Sir Alan Duncan is MP for Rutland and Melton. He is a former Minister of State for International Development, and Shadow Leader of the House of Commons.
The Commons has worked itself into a bind, and must quickly find a way forward which can avoid an undignified spat when it returns after the summer break.
Set aside for now the incessant barrage of criticism of MPs, and park to one side too its decades of erosion by the growing power of the EU, Parliament does matter. It is the pinnacle of our law-making and the engine of Britain’s democratic existence. As such we must try to make it work as well as we can.
The Commons is both a building with all the demands of managing an enormous establishment, and it is a working Parliament governed by constitutional rules which are the best of its kind in the world. The problem we face is in recruiting someone to do both tasks.
Over the last forty years, the nature of the building has changed dramatically. Even in the 1970s, MPs had one secretary, wrote their own letters, were drawn more to the process of legislation and debates than they were to their constituents’ many problems, and lived in a world without email, mobile phones and 24 hour TV. To many it will have looked more like a club than an office.
But it is now a massive enterprise. The Parliamentary Estate contains thousands of staff, has much more office space for Members, and shepherds tens of thousands of visitors through its corridors. Its maintenance programme is a perpetual headache, its security needs are growing, and the plumbing and wiring of this Victorian icon are nothing short of a nightmare. So it needs a competent professional person to run the place and manage its unique needs.
So does the oversight of our parliamentary procedure. The rules which govern our Parliament and the process of legislation are no petty matter. They are the rock of knowledge and experience on which trust and reliability in our law and government are built. Erskine May – the handbook of Parliamentary Procedure – has been honed and amended over centuries, and to understand it and adjudicate on disputes within Parliament – is a specialist skill of inestimable value.
A few years ago in its wisdom – or lack of it – the House of Commons Commission (its administering committee) decided to combine the two roles into a single position whose occupant would be both Chief Executive and Clerk of the House. I have always thought this an error, as it is asking a lot to find someone with the skills to do both. Until now, the office-holder has always been a Clerk, and so there was no doubt about their qualifications to handle procedure. But for the first time, the job may be offered to a non-Clerk, thus causing consternation about the absence of the skills and experience required to fulfil the supremely important role of Clerk of the House.
It seems clear that MPs are deeply unhappy that the Clerk’s chair might be occupied by someone who is not a qualified Clerk. If I were to have a heart operation, I’d like the surgeon to know something about medicine. Whereas a Clerk as Chief Executive can draw on management expertise for the building, a Clerk, and only a Clerk, is able to be the ultimate authority on our proceedings.
It is not the Speaker’s fault that we face this dilemma. He has acted properly and is taking the rap for others’ past decisions and the judgement of his advisory panel. They may have identified the best person to run the estate, but they have given insufficient thought to the consequences of not having a Clerk at the top.
It would surely be wise to pause, and see urgently if the House of Common can quickly design a lasting structure which splits the administrative and procedural roles of our Parliament and fills both positions with the most competent person we can find.
Enclosed below are copies of the correspondence between Sir Alan and the Speaker regarding the division of the roles: