Berwick MP Sir Alan Beith believes Commons Speaker crisis is not over

Commons Speaker John Bercow still has questions to answer over the appointment of a new clerk, says Sir Alan Beith

PA/PA Wire Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow
Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow

The unprecedented public battle between Commons Speaker John Bercow and MPs over the appointment of a senior official is set to continue after one senior backbencher said he still had questions to answer.

Northumberland MP Sir Alan Beith welcomed the Speaker’s announcement of a “modest pause” in the recruitment of a new head Clerk and Chief Executive for the House of Commons, but warned that the controversy was not over.

Sir Alan, Liberal Democrat MP for Berwick in Northumberland, had previously written to William Hague, the Leader of the Commons, urging him to block the new appointment until MPs had a chance to approve it.

He was one of a number of MPs to express concern about the Speaker’s decision to appoint Australian Carol Mills as the next Commons clerk. His words carry particular weight because he has been an MP for 41 years and chairs the Justice Select Committee as well as the Commons Liaison Committee.

The clerk advises the Speaker during Commons debates and the post has traditionally gone to someone who is an expert in the British constitution and the workings of Parliament.

However, Ms Mills heads the Parliamentary Services Department in the Australian Senate, which looks after administration and the running of buildings.

Fiona Hanson/PA Wire Chairman of the Justice Select Committee Sir Alan Beith
Chairman of the Justice Select Committee Sir Alan Beith
 

The planned appointment led to an unprecedented battle between the Speaker and MPs, which Mr Bercow has now attempted to end with a humiliating partial u-turn.

He told the Commons he was suspending the appointment and said he supported breaking the job into two, with a Clerk appointed to advise the Speaker on procedure while a separate Chief Executive was responsible for managing buildings and staff.

Speaking afterwards, Sir Alan said: “I was one of those who called for there to be a delay, so that the House could consider whether there should be a split or not.”

But he added: “The Speaker’s statement raises quite a few questions that have yet to be answered.”

These included how long the “pause” would last and whether the post was advertised properly, he said.

The House of Commons needed to have confidence in the advice the Clerk gave to the Speaker, Sir Alan said.

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

Tim Ireland/PA Wire The Houses of Parliament in Westminster, central London
The Houses of Parliament in Westminster, central London
 

But the proposed appointment sparked rising concern in recent weeks while MPs have been away on the summer recess.

Some MPs voiced concerns about her lack of knowledge of Westminster procedures and believed she was too inexperienced for the prestigious £200,000-a-year position.

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

The row has bought to the fore some long-running battles between the Speaker and backbench critics. Outgoing clerk Sir Robert Rogers retired this summer amid claims he had been forced out after clashing with Mr Bercow.

A motion calling for Parliament to be given the opportunity to scrutinise the appointment has since been signed by 84 MPs 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.

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