House of Commons clerk spat is more important than you think

Speaker Bercow is in a pickle over his choice of clerk. PA/PA Wire/Press Association Images

As the Chief Officer of the House of Commons, the speaker is well used to being in the spotlight. But in recent weeks, John Bercow has dominated the airwaves more than at any point since his election in June 2009. And it’s all down to his preferred choice for the job of Clerk of the House of Commons.

Bercow wants to see Carol Mills, head of the Parliamentary Services Department in the Australian parliament, take the position, despite fierce criticism within parliament. Some might think that this internal wrangling is little more than a storm in a Westminster-shaped teacup, but this appointment has major implications for the future of the UK Parliament.

Baroness Boothroyd is unimpressed. Anthony Devlin/PA Wire/Press Association Images

The clerk is the principal constitutional adviser to the House, and adviser on all its procedure and business. It’s a centuries-old position that has been held by 49 different people. The clerk advises both the speaker and members of the House of Commons – backbenchers, ministers and even the prime minister.

But the job is much bigger than that. The clerk is also the Chief Executive of the House of Commons, responsible for 1,750 members of staff – more than some government departments – and oversees a budget of £202 million. Robert Rogers has been in the job since 2011 but retires at the end of August. For the first time, people outside parliament have been allowed to apply to become his replacement.

Mills has emerged as the favoured candidate to succeed Rogers and it is believed that Bercow was instrumental in getting her approved by the six member, cross-party panel that makes this decision. She has been dismissed as a “Waltzing Matilda” in some quarters and former speaker Betty Boothroyd has said that Mills would be “totally out of her depth”.

Inside knowledge

It is true that Mills’ appointment would be the first time an outside figure has been appointed to the position. Previous clerks have spent their whole careers in the service of the house. Rogers has been there for 42 years and his predecessor, Malcolm Jack, 44 years.

This experience is vital. We can be certain that Mills would struggle to respond when faced with complex parliamentary procedure. Past events such as when Bercow allowed a third amendment to the Queen’s speech debate last year or when MPs called for previous speaker Michael Martin to resign would have posed significant difficulty. David Natzler, the favoured in-house candidate who is reportedly appealing against the decision to appoint Mills, would undoubtedly be the most well equipped to answer such procedural puzzles.

The best job in the world?

Despite these concerns about handling procedure, there may well be something to be said for giving this job to someone with management experience. And as the Institute for Government notes, there has never yet been a female Clerk of the House. In this alone, her appointment would be significant.

To some, this whole saga seems nothing more than a parochial dispute. To others it is a battle of insider versus outsider, or conservatism versus modernisation. But while the choice is an important one for Parliament, it is the furore over the whole process which has now become the bigger problem. How this issue is resolved has even bigger implications for Parliament and its relationship with both the Speaker and the government.

In many ways Bercow is in a no-win situation. As a self-proclaimed champion of the modernisation of the institution, he cannot easily back down from this departure from tradition. It may be that he will consider splitting the role in future, dividing the high level management and Chief Executive function from the complex procedural one.

To many this is the solution to the current problem. But tinkering with entrenched positions in parliament doesn’t always go to plan, as the reform of the position of Lord Chancellor demonstrated back in 2005. Furthermore, as Rogers himself commented, the two roles are “inextricably intertwined” and would not be easy to separate.

The outgoing clerk says it is “the best job in the world” but it seems whoever ends up wearing his coveted wig will have a lot to contend with. Perhaps we can learn something from a previous holder of the role – Sir Malcolm Jack. In his resignation letter to the House in 2011 he wrote that “only by having confidence in … its ability to adapt to the new while keeping to the tried and tested, can the House retain its pre-eminent position as the sovereign body at the centre of our national, democratic life”.

How the institution adapts to the new clerk is therefore key. Whatever the outcome, it will be crucial that the House displays unity. For, as Ruth Fox of the Hansard Society points out, the 50th clerk has many difficult challenges ahead. Gaining the trust, support and acceptance of his or her colleagues should not be one of them.