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Straw to chair clerk role committee

Labour veteran Jack Straw will chair a new committee of MPs to examine whether the historic role of clerk should be split to sit alongside a chief executive in a bid to defuse a major Commons row.

Speaker John Bercow was last week forced to announce a "modest pause" in the recruitment process to replace Sir Robert Rogers, who retired last month after a 40-year Parliamentary career.

Mr Bercow nominated Australian Carol Mills to fill the £200,000 a year post after chairing a committee tasked with finding a replacement, aided by head hunters Saxton Bampfylde.

But the selection sparked complaints from MPs on both sides of the Commons who protested Ms Mills did not have the relevant experience to advise the Speaker on Parliamentary procedure, a constitutionally sensitive role which has existed for centuries.

Mr Bercow has argued the role should be split and a dedicated chief executive with the skills to manage a large staff and budget appointed.

A cross party motion to create the new committee was backed by MPs tonight following an intense two-hour debate on the row and the way forward.

Mr Straw's committee will be tasked with reporting back to MPs by January 12 after examining the "future allocation of responsibilities for House services exercised by the Clerk of the House and Chief Executive".

Mr Bercow was not present for the debate, which was chaired by Deputy Speaker Lindsay Hoyle.

Commons Leader William Hague was also absent. A spokesman said he was "temporarily indisposed with a stomach upset".

In the debate, former Commons Leader Andrew Lansley, who was a member of the selection panel, told MPs that the current appointment process should be cancelled and called for an internal temporary appointment to the post of clerk.

He said it was "particularly regrettable" that Mr Bercow sought to "water down" the job description from 2011 so that detailed knowledge of Westminster procedures was no longer required for the new appointment.

As a result, Mr Lansley added, the selection panel was not asked to subject candidates to the same test, putting internal candidates at a disadvantage.

But shadow leader of the Commons Angela Eagle, who is currently on the House of Commons Commission and was also part of the selection panel, offered a different view as she insisted the latest recruitment process was "open and fair and came to a conclusion which was by consensus".

Introducing the motion, Jesse Norman (Hereford and South Herefordshire) told the Commons: "This debate arises because of a widespread concern among colleagues across the House that the appointment process for the next clerk of this House was seriously flawed."

He told MPs there had been "steady, if somewhat inconsistent progress" in the management of the Commons against a background of significant changes in technology and rising standards and expectations.

Mr Norman said: "It would be a tragedy if this process of improvement, of modernisation and improvement, were to be set back by an obviously flawed appointment to the present clerkship."

Conservative Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) told Mr Norman: "Are you aware that in an answer to me I understand that the panel were completely unaware that Carol Mills was undergoing two investigations actually by the Australian senate before they made their decision - so they were unaware of that.

"Moreover, Saxton Bampfylde wished to inform the panel that this was the case and the panel were advised not to take evidence from them."

Mr Norman replied he was not aware of those details, adding he was grateful that it had been raised.

Speaking later in the debate, Mr Fabricant warned the time would come when questions would have to be answered about why Sir Robert had retired early, after only four years in the most senior role.

Margaret Hodge, chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee, criticised the behaviour of certain members in the run up to the debate as "mistaken and misguided" and said the personal attacks on Mr Bercow had been "unwarranted and plain wrong".

She reminded the House that the post advertised was for both clerk and chief executive and said there had been two rounds of interviews to that end.

But she added: "It proved impossible to find a single individual capable of fulfilling both roles ... a number of members of the panel thought that Carol Mills was the only candidate who was appointable to the job."

Mr Lansley disagreed, saying the panel had found more than one person capable of being recommended.

Sir Menzies Campbell, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, said that given the constitutional implications if Scots voted yes in next week's referendum and the added legislation that would have to ensue, it would be crucial to have a clerk in post with exceptional knowledge of procedure.

Speaking on behalf of the Government in Mr Hague's absence, Deputy Commons Leader Tom Brake said the issue was for the House to resolve.

He said MPs expected to have access to the highest quality advice and said the clerk was relied on "heavily".

And Mr Brake said it was key for the clerk to be completely independent.

The Commons must also be cost effective, he said.

Mr Brake told MPs: "The Government will seek to ensure the House has an opportunity to debate the committee's conclusions at an early opportunity so resulting appointments can be made as quickly as possible."

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