House of Commons Governance Select Committee – Tuesday 2 December 2014

On Tuesday 2 December 2014, the House of Commons Governance of the House Committee, of which Valerie is a member, heard evidence from three former Clerks of the House: Sir Malcolm Jack KCB; Sir William McKay KCB, Sir Roger Sands KCB; followed by Rt Hon Dame Margaret Beckett MP and Rt Hon Andrew Tyrie MP.

Valerie Vaz: Can I start by thanking you all for being here? I only know Sir Malcolm, who swore me in as a new Member, but between the three of you, you must have seen a huge number of changes. There are more women, more people from different backgrounds, and certainly those of us in the 2010 intake haven’t all come through the political process. We have done other things outside. You probably typed your memorandum on a computer, whereas before you would have used something else.

Sir Malcolm Jack: Yes.

Sir William McKay: Yes.

Valerie Vaz: So there have been huge changes. What I am heading to is whether you accept that the House has to move on and the role of the Clerk has to change? Is that right?

Sir William McKay: Yes, surely. It can’t stand still.

Valerie Vaz: We’ve had the three reviews and you have said that there should be incremental changes. One of the things that I suppose the Clerks Department has had to live with is the election of the Select Committee Chairs and, perhaps, an expanded Clerks Department, with the Clerks coming through the process. Is that right? Is that what you see?

Sir Roger Sands: The election of Select Committee Chairs postdates me, but you are absolutely right. There has been huge change and it is accelerating change. One of the paradoxes that I have found, listening to the proceedings of the Committee, is that for the first 20 years of my career, Members had absolutely deplorable conditions. They mostly did not have offices and so on, there was very little support, and their pay was poor. However, relations between Members and staff generally used to be cordial. There was an atmosphere of mutual respect. The more conditions have improved, the edgier the relations between Members and staff seem to have become, which is something that I regret.

Chair: Isn’t it partly because there was no internet? Everybody was just crammed into this building.

Sir Malcolm Jack: Yes.

Chair: So you had to get on with people.

Sir Malcolm Jack: It is interesting to note that the period that we are all talking about in general—when the House took on its own management in the ’80s, ’90s and so on— coincides with a communications revolution. Those two things need to be seen together. I am absolutely sure that you are right. One of the themes of Tebbit, of course—something that Tebbit taught or reminded us—was that there was no single fixed change. That is why we have the Office of the Chief Executive. The head of this office would be constantly looking out for areas where there had to be change; change is continuous.

Valerie Vaz: And in your role, while each of you were Clerk, was there someone else who was Member-facing or did you see yourself as Member-facing?

Sir William McKay: I think all of us would have seen ourselves as Member-facing.

Valerie Vaz: In all aspects of Members’ work, or just for procedure?

Sir William McKay: Well, you sit at the Table and Members come and ask you all sorts of questions.

Valerie Vaz: Is that just procedural?

Sir Malcolm Jack: No.

Sir William McKay: No, not at all. The office of the Clerk is pretty reachable; certainly, the Clerk’s assistants are even more reachable. You never knew when the door opened how difficult the question you were going to be asked would be, or, indeed, what it was going to be about.

Sir Malcolm Jack: I instructed my secretary that should any Member of the House come to the Office, they should be admitted immediately. That was standard practice.

Chair: I only discovered where the Clerks’ office was when I became Foreign Secretary because my office was near the door. It is tucked away.

Valerie Vaz: One thing I want to work out—we are not quite a Tebbit review but we may make certain recommendations—is how someone, whoever it was, grasped Tebbit and changed the structure.

Sir Malcolm Jack: I am afraid it was me.

Valerie Vaz: So did you necessarily go for his recommendations, or did you talk to people or make up your own?

Sir Malcolm Jack: We had an enormous programme of telling staff what was going on. I went to numerous semi-public meetings. When I say it fell to me—as you will probably know, the Tebbit reorganisation concentrated on making the Management Board a more streamlined and functional body, but it left the old departments of what we called the “federal House” in place.

When I read the Tebbit report, I concluded that these two things could not work and to get the benefits of the Tebbit reform we would have to change the whole structure of the organisation. I talked intensely to colleagues around me—commissioners, the Speaker, members of the Commission and other domestic Committees—to see whether they were willing to support that quite considerable change, which the Chair will remember very well.

The modern DCCS was the amalgamation of three former departments. That, I knew, was going to be resisted by staff in those departments and I could understand that. A change of that sort—of name and loyalty—is frightening. We had to take care of all that. My position as Chief Executive enabled me to just do that, ultimately. That is what a leader has to do, provided that he or she has consulted properly, taken technical advice and so on. That is an example.

Valerie Vaz: You mentioned the relationship with the Commission. Could each of you expand on that? Did you have a Commission in your time?

Sir Roger Sands: May I start, because I think my experience was a bit untypical? The description given by John Thurso in evidence to you—that the Board of Management proposes and the Commission disposes—exactly describes the relationship that I experienced. In my time the Commission showed no great appetite to get into the interstices of management. That was largely because a good 50% of their time at meetings was taken with the single issue of freedom of information in relation to Members’ allowances. That literally occupied as much of their time as all other subjects put together. Things like the corporate plan and the business programme for the year we would put before them and, by and large, they would agree.

Sir William McKay: I preceded Roger and the phrase that occurs to me is Gilbert’s: “Did nothing in particular. And did it very well.”

Valerie Vaz: Right, okay.

Chair: Are you talking about the Commission or the Clerk?

Valerie Vaz: The Commission. Sir Malcolm, and then I have one more question.

Sir Malcolm Jack: I think things have changed. At the beginning of this Parliament, because as you know I was here for the first year and a bit, we the Management Board made a distinct effort to try—if I use the phrase, you won’t misunderstand it—to relax relations with the Commission. There were several round table, almost dining, meetings between the two bodies, and they worked very well. John Thurso will know all about that, as he was one of the instigators. I am a little surprised to learn somewhere in the evidence that this has apparently died down again, because I think it is absolutely essential.

The other thing that I would like to put on the record is that one has to be realistic. You are all extremely busy people. Commissioners are very busy people. There is the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader. The amount of time that they can dedicate is limited. I found somewhere in evidence in Canada that the Canadian Board of Internal Management, I think it is called, meets every two weeks for hours. Our Commissioners simply have not got that time.

Valerie Vaz: And yet they managed to shoot someone down in record time, so that was quite good.

Sir William McKay: The Commission was asked in my time to mastermind the really difficult decisions at Portcullis house. They took that on.

Valerie Vaz: The Commission took that on?

Sir William McKay: Yes.

Valerie Vaz: So the Commission was to blame for the debacle?

Sir William McKay: No. The Commission was doing things such as I mentioned before, the action brought against us for damages. That needed an awful lot of tactical decision-taking by the Commission. One felt that, although nothing much seemed to be going on, in fact there was a lot going on under the surface. In the end we lost, but it took up so much of the Commission’s time, one felt for Members who had other things to do.

Sir Malcolm Jack: Yes, absolutely.

Valerie Vaz: There are some Members who do not rise up the greasy pole and are just Back Benchers who may have the time. Do you think that is a possibility, to have Members who are dedicated to the Commission?

Sir Roger Sands: I am very much in two minds about this. During my time there were four Leaders of the House who came and went.

Obviously that was not ideal, but at the same time, when I heard William Hague giving evidence to you and talking about the importance of the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House being there to give political cover, I thought, “That is exactly right.” That is what you do need. It would be very difficult to dispense with that.

The transcript from this evidence session is available here:

More information on the House of Commons Governance Committee can be found here: