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House of Commons

Monday 23 October 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

The right hon. Sir Edward Heath took the Chair, pursuant to Standing Order No. 1 (Election of the Speaker).

Election of Speaker

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): I have to inform the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the resignation of the right hon. Betty Boothroyd, lately Speaker of this House, gives leave to the House to proceed forthwith to the election of a new Speaker.

Sir Edward Heath (Old Bexley and Sidcup): The House may be assisted if I make a short statement about the procedure this afternoon. The first business of the House must be to elect a Speaker. Under Standing Order No. 1, whenever it is necessary to proceed forthwith to the choice of a Speaker, it falls to the Member with the longest continuous service in the House to preside. It is also laid down that when a motion has been made that a certain Member do take the Chair, further nominations are to be made in the form of amendments to that motion.

The Standing Order therefore means that all I can preside over is the election of a Speaker by the means laid down in the Standing Order. Although that procedure may sound complex, it is exactly the same as that adopted by the House in deciding on any motion to which amendments are offered. First, the motion is moved. If there are amendments, they are then moved and decided on. Once an amendment has been carried, the main question, as amended, is put to the House for decision. If no amendment is carried and no more are forthcoming, the main question is put for decision. I hope that that will be helpful.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): Sir Edward, you and I have sat under eight Speakers in 15 Parliaments over

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50 years, and you know, better than any of us, the importance of the Speaker to the work of Parliament. We are in some difficulty today. We do not know the names of the candidates because they have never been put on the Order Paper. We do not know who will move them or second them. We did not know what statement you would make until you made it. Officially, we will not know of any proposal of the kind that I hope you will allow me to make until I have the chance to make it.

I draw your attention, Sir Edward, to paragraph (3) of Standing Order No. 1, which says:

that is yourself, Sir Edward--

Therefore you have absolute power, as the Speaker has, to accept an amendment if you choose to do so.

I am not asking you, Sir Edward, to support the proposal, but the House should have the opportunity to do so. There was very wide consultation at a meeting this morning and out of 150 people, only one was opposed to the idea of a ballot. We are a sovereign body, and when the House wishes it can pass an Act though both Houses in a single day and get Royal Assent, and there is no reason why we should not tackle the question now.

The Clerk advises me that the form of words that I should use in making my proposal are as follows:

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I am not suggesting that that is a perfect system--some Members have suggested alternative votes and exhaustive ballots--but it is practical.

I have given the Clerk nomination forms and ballot papers and know that he has prepared them in case the proposal is carried. I hope that you, Sir Edward, will allow the House to decide. The House must have the Speaker it wants and the Speaker must enjoy the authority that he or she needs to do the job that we are about to elect him or her to do.

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): May I support the point of view put by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)? This is the most important vote that the House faces in this Parliament, and two arguments have been put against altering the procedure in the way that he suggests. One is that there has been a previous opportunity to do so and that the Procedure Committee has considered that. However, I am quite sure that the Procedure Committee did not consider the possibility of there being 12 candidates and the complexity that we face, so that we now have to make a game theory decision on who we vote for at each point.

The second argument is that we should not change the rules midway through a contest. Probably the House was surprised when Speaker Boothroyd chose to stand down--disappointed, perhaps, as well--but it seems to me that it is more important that the House can choose by a transparent and visibly fair procedure that it supports overwhelmingly rather than stick with an antiquated procedure, which would bring the House into disrepute.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham): May I support the proposal made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)? We are about to take a momentous decision and I urge you, Sir Edward, not to go down the route of antiquated precedent but, rather, to abide by what I think is a substantial majority in the House who support your allowing us to have a free, fair, open and democratic ballot.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): On a point of order, Sir Edward. As someone who does not support this last-minute change to the rules, may I seek your guidance for those of us who are prepared to stick with the existing rules until they are properly changed? I ask you to guide the House as to your thoughts on the sequence in which you propose to put the main proposition and, more important, the amendments. Some indication of that would help those of us who wish to give consideration to the votes that we are about to cast.

Sir Edward Heath: I should like to deal with the point that has just been raised, among others. I quite understand

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the anxiety that many Members have about the present system. I not only understand but have considerable sympathy with it. On the other hand, I believe that my powers under the Standing Order do not extend to presiding over a debate and a decision on other possible methods of election. In any case, even if I had the authority to act in that way, I believe that we would become very confused if we tried to change the rules in the middle of our proceedings. However, as I am sympathetic to the concern of Members, there may be a way in which I can help without straining the limits of my powers.

It may assist the House if I announce in advance the order in which I shall call Members to propose candidates--that is, the order of all those who have notified me that they wish to take part in the debate. I do so with two provisos. First, if any amendment is carried and the main question as amended thereafter is agreed to, no subsequent amendments can be proposed. Secondly, the list that I am about to read out is not necessarily exhaustive. If no amendment moved by a Member whose name is on the list is carried, other Members may catch my eye to put forward other candidates. Perhaps I may now give the list of those who have notified me already.

I will first call Mr. Snape to move that Mr. Martin do take the Chair. That will be seconded and debated. Thereafter, we may proceed to other candidates. Mr. Winnick is to propose, as an amendment, Sir Alan Haselhurst; Mr. Wigley is to propose, again as an amendment, Mr. Beith; Mr. David Davis is similarly to propose Mrs. Dunwoody; Mr. MacGregor is to propose Sir George Young; Mr. O'Neill is to propose Mr. Menzies Campbell; Mr. Maxton is to propose Dr. David Clark; Mr. Wilkinson is to propose Mr. Nicholas Winterton; Mr. Cann is to propose Mr. McWilliam; Mr. Tom King is to propose Mr. Lord; Mrs. Shephard is to propose Sir Patrick Cormack; and Mr. Martin Bell is to propose Mr. Shepherd. That covers all those who have notified me of their wish to speak.

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