§ Mr. Speaker
We now come to the main business, which will continue until 4 o'clock. I have selected the amendment in the name of the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office, and the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). I may have to declare an interest in the matter!
- (1) This House approves the recommendations contained in the Second Report of the Procedure Committee, Session 2000–01, Election of a Speaker (House of Commons Paper No. 40) relating to the election of a Speaker.
- (2) Standing Order No. 1 (Election of the Speaker) be amended by leaving out paragraph (4); and the title of the Standing Order shall be 'Election of the Speaker: Member presiding'; and
- (3) The following new Standing Orders No. 1A (Re-election of former Speaker) and No. 1B (Election of Speaker by secret ballot) be made:
Before I address the motion, I want to do what I think is proper and express publicly our thanks. First, our thanks are due to the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), who weathered the storms around the recent election of Speaker with such good sense and aplomb that several hon. Members gave substantive evidence to the Procedure Committee in support of the current system, despite the widespread anxiety that was expressed at the time. It is also worth noting the conclusion of the Committee's report, with which I believe all hon. Members will agree. It states
that the outcome of the election on 23 October 2000 would have been the same regardless of the particular electoral system employed".
Secondly, our thanks are due to the Procedure Committee, which examined the procedures for election of Speaker with thoroughness and dispatch, and produced a report which, I believe, provides the basis for a potential new system, which might avoid the anxieties that were expressed about our previous method.
Let me stress at once that the motion has been tabled in my name simply to allow the House to reach a decision on the recommendations of the Procedure Committee, as has the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. I shall deal with that shortly. The motion and the amendment have been drawn up with the assistance of the Clerks. The detailed process of drafting has, as is often the case, created the need for minor amendment and to expand the Committee's precise recommendations, so that the Standing Orders do, in some places, flesh out the detail of the Committee's recommendations. I believe that the Committee expected that. We have been greatly assisted by the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who has been consulted on our detailed interpretation of the recommendations.
There is no Government position on the issue, just as there was no Government position on the election of a Speaker. It is a House of Commons matter and Labour Members are not subject to any party Whip.
The first part of the motion simply approves the recommendations that the Procedure Committee made about the election of a Speaker. They include matters that probably cannot adequately be put into Standing Orders, but should nevertheless guide the House in future. For example, the Committee noted that it perceived no need for hustings or manifestos, but did not recommend their formal prohibition. It deprecated strident campaigning and noted that it should be possible to carry out the whole electoral process in a single sitting day. Those are important guidelines, which should be put on the record, but they need not be written into Standing Orders.
The second paragraph of the motion provides for leaving out paragraph (4) of existing Standing Order No. 1. That paragraph sets out our existing procedures for electing a Speaker. The rules about who should preside over any election, and the powers that they should exercise, are left unchanged
The meat of the motion is in the two new Standing Orders proposed under paragraph (3). The first, entitled "Re-election of former Speaker", simply provides that if the Speaker in the previous Parliament is re-elected to the Commons, the House should, at the beginning of the Parliament, be given the opportunity to re-elect him or her 501 by acclamation. That has been the long-standing tradition of the House, and I would expect it to be maintained in all but the rarest circumstances. That was also the Procedure Committee's view. The Standing Order provides that the question on re-election should be put forthwith. It is my view, and I understand that it is shared by the hon. Member for Macclesfield, that that should emphasise the formality of the procedure.
However, it is conceivable, although always extremely unlikely, that a previous Speaker might no longer be acceptable to the House. In that rare case, and in all other cases when a new Speaker is elected, the procedure in the second proposed Standing Order for the election of a Speaker would come into play. I want to highlight one or two details in it.
The report recommends that each nomination should be accompanied by 12 signatures. It does not suggest what should happen if an hon. Member signs two candidates' nominations. It seems to have been intended that the signature of any hon. Member who signed twice should properly be disregarded. Again, that was confirmed by the Chairman of the Procedure Committee. However, there was no wish for candidates to be disqualified through no fault of their own but as a result of a duplication of signatures. The draft Standing Order therefore specifies that nominations may contain up to 15 signatures. That gives some room for manoeuvre. It is the Committee's view that the nominations should not be publicly revealed. That is not written into the Standing Orders, but it would be covered by the House's general endorsement of the Committee's proposals.
Paragraph (6) provides that the order in which candidates address the House should be determined by lot in the House, to ensure that the process is as transparent as possible. After that draw, each candidate will, as the Procedure Committee recommended, be given the opportunity to address the House before the ballot takes place.
Paragraph (7) provides that the presiding Member will not have a vote in any ballot, just as at present.
§ Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)
I was very pleased to see the provision in paragraph (6) of the proposed Standing Order, because when my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) had a meeting in Committee Room 14, at which all the candidates were asked to speak, albeit only briefly, the proceedings were criticised for perhaps providing a hostage to fortune in trying to get votes for the candidature. I was asked to be the chairman and, having considered the matter, I thought that holding such a meeting was a sensible thing to do, and that if any candidate were to go beyond what was expected of a Speaker, it would be to their disadvantage—and so it proved.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I know that my right hon. Friend took part in those procedures. One of the concerns that was expressed—I speak from memory—on at least the previous two occasions of a Speaker's election, was that under our former procedures it was not necessarily the case that every potential candidate was heard. I know that that was part of the difficulty that my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) was seeking to 502 overcome in the procedure to which my right hon. Friend referred. I think that it is one of the virtues of the proposals of the Procedure Committee that such a procedure would now allow all potential candidates to address the House without any being excluded.
The concern is for transparency and fairness in these procedures. Paragraphs (8) to (13) set out the provisions for an exhaustive ballot. Paragraph (14) sets out the general principles that the House should meet at 2.30 pm on any day on which it is to elect a Speaker; that the question that a Member becomes Speaker shall be unamendable, as the Procedure Committee suggested; and that, in the unlikely event—one hopes—of the House rejecting the Member who comes top of the ballot, the whole process will be repeated on the following day.
I turn finally to the amendment tabled separately in the name of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. The Procedure Committee recommended that the House should be given the opportunity to decide whether the ballot for the Speaker should be open or secret. The Government have tabled the amendment to ensure that the House has the opportunity to make that decision. I recognise there are strong, genuine arguments on both sides. This is a matter on which there are bound to be legitimate differences of opinion.
The Committee considered, on balance, that the ballot should be secret and that is why that provision is in the substantive motion However, I stress that it is for the House to decide, and the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary enables that choice to be made by giving the House something on which to vote.
I conclude by repeating that the Procedure Committee has done an excellent job, and done it as speedily and effectively as anybody could possibly have wished. I believe that this has given the House an opportunity to change our system for electing the Speaker if we so choose, but it is for the House to choose. I commend the motion to the House.
§ Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)
I join the Leader of the House in paying tribute to the Procedure Committee. Its report is comprehensive and has been put before the House in good time, before the Easter recess. I would like to say how much I appreciated the opportunity to give evidence to the Committee. It took wide-ranging evidence, and that has helped to steer the direction in which the report has gone.
I would like to put on record the fact that the evidence that I gave to the Committee drew on certain themes that were of importance to a broad spectrum of Conservative Members, but I also made it clear when I was giving my own personal opinion. None the less, I am pleased to see that many of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee have focused on issues that were of broad concern to hon. Members. When we debate across the Floor of the House, particularly when the right hon. Lady and I speak from the Dispatch Box, what we mean by modernisation of the House is often misunderstood—but considering the rules for electing a Speaker is a most appropriate subject, and is certainly in line with what I regard as modernisation.
503 As the Leader of the House said again today, this debate will focus on House matters. Individual Members of Parliament will be able to have a say in how we shape, form and reform our structures and proceedings—and none of those is more important than the position that you hold, Mr. Speaker. I hope that later we will engage in further discussions about the powers of the Speaker. Personally, I would like the Speaker to be able to support us even more in holding the Executive to account. Perhaps the Procedure Committee will consider that in due course, as the next stage.
The debate is important and timely. I do not intend to go through the detail again, as the right hon. Lady has given a good summary of the report, which also contains the record of all the oral evidence we gave. This is a matter for individual Members. It should be appreciated that what was once considered to be the province of what are euphemistically called the usual channels, which held so much power, is being challenged That is what the report does. It has been put on the record that we should look into many aspects of our procedures, particularly how we decide who should be brought forward as a suitable candidate for Speaker.
I suppose that I now have to regard myself as part of the usual channels, but I have been doing the job for only six or seven months, and I still find it a strange job in some respects. Indeed, it took me about four months before I stopped calling the usual channels "the other channels".
The more transparency there is, and the more Members can challenge what happens, the more I welcome it. It is important that there be a clear record of decision making, especially in important matters such .is the election of a Speaker, and that Members should be able to participate rather than leaving things up to the usual channels. I respect and recognise that as modernisation, even if I am critical of some other aspects of modernisation that are brought before the House.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)
I begin by thanking the Leader of the House very much for her kind remarks about the Procedure Committee's report. Indeed, I would go further and thank her for her tremendous helpfulness throughout the inquiry. She gave excellent evidence to the Procedure Committee, and I appreciate personally, as does my Committee, the speed with which she has arranged today's debate.
The right hon. Lady was courteous enough to let me, on behalf of my Committee, see a draft of the new Standing Orders, and to adopt some of the changes that I suggested, also on behalf of the Committee. I am happy with the text of the Standing Orders, which embodies the Committee's recommendations well.
I thank my colleagues on the Committee, some of whom are here today, for their work and support, and for the dedication that they put into producing the report. I say openly that we worked very well as a team on the inquiry; such an inquiry shows hoot Members from all parties can work well together to produce a report that will improve the procedures of the House.
The subject was sensitive and complex, and we were working to a tight schedule. None the less, we reached consensus on almost all our conclusions, and agreed the report at a single meeting. The Leader of the House has 504 given a very fair summary of the contents of our report, and I shall not take up the time of the House by repeating that. The report sets out its arguments clearly, and I shall simply make a few comments arising from the inquiry.
The Procedure Committee carried out the inquiry because it was the clear wish of the House that we should do so. As we say in the report, there was a lot of unhappiness among Members about the way in which our procedures operated last October. A review was obviously necessary and it was important that we consult as widely as possible within the House.
As the Chairman of the Committee, I wrote to all hon. Members and received 130 replies. Within the constraints of our timetable, the Committee also took oral evidence from as wide a cross-section of hon. Members as possible. A number of the hon. Members who gave that evidence are in the House today, hoping to participate in the debate—and I hope that they do.
We went into the inquiry with an open mind. The report sets out the strengths as well as the weaknesses of the existing system. We certainly did not feel that all the criticisms of that system were justified. Many of the comments made in the press were simply what I would describe as the product of sloppy and malicious journalism of a kind that is now regrettably all to common in the field of parliamentary reporting.
In particular, we concluded that it was wrong to criticise the procedures because of the length of time that it took to choose a Speaker. The decision is a very important one. It is made only once every seven or eight years. It matters more to get it right than to do it quickly. Many Parliaments around the world take an equivalent amount of time to choose their presiding officers. In fact, only some seven weeks ago, our sister House of Commons in Canada took four and half hours to elect its new Speaker, using a system based on a secret ballot.
We also supported the decision of the Father of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), not to accept the motion tabled by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). Although that was not a popular decision—and we say in the report that we understand the frustration that it caused—it was right in procedural terms. My right hon. Friend had no alternative.
However, we conclude that the existing procedures are unsatisfactory. That is not because they were wrong when they were drafted, which was as recently as the 1970s, but because the House has changed since then. For many years, the House was content to let the usual channels referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning)—and in particular the Government—make the running in choosing a Speaker. Even if the leaderships of the Government and Opposition parties disagreed over the choice, as happened occasionally, the House was still presented with a choice between only two candidates.
We should be careful not to be too scathing about that arrangement. The report describes it as being based on "benevolent paternalism"—a phrase that I use carefully. It is striking that, when the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party gave evidence to the Procedure Committee in 1971, he was content that the Government should put forward a candidate for the Chair—even though the Government of the time were Conservative. Under the old 505 system, there was usually a genuine attempt by Government to pick a candidate who would be broadly acceptable to the House
We can also judge the system by its results. Over the years, the House has had many fine and distinguished Speakers, so the system by which they were chosen cannot have been all that bad. However, Governments have not always been successful in reading the mood of the House, or in predicting what Back-Bench Members would find acceptable.
In the report, we show that there is another tradition that runs back through the centuries—a healthy suspicion by the House of candidates whose links with Government are too strong. That attitude has grown in strength in the past 20 or 30 years. We have now reached a situation where not one of our witnesses was prepared to support any involvement at all by the usual channels—the party machines—in the process of choosing a Speaker. It follows that the traditional system of sifting out candidates to leave the House with a choice of only one or two has broken down.
That became obvious last October when 12 candidates, myself included, stood for election. The current voting system was not devised or designed for such a situation. We do not mince our words about this in the report. We say that in a multi-candidate election, the current rules are unfair because the order in which the names are put forward before the House may help to determine the outcome. The election last October disguised that because the size of the winning candidate's majority—your own, Mr. Speaker—meant that all other candidates were easily beaten. So the order in which the House decided upon them was, in that instance, irrelevant. In other circumstances, that might not be the case.
The Committee gave serious consideration to the proposal by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), the former chairman of the Procedure Committee, to modify the existing system. However, we decided that although it was a valiant attempt, it ultimately failed to address the criticisms that had been levelled at the system, and that root-and-branch reform was therefore necessary.
We agreed that the existing system, in the circumstances of a multi-candidate election, was unfair, at least potentially, and should be replaced. We had no difficulty in concluding that its replacement should be a ballot-based system. That was the logical, obvious alternative. We did, however, have divided views on two questions relating to the operation of the ballot.
The question of whether the ballot should be open or secret raises important issues of principle. A majority on the Committee concluded that the ballot should be secret, as is the case in similar elections in most of the major Parliaments in the Westminster tradition. A minority of colleagues, I have to confess, dissented, and although they did not formally divide the Committee, we felt that it was right to recommend that the House should have an opportunity to make a separate decision on that point. The amendment in the name of the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will enable the House to do that, and I am grateful to the Leader of the House and her ministerial colleague for allowing that to happen.
506 The other issue on which there was a difference of views within the Committee was the voting system itself. The choice was between the exhaustive ballot and the alternative vote. Both were recommended by the Electoral Reform Society as suitable systems by which to elect a Speaker. The arguments for and against each are well set out in the report, and even more fully in the evidence from the Electoral Reform Society, printed with the report. My preference—which was shared, I am pleased to say, by a majority of the Committee—was for the exhaustive ballot.
§ Mr. Winterton
My right hon. Friend rightly says that noise does not carry the day. Despite my preference, I think that both systems—the exhaustive ballot and the alternative vote—would function satisfactorily.
We considered whether there should be a run-off, according to the existing rules, after the ballot. We decided that there was little point. The ballot would give a decisive result, while a run-off would add nothing and might lead to confusion or an erosion of the legitimacy of the ballot.
Even with this radical proposal, some of the elements of the existing system will be retained. For instance—and I address this remark specifically to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon—the Father of the House will normally preside over the proceedings.
§ Mr. Winterton
It is the wish of the Committee on whose behalf I am speaking today. I am outlining and stressing that wish in my remarks. I repeat that the Father of the House will normally preside over the proceedings. There will still be an opportunity for congratulatory speeches after the election and for some of the ceremonial surrounding the election to be retained.
We recommend that there is one set of special circumstances in which there should not be an automatic ballot. That is when a sitting Speaker seeks re-election to the Chair after a general election. As we show in the historical section of the report—which is a valuable part of it—there has been a strong convention for many years that in those circumstances, a sitting Speaker is not challenged.
§ Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)
I should be interested to hear my hon. Friend's comments on that section of the report in particular in the following respect. It is clear that, for the election of a new Speaker, the nomination system that the Committee has proposed requires a degree of cross-party support. One could envisage circumstances—this may have happened although it may riot have been clear because no nomination system existed—in which such support did not exist. Should the House fetter the rights of a majority 507 of Members of Parliament to elect whom they want, and why does that not apply to the re-election of a former Speaker?
§ Mr. Winterton
As I develop my argument I think that my hon. Friend will realise that it is possible for the re-election of a sitting Speaker to be challenged, but the Committee and I, as its Chairman, do not believe that that is desirable. I will highlight that in a moment. We show in the historical section of the report that there is a strong convention that in such circumstances a sitting Speaker is not challenged. We support that convention and I hope that the House will also support it today.
I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) that that convention helps to safeguard the office of Speaker against the politicisation that might follow if it were felt that a change in the composition of the House following a general election might lead to a change of Speaker. The new Standing Order provides that in those circumstances a single Question should be put to the House, "That the former Speaker do take the Chair." In theory, it would be possible to vote the motion down and to hold a ballot the following day, thus preserving the House's right to change its Speaker, but we think that that is highly unlikely to happen and that it would be undesirable if it did. I speak on behalf of the Committee as a whole in making those comments.
Among other issues, we considered the desirability of candidates campaigning, issuing manifestos or speaking at hustings meetings. Here, I must mention the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), whom I commend for his initiative at the last election, which enabled a number of the candidates, including me, to present themselves to a large number of Back Benchers and to be assessed on their suitability for this vital job. I found the experience exhilarating and the initiative taken by the hon. Gentleman served the House well.
§ Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
I recall the hon. Gentleman at the hustings describing himself as a "traditionalist moderniser" and then correcting himself and saying that he was a "modernising traditionalist". Which is he?
§ Mr. Winterton
I think that I am the latter—a modernising traditionalist. I believe that many people in this Parliament have found me to be so and I am happy with that.
The broad conclusion of the Procedure Committee was that a limited amount of campaigning is only to be expected and, indeed, is healthy, bat that it should be regulated by what we describe as the hallmark of this House, common sense. At the start of a Parliament, with many new Members in the House who will not know the candidates personally, it would be helpful to have some way of judging differences between candidates. We provided for candidates to make speeches in the Chamber before the ballot. That is probably the most effective form of hustings. However, we came to the conclusion that speeches by proposers and seconders—however good they may have been or might be—do not serve much useful purpose and should be discontinued.
There would be a danger if personal manifestos set out a detailed platform of policy commitments. The nature of the Speaker's office is such that he or she has to 508 implement the policies decided by the House and its Committees. A new Speaker could be in an awkward position if it were known that he or she was personally opposed or dedicated to changing any of those policies which had been decided on by the House. That is not to say that candidates should not indicate their broad sympathy with certain policies, such as the modernisation of the House, which is widely talked about today, as the Leader of the House knows. My feeling is that any candidate who went too far down that road or indulged in over-frenetic campaigning would probably find it counter-productive. I think that that was the purport of the earlier intervention of the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon).
We provide for a system of nomination, including the requirement that each candidate should have the support of at least 12 Members, three of whom do not belong to his or her party. We did not want to go too far in the direction of discouraging Members from standing, but we thought it reasonable that there should be a minimum threshold of eligibility. We set out a step-by-step proposal for a new system, but we have not attempted to prescribe every last detail.
§ Mr. Grieve
If I may, I will pick up on my previous point, the thrust of which I think my hon. Friend misunderstood. Will he clarify why he regards it as necessary to have cross-party support for the nomination for the speakership, when the decision must ultimately be taken in accordance with the majority view of the House? Could that not lead to a situation where there is a clear majority view of the House about who it wants as Speaker, but where, because of that mechanism, it is deprived of having the opportunity of that choice?
§ Mr. Winterton
My hon. Friend asks a hypothetical question. I do not believe that that situation will arise. Any serious candidate for the highest office of this House, that of Speaker, will always attract cross-party support. In my view and from 30 years' experience in this House, if appropriate representations are made by the individual concerned or those representing the interests of that individual, there will be absolutely no doubt whatever that such a candidate will receive cross-party support. To have merely three out of 12 Members not belonging to the candidate's party is modest indeed. It will be for the House authorities to work out the operational details of conducting a ballot within the clear framework established by the new Standing Orders.
Finally, the Committee comments on matters relating to tradition and ceremonial. We say that it should be up to the successful candidate whether he or she wishes to continue with the tradition of being dragged to the Chair. My view is that it is a pleasing piece of theatre with a serious message. It reminds us, as you know only too well, Mr. Speaker, that the new Speaker is taking over a heavy responsibility and may be called on to show courage in standing up to the Executive—perhaps not the physical courage that was needed in the past when after the Speaker's Chair could come the executioner's block, but certainly moral courage.
The Leader of the House said in evidence to us that the outcome was more important than the process. She was right. By that she meant that what mattered was that we continue to elect good, able, impartial Speakers who will defend the rights of this House and the people. Voting systems and Standing Orders are only a means to that end.
509 I pay tribute again to my Committee for its work. Although it is somewhat unusual, I also wish to express appreciation on behalf of my Committee of the staff who helped us throughout this important inquiry. They undertook valuable work and were much appreciated by all the Committee's members. I hope that my Committee has put together a sensible package of proposals that will enable the right outcomes to be reached and so strengthen the speakership and the House of Commons. I hope that the House will support the proposals.
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)
I ask the indulgence of the House. This may be my last speech, so if I am out of order, Mr. Speaker, I hope that you will allow me to range widely.
I support the report of the Procedure Committee and the motion proposed by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. The report is scholarly and historical; it considers all the arguments. My only difference with it is over the question of a secret ballot. I have always understood that if one votes as oneself, it must be secret. Years ago, when I was canvassing in Bristol, I asked a woman to support me and she replied, "Mr. Benn, the ballet is secret". I thought of her dancing alone in the bedroom, where no candidate was allowed to know about it. However, when we vote in a representative capacity, people must know what we have done, so I shall vote for the amendment. The Committee has done very well. I hope that the House accepts the report.
The old system had serious difficulties. Although I disagreed strongly with the Father of the House, he carried out his duties with exceptional skill—with panache! I felt that he was the only Member of the House who could have turned the Beefeaters into a fighting force—he showed such passion and commitment to the rules. We got the Speaker we wanted and I hope that, as a result of today's proceedings, we shall get the system we want—the one that I advocated, as the House will recall.
As I have done on previous occasions—when we were electing a Speaker—I want to look a little more broadly at the role of the Speaker. Often, we tend to think of the Speaker in relation only to the Chamber, but the Speaker's role is of much wider importance. Relations between the legislature and the Executive go through the Speaker of the House.
We live in a strange country: we do not elect our head of state; we do not elect the second Chamber. We elect only this House, and even in this House enormous power is vested in the prerogatives. The Prime Minister can go to war without consulting us, sign treaties without consulting us, agree to laws in Brussels without consulting us and appoint bishops, peers and judges without consulting us. The role of the Speaker today compared with that of Mr. Speaker Lenthall is that you, Mr. Speaker, are protecting us from the triple powers of Buckingham palace, the Millbank tower and central office, which, in combination, represent as serious a challenge to our role.
Then there is the link between the Commons and the people. I have seen many schoolchildren taken around the House, and have talked to some of them about how it has been a home of democracy for hundreds of years. In 1832, only 2 per cent. of the population had the vote. That may 510 seem a long time ago, but it was only 18 years before my grandfather was born. When I was born, women were not allowed the vote until they were 30. Democracy—input from the people—is very, very new. The link between popular consent and the decisions of the House can be tenuous.
Furthermore, nowadays, Parliament representing the will of the people has to cope with many extra-parliamentary forces—very threatening extra-parliamentary forces. I refer not to demonstrations, but to the power of the media, the power of the multinationals, the power of Brussels and the power of the World Trade Organisation—all wholly unelected people.
The House will forgive me for quoting myself, but in the course of my life I have developed five little democratic questions. If one meets a powerful person—Adolf Hitler, Joe Stalin or Bill Gates—ask them five questions: "What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?" If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system.
The role of the Speaker has another importance. When the political manifestos are yellowing in the public libraries, a good ruling from the Speaker in a footnote in "Erskine May" might turn out to be one of the guarantees of our liberty.
There are two ways of looking at Parliament. I have always thought that, from the beginning—from the model Parliament—the establishment has seen Parliament as a means of management: if there is a Parliament, people will not cause trouble, whereas, of course, the people see it as a means of representation. Those are two quite different concepts of what Parliament is about. The establishment wants to defuse opposition through Parliament; the people want to infuse Parliament with their hopes and aspirations.
I have put up several plaques—quite illegally, without permission; I screwed them up myself. One was in the broom cupboard to commemorate Emily Wilding Davison, and another celebrated the people who fought for democracy and those who run the House. If one walks around this place, one sees statues of people, not one of whom believed in democracy, votes for women or anything else. We have to be sure that we are a workshop and not a museum.
My next point, if I am not out of order, is that all progress comes, in my judgment, from outside the House. I am in no way an academic, but if I look back over history, I see many advances first advocated outside the House, denounced by people in power and then emerging. Let me use a couple of non-controversial examples. Twenty years ago, Swampy would have been denounced as a bearded weirdy; he will probably be in the next honours list, because the environmental movement has won. Similarly, when that madman, Hamilton, killed the children at Dunblane, the then Conservative Home Secretary banned handguns within six months, because public opinion had shifted. So we are the last place to get the message, and it is important that we should be connected effectively to public will.
There is a lot of talk about apathy, and it is a problem, but it is two sided. Governments can be apathetic about the people, as well as people being apathetic about Governments. For me, the test of an effective, democratic 511 Parliament is that we respond to what people feel in a way that makes us true representatives. The real danger to democracy is not that someone will burn Buckingham palace and run up the red flag, but that people will not vote. If people do not vote, they destroy, by neglect, the legitimacy of the Government who have been elected.
May I finish with a couple personal points? I first sat in the Gallery 64 years ago, and my family have been here since 1892—five of us in four generations, in three centuries—and I love the place. I am grateful to my constituents who have elected me. I am grateful to the Labour party, of which I am proud to be a member. I am grateful to the socialists, who have helped me to understand the world in which we live and who give me hope. I am also deeply grateful to the staff of the House—the Clerks, the policemen, the security staff, the Doorkeepers, librarians, Hansard and catering staff—who have made us welcome here.
May I finish, in order, by saying something about yourself, Mr. Speaker? In my opinion, you are the first Speaker who has remained a Back Bencher. You have moved the Speaker's Chair on to the Back Benches. You sit in the Tea Room with us. You are wholly impartial, but your roots are in the movement that sent you here, and you have given me one of the greatest privileges that I have ever had—the right to use the Tea Room and the Library after the election. Unless someone is a Member or a peer, he or she cannot use the Tea Room or the Library, but you have extended the rules by creating the title of "Freedom of the House", so that the Father of the House and I will be able to use the Tea Room. You will not be shot of us yet. I hope in paying you a warm tribute, Mr. Speaker, that you do not think that I am currying favour in the hope that I might he called to speak again because, I fear, that will not be possible.
§ 2.7 pm
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
It is great privilege to follow the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) in the debate. This is not the first occasion on which I have found myself, rather unexpectedly, agreeing with him. Indeed, the first time that I did so was when I canvassed for him, as a young Liberal, as did many of my colleagues, in that famous by-election in Bristol, when he demonstrated a commitment to democracy which we all admire.
I want to take up just one word from his very eloquent speech—"infusion". I am not referring to his favourite beverage, although I am sure that we will all welcome him back in the Tea Room after the general election. He has been an infusion of real-life democracy in the Chamber, which has not been as evident with many hon. Members in our own work here.
I, too, pay tribute to the Committee and, indeed, to its Chairman for the balanced way in which he has presented its report this afternoon. I particularly want to underline the fact that, throughout the report and the debate, it has been recognised that times have changed and that, whatever else we do, we must prevent A such matters from slipping back into the hands of the usual channels. The election of a Speaker is a matter for the whole House.
The right hon. Member for Chesterfield may recall that, on a previous occasion, I moved a motion stating that the power of the parties has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished. That is, of course, a reflection of the 512 famous Dunning motion, moved in the House in the 1780s, which referred to the Crown. It is extremely important that the House owns the system by which the Speaker is elected and, thereby, shows that the speakership is in its ownership and under the control and influence of nobody else. That is why I take a slightly different view from the right hon. Gentleman about the ballot.
The election of the Speaker is an unusual ballot; it is not like a normal Division, when, as the right hon. Gentleman said, we are here in a representative capacity. However, on a matter of this sort, we do not act in that capacity; we are here as members of an institution saying how we as individual Members—and not the parties or external bodies—want it to be run. We all take part on a completely equal basis—none higher and none lower—and according to exactly the same terms. That is why, as I shall explain in a moment, I strongly support the proposal for a secret ballot.
The Parliamentary Secretary is a past master at getting things right, but his amendment appears to be somewhat defective. It refers only to line 28, when the word "secret" also appears in lines 24 and 25. No doubt, that can be corrected by the usual channels.
We are all here as individual Members and I am speaking in a personal capacity. However, I have undertaken extensive consultation with my Liberal Democrat colleagues in the parliamentary party, so I may refer to the fact that, on some matters I have the unanimous support of my colleagues.
First, I want to make a point of principle. The fact that an outcome is satisfactory and something that we all applaud and recognise as right does not necessarily mean that the route by which we reached that outcome was satisfactory. The fact that the successful candidate on 23 October was broadly welcomed in the House and is very acceptable—I am sure that, with the passage of time, more people have come to that view even if they did not take it at the time—does not mean that the process by which we came to that conclusion was satisfactory. I am grateful to those who gave evidence to the Committee and to the Committee itself for making that point so clearly in the report.
Nevertheless, it is also true that if we had had more time, it might have been possible to have made the inquiry more effective. It is curious to decide who one wants for a job before one writes the job specification. We would never interview someone without deciding what the job was for which we were interviewing him. I therefore regret the fact that it is not been possible, within the time constraints, for the Procedure Committee or any other Select Committee to examine the role of Speaker. I was grateful for the support that was given to that view by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning).
In a memorandum to the Committee and to the Modernisation Committee, we made suggestions for the modernisation of the role of Speaker as well of the process by which we choose from the candidates.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton
The Procedure Committee is very keen to undertake an inquiry into the role of Speaker. No doubt it will consider the subject in the next Parliament.
§ Mr. Tyler
I am grateful for that assurance. When the time comes, I hope that we shall be given an opportunity 513 to expand on the memorandum that already appears on pages 34 to 39 of the report. There is unfinished business, but I put it no more strongly than that. None the less, I pay tribute to the Committee for producing a report to enable the House to come to a decision before any possible election.
The Committee's report contains a persuasive argument for a secret ballot. The only possible argument against it—I have already referred to it—is that of precedent. However, this place is evolutionary and it would be a useful precedent to establish that there may, in exceptional circumstance, be a good case for a secret ballot—the exception proving the rule.
The point is not that the Speaker will examine the Division lists and think, "Ah, well, the hon. Member for Bolsover did not vote for me, so I'll make sure that he does not get in at business questions again." That is not the issue. I have complete faith in the integrity of the Chair; the problem is perception.
§ Mr. Tyler
I am sure that is true, and I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, and the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great affection, will not hold a grudge against me.
The point that I was about to make is not that the Speaker might examine the Division list, but that the Whips might. I am a member of the usual channels club, so I think that, on a matter of such importance, we should not know whether our colleagues have voted in one way or another. It might be very damaging to publish the list.
On the electoral system, the Chairman of the Committee very fairly set out the arguments for and against exhaustive ballots and the alternative vote. I regret that it is not been possible to put that choice before the House today. As the Chairman said, there was a balanced argument in Committee.
I am particularly disturbed by a paragraph in the report that compares the two systems. Paragraph 66 states:The Exhaustive Ballot has the advantage over AV that Members can amend their preferences in each round after the results of the previous round are known.I do not regard that as an advantage. It is a disadvantage, because Members might run with the herd—we have all seen that happen. Indeed, those Members who are worried about tactical voting should examine very carefully that recommendation, because it is a recipe for tactical voting. Members might see which way the wind is blowing and vote tactically. One of the great advantages of the alternative vote is that it makes unnecessary any form of tactical voting.
It is true that the Committee tended to dilute the argument that one disadvantage of the exhaustive ballot is that it takes a long time. I accept that. I do not think that it is necessarily a disadvantage that the House should take its time in reaching a conclusion. Therefore, I take the Committee Chairman's advice on that.
I want to draw attention to the letter that the Bishop of Woolwich sent to the Committee. Although it did not 514 appear in the report, it was circulated to Committee members and in it he spells out in full the advantages of the alternative vote. He writes:
The bishop then refers to the fact that not only the Church of England—quite a respectable body—but many political parties use the alternative vote for their internal elections. I regret, therefore, that we shall not have an opportunity to vote on that issue. My Liberal Democrat colleagues would all support the alternative vote.
- "1. It does not matter how many candidates stand;
- 2. No candidate can 'split' a vote, or come under pressure not to stand because he or she might do so;
- 3. It does not matter if several candidates of the same view or outlook stand;
- 4. There is no possibility or need of the compromise known as 'tactical' voting;
- 5. It is possible to express all sorts of different kinds of preference within the preferential voting—e.g. party political ones, gender ones, geographical ones, individual personality ones;
- 6. No recrimination of any sort is possible afterwards as justice has been done and has been seen to he done, and can be checked out in the various stages of the counting."
§ Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)
I have listened to the hon. Gentleman's argument for the alternative vote, but why did he not table an amendment to that effect?
§ Mr. Tyler
That is a fair point. I stand reprimanded by the hon. Gentleman. I felt that it was important this afternoon to deal with the big issue of the secret ballot. I did not want to complicate matters by tabling an amendment. However I draw the House's attention to the figures on page xxvii of the report, which show how many Members support the different types of voting. When I gave evidence to the Committee, I said that all Liberal Democrat Members should be included in the figures, but they have not been. Therefore the figures and the percentages in the report are wrong.
I am determined—I hope that the House will be—to get away from first past the post. It clearly is totally inadequate for the decision that we had to take last October and that we might need to take in future.
Page 34 of the report refers to Deputy Speakers. I hope that the Committee will move on to consider that issue, because the present arrangement is not satisfactory. It is no reflection on the current occupants of the post of Deputy Speaker—no complaint has been made against them—but the arrangement by which they emerge like a butterfly from a chrysalis without anyone knowing why, how or who made the decision is unsatisfactory. Not even a motion that is amendable or debatable is put before the House. I hope that that will change.
I return to the eloquent speech of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield. The flummery that follows the election of Speaker gives the impression that the decision is conditional on approval from up there in the other place or up there at the other end of the Mall. That must go; it is not right. It is proper for us to ask the other parts of the tripartite constitutional arrangement to acknowledge that we have taken a decision, but we do not want their approval. After the last election of Speaker, I was dumbfounded by the extraordinary way in which the British constitution finds it difficult to catch up.
515 On a personal note, I have no problem with the hustings and manifestos. I recognise that they have a purpose, but I have a substantial plea. It is in this Chamber that we make the decision: candidates make their case by addressing Members on equal terms. I hope that we will not move the centre of gravity to another part of the Palace where the manifesto is published or issued, or where people make hustings speeches. I have great pleasure in supporting the report's main recommendations because it brings the centre of gravity back to this place, where it belongs.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
I beg to move, in line 28, to leave out the word 'secret'.
May I say a word or two about the fine speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)? I hope that it was not his last. As on so many occasions, he dwelt on the way in which democracy evolved in this country. Some illusions can be held about the fact that we lacked freedom and democracy for centuries. I have two responses to that. First, with all its imperfections, our democracy and House of Commons survived when many Parliaments in the last century did not because they gave up to fascism and tyranny.
Secondly, my right hon. Friend mentioned his family's long tradition of serving as Members of Parliament, and I am glad that his son will continue that for many years. However, those of us who come from a different background also recognise that this democracy attracted many people, including my ancestors In the early years of the 20th century, when my grandparents wanted to live in a country where they could have security and safety, it was to this island that they came. Perhaps they did not see the imperfections in the same light as I did, because many years later I began to have left-wing views and have held them since. We need to make it clear that often over the centuries, long before my grandparents came here, this island provided safety and security for those who wanted to live their lives without tyranny.
I, too, congratulate the Procedure Committee on its inquiry, which was held after the election of the Speaker. It was conducted promptly and efficiently. I am glad that paragraph 42 rightly states that the criticism about the proceedings on 23 October was not justified. We did take seven hours, but that probably displeased the sketch writers because they like to be in the Gallery for only half an hour on a Wednesday. I see no reason why we should apologise for taking our time in doing the important job of electing a Speaker. There is no reason why anyone who stood for the job, including the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, should apologise. It is an honour to be in the Chair, as you have explained several times, Mr. Speaker, and we hold those hon. Members who wanted to occupy that position in no less respect.
I accept the thrust of the report. Even though I do not believe that the procedure was especially defective on 23 October, I have no illusions about the fact that the majority of hon. Members want to adopt a different system, much along the lines recommended by the Committee. On ballots, I am usually in favour of first past the post, but I accept that some processes, including the selection of Labour candidates, use other forms of balloting. Given the two choices, I believe that the exhaustive ballot should be used even though it will take more time. I do not think that we need to hurry things up unnecessarily.
516 I oppose, however, a secret ballot, but I do not want to exaggerate the problems associated with it. One Conservative Member who gave evidence to the Committee argued that if we have a secret ballot for the election of Speaker—which may well be the wish of the House—we might end up having them for other purposes. I do not accept that a secret ballot means that one, two or three years down the road we would be arguing for a secret ballot on policy matters.
I object to the principle of secret ballots, even for the election of the Speaker. Like other hon. Members, I take school parties around the House. In the No Lobby, I point out what was said in 1642 by the Speaker to the King. I also show them copies of Hansard and tell them that every word we utter in the House and every vote we cast is duly recorded. If they are primary school children, I usually get them to go through the procedure of voting. I also explain that if their parents write to me to ask how I voted and I want to mislead them for opportunistic reasons—which I would not dream of doing—all they need to do is go to the local library and check. We carry out our business in public.
I do not accept that a Speaker calls people on the basis of who voted for him or her. If the Speaker decides that that is a criterion for calling Members at Question Time or in debates, we have chosen the wrong person. In giving evidence, Lady Boothroyd said that she did not look at the voting list for her election for a year. Had she been so biased, I would have been safe because I voted for her in 1992.
§ Mr. Grieve
Would the hon. Gentleman have a different view if, in addition to the secret ballot, we had the Canadian system in which there is no announcement of the votes cast in the ballots? That removes tactical voting in the next round because people are simply told that the last person has dropped off the list.
§ Mr. Winnick
It is the principle of a secret ballot in the House of Commons to which I am opposed. If there are enough troops, I shall press my amendment to a vote and let us see how far we get.
I do not accept that pressure is put on Members to vote. Paragraph 55 explains that such pressure has often proved counter-productive. I am glad to hear it. If Members are subject to pressure when there is a free vote, then it is likely that the wrong people have been elected here. It is the principle that matters. All our votes need to be duly recorded even when we vote on an internal matter that is of little concern to constituents. Perhaps other hon. Members have received letters about what happened last October, but I have not. I want everything to be above board. Our votes on major and minor issues are recorded. That should be the case for all our actions, including the election of the Speaker.
My last point concerns the remarks of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). I hope that this will not be seen as in any way disrespectful to Her Majesty, but I find it distasteful and odd that in this day and age we require consent for the election of the Speaker. In many respects, it contradicts all that we say about 1642. I hope also that I will not be misunderstood when I say that I would be much happier if Black Rod, when he comes here, used the word "request", instead of "command", because that would demonstrate the authority of this 517 House. I am concerned about other matters, although I know, Mr. Speaker, that you would not want me to stray from the subject of the debate. In this day and age, it is not necessary for someone to come here with a stick to give us a message from the Queen. Earlier today, you announced measures to which Her Majesty had given her Royal Assent, and there is no reason why you could not inform the House that a message had been duly received from the Queen.
Whichever party is in office, it is always keen to say that the country should modernise and restrictive practices should be stopped, but so many of our own restrictive practices continue. I know that some people say that it is not necessary to object to them, but they give an impression of the way in which we conduct our business. I refer to pantomime performances, such as my colleague coming in with a stick. At one time, the Whip concerned had to walk backwards and wear morning dress.
If we are to modernise—if one likes that term—the method for electing a Speaker, we should not be afraid, at the beginning of the 21st century, to bring our practices up to date so that those who look on do not say, "That's odd. What has it got to do with the way in which business should be conducted?" This is a serious place and we should conduct ourselves in a serious manner.
§ Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)
The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and I have been here together for many years. Indeed, we started together at the Oxford Union way back just after the war, and the fact that we are both leaving at the next election brings back certain memories. I can think of no Member during that time who has won for himself as wide a reputation outside the House as he has done, and I pay tribute to him for the way in which he has achieved that. Much of the time, I disagree with him—I did so way back at Oxford and I do so even today. None the less, the reputation that he has been able to obtain deserves immense applause from hon. Members of all parties.
I will return to the right hon. Gentleman and the fact that he has stirred up this matter unnecessarily, but first I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, which I had the pleasure of chairing for 14 years. He has produced a thorough report, as we would expect of him, and made specific recommendations, most of which I disagree with.
As for the role of the Speaker, once a man or woman has been brought to the big Chair as Speaker of the House, they have the right to expect to be able to continue in that role irrespective of a general election, unless they commit some unforgivable nonsense. The Speaker can stand for re-election in their constituency, which they usually do as Speaker, and they are not normally properly opposed. It would be wrong if they could then arrive back in the House to find themselves knocked out of the Speaker's Chair, perhaps for no other reason than politics. What would happen then? Would that person sit on the Back Benches? That would be quite impossible. Presumably, they would have to go immediately to the House of Lords, but they may well not want to do that. That person will have given a great part of their life to being Speaker, and 518 they have the right to expect the House to allow them to continue in office unless, as I said, they have made a remarkable error or committed a semi-criminal offence.
As Labour Members have said, the role of the Speaker has changed and continues to change. When the right hon. Member for Chesterfield and I first came to the House, the Speaker was like a High Court judge. One did not speak to him or see him socially. No one was ever invited to Speaker's House, and his role had no social aspect. The person who changed all that was Lord Thomas of Tonypandy, formerly George Thomas. He said that he could retain the respect of the House while being friendly with Members of Parliament on social occasions in Speaker's House, and he proved that that was true. The role of the Speaker in entertaining members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and visiting delegations enhances the role of the House itself. That should be encouraged, and I believe, Mr. Speaker, that you are moving in that direction most admirably.
Finally, I turn to an aspect of the Speaker's role which will become more important. It is becoming more difficult to hold the Executive to account in the House. In the past three or four years, developments have moved against the House, and that process needs to be stopped. We have to ensure that the power of Parliament is moved from No. 10 Downing street back into the Chamber. We will have to rely on the Speaker in different ways to try to ensure that that is brought about. You have the power, Mr. Speaker, to direct the Executive in certain ways and to ensure that the House is not done down or put to one side. We will have to rely on the person sitting in the big Chair to help the House to perform its role. The next Parliament will have to consider that matter most carefully.
On the proposals themselves, the idea that there is a general opinion among Members of Parliament that the current method of electing a Speaker is wrong was brought about by the excellent publicity that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield was able to obtain for the motion that the tabled and the lack of understanding of many of the newer Members who had never gone through the process of electing a Speaker. That had not happened for two Parliaments, so their incomprehension is hardly surprising. There was also a lack of understanding about the opaqueness that could exist in other systems, whereas the present system is absolutely open and could not be thought to be more democratic.
Every candidate has a supporter and a seconder who make a speech in their favour and the candidates themselves can make a speech. The House then votes on the candidates. How much more democratic can one get? To sweep that away for a system that is not proven is very strange indeed.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton
I believe that my right hon. Friend is inadvertently misleading the House. In fact, the old system—the system that we currently have—could result in a number of candidates for the office of Speaker not having an opportunity to speak as individuals and be heard by the House, and their proposers and seconders not having an opportunity to put their name forward. Uniquely, on the occasion of the last election of a Speaker, through the skill of our right hon. Friend the 519 Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), every candidate had that opportunity, but that has not been the case in the past.
§ Sir Peter Emery
My hon. Friend makes a procedural point. As he knows, I put to his Committee certain suggestions for simple alterations to the Standing Orders governing the proceedings of the House. If, under the old system, an amendment to the original motion is carried, that becomes a substantive motion and must be put to the House immediately, so that no further amendments can be made to the already amended motion. However, it is the simplest thing in the world to take the amended motion not as a substantive motion, but as an ordinary motion to which further amendment can be made. The resulting system could not be more democratic or more open.
§ Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)
Under our current system, a different test is applied to each candidate, depending where he or she appears in the order. That is why I think that the conclusion drawn by the Procedure Committee is a good one.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I have heard that argument and read it in the Committee report, but I see no proof that it is right. I see no reason why someone who wanted my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield to be Speaker could not have voted for another candidate and then returned to vote for my hon. Friend when his turn came. There is no proof that the order altered the result, as people have argued it did. Lady Boothroyd was not the first nominee, but the second; her name was carried and no one wished to stand against her, with the result that her name was carried unanimously from then on.
It is proposed that we change our system and adopt a voting structure whereby the House will make a decision using a method that we have never used before. I am concerned that if we go down that road there is a risk that in future, in respect of other amendments, we shall be tempted to drift towards the use of a similar system—a poll, rather than a vote—which would do great damage to the rules and procedures of the House. I am sorry that the Committee has decided to cast away the system that resulted in the election of the man whom the House wanted. No one disagrees with that statement. When we have a system that is so transparent and democratic, I am dubious about making change merely for its own sake.
I certainly oppose any vote being kept secret. The moment we have secret votes, a terrifying scenario arises wherein Members tell every candidate that he or she has their support. We have all seen that happen in Committees or heard it from people who have stood for office. They say, "I counted heads and was certain of the majority that I needed to get elected—but I didn't get elected! Isn't that strange?" In fact, the moment a secret vote is in the offing, people cease to be directly honest and are friendly to all the candidates, and when the results of a secret vote are made known, no one knows who has been telling the truth and who has not.
I am massively in favour of retaining the open vote. Every vote in the House of Commons is open. No vote is secret. Why should we adopt a secret ballot for the election of the Speaker? It is right that Members should be able to stand and say which candidate they support—on the most recent occasion, the candidates included my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield, my right hon. 520 Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), and the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin), who was eventually elected to the office of Speaker. The process should be as open to public gaze as every other aspect of the House's business.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I agree absolutely.
The remarks made by the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) hark back to a Procedure Committee report that was published when I was the Chairman and the hon. Member for Walsall, North was a member of that Committee. In that report, we stated specifically that the first thing that a Parliament should do on assembling is elect a Speaker. That is not meant as any criticism of the monarch—no one is a greater royalist than I. However, one can, while remaining a royalist, want the House to be what it is: the independent voice of the people, who have a right to elect who will be their Chairman or their Speaker.
Once we have done that, I do not mind traipsing down to the other place to tell them what we have done. That is fine—it is announcing what we have done, not asking permission to do it. I urge the current Leader of the House to point out to her successor, whoever that may be, that in future we must take the role of the Speaker into our own hands: it must be we who elect the Speaker, without needing any permission so to do.
§ Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)
I read in the newspapers that it is quite likely that a few weeks from now we shall be campaigning in a general election. I look forward to doing so. When we campaign, we tell all the voters whom we encounter, whether by canvassing or in other ways, that they are sovereign, that they are wise and that their decision will determine the future of the country; yet in the report and in the debate, the electorate have no place. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said that the debate was about how we want this place to be run. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said that we are debating an internal matter. That, in my view, is precisely what is wrong with the debate.
I have been a Member of Parliament for almost 31 years and I hope to continue for a good deal longer, but if there is anything that I dislike about the House, it is the smug club atmosphere that is cultivated here—the notion that this place is a gentleman's club and that debates such as this one, as distinct from party political debates, are conducted within some sort of cosy consensus. So far today, we have heard a very cosy debate—even when people have disagreed with each other, they have done so on a cosy basis. If this were not a Chamber televised throughout the nation for those who want to watch it, we might well this afternoon not be discussing how a great Parliament—the second oldest Parliament in the world—should be presided over. We might as well be discussing how a private club elects its president, because it is all about what goes on in this club. That is what the debate has been about so far.
There have been references to the electorate. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) mentioned the people. That was the sole reference to them. When my 521 right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) referred to what goes on outside this place, so far as I could tell he was not referring to the views of the 45 million or so members of the electorate. Instead, he was referring to small pressure groups that make their wishes felt and attempt in various ways to persuade the House to veer away from the decisions that it makes as a political assembly.
I disagree strongly with the tenor of the report and its proposals. Most of all, I disagree with the motivations that lie behind it. Some members of the Procedure Committee have been in this place for a long time. They have been sucked into the club atmosphere, which can smother the place. I thought that many of the new members of the Committee had come to the House because they wanted to change things a great deal and make them absolutely different. I am dismayed that somehow they have been sucked into the vacuum of smug consensus. As I have said, that is one of the things that I dislike intensely about this place.
I do not mean that we cannot have good personal relationships with one another across the Floor and even, on occasions, within our parties. However, that is different from believing that we must not speak up and that we must not in any way disrupt the atmosphere when the House is at its best—which I suppose is what the debate so far will be described as—and on display. For me, it is not the House at its best; it is the House at its most deterring.
If there were two reasons why I would not seek re-election to this place, the first would be Virgin trains, which make my travelling to and from Manchester such an utter nightmare. The second would be the idea that the House is still some sort of gentlemen's organisation which reluctantly had to admit women and was smothered when a sixth of Members were part of the majority within the electorate.
I shall say why I do not like the report and why I wish that the Government were not presenting it to the House for adoption. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North declares himself with pride as a socialist. I, too, declare myself as a socialist. However, that does not mean that we change things for the sake of changing them. As a socialist, I want to change things where they matter. I want to change things so that my constituents have a greater voice in the way their lives go. However, when things are working perfectly well in the House, I do not see why we should have a huge disruption of the sort that is proposed.
The report states that if the system that is proposed for adoption had existed earlier, our present Speaker would still have been Speaker. That is despite the fact that what might be called the establishment did not want the present Speaker to be elected. Newspapers jeered, and continued jeering a good deal after his election. There was the uncouthness of the fact that he had a Scottish accent. There was the fact that he came from the working class. Even my good friends on the Government Front Bench were reluctant to see him adopted. That was because of the inferiority complex that had grown in the Labour party that somehow Labour Governments should not allow a Labour Member to be elected when a Labour Government were in power.
522 I did what I could—
§ Mrs. Beckett
I suppose that it is a dangerous game to remind Mr. Speaker that one did not vote for him.
With great respect to my right hon. Friend, who is advancing a legitimate argument, there was no Front-Bench view. There was no cosy conspiracy on the Front Benches. I began rather to regret that there had not been a conspiracy. I took the view, which I think others took—although obviously not in sufficient numbers—that the speakership should alternate between the two sides of the House. I have held that view for about 20 years. I held it especially strongly when the Conservative Government tried to breach what I thought was an important principle. That was the basis on which I made my decision.
§ Mr. Kaufman
I always accept what my right hon. Friend says. However, I felt obliged to write what I regarded as a decisive letter to The Times to point out that the principle of alternation was bogus and had never been observed when Conservative Governments had been in power. I made the point in all friendliness to the principal candidate who emerged from the Conservative party that he had not accepted any such system of alternation, as he voted against Betty Boothroyd and for the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) when Speaker Weatherill went on his way.
§ Mr. Kaufman
I shall continue. I do not want to take up too much time.
The report says that although matters turned out all right in the case of Speaker Martin, in other circumstances that might not have been the case, depending on who was proposed first. However, in the only other contested election under the system that is now being got rid of, the person who was proposed first—the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster—was decisively defeated. The House knows what it is doing. It may make stupid decisions from time to time, but that is done on the basis of rationality. Stupidity can be based on rationality. Good decisions can be based on rationality, too.
I concur with what my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North says about the secret ballot. This is a House where we are rightly held to account by our constituents. We cannot deceive our constituents about how we vote. My hon. Friend is old-fashioned and says that they can go to a library to see how we have voted, but now they can use the Internet as well to obtain the information speedily. If the amendment is carried, that will alleviate the situation to some extent, but not entirely. Those who nominate the candidates for Speaker will be part of a secret cabal and 1 do not see why they should be.
It is not as though crossing the Speaker is the end of the world. When I was elected in 1970, there was an election for Speaker Selwyn Lloyd. I voted against him because I did not believe that an ex-Cabinet Minister should be Speaker. Not too long afterwards he threw me out of the Chamber. I am convinced that he did so because 523 I was disorderly rather than because I voted against him. The House was brought to a standstill by protesting Members until I was brought back again, in great triumph.
§ Mr. Kaufman
I will, but I do not want to give way too often. I have already been speaking for quite a long time.
§ Mr. Bercow
I, for one, am enjoying the right hon. Gentleman's speech. I note what he says about being strongly opposed as a matter of principle to a former Cabinet Minister becoming Speaker. I agree with him on that. Does his opposition to such a person becoming Speaker extend to opposition to his or her not being nominated?
§ Mr. Kaufman
No. I believe that every Member has the right to put herself or himself forward. Who is chosen depends on the wisdom of the House On the whole, the House makes quite wise decisions. If we look back, many Speakers in the post-war period emerged from the Front Benches rather than the Back Benches. That is one of the reasons why I believe it is a good thing that we have a Speaker who has never been a Front Bencher of any sort or for any party.
I believe that the method of election that we use has worked perfectly well. I am always suspicious of any system proposed by the Electoral Reform Society; I am surprised that Charter 88 did not poke its nose into this, as it does into everything that it possibly can. We are all hon. Members—although no doubt some will try to change that before long and we shall have to call one another by name—and I wish that we were not taking this decision in an atmosphere of cosy mutual self-congratulation. I wish that there had been a bit of nastiness in our debate.
§ Mr. Kaufman
With his customary bitterness, my hon. Friend has misrepresented me; there is not a better-natured person in the House than me
If I felt that I had sufficient support, I would divide the House on the adoption of the report, and the Government motion. Since that is not so, the least that I can do is vote against the secret ballot, which I shall do.
§ 3.1 pm
§ Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)
It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) although I do not agree with what he said about our debate or the report. We have had a serious, high-quality debate on a serious, high-quality report, marked by what may turn out to be swan songs from two distinguished parliamentarians: my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), whose work on the select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of commons has made him an outstanding servant of the House, and the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). There is simply no other right hon. Member like him I have never heard him make a bad speech, and this afternoon he made a 524 glorious speech on the House, a subject about which he feels strongly. For consistency, passion, eloquence, originality and sincerity, he is impossible to beat.
I want to make a brief contribution, and shall begin by complimenting the Select Committee, which made a thorough analysis of the problem, saw a wide range of witnesses, many of whom are in the Chamber, and produced a well-argued report. As Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) has done a service to the House. I compliment him on performing a post mortem on his own candidacy as well as that of many others.
I agree with the Committee that change is necessary; the previous system was simply not designed for the circumstances that confronted us five months ago. As my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield said, it ran the risk of placing premiums on tactical voting and the order in which candidates were presented. What happened in October was not a shambles. In some ways, it was no more unusual than other quaint procedures in the House, but it was certainly not ideal and the system needs an overhaul.
I agree that the outcome would have been the same regardless. There was a certain inevitability as the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) dragged the tumbrels to the guillotine and candidate after candidate was dismissed. However, the conclusion that the outcome would have been the same sits uneasily with the report's subsequent recommendation of a secret vote in future. I shall return to that in a moment. Personally, I am against the hustings for the reasons set out in your memorandum, Mr. Deputy Speaker; it runs the risk of an auction for the speakership.
I am sure that all those who stood were grateful to their proposers and seconders, but I do not think that they influenced the outcome. I do not think that the candidates' speeches influenced the outcome either. Again, that is not unprecedented in the Chamber. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon that all candidates should speak and formally present themselves to the House; that is important and symbolic.
The controversy is about the proposition that there should be a secret vote in future which, if I may use an economist's phrase, hits me right on my indifference curve. I do not go along with the argument that Speakers will discriminate against those who do not vote for them. The risk that the opposite will happen is more likely. Speakers will over-compensate, as home referees often do regarding the other side. I understand the arguments for a secret vote, but my view is that while a secret vote is as valid as an open vote, it is not as valuable. The argument for a secret ballot rests on the proposition that people will vote differently in secret from how they vote in public. It may make life more difficult for the Speaker if there is subsequently a perceived loss of confidence in him. Support for the Speaker and his authority may be greater if the ballot is open, not closed.
If there are valid arguments for a secret ballot, why is the Division to re-elect the Speaker at the beginning of a Parliament—when a Division can be called—open and not secret? Exactly the same arguments could be applied to that. What is to happen if there is a censure motion? I assume that there will be an open vote, as there is at the moment. Having conceded the argument on electing the Speaker in private in the report, the Committee may not 525 have followed the logic through to other circumstances in which the authority of the Speaker may come into question.
I hope that we can dispense with delay after the election, and therefore agree with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). I am not sure why we had to hang around for three hours while the Great Seal was dusted down. I hope that we can streamline that process and make it clearer that the authority of the House is supreme.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield about continuity of office and having a different procedure for re-electing a sitting Speaker. It is not right that the Speaker's position should be put into play every time that there is a general election. I therefore accept the argument for a different, streamlined procedure when a sitting Speaker is re-elected.
§ Mr. Bercow
At the beginning of his speech, my right hon. Friend said how strongly he approved of the speech of our right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery). Did he agree with our right hon. Friend, as I did, that it is one thing to notify the sovereign of our decision, but another to seek approval for it?
§ Sir George Young
I agree with the consensus in the House that one needs to remove ambiguity about who is charge of the process.
My final point is about paragraph 86, which I regard as the most important paragraph in the whole report. It states:Had time allowed we would have wished to consider a number of connected matters as a follow-up … for instance. the role and functions of the Speaker. That is expressed as a hope, rather than a recommendation, but I hope that it will be followed up.
The House may be aware that the Hansard Society will soon produce a report on parliamentary scrutiny. There is widespread concern on both sides of the House about the role of the House. Indeed, that was part of the context in which the debate on the speakership took place last year. I understand all the difficulties involved in an inquiry into the role and functions of the Speaker, who is both the servant of the House and, in many ways, its master. As several hon. Members have said, if the terms of trade are to tilt back to Parliament from the Executive—as many of us believe they should—the Speaker is going to be involved. I am sure that the Speaker would want to be assisted by an inquiry by the House into that important subject.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for referring to paragraph 86, which deals with future inquiries. May I repeat the Committee's strong view that, had there been time in this Parliament, we would have undertaken an inquiry into the Speaker's role and functions? However, it was clear that the House wished us to reach a decision on the procedure governing the election, which is why we have a rather short-circuited inquiry. We cannot bind our successors, but we hope that they will take that up.
§ Sir George Young
On a consensual note, I conclude by expressing the strong hope that that will be the first task of a new Parliament. It could set the context for the on-going debate about the terms of trade.
§ 3.9 pm
§ Mr. Keith Darvill (Upminster)
I rise as a member of the Select Committee on Procedure to speak in support of the motion. I have been a member of the Committee throughout the current Parliament. In my view, the report to which the motion relates is the most memorable that it has published during that time. That is not to say that the Committee has not conducted a number of other important inquiries. Indeed, It has done very good work, but the second report is memorable for a number of reasons not least of which are the evidence taken from hon. Members and the depth in which we investigated the subject.
I thank the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) for the way in which he has chaired the Committee during this Parliament and while the report was being produced. Furthermore, it is a privilege to speak in this debate while standing next to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), whose speeches in the House I have always admired. His words just now recalled to my mind a visit that he made some 30 years ago—he will probably not remember it—to a Labour party function in my constituency. When we spoke after the event, I could not have imagined standing beside him now, and I shall remember today if for no other reason than that.
I am convinced of the need for change, which is clearly set out in the report. To that extent, I disagree with the contribution made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). The investigation was thorough, and the written and oral evidence submitted to us reflected the different views expressed in the House—not only during the inquiry itself, but as points of order and during our discussions following Madam Speaker's announcement.
What struck me most clearly while those views were being expressed way that the election of the Speaker had become more important to Back Benchers during the past 30 years. That is a sound reason for us to examine the procedure that it involves. Notwithstanding the contribution made by the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) and others, the need for us to do so emerges clearly from detailed analysis of the report. In my view, the proposed changes will strengthen the role of Speaker, as its authority will derive from Members of Parliament. I believe that there is little support for returning to the system that prevailed early last century, when the influence of the usual channels and the political parties manifested itself in the way in which candidates were dealt with. I would be surprised if Back Benchers ever wanted to return to that position. It is a good thing that that important view is entrenched in the Procedure Committee's proposals.
Two controversial matters have been dwelt on this afternoon. First, many important issues were raised about nominations and the way in which the debate on the candidates should be conducted in the House. The views that were expressed will help to develop a procedure that ensures that the election will be a little more streamlined. I am not suggesting that we should cut short the time spent on the election, but I hope that the debate about it will be focused and that all candidates will be able to speak. Other hon Members have mentioned the importance of the occasion, but the fact remains that last time the House was not as packed at the end of the debate as it was at the beginning. I believe that there should be 527 greater interest during the whole debate. If it continues for four or five hours, that will be all to the good. I think that it will still be a most important occasion.
The question that was going through my mind was whether the ballot should be secret or open. The issue is finely balanced and there are good reasons both for and against. That became clear during the Procedure Committee's deliberations, in which two arguments were advanced in favour of keeping the open ballot. The slippery slope argument was advanced in the evidence given by the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean), who suggested that there would be pressure for other matters to be dealt with secretly once the principle of a secret ballot had bean conceded. I reject that argument, as I do not think that hon. Members would want to extend such secrecy. Indeed, there would rightly be an outcry outside this place if we ever did so. Little evidence was given in support of that argument, other than that of the right hon. Gentleman.
Another argument was advanced on the basis of historical convention. As Members of Parliament are representatives of constituents and constituencies, any decision that we take should be recorded so that those who elect us can see how we vote. I believe that that is a stronger argument. If we are to move away from that principle, there must be strong arguments for doing so. That is why I should like to summarise the arguments that were advanced in favour of a secret ballot. The decision on electing a Speaker is unique because the role does not relate to any particular policy decisions that will affect our constituents. It has been argued that the choice of Speaker is therefore a decision that relates only to how we organise our affairs.
It has also been suggested that the current system allows hon. Members to be pressurised. There are arguments for and against that view, with regard to which my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) gave some interesting evidence. He said that he was in favour of a secret ballot because he did not want to vote against anybody. In other words, he said that we are all friends in the House and that he voted for individuals on that basis. Of course, there might be pressures in both directions, which is why I believe that there is a sound argument for adopting the principle of secret ballot in this particular case, although I appreciate that the matter is finely balanced. Indeed, the Committee recognised that, which is why it said in its report that the matter should be one for the House.
The second controversial issue that has been dealt with relates to the voting system and the question whether to introduce an alternative system or to conduct an exhaustive ballot. The Committee favoured two particular views about the exhaustive ballot. First, it accepted that such a ballot would enable candidates who obtained a small number of votes to exit the process at the first stage. Although candidates can take soundings, they will not necessarily be aware of how much support they have until the first round is completed. An exhaustive ballot would ensure that such candidates could withdraw their nominations immediately. Secondly, an exhaustive ballot would enable hon. Members to assess support for candidates and adjust their preferences accordingly in the second round. I believe that that would be of some help, although I acknowledge that the two views are finely balanced. The Electoral Reform Society gave evidence in 528 support of the exhaustive ballot, which is contained in an annexe to the report. For those reasons, the Procedure Committee accepted the balance of those arguments.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) spoke about the need for deep consideration of the future role of the Speaker and Deputy Speakers. The evidence given by Liberal Democrats supported that view, for which there was much backing in the Committee. I agree with the hon. Member for Macclesfield that the Committee should consider the matter, and the suggestion that it should be a future priority has my full support
§ Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)
It has been an afternoon for farewell speeches, some perhaps more voluntary than others. It is therefore a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill), who is defending a majority of 2,770, and who may discover in a few days' or weeks' time that he, too, made a farewell speech this afternoon. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said that the debate lacked edge, and I am trying to provide it.
On a more serious note, I concur with the point of the hon. Member for Upminster that the subject of our debate has become more important to Back Benchers over the past 30 years. That is a sign of hope in the institution. The Liaison Committee report on "Shifting the Balance" and the Procedure Committee's report on electing a Speaker are signs of a change in Back Benchers' attitude towards how much they will take from the Executive.
People look back to a golden age. but let us consider what happened in the 1960s and 1970s, which some hon. Members experienced in this place, when the usual channels sorted things out. The procedures used in 1972 exemplified the way in which the House was run in those days. I therefore congratulate the Procedure Committee on the report and support the broad thrust of its recommendations.
I should perhaps apologise to the Parliamentary Secretary. We held a debate a few weeks ago about the timetable. At some ungodly hour, I said that the time allowed for today's debate was insufficient. It appears that the hon. Gentleman will be proved right and I will be proved wrong. That may have something to do with the scheduling of a debate on free-vote business on a Thursday afternoon, but it is up to hon. Members who care about this place to attend and speak up for it. There is no more important decision in this institution than the election of a Speaker.
I take slight issue with my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) about secret ballots at various stages in the cycle of electing a Speaker. There is a difference between the election of a new Speaker, the re-election of a sitting Speaker and a censure motion on a sitting Speaker. I want to use myself as an example.
I rose when the Father of the House sought to put the question on electing our current Speaker. I believed that there should be a Division. I felt strongly that as far as possible every candidate should be subjected to the same test under the rules that pertained then. I wanted to apply the test that I applied to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to every other candidate, to the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn. Ultimately, I could not do that 529 because by the time every other candidate had been eliminated, the choice was between voting for the right hon. Gentleman and voting for nobody.
It has been stated with certainty in the report and the debate that the current Speaker would have been elected under different arrangements. That is wrong; such an assumption should be tested. We cannot know what would have happened if your name, Mr. Deputy Speaker, had appeared not in the first amendment but in the main motion, and if the current Speaker's name had appeared in an amendment rather than the motion. We shall never know because hon. Members made different judgments according to the candidates lower down the list whom they supported. I welcome the report's recommendations on the voting procedure because it is now palpably fair.
Our main consideration is whether we should hold a secret or an open ballot. I strongly believe that it should be secret. As I rose at the crucial moment and triggered the vote on that occasion, I suppose that I should be most paranoid about influence from the Chair. I want to put it clearly on the record that I have been treated fairly by the Speaker. I do not believe that he has over-corrected and called me more often than he should, or that he has called me less often than he should. As hon. Members have said, one would expect those who hold the office of Speaker to be blind to the opinions of hon. Members about their candidacy. However, we cannot know whether that is the case.
I cannot know whether being called last on several occasions to ask questions about a statement is a reflection of my lack of seniority in the House or of the occupant of the Chair's bias against me. On several other occasions, I have been called extremely early to ask questions on statements. That is simply part of the cut and thrust in the House, and I do not believe that I have been discriminated against.
Paragraph 55 of the report states:The Clerk of the House told us that there was a concern that 'a vote cast against the Speaker is remembered', although he added that he did not know whether this was 'paranoia' or had a foundation in fact.Ultimately, we shall never know. It would therefore be better to conduct a secret ballot simply to avoid such a suspicion.
A secret ballot is preferable also because of the influence of the usual channels. It has been reported to me that a Labour Member, who was elected in 1997, was overheard having a conversation with a Whip on the election of the Speaker. The hon. Member asked for guidance and the Whip reportedly said, "Well, it's a free vote; we can vote for anybody as long as it's not Gwyneth." Such influence is unwelcome, but it exists.
On the point about setting a precedent and establishing a secret ballot for the first time, I agree with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that the election of Speaker is an issue for the House of Commons. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said that we should be accountable to our electorate in this matter. I disagree. Hon. Members should be able to exercise their 530 judgment free from influence from the usual channels, and from fear about the attitude of the occupant of the Chair as a consequence of their actions.
§ Mr. Kaufman
Does the hon. Gentleman genuinely believe that a decision that he makes as an elected Member of Parliament is no business of the people who sent him here?
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton
Will my hon. Friend invite the House to consider carefully the fact that Australia, Canada, South Africa. France, Italy, the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales hold secret ballots when electing their Presiding Officers? The Committee took evidence from other Commonwealth countries and other democracies.
§ Mr. Blunt
My hon. Friend makes the point perfectly. When people examine the case carefully and have the opportunity to restructure systems, they will favour secret ballots. Decisions about the chairmanship of an assembly are for its members This is the one occasion on which I believe that there should be a secret ballot. There is a distinction between this and other occasions, such as those on which the Speaker is to be re-elected, or on which there is a vote of censure against the Speaker.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
My hon. Friend argues for a secret ballot. If he were to get his way, and one of his constituents were to write to him after the election of a Speaker and ask him which way he had voted, would he tell them? If so, why is he arguing for a secret ballot?
§ Mr. Blunt
The answer is no, I would not tell them. I would tell them that this was a secret ballot and that I had exercised my judgment as to a matter concerning the House. The reason why it should be secret is precisely that I would not then be accountable for it to the electorate.
In the end, this is a question of judgment. Other hon. Members will come to a different judgment, saying that we should not break with precedent and that we have to be accountable for absolutely everything that we do. I believe that, in this one respect, we owe it to ourselves to be able to take the power to ourselves to make this decision free from the influence from the usual channels, and without being influenced by what the consequences might be for the future occupants of the Chair. That is why I hope that the amendment in the name of the Minister, which would delete the word "secret", will not be carried.
§ Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
I was prompted to rise to my feet by the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). He said that when the House was at its clubbiest, it was at its worst, as if every speech that we make must drip with 531 vitriol. It is not like that. I think that this has been a very good debate, and I completely disagree with almost everything that I heard from my right hon. Friend.
I want to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) about the influence of the Whips. He said that he had heard one of the Whips say to a Member who came into the House in the new intake, "It's a free vote, but don't vote for Gwyneth." The Whips have an influence, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton, as a member of the Liaison Committee, put his name to a report that made it perfectly clear that hon. Members were kept off Select Committees because of their views. That must, therefore, be my right hon. Friend's view.
§ Mr. Prentice
I was under the impression that the report of the Liaison Committee was a unanimous report, agreed by all the Committee members. From the documentation that I read, I was quite sure that that was the case, but perhaps other hon. Members will intervene to correct me.
§ Mr. Kaufman
I honestly know what I did, and I know what I think. I did not put my name to that report.
§ Mr. Prentice
Well, there you go. I have been going round telling people that if an old Labour warhorse such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton could put his name to the report, it must carry some weight.
§ Mr. Sheldon
May I clarify the position? The report was on the agenda of the House, but my right hon. Friend did not attend.
§ Mr. Nicholas Winterton
The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) had a copy of the report. The fact that he was unable to, or saw fit not to, attend the meeting when it was agreed was his decision, but he did not send any amendment or objection to the report to the Chairman of the Committee.
§ Mr. Prentice
I am not taking any more interventions on this point, Mr. Speaker. I want to get to my main point, but I was distracted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and his colleagues on the Procedure Committee on producing this excellent report. I agree with it all, and I think that the House ought to endorse it and support it. Exhaustive ballots are not new: they are part of the Labour party's internal election mechanism, and I feel wholly comfortable with them.
532 The question of the secret ballot seems to be exercising Members' minds. I agree, not for the first time, with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), the Chief Whip for the Liberal Democrats, that the election of the Speaker is unique. A secret ballot need not be seen as a slippery slope that would lead to secret ballots on other policy issues. If that were the case, I would speak out against the proposal. The election of the Speaker is unique and the ballot should be secret.
I do not want to sound prissy, but if the message were passed down that the Prime Minister or leading members of the Cabinet were hostile to a particular candidate and did not want to see that person elected Speaker, an hon. Member looking for preferment or a job in the Government—perhaps if he or she were ambitious and wanted to become a Minister—might think twice about voting against the perceived preference of, say, the Prime Minister.
When the Leader of the House made it clear that she was in favour of candidates alternating between the political parties, alarm bells rang. Many Labour Members thought that that was the Leader of the House speaking by proxy for the Government, and were, I am sure, determined not to be caught up in the notion that we should alternate between parties. They may have been persuaded by the letter in, I think, The Times, penned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton. Alternatively—I am not being personal when I say this—they may have been persuaded by the fact that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) did not vote for the Labour candidate, Betty Boothroyd, in the 1992 election. I do not know.
The Government are generally anything but neutral. In my experience, the Government of the day have a view on everything. Matters come before the Modernisation Committee on which the Government are supposedly neutral: the Government are not neutral on them. If someone were to propose—as I did, to the Modernisation Committee—that private Members' Bills should be moved from the ghetto of Fridays to Wednesday mornings, when the Chamber is empty, the Government might say that they were neutral on the issue. Like hell they are. They have a position on everything. I am sure the Government would also have a position on who should occupy your Chair, Mr. Speaker.
The report touches on the hustings that I organised. There was a tremendous pressure for change. When the number of candidates ballooned from five to seven, eight, 11 and 12, I asked myself why we were getting so many candidates. The speakership brings instant celebrity, nationwide recognition, a nice house and probably quite a big salary, but something has happened recently. It might have something to do with the way in which Betty Boothroyd carried out her role as Speaker, but no one envisaged that so many candidates would compete for the speakership. Within a few hours, down on the Terrace, I had more than 100 names of Members—more than one sixth of the membership of the House of Commons—calling for the system to be changed and for an opportunity to quiz the individual candidates.
Under the old system—the present system, until we change it—we could never hear from the candidates, which was an absurdity. I also found it an absurdity that only nine of the 12 candidates for Speaker participated in the hustings, which were conducted in a very comradely, collegiate way. Nothing that was said embarrassed 533 anyone; nothing that was written in any of the nine so-called manifestos that were sent out would have embarrassed anyone. I thought that the hustings were a worthwhile exercise. We shall not need hustings in future, because the proposals made by the hon. Member for Macclesfield include the opportunity for every candidate to speak here in the Chamber of the House of Commons.
I would like to underline to my colleagues on this side of the House who have not quite made up their minds the fact that we need not fear the secret ballot. It is not the beginning of a slippery slope, and I hope that the House will endorse the Procedure Committee's report.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
I am delighted to be called in this important debate. Indeed, there is nothing more important in this House than who is elected Speaker. One of my forebears was Speaker, from 1943 to 1952. When he was elected Speaker, it was through the usual channels, and he was unopposed. He had a very difficult time because this Chamber had been bombed and the sittings were transferred to the House of Lords, and then in 1945 the Labour party had a huge majority, largely consisting of new Members who did not respect the authority of the Speaker. In 1950 a Labour Government were elected with a majority of six, and in 1951 the Conservatives had a majority of 65. Throughout that time Mr. Churchill thought that he was still Prime Minister, and behaved with disdain towards my forebear in his role as Speaker.
Whoever is elected Speaker is the guardian not only of the House but of Back-Bench rights. That is the most important thing to bear in mind. It is important that we select and vote on the best possible candidates, and I argue as strongly as I can that we should have an exhaustive and open ballot.
If we are honourable Members, as we all purport to be, there should be no difference between the way we vote in secret and the way we vote when the vote is open and recorded. My intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) got to the kernel of the matter. I am quite prepared to look anybody—including you, Mr. Speaker—in the eye and tell them how I voted and why I voted as I did. As it happens, I did not vote for you in the final vote; I abstained. But it does not matter how I voted; even if I had voted against you, I would expect you to treat me in the same way, and I would have exactly the same regard for you, whether I had voted in an open ballot or a secret ballot. That is the way things ought to be.
In this Parliament, the Executive are getting more and more power. The standard and stature of the Speaker is therefore critical. I have no doubt, Mr. Speaker, that you will be Speaker for a long time, and that you will have to make landmark judgments against this Government, or any other colour of Government, to ensure that the House and its traditions are fully upheld, and that Back-Bench Members of Parliament have a full say in how they control the Executive.
We need to examine the rules about how we elect our Speaker very carefully. Those who argue for a secret ballot are arguing for something that they would not be prepared to uphold in public to their constituents. That is the nub and kernel of the matter
§ Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)
I am delighted to be able to contribute to the debate, to welcome the report and to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton).
As usual, I enjoyed the speech of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), but I do not agree with him. This has been a good and constructive debate, with worthwhile contributions from both sides of the House, and it is singularly appropriate that it should have been graced with what might prove to be the valedictory address to the House by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn).
I first read the right hon. Gentleman's writings when I was 17. I recall reading "Arguments for Socialism", and subsequently "Arguments for Democracy". Both those tomes are on my bookshelves at home. I was not particularly persuaded by either of them, although I was rather more impressed by the latter than by the former. There is a widely held view that the right hon. Gentleman is both the greatest living socialist, and the greatest living parliamentarian, in this country. When we hear him contribute to our debates we all, whatever our views, realise how much the House will lose when he ceases to be a Member of it.
My second point is that, having reflected carefully on the arguments, I have—not for the first time, and probably not for the last—changed my mind. I had some sympathy for the idea of the secret ballot, but the more I have listened to the arguments deployed, the less persuaded of the case for it I have become.
It is always a joy to listen to the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill), but I strongly disagree with him. His invocation of the views of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was singularly unpersuasive. I am a great admirer of the hon. Member for Linlithgow, but the argument seems to me to come down to this: if it were a matter of "he more effective operation of the House, or the more satisfactory service of our constituents—although I know not how that could result from a closed ballot—there might be a good case for a secret ballot. However, if, in the final analysis, we are merely anxious to protect ourselves and to devise a mechanism to appease our own sensitivities, that is not a good argument for a closed ballot.
I am in a similar category to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). Indeed, I voted against two rather prominent candidates for the speakership. First, I voted against you Mr. Speaker. I make no apology for that; I was perfectly entitled to do so. You have been scrupulously fair ever since, and the matter has never been discussed. I also voted against the candidature of one of the Deputy Speakers, Sir Alan Haselhurst. I make no apology for that, either; I was perfectly entitled to do it.
I would not seek to cloak my decisions, or the reasons for them, either from my colleagues or from the electorate. There is a powerful case for stating what we believe and being prepared to defend it.
§ Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)
I am listening to the hon. Gentleman's argument with great care. What is it about us as hon. Members that means that we do not 535 need the protection, in respect of the vote for an individual, that we give our electors when they choose whether to send us here?
§ Mr. Bercow
I shall answer the hon. Gentleman, because he has raised an important point. When the electorate vote they are deciding who they want to represent them. They are not the custodians of public office, so their entitlement to vote in secret, and not to be obliged to reveal their decision or to defend it, should be absolute. In that respect, we are in a different position: we are custodians of public office.
§ Mr. Bercow
I shall not give way, simply because the Front Benchers are about to respond to the debate. I mean no disrespect to the right hon. Gentleman.
We do not have the right to protect ourselves in that way. I go for an open vote. We should explain our decisions and defend them, and then be prepared to be judged by them.
§ Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)
This has been a fascinating debate, and I found myself quite troubled by it. I certainly found myself disagreeing with what my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) said about the authority of the House being supreme—a matter that I hope to be able to pursue in the Tea Room.
Also rather dangerously, I found myself agreeing with the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) when he said that what we were called upon to decide today was not a private matter. I entirely agree with him about that; this goes well beyond the bounds of this House, and beyond questions about being clubbable.
We have had a varied debate, and in the time available it would be difficult to do justice to all the contributors. In response to what my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) said about the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), I may add that it has been customary in this House to say that the right hon. Gentleman has usually been wrong about some of the great issues facing the country. That is a bit unfair to him, and I hope that on this occasion he was wrong when he said that this was likely to be the last time that he would speak in the House. His contributions will be greatly missed.
There are several small points and several themes that can be picked out of the debate. The themes have crossed parties. Anybody coming into the House and listening to the debate would find it impossible to see a particular line, or a majority view, emerging in any part of the House—except, perhaps, on the Liberal Benches, where the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) has, I think, been the only representative of his party to speak.
I have a few small points to make. The key issue is about simplifying the procedures by which the Speaker is chosen. In that respect, I find a great deal to commend in the report presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), as the procedures used in your election, Mr. Speaker, were unnecessarily ponderous 536 and did the House little credit. I wish to draw attention to some of the elements in the motion that caused me concern.
First, there is the question of nominations. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield made the powerful point that the selection of the Speaker is, in part, a matter of democracy in action. However, although the intention that Speakers should be elected with a consensus of support across the House is entirely commendable, the requirement that there be a cross-party nomination procedure before a candidate can stand introduces a fetter on democracy.
I hope that any hon. Member putting his or her name forward—or who is asked to do so—would command cross-party support, but what would happen if 450 members of a party with a huge majority in the House wanted a specific person as Speaker, and the other parties did not? Would those 450 hon. Members be prevented from having that choice? That is the potential effect of the relevant provision in the motion.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield accepts that I fully understand the intention behind the report, but I find the conclusion slightly strange. I draw attention to it, as I think that it may cause problems in the future, and that the House may need to look at it again at some time in the future.
It is notable that the procedure is not used in the re-election of a former Speaker. I have no difficulty with that, but I am worried that the nomination proposals would be a fetter on the democratic procedures of the House.
The other matter that has exercised the House is whether the ballot should be secret. I have discussed the matter with some of my hon. Friends, and I have been impressed by the Canadian system. There, the ballot is secret, and the voting numbers in each vote while the decision is being reached are not revealed. That has the advantage that it prevents tactical voting, as it invites people to make a choice and stick to it. It also means that people do not run around between ballots trying to decide who has the advantage.
Without such a provision, I find it difficult to see the advantage of secrecy. I shall therefore vote against the proposal for holding secret ballots, as I believe that the people who vote for me would be entitled to know what I decided to do. If they asked me, I would feel constrained to tell them.
I end on the question of flummery: we are lucky that we have not had to discuss that today, as I am sure that hon. Members would have differing views. Some of the ceremonial in the House is very important, and if we ever came to consider it, I hope that the views of all hon. Members would be heard.
With that caveat, I welcome the report. I shall be interested to discover what the House decides
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)
The clearest thing to have emerged from the debate is that the Committee and its members have done the House a great service in providing a very thorough, thoughtful and excellent report. It has given the House a good framework for discussion.
The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), who chairs the Committee, spoke of the support given by his team, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member 537 for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) will win many more elections and be in the House for many years to come. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) has been very involved in the Committee's work, although he did not have the opportunity to speak today.
When I first read the report, I was struck by the questionnaire in appendix 1. There were 130 responses to the Committee's canvass of opinion, and they differed greatly. However, despite a very tight schedule, the report has provided an excellent framework for discussion.
The tone of the debate, which involved hon. Members of all parties, has been that change is necessary and that there is broad support for the report. Two caveats need to be entered, however. The right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) warned us to take change cautiously and slowly, and said that we should not rush into it. My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said that the report was clubbish and cosy. However, I think that my right hon. Friend realised that his objections were shared by too few hon. Members to warrant pressing the matter to a vote.
A number of small questions were posed. The right hon. Member for East Devon asked who would chair the election proceedings. I can tell him that the existing Standing Orders specify the Father of the House.
A number of hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), pointed out the importance of paragraph 86 of the report, which is headed "Future Inquiries". In that paragraph, the Committee recommends that the role of the Speaker, and of the Deputy Speakers, should be examined at some point in the future.
A number of hon. Members said that the rights of the House against the legislature were being eroded. I have read the history books, and I know that that is a persistent argument that has run throughout the ages. However, the report makes it clear that a subsequent Committee may well revisit the matter.
I remind the House of the importance of the Speaker, and of what the Duke of Wellington said about the fear inspired by his men—that they may not have frightened the enemy but that, by God, they frightened him. As a member of the Government Front Bench, I can tell the House that my colleagues and I are frightened of the Speaker, and that we take what he says very seriously indeed. A good deal of discussion takes place to ensure that the procedures of the House are followed properly.
The hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) talked about flummery, and I confess that, like the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), I am a reluctant moderniser. I, too, would be sad to see some of our ceremonies go.
Two major issues came before the House today, and the first was the question of exhaustive as opposed to alternative voting. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), on behalf of his party colleagues, argued the point strongly. The matter was discussed in Committee, and was voted on. I am in favour of an exhaustive ballot, and I think that that was the tone of the debate today.
The second major issue had to do with open as opposed to secret ballots. The hon. Member for North Cornwall chided me that my amendment was not in order. I think 538 that it is, as it is the first appearance of the word "secret" in the text of the Standing Order which the amendment would change. If the amendment is agreed, the titles would change automatically.
However, the substance of the argument is the question whether the ballot should be open or secret. Again, the Committee considered the matter and it has asked the House as a whole to do the same. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), I take a very principled position on the matter. I do not want us to go down what has been described as a slippery slope, and I hope that my hon. Friend presses the matter to a vote, as I believe that the House will give good support to the proposal for open ballots.
It is possible that two farewell speeches have been made this afternoon. The right hon. Member for East Devon did not call his contribution that, but he is nonpareil in the work that he has done with regard to the procedures of the House.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has got himself a good redundancy deal. He is going outside the House to take part in active politics, because that is where the real change occurs. Along with my right hon. Friend, I know that the green movement is stronger outside the House. However, he told us that he is coming back to use the Library, so he has got the best of both worlds.
This report is the best of both worlds. Its recommendations ensure that our long tradition of independent Speakers will continue.
§ Question put, That the amendment be made:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 82, Noes 84.539
|Division No. 165]||[4 pm|
|Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)||Goggins, Paul|
|Allen, Graham||Grieve, Dominic|
|Arbuthnot, Rt Hon James||Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)|
|Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)||Hopkins, Kelvin|
|Beggs, Roy||Howard, Rt Hon Michael|
|Bell, Martin (Tatton)||Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)|
|Benn, Hilary (Leeds C)||Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony (Chesterfield)||Ingram, Rt Hon Adam|
|Bercow, John||Jamieson, David|
|Betts, Clive||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Brady, Graham||Khabra, Piara S|
|Brown, Russell(Dumfries)||Laing, Mrs Eleanor|
|Browne, Desmond||Leigh, Edward|
|Burnett, John||Levitt, Tom|
|Clark, Paul (Gillingham)||Lilley, Rt Hon Peter|
|Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe)||Linton, Martin|
|Clelland, David||McIntosh, Miss Anne|
|Clwyd, Ann||McNulty, Tony|
|Corbett, Robin||Mactaggart, Fiona|
|Cranston, Ross||Mahon, Mrs Alice|
|Dismore, Andrew||Mandelson, Rt Hon Peter|
|Dowd, Jim||Michael, Rt Hon Alun|
|Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)||Miller, Andrew|
|Efford, Clive||O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)|
|Ellman, Mrs Louise||O'Brien, Stephen (Eddisbury)|
|Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter||Olner, Bill|
|Faber, David||Osbome, Ms Sandra|
|Foulkes, George||Paterson, Owen|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman||Pearson, Ian|
|Galloway, George||Pike, Peter L|
|Garnier, Edward||Pond, Chris|
|Rapson, Syd||Touhiq, Don|
|Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)||Tynan, Bill|
|Ross, William (E Lond'y)||Wells, Bowen|
|Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)||White Brian|
|Spellar,John||Williams, Mrs Betty (Convey)|
|Syms,Robert||Young, Rt Hon Sir George|
|Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)||Mr. Dennis Skinner and|
|Tipping, Paddy||Mr. David Winnick.|
|Allan, Richard||Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)|
|Anderson. Rt Hon Donald (Swansea E)||Jenkin, Be[...]nard|
|Austin, John||Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Baldry, Tony||Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)|
|Bayley, Hugh||Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)|
|Beard, Nigel||King, Ms [...]ona (Bethnal Green)|
|Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret||Kirkwood, Archy|
|Begg, Miss Anne||Laxton, Bo[...]|
|Beith, Rt Hon A J||Livsey, Richard|
|Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough)||Loughton, [...]im|
|Boswell, Tim||McGuire, Mrs Anne|
|Browning, Mrs Angela||Mackinlay, Andrew|
|Bruce,Ian(S Dorset)||McWalter Tony|
|Butterfill,John||Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian|
|Chapman. Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)||Michie, Mrs. Ray (Argyll & Bute)|
|Chope, Christopher||Moran, Ms Margaret|
|Colman, Tony||Ottaway, Richard|
|Connarty, Michael||Pollard, Kerry|
|Cotter, Brian||Pound, Stephen|
|Cox, Tom||Prentice, N s Bridget (Lewisham E)|
|Darvill,Keith||Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)|
|Davidson, Ian||Rendel, David|
|Dawson, Hilton||Robathan, Andrew|
|Dawson Hilton||Robathan, Andrew (Faversham)|
|Drown, Ms Julia||Rowe, Andrew(Faversham)|
|Forth, Rt Hon Eric||St Aubyn, Nick|
|Foster, Don (Bath)||Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert|
|George, Andrew (St Ives)||Shephered, Richard|
|Gerrard, Neil||Soames, Nicholas|
|Gibb, Nick||Spring, Richard|
|Gibson, Dr Ian||Starkey, Dr Phyllis|
|Gillan, Mrs Cheryl||Stevenson George|
|Gilroy, Mrs Linda||Tyler, Paul|
|Godman, Dr Norman A||Vis, Dr Rudi|
|Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie||Welsh, Andrew|
|Hancock, Mike||Wilkinson, John|
|Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)||Wintelon, Nicholas (Macclesfield)|
|Heppell, John||Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)|
|Hutton, John||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Iddon, Dr Brian||Mr. Crispin Blunt and|
|Jack, Rt Hon Michael||Mr. Andrew Stunell.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.
§ Main Question put and agreed to.
§ (1) This House approves the recommendations contained in the Second Report of the Procedure Committee, Session 2000–01, Election of a Speaker (House of Commons Paper No. 40) relating to the election of a Speaker.
§ (2) Standing Order No. 1 (Election of the Speaker) be amended by leaving out paragraph (4); and the title of the Standing Order shall be 'Election of the Speaker: Member presiding'; and
§ (3) The following new Standing Orders No. 1A (Re-election of former Speaker) and No. 1B (Election of Speaker by secret ballot) be made: