Report - House of Commons Governance - House of Commons Governance Committee Contents

4  What challenges does the House face?

88. The immediate reason for the establishment of this inquiry was the recruitment process for the post of Clerk of the House and Chief Executive. It did not arise from any diagnosis of systemic failure in the management of House services. As David Natzler told us:

    I think I owe it to the House Service to say that the Committee's establishment was precipitated not by any particular failure in the provision of services to Members,[118]

However, sitting behind the Committee's establishment are longstanding concerns about the administration of the House.

89. Individual failings have been brought to our attention, some the result of poor management, some caused by the inherent complexity of this bicameral Parliament, some simply the consequence of different perspectives or experiences. Barry Sheerman MP described the House as 'poorly managed'.[119] Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Select Committee, told us: 'I do not think the House works well.'[120] On the other hand John Thurso, opening the debate on the finances of the House of Commons, said:

    May I also use this moment to pay tribute to all the staff who serve us throughout the House service in all areas? I truly think, having now engaged with them for the best part of four years, that had I had such a staff in private life, I would have considered it a privilege to have had them working with me. I think they can be proud of everything that they do for us and we should be very grateful for it.[121]

90. But good performance in the past is no guarantee of good performance in the future, particularly not if the challenges of the future are likely to be of a different order. For the House of Commons it has been argued to us that in four areas they will be:

·  Political and constitutional change

·  Public engagement

·  The efficient use of resources

·  Restoration of the Palace of Westminster

Political and constitutional change

91. Neither political nor constitutional change are new challenges, but several witnesses have argued that we are in a particularly turbulent period. Rt Hon David Blunkett MP stated in written evidence:

    Substantial and projected devolution (both to the nations of the United Kingdom and in whatever form to the cities and sub regions of England), our present and future relationship with the European Union and the shift of both power and relationships in a global economy, have changed the function of the House of Commons even if this is not formally currently recognised.[122]

92. On 27 November 2014, following the referendum in Scotland, the Smith Commission published its proposals for the further devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament. The proposals include giving the Scottish Parliament the power to set income tax rates and bands, and the devolution of air passenger duty. Draft clauses are scheduled to be published by 25 January 2015. In 2011, the Government set up the Silk Commission to review the financial and constitutional arrangements in Wales. The Commission's reports have led to the Wales Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament, and which will, among other things, devolve stamp duty land tax and landfill tax to the National Assembly for Wales. Subject to a referendum, the Bill also allows for the devolution of some income tax powers. There has also been some discussion, particularly in the wake of the referendum in Scotland, of devolving further powers to Northern Ireland.[123] In England, since 2012, the Government has announced two waves of city deals, which will grant a range of powers to 28 cities in England. The Government states that the deals are intended to: "Give cities the powers and tools they need to drive local economic growth; unlock projects or initiatives that will boost their economies; and strengthen the governance arrangements of each city."[124] London is not part of the city deals, but already has devolved powers. In May 2013, the London Finance Commission proposed greater financial autonomy for London. Debate about how best to devolve powers to England has intensified since the referendum in Scotland.

93. The further devolution of powers from the UK Parliament has brought into sharp focus the West Lothian Question, which as the McKay Commission report states, 'raises the situation that…arises when MPs from outside England could help determine laws that apply in England while MPs from England would have no reciprocal influence on laws outside England in policy fields for which the devolved institutions are now responsible.'[125] The McKay Commission, led by the former Clerk of the House, Sir William McKay, was set up by the Government to consider how the House of Commons should deal with legislation that affects only part of the United Kingdom. It reported on 25 March 2013, but the question of whether, and if so how, to deal with the West Lothian Question remains unresolved. Likewise, if the UK were to decide to leave the European Union, the process of doing so would be complicated.

94. In addition to these challenges, it is, as Tom Watson MP noted in his written evidence, 'by no means certain what the outcome of the next General Election will be.'[126] It may result neither in a single party majority government nor a stable coalition.

95. In times such as these, it is argued, the Clerk of the House must be able to devote sufficient time and energy to wrestle with these issues. Rt Hon Sir Menzies Campbell MP told us that 'we are about to embark in this building on a very substantial period of constitutional reform in which the Speaker and their role may become enormously significant in determining the way in which the House treats with these issues.'[127] He added: 'In those circumstances, it seems to me that the role of the Clerk will be of enormous importance.'[128] David Blunkett was among those who argued that the Clerk of the House should not be distracted by the separate, and onerous, responsibilities of being also the Chief Executive.[129]

Public Engagement

96. The challenge of engaging the public with the work of Parliament is not new either. In recent times, it has been considered by the Modernisation Committee in its influential report Connecting Parliament with the Public,[130] the Hansard Society Commission on the Communication of Parliamentary Democracy—known as the Puttnam Commission after its Chair, Lord Puttnam—and by the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons—known as the Wright Committee after its Chair, Tony Wright. Aileen Walker, Director of Public Engagement, and Lee Bridges, Director of Public Information, commented in their written evidence: "In recent years, the House of Commons has significantly developed its public information, education, outreach, and visitor services."[131] Examples of these activities include:

a)  over 70,000 children coming to the House this year on education visits;

b)  another successful Parliament Week and Youth Parliament sitting in November 2014;

c)  planning for events to celebrate the 750th anniversary of De Montfort's Parliament and the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015;

d)  outreach activities increasingly including select committees taking evidence outside Westminster; and

e)  13 universities now teaching a Parliamentary Studies programme supported by the House and its staff.

97. The Hansard Society Audit of Political Engagement 2014 recorded its highest ever level for knowledge of Parliament: 48 per cent of respondents said they knew 'a fair amount' about Parliament. However, 48 per cent is still not high. Some 67 per cent of respondents agreed that Parliament 'is essential to our democracy', but only 34 per cent agreed that Parliament 'holds government to account', which was the lowest level recorded in the five years the question had been asked, and only 23 per cent agreed that Parliament 'encourages public involvement in politics', compared to 30 per cent in the previous two Audits.[132] These figures draw attention to the scale of the challenge. The Shadow Leader of the House, Angela Eagle MP, told us that Parliament 'needs to make itself relevant in an anti-politics age, and reach out to an electorate that is increasingly sceptical and baffled by how we do things in this place.'[133]

98. The challenge of improving public engagement falls partly under the responsibilities of a Chief Executive. Improving public access to the House of Commons would principally be the responsibility of a Chief Executive: we were repeatedly reminded about the problems with lengthy queues to get into the building. The Speaker's Commission on Digital Democracy is currently investigating the opportunities digital technology can offer for parliamentary democracy in the UK and is due to report in January 2015. It is considering, among other things, the role of technology in helping citizens to scrutinise the Government and the work of Parliament, the House's use of social media and the internet to disseminate information, and video and webcasting. Changes to information and communication technology as a result of the Commission might also fall principally to the Chief Executive side of the role to deliver.

99. However, Members' desire to extend the public's engagement and involvement, will also have implications for the Clerk of the House aspect of the role, because it is likely to result in parliamentary processes that may require new rules and procedures, and because new technology may have implications for existing parliamentary practices. Two recent examples of new processes that have been intended to engage the public are Public Reading Stages of Bills, which allow the public to comment on the contents of legislation, and e-petitions, which are online petitions that are eligible for consideration for debate in the House of Commons if they reach a threshold of 100,000 signatures. The Procedure Committee has recently published proposals for a collaborative e-petitions system between Government and the House of Commons.[134]

100. Arguably, increasing public engagement is not only about improving the way Parliament interacts with the public, but also about improving what it does. Rt Hon Frank Dobson MP commented in his written evidence: 'I have long believed that a large part of the public disillusion with the political process results from the failure of the House to do its job as well as people expect.' Tackling this aspect of public disengagement involves skills associated with the Clerk of the House. Frank Dobson continued:

    we need the Clerk to take a more positive role, helping to identify and analyse failings in procedure and offering ways of strengthening the hands of members and improving the performance of the House in holding the executive to account as well as law making.[135]

Efficient use of resources

101. Parliament belongs to the people in more ways than one: it is their Parliament in the sense that Members of Parliament are the people's elected representatives, but Parliament is also funded by the taxpayer. Linked to the challenge of engaging the public in the work of Parliament is the need to use public resources efficiently. In October 2010, the Commission set itself the target of reducing the resource budget of the House of Commons by 17 per cent in real terms between 2010/11 and 2014/15. In the Commission's 2013/14 Annual Report, the then Clerk of the House and Chief Executive announced: 'we exceeded our target, reducing our estimate by £2 million more than the original target of £21 million.'[136] Both the Leader of the House, Rt Hon William Hague MP, and Rt Hon Sir George Young MP praised this achievement when they gave evidence,[137] but Sir Paul Beresford MP, a Commission member, described the 17 per cent savings target as 'pitiful' and said: 'We could do very much more.'[138]

102. Not everyone took the view that the House of Commons was obliged to adopt the same stringent measures as Government in a time of austerity and there is certainly a case to be made that the House of Commons must have the resources it needs to scrutinise the Government effectively. Ken Gall, President of the Trade Union Side, commented: 'I am quite surprised by how relaxed parliamentarians have been about the savings programme and by the way in which Parliament has followed the Executive's policies towards the civil service.'[139] However, the majority of those who expressed a view saw the need for the House to continue to follow the example of the rest of the public sector in reducing its cost to the public purse. Chris Leslie MP commented: 'The House of Commons as with other public bodies and government departments will be asked to find significant cashable savings and to order their finances in a more efficient way than ever before.'[140] Chris Leslie, who argued for splitting the roles of Clerk of the House and Chief Executive, stated in his written evidence:

    My principal concern relates to the financial management skills required to oversee the management of the large House of Commons budget over the medium term, not least the very significant renovation and repair works to the estate that are being considered over this period. It is imperative that any capital investment in the House of Commons estate repair is managed successfully, delivered on time and to budget.[141]

103. The likely need to make further savings in future Parliaments could be used as an argument for a separate Chief Executive, who can concentrate on this issue, untrammelled by the responsibilities of the Clerk of the House. It is, however, worth noting that this challenge also points to the need for close working between the Clerk of the House and a Chief Executive, as the imperative is not just to ensure that the House of Commons is as efficient as it can be at a time of austerity, but to ensure that there is no diminution in its effectiveness as a legislature.

Restoration and Renewal

104. The challenge cited most frequently in our evidence was that presented by the need for major refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster—a project known as Restoration and Renewal (R&R). The Palace of Westminster was built in the middle of the nineteenth century and much of it has never undergone a major renovation, largely due to the difficulty of undertaking such work while the building is occupied. The most recent major renovation took place in the 1940s, after parts of the Palace suffered bomb damage during World War Two. The Palace is a Grade 1 listed building and forms part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

105. The Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster: Pre-feasibility Study and Preliminary Strategic Business Case, which was published in October 2012, stated:

    Considering the age of the Palace of Westminster, the 60+ years that have passed since the partial post-war refurbishment, the long-term under-investment in the fabric and the intensive use to which the Palace is put, it is remarkable that it continues to function. The signs of wear and tear, the number and frequency of relatively minor floods and mechanical breakdowns, the high cost of maintaining obsolescent equipment and the large sums that are now having to be spent on aggressive maintenance and risk reduction all provide tangible evidence of the looming crisis. A growing body of surveys, consultancy reports and risk registers point to the further deterioration that will occur and the severe hazards that could occur if fundamental renovation is delayed indefinitely. It is hard to imagine how the Palace will survive for future generations to use and admire without a major mid-life overhaul.[142]

106. A decision on how to proceed with R&R will not be taken until after the 2015 general election. The two Houses have commissioned independent consultants to appraise the following options: "continuing repairs and replacement of the fabric and systems of the Palace over an indefinite period of time"; "a defined, rolling programme of more substantial repairs and replacement over a long period, but still working around continued use of the Palace"; and "scheduling the works over a more concentrated period with parliamentary activities moved elsewhere to allow unrestricted access to the Palace for the delivery of works."[143] Implementation of the programme is likely to begin in the 2020 Parliament. The overall cost of R&R is not yet known. Alex Jablonowksi, a former external member of the Management Board, referred to it as "a very complicated, £1-billion-plus refurbishment".[144] The Leader of the House was one of many witnesses to draw our attention to the challenge it presented, referring to "the immensity of the task".[145]

107. For some, R&R was an argument for rethinking the allocation of the roles of Clerk of the House and Chief Executive. Angela Eagle commented:

    Restoration and renewal is the obvious trigger for doing something different…It would be a good idea if we tried to prepare for the huge upheaval that restoration and renewal will lead to. We should get ourselves in the best possible position to deliver it without having any major disaster strike us, because the reputational damage will be huge if we get it wrong.[146]

108. However, David Natzler, the Acting Clerk of the House, told us: "one of the good reasons for creating a chief executive role is not the need to have someone who can oversee restoration and renewal of the Palace." He commented:

    There is simply no way that we as a Management Board or the House of Commons Commission would imagine we would be overseeing and running such an enormous programme, whatever decision is eventually taken about the phasing of restoration and renewal. The generally accepted and published concept is the creation of some sort of separate delivery organisation, broadly on Olympic lines.[147]

The Chair of F&S, John Thurso, also told us: 'We will almost certainly have to compose a delivery body. It will be something like the Olympic delivery body.'[148]

109. In this scenario, the challenge facing both Houses would be that of being an intelligent client in order to provide the delivery body with a clear brief from which to work. Sir David Higgins, the former Chief Executive of the Olympic Delivery Authority, told us: 'The key thing about the client role is that the client has to be clear on what the client…wants in terms of scope, but, having authorised the delivery partner to proceed, there is no point in having the client…trying to watch over the delivery partner's shoulder or trying to meddle.'[149] The challenge of being an intelligent client for R&R would call for both adept managerial acumen and a deep understanding of Parliament and its processes. It would be about delivering not simply a building in which thousands of people work and which thousands of people visit every day, but a fully functional Parliament for the 21st century. Rt Hon Sir Alan Duncan MP told us: 'The Palace of Westminster is a Parliament first and a building second.'[150] We discuss later in the report how the challenge presented by R&R, and in particular, the possibility of creating a statutory delivery body to deliver the programme, might also create opportunities for the governance of the House of Commons in the longer term.


110. The challenges facing Parliament are not new, but they are arguably of a different magnitude to the challenges of the recent past. Rt Hon Margaret Beckett MP suggested: 'the challenges before us in the future are going to be enormous.'[151] Some—the constitutional and political changes—will call more on the skills associated with the Clerk of the House and others—the efficient use of public resources—more on the skills associated with a Chief Executive. The size and number of challenges suggest that one person may struggle to find the time to deal with them all, even if they had the necessary skills. But none of the challenges can be tackled in isolation. In every case, the challenges will need to be tackled by a Clerk of the House and Chief Executive working closely together, with a shared outcome in mind. Sir David Higgins's description of his close working relationship with Paul Deighton, Chief Executive of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, provides an example of working jointly to achieve an agreed outcome: 'When I was at the Olympic Delivery Authority, my key relationship was with Lord Deighton—Paul Deighton at the time—and just the two of us would meet every week for half an hour to talk about any agenda.'[152]

118   Q180 Back

119   Q490 [Barry Sheerman MP] Back

120   Q154. See also Andrew Miller MP (GOV004) para 2, David Winnick MP (GOV006) para 2, Barbara Keeley MP (GOV038) para 5, Dr Julian Lewis MP (GOV058) Back

121   HC Deb, 11 November 2014, col 1334 Back

122   David Blunkett MP (GOV009) Back

123   See the HM Treasury, Autumn Statement 2014, Cm 8961, December 2014 Back

124   HM Government, Unlocking growth in cities: city deals - wave 1, July 2012, p1 Back

125   Report of the Commission on the Consequences of Devolution for the House of Commons, March 2013, p77 Back

126   Tom Watson MP (GOV052) Back

127   Q286 Back

128   Q287 Back

129   Q176 [David Blunkett MP]. See also Q272, Tom Watson MP (GOV052) Back

130   Modernisation Committee, First Report of Session 2003-04, Connecting Parliament with the Public, HC 368 Back

131   Aileen Walker, Director of Public Engagement, and Lee Bridges, Director of Public Information, Department of Public Information (GOV060) para 1 Back

132   Hansard Society, Audit of Political Engagement 11, 2014, p3 and p5 Back

133   Q264 Back

134   Procedure Committee, Third Report of Session 2014-15, E-petitions: a collaborative system, HC 235 Back

135   Frank Dobson MP (GOV027) Back

136   House of Commons Commission: Thirty-sixth report of the Commission, and annual report of the Administration Estimate Audit Committee Financial Year 2013/14, July 2014, p5 Back

137   Qq252, 311 Back

138   Q304 Back

139   Q430 Back

140   Chris Leslie MP (GOV045) Back

141   Chris Leslie MP (GOV045) Back

142   Houses of Parliament, The Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster: Pre-feasibility Study and Preliminary Strategic Business Case, October 2012, p27 Back

143   Houses of Parliament, 'Restoration and Renewal Programme: FAQs', accessed 15 December 2014 Back

144   Q101 Back

145   Q248. See also: Chris Leslie MP (GOV045), Frank Dobson MP (GOV027), Peter Davis (GOV050) para 1 Back

146   Q272 Back

147   Q181 [David Natzler] Back

148   Q90 [John Thurso] Back

149   Q560 Back

150   Sir Alan Duncan MP (GOV046) Back

151   Q733 Back

152   Q578 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2014
Prepared 17 December 2014