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House of Commons Commission Bill

Volume 593: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2015

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I hope not to detain the House for long in considering a very short and, I think, widely supported Bill. The House is familiar with the background to the Bill, which arises from the report of the House of Commons Governance Committee, which was established following the halting of the recruitment process for a new Clerk of the House in September last year. The Committee’s report was fully debated in the House on 22 January. As I emphasised during that debate, the Chair and members of the Committee did an admirable job. Again, I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), in particular, and to the members of the Committee from both sides of the House who worked with him, because they successfully reconciled a number of different views and presented the House with a coherent package that clearly, as shown in our debate in January, commands its confidence.

Most of the Committee’s recommendations are for the House to take forward in other ways and as a member of the House of Commons Commission I can assure the House that that is exactly what is happening. The Commission has published three updates so far on progress in implementing the recommendations and will continue to keep the House informed. A very small number of recommendations from the Governance Committee that relate to the Commission require legislative action, hence the need for this Bill.

The House of Commons Commission is established under the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978. To meet the recommendations of the Governance Committee, the Bill has three core provisions, all of which take the form of amendments to the 1978 Act. First, the Bill increases the number of Back-Bench members of the Commission from three to four. That will allow for a wider range of views across the House to be represented and will reduce the likelihood of the Government inadvertently finding themselves with a majority on the Commission.

Secondly, the Bill provides for the appointment of two external members and two officials to the Commission. The appointment of these additional members is designed to provide a wider perspective to support the Commission’s work and to embed the closer integration between setting the strategic direction and the implementation of resulting policy decisions that the Committee called for. The evidence to the Governance Committee suggested that the link between the current Management Board, which is to become the Executive Committee, and the Commission needed to be strengthened. This amendment will provide for that to happen. As a start in that direction, the existing external members of the Management Board have been invited to attend meetings of the Commission and they have started doing so.

I thank the Leader of the House for finding the time to make this modest change. Can he update the House on whether it will be possible to have the Clerk and Director General in place at the beginning of the new Parliament so that these provisions can take effect immediately?

It should certainly be possible to have the Clerk in place. The recruitment process is well under way and the period for applications closed last week, on 16 February, and an interview panel has been established. It is very much our intention on the Commission that a new Clerk of the House will be appointed before Dissolution. My hon. and learned Friend will recall that the Governance Committee recommended that the Clerk should be in place and in a position to be one of those determining the appointment of the Director General, so there is a sequence to this. The process of recruiting the Director General has also begun, but given that Dissolution is only 21 House of Commons days away, that will not be completed before Dissolution. It will be well advanced, however, and it will be up to the new Commission, early in the next Parliament, including the new Clerk, to complete the appointment of the new Director General.

Thirdly, the Bill adds to the functions of the Commission a specific requirement to set the strategic priorities and objectives for the services provided by the House Departments. It is important that the Commission is given this specific responsibility in view of the number of different bodies involved in the governance of the House. This amendment to the 1978 Act will place direct responsibility on the Commission to provide strategic leadership for the services provided by the Departments of the House. It will then be for the Commission to set priorities and the House administration to respond accordingly.

As a member of the Commission and, I think, like all other members of the Commission, I am very supportive of the changes proposed, which should make the governance of the House more representative, more transparent and more cohesive. We can say more about the individual provisions when we move into Committee, but I think they are straightforward and fully in line with the Governance Committee’s proposals. Indeed, we have worked with the Chair of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Blackburn, with the Opposition and with officials from across the House to ensure that the Bill is consistent with the Committee’s report. I am particularly grateful for the support of those on the Opposition Front Bench in taking this forward so rapidly.

It is my firm expectation that with the support of the House today the Bill can progress through both Houses before Dissolution so as to ensure that the new Parliament can benefit from the governance of the new Commission at the earliest possible stage. I commend the Bill to the House.

I begin by offering the apologies of my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, who is out of the country today. The task of representing Her Majesty’s Opposition therefore falls to me this afternoon.

As the Leader of the House said, we support the Bill. We thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and his Committee for the work they put in and the speed with which they produced their report, which has allowed us to make these straightforward alterations ahead of schedule.

For those who are not familiar with Commons procedures, it is worth touching on the role of the Commission. The Commission is not like a Select Committee: it does not have the powers of a Select Committee or perform a scrutiny function; it does not summon witnesses or produce reports. That role is performed by the Finance and Services Committee—to become the Finance Committee—and the Administration Committee. The Commission is a governance body. Clause 2 states:

“The Commission must from time to time set strategic priorities and objectives in connection with services provided by the House Departments.”

As the House of Commons Governance Committee highlighted, one of the defects in recent years has been that the Commission did not necessarily understand its own role, and it certainly was not understood by the wider membership of the House and beyond, so we welcome not only the changes being made but the new provision which, for the first time, I think, sets out explicitly the role of the Commission to make strategic choices.

While the hon. Gentleman is talking about the responsibilities of the Commission and how it will work, may I ask whether it is still envisaged that the commissioners will be elected, and if so, will that be by the whole House or by the individual parties?

I will come on to that shortly.

One of the major challenges facing Parliament when we—or perhaps our successors—return in May is the need in the next Parliament to make a decision on restoration and renewal. I pay tribute to the right hon. Members for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) and for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) for their work on tackling the early stages of thinking on restoration and renewal. Restoration and renewal is not optional. We will have to spend money—taxpayers’ money—and Parliament must take huge decisions on the appropriate timetable for carrying out those works and how to ensure best value for taxpayers. The Commission will have a crucial role in providing leadership, so it is absolutely right that we ensure that it accurately reflects the views of the House. It is also important that the Commission has external members who will be able to provide strategic advice. It is no criticism of Members of this House, but not all of us have business experience or are used to grappling with some of the issues that the Commission will have to deal with.

The hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) will understand that it is not for me to speak for other parties and their internal processes. He is probably slightly more familiar than I with how the Conservative parliamentary party operates. It is clear that two of the members will be the Chairs of the Administration and Finance Committees, so that is a matter for post-election arrangements. The question was asked during the debate on the Governance Committee’s report, so let me say clearly that the Opposition do not believe that the commissioners who are not Select Committee Chairs should be paid an additional sum to carry out this work, in part because we do not believe it is appropriate in the current climate and our constituents would not regard it as sensible, and in part because serving on the Commission should not be more onerous than being a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the European Scrutiny Committee or, indeed, the Finance and Administration Committees. What is important is getting people who come forward and are selected by their party because they have a particular interest or knowledge.

We welcome the progress made on the appointment of a Director General. The Leader of the House is right to say that it is necessary to complete that process after the election, but we do not see that as a significant obstacle to the Bill’s progress.

I start by repeating my thanks to the Leader of the House for finding time to bring this short Bill before the House. I know it is never easy at this point in the parliamentary cycle, but it is important that the newly composed Commission proposed by the Governance Committee can start work immediately after the general election, and the Bill will enable that to happen. We will have a new governance regime for the new Parliament—something that those of us who served on the Committee were keen to achieve.

I am glad that the proposals outlined in the report are being implemented following the debate on 22 January, particularly because there was such a warm welcome from all parts of the House for the report. The Bill will help to clarify the role of the Commission as the place where the decisions on what happens in our part of Parliament are made.

Our Committee found that many hon. Members feel disconnected from the administration of the House, and our proposals will change that. In the membership, first, the number of parliamentarians will rise, with the ex officio members supplemented by four rather than three Back Benchers. My understanding is that they will be elected—perhaps the Leader of the House can confirm that—but with party balance in mind, of course, so that we do not accidentally end up with one party predominant on the Commission. Secondly, the external members will bring to the Commission experience of business practice, both public sector and private, which I am sure will be welcome. Finally, having the management on the Commission—the Clerk of the House and the Director General—will mean that those who have to implement the decisions are part of the decision-making process, which should tighten things up considerably.

I think that those improvements will maintain the important presence of the political parties and the Speaker, but increase the influence of Back Benchers because of the fact of election. The portfolios that have been suggested—assuming that that proposal goes ahead—will ensure that not only the House Committees but other important interests are represented at the top and fully understood there. The presence of the Clerk and the Director General will connect up the whole system far better. Hopefully, the changes will strengthen the House of Commons Commission, make it more responsive to Members, closer to its administration and more in tune with best practice.

We heard evidence that the Commission should be strengthened because it sometimes lacks the authority and capability to provide consistent strategic direction, and it is less good at taking a long-term view or setting a strategic framework for the House as a whole, rather than in response to events. That is important and is, in a way, a structural issue. Administration and governance of the House should have a longer term perspective, but Members, by our nature, tend to concentrate on one Parliament at a time—very wisely and not unnaturally, I think, given that the electorate do the same thing—and this can lead to essential works being put off time after time. At some point, the nettle has to be grasped, and the upcoming restoration and renewal programme is an example of precisely that. The new strategic role for the Commission is a key step in providing for better long-term governance of the House.

This is a short Bill, so this will be a short speech. I just wanted to say that this was the first time in 40 years that Members had considered these issues. I pay tribute to the Chair and the Governance Committee membership at large, because we worked very hard on this. I shall be proud to see the Bill become law and our recommendations put into effect. I join in commending the Bill to the House.

I begin by expressing my gratitude to the Leader of the House for the way in which from the establishment of the Committee he embraced its work. Inevitably, when a Select Committee dominated by Back Benchers comes forward with reforming recommendations, there is an inbuilt tendency—there certainly was when I was sitting in his place—to think, “This hasn’t been invented here. We ought to look at all these proposals with great scepticism and no doubt we can improve them.” In one area the right hon. Gentleman and our Front-Bench did indeed propose improvements in respect of the recommendations in the report. He, together with my hon. Friend the shadow Deputy Leader of the House, simply said that this was an agreed all-party report which appeared to make sense, and that he therefore committed himself, along with my hon. Friend, to implement it.

There is an irony about the way in which things come up in this place. The provenance of the Committee was—I put it delicately—a difference of emphasis regarding the future official leadership of the House, which was dominating the news at the time. Out of that came the House of Commons Governance Committee, and I am extremely grateful to the House for deciding that I should chair it. I was extraordinarily fortunate in having on the Committee seven other Members drawn from a range of parties who showed astonishing dedication and commitment to working, in some cases, three days out of the four that we have here each week, from mid-October through to December in order to achieve the outcome. Well, we got there, and I think it was to everybody’s advantage that we had the report out before Christmas, rather than afterwards.

I hope the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to say that we got there thanks to his amazing chairmanship. It was amazing to see so sophisticated and capable an operator steer us through, when we had a lot of differences of emphasis on the Committee at the beginning. I hope he does not mind my interrupting him to put that on the record.

Not at all—least of all today.

Those of us who are now Hegel and Marx—at least a bit, in my case; I hope I do not offend the hon. Gentleman—can genuinely say that a dialectical process took place in the Committee, where there was thesis, antithesis and synthesis from a variety of sources. I was talking to my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), who was energetic in the Committee and was not going to let anything go, but out of that energy—sometimes it felt as though I had a terrier locked on my ankle!—we got a better report.

One of the things that emerged during our inquiry was the opacity of the current arrangements for running this place—the lack of connection between the Commission and everything else underneath. One key Committee, the Administration Committee, chaired by the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), was in some kind of limbo. It did not have executive powers, although everybody thought it had. It had to negotiate with others. It had a membership that was put there principally by the Whips. In my view, had it not been for the fact that the right hon. Gentleman and two or three others almost exclusively had sat through the Committee over the past five years, it could not have operated at all. That was one indication of the opacity and less than optimal way in which these arrangements operated.

There were other such indications—for instance, the fact that the non-executive members who give advice to the administration of the House were on the Management Board, not on the Commission, which is a slightly eccentric way of doing these things. We had very good evidence, including from the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), who represents a large chunk of Scotland. I may say parenthetically that he and I were having a conversation about the difficulty of getting to his constituency. As we know, he is Viscount—these days, Mr—Thurso. He was talking about the fact that he would get an aeroplane to Inverness and then would drive. I asked what would happen if he were to go by train. He said, “Well, I would get a sleeper to Inverness and then another train.” I asked, in my naiveté, “Which station?”, to which the right hon. Gentleman replied, “Thurso, of course.” It must be reassuring to have a station named after you.

To return to the Bill, the right hon. Member for that large chunk of Scotland has chaired the Finance Committee. He has also been a member of the Commission. That was a very good exemplar for us to build on.

There are many recommendations of the Committee that do not need legislation; these recommendations do, and I believe strongly that with these changes we will have an administration for future Parliaments that is better and more effective than it is at present.

On the question whether the four Back-Bench commissioners should be paid, Members must consider that in the next Parliament, and do so rapidly. I am clear that if at least two of those Members have executive responsibilities for chairing important Committees, they must receive the same kind of emoluments as any other Chairman; otherwise, given the amount of time that will have to be devoted to these positions and the fact that they will be much more public, as it were, within the firmament of the Commons, people of serious calibre will not be attracted to undertake them. We do not want these positions and the other two on the Commission for Back Benchers to be seen as some sort of consolation prize for those who have failed to be elected to the chairmanship of some apparently prestigious subject Select Committee. That is extremely important, and I hope the Whips will bear that in mind, not least when they come to the timetabling.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it depends to some extent what portfolios are given to the other two as to whether one would want to see these as paid positions? If, for example, one of those posts was to play an important role on the restoration and renewal project or to play a very active role with visitors to the House, it could be an onerous position that might require that.

I accept that entirely. This needs to be looked at in detail as soon as the new Parliament is assembled.

With that, I commend the Bill to the House.

The Bill proves that great things come in small packages. Brevity in a Bill can lead to excellent clarity of statute, a model that anybody forming a Government could look to follow in the future.

I thank the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House for having been able to bring the Bill before the House so that the provisions can be put into statute to enable the next Parliament, we hope, to get a flying start as the new Commission is set up.

I associate myself with the remarks of the Leader of the House and others who paid tribute to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), as I did when we debated these matters. May I assure him that I am called after the railway station, not the railway station after me? It is an excellent report which found an extremely good way forward and has found favour with everybody.

I should make it clear that I do not make these short remarks in my position as the spokesman for the Commission. The Commission’s position is set out in the written statements that I have issued in my name as the spokesman. That makes it clear that progress is being made to have the Clerk in place before Dissolution; and because of the sequential nature, as recommended by the Committee, the Director General recruitment has started but cannot be completed until that recruitment is in place, and that will be an early order of business for the new Parliament. Other than that, I would say that the Commission has sought simply to give effect to everything that was set out in the report as much as it can and as quickly as it can.

Speaking personally, I am delighted to see the Bill before the House. I do not want to go into any of the detail particularly. It does the important job of putting into statute the provisions that needed to be changed in the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978, and we had the chance to debate the other matters earlier.

One small regret is that we did not find room in the Bill for an enabling clause, which would have permitted a future Commission to look at bringing the administration estimate and the Members Estimate Committee together, which was a sort of recommendation—a “think about” recommendation—that would have been useful at a later stage. However, I completely accept that, in order to get the Bill through quickly, that was a provision that had to wait for another time. My worry is that House of Commons Bills do not come along that often, so it may be a very long time before there is a possibility to do that.

The only other point that I would make, since it has been mentioned both by the shadow Deputy Leader of the House and others who have spoken, concerns election remuneration. It is important that these posts be elected by the whole House so that the whole House has confidence in each of the Members. I also feel, as I mentioned before, that the four posts should be equally remunerated. The reason for that is that I have not the slightest doubt that both of the posts that are currently not filled by Chairmen of Committees, where there is no question on this, will end up with Cabinet-style portfolios, and should end up with Cabinet-style portfolios. One of the most obvious places for this to happen is around human resources, change and diversity. It is an area that we do not scrutinise particularly well. One of the commissioners should take specific responsibility for that, and one of the commissioners who has done so extremely well in this Parliament would have been the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran). There is a strong case for using commissioners—not saying that commissioners should not do the work, should just turn up and make some decisions, but actually saying that this is a new Commission, operating in a different way, and these commissioners should be used to undertake work.

Apart from that point, this is an excellent Bill that puts into effect the recommendations of the Governance Committee, and I, too, commend it to the House.

I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the House for my late arrival. The business of the House has obviously moved on faster than I anticipated. I am sure if I was sitting once more where you are now sitting I would have frowned very much upon someone trying to speak at this point, but as proceedings are moving along swiftly, I hope I might be indulged.

For the avoidance of doubt, of course the right hon. Gentleman, with his long experience and so much to contribute, is hereby indulged.

You are very kind, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I join in complimenting the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, and the shadow Deputy Leader of the House on co-operating with colleagues to ensure, first, that there was a good report, and then that it was brought forward so swiftly. In the last four and a half years, I have identified weaknesses and inconsistencies in the management of the business side of the House, which the strengthened Commission will help to overcome. I have detected great weaknesses in the connection between the decisions made by the Commission and the political parties in the House, and also weakness in communication between Members of the House as a whole. The way that the Committee has recommended that the Commission be composed in the future addresses all those weaknesses, and enables us to have a more coherent system of management, which I hope will be more easily explained to a very diverse audience in the House, not just among Members but among the other important people who have passes in the House and who serve us in various ways. We may look forward with some confidence to the implementation of the plan that has been presented to the House, and I have every confidence in it.

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will respond briefly to two points made by the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). I may have picked him up incorrectly. The Opposition do not think that the Commission members who are not Chairs of Select Committees should be elected by the whole House. It is a matter for the parties to elect them. If I can extend the principle of Select Committees, members of Select Committees are not elected by the whole House; they are elected by their parties. Their role on the Commission will be to represent, as the Leader of the House has already said, the views of those parties. As Members of Parliament, it would not be democratic for Labour Members to have a say on who represents the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats or the minority parties. Therefore, for the avoidance of doubt, the parliamentary Labour party position is that it would be for those individual parties.

Does the hon. Gentleman think that the finance commissioner, for example, should be elected by the whole House, even if he is not saying that the commissioners without portfolio should be elected by the whole House?

That is something that we will look at. My position is that the current arrangements for the Select Committee Chairs have worked well in this Parliament and they should continue in the next Parliament.

It is critical that there is no ambiguity about the position of the parliamentary Labour party. We do not believe that the other commissioners should be paid, because the work is no more onerous than being a member of the Finance and Services Committee or the Administration Committee or the Foreign Affairs Committee, and they do not receive payment. My understanding is that the Commission meets once a month and it would be slightly strange if the only member of the Commission who was not receiving an additional payment ended up being the shadow Leader of the House, because the shadow Cabinet are not paid. The Commission itself does not have an onerous meeting schedule—

I quite understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, I just fundamentally disagree with it. It is not in the Bill, so we can leave it until later.

Perhaps that is a sign of our democracy at work.

As I say, that is the position of the parliamentary Labour party. We are absolutely clear. We want to see more cost-saving measures. We welcome the steps that the Commission is taking in looking at the shared services. That was something that came out of the Governance Committee’s report. We are clear: my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and I have said on more than one occasion that it is absurd that we continue to have two catering operations and two research operations. We already have shared services. I know that the right hon. Gentleman has done a lot of work on this. In the next Parliament the goal should be to reduce the costs of our democracy, not to drive them up further.

In responding to the Second Reading debate on behalf of the Government, I want to thank those right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part, particularly for their positive comments about the Bill. I am grateful for the support offered by members of the Governance Committee and the official Opposition. A number of Members have raised individual points, to which I will seek to respond.

First, I again thank the Opposition spokesman for setting out in his opening remarks the role of the Commission, from which we could all benefit—Members of Parliament and the wider public. He also set out his party’s position on the election of commissioners. I hope that he would agree that that is not a matter for the Bill. It therefore does not set out how the process should be carried out.

We then heard from the hon. and learned Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), who stressed the importance of connecting the Commission with Members. I think that we all share his hope that the Commission will be more responsive, more in tune and more in keeping with best practice. I agree with his point about the Commission not always being good at providing direction. The specific function added by the Bill will provide greater clarity on the leadership of the House, and the new membership will ensure that the leadership is fully representative of Members and staff.

We then heard from the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). Like all Members who have spoken, I would like to thank him once again for the key role he played in the House of Commons Governance Committee, and for his willingness to do something that has not been done for 40 years. I think that he put it very delicately when he said that there was perhaps a difference of emphasis on the issue of the leadership of the House—how very diplomatic of him. However, he went on to underline in slightly less diplomatic terms some of the less functional, or possibly even dysfunctional, aspects of the Commission.

The right hon. Gentleman touched on the issue of pay for commissioners. Clearly that is a matter for the House, rather than the Bill, but I am sure that those arrangements, whatever they might be in future, will take account of the public’s desire for the cost of politics not to go up—although I fully understand the point made by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife, which is that if all the commissioners are paid, the shadow Leader of the House would be left in a rather impecunious position, as the only member who would not receive a salary for the role.

For the avoidance of doubt, that was not my main argument. The right hon. Gentleman said that there is a significant work load, and my point was that there was no suggestion that the shadow Leader of the House—I can say this because she is safely out of the country—is seeking to be paid. If the logic is based on the work load, I should point out that her work load is significantly higher than that of other commissioners.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification, although I must say that it was not needed, because I had not suggested that the shadow Leader of the House had primed him to make a bid for additional funding for her post.

We then heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). With regard to his claim that he was named after the railway station, rather than the other way around, I say, “Nice try.” I am sure that is not entirely factual. I would like to thank him for the key role he plays on the Commission, which is important for all Members of Parliament, and he does it very effectively. We always enjoy listening to his responses to questions on the Commission, particularly on the subject of mice, on which he is an expert. He rightly underlined that the commissioners should have specific responsibilities. Renovation and restoration is one area where there is a very clear opening for someone to undertake or be involved in a very substantial piece of work.

My right hon. Friend also highlighted the fact that there is no enabling clause to bring together the Members estimate and the administration estimate. I accept that that is worth further consideration, but getting it right will require a little more time and we do not want to hold up the Bill by trying to pursue it. We have already touched on the subject of whether the extra members should be paid and the position that would leave the shadow Leader of the House in—although, she has not made a specific request for funding for her position.

Finally, we heard from the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst). I would like to thank him for the key role he has played on the Administration Committee. He, like a number of Members, stressed his hope that the new Commission will improve communications and coherence. That is one of the key messages that have come out of the debate.

This has been a short debate, which demonstrates that the modest provisions in the Bill have support from across the House. I will therefore detain the House no further and hope that the Bill can now make rapid progress. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).