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House of Commons librarian interview: Restoration and Renewal, escape rooms and his virology training

House of Commons librarian Grant Hill-Cawthorne [Copyright UK Parliament/Andy Bailey]

6 min read

New House of Commons librarian Grant Hill-Cawthorne is the youngest appointed to the role in 200 years. He tells Tali Fraser his vision for the Library’s future, its place in the Palace’s Restoration and Renewal programme, and how his medical training helped Parliament during Covid

During the pandemic, new Commons librarian Grant Hill-Cawthorne found himself using his original training as a virologist to advise Parliament on everything from how to clean despatch boxes without damaging them to testing strategies. It was part of what he recognises as a “slightly eclectic” career path that has led the 39-year-old to his latest role as the second youngest librarian in the history of the House of Commons.

He was pipped to the title by the first ever librarian back in 1818; Benjamin Spiller was only 22. The role was initially occupied by a single person who looked after the Library’s books, but over the years it has morphed into oversight of a full-blown research department that operates out of the physical Library. Hill-Cawthorne’s job encompasses looking after the Library itself as well as all the research it produces, with responsibility for a team of around 220. But while he seems relaxed about the scale of the task, he does have another concern: “The thing that is most pressing on my mind is this is often the job that people do before they retire, which I don’t plan on doing for a while!”

Hill-Cawthorne has been in the post for just over a month, but has found it a natural transition from his previous role as the Commons’ director of research. The Commons Library is made up of two major departments: Research, and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), both of which he has previously run.

In Hill-Cawthorne’s other past parliamentary work he was heavily involved in the Palace’s handling of Covid, having started his career as a medical doctor, training at the University of Cambridge. “I had always wanted to be a neurologist, but I switched to virology because I was interested in infections and the nervous system. So that became my particular speciality, which eventually came in really handy during Covid as I was able to advise the Commons on all the virology aspects and public health,” he says.

Before working in Parliament, Hill-Cawthorne taught pandemic planning at the University of Sydney – where he is still a professor of public health – educating the residents of New South Wales about how to deal with pandemic preparation. 

When the pandemic struck he was working in Parliament, and was quickly co-oped to join the central Covid group, where colleagues could take advantage of his scientific background.

Hill-Cawthorne had moved back from Sydney with his wife, Kerri, their son and with a daughter on the way, after looking for jobs that would take them closer to family. He “jumped” at the advert to become head of POST, where he could combine research and policy: “While I was happy being an academic, I had wanted a job that had more direct impact on society – so working in Parliament fulfilled this well.” Hill-Cawthorne’s wife still works in medical sciences, as a researcher facilitator in infectious diseases at Imperial College London.

What was it like having his expertise come in use? “Initially, quite exciting,” he says, “but also scary because I knew where pandemics could go”. He jokes: “I had never thought as a virologist I would ever get bored of a virus, but coronavirus did it.”

To get through the pandemic at home, Hill-Cawthorne and his wife treated themselves to food boxes from Michelin-starred chefs that they would cook together, both being big food lovers. But it paused their favourite pastime: travelling, “as you would expect from two global health professionals”. They have gradually started travelling again with their children post-Covid, with both Hill-Cawthorne and his wife “very into escape rooms – having done them all around the world”.

Originally from Beccles in Suffolk, Hill-Cawthorne was the first in his family to go to university, as well as the only person in the year at his comprehensive school, Sir John Leman High School, to go to Oxbridge. 

“I got into Cambridge because I was pushed by my head of sixth form – otherwise I would never have considered being a fit for it. So I am always looking out to mentor people and have had a big push to make sure we recruit from non-traditional backgrounds,” he adds.

While perhaps not as challenging as Covid, Hill-Cawthorne has various complex issues to deal with in his new role, including what happens to the Library during Parliament’s much-delayed Restoration and Renewal (R&R) programme. 

Hill-Cawthorne is a big fan of the Library Suite as a space to work that Members of Parliament “really value”. But, he recognises: “We have a large number of books, some of which are in the Palace, some of which are under Broad Sanctuary at the QEII Conference Centre, which means there is a lot of work going on to move all of the collection into deep storage, ready for R&R.”

There’s been so much churn in the parties in recent years that it always works best when you have political advisers or members of staff who stay with the portfolio

While the process of R&R is not yet clear, it could see losing the Library Suite for up to 10 years, so Hill-Cawthorne is focused on how best to serve Members as they move towards this period, with a plan to have a “Members’ Library front desk support alongside other Member-facing services”.

“We are doing all that preparation and have been for a number of years to make sure that we are ready,” he adds, “and we are making sure in those intervening years that Members can get in contact with us face-to-face still if they would like”.

“Some Members know us very well and use us a lot,” he says, “but it was particularly hard for the cohort that joined with the 2019 election and then going into Covid to get to know us”. 

He would like that to change, and wants to ensure the Library is being well-used by all intakes – even during the R&R period, when certain things will go online – to develop policy, help with constituency issues and provide analysis from the 80 expert researchers. 

He adds: “There’s been so much churn in the parties in recent years that it always works best when you have political advisers or members of staff who stay with the portfolio. They are often our connection, because they know us and they work with us. But where that doesn’t happen, people are often starting from scratch. So we are there, noting when someone has changed role, contacting them, making sure we introduce ourselves to them and show them how we can help with policy.”

The job of the House of Commons Library, he says, is to “make sure all MPs are informed... Whether they use that or not is completely up to them”. But Hill-Cawthorne adds that the House of Commons Library also has a vision, and that is “information and analysis at the heart of our parliamentary democracy”. He says: “If we do that, we have done what we are there to do.”

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