Bercow addresses MPs over clerk row

Commons Speaker John Bercow will today face MPs for the first time since a row erupted over his recommended candidate for the post of clerk of the House.

John Bercow will face MPs for the first time since a row erupted over his recommended candidate for the post of clerk of the House.
John Bercow will face MPs for the first time since a row erupted over his recommended candidate for the post of clerk of the House.

He will reportedly make a statement in the chamber amid growing disquiet among critics of the choice of Australian Carol Mills, who is currently head of the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS) in Canberra.

Members have voiced concerns about her lack of knowledge of Westminster procedures and believe she is too inexperienced for the prestigious £200,000-a-year position, which combines the clerk's duties as a key constitutional adviser with the role of Commons chief executive.

She has been dubbed the "Canberra caterer" because her responsibilities at the Australian senate are said to include managing kitchens and cleaning.

But allies of the Speaker insisted that was an "immensely patronising and incredibly sexist" description of her role and qualifications.

The DPS has around 800 staff and an annual budget of around £67.5 million and is responsible for the Australian version of Hansard and provides IT, library and research services for parliamentarians.

In an effort to defuse the row, Mr Bercow, who is expected to visit Australia next month, has indicated he wants to split the functions into two jobs, b ut the suggestion has failed to appease the critics led by Tory Jesse Norman.

The Hereford and South Herefordshire MP has submitted a motion calling for Parliament to be given the opportunity to scrutinise the appointment. It has since been signed by 84 members from across the political spectrum, including three former foreign secretaries, a former deputy leader of the Labour party and six former ministers. All three deputy speakers are also understood to be against the choice of Ms Mills.

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Mr Norman said: "So far there has not been any indication that Parliament will be given a say on this matter. Nor has the appointment of Ms Mills been withdrawn.

"Instead it has been proposed that the role of clerk should be split and a new chief executive (presumably Ms Mills) be appointed as well.

"This effectively concedes that Ms Mills is not qualified to be clerk. But instead of dropping her and starting again, it puts the cart before the horse and proposes an on-the-hoof restructuring of the House, all it seems, in order to accommodate her appointment.

"Not only that - it proposes a new role of chief executive at a probable cost of £150,000- £200,000."

He condemned the appointment process as "flawed", because key people such as deputy speaker Labour MP Lindsay Hoyle had not been included. He also criticised the use of headhunters, adding: "It is far from clear how they could have recommended a candidate who was, and remains, under investigation in Australia for maladministration."

Mr Norman warned that if allowed to drag on the affair could damage the office of Speaker and, in turn, the Commons.

He added: "We must hope he will move swiftly to end that appointment (in his statement today), reaffirm the importance of due process in the selection of public officials and put the wider issue of clerkship before a special committee elected by MPs."

Former deputy speaker Nigel Evans added on the Sky News Murnaghan programme yesterday that the real issue was whether Mr Bercow would have the "guts" to stand up and tell the House Ms Mills was no longer the appointee.

He went on: "It has ... transpired that while she is very good at administration, apparently she knows nothing about the constitution and wouldn't know what Erskine May is for instance, which is the bible of the chamber.

"In the meantime the Speaker has said why don't we split the job. Well, if we split the job which may have some sense, may not - don't you re-open the appointment panel again to have a look?

"The real issue is whether John is going to have the guts tomorrow to stand up in Parliament and say Carol Mills is no longer the appointee of a position that really now doesn't exist. We need a panel to be set up to look at the job, what sort of job it is first and once we have sorted out what the job is then we can look at the candidates."

Meanwhile, a n influential committee of members will meet today to discuss the Speaker's expected statement.

Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the public administration select committee, said he would be arguing for a pre-appointment hearing with Ms Mills if she is to be appointed to either the post of clerk or chief executive due to the need for scrutiny.

Ms Mills was recommended for the role earlier this month following an open recruitment process with a selection panel led by the Speaker.

Downing Street has insisted the new clerk must have the backing of MPs. The Prime Minister is responsible for passing the recommendation to the Queen to be finalised.

A spokeswoman for the Speaker told the Mail on Sunday: "The Speaker is keen to listen to the views of MPs."

She said his visit to Australia was planned a year ago and added that Commonwealth visits to meet other speakers were an "element" of his job.