John Bercow, the Commons speaker, is willing to defuse the row over the appointment of the most senior official in the Commons by splitting the clerk's functions in two in the future.
A group of MPs and parliamentarians, led by the former Commons speaker Lady Boothroyd, is challenging a decision by a six-strong panel chaired by Bercow to appoint Carol Mills, the secretary of the department of parliamentary services in Canberra. David Natzler, the clerk assistant who was the runner-up, has consulted lawyers about challenging the appointment.
Boothroyd says that Mills is unqualified for the role because her management experience is not matched by a track record in drafting legislation and understanding how to guard MPs' privileges.
Sir Robert Rogers, the outgoing clerk of the Commons, has asked for a delay in sending the name of his proposed successor to the Queen for approval amid the row.
Boothroyd, who has sent a dossier to the Commons leader, told Radio 4 World at One: "I am very sorry for this lady, Mrs Mills, because she is totally out of her depth. She has no experience, no knowledge of the constitutional role of a parliamentary clerk."
Boothroyd had told the Times that the different functions of the role should be split up. "I think this escapade should be abandoned. There should be a select committee under the chair of the leader of the House of Commons to look into the possibility of separating the two roles performed by the clerk."
A source close to the speaker said Bercow would be prepared to examine splitting the chief executive side of the role, responsible for the management of parliament, from the clerk side of the role which oversees legislation. This would be introduced after Mills retires.
The source said: "Betty's comments about considering splitting the role – that is probably something the speaker would consider. It has been raised before."
But Boothroyd's proposal was rejected by Rogers when he appeared on the BBC's Today in Parliament last month. He said: "I can't think of more than half a dozen chief executive-type decisions that I have had to take over the last three years that haven't had to be very closely informed by a profound knowledge of the house and what the house will take. So the two roles are inextricably intertwined."
The row blew into the open over the weekend with the publication of an email from Rosemary Laing, the clerk of the Australian senate, who expressed "disbelief and dismay" at the proposed appointment of Mills. Laing said that Mills had experience of running ancillary services but little experience of legislation.
In the email, Laing referred to a highly controversial incident in which Australia's department of parliamentary services (DPS) confirmed it had used CCTV cameras, which are supposed to be used only for security and to prosecute illegal activity, to retrace the movements of a DPS employee and recorded her pushing an envelope under the door of a senator's office during a late-night visit to parliament house.
Mills conceded in May that "there may have been some inadvertent conflict between staff management issues and the principles of the free use of everything in the building for members and senators".
Laing was rebuked by the president of the Australian senate, who said he was "disappointed" at "some of the content" of the email sent to Rogers. The Tasmanian senator, Stephen Parry, said he had spoken to Laing, as well as Bercow, about the international spat.
Mills faced new pressure as the former Conservative MP Michael Fabricant called for the appointment to be frozen. Fabricant said: "The email from the clerk of the Australian senate to Sir Robert Rogers is utterly devastating. Given that the speaker must have seen this, why is he still pressing the prime minister to appoint Carol Mills? While not wishing to pre-judge the outcome of the inquiry in Canberra, Carol Mills may well be in breach of parliamentary privilege.
"Surely this alone is reason to freeze the whole process, awaiting the result of the Australian inquiry? Bercow should postpone the appointment until after May 2015 and in the meantime appoint the deputy clerk as acting clerk of the House of Commons. In any event, serious questions have to be asked about John Bercow's judgement regarding this whole appointment process as well as other matters."
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