In today’s blog Dr Paul Hunneyball reports back from our recent Parliament, Politics & People seminar – where former House of Commons Librarian (2000-2004) and our Honorary Research Fellow Priscilla Baines spoke about her work on the House of Commons commission…
For the first seminar of the summer term, we welcomed Priscilla Baines, a former House of Commons Librarian, and now an honorary research fellow of the History of Parliament Trust. Her title, ‘House of Commons governance: a suitable case for treatment?’, reflected in its wordplay the contradictions of her subject. The Commons, this country’s principal legislative body, has long struggled to find a satisfactory model for keeping its own house in order. Until recent decades, the management of facilities and services was conducted piecemeal, with no overall strategic direction, minimal financial coordination, and a marked absence of either transparency or accountability. The one body competent to produce annual reports, the House of Commons Offices Commission, first established in 1812, rarely met. Much of the machinery of the Commons was at least nominally controlled by the Speaker, but maintenance of the Palace of Westminster was conducted from Whitehall, by the Ministry of Works. Funding for any modernization of accommodation, a particularly urgent issue after the Blitz, depended on the cooperation of the government of the day, which might not be forthcoming.
Priscilla guided us with precision through a succession of reform attempts, from the first proposals by a select committee in 1953-4 for a centralized body to manage both buildings and staff, via the establishment of the House of Commons Commission in 1978-9, to the overhaul of this body in 2015 following the report of the Straw committee. Early schemes to give MPs more power over their own environment were blocked by government, and the Lords and Commons finally secured control of their respective parts of the Palace only in 1965. However, the approach thereafter towards administrative reform was painfully slow, with the addition of new bodies much preferred to rationalization of management structures, and strong resistance to any changes which might encourage greater government interference. Even the Commons Commission as first devised was essentially an additional layer of bureaucracy which had to operate in conjunction with numerous other bodies, and it too proved reluctant to take strategic initiatives. The persistent inefficiencies engendered by this multiplicity of mandates prompted a series of further reforms during the 1990s, which saw a gradual streamlining of administration and decision-making. In 2001-2 the Commission produced its first ever strategic plan. Nevertheless, a further innovation of 2004, whereby the Commission doubled up as the committee responsible for MPs’ pay and allowances, proved something of an own-goal, the latter role becoming a major distraction during the controversy of 2009-10 over MPs’ expenses. Mounting dissatisfaction led to the most recent reforms of 2015, under which the Commission acquired a number of additional members, including an entirely new officer, the Director General of the House. It is also now obliged to set out a ‘strategic framework’ for delivery of services.
Priscilla’s presentation prompted a lively discussion. The issues raised included the impact of politics, finance and individual Speakers on these developments, the current challenge posed by the need for a thoroughgoing restoration of the Palace fabric, and the struggle to secure union recognition at Westminster, which Priscilla herself helped to bring about as recently as 1984.
Join us tonight for our latest seminar, when Charlotte Young (Royal Holloway University of London) will speak on ‘John Bradshaw’s forgotten role: the Committee for Sequestration’s legal advisers in the 1640s‘. Full details available here.
Priscilla recently published on the History of Parliament’s founder: Colonel Josiah Wedgwood’s Questionnaire: Members of Parliament, 1885-1918