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Peter Grant Peterkin CB OBE

Volume 468: debated on Thursday 6 December 2007

I beg to move,

That this House expresses its appreciation to Peter Grant Peterkin CB OBE for his distinguished public service career, including three years as Serjeant at Arms, and extends to him its best wishes for his retirement.

I move this motion on behalf of the whole House, not just the Government or those on this side.

I understand that Peter Grant Peterkin is the 38th holder of the post since its establishment in the early 15th century. His appointment here followed more than 30 years of distinguished and senior military service, with his regiment—the Queen’s Own Highlanders—and at the Royal College of Defence Studies, including work with the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe missions in Iraq and Kuwait, and in Kosovo.

I know that Mr. Grant Peterkin’s work in the House since his appointment in 2004 has been valued and appreciated by Members. During his period of office, he has overseen a range of important repair and refurbishment programmes. These include the major repairs of Westminster Hall, and the refurbishment of the Press Gallery areas recently reopened by the Speaker. And Mr. Grant Peterkin has helped in the move towards a long-term estate strategy embracing both Houses and facing up to the enormous challenges of preserving and enhancing this unique building.

Mr. Grant Peterkin has helped also to see through the valuable developments made to the security of the Chamber and the building. Those have been achieved while improving the experience of visitors who come to Parliament by encouraging a welcoming style from police and security while at the same time maintaining protection. Under his watch, the visitor assistants have been introduced; they have been well received in their work meeting the public and helping with educational visits.

I know also that Peter Grant Peterkin’s leadership and personal commitment, supported by his wife Joanna, to his colleagues and staff in the Serjeant at Arms Department have been well regarded and appreciated. This is an opportunity to thank also all those in the Serjeant at Arms Department for the work that they do on our behalf in the Chamber, in the provision of services, in relation to security, and in respect of the buildings.

As the House will know, following the review of the administration of the House by Sir Kevin Tebbit, which reported earlier this year, there are to be significant changes to the organisation of departments in the House. The Serjeant at Arms Department will undergo a major transformation, continuing the constant process of evolution in the Serjeant’s office since the 15th century and in the House’s administrative services generally. The new Serjeant, soon to be appointed, will be coming into a post that is very different from that of her or his predecessor, heading a new directorate in the new Department of Chamber and Committee Services. Other staff from the existing Serjeant at Arms Department will form part of the new Department of Facilities. I am sure that all the staff will continue to provide the high level of service that we have come to expect and appreciate from Mr. Grant Peterkin’s time in post. I hope that the whole House will join me in thanking him and wishing him and his wife all the best for the future.

It is with great pleasure that I add my thanks to Major-General Peter Grant Peterkin for his services to Parliament since 2004. The role of Serjeant at Arms is not widely known outside this place, but it is an important job that ensures the good functioning of our Parliament. Peter Grant Peterkin has served Parliament in the way he served his country beforehand. The Deputy Leader of the House referred to a number of Peter Grant Peterkin’s roles during his distinguished career in the Army, which included being commanding officer of the 5th Division and acting in a senior role in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe mission to Kosovo.

Those who see Parliament only briefly—perhaps they watch the Speaker’s procession or see ceremonial occasions such as the state opening—may go away with the view that the role of the Serjeant at Arms is largely ceremonial, but that is very far from the truth. The Serjeant at Arms has in his responsibility many significant sections of the support services, without which the House simply could not function. Over the years, the role has indeed changed. In recent years, there has been a much greater necessity for the Serjeant at Arms to look at issues of security in the House. We have seen the throwing of purple powder at the Prime Minister and the invasion of the Chamber. That has led to increased responsibilities for the Serjeant at Arms in ensuring the security of those who participate in debates in the Chamber and who visit our House.

In recent years, and during Peter Grant Peterkin’s time as Serjeant at Arms, we have also seen an enormous change in our attitude to visitors to this place, as the Deputy Leader of the House said. The way in which visitors are welcomed, and the experience that they are given and will be given when changes in the building are completed—[Interruption.] The Minister for Local Government said from a sedentary position, “Especially schools.” He is right. Parliament can be proud of the fact that it has been extending its outreach and ensuring that schools and others have a good experience when they visit Parliament. That is an important part of the role of the Serjeant at Arms. Peter Grant Peterkin can be very proud of the changes that have taken place under his watch.

Peter Grant Peterkin has, as I said earlier, given distinguished service to his country. Indeed, his life has been one given to public service. We applaud and honour him for that. On behalf of everybody on my side of the House, and I am sure across the whole House, I wish him a very happy retirement and wish him and his wife all the best for the future.

I just want to say a few words as Chairman of the Administration Committee, because that is the capacity in which I have got to know Peter Grant Peterkin best. I endorse the comments that have been made by both Front Benchers who have spoken so far. They accurately reflect the contribution that he has made. Over the time that I have held this post and have got to know him—just over two and a half years—he has provided invaluable support and help. I came to the post knowing not a lot about the way this place is run—like, I am afraid, a lot of Back Benchers—but I learned a great deal from him, particularly about accommodation issues.

We held a major inquiry last year into accommodation in the building and we have come up with a report that is quite important for the future of the House. It includes the recommendation that there should be a 25-year strategy, which has been accepted by the House of Commons Commission, and mentions minimum standards of accommodation for Members and a number of other issues related to priorities. The input into that report from Peter Grant Peterkin, and his department under his lead, was massive and I am grateful to him for that.

There is one area for which I think Peter Grant Peterkin would like to be remembered. It is not an issue that is in the public domain in a major way at the moment. Over the past year, he has been pushing me very hard to have a proper look at how we can “green” Parliament and make it an example that the rest of the country can follow. Some of that has trickled out into the press over the last few weeks. He is the initiator of many of the ideas that we will discuss and I thank him for the contribution he has made and the thinking that I hope will develop into this being the greenest Parliament in the world, and a leader in this country.

Like everyone else who has spoken and will speak, I wish Peter Grant Peterkin and his wife the happiest of retirements.

I associate myself and my colleagues from the Liberal Democrat Benches with the motion on the Order Paper and the tributes already paid to the Serjeant at Arms. I checked the chronology, as one does, and found that the Deputy Leader of the House was right to say that the post of Serjeant at Arms goes back to 1415. There have been 38 known holders of the post, of whom this Serjeant is the last. When he took over three years ago, there had been almost 590 years of the Serjeant at Arms doing jobs for the Speaker and the House of Commons. If ever there was a job that one would expect to be different at the end from the start, that must be it.

Peter Grant Peterkin came to what some people have described as being a slightly different role for somebody who was a major-general—in fact, it is more like being a sergeant-major. That is what the House clearly needs in some respects. It needs somebody who is, on the one hand, chief housekeeper and, on the other, chief security officer—a combination of roles that he has fulfilled extremely well. It is a tribute to him that it is obvious from all the comments that he has been extremely popular with parliamentary colleagues who have worked with him, with his staff, who to a person were outside yesterday to salute him as he brought in the Mace on his last formal Wednesday supporting Mr. Speaker, and with the press. That must be a triple success that not all his predecessors secured.

Colleagues have paid tribute to Peter Grant Peterkin’s extremely eminent military service, after an academic career in which he got not just a first degree but a second degree, at the great northern university of Durham. He has a Scottish and English background and has not only served his regiment, the Queen’s Own Highlanders, but has served in almost every part of the world where British forces have been deployed: Belize in Latin America, the Falkland Islands, Hong Kong in Asia, and Australia. Probably most eminently, after his period in command he served in Kosovo, as part of the important recent international task there. We pay tribute to him for that.

I notice that, in Peter Grant Peterkin’s Who’s Who entry, one of his preferred recreations is cleaning ditches—not something that I have ever seen in anybody’s Who’s Who entry before. I sense that that might have been good training for a job that the Serjeant at Arms has to do all the time: mending fences. He did that well. As the Deputy Leader of the House said, as part of the great transformation over which Peter Grant Peterkin has presided, of which the most visible outward sign has been the new staff team who look after our visitors—they do their jobs extremely well and courteously and provide very good information—there have been many changes behind the scenes, to which the Chairman of the Select Committee referred. Some of those changes are not yet in the public domain. It has been a period of huge transition, but he will be the last Serjeant to preside over a significantly large staff. I understand that there are about 400 people in the present Department, whereas the person who replaces Peter Grant Peterkin will have only about 40 people under their direct command.

As we pay tribute to Peter Grant Peterkin and wish him and his family all the very best for the future, we ought to observe that the old order changeth and giveth way to the new. The job of Serjeant at Arms will never be the same again.

I should like to add a very short footnote to the tributes already paid to Peter Grant Peterkin. I chair the Standards and Privileges Committee, which has had a fair amount of traffic with the Serjeant at Arms Department. He has been unfailingly fair and courteous in his dealings with us and in helping to administer the rules of the House.

As has been said, Peter Grant Peterkin’s three years in post have coincided with a general election, a massive security programme and a lot of building activity. However, it has also coincided with the House’s determination to reconnect with the world outside, and he has played a key role in helping to build bridges.

I know that he is enormously popular and respected in his Department, and he can look back with pride on his three years in the House. I wish him and his wife Jo all the best in the years ahead.

May I add the best wishes of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru groups to the Serjeant at Arms on his retirement? In particular, I should like to communicate the best wishes of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) and my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), who I know has written to him personally.

I am very pleased that the Deputy Leader of the House laid out in some detail the Serjeant’s efforts in this House and his previous record in the military, all of which should be commended. He was unfailingly courteous and wholly professional in all his dealings with our groups. I suspect that the House will miss him sooner than we think, and we wish him all the very best for the future.

I shall say little, not because there is little to say but because I suspect that the Serjeant at Arms has pursued his career in the military and the House motivated by a sense of duty rather than in search of reward and thanks.

I do not hold an official post that entitles me to speak to this motion. I speak simply as one who has known Peter Grant Peterkin for more than 35 years, having met him first when he was a young officer in the Queen’s Own Highlanders in the north of Scotland, where he lived all that time ago. I have followed his career since, and it became increasingly and abundantly clear that he is a man of great quality. His departure from the service of the House will be a great loss, and we will miss his wisdom, guidance and sureness of touch.

The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said that the job of Serjeant at Arms calls for the qualities of the sergeant-major as much as of the major-general. He may not know that the rank of major-general was originally called sergeant-major general. Because the rank of lieutenant-general is senior to that of major-general, it might perhaps have been better to retain the sergeant-major general rank, but that did not happen. Either way, we were fortunate to have a major-general as our Serjeant, and this one in particular.

All those who have spoken have mentioned Peter Grant Peterkin’s international military career, and that is now on the record for all to see. It gave him an outlook that was very valuable to the House. Although we often talk about foreign affairs, a career spent serving overseas brings great benefits to those of us who work in Parliament, whether we are elected or unelected officials here. We have all benefited hugely from his overseas experience.

In parenthesis, I note that Peter Grant Peterkin was in Kuwait in the 1990s, as part of the UN military observer mission. It is perhaps significant that, at that time, there was not a whiff of anything called a “dodgy dossier”. How things have changed!

I should like to extend my personal thanks to Peter Grant Peterkin for what he has done for the House, and to wish him, his wife and family all the very best on his retirement. I am happy to say that he is still a young man, with lots of active working life ahead of him. I am sure that he will be snapped up by someone else before long.

I do not want to overdo the military analogy, but today we see a Serjeant at Arms leaving the field with his colours held high and flying proudly, and I salute him.

I should like to add a final footnote to the debate, I hope on behalf of all those other hon. Members of all parties who entered the House as part of the 2005 intake. I am sure that the Serjeant at Arms saw us all as upstarts when we first arrived, but I should like to thank him for his generosity in spending time with us as we learned the processes of this wonderful establishment.

I do not think I can give way, but if the hon. Gentleman is patient he can jump up in a minute—although that will mean that my contribution is no longer the final final footnote.

Whether they have worked here before or not, new Members think that they are the most important people in the world. The Serjeant at Arms was a major-general in the Army, whereas I was a lowly guardsman, but one of his great attributes was that he treated everyone with great respect and understanding. That is why this place has worked so brilliantly well.

Sometimes things still happen here for the first time. I am sure that the Serjeant was as proud as I was when, last Thursday, his team and staff from the Speaker’s Office helped to organise a visit here by nearly 100 British soldiers who had just arrived back from Afghanistan. They marched through the Central Lobby in uniform, and then had a good drink and an enjoyable time. That is the sort of thing that this House should be doing, and it would not have happened without the help of the Serjeant at Arms. Therefore, on behalf of the 2005 intake, I thank him for all his work.

I am deeply troubled by what the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) said, as I had not spotted that change coming. However, the Serjeant at Arms was most helpful to me on one occasion when I had acquired a formidably large chain for my bicycle. I managed to lose the key, and had to look for help from him very late one night. He immediately despatched an officer with an equally formidable device that enabled him to snap the chain there and then. I am deeply concerned that a future Serjeant at Arms would not be able to render similar help.

I am hugely grateful to the Serjeant at Arms for all that he has done, both for me personally and for all hon. Members.

Question put and agreed to.