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Before I start the substantive part of my speech, may I add my tribute to Speaker Boothroyd's term of office? She took charge of the House at a most difficult time for a Speaker, when televising of proceedings had recently started and there were difficult Parliaments. She carried out that duty with enormous skill and capacity.
Notwithstanding what I shall say now, I was impressed by the performance of all the candidates at the hustings this morning. Candidates took seriously the arguments in favour of the reform and progress of the House of Commons.
Nevertheless, I return to my own template, which was that of a Speaker of strength, independence, integrity, passionate commitment to the Commons in its role of scrutinising Government and holding them to account and, within that, a relentless commitment to the rights of Back Benchers. In the House of Commons, it has often been the Back Bencher who has stood up for the liberties of the individual. I look back to the predecessor of the Deputy Prime Minister and myself, William Wilberforce, onwards through Rathbone and a number of others of whom we should be proud. They could have done their task only with the assistance of the Speaker of the House at the time.
The Speaker must be not just independent of the Government of any persuasion, but determined that that Government will subject themselves to the democratic will of the House of Commons. It has already been said by a number of hon. Members that that is not just the function of the Speaker. It also falls to the Members of the House, but it falls to them under the leadership of the Speaker and subject to the powers that he or she exercises. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), the previous candidate, spoke eloquently of some of those.
The position of Speaker requires a passionately committed House of Commons man or woman. The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich meets that template perfectly. I believe that she will deploy her formidable personality in defending the rights of the House. She has shown great independence in her role as Chairman of the Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs. Again, the Deputy Prime Minister will have particular interest in that.
We will need the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich to do that in the future. We will need a reforming Speaker, and she will be that. She has made a major contribution to the Liaison Committee's report proposing reforms to enhance the powers and effectiveness of the Select Committees and to make them more independent of the Whips--a point that has come up several times today.
In addition, when the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich spoke this morning, she proposed a Speaker's Conference to reform radically and update the House of Commons. If she is chosen today, she would oversee such a Conference, which would have to balance the need to make the House more family friendly--no one disputes that need--with that of making it do its job more effectively. Achieving that golden mean will require imagination and experience. The hon. Lady has the experience: she has served the House for a total of 30 years; 26 of them continuously. She has served in government; she therefore understands only too well the pressures and imperatives of office. However, it was long enough ago for her not to be biased by it today.
The hon. Lady understands the Select Committee system and the Chamber. She has played an active part in both. She has eminently chaired the Transport Sub-Committee and been a Deputy Speaker in Westminster Hall. She brings a keen intellect and imagination to those tasks. The hon. Lady has served the House diligently for many years.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam): Self-evidently, this is an important day for the House of Commons. As other speakers have said, Parliament is central to the democracy of this land; it is the last port of call for the voice of citizens to be heard. Over several Parliaments, we have been accused of not performing a vital task. Today, we have the chance to begin the process of restoring power to elected Members speaking for their constituents, improving legislation and holding the Executive to account.
I have the honour of seconding the motion that my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) become Speaker. With a strong Executive, it is crucial to have an independent, gutsy, hard-hitting Speaker to stand up for the House, its Members and the people whom it represents. Those qualities are matched by my hon. Friend's experience in the House. As Deputy Speaker in Westminster Hall, Chairman of the Transport Sub-Committee and member of the Chairman's Panel, my hon. Friend's knowledge of the House's rituals and procedures is second to none.
My hon. Friend has always been a formidable campaigner and advocate in a range of Front-Bench positions, beginning as Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade in 1967 and ranging across foreign affairs, health, media and, of course, transport. I know from civil servants to whom I have spoken how much they look forward to appearing before the Transport Sub-Committee when my hon. Friend chairs it, and how much they enjoy being faced by her indirect, faltering, diffident and benign questioning!
Surely we want a Speaker who is like my hon. Friend: who is clear, decisive, speaks her mind and is able to speak for the House. Anyone who knows her realises that she is passionate, forthright and independent. As others have said, she respects the House and the values that it represents.
Hon. Members should be in no doubt about how hard my hon. Friend will work on their behalf, irrespective of their attitudes, beliefs or individuality. In the 13 years that I have spent in the House, I have come to respect her many qualities and singular character. She has been thoughtful and attentive to me and other hon. Members across the political spectrum and to the many staff who work here. She does not do that in public. When the going got tough in Northern Ireland, she would call, not necessarily to agree with what I was doing, but always to offer solidarity and support from one Member to another. I also like her direct, honest and straightforward approach to life in the House. She is a hard-working Member who does the business. She stays late for Division after Division. She is never seen slipping out; she is always seen standing in the taxi queue after voting and doing her duty to the House.
My hon. Friend values the House and the work that it does, but that does not mean that she is against change. She and I agree on the need to reform the workings of the House for all of us--women and men--and especially on the need for more women to be elected. I believe that a woman Speaker constitutes a good mentor and encourages other women into the House.
I support my hon. Friend, but that does not mean that I agree with all that she supports--far from it. We have differences of opinion on many issues, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict, but we discuss and argue the points. That shows that it is perfectly possible to hold different views, but to remain friends, as many hon. Members know. She does that all the time.
At a time when we need to increase public confidence and respect in our political system, we must make up our minds: do we want someone who will put the House in order and put its independence first? My hon. Friend will certainly do that.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): The House of Commons is periodically faced with a decision that can help to shape its future, its commitment to democracy and the way in which it protects the interests of those who send us here. Impossible though it may seem, legislation does not spring ready polished and perfected from the loins of any Government of whatever colour. It needs to be carefully scrutinised; it needs to be carefully evaluated and, above all, it needs to be improved. That is the reason why the House of Commons has, over the years, taken to itself the power not only to examine the legislation that is presented to it, but to think deeply about its effects because what we do here affects the lives of all our constituents at every level. We produce
I have deep faith in the ability of the House of Commons to keep those powers inviolate because we know that that is our role. We are very disparate; we come in all sizes and shapes. Some of us are perhaps not as thin as others, but we have the experience and variety, and the faith of those who put us here, to be capable of carefully considering what is presented to us and improving it on every level. I have seen many Parliaments, and each is different from its predecessor, but I have also seen something that has disturbed me: the gradual erosion, under many names, of the rights of Back-Bench Members. Sometimes that is called a procedural change; sometimes an alteration of view, but Back-Benchers have certainly seen a gradual slipping away of that power.
What I want, and what I believe the House of Commons and, indeed, the United Kingdom want, is a Parliament that not only knows its worth, but can hold up its collective head and say, "We have done the very best that we can do for you who elected us. We have exercised our power of judgment. We have concerned ourselves with what is good, what is bad and what is unacceptable and we have taken a view. We give an undertaking that we will never fail as a collective body to continue to exercise that individual judgment."
This is a great honour for me. I would not like hon. Members to be misled by the high quality and status of those who have proposed and seconded me. I do not come garlanded, with powerful groups behind me. Impossible though it may seem, I may not be everyone's automatic choice, but in my time in this place I have learned to appreciate that people on both sides of the House have something to contribute. They are sent here because of their ability, and because they represent a cross-section of the United Kingdom, are responsible and are capable of exercising judgment.
Any Speaker who comes to office now will face great challenges, because there are those who prefer the smooth passage, the uninterrupted arrangement, the careful management of our time and, ultimately, of our programme. We must always remember that, inadequate though we are, we are still individuals with families and homes and, indeed, constituencies to look after. We have that power. We in the House of Commons have the right to change our parliamentary year--we can vote that through when we want. We have the right to change our working day. We have the right to call a Speaker's Conference to consider carefully the constitutional changes that we demand, and to put those changes to the House and ask for its support. We have all those rights, which have been hard fought for over a long period, and we must never easily let go of them.
I do not come to hon. Members as a perfect parliamentarian. I do not come as the choice of those who know how I will react. I come as someone who, from the bottom of my heart, will serve the House in every way that I am able. I will serve the House, because to me Parliament is one of the most important things in our democratic country. We must protect it; we must improve it. We must take back the power that others seek to take away from us. Above all, we must never forget that we