Speaker's Secretary and Chief of Staff
Helen Wood – Speaker's Secretary and Chief of Staff
Helen Wood was appointed Speaker’s Secretary on the election of Sir Lindsay Hoyle as the 158th Speaker of the House of Commons.
The pair had previously worked together when Sir Lindsay, as Chairman of Ways and Means, became chair of the Consultative Panel on Parliamentary Security in 2015 and Helen took on the role of the Panel’s secretary at a critical time for the security of the parliamentary community. They continue to be involved in overseeing security for the House of Commons.
Originally trained as an archivist and project manager, Helen worked in various local and national heritage organisations before joining the House of Commons in 2006.
Early projects included the initiation of the project to build the state-of-the-art Parliamentary Education Centre and developing virtual tours of the Commons Chamber.
Having spearheaded a digital information project for both Houses, Helen was appointed Clerk of the Administration Committee and Secretary to the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art. She went on to hold the posts of Clerk of the Finance Committee, Secretary to the Public Accounts Commission and Assistant Secretary to the House of Commons Commission.
As a senior clerk, she served at the table in the Chamber, offering procedural advice to the previous Speaker, and also to the panel of chairs in Westminster Hall debates.
She was also part of the General Election planning group, working with the party Whips, before becoming Head of the Centre of Excellence for Procedural practice in April 2018.
In November 2019, Sir Lindsay appointed her Speaker’s Secretary - and Chief of Staff in the Speaker’s Office.
Speaker’s Secretary role
From providing informal clerical help in the 1660s to supporting the implementation of virtual participation in the Chamber during the COVID pandemic of 2020, the role of the Speaker’s Secretary has grown over the last four centuries.
Historically, the Speaker had sole discretion over the appointment of their Secretary – and Secretaries remained closely linked with their Speaker. Family connections between the two were not uncommon.
While Secretaries would often quit the Speaker’s Office on the retirement of the Speaker, there was no imperative for them to go. Edward Gully was appointed to the Secretariat in 1895 by his father, the Speaker William Gully, and was then reappointed by the next Speaker, James Lowther in 1905.
The best-known Speaker’s Secretary was John Rickman, who served Speaker Charles Abbot for 12 years from 1802 and is best remembered for being the originator of the census in England at the end of the 18th century, helping both to draft the bill and the procedures for it.
The responsibilities of Speakers’ Secretaries have evolved, responding to the particular needs of the serving Speaker, as well as to reforms to Commons’ departments.
The role has adapted from providing the Speaker with procedural advice during the Victorian period, to preparing the Speaker for the day’s business, and acting as a channel of communication with the House of Commons.
The role of Speaker’s Secretary took on its modern shape particularly during the 34-year tenure of Sir Ralph Verney – Secretary from 1921 to 1955. He is credited with starting the practice whereby Secretaries stand close by the Speaker whilst in the Chair to provide real-time advice and support.
Under Speaker Hoyle the job title became ‘Speaker’s Secretary and Chief of Staff’ to reflect the fact that this post was to be his close and trusted advisor across all areas of his role, as well as running and developing the Speaker’s Office team to deliver a wider variety of activities whether ceremonial, procedural or corporate, domestic or international, pastoral or educational.