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Points of Order

Volume 585: debated on Monday 1 September 2014

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I welcome the remarks that you made in your statement earlier about the need for a pause for consultation and for good will and consensus on the appointment of Ms Carol Mills. Do you agree that, at least as regards the procedural and constitutional aspects of the Clerkship, she is not qualified for the role? If so, is it your intention to withdraw the letter of recommendation, at least for the period of the pause and consultation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order and the terms in which he expressed it. I say to him that it is not for me to withdraw a name. A decision was reached by a panel. I hope that hon. and right hon. Members will accept that it would not be seemly to comment on the characteristics of, or performance by, individuals participating in a still ongoing process. I referred to the need for a pause and I meant it. I talked about hearing the views of colleagues and I meant it. I also talked about the need to proceed with good will and by consensus. I stand by that and I hope that is regarded as helpful.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you advise me and Members of this House how we can support your proposal to separate the functions of the Clerk of the House and the chief executive? I came to the view when I was Leader of the House in 2003-05 that that was essential. The Clerk needs to be an experienced and specialist expert in parliamentary procedure. The chief executive, however, has a different function. Managing a £200 million budget and 1,500 staff requires very different skills. As Leader of the House at a time of serious security breaches, I recall having to overcome serious resistance among vested interests and fiefdoms in this House, some of which are still here, against the appointment of an independent, professional head of security. Nobody today thinks that that was anything other than absolutely necessary. I urge you, Mr Speaker, to stick to your guns on this separation of the functions.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman who speaks with the experience of a former Leader of the House. People can express their views on the Floor of the Chamber, in letters to me or to the Leader of the House or the shadow Leader of the House or in the form of one-to-one conversations. I want to hear what people have to say. The right hon. Gentleman has started that process, but it is open to others to continue it. Let me repeat that I wish to hear all views from all Members from all parts of the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Will you confirm that the advisory panel constituted for the purposes of this appointment is now defunct and that inasmuch as you intend to go back to the House and its representatives, you will do so only to the House of Commons Commission?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that point of order. I do not know whether it is technically correct to say that the panel is, as he puts it, defunct, but I offer him the assurance I think he seeks that of course matters must proceed by reference to the House of Commons Commission, which meets on Monday 8 September and on the agenda of which there is, of course, an update on this matter.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I join other colleagues in welcoming what you said at the start of the sitting today. Do you envisage this pause lasting any particular period of time, and will it include any examination of the candidates by the relevant Select Committee?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I think that it is sensible to proceed in a timely way and that is why I referred to a modest pause although, of course, I am in the hands of and ready to be guided by the House. With reference to the possibility of pre-appointment scrutiny, to which, I think, the right hon. Gentleman refers, if that is what the House wants that is what the House should have, a point that I think I conveyed with a modicum of clarity in my statement earlier this afternoon.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The efficient conduct of House business requires the House to know to whom the House service is accountable at any given time. Will you confirm to the House—I hope you will—that when there is a vacancy for the office of the Clerk the Clerk Assistant leads the House service for this purpose and, under the Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Act 1992, may exercise the functions of corporate officer and accounting officer for these purposes and is therefore both the leader of the service and the corporate officer for the time being?

The short answer is yes. The right hon. Gentleman is a wily enough hand to know that it is a good idea to be aware of the answer to a question before posing it. He has proved that he meets that test.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Clearly, the House has changed even during the 16 or 17 years I have been a Member and it is now a complex and in many ways a very professional organisation that has responsibilities for human resources, corporate finance and a series of other issues that might not have been so important 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Many of the changes you have overseen with colleagues on the House of Commons Commission have made this place more efficient and more professional in my view, but it is important when we are appointing a person of such seniority in this House that we should take a very clear look at the responsibilities of the role. The managerial and professional responsibilities are very different, in my view, to the constitutional and historical responsibilities of a Clerk. I am delighted that we are having a pause, but I would say to the House that we should not simply go back to what we have always known because today the House of Commons is a very different place from in days gone by, and this is a real opportunity to do something that takes the House forward in a very positive way.

I thank the right hon. Lady warmly for what she has said and she will know that I concur with those sentiments.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. In the generally successful history of the British Army, some of the most celebrated actions from Corunna to Gallipoli to Dunkirk have involved evacuations from hopeless positions. May I congratulate you on successful disengagement from the opposition forces you have run across? To complete a successful evacuation of your position, I urge you to remember that there are very many of us who do not take the same view as the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), and that to cover the evacuation it will not be necessary for there to be an unnecessary reorganisation of the affairs of the House. I look forward to your taking views on this matter during the course of the process.

I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman has said and the good humour with which it has been said. I first met him, if memory serves me correctly, 25 years and two months ago in Bristol and I have the greatest respect for him. Yes, of course I am aware that there are different views. My responsibility is to hear and seek to heed them. That is what I propose to do.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance, if I may. On the day Parliament rose for the summer, the Government published the Oakley report on the communication and understanding of jobseeker’s allowance sanctions. This is the first opportunity I have had to raise the matter. How can the House scrutinise the Government when they behave in such an undemocratic way? When can we expect a statement from the Government on the inquiry, which is of immense importance to hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country?

The short answer is that, at the moment, I do not know. I hope that the hon. Lady will be satisfied—it is perhaps helpful to her cause—that the Leader of the House, who is the ultimate parliamentarian, is in his place. He will have heard what she had to say, and no doubt she will have an opportunity to repeat it at business questions. She will find other occasions on which she can air her concerns.

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker—[Laughter.] I meant Mr Speaker. I am looking forward to this response. Mr Speaker—I say that so that it can be cut properly—I am grateful for your statement at 2.30 pm. I understand the personal trauma and uncertainty that Carol Mills must now face. The fact is that she does not know whether she has or does not have a job. Can you assure the House that she will be kept fully informed about what is going on, and that she will know exactly where she stands?

The hon. Gentleman served in that capacity as Deputy Speaker and did so with great distinction and loyalty, which is appreciated in all parts of the House and certainly by me. Yes, he has made a very human point, and people will empathise with it. I am in touch with the person to whom he refers, and others are. It is important that clarity is established as soon as is compatible with the rights and responsibilities of the House being met and discharged.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Following your statement at 2.30 pm today, it may be helpful if you could confirm to the House the mechanisms by which the House can hold your decisions and your office to account on a regular basis. In the light of the current difficulties that we face over the employment of a senior Clerk, could you also confirm whether any of the participants are taking legal action?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The short answer to him is that I am of course accountable to the House. I chair the House of Commons Commission and hear what it has to say—that is a perfectly proper state of affairs. My understanding is that no legal action has been taken against the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Having been involved with organising significant organisational change in other organisations—in the military, and in the NHS as a non-executive director of a trust—I know that it is often rife with unintended consequences. The decision to split the Clerk’s role into two is a significant change. Can you assure the House that the decision will not be taken lightly, and that it will be looked at rigorously and robustly, recognising the significant piece of organisational change that it is?

Yes, I think I can offer the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks. It would be a significant change, and would have to be decided upon by this House. I have sufficient respect for the self-respect and rigorous approach to their duties of colleagues to realise that, of course, they will want to go about their scrutiny seriously before taking any such step.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. It is usually unwise for a politician to admit total ignorance, but I have done it before and I intend to do it again. I have to confess that, until this dispute about the Clerk arose, I had not the faintest idea, despite being a Member of this House since 1997, that the Clerk of the House, an expert in procedure, was, by default, also the chief executive of the House. Now that you have sufficiently educated ignorant hon. Members such as me about that important distinction, and perhaps about the need to look at the matter rather more rationally than in the past, may I suggest that, as so many other people and bodies are so anxious to seize from you the poison chalice of this decision, you should give it to them with maximum rapidity?

The hon. Gentleman has been wisely advising me on all sorts of matters since I first came to know him in October 1983. I have very rarely regretted taking his advice, and very much doubt that I would do so on this occasion either.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am grateful for your statement earlier in which you made it clear that you believe that the role of the Clerk should be split and the role of the chief executive should be created. Has any estimate been made of the cost of that additional role, and when might that be made clear?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Two points: first, I said what I did not in any mission to browbeat the House, which it is not for the Speaker to do, but simply because I think that there is something to be said for having a view and being prepared, honestly and openly, to express it, and that is what I have done. Secondly, on the subject of costs, there has been to my knowledge no particular assessment of that. There is a consideration of cost; there is also a consideration, resulting from efficient management and strategic direction, of potential savings to the House. If those issues are to be explored, they need, again, to be explored rationally and in the round.

I am extremely grateful to colleagues for the points of order, for the terms in which they have been expressed, and for the opportunity for this issue to be aired.

I am very conscious that 35 hon. and right hon. Members seek to contribute to the three debates to take place under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee, with which, I hope, we can shortly proceed.

bill presented

Freedom of Information (Amendment) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Grahame M. Morris, supported by Greg Mulholland, John Cryer, Valerie Vaz, Paul Blomfield, Kevin Barron, Ian Mearns, Andrew George, Charlotte Leslie, Caroline Lucas, Rosie Cooper and Ian Lavery, presented a Bill to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to apply its provisions to private healthcare companies and other bodies seeking health service contracts; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 December, and to be printed (Bill 84).