Parliament’s People: John Benger
As a new Parliament begins, Clerk of the Commons John Benger sets out his priorities: improving the working culture in Westminster, tackling the complexities posed by Brexit and overseeing the restoration and renewal of the Palace
Becoming the 51st Clerk of the House in March meant taking on an incredibly diverse job, covering all sorts of things – I’m the Head of the House of Commons Service, but I’m also the chief procedural and constitutional adviser to the Speaker.
I’ve been a clerk for most of my career, but I’m also head of a Service comprising nearly 3,000 people in a great variety of roles – pastry chefs, lawyers, clock winders, security guards, researchers, and even a chaplain and a falconer – so I need to take a wider view of the whole organisation.
Although many clerks spend their whole careers in the House service, they will undertake a wide range of different jobs, spending time on different committees or in various procedural offices. I joined because it looked like an interesting place to work, but it never occurred to me that I’d still be here now, over thirty years later. I suppose I am still here because almost every day is interesting, and I find it a stimulating environment with brilliant colleagues.
A typical day for me is a real mixture of structure and variety. The fixed bits are around the Chamber; each sitting day I attend the conference with the Speaker, his deputies, the Serjeant at Arms and other clerks. We discuss problems that might arise, the merits of Urgent Questions, and so on and then I’m in the Chamber for a couple of hours, which is a huge privilege. After that I have a wide variety of meetings with staff and sit on various boards, but a really important part of my day is checking in with various teams across all parts of the House.
There have of course been some difficult days. The terrorist attack in March 2017 was certainly one, and I saw from my office the PM being rushed into a car, and heard shots being fired. It was terrible to hear that a colleague, PC Keith Palmer, had died, and also to see the impact on all of us who work here of a tragedy in our midst.
But there are many great moments. Very recently I was invited to inspect the works to restore the clocktower, taking a lift up through the scaffolding. What you don’t see from the ground are all the statues and gargoyles adorning the stone work. I was at one point just a few inches away from the restored clock face, with its brilliant original colour and I could have reached out and touched it which felt slightly surreal, given how many thousands of times I have seen it in reality or in reproductions. I also really enjoyed leading House staff preparations for the 2015 General Election, including the launch of a scheme to give newly elected Members staff buddies. MPs were very positive about having a supportive and impartial guide to the confusing first few weeks, and the buddies generally enjoyed getting to know Members better and being valued for their expertise.
My key priorities for the next parliament are clear. Most importantly, I want to help change and improve the working culture in Parliament. I am much more optimistic than I was about nine months ago, with the House having implemented two of the three main recommendations from the Dame Laura Cox report on bullying and harassment – abandoning discredited previous policies and allowing ‘historic’ complaints to be heard – and I am hopeful we will soon implement the recommendation relating to independence from MPs in hearing of complaints.
A second priority is the challenge posed by the complexity of Brexit. I think we have been doing an excellent job of facilitating debate and scrutiny, and it is likely there will be further challenges ahead.
The third one is really around the buildings. We are in the preparatory stages of the full restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster and other buildings; we will be moving something like half of House of Commons staff to other premises, and many MPs will also be moving offices. But this is an opportunity as well as a challenge, resulting ultimately in an improved, safer and more enjoyable place to work for everyone.
I feel we are in a kind of transition period. When I joined in 1986 there was a real lack of diversity here. I’m proud to say that over time we have adapted, and we’re now making great progress in becoming more diverse and inclusive. For example, the majority of the Commons Executive Board members are now women, which I guess is still unfortunately a fairly rare occurrence in major organizations.
Sometimes I think the public don’t realise how lucky we are to have some of the most outstanding public servants in the world in our workforce. I also think too many people underestimate the commitment and dedication of the great majority of MPs, almost all of whom work very long hours, dividing their lives between Westminster and their constituency, and invariably wanting to improve people’s lives.
Working with the new Speaker, I want to develop that sense of community within Westminster, so that all Members, their staff and my staff feel safe, valued and have the best possible working conditions.
Dr John Benger is the Clerk of the House of Commons
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