Black Rod — Retirement of Sir Michael Willcocks and introduction of Sir Freddie Viggers

– in the House of Lords at 11:06 am on 30th April 2009.

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Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office) 11:06 am, 30th April 2009

My Lords, I have to inform the House that Her Majesty has appointed Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Viggers KCB, CMG, MBE to be Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, in succession to Sir Michael Willcocks KCB, CVO, and that he is at the Door, ready to receive your Lordships' commands.

Noble Lords:

Hear, hear!

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon President of the Council, Privy Council Office, Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council (Privy Council Office)

My Lords, we are now here to pay tribute to the departing Black Rod, a sad occasion, because this Black Rod will be missed by the House, but an important occasion, too. The office of Black Rod is an important one for the realm, and when the holder of that office changes, it is an important moment for the House.

Others will follow me with tributes specifically focusing on particular aspects of the job, as it has been defined, of the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, on security, for instance, or on ceremonial matters. I am convinced that my job today is more difficult than theirs, because it falls to me to give to the House a sense of what Black Rod is like—difficult, because he is so well known to all Members of the House that each individual Member will have a clear view of what Black Rod is like.

As Black Rod, though a commanding figure, he has been assiduous in engaging with, communicating with, and talking to all Members on all sides of the House. He has seen, I believe, accessibility as a central part of his job. That may of course be because, as an old military man, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Willcocks believes that it has been pretty well essential for him to know the lay of the land. It is as well, though, because he is a naturally gregarious and sociable man. Black Rod is a familiar figure to the House, whether swinging along Millbank of a morning, with his dog Sugar by his side, or in deep conversation in the Bishops' Bar, or just being about the corridors of the House so that Members can tackle him on any issues of concern to them. In fact, so assiduous is he that I hope he will forgive me for revealing to the House his nickname in his old Army regiment, the Royal Horse Artillery. He was known, highly affectionately, after the old "Magic Roundabout" figure, as Zebedee—always bouncing about as if spring-loaded. To echo the noble Lord, Lord McNally, in his reply to the opening of the debate on the gracious Speech, "Boing!".

Black Rod, too, is a familiar figure well beyond this House. Visiting a school recently, I was asking the pupils what they knew about Parliament. I talked a little about something that they may have witnessed on television—the State Opening of Parliament. What did they know about it? That was clear: "There's a man with a stick, Miss, who bangs on the door three times every year. Miss, does he get paid for that job?". Now, we happen to know that there is, perhaps, a touch more to the job of Black Rod than that, yet it does portray that office as a key symbol of Parliament and a fixture in the public consciousness of what Parliament does. Sir Michael has taken very seriously, as is right, those aspects of his job—his role in Parliament and his role as a member of the Royal Household. He has never been stuffy, but he has always been serious: serious in what has been his role, serious in how he has gone about it, and serious in what he has accomplished for this House.

There is, however, another side to Sir Michael—Mike to all who know him, although, as Leader, he and I both stick properly to our formal titles in dealing with each other, as he has quite rightly done with all my predecessors with whom he has so successfully worked in his eight years, all but a few weeks, in the role. He is, too, a well-spring of jokes and anecdotes. I shall not attempt to repeat any of them here, partly because I should pale in comparison to his own abilities, and partly because I do not have his particular skill of starting out with what looks likely to be an extraordinarily risqué joke that turns out, somehow magically, to be highly respectable.

Although we are used to seeing him formally attired and properly dressed, it has not always been like that. He is remembered for the occasions when he left behind at home his ceremonial shoes, and had to process in a natty pair of leather loafers, and for when he left his tights behind—Ede & Ravenscroft 60 denier, I am told—although history, perhaps thankfully, does not record his strategies to mount a cover-up and spare his, and our, blushes. However, he has been unembarrassed in wanting to spread the word about what this House does; those skills will no doubt stand him in good stead when he moves to his new role with the Press Complaints Commission.

As Black Rod, he has shown considerable leadership and prompted great loyalty among his staff. He may not always have agreed with the decisions taken by the House, but when he has not he has, despite his own views, as ever, enacted those decisions to the letter. He has, too, been a key member of the management team of the Lords. In particular, it falls to Black Rod to take on the highly unenviable task of arranging office accommodation for Peers, where his tact and skill in handling the difficult issues have been exemplary. His strategic work on accommodation, based around the planned island site for Lords offices, has been essential.

I take this opportunity to pay special tribute to him for the way he has handled the number of particularly difficult issues on which we have worked since I became Leader of this House, including the matter of the police inquiries earlier this year. Throughout those difficult periods, Black Rod, again, acted with tact, skill and sensitivity, as well as the required robustness when necessary. In doing so—just as he did when, a few short months into his job, he had to deal with the security implications of the 9/11 terrorist attacks for this House and, indeed, for Parliament as a whole—he has acted and accomplished things for the benefit of this House, for the benefit of the Members of the House and for the benefit of the country as a whole.

I welcome Lieutenant-General Sir Freddie Viggers as his successor as Black Rod, and Carl Woodall as Director of Facilities. I look forward to working closely with them both. I end, as I began, by thanking Black Rod for all that he has done for this House: for his courtesy, for his considerateness, for his care, for his attention, for his effort, and for his enthusiasm. We are all indebted to him, and we are all grateful.

Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Leader of the Opposition In the House of Lords, Parliament

My Lords, I wholeheartedly associate myself and this side of the House with the tribute that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House has just made in welcoming Lieutenant-General Sir Freddie Viggers and with her tremendous expressions of gratitude to Sir Michael Willcocks.

I would like to speak particularly of Sir Michael's role in ceremonial. Need I say more of Sir Michael's conduct than that it was masterly in every sense of the word? After all, he is one of the few to come under attack from that notorious network of spin doctors and not only to survive it but, with characteristic tenacity and courage, to teach those who tried to bully him a sharp lesson or two.

Ceremony is an expression of the roots and the continuities that are needed in a fast-changing modern world. It is an affirmation that institutions are greater than those who temporarily embody them and it is something that I believe we in Britain do better than anyone. Day in, day out, in small things and big, Black Rod has unfailingly seen that we put our feet in the right place—and he has never put a foot wrong either.

Sir Michael's place in the history books is assured, when all is said and done, for his conduct of, and in, that immense and moving event of the lying-in-state of a greatly loved Queen. No one who witnessed that event will ever forget it, or the fact that Westminster Hall was open 24 hours a day for people to pay their respects. It was largely thanks to Sir Michael that it was a unifying ceremony of state and nothing more.

In that great work of literature, the Alastair Campbell Diaries, Sir Michael is described as "that little ... (expletive deleted)". That accolade alone shows that he must have done something right. I am told that Black Rod's reaction, with that typically pithy sense of humour, was, "How dare he call me little?"

Sir Michael was a big man, in a great office, that he carried out with exemplary loyalty and devotion to this House and, above all, to the Crown. We will all miss him. We thank him sincerely, and we wish him well.

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Leader in the House of Lords, Spokesperson for Constitutional Affairs , Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 11:16 am, 30th April 2009

My Lords, I have said before that I always think these occasions are rather like the scene in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer where the boys hide in the loft listening to their own funeral service. I am sure Sir Michael will be pleased that not only is he in the "loft", but so, too, are many of the staff who worked closely with him, who are listening to these tributes.

It is my part of this carve-up to talk about his role in managing the parliamentary estate—a rather dull part of his role, your Lordships might think, but important. Probably no greater tribute can be paid to Sir Michael than the fact that, when he leaves, two people will replace him, in that a parliamentary estates manager will take over that part of his job. It is important that we understand what a difficult job it is properly to manage a building that is a world and national treasure and yet keep it working effectively as a modern Parliament, while at the same time managing it in a pull-me, push-me way, with other parts of the management at the other end not always working collegiately. To add to this problem, the whole thing is managed by committee. It must test a military man to the utmost to find that his ideas and his plans are then taken to a committee of politicians. Just for a fleeting moment you can sometimes see pass across his eyes the thought, "If I could get you lot on a parade ground for 15 minutes", but then the diplomacy kicks in and he listens patiently while some of his carefully thought out ideas for making this place more efficient are slowly unpicked by people probably reading their committee papers for the first time. I wish him very good fortune in the future.

As well as his diplomacy, we have to recognise his courage. Certainly, the ex-Members of the other place will appreciate this. Every year, for eight years, we have sent that man down that Corridor to that Door, knowing that on the other side, waiting for him, is Dennis Skinner. That alone deserves another gong on the list that was read out. The greatest tribute to Sir Michael is that long before his term of duty was over, he managed to turn the press coverage of the annual event that has almost become part of our constitution in favour of Black Rod, rather than Mr Skinner.

It is a moment of parting. I know, as a member of the House Committee, just how much work and preparation has gone into the island site in particular. It will be Black Rod's memorial when we eventually get it. In the meantime, along with the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and the Lord President, and—learning something new every day—I wish Zebedee a very happy retirement.

Photo of Baroness D'Souza Baroness D'Souza Crossbench 11:21 am, 30th April 2009

My Lords, I join, on behalf of the Cross Benches, in the tributes that have been paid to the departing Black Rod, and in warmly welcoming Sir Freddie Viggers.

A rough estimate indicates that there have been 57 Black Rods since 1361 when a certain Walter Whitehorse got the job of supervising access to the House of Lords. The job has changed in the intervening 700 or so years, but perhaps never quite as rapidly as during the tenure of Sir Michael, the 57th Black Rod. Sir Michael took over from his predecessor barely four months before that terrible autumn day, 9/11, when the focus of his job shifted dramatically.

As Black Rod knows better than any of us, Parliament is a key target for any would-be terrorist attack and the fact that our working lives have continued with serenity is not because of any lack of threat. It is due to the utter and constant vigilance of Sir Michael and his team, who have seamlessly introduced mechanisms that have kept us safe and Parliament accessible to record numbers of visitors. I include among these mechanisms the new access control system, off-site mail screening and, shortly to come, the off-site vehicle search facility. I suppose I also have to mention the Corus barriers.

I thank Sir Michael for keeping your Lordships safe, for all the marvellous parties and for the occasional glimpses of Sugar. I wish him all the best in his new post as charter commissioner at the Press Complaints Commission.

Photo of The Bishop of Southwark The Bishop of Southwark Bishop 11:22 am, 30th April 2009

My Lords, from these Benches we add our appreciation for the remarkable service that Sir Michael has performed as Black Rod. As Bishops in the Church of England we know what it is to try to maintain confidence and stability when all around is changing. That has been Sir Michael's calling, which he has performed with skill, humour and, at times, an appropriate righteous stubbornness. I also have to affirm that in his time the Bishops' Robing Room has not been raided by the Metropolitan Police. We will miss him.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Lord Speaker 11:23 am, 30th April 2009

My Lords, perhaps I could say a final word in tribute, focusing particularly on Black Rod's responsibilities for security. When I came into post Sir Michael came to see me and was extremely deferential and polite. He then informed me that when he needed to see me, he would see me and I would be there. With that relationship, we have continued, in perfect harmony.

Sir Michael has been particularly valuable to this House because the advice he has given on security issues, at a time when that advice was of crucial importance, has always been professional, as one would expect from his history, and his assessment of risk and of the measures to obviate that risk has been of the highest quality. However, that has always been tempered by an understanding of and commitment to the need for this place, this Parliament, to be accessible to staff, to Members and above all to the public whom we serve. For that I have the highest gratitude.

We will miss him. He has left his particular responsibilities in exceptionally good order. That, together with our limited knowledge of his successor, which tells me that Sir Frederick will very quickly become Freddie on non-official occasions, means that we owe him an even greater debt of gratitude.

Noble Lords:

Hear, hear.