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Clerk of the Parliaments

Volume 782: debated on Monday 24 April 2017

Retirement of Sir David Beamish KCB

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On consideration of the letter from Sir David Beamish KCB announcing his retirement from the office of Clerk of the Parliaments.

That this House has received with sincere regret the announcement of the retirement of Sir David Beamish KCB 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 Sir David Beamish has executed the important duties of his office.

My Lords, on 1 November last year I informed the House that Sir David Beamish had announced his intention of retiring from the office of Clerk of the Parliaments with effect from 15 April this year, followed by an announcement, just before the Christmas Recess, that Ed Ollard would become his successor. I indicated at the time that there would be an opportunity to pay tribute to Sir David and I am delighted to do that today.

I am sure that noble Lords from all sides of the House will agree that over 42 years Sir David served with great distinction. He held a number of important posts during his time as an officer of this House. Between 1983 and 1986 he was Private Secretary to the Leader of the House and Chief Whip, when those positions were occupied respectively by the late Lord Whitelaw and my noble friend Lord Denham—a period that some noble Lords will recall as a busy one for the management of the Government’s business in the upper House.

Noble Lords who have been in the House since the mid-1990s will be aware of Sir David’s role in enhancing the work of our Select Committees. As Clerk of Committees from 1995 to 2002, he successfully supported a significant increase in activity, improving the House’s capacity to scrutinise the work of government and setting the framework for the House’s present, widely respected Select Committees.

Prior to his appointment as Clerk of the Parliaments in 2011, Sir David served as Reading Clerk and Clerk Assistant. As Reading Clerk, he took the lead in establishing and embedding the office of the Lord Speaker and worked hard to ensure the success of this significant change, helping to define aspects of the role, handling arrangements for the election and personally supporting the first Lord Speaker.

More generally throughout his career, Sir David contributed to the ongoing debates around the role and future of the House—for example, as clerk to the first of the Joint Committees on Lords reform in 2002-03 and, as Clerk of the Parliaments, setting out the options for non-legislative reform of the House in 2012.

Sir David leaves behind a very different House from the one he arrived at in 1974, not least because I was not even born then. It is not only a more visible and influential second Chamber but a more modern and diverse institution. He leaves the House and its administration well equipped to handle the considerable challenges to be faced in the coming years.

Sir David was also an early champion in promoting the work of the House, at home and abroad, overseeing the development of outreach programmes. Under Sir David’s leadership, the administration had its first diversity and inclusion strategy. He led by example, with his efforts helping to secure the House’s status as a living wage employer.

Throughout his time as Clerk of the Parliaments, Sir David sought opportunities for a greater degree of joint working between the two Houses, through close working with three Clerks of the House of Commons and establishing the new digital service and parliamentary security departments.

Beyond Sir David’s professional achievements, many noble Lords will also be aware of his extracurricular activities and achievements. Not content with winning “Mastermind” in 1988, with Nancy Astor as his specialist subject, Sir David has created—and continues to maintain—a website providing a list of all United Kingdom peerage creations, and I trust that his retirement will provide ample time for the continued maintenance of this project.

It simply remains for me to wish Sir David many happy years of retirement. We are greatly indebted to him for his exemplary service. I am pleased that this service was recognised in the other place, as he became the first retiring Clerk of the Parliaments to receive tributes there.

Finally, on behalf of the House, I welcome Ed Ollard, Simon Burton and Jake Vaughan to their new roles. I know that we all look forward to working with them. I beg to move.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness in paying tribute to Sir David Beamish on his retirement. Despite within this House the huge experience and long service of many noble Lords and the staff of our Parliament, there will be few who can boast of having served for over 40 years. I confess that I was born in 1974 but I was not very old. It is a truly remarkable record.

As we have heard, Sir David Beamish has seen considerable change in that time. When he started his parliamentary career in 1974, the Leader of your Lordships’ House and the Lord Privy Seal was the then Labour Peer, the highly regarded Malcolm Shepherd. At that time, there were about only 30 Labour Peers, despite being the government party. Lord Shepherd was, as one might imagine, pretty keen on House of Lords reform. He argued that only those who attended regularly should be allowed to vote—I hear some supporters of that view here today.

Parliament and politics have changed considerably in the years since Sir David first stepped through the doors of Parliament as a new young clerk. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House has rightly paid tribute to the part he has played in overseeing, managing and leading change. Perhaps he took the advice of his “Mastermind” specialist subject, Nancy Astor, when she said:

“The main dangers in this life are the people who want to change everything … or nothing”.

The knowledge and experience Sir David has gained during his time here will continue to be put to good use. I welcome that, despite retiring, he will still be giving evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs on the role of an effective Second Chamber. Those of us who have already given evidence to this committee are perhaps united in describing it as a “unique” experience, and look forward to Sir David’s contribution. Perhaps being quizzed by Sir Magnus Magnusson in the “Mastermind” chair is good preparation for giving evidence to any Select Committee.

In choosing his “Mastermind” specialist subject of Nancy Astor, the first woman Member of Parliament to take her seat on being elected to the House of Commons, Sir David showed his admiration for the first female parliamentarian. I suspect and hope that he has welcomed the developments in this House that during his time here have seen the first women Leaders, Chief Whips, Opposition Leaders and Opposition Chief Whips, and indeed the first two Lord Speakers, both of whom were female.

It is clear that not only has Sir David enormous knowledge about your Lordships’ House and Parliament but also a deep affection and respect, and he has enjoyed his work. Only recently, when my noble friend Lord Foulkes posed a question following debate about the role of the Speaker, not only did Sir David reply over a weekend but he also supplied a recording of the relevant debate—from 1968. That attention and commitment to detail is recognised by the staff of the House, so much so that the word “Beamish” has now become a noun: a point of detail that would have otherwise been missed is now known as a Beamish point.

I understand that as well as updating his website on British peerages, Sir David is widely thought to be a significant editor on Wikipedia across a range of subjects and I hope that noble Lords are not nervous at the thought that we can look forward to some updating of their profiles. Despite his considerable work for your Lordships’ House, Sir David also has a significant hinterland of interests that he will undoubtedly enjoy throughout what we hope will be a long, happy and fruitful retirement. On behalf of our Labour group, I thank Sir David for his many years of service and wish him well. I know that the whole House will join with me and the noble Baroness in wishing his successor, Ed Ollard, every success in his post, and we welcome and congratulate the new Clerk Assistant, Simon Burton, and the new Reading Clerk, Jake Vaughan.

My Lords, I associate myself with the comments of the Leader and the Leader of the Opposition. Everybody in your Lordships’ House knows that Sir David Beamish is a man of many talents. One that he hid from me at least was the one that both speakers have referred to—namely, his ability as a quiz show contestant. Not only did he win “Mastermind”, he also won “Master Brain”, which was an amalgamation of the radio quiz “Brain of Britain” and “Mastermind”. His specialist subject there was the works of Beatrix Potter. I wonder if he thought of himself as Parliament’s equivalent of Mr McGregor. I suspect not because he was far too kindly. He honed his knowledge on that subject, apparently, on car journeys by thinking up questions to ask himself. I am not sure whether he whiled away the longueurs of committee meetings in your Lordships’ House by following the same pursuit, but if he did, I doubt whether committee members would have been aware of it.

Sir David began his career in an era when the regulation of banks in the City was allegedly done largely by the raising of the Governor of the Bank of England’s eyebrow. In David’s case, he expressed his displeasure, in committees at least, by knitting his brow and frowning in a manner that implied that he had thought of at least three compelling arguments why the proposal being propounded, no doubt by some relatively new and inexperienced committee member, was not seriously to be entertained. That could have a seriously restraining influence on more experienced members of the committee who, having seen David’s frown, were less inclined to support the proposal because they knew that he was, albeit elegantly, about to shoot it down in flames.

As we have heard, Sir David’s career covered, by House of Lords standards, a period of unparalleled change. His role was often to strike a balance between accommodating change and doing so in a way that was within the overall traditions of the House and therefore likely to command its support. He was extremely adept at doing so. We all know that there is a very considerable gap in the ages at which we expect our officials to retire and those at which your Lordships retire, and David is retiring at the height of his powers. I believe that he has a number of interests that he is keen to pursue more vigorously. I did not know about Wikipedia. No doubt noble Lords will be looking at their entries to see if they are changed in the foreseeable future. We wish him well in these endeavours and a very long and happy retirement. In wishing him well, I too wish Ed Ollard the new Clerk of the Parliaments, the new Clerk Assistant and the new Reading Clerk well. We are very fortunate in the calibre of staff in your Lordships’ House and we look forward in particular to working very closely with these three new appointees in the new Parliament.

My Lords, on behalf of these Benches, I, too, pay tribute to Sir David Beamish and thank him for all that he has done for us. It has been my unique privilege as Convener to observe Sir David at close quarters on many occasions when he was doing his job as Clerk of the Parliaments. These observations have been, if I may put it this way, both from the front and from behind. I met him face to face in his office at our regular fortnightly meetings when we would discuss matters of mutual interest and I could watch him from behind each sitting day, he in his place at the Table and me in mine directly behind him on the Cross Benches, especially at Question Time. If there are two words that I think best describe the impression that these observations have made, at least on me, they are “boundless energy”. A conversation with him was always a stimulating experience. If you asked him a question, the words were hardly out of your mouth before he answered it, and his speed of thought was so astonishing that there were times when I wondered whether he had had a chance to think at all, but being David of course he did.

As for his behaviour as seen from behind at Question Time when he had to remain silent, it was his physical agility that impressed me. There was the jump to his feet as he called upon each noble Lord to put the Question. There was the crouching position that he adopted as the seven-minute deadline approached, which became even more pronounced as the Clock moved on towards eight minutes. At that stage his hand would grip the side of the Table to give him increased leverage for the next jump up to call the next Question. There was physical agility on other occasions, too. When the Lord Speaker or a Deputy Chairman of Committees got into difficulties on the Woolsack, those at the Table, so far away, had to resort to sign language. However, in David’s case it was not just sign language that he used; sometimes it was a unique kind of semaphore as he waved his arms around with increasing vigour in an urgent attempt to get his message across. So whether it be mental agility or physical agility, I doubt whether we ever had a more athletic Clerk of the Parliaments.

As has been mentioned already, David entered the service of the House in 1974. In her autobiography, The World Walks By, the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton, paid a generous and unique tribute to the help he gave her when he was in the Clerks’ department in the 1980s. It was he who drafted various amendments for her when she was involved with the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill, and it is remarkable that he is the only person who is named in that chapter, so it was a unique privilege.

As Sir David reminded the Cross-Bench Peers when he came to speak to us at our weekly meeting on the day before his last day in the House before Easter, the reputation of the House at the start of the 1980s was even more fragile than it is today. Today, all the talk is about the size of the House and the need for reform to address that issue. In the 1980s, he said that the talk was all about abolition. A motion that the House should be abolished was carried at one of the party conferences—I leave your Lordships to decide which it was—by 6 million votes to 45,000. Since then, reforms have been made not only to our composition but to the ways in which we work. As a result, as has been said, the House is now a very different place from what it was when he embarked on his career all those years ago.

Sir David has played his full part in the development of better working practices with obvious good humour and efficiency. He has been a great servant of this House, and we on these Benches join all noble Lords in thanking him most warmly for all he has done for us and in wishing him well for the life in the wider world that undoubtedly now lies ahead of him.

Before I close, I, too, join in the words of welcome to his successor, Ed Ollard, and to those who will join him at the Table, and we look forward very much to working with them in the years that lie ahead.

My Lords, I warmly associate myself with the words of tribute already spoken and add my own on behalf of the Lords Spiritual. Sir David Beamish has combined wise counsel, trusty support and firm friendship for all on these Benches, and my colleagues and I have greatly benefited from his guidance. In addition to the impressive list given by the Leader of the Opposition, he has also witnessed as Clerk the first two female Lords Spiritual. As your Lordships’ House knows, there is something of an ecclesiastical revolving door on these Benches. Those of us who arrive here when our time comes for service lean heavily on the clerks and other staff to this House to ensure that we get up to speed quickly with the just requirements of this Chamber. Without the reassurance and gentle steers of the clerk, many of us would have found ourselves floundering.

I should add that I am especially grateful to Sir David for his enthusiastic commitment outside this place to the life of the Church, especially in my own diocese. An active member of St Barnabas, Dulwich, he has also somehow managed to find the time to become both secretary to the Dulwich deanery synod and a very cheerful member of the Southwark diocesan synod. It is my great pleasure to continue to work alongside him in these capacities. I warmly welcome Edward Ollard, our new Clerk, and very much look forward to working with him and the new Clerk Assistant and Reading Clerk.

My Lords, I have known Sir David Beamish for 42 years. For three years I had the pleasure of being his opposite number in the House of Commons. I pay tribute to him for staying in his job a little longer than I stayed in mine. David’s friendship, courtesy, intellectual horsepower and indomitable cheerful optimism, no matter how adverse the circumstances, made that a delightful and constructive relationship.

As Clerk of the Parliaments, David was always a great advocate of comity—the mutual respect and co-operation between the Houses. This showed itself always in seeking a solution that was best for Parliament without ever losing sight of the interests of your Lordships’ House. More effective shared services between the two Houses was one outcome, but I was especially grateful to David for his partnership in commissioning the first comprehensive assessment of the condition of the Palace of Westminster. We both felt that we could not be another generation of stewards of this extraordinary building who were not prepared to deal with its problems. For David, his love not only of Parliament but of its ancient home was a powerful motive.

David has been a fine servant of your Lordships’ House and of Parliament, and I wish him and his family every happiness for the future.

My Lords, in reply to the Convenor, the pronounced semaphore that he refers to was so pronounced on one occasion, with a marvellous shake of the hand, that I thought fire had broken out in the House of Lords. Indeed, I was about to adjourn the House when I found out that it was in fact something about a manuscript amendment to an amendment, which I still do not totally understand. In endorsing everything that has been said, the Question is that this Motion be agreed to.

Motion agreed nemine dissentiente.