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Volume 687: debated on Tuesday 19 December 2006

My Lords, it is now my duty to move the adjournment of the House for the Christmas break. It has become almost traditional that this is the time when the three Chief Whips break their Trappist vows and pay tribute to the work of the staff, particularly those two or three people of long service who have retired during the past 12 months. I am mindful of time because the Doorkeepers’ Christmas party begins at 7 pm and the programme today has been scheduled with that event in mind. I have a couple of minutes, and that is what I intend to take.

I need to refer to two people in particular who have retired during the year. One is Valerie Sargent. She first joined the House in 1977 as a reporter in the Office of the Official Report and retired in February this year. Noble Lords will quickly calculate that that is after nearly 30 years’ service to the House, which is a tremendous record. I know that the whole House will wish her, a little belatedly, a very happy retirement, with many thanks for all she has done for us over those years.

The other person with more than 10 years’ service is Danae Wilkins, who worked in the Parliament Office, latterly as a committee assistant. Those noble Lords who have sat on committees with which she has been involved will know how she assisted in their smooth running. She joined the House in 1995. By comparison with Valerie Sargent, she is a relative newcomer but with still more than 10 years’ service to the House. We wish her all the very best.

I checked before I came to spell out these few words. More than 450 people help us perform our duties in this House in more than 16 different offices. Clearly I cannot in a few moments pay tribute to all departments that we should thank, but I should like to single out one or two. One department I must mention, because of the particular pressures put on it this year, is the Refreshment Department, loved by all of us. To have kept the system going through major, long-overdue refurbishments deserves tribute. I can only recommend the breakfasts in the morning. They are a slimmers’ aid because you do not need anything else for 12 or 14 hours thereafter—not to mention the honey-glazed sausages, a joy that I had not experienced before I came to this House. I thank all those in the Refreshment Department.

There are two other departments that I want to mention. We are familiar with the, roughly speaking, eight offices of the House that we meet everyday, but there are a number of offices whose people we rarely come across. They do a tremendous service to the House as well. I really want to mention within Black Rod’s Department the housekeepers. There are 52 of them. They start work between 6 am and 6.30 am. This is not the easiest of buildings to look after day in and day out. Whatever Pugin was thinking about—and he was a wonderful man—I do not think that he was thinking too carefully about the pressures on housekeepers. I would like to record on behalf of everyone here our thanks to them for the work they do.

The other group I want to mention affects the whole Palace of Westminster. The people in the Parliamentary Works and Services Department service both Houses and have a range of skilled staff at their disposal, including carpenters, upholsterers, electricians, plumbers and porters. They do a lot of their work when we are not here. They are the ones who keep the system going at weekends and, particularly, in recesses, doing myriad jobs, ranging from checking for asbestos to putting in wiring, plumbing and everything else. They are the ones whom we do not see. The fact that they are out of sight should not, and does not, mean that they are out of mind. I wish them and everyone else the happiest of Christmases and thank them for all that they have done.

Moved, that the House do now adjourn.—(Lord Grocott.)

My Lords, it is my pleasure and privilege to follow the noble Lord the Captain of the Gentleman-at-Arms in paying tribute to all the staff of the House, both personally and on behalf of my colleagues on the Official Opposition Benches. I join in thanks particularly to Valerie Sargent and Danae Wilkins, who have retired this year after long service. We are very well served here at all levels. We know it and we appreciate it—I think that is true of everyone in the House. The Clerk of the Parliaments—known in some statutes, I gather, as the corporate officer—and his colleagues are of course ever-helpful. Black Rod, the Yeoman-Usher and all their staff are also very helpful.

I sometimes come in early enough to see some of the Housekeepers and their staff at work, as the Chief Whip mentioned. We live in a very special building and some very well-appointed outbuildings. Keeping them looking so magnificent is not easy. As the Chief Whip also said, the Refreshment Department deserves our special thanks this year because of the difficulties that it has had with the great kitchen project and the new restaurant, which is excellent. It has been a most difficult time.

I happened to be the host of one of the first functions to be held in the Cholmondeley Room on the first day after the Summer Recess, when we were therefore served from the new kitchens. I confess to having had some apprehension in case the guests at the function would not have quite the service that we were used to, and that there might be teething troubles, but I need not have bothered at all: it was an excellent function and we were very well looked after. The Refreshment Department has continued to do that, in spite of occasional difficulties with extractor fans and one thing or another, which it has been able to overcome very well.

The Parliamentary Archives has a new name now, to make clear the fact that it is only half ours and half a part of the Commons. They held special tours and a most interesting exhibition of their work in connection with their anniversary. What a treasure trove of historic materials they hold; it was very interesting to see. The Library and Information Department keeps us ever up to date with our technological age. I am one of those who now has a personal digital assistant. Support staff are kept busy making sure that I can manage to work it. Hansard produces its daily miracle of recording. I should also like to thank the staff of my party, the Official Opposition, the Government Whips’ Office and staff of the other parties, who are also as helpful as they could possibly be—within their limits, quite properly—in assisting us to do our work.

Above all, we are looked after and protected by the Doorkeepers, under Mr Phipps; the police, under the chief superintendent; and all the security and fire staff. Some of us know very well that, in the modern climate, those are most difficult jobs to do day after day. We thank them all for keeping us safe. I wish Members and all staff every happiness over the festive season and in 2007.

My Lords, from the Liberal Democrat Benches, I would like to add my words to the tributes. I find myself the least Trappist of the usual channels. There are times when you feel that you have to enter the spirit of things. Indeed, I am slightly worried about losing faculties. However, I have been thinking about the phrase “usual channels”. I think about them as underground water pipes. That is the feeling of many people about the usual channels. Here we are on this very day, the 19th, and the channels have come out into a full river, but we are not that well supported for the words that we offer. We do not have the fullest of Houses, although it is better than I feared. This is the one occasion on which we all perform together in that open river.

This is a wonderful opportunity to thank our staff. I was thinking of the words “civility” and “competence”. That is what we get from the staff here, whatever department we are dealing with. It is good to pay tribute to the particular service of Valerie Sargent, who, interestingly, was the first person here to be involved in job-sharing, as late as 1985. There have been several job-sharers since. I also thank Danae Wilkins for her service in the House.

It is a useful time to thank our Housekeepers, who keep this place clean, and the works department, to which noble Lords referred. I benefited from its work in the Summer Recess. I felt that there was simply too much paper and too many piles, and I managed to persuade the proper offices to construct a wonderful bookcase. It really is a first-class job and a tremendous help in keeping my place a little tidier.

I also thank the staff of our Whips’ Office and of the Whips’ Office in another place, who are a tremendous help to the usual channels and in making certain that things go well.

I wish everyone a Happy Christmas and a splendid recess, and we look forward to an interesting new year.

My Lords, at Christmas my family works on the principle that the best things come last, and so it is on this occasion that we leave behind a few issues that are not terribly interesting and come to the last and best part of our work in the Chamber; the well deserved thanks to the staff. When I spoke last year, I made clear the great appreciation that the Cross-Bench Peers have for the work of the staff of the House. This year, I make clear our even greater appreciation. The chart is still rising and the Cross-Bench Peers—all 200 of them—are happy indeed with the service they receive in all parts of the House.

This year, it is only right that we thank not only those whom we see a lot of but those whom we do not see so much of, except the indefatigable Members who come in before 8 am or after 8.30 pm; namely, those who work in the House when we are not here. It is most important to cover them all.

Overall, we have a great team of Doorkeepers. I think it is a premiership team; I will not comment on the behaviour of the management, because that is a separate system in premiership football. They are a premiership team. We have the proud armada of the attendants, the Library and research services under Elizabeth Hallam Smith, its new head, and the great traditional and current performance of Hansard. When I heard that Valerie Sargent had left us after 30 years, I tried to imagine how high the pile of Hansard reports that had been created in her time would be. There is a fair chance that it would hit the ceiling in the Chamber.

I thank generally all those who work in the Committee Office, the Printed Paper Office, the Public Bill Office and all the offices that we have so much to do with. Like others, I mention the Refreshment Department especially at this time, because it was very difficult to make the changes that it made. It did so very well, and the refurbished part of the department is back and running very well indeed.

It is quite impossible to pick out everyone who has played his or her part in keeping Parliament and this great Palace in good shape in the past year, but our thanks go to them all.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned for the Christmas Recess at 5.58 pm until Monday 8 January.