I beg to move,
That this House
welcomes the Speaker’s announcement on
and accordingly determines that:
(a) there shall be a select committee, called the House of Commons Governance Committee, to consider the governance of the House of Commons, including the future allocation of the responsibilities for House services currently exercised by the Clerk of the House and Chief Executive;
(b) the Committee report to the House by
(c) the Committee shall have the powers given to select committees related to government departments under paragraph 4(a) and 4(b) of
(d) Mr Jack Straw be the Chair of the Committee;
(e) the Committee shall consist of seven other backbench members, to be elected by parties in the proportion of three Conservative, two Labour and one Liberal Democrat, together with one representative of the other parties represented in the House; the parties shall forward their nominations to the Chair of the Committee of Selection by
It is an honour to open a debate on a motion to which so many distinguished Members have added their names—the co-sponsors include Natascha Engel, my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin, the right hon. Members for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), and Ms Stuart—and which has commanded support at all levels throughout the House.
The role of the Clerk of the House dates back to at least 1363. Today, the Clerk serves, first, as the House’s adviser on all aspects of procedure, practice and privilege and as the editor of “Erskine May”; secondly, as the chief executive of the House service and chair of the management board; but also, importantly, as accounting officer, as corporate officer, and as the head of the Clerks Department, responsible for some 800 members of staff.
The motion is straightforward. It welcomes the announcement by the Speaker of a pause in the current recruitment to the post of Clerk, it establishes a new time-limited Select Committee to consider the governance of the House, it nominates Mr Straw as Chair of that Committee, and it outlines the powers of the Committee, its reporting date and the election of its members. The debate arises because of widespread concern among Members in all parts of the House that the process governing the appointment of the next Clerk of the House was seriously flawed.
As the motion makes clear, the Committee will be time-limited and report in January next year.
There has been some misunderstanding, and much heated discussion, of the clerkship. Those are issues to which I have no desire to add, but the following facts are not in dispute. First, the chosen candidate, Ms Carol Mills, an administrator in the Australian Parliament, was not qualified for the specifically constitutional and procedural functions exercised by the Clerk. Secondly—
I am very pressed for time. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not mind if I allow him to intervene later, perhaps at the end of my speech. We are under tremendous time pressure.
Secondly, Ms Mills was and, indeed, is herself subject to an inquiry by the Australian Parliament. Thirdly, the Speaker’s panel of selection was purely advisory, and was smaller than, and assembled on a different basis from, that used in 2011. Fourthly, the terms of the process of recruitment changed from the original terms set out by the House of Commons Commission on
Sixthly, outside headhunters, Saxton Bampfylde, were used for the first time. Seventhly, despite all that, the final candidate—Ms Mills—was, in effect, recruited for a job that did not then exist as such, that of chief executive of this House. Finally, the letter nominating Ms Mills was signed by the Speaker on the advice of the panel, was sent to 10 Downing street during the recess, and, but for the intervention of Parliament, might have been forwarded to Buckingham Palace during the recess.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has put this motion before the House today. Is he aware that I understand from an answer to me that the panel was completely unaware that Carol Mills was undergoing investigation—two investigations, actually—by the Australian Senate before it made its decision? Moreover, Saxton Bampfylde wished to inform the panel that that was the case, and the panel was advised not to take evidence from it.
Order. There are lots of speakers on the list, including Michael Fabricant, who I want to get in early on, so we must have very short interventions.
I was not aware of that, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising it now.
The Speaker has made clear his personal support for a split between the roles of Clerk and chief executive. In a statement to the House last week he called for the issues of a pre-appointment hearing and a possible split in roles to be examined and the views of Members to be solicited in detail. This debate, and the governance Select Committee and procedure for wider consultation proposed in the motion, are the House’s response to that request by the Speaker.
The proper governance of this House is a matter of enormous public importance. Indeed, it is properly considered a constitutional matter, first, because the British constitution—at least such as it is for the next eight days—relies on the effective functioning of Parliament and, secondly, because this Parliament, and especially the Clerk, act as the final word on procedural matters for a host of further Parliaments across the Commonwealth.
Contrary to popular belief, parliamentary procedure—the rules of the game—is not some pettifogging accretion, or irrelevant decoration, to the business of democratic government; it is the essence of democratic government. This country is governed by laws, laws are made in Parliament, and that Parliament is run according to rules and procedure; without procedure, there could be no government. Indeed, even the role of chief executive has a constitutional dimension, because the capacity of Members to hold the Government to account rests in part on how well they are enabled to function by the House service.
Because of the importance of this subject, the House has regularly sought to assess the quality of its own governance. Three times in the last 30 years it has invited outside experts to lead a process of review: Sir Robin Ibbs, Mr Michael Braithwaite and Sir Kevin Tebbit. No institution is perfect, of course, and some of their criticisms have been stringent. Even so, those reviews have identified a fairly clear, if inconsistent, path of reform and modernisation.
The first such review, the Ibbs review of 1990, painted a pretty damaging picture of administrative incompetence:
“Good financial management systems and the associated control mechanisms did not exist. There was no effective planning, measurement of achievement against requirement, nor assessment of value for money.”
The Braithwaite review in 1999 acknowledged the constitutional significance of a properly resourced and effective Parliament. It recognised that
“the Ibbs team found a situation which was profoundly unsatisfactory in terms of responsibilities, structure and operation.”
It acknowledged that significant progress had been made, but at the same time it made clear that
“full implementation of Ibbs was slow and in some areas did not occur.”
The Tebbit review in 2007 was rather more encouraging. It concluded that:
“The present system is certainly not broken” and that it was “well regarded overall”. It mentioned
“effective management of delivery and services”,
adding it was
“highly effective in core scrutiny and legislative functions”,
but it made a crucial exception for the management of the estate and works. It recommended steps to improve integration, transparency and clarity of management goals, and to create a stronger finance function and greater professional management across the board.
To those, we may perhaps add one last data point. In the recent debate on the retirement of the last Clerk, Sir Robert Rogers, the House was united not only in acclaiming the merits of Sir Robert himself as Clerk, but in acknowledging the progress the House had made in key areas of management and modernisation. Those include implementing a substantial savings programme without loss of service, the introduction of new IT and a drive towards paperless working, far greater outreach and significant improvement on issues of diversity and equality, as well as a new apprenticeships programme.
“a transformation in the management of the House Service, which has moved from what could be described as an era of gifted amateurism to one of thoroughly competent professionalism.”—[Hansard, 16 July 2014; Vol. 584, c. 901.]
I recently had the privilege of attending an international conference on modernising parliaments. Although we have made progress in this country, we are behind many other countries. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need to keep moving forward and to ensure that whoever is appointed is the right person to drive forward change?
I regret that I was not at that conference, and I am unfamiliar with the comparisons that might be made, but I absolutely agree that continued progress in modernisation and management is important.
Surely we do not want modernisation for modernisation’s sake. We want it so that we can carry out our major functions more effectively. They are to hold those on the Treasury Bench to account and to conduct an intelligent five-yearly election campaign.
I think the right hon. Gentleman knows that, as a strict Burkeian, I—along with many Members of the House—believe in intelligent reform. I therefore broadly share the perspective that he offers.
I believe that we can draw a number of conclusions from this matter. First, it is facile and mistaken to argue that the House is poorly managed today simply because it was poorly managed in the 1980s and 1990s. Rather, there has been steady if somewhat inconsistent progress against a background of massive growth in demand for House services, significant change in information technology, and rising standards and expectations both from Members and from the general public. It would be a tragedy if that process of improvement and modernisation were to be set back by an obviously flawed appointment to the present clerkship.
These reviews have come at eight to nine-year intervals, and the proposed governance Committee would report next year, eight years after the Tebbit review. This debate therefore falls at a highly opportune time, and doubly so because circumstances and the needs of Members and of the general public, as well as politics and Parliament itself, have continued to evolve—and might, I fear, evolve further next week. A specific challenge is presented by the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. This mammoth project might, it seems, be managed by a specific delivery authority that is accountable to this House and the other place.
As the motion makes clear, a key issue to be addressed by the Committee is whether the roles of Clerk and chief executive should be split. The Ibbs, Braithwaite and Tebbit reports all came down against a split, but it is absolutely right that the issues here should be re-examined by the Committee in the light of changing needs and circumstances. I suggest that that question rests in turn on the answers to several further questions. If the roles are to be split, how exactly would the split work? What functions would fall on either side of the divide, and why? Presumably, in any scenario, the Clerk would continue to be responsible for the Clerk’s Department of 800 people, or just under half the total employed.
Furthermore, would the Clerk and the chief executive be coequal? That would require careful thought, as there are cases in business where such an arrangement has succeeded, and cases where it has failed. If they were not equal, who should report to whom? Would the Clerk, authorised and protected by letters patent, report to the chief executive, or would the chief executive report to the Clerk—in which case what, apart from the job title, would have changed? What would be the implications for relations between the Houses? What legislation would be required if the Clerk were no longer to be corporate officer? Finally, what would the cost be of such a split, in both salary and other costs?
Let me conclude with two reflections. The first concerns the present nomination. The letter nominating Ms Mills as Clerk was signed by the Speaker, on advice. Constitutionally, he and he alone has the capacity to withdraw that letter. I would request that he now do so. The second concerns the process of selection. The Tebbit review in 2007 recommended that the clerkship be subject to the selection board process used to select permanent secretaries, but that approach was not adopted. Whatever its merits, I would ask that, perhaps after the report of the Committee, the House of Commons Commission reconsider, agree and publish new proposals for a fully open, competitive and transparent selection process for the clerkship.
Reform of the governance of this House is, like marriage in the words of the prayer book,
“not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly...but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly”.
This motion is designed to enable sober reform, and I commend it to the House.
With no written constitution, the governance of this House has itself considerable constitutional significance, and this is a debate on governance; it is not one for or against modernisation, still less is it, as some seem to have suggested, a debate to undermine our Speaker, an enterprise in which I would have no part. No proposal merely by being labelled “modernisation” will thereby gain my support, but I neither fear nor resist change in this House. As some hon. Members will recall, in the 1990s, as Leader of the House, I chaired the all-party Modernisation Committee. Minor, irritating rules were swept aside. We allowed photographs to be taken in Members’ offices, and journalists to take tape recorders into the Press Gallery and TV cameras into Central Lobby. More importantly, we made substantial changes in the handling of business. Recess dates had been a guessing game, announced as late as possible, often only four to five weeks before even the summer recess. We realised that reasonable confidence about delivering the legislative programme would be a requirement for any Government, and a properly scheduled timetable for examining Bills had long been recommended by the Procedure Committee. The introduction of programme motions paved the way for published sitting dates and a proper parliamentary calendar. More minor and technical matters, then discussed and decided after the main business—at midnight if we were lucky and into the small hours if we were not—were deferred for decision until Wednesday lunchtime, though with provision for wider scrutiny if need be.
All those changes were hugely controversial and hotly resisted, but the ugly truth is that, for example, there was always a programmed timetable for every Bill. It was just that it was secret, known only to the Government’s business managers and not always to all of them. Sittings in Westminster Hall massively increased the time for Back-Bench debates and discussion of Select Committee reports, but were also fiercely resisted by many, such as our current Speaker, who were rightly concerned to preserve the supremacy of this Chamber.
My simple point is that all these reforms, major or minor, were proposed to the House in a report from the Modernisation Committee, debated in the House and decided by a vote in the House as a whole. Some things, such as Westminster Hall, were introduced as an experiment with a sunset clause. Whether the Clerk to the House should also act as its chief executive has been part of such discussions on many occasions over the years, and I am certainly open to such an idea. I have a degree of reservation. I say with due deference to the Clerk that in my experience of five years as Leader of the House or shadow Leader of the House, I found that getting the Clerks to see the point of view of Members can be an uphill struggle. An administrator less familiar with the workings and concerns of the House might be even worse, but I have no quarrel at all with a reassessment of the full implications of such a change. I say a full reassessment because some of the wider implications of such a decision are new, at least to me. I believe the motion offers a constructive way forward and is really worthy of support.
When I was a member of the House of Commons Commission, we agreed in April that there should be a review of governance, in order to determine in the future whether the post of Clerk of the House should continue to be combined with that of chief executive. The Commission also concluded that it was neither legal nor practical to make a change at that time. We therefore agreed to advertise the post of Clerk and chief executive on the same basis as happened in 2011. I remind the House that in this Parliament, in 2011, an open competition took place for the post of Clerk and chief executive. Both Clerks and non-Clerks applied and were interviewed. Robert Rogers, of course, was appointed and proved a successful occupant of the post. We may have wished, with good reason, that he would have continued on in post and not retired, but that was not to be.
As my hon. Friend Jesse Norman said, the combined post of Clerk and chief executive developed in response to the Ibbs report of November 1990, which found profound failings then. When the Braithwaite report looked again in 1999, it reported substantial improvements and said that the leadership of the Clerk of the House, acting as chief executive, had been instrumental in that progress. Paragraph 4.63 summarised the situation well:
“The Clerk is armed with most of the skills and attributes needed for the role…He has the authority of his office; demonstrable leadership at a high level; deep knowledge of the political context and process, and all the skills required to operate effectively in this environment; and a profound understanding of the business of supporting the House and its work.”
The Tebbit review in 2007 looked again at whether an outsider should run the House service and recommended that the Clerk should continue to perform the dual role of Clerk and chief executive. I encourage hon. Members to read paragraphs 86 to 88 of the Tebbit review.
Why did I support the need for a review at the Commission in April? First, while the restoration and renewal project from 2020 onwards must have discrete project governance, it would certainly benefit from having one client, not two. A chief executive acting for both Houses of Parliament would bring clarity and coherence in the years during which the R and R project is under way. Such a review would need to be undertaken together with the House of Lords. That is not in our gift this evening, but we can seek for that to happen.
Yes, there is joint working in some respects. That is one area. Information technology and security are others. But generally there is not joint working in relation to the Parliament and the estate as a whole. Under those circumstances, one would have to forgo the possibility of the Clerk also being chief executive as this House and the House of Lords would have to retain a separate Clerk of the House and Clerk of the Parliaments. There would of course be attendant risks in separating out those functions, but a potential efficiency gain of a significant kind overall.
I support the motion and look forward to the Select Committee considering it. None the less, I urge the Select Committee to take evidence and to consider that wider potential context within which it could work. However, the Select Committee cannot resolve the current impasse in the appointment process, which is “paused”. I saw the case for a pause—I often do—but it cannot now be continued. The Commission has the authority to cancel the current appointment process. It should do so now. It is no criticism of Carol Mills, who interviewed well, to say that her knowledge of the constitutional and procedural issues, as required of the Clerk of the House, would not suffice. I took that view, but was not supported by the majority of the selection panel. It is particularly regrettable that Mr Speaker sought expressly to water down the 2011 requirement in the job description that the Clerk should have
“detailed knowledge of the procedures and practices of the House.”
Mr Speaker sought to replace “detailed knowledge” with “awareness”.
By way of compromise, the word “detailed” was left out. But the selection panel was not therefore asked to subject candidates to the same test as in 2011. The process for appointment was, therefore, ill-founded, and any internal candidate with the procedural and practical knowledge but less opportunity to be a chief executive of a large organisation was at a disadvantage.
I propose that the current appointment process be scrapped; that an internal temporary appointment to the post of Clerk of the House should be made; and that an internal appointment to the post of chief operating officer could be made. That was proposed to the selection panel, but not supported. It is now the right way forward.
After concerns from Members about the recruitment of a new Clerk and chief executive, this motion allows us to move forward swiftly in pursuit of a solution that can unite the House.
Before I address the content of the motion in detail, I would first like to refer briefly to the events that have led us here. I was one of six members of the panel that reached a consensus agreement and suggested a name to the Prime Minister for recommendation to Her Majesty the Queen. I think it would be invidious to say the least if I were to go into details of what happened during that process. Suffice it to say that we spent more than 20 hours interviewing a wide range of candidates, judging them against a clear job description, through a fair and robust process. This was the first time that recruitment of the Clerk has been done through a completely open process of the kind we would expect for a senior appointment in any other profession.
I welcome the approach of having an open process. Does my hon. Friend regret that the House has used its privilege to name candidates in the recruitment process in the way it has?
We are not making it easy for any future outside candidate to apply for a job in this place—candidates have been traduced across the airwaves when they cannot reply. Hon. Members on both sides of the House should think carefully about that.
My memory is that we agreed it. It is important that I do not go into too much detail on the Floor of the House, and essentially in public, about what happened in a process that resulted in agreement. As I have said, I am happy that the process was open and fair, and that it came to a conclusion by consensus.
On the point about a true and open process, does the hon. Lady believe that, with the information that has come to light subsequently, the process cannot be seen to have been an open and visible one?
The members of the commission spent 20 hours of their lives conducting a process along the lines of all other processes that go on outside the House for appointing senior posts. We cannot be criticised for not knowing something that came to light subsequently, whether it is relevant or not.
I want to move on to governance rather than personalities. The hon. Lady says the decision was arrived at by consensus, and yet it has caused massive disunity in the House. What does that say about the contact and in-touchness of those involved in the process with the wider House of Commons, and what does it say about House of Commons governance and accountability?
The decision has caused worries for some people, but I do not think it has caused the amount of controversy the hon. Gentleman suggests. There are people on both sides of the argument. He should not imagine that, when the panel made the decision, we were being out of touch. We were making an honest judgment after being presented with candidates in an open and transparent way. He might not agree with the decision, but the process was open and transparent, and in line with ordinary procedure for the appointment of such posts anywhere but the House.
Will my hon. Friend accept congratulations from many hon. Members on the sterling work she and the group did in conducting the process? As she has said, it took more than 20 hours. She will be aware that some in the House—mainly Government Members—have a secret agenda, which is usually, “Let’s have a go at the Speaker.” We know what has been going on and we know where it comes from.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comment. Many intertwining things have brought us to this point. I would not like to traduce the motivations of anybody who contributes to the debate, but the motivations of those who were on the commission should not be traduced either. It is important that we accept that.
I should like to get back to the terms of the motion. As I said, the process was in line with the kind of process that one would expect for any other senior appointment outside this place. In the recent past, the appointment was at the discretion of the Speaker, who was handed two names by the retiring Clerk. Even if some Members objected to the result of the process, I think it is welcome that the tradition of the Speaker getting to choose between two names handed to him by the predecessor Clerk has been left behind and that the House is trying finally to bring its recruitment processes into the 21st century.
Although I do not want to comment any further on the proceedings of the panel, I understand the concern of some Members at the outcome and I welcome today’s motion. The worries have centred around the fact that despite being eminently qualified as a chief executive, the successful candidate is not an expert on parliamentary procedure. However, the fact is that an expert on parliamentary procedure who has spent their entire working life in our excellent Clerk’s department is unlikely to be able to demonstrate the requirements needed to be an outstanding chief executive. That is why the Hansard Society, through its Puttnam commission in 2005, advocated splitting the Clerk and chief executive roles and why it has advocated governance reforms since.
It is clear that we have a tension at the heart of the role of Clerk and chief executive and considering some of the imminent changes facing the House Administration, I believe that it is evident that that tension is likely to get worse and to do so quite quickly. The restoration and renewal project could mean Members having to decant this building for an entire Parliament or longer. However it is accomplished, it will be complex and extremely demanding, exposing us to huge practical challenges and to great reputational risk. I might add that I firmly believe that it might also be a great opportunity to take a new look at how Parliament operates and communicates with the people it is here to serve.
A programme of digital transformation has already been embarked on, with the twin aims of radically improving Parliament’s ability to work and communicate and achieving a step change in our efficiency. There is the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy, which is exploring the potential offered by digital communications to enhance our interaction with our constituents. It often seems to me that our IT equipment actively stands in the way of our doing our jobs effectively when it should be facilitating greater communication in a secure and robust way.
There is the challenge of the looming general election —we all have our own challenges coming up with that.
The general election will mean managing the end of the first ever fixed-term Parliament and the first coalition since the second world war against the backdrop of the very volatile times in which we are living. More than 2,000 staff require management and Parliament handles a budget of more than £200 million. I believe that the smooth operation of change management in these vital areas is just as important in the delivery of parliamentary services as the crucial advice we receive from our Clerks in their important interpretation of “Erskine May” and our procedures. In 2007, as the former Leader of the House, Mr Lansley, said, the Tebbit report considered and dismissed the idea of the separation of the role of Clerk and chief executive. However, the report said that Clerks hoping to be appointed chief executive should in future have “senior management experience” and that should mean
“having spent a period outside the Clerk's Department and preferably beyond the confines of Westminster”.
That has not happened, but the challenges facing the holder of the Clerk and chief executive’s job have undoubtedly multiplied. It now makes sense, therefore, to revisit the original consideration of the report and whether we should split the role, which is why I welcome the motion before us this evening and urge the House to support it.
I am pleased to participate in this debate. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House had intended to speak as Leader of the House and, in the absence of my right hon. Friend John Thurso, on behalf of the Commission, but he has asked me to speak on his behalf and on behalf of the Commission.
The Commission met on Monday to discuss, among other matters, the recruitment process for the Clerk of the House. As Mr Speaker has clearly indicated, it is vital that Members have the opportunity to express their views on this important issue. The Commission therefore decided not take decisions relating to the recruitment of the Clerk or the governance of the House until it had the opportunity to hear the views of Members, both in this debate and through the many expressions of opinion that Mr Speaker has received.
As Members may know, the Commission recognises the need for a review of the governance of the House and, indeed, took a decision in April to begin such a review later this year. The views of Members on this House’s governance are clearly of paramount importance. It is therefore entirely proper for a Select Committee to undertake this work. Assuming that the House agrees to its establishment today, I am sure that the Commission will be happy to provide any information and practical support that the Committee may require. The Commission will be mindful of its overarching responsibility to ensure the proper governance of the House, and equally aware that the outcome of the process needs to be one in which the House can have confidence.
I now want to say a few words from a Government perspective. I am naturally keen to help the House resolve this matter—and it is squarely a House matter rather than one for Government—so I welcome the initiative shown by Jesse Norman and others who have tabled the motion that we are considering this evening.
As usual, the Deputy Leader of the House is making a powerful speech. On his point about the setting up of the Select Committee being a House matter, it has always been my understanding that members of the Executive do not vote on the creation of memberships of Select Committees. Has that now changed?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, and I will respond to it later.
It is in all our interests—Government, Opposition, Back Benchers and the House service as a whole—that this matter is resolved in a timely manner with due consideration. I do not seek in any way to pre-empt the work of the Committee, but there are certain principles that it will wish to bear in mind and issues that it will wish to to address. Let me flag up four. First, as Members, we expect to have access to the highest quality of advice. We rely heavily on the expert advice of the Clerk on matters of procedure and constitutional propriety. It goes without saying that the effective functioning of the House relies on the confidence of Members in its senior management and especially in the Clerk of the House as its principal procedural adviser.
Secondly, on a related point, it is vital that the Clerk is, and is seen to be, totally independent and not in any way dependent on the support of political parties or others. Advice must be dispensed without fear or favour. That is why the Clerk is appointed by the sovereign by letters patent and is not an employee of the Commission.
Thirdly, it is important that the House has a decision-making structure that is fit for the substantial challenges that we face, and is transparent. Members and the public must know who is accountable for decisions made.
Finally, any management structure must be cost-effective. Just as the Government have cut the cost of politics, the House has delivered substantial savings to the taxpayer since the last election, meeting its 17% savings target. Any new arrangements should support the efficient and cost-effective delivery of services to Members and to the public.
If the motion is agreed to, I hope that the Select Committee will be able to begin its work rapidly and conclude by the deadline. The Government will seek to ensure that the House has an opportunity to debate the Committee’s conclusions at an early opportunity, so that resulting appointments can be made as rapidly as possible.
In response to Mr Bone, the election of Members to the Committee is a matter for the parties.
My right hon. Friend has not referred to the interim arrangements that are being put in place. I want an assurance that it is difficult for him to give, because he is not a member of the Commission, that the Commission will invest the Clerk Assistant with sufficient authority to do all the things that are required of the Clerk, of the kind that my right hon. Friend has described, and to delegate such of his functions as make it possible to carry out those roles.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. I can certainly assure him that the Commission will be following tonight’s debate very carefully and will, I am sure, want to act on it and on what he has suggested.
I have enjoyed hearing the views that Members have expressed so far, and I look forward to hearing the views of other Members in this debate and elsewhere.
First, I think we owe a duty of care to Carol Mills. It is not her fault that she has been caught up in this controversy. We also owe a duty of respect to Mr Speaker and the office of Speaker. Whispering campaigns and media briefings of the types we have seen do no service to the House or its Members.
I commend the speeches made by the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend Ms Eagle, and by my right hon. Friend Margaret Beckett. My right hon. Friend spelled out the limited changes that have been achieved against the odds over the past 20 years and, by doing so, illustrated the real challenge in bringing about radical change, improvement and simple modernisation. What she described were very simple, common-sense changes that were achieved against the odds. It is time that this House got itself well into the 21st century.
I do not often bow to parliamentarians or politicians from either side of the House, but on procedural matters I would do so, because I am not an expert. I am absolutely sure, however, that the procedures and constitution serve the process of democracy, rather than the other way around. We are here to serve our public and to bring about radical change—to be change makers—and we can only do that if the processes, procedures and efficiency of the House allow us to do so. We need screens to work and for computers not to go down all the time and—the public might not like this—for restaurants to actually be open when we are here: things we would expect in any business. Over the past 27 years I have always been amazed at how radicals come into this House and are incorporated and how business people come into this House but do not seem to bring their business experience to bear on the processes we are addressing.
I commend my right hon. Friend Mr Straw, who has enormous experience over many years of advising, serving and leading in government. I wish him well, because at the end of his remarkable career the outcome of this Select Committee will determine how the process will work and how the House will function for years to come, and whether it will contribute to a reform of our democracy at a time of incredible change, when the United Kingdom faces critical issues constitutionally and for the future of our nation. If this House cannot modernise itself and get up to speed with what would be taken for granted elsewhere, we are doomed.
I have often thought that I had a desk at the Natural History museum. Learning from evolution is important, because this House is built on years of experience and it would not be appropriate to sweep it aside. We need a highly qualified and experienced chief Clerk of this House who is able to advise Members and the Government. We need to ensure that we get that right. It is perfectly feasible for that to happen through the expertise built up over years in this House—that is the expression that has been used—while at the same time having a chief executive who will lead us through the difficult task of changing the environment not only physically but democratically. We can get this right, but it deserves more than simple whispering behind hands—it deserves real reform and modernisation for the future.
I am the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee and as I listened to Mr Blunkett, I thought about how this debate is a microcosm of the debate that is going on in Whitehall about how to get Whitehall machinery to operate in a much more open, accountable and transparent way. I use the word “accountable” because I think a lot of this debate has arisen because there is a sense, particularly among younger and, dare I say it, more impatient Members—like myself, of course—that there is an opacity, a sort of Victorian mystery about the way in which this place works.
This whole episode has been painful for the House of Commons. I commend those on both sides of the House who have spoken, but particularly the shadow Leader of the House, Ms Eagle, who made a dignified and conciliatory speech. We need to avoid dwelling on what has gone wrong; we can learn from that, but we need to move forward.
I spent much of my summer worrying that this issue would divide the House and, because of the controversy, almost poison the office of the Speaker. The purpose of my asking for the motion to be drafted in the manner that it has been drafted, and of suggesting that Mr Straw chair the Committee, and of gingerly tip-toeing around the various—increasingly angry—people on all sides of the debate was to try and find a method of resolving the issue in a manner that will not result in a terrible and divisive row about a particular individual. I join the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough in sympathising with the individual who has been exposed in this episode.
My role as Chairman of the Public Administration Committee was to suggest that the ultimate modernisation of the process of appointment of the Clerk would be to make it subject to a pre-appointment hearing. Constitutionally, that matter rests within my Committee’s remit. We will keep that on the table for whichever candidate emerges as the final candidate, because whoever it is should be subject to a pre-appointment hearing. Margaret Hodge, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, does the same for the appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General, who is an Officer of the House. My Committee does the same for the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, who is also an Officer of the House. The idea that Officers of the House should not be subject to be pre-appointment hearings seems to me anachronistic and old-fashioned.
The remit of the new Committee is not about going back over the past, but looking to the future. It is about throwing light on the dim recesses of how this place operates. I say to hon. Members in all parts of the House that change is coming to this place whether we like it or not and—perhaps speaking to Government Members—if we want things to remain the same, things are going to have to change, but this is not about throwing babies out with the bathwater. If there is to be a chief executive, the role must be properly thought about, properly defined and properly embedded within the structures and accountability of the House, and within what the House is for, which is the scrutiny of legislation and the holding to account of the Executive.
We want more involvement for Members, more openness and accountability, and more listening and working together, plus less tearing chunks out of each other over this particular subject, if you please, because that does the House nothing but harm. I think that the proposed Committee is the solution.
I very much echo the sentiments just expressed by Mr Jenkin.
Change and modernisation in the House has always been problematic. I recall that as Leader of the House of Commons between 2003 and 2005, I tried to persuade the House to take its security seriously. The director general of MI5 and the police wanted a professional to be in charge of security, which was a nightmare, frankly. There was strong resistance to change—of the kind that we are now seeing in relation to splitting the roles of Clerk and chief executive—until events conspired to overtake those who were blocking change. Hon. Members may remember the Greenpeace activists scaling Big Ben, the flour bomb at Prime Minister’s questions and, of course, the huntsmen invading the Chamber itself. Only then did we move to appoint a full-time professional head of security, which nobody in their right mind would now question.
I believe that in future years nobody will question the separation of the functions of the Clerk and the chief executive, with two separate appointments. It will seem like the common sense that I believe it is now. At the moment, we have a part-time Clerk and a part-time chief executive, although I mean no disrespect at all to the holders of the post, with whom I have worked closely and whom I admire.
The Clerk’s onerous parliamentary duties occupy the majority of the working day, and involve managing all the immensely complex procedural issues that surround the legislative and other functions of the House. In my view, those duties can be carried out only with the experience and specialist knowledge of a Clerk, such as Sir Robert Rogers, and his able deputies. However, everybody who, like me, has had the privilege to be involved on the inside of the Commons knows full well that the chief executive duties inevitably have to fit around and take second priority to the primary procedural duty. That is the truth of the matter.
As the chief executive, the Clerk now has a splendid building under his charge—a UNESCO world heritage site that attracts well over 1 million visitors each year from all over the world—and oversees more than 1,750 staff, which is equivalent to a very large business, and has a budget of over £200 million. In addition, almost the same number of staff work for Members, bringing the total number of people on the precincts for whom the Clerk is responsible in his role as CEO to more than 3,500.
As the corporate officer of the House of Commons, the Clerk is required to enter into contracts on behalf of the House and to acquire and manage land and property. As the accounting officer, he has responsibilities for public finance, resource accounting and internal control, and he attends meetings of the House’s audit committees. He is responsible for good corporate governance, meeting social and environmental regulations, and retaining and motivating top-quality employees. He must have an awareness of complex employment law, fair remuneration and contracts. He must also introduce proper systems and controls for effective risk management.
Those are onerous duties in today’s litigious, closely regulated employment and administrative environment. I do not think that the skill set required to undertake those tasks in the modern age is necessarily compatible with the skill set required to be Clerk of the House. The question of which role would be superior is a red herring. Both would be answerable to the Speaker, who is the pre-eminent figure.
In summary, my experience as Leader of the House has convinced me that the two posts should be separated. The extra costs involved could perhaps be offset by questioning the continued employment of the director general of facilities. Finally, why should the Clerk have a superior salary to the Speaker or the Prime Minister?
This is a crucial decision and we need to make it in a timely and sensible way.
We stand on the threshold of momentous constitutional events. We might even lose a country from our United Kingdom, or we might go into a period of fundamental constitutional change with a massive devolution of powers. We will need good professional advice and leadership to complement the crucial work of the democratically elected politicians.
The Speaker is the servant of the House. Mr Speaker has shown, by the way he has said that there has to be a pause and a reconsideration, that he knows that he is the House’s servant. In turn, the House has to be fair to Mr Speaker. It is our duty tonight to set in process a way of resolving this problem in the best interests of everyone and in a good spirit, knowing that Mr Speaker also wishes the best for our House of Commons and will be guided by the House. It is our duty to come up with competent and sensible guidance for him. He undertook a process with a series of senior Members and an outside adviser in good faith and they came to a judgment. Apparently, that judgment does not suit the House. That is the House’s privilege, but we now need to find a better way of resolving the matter.
This situation has consequences not just because we need good guidance, and especially so at this time, but because if we want the best talent from around the world to apply for jobs in this place, we need to show that we are professional in handling such matters and that there is no danger of an unsuccessful candidate having their name revealed or trashed in the process. That is completely unacceptable.
I am therefore drawn to the view, which some are expressing, that we need to examine quickly but thoroughly the idea that there are two functions and that there need to be two different roles. There are many fine things about this House, but I think that we could be better at some of the things that come under the chief executive’s remit. We have many able, hard-working and talented staff and I do not wish to imply any criticism of them. However, a good chief executive would look at the way in which we handle guests. Are we happy with the queues and the way in which security is handled? We wish to be safe, but we wish to welcome people. They are our guests or our constituents. I do not think that we always get it right. We need to ensure that our catering provides what people want in a timely and sensible way. There might be opportunities to improve that. We certainly need to look again at technology and the how we communicate with those who communicate about us and with the wider world.
Those are all time-consuming tasks and I am not sure that they can be carried out by a constitutional expert living through a constitutional crisis, who needs to be up to speed with everything that happens in this Chamber and with the long history of our traditions, our law codes and our constitution, written and unwritten as it is. Somebody needs to provide that guidance.
My right hon. Friend’s description of the importance of the role of Clerk of the House is absolutely right. I heard Mr Hain say that he did not understand why the Clerk was paid on a different scale from the Speaker and a higher amount. The Clerk is paid on the same scale as a High Court judge, because he is the arbiter of the law of Parliament across the entire Commonwealth. The independence of his remuneration is part of his independence and has to be preserved.
I quite agree. It is a crucial role for a very senior lawyer and has to be rewarded accordingly, and at a level that means that they do not have money worries, because they need to spend all their time concentrating on the job. I am quite sure that the Clerk’s role is senior to and more crucial than that of the chief executive, but I also believe that we need to do our guests and ourselves a favour by having the best possible management. We need someone to come in and look again at our standards, our quality, the choice that we offer and the way in which we handle guests, technology, information and research, and our messages.
That is the spirit in which we should enter the debate. We should get behind our Speaker and give him the right instructions, and then we will have a better answer.
I support the setting up of the Committee, to establish a proper, fair and open recruitment process for the next Clerk of the House. I welcome Mr Speaker’s announcement of a modest pause in the process to allow the House to review the role, report to the Commission and reach a decision, so that we can start the recruitment process again from scratch. There are sound interim measures in place, which will last up to the general election, and it is important that they are not changed until the Committee has reported and the House has voted.
Originally, I came to this issue from a trade union perspective. I was concerned by the fact that the job that was advertised was for a procedural adviser and a chief executive, but that the chosen candidate was qualified only for part of the role—the administrative part. Had the advert been for a chief operating officer or a facilities manager, who knows how many hundreds of people from inside the House, from the civil service and from around the country might have applied? They did not, because they knew that they were not qualified as parliamentary procedural and constitutional advisers. I hope therefore that the Committee will work closely with our in-house trade union colleagues to make sure that we get this right.
This is not about being against modernisation or change; it is about introducing change in a fair way that has the support and agreement of everyone who is affected by it, which is everybody who works in this place. As Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, I have relied heavily on Clerks’ procedural knowledge, expertise and institutional memory. What Clerks do and how they do it may seem dry and old-fashioned, but it is important in ensuring that we all work to an agreed set of rules.
I am a feminist, and I would like nothing more than to see a woman take on one of the most senior positions in this country, but if the job is given to someone who is not qualified for it, it will strengthen the hand of people who think that women cannot succeed. They will say, “You see? They’re not up to it.” It will give the equalities agenda a bad name.
I wish the Committee every success and look forward to hearing all its recommendations.
I support the motion, and I support Mr Straw being the Chairman of the Committee—and not just because he rather surprisingly said very nice things about me in his excellent book.
I am not really known for being an establishment man, and I signed the motion of no confidence in the previous Speaker, so I am not afraid to put my head above the parapet when the need arises. I did not vote for the current Speaker, either. Usually in elections in which there is a secret ballot, the custom is to go around telling all the candidates that we will vote for them, and then choose one to actually vote for. Before the election of the current Speaker, I decided to go and see him and sat down with him for an hour to tell him all the reasons why I was not going to vote for him.
I certainly do not agree with everything that Mr Speaker does, and I guess I do not particularly agree with the decision on this particular appointment or some of the process around it, which was set out very well by my right hon. Friend Mr Lansley. However, for some of my colleagues to use this issue as a Trojan horse to pursue a personal vendetta against the Speaker carries the danger of making them look absolutely ridiculous. I urge them to end that custom now, because it is not getting us very far.
Those who were elected only in 2010 may be forgiven for thinking that the current Speaker is not particularly to their taste—perhaps they have some gripe with him— because they have no one to benchmark him against. Anybody who was in the previous Parliament should know better. Compared with this Speaker, the previous one was an absolute disgrace. In my opinion we do not know how lucky we are to have the current Speaker, despite any faults that he may have, and anyone who uses this issue as an excuse to go after him does not know what they are talking about.
As for the actual role, until this evening I had been rather disappointed by the lack of noise, so to speak, from people on the panel to claim credit for the decision they took. The responsibility seemed to be left to the Speaker, and nobody else on the panel appeared willing to put their head above the parapet and say that it was also their decision. They appeared quite happy to allow all the custard pies to be thrown at the Speaker, rather than taking some of the hits themselves.
As others have said, I think the role should be divided, and I very much agree with Ms Eagle who said that two very different skill sets are required for the two parts of the role. It will always be likely that someone who has the skill set to be a good Clerk may not necessarily have the skill set to be a good chief executive, and vice versa. That seems to me perfectly obvious. That does not mean that some people cannot do the joint roles well. We were very lucky to have in Sir Robert Rogers someone who had the charisma and ability to combine those roles particularly well. However, that should not change the fact that on the whole, more often than not we will not find somebody with that combined skill set, which is why I think the role should be changed. I suspect that the panel and the Speaker made the mistake of picking the person they thought would make the best chief executive, and that if they had chosen the person who they thought would make the best Clerk, we would not be in this situation today. The mood of the House is that the Clerk’s role is more important than that of the chief executive, and that should be the primary point.
I intervene only because I had to do a lot of co-operating with the previous Clerk, Sir Robert Rogers, in my capacity as Attorney-General, and I assure the House that the legal knowledge and skills that are required of the Clerk of the House fully justify the salary. It is an immensely complex task, and the House must understand that. At the end of the day, it is not dry; it is what makes this place work or cease to function completely.
I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend, and given how expert the legal knowledge needs to be, it seems that he was putting in a bid to do the job himself, with his expert legal knowledge.
I will conclude where I started. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jesse Norman on securing the debate. I think that the way forward in the motion is correct, and there is no one better than the right hon. Member for Blackburn to lead the Committee. I had the privilege of serving on the Modernisation Committee under his chairmanship during the last Parliament—I think I was only put on that Committee, along with Sir Nicholas Winterton, because I hated any modernisation. The right hon. Gentleman is the right man to Chair this Committee, and I hope it comes to the conclusion that the role should be divided. I hope that my colleagues will stop using this issue as a Trojan horse to attack a Speaker who we may not always agree with, but who on the whole is doing a very good job.
I have deliberately kept my counsel over the past few weeks as a member of the panel, because I thought that was the proper and right thing to do. Although I support the motion and pre-appointment hearings, the way we have got to tonight’s debate shows the House and all of its Members in a very poor light. The often ill-informed and critical comments made by some Members who simply do not know how the process was conducted have been mistaken and misguided. The personal attacks on Mr Speaker have been unwarranted and plain wrong. As somebody who believes fundamentally in the importance of modernising Westminster as part of our endeavour to restore confidence in politics, I think Mr Speaker has made an immense contribution in his work to making us more open, more relevant and more interesting.
The task of the appointment committee was not simply to appoint a Clerk of the House; the post was advertised for both Clerk and chief executive of the House of Commons. The post holder fulfils two functions. That is enshrined in the law, as we have heard, and was recently confirmed by Sir Kevin Tebbit. The Clerks themselves have resisted any change, and the Government too have resisted change in the past. I tell the House that the entire appointment process was extremely thorough, totally professional and very open. Criticisms of the process are entirely unfounded.
As a member of a committee that promoted an international candidate, of course I agree with that.
We were very mindful of the importance of the procedural duties associated with the job. There are, however, well over 100 people working in the House who are knowledgeable about and familiar with procedure. We were also mindful that the post holder is responsible for spending more than £200 million of taxpayers’ money and employing 1,750 people. This palace lies at the heart of our democracy, yet the way it is run is wasteful and shambolic. We are asking our constituents to bear substantial expenditure cuts and cuts in services, and while they suffer that we are swimming in inefficiencies. Yet, because some Members concern themselves only with what happens in this Chamber, they are willing to downgrade the vital job of ensuring best value from the expenditure of more than £200 million of their constituents’ hard-earned money.
Things are so shambolic that, as Mr Redwood said, it can take our constituents an hour to get through St Stephen’s to see us. We overspent massively on the building of Portcullis House, yet managing capital projects seems less important than who is sitting in a chair in the Chamber. It is as important to our democracy to run this place well as it is to have somebody in the chair who is knowledgeable about, and experienced in, procedure. However, because we were mindful of the importance of both roles, we held two rounds of interviews. It proved impossible to find a single individual capable of fulfilling both roles, but several of the members of the panel thought that Carol Mills was the only appointable candidate.
I am sorry but that was not the view we took. We found more than one candidate appointable, but the panel took a judgment about which candidate should be recommended. I am afraid it is not correct to say that other candidates were not appointable.
We will have to disagree. I think a different view was expressed at the second round of interviews from that at the first.
However, we were mindful of the fact that advice on procedural matters was vital and that Carol Mills would take time to develop her knowledge and skills. That was precisely the reason we proposed that Mr Natzler’s role should be retitled to provide greater status and that his salary should be increased to reflect that status. The successful candidate excelled at interview, and the fact that she has not walked away despite totally unwarranted personal attacks on her integrity and record confirms in my mind that she has the toughness required to bring the House into the 21st century.
I hope that the motion before the House will be carried, but the way we have got here has been unparliamentary and shameful.
I am conscious that I am the fourth former Leader of the House to speak, with possibly one more still to come. I fundamentally disagree with what Mr Hain said about the role of the Clerk of the House.
It is worth reminding the House of what happened when the other place decided to modernise an historic office of Parliament—namely the office of Lord Chancellor —and split it into its component parts. There were all sorts of good intentions, but it turned out to be not nearly as straightforward as the authors of the plan assumed and resulted in a considerable backlash. That should be a warning to us to proceed with care, as the motion proposes.
On the central issue of whether it is realistic to expect the diverse qualities needed for a Clerk of the House on the one hand and a chief executive on the other to be found in one person, my view is that in the case of Sir Robert Rogers the answer was yes. I said as much in the tributes to him a few weeks ago, as did many others. One of the key questions for the Select Committee is whether it continues to be realistic to expect to find one person to hold those qualities or whether they need to be separated. The other reason that the Select Committee needs to re-examine the issue is this: not only should it look at separation, but it should look at something short of separation—a sort of devo-max; in other words, as hinted at by my hon. Friend Jesse Norman, keeping a Clerk, but having underneath him a chief operating officer to whom certain functions are delegated.
The House has to be crystal clear on the issue of accountability. As Sir Robert Rogers made clear in his letter, many of the decisions that he took as Clerk impacted on the decisions he took as chief executive and vice versa. If we had a chief operating officer answerable to the Clerk, that would provide a focus for services of the House and avoid all the problems of having co-equals, and it would not need legislation. Without primary legislation, the Clerk would still be the corporate officer, with statutory responsibilities that could not be separated from the responsibilities of a chief executive.
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for refreshing the House’s memory of that particular Tebbit recommendation. If we had two co-equals, they could play Members off against each other; indeed, Members could play them off against each other too. That has to be taken on board.
I do not prejudge this question, but if we went for a chief operating officer under the Clerk, the really important thing is that the chief operating officer should be directly and visibly accountable, in a way that the present officers under the Clerk are not visible and accountable.
I think the Commission could make that happen in the terms of reference if we go down that particular route.
I agree that some of the considerable burdens on the Clerk’s shoulders should be removed. In the meantime, I think the appointment process should not be paused; I think it should be aborted. If Carol Mills, with whom I have some sympathy, wanted to show that she understands how this place works, she would withdraw her application, resolve a constitutional impasse and generate some good will among colleagues. My right hon. Friend Sir Alan Beith made a good point about there being robust interim arrangements in place.
As my right hon. Friend Mr Lansley said, we have to take on board the interface with the other place, where there is a Clerk of the Parliaments, who has a unified command. How would he interface if one separated the jobs down this end?
I have two final points. I am slightly worried about the ambitious time scale for the Select Committee. Nominations for the proposed Select Committee do not close for over a month and then there are but three months to complete the task, including Christmas. The House may have other things on its mind by then. Braithwaite and Tebbit took many months, with people doing nothing else. We may need an interim report in January, if the ground is to be thoroughly covered, and a final report later.
I end by gently asking a question. What would have happened in this case had we not had the safety valve of the Backbench Business Committee, enabling the House not just to make its views known, but to pass a resolution, in a way that was not possible before—a resolution that I am happy to support?
It is a pleasure to follow the fourth former Leader of the House of Commons and become the fifth to speak in the debate. The right hon. Gentleman was right to draw attention to the fandango that greeted the initial proposal not to change the role of the Lord Chancellor but to abolish it—something that, as I am witness, did not quite succeed.
I am grateful to those who tabled the motion—I believe the whole House is—and to the Backbench Business Committee, as Sir George Young said, for finding a way to secure a resolution to what had become a very difficult issue. I am grateful to those who tabled it, too, for nominating me as the Chair of the Select Committee. I hope that such gratitude is something I will still be able to express in December. I and other colleagues elected to the Committee will, I am certain, do our very best and devote as much time as possible to meet the high expectations set out in the motion.
The right hon. Gentleman said that he was slightly worried about the time scale. I am more than slightly worried about it, but it is the time scale. It is impossible for this Committee to hold its first meeting before
The terms of reference of this Committee are wide. The imperative is obviously to make recommendations on the allocation of responsibilities for the House services currently exercised by the Clerk and the chief executive. Whether we will be able to go wider than that remains to be seen.
A number of us are concerned that this timetable is too tight. If the right hon. Gentleman comes to that conclusion once he has looked into this as Chair of the Committee, will he come back to the House and ask for the timetable to be extended? In that event, would he suggest that an interim chief executive or Clerk, perhaps combined, be appointed?
If that is the view of the Committee, I would of course come back to the House. My view, however, is that if this job is to be done in this Parliament, it must be done in practice by
I am not standing for Parliament again, but if the House wants to pass a sort of Blackburn-max arrangement and create me as the Member for Blackburn for life, that would be fine; I would vote for that—provided the salary was appropriate! In the real world, however, the few months leading up to the Dissolution in early April will be preoccupied with the matter called the general election. I think we have to do this job as best we can. Then, in late January or early February, we should conduct a debate and come to a decision.
My last point, which is important as a matter of record, is that although I have strong views on almost every subject under the sun, I have no strong views on this matter. I have never expressed strong views on it, and I accept that there are arguments on both sides. My aim will be to ensure that we examine in the most judicious way possible the merits of the case for a single post, for a separated post and for how the separation should work, and then to make recommendations to the House.
I have not engaged myself in the organisation of the House as much as many of those who have already spoken. As I look around the Chamber, I am slightly surprised to see that I am the only Member representing a Scottish constituency who is present.There is a serious point to that, because if a decision is taken on
Separation, if you like. If that happens, the next 18 months and indeed for a long time after, it is going to be enormously testing of every procedure of this House. The volume of legislation will be enormous, and the number of occasions on which the Speaker, and indeed the House—and Front Benchers too—will require expert advice will also be enormous. On that basis, I, at least, am surprised that when it came to this appointment, an acquaintance with parliamentary procedure was thought to be sufficient. In my view, a detailed knowledge of it is essential.
I have some sympathy with those who wish to divide the role into two, but I am concerned—more so than Mr Hain—about the possibilities, indeed the problems, that might be created by two co-equals. What happens if there is a genuine dispute? Is the Speaker to be drawn in as some kind of arbiter? What will be the chain of responsibility? Who will answer to whom? That is why, when Sir George Young was talking about a chief operating officer, I was rather disappointed that the idea was so readily dismissed in some parts of the House. I hope that Mr Straw will give it serious consideration .
It should also be remembered that the Clerk of the House is a key part of the constitution of the United Kingdom. If that were not so, the appointment would not be made by the monarch.
I entirely agree with what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has just said about the Clerk’s constitutional role. That is a matter of fact, and I am not suggesting that we challenge it. However, I also think that there should be a separate chief executive role. I do not see why there should not be two senior figures, who will behave as senior figures do, as in any other organisation. Finance directors may disagree with chief executives, but they find a solution, and we could expect the same from those who will take these two roles.
But a chief executive has overall responsibility, and the finance director is below him. I do not have a great deal of experience of commerce or business, but the experience that I do have demonstrates clearly to me that, in the example given by the right hon. Gentleman, there is no doubt about who would have to give way. I simply do not believe that it is right, having regard to the controversy that has surrounded this matter up to now, for us to have a system that allows for further controversy in the future.
Let us return, very quickly, to the question of constitutional importance. I think that it is significant. That is why, in my mind, the primacy of the Clerk as the senior person ought to be preserved, and that is why I think that the suggestion of a chief operating officer makes a great deal of sense.
As I said earlier, it seems to me that the sooner these issues are resolved, the better. That is why I expressed disappointment about the fact that more Members with Scottish constituencies were not present. The length of time allowed to the right hon. Member for Blackburn is extremely short. When a special Select Committee was established to consider the right of the police to enter these premises, I, as Chairman, had to ask for an extension, but the right hon. Gentleman will not have that luxury. I think that we should all be conscious of the fact that we are imposing a considerable burden.
And a very good Chair the right hon. and learned Gentleman was—but we understood, did we not, as we dealt with those issues, how crucial it was to have someone who had real oversight and managerial experience.
I do not want to reopen the question of the Serjeant at Arms, which formed a substantial part of that Committee’s consideration. I simply say that we need a chain of command that is clear and unambiguous, because anything other than that is likely to lead to controversy of the kind that we have thus far unnecessarily embraced because of the way in which this matter has been dealt with.
I have a great deal of sympathy for Ms Mills, who finds herself to be the subject of such controversy. However, I was powerfully affected by the observation made a moment ago that, had people understood that a chief executive-type person was to be appointed, many more people with those skills might have applied. If we have either separation or, as I prefer, a chief operating officer, it may be very interesting to see the extent to which the volume and nature of candidates is different from what it was in the first instance.
I have been encouraged by the tone of the debate, and I think there will be unanimity on the motion. I was beginning to think that we are all modernisers now, but in view of one or two of the contributions I am not entirely convinced of that.
Over the last 20 years, since I have been in the House, there has been massive change in business outside as well as in this place. When we look at the developments in employment practices, the real importance now of the agenda for diversity—something that the House never really talked about 20 years ago—the introduction of the internet, the whole issue around cyber and the issues around security, it is clear that the practices of the House have changed enormously. I want to pay tribute to our current Speaker, because I think he has done more than any other Speaker that I and other Members have experience of to genuinely try to modernise and open up this House of Commons and make us more contemporary and more in touch with our constituents.
We need only look at the way in which the Speaker has opened up the apartments to voluntary organisations and charities. There have been more people in those Speaker’s apartments over the last few years than there were in the many decades before, and this is their House; they pay for this Parliament through their taxes and they are entitled to have the place open.
Let us look at the establishment of the nursery. Some in this House fought tooth and nail against that because they did not want to lose the rifle range—I think that is what it was—and did not see the need to have a nursery in this place. If we look at the issues around diversity, we see that we now have some fantastic groups here that are seeking to get in the talents of disabled people and people from different backgrounds. The Speaker has supported the placement scheme I set up to bring in working-class people to come and work in Parliament. Robert Rogers, when he was Clerk, supported an apprenticeship programme here in the House which is taking in apprentices, mainly from east London and from many different faith backgrounds, who, again, would never otherwise have got an opportunity to work in this House.
I think this House is dramatically improved by very many of the measures that the Speaker has taken. He has been brave and has been prepared to take on some very establishment views to achieve that change. I think that some of the behaviour of some Members during this process has been pretty appalling, and I agree entirely with Philip Davies, who said that we now have to move forward—not use this as an agenda for people to pursue—and recognise the progress we have made.
I think there are savings to be made if we do this properly and if we do much more of our business jointly with the Lords. I have been involved in a programme that looks at bringing the procurement contracts together between the Commons and the Lords. We are going to put social value clauses in those contracts so that we get maximum social impact from them, and that will achieve a tremendous saving.
Let us be imaginative. Let us be creative. This is not about replacing what we have got with another bit of status quo. This is a fabulous opportunity for my right hon. Friend Mr Straw to take this place forward.
I personally believe that we need two people. The skills sets are so different that it would be impossible to combine them under one individual. I do not support the idea of a chief operating officer. That would entrench the current hierarchy, and the Clerk would remain the position to have, with the say over what should be chief executive decisions on management, skills, human resources and technology. I think we can have an independent office-holder for procedural advice, with the ability to take decisions on procedure who is not countermanded by the chief executive on those issues, and also have a chief executive who runs this place in the 21st century.
I finish by saying that I am very proud of my history—of course I am—but I certainly do not want to live in it.
I support what has been said about the need for us to show support for the Chair and to be respectful of it. I must, however, pick a bone with the former Leader of the House, Mr Hain, who said that he had had no support for his modernisation measures. I remember standing at the Dispatch Box as shadow Leader of the House and being shoulder to shoulder with him on that issue. I got a right pasting for it. So he did get my support, but it was not always easy.
It has been mentioned that the Clerk of the House has an important role as our adviser on the constitution, procedure and business. The role is important not only to us but to those in many other countries who consult our Clerk because he or she is the leading expert on those constitutional matters. As Sir Menzies Campbell said, we now face big issues relating to the operation of the devolution settlement, human rights and other matters, and we need authoritative advice to be given in a definitive way by someone with the standing of the Clerk of the House. The Clerk of the House is paid at the rate of a Lord Justice of Appeal—not a High Court judge—because he is in a comparable position of authority, or so it has always been thought.
I want to give the House two examples of the kind of advice that I have seen our Clerk give. For my sins, I sat on the Joint Committee on the draft House of Lords Reform Bill. We had experts, academics and all the top lawyers appearing before the Committee; everybody came to give evidence over a long period. When we read the report, however, we can see that the most authoritative witness was Sir Robert Rogers, the Clerk of the House. People disagreed about that issue, but no one disagreed that it was fantastic to see him giving evidence to us; he could point to the 1671 or the 1678 resolution of the House, for example, and express the matter in question in a simple, straightforward way.
Similarly, when I was serving on the Standards and Privileges Committee, we had to deal with the difficult issues arising from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s report on phone hacking. We had to decide whether there had been contempt of the House, and whether issues of privilege arose from that. It was the Clerk of the House who gave the most convincing and authoritative advice. Someone needs to be able to give such advice. A position of authority is required, and I would not want to see that position diminished.
I do not disagree with the point that we also need modern, efficient business practice here in the House. Sir Kevin Tebbit looked at that matter in 2007 and decided that a chief operating officer—a deputy Clerk with commercial experience from outside this place—was the answer. We need to look at all these questions. Can we split the role? Is there a case for a deputy with commercial experience? For once, I think it should be the House itself that does this. We should not bring in outside experts. We have had the Ibbs, Braithwaite and Tebbit reports; now let us do this ourselves. I support the motion.
I want to avoid personalities, and I certainly deplore whispering campaigns. I consider this to be an interesting debate and I am glad that it is being held. However, if we had gone through the usual procedures for appointing a new Clerk as a result of a vacancy, it is most unlikely that we would be having this debate today. For some time, I have considered it rather odd that the House itself has had no say whatever in the appointment of the Clerk. This is no reflection at all on the previous Clerk or his predecessors, but none of those appointments was ever brought before, say, the Public Administration Committee. It has always simply been a question of the Speaker of the day announcing that so-and-so has been appointed, and that has been the end of the matter. What we are doing now, in having the matter thoroughly looked into by a Select Committee, is the right approach in every possible way. I have thought on previous occasions that I should express some concern about the way in which appointments were made for the most senior job—the most senior officer—in the House, but I thought, on reflection, that no purpose would be served by doing so. After all, first and foremost, we are here for political purposes.
I find it difficult to understand why the position of the Clerk—as Sir Oliver Heald has just emphasised, we are talking about the No.1 authority on procedural rules and on “Erskine May, and the very person who would give advice to the Speaker and to the House—should be combined with that of chief executive, which is entirely a managerial position. It may well be that some very talented people in this world could combine the two position adequately, but I very much doubt it—again, that is no reflection on previous Clerks.
Like my right hon. Friend Margaret Hodge, I do not believe this place has been well managed—to a large extent, the opposite is the case. Indeed, in previous debates on the functioning of the House, I have made sharp criticism of the way in which certain functions and aspects of this place have been managed—or mismanaged, as the case may be. We have to recognise that, as has been said in this debate, there are two separate positions here. It may well be that the Select Committee will not come to that conclusion and will recommend otherwise, but I hope that it will recognise that we have two different and important functions here, those of Clerk of the House and chief executive, and not that of a chief operating officer, as that is a bit of a cop out, to say the least.
We need to recognise that, leaving aside day-to-day management, we are faced with a challenge: the need to rebuild this House of Commons. It is in such a state of decay that it is essential that we accept the challenge, and the work should begin no later than 2020. That challenge, given a recognition that we certainly will not be able to carry out that work while the House is sitting or during the long recess, as the case may be, provides all the more reason for effective managerial authority, which I just cannot recognise as being the work of the Clerk of the House. I therefore hope—
I once shocked my right hon. Friend Mr Cameron by telling him that I was a moderniser when Notting Hill was still a dump. So I very much welcome the motion, because I recognise that we need to have change to manage the Houses of Parliament through a difficult time, in terms of both our constitution and the structure of this building.
Now is not the time to go over the past, but I want to say, first, that I commend the people who sat on the panel. As Ms Eagle said, they gave 20 hours of their time to do the job as best as they could. Where I disagree with her is in my belief that it was not done in the way she implied: as a modern business would have done it. The job description would not have been changed from what had been decided by a board earlier on. We heard from my right hon. Friend Mr Lansley that the description for the Clerk that the panel was recruiting was changed from the decision made by the House of Commons Commission.
I share the House’s concern for Carol Mills, because she went into this application in good faith and it is wrong if her career will be damaged by what is happening at the moment. However, the fact is that consultants were employed, rightly or wrongly, and then, for all sorts of reasons, the panel decided not to listen to them at a specified time. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend Jesse Norman, that meant that the panel did not know that an inquiry was being undertaken into her behaviour in Australia by the Australian Senate. That would have been relevant. [Interruption.] I do not know why Opposition Members are chuntering, to use the words of Mr Speaker, because that information was in a parliamentary answer from the House of Commons Commission. So I am afraid that Members will have to take that matter up with the commission.
There are questions to be answered. One thing that I hate in this place at times is the way in which we all like to sweep things under the carpet. In due course—not tonight—questions will be asked about why Sir Robert Rogers retired early and about his relationship with Mr Speaker.
Now I wish to move on. I agree with what Sir Menzies Campbell said. In my experience as a joint managing director in business, a joint managing director rarely works. There needs to be a clear line of command. We have heard already that there is a constitutional role that goes back to 1363 with the Clerk. The activities need to be split, but I firmly agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman and Sir Kevin Tebbit that there should be a chief operating officer reporting to the chief executive, otherwise, as sure as pears are pears, we will be coming back here again for other conflicts; it is inevitable. If we have not been professional in our selection of a replacement Clerk up to now, let us at least be so now and in the future, under the guidance of Mr Straw .
Some years ago the Victoria and Albert museum ran an advertising campaign that said, “An ace café with quite a nice museum attached.” In a sense, Parliament is not the first institution that has a core function, which is to be a legislative body, but also has access to the public. There is nothing new in the problem we face, which is to be not only inward looking but outward looking in reaching out. We just need to face up to that. The requirements for running the ace café and for running the museum are quite different, and we need to acknowledge that, particularly as we have huge restoration functions and greater access to the public. As Members have said, we have not run this House in the best possible way.
The second issue relates to legal advice and the fact that we are a legislative body. As a Member, there have been two occasions in which I have had to draw on legal advice. One was when I was representing this House at the Convention on the Future of Europe in Brussels. To the Foreign Office’s dismay—two Members of this House may remember this—I decided to take Mr Speaker’s legal counsel with me, because I thought that the advice I would receive would be a darn sight more wide-reaching. The second instance was as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee when we held the inquiry into the extremely unfortunate death of Dr David Kelly. Those were events where we needed extremely deep and sensitive legal advice, which was very specific to this House.
First and foremost, we must remember that our function is as legislators. To be effective legislators, we must reach out. To reach out, this place must be run effectively and efficiently. The best thing we can do now is to draw a line under what has happened in the past and to stop sniping at Mr Speaker. If we do not accept his support and acknowledge his authority, this place will not function. The sooner we can move on with the Select Committee and arrive at a decision that allows us to move on in 2015 so this place can function going into the general election, the better.
My old friend—and he is my old friend—Michael Fabricant said that he would not dwell on the past, and then proceeded to spend three-quarters of his speech doing precisely that. He could usefully have done at the start of his speech what I am going to do at the start of mine, which is to declare not a financial interest but a personal interest. I suspect that if he had done so, it would have been a slightly different one from mine. My personal interest is that Mr Speaker is an old friend of mine. Not surprisingly, that means that I like him quite a lot most of the time. I believe that, as has been said by others in this debate, he has exceeded all expectations in strengthening the power of Back Benchers to hold Ministers to account in this House.
I am delighted to put it on the record that my hon. Friend agrees with that.
As a result of all that, I try to help Mr Speaker extricate himself from time to time from the holes that he occasionally digs for himself as a result of his passion for modernisation. For that reason, I ask the House to discount my bias. It is also for that reason that I welcomed the proposals in the motion and happily agreed to sign it at the request of various hon. Friends who have spoken.
As I said in a point of order a few days ago, had anybody asked me about the matter even six weeks ago, or certainly six months ago before this dispute came up, I would have thought that the definition of the Clerk was all the definitions we have heard in the debate except one: chief executive officer. In our minds, the Clerk is rightly associated with being the top procedural officer. That is what I have always regarded him as. Had anyone asked me before the dispute began to describe the functions of the Clerk, I would not have had the faintest idea that he was in a position to overrule everybody else on management matters. That is an anachronistic position.
Therefore, when the Committee is set up, I suggest it asks itself these four questions. First, should a top CEO be expected to be a top procedural adviser too? Secondly, should a top procedural adviser be expected to be a top CEO too? Thirdly, should two such different roles be combined by default in future as they have been in the past? Fourthly, should the top procedural adviser be allowed, if the roles are separated, to overrule the top CEO on management matters, or vice versa on procedural matters? My answers to those questions are clear: no, no, no, no.
The reason for my answers is not only that I have wanted for years to emulate the late, great Margaret Thatcher on the Floor of the House, but that I profoundly disagree, with the greatest respect, with Sir Menzies Campbell. It is not a question of having a single chain of command, because we are not talking about a single management function. We are talking about two separate functions, which means that the people at the top of them should have authority in each.
I support the proposed Select Committee and its eminent Chair-elect, but I want to be reassured that it is not an effort to undermine an elected and reforming Speaker of the House. Mr Speaker has given us many more opportunities than we had in the past to hold the Government to account.
I should also like to be assured that the Committee will go wider than the appointment of a new Clerk and splitting responsibilities with a new chief executive. Ideally, the Committee would at the very least recommend that the entire management structure of the House be looked at in this modern age. It would also ideally recommend any changes necessary to improve support to elected Members. To my mind, that should include organisation of the management and the Clerks department; recruitment; what opportunities and prospects are on offer; how promotions are decided; and the perks and privileges. Ideally, it would also include how we ensure that staffing and resources are responsive to the needs of Select Committees, so that we can exercise our role more effectively.
On Monday, the head of the TUC, Frances O’Grady, its first woman general secretary, talked about a “Downton Abbey” recovery. To many hon. Members, the House often has an archaic “Upstairs, Downstairs” feel. Perks and privileges for the few abound, but plenty of glass ceilings are apparent from lower down the ladder.
The debate was prompted by the appointment of a new Clerk. One notable aspect of the process was that outside applications were invited from a range of candidates. That seems to have prompted a bitter reaction from some quarters whose interests seem vested in purely preserving the past.
In this day and age, it would seem strange to the outside world if this were all simply to boil down to defending Buggins’s turn. There is no necessary connection, as we have heard, between an encyclopaedic knowledge of “Erskine May” built up over decades and the ability to run a multi-million pound organisation such as Parliament in the 21st century.
As well as the best management and governance, in the modern age the House is urgently crying out for the updating of parliamentary privilege, to which I hope the Select Committee could also give a push. A privileges Bill has long been mooted, but there has been precious little sign of one from the Government or from within the House. Two years ago, for example, the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport produced a damning report naming people who had misled the House over phone hacking and a cover-up at News International. Those conclusions, under our old procedures, now lie parked with the Standards and Privileges Committees for further action. When we came to draft the report and pressed for clarity about privilege and the sanctions available, vagueness was the guidance of the day for fear of exposing the fact that the emperor, namely Parliament, had no clothes—
Mr Deputy Speaker, I am coming back to the issue of the management and governance of the House, but I wanted to speak frankly about how that difficult report involved trial and tribulation in how Committees were supported by the management of the House.
I want to conclude with a few words about one disturbing aspect of the appointment process, namely that attacks on Mr Speaker, the appointment panel and one of the outside candidates, Carol Mills from Australia, began before the appointment was made on
What has happened this summer has been a disgrace, with the same newspaper, the same reporters, a similar modus operandi and similar sources, it seems to me. As we consider the motion, I want to be assured that such bad behaviour will not be tolerated or rewarded in the future.
I welcome the motion and I welcome Mr Speaker’s announcement of the pause. I wrote to the Leader of the House in August because in my role as Chairman of the Liaison Committee I felt that members of the Committee would think that the House needed further discussion and to be able to exercise some influence over how the issue was resolved. An appropriate way of resolving it has been found.
As Chairs of Select Committees, members of the Liaison Committee have a lot of experience of Clerks at work. Indeed, I ought to point out in the light of some of the comments made that the idea that Clerks do not do management is seriously misleading. In the course of our daily work most of us see senior Clerks exercising management functions. They have of course been encouraged to do so and, in many cases, trained to do so as that is now a significant part of the role of Clerks.
I was on the House of Commons Commission when previous reports considered the issue of separating the roles of Clerk and chief executive and there are quite powerful arguments for doing so. I am sympathetic to a move in that direction, personally, but it is essential that the authority of the Clerk of the House must not be undermined. Some fairly obvious points follow on from that. For example, the nature of the appointment as a Crown appointment and the fact that the appointment can only be terminated on an address should remain the property of the post of Clerk of the House, not of any chief executive. There are some serious issues, which have been aired today, about where accountability lies and I would be worried by the thought that a chief executive could countermand the Clerk in a matter that affected the ability of Committees to carry out their functions, for instance. We must be careful and I repose confidence in the ability of the Committee that we are appointing to consider those issues very carefully.
The question of authority is important. My right hon. and learned Friend Sir Menzies Campbell mentioned the Committee he so carefully chaired on the involvement of the police in a search within the House. It was clear within those proceedings—I was also a member—that the loss of authority by the Serjeant at Arms contributed significantly to what went wrong. Whatever decision was made about where the responsibility should lie, the responsibility of speaking to the police should have had with it the authority that previously reposed with the Serjeant at Arms. We must be very careful that the authority that reposes in the Clerk of the House and is then, by extension, exercised by Clerks throughout our system is not undermined.
That leads me to another point, which I made in an intervention earlier but want to reiterate, about the arrangements that we have in the meantime. Let us bear in mind that that period could be a time of some very significant events, such as arguments about who should be voting on which Bills. We need to be sure that the person acting in the role of Clerk of the House from the position of Clerk Assistant has the authority necessary to serve the House in the way that the Clerk of the House would. He must also have the capacity and authority to delegate, sufficient to the functions of Clerk Assistant, and the time necessary to do the important job that he will be called on to do during this interim period.
The Committee may need more time, in which case it will have to come back to the House and ask for it, but the time scale is set by the fact that we are approaching a general election. I wish it well in its work.
It is with some diffidence that I follow the greatest luminaries in the House who have spoken in this debate. It must be a rare debate that has had quite so many former Leaders of the House speak in it, and it is of fundamental importance.
It is worth looking at how this situation has evolved. In giving up his prerogative to appoint the Clerk, the Speaker made an important modernising and opening-up move, and that is to be commended. The setting up of a panel was a good way of opening up the process, even if I do not like the conclusion that it reached. Once it all came out, there was then, in this more open process, naturally a greater interest from the House in how it had all happened and whether it had happened in the best possible way. The Speaker has therefore been wise to agree to, and even to suggest, a pause in the process so that it may be thoroughly considered and a Clerk appointed who has the confidence of every Member of the House.
We have heard a very important debate on whether the role should be divided—on whether a Clerk can, by his nature, be good at running a big organisation, or a chief executive from outside can be a good Clerk. Underlying all that, there is this fundamental point: whatever other qualities the Clerk has, they must have the complete confidence of the House when advising individual Members and the Speaker on what the procedure is.
The great thing about an unwritten constitution is that, to an extent, we make it up as we go along. In this country, there are not really any constitutional experts; there are just people who insist that they know more about the constitution than the next person they talk to. There is an enormous amount of bluffing when people tell us what our constitution is. The more authoritatively people say they know what it is, the more they get away with it. [Laughter.] I know that, because it is a bluff that I am not ashamed to use myself from time to time. That is very important in a Clerk, and having a Clerk of 40 years’ experience may well be essential—they could well be an Australian Clerk, as the Australian Parliament follows some very similar procedures to ours, so there is no objection in principle to an Australian—because when a point is order is raised and the Speaker is quickly whispered advice by the Clerk, or one of the assistant Clerks, the whole House must then accept that ruling as authoritative. Otherwise we would have endless points of order questioning the authority of the Chair and the advice being given to the Speaker by the Clerk sitting in the row in front of him. That would lead to complete disorder. The procedures of the House cannot operate properly without confidence, and that requires the experience that allows the bluff to be realistic.
Then there is the question of seniority. Sometimes the requirements of democracy, and particularly the rights of the minority, need inefficiency within our systems. If we have a purely efficient system, the Government get all their legislation through, as they feel like it, with very little debate and rapid progress through the House. The inefficiencies ensure that the Opposition have their say—and those of us on the Government Benches must always remember that we will not remain there for ever. We therefore need the Clerk as the most senior figure and the one who can bluff the best.
It falls to me in the very few seconds that remain to thank all Members across this House for their extraordinarily wise and thoughtful contributions. I am grateful to the Government and Opposition Front Benchers for supporting the motion. Mr Speaker called, rightly and wisely, for good will and consensus; we have seen those things tonight and for that we should all be profoundly grateful.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House welcomes the Speaker’s announcement on
(a) there shall be a select committee, called the House of Commons Governance Committee, to consider the governance of the House of Commons, including the future allocation of the responsibilities for House services currently exercised by the Clerk of the House and Chief Executive;
(b) the Committee report to the House by
(c) the Committee shall have the powers given to select committees related to government departments under paragraph 4(a) and 4(b) of
(d) Mr Jack Straw be the Chair of the Committee;
(e) the Committee shall consist of seven other backbench members, to be elected by parties in the proportion of three Conservative, two Labour and one Liberal Democrat, together with one representative of the other parties represented in the House; the parties shall forward their nominations to the Chair of the Committee of Selection by