Renovation and tradition among the challenges faced by House of Commons’ new director general
The House of Commons has many odd traditions - you cannot use someone else’s name, you must not clap and you must speak only to the Speaker.
But Ian Ailles, who begins work as director general of the ancient Palace of Westminster at the end of the month, says he will not be adding any of his own eccentric conventions to the lower chamber.
He said: “People ask me whether I’m going to wear tights to work but I’m not.
“It is a unique role – it’s definitely something quite different. I’m quite understated and I’m not one for titles but yeah – it’s a good one.”
Ian, who was born in south London and has spent the last 22 years living in St Albans, graduated from Durham University in 1987 with a degree in economics.
The job titles on his CV include accountant, financial adviser, financial controller, financial director and most recently, CEO of Thomas Cook.
Not bad, you might think, but Ian is due to begin working under an even more grandiose job title: director general of the House of Commons.
The role was created last year after a committee report headed up by the former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, recommended that the role of the Clerk in the Commons be split in two.
Ian said that he was “not political at all” and that he landed the position through a mixture of application and selection.
He explained: “I think that in this role that’s really important [that he’s not political]. I think if you came into this role and you had political leanings, it would be hard.”
And does he vote?
“I do,” he said. “But that’s between me and the ballot paper.
“I’m absolutely focused on us leading a strong democracy – in which voting is implicit – but in doing this role I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘I go this way or I go that way’.”
The job, according to Ian, will involve the day to day running of the Commons. “Running an IT department and making sure the restaurant is open,” as he puts it.
But his biggest challenge will be overseeing the mammoth task of refurbishing the ageing Palace of Westminster.
He said: “There’s a large building project already around the place and it needs renovation quite seriously.
“Do you move people? Do you not move people? At one level it’s no different than in business when you have to move head offices except it’s just with a very historical building.
“It is essentially a practical challenge and it does affect individuals. Then it’s about the tradition – how do we want to see our Parliament?”
Ian sees that as the single largest component of his forthcoming role – many others see is as the biggest challenge facing the British government.
He said: “I’d say that having a bit of stress helps. When I was at school I nearly took a different career path as a cellist and you always think when you go on stage having the butterflies in your stomach is a good thing. It keeps you absolutely on the ball – and that’s no different in the world of work.”
At Thomas Cook, Ian oversaw more than 17,000 employees in the UK; in Parliament he will oversee less than a tenth of that but says that doesn’t necessarily make the job simpler.
He said: “I don’t think it’s an easier job; it’s a fundamentally different job. Thomas Cook is a great, historic travel organisation. If you look at the Commons, look at Parliament – there’s all the complexity of managing the physical assets on top of keeping 650 MPs happy.”
Ian is looking forward to beginning work on October 27 but says there will be no black Jags with blacked-out windows shipping him to and from work.
He insisted “I’m not that sort of guy. I’ll be getting the train.”