Mark D’Arcy of the BBC has written an interesting article about the forthcoming search for a new Clerk of the House of Commons (or, to give the formal title, ‘Under-Clerk of the Parliaments’). The incumbent, Sir Robert Rogers, has announced that he will step down at the end of August after two and a half years in the post (if Guido Fawkes is to be believed, Sir Robert’s rather premature resignation is due to his exasperation with the Speaker, John Bercow.)
The Clerk’s primary role is to advise the House on parliamentary procedure, but in recent years the role has been given a great deal of managerial responsibility. Indeed, the Clerk is also styled the “Chief Executive of the House of Commons Service.” According to D’Arcy, the Speaker wants to emphasize the position’s executive responsibilities while downplaying its procedural responsibilities. Instead of calling for applicants with “detailed knowledge” of parliamentary procedure, the draft advertisement will allegedly only ask for “awareness.”
None of this has been officially confirmed, but if it’s true, I think it’s a worrying development. While I realize that requiring detailed knowledge of parliamentary procedure would inevitably result in a limited pool of applicants, I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Parliamentary procedure can be extraordinarily complex, and it’s not something that most people outside the legislature are going to be intimately familiar with. The Clerk often has to provide advice on the fly, so you don’t want someone who has to flip through Erskine May every time the Speaker has a question! Under the circumstances, promoting from within the ranks seems like a sensible approach.
Now it’s probably true that the people with detailed knowledge of parliamentary procedure aren’t likely to have much managerial experience. But rather than combining two disparate roles, perhaps it would make more sense to separate them. That way, they could have a procedure wonk as Clerk and a management guru as Chief Executive.