Discover more from Peter Hain
Select Committee On Governance Of The House Of Commons
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I very much echo the sentiments just expressed by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin).
Change and modernisation in the House has always been problematic. I recall that as Leader of the House of Commons between 2003 and 2005, I tried to persuade the House to take its security seriously. The director general of MI5 and the police wanted a professional to be in charge of security, which was a nightmare, frankly. There was strong resistance to change—of the kind that we are now seeing in relation to splitting the roles of Clerk and chief executive—until events conspired to overtake those who were blocking change. Hon. Members may remember the Greenpeace activists scaling Big Ben, the flour bomb at Prime Minister’s questions and, of course, the huntsmen invading the Chamber itself. Only then did we move to appoint a full-time professional head of security, which nobody in their right mind would now question.
I believe that in future years nobody will question the separation of the functions of the Clerk and the chief executive, with two separate appointments. It will seem like the common sense that I believe it is now. At the moment, we have a part-time Clerk and a part-time chief executive, although I mean no disrespect at all to the holders of the post, with whom I have worked closely and whom I admire.
The Clerk’s onerous parliamentary duties occupy the majority of the working day, and involve managing all the immensely complex procedural issues that surround the legislative and other functions of the House. In my view, those duties can be carried out only with the experience and specialist knowledge of a Clerk, such as Sir Robert Rogers, and his able deputies. However, everybody who, like me, has had the privilege to be involved on the inside of the Commons knows full well that the chief executive duties inevitably have to fit around and take second priority to the primary procedural duty. That is the truth of the matter.
As the chief executive, the Clerk now has a splendid building under his charge—a UNESCO world heritage site that attracts well over 1 million visitors each year from all over the world—and oversees more than 1,750 staff, which is equivalent to a very large business, and has a budget of over £200 million. In addition, almost the same number of staff work for Members, bringing the total number of people on the precincts for whom the Clerk is responsible in his role as CEO to more than 3,500.
As the corporate officer of the House of Commons, the Clerk is required to enter into contracts on behalf of the House and to acquire and manage land and property. As the accounting officer, he has responsibilities for public finance, resource accounting and internal control, and he attends meetings of the House’s audit committees. He is responsible for good corporate governance, meeting social and environmental regulations, and retaining and motivating top-quality employees. He must have an awareness of complex employment law, fair remuneration and contracts. He must also introduce proper systems and controls for effective risk management.
Those are onerous duties in today’s litigious, closely regulated employment and administrative environment. I do not think that the skill set required to undertake those tasks in the modern age is necessarily compatible with the skill set required to be Clerk of the House. The question of which role would be superior is a red herring. Both would be answerable to the Speaker, who is the pre-eminent figure.
In summary, my experience as Leader of the House has convinced me that the two posts should be separated. The extra costs involved could perhaps be offset by questioning the continued employment of the director general of facilities. Finally, why should the Clerk have a superior salary to the Speaker or the Prime Minister?