“A model of good practice and innovation?”: The governance of the House of Commons

By Barry Winetrobe

The recent fiasco over the appointment of a House of Commons Clerk/Chief Executive has led to the appointment of a select committee on House governance chaired by Jack Straw.  It is tasked with reviewing this complex topic, especially allocation of the most senior responsibilities currently held by the Clerk/Chief Executive, and reporting to the House by 12 January 2015.

If I wanted an independent, comprehensive, root-and-branch evidence-driven review, “I wouldn’t start from here!”  However, ‘here’ is where the House has got itself, and, given this impossible task, the Governance Committee has gone about it rather well, as its content-rich website attests.  Fears that it was set up merely to provide some veneer of legitimacy for a ‘quick fix’ of the immediate issue of the appointment of the House Service’s most senior official have, thus far, been allayed.  It remains to be seen what the Committee will say in its Report, not just on solving the pressing recruitment problem, but, more importantly, on the much wider issue of House governance.

House of Commons governance is a hugely complex task, something I addressed in my submission to the Committee.  It incorporates both ‘parliamentary business’ (including wider constituency and representational roles) and the ‘administrative/institutional’ aspects, as well as the crucial interface between the two, which makes parliamentary governance so sensitive and difficult.

An excellent example was the 2008 Damien Green affair, when a Member’s Westminster office was ‘raided’ by the police.  The committee set up to examine the affair described this, in its 2010 report, as “an unusual challenge to the good management of the House of Commons” and concluded that “there were lapses in communication, induction and lines of accountability and responsibility at the very top of the organisation.” It recommended “a fresh examination of the roles and responsibilities of the officers of the House and the Speaker to ensure the effectiveness of the support for individual Members and the good management of the House. Such a review should include greater clarity on the role of the most senior personnel, line management responsibilities, and lessons to be drawn from best business practice as well as the management of other comparable legislatures.”

The House of Commons also operates within a bicameral parliament, alongside the House of Lords, and does so within the same set of buildings (including the Palace of Westminster, a world-class heritage site in need of restoration). These are further factors which complicate the operation and management of the Commons.

On a more political level, there are various interlocking relationships or ‘confrontations’ within the House:

  • Government v. Opposition (ie government v. alternative government);
  • Government v. all other Members (ie Executive v. Parliament);
  • Frontbenches (including whips) v. Backbenches.

The Executive’s dominance within the House – the democratic watchdog of the Government’s own policies and conduct – covers not just parliamentary business, but also the calendar, agenda and even the operation of the House itself.  More insidiously, it makes it difficult for the House to have a truly distinctive identity and voice of its own which it can present to the ‘outside world’.  As we saw yet again so damagingly in the Clerk appointment affair, both the media and many backbenchers, routinely look first to Ministers – especially those with archaic titles like ‘Leader of the House’ – to solve Parliament’s internal problems and difficulties.

Westminster exists within an overarching bubble of legal protections – privilege, immunity, ‘exclusive cognisance’, ‘sovereignty’ etc..  Even after decades of reform, this still nurtures the negative attitudes, among senior staff as well as MPs, of insularity, superiority, and exclusiveness which dominate the Commons’ culture, and lie at the heart of problems of mismanagement which erupt regularly.  In addition to the hugely damaging expenses scandal of 2009, and other very public embarrassments to Westminster’s reputation, the current Governance Committee inquiry has revealed many other episodes that have upset Members and staff alike, from acrimonious pay negotiations (stemming largely from a policy of shadowing Whitehall austerity policies) to the (mis)handling of visitor queuing.

Through the landmark House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978 and later legislation, as well as several governance reviews, the House has undergone much organisational reform and adopted ‘modern management’ techniques and jargon.  Whether the current crisis of House governance is a consequence of these changes, or because these changes haven’t managed to displace the old, entrenched practices and culture, is for a proper, full review to determine.

What is clear from the present Inquiry evidence, from both Members and staff (on the latter see my recent Constitution Unit blogpost), is that the current governance arrangements are byzantine, little-understood, damaging to staff morale, inefficient and ineffective.  Despite the high-minded rhetoric of the House’s various strategies, visions and plans, there seems to be little corporate coherence or (unlike the situation in, say, the Scottish Parliament) any core principles to underpin any self-analysis or forward planning, in either parliamentary business or institutional areas.

The Strategy for the House of Commons Service 2013-17, endorsed by the House of Commons Commission in 2013, states:

“Our vision is that the House of Commons will be valued as the central institution in our democracy: effective in holding the Government to account, scrutinising legislation, and representing the diverse views of the electorate. It will be seen both in the UK and abroad as a model of good practice and innovation, and will provide value for money. Members of Parliament will have the information, advice, support and technology they need to be effective in their work and to engage closely with their constituents. The House Service will have the respect of Members of Parliament and of the public for our independence, integrity and professionalism, and for our commitment to making Parliament work ever more effectively. We will be seen as efficient, responsive, diverse and inclusive. We will feel proud to work here and confident that our contribution is valued.”

The Governance Committee has its work cut out to formulate recommendations that could even begin to deliver this vision.


Barry K Winetrobe worked for many years in the House of Commons and has written and taught on public law and parliaments

Image: UK Parliament – Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced here with the permission of Parliament.


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