Sir Donald Limon: Clerk of the House of Commons hailed for his toughness and eye for detail
Saturday 11 August 2012
Donald Limon's working life was spent in the service of the House of Commons – and insisting on the most rigorous standards of parliamentary democracy and a proper and orderly conduct of public business. From 1994 until 1997 he took his place on the list of extremely talented, widely cultured, interesting men – all men – who have held the centuries-old position of Clerk of the House of Commons.
He was the son of Arthur Limon, borough treasurer of West Hartlepool. He went to Durham Cathedral Choristers School, and his lifelong friend Alan Oyston recalled the debt he and Limon owed to the two teachers at this 24-boy school, Tommy Barton and Canon HY Ganderton. Limon lost no opportunity in expressing his debt to Barton, who had no teaching qualifications but was an inspirational musical influence.
At Durham School he took a great interest in Gilbert and Sullivan, and would quote from their operas to MPs with a po-faced twinkle. Choral music was also a lifelong passion. Years later, as a member of a finance bill standing committee examining the Budget, I asked Limon if I could see him about a number of amendments I was proposing on a Monday evening.
"On Monday evenings I cannot see you as I have a three-line whip," he replied. I knitted my eyebrows: "MPs have three-line whips but Clerks don't," I said. "Oh," he replied, "But I do. From David Wilcocks." Limon was a stalwart member of the London Bach Choir, and Sir David Wilcocks, now 93, told me, "I was very happy with all the members of the London Bach Choir. I never had a row with any of them, nor cause to get rid of a single one."
Limon was the instigator of many of the musical occasions on which MPs and House of Commons staff participated. He was also a cricket fanatic and a stalwart in later years of Somerset CCC, helping to coach young boys.
My first encounter with him was when he was emergency Clerk of the Public Accounts Committee in 1963. I was vexed about press treatment of one of the committee's reports. "I commend to you the attitude of Lord Attlee," he replied. "When his press secretary Francis Williams told him, 'Prime Minister, The Times and The Daily Herald are saying dreadful things about you,' Attlee replied, 'Francis, pass me the cricket scores – and the births, marriages and deaths.'" Limon believed politicians should not be unduly upset by press comment. Different days!
For National Service he went to Korea with the Royal Army Service Corps. He was proud that he had taken part in what he regarded as one of the just wars of the 20th century but added, "other people fired weapons. I pounded a typewriter at the HQ of the Commonwealth Brigade." On demob he read PPE at Lincoln College, Oxford in which he got a 2:1.
Sir William Mackay, Clerk of the House from 1997-2002, told me: "When he was a junior clerk Donald was known as 'Tiger' because he was so resolute in doing what he thought was right when dealing with a difficult Member or colleague. Under that unassuming exterior lurked a steely determination. He could not be bullied. When a difficult disciplinary action had to be taken in the clerks' department, Donald did it decisively."
Sir Roger Sands, Clerk of the House of Commons 2003-06, reminded me that an important aspect of Limon's contribution was his period (1979-81) as Secretary of the new Commission which enabled the House to take charge of its own budget, rather than relying on the Department of the Environment. "When I had great concerns about the stone rod in the font side chapel of the medieval crypt it was to Limon that I had to go to set in train remedial action. He saw the importance of dealing with everything, from window-cleaning to the provision of lavatory paper." A junior clerk told me that to his generation Limon was very kind, looking after the best interests of the young clerks.
As a Clerk of the Table, tasked with accepting parliamentary questions, Limon was razor-sharp; he was one of nature's sticklers. Later, as Principal Clerk at the Table he was like Mother Tiger standing up to MPs who tried to bully clerks into accepting disorderly questions. When I asked Sir Clifford Boulton – who retired early so Limon could have a run in the top Commons job – what he thought Limon's forte was, he replied, "Common sense".
As a drafter of documents Limon was in the super-heavyweight class. Dr Malcolm Jack, Clerk of the House from 2006-11, reminded me that it was Limon who drafted Sir Robin Ibbs' report which was the beginning of the independence of the House of Commons as an administrative body. "It is readable, it is beautifully written and it has stood the test of time."
Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth, Clerk of the Parliament and his great friend, recalled: "He was a marvellous troubleshooter. I cried on his shoulder on Lords Reform. His personal kindness is epitomised by the fact that when I was married at 48, he took charge of the musical side of my wedding, saying, 'Leave it to me dear boy'."
As Clerk of the House of Commons his pivotal relationship was with Mr or Madam Speaker. Lady Boothroyd told me with feeling – and she is a very blunt lady – "as Speaker I had a splendid relationship with Limon when he was the most senior clerk. He was hugely supportive and I valued his guidance. I could simply not have wished for a better working relationship. He was also greatly respected by members of Commonwealth parliaments when he and I went to the legislatures of Commonwealth countries as their official guests." The relationship between parliamentary officials of different countries is important for democracy, and Limon took infinite trouble to keep his international contacts with clerks or their equivalents throughout the world in good repair.
Limon was given a kidney by his wife Joyce, who had nursed members of his family, and whom he married in 1987. It says a lot about Limon's character that when he knew he was going to die he arranged an 80th birthday party in the House, saying that he might not be there but that in all circumstances it should go ahead. Weeks before he died the party took place, and he enjoyed watching the video of it in his hospital bed. Donald Limon was a man of exceptional qualities.
Donald William Limon, public servant: born West Hartlepool 29 October 1932; Clerk of Financial Committees 1981–84; Principal Clerk, Table Office 1985–89; Clerk of Committees 1989–90; Clerk Assistant 1990–94, Clerk of the House of Commons 1994–97; CB 1993, KCB 1997; married 1987 Joyce Clifton; died Yeovil 26 July 2012.
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