Barry K Winetrobe examines one aspect of the current committee inquiry into House of Commons governance following the Clerk appointment fiasco. Evidence submitted by House staff reveals much which may be unsettling for House managers and MPs, but is ultimately good for the House itself.
‘We seek to ensure that the House of Commons is a good place to work’ (House of Commons Staff Handbook, para 3.2, Core Values of the House of Commons Service)
A couple of months ago I wrote a piece for this Blog on the botched efforts of the House of Commons in appointing a new Clerk/Chief Executive, and the harmful impact this would have on the House and its public reputation. On 1 September the Speaker announced ‘a modest pause in the recruitment process’, and, following a Backbench debate on 10 September, a Select Committee on House Governance chaired by Jack Straw was appointed. Its terms of reference are ‘to consider the governance of the House of Commons, including the future allocation of the responsibilities for House services currently exercised by the Clerk of the House and Chief Executive.’
The Committee is due to report to the House by 12 January. Given this tight deadline, it has been active since its full membership was agreed on 16 October. It has received and published on its website a large amount written and oral evidence, and on 20 November it helpfully produced an update on its work to date.
I focus here on one aspect: that of the evidence received from staff of the House, which is interesting because it provides a rare opportunity for these parliamentary officials to speak openly – directly to Members and, indirectly through them, to the public – about the House both as a Parliament and as a workplace.
The Committee has made genuine efforts to engage staff at all levels and across the House in its inquiry, within the limits of its remit and deadline. There was an initial preliminary email from Jack Straw on the staff intranet before the Committee was formally convened, which elicited a number of responses. A more detailed email from Straw was sent to staff on 24 October, which included the following invitation:
‘[We] are keen to obtain staff views on the governance of the House of Commons, in simple terms – your opinions on systems and arrangements that set out who makes what decision when, and how. We have added a few prompt questions to each topic but please don’t let that restrict you. …. The services on which we as Members rely and whose governance we are considering are delivered by you, the staff of the House and of PICT. Hearing from you is central to our work.’
The second email also assured staff of continuing engagement with the Committee Inquiry:
‘This invitation, although important and something we hope you will respond to, will not be the only way in which your voices can be heard. We are planning a staff event and will make a further announcement shortly.’
The Committee update provided some information on that staff event, held on 12 November:
‘On 12 November, the Committee held an event to enable Members to hear the views of staff on governance. Sixty-six staff from all departments of the House of Commons and PICT, and across a range of grades, took part in small discussion groups with Committee members. Comments were made on a confidential basis, but a record was taken for the Committee’s own use and will inform the final report.’
None of these efforts, of course, can be an adequate substitute for a comprehensive, independent and structured survey of staff views, as part of a full, evidence-driven inquiry into House governance. But, in their own terms, they are an interesting and revealing snapshot of opinion at a crucial and unsettling time for Westminster. That such engagement was undertaken at all by a House select committee, and that it has produced the response it has so far, is commendable.
It has to be borne in mind that the staff are employees of the House (through the House of Commons Commission), and as such, are not civil servants (though often misdescribed as such by the media). They have as their bosses, not just their professional line managers, but also all MPs, those democratically elected representatives, some of them Ministers or whips. Through their very influential role as the primary customers of House services, with direct access (often as committee members) to the highest tiers of House governance, not to mention the potential for them to speak out publicly in the Chamber, committee or elsewhere on House services, they are rightly described as the staff’s 600+ other bosses. While senior officials and some others may have a regular and cordial relationship with Members as part of their duties, the vast majority of staff, especially of the less elevated ranks, will rarely have routine contact with them. For such staff to be willing to provide evidence to the Governance Committee shows how important this issue is to the House’s employees.
Significantly, the Committee offered staff the option of anonymised submission, which has been taken up by a number of them. This clearly afforded some respondents the security to provide more robust and trenchant opinions than they may have otherwise done, as one Committee member, Valerie Vaz, observed on 20 November: ‘Anonymous evidence, maybe, is a bit more—how shall we say—helpful to us in our deliberations’. However, this practice was criticised by one witness, a very senior clerk, when giving oral evidence,. He saw it as providing the opportunity for ‘stereotyping and malevolence’ which he found ‘offensive’, contrary to the House Service’s own policies of respecting and valuing others, and which, if said in other workplace contexts, he would consider a ‘disciplinary offence’.
This provoked a response from the Chair, which not only was a defence of allowing anonymised evidence, but also made a telling wider point:
‘I think there is a real difference between how this organisation appears if you are at or near the top of it and how it appears, whatever the Respect policy may be, if you are at or near the bottom of it, and at an early stage in your career.’
The content of the staff evidence has been as varied as might be expected. Many made submissions from the particular perspective of their own post or office, while others responded more generally as House employees. There were strong views on pay and conditions – especially acute at this time of prolonged austerity (although many in the wider world will inevitably still regard their position as relatively protected and comfortable) – on relationships with colleagues, managers and ‘customers’, and on career development opportunities. Discussions of the last revealed how the House Service is still perceived by many to be hierarchical, siloed, inflexible and often unfair. Recalling Jack Straw’s admonition, quoted above, it was fascinating to see career development concerns coming from very senior staff as well as others in less exalted levels.
Across the published evidence, there was a strong sense of real pride in working for Parliament, and maintenance of what used to be called a ‘public service ethos’, despite all the stated problems and frustrations. Committee members have made mention of this during oral sessions – as have submissions from Members – and it will no doubt be appropriately reflected in the final report. Staff are clearly not only concerned about their own particular positions as employees, but also about the damage to Parliament and its reputation by perceived failings and mismanagement.
This was demonstrated most graphically by one anonymous submission from someone who had worked in the House since 1991 which talked of:
‘the sense of betrayal many of us feel that over the summer our most senior colleagues openly gave up impartiality, abandoned the public service ethos, and set to briefing against the Speaker and lining up Members to influence the debate in favour of their own career interests. I am not alone in feeling deeply aggrieved that, after a quarter century of taking off my personal views at the door each morning.. I find I am led by people who will set all that aside the minute it impinges on their interests. ..We all know that disciplinary action should be taken against them, and we all know that it will not. That says a lot about the House of Commons.’
Notwithstanding this public airing of grievances, the staff submissions do reveal a wide range of constructive and thoughtful views on the specific issues of House governance. Again these are characterised by a genuine commitment to the improvement and success of the House of Commons, not just as a workplace, but also because of its crucial constitutional political importance. That is one shining positive asset which the Committee, and the House, cannot allow to be eroded.
The other lesson the House should learn is that ‘washing its dirty linen in public’ may be traumatic in the short-term, but it is probably a necessary step in bringing about changes in the culture of the Commons, the corrosive nature of which is at the heart of many of its problems.
Barry K Winetrobe has taught constitutional law and government for many years, and has written many articles and book chapters, and given evidence to parliamentary and other committees, on Scottish/UK constitutional developments.