House of Commons Governance Select Committee – Wednesday 3 December 2014

On Wednesday 3 December 2014, the House of Commons Governance of the House Committee, of which Valerie is a member, heard evidence from Sir Robert Rogers, the former Clerk of the House of Commons and Chief Executive, on his views on the governance arrangements of the House.

Valerie Vaz: I still have this picture in my head about this organism. I am wondering whether I am an amoeba or a paramecium. We are usually poked by democracy— our constituents—and I suppose that is where the cussedness comes into it. We have to respond to those who voted us in here.

Following on from what the Chair asked about your different roles, you intervene in certain areas when Members ask you to or when the organism/organisation asks you to. For example, why did pay end up in the High Court?

Sir Robert Rogers: Let me say first of all that I celebrate cussedness. It is what this place is about, and the more cussed it is, in some ways, the better it is. On the pay, I really do not think it is proper for me, in public, to go into the negotiations and the positions that were taken up. It was a very long-running issue, as you know, and it was a decision that was taken before I became Clerk of the House.

Valerie Vaz: Right. So there is intervention on certain areas and not on others. How do you choose which ones to intervene on? Obviously people want to go to the top of the organisation to make things work. How would you intervene on those? Would you talk to the Speaker about them or would you just get on and do it?

Sir Robert Rogers: I do not think it is right to see it in terms of intervention. You are looking, so to speak, at the dashboard of everything that is going on, but every now and again something goes amiss, and I think it is reasonable for Members to expect to be able to go to the top. I use the phrase “where the buck stops” in my paper, and I think that that is a very important element in the combination of the two roles. For example, mice, We have all suffered from mice, as we have all suffered from moths. It is part of being in what is really a failing building.

Chair: Only in the fabric; not in the activity.

Sir Robert Rogers: Certainly not, no; the activity is more self-confident and energetic than I have ever known it, as I said in my retirement letter. A Member was extremely upset about the mice. You can fob people off with explanations, but you must show that the organisation is responsive and that it matters. On that particular occasion, the issue was raised in the morning and by 2.30 pm I had convened a meeting with the director general of facilities, the director of accommodation and logistics, our outside pest control people and the Member concerned. That was perhaps heavy artillery for the particular mouse problem that that individual Member had encountered. It did not help that her staff were actually feeding the mice, which was rather blunting our pest control efforts. Nevertheless, being able to do that is an essential part of running a responsive organisation.

I was very concerned to hear some of the points that you raised with John Borley; in those particular cases, our delivery has not been good enough. There may be reasons, and sometimes the business of tackling that and getting understanding is explaining the reasons in a compelling way, but you must have that feeling of reaction and energy; if you don’t, you are an underperforming organisation.

Valerie Vaz: Thank you for that, but I raised the issue of pay, which was obviously in the public domain because it was in the High Court, and I know that you weren’t there at that time. People like to trivialise Parliament by bringing up the mouse issue or the price of cups of tea; I was talking about more serious things, although that was serious for that Member. I am talking about the combination of what you do for Members and what you do for staff, for the staff management, and the interventions on that level. You chose to do it by bringing everyone together, but in other instances you would intervene yourself. Is it your management structure that is wrong by having everyone coming together in that way?

Sir Robert Rogers: No, I don’t think that it indicates an underlying failure of management. In any organisation you will get left-field issues; you will get the crisis of the day that has to be dealt with. Sometimes it is just that someone drops the ball and you have to deal with it quickly. You need to stand well back from any organisation to see whether you have episodic failings that have to be dealt with in the way that I have described. I am not trivialising things, in the sense that there were big issues there, because there were media and reputational issues, as well as the comfort and service being provided to the individual Member. It was not quite as miniature as perhaps I might have given the impression. You need to handle it in a different way when you identify systemic failings. Where there are systemic failings, you have to take management or, indeed, structural action on a rather higher level in order to deal with them.

Valerie Vaz: You chose that particular example, but perhaps there are others.
Sir Robert Rogers: Visitors is another—I can give you quite a few.

Valerie Vaz: Let’s move on to the management side. You rose to the top of your profession and became chief Clerk. How did you get there in terms of experience and getting your management experience? Do you feel that staff in other areas of the House could also rise to the level of chief Clerk?

Sir Robert Rogers: Absolutely. I would preface my answer by saying that I enormously enjoyed the Chief Executive aspects—I am deliberately putting that quite vaguely, because I think that most of it is like that between the roles of Clerk and Chief Executive. I enormously enjoyed those aspects. I found it extremely exhilarating and endlessly fascinating to be responsible for running an organisation.

In terms of my own experience, there is a paragraph in my paper that outlines some of the things that I did outside the House. I found that all of those had directly applicable lessons for the role that I played as Chief Executive. I stopped those outside things; they didn’t go on beyond the time that I was appointed Clerk Assistant. But as Clerk Assistant, I was running a department of 550 people with a budget of £70 million. That was—if you call it an apprenticeship—actually a very effective apprenticeship. Doing that job, I was able to put into practice a lot of the things that I had learnt.

Of course, over the years and increasingly recently, there has been individual training on financial management, risk, HR issues, FOI and diversity. There is a lot. A lot more can be done. You have heard from David Vere about learning and development. That is a post which I specifically wanted to recruit to, because I felt that we needed to raise our game on learning and development. David has gripped that extremely effectively, as was clear to you yesterday.

Valerie Vaz: Is there anything that you want to tell us that went wrong where you might have done things differently?

Sir Robert Rogers: As I said earlier, people drop the ball. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and there are quite a few things that I would have done differently. I think I would have approached the pay business a little differently, if I had had 20:20 hindsight. I hope it comes out of the paper that I was very proud of what the House Service achieved when I had the privilege of being Clerk of the House. I have every confidence that they will go on from that. They know what they can do and that is beyond price.

The transcript from this evidence session is available here:

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