House of Commons Governance Select Committee – Thursday 20 November 2014

On Thursday 20 November 2014, the House of Commons Governance of the House Committee, of which Valerie is a member, heard evidence from Lawrence Ward, Serjeant at Arms, and Robin Fell, Principal Doorkeeper; Oonagh Gay, Senior Library Clerk; Paul Evans; Ken Gall, President of the Trade Union Side, Dave Penman, General Secretary, FDA.

Valerie Vaz: Thank you both for coming to give evidence, and also for your written evidence, which I found useful. It is quite refreshing to hear from you, Lawrence, that you put Members first—that the elected representatives are at the top. As a new Member, I do sometimes feel that Members’ interests are not taken and looked at as they should be, because we are there to serve our constituents. The phrase that struck me was that we come to you and see you as the person who responds to Members, but does not give in to Members, so there is a slight distinction in that you do not necessarily do everything that we ask of you, but you are quite positive about how you respond to us. Following on from my colleagues’ questions, I am quite keen to hear from you on how the Management Board and the Commission work together, because you are involved at that level. Secondly, has that role changed over the years for you?

Lawrence Ward: I will answer that by giving you an example of where there is a huge benefit in having the go-to officials who walk around in the silly clothes and everyone knows what we do, but that also shows some of the downsides of both the Management Board and our inability to influence some things at an operational level: the situation with the public queues coming into the building last year.

Some folklore has built up around that situation. I have seen some of the written submissions that say that queues are often an hour and all the rest of it, but there were only three occasions when the queues were an hour. Nevertheless, that is completely unacceptable. I found out that the queuing situation was getting out of hand in about November last year. It changed because we changed our security processes at the entry points, which we had to do because of the security threat. Everything then slowed down and ground to a halt, despite my very best efforts to raise these issues with the Management Board. Some members of the Management Board were as frustrated as I was, including David Natzler. I was saying that it was a Management Board issue because access to Parliament cuts across so many different disciplines. Banqueting book their events, the Clock Tower do their thing, visitor services work for another thing—it is all in my submission, but I think that there are seven parts of the House that can book-in capacity independently. There was no single co-ordinating authority that was able to look holistically across all our entrance points.

I kept banging the table, saying, “This is a corporate issue; we really must do something about this.” The Management Board were discussing risk assessments on a Friday; I said, “They should be discussing something that Members are moaning to me about and the public are writing to me about, and that is a core activity of Parliament.” They were just not interested in looking at it until the Administration Committee got involved, probably because they were petitioned by a number of Members saying, “This is now getting unacceptable”— people were out in the cold and all the rest of it.

The Administration Committee asked to see Sir Robert and me, and they said, “We want you to sort this now.” With that direction, off we went, and we put up the temporary tent, which was not popular but did solve the queuing issue. We then fast-tracked the project to re-design Cromwell green and we are now getting acceptable numbers through and the queuing has gone. But that showed to me that it was six months too late. We could have done it a lot earlier, saved the organisation some reputational damage, and certainly given the members of the public who come here a far better experience.

Valerie Vaz: Is that something to do with your role, and could you see your role enhanced, because you have that interface between Members and the public?

Lawrence Ward: That is a difficult one to answer when it could appear that I am looking to self-aggrandise. Robin is doing this because he believes in Parliament, and his future here will end soon, because he is going to retire soon. As for me, I am very happy with what I am doing, but it does not mean I am not frustrated. Whatever system you come up with, and God bless you for attempting this, there has to be some mechanism or acknowledgement that at the two ends of the House of Commons Chamber—and this goes back 600 years-plus—you have the Clerk who does the procedural stuff, and a bloke in tights and a wig back up the other end who is the go-to for all these matters. I am not saying that the person up the other end is the person who should therefore run everything, because I do not think we would want to wind the clock back, but we need to address those frustrations.

In my role, I am the most frequent visitor at Member Committees out of any official. I am always at Member Committees, usually two a week, but in the two and a half years that I have been the Serjeant I have been to one Management Board meeting. That shows you that I am far closer to Members than to senior management. That may be a failing on my part, but it shows that they are very distant sometimes from the kernel of the running of the House.

Valerie Vaz: May I put a brief question to all of you? You have all talked and others have talked about the lack of clarity and that someone at the top is needed because of that lack of clarity. Yet we have all seen evidence about the way that the Commission and the Management Board operate and my favourite organogram, which is meaningless to me. Do you think you need one person at the top because we have a lack of clarity in the way that decisions are being made?

Marianne Cwynarski: What would really help would be staff, Members and everyone understanding each other’s roles better. People know what they are here to do but I don’t think others understand what they are here to do. There is a lot that we could do to demystify things. I have been working on demystifying what the Management Board does for the staff of the House. I think we could undertake a similar operation for the Commission. We have been doing that for the Admin Committee. Sir Alan Haselhurst came and addressed 150 of our senior leaders recently and that worked very well to engage staff with the Admin Committee. We could do that with other groups, too. I think it is understanding that we need.

Oonagh Gay: In Parliament you are always going to have a lack of clarity because you have the senior staff and you have Members. It is very likely, as we heard before, that the Commission will suddenly pick up a political context to a very small administrative decision.

We would be idiots if we thought that we would ever have a completely clear management system. We are not very clear ourselves as to what sort of organisation we are. Are we like the Ministry of Justice? Are we full of civil servants? Are we the British Museum with different strands of professionals? Are we Birmingham city council with more established professions? I think we are somewhere in the middle, and the Board of Management has gradually been morphing into a more coherent, corporate body, but it has a long way to go.

I was very struck by Myfanwy Barrett’s evidence that the Management Board simply did not meet together enough to really develop a corporate point of view. As a middle manager, I have listened to my team complain that the Management Board is remote and so on, and we saw that very clearly during the pay negotiations and in the requirement to record hours of work. I spent a year looking at my team’s working pattern; every 15 minutes was recorded. Towards the end of that period, I realised that nobody was actually checking any checking off that I was doing, so I just quietly stopped it. I think that is symptomatic of some of the initiatives that have come from the Management Board that have not helped us in being customer facing.

Paul Evans: There is very little I would disagree with in what Oonagh said, but I will pick up one point. The culture of your permanent service rather reflects the culture of the body it serves, which is disparate, stubborn, hard to corral and puts a great deal of value on individual opinion, individual freedom and the right to block. We pick up quite a lot of that. I agree with Oonagh that seeking absolute clarity, absolute command and control, is a fool’s errand. Everything that Oonagh said about the Management Board and her positive comments about how it is getting better I agree with. I think the complexities of the relationship between the Member bodies—the Commission, the Administration Committee and the F and S Committee—and the Management Board do add a degree of opacity to what goes on. Nobody is quite sure who is responsible for making the decisions they disagree with.

Valerie Vaz: We had a staff event, which I thought was very useful, because you can always tell an organisation by the people who actually work at the coal face. You have probably seen some of the evidence. Anonymous evidence, maybe, is a bit more—how shall we say—helpful to us in our deliberations; and there has also been other named evidence, which sets out where Parliament is going rightly or wrongly. I feel as a Member that everyone who works within Parliament should be supporting Members—that is no surprise. So as well as getting staff engaged with the Management Board, how do each one of you see Members being involved in a much more overt way?

Paul Evans: Can I say something about the anonymous evidence, before I answer your question?

Valerie Vaz: Was it from you?

Paul Evans: No. My own evidence is named. In much of that evidence—some of that evidence, not all of it—which is anonymous, I find the stereotyping and malevolence offensive. We have a policy called Valuing Others, which is about showing respect to everybody’s difference and diversity in the organisation. I think it is very regrettable; if some of the stuff that was said in the anonymous evidence was said in a meeting where I was present or in an office where I was managing, I would consider it a disciplinary offence.
Anyway, to answer your question—

Valerie Vaz: Well, we were asking people for their views.

Paul Evans: Yes, asking people for their views. If they have views they should say them out in public.

Valerie Vaz: But they also were given the opportunity to say it privately as well as publicly.

Paul Evans: Privately is different to anonymously.

Valerie Vaz: Okay, I am not saying that it is not, but this gives people an opportunity to say exactly what they feel without any repercussions. You are going to discipline them, so they are not going to come forward. We are never going to change, are we, if we do not allow people to say what they want to say? Anyway, shall we move on?

Paul Evans: We do not allow people to say what they want to say in our organisation because we have a policy called Valuing Others which says that you should treat other people with respect and you should not stereotype them and treat them with disrespect.

Valerie Vaz: Anyway—unless you can come up with some specific example.

Paul Evans: Fair enough. It is just something, obviously, I wanted to get off my chest.

Chair: You have got it off your chest, Mr Evans, but I defend the fact that we have entertained anonymous evidence. In most cases, the evidence has come to us with the person naming themselves; but they have asked for their name to be redacted. I think there is a real difference between how this organisation appears if you are at or near the top of it and how it appears, whatever the Respect policy may be, if you are at or near the bottom of it, and at an early stage in your career. I think we were absolutely right to do that. Sorry, Ms Vaz.

Valerie Vaz: Staff involvement and Member involvement.

Paul Evans: I would like to see more communication. Staff in the front-line jobs meet Members a lot. It may be a rather random sample of Members that they meet, depending if they are on a Select Committee or work in the Table Office, or whatever—in the research section, where it may be a particular group of Members. So that is not a particularly coherent one, but there is a lot of staff-Member interchange and exchange. That is a positive thing.

If you are talking about the Commission and the governance Committees, they do not— I think Sir Oliver put it that you go out and talk to staff. The Commission does not do that; that would be great if they did more of that. I think that staff do not have a sense that they are being talked to or listened to, so at that simple level you could do a lot. If the Commission said more clearly, “Our priority for this year is to build an education centre, and as a consequence of building an education centre we are not going to give you new computers this year,” that would be a very clear message. Staff would understand who was setting the priorities and why.

Oonagh Gay: I think I would support the idea of having elections for Commission members, because I think it would enable members to take their responsibility seriously. I understand why the Leader and shadow Leader of the House are on there ex-officio, but they often cannot attend, or they circulate fairly frequently as their bosses sack or move them. I think we could do with some more permanent Member involvement in the Commission. We have benefited extensively from John Thurso’s involvement because he brings a wealth of external management experience. If the Commission had members who were fully engaged for the whole of Parliament on the issues that staff face, that would be a real bonus, but at the moment there is too much turnover of Commission members. We could do something about that.

On staff involvement, I know that Marianne has tried valiantly to engage us with the Management Board and I have been to events where we met the Management Board team.

Many of the people carrying out their day-to-day jobs—I am talking about the junior staff— have nothing to say at that level because they are not really engaged in the corporate agenda.

Should we not have some defining principles under which our Parliament works, such as, we are available and open to the public, and, we are the legislative forum? We could have a few more defining principles so that staff could feel more engaged. Sometimes when one goes to another meeting about the corporate five-year plan, one feels as though one is back in Stalinist Russia.

If I see another risk assessment and have to give any more information about risk assessments—we do not tackle our real risks. At the time of the Members’ expenses crisis, a properly functioning organisation would have sat down afterwards and asked ourselves as senior managers where we went wrong and how could we have got into this position. I now the Management Board had an awayday to think about how they would be less deferential to Members, but I haven’t really noticed a difference in this Parliament. That goes back to my points about challenging the senior staff, more introspection and more reflection. Sometimes, there are too many initiatives and not enough reflective space to see how we are growing and changing as an organisation.

Valerie Vaz: Can I just ask Marianne for a comment? I think you hosted an event with Steve McQueen—

Marianne Cwynarski: I did.

Valerie Vaz: And that was done quite quickly. It was for Members and staff.

Marianne Cwynarski: And Members’ staff.

Valerie Vaz: How did you go about that? Perhaps you could focus on that? He is a star and you brought him to Parliament.

Marianne Cwynarski: I was very fortunate in that using the name of the House of Commons and getting Mr Speaker involved got me access to the film production company, and it was really keen to come and show its film.

Q412 Valerie Vaz: It was your initiative and you went to Mr Speaker about it?

Marianne Cwynarski: Yes.

Valerie Vaz: I am struck by what you were saying. There is the dichotomy, as we move into the 21st century, that people think Clerks or MPs are born to the job. I think we are made, not born. As we move forward, that is the case. Although it is useful to look back in history to see where we went wrong—the pay negotiation—you mentioned something about the Commission deciding to pay the living wage and the minimum wage. Presumably that is the policy that has to be enacted by the Management Board, or somebody else has to go away and do that.

Ken Gall: Absolutely, yes. And that has been to the great credit of the House of Commons and the current Speaker, who was personally very quick to associate himself with the desire to be a living-wage employer.

Valerie Vaz: So where does that stop? We had written evidence from someone who said that they will never again get a pay rise. They are very concerned that they are not going to get their improved standard of living because of the way the negotiation went on and what has happened about pay. How do you stop that in the future? I can send you that paragraph.

Ken Gall: I feel that the possibility of someone never getting a pay rise again may be somewhat beyond the reach of the trade union side of the House of Commons. Again, it is a reflection of Government policy. 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. The pay freeze is one element of that. Dave has a lot more experience of how morale has been affected by the way in which pay has been capped over the past however long it has been—it feels like 20 years. Parliament has followed those kinds of strictures assiduously, and it will have the same demoralising effect it has had elsewhere in the civil service.

Valerie Vaz: Following on from Sir Oliver’s question, as you negotiate on behalf of your members or members of staff, where do you go to? Would you go to the Management Board first, or would you put your submission to the Commission?

Ken Gall: As I said, we have formal negotiation agreements and recognition agreements in which formal negotiations take place. If those negotiations reach the point at which Treasury counsel become involved, as they did a couple of years ago—

Valerie Vaz: Who do you go to first?

Ken Gall: The Management Board.

Dave Penman: We are in the job of influence. We want to influence employers on behalf of our members. A good trade union will know how to exert that influence, and a good trade union can exploit a bad management, in terms of where the power actually lies. For us it is quite different because it can be effective for us to go around management and go to boards, commissions or whatever to find out where power lies and who we can influence. That is what we are ultimately there to do. It doesn’t necessarily make for best practice in terms of having an operating model for how an organisation of deals with its employees. Ultimately, our job is to influence on behalf of our members, and we will use whatever methodology best suits that.

More information on the House of Commons Governance Committee can be found here: