Searching for a Clerk

Spookily enough, I didn't find time to peruse the Sunday Times' top jobs ads on Sunday.

But close scrutiny of the advertisement for the next Clerk of the Commons - the 50th in the apostolic succession of Clerks, which dates back to Robert de Melton in 1363 - reveals some interesting nuances.

First, the ad dances delicately around the issue of the relative importance of a knowledge of parliamentary procedure and wider management skills, an issue I blogged on a couple of weeks ago.

"Described by the current Clerk as 'the best job in the world', with exceptional influence at the heart of Parliament, this challenging dual role is an opportunity to make use of your knowledge of both constitutional matters and business administration."

Instead it gives pretty much equal status to the two skill sets required:

"The Clerk of the House of Commons is chief advisor to the Speaker, the Leader of the House and other members of the front benches on matters of procedure and privilege. Meanwhile, as Chief Executive, he or she oversees the permanent administration. This includes chairing the management board, setting policy, overseeing a workforce of some 1,750 employees and managing a budget of around £200 million."

Clerkish sources have been at pains to point out that wearing a wig is not incompatible with management skills.

The current system, they note, has delivered a 17 per cent reduction in budget without loss of services to MPs or the public, and a much more efficient management set up in the Commons. Not forgetting of course, handling the considerable demands of a beefed up select committee system, plus delivering and servicing the highly effective Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, which may yet emerge as the most important innovation in the work of parliament since the creation of departmental select committees.

The job description leaves no doubt, though, that better scrutiny of laws and government remains a work in progress:

"… Challenges include further enhancement of the House's scrutiny of Government and improving engagement between Parliament and the public. In addition, you will make services for Members and the public more customer-focused and responsive, and prepare for a major refurbishment of the Palace of Westminster."

And that last point is starting to loom over the Westminster machine.

Sometime after 2020, the Victorian section of the Palace of Westminster will have to be partially or totally closed, for several years.

The building is in a dreadful state, and everything from the wiring to the window-frames and the cast iron roofing needs attention.

There is believed to be lurking asbestos and unquantified fire hazards and the job of setting it all to rights in a world heritage building will be long and expensive.

The ad continues, with some understatement

"This unique, high-profile role entails high-level decision-making, political impartiality and an understanding of the practices and procedures of Parliament. Combining considerable gravitas with credible business leadership skills, you will also possess an outstanding intellect and the ability to communicate effectively at all levels. For more information, including how to apply, please contact […] our employment agency advisor..."

That is another innovation; a head-hunter has been engaged to smooth the process (the same firm is advising on, er, the next Chair of the BBC Trust) implying the ambition of bringing in a high flying outsider.

This could be someone like the Clerk and Chief Executive of the Scottish Parliament, Paul Grice, or the Clerk of the Canadian House of Commons, Audrey O'Brien; maybe a top civil servant, or perhaps, if we're being really radical, a high flyer from business.

The closing date is June 23rd… the salary is £198,000 a year, plus pension and an official residence.

And there's even a uniform allowance to cover the cost of the wig.

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