HL Deb 13 January 1997 vol 577 cc1-9

On consideration of the letter from Sir Michael Addison John Wheeler-Booth, KCB, announcing his retirement from the office of Clerk of the Parliaments:

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, before I pay a well deserved and no doubt inadequate tribute to the last Clerk of the Parliaments, perhaps I may say on behalf of the whole House how very pleased indeed we are to see the noble Lord, Lord Richard, in his place. From his demeanour, I hope I can conclude that he has made a full recovery.

On 31st October last year I had the sad duty of reading to your Lordships the letter in which Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth announced his intention of retiring from the office of Clerk of the Parliaments with effect from 4th January this year. On that occasion I said that, in accordance with the customs of your Lordships' House, your Lordships would in due course have an opportunity to pay tribute to Sir Michael. To that end I now rise to move: That this House has received with sincere regret the announcement of the retirement of Sir Michael Addison John Wheeler-Booth, KCB, 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 Michael Addison John Wheeler-Booth executed the important duties of his office. On the two most recent occasions when the Leader of the House has moved such a Motion, he has done so within a few weeks of appointment to his own office.

My predecessors have thus been able to plead diffidence in honouring the wisdom and experience of the retiring Clerk of the Parliaments. I can claim no such indulgence but I am nevertheless sure that the whole House will agree with me that it is indeed a heavy responsibility to lead your Lordships' House in tributes to such a figure as Sir Michael. I feel this most acutely because so many of your Lordships have known Sir Michael and benefited from his experience for much longer than I have. I am sure that others of your Lordships, from all sides of the House, will accordingly wish to say a few brief words today.

We should recall that Sir Michael's service to your Lordships' House has been a long and extremely distinguished one. He entered the service of your Lordships' House as long ago as 1960. As with many of our Clerks, he came from one of our great universities. Unlike more recent arrivals however, he preceded his time in academia with a period of National Service as a midshipman in the Royal Navy. He has, I think I am right in saying, never forgotten that period of his life and it has, I have particularly noticed, formed a more than useful bond with others around your Lordships' House with similar experience.

After serving five years in the various posts allotted to junior Clerks, Sir Michael was seconded to be Private Secretary to the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip. I know from experience that Leaders of your Lordships' House are fortunate indeed to be served in their private offices by some of the ablest of an able group of Clerks. But I am sure that, for instance, the noble Earl, Lord Longford, will agree with me that he was perhaps more than usually fortunate to have had Sir Michael as a private secretary and I am certain that Lord Shackleton would have echoed those sentiments had he still been with us today.

In 1967 Sir Michael was assigned to what might be described as a "special operations" unit. He was seconded to be the joint secretary to the inter-party conference on Lords reform. His diligence and ability, for which your Lordships' Motion rightly commends him today, were perhaps nowhere more evident than in the vast amounts of detailed work that he undertook on Lords reform at that time. It may not have escaped your Lordships' attention that reform is once again a topic on the minds of at least some of your Lordships. I am sure that those studying these questions will benefit from a careful scrutiny of the work done by Sir Michael all those years ago.

In the early 1970s Sir Michael was intimately involved in the work that your Lordships undertook to establish a means of scrutiny for European Community legislation. It is perhaps the greatest tribute that we can pay to his work that we can observe that that work continues with undiminished vigour today. Other member states of the European Union and, indeed, dare I say it, another place, are only now beginning to attempt to match the work that your Lordships have been quietly doing for over 20 years. I do believe that this House will recognise that this continuing scrutiny will serve as perhaps one of the more lasting memorials to Sir Michael's efforts on behalf of the whole of this House.

In more recent years, during his period as Clerk of the Parliaments since 1991, Sir Michael has continued to devote himself tirelessly to improving the efficiency and effectiveness of your Lordships' House. It was under his leadership that the Ibbs reforms to financial administration were carried through, with relatively little pain and with the result of both substantial savings and an expansion of services without an increase of expenditure in real terms, a virtuous circle which has not always been imitated by those who have benefited from government expenditure in other directions.

Sir Michael also saw the establishment of the Jellicoe Committee which has led to so many valuable developments in the Committee work of your Lordships' House. He has also advised informal procedural working groups designed to shorten the hours sat by your Lordships. We are all grateful to Sir Michael for what he has done to square the circle of improved scrutiny within shorter sitting hours. That was something which some of us thought was an impossible task, but which he showed was not nearly as impossible as we thought.

Sir Michael's record of service in your Lordships' House is an impressive one. He can look back with pride on the many improvements and achievements he has caused, or at least encouraged and facilitated. He will be remembered as a most amiable and generous man: his staff parties in Oxfordshire were, I understand, great occasions. He will be warmly remembered by his many friends here and around the Commonwealth.

On a more personal note, I know that Sir Michael has a clear view of the dignity and purpose of this House. It informed all aspects of his work and it informed in particular the way in which he introduced new Members to this place. I should like to record my own appreciation of the way in which he introduced me to your Lordships' ways and for the frank but tactful approach with which he has helped me during the past five years, and the past two-and-a-half in particular. He has an enjoyment of life that is infectious and which has much enlivened our exchanges. It enabled me to anticipate my meetings with him with a heightened sense of pleasure.

I am not convinced that Sir Michael does in fact intend to retire in the traditional sense of that word: for example, I know that he has agreed to continue with some valuable work on the Parliament volume of Halsbury's Laws. It would thus perhaps be a little premature for me to wish him a happy retirement just yet. But as he leaves the service of your Lordships' House, I know your Lordships will join with me to wish Sir Michael and Lady Wheeler-Booth, and their family, many happy and peaceful years together, and to record our appreciation of the great service he has rendered to our House, which we will remember with pride and affection.

Moved to resolve, That this House has received with sincere regret the announcement of the retirement of Sir Michael Addison John Wheeler-Booth, KCB, 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 Michael Addison John Wheeler-Booth executed the important duties of his office.—(Viscount Cranborne).

Lord Richard

My Lords, I begin by thanking the Leader of the House for his kind words. I come back not inspirited or totally reinvigorated, but recovered, and hope that I shall be able to play a modest part in the workings of this House in the next three or four months.

It gives me great pleasure on behalf of the Opposition to second the Motion moved so ably by the Leader of the House this afternoon. He started by telling us that on two or three previous occasions it had been moved by a Leader of the House within weeks of that Leader attaining office. He will understand me totally if I express the hope that on this occasion it has been moved by a Leader of the House within weeks of his leaving office.

To turn to the subject matter of the Motion itself, Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth was a remarkable man and a remarkable servant of this House. The Leader of the House set out his career. It was long and it was distinguished. He played a large part—I echo what the Leader said—in relation to the setting up of the European Communities Scrutiny Committee. That committee, as those of us who have been in Brussels at any time will know, has a reputation which is frankly enviable and unmatched by any House and any other Parliament in the European Communities. Its reports were read with care, certainly within the Commission. I remember being grilled at one of the meetings of the sub-committees. I can only say that it was a cross-examination which I remember, if not for the comfort it gave me, certainly for the vigour with which it was pursued. That stands very much as a monument to Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth.

In relation to Sir Michael's work in the House, it is fair to say that everything he did, he did in order to try to improve the functioning of this House and to establish better ways in which we could function properly. I think particularly of his attempts to take more business off the Floor of the House and into Committee. That was a subject close to his heart and one which we followed with great interest.

The qualities of the man spoke for themselves. He was scrupulously fair and non-partisan. I speak as an Opposition Member in this House, but I think I can say that the advice we received from Sir Michael throughout my time in the job was clear, undoubtedly objective, fair and non-partisan. He was an open-minded man—he is an open-minded man: we should not treat this as if it is an obituary, because it is not. He was colourful and, as some of your Lordships will know, he was sometimes delightfully outspoken. He was kind and considerate. Nothing was too much trouble for him.

He was an innovator as far as this House was concerned and his roots were in precedent and in practice. He was very careful to build upon what the House had achieved in the past and tried to make sure that the ways in which the House was now moving were consonant with what had gone before and would be consonant with what was to come after. He was a great believer in this House and he was a great believer—he is a great believer—in the need for co-operation between the two Houses.

I hope that we have not seen the last of Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth. I am sure that he is not retiring in the conventional sense of the word. I hope that in some form or another it will be possible to maintain his connection with the House. I echo what the Leader of the House said about conveying our good wishes to him and his family in their temporary and partial retirement.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, I have seen many Clerks of the House of Commons come and go but I have seen the full term of only one Clerk of the Parliaments in your Lordships' House. The contrast which is imprinted on my mind is that, particularly in my younger days in the other place, Clerks always seemed to be immensely venerable figures, bowed down with Victorian tradition and precedent, while Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth always seemed to me to be a figure of youth, gaiety and flair. That is so partly, I suppose, for the very good reason that he is probably the first in the series to have actually been a good deal younger than me. Thinking that Clerks of the Parliaments have come to look young is a serious advance on thinking that policemen look young, but it also owes a good deal to the fact that he has essentially been a buoyant as well as an efficient and devoted servant of your Lordships' House. I think he will go down as a Clerk of the Parliaments whose style will not quickly or easily be forgotten. I hope he will have a long and productive retirement.

It has been suggested that a combination of our modern demography and our early retirement habits means that there is a lot to look forward to at the end of a first career. If Sir Michael were a Member of your Lordships' House, he would be regarded as distinctly on the junior side. We wish him very well in the future, just as we welcome his successor to his new responsibilities.

Lord Weatherill

My Lords, the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, recounts in his memoirs that one day a former Cabinet colleague came to him in the Chair and said, "Mr. Speaker, may I have a word with you please after this debate as an old friend?", to which the noble Viscount, Lord Tonypandy, replied, "Mr. Speaker has no old friends". It is one of the glories of parliamentary traditions that, like the Speaker in the other place, the Clerks in both Houses of Parliament are totally impartial, giving guidance and advice to Members, irrespective of party political allegiance. We on these Benches do not have splendid and reliable Whips to ensure that we do not stray from the paths of righteousness. I suspect that from time to time all 309 of us have sought the advice of Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth as individuals. We hold him in the highest regard and affection and we will always be grateful to him for his wisdom, kindness and courtesy to us.

It was Edmund Burke who once said darkly of a Clerk of his day, "There are persons in this world whose whole soul is a previous question and whose whole life is an adjournment". It is to the new Clerk of the Parliaments, Mr. Michael Davies, who we welcome very warmly, that we shall in future be bringing our previous questions. For Sir Michael, after 36 years of dedicated service to Parliament, it is the adjournment. In my experience he was the most assiduous of the Clerks in keeping in touch with the other place. More than many in this House, I am able to say how absolutely essential and important it is that Parliament should operate as a whole. We on these Benches wish him and Lady Wheeler-Booth a long and a very, very happy retirement and we shall all look upon him henceforth as a very, very good friend.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, because diversity is one of the glories or perhaps features of the Church of England, when a Bishop speaks, one cannot always be sure that what he says will be endorsed by all his brother Bishops. However, there is a unity deeper than that diversity which surfaces when it really matters. I know that what I say now most genuinely expresses the feelings of all my brother Prelates in this House. I am their sole representative today because they are assembled in Liverpool this week to conduct essential ecclesiastical business from which one of their number must absent himself to be on duty in this place. I have to say that my offer to spend the week here instead of in Liverpool was not a painful sacrifice.

The turnover of Bishops in this House is regular and even during the time since he became Clerk of the Parliaments Sir Michael has supervised the introduction of two Archbishops and 15 diocesan Bishops. My own experience is mirrored by others. Entering this place for the first time is for all the world like entering a new school or university—an ancient institution, awesome and bewildering, and unless one is supremely self-confident, which few of us are, the cause of much anxiety about geography, forms and customs. It is difficult to describe the relief at one's first interview with Sir Michael; the new boy reassured by a kind housemaster and gently introduced into the ways of this strange and wonderful institution. Like the best of housemasters or tutors, he always made one feel welcome to return to him for advice. I think the wise Bishops did just that because Sir Michael has a perceptive and profound understanding of the Church of England and especially, of course, a long and varied experience of Bishops in this place.

I am personally deeply grateful to Sir Michael for his wise guidance, encouragement and friendship during the past six years. I speak for all my brethren in wishing him fulfilment and every blessing in the future when no doubt he will continue to be, as he has been here, a good servant not only of the nation but of the Church.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, the noble Viscount the Leader of the House, in his fine tribute, echoed by other speakers, mentioned the fact that Sir Michael was Private Secretary to myself and to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd. Therefore, it seems right and proper that I should say just a few words.

We are told in the Scriptures—the previous speaker is a better authority on this than I am—that no man can serve two masters. The present—and perhaps future— Leader of the House will be aware that he has to serve two masters; namely, the interests of this House and those of the nation. Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth served both sublimely. In my case, and I believe it is also true today, he had to serve two masters: the Leader of the House and the Government Chief Whip. He had to deal with my old, gentle, self-effacing self and the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, who is a very efficient person, with superhuman energy and drive. He had to reconcile our requirements and he did that sublimely.

I am sure that everyone in the House will agree with me that Sir Michael is a man of extraordinary skill and integrity. He has an inscrutable smile which leaves one uncertain as to what is really going on in his mind. But whatever he was thinking, he was doing what was right and proper. If the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, were here I am sure that he would join me and everyone else in paying tribute to him.

We are also told in the Scriptures by the founder of our religion that he said to his disciples, "I shall call you henceforth not only servants but friends". Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth was a great public servant. He has made innumerable friends in this House.

Earl Jellicoe

My Lords, following all the top brass, may I very timidly add a few words. I have benefited enormously from Michael Wheeler-Booth's interest and advice in a number of capacities, going back to years ago when I was a humble member of the Council of Europe. I have almost forgotten what that body was, but he was involved with it at the time; and I was a junior member of the inter-party conference on Lords' reform, where he played so notable a part, as he did also when I was Leader of your Lordships' House.

I would like to say how much in particular I owe to Michael Wheeler-Booth for his extraordinary wisdom in terms of knowledge of people and institutions when, for some unknown reason, I was chairman of a Select Committee on the committee work of your Lordships' House. It was quite wrongly nicknamed by my noble friend the Leader of the House the "Jellicoe Committee".

In those and in many other ways I benefited enormously from the advice, wisdom and experience of Michael Wheeler-Booth. His advice was willingly given and always with great humour. It was enormous fun to be involved with him.

I join with those who have already spoken in wishing Michael and his wife a very happy retirement. Perhaps I may also say how glad I am to welcome his successor, Michael Davies, who was once, and will always remain in my mind, a very esteemed secretary of mine.

Lord Bethell

My Lords, I would like to add a few words to those spoken by my noble friend the Leader of the House and others, including the Leader of the Opposition, about Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth's work in the European section of the deliberations of your Lordships' House. I was one of the members of the ad hoc committee in 1972 which decided to establish the Select Committee on the European Communities. It was very much Sir Michael's guidance which enabled us to reach what I hope was a right decision that there should be a Select Committee continuing year after year to look at this very important matter in your Lordships' debates.

It was Lord Maybray-King who chaired that committee. His inheritance remains with us as the years pass. Later, after he was promoted, Sir Michael kept a close eye on that committee from a vantage point above. I believe that the work done by the committee is unsurpassed by any House in any Parliament of the 15 member states. I hope that those of us who served in the European Parliament and who are now in your Lordships' House have happy memories of that committee and of the red books which arrived month after month. They were seen not only by members of the European Parliament but, dare I say it, by Commissioners not only from the United Kingdom but who spoke tongues other than our own. There was even talk at one time in the Commission of translating those documents into many different European languages. No doubt there would have been a certain amount of criticism of the expense if that had have been done. That was a measure of the value placed on your Lordships' reports, to which Sir Michael contributed so much. I join other noble Lords in wishing him and his family happiness in his retirement.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)

My Lords, as your Lordships know, it fell to Sir Michael as Clerk of the Parliaments to guide me in my Woolsack duties over the time when he occupied that office. To the extent to which I followed that guidance I got it right; to the extent to which I neglected to follow it I got it wrong. The guidance was always delivered with that wisdom and fine humour of which so many of your Lordships have already spoken.

I regard Sir Michael and his wife as great friends. I join with those noble Lords who have expressed for them the very best of happiness, good health and prosperity in the years ahead.

On Question, Resolution agreed to nemine dissentiente; it was ordered that the Lord Chancellor do communicate this resolution to the said Sir Michael Addison John Wheeler-Booth, KCB.

Then, the then Leader of the House having informed the House on 31st October last that Her Majesty had, by Letters Patent, appointed John Michael Davies, Esquire, to the Office of Clerk of the Parliaments, in the place of Sir Michael Addison John Wheeler-Booth, KCB, the Letters Patent were read. The said John Michael Davies, 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, John Michael Davies, 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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