HC Deb 27 July 1989 vol 157 cc1208-12


The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

I beg to move, That this House recognises the loyal and devoted manner in which Sir Victor Le Fanu, KCVO has discharged the duties of the Office of Serjeant at Arms; expresses its profound appreciation for his 26 years of exemplary service to the House; and extends to him its best wishes for his retirement. One of the happy features of life is the way in which, by coincidence, it is open to me to speak in support of the motion in tribute to Sir Victor Le Fanu for his services to the House since 1963.

The House well knows of Sir Victor's active military career in the Coldstream Guards, after which he joined the office of Serjeant at Arms as long as 26 years ago as Deputy Assistant Serjeant at Arms. He then successively held the posts of Assistant Serjeant at Arms and Deputy Serjeant at Arms before taking up his present position of Serjeant at Arms in 1982.

Today we all have an opportunity, to pay tribute to Sir Victor for his work. He has won the respect of both sides of the House for the way in which he has carried out his duties. Hon. Members will recall the unfailing diplomacy and courtesy that they could expect from Sir Victor as he sought to meet the many calls on his Department, and. to deal with our often conflicting expectations and requests.

During his time in the House, there have been enormous changes in the services required from the Serjeant at Arms Department, and in the size of the estate that it administers. He has handled those changes with characteristic patience and skill. Sir Victor has always managed to maintain a careful balance between responding to new demands and resisting change for its own sake. In that sense, he has upheld the finest traditions of his office.

One increasingly important, sadly, and difficult aspect of the Serjeant at Arms' job is to maintain the security of the House. Concern about security has greatly increased during Sir Victor's time here. While we all deeply regret that necessity, I know that we have all welcomed the fact that that security has been in such capable hands.

Like his predecessors, Sir Victor has been required to produce a great deal from the limited resources that the House has placed at his disposal. He has always risen to that challenge admirably. During his time as Serjeant at Arms, we have managed to make substantial progress with new buildings, which we hope will do much to ease the pressure on the hard-pressed facilities of the House. Sir Victor has been much involved in that work, and while it has not made his task any simpler, I am sure that he is delighted to have played a part in making life a little easier for his successor, Sir Alan Urwick, who is well known to me from his two previous ambassadorial roles in the important cities of Cairo and Ottawa. I am sure that hon. Members will join me in extending a warm welcome to him.

Sir Victor's advice and assistance has been valued by successive Leaders of the House. I regret that, in my present role, I will not have the opportunity to benefit from his experience, but I can at least speak on behalf of the whole House when I say that I am extremely glad of this chance to express our gratitude and our warm wishes to Sir Victor for his retirement.

5.22 pm
Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

I am delighted, on behalf of the Opposition, to support the motion, which stands in the name of the leaders of all parties in the House. I have been asked by the leaders of the Social Democratic party, the Ulster Unionists, the Democratic Unionists, the Scottish nationalists and the Welsh nationalists to express their thanks and best wishes.

Mr. James Kilfedder (North Down)

The hon. Gentleman has not mentioned the Ulster Popular Unionists.

Mr. Dobson

And the Popular Unionists, whose request has just been received.

It is appropriate that this motion should be in the names of the leaders of all parties because Sir Victor has always done his best to serve us all. His task was made more difficult, not by any shortcomings on his part, or that of his staff, but by our own continued failure to vote for the necessary resources for them to provide the services that we request. As a result, Sir Victor has spent much of his time being asked for the use of rooms that have not been built and for other services for which we were not prepared to vote the money. These unceasing demands that Sir Victor produce an unending quart from a pint pot, make all the more remarkable his unfailing courtesy when dealing with Members' demands and requests.

As the Leader of the House has said, in recent times Sir Victor and his staff have faced the difficult problem of trying to reconcile the need for the public to have freedom of access to their Members of Parliament with the conflicting need to secure the safety of this place as a symbol of democracy and the safety of hon. Members and staff. That has been a difficult balance to achieve, and it is only fair to attribute what has gone right to Sir Victor and his colleagues and any shortcomings to the decisions which we, as a House have made.

At the start of his adult life, Sir Victor was on active service with the Coldstream Guards in Italy, where he was wounded in action. His 20 years of service to this House have been rather less dangerous, but both phases of his career show his lifelong commitment to our country's democratic institutions, which was surely best demonstrated by his friendly demeanour and his willingness to listen to others and to respond to their needs—qualities that must lie in the hearts of those who sustain the democratic ideal. We all thank him for his service and we wish him a long, contented and well-deserved retirement.

Mr. Kilfedder

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As the motion has not been signed by the leader of every political party in the House, may it be amended accordingly?

5.25 pm
Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

It gives me great pleasure to associate myself with what has been said about Sir Victor Le Fanu. I am glad to have this opportunity to express, on behalf of my colleagues, our gratitude for the service Sir Victor has given to the House.

I do not wish to detain the House by repeating the many points that have already been made, but the post of Serjeant at Arms requires special qualities, which Sir Victor has shown in abundance. He has provided a tight rein, a tight ship and the administration that we need to be able to do our jobs effectively.

I shall pick out two special qualities of Sir Victor. The first is patience, which has certainly been required to put into practice the system of passes that provides the security that has already been mentioned. The second is courtesy, which we have all seen in abundance, and which is something for which I and my right hon. and hon. Friends are especially grateful.

Sir Victor has a wide range of interests, so it would be inappropriate to wish him a restful retirement in Bath, but we wish him a happy retirement and we assure him that we are grateful for his services to us.

5.27 pm
Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

I agree with what has been said in tribute to the retiring Serjeant at Arms. Without the firm authority that you, Mr. Speaker, exercise over our exchanges in this place, the wise counsel of the Clerks and the orderly arrangements of our high steward, the Serjeant at Arms—without, so to speak the wig, the pen and the sword—I doubt whether the rest of us would get very far. You jointly provide the framework without which we eager, disparate and sometimes argumentative legislators could not do our work, and for that, and the skill and dedication you show in our service, hon. Members on both sides of the House are truly grateful.

It is therefore fitting that, when one of these guardians of our rights, our convenience and working arrangements, retires, we should acknowledge the debt and pay our tribute. It is truly astonishing that we have had only seven Serjeants at Arms in the past 100 years, and perhaps it says something about my great age that I have known, personally, five out of the seven.

The Serjeant at Arms does not have an easy role. He has to carry out his duties as housekeeper with whatever means the House itself wills and provides. He directs a large staff, who serve us admirably. He is responsible for our security—and never has that been a more onerous task than in recent years. Above all, he must possess qualities of firmness and tact.

Victor Le Fanu learnt how to manage people in a very hard school. He served with courage and distinction in the Coldstream Guards, and was badly wounded in Italy in 1944. You will know, Mr. Speaker, that the regimental motto of the Coldstream Guards is "Nulli Secundus"—"second to none". Those of us who served in the Army know that that is a clarion call which evokes loyalty and devotion to one's regiment.

For over a quarter of a century, Victor Le Fanu has given that same loyalty and devotion to the House. He has done so in his own quiet, courteous and effective way. As the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) pointed out, he has always been a good listener, has always done his level best to help individual Members. He has shown no favour to either side, and I can honestly say that he has been a true friend to us all. His service to the House of Commons has been "Nulli Secundus", second to none. We salute him for a task faithfully discharged; we thank him for all that he has done in our service; we wish him and Lady Le Fanu a long and happy retirement.

5.31 pm
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will you forgive a mere Back Bencher, Mr. Speaker, for taking two seconds of the House's time to pay a genuine tribute to a very special man?

The House of Commons is not a very gentle place—it is a cruel crucible that does not always forge friendships or appreciation—but many of us who have been privileged to work with Victor Le Fanu know that he is a special kind of man. Although I support other hon. Members' recognition of his formal abilities, they have not highlighted—as I wish to—his wit, warmth and real wisdom.

Those of us who have been in the House for many years know that to serve Members of Parliament is not the easiest task in the world: they are a difficult, individual and occasionally anti-social group. This man has achieved—with tremendous effort and great kindness—something truly unique. He has served us all and given of his best, but he has done more than that: he has proved to us that those who serve the House of Commons with the degree of intelligence and ability that he has shown throughout his career do us great honour, and we miss them deeply when they go.

5.32 pm
Sir David Price (Eastleigh)

I intrude on these tributes to Sir Victor only for a moment. I believe that I knew him professionally before any other right hon. or hon. Member present today: we went through the Guards' depot as recruits on the same day, and no one can start lower in the British Army than as a recruit at Caterham.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braise) mentioned Sir Victor's military service. Our then squad sergeant went under the name of Lance-Sergeant Jelly, than which a more improbable name could hardly he imagined for a man who ended up as one of the Brigade of Guards' most distinguished regimental sergeant majors. We saw in Victor then the qualities that the House has seen since. He will always remain a sergeant in our minds, and anyone who has once been a guardsman is always a guardsman.

5.33 pm
Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

I wish to recount, very briefly, an incident that occurred when Sir Victor first came into the service of the Serjeant at Arms' Department 26 years ago. When he had been in the House for three or four weeks and I was still a fairly new Member of Parliament, he said to me, "I do not know whether I shall be able to put up with all these late nights."

I remind the House that in those days we had many more late-night sittings—on the Finance Bill, for instance—and the junior member of the Serjeant at Arms' Department had to be present until 2 am, 3 am or 4 am. Sir Victor was well able to overcome his worries, however, and went on to give the House distinguished service. The difficulties that the Serjeant at Arms' Department experienced in those days may be balanced by today's different problems, but the way in which Sir Victor coped with a life that was very different from what he had previously experienced pays tribute to his persistence. We should all be most grateful for all that he has given over the past 26 years.

5.35 pm
Mr. Ray Powell (Ogmore)

As yet another Back Bencher, I wish to pay tribute to Sir Victor for the service that he has given and for the friendship that he has extended to me, as the person responsible for the allocation of accommodation for Opposition Members and also as Chairman of the New Building Committee. His interest in that has already been mentioned. He was most understanding when Members had no reasonable accommodation.

I well remember, when I was first elected, being taken to the Serjeant at Arms when a request had been made by the then James Callaghan. The Serjeant at Arms said, "We have no accommodation for you, but I can let you have the key to a locker." I thought that I would have somewhere to hang my coat, and was very disappointed when I found that I could not even fit my briefcase into the locker. We have progressed since then.

Let me also pay tribute to Sir Victor's staff: they, 1.00, are deserving of credit for the understanding way in which they deal with Members, particularly new Members.

I well recall Sir Victor's understanding behaviour on a cold night in 1983. You, Mr. Speaker—then as Deputy Speaker—decided to ask for my removal from the Chamber, and he was far more understanding than you were.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House recognises the loyal and devoted manner in which Sir Victor Le Fanu, KCVO has discharged the duties of the Office of Serjeant at Arms; expresses its profound appreciation for his 26 years of examplary service to the House; and extends to him its best wishes for his retirement.