HC Deb 25 July 1979 vol 971 cc612-9

3.58 p.m.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

I beg to move, That this House requests Mr. Speaker to convey to Sir Richard Douglas Barlas, KCB, OBE, on his retirement from the office of Clerk of this House, its gratitude for his long and distinguished service which he has rendered with unswerving devotion in the conduct of the business of this House. This is both a sad and a joyful occasion. It is sad because we are saying farewell to the Clerk of the House; it is joyful because we are expressing our gratitude and appreciation for a job which has been well done.

Sir Richard Barlas joined this House immediately after the war following distinguished service in His Majesty's Forces. Since then, for over 30 years—nearly half a lifetime—he has been in the service of this House. It is clear from talking to Sir Richard's colleagues that he was marked out early for high things. A succession of offices in the Clerk's Department were held, all with distinction, before he became Clerk to the Procedure Committee and made a special contribution to the procedures of this House. What, after all, could be more important than that? Procedure is the only constitution that we have.

His name will be associated with a number of important reforms. I single out one—the committal of part of the Finance Bill to a Standing Committee, once considered a heresy. Now it has become an orthodoxy. After a period as Principal Clerk of Committees, he returned to the Table as Clerk Assistant and for the last thre years, at the summit of his profession, he has served as Clerk of this House. Perhaps his reflections on achieving that high office were similar to those of the best known Clerk of this House, Mr. Erskine May, who in 1871 confided the following reflections to his private journal: For the whole of that time I have practically and to all intents and purposes, been the chief officer of the House, though holding the second place only; and my promotion is, therefore, less of a rise than it would otherwise have been. But with these little abatements I trust that I shall realise substantial advantages. It is always better to be first than second; my authority will be increased; I shall have some patronage, which promises to be the plague of my life; and I shall be spared the intolerable drudgery of keeping the minute books for the ' Votes and Proceedings ', which have sometimes worn my fingers to the very stumps, and made the nerves of my head throb through the night. It is fitting that Sir Richard should crown his career with the office of Clerk since he is one who has Parliament in his blood. I learnt last night that Sir Richard's grandfather, a poet of the nineties, was so concerned about the state of parliamentary institutions that he appeared late at night in Parliament Square armed with a pistol which he discharged in the direction of the House of Lords and missed it. The story has a happy ending because he was bailed out of prison by Mr. Oscar Wilde.

Every institution, if it is to succeed, must have a devoted permanent staff, and the House of Commons is no exception. Members of Parliament are ephemeral creatures: we come and we go, and we are easily replaceable. We all know that if one of us stepped under that proverbial bus, after a decent interval—say, 24 hours—100 hopefuls would congregate about our seat. But the staff of this House is more permanent.

Nobody knows better than you, Mr. Speaker, what we owe to the Clerks of this House. We are allowed occasionally to see the tip of the iceberg—those hasty confabulations between yourself and the Clerks of the Table when the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) or my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) raises an especially recondite point of order. It is one of the reasons—I say only one, Mr. Speaker—why you always come up with the right answer. But that is only the outward sign of the patient hours of work which every day is put into the work of this House by those who serve it.

What makes a great Clerk? First of all, scholarship: the chief Clerk is an acknowledged expert on procedure. Hon. Members must be able to rely unhesitatingly on the quality and the correctness of the advice received. Second, impartiality: every hon. Member must, and does, know that, whatever his party, he will receive the same dispassionate advice and consideration of his point of view. Third, accessibility. Everyone knows, and must know, that the Clerks, particularly the chief Clerk, are the servants of the House, available to hon. Members at every hour of the day and at many hours of the night.

Applying all those criteria, Sir Richard triumphantly fulfils all three of them. As he moves into retirement with Lady Barlas, the House of Commons thanks him and wishes him well. He carries with him our esteem, our gratitude and our affection.

4.5 p.m.

Mr. James Callaghan (Cardiff, South-East)

It gives me great pleasure to support the remarks of the Leader of the House. As he says, the motion is in the names not only of the Prime Minister and himself but those of myself, the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel), the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux), the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) and the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley). I understand that, on this occasion, I am to have the privilege of speaking for all of them, which is a responsibility that I would not dare take upon myself on any other occasion but this.

I should like to echo completely everything that has been said by the Leader of the House in commemorating the 33 years' service that Sir Richard has given us. Some of us have seen him man and boy. He has fulfilled every expectation. He has been universally helpful and has been held in great respect by all hon. Members. About 20 years have elapsed since he started appearing regularly at the Table as the Fourth Clerk at the Table. Since then we have watched with great pleasure and admiration the way in which his authority has extended.

Sir Richard is, I am told, an authority on the subject of privilege and patronage. I agree with the Leader of the House that, if he is an authority on patronage, I can think of a spare-time occupation for him. It looks as if I am about to have trouble with our Chief Whip on this subject and I dare say that we would be able to use Sir Richard's advice. I am also sure that the Government Chief Whip would like to be able to do so.

The Leader of the House referred to Sir Richard's adventures with another place. I am sure that I can refer, without doing any damage, to the fact that he has an impeccable political pedigree. His grandfather was one of the early members of the Social Democratic Federation. When he went to court, I understand that he said that he had fired his pistol to show his contempt for another place. I, like you, Mr. Speaker, have watched Sir Richard very carefully over the last 20 years, but I have never discovered anything but the most impartial attitude in his dealings with another place. I am sure that he has overcome any prejudices that his grandfather might have had in that regard, although, on the whole, I am rather on the side of his grandfather.

We all hope that Sir Richard will have a happy retirement with his wife. I think it is well known that he has a narrow canal boat that he christened "Erskine May"—"Greater love hath no man than this." I am certain that he will never run the boat aground and that he will steer it through the locks and canals in the same way that he has steered Parliament through the law, privileges, proceedings and usages that we follow. I am happy to associate all hon. Members in the minority parties with the elegant words with which the Leader of the House moved the motion and to say that I hope it will be carried nemine contradicente.

4.9 p.m.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

This is an occasion for Parliament as a whole, including its Back Benchers, and appropriately so, because Sir Richard, in his career as a servant of the House, has been so outstandingly generous in the time that he has given to questions raised with him by Back Benchers.

Eighteen years ago, the noble Lord Lord Pannell, then the Member for Leeds, West, gave me a thoroughly useful bit of advice. He said "You can consult any of the Clerks and get a competent answer; but if you want the best advice, go to Richard Barlas, Fourth Clerk at the Table." Never have I had better advice than that.

It is a source of sadness to me that by an accident of timing, Mr. Speaker, you will never have the opportunity of reaching with your left hand for a copy of "Erskine May" bearing on its spine the name "Sir Richard Barlas" as editor. It would have been so fitting could that have been so.

Those who look back at Procedure Committee and, indeed, Committee of Privileges records of evidence will not be able to avoid noticing how often, even when he was in a very junior capacity in the service of the House, it was Mr. Barlas, as he then was, who was sent by his peers and, indeed, by his seniors to give evidence to the Select Committees serving the House on behalf of the Clerk's Department. I believe that it was without precedent in the previous Parliament, when the Committee of Privileges was reporting on the power of the House to enforce its privilege and to punish for contempt, that after it had completed its report it asked Sir Richard for his views on its report before submitting that report to the House of Commons—which is a very eloquent token of the esteem in which it held its Clerk.

This is an occasion on which we are losing our Clerk at the height of his powers rather than when they are in decline. It is not, I think, a secret that Sir Richard has felt that it is in the interest of the career structure of the Clerk's Department, which he has done so much to build up, to strengthen and to imbue with his own qualities of scholarship and wisdom, that he should set an example—alas, not one invariably followed before him. The House will be the poorer for that example, but a healthy one it is.

I wish to join with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition in expressing my very best wishes to Sir Richard for his future and my thankfulness for his friendship, his counsel and his services to the Back Benches of this House as well as to the Front Benches.

4.12 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

I do not wish in any way to oppose the motion. Indeed, I shall be making a few remarks in support of it. However, I have some queries and questions concerning the motion.

First, I have never had a cross word with Sir Richard Barlas and, of course, I wish him well in his retirement. I do not in any way dispute anything that has been said concerning him and his activities. I only hope and trust—I believe that it is so—that, whilst Sir Richard has been giving such good service, he has been adequately rewarded, and that the trade union activities in seeing that he got properly paid for the job were successful.

The point I am making is that there are some others who also give 30 or 40 years' good service. I should have liked to see this motion extended. I do not like certain people being singled out for the tribute that they deserve when others who give equally good service do not receive even an honourable mention.

Very often, Mr. Speaker, some of your staff have been here for 30 or 40 years and have given to hon. Members who have been here for 30 or 40 years equally good service. I am referring to the messengers, to the Serjeant at Arms, to the Library staff. None of those gets a knighthood or an OBE. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] No, they do not. I am entitled to say what I believe, whether or not hon. Members like it.

I am not in any way decrying Sir Richard Barlas or any of the things which have been said. All that I am hoping is that if what we are doing now is a good thing—and it is—it will be extended to some others.

I want to pay tribute on the Floor of the House to some of the people to whom I am referring and to use the opportunity that the motion gives me to say that Fred Green did wonderful work for the House of Commons—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must confine himself to the motion, which does not, I am afraid, deal with other people. It deals with Sir Richard Barlas.

Mr. Lewis

But I can give you notice, Mr. Speaker, that I have doubts as to whether I should support the motion. I am therefore trying to explain that I may well think that it is a good motion but one that does not go far enough. Therefore, I have doubts as to whether I should support it.

One of the reasons why I believe that the motion is not as good as it might be is that it does not include others, in addition to Sir Richard. Therefore, I am saying—[Interruption.] Hon. Members should not keep shouting. If they do not like what I am saying, they can leave the Chamber.

There was also John Marlin—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must tell the hon. Gentleman that if he continues with a repetition of the names of honourable people who have served this House I shall ask him to resume his seat, because this motion deals with one person, and one person only—the Clerk of the House.

Mr. Lewis

Surely I am entitled, Mr. Speaker, to say that I have doubts as to whether the motion as worded is satisfactory or adequate.

Mr. Speaker

I shall rule on that point at once. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to refer only to what is in the motion before the House.

Mr. Lewis

Therefore, Mr. Speaker, I am saying that there may be some doubt as to whether I should support the motion because of the fact that it singles out one individual, Sir Richard Barlas. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]

I was going on to say that everything that has been said about this individual could be said about other people. I am not in any way decrying the praise of Sir Richard, but when these motions are put down we might try to pay tribute to other servants of the House, including the girls who serve us in the cafeteria, who do not get paid so well.

I know that what I am saying is unpopular. I know that I shall be called to order, Mr. Speaker, and you may well rule me out of order and ask me to leave the Chamber. But I am still going to say what I believe is the case—that we make fish of one and fowl of the other. I want to see those other people, the poorer paid ordinary people who also give good service, being included in motions such as this one. They will not get their peerage or their knighthood, but I have paid tribute to them here today in speaking on this motion.

Mr. Speaker

Before I put the Question, I ask leave of the House to pay a short personal tribute myself. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear".] Sir Richard Barlas is one of those rare people who has added lustre to one of the great offices of State. His unfailing courtesy, his integrity, his loyalty and his high ability have placed the whole House in his debt, and certainly I am deeply grateful to him for the service that he has rendered.

He entered this House in the same year as those of us who came in the 1945 intake. He has been a friend, a guide and a mentor to untold Members of Parliament. I believe that I speak for the whole House when I say that we wish both Lady Barlas and Sir Richard long years of good health and happiness in their retirement.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, nemine contradicente, That this House requests Mr. Speaker to convey to Sir Richard Douglas Barlas, KCB, OBE, on his retirement from the office of Clerk of this House, its gratitude for his long and distinguished service which he has rendered with unswerving devotion in the conduct of the business of this House.