Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 71-79)


14 MARCH 2007

  Q71 Chairman: Thank you very much for coming. This session is about induction and the experience of new Members. Could I jump straight in off the back of the previous discussion? Your evidence, Ms Rosenblatt, in the very good report you did about new Members, showed some alarming data. I suspect that the person who is up at 97 or 98%, and others like that, are doing it because they find this place rather frightening. They are bound to know how to do constituency work, because they probably will have done it before. So it becomes, I suppose, what psychologists would say was an area of transfer: they concentrate on that, because it is a lot easier. However, is there a way in which we could better train and share experience for new Members of Parliament, so that they are given advice and guidance about time management, about the fact that they do not have to sign every letter; that they can still get the votes in; they do not have to answer every phone call personally; and they can loosen up on that in order to give them more time for their effective role.

  Dr Giddings: In a sense it is going backwards, but if you go straight to the things that we have actually recommended on the basis of the evidence which we have collected, yes, there is. It is not cutting-edge stuff. There is the systematic use of mentoring, taking advantage of a more experienced colleague who is aware of how to do it and can give advice. I think it is very important that that is not organised by the party Whips but more informally. We are aware that it does happen to some extent already, but it is not organised and systematic. The use of mentoring, therefore, would be very helpful. Also, to pick up a point which was made in the earlier session, the induction arrangements have been very substantially improved in the last 10 to 15 years, both by the House authorities and by the parties—and that is good. However, it needs to go further. One of the disadvantages of the present arrangements is that a whole lot of stuff is given to new Members as soon as they arrive, in a form which is very difficult to digest. You might want to give them a briefing on procedure, but if you wanted to give them a full course on Standing Orders, it would take rather a long time and much of it would be of no use at that moment. Our suggestion, therefore, is that you explore, in different ways, making that material more readily accessible to individuals and groups over a longer period of time. It might be a year, it might be more, but there are a variety of ways in which you can do this. You can put things on the Net, and so on; you can run periodic seminars. New Members are not new just for a week or a month but for however long they feel new Members. It would be an interesting piece of research to do, as to how long people describe themselves as a new Member. In that way, they can access this information and assistance at the time at which it is important, when they start to think about an adjournment debate, or whatever it is. Mr Davies raised this point earlier on. In that way, I think one can help. It is also a very important aspect of all of this that the parties themselves—and I do not just mean party managers—take a view about how they want their, as they see it, party members to act. Are people elected in order to deliver their party's manifesto? So that going through the lobbies day by day in support of their party is not the negative thing, which it is often presented as, but a very positive thing. It becomes a little more complicated when the party decides that it wants to present something—I put this delicately—rather different from what was precisely in the party manifesto. Then there is more room for—the word is "debate".

  Professor Rush: I would absolutely agree with that and add a little more. In a sense, we are telling you what you told us. Some of the people around this table may or may not remember filling in questionnaires. I am not going to name names, but we are very grateful to Members who have given us information on their views. So we are just telling you what, as it were, you told us. This work we have been doing covers two Parliaments, so it is quite well based. I noted, I think it was in Philip Norton's presentation, that he talked about MPs possibly being better briefed or prepared before they become MPs. Frankly, I think that is unrealistic. Most people, even for safe seats, are too much concerned with fighting the election than they are worrying about "What am I going to do when I get there?".

  Q72  Chairman: That is superstition as well.

  Professor Rush: What you end up with, therefore, is an incredibly steep learning curve. One of the problems, and this has been so for some time, is that the average number of days between the election itself, when you first find out that you are a Member of Parliament—whether or not you expected to be a Member of Parliament, and of course a lot of people do because they are standing for safe seats—and the time when the House first meets is seven days. That is not very long, and it is actually out of sync with other legislatures. We have not had too long to be able to gather information from other legislatures, but—

  Q73  Chairman: We have evidence on that.

  Professor Rush: The evidence we have shows that Westminster is out of sync. It is longer, it is between 11 and 20 days, according to the legislatures we have looked at. Westminster is the only one. You are thrown into the deep end immediately. So much stuff is thrown at you that it must be very difficult to know whether you are coming or going; what to do about this; what to do about that. That is no criticism of what is done by the parties; it is no criticism of what is done by the House authorities per se. Ideally, and in practical terms, it would be better if there could be a longer period. We do not see why there should not be a longer period. If other legislatures can manage it, why cannot we? It would be of benefit, not just when there is a change of government and, obviously, you have new ministers coming in—in 1997 most members of the Government had never been ministers before and they had no experience whatsoever—even when there is not a change of government, there is usually a reshuffle. So it would be of benefit to ministers, learning about their departments and so on—nothing to do with induction. We would therefore recommend that there be serious thought given to extending that particular period. The process of induction needs to be longer, not just between when Parliament first meets but way beyond that.

  Ms Rosenblatt: I agree with a lot of what Michael and Philip have said about inductions. The Hansard Society spent a year after 2005 monitoring the experiences of the new MPs. However, there are a few things that I would probably disagree with. On mentoring, I agree that the system is much better at the moment than it has been, and perhaps could be taken out of the hands of the party Whips. Probably everybody I spoke to this time had a mentor, but to varying degrees of effectiveness. There needs to be much greater emphasis on developing a relationship between the mentor and the new MP, and the political parties do not really offer any guidance on this at the moment. One new MP told me, "The mentors don't know what they are supposed to tell the new MP and the new MPs don't know what to ask". One way to get round that might be, for example, for the mentors to accompany them to some of the induction programmes, which means that they might have a better sense of what they are being taught and what they are not being taught; also, this would probably be a good refresher for some of the mentors. When talking about inductions and training, it should not just be focused on the new MPs; it should be more of a cultural change within Parliament. One way to address this discussion about what MPs should do and balancing between their constituency focus and Parliament could be to have an ongoing process, whereby people can refresh what they know about parliamentary procedures. I was always intrigued by the superstition of not knowing too much about Parliament when people came in. I was fascinated by how little some people did know—not including Philip Davies, obviously, who was one of my participants. People would say, "I don't know the difference between a standing committee or a select committee. You might as well call it a `green' and `blue' committee". Some of the new MPs did not know how to vote. They did not know anything about division lobbies. I understand that people do not want to go to too many sessions, because they do not have time to do that at the beginning; but, for example, it would be really easy to have a page on the parliamentary website, "Top Ten Things You Should Know When You Enter Parliament". That way, not just the candidates would be able to read it, but anyone who may be thinking of joining politics, who may want to have more information, could see, "There's somewhere to go. This is what the job entails". There are lots of ways that you can slip details of procedure into people's mindset, before they actually get here. When they do get here—Philip is right—they are overloaded at the beginning. A lot of the MPs have very different needs at the beginning and they are not catered for. So if they did not expect to win their seat and they are outside of London, we were often told about how they struggled—especially if their party had never won that seat before—to set up offices and look for somewhere to live. Although it is perhaps good to have a few days at the beginning that focus more on procedure, if you are in that situation you will never to be able to turn your mind to procedure at the outset, because you are always going to be thinking of those practical difficulties. Then everyone always mentions the influx of constituency correspondence at the outset, which seems to get worse each election.

  Q74  Sir Peter Soulsby: You have talked about induction, parliamentary procedure, and so on, and you have just touched on setting up an office and finding somewhere to live. From the research you have done, to what extent have you found Members adequately prepared for the actual process of setting up an office? Certainly in my experience that was a major headache in terms of getting something set up here—and I remember spending many happy hours in a corner of this room, actually, because there was no parliamentary office—but an even bigger challenge is setting up a constituency office from scratch. What experience is there of Members having explored different stacking models, a different balance between Westminster and constituency offices, and whether there were ways in which Members could be helped with making the right choices at the start, rather than having to make adjustments later—which can be quite difficult when you are actually employed?

  Ms Rosenblatt: Certainly in 2005 it seemed that, although the parliamentary authorities were giving some information, it probably was not as much as was called for. A lot of the new intake seemed basically to get their advice from other colleagues, and often there were a lot of mixed messages; so one person would tell them one thing and another would tell them another. It seemed to be that people just fell back on their earlier experiences. Interestingly, we conducted rolling interviews—so at the beginning, middle and end of the year and often, by the second interview, people would say, "I was in such a state in the first one, you must have thought I was all over the place". Often, we do not realise this but it goes to show that the frame of mind is that people are panicking.

  Q75  Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am interested in what has been said about induction, because I was a Member who never entered the precincts of the Palace before I was actually an elected Member. It was a rapid learning experience, but I have to say it was the fact that you did have, for a very limited time, a mentor who took you to the lavatories, to say, "This is an important place", and the places to eat and drink! If you know where they are, you are on your own! May I pick Dr Philip Giddings up? I was rather interested in what he said about it not being such a bad thing that Members trotted through the division lobbies, voting for their party strictly in accordance with the manifesto. Is that not one of the reasons why people have lost confidence in the House and in Members? What about those occasions when a particular measure introduced by a government is against the overall interests of the constituency that that person represents? Should there not be a little more discretion, a little more responsible independence, which would then connect Members of this place more closely with their constituents and the country as a whole? I was surprised that somebody of your distinction—I had better stop there!

  Dr Giddings: It is not either/or; it is both/and. Another reason why people are extremely cynical is that people perceive that MPs are elected on the basis of this, that and the other that they have promised to do, and they do not do it. In fact, sometimes they do the opposite. This is all part of the party game, of course. The point I was trying to make is this. It is an important part of the representative democratic system that people, collectively in a party, set out what they offer, invite people to vote for it, and there should then be a reasonable expectation that they do in fact vote for it. So voting legislation through, legislation with which you agree; and, generally speaking, most party members agree with quite a lot of what their parties stand for. I put it in a gentle way, because I am aware that some have a different perspective. It should be entirely acceptable, therefore, that people do come here committed to vote for their party. When a new government has been elected, therefore, with elements of its manifesto there, the new Members will be keen to support their team, their ministers, in getting this legislation through—until they discover that this has very serious, negative consequences for the people they actually represent, and then they have to make difficult judgments. I am not saying always, every time, therefore, but with the discretion for which Members are well known.

  Q76  Mrs May: I would like to raise two issues, if I may. The first is on mentoring. I think there is a general acceptance these days of the importance of mentoring, and I note that the suggestion in the paper from Professor Rush and Dr Giddings is that mentoring should be a responsibility of the House authorities, rather than the Whips' Offices. However, if you are going to put into place a really good mentoring system, it is not about taking a list of longstanding backbenchers and just allocating them to individual new Members; it is about understanding the personalities of the two people involved; it is about constantly monitoring that, to make sure that it is actually operating. It is a significant undertaking, if it is to work properly.

  Professor Rush: Perhaps we should have made it clearer in our paper. Yes, the House authorities to organise the system, but there is a great deal of the work that we have done which shows very clearly that—surprise, surprise!—new Labour MPs behave like Labour MPs, generally speaking, and Conservatives behave like Conservatives, and Liberal Democrats like Liberal Democrats, et cetera. There were very significant party differences, which I do not wish to go into—unless you wish to go into them. We would say, yes, the party within a House-organised system.

  Dr Giddings: It is not resource-free. It needs to be done properly and systematically.

  Professor Rush: It needs to be organised.

  Ms Rosenblatt: With mentoring, I probably would not have an opinion on whether the parties or Parliament organise it. I think that the parties could probably do it fine. Where the problem between Parliament and the parties comes in is with the clashing of the timetable that took place in 2005, so that the induction programmes actually clashed. It would be far better if Parliament organised a thorough induction programme. Anything that the parties wanted to do on top of that would be fine; but the basics should all be covered by Parliament. The parties should be actively encouraging MPs to go to the induction programme. It should not be too top-heavy at the beginning; it should not be too demanding; but it should carry on over the longer term.

  Q77  Mrs May: The second issue I want to raise is this. I think that you have all made reference to ongoing induction programmes. There is no continuous professional development in this place for Members of Parliament. You have referred to this idea in terms of refreshing people's understanding of parliamentary procedures, but there are an awful lot more issues that Members could be being trained on, in some form. The time management issue, for example, and things like that—which Members tend to think of as for other people and not for Members of Parliament. I would like your take on whether the House authorities could be doing more there. Again, is that something the Whips' Offices should be doing?

  Ms Rosenblatt: I agree that there needs to be more training on other areas as well. One problem seemed to be staff management. People struggled with that. One of the problems that Parliament has is ensuring that people turn up to the programmes that they put on. The only way I can see round that is that the parties have to push people to go along. Although there is that sense of MPs as individuals who come in and do their own thing, they are also looking for support networks. If the parties can say, "This is the best place to get support from", then I think that people would be more inclined to go along.

  Professor Rush: Perhaps I could add to that. Yes, it should be continuing and I do not think that it is just a question of procedure. Procedure is far too narrow. It should be much broader, bearing in mind that Members, once they get going, start off in one direction, perhaps concentrating on certain issues, perhaps are not a member of a select committee, and may or may not be on a standing committee—most new Members get very quickly on to standing committees, whatever their party—which, in itself, is a good experience. A lot of Members told us that.

  Dr Giddings: What is needed is a capacity for training and development which engages with what Members' real needs are. A lot of professional development and training that is offered in other organisations, which I will not mention, misses the point and people are very resistant and do not go. What Parliament needs is a mechanism for enabling those who will provide this training to establish what the actual needs are—and they will change quite significantly, in unpredictable ways.

  Q78  Mr Burstow: One of the lessons that seemed to be drawn out of the last round of induction was that a predominantly House authorities-driven training programme floundered, because of the way in which that did not interact as much as it needed to with the individual parliamentary groups, and how they wanted to organise their training. That is something that is being looked at for next time, with attempts to try to structure it in a different way. I was surprised, and wondered if you could expand a little on it, why it is on the one hand you take the view that the mentoring and training programmes should not be administered through Whips' Offices but that, on the other hand, the party machine should be ensuring that everyone goes on courses that they are not administering. How do you square those two things? On the one hand, you want to use the authority of the Whips to get people there; on the other, you do not wish to use a system of administration—and, as we have heard from Chief Whips and others during their presentations, they see their role very much as part of personal development, personal management—and why you want to take the human resource management aspect out of doing the mentoring and the training.

  Professor Rush: The short answer is that, frankly, although it is improving, if you just left it to the parties—forget the House for the moment—what new MPs will get would vary very considerably. What some parties provide is much better and more extensive than others. That came through from the questionnaires that we looked at.

  Q79  Mr Burstow: On that specific point, there is an issue there about adequacy of resources that are currently earmarked, both within the House but also to parties, to enable them to properly discharge their functions here in supporting their Members. Do you think that there is an adequate amount of resourcing both within the House and for parties to support their Members in that respect?

  Professor Rush: I am not really in a position to answer that.

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