Should Carol Mills Be the Next Clerk of the Commons?

It looks like Carol Mills, a senior official from the Australian Senate, has been chosen to be the next Clerk of the House of Commons.

Mills’ appointment has raised more than a few eyebrows. The Clerk is supposed to act as the Commons’ chief procedural adviser, and MPs have questioned whether or not an outsider will have the necessary knowledge of British parliamentary practice and constitutional law.

It’s worth pointing out that the Australian Parliament is quite a bit different from its British counterpart since the framers of the Australian constitution looked to the US Congress for inspiration. Some of the differences are merely cosmetic (e.g., the lower house of the Australian Parliament is called the “House of Representatives” rather than the “House of Commons”), but there are more substantial differences as well. For example, the British Parliament is marked by a weaker form of bicameralism where the primacy of the House of Commons is enshrined in law, but in Australia, the Senate and House of Representatives are on a more equal footing. This is vividly demonstrated by the two Parliaments’ differing approaches to financial legislation. In the UK, the House of Lords’ consideration of ‘money bills’ is more or less a formality,[1] but in Australia, the Senate is free to reject money bills, though it can’t initiate or amend them.[2]

I have mixed feelings about Mills’ appointment. At first, I thought that criticisms of her were largely motivated by anti-Bercow sentiment.[3] Although he was not solely responsible for her appointment, it does seem to reflect his wishes since he was said to favor managerial acumen over constitutional knowledge. It didn’t help that some of the Tory MPs who opposed Mills’ appointment seemed more annoyed by her gender than her lack of procedural knowledge.

But, on reflection, I think that Mills is probably a weak choice for Clerk since she comes from such a different constitutional background. The British constitution is infamously complex. It’s made up of written documents and unwritten conventions, to which there are a dizzying number of exceptions, caveats, and provisos, and it’s constantly evolving to boot. Understanding it requires more than just well-thumbed copies of May and Bagehot; it requires an intuitive understanding of the British political ethos. Unfortunately, I suspect Mills doesn’t have that.

Part of the problem is the dual nature of the Clerk’s office. Not only does she have to be a constitutional sage, she must also be a modern chief executive who can manage the 2,000+ employees of the House of Commons Service. Those skillsets are very different, and finding one person who is equally comfortable in both spheres has obviously proven a challenge.

Perhaps the best way out of this dilemma is to give the Clerk’s managerial functions to a separate official, and indeed the House of Commons Commission is said to be considering just such a move. The obvious downside to this is that it will end up costing the taxpayer more money, but it could be the only way to avoid a situation where the Clerk is a superb manager but knows little of parliamentary procedure or vice versa.

So how will this all play out? Since the Clerk is appointed by the Queen, rank-and-file MPs have no formal say in the matter. David Cameron could theoretically refuse to recommend Mills for the job, but second-guessing the selection panel could be problematic. Cameron will probably wait and see how MPs react when the Commons reconvenes next week. If there’s widespread opposition, he may be forced to intervene. 

NOTES

[1] Section 1 of the Parliament Act 1911 severely restricts the Lords’ ability to obstruct financial legislation. Peers can only consider a money bill for one month, and if they have not passed the bill without amendments by the end of that month, the bill will be submitted for Royal Assent anyway. Although the House of Lords technically has the right to make amendments to money bills, that right is never exercised nowadays.

[2] The Australian Senate’s refusal to pass a money bill caused a constitutional crisis in 1975 that resulted in the dismissal of the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, by the Governor General, Sir John Kerr.

[3] John Bercow is a rather polarizing figure among Conservative MPs. Before taking the Speaker’s Chair, he was a Tory MP, but he had become a decidedly left-wing Tory. He is frequently accused of bias toward Labour, and some of his exchanges with his former party colleagues definitely seem bad tempered.

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One Response to Should Carol Mills Be the Next Clerk of the Commons?

  1. Pingback: John Bercow Defeated Over Commons Clerk | A Venerable Puzzle

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