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Speaker praised for clerk 'pause'

Speaker John Bercow has been praised for executing an "evacuation from a hopeless position" as he was bombarded with questions from MPs on replacement for the Commons head clerk.

Mr Bercow was earlier heckled by MPs as he announced a "modest pause" to the recruitment process to replace Sir Robert Rogers as the Commons' most senior official.

The Speaker has faced quickly mounting pressure over the decision to recommend Australian official Carol Mills to the £200,000 a year post, amid claims she was not qualified to rule on constitutionally critical matters in the chamber.

Mr Bercow earlier told MPs he was convinced of the need to split the historic role of Clerk from the chief executive position it had evolved into but that no such decision had been made before the position was advertised.

MPs questioned the Speaker on his statement in a series of points of order.

Winning laughs, Tory MP Crispin Blunt said: "In the generally successful history of the British Army some of the most celebrated actions from Corunna to Gallipoli to Dunkirk have evolved evacuations from hopeless positions.

"Can I congratulate you on successful disengagement from the opposition forces you have run across. But to complete a successful evacuation of your position, I would urge you there are very many of us who do not take the same view... and it would not be necessary to cover the evacuation for there to be an unnecessary reorganisation of the affairs of the House."

Mr Bercow replied: "I appreciate what you have said and the good humour with which it has been said.

"Of course, I am aware there are different views. My responsibility is to hear and to seek to heed them. That is what I propose to do."

Jesse Norman, the Conservative MP who has led a campaign during the summer recess to halt the appointment of Ms Mills, said: "I welcome your remarks earlier in your statement on the pause, the need for consultation and goodwill and consensus on the appointment of Ms Carol Mills.

"To clarify, would you agree that at least as regards the procedural and constitutional aspects of the clerkship, she is not qualified for the role and if so is it your intention to withdraw the letter of recommendation, at least for the period of the pause, and consultation?"

Mr Bercow replied: "I say it isn't for me to withdraw a name. A decision was reached by a panel. I hope MPs would accept it would not be seemly to comment on the characteristics of or performance by individuals participating in a still on-going process.

"I referred to the need for a pause, and I meant it, I talked about hearing the views of colleagues, and I meant it, and I also talked about the need to proceed with goodwill and by consensus."

Labour MP Peter Hain, who is a former Leader of the House, supported Mr Bercow in his desire to split the post. He said: "I came to the view this was essential... the clerk needs to be an experienced and specialist expert in Parliamentary procedure. The chief executive however has a different function."

Mr Hain highlighted the decision, controversial at the time, to appoint an independent professional head of security during the 2000s as a similar watershed moment in how the Commons operates and urged the Speaker to "stick to your guns".

Mr Bercow said: "I want to hear what people have to say... I wish to hear all views, from all members, in all parts of the House."

Labour's Keith Vaz questioned how long the pause would last and whether it would include a pre-appointment hearing in front of MPs.

The Speaker said: "I think it is sensible to proceed in a timely way and that's why I referred to a modest pause. I am in the hands of and ready to be guided by the House."

He said MPs could have a pre-appointment hearing with the candidate if they wanted one.

Conservative Nigel Evans questioned whether Ms Mills was being kept up to date on the situation, warning she faced being placed in an impossible position.

Mr Bercow said: "I am in touch with the person to whom you refer, and others are, it is important that clarity is established as soon as is compatible with the rights and responsibilities of the House being met and discharged."

Tory Chris Pincher challenged the Speaker on the cost of splitting the post, adding: "When might that be made clear?"

Mr Bercow said: "There has been, to my knowledge, no particular assessment of that. There is a consideration of cost - there is also a consideration, resulting from efficient management and strategic direction, for potential savings to the House."

In his earlier statement to MPs, Mr Bercow said: "Over the years, Parliament's affairs have become more complex, its Budget has ordinarily risen and decisions - such as on a potential refurbishment of the House - have become unavoidable. Thus, highly skilled management is now vital, as much as expertise in procedure.

"Two rounds of interviews were conducted and at each stage, the panel sought to select one person who could meet the demanding twin roles both of procedural adviser to the House and of its chief executive officer. The panel reached its decision on July 30th.

"However, a number of colleagues have since expressed disquiet... In the circumstances, and having discussed the matter with the Leader (William Hague) and Shadow Leader of the House (Angela Eagle), I believe that a modest pause in the recruitment process is desirable while such issues are explored and the views of Members solicited in detail.

"In the meantime, the functions of the Clerk and chief executive will be distributed between members of the Management Board. I am sure that the whole House will wish them well in the discharge of these important duties, while the matter is resolved with goodwill and by consensus."

The proposed appointment of Ms Mills, who is currently head of the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS) in Canberra, has sparked rising concern in recent weeks while MPs have been away on the summer recess.

Members have voiced concerns about her lack of knowledge of Westminster procedures and believe she is too inexperienced for the prestigious job.

She has been dubbed the "Canberra caterer" because her responsibilities at the Australian senate are said to include managing kitchens and cleaning.

But, ahead of today's statement, allies of the Speaker insisted that was an "immensely patronising and incredibly sexist" description of her role and qualifications.

The DPS has around 800 staff and an annual budget of around £67.5 million and is responsible for the Australian version of Hansard and provides IT, library and research services for parliamentarians.

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