Evidence on Services to the Public, 1977

The following evidence was submitted to the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services) and printed with its Eighth Report of Session 1976-77, Services to the Public, as Appendices 1 and 2 to the Minutes of Evidence (HC 509, pp 88-94).


Memorandum by the Study of Parliament Group

The Study of Parliament Group is a small association, consisting of some academics, some Clerks of both Houses and some officers of the House of Commons Library, which have been meeting regularly for the last twelve years to discuss matters concerned with the working and reform of Parliament. The views expressed in this document do not necessarily express those of every individual member of the Group.


This submission makes two distinct proposals which could be considered separately but which arise from much the same needs and would complement each other in operation.

We see two reasons for wanting both a House of Commons Information Office and a Parliamentary Bookshop: (a) a clear public need, even, it could be argued, a public right; and (b) a clear advantage to the efficient working of the House and a saving in time that should be given wholly to Members if one small office clearly had the major responsibility for dealing with inquiries from members of the public. There is a third reason that relates to the Information Office but not to the Bookshop: that the House of Lords have set up an information office. The public will think it strange indeed if they know where to go to in the Lords, but not the Commons; and if they see that the Lords alone have already taken up the responsibility for co-ordinating and extending this subsidiary but important function.

It should be noted that all the original records of the House of Commons are transferred from time to time to the custody of the Clerk of the Records of the House of Lords for permanent preservation in the air-conditioned repository of the Victoria Tower, and for production (subject to restrictive periods) to all members of the public in the Lords Record Office Search Room. This has the practical result that the Commons Library and the Lords Record Office have moved over the past quarter of a century into close co-operation concerning a wide range of historical enquiries dealing with the history of Parliament and the fabric and ornament of the Palace of Westminster. Parliamentary papers up to the moment, and all Acts and Judgements, not only historical records, may be consulted in the Record Office Search Room.


Background: Telephoning the House

l. If a member of the public looks up PARLIAMENT or PALACE OF WESTMINSTER in the London telephone directory he or she will find nothing. If he looks up HOUSE OF COMMONS he will find:

Members and Administrative staff 01-219 3000
Government Whips 01-219 4333
Opposition Whips 01-219 4267
Parliamentary Press Gallery 01-219 4700

and if he looks up HOUSE OF LORDS he will find:

Members and Administrative staff 01-219 3000
Government Whips 01-219 3131
Opposition Whips 01-219 3237

For many of the public these brief entries are the face of Parliament, so we used the telephone directory as the starting point for this brief survey.

2. In the last few years consideration has been given to helping the public in their relations with the House of Commons. Once consideration was given, among other things, to facilities for selling parliamentary papers to the public. The other occasion was when the secretary of the Press Gallery submitted a memorandum on the need for an information office to the then Leader of the House, and the Secretary of the Press Gallery was giving evidence on another subject to the Administration Sub-Committee. Nothing came of either of these proposals.

3. We started our survey ln a quite different way. We examined in detail the working of the switchboard of the Houses of Parliament and then, for the House of Commons only, looked at various departments, offices, etc, which are “meeting the public” over the telephone or by receiving their letters. The need for an information office for the Commons then appears to be quite clear, and was earnestly wanted by everyone we spoke to, from the switchboard to the office staff. If Parliament is at all concerned with what the public thinks of it then putting its own administration in order with regard to this small point would seem to be a matter of some urgency.

4. What actually happens at the moment? With regard to the telephone, about 2,000 calls a day out of a total of 20,000, come through the main switchboard. About 10 per cent of these are for information, ie not directed to a specific person. In general, the way in which the member of the public phrases the question will determine to which extension he will be put through. A few instances will give the idea:

(i) “Have you a press office/information office?” “No, shall I put you through to the Press Gallery?”

(ii) “Can you tell me the members of X Committee? The use of the word committee means, to the operator, “Committee Office”, whether it is a committee of the House or not.

(iii) “What is/has the House discussed?” Table Office.

(iv) “Stages of Legislation?” Public Bill Office.

5. It all really depends on the way the switchboard routes the call. And, of course, the above requests might also be answered by the Library. Annexe A sets out instructions given to the girls of the switchboard. As far as we know, they have never been agreed with staff on the extensions, and they represent simply the horse sense of the switchboard staff, not decisions by Senior Officers of the House or by Members. It is also switchboard policy to ask callers to note the Library extension so that they can telephone direct in future.

6. A rough breakdown of telephone calls by office illustrates the present situation:

Office Approx. Number Subject
Table Office 10 a day Mostly on the present and future programme of Parliament. Not much retrospective work.
Public Bill Office 15 a day Mostly on the present and future programme of Parliament and concerned with stages of legislation.
Journal Office 6 a day Mostly on statistics of the House, the recent unpublished data, statutory instruments and, sometimes, petitions.
Clerk 1 a day Mostly calls needing to be re-routed within the Clerk’s Department.
Vote Office 2 a day Mostly with regard to printed papers but more general questions early in the day when other offices are unmanned.
Press Gallery 12-20 a week Completely mixed bag from schoolteachers with problems about Parliament to current position of legislation. Anything with the tag Press or Information Office goes there.
Speaker’s Office 5 a week Current information on the work of the House.
Library 80 a day All the questions above plus retrospective searches.

(200 per cent increase in the last 4-5 years)

The information above is based, of course, on the estimates of staff who work on the ‘phones. It is clear that not only is there no real plan behind informing the public, but that a great deal of time and consequent frustration can be caused because people are transferred and re-transferred via a switchboard which has neither the time nor talents for investigating every enquirer’s need.

7. A certain number of enquiries by letter come to the Clerk and to the Speaker and these are handled by these offices or, when appropriate, sent to the Library. Letters sent, for example, to “the Managing Director, Parliament”, or just to the “Palace of Westminster”, go to the Serjeant at Arms Department. Some letters are sent direct to the Library especially for retrospective information. Letters addressed to the Information Office or the Press Office generally go to the secretary of the Press Gallery. Although the problem is on a much smaller scale than work on the telephone, it is clear the public expect to be able to communicate with Parliament as an institution, and not only their individual Member.

8. We think that serious consideration should be given to the present inadequate attempts by Parliament to face the public, and to the possibility that the most economic and efficient way of meeting the need is to designate as an Information Office part of the facilities of the new reference room which has been opened by the House of Commons Library in the Norman Shaw North building for Members, their secretaries, and their research assistants. Not only does the Library appear to answer over 50 per cent of these types of enquiries already, but it is equipped with extensive indexes and collections of already processed material which are needed to keep Members informed. It is necessary to have this same information available in the Norman Shaw North building and it might be possible, therefore, with only a minimum of extra staff, to set up a service for the public and inform the switchboard, post office, and departments of the House that telephone calls and letters from the public should be handled there. A more revealing entry in the Telephone Directory would help the caller. Such an office would in no way usurp the functions of any existing office of the House; on the contrary, as a co-ordinating body, able to deal with most inquiries itself, and able to route accurately a few highly specialised ones, it should save offices and staff of the House much time which should be spent more directly on Members.


9. The House of Commons Information Office would deal with inquiries from the public, both organisations and individuals, whether they come by telephone, mail or personal visit. Telephoned inquiries would automatically be routed to it by the switchboard and if necessary re-routed elsewhere. A direct line to the Office should be clearly indicated in the London Telephone Directory.

10. The work of the Office would cover broadly two kinds of information:

(i) information about subjects currently before the House of Commons;

(ii) information about the institutions of the House of Commons itself.

11. Information about the current work of Parliament is often required to meet the highly specific needs of business firms, lawyers and interest groups. But this would have to be supplied within clear limits. For instance, the Office could not answer questions about the merit, interpretation or probable consequences of Bills but would have to limit itself to their general content, progress and suggestions about further sources. The Office could be neither a general Government Information Office nor a Citizens’ Advice Centre. Nothing would be offered to the public of a kind that is not offered already, no change would be involved in the present conventions governing the relations of officers of the House to both Members and public; all that would happen is that more such information would be available in a more systematic and timesaving way.

12. Much of the information about the House of Commons itself would be requested by educational institutions, foreigners and members of the general public and would be of a kind that could normally be supplied quickly through the distribution of standard information sheets, lists of references, etc.

13. The Office would not conduct “public relations” for the House of Commons (although it might put schools etc. requesting lectures on Parliament in touch with the Hansard Society for Parliamentary Government, who could be asked to extend their work in that direction). It would make available “public but unpublished” information about parliamentary proceedings, for example the forthcoming business of Select Committees and the reference sheets and background papers of the kind produced in the Library.

14. The printed resources for the Office would involve only minimal extra expenditure as they would consist largely of material already available in the House. But the staffing and the methods of access to information could be expensive if the Office were a self-contained institution having to do its own processing. Thus it would be both logical and economical if the Office was part of the Library, but a distinct section of the Library, providing an external service quite separate from the internal services to Members and able to use the experience, materials, indexes and finding-aids that the Library has increasingly acquired during the last thirty years. The department would need to work in continuous and close co-operation with the Lords Information Office as many enquiries concern both Houses. This should result naturally from the link between the Commons Library and the Lords Record Office described above (on page 88) since the Lords Record Office is an integral part of the Lords Information Service.

15. The stock of the Office would be similar to what is available for Members in the Library’s Oriel Room, (ie Parliamentary Section), together with good telephone links. Various offices, eg Serjeant at Arms Department, Committee Office, Public Bill Office, and certain offices of the House of Lords would need to telephone information on meetings, the publication of papers, press conferences, etc, to the Information Office on a daily basis. The number of staff needed would depend on demand.


16. When so very many people visit Parliament each year, it is ridiculous that the only sales facility to the public are two stalls selling post-cards, coloured slides and booklets about the Palace of Westminster.

17. Visitors fall into five categories: (i) tourists, (ii) organised school and educational visits; (iii) people who want to listen to debates, (iv) constituents seeing their Member about personal or individual problems, and (v) others with more general or specialised business to conduct with Members. Let us examine their different needs and expectations.

18. Tourists. They may just come to see the building and the chamber. The present post-card stalls probably meet most of their needs. They would be relatively unlikely to purchase parliamentary and official papers or more general literature about Parliament.

19. School and Educational Visitors. They come “to learn about Parliament”, not just to see the building. It is certain that they would in appreciable numbers buy at the very least the cheaper COI pamphlets on Parliament and British Government, and it is very likely that they would buy a much wider range of publications, if available, both official and unofficial, both books and pamphlets, about parliament and even politics in general. These visitors include teachers as well as pupils and students whose local bookshops are often very poor indeed, particularly in official publications and serious works on Parliament and constitutional matters.

20. People who come to hear debates. Apart from some cranks and indigents coming in for the warmth, most of these are likely to be interested in politics, so that some would be likely to want the same range of general material as the teacher of politics, history, social studies or civics, plus, it is reasonable to suppose, those Bills, White Papers or Reports etc which may relate specifically to the debate they have come to hear.

21. Constituents seeing their Member. They are not likely to want any general material, but might make use of some extended facility, particularly to buy those excellently produced guides to social services, welfare rights, etc, produced by the HMSO for Departments but which, as is well known, are so unknown to most of the general public, so difficult and disadvantageous (in their terms of sale, cheapness and number) for ordinary bookshops (where they still exist) to stock.

22. Visitors with special business. Representatives of business firms, unions, pressure groups and voluntary societies of all kinds often need to and expect to be able to purchase official publications of all kinds, and are surprised to find that the nearest HMSO shop is in High Holborn. Members will sometimes give copies of parliamentary or official publications to such visitors; but it is odd that they themselves cannot purchase them in the precincts. (Although order forms for the purchase of Hansard are supplied by Doorkeepers or the Admission Order office.) They would also be likely to purchase a wider range of non-official books or pamphlets if available.

23. There would seem to be a very strong case for a Parliamentary Bookshop to serve both Houses, both to help improve the image of Parliament for the educational and the occasional visitor and for those who need to purchase parliamentary and official publications of all kinds. But the needs of the two groups differ although they overlap. The common-ground is official publications. From the point of view of the public, it must be extraordinary that there is no provision in the new plans for such a shop at least.

24. The needs of educational and casual visitors are, however, wider than official publications. They would be better served by a shop that was free to sell anything serious to do with parliament (including school books and academic books, and books wholly or mainly about Parliament written by Members or Officers of the House).

25. So we would respectfully ask the Services Committee to consider the case for at least a major branch of the HMSO to be established within the Palace of Westminster. Obviously a bookshop would best be constructed in the area where the queue for the public gallery sits and waits. A bookshop would do far more for Parliament than the maintenance of a totally unimpeded view of the historical murals at present in that area.

26. However, we would also ask the Services Committee to consider the broader need referred to in paragraph 24 above. Such a general bookshop could much more to enhance the image of Parliament, for then all visitors would have the opportunity of buying material which would reinforce the experience of their visit. A general bookshop could sell not only official materials but also those standard books and booklets about Parliament by academics, educationalists, journalists and parliamentarians of a kind that the COI would list in the bibliography of its booklet, Parliament, which is already widely bought at the two existing stalls. Official publications alone are not likely to do much for the image of Parliament among teachers, pupils and other visitors.

27. Even with serious books and pamphlets directly on Parliament, there are, of course, problems of selection and bias. This cannot be avoided in the nature of things, if the bookshop was to go beyond official publications. And we think the case for going beyond them is obvious and strong. It might follow that such a bookshop would best be run not directly by HMSO, nor by a department of either House, nor by an office of the Palace, but by an outside contractor of experience chosen by a limited tender among bookshops such as Blackwells, Bowes and Bowes, Dillons University Bookshop or the Economists Bookshop. Alternatively the Hansard Society, the National Book League or the Publishers Association itself might be able to manage such a shop. The contractor’s licence could be renewable annually.

28. Thus Members could take a narrow (HMSO) or a broad view of this proposal. There is perhaps a case for taking a still broader view that a bookshop managed by a reputable contractor, licensed by the House on such an annual basis, would be even more valuable if it could stock anything to do with politics for which there was a demand. Some Members and officials might not like the idea of polemical and partisan works being on sale, but other Members and officials might appreciate that neither the public nor the learned find it easy at all times to distinguish between the parliamentary and the political system. Most educationalists are convinced, for instance, that civic education cannot be sensibly pursued solely in terms of “learning about Parliament”, but must also include some empathetic knowledge of the great disputes and conflicts which are mediated by Parliament. Anything that can be done to increase general political awareness should, at the present time, be pursued. Members will be aware that there are few bookshops of this nature left within a reasonable distance of the homes of the vast majority of people. Where better such a shop than in the public entrance to Parliament itself? We would not reject this case on grounds of principle, but we do not press it on the grounds of practicality. For the space needed for such a parliamentary and political bookshop would be considerable if quite intolerable problems of selectivity were not to face its management. We raise this only as a future more than a present possibility.

29. Thus we urge consideration of either whether as a minimum there should not be a branch of the HMSO in the Palace of Westminster, or–perhaps better–a shop under an outside contractor that would sell other serious publications about Parliament as well as HMSO matter.

Annexe A: What the Switchboard is given

Telephone Enquiries (Extensions to which some general enquiries can be connected)
Nature of Enquiry Lords Commons
Office which deals Extn Office which deals Extn
Peer’s Titles etc Crown Office 4687
Peer’s Addresses etc Printed Paper Office 3037
MPs’ Titles, Addresses, Constituencies Library (inquiries concerning Ministers–Refer to Ministry) 3666
Business of the House
 Current debates Government Whips’ Office 3131 Table Office 3303
 Committees Sitting Public Bill Office or
Private Bill Office
Committee Office 4300
 Future Programme Government Whips’ Office 3131 Government Whip’s Office 4401
 Recess Dates etc Government Whips’ Office 3131 Government Whip’s Office 4401
Business in Progress, who is speaking etc Control Table 5359 Commons Enquiry Bureau 4343
Admission to House
 Seats in Gallery Black Rods Office 3100 Admission Order Office 3700
 Line of route Black Rods Office 3100 Serjeant at Arms’ Office 3090
 Special functions Black Rods Office 3100 Refreshment Department 3686
Refreshment Department matters 4222 General
Conference Room Bookings Head Attendant 3366 Serjeant at Arms’ Office 3090
Crypt–Functions etc. Lord Great Chamberlain’s Office 3100
How to see Peers/MPs Control Table 5359 Serjeant at Arms’ Office 3070
Photography Black Rod’s Office 3100 Serjeant at Arms’ Office 3070
Jobs in House Establishment Officer 3233 Establishment Officer 3693
Lost Property Head Attendant 3366 Hallkeeper’s Lodge 4626
Publication of Bills, Papers etc Printed Paper Office 3037 Vote Office 3631
 Members’ inquiries about entries Official Report 3031 Official Report 5262
 Public enquiries about entries Official Report 3031 Library 3666
 Publication and Supply Printed Paper Office 3037 Vote Office 3631
Delivery of Goods
 Refreshment Department 4222 4626
 Department of the Environment Engineers’ Department
Surveyors’ Department
 Other Head attendant 3366 Hallkeeper’s Lodge 4626
Record Office 3071


Further Memorandum by the Study of Parliament Group

Weekly Supplement to Hansard

There is a certain amount of information about the work of the House of Commons that is of fairly widespread interest yet is not readily available to the ordinary public. Most of this is published in the “bundle” (the Order Paper, Vote, Notices given etc.) but these papers are not easily obtained; although they can be ordered from HMSO they can only, for example, be consulted in a few of the largest public libraries. The only relevant Parliamentary publication that can easily be consulted is Hansard. It is therefore suggested that the following information should be published in Hansard each week, preferably in the issue published on Saturday:

  • The Public Bill List (showing the state of play on all public bills and the list of bills committed to Standing Committees. For bills in committee the Clause reached might also be indicated and the date of the next sitting).
  • Private Bill List (occasionally, but not weekly, list showing progress of private bills).
  • Business Statement for following week (repeat of statement made on Thursday).
  • List of select committees meeting in public in following week (as issued at present to press, but not published, showing subject of inquiry and witnesses to be heard (when possible)).
  • Membership of Standing and Select Committees (as appointed).

The Official Report may object to publication of this matter which is not part of the proceedings of the House, but this principle has already been breached by the inclusion of the Second Reading Committee Hansard Reports and of the periodical list of Ministers, officials of the House etc.

The amount of extra printing involved would not be great–about 10 pages a week.

© 1977, Study of Parliament Group

Prepared by Simon Patrick, 23 July 2001