Sir David Natzler: “What a curious animal the House of Commons is”

Posted On: 
21st February 2019

After 43 years working in Parliament, and four as Clerk of the Commons, Sir David Natzler retires next week. His tenure ends at a time of upheaval for the House, as traditional party ties fray, debate rages over the relationship between government and the backbenches, and the authorities grapple with a bullying and harassment scandal. He sits down with Sebastian Whale 

Sir David Natzler is stepping down as Clerk of the House of Commons on 1st March
Credit: 
Baldo Sciacca

How should one approach the role of Clerk of the House of Commons? Sir David Natzler, the 50th person to have held the position, considers the question. “Very carefully,” he replies.

To reach Natzler’s office in the heart of Parliament is to undertake a sort of political pilgrimage. We navigate the atmospheric corridors of the Palace of Westminster’s inner depths, passing the back of Speaker’s chair, the Commons Library and the parliamentary hangout of the Prime Minister.

Eventually, we arrive at a large wooden door that feeds through to a double room. There, Natzler, still wearing his white bow tie that comprises part of his Commons garb, welcomes us into his private workspace like expected friends, before making himself a little more business casual.

On the walls are portraits of his predecessors in all their wigged glory (now a thing of the past). His bookshelves are packed with volumes on Commons procedure. After 43 years of service in Parliament, you might think they would be surplus to requirements. But despite Natzler’s mastery of procedure – something of a prerequisite for the position he has presided over for more than four years – he says even he, the embodiment of a parliamentary boffin, has been made to think in recent times.

“This is what happens when you have a – I wouldn’t say a political crisis – but when you have things of real difficulty and when you don’t have a majority government and none of the parties are able to command complete loyalty of all their members,” he explains. “It stress tests the procedures because the procedures are just a political expression of rules, but they are all based on fundamental assumptions and verities.”

That said, Natzler seems relatively sanguine that the procedures, on which he advises from his unique vantage point in the House of Commons, are holding up to scrutiny. “They’re not meant to be a straitjacket to say, ‘this is how we’ve always done it’,” he says. They exist to express the right of the majority to get its business done, and the right of the minority to express its opinion, he explains. “So, as long as those fundamental principles survive that’s what matters.”

But is the institution itself, which Natzler is also responsible for as head of the House of Commons Service, holding its own? As he prepares to step down on 1st March, what lessons has he learnt from the bullying and harassment allegations that emerged last year? And is he comfortable that House of Commons procedures and precedent are in safe hands?

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Natzler joined the House of Commons in 1975. His tenure, which began during one of the most notorious parliaments in history, is concluding with arguably the most fractious.

His time sitting among the clerks in front of the Speaker’s chair began in earnest in 2003. This wonderful ringside seat, as he puts it, has seen him witness some of the most consequential debates of recent times.

But it was the debates over gay marriage that really stand out in the memory, and the speed at which the Commons came to the view that it did. “That was to me astonishing because it had hardly been discussed,” he says. “David Cameron brought it forward very fast and quite unexpectedly. A lot of people thought there’d be a bit of a car crash, including within his own party. But sitting there during second reading of the bill, backbench member after backbench member got up and said this is absolutely great and my constituents think this is long overdue. I thought, wow, I hadn’t expected that.”

He adds: “I thought, that is leadership, but also, what a curious animal the House of Commons is.”

As for any standout speeches from his time in the Chamber, Natzler values volume above all else. “I always enjoyed Ian Paisley because I had no difficulty hearing him. I didn’t actually agree with everything he was saying, and I know his son wouldn’t mind me saying that,” he says of the former DUP leader and his MP son by the same name.

More recently, Natzler has been captivated by MPs speaking candidly about their own personal experiences, such as child loss. “Sitting there does take your breath away a little bit. Someone getting up and saying something very difficult about their personal lives as testimony. I don’t know how effective it is, but it certainly affects the listener.”

Natzler, then Clerk Assistant, was appointed as acting Clerk of the House of Commons in 2014 when his predecessor, Sir Robert Rogers (now Lord Lisvane), retired. After John Bercow’s favoured appointment, Australian Carol Mills, pulled out, a new recruitment process was launched following the Straw Committee report of December 2014. Natzler was confirmed as the new Clerk in March 2015.

The Clerk is simultaneously the principal constitutional adviser to the House and head of the Commons Service. The Director General of the Commons – a position created in December 2014 – reports to the Clerk. Natzler explains: “It’s a form of leadership and not if you like, senior executive management of the service and what it’s doing.” Does he think these dual roles are sustainable?

“Yes, it’s a perfectly possible job to do; at least I hope it is,” he replies. The Clerk is also the Accounting Officer, he adds, and make calls on expenditure.

Natzler recognises that the debate surrounding Britain’s exit from the European Union has elicited some “innovative” use of parliamentary tools. These range from Labour’s use of the humble address to an amendment put forward by Yvette Cooper to prevent a no deal Brexit, which would have seen the Commons take control of the order paper from the government.

The amendment, which Natzler describes as “perfectly orderly”, could be voted on by MPs at the end of the month. He argues that such moves are how the UK’s constitution develops, so long as “you don’t do violence to some of the underlying norms”. In this case, so long as the government has the confidence of the House, ministers should be able to do their jobs both by standing orders and statute. “Personally, I don’t see a constitutional crisis. But there’s no doubt that there’s been some uncomfortable moments and all this and more in the next six weeks,” he adds.

The Brexit debate has also seen questions being raised about John Bercow’s impartiality. Many MPs – largely from the Conservative benches – were concerned at his apparently unprecedented decision to select Dominic Grieve’s amendment to the government’s business motion on the meaningful vote. A deeply wonkish (but no less important) row followed on the interpretation of the phrase ‘forthwith’.

Natzler, according to reports, was said to have counselled Bercow against selecting Grieve’s amendment. As you might expect, he refuses the chance to reveal what he disclosed during his private meetings with the Speaker. He also defends the right for the Chair to act based on their interpretation of the rules.

Would he be concerned about a precedent being set? “My concerns don’t really matter. The concerns of members, which I know the Speaker will understand very well, is that members on all sides of these arguments quite like a bit of certainty,” he replies. He argues if the Speaker’s interpretation “becomes regular”, opposition parties would like to know so they can act accordingly. “I don’t think anyone is denying that the rules should offer a degree of certainty. The same as if you’re playing – this is not to be flippant about it – a sport. People here take sport very seriously.”

From where can they derive that certainty? “They can derive that certainty from the accretion of past precedents and understandings as well as from interpretations in Erskine May, but also from decisions from the Chair. That is, I think, what people would be grateful for.”

The Clerk of the Commons and the Speaker work closely as custodians of the Commons. How would Natzler describe his relationship with Bercow?

“We have a very good relationship,” he says. “He is hugely enthusiastic about Parliament. He knows an enormous amount about it, about members, including about individual members... we have sometimes a shared sense of humour in common, but we’re very different in other ways. We’ve become a good working partnership.”

But it’s a partnership that in the past year has found itself in the headlines, and not necessarily for the right reasons.

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On 8 March 2018, BBC Newsnight ran an investigation that put the spotlight firmly on Parliament. The accompanying article on the BBC’s website began with the sentence: “There is a bullying and sexual harassment problem at the House of Commons.”

The programme highlighted concerns about MPs’ conduct towards staff and the processes for dealing with allegations. Among those to have the finger pointed at them was the Speaker, John Bercow, who was accused of bullying two of his former private secretaries, Kate Emms and Angus Sinclair. He denies the allegations.

The report, which came soon after the #metoo movement revealed widespread sexual misconduct across western societies, shocked Westminster. And the House of Commons itself came in for further criticism for its response, which described Newsnight’s claim that a “culture of fear” had persisted in the institution as a “grotesque exaggeration”.

Natzler notes that the phrase ‘culture of fear’ is “actually a quotation by a strange coincidence of the report into harassment and bullying at the BBC, which is maybe where they remembered the phrase from”. He laments that the “grotesque exaggeration” line was often reported by some as referring to the accusations themselves. Regardless, he later apologised and says now “we got the response wrong”.

The programme was a shock, Natzler continues, despite the Commons Service being aware that Newsnight (led by then Policy Editor Chris Cook) was looking into the culture of parliament from the previous October. He ponders “what would have happened” had Cook not “decided this was something that merited looking into”.

“We didn’t actually need the Newsnight programme, we have our own staff surveys and they showed, from memory, shortly after the Newsnight programme, an upsetting proportion of staff saying they had personally experienced bullying or harassment over the past year, which is something that we ask in our survey, as most organisations do. Seventy per cent or more of those cases were staff-on-staff, they were nothing to do with members. So, we knew there was a problem,” he says.

Does he think the accusations would have come up without the Newsnight investigation? “Yes,” he replies. And does he think it would have been dealt with to the same extent? “No,” he concedes.

Taking that into account, wasn’t Newsnight’s investigation actually a good thing? “Like the BBC, who had suffered very severely in the wake of the Jimmy Savile inquiry where it was discovered that there was a culture of impunity for their celebrity presenters engaging in illegal sexual relations with children, I imagine it must have been quite upsetting for the BBC and they might have found out about it otherwise – I don’t know,” he argues.

“Although we’ve nothing as grave as that, it is a good thing that a public organisation is subject to public scrutiny in this way. In that sense, it wasn’t a good thing or a bad thing – it was one way forward and it was a bit of investigative journalism that had a significant impact, no doubt about that.”

After the programme aired, the House commissioned an inquiry led by High Court judge Dame Laura Cox, whose October report found “a culture… of deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence” in which bullying, harassment and sexual harassment “have been able to thrive and have long been tolerated and concealed”.

“Her analysis of where there had been and still are failings which she attributed predominantly to a culture of excessive deference is spot on,” Natzler tells me. “I’m not sure we would have seen it otherwise and on my own behalf personally I totally accepted that I had not seen that or grasped it and nor had my predecessors, because many of the cases she was writing about – although anonymous – were fairly well known to us and date back quite some years. That is something that has been there, excessive deference and an unwillingness to confront some unacceptable truths.”

Why was that the case? “I’m probably the wrong person to ask,” he answers. “It had come about because of a view that this place was here above all to ensure that members could do the job they were sent here to do and that we were proud to try to help them to do it and that their misbehaviour – because we had no control over it, direct or indirect – was something that had to be largely tolerated and rarely challenged. And that if the challenging was to go on, it should go on from other members – so via the whips – and that proved ineffective.”

Natzler points to the creation of the Respect Policy in 2011, “which suggests that we noticed then already that something needed to be done”, and revisions to the policy in 2014. “So, it wasn’t that we were blind to the fact there were problems. There were problems of jurisdiction over members’ behaviour, there should be no problem of jurisdiction over our own staff’s behaviour.”

Whose responsibility is that then? His, he replies: “Ultimately, 100 per cent.” By now, the atmosphere has become quite tense between Natzler and me. His deeply methodical approach to answering questions sees him draw nearly no eye contact. I sense he is somewhat uncomfortable.

I ask him to consider why this culture persisted under his watch if he is, as he admits, ultimately the person responsible. Natzler argues it is difficult to determine when the alleged misconduct first took place – but concedes that as a senior manager for many years, and now head of the Commons service, he shares responsibility with others.

“There was and there probably still is bullying and harassment. Whether the rate of it is worse than in other public sector organisations is worth questioning – I think we know the answer on that – but I’d rather it was zero. The whole thing is unacceptable if it is bullying and harassment that’s going on.”

On the day we meet, the Commons’ first ever head of cultural transformation has taken her post with a view to enacting lasting changes to the work environment. Natzler, who says management has identified areas where “the culture has gone wrong”, says the new joiner “will no doubt have a lot to say”.

Dame Laura’s report, which heard from 200 former and current members of Commons staff, also concluded that the current leadership is incapable of changing the culture. When the accusations go all the way up to the Speaker, can the Commons be seen to be taking it seriously while Bercow remains in the Chair?

“Well, there’s accusations and accusations. If he had been found to have done something wrong and was irremovable in some way, that would be damaging to the organisation. But I’m afraid this isn’t a benign environment, and you have to differentiate between people who are accused by the press or anybody else of stuff and people who have been found to have done something wrong. The old-fashioned phrase, you can’t believe everything you read in the newspapers,” Natzler replies.

I ask if he referring to the accusations against the Speaker.

“Any accusation can be made. You could be accused of bullying, but it doesn’t mean you’ve been a bully. It’s as simple as that. Everyone has the right to have their side of the story heard if they’re going to be told that they’ve done something wrong. So that applies to accusations whether it’s against the Speaker or me or the youngest member of staff. They all are entitled to a fair hearing and to one person putting their view forward and then another and witnesses and so on. That hasn’t happened.”

The bullying accusations against Bercow, which date between 2009 and 2011, have yet to be heard. Dame Laura recommended in her report that parliament’s disciplinary body should be able to consider historical allegations. As yet this has not been done.

Senior management wants to see through a change to the Commons’ culture, Natzler says. “They thought they were the people to do it and they were determined to do it and were actively engaged in doing it.”

Tensions mount as I – incorrectly – begin a question by saying he is resigning. Natzler had long planned to step down this March. “No, I’m not resigning. I’m sorry, that’s a classic case of misrepresentation,” Natzler interjects. Though it was a sincere misuse of terminology, for which I later apologise, it is one that he feels has been allowed to persist in the press. “Do I find that misuse of language frustrating? I’ve almost given up on it. It’s just so frequent,” he says, exasperated.

Does he believe during this whole process that the narrative has drifted away from reality? Natzler pauses once more: “The reality is very complex and it’s really important we get it right. I care more about what happens to the staff here, to the 2,000 people who work here loyally, who want to see some changes, who are committed to them and who have some faith in their managers at some levels in doing something about it. That’s what I mind about. How it’s presented in the media, as I say, I’m resigned to their interests being not benign. I don’t think [the media] would want it to succeed.”

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Aside from Parliament’s food, which Natzler says is “wonderful”, he will miss the company of his colleagues the most when he steps down on 1st March. “To an extent, the political excitement but probably rather less. I’ll miss the company of members. The whole point of being here is because Members of Parliament are fascinating, varied, sometimes infuriating, often very funny people. So, it’s a fantastic place to work and it always has been.” One thing he won’t miss, however, are weekend calls from officials and the Speaker about the following week’s business.

Natzler believes his successor, John Benger, has all the tools to succeed as Clerk of the House of Commons, and argues that having taken a lead on the 2014 Respect Policy, is well placed to oversee a change of culture.

Natzler is bowing out from an esteemed parliamentary career at the age of 66. What does he have planned next?

“I guess a sort of gap year really. Things will no doubt turn up. What I would like to do is not have to get up in the morning and wonder what the latest trouble is, and I can just be responsible for myself and not for the activities of lots of other people. That would be nice.”