Westminster: Chief Commons clerk Sir David Natzler retires

Chris Cook
Policy editor, Newsnight
@xtophercookon Twitter

image copyrightHouses of Parliament
image captionSir David Natzler was the top clerk

Eight months after our initial report into bullying and harassment, the clerk of the House of Commons has announced he will stand down.

Sir David Natzler was expected to retire soon anyway; he is not being forced out. But his is the first - and, so far, only - departure from the House of Commons of any of the principals involved in the issue.

Sir David, as clerk of the House, is the top clerk. One of the first things anyone says about Sir David is that he is clever.

But, in recent months, that description has been larded with caveats; notably words like "unworldly". The go-to man when it comes to understanding parliamentary procedure, but no manager.

Someone who failed to see the problem before him - either before our investigation or after.

Sir David is blamed for blundering in the first few days after our initial report was published.

The House's action in the first 24 hours seriously damaged his capacity to lead the House of Commons Service. The House's initial response was to suggest that all the problems were historical, and to pick on one serving clerk's testimony - that she lived in a "climate of fear" - as a "grotesque exaggeration".

By the next week, Sir David had to change course.

He wrote to staff, explaining: "Some of you have expressed to me and to others your dismay at the tone of our statement to Newsnight and the subsequent email we sent to you on Friday morning. I acknowledge we got it wrong in giving the impression we were in denial."

But the damage was done.

The Cox Review, written by Dame Laura Cox, a former judge, found that the initial statement: "in both content and tone, was wholly out of kilter with the strength of feeling of many members of staff, and with the findings of the Working Group just a few weeks previously. And the contributions to this inquiry reveal that it has caused enduring anger and distress."

In the months since, Sir David has sought to repent and reassure clerks about his seriousness of purpose. But a large number of clerks have not regained their trust in him.

He put his name to a tortuous piece of argument which claimed that the House of Commons did not issue non-disclosure agreements to departing staff; on any reasonable reading of what happened, that was untrue.

That is how we arrived here. The House promised to fix the problems Newsnight identified.

But, as Dame Laura put it: "the level of trust and confidence in the senior House administration to deliver on that promise is now so low that few contributors to this inquiry consider it likely to happen, at least not within the foreseeable future."

Today, John Bercow, the speaker, tried to dismiss any notion that this departure was linked to bullying, saying: "I have known this day was coming for over a year".

But Sir David's retirement in March may be a precondition of restoring trust.

Who comes next?

Replacing him will need to be done with care. The problem of bullying and harassment runs deep into the upper layers of the House of Commons.

The current senior management have known of this problem for years. In some cases, they have been perpetrators themselves. Others have been victims - and used their experience to justify advising others to stay silent and not complain.

When Sir David was appointed, the House had been looking at bringing in an outsider.

The Cox report implicitly makes a strong case for considering such a move. A lot of senior clerks will see this as an appalling idea; a common view among likely candidates for the succession is that Dame Laura did not understand the "political realities" of the House.

But those political realities are the support beams for what Dame Laura called "a corrosive culture, in which bullying and harassment, in particular of women, have become normalised and which cascades down through the structures.

This misconduct involves not only relations between MPs and House staff, but between senior and junior House staff and between House staff working at the same level."

"As some members of staff see that other staff and MPs can bully people and not be held to account, they feel able to bully others in turn, without fear of adverse consequences, or feel that this is the best way to achieve results, and the problem soon becomes embedded. Bullying becomes legitimised and complaining about it is regarded as "likely to make matters worse," or as "career suicide.""

Appointing someone to replace him who has no experience of a functional workplace would, at this juncture, be a bolder call than appointing someone who needs to read up on procedure.

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