The Study of Parliament Group: The First Twenty-one Years (2)

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Chapter 2: Early Years

Having responded to the immediate need to prepare evidence for the Select Committee, the Group began to organise its methods of work. At the meeting on 24th September 1965, at the Hansard Society, it was decided to enlarge the Group, both academic and House members, establish an Executive Committee and approve rules and a subscription of £1.1.0 a year. The Chairman elected was Sir Edward Fellowes who the previous year had become Chairman of the Hansard Society, thus personally linking the two organisations. The two secretaries were Bernard Crick and Michael Ryle and the four members of this first Executive Committee were Professors Hanson and Wiseman, and from the House, Kenneth Bradshaw and David Menhennet. It is interesting to note that while in 1964 the then Clerk of the House showed some reservations about the value of the Group, twenty one years later, of the two Parliamentary staff who were members of the original Executive Committee, though not Group officers, one is Clerk and the other Librarian of the House of Commons. Officers and members of the Executive Committee over the years are listed in Appendices 1 and 2.

In these early years membership of the Group was confined to about forty and, despite the wish of the Executive Committee as recently as 1971 to keep the membership to fifty, there has been slow steady growth over the years. The January 1985 list had over seventy names. The balance between academic members from the universities (a category which since 1981 has included Polytechnic lecturers and the staff of research institutions) and House officials has always remained about fifty-fifty; and while the majority of the House officials have always been from the Department of the Clerk of the House of Commons, there have always been a number from the Library Department of the Commons and, since early on, from amongst the Clerks of the House of Lords. The Group, at one of its earliest meetings, decided that, to facilitate frank discussion, it would not include Members of the House of Commons or parliamentary journalists in its ranks, though they might be–and frequently have been–invited to attend meetings as guests of the Group or to open discussions. This has worked well. (See Appendix 4). The resignation of Professor John Mackintosh when he was elected an MP was one result of this policy.

The finances of the Group have been modest but ably managed. Funds have been from four main sources. First, there have been membership subscriptions which rose to £3 a year in 1979. In 1970 the Group achieved charitable status. Secondly, there were some modest grants to sustain the Group in its opening years. On 19th November 1966 the Nuffield Foundation made the Group a grant of £250 a year for three years and in 1971 a further grant of £100 a year for five years. Thirdly there have been over the years successful applications to the Social Science Research Council and the Nuffield Foundation for grants to support particular projects. Finally, in recent years, there has been a royalty income from publications which has comfortably met the Group’s very modest routine needs.(1)

As well as responding to the need to give evidence on procedure, the Group also sent a memorandum based on the work of the Study Group on Research and Information to the Library Sub-Committee of the newly established House of Commons (Services) Committee. It was dated July 1966 and concentrated on the need to expand the inadequate research facilities and also library facilities of the House. These seven pages of evidence were not published. Oral evidence was given by Crick and Richards on 13th July but it was not ordered to be printed. The Study Group examining those questions of research and information under Richards then advocated that the SSRC should now give PEP a grant for work in this area. This turned out to be over £5,000 to conduct ‘A survey of Research and Information facilities available to Members of Parliament’ and £3,500 of that was used by the SPG to put the research work in hand. The senior researcher selected was Anthony Barker who had just given evidence along with Sir Edward Fellowes, both in a private capacity, to the Select Committee on Financial Procedure. There followed four years hard work by Barker, soon joined by Michael Rush, supported by other members of the Group and, where appropriate, by several members of the House of Commons Library staff and finally the publication in 1970 of the first study in its field and that a major one: The Member of Parliament and his Information. The book remains a standard work of reference.

A second Study Group meanwhile was examining ‘The relations of an Ombudsman to Parliament’. The urgency was to issue a statement before the Government’s recent White Paper, The Parliamentary Commission for Administration, Cmnd 2767, was debated. By 17th December 1965 a Report on the Parliamentary Commissioner and Parliament had been made and circulated privately; although not published it was used by the more serious newspapers.

The tradition of holding an annual dinner in a London club to which the Group invited a guest speaker and a few others was started in December 1965. This first one was held at the Athenaeum (‘the cost of the dinner will be £2 a head including sherry and wine, £1 for teetotallers’) and the guest speaker was the former Clerk of Committees Mr. Louis Abraham who spoke about “Parliamentary Privilege”. Since then the London dinners have been held in the summer at the Reform, the Garrick and the Oxford and Cambridge Clubs. A list of guest speakers is to be found in Appendix 4.

The reputation or certainly the self esteem of the SPG was boosted when Donald Chapman MP, Chairman of the Procedure Committee, approached Bernard Crick asking the Group to submit a more detailed paper on the drafting of bills. In time this led to the Group’s written evidence to the 1966-67 Select Committee on Public Bill Procedure.

Giving evidence to Select Committees was not the only method of influencing change: an alternative was to discuss matters with relevant Ministers, direct. On 5th January 1967 the Executive Committee dined with Richard Crossman, then Leader of the House, to discuss Parliamentary Reform.(2) Following the Crossman dinner it was decided to establish a Study Group on the work of the House of Lords or Relations between the Houses. But more information was to come from the Leader of the House when he met Bernard Crick on 20th March 1967 and when, with a characteristic broad sweep, Crossman stated two problems minuted in note form as follows.(3)

  1. The drafting of legislation, great variations in style, level of detail, use of Orders: provision for easy amendment of Orders, sheer comprehensibility (much criticised by Judges). He said the Lord Chancellor is keenly interested in this, is studying the problem and going to report to him–working in conjunction with the Law Commissions.
  2. A more fundamental problem is a lack of coordination at the pre-drafting stage, often a lack of clear drafting instructions. Legislation comes up in too great a variety of forms and often, too often, with insufficient use of delegation so that Parliamentary time is cluttered up with amending bills eg. Housing and Agriculture in recent years.

Bernard Crick focussed attention on the consequences of these views as he saw them:

    “There was need for a ‘purely academic’ study, not considering political difficulties concerning 1. What could the Lords do which would save time for the Commons? 2. How much more could the Lords do in the scrutiny of delegated legislation? 3. Could the Lords decide more systematically what things to debate or even to report on by Select Committees in order to fill gaps not covered at all by the Commons or not covered adequately? In short would it be possible to devise: ‘a model of what might sensibly be done to rationalise relations between the Houses, to achieve a functional division …”

These weighty matters were discussed on 20th March 1967 by a Study Group on ‘Relations between the Two Houses’ of which Crick was convenor. It was agreed that the work on the House of Lords then being undertaken by the Hansard Society would not overlap that of the SPG’s Study Group. However at the end of half-an-hour’s discussion ‘no clear body of opinion emerged’. This Study Group was not a successful one and at the 1967 annual meeting it was agreed: ‘not to continue the Working Committee (Study Group) because it was too late and too difficult to make broad recommendations about reforms for the House of Lords’. However at the next Annual General Meeting several officers of the House of Lords were proposed for membership of the SPG.

The second annual conference was held at Brighton on 18th-20th November 1966. First the Study Group’s report on Regionalism in Parliament was discussed in a ‘full and lively’ fashion, but the subject was not pursued by the Group. (Subsequently an article called Regionalism and Parliament appeared in the Political Quarterly during 1967.) Secondly there was a discussion of the work of the Study Group on Parliamentary Control of Expenditure and Taxation where the Group: ‘had decided not to put a full document before the Group but to air their differences …’. The weekend concluded with a general discussion of the SPG’s way forward now: ‘that the period of operating solely as a “pressure group” on matters of Parliamentary reform was largely passed–both in the changing circumstances and in that the Group had said most of what it wanted to say’. The Group decided not ‘to become purely a learned society’ and then, possibly a little lost where to go, fixed on the idea of working ‘as an informal learned society’. In practice little was to change in its working methods of setting up small voluntary Study Groups aiming at possible evidence to Select Committees or possible publications. The idea of evening meetings held at Westminster was first suggested and, a sign of the Group’s growing need to devolve its activities, a post of Deputy Chairman was created.

After the second Brighton annual conference it had been decided to hold the 1967 conference in ‘the home counties’. The venue turned out to be the Star and Garter Hotel, Richmond, 17th-19th November 1967 and a discussion took place which concluded that some members of the Group might prepare a number of essays on parliamentary developments with the common theme being: ‘how Parliament has adjusted or should adjust its procedures, and activities to changing needs’. A title was settled on, namely Parliament in Transition, which subsequently became The Commons in Transition, and was edited by Hanson and Crick. Later editions were The Commons in the Seventies, edited by Walkland and Ryle, published in 1977, and The Commons Today edited by Walkland and Ryle, published in 1981. All were brought out in paperback by Fontana and the later editions especially turned out to be a financial success for the Group. The Commons in the Seventies for instance sold over 15,000 copies. There was also a hard back edition. The royalties on The Commons Today have been even greater than on earlier editions.

The guest speaker at the Richmond weekend dinner was John Silkin MP, the Government Chief Whip, who was accompanied by A. H. “Freddie” Warren. At 10 pm Mr Silkin interrupted his address to listen to the news indicating it would be of interest to everyone in the room. It was announced that the £ had been devalued from $2.80 to $2.40 and Mr Silkin ‘continued without comment’. It was at this meeting that the idea of preparing a history of the Whips Office was first suggested but although after an approach from ‘No. 12’ some preliminary work was started by a Study Group the project had to be dropped in April 1969.

On 4th April 1968 the ever active Bernard Crick drafted a paper to the Executive Committee: ‘for a submission to the Social Science Research Council for a Research Programme on the Working of Parliament’. The areas he thought should be covered included:

  1. Following The Member of Parliament and his Information being prepared by Barker and Rush, there should be studies of the whole process of communications and policy formulation associated with Parliament.
  2. A study of the relationships between Parliament and the press.
  3. An evaluation and empirical study of the effectiveness of the new (Crossman) Committees in opening up and/or controlling administration.

He saw a phased scheme of research over five or six years to be administered by the Acton Society. First reaction was quite favourable although some Clerks in the Group ‘were alarmed that the envisaged research programme would alter the nature of the Group’. The different emphasis as between ‘reform’ and ‘study’ by the Group was surfacing and a major debate took place, mostly on paper. But disagreements and discussions finally resulted, after a meeting of the Executive Committee on 19th July 1968, in a far clearer programme namely to investigate:

  1. Communications between Parliament, the Press and the Public
  2. Services available to Parliament, the use made of them, personnel and experience elsewhere
  3. Procedures within Parliament with special reference to Public Bill procedure.
    The three conveners in order of these titles were Crick, Menhennet and Ryle.

The distillation of these projects was first examined by the Group as a whole at their fourth Annual General Meeting, and the first to be held at Exeter College, Oxford 13th-15th December 1968. The Group’s annual weekend has been held there normally during the first week of January ever since and the Group is grateful to successive Rectors of the College, Sir Kenneth Wheare, Mr. W. G. Barr and Lord Crowther-Hunt for their kindness, even if the rigours of the Junior Common Room sometimes recall a little too sharply the austerities of members’ undergraduate days. At this first Oxford meeting papers were submitted by the three convenors. Crick argued for research into ‘what kind of proceedings in Parliament get the most publicity and why’. Menhennet suggested a study group to study ‘the whole field of Parliamentary Services’ and Ryle proposed four areas of procedure for consideration namely: General debate, Parliamentary Questions, Debates on Bills and Delegated Legislation. Topics 3 and 4 he thought might be postponed for a few years. The Group’s full discussion on this programme took place on 14th December 1968 when it was agreed that the procedure project should be General debates, Questions and debates on delegated legislation; that Menhennet’s paper on Parliamentary Services and Information should be taken up and that Crick should be encouraged to pursue his pilot study of the publicity given to certain Parliamentary proceedings. Five years later, in 1974, the project outlined in Menhennet’s paper was to be published as The House of Commons: Services and Facilities edited by Michael Rush and Malcolm Shaw. It was a surprising success selling 1,600 copies in the first few months. About ten years later a working group prepared an updating work The House of Commons: Services and Facilities 1972-82 which was edited again by Rush and published by PSI. The considerable administrative changes during that decade are covered together with an account of more general developments. The guest speaker at this first Oxford weekend was Quintin Hogg MP who opened a very lively discussion on Parliament and the British Constitution which ran into the early hours.

As a development of the Ryle paper mentioned above, a third evening meeting was organised on 25th February 1969 on public bill legislation and delegated legislation which was addressed by Douglas Houghton, MP and Graham Page, MP. About twenty people came which was regarded as a disappointing attendance for an evening meeting at Westminster.

Meanwhile the question of the Study Group on the House of Lords had not completely died. Indeed members of the Government wished to discuss the matter, and the Executive Committee dined with Lord Shackleton Leader of the House of Lords on 2nd January 1969, and some of them with Fred Peart, Leader of the House of Commons, on 7th March 1969. The Study of Parliament Group was quickly making its mark. However with the suspension of the possibly politically contentious Parliament (No. 2) Bill this particular Study Group was finally wound up.

There was no lack of other projects and at about the same time the Royal Commission on the Constitution was established. The SPG put out feelers about giving evidence. At the Annual General Meeting held at Oxford 10th January 1970 Hunt, who was a member of the Royal Commission, asked the Group to prepare evidence on:

  1. The six major faults in the Constitution and the remedies for them
  2. How the House of Lords could be reformed to provide for regional representation
  3. Whether committees representative of the regions could be established in the House of Commons or a regional basis introduced into existing committees.

A special meeting to consider this invitation was arranged for 13th February 1970. At that gathering in the House of Commons, Hunt spelt out the Commission’s need in greater detail and a Study Group under Peter Bromhead was immediately established. By the annual meeting at Oxford 1971, six papers had been prepared of which four were agreed to with amendments, namely:

  1. Covering note to the Commission
  2. Scrutiny by the House of Commons of Government policy and administration
  3. Welsh Committees of the House of Commons
  4. The mechanism of Scottish Government.

Among those contributing to the discussion was William Whitelaw, Leader of the House of Commons, who had as guest speaker the previous evening considered the work of Select Committees. The papers which were finally sent in were in response to the Commission’s invitation for the SPG: ‘to give its views on how far the influence of the various nations, countries and regions of the United Kingdom on the central policy-making and administrative processes might be increased by Parliamentary reforms’. While the SPG finally endorsed only three of the papers, one subject to reservations, its approach was a conservative one–to build on the Scottish Grand and Standing Committees and the Welsh Grand Committee and suggesting the possible appointment of further regional committees. The papers published in 1973 as Commission on the Constitution: Research Papers 5 Aspects of Parliamentary Reform included:

  1. English Regional Committees in Parliament
  2. Welsh Committees in the House of Commons by R. L. Borthwick
  3. The mechanism of Scottish Government by J. S. Berridge and J. Kellas
  4. Scrutiny by the House of Commons of Government policy and administration by S. Walkland
  5. Possible adaptation of the House of Lords by P. Bromhead.

Two further new projects were considered during this weekend. First, Bernard Crick, who was convenor of a Study Group on a Parliamentary Digest proposed that it would be useful to have a published Weekly Index of Parliament’s work, and also for a Digest to be prepared three times a year. These ideas were taken up, an SSRC grant obtained and a lot of abortive work took place trying to prepare a convincing ‘mock up’ of what was required. In the end the unused money was paid back to the SSRC but later the SPG, in giving evidence to the Services Committee examining Services for the Public, was able to draw on this experience and following recommendations by the Services Committee, from session 1978-79 the Public Information Office of the House of Commons Library has published a Weekly Information Bulletin. And to cover the second SPG idea of a Digest at regular intervals, starting with session 1983-84, the same Public Information Office has responded to another Services Committee recommendation by preparing a Sessional Information Digest. The second project was for a major work then entitled Development of Parliamentary Procedure in the 20th Century … ‘to some extent a continuation of Redlich’s work’. As with the earlier book Parliament in Transition, the word Parliament was to be replaced by House of Commons and eight and a half years later with the help of an £1,800 SSRC grant, two other small grants from the Nuffield Foundation, and a great deal of work by contributors and the editor, what is generally regarded as the SPG’s most distinguished publication came out as The House of Commons in the Twentieth Century edited by Walkland, 1979. Contributors were both academics and Parliamentary officials.

While these new long-term projects were being undertaken, the House of Commons Procedure Committee was at work again on the Process of Legislation and by dint of fast work, a memorandum was sent in by Hanson, Richards and Walkland which was subsequently published in July 1971 as written evidence. This was the last piece of evidence from the SPG to a Procedure Committee for some years.

The evening meeting held in 1971, which had the advantage that the Group could entertain Members and guests to drinks afterwards, was concerned with the work of the Expenditure Committee and was addressed by Neil Marten MP and Dick Taverne MP, both Sub-Committee Chairmen. Whether it was the subject or the drink, the number attending was double the recent average and a number of Members including Edward Du Cann made interesting contributions. However the Executive Committee reflecting further decided that future evening meetings should include SPG contributors, not just ‘outside speakers’.

Another major project had been started following a report by Ryle of the work of a Study Group on Legislative Procedure and Practices of the House of Commons. The idea had originally been reported to the Annual General Meeting 1969. By 1971 there had been a successful application to the SSRC for a grant and Professor John Griffith was at work. This research was to be published in 1974, as an important detailed study of Government bills during the sessions 1967-68, 1968-69 and 1970-71 with the title Parliamentary Scrutiny of Government Bills by J. A. G. Griffith. The speaker at this 1971 annual dinner was an old friend of the SPG, Richard Crossman, who discussed the procedural reforms for which he had been responsible in the last Parliament.

It was not surprising that the January 1972 Annual General Meeting should see the establishment of a new Study Group on the effect on the British Parliament of Britain’s membership of the European Communities. Prime Minister Heath was to sign the Treaty of Accession with the Community on 22nd January 1972. By June 1972 the Group was speculating on the publication of the paper ‘The Consequences for Parliament of British Membership of the European Communities’ possibly through the Hansard Society though eventually it appeared in 1973 as a PEP Broadsheet written by David Coombes. The memorandum was first sent to the Maybray-King Committee of the House of Lords and the Foster Committee of the House of Commons which were both studying how Parliament should handle EC draft legislation etc.; the Committees took no formal oral evidence from the SPG. This is a good example of the Group working quickly in order to fill a very obvious gap. An evening meeting was held on 6th December 1972 on the same subject with Sir Robin Turton and John Mackintosh as the Members and, as agreed the previous year, two SPG speakers contributed who were Nevil Johnson and David Coombes. Our joining the European Communities resulted in three Clerks in the House of Commons and one in the House of Lords leaving to take up posts with the European Parliament. Three of these were members of the SPG and two retain their membership so for some years the Group has the benefit of European Parliament officials remaining closely in touch with and contributing to its work.

During 1973 the Group considered studying and assessing the achievements of the House of Commons Expenditure Committee, the establishment of which had been one of the major reforms of recent years. However it was discovered that the proposed work would overlap with academic research already started and in this case it led to Dr Ann Robinson, who was already investigating the question, being asked first to address the Group and subsequently to join it.

While during the first years of the SPG there had been great activity in the area of procedural reform, by the mid 1970s there was also emphasis on the personal staff of Members and resources both for them and for informing the public concerning Parliament’s work. It was also important to discuss the role of Members’ personal staff and of the Library Department’s research staff in connection with research assistance. Two Select Committees were involved in examining these subjects. First there was the Select Committee on Assistance to Private Members which issued two reports during the session 1974-75 and secondly there was the Services Committee which issued a report, Services for the Public, during session 1976-77. The SPG gave written evidence to both Committees.

The great growth in Members’ personal staff was stimulated when in 1969 Members were first given an annual allowance for paying their secretarial and/or research assistants. In a few years these staff could be numbered in hundreds and in time their cost in £ millions. On 19th December 1974 an ad hoc select committee was set up under Mr. (now Sir) William van Straubenzee: ‘to examine the present support facilities available to Private Members in carrying out their duties in this House, in particular research assistance on matters before Parliament’. When its work was concluded it made an important report which unfortunately was never considered by the House. In particular it discussed the relationship between research assistance provided by the House of Commons Library and the work of research assistants attached to Members. The SPG evidence signed by Richards and Rush ‘on behalf of academic members of the Study of Parliament Group’ stated: ‘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’. However they concluded: ‘Improved and more extensive research and information services should be provided through the continued expansion of the House of Commons Library’.

The SPG Memorandum submitted to the Services Committee, which in February 1977 began to examine the question of Parliament’s Services for the Public, concentrated on three specific subjects. These were the need for a House of Commons Information Office, a Parliamentary Bookshop and a form of weekly information bulletin as a supplement to Hansard. Following acceptance of the Services Committee report the House of Commons Information Office was set up as a part of the Library Department in the recently acquired Norman Shaw (North) building and a Weekly Information Bulletin introduced, but the Parliamentary Bookshop has only recently been given a place in Phase I of the Bridge Street development. It should open in 1990.


1. A worried minute of 15th September 1966 reported the SPG overdrawn by £6.6.2d because: ‘the dinner (Athenaeum 15th June 1966) had cost more than expected’. The Group’s treasurers have always been models of financial rectitude.

2. Diaries of a Cabinet Minister by Richard Crossman Vol. 2 p. 187.

3. This meeting on a busy Crossman day did not merit a Diary entry.

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Prepared by Simon Patrick, 7 February 2001. Correction made 7.7.2001. Links to evidence added 24.7.2001 and 1.8.2001. © 1985, Study of Parliament Group