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Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Notwithstanding the statement that you have just made, Sir Edward, I hope that you recognise that when the procedures of the House do not even reflect the views of its Members, let alone those who send us here, we have a problem.
As the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) said, the Procedure Committee examined the question following the previous election of a Speaker in 1992. I was a member of the Procedure Committee. It was then thought inappropriate to examine the issue soon after a large majority had elected the Speaker--the bulk of the House voted in that Division. I put it to you, Sir Edward, that it is always an inappropriate time to do so; it is no more inappropriate today than it was then. Indeed, we all have a collective responsibility for not examining the issue at the time. Even the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who spoke in the previous debate, did not raise questions about the procedure.
This time, it is clearly the view of the House that the procedure that we are about to follow is not likely to result in a clear statement. Even if we proceed as you have indicated, Sir Edward, we are likely to leave a sense of dissatisfaction and frustration in the House, whoever is elected. I know that I will not be popular with whoever takes the Chair some time this afternoon--or, perhaps, in the early hours of the morning--but I still believe it is important that we review the procedure.
We are fortunate that we are likely to be back in the Chamber electing a Speaker following the dissolution of Parliament in a matter of months, so the appointment is a temporary one. I hope that, during that period, the House will agree that my colleagues on the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons should be given a remit to look again at the procedures and make them more democratic.
We are approaching the season of gunpowder, treason and plot, as always at this time of the year. I estimate that as many as 100 Members of Parliament, including Ministers, cannot be present but ought to be aware of any proposed change to the procedure. I know of at least three Ministers who have had to go abroad on Government business and very much regret that they cannot be present.
There is no proxy vote; there is no pairing system; there is nothing on the Order Paper; and nothing has come from the Whips to say that the change will be made or the debate will be held. There has been no indication other than my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield's rising to his feet. Making such a change would be out of order in any other parliamentary business. Suddenly, the House, ad hoc, says that it is going to debate and vote on the issue. I put it to you, Sir Edward, that that would be out of order. We should carry on and debate any changes later.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester): On a point of order, Sir Edward. I believe that there is almost certainly a majority in the House now in favour of a change in the rules to allow the ballot to go ahead on a fully democratic basis. That being the case, and although you have said that you are not permitted to allow a debate and a vote to take place on the proposal of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), we in this House make our own rules: Standing Orders exist only to guide us. Therefore, I should like to move that we set aside Standing Order No. 1 until the House has had an opportunity to arrive at a view and vote on the right hon. Gentleman's proposal.
Sir Edward Heath: It was done at my discretion. That has always been the case, but my predecessors have never announced in advance who has been chosen and where they are placed. I was hoping that my doing so would be helpful to the House.
Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): On a point of order, Sir Edward. It is indeed helpful for the House to know the order in which you will call the candidates, and it is, of course, open to you to use your discretion. However, the problem with comparing today's procedures with those over which your predecessors presided is that they are not comparable--today, the House faces an unprecedented number of contenders for
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): On a point of order, Sir Edward. We know that you are in an extremely difficult position, but, on the important issue facing us today, it would be entirely wrong to go ahead on the stated basis when it is quite clear that the majority of the House is not in favour of doing so. [Hon. Members: "No!"] Some Members say no, but let us put it to the test and have a vote on the proposal of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn).
If you cannot do that, Sir Edward, I put it to you that when the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), resigned on the lawn of No. 10 Downing street, several points of order were raised and it was ruled from the Chair that it was in order to move, as an emergency resolution, That this House do now adjourn. Would it be possible to move such a motion in the event of your not allowing the House to divide on the proposal of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield?
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): On a point of order, Sir Edward. You control the batting order, which is crucial, and you have read out the names of the candidates and those who are proposing them, but I am none the wiser as to what informed that decision. You say that you have discretion; indeed you do, and that is what is wrong with the system of election. The system we use should be open and transparent, and people here and outside should be able to understand it.
An hour or so ago, we held hustings in Committee Room 10. We carried out a straw poll among the approximately 150 Members present, the result of which was an almost unanimous decision--there was one exception--that there should be a ballot of the candidates. People do not want to elect the new Speaker using a discredited system that would not have been out of place in eastern Europe before the wall came down.
Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): On a point of order, Sir Edward. I suggest that we are confronted with a matter of principle. It is also a matter of democracy. Further, it is a matter that unites Members on both sides of the House. It is important, too, that the people who are looking in on our proceedings--those who send us here--understand and recognise the way in which we comport ourselves in this place, which should conform to their understanding of democracy.
I urge you to accept, Sir Edward, that it cannot be in conformity with the spirit of the Standing Orders that you intend to operate this afternoon that we should elect the champion of Back Benchers and the champion of the House through a system of smoke and mirrors. That person could not expect to command either the respect or authority following such an election. I urge you to think again, Sir Edward, and to bear in mind the fact that almost
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I would not go as far as the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) and say that there is a majority either for or against what you have proposed, Sir Edward, or for or against what the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has proposed. It has become clear to me over the past 20 minutes that the House is deeply divided on the matter. I have no idea where the majority lies, but, given the fact that the House is divided, there is a real risk that unless the House expresses where its majority lies, whatever system we use will undermine the very person that we must not undermine when we come to choose the next Speaker.
Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South): I agree with the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). You tried to be helpful, Sir Edward, by announcing the batting order for the candidates, but, far from being helpful, it will undoubtedly mean that this afternoon's proceedings will cause more of a problem.
Both you, Sir Edward, and the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) have two last duties to perform on behalf of the nation and this Parliament. The right hon. Gentleman has given you the opportunity to listen to what the House is saying and to accept that his proposition is made in the right sense, will result in the right decision and will enable the right person to occupy the Chair. I fear that anything short of that will seriously undermine the credibility of the successful candidate.
There will be many in the House and outside who will not understand why we have come to the decision that we have. The only sensible way forward is to accept the proposition of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield, listen to what the House is saying and at least test whether the right hon. Gentleman, for once, is speaking for the whole House and for the majority of the country.