HC Deb 11 December 2002 vol 396 cc289-98 5.13 pm
The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook)

I beg to move, That Mr. Speaker be requested to convey to Sir William Robert McKay KCB, on his retirement from the office of Clerk of this House, the House's gratitude for his long and distinguished career, for his wise contribution to the development of the procedure of the House, for his scholarly research into the history of the House, and for the courteous and helpful advice always given to individual honourable Members.

As the Leader of the House, I have become wearily familiar with the fact that not every motion that I move is a focus of unity within the Chamber, but I anticipate full support for the one that I put before the House on this occasion. By convention, the Clerk of the House is not present to hear these tributes, but I hope that he has found some instrument of modern technology in order that he may observe them, and that he may hear the warmth of Members' appreciation for his lifetime of service to this House.

Bill McKay first entered the Clerks Department in 1961. He has therefore been here longer than any serving Member of the House, and for one year longer than the Father of the House. He has served in the Clerks Department through momentous political events—from the Cuban missile crisis to the present day. When he first came, Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister and Hugh Gaitskell Leader of the Opposition. In the intervening period, he has served under eight Prime Ministers, and Leaders of the Opposition—of both parties—too numerous to recount. His record of service reads like a directory of the Clerks Department—Clerk of Journals, Clerk of Public Bills, Secretary to the House of Commons Commission, and Clerk to the Public Accounts Commission. In the past five years, as Clerk of the House, he has presided over momentous changes in the administration of the Commons.

Sir William McKay is the author of the biographical list of Clerks since 1363, when the office was first created. In that long list spanning more than six centuries, he is the first Clerk of the House also to hold the title of chief executive of the Commons—a post for which he gained valuable experience in his early years as Clerk to the all-powerful Catering Committee.

Over my three decades in the House, I have always found Bill McKay unfailing in the courtesy with which he responded to my questions, and in the authority with which he provided answers. I have also appreciated his tactful knack of always looking as though one had asked a really interesting question. There is only one recorded occasion on which his patience with an hon. Member failed him. He was Clerk of Public Bills during the passage of the Maastricht Bill, and used to receive a daily visitation from a certain very determined individual. After weeks of circular and fruitless argument with that hon. Gentleman, he took to seeking refugee status at a desk in the Journal Office—taking care not to tell his staff where he was, so that they could truthfully say that they did not know where he could be found.

I do not know the identity of the hon. Member involved, but we can all guess.

I suspect that Bill McKay will most want to be remembered in this place for his fine legacy of scholarship, and rightly so. He has been the editor of the second volume of Erskine May's journal, the author of a monograph on secretaries to Mr. Speaker, and he is the source of many of the authoritative revisions to Erskine May's guide to procedure. I am therefore delighted that he leaves us to take up a chair at Aberdeen university as professor in the school of law. It is a post and a location convenient to enjoying his retirement with his wife, the Rev. Margaret McKay, who serves as a minister of a parish in the presbytery of Buchan. Characteristically, Bill McKay and Margaret have already written the authoritative historical account of the parish.

Sir William leaves with the gratitude of hon. Members, with the respect of the House for having fulfilled the great tradition of Clerks, and with the admiration of every hon. Member for a great parliamentarian.

5.17 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

It gives me great personal pleasure to endorse very warmly what the Leader of the House has said about Bill McKay, and I happily add the Opposition's support to the motion before us.

I want to emphasise what the Leader of the House said about the breadth of the responsibilities now borne by the Clerk. Many people may not realise it, but the Clerk of the House is, at one and the same time, the chief executive of the House of Commons—the person who chairs the Board of Management—the corporate officer, the accounting officer and the custodian of our procedures, records and documents.

It may not be widely known but, as "Erskine May" points out, the Clerk is appointed by the Crown for life. It is therefore an unusually generous sacrifice that Bill McKay is making in standing down when he is still such a young man and could have continued for some considerably longer time.

The motion refers to Sir William's scholarship. Lest any hon. Members doubt that, I strongly recommend that they dip into his "Observations, Rules and Orders of the House of Commons—an Early Procedural Collection". The introduction states, on page 8: In the notes which follow, the appropriate Journal (or D'Ewes) reference has been inserted in the margin, under the note found in the Ms itself which usually gives the date or a Seymour folio reference. The foliation of the Ms is also indicated in the margin. Notes which bear on the textual history of the manuscript are given alphabetical references, while notes concerning the events noticed are in numerical series.

That illustrates the characteristic detail that the Clerk has always brought to his work, and to his history. More interestingly, page 1 of the text states that, on 18 November 1549, it was ordered That the Speaker with the Privy Council and twelve others of the house shall be suitors to know the pleasure of the King, if upon their humble suit they may treat of their late relief for cloth and sheep, at four o'clock in the afternoon".

More revealingly, however, on 1 June 1607, the text reads—and I hope that the modernisers will note this closely— Mr. Speaker, with sundry Members and officer of the House being assembled, sat from eight of the clock till eleven then did arise and depart, without a motion made or bill read. I hope that the Leader of the House is not too tempted by that, but it illustrates that things move backwards and forwards in this House and that nothing is for ever.

Alternatively, as the Leader of the House mentioned, one could refer to Sir William's work entitled "Clerks in the House of Commons 1363–1989: A Biographical List". Among those listed was John Hatsell, 1768, who drew full pay for 20 years after he retired and did nothing but interfere with the promotions of his erstwhile colleagues. We cannot expect that of Sir William. The great Thomas Erskine May himself, in 1871—and not a lot of people know this— fought a duel on the sands at Boulogne with the offended husband of a married lady. Our Clerks are characters, are they not?

Finally, Sir Courtenay Ilbert, 1902, was the only Clerk of the House—so far—to have been worshipped as a god. When a parliamentary draftsman for the Indian Administration, he drafted a Bill implementing a measure of self-rule. It was very unpopular in Calcutta, but up country, where the news arrived in garbled form, they made an image called "Ilbert-bill" and paid great honour to it.

We do great honour to Sir William today, although he has not quite become a deity. He will be a very hard act to follow, and we wish every success to his successor, our Clerk-elect, Roger Sands, who is sitting in his place at the Table. Those of us who know him know that he will discharge his onerous new responsibilities from January in his own distinctive style, having served the House since 1965.

The Leader of the House mentioned that Sir William McKay is taking up a distinguished chair at Aberdeen university. Sir William has shown a great interest in comparative legislatures, not least the House of Representatives in the United States, and has befriended the parliamentarians there. I hope that we can look forward to some thoughts from Sir William when he leaves us as to how various legislatures can all learn from one another. I am sure that we in the House of Commons, in our usual humble way, would never eliminate the idea that we could learn from others, perhaps even those across the Atlantic.

Regardless of our length of service as Members, we have all come greatly to appreciate the wisdom of the Clerk and, as the Leader of the House said, his courtesy and helpfulness at all times. We will miss him greatly. We wish him well and we thank him for his long, distinguished and dedicated service to this House.

5.23 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Sir William McKay was the first Scot and the second graduate of the university of Edinburgh to be the holder of an office with an unbroken history of well over half a millennium—twice as old as the prime ministership.

The first Edinburgh graduate to be Clerk of the House was Jeremiah Dyson, who purchased the Clerkship of the House for £6,000. Who received the £6,000 is less than clear, but we must assume that it was Mr. Speaker. I refer to Mr. Speaker Onslow, who occupied your Chair, Mr. Speaker, for 33 years, between 1728 and 1761. I doubt whether Bill McKay purchased the Clerkship—he got there on merit. I say to Opposition Members that no wonder our late friend and colleague Cranley Onslow was so eager at one time to follow his illustrious ancestor into the Chair.

Bill McKay's baptism of fire was on the Licensing (Scotland) Bill in 1962. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House can well imagine the difficulties of sorting out the amendments when the Member leading the Opposition was Willie Ross—a puritan teetotaller on Scottish licensing resulted in a cocktail of difficulties.

However, Bill McKay, who was second Clerk to Clifford Boulton, learned his trade and would have been an obvious choice to be Clerk of the Scottish Parliament had it been formed in 1978–79. Fortunately, or unfortunately, according to one's point of view, that post did not materialise and he and George Cubie were saved for Westminster. Between 1979 and 1981, Bill McKay was the Clerk of the Scottish Affairs Committee and won golden opinions from the late Donald Dewar.

As it has already been referred to, we shall pass over Bill McKay's time as Clerk of Public Bills, with Maastricht and all the problems with killer amendments, but it was as well that there was a scholar in that particular position of impartiality.

One of Bill McKay's great legacies resides in the contacts that he formed with the Nordic countries. His great friend, Anders Forsberg of the Swedish Riksdag, whom I had the pleasure to meet, had the greatest respect for him and his international contribution. Bill McKay formed friendships with the Folketing and especially Henrik Tvarnoe; the Storting and Hans Brattesta; the Icelandic Parliament, the Althingi, and Fredrik Olafsson; and the Helsinki Eduskuntu of Seppo Tiitinen.

Bill McKay follows in a line of distinguished people of great quality whom I have had the good fortune to know through longevity: Sir Edward Fellowes, Sir Barney Cocks, Sir David Lidderdale, Sir Richard Barlas, Sir Charles Gordon, Sir Kenneth Bradshaw, Sir Clifford Boulton and Sir Donald Limon.

I speak for many of my colleagues of yesteryear—retired or departed—when I thank Bill McKay for his dedication, his expertise and his many kindnesses to many Members.

5.27 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

On behalf of right hon. and hon. Friends, I am delighted not only warmly to welcome the motion but also to express good wishes to Bill McKay's successor.

We have found Bill McKay wise—as has already been said—but also very approachable. That is extremely important in the House, especially for new and less experienced Members. I understand that he is also eminently unflappable, which must be a quality that we should all admire.

As has already been said, Bill McKay is the first Clerk to fulfil the full role of chief executive officer, which is a recognition of the huge administrative task that falls on the Officers of the House following the Braithwaite report. It is as a team manager and a team player that Bill McKay will be especially recalled by members of our staff. His role on the Board of Management has been not only unprecedented—for obvious reasons—but also a clear guide to the future management of this building.

Reference has already been made to the fact that Bill McKay is a distinguished historian. Many, many years ago, my academic discipline was history and I recall that history has been described as the study of past mistakes for the avoidance of their repetition. It sometimes seems to me that Members of Parliament should automatically have to take a course in history. Perhaps, in his spare time as a new academic, Bill McKay could put on some distance learning courses for those Members of the House who require constant reminders of the necessity to avoid past mistakes.

Bill McKay has given steady, practical and extremely useful advice to all Members of the House, but it is because he led such a talented team through a period of such change that we shall particularly remember his stewardship. It has been a time when the House has asked for major changes to our procedures in terms of the modernisation programme, but none of those changes could have been achieved without the Officers of the House loyally and professionally putting them into practice.

Today marks another important occasion. Mr. Speaker, you will not have missed the point that this marks a change in the Scots mafia in the House. The Leader of the House comes from north of the border, and the shadow Leader of the House originates from north of the border. The Father of the House comes from north of the Scottish border, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), who speaks on behalf of the House of Commons Commission; and dare I say that it is not unknown for you, Mr. Speaker, to speak up for the Scots? As a fellow Celt from Cornwall, I am jealous of the Scots mafia's influence, and I hope that, from now on, we may be able to broaden the base of the House's control system to include other Celts.

I am delighted to speak in support of the motion. All of us not only thank Bill McKay for the very considerable contribution that he has made to the work of the House and to its reform and modernisation, but for the way in which he, I hope, will be able to ensure that students—not just in Aberdeen, but elsewhere—benefit from his study of the history of parliamentary democracy.

We wish Sir William and Lady McKay every happiness in their retirement.

5.31 pm
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh)

I should like to add my tribute to the contribution that Sir William has made to the affairs of the House of Commons. I wondered earlier today what key qualities the Clerk of the House and, indeed, an official who advises the occupants of the Chair should have. I thought that those qualities were probably honesty, intelligence and fairness, and Sir William has all those qualities. Those are among the reasons why he made such a valuable contribution to the affairs of the House for more than 40 years, as we were reminded by the Leader of the House. That is a tremendous contribution.

I met Sir William when he was the Clerk to the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs in the early 1970s. He will probably remember an excellent report that the Committee produced after conducting an investigation into something called land resource use in Scotland—an issue that still causes a great deal of interest, but now in the other Parliament, of course, in Edinburgh. It was a pleasure to meet him.

Although I have not had a lot of contact with Sir William since then, I have clearly taken an interest in his career primarily, I suppose, because he comes from Leith. As some hon. Members will know, I have had the privilege of representing Leith—or perhaps I had better say part of the greater Leith area—for quite a few years. You will understand, Mr. Speaker, that I have to be careful about the geography.

It is excellent that we have had the benefit of Sir William's contribution. I was aware that he was retiring to the north-east of Scotland, but I had not realised that he had gained a chair at Aberdeen university. I am sure that that is good news because it means that his talents will be deployed to the benefit of not just Aberdeen university but the wider Scottish, United Kingdom and world community.

5.33 pm
Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I am delighted to associate my colleagues and myself with the motion and to echo the tributes that have been paid today to Sir William McKay. Reference has been made to his length of service, to his scholarly research and interests and to his publications. Indeed, we have heard quotations from them during the debate. Of course, we have heard a most interesting contribution from the Father of the House himself. Reference has also been made to the changes that have been introduced during Sir William's time. Those changes have been considerable and a great deal of additional information and assistance has been made available to hon. Members. That is especially important. I noted in particular the introduction in 2001 of induction courses for new Members. I was tempted to say that my hon. Friends the Members for North Down (Lady Hermon) and for South Antrim (David Burnside), who are both here today and entered the House in 2001, benefited from them, but I took the precaution of checking with them beforehand and I regret to say that as traditionalists—all Ulster Unionists are traditionalists—they preferred to rely on traditional methods of acquiring information about the House and did not essay the new courses: but that does not mean that they are not a valuable introduction to the House.

The services provided by Sir William, as Clerk of the House, and the people whom he directs are important, especially for members of small parties. Without the resources that other parties have, we depend very much on the Officers of the House and the services provided by the House, and very much appreciate the way in which Sir William has managed them over the years. I was encouraged and reassured about the breadth and wealth of his interests when I saw him in a certain place where one repairs for a liberal cup of refreshment reading newspapers printed in the island of Ireland.

As Clerk of the House, Sir William occupied what H.A.L. Fisher described as a pleasant opera box from which to view the comedy". As the Leader of the House hinted, he may be relying on a much more inferior box at the moment, but whatever he is relying on, he and his wife have the best wishes of my colleagues and me for the future.

5.36 pm
David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Most Members will not be aware of one activity with which Bill McKay was associated. He was the first British Clerk of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body. Before our first meeting in early 1990, rules drawn up by Bill McKay and his Irish counterpart, Paddy Judge, were established and approved. In the 12 years since, they have come in very handy indeed in meetings between British and Irish parliamentarians. However, some of us with a suspicious turn of mind think that when the two Clerks were drawing up the rules they did so, to some extent, to keep the politicians in check. From time to time, when we wanted to do something, we were told to look at the rules but, at the same time, the Clerks were pretty flexible.

On behalf of the British and Irish members of that body, I should like to put on record our tribute to Bill McKay for doing so much to make the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body a success. I am sure that my Irish colleagues will be interested in the tributes paid to him today.


Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

It is with great pleasure that I associate my colleagues in Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party with all the tributes to Sir William McKay.

I am not the first Scot to speak in this debate, but I am the first Scot to speak about one of his constituents. Indeed, I am the first Scot ever to do so because, as we know from Sir William's history of the Clerks of the House, he is the first Scottish Clerk of the House. I was therefore surprised that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) suggested that there was some kind of tartan stranglehold over the key Officers of the House. A quota of one Scot in 650 years, or 300 years since the treaty of union, is not an overabundance of people of our nationality holding the post of Clerk of the House.

Bill McKay provides us with a clue to something that has fascinated many hon. Members. Why do the Clerks of the House—Bill, Roger and their colleagues—remain inscrutable, regarding our proceedings with equanimity without a shake or nod of the head and only the occasional raised eyebrow? I have the answer in Bill's case—he has balanced his time in this frenetic den of iniquity by commuting every week for the past few years from the village of Aberchirder, known locally as Foggieloan or Foggie, in the beautiful countryside of Banffshire. Before that, he balanced his time in London with building crofts on the island of Coll. I recommend to hon. Members who get caught up in this overcrowded corner of the country that they, too, should live in the beautiful Banffshire countryside and take the same balanced view of life as we have seen from Bill McKay over the past few years.

As has been said, Bill McKay almost became the Clerk of the Scots Parliament in the late 1970s. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) rather deftly waltzed his way round the fact that he did his level best to deprive Bill of having a job at that time. However, Bill was ensconced in Edinburgh preparing for the Parliament in 1978, and I am happy to say that the sterling spadework that was done by Bill in that period has no doubt been put to good use 20 years later. The hon. Member for Linlithgow was thus defied in his ambition.

I note that Bill is to be a professor at Aberdeen university. Indeed, Bill's wife is one of the pillars of the Buchan presbytery. I congratulate Bill on his retirement, but it is not really a retirement. Freed from all the bounds of impartiality that are required of the Clerk of the House, who knows on what issues of the day Bill might want to enter into public debate—top-up fees in the university, perhaps? For my part, I shall prepare for my surgeries in Foggieloan with considerable care, never knowing who might appear and demand an answer on the issues of the day.

I have one final remark. When Members come to the House, they often believe that the Clerks and the machinery of the House are somehow an adjunct of the Government or the Executive—[Interruption.] I see those on the Government Front Bench collapsing. New Members realise, however, that the staff of the House are there to serve the House, and do so very ably. I can say from personal experience that with the sole exception that the Leader of the House managed to identify, Bill McKay has unfailingly provided advice to Members in all parts of the House. Sometimes I took Bill's advice; sometimes I did not. I usually benefited from the advice and regretted it when I did not take it. For all Members of the House, his advice was always courteous, always informed and always practical. For that we should all thank him indeed. His has been a lifetime of outstanding service, and in every sense we are congratulating the real McKay.

5.42 pm
Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

Following the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), I support the motion. I do so as a founder member of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body—I am grateful for the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick)—as a vice-chairman of the Inter-Parliamentary Union and also as a member of the House of Commons Commission.

I was in the City not long ago having one of those lunches or dinners to which we often have to apply ourselves. I sat next to a lady of a certain age and told her who I was and what I was, and she said, "Oh, I used to work in the House of Commons." I asked how long ago that was. She said, "Forty years." I said, "Forty years is a long time to go back. Whom did you work for?" She replied, "Bill McKay". I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for mentioning the fact that Bill McKay came to the House in 1961 and has given 40 years of dedicated public service, unsung, unremarked but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North said, with great prestige and great influence.

I have seen this, as vice-chairman of the IPU, at international conferences that I attended with Bill. He did not attend the last conference in Moscow; he broke a leg. I thought that Moscow was a wonderful place to go to, and that it was taking matters a little too far to break a leg so as not to be on that trip. But Bill was unable to go, and we had to manage without him.

Parliamentary occasions such as this bring the House together. All of us in all parts of the House can come together and recognise the role that we play in public life and the role that has been played behind the scenes for us. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who spoke for the Liberal party, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House spoke about the role that Bill has played recently as chief executive. That is a new and significant role, which he has played because he is a parliamentarian himself. He understands 659 Members of Parliament with their foibles, their egoism and their impatience. He has brought us all together, and that again is a role that is entirely unsung and for which he should take a great deal of credit.

The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) mentioned that William McKay might wish to write his comparative parliamentary scenarios. That would be useful, but I hope that we are not encouraging him to write his memoirs. If we were to do that, we would all have to hunker down and hope for the best. But I know that he will not do that. Clifford Boulton, his predecessor but one, who was referred to by the Leader of the House, did not do that.

My final remark, and the only remark that I can think of, in relation to William McKay, and for his wife too, is that He nothing common did or mean Upon that memorable scene". The House of Commons will long remember him, even in his retirement.

5.46 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I want to refer briefly to one aspect of Sir William's work that has not been mentioned. I speak on behalf of the officers of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association when I say that his contribution to our activities has been beyond measure. It has been appreciated throughout the Commonwealth.

It is fitting that Sir William should be going to a professorial career from his chair in front of your Chair, Mr. Speaker, because over the years he has given the most wonderful guidance, tutelage and advice to a succession of Clerks from around the Commonwealth, and he has made a not insignificant contribution to legislatures around that unique international institution. He will, therefore, be missed and appreciated for what he has done not only in this House, but in many far flung parts of what used to be the empire and is now the great Commonwealth of Nations; the name of William McKay will be honoured there, and we should honour him for that.

Mr. Speaker

Before I put the Question, I should like to add my own tribute to Bill McKay. As my principal adviser on procedure and privilege he has consistently offered me wise counsel, tempering his technical advice with good humour and common sense. For that I owe him a great personal debt. As chief executive of the House of Commons service, he has done much to enhance the efficiency with which we are all supported. I know that after 41 years of service to the House, Bill and his wife Margaret will take into retirement the thanks and best wish of all Members past and present.

Question put and agreed to.