Orders of the Day — Sir Thomas George Barnett Cocks, KCB, Obe

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th December 1973.

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4.42 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Prior Mr James Prior , Lowestoft

I beg to move, That Mr. Speaker be requested to convey to Sir Thomas George Barnett Cocks, KCB, OBE, on his retirement from the Office of Clerk of this House, the expression of Members' deep appreciation of the distinguished services which he has rendered to this House in the conduct of its business during the last forty-three years, and their gratitude for his unique contribution in disseminating British practices and procedures. This motion in the names of the Prime Minister, the Leaders of the Opposition Parties and myself, taken as it is in the shadow of sombre events and changes, provides us with an opportunity of reminding ourselves of happier aspects of the House which do not change and our dependence on the devoted services of the permanent Officers of the House and in particular on the long and honoured line of Clerks who have over so many years—indeed over several centuries—served Parliament so well.

Sir Barnett himself has reminded us in the past about the time when he first entered the Clerk's Department in 1931, at a time when the Stationery Office still issued sharpened quills to the House and when we used to burn 80 tons of coal a week in the winter. He spoke of having been taught his parliamentary practice by men who had been here in Gladstone's day—the tradition recorded by Hatsell, Erskine May and Campion. Sir Barnett has kept the best traditions of the House alive and growing, but I do not think that he would wish me to lay too much stress on the traditional side of his services to the House. I recall with pleasure an exchange he once had, during evidence that he was giving to a Select Committee on Procedure, with my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) about new procedure for electing a Speaker. The hon. Lady queried whether it would not be a big change to alter a procedure dating back to 1300, to which Sir Barnett replied, a little tongue in cheek, I suspect: The Clerks usually are rather revolutionary in their outlook. They would have no objection to a change however drastic. Nor has Sir Barnett confined this willingness to change to such minor matters as his advocacy of getting rid of wigs, gowns, and other nineteenth century formalities. On far more fundamental points he has been willing, like his predecessors, to look to the interests of parliamentary Government in its widest context. In 1949 he was one of the original Clerks to go to Strasbourg. He has created a manual of procedure for the Council of Europe and WEU. He is the author of an authoritative handbook on the procedures of the European Assembly.

Important though Sir Barnett's services to the future and to other parliamentary institutions will, I am sure, prove to have been, however, I think it must be with reference to his past services here that I must conclude. For more thon 40 years in the Clerk's Department, and for 12 years in the exacting post of the Clerk of the House, he has given authoritative, impartial and invariably courteous advice to hon. Members of all parties. He has been a great source of procedural wisdom in day-to-day business as well as in evidence to Select Committees and the revisions of Erskine May.

Sir Barnett has always been helpful to the Front Benches, although I fancy he has, quite rightly, been biased in favour of the individual Member. Obviously this is right, and the back benchers have special reason to be grateful to him.

This is essentially a personal occasion on which the House pays its tribute to a dedicated public servant. Beyond this, however, as we wish him a long, happy and active retirement in the company of his wife and family, we recognise in him a great tradition of public service to this House—a tradition which he so ably represented and which he hands on, enhanced, to his successor.

4.46 p.m.

Photo of Mr Douglas Houghton Mr Douglas Houghton , Sowerby

In the unavoidable absence of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition I have been asked to associate my right hon. and hon. Friends very warmly with the motion. We wish, too, Mr. Speaker, that you will convey to the Clerk of the House on his pending retirement the deep appreciation and, indeed, the affection of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

There are two parts to the motion. One refers to Sir Barnett's duties as Clerk of the House in the more domestic sense. The latter part refers to his contribution to the wider study of the institution of Parliament throughout the Commonwealth and the world. On the first part, all my hon. Friends on the back benches have found in Sir Barnett Cocks a very willing helper and counsellor on matters of procedure, when asking him to connive at or approve of what was afoot. He has lent his wide experience and knowledge of procedure and the possibilities of procedure of this House to private Members, who had their own private schemes, to make the most of their opportunities. We always look for that in a Clerk of the House. We have regarded the Clerk as a friend and counsellor as well as the Clerk of the House itself.

On the second part of the motion, it is appropriate to say that Sir Barnett has not only been an Officer of the House but one of the most persuasive and convinced exponents of the institution of Parliament. He has not only a strong feeling of affection for the House but a deep understanding of the social change brought about through a representative Parliament in a free society.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to some of his works on the parliamentary institutions both here and in Europe, but the Opposition noticed with particular appreciation the sort of thing that Sir Barnett did in 1952, when he wrote, in conjunction with a former Librarian, a book entitled "The People's Conscience", when he gave us a description of the work of Select Committees of this House in the nineteenth century, investigating some of the deeper inequalities and shortcomings of society at that time. He was editor of the Erskine May 18th Edition in 1971 and has in the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, here and overseas, lent his wide experience and knowledge to his opposite numbers and other colleagues from Commonwealth Parliaments on matters of procedure and practice in this House.

Now that Sir Barnett is to be released from the fatigue and restraints of service to this House, I am sure that it is our wish that he may be moved to tell us more about the parliamentary institution as he has seen it for the last 43 years. Those of us working here, engaged in the political and parliamentary struggle, probably do not always appreciate the real significance of the institution of Parliament. I believe that the institution of Parliament has to be defended in a world which is not creating new parliamentary democracies and where many of those that exist are losing ground in the face of deep-seated forces for the overthrow of representative government. I look forward to seeing from Sir Barnett a freer expression of his views of the institution of Parliament.

I am not in favour of retirement. I believe that retirement is one of the few opportunities in life for looking forward. It is not until one reaches that stage that one takes stock of life and says, "What can I now do for the rest of my time?" I am sure that the whole House wishes the Clerk of the House a long retirement and a fruitful and happy time, one in which we can look for further wise comments and counsel on the work we do in the House of Commons.

4.51 p.m.

Photo of Mr Jeremy Thorpe Mr Jeremy Thorpe , North Devon

It is with very great pleasure that I associate my right hon. Friends with the gratitude we all feel to Sir Barnett Cocks for his very long and equally distinguished period of service to this House and wish him and Lady Cocks a very happy and fruitful retirement. As with the right hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), I hope that retirement will not preclude Sir Barnett from pursuing matters literal and political, which we shall study with very careful attention.

The Clerk of the House has perhaps the unique distinction of being the first official with whom a Member comes into contact. He has very great power because it is not until he has successfully delivered the oath that we are entitled to draw our salaries. He himself has to take an oath to make true entries, remembrances, and journals of the things done and passed in the House of Commons. It is daunting to think of the millions of words and the hundreds of thousands of motions which Sir Barnett has truly recorded for all time. One can only hope that he showed discretion in sub-editing.

The duty of the Clerk of the House is to assist Mr. Speaker and advise Members on the proceedings of the House. From that, one might aduce that Mr. Speaker requires no advice and Members no assistance. But I suspect that both are required and I know from my own experience that both have been freely given.

We want not only to thank Sir Barnett for his very great courtesy and his expertise, but to thank also all the Clerks who serve with him and are part of the team. I particularly remember the memoranda of the evidence, both written and oral, which he tendered on highly intricate points of law to the Select Committee on Procedure and which were always a very great joy and experience to read.

I must here declare an interest. The Boundary Commissioners were kind enough to include the town of Bideford in my constituency, which happens to be Sir Barnett's birth place, and I have reason to believe that he will repair there with some frequency in future. Whether he will do that on a sufficiently permanent basis to be enrolled on the electoral register, I do not know. But even if that were so it would be improper for me to ask him what his intentions might subsequently be. However, as far as I am concerned, unlike the rest of the House, I shall from time to time have him locally available for me to receive first-hand advice on parliamentary matters, and I must warn him that on his retirement I intend to avail myself of it.

Today, we thank a very distinguished and loyal servant of this House. We thank him for what he has done and wish him and Lady Cocks a very happy retirement. He takes with him the good wishes of the whole House.

4.54 p.m.

Photo of Mr Robin Turton Mr Robin Turton , Thirsk and Malton

I must admit that when I decided, seven years ago, not to seek re-election the last thing I expected was that I would outlast the Clerk of the House. Therefore, it puts me in a difficult position. Looking around me, I see that the right hon. Member for Vauxhall (Mr. Strauss), my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) and I represent the sole survivors of what one might describe as the "pre-Cocks era" of Parliament. But I would like to add my tribute to the services that the Clerk has given to back benchers and to Chairmen of Committees during his service in the House. Sir Barnett has always marked that service by exceptional courtesy.

I have had more intimate experience of him because, Mr. Speaker, in spring 1959 one of your predecessors sent Sir Barnett, the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Bottomley) and myself to Ghana to present a Speaker's Chair to the National Assembly. I found there that Sir Barnett was very helpful in dealing with some of the peculiar informalities to which we were subjected.

As we advanced to present the Chair in the Ghanaian National Assembly, we were led up by the Assembly's Serjeant at Arms, who had held similar office in the Ghanaian constabulary. As we advanced near the Table—I was following immediately behind Sir Barnett—I heard a whispered order, "About turn, quick march", and whereupon obeyed. But it is somewhat difficult when one is in close single file, as Sir Barnett, I and the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East, were to retire from a Chamber in such circumstances. I inquired what was wrong when we got outside, and the Serjeant at Arms explained that he had forgotten the Mace. We then started the procession all over again. This was one of the informalities of the occasion which I have not previously reported to the House.

The other informality has already been reported by the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East. After Sir Barnett, the right hon. Gentleman and I had delivered our message of presentation. Dr. Nkrumah and his Cabinet dashed down from the Government benches, picked up the Speaker's Chair, put it on their shoulders, took it up to the dais and thrust Mr. Speaker into it in a rather rougher manner than that in which you, Mr. Speaker, came into the Chair of this House.

I should like to pay tribute to the way in which Sir Barnett, in his capacity of Clerk of the House, has helped the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in all the work that it does, particularly in the very nice and informal way in which he and Lady Cocks have entertained delegates at the seminars in their own residence here in the Palace of Westminster. It has made them the friends not only of the British Parliament but of Members of Parliament throughout the Commonwealth.

Like the right hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), I hope that when Sir Barnett retires he will give us a little bit more than he has given us in the dusty pages of Erskine May. He knows more about the law of contempt than, I believe, anyone else in the country. It is a subject of which the House is, I often think, in some submissions to you, Mr. Speaker, woefully ignorant, and I think that we could learn a great deal from an explanation of what the law of contempt really is from the hands of Sir Barnett.

Finally, in the very difficult position which faces the House in the reform of procedure, it would be a great gain to us if he would tell us how we can so reform our procedure as to get more effective debate in Parliament and at the same time discharge the increasing responsibilities thrown on us from our entry into Europe, so that we can compress these debates into parliamentary time, fitting them into the ordinary timetable—perhaps a timetable which is not so prolonged as it is at present.

I wish Sir Barnett and his lady wife many years of retirement.

4.58 p.m.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey De Freitas Mr Geoffrey De Freitas , Kettering

I wish to refer particularly to Sir Barnett Cocks' work for the Council of Europe. In a European international parliamentary assembly, inevitably the procedure is predominantly Continental. There are only two parliaments in the Consultative Assembly which have the Westminster system—the United Kingdom and Malta. Yet many of the best features in the procedure of the Consultative Assembly come from our House and are British.

It is to Sir Barnett, as the Leader of the House mentioned, that we owe the manual of the Assembly. It is short and extremely pleasant and easy to read. I read it from cover to cover on holiday while lying on golden sands washed by the Mediterranean—something I have never attempted to do with Erskine May. It is very much to our credit that an eminent Englishman like Sir Barnett Cocks has been able to help Continental Members of Parliaments by giving the best from this country and mixing it with the best of their own.

I know that I speak for all those who have had the task of organising the debates in the Assembly of the Council of Europe—whether Belgian, British, Danish, French, Italian or Swiss—in thanking Sir Barnett for what he did behind the scenes to make easier the development of international multilingual parliamentary debate.

5.1 p.m.

Photo of Miss Irene Ward Miss Irene Ward , Tynemouth

I should like to add my good wishes and thanks to Sir Barnett. Recollecting the past, I think that he entered the Clerk's office in the same year as I entered Parliament. Therefore, it is a great pleasure to be here today to add my thanks and to extend good wishes to him.

We have been served marvellously by Sir Barnett. I think that he and the other Clerks of the House are the only people in this place with whom I never really had any arguments. At any rate, Sir Barnett has always been a good friend and adviser to me.

I think we all recognise that as Clerk of the House Sir Barnett has extended the contribution and service that he has rendered to the British Parliament to much wider spheres of activities during the time that I have been a Member of the House.

From time to time I have travelled about the world and spoken of our parliamentary system. It has always been a great pleasure for me, when I have tried to outline our procedure and the basis from which it stems, to say that the Clerks of the House, and Sir Barnett in particular, have played a fundamental part in our procedure. I doubt whether any country in the world owes so much of its parliamentary system to the basis from which the Clerks operate.

I am delighted to be here today to wish Sir Barnett and Lady Cocks a very happy retirement. I hope that he will write his memoirs or in some other way give us further advice. It is both a sad and a delightful occasion to add my words to the tribute that the House of Commons is paying to Sir Barnett today.

5.3 p.m.

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), as usual, made a most felicitous statement when he referred to the support that Sir Barnett had given to back benchers. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House who are particularly interested in parliamentary affairs would wish to be associated with that statement.

I, too, have a small story that I should like to tell. A former Leader of the House—I regret to say a former Labour Leader of the House—once developed the technically correct but nasty habit of laying procedural motions five minutes before the House rose on the night before they were due to be discussed. This made it somewhat difficult for hon. Members to put down amendments to them. But the Clerk solved this difficulty admirably. First, he drafted the motion concerned for the Leader of the House and then, for those who wished to put down amendments, he drafted the amendments so that they all appeared the next morning and could be discussed.

In this and in many other ways Sir Barnett Cocks has always taken care, as he always put it, to try to serve every hon. Member, whether a Minister or back bencher. We all recognise and appreciate that fact.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, nemine contradicente, That Mr. Speaker be requested to convey to Sir Thomas George Barnett Cocks, K.C.B., O.B.E., on his retirement from the Office of Clerk of this House, the expression of Members' deep appreciation of the distinguished services which he has rendered to this House in the conduct of its business during the last forty-three years, and their gratitude for his unique contribution in disseminating British practices and procedures.