Retirement of the Clerk of the House

– in the House of Commons at 1:28 pm on 12 September 2023.

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Photo of Penny Mordaunt Penny Mordaunt Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons 1:28, 12 September 2023

I beg to move,

That Mr Speaker be requested to convey to Sir John Benger KCB, on his retirement from the office of Clerk of the House, this House’s gratitude for his long and distinguished service, for his wise contribution to the development of the procedure of the House during testing times and in the face of the unprecedented challenge of the pandemic, for his engaged and inclusive leadership and his professionalism in the discharge of his duties as head of the House Administration, and for the courteous and helpful advice always given to individual honourable Members.

It is a real pleasure to move the motion to give the House the opportunity to pay tribute to Sir John, who leaves this place on 30 September to take up the role of master of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House when I say that Sir John has been an outstanding Clerk and has given an incredible level of service to the House of Commons, not just in this Chamber but throughout the House and the estate—a service spanning 37 years.

Sir John has been Clerk to a number of the busiest and most high-profile Select Committees, including Public Accounts, Treasury and Health. He stayed at the latter Committee for six years while it undertook a number of landmark inquiries on tobacco, the pharmaceutical industries and obesity. He has also worked in a number of procedural teams, including the Public Bill Office and the Table Office, as well as being director of service delivery in the department for information services between 2010 and 2015.

Sir John was appointed the 51st Clerk of the House of Commons in February 2019 following the formal approval of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. In the four years of service since, he has worked with five Leaders of the House: my right hon. Friends the Members for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), for Central Devon (Mel Stride), for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg) and for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), as well as myself. He knows parliamentary procedure better than almost anyone, and he knows that there is a right and a wrong way to adhere to protocol, but he is also a pragmatist and knows how to help Members navigate procedure when practices need to evolve.

That pragmatism and adaptability were exceedingly valuable as Sir John faced a challenge that none of his predecessors had ever encountered: covid-19 presented incredible difficulties to the business of this House. I think we can now safely say that the House Administration, led by Sir John, rose to meet those challenges with great speed and efficiency. It would have been unthinkable before 2020 but, for the first time, right hon. and hon. Members could make contributions to debates virtually. On 22 April 2020, just a month after the country had locked down, my hon. Friend Marco Longhi asked the first remote question during Welsh questions. There were also experiments with a number of voting styles before the pass reader voting system that we have was settled on.

Sir John has given so much of himself to this House. I thank him, on behalf of us all, for his service and for the care that he has shown us all, as evidenced in the letter that you just read out, Mr Speaker. I do not think that I could have thought any more of him, but having learned that he has given a home to two moggies, I hold him in even greater esteem. I wish him all the best in his new career. I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Lucy Powell Lucy Powell Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 1:32, 12 September 2023

It is a real pleasure, as one of my first acts as shadow Leader of the House, to pay tribute to the work of Sir John Benger, who will leave his role as Clerk of the House at the end of the month. I will not take it personally that he is leaving his job only a few days after I started mine. Maybe, given what you said, Mr Speaker, it is because I am a Manchester City fan, but I will discuss that with him offline.

The Leader of the House has rightly paid tribute to Sir John’s long career and the many achievements that he has clocked up over his decades of service to Parliament. Despite not having had the privilege to work much with Sir John directly, I have in my short time in this role heard time and again about his knowledge, generosity and wisdom, which have been invaluable to so many Members.

Sir John’s tenure as Clerk came during a period of extraordinary turbulence for our Parliament. It probably threw up more challenges to the way the House works than any other time in our history. He started with Parliament locked in stalemate, with seemingly no majority on how to deal with the fallout of Brexit. The most obscure parliamentary procedure was dusted off shelves and used in ways it had not been used for decades.

Sir John has always ensured that, no matter how controversial or challenging the debates, he gave fair and impartial advice to Members across the House. As we have heard, covid presented unprecedented challenges for the traditions of how we work. We had to bring our 200-year-old Parliament quickly into the digital age in a matter of hours. Some ways of working were changed for good—perhaps not as many as I would like. I think I asked my first hybrid PMQ in my living room as my children danced in the background—it was a challenging time.

Of course, after the death of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Parliament became a place of national mourning and helped to bring the country together through that difficult time. It was also the epicentre of global interest, with millions tuning into the live feed of Westminster Hall, which does not happen all that often. Parliament and all its staff, under Sir John’s leadership, did our country so proud during that period.

Sir John has also seen many happier events, such as the unveiling of Big Ben after major restoration works—I was amused to find out that the Clerk of the House technically owns Big Ben, as I understand it. He oversaw improvements in welfare facilities, training opportunities and support for House staff, as well as the independent complaints and grievance scheme. Those improvements are rapidly changing the culture in this place and will serve as part of his legacy.

Sir John has worked to move us on to the next stage of restoration and renewal, which will preserve this historic estate into the future. In addition, the Clerk is chief executive officer of the Commons and responsible for around 3,000 staff performing a variety of roles, including, as John himself has described:

“pastry chefs, lawyers, clock winders, security guards, researchers, and even a chaplain and a falconer”.

And if that was not enough, he sits at the Table of the House for at least part of every day, to advise and record decisions.

Those are serious responsibilities, and I am not sure how Sir John has found the time to do them all while maintaining the professionalism, kindness and wisdom for which he is so well known, giving the right advice at the right time, always in confidence. I am sure that colleagues across the House will join me in wishing Sir John the very best at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. They are lucky to have him. We look forward to welcoming Tom Goldsmith from October.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley Father of the House of Commons 1:36, 12 September 2023

It is a pleasure to follow the first three speeches—yours, Mr Speaker, and those of the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House.

One distinguished Under Clerk of the Parliaments—otherwise known as the Clerk of the Commons—was John Hatsell. In Orlo Williams’s great book, “The Clerical Organisation of the House of Commons 1661-1850”, Hatsell is described as attracting the confidence of leading politicians

“by his sympathetic understanding, though he was no sycophant of those in power.”

I think that is the right role for the Clerk and for those they lead in the Clerks department.

Sir John drew the attention of a commentator in the Press Gallery three years ago. A Member of a particular party complained that, if everyone had to stay six feet —or two metres—apart, there would not possibly be room for all SNP Members to perch in their usual seats. The commentator wrote:

“The clerk, with the smallest flash of weariness, said most problems could be resolved by ‘common sense and everyone behaving in a grown-up way’. Common sense and grown-up behaviour? We may need to keep an eye on Clerk Benger.”

They added that Sir John was

“a model clerk: circumspect, bookish, fair…in the best sense, a modest public servant.”

I think that that is the kind of reputation that each person joining the Clerks department would wish to have, whether or not they achieve the highest office.

Sir John was, in his academic life, an expert on Martin Marprelate’s tracts, which basically mocked the Church of England. The style is described as

“a heady mixture of nonsense, satire, protest, irony and gossip, combined with pungent wit, full of the language of the street”— or unparliamentary language. Were Sir John’s predecessor, Sir David Natzler, here, he would say that the tracts were good preparation for the intrigue, deception and vituperation a member of the House of Commons Commission had to get used to in the old days.

Mr Speaker, let me use the words of your predecessor, John Bercow, who said that the Clerks department was

“unstinting, selfless, formidable and…quite exceptional.”

He went on to say that a good Clerk is

“Blessed with a brilliant brain, an understated manner, unfailing courtesy, and an absolute and undiluted passion for Parliament”.—[Official Report, 13 February 2019;
Vol. 654, c. 921.]

Following his retirement as Clerk, Sir Thomas Erskine May—who, like Sir John, spent time in the Library as well as in the Clerks department—went on to become Baron Farnborough of Hampshire, and he held that role for six days before he died, making it the second shortest peerage. I hope that Sir John’s time at St Catharine’s is longer and that, when he gets to Cambridge, he will understand what it is like to be a member of the Denis Thatcher society, married to a person more important than you are. His wife, Professor Susan, is an expert Anglo-Saxonist. I refer those who are interested to her Chadwick memorial lecture in 2017 on uncertain beginnings. I think the Clerk arriving in Cambridge will not be uncertain. As the 40th master of St Catharine’s, I hope he has as good a time as we hope he has had with us, and we thank him for his service.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (COP26), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Commons Business) 1:40, 12 September 2023

It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate on behalf of the Scottish National party, to add to the tributes paid to Sir John Benger and congratulate him on his new role as master of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge—his alma mater, as you shared with us, Mr Speaker.

Sir John’s departure marks the end of nearly four decades of exceptional service to the House of Commons in various capacities. Only a handful of MPs have served this institution as long as Sir John has. During his four-year tenure as Clerk of the House, Sir John faced a series of unique and unprecedented challenges. Just a year into his tenure, he was tasked with leading the House service’s swift and extremely successful response to the outbreak of covid-19, ensuring the continued and safe operation of Parliament. Those early lockdowns were, as everyone will recall, a very worrying and uncertain time for everyone, and Sir John’s calm, diligent efforts to navigate the House through the pandemic, including the swift implementation of remote and virtual participation, stand out as some of his most significant achievements.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North

I want to echo the tributes that my hon. Friend and others are paying to John Benger today. During my time as SNP Chief Whip, he was always a source of extremely valuable advice and, while some of the issues we had to deal with were perhaps easier than others, as my hon. Friend alludes to, his professionalism and courtesy shone throughout it all. I am pleased to have the opportunity to say how grateful I am to him for his service and to wish him all the best.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (COP26), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (House of Commons Business)

I thank my hon. Friend for that fitting tribute; I know he worked closely with Sir John over the years.

I also pay great tribute to Sir John for overseeing the establishment of the Independent Expert Panel, to determine complaints of bullying and harassment in relation to MPs, implementing the recommendations in Dame Laura Cox’s report.

Another major project during Sir John’s term has been the ongoing restoration and renewal of the parliamentary estate. The Public Accounts Committee warned:

“there is a real and rising risk that a catastrophic event will destroy the Palace before it is ever repaired and restored.”

The evidence that Sir John gave to the Committee earlier this year should be read carefully by all Members of both Houses, especially those who think that this building is perfect and nothing needs to change.

I have not known Sir John for very long on a personal level, so I will admit that I did pop in to see a senior Clerk to gather some of her insights. She described him as a deeply intelligent man with a sharp sense of humour who has a truly passionate love of football. As we have heard, he is a Man United fan, so I am sure he will be hoping for some improvement after a slightly difficult start to the season.

Colleagues who have worked with Sir John closely remark on his rich, eclectic cultural and intellectual interests. That is one of the qualities, perhaps, that has helped him successfully transition between various different roles in this place—for example, at one point moving from the Commons clerking team to the Commons Library.

Sir John drew inspiration from different fields and sectors to inform his work in Parliament. I am told that he was a keen reader of the Harvard Business Review at a time when that was considered unusual, and he engaged with banks and other such organisations to gain insight into improving customer service for Members. Parliament has certainly benefited from that approach. The “MPs’ Guide to Procedure”, which I know Members and staff find enormously helpful and practical, was an initiative that he led on, as well as introducing simple things such as the buddying system for new MPs, which newcomers found invaluable when attempting to navigate the complexities of this place.

I wish Sir John all the best in his new role and his future endeavours, and I warmly congratulate Tom Goldsmith on his appointment as Sir John’s successor. Tom was most recently Principal Clerk of the Table Office, and he has been with the House service since 1996, so he will bring a vast range of expertise and experience to the job. My colleagues and I very much look forward to working with him.

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Conservative, North East Somerset 1:44, 12 September 2023

One of the great virtues of the Clerks—and particularly of the Under Clerk of the Parliaments—is that whether we are the most junior, most recently elected Member or the Leader of the House, we get the best, cleverest advice confidentially. During that difficult time of the 2017-19 Parliament, which Sir John handled brilliantly, people were going in to seek advice to do completely opposite things. Some wanted to smooth Government business through, and others wanted to obstruct it, and each one of us was given good, professional, thoughtful advice and treated without any difference according to seniority or recent appearance in this House. That is a true mark of a good Clerk and of fairness.

To give an example of the complexity of the issues, one that came up was whether a Humble Address fell at Prorogation or not. The first edition of “Erskine May” says that it does. A subsequent edition of “Erskine May”—about the 12th, I think—says that it does not. After that, nobody mentioned it, because we had not had Humble Addresses for 150 years. The Clerks had to work out which it was and how it was, and advise accordingly. Although this is not the occasion for paying tribute to you, Mr Speaker, because I hope you are going to stay in office for a very long time, it has to be said that you then made the very important statement that you would stick to clerkly advice or give a written reason as to why not, reinforcing the importance and independence of the role, because it is a key constitutional role.

Others have mentioned covid and what Sir John did to ensure that the House sat. He turned the whole House around; it was a really remarkable thing. We went away for the Easter recess having no idea how this House would sit when it came back—none at all. We had no idea whether the technology would possibly work, and yet the Clerk was being told that he had to get Parliament back. It was our democratic requirement that this House should sit and sit safely. That was perhaps easy for some of us to say, because it was the Clerk who had the legal responsibility. We must bear in mind the uncertainty of that time; nobody knew how serious or how dangerous the disease was or what its effect might be, but we knew we had to have Parliament back. As we said to him from time to time, “It is all very well, but you, Sir John”—or Dr Benger, as he was then—“are the one who goes to prison if you get it wrong.” He took that responsibility and ensured that democracy carried on.

He has been an innovator and has introduced things in this House. We have mentioned the ICGS, which he was a great driver behind and which has been hugely to the benefit of the House. He also got rid of the wigs. That came as a great surprise to me. I had always known that the Clerks are some of the cleverest people in the world. We know that whenever we go to see them to ask a question on some procedural point. Their wisdom is phenomenal. I thought that this was because they kept their brains warm by wearing wigs, and that without that warmth, the brainpower would not carry on as it had. But I confess, I turned out to be wrong; their brainpower continues without that warmth.

I should have known what a radical our Clerk really is at heart. As my hon. Friend Sir Peter Bottomley pointed out, his specialist subject was the Marprelate tracts. One of the things that Marprelate was so against was clerical dress—he ridiculed the clothes worn by the clergy—so it is no surprise that, in a radical act, Sir John simplified the dress of the Clerks. We all wish him enormously well. He has been a model of clerkly wisdom and service to this House.

Photo of Harriet Harman Harriet Harman Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee), Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee of Privileges 1:49, 12 September 2023

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I associate myself with everything you said about Sir John, and also what the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House, my hon. Friend Lucy Powell—who I welcome to her position—said. I do not intend to repeat everything that everybody has already said, but to warmly and very personally thank Sir John and pay tribute to him.

When somebody has been working in the same field for four decades, they accumulate a huge amount of experience and wisdom, but it can sometimes be the case that they get stuck in the old ways and think things should not change. The great thing about Sir John is that he accumulated all that wisdom and experience, but he was never stuck in the past; he fiercely protected the enduring values of this House, but also showed himself to be an ally of progress and modernisation. I think we all recognise that there is further to go, but he had that remarkable duality of characteristics. He led an absolutely extraordinary team of Clerks; we always need to take the opportunity to say how lucky we know we are to have the Clerks’ advice. It is quite easy to take it for granted, because it is always like that and it has always been like that, but we depend on it so much. I pay tribute to Sir John for his leadership of that Clerks team.

Clearly, Sir John had a brain the size of a planet, but he was never condescending with it: he was always very pleasant, and never pompous. Many people who are that clever cannot resist looking down on those who are not, but he never did that—he was always a pleasure to deal with. I wish him well in his new role at St Catharine’s, and I also hope that he will write his memoirs. As colleagues have said, he has been through an enormous swathe of history from a bird’s-eye point of view, so if he does, I for one will certainly be reading them. Once again, I thank him for his extraordinary service and wish him all the best for the future, and I also wish all the best to his successor.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Chair, European Scrutiny Committee, Chair, European Scrutiny Committee 1:51, 12 September 2023

Mr Speaker, I too would like to associate myself with your remarks, and with the tributes paid to Sir John Benger by all other persons in the Chamber. It is always an enormous pleasure to know that the Clerks Department, which is so important to the functioning of this House, is in such safe hands.

I will just refer to one or two incidents that have occurred. My right hon. Friend Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg and one or two others referred to what I call the paralysis Parliament between 2017 and 2019, where there was a great deal of fractiousness. Effectively, decisions were taken—sometimes by a coalition, shall we call it, across the Floor of the House—the result of which was that nothing could be done. It was a time of very considerable frustration to many of us, but having such wise Clerks such as Sir John Benger at the front of the ship, guiding us through that period of time, was incredibly important. Of course, we came out of it eventually.

That is as compared with 1986—I am bound to say this, am I not? If I did not, I would regard myself as having walked away from the subject. In 1986, I was told by the Clerks, and also by the Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, that I was not allowed to even debate the issue of sovereignty. I tabled an amendment to the Single European Act 1987; I have to confess that I was the only person in the House who had an amendment on the subject. By 2020, the situation had changed so much that the sovereignty amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, section 38 of that Act, went through without any adverse comment, either in this House or in the House of Lords. That is a tribute to the changes that have taken place, and to the guidance and navigation of Sir John Benger and others who allowed those important constitutional changes to take place.

People have spoken eloquently about covid, and I could not agree more. I had not the faintest idea what was going to happen when we all returned to the country, up in Shropshire or wherever it happened to be, and wondered what on earth we were going to do—how on earth were we going to be able to participate? It ran very, very smoothly, and it could only have run so smoothly with the wisdom and judgment of those like Sir John Benger, and Sir John in particular. I also pay tribute to his contribution to the funeral arrangements for Her late Majesty the Queen.

With those thoughts, I simply wish Sir John the very best when he gets to St Catharine’s, Cambridge. When I heard that it was St Catharine’s, I thought for one moment that it might have been St Catherine’s, Oxford, but it was not: it is St Catharine’s, Cambridge. Whichever university he is going to, I wish him the best of luck, and I hope it all works well for him.

Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 1:55, 12 September 2023

Like other speakers, I associate myself with your remarks, Mr Speaker, and those we have heard so far today in recognising Sir John Benger and his departure from the House to St Catharine’s. I was elected in December 2019, and my first engagement with Sir John in that first and last sitting week of 2019 was bleary-eyed and tired, here in the Chamber with other new MPs, being privy to the procedures and processes that we needed to follow. I did my best to listen, but I also believe that an MP is not properly an MP in this place until they have stood up at an oral questions session, started to ask their substantive question, and been told by yourself, Mr Speaker, to say “Question number eight—apologies” and sit back down. We all do our best to pay attention to the Clerk and the guidance he and his team give, but sometimes we do not quite manage it.

We of the 2019 intake had been MPs for such a short period of time before covid took place that we were still getting to grips with the way the processes worked. I can certainly speak for my right hon. Friend Mr Carmichael by saying that the communications we had from the House via the Clerk ensured that we were as well equipped as we could possibly be as we came back in a virtual environment. It was a very different environment; it is very good that we are back here in this place, but the amendments and adjustments that were able to be made, including those that we have taken forward, are part of Sir John’s legacy.

Since September 2020, I have acted as the Whip for the Liberal Democrats. The Father of the House mentioned that a previous Clerk had “sympathetic understanding”, and I would certainly say that that has been the case for John in relation to me. He has been sympathetically understanding of my sometimes completely daft questions, treated them with respect, and given me the appropriate advice accordingly. I am hugely grateful for that.

We are reflecting on what has happened since Sir John became Clerk of the House. I have reflected on covid, the work that took place to mark the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, and the restoration works that this place requires going forward. However, for me—particularly as a Whip—his longest-lasting legacy will be changing the culture in this place, the things that we do not see. As we recognise that the Clerk’s role is to provide non-political, impartial advice, it behoves us as parliamentarians to think about how we change that culture for the better in much the same way.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee 1:57, 12 September 2023

It is always sad when we say goodbye to a Clerk of the House—exciting when we welcome a new one, but sad when we see a Clerk depart. Sir John has been kind, thoughtful and reflective. This has been a very challenging Parliament, but all Parliaments are challenging, and we would expect the Clerk to rise to that challenge. I will miss him greatly.

People have said that he was wise, and I have benefited from that wisdom on a number of occasions. However, one of his most underappreciated talents was that he did not speak very often and he did not speak very loudly, so when he did speak, he captured the room and people listened. We benefit in our Parliament from the very best Clerks in the world. That is a testament to Sir John’s efforts over his four years leading this place and his team, and to his predecessors. I am sure the next Clerk will deliver a great Parliament and lead a great team.

Photo of Liz Saville-Roberts Liz Saville-Roberts Shadow PC Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Women and Equalities) , Plaid Cymru Westminster Leader, Shadow PC Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Attorney General) 1:59, 12 September 2023

I rise on behalf of my party, Plaid Cymru, to pay tribute to John Benger for his commitment to this House. We are talking about four decades, and 36 years is a very long time in a workplace. He has served diligently and conscientiously, and during that tenure he has undoubtedly seen some of the highs and lows of parliamentary life. Sir John’s tireless work, whether through Brexit or the pandemic, as we have heard, has ensured an extraordinarily smooth running of this place through what were often the most torrid of times.

I would particularly like to thank Sir John for his work in implementing the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. It has been clear that the welfare of staff has been of the utmost importance to him, and the guidance in this place is a testament to his good work. We are talking about a cultural sea change and how to put that into effect, and seeing its being put into effect here has been extremely interesting. Of course, it is not over—it is not done—but it does change how we handle ourselves and each other. I think that that work is one of the things we will hold on to, and seeing him realise it is one of the things we will remember him for, alongside the technological changes and his own style of working.

I would like to place on the record my personal thanks, and those of my party, for his adept, agile stewardship as Clerk of the House, and of course to wish him the very best for his new position as the master of St Catharine’s College.

Photo of Karen Bradley Karen Bradley Chair, Procedure Committee, Chair, Procedure Committee 2:01, 12 September 2023

I rise to speak as Chair of the House of Commons Procedure Committee, and I wish to associate myself and my Committee with the remarks made so far. I know that we as a Committee agree wholeheartedly with the tributes that have been paid so far.

The Procedure Committee constituted itself on 2 March 2020, and at the end of our agenda, when we got to “Any other business”, somebody asked, “Do you think we should find out something about this coronavirus that people are talking about?” We agreed that we would invite Sir John to come to speak to the Committee privately the following Monday, and he was faced with a Committee of very enthusiastic MPs, all keen to hear about procedure and what we might do with this unknown thing called coronavirus—I see a fellow member of the Committee, Kirsty Blackman, who was there at the time. We heard from Sir John terms such as “social distancing”, and he talked about our sitting, as one would expect from Sir John, “six feet” apart, not “two metres.” He talked about how he would transform this place so that we could continue to sit, and we would have to have spacing between Members and make sure there were lists of speakers. We sat there just astonished, because this was not something anyone on the Procedure Committee had expected we would be facing so soon after being constituted, but we did.

Only a few weeks later, this House went into hybrid form, and introduced new voting systems and new ways of working. It is to the credit of Sir John and you, Mr Speaker, that this Parliament continued to sit throughout the pandemic, because many others did not manage to do so. We continued to sit here, holding Ministers to account, scrutinising legislation and getting business done. That is a great credit to you and to Sir John.

As others have reflected, Sir John’s tenure had three of the great moments in this place—Brexit, the pandemic and the passing of Her Majesty the Queen—all of which he managed, as the chief executive of this place, with such aplomb, so courteously and so wisely. Of course, he was here for the change in culture in this place, and the grievance procedures that have been introduced would be enough for any Clerk’s tenure, never mind doing it in the background of all of the other great things that were happening.

I wish Sir John well. I know he will be fantastic in his new role at St Catherine’s College, Cambridge. I hope he does not have to deal with quite so many momentous activities during his time there and that he can enjoy his time as master. I wish his successor well, and again I hope we have a slightly less frenetic Parliament for him.

Photo of Navendu Mishra Navendu Mishra Labour, Stockport 2:04, 12 September 2023

It is a matter of pride for me to contribute to this debate because Sir John is from Stockport, and many people are not aware of the fact. I remember when, after I was elected, I walked through those doors, took the affirmation and signed the register, that he shook my hand and informed me that he was from Stockport and had been to Stockport Grammar, and I was fascinated by that and by his manner. Anyone who interacted with him knew that he was extremely intelligent. Well, he is extremely intelligent—I am speaking of him in the past tense for some reason—as well as very polite and extremely helpful, and he goes out of his way to help people.

I often talk about the north-south divide, the Westminster bubble and all those things, so it is wonderful for me to see that someone who was born and brought up in Stockport and grew up and went to school in Stockport then found his way to the House Service, gave all those years—almost 37 years—of service to this House and rose up through the ranks to become the head of the House Service, which I think is fantastic. I was also interested when I found out that Sir John not only went to Stockport Grammar, but went on a scholarship and then went on to read English literature at St Catharine’s, Cambridge.

Over the last four years I have had several interactions with Sir John, and he was always very polite and helpful. A few months ago, he was supposed to visit my constituency and I was supposed to organise a visit for him to a local school so that he could talk about his journey from Stockport to Westminster and, in the future, back to Cambridge. Unfortunately, that visit hit a snag, so I want to place on the record that the invitation is still open, and I think Sir John has agreed to come back. I have only just found out from your contribution, Mr Speaker, that he supports Manchester United. I assure him that I would be happy to take him to Edgeley, where Stockport County plays, although I cannot guarantee that he will find many Manchester United supporters there.

I wish Sir John the best for the future. People often talk about MPs and Lords when they talk about this place, but it is outstanding Crown servants who are the real engine of this institution. Without people like Dr Benger, our democratic institutions would fail to function. I want to place on the record, on behalf of the people of Stockport, our thanks to him for his service. I wish Mr Tom Goldsmith, the incoming Clerk, the best success in the future. Once again, it is a matter of great pride that someone from the north came down and achieved this status, and I really hope that Sir John will take up my offer of a visit.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 2:06, 12 September 2023

It is a pleasure for me, on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party, to place on the record our sincere thanks to the Clerk, Sir John Benger, and to pass on our best wishes to him in his new vocation and job at Cambridge.

Sir John was a very active Clerk, as we all know. He was very helpful, appreciative and responsive to us all. As an active participant myself in this House, along with others, I am well aware of his tremendous role, and he may even hold the record for attendance and indeed for participation. Sir John has worked as the head of administration during all those times others have referred to, such as Brexit, the murders of hon. Members of this House and the responses we all took in what were incredibly difficult times, and the murder of Constable Keith Palmer. Those all stick in my mind. I remember our being protected, if that is the right word—I was going to say imprisoned, but we were protected—in this House for a period of time and unable to get out, but that was the best thing. We may not have thought so at the time, but it was the best way to respond.

With the pandemic, obviously for myself and others in this House the question was: how do we handle that? Well, Sir John knew how to handle it. He did it right, and we all supported him. Maybe we personally did not quite understand all the precautions and things that were happening, but we understood the reasons for them, and that was important. There were difficult times and poignant times. Obviously, there was the Queen’s funeral—one of those occasions that I believe only we British can do so well—and I take that on board. There were the heavy times as well, when emotions were high and people’s tempers and what they said were not always conducive to the House behaving in the way it should. However, Sir John was that controlling word, that controlling feature or that controlling character. I do not mean controlling in telling us what to do, but controlling in giving us the type of personality to respond in a good way.

Sir John’s long and distinguished service to this House and its Members has been valued not just by me personally, but by my party and, indeed—I am convinced of this—by everyone in this House. His presence here will be greatly missed. I pass on our sincere desire that God will bless him and keep him in his new role, and that he will enjoy the challenges it brings. We hope that Sir John gets the relaxation he so richly deserves. If he can look after us in this House, he can certainly look after Cambridge.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, House of Commons Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Conference Committee, Chair, Speaker's Conference Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Client Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Client Board Committee

May I, on behalf of Sir John, thank everybody for their contributions? He thinks the world of Lady Susan and their two sons, Matthew and Timothy, but I have to tell you that the real eye-opener for everyone, if you ever talk about it, is his grandson Solly—the apple of his eye. We wish him well, and we wish Tom Goldsmith great success as the new Clerk.

Question put and agreed to,


That Mr Speaker be requested to convey to Sir John Benger KCB, on his retirement from the office of Clerk of the House, this House’s gratitude for his long and distinguished service, for his wise contribution to the development of the procedure of the House during testing times and in the face of the unprecedented challenge of the pandemic, for his engaged and inclusive leadership and his professionalism in the discharge of his duties as head of the House Administration, and for the courteous and helpful advice always given to individual honourable Members.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Deputy Speaker

Before we proceed, I hope that the House will not mind if I abuse my position by expressing my own appreciation for the work of Sir John Benger, and for his friendship, his courtesy and his wisdom. It is greatly appreciated.