House of Lords' Offices: Select Committee Fifth Report

– in the House of Lords at 3:07 pm on 10th June 2002.

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Photo of Lord Tordoff Lord Tordoff Chairman of Committees, House of Lords 3:07 pm, 10th June 2002

My Lords, I beg to move the third Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Noble Lords will have received copies of the Offices Committee report to which is attached a copy of the working group report which had already been circulated to Members on all sides of the House in mid-February. In moving the Motion, I give my personal thanks to the noble Lords, Lord Grenfell, Lord Hunt of Wirral and Lord Sharman, and to the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby. I also thank my private secretary, Dr Christopher Johnson, who did all the really hard work in drafting the report which has received considerable acclaim.

I should also like to thank Members of both Houses and members of staff who gave us the benefit of their wisdom. The Offices Committee has since had two further opportunities to discuss the working group report and finally agreed its recommendations on 14th May. Noble Lords are now being asked to agree to the report, with the recommendations contained on pages 3 to 5 of that report. Members may wish to refer to the working group report but I make it clear that they are not being asked to agree to all of the recommendations in the working group report.

The problem with which we were faced is outlined in paragraphs 10 to 20 of the working group report. To summarise, we believe that there is failure of leadership in the House because the Offices Committee as it presently stands is too large and unwieldy. Most of its responsibilities are delegated to sub-committees. The domestic committee structure is confusing and Members, particularly Back-Bench Members, have little opportunity to influence the decisions that are taken. There is no one from the House to take a real grip on management and services or to take a long-term strategic view of the needs of the House or how best to meet them.

The central objective of the new committee is defined as follows:

"that the House as a whole should 'own' the strategy governing the provision of services and domestic management".

In a time of change, the domestic committees and the administration have to look to the future and they have much to do. Instead of an Offices Committee of 28 members meeting only occasionally, we recommend that there should be a smaller committee, called the House Committee, which would be 11 strong, meet regularly and build up its own expertise. The working group recommended that there should be nine members. The noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, argued that the smaller the committee was, the better.

Photo of Lord Tordoff Lord Tordoff Chairman of Committees, House of Lords

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. However, even 11 members is a lot better than 28; that is what noble Lords are being asked to agree to.

The House Committee would not only set the strategy but control the purse-strings and it would have real power. It would therefore absorb the major functions of the Finance and Staff Sub-Committee. Its strategic work would be separated from the detailed work of the other domestic committees, which would be free-standing and not dependent on the Offices Committee. The intention is that they would canvass the views of Members and make recommendations to the House Committee but within the budgetary limits set by the senior committee. We want to avoid overlap in membership between domestic committees and the new House Committee. A current problem is that people who sit on a couple of sub-committees and on the Offices Committee hear the same argument two or three times; however, they do not always come to the same conclusions.

The House Committee would be supported by a management board made up of staff, chaired by the Clerk of the Parliaments in his role as chief executive. The board would develop a corporate and strategic approach to the administration, bringing together the disparate offices of the House. It would prepare the draft strategy and draft estimates and would prepare a business plan to implement the strategy. The intention is that the board will be established in the autumn. I am grateful to the Clerk of the Parliaments for carrying on his parallel changes in administration.

At a time of major change, with potential for further reform, with the continuing demands for more and better accommodation, the impact of legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act, and new initiatives affecting management across the public services, the House needs structures both at domestic committee and staff level that are capable of responding to those challenges.

In developing those strategies the House Committee and the staff must be responsive to the House as a whole and meet the legitimate expectations of its Members. New ways to ensure accountability must be found. We believe that Members should sit on the House Committee for long enough to build up expertise but the rotation rule, which has been discussed, is a matter for the Procedure Committee in the first instance—it is for the House to make the final decision.

En passant, I regret to say that there is a misprint in paragraph 6, line 3; "application" should be deleted and "rotation" should be inserted. With that alteration, the report makes much more sense.

Domestic committees are intended to act as "user groups", canvassing the views of Members on the issues within their remit. On that basis, they will make policy recommendations. The object is that Members should be able to make their views known before decisions are taken and to influence decisions, rather than for decisions to be taken out of sight and presented to the House as a fait accompli. Information must be more widely diffused and domestic committee papers should be published unless there are specific reasons dictating confidentiality. The case of Fielden House, for example, springs to mind. We were in negotiations to purchase its freehold. That is clearly a matter that could not be allowed into the public domain until decisions had been taken.

As is currently the case, the House should be invited to reach decisions on matters of particular weight. For example, the question of access to House of Lords facilities—that is contained in the Sixth Report, which we shall discuss shortly—falls into that category.

I turn to financial accountability. The committee recommends the appointment of an audit committee. It is time that an independent committee, including an external appointee, was created to review the audit function. That is already under way, with the support of the Finance and Staff Sub-Committee. We are aware that some unhappiness has been expressed, in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay, about the fact that the working party did not confirm the recommendation in the earlier report of the appointment of a professionally qualified principal finance officer. Our reasons are contained in paragraph 57 of the working group report. We should bear in mind the fact that such matters are not immutable and that once the House Committee really is up and running, it could keep the matter under review.

The recommendations have been a long time coming and are by no means exhaustive. However, they represent the best opportunity for the staff to establish structures that are capable of responding to the demands that are placed on the administration by Members, the Government and the public.

Moved, That the Fifth Report from the Select Committee (HL Paper 105) be agreed to.—(The Chairman of Committees.)

Following is the report referred to:

1. Report by the Working Group on Management and Services

1. The Committee has considered the Report by the Working Group on Management and Services, which is printed in Appendix 2 to this Report. The Committee is grateful to the Group for its work, and supports its analysis of the problems underlying the present arrangements for the delivery of services in the House of Lords and the thrust of its recommendations for the future.

2. The fundamental objective of reform is that the House as a whole should "own" the strategy governing the provision of services and domestic management. We therefore invite the House to agree to the following recommendations:

ESTABLISHMENT AND MEMBERSHIP OF THE HOUSE COMMITTEE

3. The Offices Committee should not be reappointed in the next Session. In place of the Offices Committee we recommend the appointment of a body specifically designed to provide leadership and strategic planning for the entire administration, domestic committees as well as staff. This body should be called the House Committee.

4. The House Committee should be appointed to fulfil the following functions:

— The agreement of a five-year strategic plan for the House of Lords administration.

— Scrutiny and approval of the Estimates, Supplementary Estimates and three-year forecasts.

— Approval of any expenditure items not provided for in the Estimates over a certain threshold (we suggest, subject to further review, £20,000).

— Approval of any changes in employment policy or practice.

— Approval of the Annual Report.

5. The House Committee should be chaired by the Chairman of Committees. The membership should be eleven: the Chairman, the Leaders of the three major parties (who, in their absence, could be represented by their Chief Whips), the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers (or a nominated representative), and six back-bench Members, two each from the Labour and Conservative parties and one each from the Liberal Democrat party and the Cross-Bench Peers. We note the recommendation of the Working Group that the back-bench Members of the House Committee should be elected by the Members of the four political groupings, and acknowledge that this might assist in realising the fundamental objective that the House should "own" the strategy governing the provision of services. Nevertheless, we recognise that while some of the groupings may choose to go down this path it is for the three parties and the Cross-Benchers themselves to decide the mechanisms by which Members of the House Committee are to be nominated. Once the names have been put forward the Chairman of Committees should table a motion inviting the House as a whole to approve the House Committee's appointment and membership.

6. We note the concern of the Working Group that the Members of the House Committee should be allowed to build up experience in the interests of continuity and their recommendations about length of tenure and the application rule. This is a matter for the Procedure Committee and we think they should consider it in due course.

THE DOMESTIC COMMITTEES

7. In the interests of efficiency, openness and clarity of decision-making structures we recommend that in place of the current arrangements the domestic Committees, including the Advisory Panel on Works of Art, be reconstituted as full Select Committees. The Finance and Staff Sub-Committee should be abolished and its responsibilities absorbed by the House Committee. We recommend also that for the sake of clarity the Library and Computers Committee be renamed the Information Committee. Thus four new Select Committees will be created: the Administration and Works Committee, the Refreshment Committee, the Information Committee and the Works of Art Committee.

8. The domestic committees should function primarily as user groups, actively canvassing the views of Members and providing a forum within which they can make complaints or suggestions about services. They should also be charged with making policy recommendations to the House Committee on issues within their remit, and the House Committee should in turn be empowered to instruct a domestic committee to consider a particular strategic issue and return to it with recommendations. We anticipate that the domestic committees would only report to the House on those rare occasions where they were recommending a proposal that required the formal approval of the House as a whole. In such circumstances the Chairman of the Committee concerned would move the motion to agree the Report.

9. The domestic committees should be roughly the same size as at present-twelve Members sitting on each committee. The membership of the domestic committees should be proposed by the Committee of Selection, as is the case with other Select Committees. Though not Members of the House Committee, the Chairmen of domestic committees should be invited to attend its deliberations as necessary.

THE ADMINISTRATION

10. There should be a Board of Management composed of officials and chaired by the Clerk of the Parliaments. The membership of the Board should be sufficiently wide-ranging to reflect the range of services provided to the House and to encourage a sense of corporate identity among all members of the staff.

11. The Board's principal tasks will be to assist the House Committee in preparing the strategic plan, and then to formulate a business plan for the implementation of the strategy. This business plan will in turn be submitted to the Committee for approval. The Board will advise the Committee, scrutinising the papers to go before it and the draft Estimates. It will also respond to specific directions from the Committee-for example, to develop draft strategies on different aspects of modern management processes. In so doing, the Board may wish to seek expert advice from consultants or other external sources, and should be entitled so to do. The Board will exercise delegated authority in specific and defined areas.

OPENNESS AND ACCOUNTABILITY

12. It is essential that the House Committee and the domestic committees should be more open and accountable. We therefore recommend that back-bench members of the House Committee should report back to their party groups, perhaps by giving regular oral updates on domestic matters at party or group meetings. In addition Members would, as now, be able to table written or oral questions to the Chairman of Committees, which could, where appropriate, be answered on his behalf by the Chairmen of the other domestic committees. Background information about the work of the House Committee and the domestic committees should be freely available, both on the Intranet and in paper form. Agendas, memoranda and minutes should also be published, except when the Committees judge that special circumstances require that their deliberations should remain confidential.

13. There will always be some issues that require a decision of the whole House, When such an issue arises the House Committee, like the domestic committees, should publish a separate Report making a recommendation, and the Chairman would move a motion inviting the House to agree it. However, the convention that the House be automatically asked to agree to Reports of the Offices Committee should not be carried forward under the new arrangements. Instead we suggest that routine Reports of the House Committee should be presented for information-though it will be open, as at present, for any Member to initiate a discussion of a Report presented for information by tabling an unstarred question. Such Reports will provide periodic updates on developments, rather than a record of decisions reached, and they will therefore be more informative than Offices Committee Reports are at present.

AUDIT

14. We recommend the establishment of an Audit Committee to review the scope and results of the audit function (internal and external) and to advise the Accounting Officer. The Committee should be small, and should include an external element. The Peers concerned should hold no form of office within the House, and there should be no overlap between the membership of the Audit Committee and that of the House Committee or the domestic committees. The Audit Committee should report annually, and its report should be incorporated into the Annual Report. We note that the Clerk of the Parliaments, with the support of the Finance and Staff Sub-Committee, has already taken steps towards the establishment of an Audit Committee, possibly before the summer recess.

IMPLEMENTATION

15. We recommend that the Chairman of Committees be mandated to take the necessary steps to ensure that the new arrangements are introduced at the beginning of the 2002-03 Session of Parliament.

On Question, Motion agreed to.