House of Commons Governance Select Committee – Tuesday 25 November 2014

On Tuesday 25 November 2014, the House of Commons Governance of the House Committee, of which Valerie is a member, heard evidence from David Beamish, Clerk of the Parliaments; The Right Hon. the Lord Laming CBE DL and The Rt Hon. the Baroness Royall of Blaisdon; Rt Hon Sir Alan Duncan MP, Mr Barry Sheerman MP and Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP.

Valerie Vaz: The Chair has led on to this kind of unified, Parliament-wide strategy. There are obviously clear differences. The Commons is elected and the Lords is not, for example. You have different procedures and even meet at different times. Do you ever see a situation where we have a Parliament-wide strategy that looks at not only the estate, but actually the purpose of Parliament?

David Beamish: On the estate, certainly. I think that that happens to some extent already. There is a 25-year estates plan, and the Parliamentary Estates Directorate is a pretty joined-up organisation. Mel Barlex, when he was its director, made sure that he kept in close touch with both Houses. Plainly, we need to help each other when we need to decant people out of their offices while things are worked on and so forth. We are pretty joined up.

The second half of your question is interesting. On the whole, we do not normally sit back and think what we are there for, but rather we get on with exercising the powers that we have. Those who have looked at what the House of Lords is for—quite a few have done so in recent years—have perhaps not all come up with the same answer. Mostly, however, starting with the Wakeham Royal Commission in 1999, the answer seems to be that they want it to do something quite close to what it does at the moment, but there have also been arguments about composition. Perhaps to some extent, historically, there is tension between the two Houses, and when they are looking at legislation, things get thrashed out. Whether there would be benefit in the two Houses getting together to try to reach—I suspect that there probably would not, because it would be too difficult to get a sufficient consensus on what they were there for.

Valerie Vaz: What if the nature of the constitutional settlement changes in terms of the House of Lords? How far forward do you consider that issue?

David Beamish: That is a very good question. It is quite challenging for us, because it is hard to look into a crystal ball. You only have to think of June 2012, when we were expecting a reformed and largely elected House, and by October 2012, we knew that it was not going to happen any time soon. You will not be surprised to hear that I am waiting eagerly to see what the parties put in their manifestos as to what they want to do about the second Chamber after next May.

In the Lords Management Board, our general approach—I don’t think that there is a better one—is to work on the basis that if there were to be a smaller, elected House, whereas most Members of the House of Lords now do not have any staff, Members of a smaller House would expect more support. In terms of the accommodation that we need, we need to prepare for having something much like what we have. In fact, we have moved up a gear in that we occupied most of Millbank House in 2011, having occupied a small part of it since 2001. We have the final quarter of it coming our way next year, so we are able to reach a point where any peer who wants a desk can have one. I am afraid that we used to be a long way from that and the desks are sometimes quite crowded even now. We are there, and we are looking at a steady state, because that is the best that we can do.

Valerie Vaz: A quick final question. What sort of experience and training did you get for your two different roles: your management role and your clerking procedural role?

David Beamish: The clerking role is very much learned on the job because nobody is going to give you a course in House of Lords procedure. For example, in my first few months I was the amanuensis for the production of a new edition of the “Companion to the Standing Orders”, which is our bible of procedure that we use much more often than “Erskine May”.

By the time, in the days of hot metal printing, I had prepared all the sheets and marked up all the amendments, even if I did not know everything, I knew it was in there somewhere. That gave me a head start. By a combination of duties preparing the daily equivalent of your vote and later sitting at the table, which I started doing in 1991, boy you soon learn. On the management side, I think it is gradual exposure to those responsibilities. I have talked a bit about it, how for example in the late ’80s I became an Establishment Officer, which in those days was quite normal. I went off on a two-week course at Sunningdale with a lot of other people doing the same, and learned about it. In 1995 I became Clerk of Committees with a team of about 25 in those days, so it has gone up quite a lot. Really it was a gradual development and a certain amount of training, especially in the days when the Civil Service College existed. As I mentioned earlier, I suppose the most significant, the one I felt was a huge development opportunity, was the top management programme.

Valerie Vaz: Do the staff have that opportunity now?

David Beamish: The public service training offer has changed a bit, so it is a bit harder work, but we try to ensure that they do. I certainly regard growing talent as one of my responsibilities, by some combination of in-house training. Secondment is often regarded as the great thing and we look to support that, and we can to some extent, although it can be harder to find than you might think, with one important exception. I mentioned that I was lent to the Cabinet Office as private secretary to the Leader of the House and Chief Whip. We still do that, and we have two people on loan there, so although they are still in the same building, they are seeing the working of central Government.

If I could pick up on another bit of evidence that you have received, it amused me that you had a paper from Mark Addison, who was the first chief executive of the Crown Prosecution Service, I think in 1998. He was contrasting himself with David Calvert-Smith. I am much more like Mark Addison than David Calvert-Smith. Indeed, he was a private secretary at No. 10 when I was private secretary to Willie Whitelaw as Leader of the House. It is akin to the civil service path that one might follow. Perhaps because we did not have the departmental structure that the Commons used to have with the old Clerks Department, now much expanded as DCCS, the opportunities were perhaps a bit wider in the Lords. That was a good thing because there was a smaller pool of us and it would have been quite introspective otherwise.

Valerie Vaz: I will of course come on to that, but I would be grateful if both of you—you are both members of the House Committee—described how that works and your relationship with the Management Board. What is the difference? Can you describe the work of your Committee and the Management Board? Who produces the reports? How do you make decisions?

Baroness Royall: Interesting. That is one area where I think we do need improved working and more transparency. It is chaired by the Lord Speaker. It has a relatively small membership: leaders of the groups plus two Back Benchers from each of the groups. The agenda is in the hands of the Lord Speaker, although sometimes individual members of the Committee ask for items to be on the agenda. For example, I have suggested that, on the next agenda, many of the issues being raised by this Committee should be discussed by the House Committee. The Clerk of the Parliaments is there and he informs us of the deliberations of the Management Board and its views. If, for example, we are discussing something in relation to finances, the director of finances is there. When decisions have been taken, the report is drawn up and presented to the House as a whole, and so decisions are decisions of the whole House.

Lord Laming: I agree absolutely with Baroness Royall’s statement on that. The House Committee is there primarily to look at the overall bigger picture of the House and the direction of travel and priorities, be it the priorities in finance or priorities in other aspects of the work of the House. They are advised by the relevant Officers. The Clerk of the Parliaments is there all the time, at all the meetings, and is the link between the House Committee and the Management Board. As Baroness Royall said, we have the other specialists like the director of facilities, who will come along and talk about the capital programme or whatever it may be. It might also be the director of finance on the budget, or Black Rod on matters to do with security procedures. That is the way it works. If you are asking whether it works wonderfully well and is the shining example of what I have described, I would have to say that its performance is a little patchy. It is worth emphasising the point that Baroness Royall made: mechanisms need to be put in place to improve the communication and the working relationship between the Commission and the House Committee. We sometimes find ourselves in a position where something has already been approved by the Commission. It comes to the House Committee and in effect, we are told that that has already been agreed down the other end.

Chair: That was part of the problem with the education centre.

Lord Laming: If I may say so, Chairman, I think that is a very good example that is worth examining in some detail.

Valerie Vaz: Do you follow that or do you assert yourself?

Lord Laming: We agonise—we positively do agonise. On the education centre, I don’t know how to put this in diplomatic language—

Chair: We know the story; it’s okay.

Lord Laming: That is an example of the extent of our agony.

Valerie Vaz: In terms of working together, how often do you meet and do you see that as something you can do more of in the future?

Baroness Royall: How often do we meet? I suppose at the moment, we are meeting every month, but usually, it is probably about every other month. Could we meet more often?

Yes, we could, but it is interesting that you ask about the House Committee, which I suppose is the kind of primus inter pares, but I think the whole governance structure of the House of Lords needs looking at—or that would be the view of my group, but obviously, this is a matter for the House of Lords. I do not mean to be rude, but what is really important about whatever decisions are taken by this Committee, when you report to the House of Commons in January, is that by default, as it were, you are not taking decisions that have implications for us. That is not to say that we would not agree with what you are saying, but it is quite a delicate issue.

Chair: I think I speak on the behalf of the whole Committee in saying we understand that.

Valerie Vaz: Our terms of reference are clear and set down by the House.

Chair: We are not proposing that there should be legislation that prescribes new governance structures for your end, which we then ram through with Parliament Acts.

Baroness Royall: I understand that, but if, for example, you were to suggest that there should be a chief executive officer, and perhaps—

Chair: We are very sensitive to this.

Valerie Vaz: In terms of chasing up the issues that arise before the Committee, you say that you get the reports, and then you agree them and the Officers then come before you. Who chases up the progress on that?

Lord Laming: As Baroness Royall said earlier, the reports of the Committee have to go to the full House. They are discussed in the Chamber and it depends on what the issue is, but clearly, we have section heads who are responsible. They would take those matters forward and then we would get feedback reports on what they have done, but I would just like to say one other thing in answer to your question. There is a tension, and I suspect it might be a tension that is not unique to the House Committee. I am a great believer, as you may have picked up, in defined levels of accountability and holding people to account— really holding them to account. Therefore, I do not think the level of accountability should be compromised by other people seeking to take over. The House Committee is an example where sometimes, Members are slightly tempted to get involved in areas of detail that would be better left to people who are accountable for delivering a service, rather than—I do not believe in day-by-day management by Committee.

Valerie Vaz: You have kind of answered the question—both of you have submitted written evidence about splitting the roles. Is there anything about that that you want to expand upon? Who would they be accountable to, for example?

Mr Sheerman: Personally, I think that the way in which the House of Commons Commission works needs to be looked at. I said in my written evidence that I think that we should consider Deputy Speakers having a more specialised role than they currently have— that is a possibility. There is currently a tremendous load on the Speaker, so perhaps we could consider choosing Deputy Speakers in a rather different way. That is one way. We should probably also look at doing something about how the House of Commons Commission is constituted.

I do not want to get away from the fact that, although I said that I want a logo saying, “This House exists to serve the people of this country and the people who represent them,” it is also about the people who work here. I really think that this place is limping along in terms of how the people who work here feel about the job and the management. That is bad management. Why can’t we be as good as the people who work at John Lewis? Why can’t the staff be fully engaged in how this place runs? Why can’t we give them some surety of employment over time? Talk to Terry, the head chef, who says, “I started here at 14, man and boy I’ve worked my way up, but there’s no security now, Mr Sheerman. This young man here’s on a temporary contract, and she’s from an agency”, and so on. We have to have a well managed system at the top, but we must look at why we are not managing the staff properly—the last figure I saw was 2,000. They will give of their best; they are wonderful, many of them, but they are not always given the opportunity to give of their best.

Valerie Vaz: I will come on to that. Sir Alan, you have a slightly different model, yet you also think that the roles should be split. Will each of you say what you would put in each of the roles?

Sir Alan Duncan: I think they should be split in the sense that there are clearly distinctive skills and tasks for those holding the job. The question is, who sits in ultimate authority, and would a co-equals split work? I refer you to Sir Robert Rogers’s letter to me of 26 August which explains why a co-equals split would cause difficulties. I agree with what he said in that letter. Your Committee might also look, not just at whether you think that the Clerk is a suitable person to administer so many of these things, but at whether it is appropriate for the Speaker to do so. This, in my view, is the greater of the two problems. The Speaker is now being asked to do far too much and may, indeed, have changed the nature of the speakership, without the authority of the House, to do things in the way he chooses. This may or may not be a good thing, but it is happening bit by bit and has not been fully discussed by the House.

I agree with Barry Sheerman about the way we should treat people; to employ people and give them a career path and not just have them on temporary contracts. However, that is not an issue of structure. It is an issue of human resources management that the non-Clerk capability in the House of Commons management should look after. You need a good HR person, a good buildings person, someone who knows what it is to engage in a big building contract. Years ago, this led to the downfall of the Serjeant at Arms over the Cromwell Green entrance—he was deemed not to have handled it well. If we need these sorts of skills, then let us have them, but it doesn’t mean we need to subsume or trump the authority of the Clerk to make sure that this, primarily, is what it should be, which is a working Parliament.

Valerie Vaz: Accountable to whom? To Members?

Sir Alan Duncan: To Members, I think.

Valerie Vaz: Right. So why should it not be to the Speaker?

Sir Alan Duncan: The Commission does seem to be a little bit of a secret society. I sat on it once. It takes decisions in a little gang at its weekly meetings and doesn’t communicate them very well. Big things such as the visitor centre are decided; we read about them in the newspapers. We don’t really know what’s going on in our own Parliament until we pick up a copy of The Daily Telegraph, which will no doubt be complaining about the cost. It is too insular an organisation and I would supplement it, on the buildings side and the facilities side, with non-executive skills.

Valerie Vaz: Mr Sheerman, accountable to whom?

Mr Sheerman: Sir Alan and I will disagree, I think. One of the problems the House has had, in my experience, is a higher-than-average-intelligence Speaker who has been questioning a lot of the stuff that goes on.

Valerie Vaz: Accountable to whom? Members?

Mr Sheerman: Well, he’s accountable, of course, to the House. I am happy with that, but what I am not happy about is that he should be involved in the management of the House.

I can’t see why, at the end of the day, the Speaker can’t be as responsible for the management, with somebody reporting to him, as he is the behaviour of the Clerk. The former Clerk was a deeply conservative person, with a small C, and I disagree with the judgment he made that informed his letter to Sir Alan. I don’t think, as I have said, that any of the Clerks had any management skills at all. I don’t think it is impossible to keep what we have and what we cherish; the Speaker, the Deputy Speaker and a reformed Commission. Sir Alan and I agree on a reformed Commission.

Sir Alan Duncan: We have found common ground. Marvellous.

Mr Sheerman: But I cannot see why we cannot blend into that the need for highly qualified managers.

Keith Vaz: Ms Vaz, as you know, I think it is very important that everybody should be treated equally in these regards. Who they are accountable to—obviously, the Speaker and the House—is a separate matter, but the chief executive should not tell the chief Clerk what to do. We have got an interim chief Clerk in David Natzler, and he is a class act. He is brilliant at his job, but I am not sure that he would want to run an organisation with £3 billion of work to be done; it is a different skill set. That person, therefore, should get on and do their job, but they should be accountable to the House in whatever structure this Committee thinks is appropriate.

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