In making this submission, I invite the Governance of the House Committee to consider the case for a separation of the Chief Executive role from that of the Chief Clerk. I am aware that the Committee’s brief is wider than this single issue; however, it is on this particular point that I make representation.
I believe that there is an urgent and compelling case for this for both procedural and administrative reasons.
It is by no means certain what the outcome of the next General Election will be. However, the consensus is that we will be moving into an era where Parliament will face unprecedented challenges in terms of the UK’s relationship with Europe and the new constitutional settlement with Scotland, amongst other issues that will require the full attention of the clerks as the procedural and legal experts on such matters.
It is because Parliament will require more of the Chief Clerk’s time in this regard – rather than less – that I am arguing that this Committee has a once in a lifetime opportunity to reform the way in which the role operates in order to enhance Parliament’s democratic functions, and ensure that the long-standing problems related to its infrastructure are seriously tackled.
In the early autumn, I was moved to write an article for the Labour List website on what I perceived the real issues behind the appointment of a new Chief Clerk were. While the media focused on the elements that would allow them to write a headline with the word “row” in it, I felt that what was not addressed were the concerns that there are maintenance and heritage issues – currently the responsibility of the Chief Clerk – that have been persistently ignored.
I raised Portcullis House, where I have my office, as a case in point. Commissioned in 1993 for £165 million and opened in 2001 for £235 million, we were told it would last two hundred years. However, a mere thirteen years later, the glass roof over the atrium is cracked – I am told that some glass has actually fallen out of the roof and shattered on the public area below – and that a permanent solution to its repair is yet to be found. Media reports suggest that this fault alone has cost the taxpayer £36,000 in five years, and yet the ongoing “temporary” solution appears to be nothing more than putting faith in what looks like red double-sided sticky tape and the power of prayer.
Leaving aside the massive overspend, the rats clogging up the water feature, and the fact that the House blew £150,000 per tree on the decorative foliage, it is a miracle that nobody has yet been killed.
And that is just one small part of the estate, and the modern one at that. The rodent problem is out of control, and mice can frequently be seen in the Members’ Tea Room, as well as other outlets that serve food. Tales abound of raw sewerage pouring into colleagues’ offices owing to substandard plumbing, and the ancient electricity generator in the main Palace has to pose some sort of fire hazard. At the very least, all this must constitute a breach of health and safety requirements which, as a place of work, Parliament is required, by laws that it itself passed, to meet. Are the members of the Committee confident that, in the event of an independent inspection, the current arrangements would be deemed up to scratch?
It is also worth noting that it is not merely politicians and staff that are inconvenienced at best, and endangered at worst, by this state of affairs. The Houses of Parliament are a World Heritage Site, an international tourist destination, and visited by 45,000 school children every year. These figures are set to double once the new Education Centre is up and running. By not addressing these matters, we are actively putting members of the public, many of them children, in harm’s way.
The original building, hailing from the mid-nineteenth century, requires the entirety of its basic fabric renewing. This will be the biggest heritage project the country will see in years, costing hundreds of millions of pounds. It will also be the responsibility of the same people who commissioned Portcullis House.
At the same time the Chief Clerk will be entrusted with far more procedural burdens, particularly with any future negotiations for a new constitutional settlement, on top of his already onerous duties and spending a proportion of each day sitting in the Commons Chamber.
None of this, I would like to stress, should be taken as a criticism of the clerks, who I have always found to be courteous, highly intelligent, and always helpful. They are constitutional technicians who lubricate the wheels of our democracy.
They are not, however, managers. And, just as the traditional role will become more crucial in the coming months and years, so will the Chief Executive element, for the reasons outlined above. When a junior clerk starts their career, I do not think it is with the intention of mending the glass in Portcullis House. I cannot begin to imagine the ennui a leaned constitutional expert must feel when it comes discussing the education programme for school kids visiting the education centre.
It appears to me that there is little interest in this aspect of the job. When it was suggested that an Australian woman with actual CEO experience should be appointed to the role, she was sneeringly referred to in the Daily Mail as the “Canberra caterer”. It is not for me to speculate from where this insulting nickname originated. However, if we dismiss the CEO element of the job as “catering” then we demonstrate either a lack of understanding of the CEO role, an active contempt for it, or a combination of both.
It is for this reason – and for the sake of both procedural integrity, and the future of Parliament’s infrastructure as well as the safety of its inhabitants – that I recommend a complete split: that the Chief Clerk remains in charge of procedural matters, and that a CEO is appointed who is qualified to oversee the management of the building itself. Both should report to the House of Commons Commission as the main supervisory committee.
There is a suggestion that a far more preferable solution would be the creation of a Chief Operating Officer, reporting to the Clerk, thus preserving the existing power structure. This is ducking the issue and would merely perpetuate the current problems. Unless this Committee is satisfied that the clerks are qualified to identify, appoint and manage a properly qualified COO (and I would argue that, on all the evidence, they are not), I consider this a solution that would work well if all was at stake for the future of the building was, say, catering, rather than the largest restoration project since the old Palace burned down in 1834. In short, there is no effective substitute for a CEO with appropriate autonomy and clearly delineated responsibilities.
In conclusion, I would ask this question: would the current state of affairs be seen as adequate and, at worst, only needing minor tinkering if one of our constituents came to us complaining that the company at which they worked was slowing falling apart, posed a danger to life, served food in areas that were infested with mice, and where urine pouring into offices was considered par for the course?
Of course not. As their elected representatives, we would be banging on the Chief Executive’s desk demanding that they got a grip of the situation.
It is time that we put our own House in order.
Member of Parliament for West Bromwich East