HC Deb 10 December 1970 vol 808 cc669-76
Mr. Speaker

I have a personal statement to make to the House.

Some 18 months ago I indicated to the then Leader of the House and the then Chief Opposition Whip that if I were re-elected to a new Parliament I would hope to remain in the Chair for only a short time in order to see the new Parliament in. When the House did me the honour of re-electing me as Speaker, I again indicated through the usual channels that I would seek to retire some time during the first year of this Parliament. In October I reaffirmed that it was my intention to retire during the Christmas Recess.

It is with deep emotion that I now inform the House that I shall not be returning to the House in the new year. What will probably be my last official duty will be to attend a Conference of Commonwealth Speakers in Delhi in late December and early January.

I have in the past expressed the thanks of the House to those who serve us so well; the Clerks, the Serjeant at Arms and his staff, the Vote Office, the Library, HANSARD, the Press Gallery, the printers, the Refreshment Department, the custodians, the annunciators, the engineers, the cleaners, the police. Today I express my personal thanks to all of them for their utter loyalty to Mr. Speaker, as to the rest of the House.

I would especially thank Mr. Barlas, Second Clerk Assistant, who was my mentor at Question Time when I first embarked on that difficult task; Mr. Gordon, Principal Clerk, who served me at Question Time in the same difficult duty; Mr. Lidderdale, Clerk Assistant, who was my chief adviser when I was Chairman of Ways and Means; and, above all, Sir Barnett Cocks. Rarely have two Officers of the House been more closely associated than have this Speaker and the Clerk. I am fortunate to have had, as the House and my successor will continue to have, the benefit of Sir Barnett's long years of experience, his wisdom and his utter dedication to Parliament. It is roughly true that what wise Rulings I have made have come from his advice and what errors I have made in the Chair have been my own.

I would also acknowledge the faithful personal service of Mr. Green and Mr. Canter, my Trainbearer and his Deputy.

As for my parliamentary colleagues, I cannot express adequately my gratitude to them for awarding me the most precious honour they could give, and for their unswerving loyalty, not so much to me as to the Chair.

Someone writing romantically about Mr. Speaker 50 years ago paraphrased Burke and wrote: The House has come almost to believe that the Speaker can do no wrong. Certainly, every parliamentary sword would leap from its scabbard to avenge even a look that threatened him with insult. My experience has not been exactly that—rather that swords have leapt from their scabbards whenever Mr. Speaker has done wrong. I seem to remember that the scabbard of the late Sydney Silverman, a great Parliamentarian, was often empty, and that many a sword has rattled in its sheath when I have failed to please an hon. Member in my most difficult task of choosing who is to speak.

Seriously, I have experienced nothing but kindness and understanding from both sides of the House: from the Leader of the Opposition, to whom I am deeply indebted for appointing me as Chairman of Ways and Means; from the Prime Minister, who has constantly supported me in my office—I am proud to have the friendship of both right hon. Gentlemen; from the present Leader of the House and his predecessor, both of whom, whilst being good party men, are also good Parliament men, and from the two Chief Whips—all four share with Mr. Speaker a deep love of Parliament and have been my closest companions. We have often disagreed, but never for long.

I owe much to the Services Committee, my constitutional adviser; to its three great Chairmen, the right hon. Members for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) and Workington (Mr. Peart) and now the right hon. and learned Member for Wirral (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd). All these, with the Father of the House and the other elder statesmen of the House, have been my valued advisers and friends.

When I look back on my 20 years in the House, when I remember the great Speakers whom I have had the honour to succeed, when I have realised, as I have done so often, that I have presided over so many able masters of procedure and so many able and devoted Parliamentarians and statesmen, I am at once both grateful and humble.

The greatest of my predecessors said in his valedictory speech: My hopes will be for the continuance of the Constitution in general and that the freedom, dignity and authority of this House may be perpetual. The bedrock of this House is allegiance not so much to the individual in the Chair as to the stored wisdom, the procedure, customs and courtesies of which he is the guardian and the exponent. Here is the place where men and women may differ freely, may attack each other politically and fiercely, yet respect each other personally, engage in honourable combat, each believing sincerely in the opinions that he holds but also in the right of the other man to hold diametrically opposite views. For this, Servicemen died across the whole world, Members of Parliament among them. For this the disabled ex-Serviceman gave his health or part of his body. This is a precious House bought at a great price through the ages.

I am for ever grateful to my colleagues for having allowed me to serve it as Speaker, as I am grateful to my constituents for having sent me to Parliament for more than 20 years, and to the Labour Party, which I was proud to belong to until high office made me vacate a lifelong service to one party to serve all parties and democracy itself. For electing me to the Chair and for its tolerant acceptance of my many errors, I thank the House from the bottom of my heart.

The Prime Minister

Mr. Speaker, I know that I am expressing the feelings of Members on both sides of the House when I say how sad we are to learn of your decision to retire from the Chair. At the same time, the whole House recognises the burden which Mr. Speaker carries, and understands and sympathises with your feeling that after five very arduous years the time has come for you to give up your responsible and onerous office.

Mr. Speaker, suitable Motions to mark your retirement will be moved in the House at a later date. But I would not wish to let this occasion pass without referring briefly to some of the many qualities which you have brought to the Chair. Mr. Speaker should above all be impartial, and be seen to be impartial. None of us, whether in Government or in Opposition, have ever had occasion to doubt this for a moment while you were in the Chair.

Mr. Speaker is the chief custodian of the traditions of the House; you have never hesitated to remind Members of the responsibility which we all share for the dignity and good reputation of the House. Mr. Speaker where possible should preside over the House with charm and good humour. The pages of HANSARD provide ample evidence of your wit and delicate touch, and you have added to this today.

To these traditional qualities, you have added at least one new dimension. Through your extensive travels abroad and generous hospitality at home, you have greatly strengthened the links of this House with Commonwealth and overseas Parliaments. It is indeed appropriate that one of your last acts as Speaker will be to attend the Commonwealth Speakers' Conference in Delhi at the end of this month.

The whole House will be sorry to lose a Speaker who has been unfailingly courteous and helpful to us all—to senior Members, to those elected for the first time, to the officials of the House and to visitors from home and overseas. At the same time, it is good to know that you will now have more leisure to devote to your many outside activities, to music, to writing, to travelling and to the interests of children, particularly, of course, to handicapped children. We are very sorry indeed to see you go; and you take with you the high regard and warm affection of the House.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Mr. Speaker, the whole House will understand the emotion you must have felt as you addressed the remarks you have just made to the House. It seems only a few weeks ago that the right hon. Gentleman the now Prime Minister and I, the Father of the House, the Leader of the Liberal Party and others were paying tribute to your qualities as Speaker on the occasion of your third election to the House.

As the Prime Minister has said, this is not the moment for us to express in full measure the debt of gratitude owed by the House to you personally for the period of more than five years when you have presided over our proceedings. There will be another occasion. But it is within the knowledge of all of us that you have presided over the work of this Parliament in three successive Parliaments, all very different for a number of reasons. The first when the parliamentary majority was perpetually on a knife edge, the second where one part had a substantial majority, and now the third Parliament when the other party has a substantial majority.

That being so, it must mean that two intakes of new Members of Parliament—two vintage intakes from my observance of them—have known no other Speaker. To them in future—and I know that this is true of those of us who came into the House in 1945 or 1950 or at any other point—it is always the first Speaker of the House of Commons one has known, just as it is the first headmaster of one's school, whom one regards as the quintessential occupant of the Chair. So that by and large for a very large number of Members of Parliament, with a great future and many years ahead of them in this House, you will be particularly remembered by them.

You have also been Speaker at a time when there have been substantial changes in our parliamentary procedures. You have eased those changes and made them workable as a result of your tolerance and your determination to see that pro- cedures which were a little difficult to assimilate were understood by the whole House over this period. It would not be appropriate to repeat everything that the right hon. Gentleman and I and others said when you were elected Speaker for the third time. As we have been reminded, there will be another occasion. But all of us have felt that during your period of office you have brought to the conduct of the Chair not only the traditional qualities which we knew you had or you would never have been elected in the first place, of fairness, of tolerance and those well-known and off-repeated virtues of selective blindness, deafness and the rest which we know you have applied in good measure; but also because you have extended the function of the Speaker beyond our shores in your visits overseas and by the leadership you have given to many other countries where parliamentary democracy is still far from fully developed.

I conclude by expressing our thanks—and I know that I speak for hon. Members in all parts of the House—not only to you for your conduct of our proceedings during these years, but also to Mrs. King who during these last years has been of inestimable value to you, to all Members of the House, and not least, to the visiting delegations and to other guests of Mr. Speaker in your residence.

I join with the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister in expressing our best wishes to you in your retirement from the conduct of the Chair, and especially in his remarks that you will now have rather more time than you have had to indulge your recognised taste for music, the service you have always given, not least through music, to children and others at Christmas and at other times, and also your great knowledge and power of expression in literature. The good wishes of all of us will go to you as you vacate the Chair, as today we learn with regret is your irrevocable intention.

Mr. Thorpe

Mr. Speaker, the House will have heard with regret but with understanding the decision you have taken. It is hardly necessary to say that you occupy a great position which stretches back to the 14th century. You are, I believe, the 142nd occupant of the Chair. Before the office of Speaker your predecessors were known as Procurators, and Peter de Montfort in the 13th century presided over what was known as the Mad Parliament which sat at Oxford. [An HON. MEMBER: "Nothing has changed."] We hope that you will not only turn to literature but that you will subsequently publish your memoirs—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, no."]—since this is the corollary of anybody who holds high office in this country. We shall wait with some apprehension to see what description you give to this and other Parliaments over which you have presided.

If the office of Speaker has not carried the dangers which attached to the position in the past, it certainly carries with it the strains and burdens which must make a great physical demand on the occupant of the Chair. You have not had to face the dangers. The worst that can be said is that you have been smoked out of the Chair, but you have shown tolerance, good nature and wisdom. I think it was Lord John Russell who said of Mr. Speaker Shaw-Lefevre that when there was not a precedent he made one but was always careful to add at the end the phrase that his Ruling was given according to the well-known practices of the House.

You have jealously safeguarded the rights of every Member of the House, whether on the Government side, the Opposition or on the minority benches. The hospitality which you and Mrs. King have afforded to many Members of the House and, indeed, to members from visiting Houses of Parliament has made us feel that you are not a remote person but someone to whom hon. Members can go for advice. Your trips abroad have also been mentioned and have played a great part in spreading the message of parliamentary democracy. Therefore, I am sure that it is the wish of the House that we should wish you long life and happiness and that you should take with you the gratitude of us all.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Mr. Speaker, as a back-bencher I would not in any way seek to usurp the opportunity which the Leader of the House would normally have to pay to you the tribute of us all, but the announcement which you have made today came so suddenly that not all of us were prepared for this sad occasion.

May I pay my personal tribute to you, not least because in the last three Parliaments I have had the great privilege of serving on your panel of Temporary Chairmen. I shall never forget your kindness to me while I was engaged on those duties. The team spirit which you inspired into us was a matter which all who experienced it will never forget.

I was particularly grateful to you when, for a fairly short period—luckily from my point of view and that of the House—I was an additional Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means when Mr. Speaker Hylton-Foster was ill. I shall always be grateful for your kindness in seeing me through those weeks.

I should particularly like to place on record my enormous appreciation of what you have done for the benefit of the Commonwealth as well as for this House. It has been a most wonderful experience to meet Speakers from other Commonwealth countries when you have been entertaining them in Mr. Speaker's house. To hear you speak to them, to hear your brilliant remarks, making all of us love Parliament even more, are matters to be highly cherished.

It has been a privilege to serve under you. Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for what you have done.