The new Clerk of the Commons on transforming Parliament's culture
The incoming Clerk of the Commons, John Benger, sets out his vision to deliver “lasting change” in Parliament and create a House Service in which all staff feel safe and valued
Our Parliament has a proud history. As we all go about our business, we are reminded daily of the role that our institution, and the astonishing building that contains its chambers, play in the life of the nation.
I feel proud and privileged to have taken on this role. But also humbled: the announcement of my appointment included the small fact that I am the 51st Clerk of the House of Commons, just one link in an ongoing chain.
Many of my predecessors have lived in “interesting times,” but perhaps few of them can have come into the post with such a variety of challenges to be confronted. The Brexit process has caused the procedures of the House – previously of interest only to the true Westminster geek – to attract national and international attention in a near unprecedented way. And with the Elizabeth Tower under scaffolding, we have a daily reminder of the huge amount of work that is needed to preserve the Palace’s legacy for future generations.
And yet, this could all be hollow. Preserving a building and safe-guarding ceremonies will do nothing to nurture the institution itself, merely its external structures. A skeleton is of little value without a nervous system, and the House of Commons Service will be for nothing if the women and men who work there cannot carry out their work in safety and security.
There has been long-standing problem with bullying and harassment in the House, and perhaps the most upsetting aspect of the problem is how slow attempts to resolve it have also been. Having worked to create the revised Respect policy which ultimately failed, I know how challenging this is. But equally I believe I have a responsibility to help deliver lasting change, and regard this as unfinished business.
But a change in culture cannot be brought about by any one person, no matter how dedicated. Instead, it must be nurtured across the organisation as a whole. Which is why I am so pleased that I have the expertise and experience of the newly appointed Independent Director of Cultural Transformation, Julie Harding, to draw upon, as I begin in post.
Like any member of the House service, I am inevitably more familiar with some parts of that service than others, having spent many years working in the Chamber and Committees Team (CCT) and a few in the Commons Library. But the Service is a diverse organisation, with 8000 catering transactions each day, welcoming a million visitors a year, connecting with voters on line and off, conserving medieval artworks, staffing security checkpoints, and managing the delivery of vast construction projects.
Brexit has posed us many challenges, but also huge opportunities for collaboration, with remarkable briefing material emanating from our Research and Information team and our committee staff.
I may sit at the Table in my white tie and gown, but I still have much to learn about the vital, and often unnoticed, work my colleagues do on a daily basis to keep the engines of the Commons going, even in times of stress and distress.
As a first step therefore, I aim to familiarise myself more with their experiences, and their stories, learning from them in every way I can, as we as an organisation embark on our transformational efforts.
I do not have all the answers, and I am certain I do not have all the questions either. But I am eager to explore them with all my colleagues, so we can continue to build a culture within the House Service that means no staff member will ever again feel unprotected or mistreated.
John Benger is the Clerk of the Commons