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7.12 pm

Mr. Jamie Cann (Ipswich): I beg to move, as an amendment to the Question, to leave out "Mr. Michael J. Martin" and insert instead thereof "Mr. John McWilliam".

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. McWilliam) became an MP in 1979. I arrived rather later, in 1992, and bumped into him almost immediately.

23 Oct 2000 : Column 70

He befriended me and became my mentor; he taught me all I know--not much, some would say, but he did his best. That is all that one can ask of a friend.

We were friends too when we were both members of the Select Committee on Defence and we went to Bosnia--it was in December or January and the temperature was about 15 deg below. Our party split up. I was sent up the mountain--three hours up the mountain--to visit Royal Engineers who were based in a derelict factory. I was there for two days. Funnily enough, John was in the warmth of Banja Luka in the battalion headquarters mess. However, our friendship survived that.

I am not asking hon. Members to vote for John because he is my friend, but for three main reasons. The first is his varied experience in the House. At present, he is Chairman of the Committee of Selection, so I advise Members to be nice to him. In opposition, he was shadow deputy Leader of the House. He has been a senior Labour Whip--so he knows where the bodies are buried--he has served on numerous Select Committees; he has been a senior member of the Speaker's Panel of Chairmen; and he is one of the Deputy Speakers in Westminster Hall.

In all those jobs, he has shown himself to be efficient and friendly and firm but fair. When people tell me that he is a hard Chairman, I say that, yes, he is a hard Chairman, but he is fair because he is hard with everybody--if they deserve it.

Secondly, John McWilliam's career has not just been inside the House; it has been outside too. Hon. Members would not think so to look at him, because he does not look old enough, but he came to this place in 1979. Before that, he had attended Napier college and Herriot-Watt college studying courses in science and technology. For several years, he was a telecommunications engineer. He was a member of the regional council of his union. For a period, he was treasurer of Edinburgh city council and he was an audit commissioner in Scotland. He has experience inside and outside this place.

Thirdly, my hon. Friend is not just a man of public affairs--he is an angler; he walks; he reads; he is a historian; he likes music; he has a wife and daughters; he has a huge, slavering dog; he lives in his constituency; he is a man of the people--one might say that he is a man in the round. Too many people in this place have become institutionalised. He loves the place, but it does not have a grip on him as it does on some others--taking us away from contact with the ordinary people whom we represent.

All in all, my hon. Friend is a man who is well qualified for the onerous duties of the Speaker. I urge hon. Members to support the amendment.

7.17 pm

Mrs. Helen Brinton (Peterborough): I am delighted to second the nomination of John McWilliam as Speaker of the House. John is a truly genuine moderniser, with a clear understanding of the benefits as well as the limitations of modern technology and with a wealth of experience of the procedures of the House. He has been--I shall now read a huge list--a former shadow deputy Leader of the House, a senior Labour Whip, a member of the Speaker's Panel of Chairmen and a Deputy Speaker in the new Westminster Hall. He sat on the Select Committees on Defence and on Liaison. Currently, he is chairman of the all-party parliamentary information technology group.

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Before entering Parliament in 1979, as Member for Blaydon, John McWilliam worked as a telecommunications engineer and served as a regional council member of the communications workers union. He is a former city treasurer of Edinburgh. He has a wealth of experience not only inside the House, but, more important--because we need to relate to people outside--of the world outside.

What is important to me and to Members on both sides of the House is that John is a fair and independent-minded colleague, who has a clear understanding of the procedures of the House. That is absolutely vital for the job of Speaker.

I have known John as a colleague for many years and have always found him to be both impartial and fair. Indeed, when I first served on a Committee that he chaired, he was quick and clear in calling me to order--despite our friendship--and in instructing me about House and Committee procedures.

John understands the nonsense in procedure. More important, he understands how to put it right. He defends from the Chair the right of Back Benchers and minorities to have their say. Sometimes, he is prepared to do that not in a pussyfooting way, but in a very outspoken way indeed--in the tradition of Speakers Weatherill, Thomas and Boothroyd.

It is my belief that we should now accept that we are actually in the 21st century--not in the 18th--and that it is time that the occupant of the Speaker's Chair was seen to embody modern principles. John McWilliam is such a person. I believe that he has the courage and the drive to transform the House as it enters the 21st century.

For example, in this age of equality and the striving towards it, it is vital that we have facilities for families, babies and older children so that women--and, yes, men--are not put off entering the House and playing the fullest part in it. That is something that I feel very strongly about. I know that Members on both sides--both male and female--also feel strongly about it.

I am very pleased that there is now a technical solution, which has been suggested and supported by my hon. Friend, to the problem of a Member feeding her child while serving in Committee or taking part in a debate in the Chamber. A Room on the Committee Corridor and one adjacent to the Chamber could be set aside so that individual Members can feed their children and be kept up with the debate while they are away from it. My hon. Friend also believes that it is high time that we had a creche and a more predictable parliamentary year that is more geared to school holidays. I know that many Members on both sides--both male and female--would welcome that.

I believe that we need a senior, experienced Member in the Speaker's Chair who, while understanding and honouring the traditions of the House, has a real vision of how it must change in the future and who commands respect across all the parties. That is why I ask hon. Members to support John McWilliam today.

Sir Edward Heath: Mr. John McWilliam has been proposed and seconded. I give him the opportunity to submit himself to the House.

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7.21 pm

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon): Thank you, Sir Edward, for this opportunity. It is a great honour and privilege to submit myself to the House and to my peers, a vast number of whom have suffered from or enjoyed my chairmanship over many years. I have always sought to be firm, I have always sought to be fair and I have always applied Standing Orders, even those with which I did not agree.

I have also always sought to make certain that the views of individual Members--regardless of their party and regardless of how aberrant those views might appear to their party or how popular those views might be--have been properly aired and that Members have listened to them. One of the worst things that we can do is shout down our colleagues and not to listen to them, and one of the most terrible things that Parliament could ever do would be to stifle debate and to stop the discussion of ideas with which we might not agree. However, the worst thing of all would be to produce a House that did not have clear, vigorous, entertaining and informative debates in which principles were not clearly enunciated. It is sometimes difficult to ensure that debate does not degenerate into mere personal abuse, but, if one uses one's common sense, such problems can be headed off.

Speaker Boothroyd is a splendid example and the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell) said that her shoes would be very hard to fill. I am afraid that they will not fit those of us who are left in the race, because I am fairly certain that no one has shoes that size. Speaker Boothroyd's will be a hard act to follow because Betty was a good friend, a superb Speaker, a marvellous servant of the House and a superb ambassador in the rest of the world for democratic politics. She also worked very hard in the Commonwealth to promote the speakership and the role of democracy. It will be an incredibly hard act to follow, but it is a pleasure, at least, to be given the opportunity to put my name forward so that my colleagues can judge whether I am a suitable candidate.

Criticisms have been made that the House has become a poodle and a creature of the Executive. The Speaker can only lead in trying to counter such a development, because it is up to individual Members to have the courage to stand up and follow that lead if they do not want the House to be brought into disrepute. There are people in the governance of the country--not elected Members and not the Government, but people in the civil service and other institutions--who would dearly love to suppress the influence of Members and that of the House. That is something against which we must all fight, but it is up to the courage and the will of individual Members to do that. As I said, the Speaker can only lead.

Those Members who think that I unfairly called them to order in the past now have a chance for revenge, but those who are genuinely contrite about the fact that they were out of order now have a chance to show that contrition. I submit myself to the House.


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