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4 pm

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): It is sometimes remarked about the cockpit that is the House of Commons that instinctive all-party agreement usually means that the wrong decision will be reached. However, I think that the instinctive all-party agreement with which the House of Commons happily subscribes to the motion moved by the Prime Minister is a rare and telling example of hon. Members being collectively sincere and correct. I am very happy to associate myself and my party with the remarks of the Prime Minister and the leader of the Conservative party.

As has been said, Madam Speaker, you are the 155th Speaker of the House of Commons, but the first woman to occupy that historic post. All of us in politics who want there to be more women in this Chamber, either in the Chair or elsewhere, can look to you as a source of inspiration when it comes to the success of women in politics. However, there is a need for further success for women in politics in general.

Unlike some of your predecessors, you have never lost your head, either physically or metaphorically. You have presided over our daily dealings in this Chamber with charm and dignity, and also with the authority that all hon. Members require. I have acquired new responsibilities this Session, and I know that I speak for my predecessor as leader of the Liberal Democrat party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Paddy Ashdown), when I say that you have been a constant source of private advice and encouragement. I address you as Madam Speaker, and you call me "love"--which is a lot more affectionate than what I sometimes get called by my hon. Friends. You and I have even been known to share a fag together, and such memories are very welcome.

You were determined to become a Member of Parliament, Madam Speaker. You had to try five times to get elected to this place, but you made a sensational success of your parliamentary career when you got here. That tenacity is something that hon. Members of all parties can readily acknowledge.

The distinguished parliamentary commentator Norman Shrapnel once observed that too much silence in the Chamber was probably more ominous in a parliamentary democracy than too much noise. Sometimes we are too noisy, but let us never be silent. A good House of Commons should do its job, and that is what you have done, Madam Speaker. Many salutes--we wish you well.

4.3 pm

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): It is a great pleasure, Madam Speaker, to endorse the motion moved by the Prime Minister, to which the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) and the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West

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(Mr. Kennedy), have spoken. I entirely endorse everything that they have said, as do all my Ulster Unionist colleagues.

My party is one of the smallest in the House. My hon. Friends and I depend on the Chair to help us to contribute to the workings of the House. I want to extend to you, Madam Speaker, our appreciation of what you, and the Deputy Speakers, have done during your speakership to defend the traditions of the House and the position of the smaller parties.

In your comments, Madam Speaker, you invited us to pass judgment on the way in which you have discharged your role. The best judgment that I can make--and I am sure that I speak for all hon. Members in the House--is that I know that we did the right thing when we elected you in 1992. The statement that you made earlier confirms me in that knowledge. You reasserted the core functions of the House, which are to hold the Executive to account and to scrutinise legislation.

I would like to express in particular my appreciation of what you have said this afternoon, Madam Speaker. It is a very timely reminder to all of us of what we are primarily here for. You are quite right to say that, in some sections of public opinion, there is a degree of scepticism or cynicism about politics in general and the operations of this House. If anything, that cynicism has increased in recent years--perhaps inevitably, in a House with such a huge Government majority.

It is very important to reassert, as you have done, our primary function in terms of holding the Government to account and scrutinising legislation, and also to emphasise our need of the time to do that on the Floor of the House. It has been, I think, a retrograde step in recent years--indeed, in recent weeks--that time for debate and consideration has been curtailed so often. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will reflect on the very wise words that you have uttered this afternoon.

Madam Speaker, you are, of course, the servant of the House, and you have been a magnificent servant of the House. You have also enhanced the standing of the House in the eyes of the public, not just here in the United Kingdom but elsewhere. We owe you a very great debt of gratitude, which I wish to express to you. I also wish you all the best on your retirement--I am sure that you will find many useful things to do in its service in various forms in the future.

4.6 pm

Sir Edward Heath (Old Bexley and Sidcup): Madam Speaker, I had the privilege of occupying the Chair for the first time when you were elected Speaker. This provided me with certain problems, because I felt that it would quite wrong of me to exercise any judgment or express any views whatever on the election, lest all my colleagues here might think that I was trying to influence the outcome.

I find myself in a rather similar position once again in regard to the election of your successor in some three months' time. I propose to adopt the same attitude. It is not for me, in any way, to try to influence opinion. However, last night I signed a letter which covers all the basics of the election of the Speaker and is being circulated to all Members of the House. They can form their own judgments on it and decide how they will react to it. I shall only add that, to any who wish to make

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inquiries about it, I shall be available over the next three months--in some part of the world or other--[Laughter.] I will gladly answer inquiries--provided, of course, that hon. Members pay the telephone charges.

You, Madam Speaker, have occupied the Chair during two quite distinct periods of British politics. First, you were Speaker for a Government on the decline who had been in office for 18 years. Secondly, you were in office for a new Government of a different party, with one of the largest majorities in history. Looking back over it, I cannot recall any incident in which your conduct or comments aroused any real differences within this Chamber. That is probably the most remarkable thing of all in the years I have been in the House--now more than 50--and on that, I congratulate you most sincerely.

It was all summed up in the last words of your introductory speech, when you said:


If I may say so, Madam Speaker, you have lived up to that standard to the greatest possible degree. I would like to express my personal admiration for you and for all you have done, and to thank you from the depths of my heart.

4.9 pm

Mr. Peter Snape (West Bromwich, East): Madam Speaker, the respect and affection in which you are held by all hon. Members is reflected in the shock that we felt when we heard your first announcement two weeks ago. There was genuine sorrow on both sides of the House that you should make, inevitably, the decision that you did, but that shock and sorrow are reflected in the constituency that you have represented with such distinction for so many years, and equally in my constituency, in the black country and in the west midlands generally.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reminded the House that, Madam Speaker, you were first elected at a by-election in 1973. For eight months or so, you represented constituents, who, in that short period, came into the new West Bromwich, East constituency--others went into the constituency of the Minister of State, Department of Social Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). It says something for the impression that you made in those nine short months that, 26 and a half years later, many of my constituents still think that you represent them--

Madam Speaker: And still write to me.

Mr. Snape: I suspect that at least half of them wish you still did represent them.

If I may, Madam Speaker, I shall detain the House for a few moments with a couple of stories about the many years that you and I have served together, representing the borough of West Bromwich. We were elected in February 1974, and the old stagers among us will remember that it was pretty grim winter, but I shall avoid the political reasons behind that; I speak purely of the weather. You may remember, Madam Speaker, that when the results were declared, the then town clerk--that is what they were called in those days, with a salary to match--marched us through the back door of the Gala baths, past the empty dustbins and the stray cats in the town hall

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yard, through the back door of the town hall and down the empty corridors at 1.40 in the morning, and then proceeded to read out the results to an empty and snow-swept high street. I remember that, when we at last found some licensed premises, within the hour, you said, "Snapey, there will be some changes around here." [Laughter.] Sure enough, there have been some changes.

On another occasion, we decided, perhaps unwisely, to attend the West Bromwich carnival, sharing a pony and trap. It was a very small trap and a rather small pony, and in those politically incorrect days, Madam Speaker, you and I had not achieved the slim and sylph-like figures that we possess today. Half way down the high street, the shafts broke; the pony departed; and we were left with our legs in the air, facing the sky. "Now then, Snapey", you said, "you reckon to be a transport expert--get us out of this one." I am afraid, Madam Speaker, that I failed as miserably then as I have in other matters since.

The way in which you have represented the boroughs of West Bromwich and Sandwell and the black country as a whole has endeared you enormously to the people there, Madam Speaker. Their views were perhaps best reflected in the article written following your original statement by our good friend, Ken Tudor, in our local paper, the Express and Star. He said:


Well, I can say, with the benefit of having worked alongside you for 27 and a half years, that we have never had a cross word, largely because, like most males in such circumstances, I have never dared answer you back.

It has been an enormous privilege for me to work alongside you during these years, and on behalf of your colleagues in the west midlands group of Labour Members, dating from your time when you were a member of that group, and your constituents--and mine, too--in West Bromwich, Wednesbury, Oldbury, Tividale, Tipton and Blackheath, I would wish you to know how much you are loved and respected by all of them. No matter what honours are rightly heaped upon you in the years to come, among your parliamentary colleagues and your constituents across the black country, you will always be known as "Our Betty."


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