HL Deb 09 July 2003 vol 651 cc276-83

3.23 p.m.

On consideration of the letter from Sir John Michael Davies, KCB, announcing his retirement from the office of Clerk of the Parliaments:

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I wish to pay whole-hearted tribute to the Clerk of the Parliaments, who will retire on Monday. On 12th March this year, I informed your Lordships of Sir Michael's intention of retiring from the office of Clerk of the Parliaments. I said then that there would be an opportunity to pay tribute to Sir Michael. I now move to resolve, That this House has received with sincere regret the announcement of the retirement of Sir John Michael Davies, 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 John Michael Davies executed the important duties of his office". Your Lordships will have marvelled at the orotund majesty of that Motion. I know that the Clerk of the Parliaments will especially welcome it, as he drafted it himself.

Sir Michael has been Clerk of the Parliaments since 1997. He has therefore been head of the Parliament Office throughout the whole period that we on this side have had the privilege of being in government. His fortunes have always flowered under Labour. His long, highly distinguished career in this House started in 1964, the same year that the Labour Party was restored to power under Mr Wilson. On behalf of the members of Government—I shall come to the whole House in a moment—during the past six years, I want to place on record our real gratitude for the advice with which he provided us as we began to settle in as a new government.

In fact, Sir Michael must know this House better than nearly any of us. His deep affection for and commitment to this place is obvious for anyone to see. He began his service 39 years ago, in 1964, after leaving Peterhouse, Cambridge. I have done a little arithmetic and discovered that only 17 current Members of the House have been here long enough to remember Sir Michael's first day. The other 97.5 per cent of us therefore have less experience of this place than he. So we are not losing simply a much valued and respected adviser but someone who has become a House institution.

He held a great variety of offices during his time here. One was Private Secretary to the Government Chief Whip and Leader of the House. I know from experience how helpful—how essential—it is to have a member of the Clerks' Department to help to negotiate the bizarre, esoteric and arcane mysteries of this place. I am certain that the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, and the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, both benefited similarly from Sir Michael's wisdom, guidance and discretion during their term in my office.

In 1968, Sir Michael began a 15-year tenure as editor of the Journal of the Society of Commonwealth Clerks, called appropriately, your Lordships may think, The Table. When he took over in 1968, it was close to extinction; now it thrives and is edited by a Clerk of this House to this day. He made many contributions to Halsbury's Laws of England, Erskine May and many other parliamentary publications. In 1974 he became secretary of the Statute Law Committee.

He was a very popular chair of the Association of Secretaries General of Parliaments. He achieved that post and distinction despite coming from an unelected second Chamber—no small achievement. It was the perfect job for him, who has been a life-long and effective promoter of inter-parliamentary contact.

Even that brief sketch—as I recognise it to be — shows what an interesting and dedicated career Sir Michael has had. He would probably agree—if I may say so, it is typical of the modesty of the man that he has absented himself from this part of today's proceedings—that it is his time as the Clerk of the Parliaments since 1997 that has offered him the most concentrated challenges. We have seen a period of great change. He oversaw the first change in administration in 18 years. He piloted the House through the passage of the House of Lords Bill and its subsequent implementation. He played an important part in devising a way of electing the elected hereditary Peers, including his wise suggestion that the Electoral Reform Society should be engaged.

His term has seen the implementation of the working practices package; the reform of the domestic committee structure; introduction of the new Code of Conduct; business planning; and, of course, implementation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. He has seen many of his staff leave the main building to go to Old Palace Yard and Millbank House and has overseen a 20 per cent increase in the number of staff for whom he bears responsibility. Those are all important changes. Some are more prominent than others; but those that are not noticed behind the scenes are as important to the effective running of our House. There have been no visible procedural hitches.

I am not sure about this next commendation, but he is the first Clerk of the Parliaments to have relied on e-mail and had a lap-top introduced at the Table. However, I am glad to see that we have kept our hereditary egg-timer. He has therefore, in his quiet, unassuming, efficient way, implemented more change than any other Clerk of the Parliaments in history. That is a tribute to his professionalism and his integrity.

I said that I would come to the whole House. I know that the whole House will want to join in wishing Sir Michael and Lady Davies and their family many happy years. He will not waste his years in retirement. He will have more time for cricket, travel and decent wine. We shall all miss him and his advice, and we shall look back on his term in office with not only gratitude but affection and respect. I beg to move.

Moved to resolve. That this House has received with sincere regret the announcement of the retirement of Sir John Michael Davies, 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 John Michael Davies executed the important duties of his office.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

3.30 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, it is with great pleasure that I rise to support the Motion tabled by the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House and to follow him in paying tribute to Sir Michael Davies, Clerk of the Parliaments.

I must admit that while the noble and learned Lord was speaking, I waited in nervous dread in case he would remark on the ancient lineage of the office of Clerk of the Parliaments, going back to 1280 no less, and whether he felt that there was still a role in modern Britain for such a post, or whether it would suffer the same fate—death by press release—as the Lord Chancellor. What a provocation the Clerks must be to the Prime Minister. But, no, I am delighted to say that the spirit of modernity has been dimmed, for the time being anyway. The Clerks, with wigs and gowns as well, are here to stay.

We should need no reminding that the period over which Sir Michael has presided has been one of most extraordinary change in our House——the greatest that we have seen since the 1650s. Indeed, in one sense, Sir Michael is the last Clerk of the Parliaments, or at least the last Clerk of the old House that was replaced by the Act of 1999. It is not the least tribute to him, and to the team of loyal servants of this House, that he has led so successfully and has presided so scrupulously over that period of change. As the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House said, that change was brought about not only through composition but also by the change of government in 1997—not foreseen by all of us—but it was a seamless transfer that exemplified all that is best about those who serve the House. Through it all, Sir Michael's quiet authority has been accepted without question by the most experienced Peers and the most recent arrivals in the House. I know that I am not alone in saying that he has embodied something of profound importance—the thread of continuity between old and new, with which the courtesies and freedoms of the House are so closely bound.

He is also a patient man. After all, he has sat at the Table through the longest Session that the House has known in modern times, through the biggest Bill for years and the one with the largest number of amendments ever. All those we have seen in the past two Parliaments and in record numbers of sittings of Grand Committees as well. I am not sure to what extent Sir Michael is a fan of Grand Committees, but he has embraced modernisation, has exemplified the spirit of duty that is the tradition of the House, and has even endured the new House Committee and the language of management consultants. But, unlike the rest of us, he has remained astute enough to contrive to escape the novelty of a September sitting.

It would he invidious to pick out aspects of Sir Michael's service, but not the least was the consummate skill with which he achieved the success of the hereditary Peers elections in 1999—a novelty for the House where the very word "elections" has not always been welcome. There is no doubt that the success of the by-elections was due in part to the splendid organisation of the Clerk's office.

Sir Michael has always been fair and non-partisan. His advice has always been clear and consistent, even though I have not always agreed with it. The office of the Clerk of the House has been well looked after under Sir Michael Davies, as I know it will continue to be in the hands of his successor.

On behalf of the Opposition. I wish Sir Michael and Lady Davies well in what we hope will be a very long, happy and active retirement. We hope that we shall on occasions still see him in this place. His knowledge, experience and wisdom are too great to lie untapped for long. He has a worthy successor, but Sir Michael Davies will be much missed from your Lordships' House.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, referred to the ancient lineage of Clerks of the Parliaments—a very proud tradition of which Sir Michael is a part.

I should like to refer for a moment to the ancient lineage of Sir Michael himself. His grandfather was a cleric in the Church of Wales and was one of the great antiquarians of Welsh history. His father was a distinguished member of the Indian Civil Service, and in that capacity learned to love India very deeply and to bring up his son with a similar affection for that great subcontinent. His mother was a niece of the great Archbishop Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was once referred to by the late Sir Winston Churchill as the only half-crown item in a sixpenny bazaar. Of course, no insult is intended to the right reverend Prelates with whom we work so closely.

As the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House has said, Sir Michael entered the House of Lords in 1964 and steadily worked through a huge period of change and alteration. He did so with great distinction and with a very calm sense of judgment. I understand that when he entered it, the House of Lords was a relatively leisurely place. His mother is said to have asked him why he always appeared to catch a later train than his father and to come back on an earlier one. That happy situation was not to last long. After a few years, Sir Michael found himself on a treadmill, which steadily became faster moving, and throughout the whole period of his career managed to keep up with, and indeed to keep ahead of, that treadmill. It would not be unreasonable to say that, had the title not been seized some time ago by someone else, Sir Michael remained the great helmsman through the choppy seas of change; and I say that with due deference to Mao Tse-Tung, who, of course, preceded him by some years.

In addition to Sir Michael's very distinguished and committed service to the House, there beats beneath his impeccable attire a somewhat more rebellious heart. Many of your Lordships will know of his great passion in the field of team games—a man who loves cricket, croquet and hockey and who, in the love of those games, combines three of the most gentlemanly forms of team sport with some of the most vicious manipulation known to man. Some of your Lordships may also know that Sir Michael is extremely fond of attending parties and is a thoroughly engaging, attractive and charming person to have at a party.

Finally, your Lordships may not know, as I have recently discovered from my research, that his parents travelled overland to India when they were already in their late 60s, and that Sir Michael's favourite form of travel is to live in small tents in Greenland. I trust that in his happy retirement he and Lady Davies will have further opportunities to take their tents to remote parts of the world.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, as the Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers, it is my privilege to add to the tributes to Sir Michael Davies on behalf of all Cross-Benchers.

His career and achievements have already been covered. I should like to mention in particular his unfailing courtesy and approachability. All on these Benches will have had occasion to seek or read his sound advice. The Clerk of the Parliaments must be non-party political, as are Cross-Benchers. But whereas Peers who sit on these Benches may and do indicate a preference for one or other party's view when they go through the Division Lobbies, Clerks of the Parliaments are never at liberty to indicate their political bias. They are the unrivalled independents and are therefore able to serve under both main political parties, when in government, with equal and unbiased loyalty.

Such a sense of duty is a very special and admirable trait, which has served this country well over many generations. But to ensure that it continues, we need to be able to encourage and develop those uniquely valuable qualities in each succeeding generation. We have clearly benefited greatly from it in the case of Sir Michael and in the ranks of the high grade Clerks who follow him. His period as Clerk of the Parliaments has been one of the more momentous for the House. The noble and learned Lord the Lord President has reminded your Lordships of all that has taken place and is taking place in the House. We owe a great debt to Sir Michael, who has helped to ensure that those changes are being successfully meshed with the numerous other longstanding orders and practices of your Lordships' House.

If I could single out just one of many pieces of advice that Sir Michael has given for the benefit of this House it would be a minute that he wrote to the usual channels immediately following the announcement of the Government's intended changes to the responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor. He and his colleagues had little forward knowledge of what was afoot, but they produced a most helpful and comprehensive guide to the many issues that would need to be addressed. He has also done much to ensure that the support and backing that we enjoy in this House from the authorities who look after the Palace as a whole is dovetailed with the needs of the other place. His has been a productive time in an area that for many years has been a tricky and testing part of the Clerk's many responsibilities.

The workload of this House has undoubtedly grown in Sir Michael's time. He holds a number of statutory and regulatory positions, including Accounting Officer, Corporate Officer, employer of the staff of the House, Registrar of the Court of Parliament and custodian of the records of the House. The whole House has been fortunate to have his guidance and leadership though these testing times.

On behalf of all Cross-Benchers, I extend our warm thanks and good wishes to Sir Michael, his wife and family for the years ahead.

The Lord Bishop of Chester

My Lords, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford would very much have liked to pay tribute to Sir Michael. Bishop Richard has had a prior engagement with an orthopaedic surgeon and a new hip on Monday. I know that the House will wish him a speedy recovery and return to the fray in the autumn.

As noble Lords will be aware, the turnover on these Benches is a little quicker than elsewhere in the House. That gives the Clerk of the Parliaments the regular task of inducting fresh-faced prelates, most recently the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry, into the manners and morals of the House. We are all grateful for Sir Michael's skill in keeping us on the straight and narrow—which is no mean task—around the rather windy corridors of Westminster and generally for all his warm and ready advice.

Reference has already been made to Sir Michael's ecclesiastical pedigree. I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, was going to say that Sir Michael was the only half-crown item in a sixpenny bazaar. She could have gone back a generation further: Sir Michael's great-grandfather, Frederick Temple, was the Archbishop of Canterbury at the turn of the century. Aged 81, in 1902, he had to organise the arrangements for the coronation of Edward VII. It was a particularly onerous task because, after Victoria's long reign, hardly anyone could remember what had happened at the previous coronation.

Three main problems emerged. First, how could the service be conducted as efficiently and quickly as possible, as the King demanded, within the bounds of dignity and decorum? Secondly, what were the bishops to wear? Some things never change, my Lords. Those were the days before cope and mitre were de rigeur. How many parts of the King's anatomy were to be anointed? Those delicate questions were carefully resolved by the archbishop after extensive consultation, including an instruction to the Bishop of London, his preacher, to stay within five minutes' contact from him.

Temple's biographer comments that, his grasp of practical matters was as shrewd as ever". Bishops have not always had that reputation. In Temple's biography, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Runcie, recalled a student from Rugby School, where Temple had been headmaster, saying of him, "He was a brute, but a just brute". We cannot say that of Sir Michael. We can only pay tribute to his sense of decency and justice.

At the coronation, all was well until the archbishop went to pay homage, sank to his knees for the purpose and could not get up again. A paper reported that he, was seen to stagger and reel as if in a faint". Having been offered something to drink by the Archbishop of York, he exclaimed, "It is my legs not my stomach that is the problem".

I doubt very much that his great-grandson has ever staggered and reeled these past 39 years, as he has rendered such exceptional service to Parliament. However, Sir Michael has followed in his great-grandfather's footsteps in the practical wisdom and grasp of detail that Temple is said to have shown at the coronation. We shall miss many aspects of his character. Perhaps above all, from these Benches, as we look directly at Sir Michael, we shall miss the wry smile that sometimes came across his face when some particularly poignant or significant moment was reached in the affairs of the House. By God's grace, we wish Sir Michael and Lady Davies a long and happy retirement.

Lord Windlesham

My Lords, since I am one of the only 17 survivors whom the Leader has discovered were Members of the House when the young Michael Davies first joined the Parliament Office in 1964, perhaps I may add a further tribute. We worked together closely in the early 1970s, during the time that I had succeeded the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, who is in his place, as Leader of the House, when Sir Edward Heath was Prime Minister. During those years, Michael Davies was my private secretary.

We were near contemporaries at the time. We had children of the same age. I remember vividly at a State Opening of Parliament his children and mine from that little-known balcony adjoining the Leader's room, getting a bird's eye view of the procession when the Queen arrived. As private secretary, he showed his potential within the Parliament Office to rise right to the top. In my case, it was the start of a friendship that was to last for three decades.

Throughout that period, I am confident that we can all agree Sir Michael has been a fine pubic servant. He has been accessible to provide sound, wise advice to all those who consulted him but never pressed it on those who did not wish to hear whatever advice he might be expected to give. There can be no doubt that the legacy of his long period of exceptional service to the House will endure.

On Question, Motion agreed to nemine dissentiente; it was ordered that the Lord Chancellor do communicate this resolution to the said Sir John Michael Davies, KCB.

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