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House of Commons Commission Bill

Volume 760: debated on Thursday 12 March 2015

Second Reading

Moved by

My Lords, this is a very short and tightly focused Bill, which may not detain the House for too long. The origins of the Bill lie in the announcement of the retirement of the previous Clerk of the House of Commons in April last year and the subsequent competition for his replacement. Your Lordships will be aware that the former clerk was introduced as a Member of this House in January, as the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane. I am sure that we will benefit from his parliamentary experience in the coming years.

As your Lordships may be aware, the process for appointing a new Clerk of the House of Commons was halted in September 2014, following reports that the post was to be offered to a candidate from the Australian Parliament. A Select Committee on House of Commons Governance was established in the other place with a remit to consider the governance of that House, including the future allocation of the responsibilities then exercised by the holder of the combined post of Clerk of the House and Chief Executive. The committee consisted of eight members from across the House of Commons and was chaired by the right honourable Jack Straw. It took a great deal of evidence from Members of that House, from staff, and from leaders in the public and private sectors. I think it is fair to say that at the outset there was a variety of views as to whether the administrative responsibilities of the Chief Executive should continue to be combined with the role of the Clerk of the House as chief constitutional adviser to the Speaker, and how any potential division of responsibilities would work.

The committee established to consider precisely these issues, and which itself represented a cross-section of views, came at the end to a unanimous view when it published its report on 17 December last year. The committee recommended that the two roles be split, with a new post of Director General of the House of Commons, reporting to the Clerk, to have responsibility for the administrative side of the role.

The committee made a number of recommendations relating to the governing structures of the other place, designed to facilitate a more inclusive and joined-up approach to the leadership and governance of that House. The committee’s report was fully debated in the other place on 22 January and a Motion was passed without a vote, agreeing to implement the recommendations in full. Many of these recommendations have already begun to be implemented, including the recruitment of a new Clerk of the House of Commons, which I understand is expected to be completed by the end of this month. The necessary changes to the Standing Orders of the House of Commons were agreed earlier this week, again without a vote.

A small number of the committee’s recommendations require legislative change, which is why we have this small Bill before us. Legislation is required because the governance of the other place, unlike that of your Lordships’ House, is subject to statute: namely the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978, which established that House’s governing body, the House of Commons Commission. The Commission is chaired by the Speaker and currently consists of six members in total, including the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader and three Back-Bench members. It has specific responsibility for staff appointments, remuneration and pensions and otherwise is the ultimate decision-making body for the House of Commons as a whole.

I will briefly set out the content of this short Bill. It has three core provisions, all of which take the form of amendments to the 1978 Act and meet the recommendations of the Governance Committee. Clause 1 increases the number of Back-Bench members of the House of Commons Commission from three to four. That is designed to allow for a wider range of views across the House of Commons to be represented on the commission and to reduce the likelihood of the Government having a majority on the commission.

Clause 1 also provides that two external members and two officials be appointed, taking the overall membership to 11. The appointment of these additional members is designed to provide a wider perspective to support the commission’s work and to improve the quality of governance by providing a closer link between decision-making and implementation. As recommended by the Governance Committee, that will provide some continuity of membership between the commission and the body charged with implementing its decisions: a new Executive Committee, comprising senior officials of the House. This will replace the existing management board.

Clause 1(4) amends Section 1 of the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978. New subsections (2A) and (2B) provide that the external members—like other members—will be appointed by resolution of the House and that they cannot come from Parliament itself. They must be genuinely external and recruited under fair and open competition.

New subsection (2C) specifies that the official members will be the Clerk and Director General of the House of Commons, when the latter is appointed later this year. The new post of Director General is not otherwise defined in statute, so the Bill provides, in new subsection (2C)(b), for the commission to appoint an alternative official if the post is vacant, the name changes, or the post ceases to exist. This allows the commission the freedom to change the name of the senior post at a future point without recourse to legislative change.

Clause 2 adds to the functions of the House of Commons Commission a specific requirement to set the strategic priorities and objectives for the services provided by the House departments. At present, this function is to some extent assumed by the commission, but it is not explicitly prescribed. In view of the existence of other internal committees in that House—the Finance and Services Committee and the Administration Committee, for example—it is important that roles and responsibilities are clearly set out. The precise way in which the commission carries out this function is not prescribed in the Bill, to allow the commission flexibility to decide the most appropriate way to discharge its responsibilities.

Clause 3 provides for commencement. The schedule makes a number of minor and consequential amendments. I can explain both in more detail at later stages should the House wish me to do so. I will just mention one amendment, in paragraph 6 of the schedule, which will allow the commission greater flexibility as to who will chair its meetings. Currently, this must be the Speaker unless the Speaker is absent. Under the revised Act, it will be possible for the commission to allow another of its members to chair a meeting that the Speaker attends. Again, that is in line with a recommendation of the Governance Committee.

As noble Lords will have gathered from my remarks, this is a modest Bill concerned with the governance of the other place. The Bill was introduced there on 4 February after full consultation with the chair of the Governance Committee and the House of Commons authorities. It was given full, if brief, consideration in that House on 24 February and passed without a vote.

By introducing the Bill, the Government are helping the House of Commons to deliver the improvements to its governance that it has unanimously agreed to. I hope that your Lordships will support the elected Chamber in this aim, and in its endeavour to ensure that these legislative changes can be made without delay to ensure that they can take effect as soon as possible in the new Parliament. I commend the Bill to the House and I beg to move.

My Lords, during my years in the other place I did not serve on the commission but worked very closely with my party’s representative on the commission when I was Chief Whip and shadow leader of the House. I am delighted to see my noble friend Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope here, because he not only served with great distinction on the commission but also answered in the Chamber for the commission, which was not always an easy task. My current colleague in the other place, John Thurso, does that as well. He of course has the advantage of having been, I think uniquely, a Member of this place and then having moved downstairs; therefore he is in a very strong position to see how Parliament works as a whole. That will be a theme of my remarks.

I discussed this Bill with my right honourable friend John Thurso earlier this week. It is quite clear, as my noble friend said, that this is a relatively modest measure introducing very sensible improvements. It expands the external expertise available to both the commission and the management of that House, and it modestly increases the Back-Bench contribution. I note what my noble friend has just said, because that modest increase makes it less likely that there will be a majority of government-supporting MPs on the commission, and that, I think, is a healthy sign. It is important that the Bill clearly indicates and maintains the position in order to protect the day-to-day working of Parliament from overmighty interference from the Executive—the Government. The latter remains the servant of the former, not the other way round.

I welcome the proposals in the Bill. As my noble friend said, not only has it received unanimous support from all parties but it has gone through its various stages nem con in the Commons. That, if not unique, is unusual. However, I especially welcome the reasons for its introduction, which are set out in the report of the House of Commons Governance Committee, to which my noble friend referred. It is quite a formidable document but it is important and I hope that other noble Lords will have had the opportunity to read it. If they have not, they may wonder why we are spending even a few minutes on this Bill now. I suggest that it warrants careful reading because it is of considerable significance to this House and to Parliament as a whole. We may be a bicameral Parliament but we are one Parliament, and what happens in one House inevitably impacts on the other. Indeed, our customers or clients—our fellow citizens—constantly bemoan the fact that we do not work better in partnership to hold the Executive to account, and I shall return to that point later.

At a very practical level, the report of the Governance Committee—and therefore, the Bill—has implications for your Lordships’ House. For brevity, I quote from our Library briefing:

“The Committee reported that shared services (services provided to both Houses by one body) ‘already account for nearly half the annual resources spend of each House’ and that there was ‘wide support, in principle’ for extending these further, but what was included would need ‘careful consideration’ ... The Committee supports the ‘development of plans for a single services Department supporting both Houses’ but warned that one House cannot dictate to the other on what should happen”.

I suspect that other Members will share that view. The briefing continues:

“They recommended … Joint meetings of the House of Commons Commission and House Committee (the equivalent body in the House of Lords), at least every six months”.

It is interesting that the governance report goes further by suggesting, at paragraph 128, that maybe those meetings should take place quarterly. That would demonstrate the relevance of the proposal here to Members of your Lordships’ House.

I am a firm advocate of greater co-operation, and more effective integration where this would achieve efficiency savings or improved service. For example, I suspect that there is a long way to go in the catering departments, and it might well improve better understanding of our respective roles if Peers and MPs shared more Library facilities. Indeed, I would be interested to see where the existing shared services currently are. No doubt big sums are invested in the maintenance of the buildings and in obvious areas such as security. Perhaps my noble friend, at a later stage, can obtain a simple breakdown for us.

Meanwhile, the idea that very occasional joint meetings of the commission and our own House Committee are adequate to provide positive guidance and governance for both those existing combined services and for a proper examination of increased areas of joint provision of facilities is clearly laughable. We need a permanent mechanism. I hope that, in due course, those who are in a position to make a recommendation to both Houses will do so to that effect. I did not expect that to be provided in this Bill, which, as Members will know, has been brought forward at speed, as my noble friend said, to meet a particular, urgent need to resolve the challenges that arose last summer with the retirement of the then Clerk to the House of Commons. He is now a most welcome addition to our Benches.

As I look to the House authorities here to explain how this apparent lacuna is being solved, I hope that we will get some response today—if not, at later stages in the consideration of the Bill. I do not know whether other noble Lords have had this said to them, but I am told that there is to be a parallel examination of the governance of our House—presumably after the general election. That is fine, but when will there be a full, joint, cross-House, bicameral review of the way Parliament is run? This is not just a case of saving money. Many Members in both Houses believe that our combined processes and the eventual product of our work is overdue for review and reform.

In the Parliament First booklet, published this week with the encouragement of Mr Speaker, I argued that,

“If this was any other organisation … our product or service would not be rated very highly by our customers, and they would try to go elsewhere”.

The absence of any such alternative should not make us complacent. Again, in the report of the Governance Committee, there is an extremely important statement at paragraph 118:

“Bicameral Parliaments are based upon a belief that a constructive tension and dialogue between the two Houses should result in a better quality of legislation and of the other key functions of a Parliament than is possible in unicameral systems.”

The paragraph that follows explains and enlarges on that point. It is extremely important.

A few years ago there was much talk of joined-up government. I believe it is time that we had joined-up Parliament. The two Houses are not in competition. We need to be better, in co-operation, at holding the Government of the day to account. Our relationship is not one of rivals; the only beneficiaries of that would be an overmighty bureaucracy.

In a small but significant way this Bill and the forthcoming parallel exercise in your Lordships’ House offer an unusual opportunity to improve the quality of the service that we offer together to our fellow citizens. I wish the Bill a speedy passage.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, for the clarity with which he has introduced the House of Commons Commission Bill. This is a short, uncontroversial Bill that, in essence, is a matter for the Commons and we are glad to support it. I pay tribute to the House of Commons Governance Committee, which was quoted extensively by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler. It was chaired by my right honourable friend Jack Straw, and it did an excellent job that led to this small Bill, which will have a real impact on the good governance of the Commons.

This comes at a crucial time when Parliament is about to make a hugely important decision about the restoration and renewal of this glorious building, safeguarding it for future generations. We must never forget, in taking these decisions or in our daily work, that Parliament belongs not to the parliamentarians but to the people of this country. As my honourable friend Angela Eagle said:

“We must … future-proof our institution—not only our building, but our Parliament—to ensure that the transparency of what we do and our accessibility … continue to be among the best”.—[Official Report, Commons, 22/1/15; col. 422.]

The governance of both the Commons and the Lords is critical as Parliament evolves to meet the needs of people and our democratic system in the 21st century. The Commons Commission and the House Committee in your Lordships’ House have a crucial role in providing leadership relating to restoration and renewal, as well as the governance of our Parliament. We support the Bill, which implements key recommendations from the report of the Governance Committee that require legislative action. They will lead to sensible and timely changes that will increase the professionalism and effectiveness of the Commons. But of course, these are matters for the Commons and its Members. They must make the decisions that relate to their House, just as we must make the decisions that relate to this House.

However, as one Parliament, the decisions of each House in this sphere have implications for the other. As the Minister said, this Bill changes the remit and membership of the commission, which will include the new director-general of the House of Commons. His or her role will bring changes to the management and governance structure in the Commons, which in due course could have implications for our own House.

Notwithstanding the fact that we have a House of Commons and a House of Lords, each with its own purpose, traditions and identities, we are part of one Parliament. While the integrity of each House must be retained, there is so much more that we could and should be doing together in order to ensure efficiency and savings from the public purse. I recognise that there are already some shared services which work well, for example, IT services and security, and I am very supportive of the new joint procurement service.

We on these Benches are always keen to see how we can keep your Lordships’ House as efficient and effective as possible. Just in the past few months, an internal report was published by a working group of members of my own group looking at the internal structure and management of this House. The excellent report produced by the group, chaired by my noble friend Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, agreed:

“The Clerk and domestic Committees should be charged with developing greater collaboration with their equivalents in the Commons. Wherever possible, joint departments should be established”.

I am pleased that following the report of the Straw committee and deliberations within our own House, a review has now been established by the Clerk of the Parliaments to look at this issue.

I firmly believe that at a time of austerity, when we as parliamentarians are encouraging government departments and local councils to work together more and share services, we in Parliament should be taking the lead. Yes, we have two distinct Houses, but we have one Parliament and the crucial decisions that have to be taken in respect of restoration and renewal, followed by the delivery of the project, could be the impetus for great changes with regard to the management of the building.

The House of Commons Governance Committee, as the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, said, encourages,

“the two Houses to begin the process of drawing up a phased medium term programme towards a single bicameral services department supporting the primary parliamentary purposes of each of the two Houses”.

Personally I am very much in favour of such a programme but at each step of the way there must be strong emphasis on the need to retain the integrity of each House, and appropriate service agreements must ensure that the will and needs of the Lords is not subsumed by the Commons in any way. Where change is concerned, I am proud to say that, despite our older profile, we have often been the modernising House, prepared to do things differently and adapt to the times. For example, we led the way with the televising of Parliament, opening up our proceedings to the wider world when desire for transparency had not become the demand that it rightfully is today.

I return to the matter of governance rather than management and warmly welcome the agreement that there should be regular meetings between the commission and the House Committee. By the time of the first meeting, which is already scheduled, the membership and remit of the commission will have changed as a consequence of the legislation before us and we will have embarked on a review of the governance structure of our own House thanks to the establishment of the Leader’s Group by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell. I warmly welcome this initiative. The current structure is opaque and I believe not fit for purpose in a 21st century legislature in which our citizens rightly demand transparency and accountability.

The Leader's Committee will naturally consider the purpose and function of the House Committee. I note that Clause 2 states:

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

This seems to me to be extremely important and something which we already strive to do in the House Committee but I believe that changes are necessary to ensure that its priorities and objectives are truly strategic and benchmarked, and can be properly measured by, for example, key performance indicators. As we celebrate our history and traditions, too often we forget that we are a large organisation working in the 21st Century and we must adjust accordingly.

On these Benches we are looking forward to a constitutional convention, as proposed by my right honourable friend Ed Miliband MP, which will consider the future of your Lordship’s House, not as too often in the past in isolation but as part of the wider constitutional changes that are taking place in our country. The deliberations will no longer take place behind closed doors in Whitehall and be the preserve of politicians but will be extended to the people of this country. The constitution of this country belongs not to one or many political parties but to our citizens, so the process must be inclusive. This will undoubtedly bring about profound change but in the mean time we have to ensure that the governance of our House, the management of our services and the restoration and renewal of our magnificent building are carried out in the most open, efficient and effective way.

My Lords, I thank noble Lords who have contributed to this brief debate. In reading through the Commons debates on this subject, I was struck by the extent to which the maintenance, restoration and refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster hangs over a great deal of what we are concerned with when we talk about efficient governance, management and co-ordination between the two Houses.

We have not discussed refurbishment sufficiently openly in our House. Those of us who have been down to the basement will know just how severe some of the problems of the Palace of Westminster are. Perhaps that is something on which whoever finds themselves concerned with the governance of this House after the election will wish to promote active discussion. I recognise that we have our own Leader’s Group, which will discuss a number of these issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, asked for a full bicameral review of the workings of Parliament. I am not sure that either the House of Commons or the House of Lords is quite ready for that. I have been struck in government by something I had deeply suspected in opposition—namely, that Commons Ministers take some time to understand the role of the House of Lords because nobody has ever really told them about it until they lose their first vote in the Lords, at which point they begin to understand that we cannot be entirely ignored.

As the noble Baroness said, we have made some progress in working more closely together and I am sure that we will continue down that road. Indeed, the whole issue of refurbishment will force us to move a lot further down that road. The other day I was interviewed about the future of the parliamentary archives, which is part of this set of issues. Some very large issues are raised there about the future of this entire estate and how we set in train a whole set of new decisions for the next 50 years or more.

We have recognised that the governance of the Commons is, with this Bill, moving forward in a useful and constructive manner, and that we will in turn discuss our own structures of governance in the Leader’s Group. I hope I may take this as a welcome by the House for this very modest Bill.

Bill read a second time and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.