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Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne): I was very pleased to see the provision in paragraph (6) of the proposed Standing Order, because when my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) had a meeting in Committee Room 14, at which all the candidates were asked to speak, albeit only briefly, the proceedings were criticised for perhaps providing a hostage to fortune in trying to get votes for the candidature. I was asked to be the chairman and, having considered the matter, I thought that holding such a meeting was a sensible thing to do, and that if any candidate were to go beyond what was expected of a Speaker, it would be to their disadvantage--and so it proved.

Mrs. Beckett: I know that my right hon. Friend took part in those procedures. One of the concerns that was expressed--I speak from memory--on at least the previous two occasions of a Speaker's election, was that under our former procedures it was not necessarily the case that every potential candidate was heard. I know that that was part of the difficulty that my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) was seeking to

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overcome in the procedure to which my right hon. Friend referred. I think that it is one of the virtues of the proposals of the Procedure Committee that such a procedure would now allow all potential candidates to address the House without any being excluded.

The concern is for transparency and fairness in these procedures. Paragraphs (8) to (13) set out the provisions for an exhaustive ballot. Paragraph (14) sets out the general principles that the House should meet at 2.30 pm on any day on which it is to elect a Speaker; that the question that a Member becomes Speaker shall be unamendable, as the Procedure Committee suggested; and that, in the unlikely event--one hopes--of the House rejecting the Member who comes top of the ballot, the whole process will be repeated on the following day.

I turn finally to the amendment tabled separately in the name of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. The Procedure Committee recommended that the House should be given the opportunity to decide whether the ballot for the Speaker should be open or secret. The Government have tabled the amendment to ensure that the House has the opportunity to make that decision. I recognise there are strong, genuine arguments on both sides. This is a matter on which there are bound to be legitimate differences of opinion.

The Committee considered, on balance, that the ballot should be secret and that is why that provision is in the substantive motion. However, I stress that it is for the House to decide, and the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary enables that choice to be made by giving the House something on which to vote.

I conclude by repeating that the Procedure Committee has done an excellent job, and done it as speedily and effectively as anybody could possibly have wished. I believe that this has given the House an opportunity to change our system for electing the Speaker if we so choose, but it is for the House to choose. I commend the motion to the House.

1.33 pm

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): I join the Leader of the House in paying tribute to the Procedure Committee. Its report is comprehensive and has been put before the House in good time, before the Easter recess. I would like to say how much I appreciated the opportunity to give evidence to the Committee. It took wide-ranging evidence, and that has helped to steer the direction in which the report has gone.

I would like to put on record the fact that the evidence that I gave to the Committee drew on certain themes that were of importance to a broad spectrum of Conservative Members, but I also made it clear when I was giving my own personal opinion. None the less, I am pleased to see that many of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee have focused on issues that were of broad concern to hon. Members. When we debate across the Floor of the House, particularly when the right hon. Lady and I speak from the Dispatch Box, what we mean by modernisation of the House is often misunderstood--but considering the rules for electing a Speaker is a most appropriate subject, and is certainly in line with what I regard as modernisation.

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As the Leader of the House said again today, this debate will focus on House matters. Individual Members of Parliament will be able to have a say in how we shape, form and reform our structures and proceedings--and none of those is more important than the position that you hold, Mr. Speaker. I hope that later we will engage in further discussions about the powers of the Speaker. Personally, I would like the Speaker to be able to support us even more in holding the Executive to account. Perhaps the Procedure Committee will consider that in due course, as the next stage.

The debate is important and timely. I do not intend to go through the detail again, as the right hon. Lady has given a good summary of the report, which also contains the record of all the oral evidence we gave. This is a matter for individual Members. It should be appreciated that what was once considered to be the province of what are euphemistically called the usual channels, which held so much power, is being challenged. That is what the report does. It has been put on the record that we should look into many aspects of our procedures, particularly how we decide who should be brought forward as a suitable candidate for Speaker.

I suppose that I now have to regard myself as part of the usual channels, but I have been doing the job for only six or seven months, and I still find it a strange job in some respects. Indeed, it took me about four months before I stopped calling the usual channels "the other channels".

The more transparency there is, and the more Members can challenge what happens, the more I welcome it. It is important that there be a clear record of decision making, especially in important matters such as the election of a Speaker, and that Members should be able to participate rather than leaving things up to the usual channels. I respect and recognise that as modernisation, even if I am critical of some other aspects of modernisation that are brought before the House.

1.37 pm

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I begin by thanking the Leader of the House very much for her kind remarks about the Procedure Committee's report. Indeed, I would go further and thank her for her tremendous helpfulness throughout the inquiry. She gave excellent evidence to the Procedure Committee, and I appreciate personally, as does my Committee, the speed with which she has arranged today's debate.

The right hon. Lady was courteous enough to let me, on behalf of my Committee, see a draft of the new Standing Orders, and to adopt some of the changes that I suggested, also on behalf of the Committee. I am happy with the text of the Standing Orders, which embodies the Committee's recommendations well.

I thank my colleagues on the Committee, some of whom are here today, for their work and support, and for the dedication that they put into producing the report. I say openly that we worked very well as a team on the inquiry; such an inquiry shows how Members from all parties can work well together to produce a report that will improve the procedures of the House.

The subject was sensitive and complex, and we were working to a tight schedule. None the less, we reached consensus on almost all our conclusions, and agreed the report at a single meeting. The Leader of the House has

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given a very fair summary of the contents of our report, and I shall not take up the time of the House by repeating that. The report sets out its arguments clearly, and I shall simply make a few comments arising from the inquiry.

The Procedure Committee carried out the inquiry because it was the clear wish of the House that we should do so. As we say in the report, there was a lot of unhappiness among Members about the way in which our procedures operated last October. A review was obviously necessary and it was important that we consult as widely as possible within the House.

As the Chairman of the Committee, I wrote to all hon. Members and received 130 replies. Within the constraints of our timetable, the Committee also took oral evidence from as wide a cross-section of hon. Members as possible. A number of the hon. Members who gave that evidence are in the House today, hoping to participate in the debate--and I hope that they do.

We went into the inquiry with an open mind. The report sets out the strengths as well as the weaknesses of the existing system. We certainly did not feel that all the criticisms of that system were justified. Many of the comments made in the press were simply what I would describe as the product of sloppy and malicious journalism of a kind that is now regrettably all to common in the field of parliamentary reporting.

In particular, we concluded that it was wrong to criticise the procedures because of the length of time that it took to choose a Speaker. The decision is a very important one. It is made only once every seven or eight years. It matters more to get it right than to do it quickly. Many Parliaments around the world take an equivalent amount of time to choose their presiding officers. In fact, only some seven weeks ago, our sister House of Commons in Canada took four and half hours to elect its new Speaker, using a system based on a secret ballot.

We also supported the decision of the Father of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), not to accept the motion tabled by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). Although that was not a popular decision--and we say in the report that we understand the frustration that it caused--it was right in procedural terms. My right hon. Friend had no alternative.

However, we conclude that the existing procedures are unsatisfactory. That is not because they were wrong when they were drafted, which was as recently as the 1970s, but because the House has changed since then. For many years, the House was content to let the usual channels referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning)--and in particular the Government--make the running in choosing a Speaker. Even if the leaderships of the Government and Opposition parties disagreed over the choice, as happened occasionally, the House was still presented with a choice between only two candidates.

We should be careful not to be too scathing about that arrangement. The report describes it as being based on "benevolent paternalism"--a phrase that I use carefully. It is striking that, when the chairman of the parliamentary Labour party gave evidence to the Procedure Committee in 1971, he was content that the Government should put forward a candidate for the Chair--even though the Government of the time were Conservative. Under the old

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system, there was usually a genuine attempt by Government to pick a candidate who would be broadly acceptable to the House

We can also judge the system by its results. Over the years, the House has had many fine and distinguished Speakers, so the system by which they were chosen cannot have been all that bad. However, Governments have not always been successful in reading the mood of the House, or in predicting what Back-Bench Members would find acceptable.

In the report, we show that there is another tradition that runs back through the centuries--a healthy suspicion by the House of candidates whose links with Government are too strong. That attitude has grown in strength in the past 20 or 30 years. We have now reached a situation where not one of our witnesses was prepared to support any involvement at all by the usual channels--the party machines--in the process of choosing a Speaker. It follows that the traditional system of sifting out candidates to leave the House with a choice of only one or two has broken down.

That became obvious last October when 12 candidates, myself included, stood for election. The current voting system was not devised or designed for such a situation. We do not mince our words about this in the report. We say that in a multi-candidate election, the current rules are unfair because the order in which the names are put forward before the House may help to determine the outcome. The election last October disguised that because the size of the winning candidate's majority--your own, Mr. Speaker--meant that all other candidates were easily beaten. So the order in which the House decided upon them was, in that instance, irrelevant. In other circumstances, that might not be the case.

The Committee gave serious consideration to the proposal by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), the former chairman of the Procedure Committee, to modify the existing system. However, we decided that although it was a valiant attempt, it ultimately failed to address the criticisms that had been levelled at the system, and that root-and-branch reform was therefore necessary.

We agreed that the existing system, in the circumstances of a multi-candidate election, was unfair, at least potentially, and should be replaced. We had no difficulty in concluding that its replacement should be a ballot-based system. That was the logical, obvious alternative. We did, however, have divided views on two questions relating to the operation of the ballot.

The question of whether the ballot should be open or secret raises important issues of principle. A majority on the Committee concluded that the ballot should be secret, as is the case in similar elections in most of the major Parliaments in the Westminster tradition. A minority of colleagues, I have to confess, dissented, and although they did not formally divide the Committee, we felt that it was right to recommend that the House should have an opportunity to make a separate decision on that point. The amendment in the name of the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office will enable the House to do that, and I am grateful to the Leader of the House and her ministerial colleague for allowing that to happen.

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The other issue on which there was a difference of views within the Committee was the voting system itself. The choice was between the exhaustive ballot and the alternative vote. Both were recommended by the Electoral Reform Society as suitable systems by which to elect a Speaker. The arguments for and against each are well set out in the report, and even more fully in the evidence from the Electoral Reform Society, printed with the report. My preference--which was shared, I am pleased to say, by a majority of the Committee--was for the exhaustive ballot.

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