Skip to main content

Clerk of the Parliaments

Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 26 April 2011

Retirement of Michael Graham Pownall

Moved By

To resolve that this House has received with sincere regret the announcement of the retirement of Mr Michael Graham Pownall from the office of Clerk of the Parliaments and thinks it right to record the just sense which it entertains of the zeal, ability, diligence and integrity with which the said Michael Graham Pownall has executed the important duties of his office.

My Lords, on 8 November last year, I informed the House that Mr Michael Pownall had announced his intention of retiring from the office of Clerk of the Parliaments with effect from 15 April this year. I indicated at the time that in due course there would be an opportunity to pay tribute to Mr Pownall.

Some Members will know that, by convention, the retiring Clerk of the Parliaments makes sure to absent himself from the Chamber for this part of our proceedings. Those who were well acquainted with Mr Pownall will not be surprised to hear that it was his ardent wish to go one step further and to ensure that he had left the estate for good by the time the House dwelt on his achievements. In that respect and in many others, he led those who serve us in this House by example. In the self-effacing manner in which he performed his duties, he helped to sustain the fiction, carefully crafted by successor generations of servants of this House, that we, the Members of this House, are solely responsible for its actions and achievements. Such a wonderful and convincing tale they have woven that I, for one, have never had occasion to doubt it.

Michael also led by example in the unfailing courtesy that he displayed towards Members of the House. Imposing as we are in our collective guise, one might concede that there are some formidable individuals among our number, yet if ever the Clerk of the Parliaments shared this perception, he did not let it show. His advice was invariably delivered patiently and with good grace. There is no Member for whom he would not make time and no predicament he would have dismissed as unworthy of his assistance.

Mr Pownall’s tenure as Clerk of the Parliaments marked the culmination of 40 years of service to this House. In that time, he held every important post, including that of private secretary to the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip when those positions were occupied by Lord Soames, Baroness Young and the noble Lord, Lord Denham. As well as serving the first woman Leader of this House, Mr Pownall is known to have distinguished himself during that period by bravely drawing our minimum intervals to the attention of the then Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher.

In recent years, Michael served as Reading Clerk and Clerk Assistant before being appointed Clerk of the Parliaments in 2007. When assuming that august office, he could not have anticipated the twists and turns that events would take. His term coincided with the removal of the similarly venerable appellate jurisdiction of this House, with allegations of paid advocacy that prompted the House to revive its powers of suspension, and with a press campaign that exposed serious abuses of the financial support available to Members of both Houses, some of which have since led to prosecutions and criminal convictions. These have been testing times for the House—times which placed unprecedented demand on the Clerk of the Parliaments’ judgment, integrity and resilience. I am confident that I speak for the whole House when I say that in more dispiriting moments it was a great solace to know with absolute and distinctive certainty that Mr Pownall would not be found wanting on any of these counts.

Michael leaves behind a more resilient institution—one equipped with a new Code of Conduct for Members, an independent Commissioner for Standards and a simpler and more transparent system of financial support for Members. He leaves behind a legacy that I am sure will stand the test of time. That legacy alone would have been sufficient to earn Mr Pownall a place among the most accomplished of his predecessors. But there is no rest for the wig-wearing, and more upheaval was in store for the Clerk of the Parliaments. The general election only a year ago, in 2010, saw the first change of Government for 13 years and the first coalition Government since the Second World War. The speed and dexterity with which the needs of coalition Government were anticipated and catered for is of immense credit to Mr Pownall and his staff. Their planning, pragmatism and good grace allowed the strange and unaccustomed to be overcome and innovation of one day to become the tradition of the next.

There are, of course, more achievements that I could list and I trust that some of them will be mentioned by others, but the pinnacle of them all, perhaps, is that Mr Pownall succeeded in notching up his manifold achievements while holding together the unruly flock that is the House. He is not only respected and admired but held in sincere and lasting affection around the House and at all levels of the administration. That is why I very much hope that, although he may be intending to while away his retirement in Italy, the lure of the deep red carpet, the Pugin interiors and our collective good sense will prove too strong and we will see him in the House again from time to time.

It remains for me only to wish Michael and his wife Deborah many enjoyable years ahead. We are greatly indebted to him for the exemplary service which he has rendered to this House and to Parliament. I beg to move.

My Lords, it gives me enormous pleasure on behalf of the Opposition to second the Motion moved by the Leader of the House. I associate myself and my Benches with all that the noble Lord has said about the recently retired Clerk of the Parliaments, Michael Pownall.

Michael’s long service to your Lordships’ House, his diligence and commitment to his work and, at the same time, his reticence and modesty are all qualities from which the House has enormously benefited. It is characteristic of Michael’s modesty that he somehow managed to contrive to retire during the recess while the House was not sitting, but we will not let him get away without paying tribute in the Chamber to all that he has done for the House and for the Members of this House. It is characteristic too, though, that even after leaving the job Michael Pownall will still be doing it because he has to return to give further evidence in court proceedings being brought against Members of this House, and it is on these issues that I wish to focus. In paying an overall tribute to the former Clerk, the Leader mentioned that he could only touch on Michael’s role in dealing with the difficult issues with which this House has had to deal in the past few years. For most of that time I was in the noble Lord’s place as Leader of the House, which gave me a particular perspective on Michael, and it is from that perspective that I shall address the substance of my remarks today.

Parliament has had a bad time of it over this period: we have seen a scandal erupt; we have seen a media frenzy; we have seen the standing of Parliament lowered; we have seen trust eroded; we have seen Parliament fail the British people. In all this, your Lordships' House has not been impacted on to the same degree and extent as the House of Commons, but it has none the less been seriously affected. As the noble Lord the Leader said, we have as a result reformed our procedures radically. In all this, at every point, was Michael Pownall. I tell your Lordships this quite plainly: whatever difficulties this House has been in, they would have been worse, so very much worse, if Michael Pownall had not been in his job. At every moment, in every aspect of the issues involved, Michael was centrally involved not only in dealing with them but with stretching himself and his team to find ways of resolving them.

As the then Leader of the House, I and my team worked with Michael hour by hour, day by day, night by night, weekend by weekend for many months dealing with the issues involved: with the distress to Members of this House, with complaints, with investigations, with new procedures to put right what was wrong and to put our own House back in order. At times, that work led to him being attacked and criticised in public, in the media and, indeed, by the media. He was anguished by that and could barely believe that it was happening. When at one point my office advised him that it was likely that he would be doorstepped at home by press photographers the next morning and to be ready for it, he was highly sceptical that it would happen and, characteristically, highly apologetic for his scepticism when it duly happened the next morning. It was wrong, highly wrong, for a public servant to be personally targeted in that way. Politicians have to take the rough with the smooth—it is unfortunately part of the job and goes with the turf—but public servants who are simply carrying out their duties, as Michael Pownall was, should not be subject to attack in that way. It is media bullying and intimidation. Sad to say, it is something that many in the media believe that they have a perfect right to do, but they are wrong.

At the end of his career in your Lordships' House, as he reached the summation of that career in becoming Clerk of the Parliaments, Michael Pownall suddenly found that he had to deal with those kinds of issues in a way that none of his predecessors had. It is a real, lasting and permanent tribute to him that, because of the changes and reforms that he, with many others, worked so hard to put in place, it is unlikely that none of his successors will have to deal with them in the same way either. We welcome David Beamish as his successor as Clerk of the Parliaments. The transition from Michael to David has been handled well, and we now have a very strong Senior Clerks’ Bench, and, indeed, a strong team across the House authorities as a whole, to serve your Lordships' House in what may, in a very different way and with very different issues involved in terms of possible further reform of this place, be an equally challenging period ahead. We look forward to working with David as the new Clerk of the Parliaments and with Ed Ollard as his new Clerk Assistant.

Despite his still having no doubt difficult work in court still in front of him, I know that Michael is looking forward to retirement, to spending more time with Deborah and spending a great deal more time at their house in his beloved Italy. This House is paying tribute to Michael Pownall today for his long career of distinguished service to your Lordships' House—rightly so. As Clerk, he has been a wise counsel, a man of judgment, dignity and integrity, a fair man, a just man, a genuinely nice man and, rightly, a popular man with the Members of this House and with the staff of the House whom he has led. The House owes Michael Pownall a particular debt of gratitude over this last period of that distinguished career, for, when the call of duty came in ways that in this House it had never come before for someone in his job, he rose to it.

The trouble in this House was largely created by the activities of some of its Members, and it is right that we and other authorities dealt with it in the way we did. When this House was in trouble, Michael Pownall stood by it. That is a debt of gratitude which we shall never be able to repay.

My Lords, this is the first time since the formation of the coalition Government that I have spoken from the Liberal Democrats Benches. The reason I do so is that I want to make it clear that the tribute I wish to pay is on behalf of the Liberal Democrats in this House, although I heartily concur with the remarks of the Leader of the House and, in particular, with the Leader of the Opposition in the way she dealt with the torrid time that Michael Pownall had to endure as he piloted us through some of the most difficult times that this House has ever had to endure.

The phrase that comes to mind is courage under fire, because that is what he showed. Because he showed courage under fire, he was able to give steady advice to the various party leaders. Like the Leader of the House, I believe that when this period in the House is looked back on, although it will be seen as a period of turmoil and of some distress, it will also be seen as a period of genuine reform when we put our House in order, and we did so under the wise guidance of Michael Pownall. I will not try to repeat what the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition said, but I appreciated the passion that the noble Baroness showed in her tribute, which was richly deserved.

It is always difficult to find new things to say in this slot, and I usually rely on my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester, who is keeper of the blessed memory as far as this House is concerned. She brought two facts to mind. She remembers that, when Michael Pownall was secretary to the noble Lord, Lord Denham—who I am glad to see is in a place if not quite in his place—under stress, he would turn to cigarettes. This surprised me. I could not think that there could be any stressful moments being private secretary to the noble Lord, Lord Denham, but there you are—you never cease to be surprised. I was also told something even more disturbing: Michael Pownall is a mimic of Rory Bremner-type skill and some of his finest mimicry is, in fact, of Members of this House. I am looking forward to getting him in a private place when he returns and asking him to go through his repertoire. There was another thing I found surprising. It did not surprise me that Michael loves Italy and is a good squash player, but I read that he is a supporter of Luton Town. A Clerk of the Parliaments supporting Luton Town! Luton Town is at the Pukka Pies end of football rather than the prawn cocktail end, but that again shows the depths of the man. Luton Town won 4-0 yesterday, so he should be quite pleased about that.

I hope that what has come through is the amazing Clerks we have in this House. They hold this House’s oldest office, yet we attract men and women who are willing to serve this House. Forty years’ service is almost unknown in today’s career paths. Michael Pownall gave 40 years of service to this House including four years of tremendous service as Clerk of the Parliaments during a historic period. I think that again the Leader of the Opposition got it right. Michael Pownall was a great public servant at a time when the term is going out of fashion. He is much appreciated as a public servant and a great servant of this House. Our thanks to Michael Pownall.

My Lords, on behalf of the Cross-Benchers, I support the tributes already paid by the Leader of the House, the Deputy Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition. One of the first things that one has to acknowledge about Michael Pownall, or MGP, as we like to call him, is that there is almost nothing that he does not know about the House of Lords both legislatively and procedurally. He, like so many of the Clerks, is a walking Companion to the Standing Orders, in fact, so much so that he is almost a standing order himself. His rise from being a serious young man of 23 in 1971, when one of his first appointments was as private secretary to the Leader of the House, to the culmination of any Clerk’s ambition in this House as Clerk of the Parliaments has been inexorable.

We have all become accustomed to seeing a rather worried-looking MGP speeding along the corridors, but he had much to be worried about, as we have already heard. Two major changes occurred under his watch: the removal of the Law Lords to the Supreme Court and the acquisition and refurbishment of the Millbank site. These seemingly smooth operations have entailed many hundreds of ducks paddling furiously underwater, and Michael was, at all times, their overall leader. We can perhaps repay his and others’ work by persuading some of those still entrenched in fusty corners of this Palace to move into the light, airy offices of Millbank. On behalf of the Cross-Benchers, I thank the Clerk of the Parliaments as was, Michael, for all that he has done, and for all that he is. I trust he will keep in touch with us so that we might all get to enjoy seeing him freed from his clerkly burdens.

My Lords, I rise to associate the Bishops’ Bench with the tributes already paid to the retiring Clerk of the Parliaments. There is, as your Lordships know, a steady stream of new Bishops entering this House, since we rarely stay beyond retirement. Over the past few years, Michael Pownall has been a welcoming face and voice to many Bishops undergoing their induction into your Lordships’ House; many of them, unlike other noble Lords, arriving knowing almost nobody here and almost nothing about the ways of the House. The Church of England, even with its modernising agenda, has its own peculiarities and particularities, as you may have noticed. They are, however, different, from the peculiarities and particularities of this House. The Clerk of the Parliaments has always enabled those on this Bench to find their feet and even, in time, their voice. The Lords spiritual, to whom I have spoken, have paid tribute variously to his knowledge, compassion, even-handedness, approachability, modesty and courtesy. That is an impressive catalogue of attributes.

From this Bench we thank him for his years of service and pray that his retirement be blessed with health and happiness. Like everybody else, I should mention Italy, but also hope that he will be happy and healthy here at home.

Excuse me. My Lords, some years ago, as Speaker, I was lucky to attend a Commonwealth Parliamentary conference in Trinidad. Our hosts entertained us one evening at a concert, which was in a theatre hastily constructed for our special conference. It was a black, velvet, tropical evening and, on returning to our seats after the interval, and unseen by my colleagues, I fell through very flaky floorboards right up to my armpits, the remainder of me hanging in an abyss. My legs were dangling and I lost my shoes as I tried unsuccessfully to locate some foothold to pull myself out. After a time, I was spotted by my Clerk, Bill McKay, Clerk of the House of Commons, who grabbed his chum who was the Canadian Clerk, and together they came to my rescue. I tell you, it was a frightening experience. I said to Bill McKay, “I’m so grateful to you. What would I have done without you?”. He said, “Madam Speaker, think nothing of it, that’s what Clerks are for, to get Speakers out of holes”.

I doubt that Michael Pownall had cause to pull the Lord Speaker out of a hole—even a procedural one—but I certainly have no doubt that the sage advice given to me by the Clerk prevented me from falling into procedural holes on more than one occasion.

Parliamentary procedure may not be quite the black art it is sometimes made out to be, but the sheer size of Erskine May testifies to its complexity. The Clerk’s function, of course, is to interpret it and to advise on its application to particular circumstances. I think the Clerk could be described as the essential lubricant in the parliamentary process; he keeps the wheels of Parliament running smoothly. It would be a most unusual, not to say unwise, Speaker who did not acknowledge their debt to the Clerk who supports and keeps them on the straight and narrow. But the responsibilities of the Clerk and his staff, as we have heard already this afternoon, go wider than this: they advise Ministers, opposition spokesmen, Cross-Bench Convenors, and individual Members, like many of us here, with equal zeal and with impartiality. Quite simply, we could not manage without them. Clerks are low-profile but high-value members of the parliamentary community. What I found to be the case in the Commons is equally true here.

In recent years, of course, the role of the Clerk of the Parliaments has expanded to encompass a much greater managerial function in the administration of this House, and this has placed increased demands on Michael which he has met with energy and equanimity. Michael Pownall has served your Lordships' House and its Members with skill, devotion and fidelity, which is the characteristic of the Clerks of our Parliament. We are blessed with the best. I think the finest tribute I can pay to Michael is to quote from Chaucer’s description of the Clerk in the prologue to The Canterbury Tales. It certainly applies to Michael Pownall:

“Not one word spoke he more than was his need;

And that was said in fullest reverence

And short and quick and full of high good sense”.

In paying tribute to Michael personally, which I do in full measure, I wish him a long retirement with his family, enjoying good health and happiness in the years to come.

My Lords, I apologise to my noble friend for intervening prematurely.

As one of your Lordships’ former Chairmen of Committees, I support the Motion moved by the noble Lord the Leader of the House. I served first as Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees, and I worked with Michael Pownall in that role. He was, of course, in charge of me. I predicted at that time that he would finish up as Clerk of the Parliaments. I said that to myself; I did not say it to anyone else in your Lordships' House, and I certainly did not say it to Michael Pownall. On my first day as Chairman of Committees, the then Clerk of the Parliaments noticed, when I took the chair for the first time, that I was wearing my pass—my badge. I took over the chair when the Lord Chancellor rose—when we had a real Lord Chancellor—and Mr Michael Wheeler-Booth, who is now Sir Michael but was then our Clerk, very discreetly and delicately mentioned to me after we rose that I had been wearing my badge. I think he thought that it was unseemly of me to wear it on the Woolsack. Mr Pownall would not have drawn that to my attention.

I can say only that it has been a very great privilege to serve in your Lordships' House with Michael Pownall as Clerk of the Parliaments. It has given me very great pleasure. I wish him well, as we all do, I wish him a good future and I hope to see him frequently here in your Lordships' House.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House is extremely grateful for the fine and well deserved tributes which Michael Pownall has just received. We all know how genuine are the feelings that have been expressed on behalf of us all about Mr Pownall. That makes it particularly unfortunate that Mr Pownall is, I believe, the first Clerk of the Parliaments for centuries—I have been unable to discover how many centuries—to be retiring without a knighthood. I happen to think that that is extremely unjust to him personally, as well as being undeserved and unreasonable. I also happen to think that it is very much not in the interests of Parliament.

As we know, Parliament, the House of Lords as much as the House of Commons, depends absolutely on the high calibre of our Clerks and on being able to attract into the cadre of Clerks young men and women of the greatest ability. They do not get much opportunity for public tribute to be paid to them, but the tradition that whoever rises to the top of this profession receives a knighthood is one way that enables us to make quite clear the esteem in which we hold the profession as a whole. Perhaps I may ask the Leader of the House to have a word in the right place to see whether this matter can be rectified.

My Lords, only the very best of the best become Clerk of the Parliaments. I am taken back to the time when the late Lord Soames was Leader of the House and was then made the Governor of Southern Rhodesia. As a result, I found myself being made the acting Leader of your Lordships’ House. I was set up in the room that the Leaders use, a very large and frightening place, but I was there and got used to it.

The then Clerk of the Parliaments, the late Sir Peter Henderson, asked whether I would interview a young man who he thought would be good as the private secretary to the Leader and the Chief Whip. I said, “Of course I will”, because I could not really say anything else. “Send the young pup along”. The young pup who came along was, of course, Michael Pownall. After the interview, Sir Peter asked how I got on. I said that Michael Pownall was a charming and delightful person, but that he had not said very much. Sir Peter, in defence of his newfound protégé, rounded on me and said, “Nor would you because that is the most frightening room to be interviewed in”. I knew it was, but on that occasion I was on the other side of the table.

As Michael Pownall’s progression went on, I am glad to think that my modest intervention of a non-offensive nature resulted, some 30 years later, in a Clerk of the Parliaments who has been one of the best, the nicest, the most courteous and dignified Clerks who we have had the good privilege to see. We are all very grateful to him for that.

My Lords, I saw Michael Pownall on virtually every sitting day when, as Clerk of the Parliaments, he would come to brief me before the House sat for business. The noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, was quite right to talk about the particular role played by Clerks in relation to Speakers, even in this House. Not only did he pull me out of holes, but perhaps more important, he stopped me falling into them in the first place. He did that, as the Leader of the House has said, with an unfailing courtesy and kindness. I owe him a debt of gratitude.

The phrase I heard him use most frequently was, “Is there anything we can do to help?”. It was always “we” because Michael is a very modest man who never took on himself that he was the person who would solve everything; he saw himself as leading a team. The phrase that came a close second to that was, “I am sorry I am late, Lord Speaker, but I was waylaid on the way to your office”. He was inevitably waylaid on the way to the office because he was incapable of discourtesy to anybody whether it was staff or Member. He took their issues seriously and he did what he could to help. He had time for everybody. I hope that, now, he will have time for himself, for Deborah and for the daughters whom he loves so much.

Motion agreed nemine dissentiente.