state's national assembly. Each individual Member has a number of claims and priorities on [his or her] time, and must judge for him or herself how to balance these'.[56] One of the factors affecting the effectiveness of the welcome afforded to new Members is the number of new Members.[57]

Welcoming new Members in 2005


25. There is a general recognition that services offered to new Members were better in 2005 than after previous elections.[58] But there is still room for improvement. Commenting on the arrangements made in 2005 the Hansard Society said, 'Nowadays the new Members are given a range of information and are no longer left to wander the corridors without guidance. Yet, with few occasions on which to test and develop an induction programme, there were clearly hiccups that needed resolving'.[59] The Chairman of Ways and Means, the Rt Hon Sir Alan Haselhurst, Member for Saffron Walden, said, 'Induction for new Members, in the broadest sense, has improved greatly in recent years, and more particularly over the last decade or so. A great deal of effort by the staff of the House is now put into ensuring that a formal reception process is followed by a series of briefings and seminars on such issues as accommodation, IT and other office support, basic procedure, and security'.[60] Jo Swinson, Member for East Dunbartonshire, found the information helpful but said that there was too much information too soon.[61]


26. It is difficult to assess the impact of the induction programme offered to the 123 new Members elected in 2005 and we welcome the efforts made by the Administration Committee to address the problems it identified after the last election and the actions taken by the House authorities in response.[62] The letter from the Clerk delivered by returning officers on election night has been a positive step. There were problems accessing the new Members' website and little use was made of it. The Reception Area served its purpose well, although the parties might do more to manage the flow of new Members. The welcome pack was a little less successful than it could have been because of the extent of information overload. In addition to their telephone numbers, voicemail access and laptops, new Members were given a huge number of leaflets and booklets to digest. There was little information to help them identify what was important and what could wait. The procedural briefings offered were welcomed but few Members attended. The Government also held its own briefing sessions on the work of departments, which were also poorly attended.
Date Briefing Morning attendance Afternoon attendance
18 May Introducing the House of Commons 40
24 May A User's Guide to the House of Commons 96
7 June Questions on Questions and Answers 112
14 June Bills and Standing Committees (Q&A) 54
21 June European Scrutiny System 40
28 June How Select Committees Work 20

Table 2: Attendance at procedural briefings in 2005

27. In 2005, the briefings offered by the House Service were intended to cover the basic information a new Member might need but it is difficult to meet the needs of all new Members as each has different priorities.[63] The Hansard Society found only limited awareness of courtesies and conventions and low levels of familiarity with procedure when they surveyed new Members in 2005.[64]

After the election One year on
Very familiar 7%15%
Somewhat familiar 50%60%
Not familiar 33%23%
Not at all familiar 10%2%

Table 3: Familiarity with procedure for the 2005 in-take

Source: Hansard Society

Comparison with induction in previous years

28. Professor Michael Rush, Emeritus Professor of Politics, University of Exeter, and Dr Philip Giddings, Senior Lecturer in Politics, University of Reading, reported similar findings for the 1997 in-take in 1997 and 1999 to those found by the Hansard Society in 2005.[65]

1997 1999
Very familiar 5%18%
Somewhat familiar 50%73%
Table 4: Familiarity with procedure for the 1997 in-take

29. But low levels of familiarity did not seem to hamper the 1997 in-take. Within 50 sitting days 80 per cent. of the new Members elected in 1997 had made their maiden speech, 60 per cent. had taken part in oral questions and 90 per cent. had tabled written questions. Most had signed EDMs and 40 per cent. had tabled one.[66]


Co-operation between the House authorities and the political parties

30. Getting the support of the whips for any induction programme is crucial.[67] The political parties and the House authorities should work together to ensure that the needs of new Members are identified and addressed by any induction programme.

Addressing Members' needs

31. Sir Alan Haselhurst considered that the induction was fine as far as it went but thought newly elected Members could have been given a better understanding of the procedures and conventions of the House and more information on how to use them effectively.[68] Each Member will approach the job differently. We do not suggest that they are compelled to attend any of the opportunities that are offered as part of an induction programme; they should be free to decide which they wish to take up and those for which they have no need.

Information overload

32. It was clear that in 2005 many new Members were overwhelmed by the information provided by the House authorities, their parties and the huge volume of correspondence from constituents and campaigning organisations. There is a great deal of information to be communicated to new Members. We understand that officials will ensure that the focus at the next election will be on paring down the information to that which is essential and providing better signposting and checklists.[69] While much of the information sent out in 2005 will still be available on demand it will not be pushed out actively to new Members in the first few weeks. It will instead be slowly released over time to avoid overwhelming new Members. An approach that seeks to manage how information is routinely given to new Members seems to be a sensible way forward.

Member involvement

33. It was clear from the evidence we received and from those that we spoke to informally that both Members and House staff should be involved in delivering the induction programme. Members themselves have a particular role to play in sharing 'Chamber craft'. In his memorandum, Professor Lord Norton, Professor of Government, University of Hull said, 'There is a difference between knowing rules and procedures and exploiting them to achieve desired outcomes. Officials can advise MPs what the rules and procedures are, but are limited in what they can say about using them to achieve what may be seen as political outcomes. Induction that deals with the question 'What are the rules and procedures?' is necessary, but so too is induction that is designed to answer the question: 'If I want to achieve this, what is the best way of going about it?' The formal rules are one thing, the tricks of the trade are another'.[70] Sir Patrick Cormack said that officials and experienced Members should be involved in explaining the procedures and how to make best use of them.[71] Members must be involved in delivering part of the induction, either on a party basis or supporting what is delivered corporately. We believe that Members should also be involved in determining the content of the programme and that staff planning the induction process should test out their ideas with Members. The whips' offices and executives of political parties should take steps to facilitate this.

Dealing with the practical difficulties

34. Several of the new Members we spoke to stressed the importance of being able to deal with practical difficulties such as the lack of an office, the need hot-desk, problems with telephones and computers, and difficulties finding accommodation or recruiting staff.[72] Those winning a seat (as opposed to holding a seat) and those moving to London needed more support.[73] Sir Alan Haselhurst said, 'It is absolutely ridiculous that Members should be wandering around like refugees in this building for weeks [after the election]. The most essential thing they need is an office and a phone so that they can start to get to work in appointing a secretary and staff. If they have that comfort, they are then in a position to learn a little more about some of the situations that they will encounter'.[74] The practical difficulties faced by new Members must be addressed in order to ensure that improvements to the induction process have the greatest chance of success. We acknowledge the important work that the Administration Committee is doing in this regard and welcome both their Report on post election services and the response to it.[75]

Party specific versus all-party induction

35. The Hansard Society reported that the new Members interviewed after the last election did not consistently distinguish between the induction offered by the House service and that offered by their party.[76] It said that better coordination between departments was needed, as was a checklist to help navigate through the first few days.[77] It also noted clashes between the parties' timetables and the briefings offered by the House authorities[78] and recommended better coordination with the whips and parliamentary party executives.[79] The Hansard Society thought that the political parties and the House authorities should cooperate on a comprehensive induction programme for all Members.[80] In evidence to the Administration Committee Nia Griffith, Member for Llanelli, and Adam Afriyie, Member for Windsor, said it was important for parties to have some private time within the induction programme.[81] In her written evidence to the Administration Committee Nia Griffith said training sessions should be run jointly by House staff and Members.[82] She told the Administration Committee that an intensive two-day course, covering all the main aspects of the job would have been welcome and could have been conducted on a partly all-party and partly party-specific basis.[83] We believe that the induction process should include both partisan and non-partisan events. The House authorities should provide an overall framework for the induction programme within which the parties have dedicated time. The parties and the House authorities should work together in planning the next induction programme. Parties should take steps to ensure that prospective candidates are aware of the opportunities that will be available to them if they are successful so that all those who wish to participate can plan their time accordingly.


36. There are few opportunities for the House authorities to try out new ideas and innovate.[84] While there have undoubtedly been improvements in what is offered progress is inevitably slowed by the lack of opportunity to try different approaches. Planning is also always going to be hampered to some degree by the uncertainty over the timing of elections.

Using the gap between the election and the Queen's speech

37. Several of our witnesses made the point that an induction programme could take place between the General Election itself, the meeting of the House to elect a Speaker and to swear in Members, and the State Opening of the session.[85] Sir Patrick Cormack argued in favour of an induction programme held between the election and State Opening, with an extension to this period of time to accommodate the induction. In the United States a much longer gap between the election and the start of a session allows the New Member Orientation Programme to take place without the members-elect facing the kinds of pressures new MPs face in Westminster. Typically the new Member Orientation Programme begins on the Monday after an election and lasts until Thursday. New Members arrive on the Sunday before and all stay in the same hotel close to Capitol Hill. The programme is organised by the majority party (which controls the Committee on House Administration) but is a bipartisan affair.

38. The Clerk of the House thought that a longer period between the election and the date of the first meeting of Parliament could allow a new Member to concentrate on adjusting to the Parliamentary way of life before the pressure of formal business builds up.[86] Table 5 below shows that from 1955 to 1974 and again in 1992 the House did not meet formally until at least the second week after the election.[87]
Date of General Election First day of the meeting of Parliament Intervening days Date of first day of Queen's Speech Debate Intervening days

23 February1950


1 March 1950


6 March 1950


25 October 1951


31 October 1951


6 November 1951


26 May 1955


7 June 1955


9 June 1955


8 October 1959


20 October 1959


27 October 1959


15 October 1964


27 October 1964


3 November 1964


31 March 1966


18 April 1966


21 April 1966


18 June 1970


29 June 1970


2 July 1970


28 February 1974


6 March 1974


12 March 1974


10 October 1974


22 October 1974


29 October 1974


3 May 1979


9 May 1979


15 May 1979


9 June 1983


15 June 1983


22 June 1983


11 June 1987


17 June 1987


25 June 1987


8 April 1992


27 April 1992


6 May 1992


1 May 1997


7 May 1997


14 May 1997


7 June 2001


13 June 2001


20 June 2001


5 May 2005


11 May 2005


17 May 2005


Table 5: Gap between general election, the first meeting of Parliament and the first day of the Queen's speech

Source: Ev 98

39. There is no desire to create too long a gap between a general election and the first meeting of Parliament. However, there should be a longer gap than usually occurred in the past between the election and the day the House first meets to permit some of the practicalities that prevent Members from focusing on their new job to be addressed and to make time for an induction programme before the House starts its work. We recommend that the gap should be about twelve days.

Making induction relevant to the business

40. There was also good support for spreading the induction process over a longer period and making the training more relevant to business in the House. For example, briefing sessions on select committees should coincide with committees being set up. One such seminar was organised in 2005. More effort should be made to ensure that, beyond the initial induction programme, briefings are timed so that they mirror the business of the House as far as possible. Briefings should be repeated periodically through the life of a Parliament but each time seeking to address identified needs. Once the initial new Members' briefings have been completed consideration should be given to opening up some briefings to Members' staff and others, such as those in political offices or staff of the House.

Maintaining engagement in the longer-term


41. Many of our witnesses stressed the importance of continuous development. An initial induction programme is valuable but in the longer-term it is inevitable that most of a Member's learning is on the job.[88] The Clerk said, 'Members will only really become interested in one aspect of procedure or another when they have to use it. There is not really much point in giving a general procedural seminar. A Member wants to know how to put down an amendment to a bill when he or she wants to put down an amendment'.[89] We think that much of what we have said about informing new Members might also be of benefit to longer-serving Members. Procedures and administrative systems evolve over time and the House should seek to ensure that all its Members have the information they need to make effective use of the Houses' procedures and the services provided to them.

42. Michael Rush stressed the importance of tailoring development to individuals.[90] An on-going development process would support the learning on the job that most Members have to do.[91] Rt Hon Sir George Young, Member for North West Hampshire, saw a role for continuing development and linked it to the need to develop a career path for back bench Members.[92] Sir Patrick Cormack also saw a role for some ongoing training available to all Members[93] and Sir Alan Haselhurst agreed that opportunities to periodically 'refresh' would be welcome.[94] The Hansard Society argued that Members should be given the knowledge and procedural opportunities to be effective parliamentarians.[95] Things constantly change in Parliament; the weight that Members give to the different aspects of their job, work loads in the different parts of their job, the political context, procedural developments and changes in the administrative arrangements. Many of us support the concept of continuous development for Members and we recommend that the House authorities make continuous development opportunities available to all those who want them.

43. Gemma Rosenblatt, Research Fellow on the Hansard Society's Parliament and Government Programme, thought that in 2005 most new Members had had a mentor, although with varying degrees of success.[96] Mr Dai Davies, Member for Blaenau Gwent, supported the mentoring of new Members,[97] as did a number of those we spoke to informally. Dr Giddings thought that mentoring could be more systematic and better organised.[98] We recommend that the parliamentary parties review the arrangements they put in place for mentoring the new in-take in 2005 with a view to planning an improved process after the next election.

44. We discussed the idea of secondments with several witnesses. There are already schemes like the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme or Industry and Parliament Trust fellowships that allow Members to spend some time away from Westminster broadening their experience. Some of our witnesses recognised the usefulness of bringing in outside expertise but saw the difficulties of doing this as any kind of formal secondment.

45. There were also calls for training in specific skills like time and staff management.[99] Sir Alan Haselhurst was unsure whether this was the sort of activity that should be provided on a corporate basis and backed by House resources.[100] We recommend that the House authorities and parties work together to decide what sort of extra development activities might be useful and how they might best be resourced and provided. Whether or not to make use of any opportunities for this kind must be a decision for individual Members. Parties may encourage Members to attend but should not mandate attendance.


46. The House Service already provides a great deal of material about the services offered to Members. The Department of the Clerk of the House provides a short guide to procedure and backs this up with a series of short leaflets on different aspects of procedure including several guides providing practical advice on different aspects of procedure, for example on tabling amendments to bills. We encourage all Members to ask for advice. Gemma Rosenblatt said, '…a lot of help already exists but Members are not aware of it. It is quite important, certainly from the new MPs that we spoke to in the interviews, that those who felt comfortable asking for advice were always doing better—whether it is from House officials or Whips. Those who had somebody to call on all the time were informed.'[101] Some of those we spoke to informally talked about a reluctance to ask and others said that poor access to information was a significant barrier to participation. Several of the Members who gave evidence to the Committee commented on the helpfulness of the Clerks.[102] While a great deal of knowledge and advice is available, Lord Norton pointed out that officials are necessarily limited in what they can say.[103] The impartiality of the House Service means that information is not provided proactively but in response to questions from individual Members. It can be difficult for an impartial House service to intervene and offer advice but officials will always give totally impartial advice on a completely confidential basis in response to questions from Members. The Hansard Society said, 'information provision and training should be ongoing in both the short and medium-term and new Members must feel comfortable contacting House officials for advice'.[104] The Parliament in New Zealand produced a guide on effective membership that sets out the opportunities available to Members. We believe that the current short guide to procedure should be expanded. We make further reference to information for Members at paragraph 66.

52   Ev 33 [Professor Michael Rush and Dr Philip Giddings] Back

53   Ev 32 [Professor Michael Rush and Dr Philip Giddings] Back

54   Ev 97 Back

55   Ev 33 [Professor Michael Rush and Dr Philip Giddings] Back

56   Ev 28 Back

57   Q 251 Back

58   Administration Committee, First Report of Session 2005-06, Post-election services, HC777 Back

59   G. Rosenblatt, A Year in the Life: From member of public to Member of Parliament, (Hansard Society: London, 2006), p22 Back

60   Ev 78 Back

61   Q 104 Back

62   Administration Committee, First Report of Session 2005-06, Post-election services, HC777 and Second Special Report of Session 2005-06, Post-election Services: Response to the Committee's First Report of Session 2005-06, HC1027 Back

63   G. Rosenblatt, A Year in the Life: From member of public to Member of Parliament, (Hansard Society: London, 2006), p23 Back

64   Ev 35-36 Back

65   Ev 33 Back

66   Ev 33 Back

67   Q 248 Back

68   Ev 78 Back

69   Ev 118 Back

70   Ev 19 Back

71   Ev 122 Back

72   Qq 73, 105,145 Back

73   Ev 35 Back

74   Q 184 Back

75   Administration Committee, First Report of Session 2005-06, Post-election services, HC777 and Second Special Report of Session 2005-06, Post-election Services: Response to the Committee's First Report of Session 2005-06, HC1027 Back

76   G. Rosenblatt, A Year in the Life: From member of public to Member of Parliament, (Hansard Society: London, 2006), p25 Back

77   G. Rosenblatt, A Year in the Life: From member of public to Member of Parliament, (Hansard Society: London, 2006), p24 Back

78   G. Rosenblatt, A Year in the Life: From member of public to Member of Parliament, p26 Back

79   G. Rosenblatt, A Year in the Life: From member of public to Member of Parliament, p22 Back

80   Ev 36 Back

81   Administration Committee, First Report of Session 2005-06, Post-Election Services, HC777, p27 Back

82   Administration Committee, Post-Election Services, p27, Ev 2 Back

83   Administration Committee, Post-Election Services, p27,Ev 2 Back

84   G. Rosenblatt, A Year in the Life: From member of public to Member of Parliament Back

85   Q184, Ev 36, Ev 97, Ev 122 Back

86   Q246 Back

87   Ev 98 Back

88   Ev 33 Back

89   Q 253 Back

90   Q 84 Back

91   Ev 33 Back

92   Ev 90 Back

93   Ev 123 Back

94   Q 185 Back

95   Ev 38 Back

96   Q 73 Back

97   Ev 115 Back

98   Q 71 Back

99   Q 77 Back

100   Q 186 Back

101   Q 86 Back

102   Qq 118, 144 Back

103   Ev 19 Back

104   Ev 36 Back

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