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.
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.
(a) That nominations for the position of Speaker be opened immediately and be submitted to the Clerk of the House, each one to be supported by a Mover and Seconder and accompanied by a consent form signed by each person nominated.
(b) That Ballot papers be printed immediately containing the names of all the nominated candidates together with the names of the movers and seconders of each.
(c) That each Mover and Seconder be then invited to speak in support in support of their candidate, in alphabetical order by name of that candidate, followed by others who may wish to speak and ending with the candidates themselves also in alphabetical order.
(d) That the House then adjourn to allow ballot papers to be issued in the No Lobby and members having marked them with the name of the person for whom they wish to vote, signed with their own names, would then place them in Ballot Boxes in the Aye Lobby.
(e) That the Clerk of the House would act as the Returning Officer for the counting of the Votes and would report the result to the Father of the House showing the votes cast for each candidate and the names of those members who had voted for each.
(f) That the House would proceed to a division to decide which of the two candidates with the largest number of votes would become Speaker.
(g) The successful candidate would then take the Chair as Speaker Elect in the normal way.
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.
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.