Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Can I welcome all those Members of Parliament who have come before us this afternoon to give evidence to the Procedure Committee, in our inquiry into the election procedure covering the election of Speaker. Can I welcome all of you: Mr Tony Benn, who played a very substantial part in the recent election of the Speaker; Mr Peter Bradley; Sir Peter Emery, a distinguished past Chairman of this Committee; and Mr Alan Keen, who has very strong views on this subject. We have, of course, asked quite a number of Members to come, and the four that we have before us in this first session this afternoon are four of those who have, I think, a great deal to tell the Committee. Can I begin by saying that the report from the Procedure Committee in 1996, under Sir Peter Emery's chairmanship, acknowledged that there were, and I use his precise words, or the words from that report, "some inherent weaknesses" in the present system, and again using precise words, "in particular the burden laid on the Father of the House to decide who is to catch his eye to move the first candidate." But the report went on to recommend no change, on the grounds that, and I quote again from that report, "there is in our view no better system and many worse", and I refer there to paragraph 22. Can I therefore put the first question. A strong argument against the present system, set up in 1972, is that the decision as to the order in which names are put before the House, a decision which may help to determine the result of the election, is left entirely up to the presiding Member, of course, in this last instance, Sir Edward Heath. Do our witnesses accept the argument that in a multi-candidate election this might be considered a most unsatisfactory procedure; can I begin with Tony Benn?
  (Mr Benn) Mr Chairman, I think the basic question is whether we are dealing with a situation normally dealt with through a division lobby, or, as we ourselves know from our experience in our constituencies, through a polling station; there is a difference between a ballot paper and an amendment that is put to a division. And, therefore, I regard the whole idea, that you hear people and then vote, one against the other, as being totally unsatisfactory, where you have a lot of candidates. Of course, it follows from a practice that goes back a long way, where really the House of Commons did not decide who the Speaker was, I will not go into it, but I think most people know it was done by a nod and a wink and a nudge, and with political motivation that was sometimes very confusing. In 1965 I had dinner with Harold Wilson, after the death of Mr Speaker, Hylton-Foster, and he desperately wanted a Conservative, because he only had a majority of four and he did not want one of his majority to end up in the Chair. And, therefore, we are really starting from scratch. And I think it is important, if I do not broaden my answer out too much, to say we have absolute freedom to decide how we want our Speaker elected, and I would recommend that anything that involves a multiplicity of candidates, or even two candidates, should be done by the well-tested and tried method of hearing the candidates, voting upon them and deciding having heard them, but not giving one candidate priority over another by the system that now is in existence.

  2. Thank you. Peter Bradley?
  (Mr Bradley) It seems to me that, of course, the Father of the House does have a certain prerogative in these matters, as things currently stand, and it was a prerogative that obviously embarrassed Sir Edward Heath. In exercising it as fairly as he sought to, he did influence the outcome of the elections we had on 23 October. He broke with tradition by making plain not only who the candidates were but the order in which they were to be nominated and in establishing that order he clearly influenced the outcome. My view is that the prerogative, insofar as there is one, should be the prerogative of the electorate, so long as safeguards can be in place to protect the position of the candidates. Clearly we need to be fair and considerate towards the candidates. But prerogative should remain, as it does in all other elections that I can think of, other than the Presidential elections in the United States, with the voters.

  3. Thank you. Sir Peter Emery?
  (Sir Peter Emery) Chairman, thank you very much for inviting me. I am delighted to come before you, and I hope you can do as good a job as I did!

  4. I shall struggle hard to achieve that.
  (Sir Peter Emery) But, sensibly, I am sure you will do much better. There are three things. A, the election must be seen to be absolutely democratic. Two, it must be seen to ensure that we can elect the person that the House of Commons actually wants. And I do not accept that the order in which they were selected at the last election actually, as was said, influenced the outcome. If the order had been in another order, I believe the present Speaker would have been elected. I do not care which order you put them in, the present Speaker would have been elected. Therefore, I find the argument that the order is of great importance null and void. Where, in fact, my Committee misunderstood—and it is my blame—was that if, in fact, at the time of a division, the person whose name was on the amendment won the vote, that then became a substantive motion and had to be put, and you then had to vote that person down, if you wished to proceed further. It was the understanding of my Committee, and I apologise for it, if you like, that it was just a normal motion, which in place could be amended. In other words, that if, let us say, for instance, the Deputy Speaker had won in an amendment against the first name then another nominee could be put and then it would be a vote on the other nominee, you did not actually then have to vote down somebody immediately after they had won on a division. That I think is important, because it does ensure that you are not forcing the House to take a second division after a first division has been made. I would argue with you that I cannot see a more democratic process whereby the person nominated has his nomination put forward by a Member of the House, in a speech to the House, not in hustings, not behind the scenes, a speech to the House recorded in Hansard, seconded, in exactly the same way, and then is able to get up to put his own views about his candidature before there is a vote and a vote taken on his name. I cannot see how that could be less democratic. I see it being absolutely democratic in its nature, that you are giving a complete presentation to the House, on the floor of the House, of each Member.

  5. Yes, but, Sir Peter, would you not accept that that situation only occurred on this last occasion because none of the amendments to the first motion were successful, which meant that amendment after amendment was taken? But, as you have outlined to the Committee, that if, for instance, the nomination of the Chairman of Ways and Means, the Deputy Speaker, had been successful, that would have become the substantive motion and there would have been another vote on that, and he would have had to be voted down for any of the other candidates to have had the opportunity to have their applications, their nominations, put to the House?
  (Sir Peter Emery) You have summed up what I was saying absolutely delightfully, and that, I think, is the error on our original report. In fact, rather than the motion becoming a substantive motion, it just should be an ordinary motion, which in turn, could be amended and you would go forward, as, in fact, actually happened.

  6. Thank you. Alan Keen?
  (Mr Keen) Can I say, Mr Chairman, this is my first visit to any of these committee rooms in Portcullis House, and I have heard the phrase used many times, "blood on the wall," but I see we have got a good sample of it behind us now. I hope that was not the previous session.
  (Sir Peter Emery) Are you putting some names to them?
  (Mr Keen) My experience is exactly the opposite from my very good friend Tony Benn. I am very proud of my 54 years not being a Member of Parliament, and maybe I look at things through different eyes. I agree with Sir Peter, that I think the present Speaker would have been elected under any system, because he seemed to have such a large majority; but I think the order of candidates can have a difference, and could have had a difference. And it certainly was not right, I felt, for some people, who had a particular supporter in mind, who were forced to vote against another candidate, who may well have been their second choice, a very strong second choice, but they would have to vote against their second choice in order to get their first choice elected, and then their first choice possibly was defeated and their second choice had already been defeated. So that was not a proper system of democracy. And I think, in the end, we are going to have to move to some sort of ballot system; the present system certainly put tremendous pressure on the Father of the House. And if by selecting the present Speaker as the person to be the main motion, if he was then intending to pick the next strongest person, he chose, say, on his list, who, in fact, did not get the second-best vote, so maybe that was a mistake on behalf of the Father of the House, so maybe he was not able to judge that properly. So I think that system is not how it should be.

  7. So basically you are supporting a ballot?
  (Mr Keen) I think there has to be a ballot of some sort, because I think otherwise it does mean, like it must have happened with some people this time, that they had to vote against their second choice, possibly.

  8. Can I ask you then to make it clear whether you agree with an open ballot or a secret ballot?
  (Mr Keen) I think, if I am going to have to choose, possibly a secret ballot, the sort of ballot we are used to on most occasions.

  9. I have thrown another question in, but can I put my second question; if any Member, witness, wishes to come back, in dealing with that last point that I have asked of Mr Keen, please do. The 1972 system, to which I have referred, has also been criticised for being unduly time-consuming; and Mr David Maclean, in his evidence, comments, and I quote: "Are we saying that one whole day every 10 years is too long to take to elect a Speaker?" So I put the question, is the potential length of the current procedures a factor that we should take into account? And, in answering that, perhaps our witnesses could also deal with the question I put to Mr Keen, whether it should be an open ballot or a secret ballot, if we are to agree on a ballot system for the first round?
  (Mr Benn) The time occupied that was, in my opinion, absolutely wasted was in the divisions. If you had heard all the candidates and then gone to a ballot, you would have spent time, and, I absolutely agree, the Speaker is an enormously important appointment, and if the House decides to spend a day on the Speaker, compared to some of the things we spend a day on, I cannot imagine a better choice of time. But the division after division after division, where decent Members of Parliament were publicly rejected because people wanted somebody else, was outrageous. On the question, if I may just touch on the point made by my colleague here, of what he called the prerogative of the Father of the House, of course, that is brand new. Before the Father of the House was given the job, the Clerk would get up, he could not speak so he pointed. And I hesitate to think what would have happened on 23 October if Mr McKay had had to decide who to point at, and he could not even speak, so if the wrong man got up he could not call him to order. This whole idea that the Father of the House has got some special, historical, ritualistic right is brand new; it was to deal with the problem that why should the Clerk have any role in the proceedings of the House. So I think the time spent on hearing the candidates is absolutely well spent. There should be a ballot, I think it should be an open ballot, and I tell the Committee why. Where we vote, as in a general election, on our own behalf, it is proper that it should be private, but where we vote in our representative capacity, namely, as Members of Parliament, I think our constituents are entitled to know. And, therefore, I think it would be quite wrong to have a secret ballot, and we have never had one for the Speaker, there has always been a division list. But I do think that, to avoid a difficulty, there should be Alternative Votes, so you would have an Exhaustive Ballot, in effect, and then you would have an opportunity to vote for your first choice, and if that did not come up your second or third choice would be influential; and I think that would be the right way of doing it. But there are many different systems, and I would not want to tie myself entirely to one; so long as it is a ballot and not a continuation of the present practice.

  10. Thank you. Peter Bradley?
  (Mr Bradley) Perhaps it would be helpful if I just clarify my earlier remarks, because Sir Peter, I think, slightly misconstrued them. When I said that the Father of the House inevitably influenced the nature of the election, I was not suggesting that he influenced it in favour of one candidate or another. He had clearly given a great deal of thought and taken advice as to the order in which he placed the candidates, which actually ensured, I think, fortunately, that every candidate had his, or her, day. But had he done it in a different way then the worst scenario would have arisen in which some candidates would not have had an opportunity to set out their credentials, and their supporters would not have had the opportunity to vote for them. The principles that I think should apply must be that the candidates should be, beyond any kind of doubt, of equal standing, at least until the votes are counted, and that the electors should have the opportunity to vote for their favoured candidate from amongst the whole of the field. That is not, it seems to me, what the current regulations guarantee to deliver, and that is why they need to change. As to the nature of the ballot, I think I disagree with Tony Benn. I think that, on balance, I would favour a secret ballot; perhaps it sounds paradoxical if I say that I think that is in the interests of transparency. The reason why I think it might be important to have a secret ballot, though I would be open to persuasion, is that it is important that, when the public see their Member of Parliament voting for one candidate or the other, there should be no doubt in their minds or in our minds, that some form of preference will follow from the elected Speaker, depending on how an individual Member has cast his, or her, vote, subsequently, in proceedings in the Chamber. I do think it is important that individual Members, while they may be lobbied by candidates, can reserve to themselves the right to cast their vote as they see fit, not in the expectation of any preference, and, indeed, free from interference from either factions or, indeed, party machines. So I think the confidentiality of the ballot is important from that point of view. As for the length of the procedures, it is a question of value for money. We can spend hours in this place arguing nonsensities, which have no interest to our constituents and very little to ourselves; on the other hand, we can rush through important debates which demand that we give them better consideration. So it seems to me that if our deliberations are serious and worthwhile it does not really matter that they take five or six hours.

  11. Thank you. Sir Peter Emery?
  (Sir Peter Emery) You know, from what I have said, I am against a ballot. I think the procedure of the House has always been set on a motion before the House. Then there is a choice that the Members have to make. I believe that we do not need to get into a method whereby we cast aside, because that is what it is, certain of the possibilities that should come before the House. The moment you begin doing that we will see we will be doing it with amendments, we will be seeing we will do it with other procedures in the House, because they will be arguing, "That would be a quicker way of doing it; that will be a way of better reflecting what some of our constituents might, or might not, want." Therefore, I see this as a dangerous proposition, that we should move away from the present system. If the Committee is determined to recommend an alteration then certainly it must be open; the idea that Members can hide behind the secrecy of their ballot, so that it is not known whom they were actually voting for. And, lastly, I say that it does not seem to me that a ballot system would make it any more possible for everybody to be having their time. In fact, the ballot would be likely to cast to one side a whole number of candidates at the very beginning. I do not think I am in favour of that; and therefore I hold to the views that I have already given to the Committee.

Mr Stunell

  12. I think, Sir Peter, you have made the point, really, that, if by any chance the Father of the House had selected Mr Martin to be the second candidate put to the House, we might not have got past that point, and that all the subsequent candidates would have lost their day. Would you like to just comment on that, because you are advocating what at the moment appears to be a minority view, and I think we should understand exactly what you are saying?
  (Sir Peter Emery) Mr Stunell, what you said would be correct if what I was trying to outline to the Chairman, and the Chairman summed up absolutely, was that the motion should not be a substantive motion until the very end. In other words, that if, as you suggested, Mr A, rather than the present Speaker, had been the first nominee and the present Speaker had been the second then there would have had to be a substantive motion then, and that would have meant that all the others would have fallen, as we see the majority that the Speaker was able to get. I said that I think that was incorrect, in the assumption that my Committee made, because we did not believe that it ought to have been a substantive motion, and if it was not a substantive motion then if the Speaker had been elected then another amendment could have been made and we would have progressed in that same manner. I hope I make myself clear.

  13. Yes. I wonder, Chairman, if it might be helpful if Sir Peter would be prepared to commit to paper the alteration that he would see necessary in order to implement that change and not go to ballot?
  (Sir Peter Emery) It will be done.


  14. Thank you very much, Sir Peter. Alan Keen?
  (Mr Keen) Can I make what I think is a very important point. The Speaker, surely, we would all agree, is for the whole House, not for one section or another. Now when, in the old days, and I thought it was going to happen this time as well, a Speaker has emerged from somewhere, my guess is, it was not the secretary of the all-party football group who came forward with a name and everybody accepted it, I guess it was from higher places than that, and maybe not more important than the all-party football group but from higher places. And those people, in those high places, have a certain ability to apply pressure on the ordinary backbenchers, or backbenchers who aspire maybe to be more than ordinary, and if that is the case a secret ballot would be better. And I have to say that there was some pressure brought from one or two areas in my own party for people to vote for a certain candidate, and I think some people were genuinely concerned about that pressure and maybe bent under that pressure. We are all told that there was never, and never to be, any campaign for Speaker, but if there had been a campaign I might have been involved in it; but if I had said to somebody, "I'd like you ..."

  15. But are you saying there was not any campaigning?
  (Mr Keen) No. I am saying, if there was a campaign—

  16. I am asking you, from the Chair, was there any campaigning?
  (Mr Keen) There was not really a need for a campaign. I am happy to go into that in more detail, if you like. But if there had been a campaign and I was involved in it, if I said to somebody, "I want you to vote for candidate A," I have no means of punishing or promoting somebody, whereas one or two other people, who may have wanted to put pressure on, had means of coercing backbenchers to vote one way or another. And if it was an open ballot, which it was, in fact, this time, my secret ballot, in the future, if we agreed on that, would mean that those people would be able to cast their vote in whichever direction they chose, without ever being stopped from being promoted in the future.

Mr Stunell

  17. I think that perhaps brings me on to a question which perhaps we need to make explicit. In the past, excluding this time, for the sake of debate, clearly, candidates largely have emerged through the `usual channels'; now that does not appear to have happened this time. Do you think that, in fact, we are past that state; and what is the role, if any, of the political parties, and the leadership's, in bringing forward candidates?
  (Mr Benn) There was pressure. I think it was very well-known that, I think, Conservative candidates were advised to get in touch with the Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party to find which of them would be most acceptable; and then, as far as I could make out, it was all done very discreetly, my Leader thought we should have voted for somebody else. Now I cannot say, at my age, such pressure would have a great effect, but maybe on others it would have had an effect. You see, what I think is astonishing about this whole business is that we are the mother of parliaments, the home of democracy, but when we come to electing somebody who is of fundamental importance to ourselves we are embarrassed by the idea that people should campaign, should have manifestos. They would not be manifestos as of a kind between political parties, but they would be manifestos relating to the role of the legislature in relation to the executive. And I think there is another matter, because I have been doing a little bit of research on this, this idea of the Crown, we cannot even elect a Speaker until the Crown asks us to: why? I looked back, from my eleventh edition of Erskine May, and found that on many occasions the Speaker was elected without the Crown, I will not go into it all, but, anyone who is interested in page 158 of the eleventh edition, Sir Harbottle Grimston was called to the Chair without any such authority. Mr Henry Powle, the Commons made him Speaker on their own authority. And this idea we have to—the Queen has to ask us, before we do it, when we have done it, she appoints; it is all part of the executive control of the legislature. And I think the House should be interested in the election of the Speaker in that context, not just who gets the job. In 1678 the King turned down Sir Edward Seymour, he may have been a very good candidate, as far as I know, but he refused the Royal Approbation. And if we are talking about modernising the House of Commons, I have always been a passionate moderniser, then let us just get to the root of it. We want a strong legislature, and the spokesperson of the legislature is the Speaker, and we should decide when we want to elect the Speaker, how we elect the Speaker, and we should encourage it in the best democratic tradition. You want to know what the candidates say, you hear them, vote on them, support them, and then the Speaker, under other precedents, of course, can make all sorts of rulings that would transform the relationship between the executive and the legislature. Because, as Erskine May will remind you, the Speaker's rulings always carry the day, and the Speaker could make rulings on a whole range of things that would increase our influence against the executive of the day. And I am sorry if I go always beyond your question, but I think it would be very important this is not just a little discussion about how we choose somebody, because, after all, that of itself is not very difficult.


  18. Would you have said that same thing, Mr Benn, when you were a Minister?
  (Mr Benn) I think so, because I have been interested. I am one of the only people who have been thrown out of the House of Commons on the ground that my blood turned blue, and that started my interest in the constitution. And I have the Erskine May that was in the Government's Whips' Office in 1910, which I have consulted ever since; it is by my bed. I find Erskine May is the best study for a Member of Parliament.

  Chairman: Can we have two very quick supplementaries to Mr Benn's question from Lorna and then Clive Efford.

Mrs Lorna Fitzsimons

  19. It was not, but I would like to clarify, from Alan, passing the bat to Tony, in terms of, I think it is incumbent on all of us to be very honest in this debate, with all the public interest, that, with so many candidates, would all of you agree that there were many campaigns, there were many campaigns, and the idea that there was just the executive having a campaign was ridiculous, because there were 12 candidates and there were certainly campaign people for all the campaigns; would you all accept that?
  (Mr Bradley) I actually campaigned for campaigns, because I put down an Early Day Motion just two days before the summer break, which in double-quick time attracted 85 signatures, across the parties. What I was calling for was that each candidate should declare himself, or herself, and issue a manifesto, so that we, as the electors, would know what they stood for and would be able to form informed judgements accordingly. No pressure was put on me, by anyone at any stage over the summer, to vote for any candidate at all. That may be because I am not on the Whips' paging system. But nobody, at any time, other than in response to my invitation to issue manifestos, sought to put pressure on me. But if I could respond just on the broader point about the `usual channels', whatever they are, if I recognised them I would be against them. I want every backbencher, no matter what their standing, to have the opportunity to test their credentials, if that is what they want to do; if they want to put themselves forward for election to the Chair of the Speaker, they should be entitled to do that. And, frankly, I did not vote, throughout the procedures, for anyone who did not produce a manifesto or attend the hustings that were subsequently organised, because I think it is a very important principle that you vote for somebody because you believe that what they are setting before you is their, well, I think programme would be inappropriate in this case, but the principles which would guide their tenure of the office. If they are not prepared to do that, I am not prepared to vote for them. And so, I want to have a Speaker emerge through a proper election, not through smoke and mirrors, not coursing down the `usual channels'. And the reason I want it and feel so strongly about it is not just for all the reasons that Tony has outlined, that have to do with the credibility of the constitution, the authority of the constitution, but actually it is also important for the people who send us here. I shudder when I think what account we made of ourselves on 23 October to the people looking in on the television or reading about it in the newspapers. If we cannot understand the procedures, and I am still not certain that I do, I do not know how we can expect them to. If we speak in a language and we dress in robes and we cloak our procedures in rituals that have more to do with the 17th century than the 21st century, then I think we begin to understand at least one reason why people are losing faith in their political system and in their parliamentary system and why we get such incredibly poor turnouts at elections. So, like Tony, I think that this is an important issue in itself, but it is still more important because it is an example of a much broader malaise.

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