GOVERNANCE OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS – 22 January 2015

Dr Julian Lewis: The whole House should be grateful to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (David Heath) for his work on the House of Commons administration, not least for the masterly way in which he summarised current concerns and controversies and how they have been resolved. He also briefly mentioned a slight dysfunction in co-ordination between the two Houses, and I will conclude my remarks with a small and rather sad recent example of that.

The hon. Gentleman said that there is a great difference between the atmosphere of this debate and the debate held on 10 September, and I agree. It is a measure of the success of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Jack Straw), and his Committee, that he has managed to reconcile two apparently irreconcilable views, and that the central question of whether it made sense for the leading procedural expert in the House of Commons also to be the chief manager of the House has apparently been decided.

In my intervention on the right hon. Gentleman I asked what would happen if there was disagreement on a matter concerning management – not procedure – between the new Director General and the next incumbent of the office of Clerk. If I understood correctly, he said that it would be decided at a level that was, in a sense, above the two of them, and that it would not be a question of the Clerk overruling the Director General on a matter of management that by rights ought to be in the sphere of the Director General.

In our debate on 10 September, I suggested that the Committee ask itself four questions. I think we will find that those four questions have now been answered. Should a top chief executive officer be expected to be a top procedural adviser, too? The answer is clearly no. Should a top procedural adviser be expected to be a top chief executive officer? The answer is equally no. Should the two roles be combined by default in the future, as they have been in the past? Should the top procedural adviser be allowed, if the roles are separated, to overrule the top chief executive officer on management matters, or vice-versa on procedural matters? I think we have learnt that the answer to those two questions is no as well.

Jesse Norman: My hon. Friend is being typically clear and precise, but the answer to the first two questions is not quite as clear as he suggests. The Committee’s decision was that the roles could be combined by one person and had been combined by one person in the past – that is the evidence for it – but that now, for reasons of other commitments and the development of the House, they should be separated.

Dr Lewis: I am delighted at the result, even if I do not entirely endorse the reasoning. I wish to say a word of sympathy, if not appreciation, for the situation in which the House of Commons Commission found itself a few months ago. It was faced with either making a single appointment from a very limited pool of top procedural advisers who would become, by default, the Director General of the House of Commons – as if by some magical process of osmosis during their rise up the learned ladder of becoming a top procedural adviser they had somehow imbibed the skills needed to be a top chief executive officer or Director General – or, alternatively, if it wished to go outside that very limited pool of possible candidates, it had to decide whether it was appropriate for a top manager to sit in the Clerk’s chair without having imbibed, by a reverse magical process of osmosis, the skills required to be a top procedural adviser. That was precisely why the message went out loud and clear, on 10 September last year, that we needed to send for the marvellous negotiating and reconciliation skills of the right hon. Member for Blackburn, to decide once and for all whether the two functions should be separated.

Jesse Norman: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr Lewis: In just a moment, but I want to make one more point. I know my hon. Friend is concerned with the constitutional aspects of this matter, but I am concerned with another aspect. The new arrangement will not work unless the individuals who occupy the two posts – I am glad to see the hon. Member for Walsall North (David Winnick) indicating his approval – have their respective roles clearly in their minds. If either of them tries to play games of superior status, the new system will not work. We can construct the best system in the world, but if the people who occupy the top posts are not minded to make it work, it will not be a success.

Jesse Norman: My hon. Friend shares my view that harmony at the top of the new arrangement will be vital. None the less, there is a very clear arrangement. The Clerk is top dog. The Director General reports to the Clerk. The Director General has clearly delineated responsibilities: the managerial delivery side. That is the unified structure that has been created and will hopefully be agreed. The training of the Clerks – I have no interest in revisiting this, and we have generally taken the view in the debate that we will not do so – has not been ignored in previous years, although the Committee came to the view that it could be strengthened. The training of the Clerks has so far enabled the Clerk Assistant to run a department that is roughly 40% of the whole. These people do not arrive at their jobs by some mystical process; there is some structure of responsibility and training by which they achieve their posts. The Committee has decided that that needs to be extended, providing a further rationale for the separation.

Dr Lewis: My hon. Friend is fighting a gallant rear-guard action for the Old Guard, but if the degree of management skill imbibed previously led to this spectacular spaghetti-junction of an organogram of the existing system, there was something deficient in the in-house management training. Any Committee that comes up, by contrast, with something as clear and sensible as the new –

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Dawn Primarolo): Order. The hon. Gentleman has been in the House a very long time, so he knows that holding up bits of paper and shaking them around adds nothing to the debate. I am sure he can convey in words his frustration at the organisational structure he is waving around on a bit of paper.

Dr Lewis: I am absolutely reproved, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was thinking for a moment that those ground-level cameras that have periodically appeared here might still be in action, but I see that I wasted my ingenuity.

Madam Deputy Speaker: I am sure the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that he was playing to the cameras. I hope that he was speaking to the House clearly, making very incisive points about this report.

Dr Lewis: Absolutely, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I always care to project my message in as many dimensions in the 21st century as are routinely offered to me.

It is a measure of the success of this Committee that at least two members of my party who were greatly exercised a few months ago about every aspect to do with the appointment of the next Clerk are sufficiently satisfied that they have not felt it necessary to attend or contribute to today’s debate. I presume that their satisfaction has been reflected in the sentiments expressed from both sides of the House.

David Winnick: The hon. Gentleman and I have emphasised the need for the two senior individuals occupying these two senior positions to work together; otherwise a turf war will result, with all the implications that that would have. Does he agree that, despite the difficulties of pre-confirmation and post-confirmation hearings, it would nevertheless be useful if the Director General at least, if not the new Clerk, appeared before Members, presumably in the Public Administration Committee, where questioning along the lines we have mentioned could take place?

Dr Lewis: Yes, I heard that suggestion during the hon. Gentleman’s speech, and I was very impressed with it. I think it will provide an opportunity for the new Director General to show his or her ability to stand fast in the face of what might be an overpowering atmosphere of tradition that might otherwise be used to divert him or her from the necessary serious determination that he or she will have to apply to fulfil the job in the future. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion, and I hope it is carried forward.

It is a pity that we have had to go through this roundabout route to get to the obvious conclusion that should have been apparent when it was raised long ago – that these two posts should be separated. It is pity that that could not be agreed before the House of Commons Commission found itself in the position of either having to choose someone who was good at procedure but did not necessarily have the top management skills or to choose someone who was in exactly the reverse position. It has been a long haul and it has taken a roundabout route, but, thanks to the good work of the Committee, we have reached the sensible destination that should have been apparent at the outset.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome made the point that there is clearly work still to be done in the Palace of Westminster when Members in one House do not liaise terribly well with Members, or counterpart Committees, in the other House. This is a time of anniversaries, and it is with sadness that I note that 17 February this year will be the 100th anniversary of the first committee meeting of the Palace of Westminster Rifle Club, because it appears that its rifle range in the basement must close as a result – and this is the part that is relevant to the debate – of the determination of the Administration and Works Committee in the other place that important fire safety equipment must be sited there.

That is an example of the dysfunctionality to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The Club has been going for 100 years and has members in both Houses, but Members of the House of Commons were not allowed to give any evidence to the Committee that made the decision in the other place. We were referred to a Committee of this House, although the decision was already cut and dried in the House of Lords.

However, the demise – it must be presumed – of that 100-year-old Club gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to a member of the Clerk’s Department, Mr Gary Howard. For some two decades, he gave up his lunch-hour – his own time – to ensuring that the range was always manned, and that that great facility, sadly soon to be no more, was available to Members and staff of both Houses.