Commons set to ditch old guard

MPs aim to scrap Serjeant-at-Arms for chief executive
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Westminster's historic sword-carrying Serjeant-at-Arms, whose role dates back to King Richard II, could be replaced by a modern chief executive in an attempt to update Parliament.

The traditional figure of the Serjeant-at-Arms, dressed in a cut-away black coat, knee breeches, and silver buckled shoes, exercises supreme power over the ceremonies, administration and good order of the Palace of Westminster.

Seen as Westminster's Sergeant Major, he is usually a retired military officer and has disciplinary powers, controlling who enters the Commons. Although he no longer has the power to throw miscreants into dungeons, he can order MPs' cars towed away if they are parked in the wrong place and can be summoned to escort MPs from the chamber if they misbehave.

Some MPs have demanded that the role, currently filled by Peter Jennings, should be confined to ceremonial duties alone, while a new chief executive is brought in to improve efficiency. The call came after a confidential report on services provided by the Serjeant-at-Arms office revealed criticism of the department's staff from some MPs.

The confidential survey, undertaken by management consultants Janet Levin Associates, found MPs accusing staff of "ignoring visitors, unapproachability, near rudeness and patronising attitudes".

Labour's George Foulkes said: "It's a damning indictment of the functioning of the Serjeant-at-Arms department. "The whole thing needs a shake-up. It's an old boys' network. No other Parliament in any other country does it this way." His call was echoed by Tory David Shaw who said: "We need a co-ordinating chief executive to be brought in, someone who is forward- thinking, to promote Parliament and make it more efficient."

Michael Martin, Labour MP for Glasgow Springburn, who is chairman of the Commons Administration Committee, rejected the idea of replacing the Serjeant-at-Arms with a chief executive. "Some whizz-kid walking in here and trying to cut a dash and make it all modern would probably come an absolute cropper," he said.

Mr Jennings was not available for comment.