Backbench Business — House of Commons Administration and Savings Programme

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 12:38 pm on 8th November 2012.

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Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Chair, Finance and Services Committee 12:38 pm, 8th November 2012

I beg to move,

That this House
notes the medium-term financial plan for the House of Commons Administration as set out in Appendix A to the First Report from the Finance and Services Committee (HC 691);
endorses the intention of the Committee to recommend to the House of Commons Commission a House of Commons Administration Estimate 5 for 2013-14 of £220 million;
notes the intention of the House of Commons Commission to make savings of 17 per cent in real terms from 2010-11 level by 2014-15 in line with the wider public sector;
and endorses the Savings Programme as set out in Appendix B to the report.

May I begin by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for having allowed this debate to proceed and by thanking you, Mr Speaker, for having encouraged me to go ahead and seek it? It might be helpful to say at the outset that I intend to address: first, the reasons for having this debate; secondly the principles behind the savings plan and the medium-term financial plan; and, thirdly, some of the detailed issues. I will then say something briefly about the amendments. It might be helpful to tell the House that I hope to make progress in the first part of my speech, but will welcome any interventions in the second.

The debate is something of a first, so let me begin by setting out why we are having it and what I hope it might achieve. Its purpose is to set before the House the advice that the Finance and Services Committee will give the House of Commons Commission on the administration estimate, which is the estimate of funding required to operate the House. I stress that it is neither the Members’ estimate, which concerns all the parts that affect us, such as our staffing and other arrangements, nor the capital estimate, which affects the refurbishment of the House. The administration estimate is for the running of the House itself. The Committee will also advise the Commission on the underlying financial plans, including the activities, strategies and principles that have informed the savings programme. This is an opportunity for Members to debate and, if required, to vote on the proposals.

The Finance and Services Committee, which I have the honour of chairing, has scrutinised with considerable care over some period of time the financial plans and savings proposals. Our findings and recommendations are set out in our report to the House. Our terms of reference charge us with advising the Commission, which is the statutory body required to take the decision, so this is the opportunity for Members to debate the advice that the Finance and Services Committee proposes and to amend that advice if they wish. For the first time, they will be taking a full part in the debate about how House services are provided.

I am pleased to see that there are three amendments and that Members wish to engage in the process. I look forward to the contributions that are to come. I believe that this is an important step in wider scrutiny of how we operate internally and it is therefore important to us and our constituents. I also believe that it is an important debate for our staff and the management of the Palace. I want to reiterate the tribute I paid in a recent Westminster Hall debate: we are served by dedicated and loyal staff who take immense trouble to ensure that we are looked after. They undertake their duties with great efficiency and the minimum of fuss and they are led by a team of officials and managers who set out to satisfy us and who usually succeed. I want to place on record my appreciation of all they do, which is, I am sure, shared by Members on both sides of the House.

At a time of financial constraint, it is wholly right and proper that we are seen to be seeking to operate in the most cost-effective way, consistent with our overarching parliamentary duties of scrutiny, legislating and representing our constituents. To achieve this, we have set a savings target of a 17% reduction in the estimate from the baseline estimate of 2010/11, which was £231 million. By 2014-15, the estimate will need to be £210 million to achieve that target. We are on track to achieve that and the estimate of £220 million, which we are advising the Commission to accept, undertakes that task.

From the outset, it was agreed that simply salami slicing 17% of everything across the board would be inconsistent with achieving the targets for quality of service that we require. Each area of activity has therefore been carefully considered and analysis was made of what was required and then of how to achieve it. In management speak, it is called re-engineering, but I was determined to try not to get that in—I have clearly failed. That is at the heart of the plans to deliver an improved service for our parliamentary duties in a more effective and efficient way. I should stress that our goal is as much quality of service as efficiency and the core principle that has informed all the activities is to ensure that parliamentarians can properly, fully and effectively carry out their duties in this place and can do that at the best value.

Now that I have set out the broad principles behind the plan, let me touch on some of the key areas. I preface that by saying that a considerable amount of saving has already been achieved by simply looking at what we do and how we do it and working out how it can be done better. In addition, the House has adopted the same strictures on pay as the civil service and I draw Members’ attention to the appendices that analyse many of these areas. Today’s proposed estimate of £220 million is, as I have said, a stepping stone on the way to £210 million in 2014-15. The proposals for achieving it are set out in appendix B.

The first key area is what is known as market testing. It is completely appropriate for any organisation to consider what it does and how it might best deliver what are known as the non-core activities. In this place, an obvious example is the Travel Office, where we employ travel professionals on a competitive basis to provide the best service for us. At the other end of the scale are core activities, which are the things that our House service does and that we would never expect to be done by anyone else. They are core to delivering the service. In between, there are areas that are vital to us but not necessarily core activities. Those are the areas where it is proper to see whether an in-house service is providing the best value. The concept behind market testing is to ensure that the services we provide internally are benchmarked against outside provision to show that we have the best value for money.

Detailed analysis of the potential to market test in four areas of the House service, including catering, has been completed. We have reached a point where the in-house teams have developed thorough plans for making improvements and reducing costs internally and have conducted market research to provide comparators. Staff in the areas concerned have been closely involved and have come up with imaginative solutions, supported by people with expertise from outside.

Our colleagues on the Administration Committee have considered the internal improvement plans for catering and have welcomed their approach. The decision now is whether to proceed with the improvements in-house or formally to test the market with the possibility of those services being outsourced. I observe that the Chair of that Committee, Sir Alan Haselhurst, has tabled an amendment based on a meeting the Committee had earlier this week. I would certainly be minded to accept it and I believe that it is acceptable to other Members of the Finance and Services Committee with whom I have been able to have a word. I look forward to hearing his speech in due course.

The second key area is what is known as print to web. The aim is to move to a more digital-first approach to publishing, with less use of paper and hard copy. The printing of the soft-bound weekly Hansard has already ceased. Some while ago, under the previous estimate, we gave up publishing the weekly compendium of early-day motions. We are considering written questions, which will not be published in the daily Hansard from 2014 but will be published far more quickly and accessibly on line. Clearly, in this project it is important that the quality of the digital access is improved to ensure that the quality of the overall service is better as a result. It is a classic example of the quality of service being the more important goal rather than the saving. As a result of the initial work, nearly £2 million was saved. In the last year, about £1 million was saved and in the coming year, more than £1 million will be saved. If this year’s plan is accepted, we will already have achieved a saving in excess of £5 million.

The perhaps slightly contentious part of all this concerns the leather-bound volumes of Hansard. I have written to all those Members who find this a deeply cherished part of their parliamentary experience. Only 14% of Members currently subscribe to the service and, of those, only a small number feel that it would be a gross inconvenience to lose it. We have negotiated a discount and the bound volumes will be available to Members who wish to purchase them, but for the rest, we will be making a saving of some £970,000 a year by discontinuing them.