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Speaker’s Statement

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 12 September 2023

Colleagues, imminently we will come to the motion on the retirement of the Clerk of the House, and I will look to the Leader of the House to move the motion of congratulations to the outgoing Clerk of the House, Sir John Benger. Just before I do so, I would like to place on record a letter to me from Sir John. He writes:

“You notified the House last February of my intention to retire as Clerk of the House to take up a new role next month as Master of St Catharine’s College Cambridge.

I wanted to thank you, Mr Speaker, for your unfailing support both to me personally and to the House of Commons Administration. You care deeply about the institution of Parliament, but also about all of the staff who work here. I want to record your personal contribution to improving the welfare spaces for many of our staff on rotas working unsociable hours in often difficult conditions. I also want to thank you for placing so high a priority on security for all who work in Parliament—you sat in this Chamber during those difficult hours following the murder of PC Keith Palmer, an event I know which affected you deeply.

May I also thank the deputy speakers who have been a pleasure to work with.

The murders of two honourable Members, Sir David Amess, and Jo Cox, caused us all great sadness. I knew Sir David personally—he served on the Health Committee for all of the six years I clerked it, always enthusiastic, never failing to see the absurdity in life, but, like Jo Cox, a tireless champion of his constituents and of the causes he believed in.

Nowadays, every Member has to deal with more than their fair share of abuse and hostility. But I have to say I have found almost all Members to be passionately committed to changing the world for the better and serving their constituents. I will always remember and appreciate that commitment by Members to public service.

I took up my current role in March 2019 and my main objective was to help implement the recommendations made by Dame Laura Cox in her report following the dreadful accounts of bullying and harassment in Parliament. All Dame Laura’s key recommendations have been implemented, and we should celebrate the fact that our Parliament now leads the world in having an independent process to examine such matters. There is more to be done as we all know, and too much unacceptable behaviour still occurs, but I salute those Members and staff who had the courage to help introduce the ICGS.

My first few months were occupied with the fraught challenges of Brexit, in the context of a minority government, and many of us will remember what a difficult parliament that was. But of course, even greater challenges lay around the corner, with the advent of Covid-19, prompting dramatic changes to how we operate. I am so proud of my colleagues for helping this Parliament to lead the world in sitting in hybrid form, transforming procedures, adapting our physical spaces and rapidly introducing the necessary technology, to achieve this in a matter of days, a truly astonishing achievement.

Here in Parliament we have some of the finest public servants—dedicated, professional and at their best when there is a challenge. But it is their friendship and support, as much as their professionalism that I will remember, and for which I will always be grateful.

Yours sincerely,


I would now like to take this opportunity to say a few words of my own about Sir John. Hon. Members may not realise this, but John is in fact a northerner, having grown up in Stockport. If you want proof of those northern roots, I suggest you say something derogatory about Manchester United. His continued commitment to the north will then become very clear. The team has been left a little in the shadows by Manchester City of late, and he struggles to stomach that.

John left the north, however, to join the House in 1986, having, on the way, read English Literature at St Catharine’s College, trained as a teacher and completed his doctorate in English at Oxford University. His first role in the then Clerk’s Department was as second Clerk on what was then the Trade and Industry Committee. It was there that he first met the Member of Parliament for Warrington North, one Doug Hoyle. That was not to be the last Hoyle he would work with. Indeed, both as Speaker and before that as Chairman of Ways and Means, I have been privileged to have worked alongside John since he was appointed the 51st Clerk of the House.

John has been Clerk through what by anyone’s estimation has been a challenging period. He provided leadership during the pandemic with the same diligence and focus that he applies to everything he turns his hand to, tempered as always with his signature good humour. He has also been at the helm during many occasions when this House has been at the centre of national and international attention, as it was following the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II just a year ago. It is a credit to his leadership, and of course to all those who work here and support the House, that through all these turbulent times the House of Commons has shown itself in its very best light.

John should be very proud of the progress he has made in improving the culture and environment in which we all work, following the findings of bullying and harassment by Laura Cox in 2018. He has been a personal champion of work on inclusion and diversity in the House of Commons and a mentor for colleagues in and out of Parliament. I know I speak for all those who work here when I thank him for his dedication to those important areas of work.

I will always be grateful to John for the support and sound guidance he has given me over his past four years as Clerk. John has been a friend as well as Clerk of the House. To know John takes a little bit of understanding; he is always dedicated to the House and will always put the House first, but he is more dedicated to Erskine and May, his two cats, who are of a great age at over 18 years, and nothing will stop him leaving to ensure they are fed and well looked after. John’s other speciality is chicken. If I ever hear him say, “I have got to get home, I must put the chicken in”, I am never quite sure whether it is for the family or for Erskine and May.

I know the House will join me today in thanking Sir John for contributing nearly four decades of exemplary public service. I wish him all the very best in his new role as Master of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. Their gain is our loss, but we wish him well, and I know the House will continue as he would expect.