I beg to move,
That Mr Speaker be requested to convey to Sir Robert Rogers 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 and to public understanding and appreciation of its work, for his leadership and professionalism in the discharge of his duties as chief executive of the House Service, and for the courteous and helpful advice always given to individual honourable Members.
It is a great pleasure, as my first duty as Leader of the House on the Floor of the House, to move the motion on the Order Paper and to lead the tributes to a highly respected Clerk of the House, Sir Robert Rogers, who is to retire at the end of August. He has been a distinguished presence at the Table for 10 years, the last three as Clerk, itself the culmination of an eminent career of 42 years in the service of the House.
Expertise, intelligence and authority are the essentials of a successful Clerk. Robert has these in full measure and combines them with an abundance of good humour, which at times he has certainly needed. He is both our Clerk and the chief executive of the House, and he has fulfilled each of those responsibilities with great assurance and imagination, for which we salute him. The two roles involve ensuring the highest quality of service to Members at the minimum cost to the taxpayer, and perhaps the greatest testament to his success in combining those goals is his stewardship of a challenging savings programme without detriment to the front-line services provided to Members.
Some might think from his dignified bearing and the immaculate performance of his constitutional duties that he represents only the formal, traditional nature of the House and, of course, he is, indeed, a doughty defender of the interests and traditions of the House— and few, if any, of his 48 predecessors have sported such a fine and constitutionally correct beard. This beard is beyond criticism, since he maintains he wears it by royal command, having been told many years ago to keep it by the Queen of Denmark. But it would be a great mistake to think this means in any way that he is wedded to outdated customs or averse to reform—in fact, quite the opposite, and I hope and believe it is true that the scale, scope and success of the House in scrutiny of the Executive and the relevance of the Chamber to those who elect us to represent them have increased in this Parliament, and his role in fashioning the ideas for this and steering reform has been instrumental to that success.
Throughout a career in which he has discharged all the principal Clerks’ roles, Sir Robert has demonstrated a readiness to enable positive change. Over a decade ago, he supported the Liaison Committee by drafting its report, “Shifting the Balance”, which set out its goal to disprove the notion that the House of Commons was nothing more than a
“toothless adjunct of an all-powerful Executive”.
Looking at the range and prominence of Select Committee activities today, a great deal has been achieved in that regard.
As Clerk of Legislation from 2006 to 2009, Sir Robert implemented the changes in the legislative process agreed by the Modernisation Committee. In 2009 he drew up a 75-point menu of potential changes to the procedures and practices of the House, some of which, such as the appearances by the Prime Minister before the Liaison Committee and the more active use of urgent questions, have come to fruition and have improved the accountability of Ministers to this House.
As Secretary to the Commission and in his present role, he has supported the House’s adoption of new technology. Parliament is continuing to adapt to the digital era, including by the establishment of a Digital Office. Written questions are about to become fully electronic, and many Select Committees now operate on a paperless basis.
Sir Robert has embraced such changes himself. I understand that 1972, the year Robert joined the House services, was the last year in which quill pens could be seen on the desks of the Clerks. The current Clerk, we have all observed, by contrast taps away on a tablet at the Table, and I am assured it is not only to keep abreast of the cricket scores.
It is a further tribute to him that he has been an ardent and very visible ambassador for the House. He has also promoted the explanation of some of the mysteries of the House to the outside world. He has been a great supporter of the outreach service, which you, Mr Speaker, have also championed. He has laid on briefings for the media on complex procedural issues. He has given a large number of lectures and presentations each year. Behind the scenes, he has forged stronger links with both the Executive and the judiciary. He has also seen and embraced the hinterland of Parliament. Many hon. Members will have got to know him while singing in the parliamentary choir or participating in the armed forces parliamentary scheme. Still more will have enjoyed coming across him indirectly, through his two books on Parliamentary miscellany, which must have helped lighten many a constituency speech, and the more cerebral book he co-authors, “How Parliament Works”, which I suspect is not yet read as widely as it should be, even in this House. He has also led his staff well. His loyalty, leadership and support to them have earned him the admiration and affection of his colleagues, as has his unstinting generosity, in which the distillation of the fruits of his knowledge has apparently often been joined by regular baskets of apples from his orchard.
Members, too, have benefited from this largesse in many other ways, such as those on the Defence Committee, which Robert clerked in the mid-1980s. Prior to one visit to British forces in Germany, the Committee insisted they would rough it with the troops in “field conditions” rather than stay in a hotel. They arrived on a wet and windswept night, and found that their enthusiasm had evaporated. They discovered that the Minister for the Armed Forces was staying in a nearby castle with the local baron, and that the standard issue sleeping bags were not built for their bulk. Dealing with this mutinous Committee, Sir Robert apparently produced from somewhere about his person a bottle of fine malt whisky and plastic cups, and restored good order and temper all round. This is a very splendid Clerk indeed.
Members will be familiar with his gift for anecdote and laughter. For every problem or predicament, he has an historical equivalent or amusing anecdote, or a few apposite lines from “Blackadder”. His customary response to any office disaster is a twinkling, “So that went well then.”
In retirement, our loss will be Herefordshire’s gain, where he plays the organ at his local church, is active in the local community and will find more time to indulge in sailing, shooting and watching the cricket.
So I believe I can speak on behalf of the whole House in saying that in all these things, from offering us his excellent advice to cheering us with his good humour, Sir Robert has been unfailingly helpful, patient and courteous, showing admirable and calm authority and finely honed diplomatic skills. In short, he has been an exemplary servant of the House, and I want to thank him, on behalf of us all, for his loyal service to this House and I wish him, his wife Jane, and their family all our very best wishes for the future.
First, I would like to welcome the right hon. Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague) to his new role as Leader of the House. There will be time on Thursday to pay proper tribute to his predecessor, who is in his new place, but I just wanted to acknowledge that this is his first outing in the House since the reshuffle and wish him well in his new role.
It is with great pleasure that I rise to support the motion in the name of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and other right hon. Members to mark the retirement of Sir Robert Rogers as Clerk of the House. Sir Robert has been in the service of the House for more than 42 years, for the past three serving with great distinction as our 49th Clerk—and as chief executive. Since becoming a junior Clerk in 1972, Sir Robert has served in all of the most important roles. He has been Clerk of Private Members’ Bills, Clerk of the Defence Committee, Clerk of the European Legislation Committee, Principal Clerk of the Table Office, Clerk of the Journals and Clerk of Legislation. To all those important roles he has brought his formidable intellect, his insight and, as the Leader of the House has pointed out, his great sense of humour.
I think all Members will agree that Sir Robert has left his mark on this place. He has delivered a savings programme that has ensured that services to Members are protected and value for money is much improved. I know some of his proudest achievements are improving the outreach programme, expanding Parliament week and increasing efficiency by creating a single commercial division. He has also improved diversity by ensuring that the management board of the House contains a 50:50 ratio of women and men. He would be the first to admit that there is more to do on diversity, but he has certainly made a difference.
To serve as Clerk of the House is to occupy a position at the very heart of our democracy. The job description for his successor includes a recommendation from Sir Robert saying that the position is
“the best job in the world”.
Perhaps that explains why in 1748, Jeremiah Dyson, who was to became the 25th Clerk, bought the role for a whopping £6,000 in old—very old—money. I would like to reassure the House that there will be no “Cash for Clerks” scandal to mar the recruitment of the 50th Clerk, which will be done strictly on merit.
While reading Sir Robert’s book “Order! Order!”, I discovered that in 1854 an exam was introduced as part of the selection for employment in the House service. Among the prerequisites were good handwriting and spelling; good knowledge of the history of England from 1603 onwards; and fluency in French, German and Greek. This long-standing requirement to be fluent in several languages stood Sir Robert in good stead when in 1977 he did three weeks on a Royal Navy fishery protection vessel as part of a Committee investigation into the fishing industry. During that stint of practical research, he was part of a boarding party on to a 1,300-tonne Russian trawler caught fishing illegally. Rather than be impounded, the Russians set course for Murmansk, with the boarding party kidnapped—cue international incident and the scrambling of quite a few of our military assets. When the Russians finally agreed to go into Plymouth late at night their officers refused to navigate the ship and so Sir Robert, who is an amateur sailor, took orders from the accompanying warship and translated them into German for the helmsman, who understood no English. The fact that Sir Robert has been with us for the rest of the time demonstrated how successful he was at steering the ship safely into port.
While at Oxford Sir Robert captained Lincoln college’s team on “University Challenge”, when it was presented by Bamber Gascoigne—I say that for hon. Members who remember as far back as I do. Having got in touch with the producers, I can reveal that, unfortunately, no TV footage survived, but with his typical flair Sir Robert led his team to the semi-finals. Over the past 10 years Sir Robert has managed to write three books—“Order! Order!”, “Who Goes Home?” and “How Parliament Works”, which is now in its sixth edition. I should tell the House that a parliamentary question from last year revealed that “How Parliament Works” is the most requested book in the Library— apparently, just ahead of Tony Blair’s autobiography.
Many Members will be aware that Sir Robert read old Norse, mediaeval Welsh and Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. So accomplished was he at his studies that he was offered a scholarship to study “Anglo-Saxon colour words”, but he clearly decided that he would pursue a study of modern rowdy behaviour in the Commons Chamber rather than waste his talents studying ancient swear words and their uses—Mr Speaker, we have reason to be very grateful that he did.
Sir Robert will be remembered as one of the most forthright defenders of this place and the work we all do here making democracy survive and thrive. His letter of resignation offered a typically eloquent case for Parliament’s role as the fulcrum of our democracy, which I know was greatly appreciated by many Members on all sides of this House. I know Sir Robert is a huge cricket fan, although age has dictated that spectating is all that is now left for either of us to do if we are to avoid the possibility of sustaining serious injury. So I hope he will follow the example of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who entered government in the same year that Sir Robert joined the House, and leave office to spend more time at the test match.
Mr Speaker, on behalf of the Opposition, I would like to extend our sincerest gratitude for 42 years of the most distinguished public service. May I add my thanks and best wishes to Sir Robert, and wish him, his wife, Jane, and their family all the best for the future?
There can be few public offices with an unbroken history of over half a millennium, but the office of Clerk of the House of Commons is one of them. If Sir Robert Rogers had taken the Clerk’s traditional place at the Table at any time over the past 626 years, he would always have looked perfect for the role. I am also confident that had Sir Robert been there when King Charles I burst into the Chamber, with his troops in the Members Lobby behind him, he would have coped with the situation with as great aplomb as did John Rushworth at the time.
We went to the same school—I refer to Sir Robert, not the King. It was not a four-letter school calculated to cause concern; it was Tonbridge school. We were not contemporaries at Tonbridge. I am 20 years older than Sir Robert, as I seem to be of almost everyone nowadays, except of course our Sovereign. But what our school lives had in common was that at our time of leaving, the Worshipful Company of Skinners, who owns the school, bestowed on both of us an Andrew Judde Exhibition to Oxford—the school’s top academic honour—together with a golden quill pen, which both of us, in different ways, have put to good use.
At Oxford, Sir Robert was an all-round athlete at university level. As the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) has told us, for his degree he studied old Norse, mediaeval Welsh and Anglo-Saxon, an almost uniquely challenging trilogy of academic disciplines. I am told that on the rare occasions he loses his temper, he breaks into incomprehensible old Norse—although its meaning is clear to the dimmest recipient.
To new Members this House may sometimes seem crowded, but after serving in a few Parliaments those of them who retain an inclination to think for themselves may find that the House of Commons can be the loneliest place in the world. Asquith said that Parliament is an institution that eventually destroys all friendships. He was thinking of Haldane and Grey, his closest friends, both of whom he sacked in reshuffles forced upon him—plus ça change. Harold Macmillan, in his old age, told me that, even after his four years in the trenches and his two serious wounds, there were times in the 1930s when he had to summon up all his courage to go into the Smoking Room or the Carlton club. The fact is that any worthwhile parliamentarian must be able to stand with a tiny minority, or alone if necessary, in the defence of their conviction of the national interest.
When friends are in short supply, I strongly advise a visit to the Clerk of the House of the day. There will be found kindness, comprehension, wise and disinterested advice and absolute discretion. That is part of the fine tradition of the clerkship. No one has been better equipped by temperament and experience to discharge it than Sir Robert Rogers. His countenance at the Table is of a granite detachment, unmoved by the funniest of jokes or by the most tedious misbehaviour. In private, he sparkles with vivacity and wit. He is, of course, a man of immense scholarship, steeped in a life dedicated to the rules, practices and conventions of this House. Any Clerk of the House who was not so equipped would leave the Speaker of the day hopelessly floundering in a crisis.
The Clerk is not a civil servant. He is appointed by the Sovereign on advice and owes his loyalty to this House and to none other. However, Sir Robert has not confined his energies to this place and its staff of 2,000—the size of three infantry battalions. He has always been passionate about getting people to understand the great contribution that Parliament makes to our national life. He has, as the Leader of the House told us, given many lectures around the country, not only about the history and procedures of Parliament, but over a wide range of legal and constitutional issues. Last year, when he addressed a seminar in the Lord Chief Justice’s court, he attracted an audience of 70 High Court judges and Lord Justices of Appeal.
I was shocked when I heard that he had decided to retire early. He has been an adornment to his historic office.
If I may, I will begin by paying tribute to the Leader of the House for his work as Foreign Secretary. The right hon. Gentleman will know from my interventions in the House that I have great admiration for the way in which he conducted that office and for his indefatigable energy. Few who have not held the office—still more who have not been married to one who has—appreciate its pressures. The Foreign Secretary—still more than, say, the Home Secretary—is never off duty and it can feel as though sleep is not allowed. There will be other occasions to pay such tributes at greater length, but I say to the right hon. Gentleman that the path from King Charles street to the office of the Leader of the House is now a well-trodden and, some may say, a distinguished one. It was begun by Geoffrey Howe, it was followed by Robin Cook, and is now taken—someone whose name I forget came in between—by the right hon. Gentleman. I wish the new Leader of the House very well.
The right hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) referred to Macmillan’s nervousness about going into the Smoking Room. I regret to say that in the bad old days when the hours were long, the collegiality was great and the Smoking Room did what it said on the door, I had no nervousness about entering that room to drink and smoke—not a huge amount, of course, just like the rest of the House. I remember being offered for the first time, by one of my smoking mates, a cigar from a packet. I looked at the pack and thought, “I recognise that man. He is in the Clerk’s Office.” It was only on further examination, when I discovered the name of the cigars, that I found that the fine portrait on the front of the pack was not of Sir Robert Rogers but was in fact of Edward VII, whose name was given to the cigars.
As the Leader of the House said, Sir Robert has a distinguished bearing, which I am sure is designed to give the appearance—and indeed does—that he is a 24-carat gold, wholly signed-up member of the British establishment who takes a similar view to the Duke of Wellington that the British constitution is perfect and needs no alteration—[Interruption.] I remind hon. Gentlemen on the Conservative Benches that the duke said that in the face of the Reform Act of 1832, in case they now propose to repeal what turned out to be a modest Act and return to rotten boroughs and much else besides.
However, Sir Robert’s appearance belies an intellectually adventurous mind and considerable radicalism—meaning not rampant, mad modernisation, but sensible reform—with regard to this place. As Leader of the House for a year, I saw his work and the careful advice that he gave to the Clerk of the Modernisation Committee when I chaired it and how he was able to steer the Committee’s bright ideas for timed speeches in the Chamber and topical questions and turn them into a reality that would work. It is never quite as easy as it would seem.
The Leader of the House spoke of the stronger links that Sir Robert forged behind the scenes with the Executive and the judiciary. It is worth saying a word about those, because from the feedback that I received from senior members of the judiciary I know just how valued they were. Previously, there had been an astonishing absence of real engagement by the Clerks responsible for legislation with those who had to form the legislation and those who had to interpret it—one of the hardest tasks in the world. Sir Robert put that right, and that demands great commendation.
In a country of which we are all immensely proud, with a vibrant democracy that still manages not to have a formal written constitution, there are some individuals on whom rests the working of our democratic arrangements and the responsibility for ensuring the proper balancing of the power of the state and the rights of elected Members and of the public. In that regard, there is no greater responsibility than that which rests on the Clerk of the House, who in many respects is the keeper of our constitution. No one has better met that role than Sir Robert Rogers.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). One advantage of no longer being Chief Whip is that one can take part in debates rather than moving, from the Dispatch Box, that they be curtailed. I can think of no better way of resuming an innings on the Back Benches than by adding a brief and well-deserved footnote to the generous tributes that have been paid to Robert Rogers, who holds a post that 100 years ago was held by my great-grandfather, Sir Courtenay Ilbert.
Sir Robert joined the House at about the same time as I did and, as we have heard, he helped to guide the House through the changes that were necessary if we were to continue to do our job properly. He was on my radar in the 1990s when I was shadow Leader of the House, when he was secretary to the Braithwaite committee—one of many committees set up to consider the administration of the House—which considered the vexed question of whether the job of the Clerk should be split into two, a Clerk and a CEO. He navigated his way around those rocky waters with dexterity.
That debate is for another time, but I endorse what the Leader of the House has just said: in my view, Sir Robert has all the qualities necessary to perform the job of both Clerk and chief executive and he has the energy to do both at the same time. His knowledge of procedure is legendary, but is backed up with some sensitive antennae that can assess the mood of the House, steer it through “Erskine May” and arrive at the destination that the House needs to reach. He has been a fantastic chief executive, which requires a totally different portfolio of skills from that of the Clerk. He has pioneered the introduction of new technology into this place and has been the accounting officer for a huge budget. He has taken his HR responsibilities very seriously and has helped to shape the debate about the long-term future of the building.
He has always been totally impartial. As Leader of the House and as Chief Whip, I have had frequent occasions to ask his advice and he always put the interests and reputation of the House at the heart of any advice. The Deputy Leader of the House at the time has asked me to say how grateful he was to the Clerk for his advice on the highly complex issue of privilege.
Sir Robert has been a great servant of Parliament. He is a civilised man, a successful author, a man with a mischievous sense of humour, legible handwriting and a delightful turn of phrase. He is excellent company, and he is a man with interests outside this place. We wish him and Jane all the best as he pursues those interests with the same commitment and enthusiasm with which he pursued the interests of the House, its staff and its Members.
I, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, happily and heartily endorse everything that has been said so eloquently by previous speakers during this short tribute debate. In expressing our gratitude to Sir Robert for his decades of service to this House, I particularly thank him for the courteous, professional and ever helpful way in which he treated smaller parties such as ourselves and individual Members. I extend to him, his wife Jane and his family every best wish and blessing for a long and happy retirement.
I am very glad to have this opportunity to pay tribute to Robert Rogers, with whom it has been my pleasure to work during the last two years as Leader of the House. I heartily endorse everything that has been said and, in particular, what the Leader of the House said in tribute. I welcome him to his responsibilities. I know from personal experience that he will start out, as a previous Leader of the House advised me, not knowing precisely what his tasks will entail, but he will find that he enjoys it far more than he perhaps anticipates. One of the things that I have most enjoyed has been having the ability to work with Robert Rogers, the Clerks and the administration of the House. Many Members might not understand the complexity and demands of the tasks they have to undertake, and I was one of them before I was Leader of the House. I now appreciate the skill with which not only the Clerks but the whole House service manage to achieve that.
I completely agree with all that has been said. Robert’s scholarship and knowledge are legendary and I have had the benefit of them. From my point of view, one of the things I most appreciated was his ability to take on problems, often of a complex procedural kind. I must say that I did not lack advice, often expert advice, but the problems with which one must deal as a business manager are sometimes deep. The quality of the advice one receives is not just the product of time spent in this House. It often depends on the quality of the intellect and the judgment that goes with it, and Robert has brought to the House in an exemplary fashion not only expertise and authority but the judgment and intellect needed to advise on how such problems might be solved. Just because things sometimes look easy does not mean that they are, and the nature of what the Clerk—and especially Robert over his career—can achieve involves making people believe that procedure can be dealt with readily whereas in truth it is the product of immense expertise and effort. He has demonstrated that to a remarkable and exemplary degree.
Let me add just a couple of points. From a personal point of view, many of the tributes illustrate that the relationship between Members and Clerks, particularly on the Committees on which we serve, is often a close one. At the heart of it—this has been the case for me over the past two years—is trust. Trust is a very precious commodity and I could trust Robert with every question, every issue and every problem that might arise, knowing that he would address it utterly impartially. I know that that was the experience of Government, Opposition and other parties in this House. He was utterly impartial among Members and parties, in a way that enabled one to have absolute trust in the integrity and authority with which he applied himself to issues. That has been tremendously important and I have greatly appreciated it.
I also appreciate, as I think we all do in the House, the ability to have such personal relationships, and the fun that we have had together. Over the past two years, I have particularly enjoyed many humour-laden conversations about issues that might not otherwise have been regarded as being that funny.
I share the Father of the House’s regret that Robert Rogers was not able to be persuaded to continue in post for longer. We have benefited immensely from his expertise, authority, integrity and honesty, and the trust we can place in him, which has been discharged so wonderfully over these past three years. I join others in wishing Robert, Jane and his family fun, enjoyment, humour and a very full life in Herefordshire and elsewhere in the years to come.
First, may I add my welcome to the Leader of the House and wish him well?
I endorse everything that everybody has said in the past half hour or so, but I rise principally to speak on behalf of Plaid Cymru Members past and present and Scottish National party Members past and present who, as one, are very grateful to Sir Robert for all the years of assistance he has given us as minority parties—I echo what the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds) has said—without fear or favour, always being fair and always doing his best.
I am standing down from the House myself next year after what I feel has been a rather lengthy 23 years. The fact that Sir Robert has been here for 42 years should humble us all and bears testament to his wisdom, leadership and guidance, all provided to Members in an unfailingly courteous and helpful way. It also, incidentally, speaks to his stamina and his great patience.
I was recently reminded of his great humour and his kindly ways when at Christmas time, in the lead up to the festive period, he had on a red and white hat and was serving food to the masses of Westminster in Portcullis House. He looked not too unlike a certain other Christmas figure and was in a similarly jovial mood.
Aside from his duties in the Chamber, it is a continual wonder that Sir Robert is also chief executive of the House of Commons service, meaning that he is responsible for a budget of £220 million and a work force of more than 1,850. From a bit of reading that I did when I was considering this tribute, I understand that he put in action the decision to move Select Committees to paperless briefings. As someone who is still coming to terms with my iPad, I have to thank him for dragging me into the electronic age, much to the amusement of my staff, members of the Justice Committee and everybody who knows me. I am conscious that the aim is to save the House money and cut down on some of the 8.5 million pages printed annually.
Sir Robert is a moderniser, despite what has been said about his stately appearance, and he has always been keen to use technology and to bring in all kinds of people to ensure that the Commons really does represent the times we live in. As he has said,
“My aim is to enthuse people who would be put off by the look of the building and think they will never have the privilege of working for Parliament.”
That sums up much of his thinking.
On Sir Robert’s educational background, I was very pleased to find out that he had studied mediaeval Welsh at Oxford university, along with old Norse and Anglo-Saxon, as has been said. Therefore I consider it appropriate to quote from the laws of Hywel Dda, Hywel the Good, from the manuscripts of Jesus college. This section sets out the treatment of thieves in medieval Wales:
“Cynnen a Rhaith yn Erbyn Lleidr.
Ny dyly Kynnen vot ar leidyr a berthyno y werthu yny vo manac arnaw yn gyntaf (trwy twg) yn tri lle, megys y mae racdywededic kyn no hynn.
Ny dyly bot reith ar leidyr kysswyn yny vo manac ar(n)aw yn gyntaf yn llys.”
I had the privilege of studying mediaeval Welsh laws, and it is entirely possible that within the confines of this building only Sir Robert and I understood what I have just said. I hope I pronounced it correctly.
I quoted a passage about the treatment of thieves in mediaeval Wales, who were treated with a great deal more compassion than by some Ministers I could think of.
If I had known of his background before, I would no doubt have approached Sir Robert to discuss the golden period of Welsh literature—greats such as Taliesin and Aneirin, and the Mabinogi. I am sure he and his family will be very welcome at the National Eisteddfod or anywhere in Wales whenever he wishes to rekindle his interest in the field. I look forward to seeing him there if he does. I wish him a fond farewell and the best of luck to himself and his family for the future.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to make a short appreciation of Sir Robert’s service to the House, although I am conscious that it may lack the erudition and eloquence that we have heard so far. However, compared with the speech of the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd), Hansard may have less trouble with it.
When one enters the House, the clerkship is held in great awe. I remember the fear, almost, of going into the Table Office to put down a question, seeing one’s English mangled into proper form and leaving somewhat chastised. It is part of the tribute to Sir Robert over the years that it is a far less daunting experience now to go to the Table Office and generally to deal with Clerks who serve us.
It is a bit of a shock to me to realise that I entered the service of the House before Sir Robert, and I have had the opportunity to see him in many different guises. I suppose our relationship was closest first of all when he was Clerk of the European Legislation Committee. That is when I became aware of his scholarship, his organisational skills and his great good humour, particularly when having to shepherd a group of lively and not all like-minded colleagues to Brussels for the annual interrogation of UKRep. Then, perhaps his greater difficulty was to settle where we might all have dinner together.
On becoming the Chairman of Ways and Means, I developed regular contact with Sir Robert as he then occupied a series of posts which related to matters on which I had to adjudicate. That is when I became fully appreciative of the clarity and impartiality of the advice which our Clerks provide and of which Sir Robert was an outstanding exemplar. As Clerk Assistant it was part of his responsibility to liaise closely with the Chairman of Ways and Means. Within the bounds of propriety, I think I can say that that is when we became very good friends. Perhaps our shared love of cricket helped. I remember walking along the corridor, and from his door, which was ever open, I was beckoned. He proceeded to show me his smartphone which had all the details and scoreboard of every cricket match being played. My Nokia was dispatched very soon afterwards.
Mr Speaker, you will recognise as well as any that the performance in the Chair of those who are privileged to occupy it is dependent to a great extent on the instant availability of advice, particularly at tricky moments. These can occur at the time of handover from one occupant of the Chair to another. Just as I thought I might have developed some reputation for capability in that role, it took a severe knock when I took over from Sir Michael Lord at a moment when we were dealing with Lords amendments. The House will not necessarily appreciate that the documentation for that is particularly complicated, including paper A and paper B. It just so happened that we were proceeding to a question not on one matter, but on a whole series of matters, which I was unable to grasp as readily as I should have done. So I was conducted through that by Sir Robert sotto voce, which possibly helped to save my reputation on that occasion.
Since 2010 I have been Chairman of the Administration Committee, which has brought me closer to management and to understanding the responsibilities that Sir Robert has held so effectively as our chief executive. I have begun to understand some of the barriers which are in the way of decision making. The joy of dealing with Sir Robert—apart from delving into his rich experience of “How Parliament Works”, to give an extra plug to one of his publications—was his can-do approach in surmounting those barriers, and a determination to see that we could cut through some of the difficulties for the benefit of Members and the wider public that we serve.
Finally, during this last period, I have had the honour to be Chair of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Sir Robert is by no means the first Clerk of the House with a love of the Commonwealth and its parliamentary network, but Sir Robert again and again in my experience has demonstrated his support and understanding. There will be many other Commonwealth Parliaments, I believe—Parliaments, Clerks and parliamentarians across the Commonwealth—who will echo the sentiments being expressed in this House today. In the line of distinguished people who have served us as Clerk, I have no doubt whatsoever that Sir Robert will stand extremely tall.
I welcome the new Leader of the House to his place. I am delighted to support the motion that he moved, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), the shadow Leader of the House, to say thank you to a very remarkable servant of this House.
I was the Chairman of the European Legislation Committee and its successor, the European Scrutiny Committee, for 14 years. For almost five of those years Sir Robert was the Clerk to the Committee. That is when I got to know Robert Rogers and as a Back Bencher to value him.
We have heard many tributes to him today, but I shall offer my experience as a Back Bencher of this remarkable man. As the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) said when he was talking about the trips to Brussels, Robert would have been with us when I was the Chairman of that very interesting Committee. I truly appreciate how he guided that Committee through difficult times and how he guided me as its Chairman.
When Robert first came to the Committee, I had one difficulty: I had word blindness to his name. I started off calling him Roger Roberts. Robert, being the man that he is, just ignored it. I am sure he would say that he never noticed. It was one of those moments where, if you ever have such moments of word blindness, you say to yourself, “I shouldn’t have done that,” and the more you concentrate on that, the more you do it. For the first few meetings, I was getting his name wrong, but I soon got to know how to work with Robert Rogers, and I enjoyed the four years that he was Clerk to our Committee.
Robert has written two books. I could write a book on my experiences during those four years with Robert. I was just thinking of what wonderful memories I have, but I will give one. Just remember what the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden said about the Committee that we were with. When we went to Luxembourg to meet the Court of Justice, seven judges had agreed to meet the Committee and give us 45 minutes. It was a tribute to the Committee that seven of them accommodated us. We met the judges and one particular Member, who will be nameless, for good taste, was going on a bit, longer and longer, and taking up the time of the Committee and the judges who had kindly agreed to listen to us. Robert, who was famous for is post-notes—he would write a little post-note and pass it to you—sent one to me saying, “Chairman, you may wish to ask the hon. Member to ask his question.” At which, I turned round and said to the Member, “Shut up,” then I asked, “Is that okay, Robert?” He blushed, and he knew he had got his point across.
As well as understanding the fantastic service that this man gave to the House, we have to remember his expertise and the way it was given to us. Robert Rogers taught me to value the Clerks of this House. I am sure that any Select Committee Chairman will tell you, that the quality of the service that the Clerks give to the House is absolutely outstanding, and I am sure is incomparable with anywhere else in Europe or even in the world. It is excellent. I often say that there is no such thing as a bad Clerk; they are just better than others. Their service is immense, and Robert was rightly given the top accolades that could be given to them.
I want to finish by saying thank you to Sir Robert for all that he taught me about what goes on in this place. I have been a Select Committee Chairman for 14 years and I have had the honour to be on the Speaker’s Chairmen’s Panel for almost 17 years, and I know the value of the Clerks in general, and I know the value of the Clerk of the House to whom we are paying tribute today in particular. He was an outstanding public servant, and all the voluminous tributes that we will hear today could not give adequate compliment to what he has been able to do for us and for the House during his 42 years in the House. I say a personal thank you to him for his help and friendship. and I wish him and his wife, Jane, and his family all the best for the future.
It is an unusual retirement occasion when the man we are honouring hears tributes from two of those who have worked most closely with him who have demitted office in the preceding 24 hours. I pay tribute to both the former Leader of the House and the former Chief Whip. It has been a pleasure to do business with them, as it is sometimes said. I look forward with the same pleasure to doing business on behalf of Select Committees with the new Leader of the House, following his distinguished service as Foreign Secretary.
When I came to the House in 1973, Robert Rogers was already here, and it would come as no surprise to any of those who knew him then that he would emerge as being a particularly distinguished Clerk of the House. The fact that he had those qualities of leadership was obvious to many people even then.
Reference has been made to the way in which the post of Clerk of the House combines that of being the chief procedural adviser to the House and to you, Mr Speaker, with that of chief executive, and it is not necessarily an easy match. But some people can do it, and Robert Rogers could do it very well. He led the House service very well, saw through changes—I will refer in particular to those that affect Select Committees—but continued to speak with authority on procedural matters and when giving procedural advice. It was very much easier to take his advice because it was rooted in such considerable knowledge and such wise judgment.
It is particularly Sir Robert’s work in relation to Select Committees that, as Chairman of the Liaison Committee, I want to mention. He served in the Select Committee role extensively from its earliest days. He was Clerk of the Trade and Industry sub-committee of the Estimates Committee, which was the nearest thing we had to a departmental Select Committee—or the House had, because it started even before my time. He was Clerk of the Defence Committee during the storm over the Westland affair. A colleague recalls that
“his efforts at this time kept the Committee on an even keel despite the political storms which threatened to capsize it”.
Some of us remember that well. He was Principal Clerk of Select Committees when the Liaison Committee produced the report “Shifting the Balance”, of which he wrote the first draft. That work began the process of strengthening Committees and foresaw the outcome—things that we have come to take for granted: pre-legislative scrutiny of draft Bills; confirmation hearings for major public appointments; an enhanced role for Chairs recognised by an additional salary; a more open system for choosing Committee members; and the creation of the extremely valuable Scrutiny Unit to support Select Committees. All these were envisaged in his earlier work, and he has led the House service during their implementation.
As several hon. Members have mentioned, Sir Robert has a hinterland both of academic knowledge and, over many performances, a formidable contribution to the bass section of the Parliament choir.
In his valedictory letter, Sir Robert referred to the House as
“the precious centre of our Parliamentary democracy”,
and, he said,
“with all my heart I wish it well”.
Promoting the work of the House, and making its work known to the public, has been part of the mission of a distinguished career. To the extent that we have been able to be successful in making the Commons more effective in its scrutiny of the Executive, we have built on the foundations that he put down, and we have enjoyed his continuing support and encouragement while we have done so. Those who follow him in this role, and those who follow us as Select Committee Chairs, will need to maintain that same determination to make this House effective. We thank Sir Robert, and as he has wished us well, we wish him well.
It is a great pleasure to rise to support the motion and add my voice to those who have already expressed appreciation for the dedicated and superb service that Sir Robert has given over so many years. His knowledge of the House, its procedures, its tradition, its history, is without peer, whether as an author of both amusing and serious volumes, or in the advice that he has given from the Table or to us privately. If I may just mention one small personal example, we now regularly debate on a substantive and amendable motion our finances and financial plan. It was an idea that was conceived by the Finance and Services Committee, but we could not find a procedural way of doing it. It was Sir Robert who found the way through, and therefore has, through his advice, enabled a valuable tool to come to the House’s management that we would not otherwise have had.
Others have paid tribute to his skill in the procedural areas and I wanted rather to record my appreciation for his work as Chair of the Management Board and leader of the House service and Accounting Officer, a less seen but none the less vital part of what he has done. This has been a quite extraordinary Parliament for innovation and change. There has been a wellspring of renewal that has come from a number of sources. It has come from ourselves through the Wright report, it is has come from the Chair, through the Chair of the Commission and other areas, and it has come from the House service.
Let us consider what is now happening in Parliament: the election of Select Committee members and Chairs; the revitalised opportunities for scrutiny; the new rules of governance in the House service, which many Members might not be aware of; the savings programme and its successor, continuous improvement; the diversity challenge; and the education and outreach programmes. Any one of those taken on its own would be a substantive management challenge, but taken together they represent a comprehensive management challenge that has required leadership demonstrating integrity, skill and competence. That is precisely what we have had from the Clerk.
I have had the opportunity to observe at first hand, at meetings of the Commission and of the Audit Commission of the House and at staff gatherings, how Sir Robert has sought to lead by example and from the front, but using a collegiate and collaborative style. He offers both challenge and support. He has been open to new ideas and has sought to mesh those new ideas with tradition and innovation, to give the best to the House service. He is the diversity champion on the Management Board, and as such he sought to widen access to the House service. He said at the last Commission meeting that he was particularly proud of the fact that all the apprentices in the scheme had found full-time work in the House service.
It is not easy to change a culture or to adapt to new ways, just as it is not easy to adapt to stricter financial times. Similarly, it is always a challenge to keep the customers happy, and if there is a bunch of customers who are more difficult to keep happy than us, I don’t know who they are. Sir Robert has managed to do all those things with singular success. He has led a transformation in the governance and financial management of the House service, which has moved from what could be described as an era of gifted amateurism to one of thoroughly competent professionalism. That is no mean feat, and I add my thanks to those of other Members for all that he has done. I wish his wife and family the very best in his retirement.
When I first met Robert Rogers, when I first came into the House, I assumed that he was a 19th century duke, simply because he looked like one. He assured me that he was not, however. Since then, I have got to know him very well indeed, not least because his sister-in-law is my son’s godmother. Robert Rogers has led by example. He has shown himself to be a learned man, a kind man and a very great man. We will miss him terribly.
As always, Mr Speaker, you are a mine of information.
I just want to share a little story with the House. Hon. Members might not be aware that, at one stage, Sir Robert was thinking of joining the Army. I think that he wanted to join the Welsh Guards, but instead he decided to come and serve this House. I think we would all agree that the Army’s loss has very much been Parliament’s gain. However, he did not lose his interest in shooting, as we have heard. One day, when he was Clerk Assistant and I was the Opposition Chief Whip, I was walking past his office and I heard the sound of muted explosions. I went in and he showed me what he was doing. As we have heard, he embraced modern technology with great fervour, and he showed me something that one could play on the internet, which was a grouse shooting practice game, produced by Purdey. I am sure that he was not wasting his time doing that, and it was extremely helpful of him to show it to me. I have tried it since then, although only very occasionally. I remain a poor practitioner of the game and of shooting on grouse moors, but he is a fine practitioner of the game and of shooting in general.
When I was doing my job with defence personnel, Sir Robert decided in a sensible, pragmatic and compassionate way that he wanted to bring disabled service personnel—particularly those who had recently been injured in Afghanistan—to work in the House, especially in security. I do not think that the programme came to much in the end, but it was a really good idea. That was Sir Robert showing his compassionate side to people who might not have seen it before.
Not every Member of the House has brought it into good repute; indeed, some have behaved very badly. However, the Clerks’ department has been a rock and, in Sir Robert Rogers, we have had a fantastic exemplar of someone who can uphold the dignity of the House. For that, we should all thank him.
I hope that the House will forgive me for following the line of distinguished right hon. and hon. Members who have just been speaking, but I thought that a Member from the 2010 intake might say a few words. Before this debate, I consulted the Clerk of the House to find out whether I could amend the motion. I thought it might be sensible to table an amendment to say that Sir Robert could not retire until he had exceeded the length of service achieved by one Paul Jodrell, who managed 43 years in the post. I am sure that everyone in the House would have wanted that, as his retirement is a matter of great sadness and regret. It is a loss to us.
Sir Robert is a walking “Erskine May”. He is “Erskine May” made flesh. He understands and appreciates every bit of that great document and gives us the benefit of his wisdom. As a new Member, I came into the House and saw this splendidly bewigged figure. There is a lot to be said for wigs, as I am sure you will agree, Mr Speaker. I found him to be a gentle, amiable and knowledgeable person who was willing to help Members to find their way around procedures and help them to use those procedures to achieve their ends, rather than saying that precedent did not allow things to be done. When I asked him about a particular motion that I was thinking of tabling, he told me that it had not been used recently, by which he meant that it had not been used since 1751.
That is exactly what we want from a Clerk to the House. We want someone who is so steeped in the history that he understands where things have come from, and therefore how they can be used. When Sir Robert appeared before the Procedure Committee recently to discuss the concept of renewing petitioning and introducing e-petitions—a very modern idea—he took us back to 1305 and the origins of petitioning. Indeed, petitioning predates 1305. He explained how powerful petitioning had been in the earliest days of Parliament, and we drew the interesting conclusion that e-petitioning could be equally powerful in the new Parliament. That is where precedent can take us. It does not show us what cannot be done; it shows us what can be done. It is more a living aspect of this Parliament than a dead hand that does not allow change. Sir Robert saw that clearly; he got that right.
Sir Robert therefore enabled us to do things in a better way by ensuring that the powers of the House were there to be used, ideally, to keep a check on the Executive, which is what we are here to do. I am sorry that quill pens went out when he came in. Modernisation can sometimes come in too quickly and be taken too far. Finding that there is a precedent for exercising our power is at the heart of what we do, and the precedent of this House, which is vested in the Clerk, is the way in which we stop arbitrary uses of power. In Sir Robert, we had a man who was able to help us to hold the Executive to account, to stop arbitrary uses of power and to preserve democracy in this country. Whoever succeeds him will have a very hard act to follow. His departure represents an enormous loss, and I am very sad that he is not going to exceed the length of service achieved by Paul Jodrell. As a cricketing man, he will know that, although 42 is not a bad average, one will always want to carry on a bit longer in any individual innings.
My hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) and I agree on most things, but not on everything, and perhaps I am a bit more in favour of modernisation than he is. However, I certainly agree with him when he says that this particular Clerk will be a very hard act to follow. The Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and others have rightly pointed out the great attributes of this Clerk. The motion also talks about his
“professionalism in the discharge of his duties as chief executive of the House Service”.
What it does not talk about, and perhaps what no one has mentioned up to now, is the deep affection that many of us feel for this particular Clerk. It is for that reason, and not just for his competence, that he will be greatly missed.
My first dealings with Sir Robert were on the Administration Committee—I was on the Committee when Stuart Bell was Chairman. I remember a particularly difficult issue to do with whether we should have straight or crinkly chips. Those chips were discussed in some detail and indeed it got quite stressful in the Committee. But, as ever, Robert Rogers was able to calm things down. A resolution was made and we decided on straight chips, and, as everybody knows, I support everything that is straight in so many ways.
As people have pointed out, Sir Robert is a moderniser and open to new ideas. If I can boast, I came up with an idea a short while ago, suggested it to the Clerk and it has now been incorporated in our practice. I do not see it on the Order Paper today, because it is not relevant. My suggestion was to do with the notes at the bottom of each motion where it makes it clear not just that something might be subject to a Standing Order, such as Standing Order No. 52(1)A, but that it is something that is not votable on when we reach the 7 o’clock or 10 o’clock finish time. He has not just been helpful to me in that way. When I, like my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, appeared on “Have I Got News For You”, he was instrumental in lending me a wig—in fact it might have been your wig, Mr Speaker—
I was able to demonstrate very clearly what a wig should indeed look like.
I have already said that our Clerk is one of the most popular Clerks that we have had in this House—that is certainly the case in the 23 years that I have been here. His cheerful disposition, often under difficult circumstances, has been an illumination to many of us. As people have already said, his detailed knowledge of procedure is important. So this Clerk will be sorely missed by the House and by me personally. I wish him and his family well in retirement. Now, we do not know why he has chosen to retire early, though his working environment, behind closed doors, has not always been easy, as those in the know have already alluded to. In that respect, despite Sir Robert having studied Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, being told at least once in front of others to f-u-c-k off by you, Mr Speaker, would not have encouraged him to stay.
I will ignore the last observation, which suffered from the disadvantage of being wrong.
May I thank the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and all who have contributed to the exchanges on this motion for what they have said? Just before I put the question, let me record, for the benefit of the House, two experiences of my own. Within a small number of weeks of my election to this office, I had raised with me in correspondence by a constituent a knotty constitutional issue, the details of which I will not belabour the House. It seemed proper to mention it to Robert, as I happened to be seeing him on unrelated matters. I was immediately impressed by his response. He said, “Yes, Mr Speaker, the thesis that your constituent advances is interesting, but if I may say so it is not original. Moreover, it is open to quite straightforward rebuttal. You will recall that a fortnight ago, when you were elected the Speaker of the House, I presented to you a signed copy of the sixth edition of my book ‘How Parliament Works’ co-authored with Rhodri Walters. The matter in question is treated on page 46.” I checked, and sure enough it was on page 46.
Secondly, reference has been made by several people to the hinterland of the retiring Clerk. Robert has many interests, cultural and sporting alike, and several colleagues have referenced his interest in cricket. Unlike the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst), I cannot claim to share that interest, but colleagues will know that I happen to be passionate about tennis. We discussed this question of our sporting interests, and I said, “I am afraid that I can’t play cricket with you, Robert, because I simply cannot play.” He said, “Mr Speaker, I am afraid that I am unable to play tennis with you, because it is not a sport that I can play. However, may I suggest a compromise?” I said that I was all ears. He said, “I am myself a past practitioner of real tennis, which has a considerable lineage in this place.” He would be prepared, he said, to play me at real tennis. I confess that I thought it prudent to allow a lengthy period of practice before subjecting myself to such a difficult task, and that period of practice is ongoing.
Question put and agreed to.
Resolved, nemine contradicente,
That Mr Speaker be requested to convey to Sir Robert Rogers 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 and to public understanding and appreciation of its work, for his leadership and professionalism in the discharge of his duties as chief executive of the House Service, and for the courteous and helpful advice always given to individual honourable Members.