2.12 pm

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): I have added my name to the motion and speak in support of it. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), and his Committee and staff, on their excellent work. Before he set off, I thought to myself that the Committee would be jolly lucky to get the report in on time and that it would need an extension, but not only has the right hon. Gentleman beaten the deadline, he has done so with a well-crafted report that I would describe as an elegant package that has precision where required and sufficient imprecision where that is helpful. As other hon. Members have pointed out, one has only to look at annexes E and F to see the difference between what was and what is proposed, and the Committee is to be congratulated on its work.

Let me make it clear that I speak for myself and not as spokesman of the House of Commons Commission. The Commission awaits the verdict of the House, and we have provided for a meeting on Monday to take forward what is decided. At our meeting last Monday, we made an assumption that the House might like to approve the report, and everything is ready to fire the starting gun. The need for speed that was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) has been prepared for, but my comments reflect my thoughts on the report and do not come from the Commission.

I want to mention the quality of the staff. As I said when I gave evidence, since I have served on the Finance and Services Committee I have engaged with staff on a great many levels, and I have been impressed by how much they want us to succeed in what we do. I know that the report has been welcomed by members of staff, and I think they would like us to get on with delivering it. I sense great good will and desire on the part of our staff for the matter to be sorted out so that they have that governance structure. Clearly, this process started with a hiccup, but as the right hon. Member for Blackburn said, the report does not concern itself with that but looks forward. That is commendable and is perhaps a case of “per ardua ad astra”—we have had the hardship, let us now shoot for the stars.

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The report suggests a package of measures. I am sure that each of us has bits that we would have done slightly differently, but this package is workable and can be put into place, and it is therefore important that we accept it as a package. I particularly like the way that the report first sets out clear principles, and secondly encourages us to move towards modern best practice. It also encourages us to retain what we value about the way this House is run, and to understand that in taking the best from the governance of other organisations, we must also preserve that which makes this House the successful legislature it is.

I wish briefly to mention three specific areas: the arrangements for the new Commission, restoration and renewal, and bicameral services. I will begin with bicameral services, having had the happy memory of serving on a sub-Committee of a Committee in the other place 20-odd years ago, when the prevailing notion was, “Who on earth are these people at the other end, and how do we keep them out of our House?” In the past couple of years there has been a welcome change, and I was pleased when the Audit Committee, which twice a year meets jointly with the House of Lords Audit Committee, proposed some form of joint procurement. That idea was taken up by Members of the other place, and we now have a joint procurement service. That demonstrates that with good will and agreement, such things are not only possible but can happen quickly.

Obviously, both Houses are sovereign, but if one looks at the history, they have never been particularly sovereign in facilities, but rather in legislature. The fact that different services have been built up in different ways over the decades, or even over a century, is not by design but rather by accident. Therefore, provided that the sovereignty of the two Houses in legislation and how they operate as legislatures in a bicameral system is preserved, it makes great sense to have joint provision or commissioning of services that will provide efficiencies for both Houses. I look forward to that happening, and see no reason why, with good will and dialogue, that cannot happen reasonably quickly.

Restoration and renewal will be a mammoth capital project with many noughts at its end—I have no idea how many, but there will certainly be a lot. I had a tour of the archives in Victoria Tower a few weeks ago, and we must understand that whatever happens and whatever option is chosen, that whole archive will have to be decanted. That will need a high-grade provisional archive, which prompts the question of whether we should move it twice—out of Victoria Tower and back again—or move the archive once and let it stay there. I have no idea what the answer to that is, but such questions will have to be considered.

Anybody who has done the tour of the subterranean areas of this place will be surprised to discover that one can go from one end of the building to the other in an almost straight line—I think it is the only place where one can do that. People would also be surprised at the complexity and amount of redundant services that date back 30, 40, 50 and 70 years, although nobody knows if they are actually redundant.

The magnitude of the task is immense. The important point is that I do not think that either of the posts that will be put in place should be asked to deal with that or have the competence to deal with that. The competence the director general will have is to advise the Commission

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and the House on how best to commission it. That is why I believe that the proper road map going forward is: first, for the core decisions to be made by the two Houses and for the two Houses to agree; and, secondly, to set up a form of governance rather like, as I suggested, the Olympic Delivery Authority, such that we get the expertise required to deliver a project with clear accountability and governance. We should not expect a new director general to come in and, in addition to running the place, also be the best project manager in the world, because that is simply not going to happen. Clarity on that is very important.

We will need to accept—and I think we do—that there are many different ways that restoration and renewal could go. The choices need to be made from facts, when the facts are revealed and the small committee that has been recommended will be set up in the next Parliament. Ultimately, once the strategic decisions have properly been made by the Members of each House, we will need to put in place a delivery mechanism.

I am in complete agreement with the arrangements for the Commission, which is not surprising since most of them were in the evidence that I gave to the Committee. It would be rather odd if I disagreed with what I had said at that time. I particularly felt that widening it to include external members and bringing on to it executive members were critical to creating a modern form of governance. I feel that the way in which the Committee has gone about looking at that, reading its evidence and the solution it has come up with for a wider commission, together with an executive committee as a sub-committee of the Commission, is absolutely an appropriate way to go forward.

I agree, too, with the Committee’s recommendations in respect of the four Back-Bench commissioners. I agree that they should be elected as that is a tremendous step forward. I also agree, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn said in his opening remarks, that they should all be remunerated. The reason for that is twofold: they should all be equal and they should all have portfolios. Clearly, there is the Finance and Services portfolio, which I hope will become a finance committee portfolio. There is the Administration Committee portfolio. I have always thought that there is a very strong portfolio for a commissioner to have responsibility for staff, human resources and diversity, and to take that on. I think that some of the comments that have been made today might support that. I also think that a commissioner should take a lead role in strategy, which would also encompass restoration and renewal. Many plcs have strategic committees, not a formal committee, to take on that role.

One of the arguments against that, of course, is that Chairs of Select Committees are remunerated—hence the remuneration for Admin and F and S—but that members of Select Committees are not. I suggest to those on the Front Benches that that is the wrong parallel to draw. The right parallel is with the Panel of Chairs. They are all remunerated to some degree for their work. I think the commissioners are quite separate from members of Select Committees. I think it is perfectly appropriate that those who also Chair a Committee should do that, but I believe it is important to ensure that the four commissioners are of equal rank, should all be elected and all be remunerated. On that basis, they should all have work to do. I would like to see that

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going forward, because that was an important part of the recommendations. The motion as written—carefully crafted—does not preclude that. I have no problem—the motion is right to suggest it—with people being elected to specific posts. I am quite happy with that, but when the four are elected by the whole House they should be remunerated and have proper work to do.

I again commend the report to the House. The right hon. Member for Blackburn and his Committee have done an excellent job. It is a real blueprint for a form of governance that the House will be able to be proud of. The duty of an existing commissioner in the dying days of his office, as it were, is to ensure it is delivered. I am sure my fellow commissioners feel the same way.

2.25 pm

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). He will have read in the evidence we heard the tributes paid to him for the work he has done.

This year, we are celebrating the huge anniversary of Magna Carta—for the benefit of the Prime Minister, that is the “great charter”—and this week we celebrated the de Montfort Parliament. Today is the day of the Straw Committee. I am not sure we will be celebrating this document in quite the same way as those other anniversaries, but it is nevertheless an important document. It was important not to think of the individuals in the posts that we were discussing. If Members of the House do that, they will probably understand why we came to the conclusions and recommendations on the evidence that was before us. I want to touch on the Committee, the Commission, the two separate roles—the appointment of the Clerk and the director general—and security.

Starting with the Committee, all of us took the task the House gave us very seriously. We did not want to go over the background to why we were there, but to find ways to move forward. We were set a task by our excellent Chair, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) for his stewardship, and to each and every one of the excellent Committee staff at every level—I can see some of them here, dotted around the Chamber. The Committee met three times a week, with Committee Clerks picking up on what we wanted and implementing it.

To start with, I was not aware of the views of the other members of the Committee. However, the hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), as a former Solicitor-General, brought his legal experience to bear. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), whom I wish well in his future endeavours, is a former Deputy Leader of the House and brought his experience. The hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman) had his own pressures, because he has a very special constituent—the former chief Clerk. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) served the Committee well—I think he was one of the only members who attended every single meeting—while he was still grieving for his father. The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) brought his experience of boards and being an active Member of the House, and was an excellent co-chair at the staff session. By the way, he has

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his own copy of “Erskine May”. The hon. Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts) fitted in his other commitments with his assiduous Committee work and gave us wise advice. I also want to thank all those who took the time and effort to put their views to us, both in writing and orally.

What we heard is that there is not another institution like this. We therefore felt there could be some creativity in what we could come up with. We heard that learning from the private sector, which we can, cannot make this place corporate: the public sector instils that unique sense of public duty and acting in the public interest that we see everyday from the people who work here.

One of the major planks of the report is to streamline the governance structure. Many Members have touched on this. The Commission sets the strategic framework for the delivery of services to Members, staff and the public. Many Members have mentioned the organogram—it rapidly became one of my favourite words—which is set out on page 89. From the confusion of lines of reporting, accountability and action, it is clear that not much could get done very quickly. I hope you will agree, Mr Speaker, that the new structure cleans this up, and it is much more streamlined on page 88, with the four elected members given the status of Select Committee Chairs. That is right, because it is difficult for them to concentrate on the work of the House. I take the point that they need to be remunerated and given status so that they know they are doing important work. We cannot have four Committee members doing separate things, with two getting an allowance and the other two not. All four have to play their part on the Commission.

The non-executives do not have voting rights but, to clarify an issue mentioned by the Leader of the House, it is not a question of just moving them from the Management Board up to the Commission. We have recommended that there should be a fair, open and transparent selection of the non-executives and the two officials who will also sit on the Commission.

That brings me to the two separate roles. As is well known, we decided as a Committee that we should have the two separate roles. The Clerk’s role is unique and the skills required are extremely important—giving advice to the Speaker and the Deputy Speakers. I am sure we all agree that we are well served by the Clerk’s Department. However, it is too much to ask one person to undertake the responsibility of the other aspects of the House relating to its management and liaison with the other place—a necessary and important requirement.

I changed my mind many times on who should be in charge overall. We heard from those who had run large corporations that we need to know where the buck stops and who has a grip on what is going on. Where is the Gantt chart of work to be done, and who is responsible for the delivery? Ultimately, it must be the Speaker, elected by Members, but with the support and the challenge from a board—the Commission. The staff, too, had a variety of ideas, and the meeting with them at all levels of the organisation was unique—and I hope that will continue.

If Members care to look at paragraph 68, they can see the variety of views expressed to us. In the end, the Clerk’s role is preserved as head of the House service, but the director general is autonomous and is responsible for resource allocation and delivery across the House service. There were organisations that said that in cases

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ranging from Sir David Higgins, formerly at the Olympic Delivery Authority to the National Audit Office—my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn touched on this—two people have been in charge and they have been able to make it work. I believe that it can work. While the Clerk is head of the House service, the executive committee is chaired by the DG: both have a direct line to the Speaker;

Let me move on to the appointment of the Clerk. We have heard that in previous times, a piece of paper was passed up to the Speaker and two names, or even just one name, were given to the Speaker to choose. That cannot be right in the 21st century. Judges used to be appointed by a tap on the shoulder, and sometimes solicitors and barristers were asked to apply to be judges. That has changed to a much more transparent system. We are moving away from appointing people in the image of their predecessors, and we are looking at different and transferable skills.

I feel that some explanation should be made of how the process will work. There will be a sifting panel—I hope many people will apply, and I have talked in terms of hundreds—that will sift things down to a manageable number. The panel that interviews must shortlist. That provides consistency and continuity, and it has to be done under any equal opportunities proposals. The panel will have a discussion at the shortlisting stage about why they have scored candidates in the way they have against the job description and whether they can draw out certain aspects of the applications that will apply to the job or whether transferable skills are relevant. In my view, the person working most closely with the Clerk and the DG has to sit on the shortlisting and selection panel—and that is the Speaker. That is all set out in paragraph 192 and agreed in the report. The new Clerk will be part of the panel for the DG, as they have to work together.

Let me touch on security aspects, which are also included in the report. We wanted to reassert our rights as Members. While the security of Parliament is of fundamental importance, we need clear governance arrangements to ensure that, except in an immediate emergency, security concerns should never override a Member’s constitutional right of access to Parliament or any other privilege. Protections must be in place to ensure that Members’ communications are not subject to interference, including surveillance and interception. We consider that the governance of security arrangements should be subject to approval by both Houses and that security policy should be a regular item on the agendas of the joint meetings of the Commission and the House Committee. Between those meetings, whenever they happen, there should an effective executive oversight body, as set out in paragraph 129.

In conclusion, this is a place of work that should be accessible to those who need to understand it and who send us here—but sometimes it is not accessible. We should be able to conduct our work on behalf of our constituents in an efficient and timely manner. I thank the people who have been acting up in their role in the absence of the chief Clerk while the Governance Committee has been meeting. It is important that there is a framework in which Members and staff know the limits and know what is required, what action needs to be taken and what the outcome will be, so that things are just not left to the whim of a manager—there must always be

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accountability to the Commission and, ultimately, the Speaker and Deputy Speakers who are the public face of the House.

We have evidence showing where you have intervened, Mr Speaker. When the pay deal was stuck, the trade union leader appealed to you and that moved things forward. I also want to mention the idea of screening “12 Years a Slave” with the director, Steve McQueen, actually standing in Speaker’s House. That is remarkable, and it happened following a request from the diversity group, which was agreed by you, Mr Speaker.

I hope Members find this report workable—and workable now. There is a will to change and the staff now expect something to be done. We heard from Mark Hutton, the Committee Clerk, that there has been an extended print run, and I understand that it is selling faster than the books by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn!

I feel that I have learned about this place, and heard from Members and staff alike that we will all rise to the challenge and make this an even more historic week. I thank my colleagues on the Committee for their support, and I commend the report to the House.

2.37 pm

Jacob Rees-Mogg (North East Somerset) (Con): I begin with an apology, as I may have to leave early to attend the repeat of the Simon de Montfort Parliament in the chapter house of Westminster Abbey.

I join other members of the Committee in thanking the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who was an absolutely brilliant Chairman and incredibly smooth in getting us to agree when there were bits of disagreement and in bringing people together. As a Member who was elected only in 2010, I was interested to watch someone who is an expert in his craft. He operated the Committee incredibly well.

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), who was a terrific member of the Committee. Although I will not mention every member of the Committee, I hope that she will take it as a compliment when I say that she was very much the grit that allowed the oyster to produce a pearl. While our Chairman was doing his silky stuff, for which other members of the Committee might have fallen slightly more easily, the hon. Lady ensured that we were kept up to the mark and that things were rigorously questioned and not just accepted. Her membership was crucial to our unanimously agreed report.

The report was important because we were tackling complex issues. The fundamental purpose of this place is to be a legislature, but we must be run in as efficient a way as possible. We have a duty to the public purse; we should not spend money carelessly. We have to ensure that we are run efficiently so that members of the public can come here. It is a very important constitutional right that our constituents can turn up in Central Lobby on any day of the week when the House is sitting and demand to see their Member of Parliament, to ask their MP to behave in a particular way. That means that the general operation needs to be smooth running in admitting people and providing some element of hospitality.

We also have to get legislation through, which I sometimes regret, saying that an awful lot of legislation is bad and it would not necessarily be a bad thing if we

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were a little less efficient. On the other hand, the Government need to be able to get their business through the House, and they need the authority and expertise that is brought to them by the Clerks.

I hold the Clerks in the highest regard. They were referred to in some of the evidence that we received as a “priestly caste”, and I rather like that view of them. As a Catholic, I have always been taught that one should not criticise or question priests unduly, because they have that high authority. Oddly, in the priestly class of Clerk, that is important. There are 650 Members of Parliament, all of whom, individually and jointly, think that they know best. They think that, having read one page of “Erskine May”—which is about what I have done—they have suddenly become experts on every aspect of procedure, and are willing to challenge Clerks with 40 years’ experience.

Those bewigged figures have an authority through their learning, their length of service and, indeed, their appearance—an authority that is accepted by Members, and that allows the business of the House to progress—and anything that we did in our report had to preserve that. However, we had also observed that some aspects of the House were not running as efficiently and as smoothly as might have been hoped, partly because of the absurd burden that was placed on someone who was performing the job of both Clerk and chief executive.

I happen to dislike the title “chief executive”. I think it is part of a title inflation that has affected every organisation. Even in a two-man band, one of the two has to be the chief executive. It has become part of a culture of flattery, and of raising things that do not necessarily need to be raised, which I find broadly disagreeable. None the less, the title had been introduced, and it meant that one person was expected to do absolutely everything. For instance, people would contact him if they were upset about the gymnasium. I must confess that nothing has ever worried me about any gymnasium at all. I never go near such places. I think that raising one’s hand to hail a taxi is quite enough exercise for any individual day.

Valerie Vaz: You should walk.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: That sounds far too energetic, but never mind.

The fact that a chief executive was being bombarded with petty requests meant, inevitably, that the job was becoming unmanageable. The number of people who were coming in, and the growth in the business that was going on, meant that the role needed to be divided. However, as we observed while the Committee was sitting, there are occasions when matters that we think are completely routine and entirely administrative suddenly become constitutional.

I was a member of a private Member’s Bill Committee. When I turned up, I found that the Committee Room had been hired out for—I don’t know—a tiddlywinks contest; certainly not for any parliamentary activity. Although everyone knows that the business of legislative Committees takes priority over any other business that is going on in a Committee Room—which is quite right—dealing with that is a clerkly role, not an administrative role. The more one thought about it, the

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clearer it became that it was impossible for the head administrator to be above the head constitutional person, but also that the head administrator needed to have enormous authority and clout in order to get things done.

One of our fascinating discoveries—this happened when I was talking to members of staff with the hon. Member for Walsall South—was that no one actually knows how anything is decided in this illustrious place. I had a great conversation with a gentleman from Portcullis House, which, as some of us know, is that remote office space that takes us away from the Chamber, about a room booking. He said that one person had told him that drink could be served but not food, another person had told him that neither could be served, and the Speaker had said that both were allowed. I said to him “Well, who did you follow?” You will be glad to know, Mr Speaker, that he quite rightly replied “Mr Speaker, of course.” For all the governance that may be put into this place, there are authorities which are not necessarily written down, but which carry—rightly, in my view—a great deal of weight, and the director general needs to be in that position.

The right hon. Member for Blackburn mentioned that we had bandied about titles when we were discussing what the director general ought to have been called. I had various favourites. I went through the list of titles in the Royal Household from which I thought we might be able to learn. We briefly considered “comptroller”, with a “p”, but that was rejected, eventually and somewhat reluctantly, after I had a discussion—with the leave of the Committee—with a journalist, the great Brendan Carlin of The Mail on Sunday. [Interruption.] I believe that it is traditional not to recognise the Galleries, but never mind.

I asked Brendan Carlin whether we would be teased if we used the title “comptroller”. He immediately said to me “fat”, and I am afraid that the image of Thomas the Tank Engine diverted us from “comptroller”. My other favourite was “grand bailiff”, but I regret to say that “grand bailiff” got no takers. So director general became the title: a title that carries implicit authority, power and prestige, but does not confuse the operation of a Parliament with an intrusion of the private sector that is entirely unnecessary.

This place cannot have a chief executive. When the chief executive of BP—and goodness, Lord Browne’s evidence was impressive—says “Go”, his minions “goeth”. When the chief executive of the House of Commons says to a Member of Parliament “Go”, the Member of Parliament—however new, however humble, however diffident—says “Why?” If 650 employers, effectively, are not willing to be told to go, a very different role is needed: a role that requires more tact and subtlety and understanding. The private sector comparisons were therefore not the correct ones. I think that we have got this big task absolutely right. We have made the role manageable, but we have maintained the primacy of Parliament and the primacy of the legislative process.

As for the other aspects with which we have dealt, it is not, I suppose, that unusual for a mini-crisis to lead to a process that uncovers matters that can be significantly improved. The administration of the House of Commons, although in the hands of very impressive and capable people, was an enormous mystery to anyone who had not served on the House of Commons Commission. I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall South in that regard.

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When we looked at the organogram—which is an ugly word, to be honest—we had no idea who was reporting to whom about what, and I think that one of our major tasks is to cut that structure down so that it is understandable. That is not just important to Members of Parliament, because it is very easy for them to have their views heard. They have opportunities to question the Leader of the House, to send messages to the Speaker, and to speak directly to the Clerk. A Member of Parliament has access to where authority lies. However, the employees of the House—the staff of the House—need to know who makes a decision, and whether that decision is authoritative or merely a suggestion made by someone higher up in the pecking order than them, but not high up enough to make the decision authoritative. I think that if we cut down the administration and simplify it, we will have clear lines of command that everyone will be able to understand, and better engagement with the people who work in the building.

I want to make one point on the relationship with the other place—with the noble Lords. I understand why their lordships are very nervous about this place trying to grab power from them. If I were in that place rather than in this place I would take the same view: that the House of Commons—by virtue of ultimately controlling the purse strings and by having the democratic mandate—is always in a position to peer over at what their lordships are doing. Although the champagne story may have been legendary if not mythical—anyway, I think their lordships ought to drink the highest quality of champagne; after all, if you’re a Lord, you must have some privilege of peerage—their lordships need to maintain their independence because they do not want to be a subsidiary Chamber. They are a second Chamber—the second Chamber—but not a subsidiary Chamber. In their procedures, and sometimes in aspects that do not immediately seem procedural but may have procedural implications, their lordships will want to keep their independence. We as the lower House must be incredibly tactful and diffident in how we deal with them. It is not for us to tell them what to do; it is for us to make tactful and polite suggestions. If we do that, we may, I hope, be able to maintain a good working relationship, but we must ensure that we do not appear to be engaged in a power grab.

I am honoured to have served on the Committee, which was very good and worked speedily. I am glad that today we are debating our report and that the Leader of the House and First Secretary of State is so generously allowing us time. He does not allow us time for some other things, but he is being very good in this respect. It is a happy coincidence that the former Clerk of this House, Lord Lisvane, was introduced to their lordships’ House earlier today. If he has read this report, I hope he thinks it is up to the standard of the reports issued when he was still in office.

2.50 pm

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) will be pleased to know that he is not in a minority of one when it comes to the gym. I am not altogether certain where it is located, and I cannot confess that I have much interest, but I recognise that it serves a very good purpose for many Members and, indeed, staff, which is the important point. The hon. Gentleman

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and I are not likely to agree over wigs and costumes, however; if only we would all recognise we are now in the 21st century.

I commend the report and the work that has been put into it. A great deal has rightly been said about my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and his colleagues. They have undoubtedly produced a report on which, so far at least, there has been unanimous agreement, and I am not going to voice dissension.

The point is made in the report that we do not seek to be elected because of a wish to run the House. Indeed, at election time that is about the last thing on our minds. When the next campaign begins in a few weeks, running the House of Commons will not be one of the issues that we will raise with constituents. It is not likely that anyone wishes to come here to be Speaker or Deputy Speaker or to chair internal Committees. Nevertheless, the place could not function without Members being willing to take on such responsibilities. While we have the privilege—it is always a privilege—of being Members here, we have a collective overall responsibility, albeit fortunately not a day-to-day one, for the building, for appointments and for the functioning of this place. That is not an overall responsibility that we can give to Officers.

Of course we would not be debating this issue at all—there would have been no Committee in the first place—if the previous procedure for appointing a Clerk had been adopted. A proposal, which I shall not go into, caused a great deal of controversy. A motion was tabled and debated, and then the Committee was appointed—and all of that arose entirely because of the original suggestion that was made.

In paragraph 59 of the report mention is made of how in 2006 two names were put before the then Speaker by the retiring Clerk, from which a choice was made, and I recall that the current Speaker made a statement to the House on 30 June 2011 in which he told us that—from a panel of five, so it was not as in 2006—an appointment had been duly made. He made that announcement to the House and we cheered accordingly. I do not in any way question the way in which those two Clerks carried out their duties, and it is quite likely that under the new recommended appointment proposals those two individuals would have been appointed, so I am not questioning their credibility or the manner in which they carried out their jobs. The important point is the manner in which they were appointed, which was surely unacceptable then, and even more so now. I very much welcome the more complex and thorough method now being recommended for appointing the Clerk, which I am sure will be adopted.

Although the new appointment process will rightly be more thorough and complex, I would like—I hope this is not too daring a suggestion—Members generally to have a say. Would it be totally out of the question to have hustings? That happened last time for those who wanted to be Speaker, and it would have been unthinkable before. Moreover, why not have a pre-confirmation hearing before the Public Administration Committee for the successful applicant for the post of Clerk of the House of Commons? The recommendation would be made, and the person recommended would go before that Committee. In my view, there is a case to be made for that approach, although the report does not uphold that view, which is perhaps unfortunate.

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If it is considered inappropriate for the person to be appointed Clerk to go before a pre-confirmation hearing—as I say, I see no reason why it should be—what about the new director general of the House of Commons? Is there a particular reason why that should not be done?

Mr Heath: I think there is a reason why that should not be done: that would then be substituting the judgment of one set of Members for another set. In both cases, they would be Members of this House and there is no obvious reason why the Public Administration Committee should have a better view of who should be appointed than the appointing Committee.

Mr Winnick: That point was made to me informally when I raised the issue with a Member who has some responsibility in this regard. I am not altogether convinced that it is written in holy scripture that, because one Committee has made a recommendation, it cannot be looked at by another Committee. However, as I said, the Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn did not take up the suggestion.

In my view, it is sensible that, although the two posts will involve equal—if very different—responsibilities, the Clerk should be the more senior of the two. So much must depend on the way in which the two individuals—the Clerk of the House and the director general of the House of Commons—will be able to function, day by day. The last thing we want is a turf war: disputes about who should be responsible for a, b and c, and who for x, y and z. That would take us back to square one, or indeed worse. So it is absolutely essential that, when the appointments are made, there is a clear understanding that these are two individuals who can get on together, recognise their different functions and serve the House of Commons as it should be served.

During the last debate on this subject, I was one of those who argued that being Clerk of the House of Commons, with all the authority and understanding of its procedures that that involves, and handling the day-to-day administration are completely different functions. I am very pleased that the view is shared by a number of Members on both sides of the House, and was clearly upheld by the Committee, that these are different functions that should be performed by two different individuals.

Finally, I turn to the restoration and renewal of the building, which a number of Members have mentioned. It is absolutely essential—indeed, there is no more important issue for the new Parliament elected in May to get to grips with as soon as possible. In November 2012, we had a general debate on House of Commons facilities, at which I took the opportunity to refer to a report that mentioned such problems as widespread water penetration—more evidence of which we have seen just outside the Chamber today—and asbestos all over the building. The report also stated that the mechanical and electrical services were defective, and it should be a matter of even greater concern that it identified a high fire risk.

When the necessary overhaul work has been agreed to, there will no doubt be complaints because it is costing a very large sum of money. People will write in

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to ask whether the money could not have been spent on more important things, but we will have to make the point that vast sums are already being spent every year to try to keep the building in a condition in which it can function on a daily basis. This is not a matter of a few minor defects. The building is not fit for the 21st century, and it is dangerous in its present condition.

I hope that, when the new Parliament is elected, it will get down and do the necessary planning work. I agree that a new delivery service will be required, and I cannot see that being undertaken by the new Clerk and the new director general of the House of Commons. I do not believe that that should be their job; rather, as has been suggested, there should be a structure similar to the one that helped to put on the Olympics so successfully. I have no doubt that the report will be accepted; there does not seem to be any dissension. Once the two main appointments have been made, the first priority of the new Parliament regarding internal matters must be to decide how and when the work is to be carried out, as it will undoubtedly involve the evacuation of this building for a few years at least.

Mr Hague: On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I hope that it is appropriate for me to inform the House that, while we have been having this debate, news has emerged that Lord Brittan of Spennithorne, Leon Brittan, has passed away. Many of us who have known him for a long time will know that he had been ill for many months, but this is a sad moment to receive this news. He was my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Richmond (Yorks), which is why I particularly want to pay tribute to him as a former Member of this House and former Home Secretary. He was a kind, assiduous and brilliant man, and I know that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to his wife, Diana, at this difficult time.

3.2 pm

Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) (Con): I echo the sentiments that the Leader of the House has just expressed. I am sure that we all feel the same sense of sorrow on hearing that Lord Brittan has passed away.

I rise to support the motion as a member of the Governance Committee. I little thought at the outset of this process that we would end up where we have, or with as happy and constructive a result. My original goal in tabling an early-day motion on the clerkship nomination was simply to allow colleagues to express their concerns about the nomination, which has now been terminated. This came after my noble Friend Baroness Boothroyd had fired a majestic broadside of her own on the topic, in her own inimitable fashion.

Such are the vagaries of life that, in late August last year, I was in the middle of a series of walks to raise money for two outstanding local charities, the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford and the Midlands Air Ambulance, and I vividly recall standing at the cairn on the top of the Cat’s Back on the Offa’s Dyke path in the Black mountains, looking out over my gorgeous constituency and—if one can imagine such a movement from the sublime to the ridiculous—calling the House of Commons to table my early-day motion from there. That was a very rare example of successful rural mobile telecommunications, although I know that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport is

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even now straining every sinew to improve those communications. But supported by you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and this House, the mysterious alchemy of Parliament has transmuted my original concern and that of others from base alloy into the gold of careful constitutional reform, and for that we have enormous reason to be grateful.

I do not propose to comment in any great detail on the substance of this report, except in one regard to which I shall come. But one key point needs to be made now, and it is a point that we should recall as we continue the debate. It is that the Committee came down overwhelmingly in favour of a single unified service. There is, at the heart of that idea, a balance that must be struck between the accountability to which the Clerk is entitled from the director general and the delineated areas of autonomy that the director general exercises as head of the executive committee. It is in that balance and harmony that the subtlety of the report and the recommendation lies, and it is in the success of that harmony that ultimately the balance of the good management of this House stands to be assessed.

I wish to join colleagues who have acknowledged the brilliance of the Chair of the Governance Committee. He was a model Chairman. Remarkable as it may seem to those who think about how much time he has spent in Cabinets and shadow Cabinets, he cut a comparatively naive and youthful figure as the Chair of a Select Committee. None the less, he did preside over a model of judicious, inclusive and yet rapid consultation. We took evidence from a vast and diverse array of people, which included Mr Speaker and the Deputy Speakers, many colleagues and executives from this House, senior executives from the other House, outside experts, Clerks, our magnificent doorkeepers, security personnel, and our brilliant librarians who struggle to keep us all up to the mark with information. Perhaps the highlight was a fascinating session we had with 60 very thoughtful and committed members of staff across all levels and functions of the House. It will astonish Members to know that the remarkable achievements of the Committee are all the more remarkable given the Chairman’s commitment to the House of Commons gym.

The point came through time and again that the House of Commons is an institution unlike any other. Many people talked about the sheer difficulty of managing 650 autonomous Members of Parliament, each in effect running a small business and responding to their constituents’ concerns. That managerial challenge has been magnified over time by the increased constituency workloads of Members of Parliament; the rising numbers of their staff; heightened security concerns; the drive to make Parliament more accessible; and the need to renew the crumbling fabric of the Palace of Westminster. None the less, many witnesses testified that the House was, in general, well managed. They said that that was increasingly so in recent years.

It is important to note that we also came across areas where improvement was needed. I am talking about areas where we found poor management, unclear or overlapping responsibilities, clashing priorities, slow

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decision-making, lack of implementation of agreed actions, and inconsistent strategic direction. In particular, the crucial relationship between the senior statutory body, the Commission and the Management Board was not working well. All those matters have been addressed in the Committee’s report.

For me, this experience has served to ram home one key message, which is that the British constitution relies on the effective functioning of Parliament. Time and again, witnesses emphasised that it is the parliamentary function of this House that is, and must ever be, primary. The role of the Clerk is absolutely fundamental. He or she acts as the final word in procedural matters for a host of other Parliaments across the Commonwealth. When I opened the debate on the motion that established the Committee, I said that contrary to popular belief, parliamentary procedure—the rules of the game—is not some pettifogging accretion or irrelevant decoration to the business of government; it is the essence of government. This country is governed by laws, and laws are made in Parliament, and that Parliament is run according to rules and procedure. Without procedure, there could be no government.

In retrospect, I have one, and just one, regret, which it is important to place on the record. Having reflected further, I believe that the Committee could and should have recommended that the name of the candidate for Clerk should be presented in an address by Parliament to the monarch, signed perhaps by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, instead of the present system, which the Committee has left intact, whereby a letter goes to No. 10 Downing street and so to Buckingham palace. This is, after all, a purely parliamentary matter that does not concern the Executive directly at all. An address would be a cleaner and more transparent approach that would not permit a nomination to be made as it was made last year unless Parliament were sitting. I hope that that idea can be revisited by the House in future years.

I think that it is fair to say that I have established a national and perhaps even intercontinental reputation for being a bore about one of our predecessors, Edmund Burke, and the deep insights he still brings to politics and to government. Burke is the Paul Scholes of modern politics: just when the game is fizzling out and the crowd desperately needs a goal, he has an uncanny way of ghosting into the enemy’s penalty area and slotting the ball home. He does so again here. Scattered across his writings, Burke gives us seven tests of reform, seven ways by which we can judge the quality or temper of a given set of political measures over and above how we collectively and individually might feel about them.

For Burke, reform should be early, anticipating the emergence of a problem before its full effect are felt. It should be proportionate to the evil to be addressed to limit collateral effects. It should build on existing arrangements and previous reforms so that it can draw on any lessons learned from them. It should be measured, so that those making the change and those affected by it can adjust their behaviour appropriately. It should be consensual, so that it can be lasting over time regardless of changes of Administration. It should be cool in spirit, to maintain consensus throughout the process of change and, finally, every step of it must be practical and achievable in itself.

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The Committee’s recommendations satisfy at least six and possibly all seven of the tests laid down by Burke and I do not think that they can have any higher recommendation than that. This is reform in the spirit of reform.

I conclude by thanking the Chairman of the Committee and my colleagues on it, the Committee staff, who did a superb job, and the Members and staff of the Commons, who will have the thankless task of making these reforms work.

3.12 pm

Sir George Young (North West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow a thoughtful Burkean speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), who kick-started the process that led up to the report from a hill top in his constituency. It was just over four and a half months ago that we debated his motion, which set up the Committee. I join him in congratulating the Chair and, indeed, the Committee on a first-class piece of work. It is appropriate that we should debate the report this week, when we are focusing on how Parliament has evolved over time.

I want to make a very brief contribution. The Governance Committee represents a new approach to the issue in the sense touched on by the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), as the previous reviews have been led by people outside Parliament with no direct stake in the outcome—Ibbs, Braithwaite and Tebbit. This approach was intrinsically led by people in the thick of it. The previous reviews had no time pressures, but, as I said in the debate that established it, this review had a challenging deadline. The quality of the report shows that we should not underestimate the capacity of this House to tackle complex issues seriously, promptly and in a collegiate way.

I draw a parallel between this report and the report of the Wright Committee at the end of the last Parliament. A Select Committee was set up right at the end of that Parliament alongside the existing Select Committees that had a specific remit, reported promptly and produced a groundbreaking report charting the way forward and leading to long-term improvements to how this place works. The Straw report will join the Wright report in the history of how this place is reformed.

Part of the success of the Governance Committee was its size—eight—and there is a lesson there for other Select Committees whose effectiveness can be diminished by their size. They become too large to manage and the law of diminishing returns kicks in, in my view, somewhere above 10. I commend the members of the Committee for their attendance record, which was exemplary.

Before dealing with the substance of the report, I want to mention three matters briefly in passing. First, I have a minor quibble with paragraph 200, which says:

“One of the consequences of the reforms introduced by the Wright Committee is that there is no clear route by which House business reaches the floor of the House”.

In fact, the Wright Committee could not have been clearer. It states:

“Backbenchers should schedule backbench business. Ministers should give up their role in the scheduling of any business except that which is exclusively Ministerial business”.

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To my knowledge, there has never been a problem about allocating time for Standards and Privileges or Procedure Committee reports. I welcome the rather tactful letter of the Leader of the House pointing out this minor error.

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was here earlier today, but there was an exchange between the Leader of the House and me about timetabling, because a large number of reports await debate, some of which have been waiting for more than 18 months.

Sir George Young: None the less, the Wright Committee could not have been clearer. A certain number of days a year are allocated to the Backbench Business Committee specifically for the purpose of debating Select Committee reports. The Government, generously, have made additional time available over and above that which they had to, and that shows the generosity of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House in going beyond what he had to do to facilitate debate.

Secondly, I very much support the proposal in paragraph 138 that we should make wider use of the Deputy Speakers. This is a good week in which to make the point, because looking at the number of commemorative events taking place, it is impossible for Mr Speaker to represent the House at all of them, and it would be absolutely right for the Deputy Speakers to do so in his place. Pressure will continue throughout the year. The Deputy Speakers, as I am sure you will agree, Madam Deputy Speaker, are experienced parliamentarians who have a mandate from the House and are an underused asset.

My third minor point touches on paragraph 144, which states:

“The overlap between F&S and Administration is unfortunate”.

It goes on to make the point that

“Finance can never be separated entirely from services”.

The Chairmen of both Committees are rightly praised for their work in this Parliament, but given that services and the money that pays for them can never be separated, I ask myself whether, in the longer term, we need to have two separate Committees of MPs, neither of which has an executive role, but both of which advise the Commission. That might be something to revisit.

The key question addressed by the report appears at the foot of paragraph 68, which states:

“Some Members argued that the Clerk…should be the senior post. Other Members argued for two separate posts…of equal status”.

Looking at the questions that the Committee asked, it was clear that both sides of the argument were held in the Committee. Skilful chairmanship and a willingness to compromise enabled the Committee to produce a unanimous report, for which the House is grateful.

The Committee’s proposals appear not in chapter 5, headed “Our proposals”, which contains three tentative suggestions, but in chapter 6. Eight words at the end of paragraph 156 encapsulate the skilful settlement negotiated by the Chair to achieve a unanimous report:

“The Director General would chair the Executive Committee.”

But on that Committee sits the Clerk, who is the line manager of the director general and the head of the House service. The Clerk remains the accounting officer,

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is responsible for providing strategic leadership to the service overall, but he is a junior partner on the executive committee responsible for doing this. The House of Commons Library says that the executive committee’s role

“is to lead the House of Commons Service by setting its strategic aims, priorities, values and standards, in accordance with the decisions of the House of Commons Commission; approving business and financial plans, ensuring controls, managing risk, monitoring performance and making corporate policy decisions.”

Those are key responsibilities. Chairing it will mean leading the discussion, achieving a consensus, and, at times, possibly taking a different view from the Clerk.

I do not say that that cannot work; there may be other examples where a subordinate chairs a committee on which his boss sits. But my eye was caught by that because it sits a little uneasily with the injunctions at the beginning of the report about clarity. Paragraph 8:

“Governance must start with clarity”.

Paragraph 9:

“Governance…must deliver clear decision-making”.

Paragraph 14:

“There is normally a single senior executive—a single head—who then delegates specific responsibilities further down the organisation.”

Paragraph 16:

“those who are accountable”—

the Clerk will remain accountable—

“must have the ability to manage that for which they are accountable, and therefore a single line of command, at executive level, is critically important.”

I understand why the Committee ended up where it did, and I am not saying that the proposal cannot work. Indeed, the report mentions other examples, such as the Olympic Delivery Authority. Key will be a determination to make it work. The fact that the Clerk will have a role to play in choosing the director general is very helpful. My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire summed it up when he said that success will depend on harmony.

That is the only part of the report that one needs to keep an eye on, and I understand why we arrived at that decision. Subject to that, I think this is a brilliant piece of work and I am grateful to the Committee and the chair for producing it. I hope we can now build on it and move forward.

3.20 pm

Sir Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) (Con): I join all those who have contributed to the debate in thanking members of the Committee, particularly its Chair, and congratulating them on the quality of their work. I am astonished that the report was completed in the time that was taken without sacrificing quality and thoroughness. I had suspected, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), that extensions might be needed, as has sometimes proved to be the case in the past, so I contribute to the unanimity of praise.

I welcome the direction of travel outlined by the Committee. I shall comment on one or two details in a moment. The Committee has provided an elegant solution to the immediate problem which triggered its being set up. I have come to the conclusion slowly and perhaps reluctantly over the years that it was time that we separated the responsibilities of the Clerk from those of

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the chief executive. We must put Parliament first. That is the core reason for our existence, but running this place has become an enormous business. We need someone of great skill and experience to take charge of the business side of the House of Commons.

The former Clerk, Sir Robert Rogers, still believes that the two posts could be combined, and I agree with him that whoever takes the job of the director general must very quickly understand the House of Commons. I have found over the past few years that there has been suspicion and sometimes anger among colleagues about what is happening around them. They sometimes feel that the position of Member of Parliament has been downgraded, that they do not have a chance to make their voice heard on particular matters, and that decisions are taken and they have to put up with them. That has not been the happiest of circumstances.

I warmly welcome the report because it has gone further than the initial task by offering a joined-up system of governance, which may help to overcome the difficulty that I have just described. On the basis of my experience over the past four and a half years, I believe we need a joined-up system among the professionals who serve us, and a joined-up system among the management side and Members and everyone else with an interest in this place.

I think of the Cromwell Green entrance, which is a saga in itself. It was designed with a capacity that quickly proved inadequate, and had more money spent on it to increase that capacity. It is approached by a ramp which is uncovered. The lack of capacity has meant that visitors to this place, a substantial proportion of whom are the electorate who put us here, have been kept waiting for inordinate lengths of time in all weathers. We are told, whether by Westminster city council or by English Heritage, that as things stand we may not cover that ramp—yet this is a sovereign Parliament. It is a ludicrous situation. Why was that not thought of from the very beginning and the construction done in such a way that there could have been a cover that would not offend English Heritage or others?

I think of the roof of Portcullis House, which is a much more recent construction. We were advised that those who planned it were looking to have a building that would last for 200 years. Unfortunately, they did not secure a guarantee that the glass roof would last anything like that length of time in service. That has, I am afraid, given rise to problems that should have been anticipated, with guarantees obtained. It is beautiful, but unfortunately it has shown some weaknesses.

The joining up between our managers and Members is important, without our getting into ridiculous situations of micro-management. If we have good professional people, at some point or other we have to respect their judgment and hope that the framework is sufficiently robust that we have a strong guarantee that that judgment is sound.

This is about more than ensuring that the arrangements—the mechanics—allow us to achieve sensible decision making. We have to accept that this is an extraordinarily difficult place to govern because there are so many different interests on the Estate to begin with. Members, understandably, see themselves as foremost. The hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) referred to the status that having been elected to this place as a representative of the people gives a person as

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something that surely has to carry some weight within the order of things in this building. But of course we respect the fact that the needs of our own personal staff helping us to do our work are different from those of the Members they serve. There is the huge parliamentary staff, at all the different levels, on whom we depend. Conflicting arrangements have to be thought about. Members cannot necessarily always say that everything must be called to their tune.

We also have to take account of the electorate. It is our policy to welcome the electorate here. Unlike in days of old when the Member of Parliament made an annual visit to his constituency to be fully briefed on what was going on before coming rapidly back to London, we are now welcoming tens of thousands—hundreds of thousands—of our electorate to Westminster. Unfortunately, that creates certain difficulties of access that do not appear to have been completely successfully thought through.

Beyond that, there are the general visitors. Apart from being an iconic palace and a world heritage site, we have the distinction of claiming to be one of the leading visitor attractions in London. People want to come here, and we should be flattered by that fact. Indeed, we should be flattered by the fact that people want to come to London. We therefore have to think how, without in any sense lessening the dignity of the place, we can facilitate the interests of the people who want to come and see what they regard as the mother of Parliaments at the very heart of representative democracy.

Mention has been made of the other place. I absolutely agree with the line of argument in the Committee’s report that we have to seek further co-operative measures and perhaps unify more of the services. I have enjoyed a very cordial and constructive relationship with my opposite number, latterly the noble Lord Sewel. There are undoubtedly certain things that one can achieve for general convenience, although not everybody knows what they are. For example, Members of the House of Commons do not seem to realise that they are able to book a table in the Barry Room in the House of Lords if they are looking for an alternative type of meal to that which they might find in the Commons side of the building. We need to go further than that, and very realistic questions have been asked.

Bearing in mind all the different demands on the palace, we always have to think of security. It has been ramped up at various times in the past few years, which can create considerable difficulties in satisfying the free movement and protection of Members and those who work here, while at the same time allowing us to give freedom of access to our constituents and visitors in general. Some very difficult management decisions have to be taken, and I suspect that, if we are going to square the circle, it is inevitable that more expenditure will be involved.

I have the odd quibble. There has been absolutely no collusion between me and my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), but I agree with the two particular points he made and I am slightly surprised that he pinched the analogy that I was going to use. More thought might have been given to the determination of roles for the other two proposed Commons commissioners.

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I disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young), because I think that a clear distinction can be drawn between the role of the portfolio holder for administration and that of the portfolio holder for finance: finance is about determining budgets, while administration tries, within those approved budget heads, to work out the details of how to go about meeting the requirements that have been set.

Remuneration is also an issue. If two Commons commissioners are going to receive a stipend and two are not, that is a slightly inelegant situation. Many Members know of my interest in cricket, and it occurs to me that if two commissioners are going to receive a payment and two are not, that invokes the distinction between gentlemen and players that existed in the world of cricket until 1962.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross drew an analogy with the Panel of Chairs. I had a great deal to do with the introduction of remuneration for Members who joined the panel. They are required to be available at any time to chair a Committee. It might last five minutes or two and a half hours, but they have a duty to be there so that the functions of the House can be completed, and those who take on the chairmanship of more complex Public Bill Committees are committed for weeks to that particular task. They receive remuneration, so the proposal under discussion seems odd. I know it is possible to say, “Other anomalies would be created if you did that,” and I know that we would expose ourselves to the argument that we are just trying to find ways to spend money, but the question should be asked in order to make sure that we get this right.

Valerie Vaz: Perhaps I should offer a clarification. All four will be equal members of the Commission. Two of the roles have been allocated specific tasks and the other two will also be given tasks, one of which could be restoration and renewal and the other human resources. All four are of equal status and they will all get remuneration and have tasks allocated to them. They were going to be allocated those tasks by the Commission, but now, according to the motion, two of them will be elected separately. Nevertheless, all four have equal status.

Sir Alan Haselhurst: I do not dispute the fact that they have equal status; it is just that it is possible that they are not going to get equal remuneration. The portfolios could end up being different from those the hon. Lady has just instanced; my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, for example, made some suggestions. All I said was that the issue might be given further thought. I certainly do not disagree with the general set-up.

Finally, we must recognise that a huge gap has to be bridged. There is a lack of understanding among many different groups of people about what can be done and what is available in the House. It sometimes takes years for a Member to realise what things can be done and how to do them. Decisions are not communicated very effectively, and we have not found the best ways of communicating them.

If our communications within the House are poor, those outside it are lamentable because we are not exactly assisted by the press. They are willing to put out

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stories that are good to read, but do not necessarily bear any resemblance to accuracy. I find it extremely irritating that what they give as facts are simply untrue, yet are repeated and repeated in a way that denigrates this place.

I am proud that we give our work force the opportunity to have meals and refreshments that are to some extent subsidised, because that practice is commonplace in many other institutions, both private and public. To be sneered at because there is a cost to the public purse is to diminish Parliament and all those who work here with great dedication.

Mr Winnick: To the extent that we caused the expenses scandal, we inflicted a collective punishment on ourselves. Can the right hon. Gentleman point to a period when this place was not the subject of derision in the media? We all know the sketches written by Charles Dickens and by others before him. As the media would argue, it is part of their job to have a go at us.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): Order. That matter goes a little wide of the Committee’s report, and I am conscious that other Members want to speak, so tempting though Mr Winnick’s proposition is, Sir Alan, I hope that you will return to your speech and not respond to it.

Sir Alan Haselhurst: Madam Deputy Speaker, that shows I was too generous in giving way to the hon. Gentleman. I could have dismissed his comment in a sentence, but in view of what you have said, I will not even do that.

What I am trying to get at is that if we can establish a system of decision making and management in this place, we can have greater confidence in the decisions that are taken and be more robust in describing them to the outside world. We should be proud of this place, and if we think that we are doing the right things because we have a sound system for achieving the right conclusions, we should be able to say so and be respected for doing so. Indeed, we should promote the good things that happen in this place. Most of the matters on which the greatest amount of money is spent are in fact for the benefit of the general public, the electorate who put us here and those who wish to come here to support us.

I wholeheartedly commend the report, and again thank the Committee members for it.

3.38 pm

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am the last member of the Committee in the Chamber to have the opportunity to speak. I must say that, as is so typical of this place, subjects that arrive in a great flurry of indignation and excitement end up as matters of general consensus. Like the proverbial month of March, they roar in like a lion and go out like a lamb. This is such a case, and I would like to think that that has something to do with the work of the Committee.

As many Members have said, the Committee was certainly Stakhanovite in its work: we did a lot of work in a very short time. It reported very quickly. I have to say that in a race with Sir John Chilcot, I know who would be the winner. I would like to think that our views and recommendations were informed by a great

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deal of careful consideration of what we were told by Members of the House, those outside it who have expertise to share and members of staff. What we decided was based not on personalities or on a critique of the running of this place, but on where there was potential dysfunction in the governance structures and how that could be improved. I hope that that positive hope shines through in the report.

It was by no means a foregone conclusion that we would reach consensus in our deliberations. The House was clearly divided on key issues. There were two camps in respect of where the responsibility should lie, which might be described as the chief executive-ites and the Clerk-ites. There was a sense, to carry the arguments to the absurd, that some were concerned primarily about the running of this place as a building or organisation. To use the words of the old Victoria and Albert Museum slogan, “An ace caff with quite a nice museum attached”, those people saw this place as an ace tourist attraction with quite a nice legislature attached. The risk was that there was no recognition of the essential role of the Clerk of the House, protected by letters patent, in maintaining the legislative integrity of the House and our ability to carry out our core function.

The risk on the other side of the fence was of saying that the Clerk must retain all the current responsibilities of Clerk and chief executive, and that the ancillary issues do not matter very much as long as we are able to perform our legislative and scrutiny functions properly. Effectively, the idea was that everything else was a subsidiary matter that could be done by gifted amateurs, rather than by people with skills in the relevant areas.

I do not think that the Committee accepted either view. By careful synthesis, I hope that what we have come up with achieves the best of both worlds. The fact that, at the end of the day, one of our most difficult decisions was what name to give to the new entity of director general—we swayed from names that seemed excessively corporate to those that were seen to be excessively European, to the rococo, as was mentioned earlier—perhaps shows that the main thrust of what we decided had validity.

As I said, I want to deal with the outcome in respect of governance. It was clear to us that there were dysfunctionalities in the way that this place operated. That was partly because of the executive management. We were investing too wide a range of responsibilities in a single individual. Sometimes, I have to say, those were carried out with great success and aplomb by an individual. That was undoubtedly the case with Sir Robert Rogers. Nevertheless, we were unnecessarily limiting the pool from which we could draw such an individual. That was a clear issue that we had to address.

Secondly, there was vagueness about the relative responsibilities of the House of Commons Commission and the Management Board. There were severe disjunctures between various bodies. For instance, the Commission and the Management Board did not appear to share agendas, and there were no clear reports back on the implementation of Commission decisions on strategy. There was the extraordinary position of the external, non-executive members contributing to what should have been an executive role, rather than those at the strategic tier, which is the Commission. The same issue was replicated in the communications between the two Houses. Many of us found it extraordinary that the

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House of Commons Commission and the House Committee in another place did not have regular meetings to discuss how we could run the Palace of Westminster in the most effective way.

Then there is the role of the House of Commons Commissioners. I do not have any particular criticisms of the current Commission, although I have voiced criticisms on many occasions in the past of that shadowy body and some of the decisions that were made on our behalf in previous Parliaments. Those decisions contributed in large part to some of the reputational difficulties that the House has had in recent years. I am still appalled when I read in the newspapers that “MPs have decided” something. I think to myself, “No I haven’t. As a Member of Parliament, I haven’t decided anything of the sort.” The Commission may have taken the decision, but it has not yet been reported to me, and there is no clear mechanism for reporting it to me unless I happen to find it out by talking to a Doorkeeper or somebody else. Nor is there a clear mechanism for raising it with my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) or somebody else on the Floor of the House. There is an issue of accountability and visibility there.

Effective evidence was given to us that the Commons Commissioners having clear portfolio roles would be a good thing. My right hon. Friend assisted us greatly in our thinking on that, and I am convinced that it is the case. I look forward to each of the four Commissioners being available when we have Question Time in the House, so that they can answer for their portfolio responsibilities. They must also recognise that Members will stop them outside the House and ask them about their responsibilities. That is the right way of doing things. When I have a difficulty, too often I lumber the poor old Serjeant at Arms with my concerns, because he is there, he is visible and I know I will get an answer. That should not be how things work.

I hope that the Commissioners will be visible and that not only will we have regular reports and a clear strategy, implemented by a strong executive board focused on the role that we have given it, but we will close some of the gaps that are currently filled, for want of anything better, by the Speaker taking decisions. That is not to criticise the decisions that Mr Speaker takes, but simply to criticise the vagueness that leads to too many decisions in the House relying on the quiddities of the incumbent rather than on any clear strategy, procedure or policy. I hope that what we have suggested, if it finds favour today—it sounds as though it will—will strengthen each of the areas that I have mentioned.

I close with two points, the first of which is about the relationship with the other place. I have been told on countless occasions over the years that we have to be careful about how we approach the House of Lords on the subject of shared services, because the Lords are jealous with their services and will shout us down if we try to do anything. Of course they will shout us down if we appear simply to say, “We know best, and we want to take over what the House of Lords does”, and if we do not have proper regard for the fact that it is a separate legislative Chamber with its own procedures. However, I was hugely impressed by the openness and readiness of the Members of the House of Lords to

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whom we spoke to entertain much greater co-operation. Of course, we already have a fair amount, as the comments of the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) showed, but we can take it much further.

I make it plain that it will not be me who does that, because I will be gone. I am bequeathing my opinions to my successors, in the same way as I invited the Leader of the House to do. However, it seems to me that the ways of working that will be necessary to achieve restoration and renewal may well lead to the view that we need, more than anything else other than our legislative function, a common Palace of Westminster service that does much of what we do at the moment but in a more effective and efficient way, answerable to both Houses equally but with combined executive responsibilities.

Finally, I am afraid I must voice a difference of opinion from my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young). As he and I know, we never part company—the only time I can remember us disagreeing was when discussing the voting system in the Lobby. I thought that the middle stream ought to be speeded up, possibly at the expense of people whose names begin with Y who currently have a much quicker passage through the Lobby, but he did not agree—I cannot think why. I always hoped that the Leader of the House might share my view on the issue.

I disagree slightly with my right hon. Friend about the way that business reaches the House. I know it is heresy to disagree with the Wright Committee on any particular, but I do not think it quite got things right. It looked forward to having a proper business of the House committee that incorporated the Executive and the Back Benches, but we do not have that. That is not a criticism of the Government because they have only legislative time available, but the issue needs to be addressed. At the moment, I do not think it is fully understood how little time the Government control, what the demands on the Backbench Business Committee are, and how often it is possible for business of the House to be squeezed out of the process and not given the prompt attention it requires. I would like the Procedure Committee to consider that issue, as suggested.

We have produced an interlocking series of suggestions that the House will be able to implement quickly. I am encouraged by what the Leader of the House said about the speed with which he proposes to address the issues raised, and I repeat what I said in an intervention: when the new Parliament sits, it is essential that it elects a Speaker and Deputy Speakers, and that the next thing it does is elect a House of Commons Commission. We must get the director general’s post in place and make the other necessary reforms to ensure that the system works effectively for Members and staff of the House, and those who wish to visit it. They are all important parts of the equation.

3.52 pm

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): The whole House should be grateful to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) for his work on the House of Commons administration, not least for the masterly way in which he summarised current concerns and controversies and how they have been resolved. He also briefly mentioned a slight dysfunction in co-ordination between the two Houses, and I will conclude my remarks with a small and rather sad recent example of that.

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The hon. Gentleman said that there is a great difference between the atmosphere of this debate and the debate held on 10 September, and I agree. It is a measure of the success of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), and his Committee, that he has managed to reconcile two apparently irreconcilable views, and that the central question of whether it made sense for the leading procedural expert in the House of Commons also to be the chief manager of the House has apparently been decided.

In my intervention on the right hon. Gentleman I asked what would happen if there was disagreement on a matter concerning management—not procedure—between the new director general and the next incumbent of the office of Clerk. If I understood correctly, he said that it would be decided at a level that was, in a sense, above the two of them, and that it would not be a question of the Clerk overruling the director general on a matter of management that by rights ought to be in the sphere of the director general.

In our debate on 10 September, I suggested that the Committee ask itself four questions. I think we will find that those four questions have now been answered. Should a top chief executive officer be expected to be a top procedural adviser, too? The answer is clearly no. Should a top procedural adviser be expected to be a top chief executive officer? The answer is equally no. Should the two roles be combined by default in the future, as they have been in the past? Should the top procedural adviser be allowed, if the roles are separated, to overrule the top chief executive officer on management matters, or vice versa on procedural matters? I think we have learnt that the answer to those two questions is no as well.

Jesse Norman: My hon. Friend is being typically clear and precise, but the answer to the first two questions is not quite as clear as he suggests. The Committee’s decision was that the roles could be combined by one person and had been combined by one person in the past—that is the evidence for it—but that now, for reasons of other commitments and the development of the House, they should be separated.

Dr Lewis: I am delighted at the result, even if I do not entirely endorse the reasoning. I wish to say a word of sympathy, if not appreciation, for the situation in which the House of Commons Commission found itself a few months ago. It was faced with either making a single appointment from a very limited pool of top procedural advisers who would become, by default, the director general of the House of Commons—as if by some magical process of osmosis during their rise up the learned ladder of becoming a top procedural adviser they had somehow imbibed the skills needed to be a top chief executive officer or director general—or, alternatively, if it wished to go outside that very limited pool of possible candidates, it had to decide whether it was appropriate for a top manager to sit in the Clerk’s chair without having imbibed, by a reverse magical process of osmosis, the skills required to be a top procedural adviser. That was precisely why the message went out loud and clear, on 10 September last year, that we needed to send for the marvellous negotiating and reconciliation skills of the right hon. Member for Blackburn, to decide once and for all whether the two functions should be separated.

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Jesse Norman: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr Lewis: In just a moment, but I want to make one more point. I know my hon. Friend is concerned with the constitutional aspects of this matter, but I am concerned with another aspect. The new arrangement will not work unless the individuals who occupy the two posts—I am glad to see the hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) indicating his approval—have their respective roles clearly in their minds. If either of them tries to play games of superior status, the new system will not work. We can construct the best system in the world, but if the people who occupy the top posts are not minded to make it work, it will not be a success.

Jesse Norman: My hon. Friend shares my view that harmony at the top of the new arrangement will be vital. None the less, there is a very clear arrangement. The Clerk is top dog. The director general reports to the Clerk. The director general has clearly delineated responsibilities: the managerial delivery side. That is the unified structure that has been created and will hopefully be agreed.

The training of the Clerks—I have no interest in revisiting this, and we have generally taken the view in the debate that we will not do so—has not been ignored in previous years, although the Committee came to the view that it could be strengthened. The training of the Clerks has so far enabled the Clerk Assistant to run a department that is roughly 40% of the whole. These people do not arrive at their jobs by some mystical process; there is some structure of responsibility and training by which they achieve their posts. The Committee has decided that that needs to be extended, providing a further rationale for the separation.

Dr Lewis: My hon. Friend is fighting a gallant rearguard action for the old guard, but if the degree of management skill imbibed previously led to this spectacular spaghetti junction of an organogram of the existing system, there was something deficient in the in-house management training. Any Committee that comes up, by contrast, with something as clear and sensible as the new—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): Order. The hon. Gentleman has been in the House a very long time, so he knows that holding up bits of paper and shaking them around adds nothing to the debate. I am sure he can convey in words his frustration at the organisational structure he is waving around on a bit of paper.

Dr Lewis: I am absolutely reproved, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was thinking for a moment that those ground-level cameras that have periodically appeared here might still be in action, but I see that I wasted my ingenuity.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I am sure the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that he was playing to the cameras. I hope that he was speaking to the House clearly, making very incisive points about this report.

Dr Lewis: Absolutely, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I always care to project my message in as many dimensions in the 21st century as are routinely offered to me.

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It is a measure of the success of this Committee that at least two members of my party who were greatly exercised a few months ago about every aspect to do with the appointment of the next Clerk are sufficiently satisfied that they have not felt it necessary to attend or contribute to today’s debate. I presume that their satisfaction has been reflected in the sentiments expressed from both sides of the House.

Mr Winnick: The hon. Gentleman and I have emphasised the need for the two senior individuals occupying these two senior positions to work together; otherwise a turf war will result, with all the implications that that would have. Does he agree that, despite the difficulties of pre-confirmation and post-confirmation hearings, it would nevertheless be useful if the director general at least, if not the new Clerk, appeared before Members, presumably in the Public Administration Committee, where questioning along the lines we have mentioned could take place?

Dr Lewis: Yes, I heard that suggestion during the hon. Gentleman’s speech, and I was very impressed with it. I think it will provide an opportunity for the new director general to show his or her ability to stand fast in the face of what might be an overpowering atmosphere of tradition that might otherwise be used to divert him or her from the necessary serious determination that he or she will have to apply to fulfil the job in the future. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, and I hope it is carried forward.

It is a pity that we have had to go through this roundabout route to get to the obvious conclusion that should have been apparent when it was raised long ago—that these two posts should be separated. It is pity that that could not be agreed before the House of Commons Commission found itself in the position of either having to choose someone who was good at procedure but did not necessarily have the top management skills or to choose someone who was in exactly the reverse position. It has been a long haul and it has taken a roundabout route, but, thanks to the good work of the Committee, we have reached the sensible destination that should have been apparent at the outset.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made the point that there is clearly work still to be done in the Palace of Westminster when Members in one House do not liaise terribly well with Members, or counterpart Committees, in the other House. This is a time of anniversaries, and it is with sadness that I note that 17 February this year will be the 100th anniversary of the first committee meeting of the Palace of Westminster rifle club, because it appears that its rifle range in the basement must close as a result—and this is the part that is relevant to the debate—of the determination of the Administration and Works Committee in the other place that important fire safety equipment must be sited there.

That is an example of the dysfunctionality to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The club has been going for 100 years and has members in both Houses, but Members of the House of Commons were not allowed to give any evidence to the Committee that made the decision in the other place. We were referred to a

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Committee of this House, although the decision was already cut and dried in the House of Lords.

However, the demise—it must be presumed—of that 100-year-old club gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to a member of the Clerk’s Department, Mr Gary Howard. For some two decades, he gave up his lunch hour—his own time—to ensuring that the range was always manned, and that that great facility, sadly soon to be no more, was available to Members and staff of both Houses.

4.7 pm

Mr Straw: I thank all 14 right hon. and hon. Members who contributed to this very interesting debate. I particularly thank the members of the Committee—which I had the privilege to chair—and the Leader and Deputy Leader of the House.

Before I respond to a few of the points that have been raised, I want to underline the tribute that the Leader of the House paid to his predecessor Leon Brittan, whose passing we heard about earlier this afternoon. I was privileged to be in the House when Leon Brittan was a Member. He was, of course, a member of an opposite party. However, I remember him as a highly intelligent individual, a very good Minister and a very good constituency Member, but also as someone who showed great courtesy and kindness—not least to the new Member for Blackburn, and to many of my colleagues on the Opposition Benches. I send my personal sympathy to his widow, Diana, and to his wider family, and, if I may, I do so on behalf of the Opposition as well.

Sir Oliver Heald: I had only just heard the news when the right hon. Gentleman delivered it. Let me say for my part that Leon Brittan gave me a great deal of advice and support when I was first embarking on a political career. He was a very kind man, and he gave me so much support. I echo the sentiments expressed by the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr Straw: It is odd, but I last met him and his wife in an airport lounge when we were whiling away about three hours as we waited for a late plane. I cannot remember which airport it was, but I do remember that the conversation was very entertaining.

Let me now deal with some of the points that have been made today. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) raised the issue—which was also raised by the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)—of whether there should be a pre-confirmation hearing, perhaps before the Public Accounts Committee, in respect of the Commission’s decision on whom to appoint as Clerk and as director general. I can see from where the analogy arises, but it will ultimately be a matter for the Commission and then the House when I am not a Member of it. I think the House should have second, third and fourth thoughts about this, because there is a profound difference between this House, via a relevant Committee, holding pre-confirmation hearings in respect of posts that are adjudicators of other institutions—the Comptroller and Auditor General and the ombudsmen, and perhaps, which I would like to see, future appointments for Her Majesty’s chief inspector of prisons and for the probation service—and this post, which is internal to the House, and where one Committee of the House will already have made a decision.

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However, one way of meeting the sentiment reflected by my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman would be to consider the suggestion from the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), which is that in place of having the recommendation for the Clerk to go to the Palace via No. 10, it should be done on a Loyal Address—in other words, directly. Were there to be another near train-wreck of an appointment—if I may put it delicately in that way—there would be an opportunity for the House, by the process of it having to come before the House, to have second thoughts. In most cases, of course, it would go off without any question. I have had these conversations privately with the hon. Gentlemen.

I used to have to sign loads of warrants addressed to Her Majesty for judicial and ecclesiastical appointments which then had to go off to No. 10. In the end I managed to persuade this House that we could bypass No. 10 because I think the Prime Minister of the day—I will not say which one it was—thought he had other, rather more pressing matters on his plate than signing a great pile of warrants, and I could see his point. I think the House ought to consider that.

Mr Winnick: I have listened very carefully to my right hon. Friend, and no doubt what he has suggested will be given due consideration. May I simply say to him that years ago—certainly when we came into the House and before—the very idea that anyone wishing to be Speaker should be subject to hustings would have been absolutely unthinkable? Would it be out of the question for the two most senior positions to also be subject to some sort of sessions at which Members generally would be able to question them?

Mr Straw rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): Order. Forgive me, but we are debating whether to agree to the specific set of proposals before us. We are not in the process of gathering more up, interesting though they are, before we make a decision on the report before us. I would be very grateful if the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) could, in his brief reply, focus specifically on the points that have been made that are relevant to the report before us now—and, as we all know, there will be further discussion in the time to come.

Mr Straw: Thank you—I have got your point, Madam Deputy Speaker.

The right hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and the hon. Member for New Forest East both raised the issue of the relationship between the Clerk and the director general. We thought about this a great deal, and I say to both of them that even in institutions where the wiring diagram is very clear and there are clear lines of authority—the military or a grand corporation—there will be some areas of ambiguity, and we will find that the actual power structure is a bit different from that in the wiring diagram.

Let me explain why we took evidence from the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge. I have had experience of dealing directly with the judiciary, of course. The Lord Chief Justice and the judiciary have to be totally

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independent of the Executive, but the administration of the court service is in the hands of Her Majesty’s Courts Service, which is run by a combination of members of the judiciary and people appointed, effectively, by the Secretary of State for Justice. We looked at those analogies and I think this structure will work. It will work a great deal better, if I may say so, than a split structure involving a Clerk and a chief executive who are wholly separate. I came at this issue rather neutrally, but, having thought about it, it will also work a great deal better than the chief executive/director general being over the Clerk but having no direct knowledge of our primary purpose, which is to run a legislature.

Yes, there is some ambiguity. I am not being Pollyanna-ish about this, but with good will, clarity of expectation on the part of those taking on the jobs, and the clarity we have put into the job descriptions, this structure should work. If there are any specific arguments, the Commission is there to sort them out.

The right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) made some points about the portfolio appointments, which I think were answered well by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz). These four portfolio appointments will be busy ones and will make a big difference to the accountability and transparency of the House administration to Members of the House.

I think I have dealt with all the key points that were raised. The issue of getting items on the Order Paper relating to House business is slightly separate from our considerations, and I will not go down that route. I repeat my thanks to all members of the House of Commons Governance Committee, to all those Members who have contributed today, and to the House. I commend the report and the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House welcomes the report of the House of Commons Governance Committee; notes the priority it has given to agreeing a package of proposals which can both significantly improve the governance of the House and be capable of attracting support from Members on all sides of the House, in a timely manner and well before the House is dissolved; agrees to the recommendations in Chapters 6 and 7, with the proviso that, without changing the party balance of the Commission as proposed in the report, the recommendations relating to the composition of the Commission be implemented so as to allow the Chairs of both the new Finance Committee and the Administration Committee to be elected to these positions rather than appointed to them by the Commission; and encourages the appropriate bodies in both Houses of Parliament to address the Committee’s remaining conclusions and recommendations.

Business without Debate

Speaker’s committee for the independent parliamentary standards authority

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Order, 7 January, and Standing Order No. 118(6)),

That in pursuance of paragraph 2A of Schedule 3 to the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, as amended, Mr Kenneth Batty be appointed as lay member of the Speaker’s Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, for a period of four years from 26 January 2015.—(Mr Wallace.)

Question agreed to.

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Timber Framed Houses

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Wallace.)

4.17 pm

Sir Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): I am very pleased indeed to have the opportunity to bring this matter to the House. I raised it during the Christmas Adjournment debate, when I dropped a heavy hint, and I am absolutely delighted that I have the opportunity to speak on it today.

Before getting into the detail, perhaps I should declare not so much an interest as a certain amount of knowledge. For 20 years, I worked in the building industry, designing and supervising the erection of buildings, including timber framed homes, so I have some practical, on-site experience. I was also for two years the Minister in charge of building regulations, and I am absolutely delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Stephen Williams), is at the Dispatch Box today, carrying on that work.

I am here today not because of either of those experiences, but because I am representing some very concerned residents in my constituency who live in Kennett Drive, Bredbury. Kennett Drive is an estate of new homes that was built 10 or 11 years ago, consisting of two and three-storey houses in blocks and terraces.

In June last year, a fire broke out in an empty home that was having what is called hot work carried out in it. This involved workmen using blowtorches and other hot equipment. The fire took hold and subsequently spread not only through that house but through the two adjacent ones, and the whole block of three homes was burned to the ground. The fire was attended by the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service. I am sorry to report that one firefighter was injured, although fortunately not seriously. There was no loss of life.

The matter of real concern is the way in which the fire spread from home to home. We are aware, of course, that fires break out in homes. House fires are by no means unknown, but it is extremely unusual for a fire in a modern-built home to spread rapidly to the neighbouring properties. The residents of Kennett Drive are understandably concerned about the rapid spread of the fire and they are asking legitimate questions. They want to know whether this is something that could happen to their home, and whether there is something wrong on the estate that could lead to more problems.

The homes are of timber frame construction. From the outside, they look like conventional brick-built houses, but they are not. The outer skin of the building is indeed brick, but behind that there is a cavity, and behind that something called a vapour barrier. This is material that hangs down behind the cavity and, as the name suggests, prevents vapour from penetrating the building. Behind the vapour barrier is the timber frame, which forms the actual structure of the house. On the inside of the timber frame is the plasterboard that we see when we stand inside the rooms—so from the inside we see plaster and from the outside we see brick, but between the two are the timber frame and the vapour barrier.

The risk involved in using timber construction methods has been recognised, and is accounted for in building regulations with measures intended to prevent fires

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from spreading. A compellingly named method known as fire-stopping is used. It normally involves placing vertical and horizontal barriers within the cavity, so that if a fire gets into the space it cannot spread either sideways or upwards. It is clear that something went wrong in this case, and it is worth considering whose job it was to get it right. The primary responsibility lies with the contractor who built the houses. The contractor has a responsibility to build them according to the design it has been given, and to ensure that the buildings conform to the regulations and are finished off properly. A secondary, but important, responsibility rests with the inspection authority that approves the design and casts an eye over the construction. On this occasion, it was a regulatory body known as the National House Building Council. It is the NHBC that offers the much quoted 10-year guarantee, which is offered on homes whose construction it has supervised.

So, what went wrong, and could it happen again? I have had a meeting with the Greater Manchester fire and rescue service and talked extensively to its fire investigation officer. Indeed, I checked at the beginning of this week to ensure that the information he originally gave me was still in date, and it seemed that it was. The fire investigation officer has received reports from those who were on site at the time, and he believes that the fire originated as a result of a workman using a hot tool or flame and accidentally setting fire to part of the timberwork. He has also noted that the fire-stopping rules were not fully observed, particularly those relating to the horizontal barriers that were supposed to prevent the upward spread of flame. In at least one case, those barriers are believed to have been missing, which meant that instead of having a barrier, a chimney had effectively been created.

Another important factor was that the vapour barrier was flammable. In other words, in the presence of flames and heat, the barrier burns. The fire officer showed me a graphic video of what happens when a sample of that material comes into contact with fire. The material is capable of sustaining fire and burning. In effect, it is like a wick going up the cavity, all the way to the top.

The officer also showed me information from Greater Manchester fire service on the fires that it has tackled inside the area and elsewhere. There is a common set of circumstances that lead to fires in timber frame buildings, particularly residential buildings. First, there is the hot work problem, which seems to have been the case on this particular occasion. In any situation where there is a pipe, particularly a metal pipe, penetrating the wall, problems can arise. If heat is applied to one end of the pipe, it will transfer along the pipe and can quite easily set fire to the timber on the far side. Several of the fires that were brought to my attention by the fire service were caused by quite small things, such as cutting holes in the plasterboard to put in an electric socket. To most people that sounds like a simple DIY job, but it is not if they finish up by breaking through the fire protection of the timber frame, because then there is risk.

Before I draw several points to the Minister’s attention, let me just say that I have spoken to the NHBC, corresponded with its chief executive and met its senior surveyor, Mr Bamford, who not only visited me in my constituency office but inspected the site of the fire. The NHBC fully accepts that it was the regulating authority.

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It also points out that the homes are more than 10 years old and therefore just out of guarantee, but it is not flinching from taking what responsibility it needs to take. Representatives from the authority have a meeting with the fire service later this month to look at and assess the evidence. I am pressing them strongly to carry out a survey of other homes in Kennett Drive so that it can be established whether the missing horizontal fire barriers were a one-off omission or commonplace on that estate.

I do not think that the Kennett Drive fires will be a one-off. Last year, something approaching 60,000 timber framed homes were erected in England. I suggest that since Kennett Drive was built 11 years ago, there must be at least 1 million similar timber framed homes, and that is probably a serious underestimate.

I thank the Minister for the letter he sent me, because I have been in correspondence with him as well. I am pleased to hear that he has commissioned some work from the Building Research Establishment, and I hope that he may be able to say a word or two about that. I also have some questions and some asks. I want him to join me and raise the profile of the fire risk in timber framed homes. I hope that he will alert the regulatory bodies to the problem, especially the NHBC, the LABC—the Local Authority Building Control organisation—and local government building control officers. The risk of the fire-stopping going wrong is severe, and the need to ensure that it does not is acute.

I want the Minister to agree to change the building regulations to prohibit the use of flammable vapour barriers in cavities where there is a timber framed construction. Ensuring that we do not put flammable wicks in cavities in timber framed buildings strikes me as being a very sensible first aid move. I also want him to ask BRE to take quick action to ensure that there is always fire-stopping at the top of the cavity. It is all a bit technical, but the fact of the matter is that the fire will spread up the cavity until it stops. If it is not stopped by anything, it goes into the roof space and burns along the roofs. The evidence from Kennett Drive and elsewhere suggests that once the fire gets into the roof space, you’ve had it, so where the wall and the roof space meet is a crucial point.

Three households were burned out in my constituency in a fire that should have been impossible, and that would have been impossible if the fire-stopping had been effective and if the vapour barrier had been non-flammable. Perhaps it was a one-off, but Greater Manchester fire and rescue service says that it is not and has the videos to prove it. I am delighted that the Minister is already on the case, but I urge him to join me in getting contractors and regulators to understand the importance of proper supervision and workmanship in the first place. I want him to prohibit the use of flammable vapour barriers and I would like him to do that immediately. I want him to join me in warning the building industry and the DIY trade of the added risks of fire when alterations are done and plasterboard is cut open when people are not paying attention to the consequences. I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.

4.31 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Stephen Williams): I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for

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Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell) on securing the debate and raising the issues on behalf of his constituents in Kennett Drive. I was aware that he brought some professional knowledge to his ministerial experience in the Department from 2010 to 2012, but I did not realise that it was so extensive and deep. I have learned something about my colleague this afternoon.

Fire safety, quite rightly, continues to be a priority for the Government. We have a continuing success story with regard to reducing not only fires but deaths and injuries from fires. The number of fires attended has fallen by 64% over the past decade and the latest fire statistics report that in 2013-14 there were 275 fire fatalities, 14 fewer than in 2012-13. Accidental fire deaths in the home in England, which account for three fifths of all fire fatalities, have decreased by 36% in the past decade.

The Government continue to demonstrate our commitment to fire safety through the Department’s Fire Kills campaign, which promotes a wide range of fire safety messages to encourage fire safety behaviour in the home. The campaign’s primary focus is promoting the installation of smoke alarms, as a person is at least four times more likely to die in a fire in the home if they do not have a working smoke alarm. The latest English housing survey, published last July, reported that the proportion of households with a working smoke alarm is 88%, up from 76% 12 years before. In 2011, Fire Kills collaborated with the UK Timber Frame Association, now the Structural Timber Association, on the “Living in a modern timber frame home” publication to educate the owners of such homes on the specific fire precautions they should take.

My right hon. Friend does not need this made clear to him, but I should make it clear for the benefit of anyone reading or listening to the debate that the building regulations are primarily concerned with ensuring that buildings are safe, sustainable and accessible. The building regulations are not about promoting, or banning, types of material or types of construction. Timber framed construction is a popular means of building new houses. It is also viewed by many to be more sustainable than some other forms of construction. However, I am aware there have been concerns about the fire performance of timber framed buildings. These first came into the spotlight in 2007 after a number of large construction site fires. In 2010, the Government took steps to address those concerns by working with the industry and the Health and Safety Executive. It was recognised that a large timber frame being erected near to existing occupied buildings could present a significant risk, and the HSE updated its guidance and the industry developed safer working practices as a result. On 29 October 2014, the HSE issued an open letter reminding the industry of its responsibilities and has recently prosecuted a firm of architects for safety failings in the design of a new timber framed care home in Hemlington near Middlesbrough.

Building regulations set out a range of provisions designed to protect people from a fire, including alarms, escape routes, measures to prevent fire spread and facilities to support the fire and rescue service. Controlling fire spread requires that buildings are properly designed and constructed. This can sometimes go wrong, but building control bodies are there to try to spot errors. However, as my right hon. Friend will know, they cannot always find all of them. As he said, the ultimate

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responsibility rests with the builder to ensure that they are complying with the building regulations.

Fire statistics show that there is some evidence that fire spread is more common in timber framed buildings than in traditionally constructed masonry buildings. However, the number of deaths and injuries, which is primarily what we should be concerned about, is no different. The Department reviewed the available statistics in 2012. An analysis of fires in buildings of timber framed construction in England from 2009-10 to 2011-12 was published in December 2012. The report found that

“Fires in dwellings of timber frame construction experienced on average more damage than dwellings of no special construction”

In the last week, no doubt partly prompted by my right hon. Friend’s correspondence, officials have visited the latest statistics and confirmed that the trend is unchanged:

“Fires in dwellings of timber framed construction experienced on average more damage than those of no special construction. Of the 253 fires in timber framed dwellings in the last five years, 21% of these resulted in an area of heat and flame damage of over 100m2, compared to 12% (of the 6,603) for dwellings of no special construction.”

That shows that it would be wrong to say that problems exist only in timber framed buildings. However, there is a statistically significant difference in the proportion of fires that result.

Sir Andrew Stunell: I really appreciate the information that my hon. Friend is giving us. If his figure of 100 square metres, which is 1,000 square feet, is correct, that is about the size of a traditional house, so we are talking about a house that is completely burnt out. If I have got my figures right, that suggests that we have quite a problem.

Stephen Williams: I thank my right hon. Friend for bringing the statistics to life. No doubt he can think more quickly on his feet because he is more used to analysing such statistics than I am.

We have, of course, looked at the issue. For the most part, fire spread in timber buildings is within the construction. My right hon. Friend gave a good description of what a timber-framed building would look like to the layman. This presents challenges to firefighters trying to extinguish the fire, but it is much less of a problem for people who are trying to escape.

What are we doing? Poor building practice and its impacts on fire spread are not limited to the timber frame industry. A fire in any building presents a serious hazard to its occupants and challenges for firefighters. Preventing this type of error is not simply a case of changing a regulation; it is about working with the industry and experts to find the best ways of doing things and sharing that information as widely as possible. As my right hon. Friend acknowledged, the Government

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have commissioned the Building Research Establishment to explore the potential to develop better, publishable guidance, examine current practice and explore and assess alternative options. That is one part of a programme of research and analysis relating to fire protection in new buildings.

Sir Andrew Stunell: I am very pleased to hear that. Will the BRE look at the issue of flammable vapour barriers? That seems to me an important first step. If my hon. Friend cannot confirm that, perhaps I can encourage him to prompt the BRE to do so.

On a separate matter, I understand that building regulations in regard to fire are designed to avoid loss of life, but my constituents and the residents of Kennett Drive are not very reassured by the knowledge that although their life will be saved, their house will be destroyed.

Stephen Williams: My right hon. Friend makes entirely reasonable and understandable points. Whether property is damaged by fire or by flooding, it is an incredibly distressing experience. Although residents have escaped with their life, their possessions, photographs and everything that is personal to their family may well have been lost. I would not want to make light of that.

Let me describe the further measures that we are about to put in place, which I hope will reassure my right hon. Friend. The BRE research is due to be completed this year and we hope it will help to improve the quality of fire protection work for all types of building. As he knows, this stems from part B of the building regulations. The Government have a rolling programme of reviewing different parts of the building regulations, some of which he will have presided over and some of which I have been presiding over. We are committed to reviewing part B. When we do that, we will certainly look at the issue of the prohibition of combustible vapour barriers that he raised.

I can reassure my right hon. Friend and the House that we are fully up to speed with an analysis of the issues and are committed to highlighting the risk to the public. Once we have the research from the BRE, we will consider changes to part B. No doubt my right hon. Friend’s well informed suggestions, which he made in the debate and which he will no doubt follow up in writing, will form an important part of that evidence base and allow us to conduct a thorough and meaningful review of part B of the building regulations which, if necessary, will further improve the safety of timber framed buildings and the confidence of people who live and work in them.

Question put and agreed to.

4.42 pm

House adjourned.