By Winnie.Agbonlahor

23 Aug 2013

This year 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, about combining the ancient and the contemporary

In 1748, a British man called Jeremiah Dyson paid £6,000 – the equivalent of at least £750,000 today – to become clerk to the House of Commons. Back then, it was common practice to buy public offices, rather than earn them by merit. Dyson, however, broke this tradition and pushed through reforms so that no one would ever have to buy his office again. His successors remain grateful to this day; and when I enter the clerk’s office to interview the incumbent, Sir Robert Rogers, Dyson’s portrait is casting a knowing look across the room. Looking up at the painting, Rogers describes Dyson as a “particularly influential figure in the clerkship” who delivered a “fantastic public service”.

Rogers is the 49th person to hold his role, which involves assisting the Speaker and ministers in Parliament during ministerial question times; acting as adviser to the Speaker and MPs on parliamentary procedure and privilege; and working as chief executive of the House of Commons Service – the organisation that handles catering, maintenance and research, with a budget of £220m and a workforce of 1,850.

He first joined the House in July 1972 to work as secretary to the UK Delegation to the European Parliament, and has since held a variety of roles – including clerk of the Defence Select Committee, clerk of private members’ bills, principal clerk of select committees, and clerk of legislation – before assuming his current role in October 2011.

While Rogers values tradition – his office is stacked with old-school furniture and ancient-looking books, his face features an old-fashioned beard, and he keenly maintains centuries-old traditions such as writing on a bill in Norman French before it’s sent to the House of Lords – he is also a reformer. As the chants of contemporary protesters pervade the office through the slightly ajar windows, Rogers proudly shows me his iPad; this, he insists, must not be mistaken for a “toy” but is in fact a “business-enabler”. He is, he tells me, encouraging MPs and select committees to go paperless in return for iPads.

In the decades since Rogers took his first job in the House, Parliament has of course seen a lot of reform and change. “I think we’ve come a very long way in terms of gender balance,” Rogers says, “but I’ve long thought we need to make much more effort.”

Another strong indicator of dramatic change is the growing number of members’ researchers. Forty years ago, there were 25; now, there are about 1,800. This, he says, “isn’t about feather-bedding members; it is about responding to the desire of voters to have a better service offered to constituencies and constituents”.

Recently, the use of urgent questions – for which no prior notice is given in the House of Commons – has greatly increased. All this, coupled with the use of topical questions as part of departmental question times, has contributed to making the House “more effective, more relevant and more topical”, he explains eagerly.

Rogers’ zeal diminishes a little when he talks about the “sad period” of 2009: the MPs expenses scandal. “One of the things about working for the House Service,” he says, “is that we’re very proud of what we do and we value the institution.” The scandal, he explains, dampened morale amongst his staff. “It was a sad time, because we spend a lot of our time explaining Parliament outside Westminster – the political goldfish bowl – and we felt that [the expenses scandal] was ground we had to make up. So yeah, it was sad.”

However, enthusiasm returns to his eyes as he argues that the 2010 Parliament has brought about a “sea change” percolating through everything the Commons does: “I think the House is more influential,” he says – in part, due to the growing strength of select committees and greater backbench influence over Commons business. On the day of our interview, for example, the Backbench Business Committee has arranged a Commons debate on the idea of selling weapons to the rebels in Syria. In the previous Parliament, he says, “we wouldn’t have had a Backbench Business Committee with an allocation of time bringing forward substantive motions on subjects that the government of the day might actually not have found time for itself, or might have preferred not to have debated”.

Another major shift Rogers has observed during his time as clerk concerns the civil service. “Government is less good at engaging with Parliament than it used to be,” he says. “And the knowledge of Parliament is much lower in the civil service now than it was 30 or 40 years ago. This is actually hampering the civil service in supporting ministers and the government of the day. I also think there is a lack of familiarity with Parliament and with parliamentary processes.”

Rogers reaches out to a sheet of paper he had laid out neatly on his table in anticipation of this interview, and starts reading out Section 3.6 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 on the management of the civil service: “The minister for the civil service shall have regard to the need to ensure that civil servants who advise ministers are aware of the constitutional significance of Parliament and of the conventions governing the relationship between Parliament and Her Majesty’s Government.”

This “very general constitutional urge”, he says, needs to be better translated into practice. “You may think it’s a tiny point when parliamentary clerks don’t know to look at the order paper for the day to discover if any questions were withdrawn overnight,” he says, raising his eyebrows and giving me a warning look. But when just such an error was made recently, he says, a new ministerial team “immediately gave an impression of incompetence in the chamber”.

Another area of concern for him is the legislative process: “It is remarkable how, from time to time, a bill team doesn’t quite understand the process. Frankly, if a minister’s advisers don’t understand the process, the minister is not going to perform as well as he or she would wish to do.”

In general, he adds, the civil service “needs to do a lot to raise its game”. But how can this be achieved? Taking training seriously would help, he says. “I’m not going to give you a manifesto. If a government comes to me and says: ‘How can we raise our game?’, I’d be very happy to go through a long shopping list with them. But I think you do need the determination that you are going to raise your game first.”

Rogers has got plenty of other priorities to keep him busy: he must trim his budget by 17%, or £37m, over 2011-15. While this has been challenging, he says, the budget is on track – thanks in part to some “small-scale redundancy schemes”, increased summer tours of the House for tourists, and reducing employees’ use of paper (from the huge figure of 81.5m sheets a year).

The arrival of iPads will not only help to bring down this number considerably, Rogers believes; it will also work as a tool to revamp the image of the House, bringing it more into line with present-day society. But whilst it’s important that the House of Commons move into the modern age, Rogers warns, it’s equally crucial that departmental civil servants regain their expertise in the art of passing legislation and handling the Commons – for if that expertise continues to dwindle as it has over his four decades of service, it will be ministers and their policies that bear the cost.

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