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4.15 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): One of the things of which I am proudest is that, way back in the 1960s, I came to support you, Madam Speaker, when you stood for Parliament. Forty years ago, of course, I did not realise that you would be the Speaker of the House.

I shall take up one point that you made in your statement: you have brought happiness to the House, and that has been reflected in how the House responded to your statement and among the many of us who have enjoyed your hospitality. I do not know whether this is true, but the story goes that the Father of the House made it possible for you to have a piano in the Speaker's House. If that is so, he brought his musical talents to bear in such a way as to make your evening parties more enjoyable.

You are the eighth Speaker under whom I have sat, and I can think of none who has had to cope with such massive changes. The Scottish Parliament, the Welsh

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Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Mayor of London are all represented in the House, and we have also had to deal with Members of the European Parliament and the growth of the media. You have turned your mind to the constitutional changes that we need. As we move more and more towards a presidential system of government, you have asserted yourself as the Speaker of the House of Representatives. There is a difference, as you have said, between an executive and a representative body.

In addition, Madam Speaker, you have interpreted democracy not in terms of directives from above and discipline, but in terms of the debate, diversity, disagreement and decision that are the mainspring of a democratic Parliament. You have also represented us brilliantly abroad.

You said, Madam Speaker, that you would not call us to order during this debate, so I shall break all the rules of "Erskine May" and the House by saying what I know we all want to say--"Goodbye, Betty, and thank you for all that you have done."

4.17 pm

Mr. John MacGregor (South Norfolk): Madam Speaker, as a former Leader of the House and as the Member who seconded your nomination for the speakership, I want to add just a few words of my own. I can do so briefly because I agree with all the sentiments expressed so far.

We all had high expectations of you when you became Speaker, and you have far more than fulfilled them. You have shown a great mastery over the House, with appropriate firmness and with your sense of humour, tact and a twinkle in your eye whenever appropriate. I should like to comment on two of the points that you made earlier, which are important to you and to us.

First, the supremacy of Parliament is not just about statements being made here rather than on the "Today" programme. The issue goes much deeper than that. As a Minister in various Departments, I constantly found myself reminding officials that every policy had to be tested in Parliament, and that Parliament came first. I had also to remind them that I had a constituency responsibility that was also a high priority. You, Madam Speaker, have constantly reasserted the supremacy of Parliament.

Secondly, as the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said, you have maintained our traditions superbly at a time of great change. Above all, you have recognised the realities of this place. We are not good at scrutinising various aspects of the Executive, particularly when it comes to secondary legislation. We must recognise that that means long hours and a heavy responsibility. I am grateful for the way in which you have always stressed those points.

Finally, reference has been made to the hospitality that you have shown to many of us and our spouses and families. We are all deeply grateful for it. On the many occasions on which my wife and I have hugely enjoyed that hospitality, you have demonstrated that you are a superb impresario, a great controller of events and a magnificent mistress of ceremonies. Bearing in mind the period when you trod the boards, I can also say that you

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are still a pretty impressive performer when you go before an audience. You have shown those qualities both in your hospitality and in this Chamber.

I thank you personally for all that you have done and I wish you well in what I am sure will be not a retirement but a long, happy and fulfilling life to come.

4.19 pm

Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush): When you took the Chair in this great democratic Chamber, Madam Speaker, you made history, but I know better than most that you would not have been content to make it simply by being the first woman Speaker, important though that is. You wanted to--and did--stamp your authority and personality on this Chamber and you have done so in a way to which many hon. Members have referred in this short debate. I echo all their comments.

I must also say something about time and chance in political careers. Much has been said about your earlier life, of which I know little and will therefore say less, but one aspect of it was drawn to my attention today by a rather sad event. I heard of the funeral of Ken Lomas, who was the Member of Parliament for Huddersfield, West. I think that he beat you by a fairly small margin to be selected as the Labour candidate for that seat in 1962. But for time and chance, which affect what happens in our lives, we might never have had Madam Speaker and we would all have been the losers.

Recently, we have not always seen eye to eye on some aspects of the modernisation of the House--I have heard comments this afternoon about its importance. Throughout, you have held firm about the importance of defending Back Benchers' rights and of remembering that we are all here to represent the people who put us here. That is important.

I think that we all came to this House to make history, not merely to relive it. In doing so, we need to change. This House and some of its greatest Speakers have produced change and there has always been anxiety, stress and concern about whether the change is going in the right direction. My view is that the modernisation is, and that we need to improve the quality of the way in which we use time here, rather than focus on the quantity of that time. I think that we will do that.

What you have left me with in that debate, Madam Speaker, is the idea that we must ensure that we do not lose sight of the importance of the Back Bencher. You and all those who have gone before you have kept that firmly in their thoughts and I hope that all those who come after you will also do so. If we modernise the House with that thought in mind, we will succeed. We will look back and see areas where we have got it right and some where we have got it wrong, but we will know that we have continued to develop the proud traditions of democracy in this House. For all of that, thank you very much, Madam Speaker, and I also wish you a very happy retirement.

4.23 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): Madam Speaker, when I was offered the opportunity to propose you--not once, I am happy to say, but twice--as the occupant of the Chair, I realised that it was a most exciting and wonderful day. Today shows that everyone not only acknowledges that you have been a unique

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Speaker, but that you have been a very special one. I do not mean that that is because you were the first woman Speaker; it is because you have brought to the office a quality of great humanity. You understand that this mixed body of men and women--who are all different and who all, on occasions, have pointed interests--are bound together by their commitment to the democratic system and their desire to represent what is good, what is best and what is important for their constituents.

We have heard of the many virtues that you have displayed and we all know about those. For me, the most important things have been your intelligence, your ability to listen to everyone from every part of the House and to bind us all together on those occasions when that was tremendously important, and above all, the fact that you have increasingly created a special role for the United Kingdom. You have done that.

I do not know whether you understand quite how unique you are within our politics. The voters see you as the representative of all that is good. Sometimes, they love it when you shout at Members, or when you represent with jokes the important aspects of our work. Above all, what they like about you is that they identify with you and feel that you are, indeed, "Our Betty".

I shall highlight one or two personal memories that are important to me. You and I have had some good old battles on various matters. However, when you leave the Speaker's House, for me there will not merely be sadness at your leaving official office, because of all the work that you have done in that capacity, but at the loss of certain very personal qualities. I think of the person who had worked here for 35 years but had not set foot in the Speaker's House, who stood alongside me at one of your parties and said, "This is the proudest day of my life." That kind of commitment and the understanding that we all have a piece of you is tremendously important.

Madam Speaker, if I were to be honest, the great state occasions when your natural dignity has incredibly enhanced the role of Speaker, have been significant. Certainly, seeing you walk down the stairs with Nelson Mandela is a memory that will stick in my mind for ever--[Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]. I also have personal memories, and I hope that you will forgive me if I highlight them. One is of you hanging out of a window at Speaker's House on the eve of the millennium, shouting "Happy new year" to everyone and getting a roar of recognition such as I have never heard in my life. For me, that was marvellous.

I do not need to tell you that you will be missed, Madam Speaker. You have presided over very real changes and, because you care about Back Benchers, you have been prepared to encourage experiments such as the extension of debate to Westminster Hall, changes in our hours and differences in the ways in which we operate. However, you were prepared to talk to everybody about what that would mean and how it should be carried forward.

I know that you will have a wonderful time, Madam Speaker. If I have one slight disagreement with you today, it is this. Many things will happen to you, you have a lot to do and many places to go to, but I simply do not believe that your dancing days are over.

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4.26 pm


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