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I begin my remarks by making it clear that I add my voice to those who have expressed concerns about the way in which this election is taking place. That is in no way a criticism of you, Sir Edward, or the decision that you took. You have carried out your task so far with dignity, efficiency and fairness. However, in a modern democracy it is absurd that we should elect the Speaker of our legislature in such an arcane manner. We are elected by secret ballot; we should elect our Speaker in the same way. My right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) has made it clear that if elected as the new Speaker, he will ask the Procedure Committee to consider the matter urgently and produce a more efficient and fairer way in which to elect someone for this important post.
The election of the new Speaker of the House of Commons is always a significant event in the history of Parliament. Perhaps rarely has it had more significance than today. We have already seen more changes in our constitution in the past three and a half years than in the previous 50--the establishment of a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly and a London Assembly, and major changes in the House of Lords, with more to come. At the same time, the world outside is changing at an astonishing rate.
It is vital that as those changes take place, the House must change if it is not to become a quaint historic anachronism. We need a new Speaker who has the ability to control the House, to act as the chairman of an increasingly complex organisation and to be our ambassador both to the people who elect us and to the rest of the world. However, this time we must also elect a Speaker who will work with the House to change it and bring it fully into the 21st century. I believe that in my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields we would have such a Speaker.
The son of a gardener, my right hon. Friend left school at 16 to work in forestry. Attending night school, he obtained the qualifications necessary to enter Manchester university and to gain BA, MSc and PhD degrees. I mention that only to show that he has the determination and intelligence to succeed in any task that he is given. He first entered Parliament in 1970, when he was elected Member for Colne Valley. He lost that seat in 1974, but was returned in 1979 to represent South Shields. He has been the Member for South Shields ever since, and is thus one of the most experienced Members. He was a member of the shadow Cabinet for many years in opposition, covering several portfolios. In 1997 he was appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in which post he served for a year. His work in bringing information
Since then my right hon. Friend has been a Back Bencher. He understands how the House of Commons works from both sides--as a member of the Executive and from the Back Benches. Despite perhaps feeling some resentment about the way in which he was treated, he has loyally supported the Government, but he has not done so with total blindness. He voted against those measures in the Freedom of Information Bill that he thought betrayed the concept that he advocated when in government.
I have known my right hon. Friend since he re-entered Parliament in 1979. Over the years I have learned to appreciate his quiet intelligence, his advice, his composure and his subtle humour. He will stay calm when the House is rowdy. He will avert impending rows with a quick wit. He will bring intelligence to all the decisions. He will take advice but remain his own man. Thus he has the attributes needed for any Speaker in any age. So do some of the other candidates who have been proposed, but my right hon. Friend would bring to the job an understanding of the modern world and the revolutionary changes that are transforming it. He knows that if the House is to retain the respect of those who elect us, it must change quickly.
The Speaker can play only a limited role in that. However, he can and must set the tone: lead change, not thwart it. He must work with others in the House to move us from the 18th and 19th centuries, where so many of our customs are stuck, into the democratic world of the 21st century. I believe that my right hon. Friend is the person best suited to do that.
Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): I wish to second the nomination of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark). I do so as someone who has never been a close friend or ally of his. Indeed, before we were all new Labour, he and I were on opposite wings of the party. However, he always had my respect as a person of integrity and ability who was willing to engage in debate and listen to the opponent's argument.
As others have said, today's election is about much more than who occupies the Speaker's Chair; it is about the role itself. While in this place, the Speaker must exercise his or her authority with dignity and impartiality. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend would do so with courage and consistency. However, the Speaker usually occupies the Chair for only about 10 hours a week. Most of his or her powers are exercised behind closed doors. Our ability to act effectively as legislators depends profoundly on the Speaker's skills in creating the framework for debate and dealing with the usual channels.
Someone who has been in government working with the Chief Whip and Cabinet colleagues has the advantage of knowing the tricks of that trade. Someone who has been involuntarily returned to the Back Benches has an added advantage. As a Back Bencher, my right hon. Friend knows how difficult but vital it is to be an effective scrutineer. I have no doubt that he will use his considerable skills and experience to champion Back Benchers' interests.
For all those reasons, I support my right hon. Friend. I do so most of all because I want a Speaker who will lead the reform of the House, who will support a package of reforms that will deliver sensible working hours, and who understands that MPs should not have to set aside family responsibilities to do their job. It is emblematic of this place that we have a pink ribbon for our swords and paperclips for our letters, but no computers and no child care facilities.
My right hon. Friend has a long track record of support for modernisation. His is the most radical reform agenda before us today--an agenda that would revitalise the Chamber, quicken the pace of debate and deepen our scrutiny. Not only would that lead to more effective and fulfilling roles for Back Benchers and to better government, it might just lead to a revival of public interest and support. Far too many people see our Parliament as the preserve of political junkies playing out old rituals. Many of us will never be either the great stars or, I hope, the great bores of this place, but we all deserve to be heard without fear or favour when we represent our constituents and voice the concerns of ordinary people.
In my right hon. Friend we have a man who would enable us to exercise our democratic duties in this place in ways fit for the 21st century. I second the amendment in support of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields.
Dr. David Clark (South Shields): I willingly submit myself as a candidate for Speaker. I do so with considerable trepidation but with a feeling of great honour, because I am a House of Commons person. I believe passionately in representative democracy, and it is a great honour to be nominated. It is also unexpected, because a few months ago the thought had not even crossed my mind. It was only because a few colleagues suggested that I would be a suitable candidate that I felt it appropriate to allow my name to go forward.
The job of Speaker is obviously a difficult position to try to fill. Clearly, the two main demands of the job are almost contradictory. The Speaker is the servant of the House, but is at the same time the protector of the House--protecting it as an institution, protecting its reputation and protecting its Members. The job description is particularly challenging.
I would bring to the job judgment and integrity based on my belief in representative democracy. Several right hon. and hon. Members have highlighted the challenges that representative democracy faces today. I submit that we may need to do other things to meet some of those challenges.
I would also bring judgment and integrity based on experience. I came to the House rather unexpectedly in 1970--I was the only gain for my party at that election, but I was also the only loss for my party in 1974. I claim no credit; it was a pure accident. When I came to the House in 1970, we were nearer to the end of the second world war than to the new millennium. It has been brought home to me how the rest of the world has changed a great deal over the years, but although we have had changes in the House, we have not been as courageous as we might have been in modernising this institution sufficiently.
I bring 25 years' experience of the House. I sat for too long on the Opposition Front Bench and for too short a time on the Government Front Bench, but I shall not go on about that. I was proud to be in the Cabinet and to spearhead two aspects of Government policy: information technology and freedom of information. I passionately believed in that policy, not for any academic reasons, but for the simple reason that information technology and freedom of information enable Members of Parliament, as representatives of the people, to engage and re-engage our constituents, and to challenge those who try to undermine our representative democracy.
I have no illusions. I am one of those strange people who knew what it was like here but came back because I loved it so much. I was one of the retreads. Being an MP is not only a privilege, but a unique job. We all know that to do that job we need eight days a week and 25 hours a day--but we must now look at the way in which we arrange our working lives, so that we can better match the demands made of us by our constituents. The way in which we in the House appear on television often does not convey the message that we are businesslike, and I think we should think about that very deeply.
Select Committees are still young institutions, and I believe the time has come to strengthen them so that we can challenge the Executive. I was a member of the Executive, and I happen to believe that there is nothing wrong with being challenged robustly by a representative of the people. That, I think, is a counterbalance to the advice that one is given by civil servants.
I see the task as a difficult task. I see the task as a daunting task. I see the task as to speak up for the ordinary Member of Parliament. I also see the task as to give the Government space in which to govern, because if the Government cannot govern, the House will suffer as well. In the end it is a question of balance; it is a question of judgment; and in the end, the Speaker is merely a servant and a defender of the House.
I can pledge only this: I shall be my own man, and I shall fight for the rights of Members of the House--and by fighting for the rights of Members of the House, I shall fight for the rights of the citizens who send them to the House.