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Mr. Prentice: I was under the impression that the report of the Liaison Committee was a unanimous report, agreed by all the Committee members. From the documentation that I read, I was quite sure that that was the case, but perhaps other hon. Members will intervene to correct me.
Mr. Prentice: Well, there you go. I have been going round telling people that if an old Labour warhorse such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton could put his name to the report, it must carry some weight.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton: The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) had a copy of the report. The fact that he was unable to, or saw fit not to, attend the meeting when it was agreed was his decision, but he did not send any amendment or objection to the report to the Chairman of the Committee.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and his colleagues on the Procedure Committee on producing this excellent report. I agree with it all, and I think that the House ought to endorse it and support it. Exhaustive ballots are not new: they are part of the Labour party's internal election mechanism, and I feel wholly comfortable with them.
The question of the secret ballot seems to be exercising Members' minds. I agree, not for the first time, with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), the Chief Whip for the Liberal Democrats, that the election of the Speaker is unique. A secret ballot need not be seen as a slippery slope that would lead to secret ballots on other policy issues. If that were the case, I would speak out against the proposal. The election of the Speaker is unique and the ballot should be secret.
I do not want to sound prissy, but if the message were passed down that the Prime Minister or leading members of the Cabinet were hostile to a particular candidate and did not want to see that person elected Speaker, an hon. Member looking for preferment or a job in the Government--perhaps if he or she were ambitious and wanted to become a Minister--might think twice about voting against the perceived preference of, say, the Prime Minister.
When the Leader of the House made it clear that she was in favour of candidates alternating between the political parties, alarm bells rang. Many Labour Members thought that that was the Leader of the House speaking by proxy for the Government, and were, I am sure, determined not to be caught up in the notion that we should alternate between parties. They may have been persuaded by the letter in, I think, The Times, penned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton. Alternatively--I am not being personal when I say this--they may have been persuaded by the fact that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) did not vote for the Labour candidate, Betty Boothroyd, in the 1992 election. I do not know.
The Government are generally anything but neutral. In my experience, the Government of the day have a view on everything. Matters come before the Modernisation Committee on which the Government are supposedly neutral: the Government are not neutral on them. If someone were to propose--as I did, to the Modernisation Committee--that private Members' Bills should be moved from the ghetto of Fridays to Wednesday mornings, when the Chamber is empty, the Government might say that they were neutral on the issue. Like hell they are. They have a position on everything. I am sure the Government would also have a position on who should occupy your Chair, Mr. Speaker.
The report touches on the hustings that I organised. There was a tremendous pressure for change. When the number of candidates ballooned from five to seven, eight, 11 and 12, I asked myself why we were getting so many candidates. The speakership brings instant celebrity, nationwide recognition, a nice house and probably quite a big salary, but something has happened recently. It might have something to do with the way in which Betty Boothroyd carried out her role as Speaker, but no one envisaged that so many candidates would compete for the speakership. Within a few hours, down on the Terrace, I had more than 100 names of Members--more than one sixth of the membership of the House of Commons--calling for the system to be changed and for an opportunity to quiz the individual candidates.
Under the old system--the present system, until we change it--we could never hear from the candidates, which was an absurdity. I also found it an absurdity that only nine of the 12 candidates for Speaker participated in the hustings, which were conducted in a very comradely, collegiate way. Nothing that was said embarrassed
I would like to underline to my colleagues on this side of the House who have not quite made up their minds the fact that we need not fear the secret ballot. It is not the beginning of a slippery slope, and I hope that the House will endorse the Procedure Committee's report.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): I am delighted to be called in this important debate. Indeed, there is nothing more important in this House than who is elected Speaker. One of my forebears was Speaker, from 1943 to 1952. When he was elected Speaker, it was through the usual channels, and he was unopposed. He had a very difficult time because this Chamber had been bombed and the sittings were transferred to the House of Lords, and then in 1945 the Labour party had a huge majority, largely consisting of new Members who did not respect the authority of the Speaker. In 1950 a Labour Government were elected with a majority of six, and in 1951 the Conservatives had a majority of 65. Throughout that time Mr. Churchill thought that he was still Prime Minister, and behaved with disdain towards my forebear in his role as Speaker.
Whoever is elected Speaker is the guardian not only of the House but of Back-Bench rights. That is the most important thing to bear in mind. It is important that we select and vote on the best possible candidates, and I argue as strongly as I can that we should have an exhaustive and open ballot.
If we are honourable Members, as we all purport to be, there should be no difference between the way we vote in secret and the way we vote when the vote is open and recorded. My intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) got to the kernel of the matter. I am quite prepared to look anybody--including you, Mr. Speaker--in the eye and tell them how I voted and why I voted as I did. As it happens, I did not vote for you in the final vote; I abstained. But it does not matter how I voted; even if I had voted against you, I would expect you to treat me in the same way, and I would have exactly the same regard for you, whether I had voted in an open ballot or a secret ballot. That is the way things ought to be.
In this Parliament, the Executive are getting more and more power. The standard and stature of the Speaker is therefore critical. I have no doubt, Mr. Speaker, that you will be Speaker for a long time, and that you will have to make landmark judgments against this Government, or any other colour of Government, to ensure that the House and its traditions are fully upheld, and that Back-Bench Members of Parliament have a full say in how they control the Executive.
We need to examine the rules about how we elect our Speaker very carefully. Those who argue for a secret ballot are arguing for something that they would not be prepared to uphold in public to their constituents. That is the nub and kernel of the matter.
As usual, I enjoyed the speech of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), but I do not agree with him. This has been a good and constructive debate, with worthwhile contributions from both sides of the House, and it is singularly appropriate that it should have been graced with what might prove to be the valedictory address to the House by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn).
I first read the right hon. Gentleman's writings when I was 17. I recall reading "Arguments for Socialism", and subsequently "Arguments for Democracy". Both those tomes are on my bookshelves at home. I was not particularly persuaded by either of them, although I was rather more impressed by the latter than by the former. There is a widely held view that the right hon. Gentleman is both the greatest living socialist, and the greatest living parliamentarian, in this country. When we hear him contribute to our debates we all, whatever our views, realise how much the House will lose when he ceases to be a Member of it.
My second point is that, having reflected carefully on the arguments, I have--not for the first time, and probably not for the last--changed my mind. I had some sympathy for the idea of the secret ballot, but the more I have listened to the arguments deployed, the less persuaded of the case for it I have become.
It is always a joy to listen to the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill), but I strongly disagree with him. His invocation of the views of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was singularly unpersuasive. I am a great admirer of the hon. Member for Linlithgow, but the argument seems to me to come down to this: if it were a matter of the more effective operation of the House, or the more satisfactory service of our constituents--although I know not how that could result from a closed ballot--there might be a good case for a secret ballot. However, if, in the final analysis, we are merely anxious to protect ourselves and to devise a mechanism to appease our own sensitivities, that is not a good argument for a closed ballot.
I am in a similar category to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt). Indeed, I voted against two rather prominent candidates for the speakership. First, I voted against you, Mr. Speaker. I make no apology for that; I was perfectly entitled to do so. You have been scrupulously fair ever since, and the matter has never been discussed. I also voted against the candidature of one of the Deputy Speakers, Sir Alan Haselhurst. I make no apology for that, either; I was perfectly entitled to do it.
I would not seek to cloak my decisions, or the reasons for them, either from my colleagues or from the electorate. There is a powerful case for stating what we believe and being prepared to defend it.