The following evidence was submitted to the House of Commons Select Committee on Assistance to Private Members and printed as Appendix 21 to the Committee’s Minutes of Evidence, HC 375, 375-i of Session 1974-75, pp 112-18.
A submission by the academic members of the Study of Parliament Group(1) to the Select Committee on Assistance to Private Members
- The role of the Member of Parliament
- Public facilities for the individual Member of Parliament
- Research and Information Services
1. We do not regard it as necessary, nor indeed as desirable, to define the role of the Member narrowly, nor would we argue that all Members should perform the same functions. Still less would we argue that all Members should fulfil their parliamentary duties in the same way. We have therefore tried to avoid making recommendations which would impose a particular role and particular working methods on Members of Parliament.
2. We have especially avoided taking the American Congressman as an “ideal type” to which Members of Parliament should aspire. Students and critics of the House of Commons have frequently observed that the services and facilities available to British Members of Parliament compare unfavourably with those available to an American Congressman. However, Anglo-American comparisons are misleading, for, as Kenneth Bradshaw and David Pring have pointed out:
… senators and congressmen are doin g an essentially different job of work from that of their opposite numbers at Westminster. The difference … is twofold. The first is a simple difference of scale [in terms of the size of constituencies and the country as a whole] … The second if a difference of function. An American member … plays a continuing part in a governmental exercise. To mention only his law-making duties, he takes part in a range of inquiries and consultations with outside interests and staff of government departments which in Britain would be conducted within the executive organisation under ministerial control.(2)
It is especially the differing functions of Parliament and Congress–and therefore of MPs and Congressmen–which are often overlooked.
3. More meaningful comparisons can be made with the services and facilities available to legislators in other parliamentary systems. Studies of parliaments in western European democracies demonstrate that British Members are not as badly off as is often supposed.(3) British Members have better services and facilities than some of their European counterparts, but our view is that there remains considerable room for improvement at Westminster.
4. Not long ago the only “accommodation” most Members had was a locker, which was often characterised as too small for an ordinary briefcase. Moreover, until recently Members had no secretarial allowance; they were permitted free telephone calls only in the London area; free postage was available only in correspondence to Ministers, Government departments and other official bodies and persons; Members had limited access to free stationery; there were no photocopying facilities; there was a much smaller staff, and more limited services, in the House of Commons Library; travel allowances were inadequate; there were virtually no subsistence allowances; and until recently Members had a remarkably low salary.
5. Within the last ten years, however, the picture has changed considerably. More than two-thirds of all backbench Members now have desks in single or shared rooms in or close to the Palace of Westminster.(4) There is now a secretarial allowance. All telephone calls within the United Kingdom are free. Members may use ‘Official Paid’ envelopes for their parliamentary correspondence, and there is no longer a limit on the supply of stationery. The staff and services of the House of Commons Library have been enlarged. Additional travel allowances and a subsistence allowance have been introduced. Finally, Members are now paid £4,500 a year, and a basic distinction has been drawn between a Member’s salary and his expenses.
6. It can be argued that Members of the House of Commons perform a variety of roles or functions, but we believe that most Members would acknowledge two broad functions. These are, first, to scrutinise the activities of the government and, second, to represent and defend the interests of their constituents. The effective performance of these two functions requires a range of services and facilities which is more extensive than those at present available to Members. We are aware that Members disagree over whether effective scrutiny can best be achieved on the floor of the House or through select committees; that Members have varying attitudes towards the ‘welfare officer’ role in regard to their constituents; and that Members are not agreed about the level of services and facilities necessary for the effective fulfilment of their functions. In making the following recommendations these considerations have been borne in mind.
7. In 1967 Professor Bernard Crick wrote in The Reform of Parliament:
… a Member should be able to draw on public funds, or be reimbursed from them, for those essentials he needs to do his job properly: secretary, office, telephone and travel. The public having elected Members at least in part to represent their particular interests, have a right to demand that their M.P.s should be given the normal facilities without which any managerial or professional man could not be expected to function …(5)
8. The provision of an office for every Member seems to many Members and outsiders an obvious and basic necessity. There are a number of Members, however, who feel that the extension of parliamentary services and facilities in general and the provision of a separate room for every Member in particular undermines the ‘quality of parliamentary life’. This was made clear in the debates in 1973 on the proposal to construct the new parliamentary building.(6) The fear that the ‘club’ atmosphere of the House would be destroyed, that social interaction between Members would markedly decline, that camaraderie across party divisions would disappear, is understandable, but not necessarily justified. No doubt some Members, having acquired rooms of their own, would be little seen in such communal areas as the smoking room, the lounges, the bars, the dining rooms and the Library, but many of them would be Members who did not frequent such places when they lacked rooms of their own. Members’ rooms and communal gathering places must be seen as complementary facilities. The rooms across the street in the new parliamentary building would be additions to, not replacements for, those communal facilities, which are likely to remain popular with most Members. We believe that the proportion of Members who are full-time or nearly full-time MPs is likely to increase(7) and the trend towards more full-time Members is a major factor in the demand for accommodation.
9. The postponement of work on the new parliamentary building is understandable in the prevailing economic circumstances, but we would regard any cancellation of the project as a distinctly retrograde step, notwithstanding the additional accommodation that has been provided in Norman Shaw North. The plan for a purpose-built, adjacent building is vastly preferable to alternative plans which have been mooted for converting existing, less proximate buildings in the vicinity of the Palace of Westminster.
10. A natural corollary of the provision of a room far every Member is the provision of adequate office equipment. At present the secretarial allowance can be used to meet ‘general office expenses’,(8) but this does not cover the purchase of such office equipment as a typewriter, dictaphone and stapler. In our view the provision of office equipment should be a matter of general entitlement as in business or civil service establishments.
11. The secretarial allowance, now increased to £1,750, has doubtless assisted Members in meeting the rising costs of secretarial assistance; yet it remains insufficient to pay for an experienced full-time secretary in London. Members should have an allowance which can cover the salary and national insurance contributions of an experienced full-time secretary at London rates. An alternative arrangement which is sometimes suggested could be to provide each Member with a secretary from the public service, which is basically the arrangement, for example, in Canada. Not all Members, however, may wish to employ a full-time secretary and find the assistance of a part-time secretary sufficient, supplemented in some cases by assistance from the Max-Muller secretarial agency. Some may prefer to employ a secretary in their constituency or split their secretarial assistance between Westminster and their constituency; others may prefer to employ a research assistant. Those Members who find part-time assistance sufficient or who prefer other arrangements could continue to use an appropriate proportion of the allowance as they chose. Those Members who require a full-time secretary, however, would no longer be obliged to supplement the cost from their own resources, pay less than the London rate, or make do with part-time assistance.
12. The Boyle Committee asserted that “the increased intervention of the Government in the life of individuals has tended to make constituents more demanding …”.(9) There is evidence to support this in the survey conducted for the Granada Television programme The State of the Nation.(10) As noted already, we recognise that not all Members welcome the growth of the “welfare officer” role, but we do not regard this as an adequate reason for denying Members further assistance in their constituency work. As an idea we would recommend an allowance for constituency case-work that would enable Members to employ a secretary or assistant, preferably trained in social work, located in their constituencies.
13. As far as travel facilities are concerned we do not make any recommendation for an extension of the present allowances, although the Committee might wish to review the recommendation of the Boyle Committee that money be made available to enable M.P.s to inform themselves about industries which are important in their constituencies or to gather information about Private Members’ Bills.(11) We would recommend that enquiries be made as to whether the cost of administering the present system of travel allowances is greater than the cost of granting M.P.s free domestic travel on state-owned transport or some form of concessionary travel, such as is available to members of legislatures in most Western European countries. The provision of free telephone calls on parliamentary business is a precedent for this suggestion in that the Post Office found that it cost more to recover the cost of calls from Members than to allow free calls.
14. The House of Commons Library has expanded considerably in the last ten years, both in terms of staff and the range of services it provides to Members and we strongly recommend that it should continue to be the major source of research and information services for Members. It has sometimes been suggested that the “neutralist” policy of the Library’s services is either inappropriate or should be supplemented by a more policy-oriented service in the form of some sort of “alternative civil service” or “Department of the Opposition”.(12) Quite apart from the fact that such proposals are generally more concerned with providing assistance to the official Opposition or to the various opposition parties in the House, a study sponsored by the Study of Parliament Group and Political and Economic Planning which included a survey of Members, found “no scope for a collective policy analysis bureau, run by the House on similar lines to the Library’s existing services”.(13) In fact the study found only three Members out of a sample of 111 who wanted such a service. Most Members wanted an expansion and development of the research and information services of the House of Commons Library.
15. In order to provide adequate research and information the House of Commons Library needs to offer two basic services to Members. First, it should provide a “current awareness” service to give Members a regular flow of up-to-date information. This information would be circulated according to Members’ interests through a selective dissemination of information (SDI) service and would be supplemented from time to time by special reports on particular issues. Second, and most important, the Library should provide an individually solicited service supplying information specially requested by Members. The Library has, of course, offered the latter type of service for a long time, but services are inevitably limited to what the present staff can provide and the Library’s budget can bear.
16. The survey evidence gathered by Barker and Rush showed that many Members strongly supported a continuing expansion of the House of Commons Library, in particular of its Research Division, and we recommend that the graduate staff of the Library should continue to be increased with the aim of covering the responsibilities of all government departments. Consideration might also be given to the provision of official translation services, possibly in co-operation with the British Library.
17. The provision of “current awareness” and SDI services in the Library would be greatly assisted by the introduction of computer-based services. An experimental service was offered to Members in 1968 and widely used, and both IBM and ICL conducted computer demonstrations in 1973. Moreover the House of Lords has experimented with the use of computers as an aid to the passage of bills through the upper house and there is little doubt that the indexing of Hansard and parliamentary papers, the compilation of the Library’s strip indexes and bibliographies, and the handling of the large number of documents from the EEC would be greatly helped by the use of computer facilities. Computerisation would also make it easier for Members to make relevant information available to their constituents and to the general public. In 1972, however, the Services Committee concluded that the cost involved in establishing a permanent computer-assisted service was too high to justify such a service “at present”.(14) We recommend that the matter be reconsidered and that a computer-based service should become one of the Library’s long-term objectives. The cost to public funds might be reduced if the use of the computer facilities (and possibly some of the information services) could be shared with outside users.(15)
18. The Library has had under consideration the use of other mechanical aids such as micro-film, micro-fiche and video-cassette facilities. The use of micro-film would result in a considerable saving in space, which is important not only in the Library’s present accommodation, but also in the longer term. Micro-film also provides a means of filling gaps in the Library’s holdings of serials. The availability of video-cassette facilities would enable Members to view recordings of television programmes long after their original transmission. We strongly support the use of such aids.
19. Research assistants for individual Members are sometimes regarded as an alternative to the services provided by the House of Commons Library. We do not agree with this, but see them as complementary to those services. The number of Members who enjoy the services of a research assistant has increased considerably in the last few years, facilitated in part by the Rowntree Trust scheme and the fact that Members may spend up to £550 of their secretarial allowance on a research assistant. Our view is that a research assistant who is in political sympathy with the Member he is working for can provide a dimension of assistance which the Library cannot. Quite apart from this, however, the widespread use of research assistants would, if they are to be fully effective, require additional library facilities.
20. The ideal situation would be one in which each Member could, if he chose, have his own research assistant. Our minimum recommendation would be that Members should at least be allowed to spend the full secretarial allowance to employ a research assistant, if they should so choose. Much greater flexibility would be achieved, however, if Members were given a staff allowance which would be a combination of the existing secretarial allowance, our proposed allowance for constituency case-work, and any allowance that might be provided for the employment of a research assistant. Members would then be free, within the limits of the staff allowance, to employ at public expense the staff most suited to their needs. This would enable Members to choose an appropriate combination of secretarial and research assistance and to locate their staff at Westminster or in their constituencies or divide them between the two. The minimum level of the staff allowance should be the equivalent of the cost of an experienced full-time secretary at London rates, but ideally finance should be provided which would enable the Member to engage more than one person.
21. Consideration could also be given to the establishment, suggested on a number of occasions in the past, of a scheme of parliamentary research assistants or “interns”, such as exists in Canada. Of course, such a scheme, providing only a limited number of research assistants, would create problems of allocation, but there is no reason to believe that such problems are insuperable. Criteria for their allocation could be related to the parliamentary duties of a Member. For example, the Select Committee on European Secondary Legislation recently suggested that its members should be given research assistants in view of the heavy burden of work with which the committee was faced.(16)
22. Alternatively, research assistants could be attached to the Research Division of the Library rather than to individual Members or committees. Two years ago the Social Science Research Council turned down an imaginative suggestion by their Government and the Social Sciences Committee for the establishment of a limited number of post-graduate studentships earmarked for part-time higher-degree work in which the holders would be employed for a substantial but limited number of hours by the House of Commons Library. This scheme was seen both as a service to the House and as a means of increasing the number of potential university teachers, particularly in economics, social administration and politics, with a realistic appreciation of parliamentary institutions. The SSRC should be asked to reconsider this decision.
23. Two further matters on which we make recommendations fall broadly into the area of research and information services. The first relates to drafting assistance for Private Members’ Bills. Members who secure the first ten places in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills can at present claim an allowance of up to £200 towards the cost of specialised drafting assistance for such bills. This allowance is based on an assumption that the bills likely to receive consideration by the House are those promoted by the Members who draw the first ten places in the ballot. In fact the fate of bills promoted by Members is only partially dependent on their place in the ballot. Equally important is the extent to which a bill is controversial. Also significant are the quality of support a bill commands, the skill of its sponsor and sometimes the vagaries of the parliamentary timetable. At present a polemical or idiosyncratic measure that stands no chance of success, but which is high in the ballot, will attract financial assistance, while a widely supported measure lower in the ballot is denied this help.
24. We recommend that the drafting allowance be extended to all Members who draw a place in the ballot. It is not suggested that all Private Members’ Bills should be assisted. Ten-minute rule bills and those introduced under SO 37, which have less chance of ultimately receiving the royal assent than balloted bills, would remain ineligible.
25. The second matter relates to the provision of official publications for Members. The distinction between parliamentary and non-parliamentary papers has long been the subject of criticism, not to say incredulity. The distinction is supposedly based on the relevance of the publication concerned to parliamentary business and the responsibilities of Members, yet the following are examples of non-parliamentary papers: the Plowden Report on primary schools ; the Beeching Report on the future of the railways ; and the Bains Report on the management and structure of local authorities. The last quoted report was in fact sent to all local councillors. The distinction is important because whether a paper is classified as “parliamentary” or “non-parliamentary” often determines whether the paper is available to Members from the Vote Office or whether Members have to apply in writing to HMSO for it. In the latter case the Member has to pay for the paper if the Controller of HMSO determines that it is not necessary for the Member’s parliamentary duties. The distinction has become blurred by the practice in recent years of Government departments arranging for the Vote Office to stock “important” non-parliamentary papers. Further confusion has resulted from the creation of a third category–reports and documents published, not by HMSO, but by Government departments, nationalised industries and agencies such as the Civi1 Aviation Authority.
26. In our view the distinction between parliamentary papers, non-parliamentary papers and the recently created third category should be rationalised. The distinction should be based broadly on the total public importance of the publication concerned rather than narrowly on its relation to forthcoming parliamentary business.
27. A summary of our recommendations may be useful. In general the recommendations concentrate on the two vital matters of (a) accommodation and personal assistance for Members, and (b) research and information services. Three of our recommendations are somewhat less central to these two areas, but this in no way detracts from their importance. They are that the distinction between parliamentary and non-parliamentary papers should be rationalised, that the drafting allowance for Private Members’ Bills should be extended to all Members who draw a place in the ballot, and that enquiries should be made about the relative cost of travel allowances, travel concessions and free travel for Members on state-owned transport.
28. On Members’ accommodation we recommend that the construction of the new parliamentary building should proceed as planned, so that in due course there will be an adequately-equipped office for every Member.
29. On personal assistance for Members we recommend that each Member should have a staff allowance which at least enables him to pay an experienced, full-time secretary at London rates, but which could also be used to employ a full-time research assistant or more than one secretary or assistant on a part-time basis, according to the Member’s needs in his constituency and at Westminster.
30. Improved and more extensive research and information services should be provided through the continued expansion of the House of Commons Library, particularly in terms of staff, but also by the introduction of computer-assisted services and other mechanical aids.
31. In making our recommendations we have endeavoured to increase the amount of flexibility in Members’ services and facilities so that Members can tailor them to their own requirements, for these are matters which Members should decide.
Peter Richards, Michael Rush,
on behalf of academic members of the Study of Parliament Group
1. The Study of Parliament Group is a small private association, consisting of academics and Officers of the two Houses of Parliament, which has been meeting regularly for the last ten years to discuss matters concerned with the working and reform of Parliament. The views expressed in this submission do not necessarily represent those of every individual member of the Group.
3. See Review Body on Top Salaries: Ministers of the Crown and Members of Parliament (the Boyle Report), December 1971, Cmnd. 4836, Appendix E; and Michael Rush and Malcolm Shaw (eds.), The House of Commons: Services and Facilities, London, Allen and Unwin, 1974, pp 252-65.
7. A survey of MPs first elected in 1970, which was replicated in 1972, found that 48 per cent of the respondents in 1970, and 50 per cent in 1972, thought they ought to be full-time MPs (Michael Rush & Anthony Barker, Political Socialisation in the British House of Commons: A “Generational” Approach, paper presented to European Consortium for Political Research workshop, Mannheim, April 1973).
Prepared by Simon Patrick, 23 July 2001