Little is known about what Serjeants at Arms in previous centuries actually did. Historical records indicate that they gradually acquired responsibility for ‘housekeeping’ for the Commons; that is, ensuring those areas that Members used were kept clean and tidy.
Administering the accommodation made available to the House has traditionally been the responsibility of the Serjeant.
A succession of reforms in the twentieth century to modernise the running of the House of Commons has had implications for the size and scope of the Serjeant at Arms’ Department.
In general, the Serjeant has been involved with decisions about everything from the use of identity cards, underground car parks, and House stationery, to journalists’ freedoms within the House.
The Serjeant at Arms’ ceremonial duties include escorting the Speaker on the procession from his state apartments to the Chamber before each sitting of the House.
The Serjeant at Arms carries the Mace which is an emblem of office and a symbol of the House of Commons’ authority. It is placed on the table in front of the Speaker’s Chair in the Chamber. The House can only sit and debate if the Mace is present.
Reflecting the fact that the Serjeant is a Crown appointment, when the House prorogues or dissolves, the Serjeant returns the Mace to the Jewel Tower at the Tower of London and reverts to being a member of the Royal Household, rather than serving the Commons.
The official court dress of the Serjeant at Arms was established in the late 18th century and consists of a black wool suit and patent leather shoes. Some changes were made when the first female Serjeant at Arms was appointed (Jill Pay, who served in the post from 2008 to 2012).
On special occasions, a lace collar and cuffs are worn. For the Speaker’s procession, the Serjeant wears white gloves, a black sword, scabbard and sword sling. The Serjeant wears the sword in the Chamber.
The office today
The Serjeant must balance access to Parliament with security. The Serjeant is responsible for access to the public gallery of the main and Westminster Hall debating chambers, where visitors can watch debates, and for public access to select committee hearings.
The Serjeant’s team includes a Deputy Serjeant, an Assistant Serjeant and two Associate Serjeants.