HL Deb 31 July 1974 vol 353 cc2301-9

11.6 a.m.

Consideration of the letter from Sir David Stephens, K.C.B., C.V.O., announcing his retirement from the office of Clerk of the Parliaments.


My Lords, shortly after the Whitsun Recess the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor read to the House the letter in which Sir David Stephens announced his intention of retiring from the office of Clerk of the Parliaments before the House rose for the Summer Recess. I then said that your Lordships would wish in due course to pay tribute to the service of Sir David to this House. That time has now arrived and I know that the House will join me in expressing to Sir David the sense of the Motion which I now formally move: That this House has received with severe regret the announcement of the retirement of Sir David Stephens, K.C.B., C.V.O., from the office of Clerk of the Parliaments and thinks it right to record the just sense which it entertains of the zeal, ability, diligence, and integrity with which the said Sir David Stephens executed the important duties of his office. Parliament is a mirror of our democracy. Some Parliaments are known for their disorders and turbulence. Fortunately, ours, particularly your Lordships' House, conducts its affairs within established procedures. We Peers, as Members of a self-regulating House, may claim credit for all this, but I believe great credit rests with our Clerks who are the guardians of our procedures and our traditions. Therefore, in paying tribute to Sir David I should like—and I know that this would be his wish—to pay tribute also to all those, in whatever capacity, who have worked under him in the service of our House.

Sir David's record of public service is long and varied and one of which he can be proud. Before he entered the public service he had two years as a Laming Travelling Fellow. It is said that "travel broadens the mind" and I am sure that not only Sir David but also the public service benefited from this period of his life as a Travelling Fellow. Perhaps for the Record I should make it clear that a Travelling Fellow is not to be confused with a "fellow traveller". Not even his worst enemy (I do not believe he has one) would ever accuse Sir David of being a "fellow traveller".

Sir David joined the Parliament Office nearly forty years ago, in 1935. But after three and a half years he decided to widen his experience and he left the office, first to be a member of the Runciman Mission to Czechoslovakia in 1938, and then to join the Treasury. His connection with Parliament was not by any means lost during his years away from the House. For example, between 1947 and 1949 he was Principal Private Secretary to the Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons—that great Parliamentary figure, the late Lord Morrison of Lambeth. I can think of no better tutor in the art of Parliamentary government than Herbert Morrison. No doubt Sir David himself would pay testimony to the value of that period of his working life. After a further spell in the Treasury, Sir David became Secretary for Appointments to two successive Prime Ministers—Sir Anthony Eden, now the noble Earl, Lord Avon, and Mr. Harold Macmillan. In this capacity no doubt Sir David had much to do with the presence in this House of a number of noble Lords, and not least the right reverend Prelates and—dare I say?—even one, if not two, of the most reverend Primates.

In 1961 Sir David returned to your Lordships' House as Reading Clerk, a post which he held for two years until in 1963 he succeeded Sir Victor Goodman, who retired suddenly on grounds of ill health, as Clerk of the Parliaments. Sir David has held this office for the long period of nearly eleven years. These have been years of significance to the House. I am sure that all Members of the House will agree that we have been ably served by Sir David during this time, particularly on the administrative front where he could draw on his wide experience of the Civil Service and public life. I believe it is important that our Clerks should not become too shut off from the outside world, and the House has benefited from having as its Clerk over the past eleven years a man with such broad vision as Sir David.

The past eleven years has been a period of considerable change in your Lordships' House. We have only to cast our minds back to 1963, when Sir David was appointed, to remember the long debates on the London Government Bill when we thought that those occasions were something unique in the life of the House. Since then, very late Sittings have become almost common place, and we remember in particular the Industrial Relations Bill and the European Communities Bill. In Sir David's span of office the House has changed considerably. It has grown, for instance, in numbers from an average daily attendance of about 150 to an average to-day of 250. That is only one index of the increased activity of the House. The Parliament Office has grown and the services which the Clerks provide to the House have greatly expanded to meet the increased activity of the House.

On the procedural front there have been notable changes. The Companion to the Standing Orders was revised in 1972 under Sir David's guidance and, during one particular Session, the Procedure Committee, at which the Clerk of the Parliaments is our valued adviser, met on no fewer than ten occasions. Public Bills have been referred to Committees off the Floor of the House and the use of Select Committees has been reactivated, culminating in the establishment of the new European Communities Committee with numerous Sub-Committees requiring a full complement of staff to serve them. Over all of these changes, both procedural and administrative, Sir David has provided invaluable guidance to the House—and, my Lords, I stress that to the House. Sir David has upheld throughout his period of office the tradition that the Clerks' advice is open to every Member of the House—not just to me or my colleagues on this Government Front Bench, and to noble Lords on the Front Bench opposite, but to every noble Lord in this House.

Sir David has now decided that it is time for him to make way for a successor, and I know that many of his friends in all quarters will miss him. David can take his leave of this House in the sure knowledge of a task well done, in the knowledge that his colleagues who follow will uphold the dignity of his high office. We are aware, too, that in paying tribute to him we should think especially of his wife who has been a magnificent support to him. With our best wishes for the future, we ask them to come back whenever they wish and they will then always receive the warmest of welcomes. My Lords, I beg to move this Resolution.

Moved to resolve, That this House has received with sincere regret the anouncement of the retirement of Sir David Stephens, K.C.B., C.V.O., from the office of Clerk of the Parliaments and thinks it right to record the just sense which it entertains of the zeal, ability, diligence and integrity with which the said Sir David Stephens executed the important duties of his office.—(Lord Shepherd.)

11.16 a.m.


My Lords, from these Benches I should like to endorse, and to do so most warmly, that very fitting and well deserved tribute which has been paid by the noble Lord the Leader of the House to Sir David Stephens. All parts of the House are united in our regard and affection for Sir David Stephens as Clerk of the Parliaments for eleven years, and as Reading Clerk for three years before that. We have greatly appreciated his courtesy, his helpfulness and his wise advice, to which the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, has rightly referred in the tribute to which we have just listened. We might also reflect that advice which is wise stems from experience and from the quality of mind of the man who gives it. Sir David has also shown exemplary patience—listening to all our speeches over those fourteen years: good, bad, and many indifferent, remaining imperturbable throughout, never looking bored or even surprised. We ought to remember that at the Table we see only the public side of the work of the Clerk of the Parliaments. But he is also now the chief executive of a con- siderable staff. We do not always appreciate how much the Clerk has to do by way of administration and personnel management behind the scenes. It is now an even more demanding and skilled job than it has been in the past.

My Lords, we shall miss Sir David Stephens. We shall miss particularly his courtesy and his kindness, and we wish him and Lady Stephens well in their retirement. I am sure I speak on behalf of all Peers when I say that I count it as a privilege to have known him, and to have been in the House during the time he has guided us so ably as our Clerk.

11.18 a.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Byers unfortunately cannot be present with us this morning and he has asked me to say a few words about Sir David Stephens on behalf of noble Lords who sit on these Benches.

The first thing I should like to say is that we associate ourselves entirely with the speech of the noble Lord the Leader of the House, and with the words of the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition. I can go back to the legendary days when Lord Badeley was Clerk of the Parliaments, and I can say that Sir David Stephens has kept his place very well with such great figures and has stood up excellently to the great work which they have done. When I have had dealings with Sir David upon all sorts of matters I have found that he has been delightfully helpful, friendly and not at all rigid and fixed in his interpretation of the various problems which arose. Therefore I join with the other noble Lords who have spoken in conveying to Sir David and Lady Stephens our best wishes for a very happy retirement. I think that he will certainly be able to look back and feel that he has accomplished a very difficult and delicate job extremely well.


My Lords, on behalf of the Lords Spiritual may I join in the tributes to Sir David Stephens, tributes which we are all making with sadness at his going and with deep gratitude for what he has given to this House, to Parliament, and to all of us as individuals, too. He has served with great dignity, great efficiency and great personal kindness through the years of his office. As the noble Lord the Leader of the House remarked, there was a time in which the Clerk of the Parliaments held the post of adviser to the Prime Minister concerning the appointment of Bishops by the Crown. Thus we on these Benches have felt all along that he must know a very great deal about us, and we trust that he watches us and listens to us not altogether with feelings of disappointment.

Be that as it may, we join in the feeling of pride in the House of Lords as an institution, and it is the great service given by Sir David that has indeed helped to enhance the reputation of this House as an institution, while at the same time he has shown such great kindness and helpfulness to every single one of us as an individual who has sought his help and counsel. We all wish him and Lady Stephens great happiness in their years of retirement.


My Lords, may I, as a Back-Bencher, add a tribute from the Back Benches to Sir David for all the kindness and courtesy which he has shown to us? I have been here during all the years that he has served this House, and never once has he done anything but shown a great deal of kindness and courtesy to all of us.


My Lords, I am sure my colleagues on the Cross-Benches who have so many different opinions about everything would wish the Cross-Benches to be associated with the tributes paid to Sir David this morning.


My Lords, I hope your Lordships will agree it is proper that from the Back Benches I should say a word or two more in a meed of praise to Sir David for his invariable accessibility, for his infinite kindness and patience in dealing with the problems which people like myself, Life Peers, have put to him and on which we have had to seek his advice over the years. We wish him well and thank him again.


My Lords, as an incumbent of the Woolsack I have particular reasons for gratitude to Sir David Stephens for his guidance and help during the, as yet, brief period when I have had the honour of presiding over your Lordships' House. The Scriptures tell us that there is no leaping from Delilah's lap into Abraham's bosom. That may well be so, but no less difficult is the transition from Speaker to Minister and Minister to Speaker, and from the Woolsack via the public dressing room to the right of the Throne to the Government Bench, which I understand the Lord Chancellor has done ever since the days of Cardinal Wolsey, and is an exercise that I have lamentably failed effectively to perform on one unhappy occasion!

I have been relieved to be told by both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, and the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne—who, incidentally, particularly asked me to convey his good wishes to-day to Sir David during his unavoidable absence—that they, too, have found the Woolsack a somewhat unsafe seat. Whether that was the experience of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, he has not communicated that information to me. but I am sure that he, too, would wish to convey his good wishes to Sir David. The fact that my own sins of omission and commission have of late become a little less frequent, is due entirely to the assistance I have had from Sir David and to the fact that I in turn have kept an eye on his watchful eye.

It has become apparent to me that the Clerk of the Parliaments here plays a far more active part in the public proceedings of the House than his equivalent in another place. That is because of the obvious determination of your Lordships that the Lord Chancellor as Speaker should have as little power in this House as possible. The task of the Clerk here calls for tact and infinite alertness. I am quite sure that the noble Lord who dreamed he was making a speech in your Lordships' House, and when he woke up he found that he was, is a purely apocryphal character. But, certainly, as the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, intimated, the temptation for a catnap must be great but has to be resisted by the Clerk.

As noble Lords from all sides of the House have so appropriately stated, Sir David Stephens has rendered immense service to the House and to Parliament; and, if I may say so, not least in his role as adviser to other Parliaments during the many international conferences that he has attended. The House could not have had a more devoted servant and to me, as I know to all Members of the House who have sought his aid, he has been a ready counsellor and friend. I should like to express my own gratitude to him and to wish well to Sir David and his family.

On Question, Resolution agreed to, nemine dissentiente.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Lord Chancellor do communicate this Resolution to Sir David Stephens.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.


My Lords, I beg to move the second Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty laying before Her Majesty a copy of the letter of the said Sir David Stephens, K.C.B., C.V.O., and likewise of the Resolution of this House, and recommending the said Sir David Stephens to Her Majesty's Royal Grace and Bounty.—(Lord Shepherd.)

On Question, Motion agreed to nemine dissentiente: the said Address to be presented to Her Majesty by the Lords with White Staves.

Then, the Lord Chancellor having informed the House on June 11 last that Her Majesty had, by Letters Patent, appointed Peter Gordon Henderson, Esquire, to the Office of Clerk of the Parliaments, in the place of Sir David Stephens, K.C.B., C.V.O., the Letters Patent were read. The said Peter Gordon Henderson, Esquire, made the prescribed declaration (which declaration is set down in the Roll among the oaths of the great officers) in terms as follows: I, Peter Gordon Henderson, do declare that I will be true and faithful and troth I will bear to Our Sovereign Lady the Queen and to Her Heirs and Successors. I will nothing know that shall be prejudicial to Her Highness Her Crown Estate and Dignity Royal, but that I will resist it to my power and with all speed I will advertise Her Grace thereof, or at the least some of Her Counsel in such wise as the same may come to Her knowledge. I will also well and truly serve Her Highness in the Office of Clerk of Her Parliaments making true Entries and Records of the things done and passed in the same. I will keep secret all such matters as shall be treated in Her said Parliaments and not disclose the same before they shall be published, but to such as it ought to be disclosed unto, and generally I will well and truly do and execute all things belonging to me to be done appertaining to the Office of Clerk of the Parliaments.

After which he took his seat at the Table.

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