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Retirement of the Clerk of the House

Volume 654: debated on Wednesday 13 February 2019

I beg to move,

That Mr Speaker be requested to convey to Sir David Natzler 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 modernising its practices, for his leadership and thoughtfulness in the discharge of his duties as head of the House Service, and for the courteous and helpful advice always given to individual honourable Members.

It is a real pleasure to move this motion in order to give the House the opportunity to pay tribute to Sir David Natzler today. I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House when I say that David has given outstanding service to the House of Commons. David began working here in 1975 and has held a variety of senior posts within the Chamber and Committees Team, incorporating the former Department of Chamber and Committee Services and the old Clerks Department. This has included his work as a Clerk to a range of Select Committees, including the Social Services Committee, the Procedure Committee and the Trade and Industry Committee. He was Principal Clerk of Committees, Secretary to the House of Commons Commission, Principal Clerk of the Table Office, Clerk of Legislation and Clerk Assistant.

David served as acting Clerk of the House from September 2014 and was formally appointed as Clerk of the House in March 2015, the 50th person to fill the role. David’s commitment to this place is quite simply unrivalled. When he met his delightful wife, Hilary, at a party in London, he soon discovered that she worked for Hansard. They were married in 1988, and it proved an inspired choice. What a wonderful recipe for keeping a husband on his toes—a wife who can take down his words in evidence and use them against him!

David has been a source of procedural advice and parliamentary wisdom to many a Leader of the House, not just in his role as Clerk, but in many of the senior roles he has occupied. I know that he has relished working with a number of Leaders of the House, dating back to Geoff Hoon and Jack Straw, and more recently, as Clerk with William Hague and with my right hon. Friends the Members for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) and for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington). As Secretary to the House of Commons Commission from 2004 to 2006, David also worked closely with the shadow Leaders of the House, including, at the time, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), now the Prime Minister.

Since becoming Leader of the House in 2017, I have personally benefited from the advice and wisdom that David so readily provides to all who knock at his door. Over the past 18 months, David has worked closely with me and my office. We have been through thick and thin. I think it is fair to say that we have a mutually appreciated candour and a clear recognition of each other’s viewpoint in turbulent times. I have a huge amount of respect for David and the work he does. In more than a decade at the Table of the House, among his many talents he has developed an impressive ability to convey a wide range of emotions with the single raising of an eyebrow—something that you often miss, Mr Speaker, as his back is turned to you, but I can assure you that it is very meaningful.

Throughout the highs and lows of the past four years, David has had the best interests of the House at heart, and during that time, he has stacked up a number of important achievements. I know that he was delighted to have secured Richmond House as part of the Northern Estates project, and then, at the start of last year, to see the restoration and renewal programme finally get the approval of both Houses in the form recommended by the Joint Committee. I share his enthusiasm and I am pleased that the Government have worked collaboratively with Parliament in the preparatory work for restoration and renewal and in bringing forward the Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny.

David has also overseen the introduction of the Parliamentary Security Department, as well as the Parliamentary Digital Service. He helped to bring in the governance changes, as recommended by the Straw Committee in 2014, which notably included the recruitment of the Director General.

In recent months, David has led the House service through the immediate aftermath of the Dame Laura Cox report. It was an uncomfortable read for many in the senior House administration and for anyone who cares passionately about this House. However, I want to pay tribute to David for the way in which he and his staff have acted to make swift progress on the Cox recommendations. I know that many staff in the House have appreciated the time that he has taken to get out and talk to them—for example, in town hall meetings—in order to show his personal commitment to getting the House through this challenging period.

Over the years, David has played his part in moving us towards a less antiquated House through a number of changes that have definitely not been without controversy. For example, he oversaw the replacement of vellum with archival paper for the printing of new laws, for which goats around the United Kingdom will be grateful.

I would like to correct one detail, if I may. Sir David was delicate in negotiating between this House and the other place over the matter of vellum and came up with a very nice compromise, which was that laws would be encased in a vellum folder, albeit printed on paper inside. It was a typical David Natzler way of doing things.

It was a good compromise indeed, but in that case I revoke the gratitude I expressed on behalf of goats everywhere.

Sir David has greatly supported the recent introduction of our new ground-breaking proxy voting scheme and has driven forward the removal of wigs and court dress for Clerks at the Table in the Chamber.

I am one of Sir David’s greatest admirers, but the Leader of the House is beginning to say things that are moving in the other direction. Can we go back to his love of tradition?

I was actually about to say that some of Sir David’s colleagues rather wish his clothing adjustments had extended to the scruffy white bowtie. David’s own bowtie tends towards the off-white shades more commonly favoured by trendy interior designers. I am sure my hon. Friend has a strong opinion on that.

It was a different modernising move that was the high point of David’s career. I am reliably informed that his personal high point was working with the Wright Committee on Reform of the House of Commons 10 years ago. This involved twice weekly extended private discussions—bordering on arguments—with a great number of Members about parliamentary politics and procedure. What more could a senior Clerk ask for?

As well as his official duties in the House, David has represented the Lords and Commons cricket team in their regular matches against the Dutch Parliament and played for parliamentary football and tennis teams. In his spare time, he is an ardent Shakespeare enthusiast, a founder member of the Richard Burbage Society and author of a scholarly essay entitled “The Two Gentlemen of Venice”—we can only speculate who they are. David’s intellectual gifts are part of parliamentary folklore—many a Member, myself included, has asked him a question and then struggled to keep up with the sheer subtlety of his arguments—but he is also blessed with a kindly heart and a vivid sense of humour.

I want to say a personal thank you to David both for his service to the House and for the collegiate way he has worked with me and my office in my time as Leader of the House. After 43 years, he should be proud that he leaves the House in a strong position to face the coming challenges of the next few months and years. In particular, I would like to wish him a very restful retirement. Few deserve it more and I imagine he is very much looking forward to it. I commend this motion to the House.

I thank the Leader of the House for her comments and you, Mr Speaker, for your tribute to Sir David Natzler. The Leader of the House rightly paid tribute to his extraordinarily distinguished career in public service and to the range of roles he has occupied with such distinction, and I endorse her words completely.

I want to share with the House more personal reflections on Sir David. It is a slight twist of fate, but my predecessor as Member for Walsall South, Bruce George, was close to Sir David in a number of ways. For a while, David was Clerk of his Committee, and whenever Bruce made a minor comment on a draft report and David said loudly “Oh my God”, while clapping both hands to his forehead, the Chair knew he was getting frank criticism. You do it, too, Mr Speaker, at the Commission, when you say, “David, you are frowning.”

David and Bruce played together in the parliamentary football team. I think they were probably the Laurel and Hardy of the team. I am told that David boasts of being qualified to play for every football team in the former Austro-Hungarian empire. As those who knew him will remember, Bruce played in goal. He was quite large and actually quite a good goalie, but in a recent game they played in together he did not keep a clean sheet. Unlike poor old Gordon Banks—rest in peace—he was having an off day, and David stalked up to him and said, “You’re allowed to use your hands, you know.”

As accounting officer for the House, Sir David has had to have a strong sense of value for money. When he was head of the Table Office, he used to take his staff down to Strangers’ Bar, and there would be quizzical looks on people’s faces, because David’s colleagues would have to whisper code words to the bar staff, such as “Borodino”, “Marengo” and “Leipzig”—he made his Table Office Clerks say the names of Napoleonic battles to bar staff so that no one else could use his tab! I wonder if the tab is still open.

The Leader of the House and you, Mr Speaker, rightly paid tribute to Sir David’s work on the Wright Committee. I managed to speak to Tony Wright, now professor of government and public policy at University College London, and former Member for Cannock Chase, and he said this:

“The fact that David was Clerk of the Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons was indispensable to its success. He made sure that what we said was credible and carried authority. At that time the House was in a very bad place, following the expenses scandal, and David shared my belief that one way to restore its reputation was by making changes that would make it count for more, both in terms of elections for select committees and for backbench control of its own business. The fact that these reforms have become embedded in how the House operates is a tribute to the quality of the Reform Committee's report, and that is tribute to David himself. At a personal level, working with him was one of the most enjoyable periods of my parliamentary life. His combination of impish humour and formidable intellect made working with him a real joy. The House owes him a huge debt.”

As the principal constitutional adviser to the House and adviser on all its procedure and business, David has frequently appeared before Select and Joint Committees, and his evidence has always been highly valued. The Leader of the House mentioned the speed at which proxy voting was introduced. David did a lot of work behind the scenes to ensure that the first vote took place on 29 January. He is responsible—though not for much longer—for the 2,500 members of staff who make up the House service and Parliamentary Digital Service.

As Clerk of the House, Sir David has always striven to be helpful to staff and held several open meetings, including question and answer sessions. As well as going the extra mile himself in his daily duties, he has held tea parties to recognise staff who have gone the extra mile too. The staff have great respect and affection for him. One staff member, Dr Anna Dickson, said:

“David played an important role in setting up ParliREACH, the workplace equality network for Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Heritage in 2013. From the name to championing it at board level over the last five years. From chairing events to opening his official residence to the network and, most importantly, he has been a critical friend of the Committee”.

David was one of the first volunteers to take part in the ParliREACH reverse mentoring programme, which allows junior BAME staff members to mentor a senior manager. The objective was to give senior managers an insight into the organisation and its policies from the perspective of BAME staff. He has had two such mentors, both of whom have now left the House service. He thinks he may be partially responsible.

Coming from an immigrant background himself, Sir David has always been a keen supporter of and speaker at all-staff events hosted by ParliREACH, in particular looking at the implications of Brexit for non-UK EU staff working in Parliament. He has made sure that all staff who currently work here feel confident that they will not lose their jobs. After one such event in 2016, he committed the House to supporting people financially with applying for citizenship—a bold step, as you know, Mr Speaker. David was also a regular speaker at ParliREACH’s Holocaust Memorial Day events, where he spoke emotionally of the terrible effects of the holocaust on his own family.

Sir David has also been a champion of the House’s talent management scheme, which aims to enable women and BAME staff to develop their potential within the organisation, and has never shied away from inconvenient truths, even when they have reflected on him. He would always find a way to help people, and to steer ParliREACH in the right direction. He has been a passionate, consistent and entirely approachable supporter. Ken Gall, president of the trade union side, has said:

“He is a decent man who has kept his humour and his humanity during some of the most challenging times in recent parliamentary history. I absolutely trust him to tell me the truth.”

Many say that David’s more detached and calm approach can be attributed to the influence of his wife, Hilary. David would be the first to pay tribute in saying that meeting Hilary, at the time a reporter for Hansard, changed him immeasurably for the better. Hilary was a daughter of the manse, and they were married at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh in 1988, with Hilary’s uncle, the Professor of Systematic Theology at Aberdeen university, officiating. Theirs has been a wonderful partnership, and they have three lovely children, Robert, Beatrice and Michael. Hilary has ensured that all David’s latent kindness and decency have fully emerged. No one who encountered him in 1975 would have thought that he would end up as the DJ—sorry, sound engineer—at the Church of Scotland’s Sunday services at St Columba’s Church in Pont Street.

David’s successor, Dr John Benger, said this:

“Very few can match his relentless intellectual curiosity and the breadth and depth of his knowledge. He has made an enormous contribution to public life and we will miss him.”

Let me add, on a personal note, that he has always been supportive of me in my role, and, on constitutional issues and on any other matters, he has always striven to give a constructive answer. I have to say that he never sounded happier than when I spoke to him on the phone. He was overlooking the Bay of Naples, and was about to deliver a lecture to an international audience, but he still had time to deal with the matter that I had to raise with him. I must also say, on behalf of our Chief Whip and Luke and Simon in the office, that they all value his wisdom and advice at Commission meetings and at meetings with Members. He understands the nature of Parliament and the role of Members, balanced with the constitutional duties of the Clerks and the staff of the House. It was especially pleasing to see him at a “reverse mentoring” event: I actually saw him dishing out potatoes in the Adjournment dining room, wearing his pinny, while the chef, Terry, looked on in amazement.

I thank David for his friendship and his advice, and I thank him for devoting himself to the public service of the House. I thank him for serving democracy in our country, and for leaving behind the legacy of a functioning democratic institution and a legacy of investing in people, so that when others come after him, everything will be the same.

So, David Lionel Natzler, this was your life in Parliament. The whole House wishes you and your family a wonderful life outside Parliament.

Thank you. Both the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader have engagingly captured Sir David’s wisdom, warmth and wit. I too have benefited from all those qualities, and I thank them both for what they have said in leading our debate on this important occasion.

My remarks will be brief, but no less heartfelt for their brevity. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), and, indeed, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

I have known Sir David Natzler for 35 of his 43 years in the House, and it has been a privilege to regard him as a friend and colleague. For 21 of those 35 years, I have had the honour to be a member of the Panel of Chairmen. All of us who serve on your Panel, Sir, know how heavily we have come to rely on the advice and the wisdom of all the Clerks with whom we work, and we all know—every single one of us—that without their assistance and guidance, the work would be very much harder, if not impossible. Those of us who have sat alongside Sir David Natzler in Committees and in Westminster Hall—and, on occasion, in Committees of the whole House in the Chamber—have benefited hugely from, yes, his advice and, yes, his wisdom, but also from his friendship and his persistently dry humour at all times.

On behalf of, I hope, all the members of the Panel of Chairmen, I say, “Thank you, Sir David, and we wish you and your wife a long and very happy retirement.”

It is a real pleasure to speak in this debate on behalf of the Scottish National party. My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) sends apologies for his absence. He, and all of us in the SNP, hold Sir David in the highest regard, and I echo all the tributes that have already been paid to him, particularly those relating to his role in the Cox inquiry and the introduction of proxy voting.

I remember that in the 2015 Parliament, when many SNP Members were first elected, Sir David had just been appointed, and I was described by you, Mr Speaker, as a “distinguished ornament” of the Procedure Committee. It was in that capacity that I had the first chance to interact with the Clerk, who was a regular witness at our evidence sessions, not least as the tortuous process of English votes for English laws was being introduced. I suspect that what you, Mr Speaker, have described as his “scholarly cranium” was put to considerable use throughout the devising of those procedures and, indeed, as they have been implemented with varying success in the months and years since then.

As if EVEL were not of enough constitutional significance, Sir David—as the Leader of the House said—also oversaw the reform of the use of vellum and the abandoning of wigs by the Clerks in the Chamber. That was not simply about dusting down stuffy old practices; it had the very practical effect of allowing a far wider range of Clerks to gain experience at the Table of the House, which will encourage the professional development of staff across the Chamber directorate. That, I think, is a testament to the ambition that, as we heard from the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), Sir David has always held for the service of staff in the House.

Let me, on behalf of the SNP, express our thanks and gratitude for the advice and support that we receive from all the Clerks in all the various offices, and, of course, warmly congratulate Dr John Benger on his appointment as the 51st Clerk of the House. He is already a familiar and well-respected figure here in Parliament, and we look forward to working closely with him in the months and years to come. I cannot say for certain whether Dr Benger will end up in the same circumstances in which SNP Members have sometimes led Sir David to find himself—not least during a memorable session of Prime Minister’s Question Time last year when he had to advise you, Mr Speaker, on the application of Standing Order 43 (Disorderly conduct) after my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) had attempted to invoke Standing Order 163 (Motions to sit in private). I think that we saw Sir David’s arched eyebrow in overdrive during that particular session.

Sir David’s long experience in the House meant that, on that day and in similar historic situations throughout these years of Brexit and minority government, he has been a point of calm, stability and neutral perspective. That, I think, has been appreciated by Members of all parties who have sought his advice. So after these turbulent years and his many decades of service, who can deny him the chance of a bit of rest and relaxation? We wish him and Lady Natzler every happiness for the years to come—although I suspect that we may not have seen the very last of him quite yet. All the best, and slàinte mhath.

You, Mr Speaker, and the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader have recited the encyclopaedic list of Sir David’s achievements. I shall not repeat them, but they will appear in Hansard, and they will be worth reading.

Many of us did not recognise Sir David when we came into the Chamber, because he was one of the three “wigs” sitting on the bench, until the wigs were removed. As has been mentioned, however, a few of us have had the pleasure of working closely with him, either in Committees or individually. I am thinking particularly of the Commission, the Joint Audit Committee and the other Audit Committees. I, for one, always took Sir David’s advice when I asked for it individually, but not everybody did. He is very exacting. One of my colleagues, to her great amusement, was recently informed, politely but emphatically, that a letter was a letter and an email was an email, but an email was not a letter and a letter was not an email. The bemusement was worth watching.

Sir David’s humour keeps sneaking through, however, and anyone who had the pleasure of reading the letters between this House and the other place on the discussion—I will call it a discussion—of the role of the Pugin Room was in for a treat. Key members of staff retiring or moving on often had a thank you party in his rooms facing on to Parliament Street; his thank you speeches were a merciless delight. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and I had regular meetings with him in the office at the back; that was because he is a member of the Finance Committee and I am chairman of the Administration Committee, not for any other reasons. However, it was his role to help the two of us put together an amendment for the restoration and renewal debate some months ago. His advice was that he would help, but it would not be carried. He helped, but he said he was so sure it would not be carried that he would put a bottle of champagne on it failing. I understand that on the evening of the debate he went home early enough to turn on the Parliament channel; that has to be devotion—or is it a case of “get a life”? Anyway, I am reliably told that when the vote went through he gave a cheer with raised arms as if England had won the rugby world cup—a pretty rare possibility—but I still await the champagne.

Like everybody in the House who has got to know Sir David, I wish him and his wife the very best for their retirement. Given his sense of humour, I hope he writes his memoirs, and I would like a signed copy.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and to say a few words on behalf of the Liberal Democrats in this House about Sir David Natzler, a man whose contribution will be enormously missed; he has been an exceptionally distinguished holder of a distinguished office.

As others have said, he entered the House service in 1975, and in 1981 he assumed the office of Clerk of Select Committees, where the early decades of his career were spent. His influence there is to be seen in the way in which the Select Committees have grown in stature as part of the operation of this House. It is difficult to remember now that in 1979 they were something of a radical novelty.

As a Minister and Chief Whip for my party and the former coalition Government, I often had recourse to seek procedural advice from him and his predecessor Lord Lisvane. Sir David’s advice was always everything we would expect from the Clerks’ office: candid, independent, trustworthy and always rooted in an understanding of, and respect for, the rules that govern this House. He understood that for the House to perform its functions as it ought to, it had to have respect for its own rules; indeed, if we do not respect our own rules, how can we expect others to respect the rules we make for them?

Sir David was, however, an enormously approachable figure in what is otherwise a very magisterial office. He was always willing to offer Members of Parliament a way to save themselves if they only had the wit and humility to take it. Indeed, humility was just one of the considerable attributes he brought to the role of Clerk, as seen when he was prepared to acknowledge previous failings that he and all of us have had in how we have carried out our business in the past. That was not easy, I am certain, but it was very necessary, and the fact that he was able to do it with style and gravitas says a lot about the man.

As Mr Speaker alluded to earlier, many years ago now, he and the Chairman of Ways and Means and I served on the Trade and Industry Committee with Sir David and one thing always stands out in my mind about the Clerk of the House: anyone might have thought he was a bit of a Scotsman because he was certainly very frugal, to say the least, about expenditure and paying expenses. Gordon Brown always liked to talk about prudence, and I often wondered whether they came out of the same nest. Nevertheless, he often gave me good advice and he will be badly missed in this House; it will probably be a long time before we see his like again.

I am sure that is the case, and the hon. Gentleman tees up my next thought perfectly. I have been moved to consider what makes a good Clerk. I am sure that there are many qualities and influences that one must bring to bear, but when I consider those who served as Clerk in my time in this House, I think of Sir William McKay, Sir Malcom Jack, the now Lord Lisvane and Sir David himself, and in the lives of two of them, Sir William McKay and Sir David, there have been strong Presbyterian influences. The shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), referred to Sir David’s membership and regular attendance at the Church of Scotland congregation in Pont Street, and it strikes me that to be a Presbyterian often puts one in a place where one has to be close to the establishment and to authority, and to understand it, but not necessarily be part of it. I do not think it would come as a surprise to any of us in these challenging times to think that anyone holding the office of Clerk of the House of Commons might have cause to have recourse to prayer, and I have mused whether in those moments of prayer in the magnificent surroundings of St Columba’s, Pont Street, Sir David was seeking guidance from the Almighty or offering advice. Fortunately and happily, that is known only to Sir David and the Almighty. I venture the thought that of course offering advice to an omnipotent deity should not be undertaken lightly, as one risks incurring the wrath of God. I am sure if that were ever to be the case, Sir David would be able to meet the wrath of God with the good humour, equanimity and aplomb we would all expect from a man of his knowledge and experience.

I had always thought that Sir David had never offered an opinion with which I could disagree, but ahead of today’s debate, I made the mistake of putting his name into Google, and I found an article on the website of the constitution unit of University College London where he is quoted, I hope correctly, as saying,

“most members of the UK parliament do not come to Westminster expressly to legislate, but to support their parties.”

From that one sentence, it is clear that Sir David’s considerable experience has been gained in the Clerks’ office and never in the Whips Office. Now that perhaps his time might permit it, as Liberal Democrat Chief Whip I would be more than happy to offer him a work experience placement in our Whips Office for him to gain a slightly more rounded experience of how this place works. There is one further interesting sentence in that article:

“Natzler concluded with a suggestion for future research on rebellious opposition backbenchers.”

I am not entirely sure why he restricted that to Opposition Back Benchers, but there is clearly a rich vein of future research and discourse to be had here.

Sir David leaves Parliament with an enormous wealth of knowledge and experience acquired over many years of distinguished service. I hope that last sentence from the UCL website is an indication that this is not an end of his engagement with our Parliament and politics. He has had a long and distinguished service in this House, and I am sure all in this House hope he will have a long and distinguished retirement.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said. Not for the first time, he has reminded us that he has served as his party’s Chief Whip, but I hope that he will not take it amiss if I say that he has indeed served as his party’s Chief Whip, and with distinction, but that since then he has been promoted.

I am sorry that I was late in attending the Chamber, Mr Speaker; the Procedure Committee was meeting.

Sir David has been an absolute brick to this rather gauche Chairman of the Procedure Committee. I bounce into his office on a regular basis, demonstrating the clear thinking of the totally uninformed. I am sat down, and he demonstrates the deep thinking of the totally informed. He never says no. He normally says, “Charles, brilliant idea—let’s work together to make it even better.” By the time I leave his office, we have the kernel of a good idea that we can take forward.

Sir David is a truly great man. His ethos of public service and his commitment to excellence and to this place reverberate around the corridors of the House of Commons. This is seen in all the Clerks who work with him and for him, from the most senior Clerks to those who are just starting on their journey—a journey that might take them to the highest office in this place over the next 40 years. I shall miss his wisdom greatly. He has been a fantastic friend. He is always willing to listen and, most importantly, he has always been willing to guide. In a sense, he is a bit like a father figure. Father figures love to hear the voices of their children and, in hearing those voices, they can often moderate them and direct them to great purpose and better things. He has been a huge influence on my time in this place, and as I have said, I shall miss him immensely.

It is a great privilege and honour to follow the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and all the other right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken in this tribute to Sir David Natzler. I rise on behalf of my party colleagues and, I suppose, on behalf of the smaller parties in this House, to put on record our gratitude to Sir David for all the work, help and advice that he has given to us over many years and to Members before us who had occasion to work alongside him but who have now left this place. They will recall with fondness and gratitude his advice to them in times past.

The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) mentioned Sir David’s Presbyterian background. Coming from the Presbyterian tradition myself, I know what it is—certainly now—to be close to the establishment’s power and to understand it but not to be part of it. I have had to adapt to that. This reminds us that Sir David has had the great privilege, as Clerk Assistant and now as Clerk of the House, to be present in those distinguished positions at a time when we have had a full-blown coalition Government, then a traditional majority Government and now a Government who are in office through a confidence and supply arrangement. Within eight or nine years, every type of Government possible under the British constitution has been in place here, which is unique in the history of this country. Given those changing circumstances, his advice, experience, wisdom and expertise have been even more vital and invaluable.

The expenses scandal of 2009-10 has already been mentioned. That was a very difficult time for the House and for the Members who were here. Sir David’s wisdom and guidance at that time, and the work that he did on the reform of the House, were absolutely invaluable. His courtesy and his accessibility at all times to individual Members of our party and other parties are well known, and I want briefly but very sincerely to wish him and his wife and family a very happy and blessed retirement. I hope that they can enjoy it for many years to come.

It is presumptuous of a Back Bencher who has been here for less than nine years to join in paying tributes to a distinguished Clerk of the House, Sir David Natzler, who has been here for 44 years. It also runs contrary to the advice that I understand he used to offer on pieces of paper to junior Clerks in his Committees: “K.Y.M.S.” This stood for “keep your mouth shut”. I am glad that I have joined in this tribute, however, partly because I have learned so much more about David Natzler from the gracious tributes that have already been paid by right hon. and hon. Members, and partly because this has reinforced my belief, as an obscure Back Bencher, that one thing about this House—which, even for the most self-confident, can be a daunting place on arrival—is the ability to benefit from the kindly and wise advice of people who have huge experience here. When I have talked about David Natzler to other MPs, Doormen and other people working in Parliament, the one word—almost the leitmotif—that shines forth time and again is the word “approachable”. That is something that we should all treasure.

Others have mentioned David’s modest lifestyle, his dry wit and his personal kindness, but one thing I had never associated with the Clerk of the House was the concept that he might be a headbanger. In fact, I believe that he did bang his head on the table quite often as Clerk of the Defence Committee. We must hope that it had a more positive impact on the Select Committee than it did on his head or his health. Perhaps it will give courage to those of my colleagues who have been called headbangers that some of the most distinguished servants of this House have also banged their heads from time to time.

I was not here at the start of this debate because I was chairing a statutory instrument Committee. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the Clerk of the House is someone of immense courtesy who is respected across all the parties and who will be very much missed. Does my hon. Friend agree that, particularly during the past few months when the House has faced many different challenges, Sir David’s wisdom, judgment and understanding have been absolutely superb, and that he will be greatly missed?

Yes, I agree with everything my hon. Friend has said.

The Clerk of the House is a remarkable man, and I hope, given that his own father is still with us, that he has inherited that longevity and that he will have many decades ahead. I hope that he will be able to find the time to share some of his experience and wisdom with other Clerks of other Parliaments, not least through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, so that we may continue to benefit from the wisdom that my hon. Friend and many other Members have referred to today. It is his approachability for which I shall remember him most.

It was with no small amount of trepidation that I, as a new Member of this House and already somewhat daunted by the complexity of parliamentary procedure and protocol, discovered that the most senior Clerk was my constituent. I rise this afternoon to say thank you to Sir David Natzler for his dedicated service to Parliament over four decades, for the kindness and patience that he has shown to me, for his answers to questions from me and members of my team, and for taking the time in the early weeks after the 2015 election to knock on my office door to see how we were settling in. That unfailing kindness and approachability are the hallmarks of David’s service.

My hon. Friend is describing David Natzler’s character extremely well. Does she agree that one thing about him that is so nice for Members—it has not always been the case—is that he does not treat them like nursery schoolchildren?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know how much David’s kind, patient and generous approach, as well as his intellect and immense knowledge, will be missed in this place, although I take some comfort from my recent discovery that the new Clerk of the House is also a resident of my constituency.

I am sure that David’s retirement from this place will not be the end of his working life and that there are many spheres in which he will continue to contribute. David has many interests, both in our local community in Dulwich and West Norwood and further afield, that he will pursue after 1 March. They include Dulwich Picture Gallery, local history and, as he mentioned to me recently, a compassionate concern for refugees living in our community. I look forward to seeing him progressing issues and projects in our local area and further afield; he will make an enormous impact in many different ways. I know how much David’s family, his wife Hilary and their children, will value having him around a bit more, and I wish David and his family all the very best for a long, happy and productive retirement.

As one of the few people who accepts the fact that wigs are no longer commonly worn in this place with a certain sad nostalgia tinged with tristesse, I can forgive Sir David that because of his unfailing decency, kindness and extraordinary characteristics in so many other ways. I first became aware of the depths of his intellect when I was on a plane journey with him going somewhere interesting— probably Belfast. I was whiling away the journey by dipping into the Viz annual and he was reading an old annotated copy of “The Dutch Seaborne Empire”. As he sat there, it was almost as if the air around that noble cerebellum was crackling with the intellectual activity pulsing from that great brain, and I soon came to realise the depth, the breadth and the extent of that extraordinary knowledge.

One evening, the House was wrestling with the very tricky question of the illegal parking of skips on the streets of London, and we turned our minds and our collective consciousness—the intellect of the entire House—to working out how one would actually get rid of an illegally parked skip, and Sir David was sitting in his usual place. The next day, as I walked past his then study, where he was enthroned like the Master of Balliol, he beckoned me inside and said, “This morning at breakfast, my family and I were discussing that question, and there are a few things you should be aware of. Firstly, within the profession, skips are called bins. They are not referred to as skips. To use the expression ‘skips’ immediately identifies you as someone completely unfamiliar with the bulk removal of rubble and refuse. Furthermore, there is a mechanism for the removal of these illegally parked bins, which is well known within the profession. It is a dorsal elevation via lateral lugs.” He drew for me the mechanism, setting out the dynamics of how it could be done, and I thought, “I am in the presence of greatness, because not only is this a man who knows more about the procedure of this House than almost anyone and not only is this a man who has saved the reputations of many a humble parliamentarian by passing them a note—best not repeated on the Floor of the House—but this is a man who understands bulk waste, rubble and refuse removal and was prepared actually to share that with us.”

These occasions are often times of obituary rather than encomiums to those who are still with us. That makes this occasion all the more joyous and all the more joyful, because Sir David is with us and will be with us for many years to come. For however many years he enjoys his time outside and in Dulwich, with all its numerous pleasures that I may one day visit if I am ever allowed, no one in this House has not benefited from his kindness, his decency, his courtesy, his approachability and his wisdom. I cannot imagine anyone capable of doing that job better than he. That is not to put pressure on his successor; I am simply saying that Sir David Natzler is one of a kind. He is the Natzler of Natzlers, the Clerk of Clerks, and I will always be grateful to him.

We have already heard wonderful tributes from all quarters of the House, and it does seem fitting now to call a great parliamentarian. I call Hilary Benn.

Thank you very much indeed, Mr Speaker. I join all those who have spoken so eloquently and beautifully in tribute to Sir David in rising to share with the House just two memories of him. It is a great pity that he is not present. I do not know whether it is natural modesty on his part or a tradition of the House that the Clerk is not here in person to hear the tributes. If it is the latter, there is an act of modernisation yet to come, and I hope that those who lead on such things will take due and careful attention.

Reference has been made to Sir David’s wit, and I first encountered it one sunny morning when I arrived off the underground and came across Sir David getting off his bicycle in New Palace Yard. I greeted him cheerily and said, “So, how long does it take you to cycle in every day, David?” and he looked at me with a stern face and then his eyes twinkled and he said, “About a minute longer every year.” If my maths is any good, after 40 years that must be a hell of a bicycle journey into the House of Commons.

The second memory is of a much more sombre and sad occasion. It was the day after the murder of PC Keith Palmer. I think I was walking back from 4 Millbank, and I decided to come in through St Stephen’s entrance. There I found two of our wonderful staff who greet the visitors every day, and who else but David, who had come out to ask them, “How are you? How are you feeling?” Imagine being those members of staff, absolutely on the frontline, the day after one of our own had been murdered along with the tourists and others killed on the bridge. At that moment, the visitors who came by were directed, as the conversation was interrupted, and would have had absolutely no idea—we talk about the great and the good—that the man standing there in a raincoat with a slightly skew-whiff white bow tie, talking with care and compassion to our staff, was Sir David Lionel Natzler KCB, the Clerk of the House of Commons. That is typical of the man to whom today we pay such deep and heartfelt tribute in wishing him and all his family the very best for the future.

In the absence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), both of whom have served here longer than the Under Clerk, may I, as one who also came here in 1975, say that I think his title of Under Clerk of the Parliaments is one that should be remembered? His first predecessor in 1363 was paid £5 a year. If anyone looks at the 1824 Act about the Clerk of the Parliaments, who is up the other end of the building, they will see that it tends to defend all their emoluments, advantages and other ways of skimming off cash that are not allowed either on this side of the Palace of Westminster or, I hope, up there as well.

We must remember that in paying tribute to Sir David we are saying thank you also to all those who have worked with him. Not every Clerk can become the Under Clerk, but all of them work together seamlessly. That is partly down to leadership, but a lot of it relates to the community and to combined tradition and ethics.

We must also remember that, as the Under Clerk, Sir David is editor of “Erskine May” and if he is appointed to the House of Lords—I am not saying that he necessarily will be—I hope that he will last longer than Erskine May did. Sir Thomas Erskine May was dead seven days after he was appointed to the House of Lords—seven times longer than the shortest barony, which was that of Frederic Leighton, who lasted for only 24 hours—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) looks shocked, so I tell her to watch out if she ever gets sent up to the other place.

We must remember that, in the years leading up to his being Clerk of the House of Commons, Sir David went through many roles. If, like some of his ancestors, he lives to 100, that is another 35 years—rather a short time, given all the things he is capable of doing.

Let us hope that people recruited to the House service will look to those who have been Clerks and Assistant Clerks and say that serving the House, not as a civil servant, is as important as being elected to serve as a Member of Parliament. We look on him as one of ours, and I hope he looks on us as his friends.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, nemine contradicente,

That Mr Speaker be requested to convey to Sir David Natzler 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 modernising its practices, for his leadership and thoughtfulness in the discharge of his duties as head of the House Service, and for the courteous and helpful advice always given to individual honourable Members.