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CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE To be published as HC 1370-iv
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
SITTINGS OF THE HOUSE AND THE PARLIAMENTARY CALENDAR
WEDNESDAY 11 JANUARY 2012
WILL CONWAY, MAX FREEDMAN, KEN GALL and SIAN NORRIS-COPSON
SIR ALAN HASELHURST MP and JOHN THURSO MP
Evidence heard in Public
Questions 142 - 194
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
1.This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
2.The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course
Taken before the Procedure Committee
on Wednesday 11 January 2012
Mr Greg Knight (Chair)
Mrs Jenny Chapman
Sir Roger Gale
Mr James Gray
Sir Alan Haselhurst
Mr David Nuttall
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Ken Gall and Will Conway, House of Commons Trade Union Side, Max Freedman, Unite Parliamentary Branch, and Sian Norris-Copson, Members’ and Peers’ Staff Association, gave evidence.
Q142 Chair: Can I thank you all for giving up your time and coming along today to help us in our deliberations? It is probably one of the most difficult inquiries any Committee will ever undertake, because at the end of the day, there is no right and wrong. It is all a matter of personal preference as to how you discharge your work during a particular week. Some people like an early start and an early finish. Others prefer a later start and a later finish. What I think we have to accept is that there is likely to be no appetite on behalf of the Government for any recommendation which saw a reduction in the amount of hours that the House sat because this would impede the progress of Government business. So we are working on the assumption that the hours should pretty much broadly stay the same and asking where changes, if any, should be made.
We have thus far taken no decision on this matter at all. We are still in listening mode. So do not feel that there is any brick wall between us at this stage, because we have not started the process of refining our views and coming to a conclusion. Also perhaps I should say that we only have the power to advise the House as a whole. We could reach conclusion A and then when it is put to the House the House may decide that they prefer conclusion B. But we are trying to serve the House by looking at all of the options, analysing the benefits and drawbacks to each option and then coming forward with our position, hopefully. Do any of you, before we start the questions, want to make an opening statement setting out your position or the position of those you represent?
Ken Gall: If I may, Mr Knight. Parliament has never, in the time I have been working here, which is nearly 20 years now-I started as a boy reporter-been a nine-to-five environment. Trying to explain the sitting hours and the sitting patterns to someone who does not work in the House can be a challenging experience at times. But the House has developed these hours and over the years has proposed alterations to those hours with virtually no formal consultation with staff unions or your own staff representatives. There has been very little in the way of formal negotiation or consultation. The reason why that was able to take place in the past, specifically with regard to House staff, was that there was general satisfaction with the settlement here in terms of pay, pensions, general terms and conditions and so on and so forth. There was also the pride and the loyalty to the institution of Parliament, which is still there today. However, the other aspects of the settlement that led to the general calm and benign nature of relations here between staff and the employer are now under threat. Pay is frozen. Pension contributions are rising and, in some areas of the House, there is the possibility that some parts of the House service could be outsourced to private companies. So the job security, which was a major factor here, is diminishing.
The relevance of this to your inquiry is that it is much easier to propose and impose changes to people’s working hours and patterns of their working life if staff are broadly satisfied with their employment and it is more difficult to make those changes when staff, as many of them are now, are feeling less valued by the employer-the House of Commons-than they were in the past and when the general pay and conditions of service are facing a greater threat than they have in the past. So I think the context for me and for the recognised trade unions here is that those negative and changing feelings about working for Parliament will certainly not prevent the House in any way from making changes to its sitting hours that it deems appropriate. But the plea we would make initially is that your own staff association and Unite and the House unions need to play a greater role in any discussions of how these changes are going to be implemented. That is not to say that we will have, in any sense, a veto or a casting vote, but as for the idea that staff will simply adapt to whatever comes out of your inquiry and subsequently on the Floor of the House, it is harder to see that that will be the case.
Q143 Chair: I do not know whether you were consulted in the past when the House changed its hours, but we took the view that we certainly wanted to hear from you this time.
Ken Gall: We appreciate that.
Q144 Chair: That is something that we welcome. You have said already in your memo to us that you are not happy with the suggestion of 8 am or 9 am on Tuesday or Wednesday. What is your view to a 10.30 start on those two days?
Will Conway: You can’t take one time in isolation. A lot of it depends on what time you finish the night before and everything else. It is looking at things as a whole. One of the effects of having Committees at 8 am would be that the Clerks would then have to start work at 6.30, or whatever, to prepare. Obviously, the cafeterias etc. don’t open until 8.30, so it would mean sweeping changes, and quite big changes for people. Speaking for my members, the people in the cafeterias are mainly women who have child care responsibilities. It is a big change for them, having to come in that amount of time earlier if they are dropping children off at school, and similarly, Clerks who have to come in that much earlier. Changing finishing times at night again affects the two.
Q145 Chair: If someone said to you, "Well, it is your decision now", where would you go with hours? Would you leave them as they are? Is that what you are saying?
Will Conway: I don’t think anyone is particularly happy with the hours as they are.
Ken Gall: I can’t remember whether Churchill was talking about capitalism or democracy when he said, "It was the least bad of all possible alternatives". That may be the best we could hope for.
Q146 Chair: That’s helpful. Mr Freedman, do you want to add anything?
Max Freedman: I am speaking on behalf of your staff. You will recognise that your staff have a lot of loyalty and operate in a flexible manner because of that loyalty and because of the nature of the employment. They will adapt to whatever happens, I have no doubt, but what they want more than most things is consistency, certainty and the knowledge of when things are going to happen at regular times, particularly those with child care and other caring responsibilities.
Obviously, we now have the facility that was the former Bellamy’s Bar but, from my conversations with the House authorities, the idea is that that is going progressively to become more and more for MPs rather than for staff. As the years go on, and children grow up in there, there will be less space. It is under-utilised at the moment, partly because of capacity and partly because of the cost. The way in which IPSA changed the child care benefit available from being a salary supplement to a salary sacrifice scheme has meant that it has become less affordable. But as more antisocial hours are planned-if they are planned-that is something that has to be taken very much into consideration.
Q147 Chair: Ms Norris-Copson, do you want to add anything at this stage?
Sian Norris-Copson: Different hours would probably affect us in a different way from the staff of the House. But obviously they would affect us, and given the long meeting of Max and I with IPSA yesterday, one of the main problems we have at the moment is in connection with the staffing budget and the fact that most MPs do not have room in their budget to pay for overtime. So if staff are being asked to work longer hours, again that either calls on their loyalty or possibly they will be under pressure from their employer-depending on how good an employer they are-and there is no real recompense, possibly time off in lieu, for something like that. It has possibly a different impact on us, but it still does have an impact.
Max Freedman: I should like to add to what Sian said. When you said, "work longer hours", I do not presume that contracts themselves will extend to three more hours per week, but certainly if an MP has to give a speech in an Adjournment debate or wherever it might be later at night, there may well be an expectation on staff to stay later in order to prepare for that system. If that occurs, there is no culture of claiming for overtime as I am sure many of you will be aware, so that is an additional burden. More late-night sittings can mean longer hours being worked as a consequence.
Q148 Chair: Yes. It used to be the case, of course, that MPs could give a bonus, at the MP’s own discretion, to members of staff who had put in the extra work, which IPSA, as you touched upon, has now stopped.
Max Freedman: We are in negotiation with it about that now.
Q149 Mr Gray: I can appreciate your reluctance to get sucked into a discussion about individual times and it is a package; I have got to accept that point. Having said that, one of the things that some people are pressing us to do would be to keep Monday broadly speaking as it is at the moment, so they can get down from their constituency. So Monday would remain 10.30 pm shutting shop, but Tuesday and Wednesday would start at 10.30 am, with appropriately earlier finishing times: I cannot do the arithmetic, but on Tuesday it would therefore be 6.30 pm or something-wouldn’t it?-and on Wednesday. From the point of view of the unions, how would you view that? Would that be better? The diversity in your answers so far has demonstrated precisely the problem that we have. Would that be better or worse if it were 10.30 am to 6.30 pm?
Ken Gall: That was tried previously, wasn’t it? Was that back in about 2000, 2000-01? I was never entirely sure why it was abandoned-there did not seem to be clarity as to why-after a couple of years of having the Monday as it was and the Tuesday moved forward. I cannot quite remember why it was deemed to be an unsatisfactory arrangement, but the House has had a go at that already and, for whatever reason-I do not know whether takings in catering had something to do with it; I simply cannot remember-it was deemed to be unsatisfactory.
Q150 Mr Gray: But what about from your standpoint? Let us try a different one then, if you are reluctant. Another thought people have had is that the House should always be closed on a Friday, because private Members’ business would be done on Wednesday evening after 7 o’clock. Would that be better, from the point of view of employees, or worse?
Ken Gall: I am not going to speak about catering, because I will let Will do that in a moment. We are in the middle of a House of Commons savings programme. The staffing budget is not unlimited; in fact, it is constricted. The danger with that proposal is that the working day on the Wednesday-for staff who are specifically working to the Chamber, or providing information to MPs, in the Library and so on-will be approximately 11 in the morning until potentially 10 or 11 at night. In Hansard, my old department, the work does not finish when the bell goes at the end of the Adjournment; people have got an hour’s work after that.
We, as trade unionists, cannot really nod our heads to a contractual 12-hour working day. That would be something that we would be very loath to accept. The obvious answer to that, in an ideal world, is to rota differently, but alas, the staffing budget is not there-the numbers are not there-at the moment. That is the dilemma that we would face with that kind of proposal.
I had better retreat a wee bit and say that if Members agree that that is the way they want to proceed, with the additional business on the Wednesday night, clearly we will need to start discussing with the management board of the House how we deal with that. From our perspective, it would be very hard for me to sit down with union members of any of the four unions here and say we are agreeing, without demurral, to a 12-hour working day.
Chair: Nic Dakin, do you want to come in on this?
Q151 Nic Dakin: Yes. Obviously, at the moment the House sits late on a Tuesday and is up again at 11.30 am on a Wednesday. How is that coped with at the moment? I suppose that one of the thoughts is that managing rotas might be a way to get our cake and eat it, if we wanted to change the hours.
Ken Gall: I would go back to my initial comment. The way in which the House’s hours have developed over the years has come about because of the general benign relationship between staff and Parliament, and that relationship is changing. If new proposals have to be made, they have to be made in the light of that changing relationship between staff and Parliament. For example, on the pensions issue, some of you may be aware that all four unions in the House of Commons voted for industrial action. When I took over this job with the trade union side, I would have thought that that was impossible, that that would never have happened, and it has happened, because the attitude that people have to their employment here is changing as a result of various outside influences. The existing patterns of employment and sitting patterns are valid up to a point, but because the relationship is changing, any changes that you make have to be made in that context. I don’t know whether that applies to Max and Sian as well.
Q152 Nic Dakin: So do you think that looking at rotas is not a way of dealing with the problem of staff having to work late one evening and other staff having to start early the next day? Is that not a credible solution?
Will Conway: When people go to jobs, they look at the whole package that is on offer and they say, "Oh, 10 o’clock start. That’s good. Finish at 6 or 8 o’clock"-or whatever. They look at that and they think, "That suits me. I’m doing four quite long days a week, but that suits me." Then, a couple of years later, they change it to a 9 o’clock start and a 7 o’clock finish. You think, "I can work round that." Then they change it again, and then again. You can change shift patterns up to a point, but then, as Ken said, you lose the reason that those people started and why they were enjoying working here and they have been here so long-their whole reason for liking the place.
Also, when you start contracting working hours, especially with the IPSA expenses in the evening shift for Members’ meals, that is having a direct effect on takings in some of the outlets, obviously in the Members and Strangers dining rooms, and if you have an early finish, that would hit them again. It would become virtually meaningless. It would contract their whole day and change entirely the way that they work. Yes, you could cope with it through changing shift patterns, but again you lose the will of the people on the way through. And those people who had those shift patterns changed enormously are now having them changed at the moment.
Q153 Chair: I see the point you are making. You are saying that if the House sat earlier and the demand for the refreshment department facilities fell in the evening, that might actually then reduce the number of jobs that were needed.
Will Conway: Yes, to a large degree, and also in banqueting, which does not have the obvious correlation with sittings of the House, but it does require a Member to be here. If Members are not here, they will not book those functions, and that is the trade-off for those staff being here, because they could possibly go and work in that area.
Q154 Thomas Docherty: We’ve talked about every day except Thursday. One of the pieces of evidence that we received was the suggestion that we could move the Thursday start time by an hour-9.30 to 5 from 10.30 to 6. Have you any views on the impact that that would have, either beneficially or negatively?
Ken Gall: I don’t want to repeat myself unduly, but previously one of the results of the climate in which staff work here was that a blind eye was turned to things such as the working time directive, which contains a specified 11-hour gap for staff between their finishing on the previous day and their starting time the next day. The reason that the employer and ourselves shied away from that issue was because of-I repeat again-the good climate that we had here. We are in talks at the moment with the management board of the House about potential new contracts of employment for House staff. One of the aspects that we might be seeking is for the House to in effect adhere to the law.
Q155 Thomas Docherty: I’m not sure we are actually bound by the working time directive, in the same way that we were not bound by the smoking law. I am not saying that we should not-
Will Conway: We are. I believe there was an opt-out initially, but it is not-
Thomas Docherty: Will knows more than I do, as ever.
Q156 Ken Gall: Even regardless of whether the letter of the law applies to the House of Commons, we and the Commons authorities-and, I presume, yourselves, as employers-have reached a tacit agreement that the spirit of that would be adhered to. If the working week is squeezed into a Monday lunchtime to Thursday lunchtime scenario, it becomes harder for staff to get the breaks that the law allows. If private Bill business were on a Wednesday night, aligned with a 9 o’clock start on a Thursday, the potential late finish would lead to difficulties in providing staff with their rest periods.
Q157 Thomas Docherty: I understand that, and it is a compelling argument. What would be your assessment if we took it in isolation-I am very conscious of the danger of doing that-and the only significant change was the Thursday start/finish time?
Ken Gall: It wouldn’t make a great deal of difference to me.
Q158 Chair: So your concerns relate to the risk of Wednesday running until 10 because of private Members’ Bills?
Ken Gall: That is one of our concerns.
Chair: It is helpful to know that.
Q159 Sir Roger Gale: I shall come on to the September sittings, but before I do, Ken Gall has made something of an issue along the "things ain’t what they used to be" line. I agree with that entirely, but, interestingly, in the paper that you submitted, you stated that staff were already reporting health and well-being concerns about the effects of late-night Tuesday finishes. When I-and I suspect you, Ken-came into this place, there were a lot of late-night finishes. Somewhere in the midst of your evidence, you said that there were fewer members of staff. Is it the fact that fewer people are employed that makes it impossible to accommodate those hours, or has there been some other sea change? Certainly, we used to sit very late indeed.
Ken Gall: Sir Roger, one of the first things I did when I worked for Hansard was a thing called a consolidated fund debate, which I am sure a couple of you will remember. It was an all-night sitting until 6 o’clock in the morning, prior to the summer recess. Looking back, it seems utter madness that we did that. The culture has changed now. The desire to be more family-friendly is admirable.
A related point-I am trying to answer your question-is that one of our problems is that the same number of staff, or slightly fewer at the moment, are being asked to cover more concurrent sittings. For example, it is not unusual for the main Chamber, Westminster Hall, Select Committees and Public Bill Committees to sit simultaneously. In an ideal world, those would be separated out over the year, but that is certainly never going to happen now-we have missed that opportunity. Further contracting the week into that Monday afternoon to Thursday morning would mean that the same number of staff would be spread more thinly across different forums.
The people need to be fed, the Library still needs to be providing you with your information and the Committees have to be reported and put online and so on, so the staffing numbers is certainly an issue. But it is more about the compression of the week and people being spread more thinly.
Sian Norris-Copson: These guys at least have rotas. As you know, your staff have contracted hours, and we are all expected to work extra hours, which is usually pretty vague, but, again, we accept that this might happen and that we might be called on. The danger with less good employers is that MPs’ staff will be taken advantage of, because we do not have recourse to rotas or specific hours worked in the way that, I think, Ken will do. There is possibly more outlet for abuse of staff by their MPs.
Max Freedman: Just to add to that, as Sian says, obviously, your staff’s hours are not necessarily set around House sittings in the same way that House staff’s are. When there are demands that arise from the business of the House they can be passed on to staff. We are talking about a relationship at one remove rather than a direct one, but it can exist.
Q160 Chair: Before I call John Hemming, could I ask a question of Ken or Will? In the memorandum you sent us, you said that any decision by the House to end Friday sittings, except in exceptional circumstances, was likely to have serious consequences for many staff across the House. Could you expand on what you mean by that?
Will Conway: In catering we have already had a significant cut in the facilities provided on a Friday, because of the nature of sittings. If you stop them completely that would spread much more into other departments, such as whether the Library continued to provide research services. It would all have to be looked at, whether it was worth their while to have people in on a Friday. If we still needed those staff, they would have to compress their weeks. There are knock-on issues from all of that on to what their working weeks are, how you book leave, whether you need to book Fridays and this, that and the other. It would mean significant change in the rest of their working week, if they decided it was not worth providing a service on a Friday, or to provide only a skeleton service.
If I could go back to a couple of points about late-night Tuesdays. One major cause of sickness for shift-working staff is the changes in shifts. If someone always works a late shift and has set hours and knows they are going to finish at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, and they always work those hours, that has far less impact than changes in those shifts. That is the thing; it is the unpredictability of finish times when you have these juggled-about hours that is the greater cause of sickness issues.
The other matter brought up by colleagues was the contracts that we have. We have been trying to find out lately who was actually on rise-of-House contracts, as we call them. There are very few staff in the House. We could not find out. I don’t have one; my hours finish at 11.30 pm. For those of you who have seen me here at half-past 5 in the morning, that might come as a bit of a surprise. I was at one time last year; I got home at half-past 6 and had to leave at quarter-past 7 for a course in Hendon. I wasn’t over-keen on that one. A lot of the staff in the House do not have those contracts. They could technically all go home.
Ken Gall: When you talk about the ending of Fridays, at the moment, as I say, the House is looking at making quite substantial savings in terms of the estimate. This is the House’s decision and we can only contribute to your coming to make it. However, if the House finished Friday sittings it would not surprise me at all if in a year or two the management of the House started to look again at the revenue from catering and started to consider downsizing the operation. At the moment, we are trying to increase takings; we are trying to generate income for the House. One of the means of generating income is to try to improve access to the House’s catering establishments. Taking 13 sitting days out of the system is going to have a bad effect on takings for catering. Further down the line, I fear it will lead to further efforts to contract services, to slim the service.
Chair: Okay, thank you for that. I can say that looking for savings is not what is propelling this inquiry.
Q161 John Hemming: Ken was talking about renegotiating contracts at the moment. My concern is that if there is a renegotiation going on factors relevant to any sitting hours should be taken into account. Do you think that is happening?
Ken Gall: We are in a pre-renegotiation situation, if I can put it like that. The management are currently undertaking a time-recording exercise for staff across the House. In an ideal world I think they would be offering new contracts, but we are some way from that. Your inquiry and whatever comes out of it is going to have to play a part.
Q162 John Hemming: Within what you are saying, I think I have picked out, from the staff point of view, that predictability is important-so not necessarily precisely the hours. I am also picking out a message that if we had a really long sitting day-so we had Wednesday through in the night, because of private Members’ Bills-it would be best done not by extending the day necessarily, but by having overlapping shifts.
Ken Gall: No. If that-
Q163 John Hemming: Or is it that some staff would happily-if it is a predictable long Wednesday, they would be happier about that?
Will Conway: It does not affect catering and retail, but I know there are a lot of difficulties in recruiting staff in other departments of the House to work the later nights. They tend to work pretty much what you can call a nine-to-five, for the sake of language, and then work on to cover the later night. For that, they get paid an allowance and there is a nominal payment per hour.
Q164 John Hemming: And that is where your working-time issues come in.
Will Conway: It is certainly a major one, but there is a great shortage of people coming forward willing to work those later nights. It is not a major issue in catering, but it is an issue across the House.
Chair: Thank you.
Q165 Sir Roger Gale: Again, there is something else I’m afraid I want to pick up, Chairman. One thing that has concerned me about any proposed changes is the effect that they will have on Committee work-Standing Committee work. You have made the point that any of these changes have a knock-on effect, because of the law of unforeseen circumstances. The sitting hours have an effect on catering and who is here and when. Sitting hours-you have made the point-have an effect on Hansard and the more outlets you have, the more Hansard people have got to be concentrated in to do that. They have to be here, but the Clerks prepare for Committee work.
If the sitting hours are going to be brought forward in the morning, they will have to be here in the middle of the night. That, in turn, could have an effect on catering, because if these guys and girls have to be here at very early hours, they will have to get breakfast somewhere. I do not know whether any of you have any thoughts on this, but I do not quite see how this joins up.
Ken Gall: I have been out of the Committee work for a while now, since taking on these onerous trade union duties. Do Committees still sit at 8.55 am? They did.
Sir Roger Gale: Yes.
Ken Gall: There was a problem for a long time there. When I was doing Committees at 8.55 am, realistically, I had to be in the office at 8 am. For Clerks of the Committee, as you say, the earlier the Committee sits-with respect to you all, a Member of Parliament can walk in two minutes before the Committee starts and the work is there to start. For the Clerks and those who support it-those who are providing the services to enable the Committee to function-you are right; it would require a 6 am start perhaps for some people. It is not an ideal scenario.
Q166 Sir Roger Gale: We will clearly have to wrestle with this privately. The other issue that we want to get some feel for is what effect the reintroduction or, rather, the introduction of early September sittings has had on the staffing of the House. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Will Conway: It is quite a major issue. The House is apparently still sitting for the same amount of days, but having those couple of weeks where people cannot go on leave or whatever makes it-all catering staff have to take 90% of their leave during recesses. The more that recesses are fiddled with, the more it makes it difficult to fit those in, so having a break in the middle makes it much more difficult for staff to book leave, because if you are booking a fortnight in York, Cornwall or whatever, it knocks out one week either side that you cannot book. So you might be able to get somewhere for that, but then you have to move it back, and you cannot get that booking, and this, that and the other. It makes planning much more difficult and it puts a big break in the middle.
The major departmental difficulty is for works. They start doing a job. They have a big job scheduled, but they have to stop it and put all the carpets back down, put the pictures back up and have it all going for those couple of weeks. Then all the pictures come back down again, all the carpets come back up, and it is all off again.
Q167 Chair: Is there a collective staff view on this issue of September sittings?
Will Conway: Less so this year, because there were actually some Divisions this year.
Sian Norris-Copson: Not between us?
Will Conway: No. Our job is to support the work of the House, and if the House does not appear to be doing anything, then you think, "What are we doing? There are no Members here. There are no Divisions. There is no obvious business going on." In the last one, yes, there was stuff going on, but the previous one seemed to be just window dressing, so we do not feel that it looks good.
Q168 Chair: So what you are saying is that, on balance, you would prefer a clean summer recess with no September return. Is that what you are saying?
Will Conway: I think it would be nice. As long as the work is going on, I think it is valid.
Ken Gall: With regard to September sittings as part of the overall calendar for staff of the House, as opposed to your own staff, one issue is that the more weeks in which parliamentary business takes place, the more difficult it can be for staff to book leave. If staff here have a set amount of leave, it is not so much the days in their totality; it is that if the number of weeks in the year in which parliamentary business of some sort takes place increases from 34 to 38-because on-call rotas and back-up plans have to be made in case of a recall of Parliament-that is when the recess allows people almost to have a guarantee that they can take their contractual leave in this big period.
Now that is not an excuse to do away with September sittings. It is just an observation that spreading the work more evenly throughout the year will have consequences with which we will have to deal with the management of the House in terms of staff leave.
Q169 Chair: Max or Sian, do you want to add anything on this?
Max Freedman: I will simply say-it may be something that many of you recognise-that a lot of staff value the summer recess, because the day-to-day pressures of the parliamentary calendar are off them and then they can actually do some strategic work for that season, if you will, whether that be in the constituency or planning ahead for a particular campaign or whatever it might be. If the House returns for an interlude in the middle of that and then goes away again, that is disruptive to that Session, if you will. Otherwise, we know that everything varies office-to-office.
Sian Norris-Copson: I think the staff have pointed out that the value of those two weeks here, which are not even a full two weeks-it is probably seven or eight days of actually sitting-is actually pretty low. As a Lib Dem, we have our conference first, so that does impact quite a lot on possible conference preparation.
Somebody else has asked me to point out that if you do away with the two weeks in September, does that mean that other recess time is shortened? That may have an impact on Scottish Members in particular, because Scottish school holidays start earlier. Ours start in July and the Scottish Members will obviously like to get away at that time in July.
Q170 Karen Bradley: My questions were mainly about uncertainty, but I think you have been quite clear that it is certainty that staff value more than the actual length of the hours. Would that be correct?
Max Freedman: I think it is true from our side in terms of MPs’ staff, because we do not tend to operate in the same way-tied to the hours of the House.
Q171 Chair: Certainly, I took your answer to be that certainty of shift patterns was important to you, even though the length of the shift might vary depending on the sitting hours of the House. Would that be a fair way of putting it?
Will Conway: Yes, to a large degree.
Q172 Karen Bradley: I am curious about the point that you made about Members’ staff. How much do you get in terms of Members’ and peers’ staff actually coming to you and complaining that they are being made to work longer hours when we do have late sittings?
Sian Norris-Copson: As I said earlier, it is the whole point of overtime and there now being no possibility of your being able to reward your staff in some way. Everybody who comes here knows they might have to work long hours for whatever reason, but now that there is really no flexibility in the budget, I think people’s patience and loyalty might be tested a bit.
Max Freedman: There are 650 offices. Everyone organises their office in different ways. In no way am I saying that that is the case in every office, but there is certainly a culture of working until your boss decides that it is the end of the day. There is a desire to get the work done.
Q173 Karen Bradley: So you are actually seeing staff being made to stay until the House adjourns?
Max Freedman: I am not saying that they are being forced to stay, but there are levels of expectation. There is a massive culture of unpaid overtime.
Q174 Karen Bradley: My last question-I am going to put you on the spot-is the following. If we were looking at the working week and we were not looking to reduce the number of hours that Parliament sits in a week, and Parliament decided that it wanted to change Tuesdays to be 11.30 until 7-so that they would be the same as Wednesdays-would you, in your capacity as representatives of staff here, prefer to see a Tuesday evening sitting on private Members’ Bills, or to retain the existing Friday sittings?
Ken Gall: Fridays for me.
Chair: I think that that came out in what you said earlier.
Q175 Karen Bradley: You would prefer to see the House finish earlier on the Tuesday, rather than the evening sitting.
Ken Gall: Yes.
Chair: Okay. Final question of this session.
Q176 Mr Gray: Afore ye go, as they say-that’s whisky, isn’t it? Ken, your quote from Churchill-
Ken Gall: I do like to quote Churchill as often as possible.
Q177 Mr Gray: My overall feeling from your evidence, and your written evidence as well, is that-by and large, warts and all-more or less as it is at the moment is fine, broadly speaking, and that you would not particularly welcome any change.
Ken Gall: The issues on which we have major concerns, as union representatives of staff here, are not mainly or specifically related to the sitting patterns of Parliament.
Chair: May I thank you for coming? Do not feel that the opportunity for you to express your views has closed, because we will be deliberating on this for several more weeks. If something occurs to you after today that you feel is important and you want to take into account, please drop me a line.
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Sir Alan Haselhurst MP, Chair, Administration Committee, and John Thurso MP, Chair, Finance and Services Committee, gave evidence.
Q178 Chair: Gentlemen, thank you for coming. I think that the Committee regard the two of you as akin to expert witnesses, in that you have experience of living through the hours that we sit and the changes that we have had in the past. I am conscious of the fact that there is likely to be a vote at 4.30, so rather than us asking you some preliminary questions, as if you were not aware of what we are about, can I just ask you at the outset what your individual views on our sitting hours are? Would you like to see any changes? Alan, we will start with you.
Sir Alan Haselhurst: Thank you. I would settle for the status quo, as a matter of preference. I understand all the arguments that come up and, obviously, your Committee will be examining them. There are pros and cons in terms of cost and convenience. It is a very complex place. There are so many different factors to be taken into account.
I have always thought that a Member of Parliament’s job is what it is and should be treated as such. To start saying, "Well, it must fit in with what other jobs are" is an odd way of going about it. After all, there are many occupations that work unsocial hours, in order that the world goes by. Parliament is a peculiar institution and it cannot afford to be bound by absolute rigidities.
We have moved to the point of having a degree of certainty. It has taken many years to have a parliamentary calendar, but that is not the whole story, because whatever your calendar is and whatever your hours within each day on that calendar, there will remain uncertainty. You cannot be certain, because you know that on Wednesdays you are likely to have a vote at 7. You do not know whether you will have two votes at 7. You do not know whether, for reasons that have erupted in public affairs, there will be a need for some extra time to be had on some particular measure. You do not know whether you are going to be able to get away at a certain time.
The advantage of certainty is that you know what you can do and the House knows what arrangements it can make, so far as staffing is concerned, in support of that. If it is uncertain because of those things-such as votes, the fact that the Government may wish to bring something forward, or the fact that the Government may be under pressure to bring something forward at a particular time-there is now an improvement as to where we are meant to be on particular days. There is not a certainty, however, which I think certain people are hoping for, so that they know they will be able to arrange to go to their constituency if it is within striking distance, or that they will be able to do something social or get back to their family.
Q179 Chair: Can I ask you, as a former Chairman of Ways and Means, to comment on two points that have been put to us? First, the relatively minor change on Tuesdays and Wednesdays-well, the change is minor for Wednesday but major for Tuesday-starting at 10.30 and finishing at 6. Secondly, do you have any strong opinions on the suggestion that instead of sitting 13 or 14 Fridays in a Session, private Members’ business be taken as priority at the hour of interruption on, say, a Wednesday until 10?
Sir Alan Haselhurst: I have views on that, some of which might be regarded more as personal than as the views of myself as Chairman of the Administration Committee, or indeed of the Committee as a whole.
Chair: We are here to hear all your views, in whatever capacity.
Sir Alan Haselhurst: I have to take into consideration that if we sit earlier on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at, say, 10.30, we cut out the opportunity for visitors to come. There are revenue implications to that. From the point of view of Members, I do not know whether there is the same high percentage of colleagues who like to be involved in the visits of schools or other parties from their constituencies, but we have undoubtedly cut down on the possibilities of that by our present arrangements.
Of course, it is true to say that if one then took the separate decision over Fridays, you could compensate if you did not have business on a Friday. You would have to be sure, of course, that the Lords were not sitting on a Friday at the same time. We even have the comparative oddity that in February the half term week will be taken in separate weeks by the Commons and by the Lords.
All sorts of implications flow from that; the Palace cannot wind down for a week if one House is sitting one week and the other House is sitting the other week. There is a complex of arrangements. If we are strong on the policy of Parliament connecting with the people, which seems to be a strong theme at the moment, I think we would lose something by shutting out the visits from constituents. That inevitably would happen because evening visits could not very conveniently take place except for a fairly narrow band of constituencies, and it certainly would not be any good for schoolchildren and so on.
My idea, which might be termed romantic, about the fact that we are here in the evenings is that it is part of being a Member of Parliament. You do not know all your colleagues as well as some, and there is the happenstance of whom we might be sitting with on a particular occasion, talking, learning about them, learning about what they do in their constituency, and learning that there are common problems that you have not thought of and solutions that you have not thought of. It is a good training ground for Members of Parliament outside the formalities of our meetings to be able to talk to colleagues, and that has tended to happen in the evening when people’s day of real work was drawing to an end at about 8 o’clock, unless they were involved in a debate or a late Committee meeting of some kind. I think that aspect of a Member of Parliament’s life is perhaps under-sung these days.
I question whether moving the hour of interruption forward meets people’s real desires. Does having that change of hours actually free them to get away to do what they wish to do-whether that is simply to go back to the bosom of their family, if their family is in London, to go out to the theatre or whatever? You cannot be sure that you will be able to do that. If you live around the corner, maybe so, but I can remember when my children were tiny. The flat at Dolphin square was a bit of a hike to get to, and when the children were of a certain age, they would be in bed by the time I would get there. We need to be clear what we think the gains are.
The losses may also be in terms of compressing what can be done in the day. There is a separate inquiry going on, at the behest of Mr Speaker, into the proliferation of all-party groups. All-party groups will interest a small-sometimes a large-group of Members on specific subjects. The fact is that they may well get outside support and so on from the people who have a real interest in that subject, but they value meeting Members of Parliament here, in this place. There are only so many hours to the working day. If you are having more meetings-whether formal meetings of the House or informal meetings of all-party groups-Members will be torn in many more directions than they are even now.
Q180 Chair: And private Members’ business?
Sir Alan Haselhurst: I have chaired many an hour of Friday business. I think it is unsatisfactory the way it is at the moment, but I don’t think changing it to Tuesday nights is the right answer. My own view was that one should allocate the Friday time into slots, certainly at the Second Reading stage of private Members’ Bills, so that they have a guaranteed period of hours. I would put time limits on speeches, so that the matter could be discussed. The Second Reading vote could be deferred, if necessary, but there would be a clear pattern of timing to get a certain number of Bills dealt with in the Friday time. The point is that Members don’t have to be there for them, and most Members aren’t. They are in their constituencies.
To make progress on private Members’ Bills, and not lose time-as changing to a three-hour session on a Tuesday might risk doing, rather than five hours on a Friday-is not something which is a great gain for us. If the idea is that more Members should be there for private Members’ Bills, it runs counter to the philosophy-after wanting to advance the hours to an earlier time on that particular day, Tuesday or Wednesday-of wanting to get away and not feel under pressure to be here in the evening when we thought we had freed ourselves of those evening hours. It is a contradiction.
Q181 Chair: Thank you. John Thurso.
John Thurso: From the point of view of chairing the Finance Committee, I can give you whatever facts we are able to establish, although obviously, until one has a reasonably robust proposal, it is a little difficult to establish exactly what particular costs may or may not be attributable. The broad outlines are that if you do not change the number of weeks and you do not change the number of hours, there is not a huge change in cost, because you merely spread them to different times. There is undoubtedly a cost associated with the two-week September return, in terms of capital works, but not much otherwise.
Clearly, if you stretch a day, you get into higher rates of pay for staff and things of that nature. Also, there are knock-on consequences which are important but not quite so easily definable, in that if you stop evenings or curtail an evening, it is highly likely that Members will not be here, and that both the banqueting and the Members’ catering outlets will not be used in the same way. We have seen that with Wednesdays already, and I would expect, if one made much of a change, that that would happen.
In the role of Chair, I am happy to follow the facts as we can establish them and to try to give them to you. If you ask me for a personal opinion, in answering the first question you gave Sir Alan, I would say that I am broadly content with the sittings hours that we have at the moment. I am concerned at desires to start earlier in the day, because there is already a real conflict between Select Committees that meet when the Chamber is not in session and when the Chamber is in session.
I know that we have all got to multitask, and I am all for that, but I think we could reach an overload, where a Member could have conflicting and very genuine responsibilities that he or she was not able to fulfil. Therefore, I think the ability to have Tuesday morning as a kind of Committee morning is a very important one that we should not disregard lightly.
The other point I would make is that as someone who has one of the longest commutes to Westminster-somewhere between six and seven hours each way-I never can be in my constituency during the week; I am either here or there. Therefore, I am here on my own. My wife is up there. My children are off the payroll, thank goodness. Broadly speaking, I am on my own.
I do not particularly need evenings to do anything else. If I am here on a Wednesday evening, as like as not I will be working in my office trying to catch up. For me, the way in which Tuesday is structured and Wednesday is currently structured works very well. With Thursday as it is, I can just about make the last flight to Inverness, which is quite useful. When this Committee is considering Members, I think it should bear in mind that Members who are a certain degree away from the metropolis and who live in their constituencies and commute for a few days will have a different view, in all probability, from Members who live in London.
The very last point I would make is that it has been my wry observation, having observed many modernisations over quite a number of years in both ends of this building, that the one certain result at the end of it is that we have given up some of our scrutiny and the Government get away with less of our attention. It may be an unintended consequence, but I would seriously ask the Committee to bear that historical result in mind.
Chair: Thank you. We will.
Q182 Mr Nuttall: Could I just go back to Sir Alan and ask him to give us his view on the calendar?
You touched on the hours quite comprehensively in your previous remarks. What are your views about the current set-up of the calendar? One fairly radical suggestion has been that we change to having a fairly set period of four or five weeks here, then a constituency week, and then back for four or five weeks. That would be one very radical change that we could make. Of course, the other contentious area is the idea of the sitting two weeks in September. I wonder whether you have a view about that as well.
Sir Alan Haselhurst: On the first one, I think there is a danger. Even if we thought it was right, the public and the press would probably give the impression that we were for ever going on holiday. It would be stop-start, stop-start.
The fact that we protest now that we spend most of the other 18 weeks that we are not sitting here doing constituency work is for the birds, so far as the general press is concerned. They will not inform the public that we are busily working away in our constituencies. I seem to remember that "And now they want another holiday?" was a headline in the Evening Standard recently, when there was the break in November, despite the fact that as many days were being sat in this Session as in the previous Session.
I remember reading that headline as I was walking out of this building at quarter to 11 at night, which did not improve my feelings about it. As I say, we must do what we think is right, but I think splitting it up in the way that is suggested as one of the alternatives would open us up to a lot more damaging comment-that we were for ever on holiday.
The September sitting, I think, is there again to counter a public perception that we are simply idle and on holiday during that 10 or 11-week break that it traditionally was. But that 10 or 11-week break was very important so far as doing major public works in this building was concerned. Believe you me, there is a heck of a lot of major work that has to be done to preserve this remarkable building, and that is the best time to get on with it. A very rough rule of thumb-I think John Thurso would agree with me; we have probably seen the same report that suggests this-is that it costs us £1.5 million on top of all else to come back in September. It adds that amount.
John Thurso: May I flesh that out a little bit? That is not an operating cost. There is not a huge difference in operating cost provided you are not doing extra days or weeks. That was the estimate that we made of the cost to the estates directorate because of the fact that instead of having a 10-week run contract it was reduced to a five-week run contract. That was the cost that was actually done. It was actually the Committee Room sound systems and various other things that were being done and it covered the 2011-12 programme.
Sir Alan Haselhurst: On the September sittings, from a Member’s point of view, September is a much more useful time in the constituency than August. The schools are not there in August. Many businesses that you might want to visit say, "Could you not wait until Mr So-and-so is back because he would like to be here when you visit?" and so on. So there is not as much you can do in August as there is in September.
John Thurso: Can I add to that? Personally, for what I do in the north of Scotland, I really miss those two weeks in September. I would rather go back to sitting towards the end of July and then having a long break, as we used to do. I got a lot more done in the constituency.
Q183 Chair: So are you saying to us, both as Chairman of the Finance Committee and as a Member, that you are against September sittings?
John Thurso: I have a very strong personal view that I would rather be in the north for those two weeks in September. The financial justification for it is purely on the capex, not on operation.
Q184 Thomas Docherty: I assure you, Chairman, that you did reflect the views of the Administration Committee.
We have not talked about the start and finish times on Thursdays. One suggestion from some colleagues was to bring forward the start and finish time by an hour. So you would have a 9.30 start with a 5 pm interruption, rather than a 6 pm one. It was suggested that that would allow some of our Celtic colleagues to make the last trains to Wales and Scotland. Do you have a view on the practicalities of that change?
John Thurso: Personally, I think no. There is a difference between starting as we do at 2.30 on a Tuesday because you have a clear morning. With Wednesday at 11.30 you also have quite a lot of morning to give you a start with a breakfast or something. By the time you have got to 10.30, moving it to 9.30 is not a vast difference. I would not personally feel too concerned about that.
Sir Alan Haselhurst: As Thursdays are very often now devoted to business provided by the Backbench Business Committee, I would hesitate to say something that could be construed as wanting to curtail that in any way. But we seem to be higgledy piggledy on the hours of starting at present. There is almost a case for saying that Thursday should be 11.30 and finish, if you need to, earlier than 6 o’clock.
The trains issue is quite a serious one, especially if the trains are crowded. Members now have to travel standard class and sometimes they are sitting on the floor on some of the services, which is not very helpful. Starting at 11.30 on a Thursday has advantages in that you could equally fit in something more before the House sits in the Chamber at that time. Some extra Back-Bench business time could be found by looking afresh at the sittings of Westminster Hall.
Q185 Mrs Chapman: You were quite clear in your introductory remarks that you felt we had reached pretty much where we could get to on the level of certainty of hours. Can I just check that that is the same? Do you agree with that, Mr Thurso?
John Thurso: Broadly. I am slightly cynical about that because whenever a Government wants to, it will keep us here as long as it likes. At the beginning of every new Parliament when there has been a change of Government you will see quite a lot of those days. When you get into the 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th or whatever year of one Government, you will probably find that it will not happen very often. So I am quite cynical about that. We have probably got as much certainty as we are likely to get.
You can get absolute certainty. We could say, "This is when we start and this is when we finish". What cynical me says is that the Government will so organise it to make sure that it gets the results it wants by constructing the business in such a way that you end up not talking about it and just voting it with the Whip. That is the danger I was referring to-that if we start compressing things, Government will just whip it anyway and just won’t talk about it.
Q186 Mrs Chapman: So you could achieve more certainty, but the cost of that would make it not worth having.
John Thurso: I think what you would give up would not be worth it.
Q187 Mrs Chapman: Does that apply to voting times as well? It has been suggested we could have more certainty on the times that we vote, maybe through greater use of deferred Divisions, for instance, and there could be set voting times. What do you think about that?
Sir Alan Haselhurst: There are certain things you cannot do by deferred Division. When you are dealing with a Report stage or if you are in the Committee of the Whole House, when one amendment may be contingent on another, you could not have a sensible discussion until you knew the outcome of the previous debate that you had had. That would deepen the outside public’s cynicism about whether or not we took any interest in what was actually going on and were voting like automatons. If you look at some of the Parliaments around the world which have the Westminster tradition as the core of their operation, it has got to the point now where in some places the Member virtually surrenders his or her vote to the Whip and it is operated on a bloc basis. Very convenient for the Member-the Member need not be there-but would we really want to go down that path? I would hope not.
Q188 John Hemming: With the trade unions, it became clear that there is some sort of negotiation going on about changing contracts. I am not quite sure which Committee, if either Committee, is responsible for that, but are there any thoughts in the renegotiation of the contracts about potential changes to sitting hours?
John Thurso: The responsibility for contracts would actually be a management responsibility, so that will be being dealt with within the management board and by-
Q189 Chair: Of which you are a member.
John Thurso: No. The management board is led by the Clerk of the House. It comprises all the directors general and has one non-executive member, Alex Jablonowski, who is chair of the audit committee. There are no Members on it.
Q190 Chair: But at some point, either it would come to you in your capacity as Chairman of the Finance and Services Committee, or it would come across your desk as a member of the House of Commons Commission.
John Thurso: Ultimately, the Commission takes every decision, but it has delegated powers to the management board over several. I would probably have to seek inspiration to find out what is exactly the case, but I believe I am in the right direction and that it would be a management board decision on the terms of each contract.
Mr Gray: There is some nodding.
John Thurso: Obviously, the Commission would take responsibility. As far as I am aware, there is no discussion about a particular change of hours, but I imagine that every contract that is being put in would provide for potential changes, and there are a lot of people who do not have contracts.
Actually, a comment was made to me by someone quite senior in the House, recently, that they quite like that. They like being here when we are all here and going away for a long time when we all go away. That is part of the atmosphere. I therefore say that, on the staff side, there are quite a lot of staff who like the arrangements we have, because it suits that ethos of working hard for us when we are here and then being able to relax when we are not here.
Chair: Thank you. We have a matter that is not strictly relevant to this inquiry, but which is relevant to something else we are looking at. Jacob Rees-Mogg has a question for you.
Q191 Jacob Rees-Mogg: While you are both here, it would be very interesting to get your views on an issue that has been raised with us-speakers’ lists. I suppose it slightly ties in, because we are discussing a balance between efficiency and scrutiny. Speakers’ lists have the virtue of sounding frightfully efficient, but I wonder if you think they lead to the best scrutiny of the Government and attendance in the Chamber.
Chair: Perhaps we should start with you, Sir Alan, as a former Deputy Speaker.
Sir Alan Haselhurst: I did have a little experience of that. I would counsel colleagues very strongly against having a written and published list, for all sorts of reasons. We are virtually now the only parliamentary democracy where we have a Speaker who becomes independent of party from the moment that he or she is chosen, and remains for ever after independent of party. That is an assurance to all colleagues, whether they are a single Member or an independent small group-sometimes an ad hoc group in rebellion against their party on a particular issue-that they are going to get a fair deal.
On the same basis, that independent person and the three who assist are trying to help colleagues who are under ever greater pressure to be here, there and everywhere, so when a Member comes up to the Chair, as is commonly the case, to say, "Am I on your list? Well, I’ve got something that’s a bit awkward. Something has cropped up. Constituents have arrived. There is a ministerial meeting. I’ve been put on a Standing Committee or a Delegated Legislation Committee," the Chair alters the list in order to accommodate that. You couldn’t alter a published list.
There is also the fact that you may come under inspection as a Member from critics if your name is not on the list when a particular subject is being debated. Quite unfairly, we don’t always get the opportunity to speak in every single debate that we might want to, but if you are considered a health expert or an expert on the situation in the Middle East or something of that kind and you are not on the list that is published, you may be open to criticism.
At the same time, there can be a breakdown in communication. Some senior Members have come up to the Chair and said, "I assume that I am on your list". You say, "Well, I am awfully sorry." "What! I spoke to the Speaker’s secretary. I did this, I did that and the other thing." You have to make a judgment from the Chair whether someone with some seniority and of some importance or relevance to that particular debate can simply be told, "Well, hard luck chum, you will not be there."
What happens if you don’t turn up, and you are on a published list? You have put in to speak and something happens at the last minute so you can’t be there. Are you going to find yourself making excuses to the Evening Telegraph that it was a bit difficult-"I am sorry, my train broke down"? There are lots of perils, and I don’t think that the conduct of the business of the House would be any better. The Chair, much more so than when I first became a Member, intends to be understanding and generous towards Members and doesn’t make them sit there for six hours when they know that there is absolutely no chance that 50 people are going to get called.
Q192 Chair: That was very helpful. Do you want to add anything, John?
John Thurso: Yes, because I have a slightly different view. I have the greatest respect for Sir Alan who was hugely impartial and extremely good in the Chair, but I did have the experience of lists in the other place. They were very useful for actually getting everybody in, particularly on time-limited starred business. It may be that Westminster Hall might be somewhere where it could appropriately be experimented with, because if you actually know there are six people who want to speak in an hour and a half, the Chair can say, "Right, I know who the six are". You leave a bit of a gap in case somebody wants to come in, as happens in the other place, but you could actually manage the time limit slightly better. If there are only two people there, well they have an hour and a half to play with.
Q193 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Did the Lords still have the convention that you stayed for the whole of the debate in which you spoke?
John Thurso: Yes; whether they still do is another matter entirely.
Q194 Jacob Rees-Mogg: It is quite an important part of it, because one of the worries is that nobody would be in the Chamber.
John Thurso: Exactly. That is a valid point.
Sir Alan Haselhurst: We say that you are expected to stay for at least one speech after that that you made, to hear the opening speeches-sometimes we were a little bit slack on that if there were a genuine reason why somebody couldn’t be there-and be there for the wind-ups.
Chair: I thank you both for giving us your time and for the evidence you have given to us, which has been very, very helpful to us. That now concludes the public part of our meeting.