On 16 March 2015, Lord Lisvane, who as Sir Robert Rogers served as Clerk of the House of Commons 2011-14, reflected upon the 2010 Parliament and speculated about potential future changes in Westminster at a Constitution Unit seminar held in the House of Lords. Fathma Khalid reports on the event.
With the May 2015 election fast approaching, Lord Lisvane was invited by the Constitution Unit to reflect on the outgoing parliament. Robert Hazell, Director of the Unit, introduced Lord Lisvane as the unofficial star of Michael Cockerell’s Inside the Commons documentary TV series. Having worked for the House of Commons service since joining in 1972, Lord Lisvane is extremely well placed to present this ‘end-of-term report’ on the 2010 Parliament. He set the scene by pointing out that this parliament formed at a time when the MPs expenses scandal was still raw in the public memory. 227 new members brought a breath of fresh air to the chamber, invigorating the House with enthusiasm and a renewed outlook. The 2010 Parliament was ‘the most rebellious of modern times’, which Lord Lisvane thought was a good sign of a healthy legislature, although he recognised that this may have been due to the nature of coalition. The 2013 defeat of proposed military action in Syria displayed parliamentary confidence and it had repercussions in France and the US.
Lord Lisvane focused on the many changes that have taken place in parliament over the last five years. Deputy speakers and select committee chairs were elected for the first time in 2010. The Backbench Business Committee was created based on the Constitution Unit’s own research (see here and here). Additionally, the Fixed Term Parliament Act was introduced and further changes were made to members’ sitting hours.
Digitising parliament has also become a higher priority, with more information being available online now than ever before. Lord Lisvane emphasised that ‘in making the most of new technology, the key thing is a change in our collective mindset, so that we are digital by default, not by choice’. This has been part of a greater effort to make parliament more accessible, through intiatives like Parliament Week and the introduction of a new Parliamentary Studies module in selected universities (from autumn 2015, including UCL). Lord Lisvane also oversaw the launch of The Clerk’s Apprentice Scheme in 2013, which gave 10 young people the chance to work for the House of Commons Service whilst studying for an NVQ in Business and Administration. All 10 candidates went on to secure a job within the House of Commons Service upon completion of the year-long scheme. Lord Lisvane also highlighted the Inside the Commons series as an entertaining and enlightening way of increasing public interest in parliament, and he was delighted to see such high levels of participant engagement on social media whilst the programme was being broadcast on BBC2.
Reflecting briefly on the other matter that has brought him to recent prominence – last year’s row over appointment of his successor as Clerk, which ultimately led to the creation of the House of Commons Governance Committee – Lord Lisvane expressed approval for the new arrangements proposed by the committee, indicating that they were in line with his evidence to them. He confessed to having concluded towards the end of his term that the procedural role of Clerk should be split from a more practical ‘Chief Operating Officer’ function (which has subsequently been named ‘Director General’). Interestingly this suggests a greater agreement between himself and John Bercow as Speaker (who likewise indicated in a recent lecture his early commitment to such a principle) than the media presented.
In terms of the 2015 parliament, Lord Lisvane spoke about the physical Palace of Westminster and how it is in great need of improvement work. He said ‘we could not and should not be another generation of stewards of this unique building who shied away from their obligations’, and pressed that although there are difficulties the issue of resurrecting the failing building is urgent. The basement alone was defined as a ‘cathedral of horror’, a widely used description coined by Lord Lisvane. Three options for how the improvements should be implemented were proposed: (1) ramping up current renovations; (2) successive decant; and (3) a total decant for five years or more. Lord Lisvane also suggested three methods for renovation: (1) like-for-like replacement; (2) updating the structure so it is in line with current accessibility legislation; and (3) an imaginative redesign. Once the report by the Deloitte-led consortium on the renovations has been published, decisions need to be made quickly in order to begin renovation as soon as possible. One member of the audience prompted amusement by suggesting that perhaps the Queen should volunteer Buckingham Palace as a temporary home for legislators while Westminster undergoes renovation.
As well as physical renovations Lord Lisvane considered potential changes to ‘how parliament works’ (he is clearly well-qualified to do so, as joint author of the well-regarded book by that title, recently published in its seventh edition). He touched upon the possibility of a House Business Committee, which was recommended by the Wright Committee and promised by the 2010 government, but not put into effect. He also expressed concern about the tendency of Commons committees to ‘harangue’ witnesses, which risks damaging reputations without due process, and suggesting that some change may be needed. Lord Lisvane also addressed the Punch-and-Judy style politics seen during Prime Minister’s Questions, indicating that one solution could be to take alternate sessions of PMQs in a committee room, with a smaller audience of members chosen by ballot. He also suggested some changes to legislative procedures.
The issue of House of Lords reform also came up. Lord Lisvane said that he could foresee changes to the upper chamber, but that as a ‘new boy’ he did not want to stir the pot, with his only comment a tongue-in-cheek ‘I am a firm supporter of appointment.’ He concluded by saying that ‘one of the great strengths of parliament is that the Houses are complementary and not competing.’ The way that the two Houses work together demonstrates that ‘the whole is assuredly greater than the sum of the parts.’
Lord Lisvane made some very pragmatic suggestions about how parliament needs to change to adapt with the times, whilst highlighting the qualities he thinks help the legislature to work effectively.
The full text of Lord Lisvane’s speech can be accessed on the Constitution Unit website here.
About the Author
Fathma Khalid is a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit and she is currently undertaking an MSc in Security Studies at UCL.