HC Deb 19 July 1995 vol 263 cc1672-4 3.58 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

I beg to move, That this House expresses its appreciation to Sir Alan Urwick, KCVO, CMG, for his 43 years of distinguished public service, including six years as Serjeant at Arms; and extends to him its best wishes for his retirement. The motion is in the name of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leaders of all the other parties in the House. This is one of those occasions when Members in all parts of the House, as is evidenced by the signatures to the motion, can put aside party divisions and join together in paying tribute to a distinguished servant of the House who is shortly to leave us.

Unlike his predecessors, Sir Alan came to the House as Serjeant at Arms not from a background in the armed services but from the diplomatic service, which he joined in 1952. After tours of duty in western Europe, the middle east, Moscow and Washington, he reached the highest ranks of his profession, serving as Her Majesty's ambassador in Amman and in Cairo, and as high commissioner in Ottawa.

Sir Alan took up his appointment as Serjeant at Arms when he left the diplomatic service in 1989. He rapidly found out what life is like in this place during the summer recess: the Serjeant's usual quarters were uninhabitable, because the builders had taken them over, so he had to set up his office in a corner of one of the Committee Rooms. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh yes."] As I sense some other hon. Members may feel, that is a familiar experience, and one which his successor is about to inflict on me and my secretary.

Over the past six years, Sir Alan has responded with the courtesy and skill we would expect of a professional diplomat to the many and varied demands which the House and its Members have made of him personally and of his Department. The security of the House has continued to be one of his major responsibilities, even in the more relaxed atmosphere of recent months, and the pressure on accommodation has been unremitting. I know that you, Madam Speaker, and the whole House have appreciated the way in which Sir Alan has dealt with those continuing concerns, and the effort he has devoted to the service of Members.

One of the major changes with which Sir Alan has had to cope during his term of office has been the implementation of the Ibbs report, which led to the House taking control of its own works programme. The Parliamentary Works Directorate has now been established as an integral part of the Serjeant's Department, and the evidence of its activities is all around. The ease with which that considerable change has been brought about reflects much credit on all those involved, Sir Alan not least among them.

As we say farewell to Sir Alan, we welcome as his successor Peter Jennings, the Deputy Serjeant, who came here nineteen years ago as Major Jennings of the Royal Marines, and is well known to us all.

I am sure Members on all sides will join me not only in expressing our thanks to Sir Alan, but in wishing him and his wife Marta a long and happy retirement.

4.1 pm

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

On behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition, the Ulster Unionists and the Scottish National party, I join the Leader of the House in paying tribute to the Serjeant at Arms on his retirement. We thank him for all his work.

As the Leader of the House has said, the motion has been signed by all parties, because in the past six years Sir Alan has given service to Members from all sides of the House and, indeed, to our staff as well. His greatest achievement has been to help make substantial progress in providing additional and improved accommodation for Members and the Departments of the House. However, perhaps Sir Alan is best known to the public for his distinctive dress, which is often the subject of comment and question from our constituents when they visit the House.

After a long and distinguished career in foreign service, to which the Leader of the House has referred, Sir Alan was appointed Serjeant at Arms. One of his first acts was to hand over the Serjeant at Arms' residence in Speaker's Court, so that members of the shadow Cabinet could be provided with more reasonable office accommodation in the Palace. Perhaps I should declare an interest, as I have a room in that block. My room is not as spacious as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott), who works in the old drawing room. It might be indiscreet to go further and reveal who is working in the Serjeant's old kitchen.

Sir Alan's family motto is "Verum nobilissimum est" which, as you know, Madam Speaker, means "Truth is the most noble". Perhaps we should keep those words in mind when we debate standards in public life.

During his six years in the House, Sir Alan has overseen enormous changes in the services required from his Department, and the size of the estate it administers. In the post-Ibbs review era, Sir Alan has played a full part in servicing both the Accommodation and Works Committee, and the Administration Committee.

I hope that Sir Alan and the House will not mind if I use this occasion to pay tribute to Sir Alan's staff for the responsive way they react to our requests, and also to wish his successor well. I am sure that the whole House will wish to be associated with the remarks of the Leader of the House. We all want to thank Sir Alan for his efforts on our behalf, and to wish him well in the future.

4.5 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Liberal Democrat party—and indeed, the other parties not mentioned by the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor)—I extend our best wishes and thanks to Sir Alan Urwick for his most careful and courteous attention to the requirements of hon. Members and the care that he has taken over many important matters, in particular security.

When it comes to the duty of the Commission to advise on the appointment of a Serjeant at Arms, there is a difficult balance to strike between the relative advantages of a background in military service, which has been the norm in that post; the advantages of promoting from within the service of the House, a practice that is also important; and bringing in experience from elsewhere.

It is a difficult balance, but I feel that we were right in advising that a period under the stewardship of Sir Alan would be valuable for the House, bringing as it did an outside experience at a time when it was necessary to look again at some of our traditional ways of doing things. That experience has been valuable to the House, and we are grateful for it. We wish his successor well, confident that he will discharge the job in an extremely efficient manner.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House expresses its appreciation to Sir Alan Urwick, KCVO, CMG, for his 43 years of distinguished public service, including six years as Serjeant at Arms; and extends to him its best wishes for his retirement.