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Black Rod

Volume 789: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2018

Retirement of Lieutenant General David Leakey and introduction of Sarah Clarke

My Lords, I have to inform the House that Her Majesty has appointed Sarah Clarke to be Lady Usher of the Black Rod, in succession to Lieutenant General David Leakey, CMG, CVO, CBE, and that she is at the Door, ready to receive your Lordships’ commands.

My Lords, it is the custom of the House to pay tribute to the outgoing Black Rod on the day that their successor assumes the office. I would like to take this opportunity to thank David for his tireless service to the House during the seven years that he served as Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod.

Noble Lords will be aware that, since David’s retirement in December, the Yeoman Usher, Brigadier Neil Baverstock, has stepped in to serve as acting Black Rod. I am sure I speak for us all when I say that we are extremely grateful to Neil for taking on these essential duties with his typical calmness, good humour and effectiveness, and preparing a smooth handover to Sarah.

With the leave of the House, I would like to pay tribute to David’s distinguished career. He assumed the office of Black Rod in February 2011, following the sadly curtailed tenure of Sir Freddie Viggers, after a distinguished career in the Army spanning four decades. He commanded forces and operations in a number of areas, including West Germany, Northern Ireland and Bosnia. He used his service experience in the latter country to play a critical role as the UK’s military representative during the talks which led to the Dayton agreement in 1995, ending three and a half years of devastating conflict. David also held other senior defence, security and international appointments in the Ministry of Defence and in Brussels, most recently as the director-general of the EU military staff from 2007 to 2010.

As noble Lords know, behind the scenes during his time as Black Rod, David was responsible for arranging six State Openings—a huge operation, which he and his team, including the doorkeepers, always managed with skill and sensitivity. David supervised nine state visits and six addresses by a number of notable Heads of Government and States. As I am sure your Lordships well remember, the successful visits of President Obama and the King and Queen of Spain, as well as the celebrations to mark Her Majesty the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, were all significant operations, conducted with enormous care. The novel arrangements in the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft, which allowed parliamentarians and the public to pay their respects to Lady Thatcher, Tony Benn and last year to PC Palmer in advance of their funerals, were also conducted with his characteristic thoughtfulness.

Throughout his time as Black Rod, David enjoyed close working relationships with three Serjeants at Arms in the Commons, and oversaw a good deal of change. His open-minded approach to changes in security governance, in particular, was essential in ensuring that the new arrangements under the parliamentary security director have worked well. The fact that those arrangements are now taken for granted by his successor will be one of David’s lasting legacies to this House.

During his tenure David also played a significant role in improving Parliament’s relocation contingency arrangements, overseeing, as one of his final acts as Black Rod, a successful relocation exercise which helped to provide reassurance about the robustness of these arrangements. He leaves Parliament as a whole better equipped to handle the considerable challenges to be faced in the coming years, for which we are grateful.

It would also be remiss of me not to acknowledge the degree of fame that David achieved last year, or rather his legs as adorned by Ede & Ravenscroft’s finest 60 denier tights, when they appeared in the BBC’s “Meet the Lords” documentary.

Beyond David’s professional achievements, many noble Lords will also be aware of his extracurricular musical activities and achievements. He was an active supporter of the National Children’s Orchestra, serving as the chairman until 2014, and within Parliament was a stalwart of the Parliament Choir, overseeing a successful joint concert with the Bundestag choir in Westminster Hall in July 2014. I trust that his retirement will provide ample time for the continued pursuit of these interests.

It simply remains for me to warmly welcome Sarah Clarke to the House. I look forward to working with her. I end by reiterating our thanks to David Leakey for the service he has given to this House, its Members and Parliament as a whole. I wish him, and his wife Shelagh, many happy years of retirement.

My Lords, the noble Baroness has provided a very rounded picture of our outgoing Black Rod, Lieutenant General David Leakey. Like his predecessors, he brought his considerable military experience to Parliament and, as we have heard, he has used his logistical, management and diplomatic experience and skills to great effect, both in good times, for national celebratory events, and in very difficult times, when his diligent and considerate nature was greatly appreciated.

The role of Black Rod has changed over the years, and David’s time in office was one of significant change, particularly in relation to how Parliament manages the security of the estate and of those who work here. The noble Baroness the Leader was right to highlight his flexibility and professionalism in managing such change.

On a personal note, I was very grateful when David supported my campaign for a commemorative brass plaque to recognise the Westminster Hall lying-in-state of those killed in the R101 airship disaster of 1930. After two years’ of Questions and lobbying, finally, with David’s strong support, we were able to welcome the descendants of those who had died and lain in state to an unveiling service in Westminster Hall, where the new plaque is proudly on display—a missing piece of parliamentary history now recognised. Thank you, David.

One of my favourite stories about David was told to me by my noble friend Lord Collins. When he asked Black Rod whether it was compulsory for Peers’ spouses to wear tiaras at State Openings, he was told very firmly and succinctly, “Yes, of course”. “That’s good”, replied my noble friend Lord Collins, “my husband has just bought one”. David’s response is not recorded—it may have been a rare speechless moment—but no tiara was worn.

From men in tiaras to men in tights: the Leader mentioned that the collective memory of your Lordships’ House has been deeply affected by the sight of David on national television in just his long white shirt, quickly and I have to say rather expertly managing to pull on his ceremonial black tights. One day, feeling quite courageous, I summoned up the nerve to ask him why. How did the crew manage to get him to dress in front of the camera? Somewhat embarrassed, he replied that he had got so used to them following him around that, “I just forgot they were there”.

One of the highlights of the parliamentary calendar has to be the State Opening of Parliament, when TVs around the world show that slow parade from your Lordships’ House to the other end of the building, so that Black Rod can summon Members of the elected House to hear the Queen’s Speech. As 2017 brought an unexpected election, the Queen’s Speech unfortunately clashed with a previous commitment in the royal calendar—Ascot. In a full House of Commons, with such formal ceremony, it was a delight to watch David struggle to keep a straight face as Dennis Skinner quipped, “Get your skates on. First race is half past two”.

The Leader paid tribute to and thanked the Yeoman Usher, Brigadier Neil Baverstock, for stepping up as the acting Black Rod following David’s departure. On behalf of these Benches, I add our appreciation and thanks. Neil has served as Yeoman Usher in good and in difficult times, and his calmness under pressure alongside an easy, yet highly efficient manner has been greatly and warmly appreciated.

And now we move into a new era with our new Lady Usher of the Black Rod, Sarah Clarke. When Sarah first saw the newspaper advert, she knew that that she would have to demonstrate that her experience would enable her to fulfil the responsibilities of this position. Following her interviews, we were absolutely confident that she has the skills, the understanding and the personality to take on this role. Who knows, her Wimbledon experience could be very useful during any parliamentary ping-pong—although some things take more time. We warmly welcome her and look forward to working with her, although she may not appreciate the ping-pong joke.

The last word has to be for David Leakey. We wish him and Shelagh a long and enjoyable retirement.

My Lords, on behalf of these Benches I too welcome Sarah Clarke very warmly to the House. I and my colleagues look forward very much to working with her. I also express our thanks to Neil Baverstock for serving as acting Black Rod in the intervening weeks since David Leakey’s retirement. We are extremely grateful to him for filling this role with his customary professionalism.

David Leakey had an extremely distinguished career in the Army before he became Black Rod. One of his military roles was particularly useful preparation: from 2004 to 2007 he was commander of the European Union’s peacekeeping force in Bosnia and Herzegovina. His civilian opposite number was my colleague and noble friend Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon, then the EU’s high representative. I doubt whether they saw their regular dealings in Bosnia as training for their eventual roles here, but in any event it clearly stood Black Rod, at least, in good stead. Being a professional peacekeeper would, I am sure, have proved extremely useful training because, in addition to the ceremonial roles played by Black Rod, sorting out disputes between Members of your Lordships’ House has traditionally been an important element in his work. I know from my own period as Chief Whip on these Benches that there were times when Black Rod had to deal with disputes between Peers, sometimes of an essentially trivial nature but of great importance to the Peers concerned. He did it with calm authority and due seriousness.

It takes much meticulous planning to ensure that the great ceremonial and state occasions referred to by the Leader of the House run smoothly and without a hitch. David approached all of these with great skill and care and ensured that they were all flawlessly executed time after time. We are all deeply grateful to David for his dedication to public service and this House. We on these Benches wish him and his wife extremely well in his retirement.

My Lords, on behalf of these Benches, I join the Leader of the House in welcoming Sarah Clarke most warmly to the House and in expressing our thanks to Neil Baverstock for the exemplary way in which he has served as acting Black Rod since David Leakey’s retirement. We are very fortunate indeed in our Yeoman Usher—and to have such a worthy successor to fill the place that David left behind him.

I am sure I am not alone in being glad that David Leakey was in his usual place in the Chamber on 21 December last year to hear the loud chorus of “Hear, hear” when the Lord Speaker told us that he wished to place on record his thanks and the thanks of the whole House, and to wish him well for the future. The warmth of that response was as good a tribute as one could have wished for, to show the affection in which he was held on all sides in this Chamber.

I think our best memory of him will be of a slim, dapper figure in his Black Rod’s uniform. As we have heard, he made no secret of the fact that he liked dressing up. Perhaps this was because of the bulky clothes, designed for outside duties in a cold climate, which a photograph on a website shows him wearing when, as a brigadier, he was in command of operations in Kosovo. He certainly was not slim and dapper then. He put all of that behind him when he came here. As for the disciplines which guided him during his long and distinguished career in the Army, happily they were not so easily discarded. I recall his attempts to instil some sort of discipline into the very unmilitary combination of the Lord Speaker, the three party leaders and myself as Convenor—I hope my colleagues will forgive me—as we rehearsed for our appearance as commissioners in the Prorogation ceremony at the end of the previous Parliament. We did our best, several times, but I am sure our drill was not really up to his high standards. But if he was disappointed, he was far too polite to show it.

For most of us, much of what David did was unseen. There were the grand occasions that had to be planned for, of course. No state visit is complete without our welcoming the visitor to Parliament. But these things do not just happen. Like all the other ceremonial occasions in which he was involved, they have to be planned for. Nothing must be allowed to go wrong. If anything did go wrong during his time, the mishaps were so small that no one ever noticed. Security issues occupied his time, too. They, too, had to be planned for, and one of his legacies is the improvement of the oversight of the parking of cars in Black Rod’s Garden. But there were occasions when he had to cope with the unexpected, as happened during that dreadful terrorist incident last March, and others when a swift and sympathetic response was called for to attend to the needs of someone who had fallen ill. Unseen to most of us this part of his duties may have been, but the fact that he was here to be called upon as needed and to respond so quickly was a reassurance in itself. For that, as much as for as his ceremonial duties, we are most grateful.

David is not one who is likely to be short of things to do during his retirement. On behalf of these Benches, I join all the others who have spoken in wishing him and his wife well in whatever he may wish to do to occupy his time in the future.

My Lords, from these Benches I emphasise our gratitude to Sir David, particularly for the steadfast and dependable way he supported this House during quite a challenging term of office, with threats to the building from without and within. He will be remembered by the Lords spiritual especially for the time he took to welcome each one of us when we first arrived, and of course for his self-deprecating sense of humour.

On a personal note, there has been a long connection between my diocese and holders of the office of Black Rod, and we both serve as officers of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. I am personally grateful to him for the support he gave me when I took up my role as Prelate to the Order. I shall miss our conversations about Kenya, and I hope his retirement from this House will afford him more time to spend on his smallholding. We wish Sarah all the very best in her new role as Black Rod.

My Lords, lastly and briefly, I once again pay my own tribute to David Leakey for his dedicated service to this House and I wish him a long and well-earned retirement. I also thank very sincerely the Yeoman Usher, Neil Baverstock, and his team for stepping into the role for the past two months so very ably. I, too, extend a warm welcome to the new Black Rod, Sarah Clarke, and on behalf of the House I wish her all the best in her new post. In this centenary year of the first enfranchisement of women, I am so pleased that this most historic of roles has finally been taken up by a woman. I hope that her appointment will demonstrate to women everywhere that no job or position is beyond their reach. I very much look forward to working with Black Rod in the years ahead.