HC Deb 22 October 1974 vol 880 cc2-15

2.51 p.m.

Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu (Huddersfield, East)

I beg to move, That the right hon. and learned Member for Wirral (Mr. Lloyd) do take the Chair of this House as Speaker. In moving the motion I must first express my commiseration to the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker), who has had the misfortune to fall and break his leg and is, therefore, incapacitated from the job of dragging the Speaker-Elect to the Chair.

I have noticed through the years that when we first propel one of our colleagues to the Chair the traditional reluctance that he shows seems somewhat theatrical, but I suspect that matters are otherwise when we are doing so to one of our colleagues for the second and, indeed, for the third time.

The right hon. and learned Member for Wirral knows exactly what he is in for. He knows, first of all, that he is going to be judged by a majority of individual Members of this House solely by the number of times they happen to catch his eye. The right hon and learned Gentleman knows that he is going to have to listen—or to appear to listen—to a whole series of speeches, and in this place we do go on a bit.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has to cope with those of us who love to take part in the debates in this House without going through the formality of rising to our feet, and he has to cope with those of us who like to indulge in desultory conversations while an increasingly disconsolate colleague tries to make the speech of the century.

Perhaps almost worst of all, the Speaker has to cope with points of order which are no such thing, and I offer a suggestion to whomsoever we elect this day as our Speaker. It is that he may learn a lesson from those who are responsible for child guidance. Nowadays, they set up adventure playgrounds where the more egotistical and aggressive children can get rid of their aggression by smashing everything in sight. Perhaps we, in our turn, could have a period devoted to "phoney" points of order. I think that a suitable occasion during the week for such a period would be after those sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays when we repeatedly press the Prime Minister to tell us when next he will visit Auchtermuchty.

The new Speaker will have to cope with an Assembly which has a tendency on occasions, especially between the hours of 9 and 10 after a long debate, to become so high-spirited that the winding-up speakers become inaudible. Of course, the new Speaker may reflect that people who purport to answer a debate in this House by reading out neat little essays which they have written before the debate even began deserve all that they get.

But at least there is comfort in the fact—I think it is a fact—that modern Parliaments on the whole have been a great deal more orderly than were their predecessors before the First World War. Those Houses of Commons seemed to have less affinity with the Mother of Parliaments than they did with football specials from Manchester United. If that gives offence, I shall say football specials from Millwall.

Some people say that the House of Commons has no longer the standing and the authority that it used to have. People have been saying that, certainly to my knowledge, for the last 50 years; and to the extent that we have surrendered some of our sovereignty by entry into the Common Market that is true, but in every other respect it is totally untrue.

The older Houses of Commons used to be observers more than doers. They, as it were, set down guidelines for the evo- lution of the country and then held the ring. But today this great House is not just content to hold the ring. It is an active participant, and I suspect that the House which today is beginning to form itself will be an active participant not only in evolution but conceivably in devolution as well.

To preside over this Assembly, I, personally, can think of no one who is better fitted than the right hon. and learned Member for Wirral. He is one of our most experienced colleagues—experienced as a back bencher, experienced in holding the great offices of State and experienced in the Chair itself. He has that pervading humour which enables him to quieten difficult situations and, my word, he has that touch of asperity which on occasions can quell them altogether. Above all, he is genuinely liked.

It is for me a great honour, together with my long-standing friend the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith), to put before the House the name of the right hon. and learned Member for Wirral. I do so now with affection and respect.

3.1 p.m.

Sir Derek Walker-Smith (Hertfordshire, East)

It is a privilege and pleasure for me to second the motion, proposed in such fitting and persuasive terms by him whom the convention of the House obliges me to call "the hon. Member" for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Mallalieu), although, he has so kindly recalled "my hon. Friend" would be a much more fitting description, having regard to our long friendship.

First, I associate myself with what the hon. Member has said about the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker), express my sympathy also and that, I am sure, of all my right hon. and hon. Friends, and wish him a speedy return to the House.

This, in a sense, is a repeat performance of March. I should like to think, in the theatrical idiom, that it is in response to popular demand. Whatever may be thought about the supporting caste, I am sure that that is true of the player in the star rôle, the subject of this motion. It certainly does not seem long since we were last commending the right hon. and learned Gentleman for the office of Speaker. A week, we are told, is a long time in politics—some may remember the phrase—but certainly seven months is a short time between the elections of a Speaker.

But this is something beyond our control. It derives from those wider elections in which we have all necessarily partaken as a condition of being here today, not being in the enviable position of Members of the House of Lords, of whom Augustine Birrell said: They represent only themselves, and enjoy the unqualified confidence of their constituents. Speakers over the years have been chosen for varied reasons and diverse qualities. There was, for example, Mr. Speaker Gully who, in 1895, as a QC on the Northern Circuit, was chosen as Speaker of this House after only three years' service in it, due, it was said, to his handsome and distinguished presence. He filled, we are told, this difficult post with impartiality, dignity and courtesy. The only unfortunate incident of his career was the forcible removal of several Irish Members who refused to leave their seats after a Division had been called. This, the historian sadly but no doubt truthfully observes, lost him the confidence of the Irish Members. The right hon. and learned Member, in addition to being a QC, shares with Mr. Speaker Gully the advantage of a handsome presence. Neither advantage was shared by that other 19th century Speaker whose procession was witnessed one day by an American visitor to the House. The American visitor looked entranced at the spectacle of the procession and in particular at the Head Doorkeeper leading it with stately tread and majestic mien. His host invited his comments. "Why, great," he said, "just great. Your Speaker is sure a swell guy. But say—who is that ugly bastard in the wig following behind?"

As I put on record in March my commendation of the right hon. and learned Gentleman I can be short, though equally sincere, today. Then I had to deploy the case; today, in the language of the courts, it will be enough if I adopt my previous submission. But this I can fairly say. The case is even stronger today than it was in March because it is reinforced by the circumstances of the intervening months. The claims that I then made have been fulfilled, the prophecies confirmed and the submission proved.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has presided with success and distinction in the difficult conditions of a hair's breadth Parliament. So, in asserting his suitability for a continuance of office, I can properly echo to the House the words of one of its best-loved and most eminent former Members, Aneurin Bevan: Why peer into the crystal when we can read the book? The election of a Member to the high office of Speaker adds distinction to the recipient, however distinguished his previous services may be, for the distinction of the office of Speaker is unique in kind and special in quality. The Speaker of the House of Commons is the custodian of our parliamentary rights and the guardian of our parliamentary liberties, of our heritage built over long and laborious years. By his office, he is the head and front of British parliamentary institutions, themselves a model and exemplar far beyond these shore where democracy is practised and liberty is prized. I can pay no higher tribute to the right hon. and learned Gentleman than to say that he is in every way fit to fill this great office and maintain this high position. In that sure confidence, with pride and pleasure I beg to commend the motion to the House.

3.8 p.m.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd(standing in his place) (Wirral)

Mr. Strauss, I am very glad to have caught your eye. In accordance with custom, I think that I have to submit myself to the judgment of the House. As has been said, this is the second time this year, and if it is to happen twice a year from now on I suspect that it will be rather too much for all of us.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Mallalieu) and the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) for their very kind words and to the House for listening so patiently to them. I will consider adopting one or two of their suggestions, although perhaps I do not accept the hon. Member for Huddersfield East's and the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire East's description.

I acknowledge with gratitude the help which I have received in the past from so many concerned with the work of the House. I thank in particular the Members of the last two Parliaments for their tolerance and friendship, although there have been ups and downs and sparring matches from time to time with one or two whom I should perhaps call "my hon. Friends" since we are sitting on the same side today.

I know my faults—myopia, deafness, inability to let every Member rise to speak or question whenever he or she wishes. But in a somewhat cynical and anarchistic age, it is no doubt off trend to admit it but I remain devoted to this House. I am sometimes amazed at its behaviour. Nevertheless, leaving out of account its constitutional importance and effectiveness, as an assembly of men and women of very different natures and backgrounds, ideas and ideals, hopes and aspirations, it is a fascinating study. I sometimes wonder whether we here realise the extent to which we are on trial and under observation.

I should have liked to talk to the House about the intolerable length of supplementary questions and answers and the bad examples set by the Front Benches to the back benches. I should have liked to talk about the problem for the Chair in dealing fairly with minorities under Standing Orders. But all that another day.

I conclude with the words of William Williams, the first Welshman to be Speaker. He was a Member for Chester. Some Welshmen still are Members for seats outside the Principality. On 21st October 1680—that is 294 years and one day ago—William Williams said to the King after his election by the Commons: I am set in the first station of your Commons for trust and quality, an high and slippery place. It requires a steady head and a well-poised body in him that will stand firm there. He ended: Uprightness is the safe posture and best policy. The prospect of morality and expediency acting hand in hand is, of course, always interesting and attractive.

However that may be, I thank the House for its attention, and I submit myself with humility—and I mean that—to its judgment.

Whereupon, the Right Hon. George Russell Strauss left the Chair, and the Right Hon. Selwyn Lloyd was taken out of his place and conducted to the Chair by Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu and Sir Derek Walker-Smith.

Mr. Speaker-Elect (standing on the upper step)

Before taking the Chair I thank again the House for its confidence. I shall try to serve it well.


sat down in the Chair.

Then the Mace (which lay under the Table) was placed upon the Table.

3.12 p.m.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

Mr. Speaker-Elect, it is my most agreeable duty and my privilege to offer on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends our congratulations on your election as our Speaker. I feel sure that these congratulations will be echoed in all parts of the House. Although it is the second time that it has happened this year, I think that the House was impressed by the quality of the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Mallalieu) and the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith). My hon. Friend went so far as to put the first Question of the Session, albeit without notice, about a forthcoming visit. I have had little time to ponder the matter. Perhaps the best answer is: "I have at present no plans to do so, Sir."

The majority of the House—and I know that I speak not just for my right hon. and hon. Friends on this side of the House—has come to know you, Mr. Speaker-Elect, as Speaker and to appreciate the many qualities which you have brought to the conduct of the Chair. The House has been fortunate, as some of us have been able to testify in the past, that these qualities have not even included, despite your remarks this afternoon, those negative virtues which were once regarded as necessary for every Speaker—namely, total deafness and selective myopia. We have come to rely on more positive virtues.

While you have presided over our proceedings we have come to rely on more positive virtues. You have shown true perception and concern for the rights of minorities, for the interests of the individual Member and for the needs and wishes of the House as a whole. You have done so in the very highest traditions of the office which you have distinguished for almost four years. You have been ready not merely to accept but to take an active part in promoting a more dynamic rôle for Parliament. To take one example, Mr. Speaker-Elect, you showed yourself willing—indeed, by your ruling you made it possible through the medium of the Select Committee on Procedure, contrary to all dampening precedents—to make a far-reaching change in the sub-judice rule in the case of thalidomide children.

As you will know, Mr. Speaker-Elect, I was in past years something of an opponent of the practice of electing the Speaker from the ranks of those who formerly held ministerial office. That had been my view, which I expressed on many occasions, for almost 20 years. Your own distinguished service in many of the highest offices in the land would not perhaps originally have commended itself to me as a qualification for the Speakership, though when your name was first proposed by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition I felt that on personal grounds I would wish to support it strongly. On successive occasions when the choice of this House fell upon you I have been happy to move further from my original view. I have done so not on personal grounds but on your record in the Chair.

As with your impartial eye, Mr. Speaker-Elect, you look back at the last short Parliament, it may be that you will recall a phrase used on that occasion, for example, by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Liberal Party. When you look back it may be that you will not altogether regret that it is no longer the case that we are all minorities now. In March, after your election, I indicated that, despite the unusual nature of the House over which you had been called upon to preside, it would at least be an exciting Parliament. That, I think, proved true. That is the memory of most of us here, and I am sure that you would agree with that judgment.

It would be rash of me now to predict what this new Parliament will be like. Parliament has a volatile capacity for changing its moods. Sometimes it does so very quickly and without warning, especially late at night.

I can predict with confidence that, just as in previous Parliaments, you will give freely and without stint to those who seek your help and advice. You have been most generous in entertaining hon. Members, and the House will have every confidence that that tradition will continue. Further, the House will have every confidence that that free fount of help and advice will continue with you once again back in the Chair.

I want again, Mr. Speaker-Elect, to wish you all happiness and success in your high office. It is an office which some of us have pointed out in the past is inevitably a lonely one. I wish to assure you that both inside and outside this Chamber we shall, all of us, do everything we can to mitigate that loneliness. We shall all do everything within our power to assist you in the duty of maintaining and enhancing the authority and dignity of Parliament.

3.18 p.m.

Mr. Edward Heath (Sidcup)

Mr. Speaker-Elect, all my right hon. and hon. Friends will wish to join me in offering you our warmest congratulations on becoming Mr. Speaker-Elect. We offer you our good wishes for your occupancy of the Chair. The fact that this is the third occasion on which you have become Mr. Speaker-Elect is a particularly happy event for you and for the House as a whole.

I will not disguise the fact, as I think the Prime Minister has recognised, that those speaking today are presented with the somewhat unenviable task of thinking of even more felicitous phrases with which to pay tribute to your virtues and to extol your achievements.

Those of us who have sat under you in the past two Parliaments have recognised the remarkable qualities which you possess. If I may say so, you have infinite patience, spontaneous good humour and wit. In addition, you have the quality of fairness which you extend to individual Members and to minorities. That is a quality which I hope you will continue to extend even to the Front Benches.

Further, you have the quality of firmness in handling our proceedings. Above all, perhaps, you have the invaluable ability to defuse a difficult situation. A happy, witty remark comes from you not at the expense of either side, not at the expense of an individual Member, but as one which makes its appeal to the House as a whole and relaxes the tension which sometimes overtakes us.

You have, likewise, the ability to take a very firm, hard decision, as was required of you on one occasion in the last Parliament and which you took speedily and necessarily when circumstances demanded it. Above all, perhaps you have the quality of judgment required to know which course you should follow on each of the types of occasion I have described and which the House knows full well.

You, Mr. Speaker-Elect, possess a remarkable quality of judgment in this respect. It comes from nearly 30 years as a Member of the House. It comes from having held some of the highest offices of State. It comes from the periods which you have spent from time to time on the back benches. It comes, above all, from an understanding and love of the Chamber and of all our parliamentary institutions. This love and understanding has deepened with the passage of the years.

The last Parliament made great demands upon you of a new and complex kind. I doubt whether the demands of this Parliament will be any the less. However, whatever problems may befall us, today we have shown our complete confidence in you, our trust and respect for you, to handle the matters which come before us. Your courtesy, your helpfulness, and your kindness to individual Members will be acknowledged by everyone in the House who has sat under you as Mr. Speaker.

Those of us who have enjoyed your hospitality know the warmth of your personality. For the third time you are accepting a heavy burden. Perhaps we may have deduced from your own remarks today that we could ourselves lighten your load if statements and speeches were to be shorter and if portmanteau supplementary questions were to contain fewer items. At the same time, you may yourself think that it may well be the millennium before that position arrives.

In the meantime, we wish you great personal satisfaction and a great sense of achievement in carrying out the great office to which you have been called. We thank you for it and we wish you well.

3.22 p.m.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

I, too, congratulate you, Mr. Speaker-Elect, on your re-election and wish you well as you start a new spell as Speaker of the House. Your qualities have been referred to by both right hon. Gentlemen, and it would be difficult to add to that.

If the House itself collectively may be immodest, we might ourselves pause for a moment for self-congratulations. I know not, to use the modern term, to what socio-economic group a Speaker belongs, but when in 1971 the House of Commons collectively conceived and gave birth to you as Mr. Speaker I believe that this was a very good day's work indeed. As a result of that, you have gained the confidence, respect and affection of the House as well.

I believe that one of the testing times with which you were faced was after the last election when, as the Prime Minister reminded us, you were faced with a totally new situation. You were faced with a House which was composed of a collection of minority parties. I would like respectfully to pay tribute to the very fair way in which you sought, in the difficult situation, to recognise the interests of all minorities in the House.

One of the problems with which any Speaker is faced—this, indeed, you echoed yourself—is that he is bound by precedents, very often precedents which were drawn up to deal with a totally different situation. Now we have had a second election in 1974 in which I believe some of those changes have again been confirmed. We have, for example, a situation in which well over one quarter of the people did not support the two major parties represented in the House.

I believe that in fairness to you, therefore, as Speaker, if the House indeed has respect for the high office which you hold, it would be right for there to be immediate discussions with you amongst all parties in the House to see how you, Sir, can be spared having to implement procedures many of which are not generally acceptable to some Members of the House.

Therefore, it is in that spirit that I pledge the constructive support of my colleagues and myself. We know that you, Sir, will discharge your high office in future with the good humour, the fairness and the patience which we in the House gratefully expect and which since 1971 you have given to the House in full measure.

3.25 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Strauss (Vauxhall)

Mr. Speaker-Elect, the party leaders have expressed in generous terms their pleasure at your re-election to the Chair. As Father of the House I would like to add a few words on behalf of my children, the back benchers, for it is they, the rank and file, who are the major beneficiaries or victims of the behaviour of the occupant of the Chair and, consequently, his most critical judges.

Front benchers do not have to strive or compete to catch Mr. Speaker's eye in a debate and rarely are they out of order or unruly. Mr. Speaker's attitude to them is, therefore, one of permanent benevolence. But back benchers who may one day rejoice in his approval may the next suffer from his disapproval.

The fulsome courtesies and praises uttered by party leaders on the re-election of a Speaker have not in the past necessarily represented back-bench opinion. This is not surprising. One of the major functions of the Chair is to restrict the activities of individual Members in the interests of the proper functioning of the House as a whole. They are, therefore, prevented by Mr. Speaker, perhaps frequently, from making the telling and brilliant speeches they have prepared on a subject at which they may be expert or from asking devastating supplementary questions which might enhance their public reputation.

Inevitably, Members sometimes resent these restrictions and impugn Mr. Speaker's judgment and impartiality. Indeed, during my long membership of the House I have known no Speaker, however admirable he may have been, who has not been the constant butt of criticism by back benchers outside the Chamber. I hope that you will not consider it a back-handed compliment, Mr. Speaker-Elect, when I say with all sincerity that during my more than 40 years' membership of the House I have known no Speaker subject to less back-bench complaint than yourself.

The reasons are plain. However upset Members may be temporarily by some action you have taken, they are well aware that your record is one of scrupulous fairness and that in fact you do indulge back benchers to the permissible limit when they break the rules of orderly debate and behaviour. They know, too, that by your record, not only since you have occupied the Chair but before, you have shown your practical sympathy to a striking degree with the interests of back benchers. You did so when you were Chairman of the Services Committee. You did so, too, as I witnessed on many occasions, when we were both trustees of the Members' Pension Fund. So generous sometimes were your proposals then for pension rights for ex-Members, their widows and their children that you were unable to carry your fellow trustees with you, not because of weak advocacy on your part or meanness on theirs but because they feared that if you had your way the pension fund would soon be joining the illiquidity queue.

All the Speakers I have known have enjoyed in various degrees deep respect in the House but none, I believe, has earned the same degree of affection, which is equally desirable but more difficult.

The back benchers today welcome your re-election to the Chair in the confidence that as long as you continue to preside over our affairs they can rely on your proven qualities of wisdom, wit and humanity. They are confident that they can look forward to an impartial and tolerant Speaker who will one day leave the occupancy of the Chair with its high traditions not only preserved but enhanced.

3.29 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Henderson (Aberdeenshire, East)

On behalf of my hon. Friends who represent the fourth largest party in this House, may I say how much we welcome your re-election today, Mr. Speaker. We were extremely impressed by the tolerance, kindness and courtesy which you showed to all of us in the previous Parliament. We wish you every happiness and success in your years ahead as Speaker.

Back to
Forward to