Committee call on clerk appointment
Speaker John Bercow will face growing pressure today over the recommendation for a replacement Commons clerk amid calls from influential MPs for the establishment of a new parliamentary group to scrutinise the governance of the House.
Tories Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) and Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) have submitted a motion arguing for a special select committee to be set up to consider the future allocation of responsibilities currently carried out by the head clerk and chief executive.
It was presented to the backbench business committee on Tuesday which has now confirmed MPs will debate on Wednesday next week whether to go ahead with the plan.
The roles were previously held by one person, but in an effort to diffuse the row over the choice of Australian Carol Mills for the post, Mr Bercow suggested splitting the functions into two jobs.
Members had voiced concerns about her lack of knowledge of Westminster procedures, believing she was too inexperienced for the prestigious £200,000-a-year position.
Currently head of the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS) in Canberra, Ms Mills was quickly dubbed the "Canberra caterer" because her responsibilities at the Australian senate were said to include managing kitchens and cleaning.
The furore promoted the Speaker to announce a "modest pause" the recruitment process to replace Sir Robert Rogers as the Commons' most senior official on Monday.
Mr Jenkin, chairman of the public administration committee, said he was confident there was an emerging consensus in favour of setting up the committee.
Mr Norman, who had been campaigning for Ms Mills to be made subject to a pre-appointment hearing, added: "This is a hugely welcome development.
"The House has set in motion a proper public process to evaluate how it is to be governed, including a possible split in the roles of clerk and chief executive."
The motion - supported by Mr Bercow's former deputy Nigel Evans, Margaret Beckett and Diane Abbott among others - suggests former leader of the Commons Jack Straw be appointed chairman of the committee, which would consist of seven other backbench members - three Conservative, two Labour, one Liberal Democrat and one representative for the other parties in the House.
It also states the committee - if accepted by MPs - would have to report to the House by January 12. Party elections for membership could take place when the House resumes in October, enabling the committee to meet shortly afterwards to start its work.
Ms Mills was recommended for the role earlier this month following an open recruitment process with a selection panel led by the Speaker. He was believed to have been keen to bring in an outsider to press ahead with modernisation of the House, rather than promoting deputy clerk David Natzler.
Downing Street has insisted the new clerk must have the backing of MPs.The Prime Minister is responsible for passing the recommendation to the Queen to be finalised.
Since his announcement on Monday, Mr Bercow has faced heckling from MPs over his handling of the affair.
Yesterday, he prompted cries of "shame" as he tried to push forward with the day's parliamentary business after three Tory MPs questioned him on the issue.
Speaking after Prime Minister's Questions, Conservative Simon Burns (Chelmsford) raised a point of order to ask if Mr Bercow would withdraw a letter recommending Ms Mills' appointment until after the pause ends or whether it would "just float around Number 10 until some relevant point".
Mr Bercow said he could not withdraw a recommendation made by the selection panel, but added he had made it "abundantly clear" to MPs on Monday that he would not press it.
He said this point would be made to Prime Minister David Cameron with "crystal clarity".
Lichfield Tory Michael Fabricant questioned why recruitment consultants Saxton Bampfylde were prevented from telling the advisory panel that Ms Mills was "under two investigations by the Senate", adding: "And is it not the case that Saxton Bampfylde did not, I repeat, did not originally recommend that Carol Mills be considered?"
Mr Bercow replied: "Unfortunately, but fairly predictably, you are wrong. You are wrong on both counts."
The Speaker continued in his answer to Mr Fabricant before telling MPs: "I think the House will want to proceed with its business."
Conservative Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) then raised a further point of order and chose to question Mr Bercow about a newspaper article.
Mr Pincher asked the Speaker: "Last week in his column in the Guardian, Andrew Sparrow stated that a source close to you said that most members of this House don't understand the role of the clerk and that many MPs believe that the clerk is just a man in a wig who sits at the table in the chamber."
Mr Bercow intervened and asked Mr Pincher to sit down.
The Speaker said: "It's not normal practice to expect the Speaker to comment on any and every media report.
"I didn't see the report, I'm not responsible for the report and I do invite you and members of the House as a whole to rise to the level of events."
He then added: "I think perhaps we can leave it there."
Meanwhile, Mr Jenkin has said the public administration committee has written to the Speaker pointing out its readiness to hold a pre-appointment hearing for the posts of clerk and chief executive "at the appropriate time".