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8.10 pm

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): I beg to move, as an amendment to the Question, to leave out "Mr. Michael J. Martin" and insert instead thereof "Sir Patrick Cormack".

It is a privilege to propose the name of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) for election as Speaker.

The election comes at a time which is particularly important for Parliament, and therefore and by definition for the future of the democratic process in our country. The House, in the words of The Times leader last Friday, has become

Perhaps there has not been a time in its history when it has been more in need of a doughty defender, who by definition would him or herself be a defender of the voice of the electorate between elections, because that is what the House should be.

The successful candidate should therefore be able to demonstrate, first, independence and impartiality. That my hon. Friend has consistently done so throughout his more than 30 years as a Member, is a fact to which his colleagues, and perhaps more particularly successive generations of Whips, can certainly attest. However, through his work for The House Magazine, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the

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all-party arts and heritage group, his impartiality is also well known and respected by Members on both sides of the House.

My hon. Friend has a well-earned reputation for his respect for Parliament, his knowledge of parliamentary procedure and his desire at all times that the House, when appropriate, should have its say and also its way. In a note circulated to all colleagues he states as his prime purpose to do what he can

He is on record, passim in the Official Report, but also in his own publications, as being passionate about the centrality of the House to the democratic process.

My hon. Friend recognises of course that all successful institutions must adapt to changing times, but in the case of Parliament, only in a way which enhances and not diminishes its democratic role. It is at this moment in its history that the House needs a passionate defender of its rights, and those of its Members, and I strongly believe that my hon. Friend has both the passion and the strength required.

Clearly the qualities that my hon. Friend so obviously possesses would be of little use had he not also demonstrated for many years now his ability and authority in the Chair. As a member of the Chairmen's Panel from 1983 to 1997, he has won respect and admiration for his fairness, patience and knowledge.

The route to the Speaker's Chair can take at least two paths. There is the one which leads via the Government or Opposition Front Bench, for which there are certainly distinguished precedents or--I believe this to be more correct and preferable--the one leading from a multiplicity of Back-Bench activities. I make that point because I see the role of Speaker, as does my hon. Friend, as defender of the House against the Executive when such a defence is needed.

As a former member of the Modernisation Committee, my hon. Friend has a positive attitude to improving procedure and protecting and enhancing the role of Back Benchers. He rightly believes, however, that such change is a matter for the House itself, working through a Speaker's Conference that he would initiate.

Finally, the House has become accustomed, during the period in office of Madam Speaker Boothroyd, to colour, wit and humour in the Chair. It would be sad if her successor as the representative of parliamentary democracy in our country--that representative role is increasingly important--were not able to demonstrate likewise colour, wit and humour. That my hon. Friend would certainly be able to do. I urge the House to support the amendment.

8.14 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Let us be candid: few of my right hon. and hon. Friends think that the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) is a paragon of virtue.

Mr. Pound: No!

Mr. Dalyell: My hon. Friend denies that.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire has a tendency towards pomposity, but that is not unique in this assembly. There are 649 others who have a tendency towards pomposity.

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However, the hon. Gentleman has some rare virtues. First, those who have sat under him in Committee know that he is a formidable and fair Chairman. He is also a distinguished member of the Speaker's Panel. When working under him in Committee, one understands that he has qualities that should be considered for the speakership. Those of us who were at the hustings this morning organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) will recognise that the hon. Gentleman gave a performance of considerable quality.

I suppose, secondly, that this is a delicate matter as far as you and I are concerned, Sir Edward, but the hon. Gentleman has another quality, and that is that he is a brave man. He was brave enough on many occasions to take on Margaret Thatcher in her heyday. He defied her on the abolition of the Greater London council and on many other matters during those years. These are things that we do not forget. When we are in the adversity of opposition, it is heartening to see some Members sticking up for what they think is right, against a formidable Prime Minister and a disciplinarian machine that is backing her up. That is why many Labour Members have a great deal of time for the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman, thirdly, would represent the House in a distinguished way when the Speaker goes abroad. As a member of the all-party arts and heritage group--I hasten to say that we pay our own way--I have travelled with him on six occasions. Sometimes there have been difficult speeches to make in places such as Prague and Athens. He has always been a credit to the House when he has spoken.

Much has been said in the past six hours about getting home early. I would not do the hon. Gentleman's cause much good by going on any longer. However, he is a Member who should be considered. Members should reflect on whether he is worth a vote.

8.18 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I shall try not to be too pompous. I am sure that I speak for every Member in congratulating you, Sir Edward, on a marathon sitting. You said at the beginning--I think that your views have been echoed in all parts of the House--that you were less than entirely happy with this form of procedure. I think that I am not being too controversial when I say that most of us who have sat through these proceedings--I have heard every syllable uttered--feel that whoever is Speaker after today would be well advised to ask the appropriate Committee to take an early look at the way in which the Speaker is chosen in future, and perhaps to consider the Canadian system, where the election is conducted entirely by secret ballot, supervised by the Clerks.

It is indeed a great honour merely to be proposed for the office of Speaker, and I am deeply grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) and to my friend, the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), for their generous remarks when proposing me. It is quite something to be thought, even by a few colleagues, to be a worthy successor to Madam Speaker Boothroyd. Whoever succeeds her will have a daunting task, and not just because of her own formidable qualities.

As Madam Speaker Boothroyd said in her valedictory address, there is much to be done to redeem Parliament's reputation and influence. My right hon. Friend the

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Member for South-West Norfolk referred to the statement that I issued. It must be the new Speaker's prime purpose to help put Parliament back at the centre of the nation's public life, and the Chamber at the centre of Parliament's. Far too many of those whom we represent do not see Parliament's relevance to their daily lives. Far too many of those who provide them with their information ignore it, and to be honest, far too many of us on both sides of the House seek to exercise our influence through the media, to the neglect of our responsibilities here.

Those are problems that cannot be tackled by the Speaker alone, but the Speaker has a central and pivotal role in tackling them. Scrupulously and rigorously impartial, the Speaker is not in the Chair to make life easy for either Government or Opposition, but rather to give each hon. Member--we are all equal here--a proper opportunity to pursue a question or defend a cause, regardless of party, position or seniority.

Of course, the Speaker cannot dictate the business of the House, but as a Back Bencher who has made three successful applications for emergency debates in my time here, I am well aware that the Speaker can help to ensure that we debate the issues that trouble those who send us here. One of the reasons for Parliament's loss of influence is that we are far too often seen to be discussing the arcane, rather than the urgent. One of the reasons that our institution is under increasing criticism is that we often seem to be too subservient.

I sometimes think that we too rarely recall what has been achieved in the past by individual crusading Members--people such as Eleanor Rathbone, Alan Herbert, Sydney Silverman and my own great parliamentary hero, William Wilberforce. Courageous, innovative, independent-minded Members should always feel that they have an ally in that Chair.

There are, rightly, strict limitations on the power of the Speaker who, at the end of the day, must never go against what the House directs, but I would wish to encourage attendance and spontaneity in every major debate by setting aside a period when hon. Members could genuinely catch the Speaker's eye.

Because I am so concerned at the decline in Parliament's influence, I would wish to establish a standing Speaker's Conference which would include representatives from each party, with a broad agenda to include the relationship of Chamber to Committees and the structure of the parliamentary day and year. In that context, it is clearly important that we recognise that Parliament's hours of sitting have changed many times over the centuries, and that Members of Parliament have personal and family obligations.

Like Madam Speaker Boothroyd, I am very conscious of the Speaker's public role as the voice and representative of the Commons. Only the Speaker can represent this place and all its Members, and remind the courts and other public bodies of the rights and duties of the elected House in a sovereign Parliament.

Whoever wins the approbation of the House today will have a difficult task. It will not be easy, either, for any of the candidates to forsake a gregarious parliamentary life for the relative loneliness of the Chair, although for me at least, the thought of no more Whips makes that prospect bearable.

I know that there are those who see me primarily as a traditionalist. It is true that I love this place, but I see no point in clinging to the trappings of a great legislative

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assembly if we do not introduce reforms that will bring more effective power back to the Chamber. I have no desire to become the curator of a museum to democracy.

I would, however, like to play a part in a totally and fiercely non-partisan way in injecting new life into that democracy--a democracy that has often been improved and reformed in the past by those who understood its roots and cherished its history. I hope, Sir Edward, that even at this late hour, the House will consider giving me the opportunity to join their number.

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