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3.9 pm

Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden): I want to speak to the substantive motion and the principle behind it, rather than the amendment, which I shall deal with later if necessary.

I am sure that all the candidates would be impartial and totally fair in exercising their duties, but impartiality is not enough in the Speaker that we seek today. The powers of the House are widely considered to be in decline. That perception is real; history and politics have ensured that the House's powers are in decline. That decline must be arrested and reversed. That is the task of the person we elect today.

The balance of power between Parliament and the Executive has tipped against this House even more in recent years than the long-term trend would indicate. There is also a disparity of power between Front-Bench Members and Back-Bench Members of the House. Putting that disparity right is also a task of the Speaker whom we elect today.

The bypassing of Parliament is well understood. Ministers go to television studios or on the "Today" programme and announce matters before they appear before the House. A Speaker can do something about that. Private notice questions, applications under Standing Order No. 24, and the right of individuals to raise questions that could be debated in emergency by the House are all matters with which the Speaker can and should deal.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): What, even when the Tory Government were in power?

Mr. Davis: I shall shortly give way to the pensioner from Bolsover.

23 Oct 2000 : Column 12

The disparity of power between Members on the Front Benches and those on the Back Benches has been very apparent in past years. Decisions are made on the timetabling of the business of the House. Many believe, with reason, that timetabling is a reasonable approach to the business of the House. This is just about the only House in the western world where such timetabling is done not by the Speaker but by the Executive. That practice has long been wrong--it was wrong under a Tory Government, just as it is under a Labour Government.

Many aspects of recent legislation have changed the rights of our citizens--the right to trial by jury, the right to freedom of information and to a number of other matters, including a passport. Those issues should be decided by the House, and a future Speaker should take that matter in hand.

My point is simple and short. I have said already that our candidates will all be fair, but they should also have strength, independence, integrity and a passionate commitment to the House of Commons. That is what we need from any candidate whom we elect today.

3.12 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): I shall continue the theme that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) has introduced. This will be one of my last speeches in the House of Commons before I go into politics and, if I may, I want to put to the House my fears for this place. I do not attribute them to any one Government or any one Prime Minister, and I do not want that to be misunderstood.

The people who elect us to Parliament ask us certain questions. They ask, "When we go to war, do you have a say in it?" and the answer is that we do not. We were not consulted, in terms of a vote, about the bombing in Iraq or Kosovo--[Interruption.] No, statements were made. There was also Sierra Leone. That is a royal prerogative. We could not even start electing a Speaker without instructions from the Queen, so the royal prerogative is very strong.

Then we come to the laws made in Brussels. I have been on the Council of Ministers, and was its President once. When Ministers go to Brussels and agree to laws in secret, they repeal the laws that we have made and we have no say, either before the Minister goes or when he comes back.

Patronage is on a massive scale. Every Prime Minister has done it--almost 1,000 peers have been made by Prime Ministers since the war. There is no consultation with the House of Commons about the patronage exercised by the Prime Minister of the day. We must face the fact that we are, to a large extent, an impotent House of Commons. I can give a practical example of that. We have been in recess since July, and during that time there has been a fuel crisis, a Danish no vote, the collapse of the euro and a war in the middle east, but what is our business tomorrow? The Insolvency Bill [Lords]. It ought to be called the Bankruptcy Bill [Commons], because we play no role.

I am very concerned because many young people believe that this is an impotent Parliament. They go on the streets in Prague or Seattle rather than come to the Palace of Westminster, because we do not do the job that we were elected to do. We have a president, and we do not have a House of Representatives.

23 Oct 2000 : Column 13

I fear that, in the world in which we live--I lay no blame at anyone's door, because that is not my purpose, certainly not during this period of my political life--globalisation means that multinational companies have much more power than countries. Ford is bigger than South Africa; Toyota is bigger than Norway. When I went to America last year to celebrate my golden wedding anniversary, I met an old Governor of Ohio, who said "You will never have democracy when big business buys both parties and expects a pay-off, whoever wins."

I believe that it is our job to reverse that. It is for the Commons to decide. Whoever becomes Speaker--I think all the candidates have qualities that they would bring to the job--we must use this period, that of the first Parliament of the 21st century, to restore the power of the people who elected us. We must not be content to be managed and to become a sort of audience, as if we were on the BBC's "Question Time".

For that reason, I hope that some part of the debate will go beyond the personal qualities of which we have heard from proposers and seconders, to the whole central question of whether the House of Commons can survive if it allows itself to be powerless in the face of the really big decisions that will influence the future of this country.

3.16 pm

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): I had not intended to speak, but I think that a mistake is creeping into the debate: a sense that, somehow, the future of the House depends either on the attitude of the Government or on the qualities of the Speaker. In fact, what the House's future depends on is the quality of Back Benchers. Because both--or all--the major parties are trying to tighten their control over the selection of candidates and the way in which they are preferred, and seeking above all this mythical quality of loyalty, individual Back Benchers are ceasing to feel able to say and do what they want.

I am a fine one to talk. I have been far too loyal to my party for far too long. As my impending retirement approached, however, I realised rather too late how much power an individual Back Bencher, or a group of individual Back Benchers, can exercise when using this place as it could be used. I regret that it took me so long to realise that, but I am a slow learner.

We must not fool ourselves into thinking that the future of the House depends either on some magic Zebedee of a Speaker leaping in to solve all its problems, or on some change of heart on the part of Governments, who will always try to control the House of Commons. What we need is a much clearer perception of what Back Benchers can and ought to achieve, and the fact that their prime loyalty is to their constituency associations and not to their parties.

Sir Edward Heath: The hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) has been proposed and seconded. I now give him the opportunity to submit himself to the House.

3.18 pm

Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn): I submit myself to the House, and welcome you to the Chair, Sir Edward. Certainly, every time you are in the Chair you achieve a better turnout than any of the Deputy Speakers.

23 Oct 2000 : Column 14

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) for his kindness, and also for his friendship during the 21 years for which I have been a Member of Parliament. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ann Keen) for her kind words. When it became clear that a Speaker was required, she was a very staunch supporter.

I pay tribute to Speaker Betty Boothroyd. Betty's advice was, "Be firm, especially with the senior Members. Don't let them pressurise you and try to pull rank", but the thing that I remember her for is that, every day at conferences, her concern was always about the House. She always put the House of Commons first. I wish her every success.

As hon. Members know, the last election brought in many new Members on both sides of the House. I felt a deep obligation to give assistance and help to those new Members, regardless of the party that they came from. I feel that I carried out that duty to the full. I do not think that I could be criticised for denying anyone any help or assistance, either from the Chair or in the Tea Room. I would like to be remembered as a Deputy Speaker who was always fair and helpful.

My apprenticeship has been one of serving the House as a Chairman of Standing Committees, the Administration Committee and the Scottish Grand Committee. I have never sought to be a Whip, a Front-Bench spokesman or a Minister.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West): Quite right.


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