A CROSS-PARTY committee of MPs has effectively blocked Speaker John Bercow’s choice for Clerk of the House of Commons by recommending the termination of the recruitment process and the splitting of the role into two jobs.
Mr Bercow was forced to announce a “pause” in the process of appointing a successor to Sir Robert Rogers, who stepped down as Clerk in August, following objections to his preferred candidate, Australian parliamentary official Carol Mills.
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Now the House of Commons Governance Committee has called for the creation of a new post of director- general, responsible for providing support services to the Commons and reporting to the Clerk, who will retain responsibility for procedural advice in the chamber and will be appointed by the Queen.
The two posts should be swiftly re-advertised and appointments made “in line with modern recruitment practice”, said the committee in a new report.
The name of the new Clerk should be passed to the Queen for approval before next May’s general election, and the process of choosing a director-general should be under way before the House is dissolved at the end of March.
The report does not recommend a salary for the new director-general, but acknowledges that the creation of a new senior post with its own private office will cost money. The committee said the change should be made “cost-neutral” within a year by culling senior posts at a lower level in the House of Commons management structure.
Ms Mills, who runs the Department of Parliamentary Services in Canberra, was chosen for the £200,000 role of Clerk of the Commons by a panel chaired by Mr Bercow - who paid a headhunting firm £18,000 to identify suitable candidates - and a letter was sent to 10 Downing Street recommending her appointment.
The selection sparked complaints from MPs on both sides of the Commons, who protested that Ms Mills did not have the relevant experience to advise the Speaker on parliamentary procedure, a constitutionally sensitive role which has existed for centuries.
The row was stoked by a letter from the Clerk of the Senate in the Australian parliament, who warned that Ms Mills had “no parliamentary knowledge or experience” and raised a controversial incident in which her department admitted using CCTV cameras to trace the movements of an employee.
In a statement to MPs in September announcing a “pause” in the appointment process, Mr Bercow said he had been blocked from splitting the role by strong internal opposition. Sir Robert is known to have been among those with reservations.
Former leader of the Commons Jack Straw was given the job of chairing the committee set up to conduct a swift inquiry into the governance arrangements of the Commons - the first time the running of the House has been investigated by its own members for 40 years.
The veteran Labour MP said its recommendations would produce “a coherent management and strategic leadership structure” for the Commons.
And he said they should be accompanied by changes to the culture of the House management, after witnesses to the inquiry described a “culture of aloofness” among the clerks who “were considered very much to be the superior beings who lived on a slightly different planet”.
The committee recommended that the Speaker-chaired House of Commons Commission, which oversees the management of the Commons, should be expanded to include the Clerk and director-general and two external members, and that places for backbenchers should be increased from three to four, who should be elected by fellow-MPs
Mr Straw said: “We were set up to solve a particular problem, but behind that problem we found a governance system in need of wider reform. At the centre of our recommendations is a commitment to openness, clarity and transparency.
“It became clear early on that there was a real thirst, particularly amongst the many hundreds of staff of the Commons service, for a fresh look at its management structures, led by MPs themselves.
“Taken together, our proposals provide a framework which enables the House of Commons to operate more effectively and efficiently and provide reinforcement to the development of a unified House Service.”
Shadow Commons leader Angela Eagle said: “This is a welcome report that will help bring the House into the 21st century, and I look forward to the House debating it.
“It is right that the role of Clerk and chief executive be split, and the report contains other important recommendations for the House to consider, including on shared services and the role and composition of the House of Commons Commission.
“To deliver the change Parliament needs, we don’t just need administrative reform but reform of our legislative process too. That’s why a Labour government will strengthen the ability of MPs to hold the Government to account and give the public a real voice on legislation that affects them.”
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