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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80-90)


14 MARCH 2007

  Q80  Mr Burstow: On the basis of the answers to the questionnaires? Does that give you any conclusions?

  Professor Rush: Yes, but the questionnaires cover the 1992 induction and the 1997 induction, and things have moved on since then. It may be that Gemma is in a better position to answer that. Believe it or not—because you are a recently elected Member—things have got better election by election. It may not always appear that way, but it has.

  Ms Rosenblatt: I agree that things have got better. It was acknowledged by new MPs that things had got better as well. Certainly people who had worked around Parliament, not as MPs who were then elected in 2005, were the first to acknowledge that they had seen people walking round, open-mouthed, beforehand, and said that actually it was quite good this time. I would not necessarily take the mentoring out of party hands. I think that parties can do it well. I just think that it is better that parties work with Parliament more on the induction process.

  Philip Davies: As somebody who came at the last election, I think that the induction my party's Whips' Office organised was quite thorough. Possibly that was because over a quarter of the party was made up of a new intake, so perhaps that was inevitable. I sometimes wondered whether it was all for the benefit of the Whips' Office or for the benefit of the Members! I think that you will always get that particular tension. Given that is inevitable, that any kind of induction will always have the Whips' Office trying to stick their oar in and meddle and interfere in what is going on, in terms of ongoing mentoring and so on, I was lucky because I tapped into people like Eric Forth and Sir Nicholas Winterton—who knew the place inside-out.

  Mrs May: That explains it!

  Q81  Philip Davies: Much to the dismay of the Whips I was asking Eric Forth and Sir Nicholas Winterton! Is not the responsibility therefore with the actual MP themselves to look around them and find people within their own party, or even from other parties, who can help them, rather than trying to create something that is not creatable, because the Whips' Office will always try to put a stop to independently minded MPs?

  Dr Giddings: I am particularly concerned about the latter point. The Whips' job is to manage, with all the negative as well as positive implications of that, and the mentoring system needs to be more dynamic. Yes, of course, some new Members will manage this for themselves—as always happens in every organisation—but there will be some who do not, who are unable to do it, for a variety of reasons. There needs to be capacity to handle that.

  Q82  Mr Wright: May I pick up on the point made by Theresa which is a particular bugbear of mine, namely continuing professional development? Parliament and the Government bang on all the time about our need to up-skill in order to compete in the global economy. I think that we should look at ourselves. Members are individuals and will follow different paths, but do you think that there is a case, as part of continuing professional development, for some sort of skills audit? In order to scrutinise the executive in a better way, if I am interested in housing and I want to become an expert on housing policy, I quite like the radical idea that you could go to a housing association and spend time there on secondment. You can't do that at the moment. There are bits and bobs. There is the Industry and Parliament Trust; there are all-party groups that show interest. Do you think there is any merit in pulling this together, to have a truly codified way of trying to up-skill Members?

  Professor Rush: I think that would be very difficult. I am retired, but I worked in the university for 40 years. For most of the time we never had any training, and I had never heard of the word "up-skilling" until relatively recently.

  Q83  Chairman: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

  Professor Rush: A bit of both. I would not want to be hauled off and told, "You have to attend this course or that course". None the less, in the latter part of my career it was quite useful sometimes. The university put on something or other which was very useful in learning about this, that or the other. For example, for my sins I became a member of the University Senate, ex-officio not elected, and so on. It would have been very useful to have had a bit of an induction about the way the Senate operated. I had never experienced that. However, you are talking about an organisation internally. What organisations do internally is one thing; pulling in lots of people from the outside is much more difficult to do. I am not saying that you should not do it, but it needs very careful thought. I would welcome what you are suggesting, but I think that it needs a lot of thought as to how best it can be organised and meet the needs of different Members. It is not just parties; it is many Members with their different interests—whether it is housing, foreign affairs, education, or whatever it may be.

  Dr Giddings: I think that a commission on skills audit would be a fascinating exercise. It would expose what is already implicit in a lot of the material: that there are significant political differences in what are considered to be the relevant skills for operation in this place. Clearly there are differences between the Government backbenchers and backbenchers in other parties, and so on; but that would be a very useful exercise. I would find it fascinating. The key thing for training and professional development is first to identify the skills which need to be developed, and that they are relevant. I think that is extremely important.

  Q84  Ann Coffey: I thought that Iain was perhaps saying that if you yourself identified some of the skills that you wanted to develop—because, after all, being an MP is continual development, and you do not do in the second year what you did in the first year and, five years on, it is very different—should there not be a system of accessing it? For example, I could go and say, "Actually, I am getting more interested in this area of work. Can you provide someone for me to contact, talk to or spend time with that would give me practical experience and develop that?".

  Professor Rush: I took that to be what he meant and I think that is a good idea; but it needs to be geared to individual Members or possibly groups of Members.

  Q85  Ann Coffey: When I was elected in 1992 I had one member of staff. I think that Members of Parliament now are perhaps managing offices of four or five staff. Managing people is a huge skill in itself. Members of Parliament do not necessarily have that skill of managing staff. Do you think that there are ways in which they could be better helped in this area? For example, do you think the personnel departments here should take a bigger role in helping MPs when they run into particular difficulties with staffing, or something?

  Professor Rush: I think that the short answer is yes. I am not sure who should do it, but it is time management and managing of people, because all MPs have staff, whether they are in their constituency or here.

  Q86  Ann Coffey: I just wondered if there was something in your survey that you had come across.

  Professor Rush: Quite a number of things in our survey came out that things like that are not provided and it would be better if they were; but often there were not suggestions of how best it could be done. However, I think it is something that should be looked at and something that should be available to Members, both in terms of need and want.

  Ms Rosenblatt: I think that they can be better helped by the House authorities but I also think that 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 the advice be from House officials or party Whips. Those who had somebody to call on all the time were better informed.

  Dr Giddings: I think that there would be benefit in having a resource base to which Members could go for access to other resources in a particular area—a sort of very sophisticated, super-parliamentary Google, if you like, which would enable—

  Q87  Chairman: Even a very unsophisticated parliamentary Google would be good—if you have tried the intranet!

  Dr Giddings: In my very limited experience, what a lot of people find helpful is how to find their way to that which is particularly relevant to their needs.

  Q88  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Can I say to Philip Giddings that I suspect there will be many people who are elected as Members of Parliament who will not have some of the skills that Dr Giddings believes that they should have; and, with all the mentoring and everything else, they will not be able to achieve those skills. Can I go so far as to say that perhaps you yourself would be rather critical of a number of people who are elected, indicating from your point of view that they are not really competent to do the job? Unfortunately, however, democracy is a bit odd; it is inclined to elect people who do not necessarily have all the skills which I would suggest that you and your colleagues would like them to have. Is that not correct?

  Dr Giddings: It is not correct, I agree with you! The primary skill is to represent their constituents.

  Q89  Sir Nicholas Winterton: That is the point.

  Dr Giddings: All of them. They will do it in a number of different ways. The task of the House and the parties is to provide the capacity to enable Members to develop those skills which they think they need, at the time that they need them.

  Mrs May: I would merely make an observation, which may or may not lead to discussion between myself and Sir Nicholas, that actually the Conservative Party is the one party which, when it interviews people to go on its candidates' list, does it on the basis of a professional analysis of their skills to be a Member of Parliament, having identified six competencies, with external support.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: You see, I was never on the official list! But I am still here after 36 years!

  Q90  Chairman: Do you have any closing remarks?

  Ms Rosenblatt: A last point to pick up on the skills is that, interestingly, probably one of the biggest backgrounds in the intake this time round was marketing. A fifth of the intake had a marketing or PR background. I think that reflects some of the change in constituency and also encourages some of the constituency changes of focus.

  Professor Rush: One thing that I think also really needs to be sorted out, which was not mentioned earlier and has not been mentioned at all, is the allocation of offices. It was the biggest beef that we had in our surveys

  Dr Giddings: I have a much more general point. You have to decide collectively whether this is a zero-sum game—strengthening the role of a backbencher. Is the other side of that weakening the role of party leaders, of government, of managers, or can you do both? The debate that was going on earlier illustrated that there is a spectrum of opinion on that point, and on its desirability.

  Chairman: That is a really important point, particularly for me as Chairman. My point to my colleagues in Government, with whom I have to negotiate the recommendations from this Committee in order to get them accepted, is that it is not a zero-sum game. I am absolutely convinced of that. Ten years in government tells me that the quality of what you do as a minister is improved by the intensity of the scrutiny. At any one moment the scrutiny may be irritating, if you want to do something quickly, but overall it is actually better for the scrutiny. Thank you very much indeed both for your written evidence and for your very spirited oral evidence this morning.

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