Speaker close to climbdown over role of new clerk in House of Commons

Speaker close to climbdown over role of new clerk in House of Commons

John Bercow announces matter will be considered by panel featuring only MPs as he says he is ‘in the hands of house’.

John Bercow, the Speaker, has taken a step towards a complete climbdown over the appointment of a senior official from the Australian parliament as the new clerk and chief executive of the House of Commons.

In the face of a cross-party campaign to challenge the appointment of Carol Mills, Bercow said he was “in the hands of the house” as he confirmed that the matter will now be considered by a new body consisting entirely of MPs.

Bercow signalled the change of heart as he was challenged by MPs a few hours after he announced a “modest pause” in the recruitment of a new clerk and chief executive of the House of Commons.

He said parliament would now consider splitting the roles of clerk and chief executive. MPs will also decide whether to hold a pre-appointment hearing.

The Speaker told MPs: “In the circumstances, and having discussed the matter with the leader and shadow leader of the house, I believe that a modest pause in the recruitment process is desirable while such issues are explored and the views of members solicited in detail.”

Tory MP Michael Fabricant, who has been a strong critic of Mills’s appointment, shouted “Ha” when the Speaker announced the pause.

A cross-party group of MPs argue that while Mills has strong management experience relevant to the role of chief executive, she is less qualified to serve as clerk, the guardian of parliamentary privilege and procedure.

Mills was selected by a six-strong panel, chaired by the Speaker, which included five MPs and the parliamentary ombudsman, Dame Julie Mellor.

The Speaker confirmed that the Commons commission, which he chairs, would consider the matter.

“Of course I am in the hands of, and ready to be guided by the house,” he said. “With reference to the possibility of pre-appointment scrutiny, if that is what the house wants, that is what the house should have.”

Bercow is among three members of the commission who were members of the panel that selected Mills. The other MPs were the shadow leader of the house Angela Eagle and the Liberal Democrat MP John Thurso.

William Hague, whose predecessor as leader of the house – Andrew Lansley – was on the appointment panel, also sits on the commission as do the Tory MP Sir Paul Beresford and the Labour MP Frank Doran.

Crispin Blunt, an ex-soldier and former prisons minister, said: “In the generally successful history of the British army, some of the most celebrated actions, from Corunna to Gallipoli to Dunkirk, have involved evacuations from hopeless positions. Can I congratulate you on successful disengagement from the opposition forces you have run across?”

Bercow indicated that he will seek to be sensitive towards Mills amid signs that MPs will demand the implementation of proposals outlined recently by Sir Robert Rogers, who retired on Sunday as clerk and chief executive.

Rogers had opposed splitting the two roles, but said he had changed his mind, and thought the clerk should be the more senior figure and the chief executive would become chief operating officer.

The Speaker said it would be unseemly to comment on the characteristics or performance of any individual when Jesse Norman, the Tory MP who has won the support of nearly 80 MPs for a motion calling for a pre-appointment hearing, asked him to acknowledge that Mills was unqualified for the role.

Bercow later said: “I am in touch with [Carol Mills], and others are, and it is important that clarity is established as soon as is compatible with the rights and responsibilities of the house being met and discharged.”

In his statement, Bercow said he had wished to separate the roles but had been unable to do so owing to strong opposition.

Bercow said: “These two roles are combined in a single post, despite their very different nature. Over the years, parliament’s affairs have become more complex, its budget has ordinarily risen and decisions – such as on a potential refurbishment of the house – have become unavoidable. Thus, highly skilled management is now vital, as much as expertise in procedure.”

The lack of agreement on separating the posts meant a recruitment process for the combined roles was launched.

A six-strong panel, chaired by the Speaker and including MPs from the three main parties plus the parliamentary ombudsman, Mellor, selected Mills.

“A number of colleagues have since expressed disquiet,” Bercow said. “Their concerns fall into two broad categories.

“The first, helpfully raised by [Sir Alan Duncan], is whether the panel should have recommended separating the roles. I was advised that the panel could not adopt this approach without prior legislation.

“As I have said, there is a compelling case for such a separation, but any change would of course require the support of the House.

“The second concern is for pre-appointment scrutiny, and was initially put forward by [Jacob Rees-Mogg]. A strong case can be made for it and, on this point also, I wish to hear colleagues’ views.”

The Speaker said the work of the clerk and chief executive would be distributed between members of the management board during the delay.

He later made clear that David Natzler, the clerk assistant who was the favoured internal candidate to replace Rogers, will be the senior figure.

  • The Guardian, 

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