House of Commons Governance Select Committee – Thursday 27 November 2014

On Thursday 27 November 2014, the House of Commons Governance of the House Committee, of which Valerie is a member, heard evidence from Andrew McDonald, former Chief Executive of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority; Steve O’ Connor, Director of PICT; Richard Tapner-Evans, Director of Catering Services; Tom O’Leary, Head of Public Engagement and Learning for Parliament; Martin Trott, Head of Continuous Improvement; Andrew Kennon, Clerk of Committees; David Vere, Director of People Development; Dr Emma Crewe, Principal Investigator, Parliamentary Effectiveness Research Programme, SOAS, University of London.

Valerie Vaz: As the Chair said, we are very grateful for you coming and giving us the benefit of your expertise and for your written evidence. I want to start with an intriguing point that you made, I think in the first lot of evidence, about the Speaker referring the named person, whoever that is—whether it is a split of chief executive or Clerk—directly to the Queen rather than going to the Prime Minister. Do you want to expand on that?

Andrew McDonald: Yes, happily—and here I own up to being what I suppose some would call a constitutional anorak, having spent three years as the constitution director in what was then the Department for Constitutional Affairs in the early 2000s. It just seems to me inherently curious, at its best, that here we have the most senior public official, an appointed role, within the legislature, and yet the Executive has a hand in advising the sovereign. I think it is in the interests of the legislature that that whole process, prior to the recommendation arriving with the sovereign, should be in the hands of the legislature. If one is going to take that view, I think that does have some implications for the design of the appointment process, because it would seem to me to be improper in a different way if the Speaker were to run the whole process himself and then be giving advice to the sovereign as well.

I have a sort of model in mind—I know that examples drawn from IPSA experience do not necessarily land immediately with MPs, but I think the IPSA case here is helpful. The process that has been developed, further to the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009 and then two rounds now of appointments, has the Speaker standing back from the initial selection process. There is an independent panel now in this case. One would expect that independent panel to have Members of Parliament sitting on it, and then recommendations going to the Speaker, with the expectation that the Speaker, unless he has very good reasons to the contrary, would respect the recommendations coming from the panel. If one has that sort of two-stage process, then it seems to me to be perfectly reasonable for the Speaker to be the office holder advising the sovereign—and, candidly, one removes the Executive from the process.

Valerie Vaz: Which leads me quite nicely on to the next set of questions.

Could you clarify what you mean by opening up the process, say for the chief executive? I think there is a suggestion that you think it should be an internal process for the Clerk. Is that right?

Andrew McDonald: I think it is an arguable point. For the present purposes, let us assume that there is a chief executive and Clerk in that hierarchical order. I think with a chief executive there is no good reason not to go outside. It is the norm for public appointments, and I would do that.

I think there are some public appointments where one just has to ask oneself whether or not it adds any value to go outside an organisation. After all, in terms of expertise in the ways of this organisation, it sits within the four walls of this organisation, for the most part. I guess there is an increasing argument that, given the other legislatures within the UK, one might attract a field from there and equally one might attract a field from other legislatures elsewhere. I simply do not know enough about the strength of that argument, but I could be persuaded quite easily that there is a field out there and, consequently, that it should be opened up. So I do not have terribly strong views as to—

Valerie Vaz: When you said “internal”, do you just mean within the House?

Andrew McDonald: Yes.

Valerie Vaz: So within the Clerks area or internal and open to everybody if they have the appropriate experience?

Andrew McDonald: I wouldn’t envisage that it should be restricted to one cadre of staff. It may well be that that cadre of staff have been particularly well placed through their professional formation to secure the post, if its job design is the one that I was describing earlier on, but it would seem to me to be more likely to land uncomfortably with colleagues in the House administration if one restricted it in that way.

Valerie Vaz: You touched a bit on the process. How would you see the two processes—the chief executive’s and the Clerk’s—in terms of the appointments? You mentioned it should be slightly removed from the Speaker. I suppose I would say that the Speaker is accountable for Members and it is slightly different from IPSA, because IPSA should be independent from Members. So I see the process as being slightly different. How would you envisage the two processes, given that the Speaker is ultimately accountable to Members in the House?

Andrew McDonald: I think it is a really important point. I am not suggesting that the Speaker be removed from the process. I would suggest that if the process were to be along the lines I was describing a few moments back, the Speaker would have the right to say, “No, I don’t agree with the names coming forward,” because ultimately that relationship has got to work. If there is not an effective working relationship between the Speaker and the person who is his most senior official, then the thing is doomed from the start. I think the Speaker should have the ability to raise the red card and say no, but for candidates being selected for him by others. So he would certainly have a role in that regard.

Valerie Vaz: So no Member involvement in that selection at all?

Andrew McDonald: No, I would have Members on the panel—perhaps Members from the Commission, for example—but I would not have the Speaker at the first stage.

Valerie Vaz: You said that you were able to do the poppy projection, which looked very nice from outside and on television—we didn’t know that was happening and it was very good—but was that because there was a deadline and you had to do it by a certain time? I am just wondering about deadlines. Who gives you deadlines when you do your work? The issue is the reporting back, isn’t it?

Tom O’Leary: In that case, Remembrance Sunday was clearly the target and we couldn’t miss it. We were able to communicate to the stakeholders that we needed a decision within a very short time frame, and everybody came up to the mark. In my experience, where it gets tortuous is where it involves lots of different people. I tend to get things done by narrowing the field of people I need to work with, to put it bluntly. When I am required to involve lots of colleagues from right across the piece, as with the 2015 project, it is a case of getting the bandwagon rolling through town a bit more, whereas with the poppies, I knew exactly who I had to go to and everybody was very co-operative. It is broader projects where, at least in my experience, it gets tortuous and lengthy.

Valerie Vaz: That’s what I mean about a deadline. You had a deadline in that case, but I don’t know whether a deadline is built in when you put your papers forward.

Perhaps something takes a long time because there isn’t a deadline.

Martin Trott: There quite often is some kind of deadline. There is something that needs to be decided or endorsed or there is some question to answer, and inevitably that has to be done in time.

A short deadline does focus minds, of course. But in answer to the general question, I think that our Management Board is extremely approachable. Heads of departments are well known to most of us on a personal level and very approachable.

I wanted to touch on staff development and training but I was struck by what you were saying, Mr Tapner-Evans. You were very happy with your savings, but have you got happy staff and happy Members? I think the answer to that is probably no.

Richard Tapner-Evans: Since I have been here we have taken customer satisfaction and staff satisfaction extremely seriously. We have regular measures of customer satisfaction through cafeteria surveys. Those statistics have improved in the last two years. The fact that we are doing more sales, which is reducing the cost of catering in the first place shows that we have happier happy customers. Overall, with any food service industry you only usually get to hear about the bad things, rather than the good things. If someone is moaning about something you get to hear about it, whereas if someone is pleased about something it is almost ignored a lot of the time. So, yes, customer satisfaction is improving and we have statistics to back that up.

On staff satisfaction, we realise that a number of staff have been here for a number of years, they are very happy in their jobs and they do a very, very good job. We are constantly looking at ways to develop those staff in areas that they are interested in. We have a number of very talented chefs who regularly win competitions so we develop them all the time and they strive to do better in what they do. The catering industry is one where you move around quite a lot as well. We will develop a lot of junior people within the chef’s team who then go on to do bigger and better things within the industry as a whole. So they will move on to Michelin-starred restaurants across the board as well. So there are development opportunities for all of our staff.

Valerie Vaz: You say that about people moving out. Is that because they are not on permanent contracts and they are not actually members of the House staff?

Richard Tapner-Evans: No, they are on permanent contracts but the catering industry moves a lot and there is only a certain amount of opportunities that are available in an organisation like this, so we would encourage people to look outside and move. But bringing fresh ideas into the House as well means that we give a better service to Members and staff at the same time.

Valerie Vaz: It is a kind of balance. I talk about institutional memory. There are people who have worked here for a long time who know people, know Members, and know how things work. That helps. There is also the balance of developing them. I think that you can do that. Could each of you just touch on whether you find that in your part of the House organisation you are getting the opportunity to have some sort of development in your careers?

Steve O’Connor: I have been promoted twice since I have worked in Parliament. So from my career point of view, just talking about me for a moment, it has been a fantastic place. I have learned a huge amount and moved on in my career. If I talk about my teams and staff there is a lot of scope for them within the discipline they are working in within IT. So we have a lot of people who move up and take on new roles, new technologies or management roles and whatever they are interested in. I think one area that is difficult is developing your understanding of this institution. It is a complex organisation. If you come in from the outside it takes a long, long time to really understand what happens. I would not pretend that I do, after eight years. I have encouraged my staff to go and shadow Clerk colleagues; to go and shadow our colleagues in Hansard and others. It gives you a snapshot, but those relationships and, I think, more porous movement of skills and knowledge between departments and teams would be very beneficial.

Valerie Vaz: Do you have a training and development budget?

Steve O’Connor: We do, yes, and we put people through, obviously, technical training, so they can keep up to date with the new technologies; but there is also management and softer skills training. We put all our managers through management training a couple of years ago, which was very beneficial.

Valerie Vaz: Dr Crewe, you have been looking at the House for a while now.

Could you say how long and why?

Dr Crewe: Yes. Thank you very much, to begin with, for inviting me. I am absolutely delighted to have an opportunity to talk about Parliament.

Why? Because I am a specialist in organisations, and I do research, particularly on voluntary organisations and Parliament. I have been doing research on the UK Parliament since about 1998, starting on the Lords and looking more recently at the House of Commons.

I am also looking at Parliaments in south Asia and eastern Africa.

I have just completed a three-year project looking at the House of Commons. My main focus was understanding the work of MPs, which I think is undervalued. I do not think the complexity of the work that MPs do is sufficiently recognised. People are extraordinarily cynical about politics, and I think that spills over on to politicians and Parliament. So, I am a huge champion of Parliament, but also of the officials in Parliament. My experience of observing them is that the institution is extremely well run, so in a way, I am a bit puzzled by some of the evidence, which seems to claim that it is not.

Valerie Vaz: Okay. Perhaps you are talking to the wrong people—I don’t know. When are you publishing your report?

Dr Crewe: My book comes out in April 2015. I could give a little more substance to the claim that I think Parliament is well run, if that is useful. Is that appropriate?

Chair: Yes. You could also write to us.

Dr Crewe: In a way, it relates to why I think you need to have one clear person at the top who has experience of parliamentary business, which I define very broadly—not just as very narrow and fusty procedural work but as something much broader than that. I would include what people in the Library do, what people in Committees do, dealing with the media—we have not talked about the media very much. It is an incredibly complex organisation.

What is puzzling is that the kind of complaints I have read have been about mice or about building projects going over budget, but they are not the core business of Parliament. Who claims that the Committee work is not absolutely outstanding? I have watched a particular Committee for two years. I could not do what those Clerks and specialist advisers do. It is not just the Clerks; the specialist advisers produce reports incredibly fast, in a way that, frankly, most academics would not be able to. How many mistakes are made in all the mass of documents that come out and relate to the Chamber?

As far as I am concerned, the deftness with which the officials deal with the core business is very underappreciated. It is partly because they do not really blow their own trumpet. They are not really here to do that—they are here because they are serving Parliament, and, in a way, they are so busy defending MPs and defending Parliament that they sell themselves a bit short.

Valerie Vaz: We have not heard evidence of that—in fact, we have heard evidence to the contrary, that Parliament is run quite well, and the Clerks and Committee section in particular. We think they are outstanding and we have heard evidence that they are absolutely outstanding. We could not do the jobs that they do. I do not know whether you are just looking at something slightly different or have heard something slightly different. The basic running of Parliament we think is good; the decision-making process and how that filters down to the rest of the organisation is the issue that we are looking at. Obviously we had certain terms of reference for that. We have heard from staff—we had a staff event, which obviously was not public. It is right that we should listen to the people at the bottom. It is at the top management layer that things seem to be going slightly wrong. I don’t think we have ever suggested otherwise—I suggest you look at the evidence that has come out of previous sittings.

Dr Crewe: I have. I have talked to a lot of staff and I have talked to a lot of MPs’ staff, as well, about how things are run. My experience is that there is some dissatisfaction. For example, as David was saying, people who are not Clerks should—this has already improved massively, but there is still room for improvement to open things up—be able to become Clerks if they choose to, and not necessarily permanently. It is about that interchange that David was talking about, and I think that there could be a lot of improvements with that.

Valerie Vaz: You actually said in your written evidence that “any staff should be encouraged to develop expertise in the core of the House of Commons business”. I was just a bit troubled by your next phrase, which was “if they demonstrate the capacity.” Are you saying that it is only a few people—the anointed few?

Dr Crewe: I am partly influenced by the fact that I come from the international development sector, where civil society organisations have appointed people to the top—to the chief executive role—who do not really understand the core of the business. If they have an opportunity to learn about it, great; but if they get parachuted in without necessarily understanding that business, then in my experience they have not done a good job. Not everyone is going to have the capacity to work, for example, as a Committee Clerk—I would not be able to do that job. Clearly you have to have the capacity and the particular skill set to be able to do that kind of job.

Valerie Vaz: I do not know whether you have seen this, but they are developed quite well. It depends on the teams. The senior Clerk develops people within those teams.

They do get there at the end. I am not sure whether you have looked at that. I will move on to allowing people to go across departments, as you say. It is not necessarily about giving people an extra qualification, but sometimes when you get into the civil service you have a course at Sunningdale. Do you think it would be useful, when people come into this organisation, to have an induction day—whoever they are, whether they go through the Clerks’ section or anywhere else—or some kind of certificate or qualification? I am reluctant to go down that route, but, as you say, do you think everybody should know the core business?

Dr Crewe: I would not say that necessarily absolutely everybody should. I think that anybody who is interested should certainly have that opportunity, absolutely. There are hugely talented people working in the Library, for example, or in POST or whatever, who I think should be helped to get the qualifications to apply, for example, for a Clerk job. I think that would be brilliant. It would be more than being inducted. There might even be a course in procedure, say, available to them. That kind of opening up of opportunities would be fantastic.

Valerie Vaz: What does everybody else think?

David Vere: From my perspective, I think that is a direction in which we should go. The challenge is that because of the structure we are in—the previous witnesses referred to it—we are in the holding company stage, where we have a number of relatively independent departments within a corporate whole.

I feel we need to go further to make the service feel much more of a unit. The consequence of that is that people spend a disproportionate amount of their time working within their own department. While they do have a lot of contact, I don’t think it is sufficient to develop the understanding of the core business of the House and the way that other departments work to create that level of understanding.

Valerie Vaz: Mr Kennon, you said that you were making inroads into developing staff and secondments—what budget do you need to be able to do that? Or is there a nil cost if you are going to other Government Departments?

Andrew Kennon: We have quite a lot of seconding in and out, both ways. We are encouraging that and it is expanding. It costs a bit of money, but not a lot. I was actually saying that, were we to go for something where we really wanted people to take on management responsibilities elsewhere, where we were offering them as a free good to a charity or something, you are talking about their salary and the back-fill salary. If you are talking about someone at A2, you are talking about two lots of a bit more than £50,000 a year.

The transcript from this evidence session is available here:

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