House of Commons Governance Select Committee – Wednesday 26 November 2014

On Wednesday 26 November 2014, the House of Commons Governance of the House Committee, of which Valerie is a member, heard evidence from John Borley, Director General of Facilities at the House of Commons; and Sir David Higgins, Chair of HS2 and former Chief Executive of Network Rail Infrastructure Limited and the Olympic Delivery Authority.

Valerie Vaz: Good morning, I am glad to see you are back. I was quite struck by one of the comments that you made about Members being challenging. Would it surprise you to hear that we do not want to challenge, we just want to do our job, but there are problems and obstacles that make it difficult for us to do that and hence we “challenge”?

John Borley: I see.

Valerie Vaz: For the record, who do you think this place is for and who is it run for?

John Borley: Surely there is no doubt that this place is for the Members and it is run by us, within our delegated authority, on behalf of Members.

Valerie Vaz: Do you think that happens now?

John Borley: Yes I do. I am aware that that is not the case in the experience of some Members. I often hear that from many Members and I really struggle to understand why. It might be because the range of services that we provide is so vast and so difficult, but I do not find anybody in my organisation or outside my department who has any understanding other than that.

Quite a few people, especially in my department, are very task focused. If their job is to deliver a project or to do a cleaning task, that is what they do. One of my jobs, though perhaps I am not very good at it, is to give them the broader perspective. When I stand in front of a staff meeting and remind the cleaners, the craft team, the waiters or the porters in the kitchen that their job is to enable you to do your work, they sit up in their chair and they look proud. It is my job to remind them of that from time to time.

Valerie Vaz: Yes. In my experience, it is not actually the people at the bottom.

They are very nice, they work, they understand the nature of Parliament and some of them have been here for a very long time. The trouble may be that you do not see that because we have named people that we know and tend to go to, so you might not see the problem at the end. May I give you an example?

John Borley: Please do.

Valerie Vaz: In the toilets on my floor in Norman Shaw North, there was a blockage and it was not dealt with quickly enough. After about two weeks, there was effluent and faeces everywhere and I had to send two members of staff home. I had rung Facilities, and had it been dealt with immediately, two members of my staff would not have been sick and there would not have been faeces all over the floor. I had to ring the Serjeant at Arms and he dealt with it, not Facilities.

John Borley: I am sorry that was your experience. It was dealt with by Facilities. It was a horrible job and it should have been done right away.

Valerie Vaz: It was—later. It comes on to how you delegate the work down below. Do you get letters or some sort of memorandum of what your task is for the year or the week?

John Borley: Not by the week.

Valerie Vaz: Do you get letters of delegation?

John Borley: I have letters of delegation, yes.

Valerie Vaz: What do you do with that?

John Borley: I sign to acknowledge that I accept the delegation and send my signature back. I have a letter of delegation that covers the span of my responsibility and then each year I get a letter telling me what my financial control limits are for capital and resource, which I have to operate within.

Valerie Vaz: So it is just financial limits, not the strategic issues of where Parliament is going and what you need to do for the year? How do you get your tasks to go down to the next level?

John Borley: As well as the system of delegation—the delegation for my role and an annual delegation of finance—there is a corporate business plan, which the Management Board puts together and ultimately brings to the Commission for agreement. I then cascade my elements of the corporate plan through the business plan of my own department.

Valerie Vaz: I am trying to get a bit more specific. What do you delegate down to the next level? What do you tell them at the next level and the one below that?

John Borley: The directors who report to me each have a job description, which tells them what their responsibilities are. They get a delegation from me and an annual financial control total.

Valerie Vaz: I am trying to get at how you manage your work, because it seems Members do not feel it is being run quickly and efficiently, unless they go to someone that they know who delivers. Without embarrassing her—I know she is in the room—Fiona Channon’s name is one that comes up frequently as someone who will deal with Members and get things done. That is not really fair on her, is it?

John Borley: You do appreciate that Fiona works for me, don’t you?

Valerie Vaz: I do.

Q532 Chair: Mr Borley, just to go back a bit. This is a terrible story that Ms Vaz has raised. As I will say when we get on to the gym, the test of whether things work in general is whether they work in particular. My experience of dialling 4747, which is how you report these things, is not a particularly happy one. Bluntly, because of who I am and I know my way round, I may get slightly better service but there used to be a real person when you phoned 4747. These days you get a ridiculous menu as though we are phoning some credit card company. You finally get through to someone who seems uninterested and then you get no feedback. Is that something you are aware of? If not, why not?

John Borley: I ring 4747 and every time I get a person on the phone. I know who they are and go and talk to them from time to time.

Chair: Yes, but you are their boss.

John Borley: No, when I ring 4747 they pick up the phone not knowing who it is and I always find a person. We do have a system whereby when a job is reported on 4747 it is logged on to our maintenance management system, and the person who logs the call gets feedback.

Chair: I have never had any feedback I have to tell you.

John Borley: I must look at that. I have done it and I do.

Chair: Do you have feedback, Ms Vaz?

Valerie Vaz: No, nothing. You sometimes get a reference number and sometimes get something. If there is a lock on the door that has to be changed in my room, for instance, because you have outsourced the carpenters and everything else—I don’t know who has done that—we have to get someone who lives in Wiltshire who comes at the end of his shift to come and fix things in the House. I don’t think that is good use of public money. I think it is good to have someone on site who is able to do things quickly. A Member e-mailed me to say that it took two weeks to change a battery. In the end we go and do it ourselves; we don’t ask. That cannot be right, can it?

John Borley: That does not sound right. We have a performance management system.

On the maintenance management system the jobs that are routine maintenance are plotted and logged, as are the calls to 4747. I see the returns and I can show you them.

We have about 15,000 planned maintenance tasks a year. I looked the other day and last year there were 42,000 calls to 4747 which were acted on. The type of call is classified as to its urgency, and we have a prioritisation system. I get my management board and I report up to the House of Commons Management Board what our performance is against that priority system. At the moment, about 85% of the tasks are done within target time.

Obviously, we would like that to be higher.

We have done some things to improve that, which I hope you will start to see. We do have our own craft team. Those maintenance jobs in the Palace are done by our own people. We have about 60 in the craft team, including locksmiths.

Valerie Vaz: He told me he came from Wiltshire.

John Borley: I was describing what happens in the Palace. You do not live in the Palace. The offices in the outbuildings—Norman Shaw buildings for instance—are under contract.

Chair: Why? Isn’t that crazy? It is the same set of buildings.

John Borley: Because the Palace is so old. This was before my time but the theory was that we needed our own craft team in the Palace who understand the antiquity and unique nature of the systems here.

Valerie Vaz: But they don’t change locks on doors, do they?

John Borley: Yes, we have the locksmiths in the Palace who will.

Chair: I have been here 35 years. Why on earth if there is a locksmith here, can he not go across to Norman Shaw and change a lock, rather than getting someone from Wiltshire?

John Borley: I am not saying that it right. I think we should do that. I will take that away and have a look at it. There is no reason why they should not.

Valerie Vaz: Could I suggest that you look at the whole system and see why it is not operating, even if you just have a meeting with Members so that they can tell you? At the minute, nobody seems to be telling you anything, either because we don’t see you, or there seems to be some sort of feedback loop missing—you are not around or whatever. So we just pick on the people we know and have seen and who are around. It is a completely different organisation, although you think we are just making a big fuss because of our constituents—which we are. If a constituent cannot come to see us—one of the questions is about queuing—that is a big issue.

My point generally about the whole thing is that it takes a long time, and the problems get bigger if it takes a long time and someone is not responsive. That is what I mean, and that is partly about these letters of delegation. Who looks at your letters of delegation to say that you have done the job correctly? Or, if Members have written in and there have been complaints—in fact, I don’t think Members bother to complain at all; they either get someone else to do it or people do it themselves. Can we have some sort of system where you know what Members really think and you know that this place is run for Members?

John Borley: Yes. The rate at which we complete these jobs is reported to the Management Board, and it is reported through them to the Commission. I will show you those figures. Obviously we need to be better.

Valerie Vaz: Yes, but it is not coming back to the people who are affected. The Management Board appear to be sitting on it. I was struck by your initial remark, when you said, “Oh, it’s fine, we have a meeting, and we don’t push our department.” I think you if you have an issue or a problem with your department, you should be raising it with the Management Board in a much more vociferous way, whether it is resources or anything else.

John Borley: Alright. Can I add, Chairman, that some of the people that you talk to when you walk around are there for the purpose of allowing you to talk to them? Fiona Channon has people. We have now put them in uniform so you can identify who they are, and they have name badges, so you ought to know the people in your building who are there specifically to look after your personal interests. If the 4747 system is not working, they will intervene on your behalf. That is something that we started doing reasonably recently.

Valerie Vaz: Do you take ultimate responsibility for that?

John Borley: I take ultimate responsibility for that—absolutely I do.

Valerie Vaz: So did you know that there was an issue about 4747?

John Borley: I know it’s not as good as we’d like it to be.

Valerie Vaz: Except when you call.

John Borley: Yes, but when I call, they don’t know it’s me, until they talk to me.

Valerie Vaz: They might do, because it is an internal number and it probably has your extension number on it.

Chair: I’m glad you get a good service out of it

Valerie Vaz: Was the security issue put into the risk assessment at all?

Sir David Higgins: Right from the start.

Valerie Vaz: At the end of the day, the Government bailed everyone out—we got the troops in instead, didn’t we?

Sir David Higgins: Yes, indeed. That was the security for the operations with LOCOG—that was the G4S event. I was not directly involved, but they obviously did a fabulous job. One great feature of the Games, or, really, the two main features of the Games, were the security staff and the volunteers who made the process such a pleasant experience.

Valerie Vaz: Did it help in getting your project on time that the volunteers did it for nothing?

Sir David Higgins: The volunteers were crucial; not only the volunteers during the Games themselves—you will remember the whole process of training people to become volunteers: the Games maker programme—but the volunteers from the local community.

Rather than trying to keep the project as an island, separated from the community, we worked with the local community and allowed them access to what was called the greenway. They had full public access and they carried out their own tours, in terms of the public, which we fully supported.

Valerie Vaz: You must have done something right, because you have a spoof BBC programme about you, whereas we just get mocked in the press all the time. I do not know if you have had a chance to look at how the House of Commons and the House of Lords are set up and the management structures that we have.

Sir David Higgins: I have not.

Valerie Vaz: We did not expect you to do any homework, but it is quite a complex thing. For us, as Members, we see it as a place of work, whereas there may be elements that see it as a house of fun. It is about trying to look at the two areas and ensure that we have access for the public, so that people can see how we work, while at the same time it is a place of work and a seat of democracy. It is an unusual system and an unusual place, and we are struggling to find models of how to make this place run in the 21st century.

You have had some experience of being the chair and chief executive of a public body with a commercial outlook. What lessons do you think we could learn from that?

Sir David Higgins: Do not start until everyone agrees what the brief is. This is a unique project. It plays a role globally as an icon, an institution to which countries—even my home country, Australia—look for leadership and history. It plays a huge public role. As I came in today, there were teams of schoolchildren coming in, which is fantastic to see. This plays such an important role in the public mind, the way that the country operates and its history.

It will be very difficult to write the brief and agree what the brief it, but it is absolutely essential that you get sign-off. It will require a talented individual to collect the various aspirations and document those, so that everyone knows why we are doing it. Why are we doing HS2? Are we doing it to save 20 minutes’ time to get to Birmingham for £25 billion? Of course we are not. That is not why we are building HS2. We are building HS2 to make the country more competitive and help the unbalanced economy which we see reflected in social costs across this country, and this is a catalyst for that. We went back and thought about why we are really doing this and how we can convince the public over a long period of time that this is a wise investment of money. It will cost a huge amount of money to refurbish this asset. Why are we doing it? Why is it so important? What do all the public want out of it when it is finished? Writing that down and getting everyone to sign off on that will be a crucially important role.

We stopped activity on the Olympics for the first two years. When I first arrived, everyone said, “You should be digging dirt, because it is a heavily contaminated site. You should have started a year before you even arrived, because you have no idea how heavily contaminated it is.” I said, “We’re not doing anything at all until we sign off on the brief, get the design right and get all of our stakeholders agreeing what we are going to do. Then we’ll build the whole thing—all the permanent venues—in four years because we will know exactly what we want to do and we are very clear how we do that.” It is the same with HS2. We do not have to start in 2017; quite the contrary. You can build it quicker than any current programme suggests if you know exactly why you are doing it, why you are going to a certain city and not another one, and the purpose of the brief. That would be my recommendation. Constantly push back and say, “We’re not having the builders in ripping down the wallpaper because we haven’t yet agreed what the final brief is.” We know the history of previous refurbishments of parliamentary facilities here in the United Kingdom and what happened in terms of scope creep. We should learn from that.

Valerie Vaz: The refurbishment is part of what we are looking at, but what about the core business of what we do in the Chamber? How difficult is it to map that from where you sit? On a non-departmental public body, say, how does the chief executive deal with that part of it as well? We are not totally a commercial organisation.

Sir David Higgins: The key thing is that the chief executive must be a very good listener. They have to sit, listen and absorb.

I remember years ago, back in the 1990s, that when we started to brief for Bluewater, the shopping centre, our engineers would sit in the back of shoppers’ cars with a notebook and listen as they went into a normal shopping centre. They asked, “What didn’t you like about the shopping centre?” The biggest thing that came out of that was that the shoppers didn’t care about the colour of the floor or the architectural lighting; they cared about the car parks. They found them threatening and dark. They had narrow spaces and access was a problem. The shoppers felt that their security was threatened. The big thing that came from that brief was that by listening to the shoppers we learned that you have to get the car parks right. That is probably one of the most important things for the public. What are the real issues that Members of the House and visitors to the House have?

This refurbishment will have to last 30 or 50 years.

Valerie Vaz: Longer.

Sir David Higgins: A long, long time. What is going to happen in that time? How will people want to access what is going on here? How will technology change how what is happening here is relayed to the public? Who knows what level of feedback this House may want to access in the future?

Valerie Vaz: On some of the boards that you sat on, you had people from outside. You mentioned members of the public, but how valuable are they? Could we have non-executive members from outside, and at what level should they sit?

Sir David Higgins: We had a fabulous board. Some members changed over the seven or eight years that the Olympic Delivery Authority was running. Having a diverse group of non-exec directors on a NDPB board is essential because they provide a line of defence and a chance to sit and think things through, rather than having a hard line straight through the department.

We had people such as Tony Ball, who came from a media and advertising background. He ran BSkyB for years and is a very successful entrepreneur. You may think, what did he add to it? He was fascinated by the landscaping. He really wanted to understand how the public would engage with the landscaping and the legacy elements of it. We had Stephen Duckworth, who is a very successful entrepreneur and is disabled. His approach was to champion inclusivity on the project, and he was also a very successful businessman. We had a senior executive, Barry Camfield, from the union movement. People asked, “How does having a union representative on your board work, when you are going to be getting into disputes with unions?” I said, “Not if we think about the key issues.” His key issue was skills. He was very much focused on local employment issues, skills and getting skilled people into the work force. He was not trying to second-guess what our negotiating strategy with the work force would be. It is huge advantage to get a diverse group of independent directors on an NDPB board. It is a great governance advance that we are developing at HS2.

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