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11 Dec 2002 : Column 290—continued

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 XErskine 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 XObservations, Rules and Orders of the House of Commons—an Early Procedural Collection". The introduction states, on page 8:


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


More revealingly, however, on 1 June 1607, the text reads—and I hope that the modernisers will note this closely—


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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 XClerks in the House of Commons 1363–1989: A Biographical List". Among those listed was John Hatsell, 1768, who


We cannot expect that of Sir William. The great Thomas Erskine May himself, in 1871—and not a lot of people know this—


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 XIlbert-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

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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 Tüitinen.

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

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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.


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