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Clerk of the Parliaments

Volume 811: debated on Tuesday 13 April 2021

Retirement of Ed Ollard

Moved by

To resolve that this House has received with sincere regret the announcement of the retirement of Ed Ollard 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 Ed Ollard has executed the important duties of his office.

My Lords, I am delighted to move this Motion to give the House an opportunity to pay tribute to the outgoing Clerk of the Parliaments, Ed Ollard.

From 1983, when he joined as a fast-stream clerk, Ed served this House with distinction. He provided outstanding service in a variety of senior roles within the House, including as Private Secretary to the Leader and Chief Whip, Finance Director and the Clerk of Committees. Before he became the 64th Clerk of the Parliaments, he served as Clerk Assistant to Sir David Beamish for six years.

In these varied roles, Ed provided Members across the House, and its political leadership, with courteous and professional procedural advice and was a source of authoritative leadership to the staff of the House. He was generous and resourceful, often going way beyond the call of duty. On one such occasion, he went so far as to provide clothing to the Government Chief Whip, my noble friend Lord Ashton. I am happy to confirm to noble Lords that this did not involve Lycra, but my noble friend did borrow a white bow-tie from Ed to save his blushes at a reception in Buckingham Palace.

Between 1992 and 1994 Ed served as Private Secretary to the then Leader of the House, my noble friend Lord Wakeham, and Viscount Cranborne. Some noble Lords will recall this as a particularly demanding parliamentary Session, as the Maastricht Bill was passing through the House. Ed must have had a strong sense of déjà vu over the last few years as we worked through legislating for our exit from the European Union.

Across the various posts he held, Ed oversaw a number of significant changes which helped modernise our processes for the benefit of the whole House, including overhauling the clerks’ Table with modern equipment, overseeing the transformation of House publishing and printing, and playing a central role in implementing the recommendations of the Ellenbogen report on bullying and harassment—an issue he was deeply committed to addressing as the senior officer responsible for the staff of the House.

But by far the most significant changes Ed presided over have been those implemented since March 2020 in response to Covid. These changes will be familiar to noble Lords across the House, but what may be less well known is the vast amount of work he did behind the scenes to bring our hybrid proceedings to life. Over Easter last year, Ed helped develop and oversee the initial setting up of our virtual proceedings, in less than three weeks, and then our move to hybrid proceedings. It was a huge but critical task that ensured that this House has been able to undertake its business during these unprecedented times, and while we all may have had our frustrations with the hybrid way of working, none of us can deny how essential the changes Ed helped deliver have been in allowing us to continue our important function during this pandemic. For that, we all owe Ed an immense debt of gratitude.

Ed has left the House as we undergo a significant period of change. Over the next few weeks, we will have a new Speaker and a new Chief Operating Officer, and we will, I hope, be taking further steps forward as we slowly return to the normal way of doing business. I look forward to working with the new Clerk of the Parliaments, Simon Burton, as we navigate the future and welcome him to his role.

As he leaves this role, I am sure Ed will find more time to enjoy his favourite pastimes of watching Charlton Athletic—I could not say so myself, but I am sure some will think that only a Clerk of the Parliaments who has served over the last few years in this House can enjoy such a thing, but that is up to Ed—and, of course, following the Tour de France and cycling himself. I suspect the sightings of Lycra on the West Front Corridor will decrease quite significantly now Ed has left us. On a more serious note, I am sure the whole House will join me in thanking Ed for his distinguished service and we wish him, his wife Mary and their family all the best for the future. I beg to move.

My Lords, it is an honour to have the opportunity to pay tribute to Ed Ollard as the outgoing Clerk of the Parliaments on his retirement. I admit that this is something of a first for me: it is not the first time that I have spoken to recognise somebody’s service on retirement, but it is the first time I have ever done so for somebody who is younger than I am.

Ed started his career in the House of Lords in 1983. Noble Lords might be aware that this was the year in which it was first decided to televise proceedings in your Lordships’ House. We cannot hold him responsible for that, but I refer to it to illustrate that he started his career here at a time of great change, and his career here has ended at a time of great change, although I know he shares our optimism that many of the current changes will be temporary.

When Ed announced his retirement last September, we knew that his choice of date was for our convenience, not his. As I said at the time, for a man who cycled into the office each day—hence the Lycra—the choice to continue to do so in the wet and cold winter months could have been only through a sense of duty. Those of us who saw his Lycra-clad arrival, and then his appearance in the Chamber, could only marvel at his Superman-style changes as he swapped one pair of tights for another.

As we heard from the noble Baroness, his career has been one of diligent and resourceful service. Taking account of Queen’s Speeches, royal visits, addresses from Heads of State, restoration and renewal, security issues and the pandemic, it is true to say that there is never been a quiet moment. He has seen many challenges, not least over the past year. The hybrid way of working, despite its necessity, is frustrating to us all. Ed’s guidance, advice and suggestions, as we navigated our way through the difficulties to ensure that we could continue our work, were always thoughtful and considered.

On many occasions, I have been grateful for his advice. I say “grateful,” but it was not always what I wanted to hear. However, I was never in any doubt that he had the interests of your Lordships’ House, its Members and its staff at heart. It is to his credit that he has never been precious about the issues that I raised with him. I can remember calls from sunnier climes during recesses, including one occasion when I had to seek advice about the House being recalled. On another occasion, I was locked in the car park and the police could not find the key to the barrier. Ed was on call with good humour, courtesy and advice at all times—and he found the key.

Although the role of the Clerk of the Parliaments has been around since the 14th century, some core abilities are needed, whatever the times. I confess that I discreetly probed some staff about my comments today, and I was told that in times of crisis, as Kipling wrote, he kept his head when everyone else was losing theirs. His Tudor predecessors certainly needed that skill.

Ed’s departure coincides with further great change. As the noble Baroness said, we have a new Clerk of the Parliaments; we will be appointing a new Chief Operating Officer and a new Clerk Assistant, and we will be electing a new Lord Speaker. They will have to take forward the transition to more normal ways of working and the work, as outlined by the noble Baroness, of the external management review. As Simon Burton takes the reins, we wish him well and look forward to working with him. Today, however, we genuinely and warmly thank Ed for his contribution and his distinguished service, which was always undertaken with modesty and good humour. I wish him well watching Charlton Athletic. I have some fondness for the team: my dad played for a youth team generations ago. I join the Lord Privy Seal in wishing Ed Ollard, our Clerk of the Parliaments, and his wife Mary a long and happy retirement.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the Leader of the House and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, in paying tribute to Ed Ollard for his work as Clerk of the Parliaments and his long career in your Lordships’ House.

To the outside world, I am sure that the House of Lords looks a rather timeless place, where tradition counts for everything and nothing ever changes. During Ed’s career, and particularly during his time as Clerk of the Parliaments, very much has changed. When he started work here, there were approximately 250 life Peers and 450 hereditary Peers. Among Peers with political affiliations, the Conservatives had almost exactly twice as many as Labour and ourselves combined. Even when I joined in 1997, I was told by our then Chief Whip not to expect to be able to do anything or change anything because of this overhang of such a huge Conservative majority. How things have changed: the removal of most of the hereditaries, the greater politicisation of the House and the willingness to challenge not just the Government of the day but the way we do things have transformed the nature of the Lords. The pandemic has brought with it revolutionary changes in the way in which we conduct our business, which a little over a year ago could not have even been contemplated.

During his time as senior clerk, and most particularly Clerk of the Parliaments, Ed has had to manage these fundamental changes of procedure and the way we operate in the Chamber. He has also had to confront, as a result of the Ellenbogen report, the need for widespread change in the way we do things outside the Chamber, while preparing us, I hope, for the rigours of the R&R process. I worked closely with Ed since he became Clerk of the Parliaments, and have seen at first hand, to quote from the Motion before us today,

“the zeal, ability, diligence, and integrity”

with which he has undertaken this role. He embodies the best traditions of the British Civil Service and has set high standards for professionalism and probity, for which we should all be very grateful. Personally, I have been immensely grateful for the consideration he gave me when I contacted him on the most disparate range of issues, one of which, for at least one member of my group on that day, was the most important thing in their life, but certainly not the most important thing in his. He will have a worthy successor in Simon Burton, with whom I look forward to working as closely as I have with Ed.

In his interview in the House magazine, Ed says that his plans for the future consist of going to the beach as soon as Covid restrictions allow. On the assumption that he did not only have UK beaches in mind, I am sure that he is aware that the places that are likely to open up their beaches soonest include Caribbean islands and the Maldives. I have, therefore, attempted to picture Ed suitably attired, perhaps in a floral shirt, sipping an umbrella-topped cocktail in one of those places. I am afraid that my imagination has failed me, but I hope that on whichever beach he chooses, he enjoys a very well-deserved break now and a very long and full retirement thereafter.

My Lords, this is the second time in less than 24 hours that I have stood up to say that I agree with everything that has been said by everybody who has spoken before me, and, more importantly, all of them have agreed with each other. Long may it continue, making Simon Burton’s role so much easier to perform. Can we hang on to that?

I will not repeat the many admirable qualities that Ed Ollard has brought to this office. I join the others who have spoken on behalf of the Cross-Benchers and enthusiastically adopt what they have said, but there is something that this House seems not to know about Ed Ollard. He is a master of quizzes. Did your Lordships know that he has been given a trophy as the champion quiz man in this place? It is a lovely little cup that was presented to him by members of the staff. He knows all sorts of outrageously stupid things, meaning that he has a mind crammed full of completely useless intelligence. However, I have set him a few questions for his retirement. Which institution has been described in the past as “addled”, “drunken”, “mad”, “merciless”, “useless” and, just but once, “good”? I am sure that he knows the answer to that. Then there is a trick question. How many Members of the House of Lords can stand on the head of a pin? Well, he has spotted the trick there, but here is one that even he will need a whole week to get round to answering: how long is a piece of string?

I do not anticipate much of an answer, but I do anticipate the continuing accumulation of this wonderful, useless knowledge, so that when teams are being picked—remember when we were small, we all lined up and hoped that we would be picked for the best team—Ed Ollard will always be picked first for any quiz. He will have time to learn more and more of what it is lovely to think of as fulfilling knowledge as well as trivia.

My Lords, I am very glad that I do not have to answer those questions, because I do not know the answers. However, I want to add a few words from these Benches, paying tribute on behalf of the Lords spiritual. My colleagues and I have greatly benefited from Ed Ollard’s sound judgment, diligent support and practical guidance in his time as the Clerk of the Parliaments. We on these Benches are immensely grateful for his calm and steady stewardship during, as others have said, this very unpredictable time. Navigating a unique transition to a hybrid Parliament, the role of the Clerk of the Parliaments has been challenging. He has met it head on, and it is a testament to his adaptability that your Lordships’ House has functioned so well and effectively during this pandemic. We warmly welcome Simon Burton to the role and very much look forward to working with him, but today, we want to say a huge “thank you” to Ed Ollard and to wish him all the best for the future.

My Lords, before I put the Question on the Motion in the name of the Lord Privy Seal, I add that Ed has been invaluable during my time as Lord Speaker. The advice he has given on a range of issues has been an enormous support. His approach was always cautious. On more than one occasion, he counselled that what I was proposing would not be appropriate, and what was worse was that he was always right. Importantly, he always spoke with authority, and the Deputy Speakers also thank him for the enormous support that he gave.

When Ed assumed office as the Clerk of the Parliaments in 2017, little did he know what lay ahead. His advice and practical guidance acted as a bedrock during one of the most tumultuous periods in recent political history, as the United Kingdom left the European Union and the House found itself at the heart of a landmark Supreme Court case. Recently, of course, he has led the radical procedural changes and wholesale operational transformation that has enabled the House to keep working during the Covid-19 crisis. It was an enormous achievement.

On behalf of the House of Lords Appointments Commission, the Deputy Speakers and the whole House, I express very sincere gratitude and wish Ed a very happy and well-deserved retirement.

Motion agreed nemine dissentiente.