This week the House of Commons is celebrating the passage of 650 years since it appointed its first clerk. Winnie Agbonlahor speaks to the incumbent, Sir Robert Rogers.
When the government wants to make a new law, a bill is drafted, passed to both Houses of Parliament for approval, and signed off by the Queen before becoming an Act of Parliament. But how does it travel between both houses? It’s not as straightforward as you might assume: before the bill is sent from the Commons to the Lords, the clerk of the House of Commons writes on it in Norman French "Soit bail as Seigneurs" (let it be sent to the House of Lords). Then he or one of his colleagues carries the bill from the Commons through the central lobby into the House of Lords, where he meets his House of Lords counterpart. He bows, hands over the bill and returns to his House.
These procedures, the current clerk Sir Robert Rogers says, are some “quite charming survivals” of a history dating back hundreds of years. Marking the 650th anniversary of his role’s creation, Rogers says tradition is important because it provides a “dignified firm framework to the rough and tumble of politics”.
Rogers is the 49th person to hold his role. But while people may have noticed him in Parliament during ministerial question time, assisting the Speaker and ministers, fewer will be aware of all the other elements to his job: as clerk of the House, he is not only adviser to the Speaker and MPs on parliamentary procedure and privilege, but also chief executive of the House of Commons Service – meaning that he is responsible for a budget of £220m and a workforce of 1,850.
On top of managing the House, he now also has to ensure the success of a major savings programme. The Commons Commission - the independent supervisory body of the House of Commons Administration - decided to trim this budget by 17% over the four years to 2014-15. To this end, Rogers says, he has increased summer tours of the House for tourists, made the estate available for film companies for the first time, released around 100 staff members as part of some “small-scale redundancy schemes”, and encouraged select committees to go paperless.
“We used to print 81.5 million pages a year,” he tells CSW. “That wasn’t very good.” About a dozen committees have now vowed to distribute committee papers on iPads, which have been issued to almost 100 MPs as part of the scheme. “People say: ‘Oh, iPads, they're just toys!’,” he says. “But I think serious people know that iPads are actually business-enablers, and the committees that have gone paperless can of course produce information in a much richer form.”
The move towards more digitalised information-sharing is a “really good example of how savings have had a benign effect and how we're doing something faster than we otherwise would have done,” Rogers says, adding that this is also a good illustration of “the old living with the new”.
Changing the face of Parliament – in line with the culture of today, is on Rogers’s list of priorities. “Increasing diversity is very important to me,” he says. “I think very many people felt if they weren’t white, male and middle-aged, that somehow they weren’t valued in the same way.” It is that perception Rogers wants to change. Having more women in the House, for example, he says, would make it “just seem more normal”.
One strong example of his determination to increase diversity is a year-long apprenticeship scheme Rogers is launching today: ten people currently unemployed and from deprived backgrounds - mainly from East London - will be invited into Parliament. “We're going to take them in, train them for NVQs, they may leave at the end of that time or find permanent jobs in the House Service,” he says. “There are people who are third-generation unemployed and that is a real worry. I mean how on earth can you re-construct your life from that sort of background?”
His job has been around for over 600 years, but whilst he wants to uphold the traditions - and he certainly looks the part - he is also keen on the use of technology and bringing in all kinds of people to ensure that the Commons really represents the times we live in: “My aim is to enthuse people who would be put off by the look of the building and think they will never have the privilege of working for Parliament.” The traditions of signing a Parliamentary bill, however arcane, are likely to remain for some time. But if Rogers is successful, perhaps the two people meeting to hand over a bill in the central lobby of Parliament will look a little different.
Having worked in the House for 41 years, Rogers has been in a position to observe some significant changes taking place in parliament. Civil servants and ministerial advisers, for instance, are now less familiar with parliamentary processes than they used to be, which undermines their ability to give the best possible support to ministers.
Read the 14 August CSW issue for the full interview.