My submission to the Governance of the House Committee

In making this submission, I invite the Governance of the House Committee to consider the case for a separation of the Chief Executive role from that of the Chief Clerk. I am aware that the Committee’s brief is wider than this single issue; however, it is on this particular point that I make representation.

I believe that there is an urgent and compelling case for this for both procedural and administrative reasons.

It is by no means certain what the outcome of the next General Election will be. However, the consensus is that we will be moving into an era where Parliament will face unprecedented challenges in terms of the UK’s relationship with Europe and the new constitutional settlement with Scotland, amongst other issues that will require the full attention of the clerks as the procedural and legal experts on such matters.

It is because Parliament will require more of the Chief Clerk’s time in this regard – rather than less – that I am arguing that this Committee has a once in a lifetime opportunity to reform the way in which the role operates in order to enhance Parliament’s democratic functions, and ensure that the long-standing problems related to its infrastructure are seriously tackled.

In the early autumn, I was moved to write an article for the Labour List website on what I perceived the real issues behind the appointment of a new Chief Clerk were. While the media focused on the elements that would allow them to write a headline with the word “row” in it, I felt that what was not addressed were the concerns that there are maintenance and heritage issues – currently the responsibility of the Chief Clerk – that have been persistently ignored.

I raised Portcullis House, where I have my office, as a case in point. Commissioned in 1993 for £165 million and opened in 2001 for £235 million, we were told it would last two hundred years. However, a mere thirteen years later, the glass roof over the atrium is cracked – I am told that some glass has actually fallen out of the roof and shattered on the public area below – and that a permanent solution to its repair is yet to be found. Media reports suggest that this fault alone has cost the taxpayer £36,000 in five years, and yet the ongoing “temporary” solution appears to be nothing more than putting faith in what looks like red double-sided sticky tape and the power of prayer.

Leaving aside the massive overspend, the rats clogging up the water feature, and the fact that the House blew £150,000 per tree on the decorative foliage, it is a miracle that nobody has yet been killed.

And that is just one small part of the estate, and the modern one at that. The rodent problem is out of control, and mice can frequently be seen in the Members’ Tea Room, as well as other outlets that serve food. Tales abound of raw sewerage pouring into colleagues’ offices owing to substandard plumbing, and the ancient electricity generator in the main Palace has to pose some sort of fire hazard. At the very least, all this must constitute a breach of health and safety requirements which, as a place of work, Parliament is required, by laws that it itself passed, to meet. Are the members of the Committee confident that, in the event of an independent inspection, the current arrangements would be deemed up to scratch?

It is also worth noting that it is not merely politicians and staff that are inconvenienced at best, and endangered at worst, by this state of affairs. The Houses of Parliament are a World Heritage Site, an international tourist destination, and visited by 45,000 school children every year. These figures are set to double once the new Education Centre is up and running. By not addressing these matters, we are actively putting members of the public, many of them children, in harm’s way.

The original building, hailing from the mid-nineteenth century, requires the entirety of its basic fabric renewing. This will be the biggest heritage project the country will see in years, costing hundreds of millions of pounds. It will also be the responsibility of the same people who commissioned Portcullis House.

At the same time the Chief Clerk will be entrusted with far more procedural burdens, particularly with any future negotiations for a new constitutional settlement, on top of his already onerous duties and spending a proportion of each day sitting in the Commons Chamber.

None of this, I would like to stress, should be taken as a criticism of the clerks, who I have always found to be courteous, highly intelligent, and always helpful. They are constitutional technicians who lubricate the wheels of our democracy.

They are not, however, managers. And, just as the traditional role will become more crucial in the coming months and years, so will the Chief Executive element, for the reasons outlined above. When a junior clerk starts their career, I do not think it is with the intention of mending the glass in Portcullis House. I cannot begin to imagine the ennui a leaned constitutional expert must feel when it comes discussing the education programme for school kids visiting the education centre.

It appears to me that there is little interest in this aspect of the job. When it was suggested that an Australian woman with actual CEO experience should be appointed to the role, she was sneeringly referred to in the Daily Mail as the “Canberra caterer”. It is not for me to speculate from where this insulting nickname originated. However, if we dismiss the CEO element of the job as “catering” then we demonstrate either a lack of understanding of the CEO role, an active contempt for it, or a combination of both.

It is for this reason – and for the sake of both procedural integrity, and the future of Parliament’s infrastructure as well as the safety of its inhabitants – that I recommend a complete split: that the Chief Clerk remains in charge of procedural matters, and that a CEO is appointed who is qualified to oversee the management of the building itself. Both should report to the House of Commons Commission as the main supervisory committee.

There is a suggestion that a far more preferable solution would be the creation of a Chief Operating Officer, reporting to the Clerk, thus preserving the existing power structure. This is ducking the issue and would merely perpetuate the current problems. Unless this Committee is satisfied that the clerks are qualified to identify, appoint and manage a properly qualified COO (and I would argue that, on all the evidence, they are not), I consider this a solution that would work well if all was at stake for the future of the building was, say, catering, rather than the largest restoration project since the old Palace burned down in 1834. In short, there is no effective substitute for a CEO with appropriate autonomy and clearly delineated responsibilities.

In conclusion, I would ask this question: would the current state of affairs be seen as adequate and, at worst, only needing minor tinkering if one of our constituents came to us complaining that the company at which they worked was slowing falling apart, posed a danger to life, served food in areas that were infested with mice, and where urine pouring into offices was considered par for the course?

Of course not. As their elected representatives, we would be banging on the Chief Executive’s desk demanding that they got a grip of the situation.

It is time that we put our own House in order.

Tom Watson
Member of Parliament for West Bromwich East

Review of House of Commons management

I’ve just received this note about the review of House of Commons management. Its a majestic restatement of the status quo.

So when the taxpayer shells out the hundreds of millions of pounds to renew the Palace of Westminster over the next decade, you’ll know who is responsible for the success or failure of the project. It will be the “Executive Committee (in effect a sub-committee of the Commission).”

House of Commons Governance Committee

Publication of Report: House of Commons Governance

The House of Commons Governance Committee is today publishing its Report.

Launching the Report, the Chair of the Committee, Jack Straw, said:

“We were set up to solve a particular problem, but behind that problem we found a governance system in need of wider reform. At the centre of our recommendations is a commitment to openness, clarity and transparency.

“This has been a demanding inquiry to tackle in the time available to us. It is the first Member-led investigation into how the Commons itself is run for 40 years. I would like to thank the Members, other witnesses and especially the many staff from all Departments of the House who have engaged with our inquiry and provided so much useful evidence. It became clear early on that there was a real thirst particularly amongst the many hundreds of staff of the Commons service for a fresh look at its management structures, led by MPs themselves.

“Identifying the best possible governance arrangements in such a complex parliamentary environment is not easy: we have worked together to agree a set of proposals which we hope the House will now come together to support.

“Our unanimous report sets out a coherent management and strategic leadership structure. The Member and official elements will be properly integrated for the first time. Clarity is brought to the respective roles of Members and officials. Taken together, our proposals provide a framework which enable the House of Commons to operate more effectively and efficiently and provide reinforcement to the development of a unified House Service.”

The Committee’s main conclusions were:

· The House of Commons Commission should have an additional explicit statutory responsibility: to set the strategic framework for the provision of services to the House, its Members and the public;

· To support this enhanced role, and to reflect wider principles of good governance, its membership should be:

1. The current ex officio members (Speaker (Chair), Leader of the House, Shadow Leader of the House);

2. Four backbench members elected by the whole House and drawn one each from the three largest parties and the remaining Members;

3. Two external members;

4. Two official members;

· The separate responsibilities of the Finance and Services Committee and the Administration Committee should be more clearly defined. Finance and Services should become a Finance Committee. The Administration Committee should have no more than 11 members;

· The four backbench Members of the Commission should have portfolio responsibilities, allocated to them by the Commission. For two of them this would include chairing the new Finance and Administration Committees. The other two should take on key strategic priorities;

· The Clerk of the House should remain Head of the House service, appointed by Letters Patent, but should not also be titled Chief Executive;

· A new post of Director General of the House of Commons should be created, reporting to the Clerk but with clearly delineated autonomous responsibilities for the delivery of services;

· The Clerk and the Director General of the House of Commons should be the two official members of the Commission;

· The Management Board should be replaced with an Executive Committee (in effect a sub-committee of the Commission) chaired by the Director General of the House of Commons and comprising in addition the Clerk, the Director of Finance and up to three other officials.

· Structural changes are not enough to reform how an organisation operates: we have made important recommendations about changes to the culture of the House and its service which will be necessary to deliver the reforms we look for.

· We were asked to report by 12 January, but to ensure that the House had as much time as possible to consider and act on our report before dissolution at the end of March, we set ourselves the tighter timetable of reporting by Christmas. We have set out a timetable for implementation which we believe is realistic and practicable, but will require support from across the House.

· The ‘paused’ recruitment process for Clerk of the House/Chief Executive should be formally terminated.

· We propose new recruitment processes for the Clerk of the House and the Director General of the House of Commons which are in line with modern recruitment practice.

For more information, and interviews with the Chair, Jack Straw, please call Liz Parratt 07917 488978.

The report can be ordered from The Stationery Office (tel: 0845 702 3474) or from the Houses of Parliament Shop (020 7219 3890). It can also be viewed here from 10am on Wednesday 17 December 2014.

Committee:
Rt Hon Jack Straw (Chair), Labour, Blackburn
Mr David Heath, Liberal Democrat, Somerton and Frome
Sir Oliver Heald, Conservative, North East Hertfordshire
Jesse Norman, Conservative, Hereford and South Herefordshire
Ian Paisley, Democratic Unionist, North Antrim
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative, North East Somerset
Valerie Vaz, Labour, Walsall South
Mr Dave Watts, Labour, St Helens North

Response to the Exaro/Sunday People allegations

Exaro and the Sunday People have published a story regarding allegations of child murder. Here’s my response:

The allegations of cruelty, torture and murder are truly shocking and go far beyond the case I raised with the Prime Minister two years ago. The public will be deeply concerned which is why it is vital the police quickly establish the facts. It’s such a disturbing allegation that I have no doubt the resources will be found to conduct a thorough investigation.

If true, this is a vital piece of the jigsaw in the pursuit of organised child abuse.

We are at the point where the government should consider a national police inquiry made up of specialists from around the country. It is unfair to ask the police in London alone to investigate alleged crimes that took place in many regions of the UK. I am writing to the PM to make this request.

Definition of Passion

1. A powerful emotion, such as love, joy, hatred, or anger.
2.
a. Ardent love.
b. Strong sexual desire; lust.
c. The object of such love or desire.
3.
a. Boundless enthusiasm: His skills as a player don’t quite match his passion for the game.
b. The object of such enthusiasm: Soccer is her passion.
4. An abandoned display of emotion, especially of anger: He’s been known to fly into a passion without warning.
5. Passion
a. The sufferings of Jesus in the period following the Last Supper and including the Crucifixion, as related in the New Testament.
b. A narrative, musical setting, or pictorial representation of Jesus’s sufferings.
6. Archaic Martyrdom.
7. Archaic Passivity