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3.56 pm

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): I beg to move, as an amendment to the Question, to leave out "Mr. Michael J. Martin" and insert instead thereof "Mr. Alan Beith".

I crave the House's indulgence in allowing someone who once broke the Speaker's Chair to nominate someone to occupy it. It is a reflection on the House that those of us who entered as revolutionaries are in danger of departing as mere reformers. I also hope that the House will see that the fact that I shall stand down at the coming election does not detract at all from the idea that I should propose a Speaker, but adds weight to the nomination, because I cannot be said to stand to gain in any shape or form if the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is successful.

I have an excellent perspective from which to commend the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed. I have sat behind him on this Bench--as he has sat in front of me--for the last 26 years. In that length of time, one overhears quite a few conversations, and I can say quite honestly that I have never heard the right hon. Gentleman say anything malicious about any Member in any part of the House.

Equally, I have a certain insight. Mind you, Sir Edward, the process of overhearing works in two ways. When I was a young Member and new in the House, I said to my colleague Dafydd Elis-Thomas--now a Member of the other House--something less than complimentary about the then leader of the Liberal party, Jeremy Thorpe. It was quite a shock for me when the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed very gently chided me--in perfect Welsh.

In fact, I have a choice today between supporting a Welsh-speaking non-Welsh Speaker, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, and a non-Welsh speaking Welsh Speaker, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)--among many other non-Welsh possibilities.

I advocate the election of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed for three reasons, which I am sure that he, as a lay preacher, will appreciate--and none of them is to do with the Welsh language. First, I believe that, as part of the checks and balances in this House, the speakership should move around the House and not just be shared between the two largest parties.

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It was my belief in such checks and balances that led me last week to support as Deputy Presiding Officer in the National Assembly for Wales our Labour colleague, the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek). I have no doubt that Labour Members in this Chamber will recognise the merit of having a Speaker from the other side of the Chamber, and if they do not do so now, they may see the benefit in future. It is certainly valuable to have such checks and balances, so that not everything goes in one political direction.

I further believe that Members from the smaller parties should not automatically be ruled out for our most senior appointment if they are worthy candidates. In the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed we have such a candidate.

My second reason for proposing the right hon. Gentleman is his experience, which equips him to do the job. He has been a Member of the House since 1973, and represents a constituency in north-east England, so he is aware of the challenges that face so many Members whose constituencies are well away from the home counties. He has 20 years' experience on the House of Commons Commission, and as a reformer, he has successfully fought for the principle that the House, not the Government of the day, should run the buildings in which we work.

In that capacity, the right hon. Gentleman helped, in the face of Treasury opposition, to secure the allowance that provides pensions for Members' secretaries and researchers. We need a Speaker who takes the side of the House against the Executive, whichever party is in power. The right hon. Gentleman has fought to make this a more family friendly House, supporting the provision of a creche and a child care allowance, and advocating sensible working hours. In that capacity, he has developed good working relations with Members from all parties, which is a prerequisite for being Speaker.

The right hon. Gentleman was, of course, a candidate for his party's leadership, and the very characteristics that may have detracted from that candidature may equip him to be an effective Speaker. He is a patient person, he has a balanced view, he can see both sides of an argument, and he can dispassionately form a considered judgment. Those are not necessarily the main attributes necessary for a party leader, but they are essential qualities for the Speaker of the House.

Thirdly, I propose the right hon. Gentleman on account of his strength of character and personality, which equip him to do an outstanding job. He is transparently fair, and that is essential for any Speaker. His strength of character grows out of his deeply held personal convictions, and that is a strength that any Speaker needs to withstand the pressures of the Executive, of vested interest, and, indeed, of political colleagues. The right hon. Gentleman has the deep, quiet strength to do the job.

May I also refer to the strength and dignity that the right hon. Gentleman showed when he suffered two tragic bereavements, in which he had the sympathy of the whole House. He ably demonstrated at that time that he could ride the storms of life and still carry the responsibilities of office. He also has respect for this institution, while not being blind to its shortcomings. He is a reformer at a time when reform must surely be high on our agenda.

Finally, as I am the retiring Member for Caernarfon, a seat held by David Lloyd George for 53 years, it gives me great pleasure to propose that we elect a Liberal--

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well, at least, a Liberal Democrat--as Speaker. My grandmother, who was for 13 years president of Pwllheli Liberal association, would be smiling from her grave. I have not had a political change of heart, but I hope that we all recognise a good person when we see one, and I urge fellow Members to elect the right hon. Gentleman as a worthy Speaker of the House.

4.4 pm

Jackie Ballard (Taunton): It is my privilege and pleasure to second the nomination of my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). As Members have heard, he has been a Member of this place since 1973, which is long enough to know the institution. He is a natural parliamentarian and has become part of the institution, but he has not become institutionalised, and as someone who still thinks of herself as something of a revolutionary, I think that that is particularly important.

In this media and image-conscious age, sometimes the image and the person do not match, but my right hon. Friend's image is one of reliability, of being a safe pair of hands, of loyalty and of competence. In this case, the man matches the image, but two more qualities should be added to that list: he has a keen sense of humour and a passion for democracy. Both are much needed in the Speaker of this place.

As a Member from the 1997 intake and a Back Bencher, what I hope for most in the Speaker is someone who will defend the rights of Back Benchers and of the House against any overbearing Executive. When I was elected, I appreciated the encouragement and advice of Speaker Boothroyd and I know that my right hon. Friend has the ability and the commitment to give such encouragement and advice to all Back Benchers. As a Liberal, he is used to being independent of mind and of action. That is also essential in a Speaker.

In my view, the House needs not modernisation but something much more radical. The House needs to reform itself, and we can do that with the help of a reforming Speaker. However, we must judge the candidates today not on their verbal commitments to reform, but on their past practical commitment and examples. My right hon. Friend has a track record that will withstand any scrutiny. He was a distinguished member of the House of Commons Commission for many years, but even before that he showed a commitment to the welfare of the staff of this place when he successfully moved an amendment to a Government motion on Members' allowances to create a ring-fenced allowance for pensions for Members' staff.

My right hon. Friend is a fair-minded man, as the right hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) has said. He is an open-minded man and, in my view, admirably suited to the Speaker's Chair. I am proud to support his nomination and hope that he will have the support of all Members of the House.

Sir Edward Heath: Mr. Alan Beith has been proposed and seconded, so I give him the opportunity to submit himself to the House.

4.7 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): I begin by warmly thanking my kind proposer and seconder and by echoing the tributes to Betty Boothroyd and her

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speakership. I had the privilege of working with her for about 20 years in various capacities, but particularly in the House of Commons Commission. It is sometimes not recognised what a large, submerged portion of work the Speaker engages in--work that is not apparent when the Speaker takes the Chair. I saw a newspaper report that there was a cushy job going in the House of Commons involving three hours work a day. Well, I can testify from Speaker Boothroyd's hard work--day and evening long--that there is a lot more to it than that, and that much work goes on behind the scenes.

Indeed, in those capacities it was my pleasure often to meet and work with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin), whom I count as a friend. I have worked with him for many years, especially when he was Chairman of the Administration Committee and I served on the Commission. We did not always agree, but I have to say that in those days, the Administration and Accommodation and Works Committees were not hotbeds of reform or modernisation. I have a great and warm respect for his personal qualities, so it is rather strange to have entered what seems a little like a fairground boxing ring to contend with him. That is the nature of the procedure: we are proposed in turn, one by one--although I advise Members who want an early tea that the proceedings can be brought to a close quite quickly by electing me. By doing so, they would elect the first Speaker from the Berwick-upon-Tweed constituency since 1656--and he had the benefit of a bit of help from Oliver Cromwell, which is not available today. Indeed, we had our last Liberal Speaker in the 1920s, and he probably had a bit of help from Lloyd George. That is not available, either.

The Speaker is the servant of the House, so all the commitments that we make at hustings, meetings and in the Chamber about reforms that we should like to achieve are subject to a proviso: it is the House that decides. In my experience, there are many roadblocks on the way to reform in the House. It is my hope that the Speaker will not be one of them. The Speaker should enable the House to release its potential to be more effective in the service of our constituents, in the scrutiny of legislation and in holding the Executive to account. Frankly, some of our ways do not assist that. The Speaker who is ready to support the House in seeking to make the procedures more effective would do the nation a service.

We should use time productively and effectively. I express personal views, which any Speaker would have to submit to the House, as the House makes the decisions, but I do not find the notion of very long debates attended by very few Members, which are little regarded outside the House, particularly contributive to effective scrutiny. Such debates are one of the factors that discourage some people from serving in the House, and make it difficult for some to continue to do so. We must not be an exclusive institution.

Although the Speaker is dependent on the will of the House concerning some changes that can be made, Speakers can do other things. There are private notice questions, emergency debates and procedures to stand over debates when the range of opinion has not been properly represented. Some of those have not been used all that often in recent times. There are opportunities for

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the occupant of the Chair to make use of those procedures to help Back Benchers and to give them the chance to express their concerns. A reforming spirit behind the way in which we use our Standing Orders can do some good.

Whoever wins this election will as their first duty lay public claim to the liberties and freedoms of the House of Commons. There must be some substance to that claim. We are not simply reclaiming the 16th and 17th-century freedoms of the House. We must lay claim to freedoms that make the House effective and enable it to challenge the Executive and legislate well. Some reforms are necessary to that task.

I have been honoured to serve in this House and look forward to continuing to do so. It is an honour and a privilege. I am proud to be a Member--but one can be proud of an institution and still recognise that it needs to change, to make itself more effective and to renew itself. The House is not our property; it is the legislature of the people of the United Kingdom. It is not run for our benefit as Members; it is their institution, in which we should stop regarding them as strangers and recognise them as the people who elect us and whom we are here to serve. I have sought in 27 years to work for parliamentary democracy in this place, and I pledge myself to continue to do so.

Question put, That the amendment be made:

The House divided: Ayes 83, Noes 409.

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