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Sir Roger Sands KCB

Volume 449: debated on Tuesday 25 July 2006

On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and all the other leaders of political parties here represented, I beg to move,

That Mr. Speaker be requested to convey to Sir Roger Sands KCB, on his retirement from the office of Clerk of the House, the House’s gratitude for his long and distinguished career, for his wise contribution to the development of the procedures of the House, for his leadership and professionalism in the discharge of his duties as chief executive of the House, and for the courteous and helpful advice always given to individual honourable Members.

I have no doubt that the rest of the House will wish to join party leaders and me in supporting this motion to pay tribute to Sir Roger Sands, who on 30 September will retire as Clerk of the House. That date will mark 41 years of service, during which time he has not only watched the House change but played a vital role in shaping those changes and in ensuring its continued relevance and vitality. Over the course of his career, which began in the early days of Harold Wilson’s Government in 1965, Sir Roger has occupied almost all of the senior positions in the Clerk’s Department, including Clerk of the Overseas Office, Principal Clerk of Select Committees and Registrar of Members’ Interests, Clerk of Public Bills, Clerk of Legislation and Clerk Assistant, before becoming Clerk of the House in January 2003.

Yet according to more than one of his colleagues, despite playing such a number of prominent roles he has left few personal embarrassing personal anecdotes behind him; evidently he was too shrewd and reliable for that. However, he did manage to get described in one departmental missive as being

“like a lethal hunter-killer submarine”—

a clear warning that his manner belied a forensic mind and a tenacious ability to stick to an argument. As I am sure all colleagues who have encountered Sir Roger will readily acknowledge, he has been unfailingly courteous in all his dealings. As one of his colleagues in the Clerk’s Department remarked, “His capacity to soak up problems without over-reacting to them never ceased to amaze. The worst reaction I ever saw was when he professed, after being badly let down, to be ‘Very cross’.”

Let me turn to the aspect of the motion that refers to the wise contribution that Sir Roger has made in developing the procedures of the House, and particularly in discharging his duties as Chief Executive. The important experience that he gained during the 1980s as Secretary of the House of Commons Commission meant that he developed acute antennae for Members’ concerns. He was therefore well placed, when becoming Chief Executive as well as Clerk of the House, to guide the Board of Management through a period of significant change. As a result, he leaves the House in a much better position to address the further challenges that it continues to face.

It should be emphasised, however, that long before he got the senior job, Sir Roger had already made a difference to the administration of the House. In the mid-1990s he succeeded in negotiating new contracts for the House’s printing and publishing needs. They managed to provide considerable cost savings without sacrificing quality.

More generally, Sir Roger has played a critical role in helping the House to remain at the centre of public and political life. As he noted in his letter of retirement:

“The House of Commons is a much-criticised institution; and its own Members are often as critical an anyone. But whatever its perceived failings, the House remains at the centre of political and public life and is the envy of most other countries in the world.”

Those who dispute that and dismiss Parliament as an irrelevance display their ignorance of this place. It is all too easy to dismiss this magnificent gothic structure on the bank of the Thames and mistake Parliament for a monument, fixed and unchanged for countless years.

Parliament is not a monument. It has the most extraordinary history but it is a living institution, and as such, must constantly be refreshed and renewed. That is what Sir Roger Sands has helped to achieve. However, he would be the first to acknowledge—as indeed he has—the critical support that he received from all the staff of the House in doing his duties as Clerk. In paying tribute to Sir Roger, we pay tribute to all the staff in post and the many others who have left in recent years from all departments and all levels in the House, often after many years’ service. They may rarely be seen or noticed by those outside these buildings, but as hon. Members of all parties know, the House of Commons and Parliament could not function without the superb officials who serve it and the broad spectrum of talent that they possess.

As the England football team demonstrated rather vividly earlier this month, a talented group of individuals does not alone guarantee an effective team. Leadership is all important. Roger Sands provided that and we are deeply grateful to him for doing so. We will miss him greatly. We thank him warmly and wish him and his wife, Jennifer, well for the future.

It is with great pleasure that I support the motion in the name of the Prime Minister and other right hon. and hon. Members to mark the retirement of Sir Roger Sands.

Sir Roger has given years of distinguished service to the House and hon. Members, and we shall be sorry to see him go. In his 41 years here, he has probably done nearly every job in the Clerk’s repertoire. He served as secretary to the Chairman of Ways and Means, looking after the Deputy Speakers—I suspect that he has some good stories to tell. Despite being, as you mentioned at his retirement party yesterday, Mr. Speaker, a very English Englishman, he served for four years as a respected Clerk to the Scottish Affairs Committee. I am sure that he enjoyed his visits to the highlands and islands and Prestwick, although I suspect that the work on dampness in Scottish housing may have been slightly less fun.

Sir Roger was for several years Secretary to the House of Commons Commission and Clerk to the Services Committee. Dare I say it, but 20 years on, he has been dealing with some of the same issues, including the rules on the use of prepaid envelopes. He many not be sorry to see the back of that.

For four years Sir Roger was Clerk of the Overseas Office. I am sure that that enabled him to build up a network of friends and contacts, which doubtless stood him in good stead when trying to find out what Parliaments around the world, especially in the Commonwealth, were up to when we wanted to draw on their experience.

However, I suspect that he might have most enjoyed his two stints in the Public Bill Office, including seven years in charge, dealing with the intricacies of the legislative process. That is where many hon. Members will have learned to value his advice and assistance.

Since 1 January 2003, Sir Roger has been Clerk of the House and Chief Executive. He was not the first Clerk to have the title of Chief Executive, but he was the first for whom it was part of the job description from the outset. I suspect that it has played a greater role in his job than it did in the past. I want briefly to reflect on that aspect of his contribution to the House.

Although most hon. Members will remember his contribution in advising on the business of the House in every sense, for the staff of the House his contribution as Chief Executive will have had most impact. It is too easy for Members to forget the work that needs to go on behind the scenes to ensure that this place functions as smoothly as they expect. In that capacity, Sir Roger has had to get to grips with issues such as best practice on tender procedures, diversity strategy and value for money audit reports that many previous Clerks would have felt far removed from the role of the Clerk to the House of Commons.

As we move into a world of more accountability and a culture of compliance, the role has brought with it increased responsibilities and duties. Sir Roger has chaired the Board of Management not only with skill but with sensitivity and courtesy, and I am sure that his quiet but incisive style and absolute integrity have served the House, its Members and staff well.

I am reliably informed that there is a link between Sir Roger and Tiger Woods, in that he is an occasional golfer—Sir Roger, I mean. I have been given a description of his golfing technique, which mirrors his approach to his work here. I am told that he is accurate, steady and unflappable on the links, with a deceptively slow backswing, which accelerates the club towards the middle of the ball and generally strikes it further and straighter than might at first sight seem likely.

Just as on the golf course, so in Sir Roger’s work, where he has also been accurate, steady and unflappable, and where his quiet approach has masked an ability to strike at the heart of an issue and achieve more than many, on occasions, thought possible.

I join the Leader of the House in thanking all who have served the House. Today in particular, we wish Sir Roger and his family well. We thank him for all he has given this House and its Members in the past 41 years, and wish him a happy retirement.

What do I need to say about such a parliamentary colleague? That, of course, is what Sir Roger Sands is, although he is not a Member of Parliament. He has been here for only one year less than me—he gets the gold watch and I get to be Father of the House. I leave it to hon. Members to decide who got the better deal.

What can I say about someone who is retiring at the peak of his career? Sir Roger is universally recognised by his colleagues as being the right man for the job. They display no envy or criticism of the fact that he had the job, they simply express admiration for the way in which he has carried it out. That respect is due to an unusual combination of qualities: his great ability and his even greater modesty. It is typical of Sir Roger that he was sitting in the Chamber as we started the business, but now he has disappeared. I suspect that he would have sunk below the Table had he been here to listen to all the compliments that he would have had to endure. He is deceptively unassuming.

As has been said, Sir Roger is only the second Clerk of the House to be Chief Executive. That is an enhanced role; it is Clerk of the House plus. The House has taken on a new corporate structure, and he and the Board of Management have accepted responsibilities that the House of Commons Commission previously exercised. As Chairman of the Liaison Committee, I can say that Sir Roger has presided over the greatest enhancement for a quarter of a century in the quality and number of resources available to back up Select Committees. He has undertaken both functions with his colleagues with great ability. There has been a smooth transition to an improved system in both cases.

I was a little surprised—although I should have known this—to discover that Sir Roger is also the accounting officer. I serve on the Public Accounts Committee, yet I was unaware of that. I hope that he will not feel deprived by the knowledge that in his years as an accounting officer, we never felt that we had to call him before the Public Accounts Committee. Many of his accounting officer colleagues in Whitehall wish that they had shared that deprivation.

On behalf of Back-Bench colleagues who are unable to be here today, myself and all other members of the Liaison Committee, I thank Sir Roger and congratulate him on 40 years of outstanding service to the House. I wish him and his wife a long, happy and fulfilling retirement.

Liberal Democrat Members associate ourselves with and fully support the motion that the Leader of the House presented. The comments that have already been made exemplify the character and quality that Sir Roger has brought to his position over the past few years and throughout his career as a servant of the House. That is what we give him credit for today.

Unlike the Father of the House, I was not around the House in 1965. In fact, very few of the present Members were. It was a very different House in those days. Sir Harry Hylton-Foster was in your Chair, Mr. Speaker, Harold Wilson spoke as Prime Minister at the Government Dispatch Box, and Edward Heath spoke from the Opposition Front Bench. It might be of interest to the House to learn that, in 1965, it was not felt necessary to adjourn for the summer recess until 5 August. And to add a little liveliness to the proceedings on the last day, instead of a debate on the adjournment of the House there was a motion of no confidence in the Government to send Members on their way with a smile. Those were the days!

It is fair to say that Sir Roger, in his role of Clerk of the House and Chief Executive, has received the credit not only of Members of the House but of all the staff who have worked with him. His is a big job nowadays; it is by no means a sinecure. The Leader of the House was entirely right, in paying tribute to Sir Roger, to pay tribute to all the staff of the House who give us such excellent service. As we are talking about the Clerk of the House today, I shall mention the Clerks Department specifically in that regard. We might sometimes have reason to argue with their use of English when it is different from our own, and there are occasions on which we find it difficult to accept their advice. However, that advice is always given with courtesy and accuracy, and with the interests of the House in mind. We give them great credit for that, because without it, the House could not operate as an effective legislature.

There is life after the House of Commons for former Clerks of the House. I have the great pleasure of having Sir Donald Limon as one of my constituents. He lives in the village of Kingsdon, and I meet him at least twice a year when Witham Friary cricket club plays Kingsdon cricket club on one of the great occasions of the sporting calendar. Just a couple of weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of going to an Edwardian tea party to mark the centenary of the railway coming to Somerton. Sir Donald Limon was not only singing in the choir; he was a soloist. I note that one of Sir Roger’s recreations is listening to music. Perhaps there is a possibility of a former Clerks’ society being formed, in which Sir Donald could sing and Sir Roger could listen. I applaud Sir Roger, and I wish him and Lady Sands every health and happiness in a long retirement.

I am grateful for this opportunity to speak today. It is somewhat unusual for such a lowly and humble example of parliamentary life as a mere Government Back Bencher to take part in occasions such as these, but I hope to explain why I am doing so.

I first came across Sir Roger—as he then was not—in my role as an Opposition Whip in the early 1990s. It was only a few years later, when I had been transmogrified into a Government Whip, that I was at a meeting with Sir Roger and some of his Clerk colleagues. As I went in to the room, I heard Roger say, “Oh, it’s my MP!” I looked round the room to see to whom the remark was being addressed, and realised that it was me. It transpired that he lived not only in my constituency but in the same part of it as I did. [Hon. Members: “ Did he vote for you?”] Well, that is the next point that I want to make.

I try to be a conscientious, hard-working and informed Member of the House, so, on my return to my office, I immediately went to our canvassing records. I looked at the appropriate address—which I shall not divulge—and, sure enough, there were Roger and Jennifer Sands. Next to the voting intention, it said in bold capitals: “WON’T SAY”, so he was clearly the soul of discretion—

Well, they can sometimes count as the same thing.

On his deserved promotion to Clerk of the House, Roger had to leave the leafy green suburbs of Lewisham, West and take up residence in the precincts of the Palace. Hon. Members will recall that, in February 2003, the Joint Committee on House of Lords reform, chaired by the then Member for Copeland, Jack—now Lord—Cunningham, reported back to the House. There followed the famous occasion on which we had five votes but did not achieve a majority in favour of anything.

The report had been carefully constructed to omit any option for the abolition of the House of Lords, which is something that I believe in. I should like to say in passing to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that my attitude to the House of Lords is similar to my attitude to a wasps’ nest. We should either leave it alone or get rid of the whole bloody thing. Chopping it in half is probably the worst thing to do—

What, the House of Lords?

I then went with a delegation, led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), to press for an amendment on the abolition of the House of Lords to be included. We reasoned this with Roger and his colleagues, and they were very kind to us. Being enlightened and sensible, they agreed that they would recommend this course of action to Mr. Speaker. The power to decide whether such an amendment should be included does not lie with the Clerks; they simply recommend such proposals to the Speaker.

We had obtained more than 100 signatures to that amendment. Technically, however, the only way of tabling it would have been to table it as an amendment to every one of the seven options that came out of the report. In a spirit of consensual reasonableness, I said to Roger, “Of course, we would not expect it to be repeated on every amendment. We only need to take the top six of the subsequent amendments. After all, we would not want to block up the Order Paper.” Roger then said, in his charmingly laconic, quizzical and amusing way, “Ah, a gang of hardened revolutionaries not wanting to block up the Order Paper—whatever next?”

I thank Sir Roger for his advice, courtesy and service to the House over the past 40 years. I would also like to thank Lady Jennifer, who has been a valued and much appreciated volunteer at the Sydenham citizens advice bureau, where she has made a considerable contribution. Along with all other hon. Members, I wish them every happiness and good fortune in retirement.

It is always sad when friends go, and we are reminded of the onward sweep of time. Thirty-seven years ago, I was elected to the Northern Ireland Parliament, and there was an old hand there whom I had known for years. He said, “I am going to tell you a few things that you need to know, Ian. First of all, the Speaker is infallible. He makes no mistakes, provided that he is sitting. When he gets up, you will realise that he is infallible, or out you will go.” I am encouraged that today is the last day of term, because even if I am put out, it will only be for a few minutes. That would not worry me too much.

That friend also told me certain strange things about Clerks. He said, “You keep your eye on the Clerks, because they have the power. If you run across the Clerks of the House, you are finished.” I asked him why that was, and he said, “Remember that the Clerks never pray. You will probably go in to prayers, but the Clerks’ seats are removed from the House at that time. The Speaker and the Chaplain take their place.” Mr. Speaker, I am sure that you will know the scripture that says that we are to pray to our father that seeth in secret, and the father that seeth in secret shall reward us openly. No doubt the Clerks have been rewarded openly, because they have not prayed. I was rather amused by that.

My friend also said, “When you speak, and you are holding forth with fire, the Speaker could get restless and move his hand on to or off his knee, or take a pencil and tap it on the Order Paper. That is nothing to worry about.” “But,” he said, “he might lean over to consult one of the Clerks. Then you’re in a different circumstance. But you might even triumph on such a day. There is one time that I will warn you of—when the Clerk himself moves back his head, and the Speaker moves forward his, then the guillotine is coming down.” I have remembered that in my career, and I have escaped the guillotine so far. I do not know for how long.

The Clerks do a job that is, in many ways, a thankless one. When I came into the House, there was a very robust Conservative Member, whom I will not name, who was running into trouble with the Clerks because they did not like the questions that he tabled. He used to argue with them—I was with him one day, and he kept me for almost half an hour as he argued with them about a question. Then he looked at the Clerk, used language that I would not use, and said, “I came to this House to ask questions, and you’ll not stop me.” The Clerk said, “All right, I’ll put down the question.” Of course, the question was ruled out by the Speaker, so he made no progress. Therefore, the Clerks have great power.

None of the present Clerks ever had the opportunity of putting me out of the House, but other Clerks had. Once, I was sitting just above where I stand now, at a time when the Tory party was in power, when all three Democratic Unionist party Members were put out. I remember with gratitude the Deputy Chief Whip of the Labour party who shielded me. One of the officials said, “If we touch you, you will go out for six months.” He said, “You’ll never touch him,” and put his arms round me—it was the first time that I was embraced by a Labour Whip. He was a fine man, and I think that he is enjoying his retirement at the moment. He was a member of the Salvation Army, and he did a good salvation job on me that day. The interesting thing was that there was no car to take me away, and the Prime Minister’s car was borrowed to get rid of me. I left the House that day, was not touched, and got the Prime Minister’s car to take me to the airport. That is democracy in action.

I am grateful to Sir Roger for the courtesy that he has shown to Members from the smaller parties in the House. He has always been willing to listen to us, help us and say, “This is the best way to do it.” On behalf of all my colleagues, I pay tribute to him and wish him a happy retirement. We trust that he will run harder and faster with those things that will occupy his heart and mind in retirement. I endorse all that my colleagues have said about him today.

Before I put the question, I should like to add my own tribute to Sir Roger Sands. As my principal adviser on procedural and management responsibilities, he has always offered me wise counsel, tempering his advice with good humour, patience and common sense. For that, I owe him a great personal debt, and I think of him as one of the most intelligently dutiful individuals whom I have ever met. It should also not be forgotten that Sir Roger was the first Clerk to be selected as Chief Executive of the House of Commons Service, and he has done much to enhance the efficiency from which we all benefit. I know that on 30 September, the 41st anniversary of his first joining the House, Sir Roger and Lady Sands will take into retirement the thanks and best wishes of all Members past and present.

Question put and agreed to.


That Mr Speaker be requested to convey to Sir Roger Sands KCB, on his retirement from the office of the Clerk of the House, the House’s gratitude for his long and distinguished career, for his wise contribution to the development of the procedures of the House, for his leadership and professionalism in the discharge of his duties as chief executive of the House, and for the courteous and helpful advice always given to individual honourable Members.


Motion made and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No 83A(6) (Programme motions),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 13th March and 19th April 2006 (Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill (Programme) and Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill (Programme) (No. 2)):

Consideration of Lords Amendments

1. Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement at this day’s sitting.

2. The Lords Amendments shall be considered in the following order, namely: 3, 1, 2 and 4 to 6.

3. Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

4. The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

Question agreed to.