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Serjeant at Arms

Volume 663: debated on Monday 22 July 2019

I beg to move,

That this House expresses its appreciation to Kamal El-Hajji BEM for his distinguished service since February 2016 as the first BAME Serjeant at Arms, and for his prior 12-year career in public service at the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Constitutional Affairs, all of which service was notable for its geniality and quiet determination, and extends to him its best wishes for his retirement.

It is a pleasure to move this motion, for I am sure that I speak for the whole House in thanking Kamal El-Hajji for his work as Serjeant at Arms—a position in which he has served in this Chamber with distinction and through some of its more important moments in recent history. I thank him on behalf of the whole House for his three-and-a-half years’ service.

A lot of water has passed under Westminster bridge since Kamal took up his role in February 2016. He was already a distinguished figure before coming to this place, having received the British Empire Medal following his time at the Ministry of Justice. Kamal’s experience there, and in previous roles including at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, led to his selection by a panel led by you, Mr Speaker. The appointment of a Serjeant at Arms with a black, Asian or minority ethnic background had been a long time coming—604 years, to be precise—and we should rightly celebrate that important milestone. Kamal has demonstrated, through his service, that Parliament is for everyone in the UK.

Certainly, Kamal’s enthusiasm for Parliament has made him an able champion of this place, as has his facility for languages. He has welcomed distinguished visitors in an official capacity from a variety of nations, including several Heads of State—the Princess Royal, the King of Spain, the King of the Netherlands, and the President of Slovenia—and countless visitors from right across the United Kingdom. Kamal has commanded respect among those who visit and work in Parliament. That may partly be because he bears a sword in the Chamber, or because, as I understand it, he has a close familiarity with the martial arts, but perhaps it is more likely to be because of his magnificently distinctive uniform and proud bearing and demeanour.

Among the cut and thrust of everyday politics, it is all too easy to forget that we are privileged to serve in an institution with such a distinguished history. Our outgoing Serjeant at Arms has certainly embodied that. It is an office with deep roots, and life for past Serjeants has never been straightforward, whether enforcing the Speaker’s order within the early modern Chamber or, in the 20th century, working to continue our parliamentary democracy amid the rubble of the blitz. During the raid of May 1941, almost 1,500 people were killed and the Palace itself was hit more than a dozen times. Members then looked to the Serjeant at Arms to take a leading role in organising temporary arrangements so that the House could continue to sit and that our democracy could prevail.

In that tradition and with that spirit, Kamal himself showed great resolve when the House again found itself under attack in 2017. With reports of an attacker within the estate, and in the face of evident danger, Members present at the time reported that Kamal conducted himself with the dignity and authority we would expect, remaining in the Chamber throughout and supporting Members while the building was locked down.

We are grateful to all those who undertake to protect us as we go about our role of representing constituents. As we conduct our proceedings, we are reminded that there are times when our democracy has to be protected by actions as well as by words. That is why I hope that, as he steps down to spend more time with his wife and two boys, Kamal will look back with great pride on the years in which he played his part in fulfilling those responsibilities. During his time with us, he, too, has contributed to the history of this place by serving us right here in this Chamber, the very cradle of our democracy.

We wish Kamal well. He leaves with our thanks and deepest gratitude.

I thank the Leader of the House for moving the motion paying tribute to Kamal El-Hajji.

The office of Serjeant at Arms dates back to 1415 or, as Morecambe and Wise would have it, quarter past 2. Kamal El-Hajji has diligently served as Serjeant at Arms of the House of Commons for three and a half years and, as the Leader of the House mentioned, Kamal is the first person from a BAME background to hold one of the most prestigious posts in UK public life. During his tenure there has not only been an EU referendum but a general election.

Kamal has had a distinguished 12-year career in public service. He became the head of front of house and VIP relations at the Ministry of Justice in 2010 and, since 2001, he held a number of administrative and security roles at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, as it then was, and later the Ministry of Justice. In 2015 he was awarded the British Empire Medal for services to the Ministry of Justice.

In Parliament, Kamal performed his ceremonial duties with dignity and grace from day one, including with his retirement last Friday. As the Leader of the House pointed out, Kamal is a martial arts expert, which meant you were very safe as you walked along in the procession, Mr Speaker.

Kamal’s excellent interpersonal skills, commitment to customer service and genial manner will be missed, especially by Members who have had the pleasure of working closely with him. We have been fortunate to have a colleague who was so kind, genuine and helpful.

Kamal has a young family, and his main reason for retiring was to spend more time with them and his wife. He has been an outstanding public servant, and Her Majesty’s Opposition wish him and his family good health and happiness for the future.

I join the tributes to the Serjeant at Arms. He is distinguished, he is dedicated, he is perceptive and he is respected by Commons staff and by MPs. He has led, served and experienced all that this House has to offer.

When his appointment was announced, Kamal said that with the help of Allah—I recommend that people look up the expression because, as Islam is one of the Abrahamic religions, Allah is the same God that the Jews and the Christians acknowledge—he would do what he could. He has been described as a gentle giant, but I forget whether it was by you, Mr Speaker, or by Rose Hudson-Wilkin, the Speaker’s Chaplain.

Kamal is a natural peacemaker, and he is passionate about Parliament. He has helped everybody with whom he has come in contact. People respect him for the loyalty he has shown during his years here, and he has always looked for the best in others. It is right that we describe him as someone who cares about what we do and who cared about what he did. We wish him well.

We know that, at times, it is not the Serjeant at Arms but the Clerk to the Serjeant at Arms, such as Judy Scott Thomson, whose voice is still heard when the lift gets stuck, telling us not to panic and not to do what we should not do. But it is the Serjeant at Arms who provides the leadership and Kamal, whom I referred to as “Sir,” has done really well in his time here. I wish him well, and I hope, with the help of Allah, he will enjoy his time in retirement.

I thank the Leader of the House for moving this convivial and important motion. I want to express the appreciation of Scottish National party Members for the service that Kamal El-Hajji has given to this House over the past few years.

Kamal has discharged his responsibilities in a courteous, good-natured and thoroughly professional way, to the extent that he has become a good friend to many of us on both sides of the House. Scottish National party Members have got to know him a bit better due to proximity, as he is surrounded by the SNP throng and we have more opportunity to share stories and anecdotes with him.

Such is the attention this place receives that several people actually think Kamal is an SNP Member, although they wonder why an SNP Member has buckles, breeches and a sword. “He doesn’t say very much, but he seems to be better dressed than the rest of you,” is what we tend to hear.

Of course, Kamal is the first BAME Serjeant at Arms and the first Muslim to hold his post, of which he should be immensely proud. A serene zen calm comes from him as he perches on his chair. He is a centre of serenity in these frenetic surroundings. He is the most relaxed wielder of the sword this place will ever have. Yes, he is a gentle giant, but he is a dignified one. He is a gentle giant who happens to be well-rehearsed in the good use of all sorts of martial arts.

It is now time for Kamal to pass on the sword. It was never pulled in anger, even though I tried on several occasions to encourage him to go into the Lobby to move on recalcitrant Members who would not go through in time; he never obliged me. Perhaps I will have better luck with the next Serjeant at Arms.

It has been a pleasure to work with Kamal, and it has been a pleasure to know him. I know he is retiring to spend more time with his young family, but he is a very young retiree at 60 years old. I think he will be tempted back into public service in some capacity, and there are several roles that would be ideal for somebody with his skills and abilities. We hope to see him back in some form in the future but, for now, I wish Kamal all the best and good luck. Enjoy your retirement.

Speaking from the Liberal Democrat Bench, I feel compelled to echo the words of everyone who has spoken.

On a personal note, I should say that I am the first MP of British-Palestinian descent, and I have discovered that I am the first of Arab descent of any kind. What perhaps you do not know, Mr Speaker, is that Arabic has been spoken in this Chamber on many occasions because, every time I came in, Kamal and I would look at each other and speak a little in Arabic.

Every time there was something happening in the House, Kamal’s unfailing kindness would shine through. He would often call me over and say, “This has happened. I want you to take care of yourself.” I am sure I am not the only Member for whom he did that. Kindness emanates from him, and he has a steely centre. We knew that if anything happened, he would be there for us.

I would simply like to say, in the words of our shared heritage: shukran, merci, thank you.

On behalf of the Democratic Unionist party, I wish to convey my thanks to Kamal El-Hajji for his time in this House. There is no doubt that, on many occasions, we all felt a bit more secure because he was here. As the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) said, he would summon us with a look, and he would look after us and tell us what to do.

As you know, Mr Speaker, I am usually here in the late hours for the Adjournment debate and, on many occasions, the Serjeant at Arms was here as well, so we got to know each other. It is one of the wee things you probably notice, Mr Speaker, but he would step back and click his heels together whenever he took down the Mace, which reminds me of when I clicked my heels during my Army days—he seems to have that bearing, too.

Mr Speaker, you can take much credit for your leadership, and we all greatly welcomed the House having its first BAME Serjeant at Arms. We were very pleased to see him here.

This House does tradition, history and culture exceptionally well. Every nation around the whole world wishes that it had the tradition and history that we have, and Kamal brought that across each and every time that he represented us in the House. This great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland does it so well, and does it well together. Kamal is always perceptive, helpful and personable and I put on the record our thanks to him. Kamal epitomises all that is best in the House, and I wish him, his wife and his children every happiness for the future and thank him very much for what he does and for what he has done for us in the past.

Whoever the new Serjeant at Arms is, we look forward to them doing equally well; we have a great tradition here. Kamal’s work in the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Constitutional Affairs, and the fact that he received the British Empire Medal, reflect on his qualities, which the House has had the pleasure and happiness to enjoy together—not only in friendship, but in respect of the security position that he held for us.

Having heard other Members’ tributes to the Serjeant at Arms, I wish to speak only of my personal experience of dealing with Kamal.

In all my dealings with the Serjeant at Arms, he always strived to help me. For example, when some MPs were—horror of horrors—smoking on the non-smoking part of the Terrace, he took my concerns seriously, and I received letters of apology from those MPs. To the best of my knowledge, they have not yet repeated their offence. He also managed to clear the Members’ Families’ Room of Members of the other place, so that the children of my SNP colleagues could stay there safely when they were down during the Scottish summer holidays, which, as everyone should now know, are totally different from the holidays here in England.

Because of where the Serjeant at Arms sits—my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) referred to that—I have been able to have wee chats with Kamal, who always asked me how I was during very difficult personal circumstances. He always talked fondly of his young family; he has told me that he is leaving so that he will be there for them, and I am sure they will enjoy seeing much more of him. I wish him a long and happy retirement.

Before I put the Question, I want to take the opportunity to say how grateful I am to all colleagues for what they have said on this occasion by way of tribute to Kamal El-Hajji. It rather reinforces a very deep and long-held sense that I have had about our Serjeant, which is that, among all sorts of other positive characteristics, he has excellent interpersonal skills and is extremely popular with right hon. and hon. Members. They trusted him, knew they could rely on him and recognised his interest in and commitment to them. I can honestly say to the House that throughout his three-and-a-half-year tenure in post as Serjeant, no Member ever came to me to speak ill of him. Members esteemed him. He discharged an outward facing role, to boot, interacting with and offering a service to those who visited the estate. In that regard, too, I heard no complaints and much praise.

Kamal loved the House of Commons. He was enormously proud of having the opportunity to serve here, and he came to us on strong recommendation from his previous work. Indeed, I remember him enjoying very positive references—one written and the other oral, if memory serves me correctly—from distinguished Government Ministers who had interacted with him and who wanted very warmly to commend him to me. When he came to us for interview, one of the factors that weighed heavily in his favour was the moving and powerful examples he gave of how, in earlier roles, he had sought to defuse tensions and to act as an effective conciliator between different parties, each of which felt very strongly that it had right on its side. He was very much a peacemaker. I can, however, confirm that I was always mightily impressed, as others were, by his bearing and evident physical robustness. It is indeed the case that he carried himself extremely impressively. Although I am not the naturally nervous type, to be accompanied by Kamal as Serjeant, whether he had a sword with him or not, was always greatly reassuring to me as Speaker.

Colleagues have conducted themselves on this occasion as I would very much have hoped they would: from different parties, independently of each other, with fond and appreciative memories of somebody who cared about this place, contributed to it and is appreciated by it. Over the past three and a half years, I have of course come to know Kamal and his wife well, and to appreciate the importance of his family. He will spend time with his wife and family, including with young children at an important time in their lives. As he goes off to discharge his personal responsibilities, he does so with the respect, affection and good will of Members and many others right across the House of Commons.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill Presented

School Food Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Layla Moran presented a Bill to amend the Requirements for School Food Regulations 2014 to further restrict the serving of foods high in fat, salt or sugar in schools and to require all school meals to be free of added sugar by 2022; to require all publicly-funded schools to adhere to those standards; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 426).