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Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 40 - 54)

TUESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2000

MR TONY BENN, MR PETER BRADLEY, SIR PETER EMERY and MR ALAN KEEN

Chairman

  40. But the change to Standing Orders, of course, is moved by the Government of the day, the Leader of the House?
  (Mr Benn) I know this, but here is the whole question, does the House have any life at the moment other than as the tool of the majority party? I think, until we sort that one out, we have a president but we do not have a house of representatives. That is our difficulty in Britain at the moment, and I do think we need a house of representatives, a check and balance on the executive. I know this is a radical thing to say, but it is something that inevitably comes to mind, when you think about who you want in the Chair, what support you want from that person, when you are dealing with the executive, whichever party.

  41. Are you saying, for instance, Mr Benn, and I am interested in this particularly because I sit on the Liaison Committee, the Liaison Committee has produced a fairly dramatic report in order to strengthen the House of Commons against the executive, but, of course, unless the Government of the day introduces changes to Standing Orders to bring those things about, the Government with the majority that it has, the House will never be able to bring those changes about; are you saying that the Speaker should have that authority?
  (Mr Benn) I think the Speaker should have a lot of authority; but I do think, on the Standing Orders of the House, because they are parliamentary matters, there should be a free vote. I think the argument that the party whip should apply when we are discussing the Standing Orders of the House, as distinct from applying to Government business, is a principle that needs to be seen in the context of what we are discussing. And, if you did that, it would absolutely transform the relationships between the legislature and the executive, and, in my opinion, transform the attitude of the public towards the House of Commons. That is, in the end, an even wider democratic imperative, that they do not think that we are powerless when we get here, on these very, very important questions, which many of them do; and, indeed, many Members of Parliament wonder what power they have when they come here. This is the point I think that might somehow find a paragraph in your report, that we are discussing more than just the voting system, and so on, we are discussing a very big ingredient in our constitution.

  Chairman: Can I indicate that the Committee has expressed a wish, perhaps not as part of this inquiry, Mr Benn, but a future inquiry, to look at the whole role and authority of the Speaker in Parliament, and I do believe that what you have said would strengthen that determination of this Committee to undertake, at some time, I hope, in the not too distant future, such an inquiry.

Mr Efford

  42. I would just like to pursue that point a little bit further, and go back to a question I asked earlier on, which really you dismissed immediately, and that is, do you not think that part of the problem is that the role of the Speaker is seen as a representative of the entire House, not the legislature, and that if it were the backbenchers of this House that elected the Speaker that role would be more defined, and that the accountability of the executive to the House would be more clearly defined as well?
  (Mr Benn) There are many different interests in the House; there are the party differences, there are the differences between front-benchers and backbenchers, all the front-benchers being sort of Privy Councillors, and backbenchers, there is a difference between the legislature and the executive, and working out who the Speaker represents is an important thing. But, in my opinion, the Speaker represents the House of Commons as a House of Commons, which includes Ministers, but is basically a legislature.
  (Mr Bradley) Does the Speaker though not have competing roles? Yes, the role that we focus on is the absolute duty impartially to protect and promote the interests and the rights of backbenchers to ask questions, to hold the Government of the day to account. But he, or she, certainly also has a role to ensure the smooth working of our Parliament, which is the forum for the Government to get its legislation through. So I think there is a role for the Speaker in that context, as well as the one that is more often referred to, which is the champion of backbenchers. It is also worth noting that Ministers can tomorrow be backbenchers, just as backbenchers sometimes can become Ministers, and their rights need to be preserved, too. But, in relation to what Keith was saying, I do not think that asking candidates to produce manifestos in any way undermines that ultimate impartiality. We all of us have views, I am sure, as backbenchers, for example, on the hierarchy of the way that Speakers select speakers. We all put in our notes about hoping to catch the Speaker's eye, but there seems, in the past, at least, to have been an implicit recognition that the longer you had served here, or the more senior you had become in your political career, the greater your chances of being called by the Speaker. One of the things I would have wanted any candidate for Speaker to include in the manifesto was their observations on the way that they would have conducted affairs in the Chamber, because that affects the daily experience of every Member of Parliament. So I think there are some basic principles that they can expound that have nothing to do at all with their ultimate impartiality or efficiency in the Chair.

Mrs Lorna Fitzsimons

  43. Two points; one which is the main question, but one which is just following on from Keith's question and several responses. In terms of the manifesto, would not people accept, because people have touched on the accountability of Speaker, that, apart from the Chamber, in terms of ruling and who the Speaker calls, etc., their main power is the House of Commons Commission, and the House of Commons Commission is absolutely impenetrable to a Member of Parliament in terms of how often you get to question it and, realistically, the response to it? And, surely, would not the manifesto process give you a way of looking at how they would manage that process, which is inaccessible for us, as Members? So I put that as one question. But the main question that I was going to ask was, and maybe Tony, with his historical knowledge, or Sir Peter might be able to help here, that there is a view that, with the automatic ballot at the start of a Parliament, it could do one of two things; that it would more likely, especially with radical change in Parliament after general elections, where there is it, destabilise the role of Speakership, because there could be a significant change in the party balance following the general election? And would it not be better, rather than to go into an automatic, full-frontal election for a Speaker again, actually to have a simple ballot first about whether you were happy with the sitting Speaker, first, before you went through all the rigmarole of having an automatic ballot?
  (Mr Benn) I was just looking, I have got my list of Speakers over the last few years. You see, here we are, if you take 1945, when there was a huge Labour majority, Clifton Brown was left in the Chair; if you take 1951, by which time I was here, there was a change and another Conservative, `Shakes' Morrison, Mr Speaker Morrison. Then, in 1959, when there was a Conservative Government, we had Hylton-Foster; and then, in 1965, under a Labour Government, we had Horace King. I take the point you make, but I do not know that a radical Government of left or right coming in necessarily would affect the role of the Speaker; indeed, I think the more Governments come with a very clear intention of what they want to do the more you want a House of Commons that preserves the role of the legislature. So I do not think this is a problem, myself. Of course, in theory, a sitting Speaker could be defeated after a general election; it has never happened, to the best of my knowledge, I would be very surprised if it happened next time. I think you would find the House would want to keep its Speaker, and the Speaker would be allowed to go on until he decided to retire.

  44. What about the point about the Commission, I asked there?
  (Mr Benn) On the question of the Commission, of course, and any sensible candidate who wanted to get elected to the Speakership would be very foolish if he ignored the role of all these other functions, the Library, the Commission, and so on, the services. I have always felt the Speaker was a bit too separate from that, because, as a matter of fact, the Speaker could lay down what he wanted and have it done without coming to the House at all, in that respect, and I think that would be a very important element to include in the manifesto. If I had wanted to be Speaker, I would certainly have had a big section on everything from breast-feeding in the Chamber at Parliamentary Questions right through to other matters affecting Members.
  (Mr Bradley) I think the automatic election of a Speaker after every general election actually would undermine the role of the Speaker, because it is almost as if to suggest that his, or her, impartiality was in question. One of the less attractive features of the Speaker, to somebody like myself who is perhaps intensely party political, is that you become politically emasculated when you are dragged to that Chair. That does not appeal to everyone. As I say, it does not appeal to me. But, once the Speaker is in that Chair and it is clear that he, or she, is impartial, it seems to me that the need to reconsider after a general election evaporates.

Chairman

  45. Can I just put it and get an answer from our witnesses, it was really part of the question that Lorna Fitzsimons put, do you think that at the beginning of the new Parliament it would be appropriate for the House of Commons to have a simple, straightforward motion, before any ballot is implemented, that Mr Speaker Martin do take the Chair, rather than go through a ballot; which might well be the result of this inquiry that the Procedure Committee is undertaking?
  (Mr Benn) The trouble about that would be, if you did want somebody else, you would have to defeat the Speaker personally, and I think there would be an element of humiliation in that. The procedure that every new Parliament is allowed to elect its new Speaker is one, I think, that has democratic merit. Obviously, it would be simpler, but supposing you applied that to a parliamentary election, that before you could have an election in your constituency you had to vote on whether Mr Winterton should continue, it would create a different atmosphere.

  46. I rather like it, I have to say.
  (Mr Benn) It might be very attractive to some Members, but I am not sure it would be very democratic.
  (Sir Peter Emery) I think it would be quite wrong not to ensure that every new Parliament had the right to choose its own Speaker. And can I just say that I do think that the Committee must take into account that there has been a very considerable change in the role of the Speaker and the position of the House. If you go back to `Shakes' Morrison, or to Hylton-Foster, they considered that they were the equivalent of High Court judges, you did not talk to them, you never went into Speaker's house, they did not entertain, they did not do any of the things with the CPA, or the IPU, or any of that entertaining at all. The person who broke that down was George Thomas. George was the person who said, "I don't have to be a High Court judge to have respect in the Chamber, I can win respect in the Chamber for the person I am, but I can certainly have a social life with Members of Parliament outside the Chamber." That is a vast change, which people today, I think, find difficult perhaps to understand, but it is a very definite change; and I was really quite surprised that some of the candidates who were standing for the Chair did not point out the role that the Speaker now has outside the Chamber. And Betty Boothroyd has certainly enhanced that, and I think it is a very good thing. It is a good thing for the House and it is a good thing for Members of Parliament, and I would want to encourage that as much as possible.

  47. Thank you. Two very quick questions, to finish this part of our session. I think Tony Benn has implied that he would like to see some change, but do our witnesses want to see any changes in the ceremonial surrounding the election of Speaker? And, to throw in a last question, although it was raised by Alan Beith in a way, do our witnesses as a whole have any views on how the Deputy Speakers should be appointed? So, ceremonial, one; the appointment of the other three members of, as it were, the immediate coterie surrounding the Speaker?
  (Sir Peter Emery) I hope I have made my point clear; ceremonial, the House appoints, the House does this very first aspect of a Parliament, and we then inform Their Lordships of the appointment we have made. It is not the prerogative of the Crown, or any of her power, as far as I see it, it is the House of Commons being able, as the House, to choose who they want as a Speaker. And if that is an alteration of procedure, that I would like to see introduced.

  48. Fine; what about the Deputy Speakers, the appointments?
  (Sir Peter Emery) The Deputy Speaker, I am not sure I want an election of the Deputy Speakers. After all, we have the Chairman of Ways and Means and then two other Deputy Speakers. I think the system, on the whole, has worked fairly well. I think we have got, on the whole, good people into the Chair. I can think of only one, in my time of 40 years here, who fell into great difficulty with George Brown and actually resigned, if you recall, and stormed off in high dudgeon; but with that exception I think we have done very well. And I think that perhaps the `usual channels' have put their heads together, also there is a change so the parties are still left in equal balance, which would not be necessary in the case if there were elections. I do not think I would want to see a change.
  (Mr Benn) I did not think there was much ritual about it. In fairness, Ted Heath handled an impossible system with great panache. I thought it would last 48 hours but he got it all through very quickly by frowning at everybody, and I was not aware of any difficulty really. As to the, what was the other question, about ritual and ceremony—

  49. Ceremony, and the Deputy Speakers?
  (Mr Benn) Well, there was not a lot of ceremonial. I have not thought about it really. There may be a case for saying that if you get nominated for Speaker you have to accept the Deputy's job if you do not get the Speakership; that might reduce the number of candidates, who, the last thing they would want was to find out they were Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means when they had hoped to be in the Speaker's house. I have not turned my mind to that, you will have to forgive me.
  (Sir Peter Emery) That would stop them very quickly.
  (Mr Bradley) I have not turned my mind to it either, but it seems to me to be logical that if you are going to elect the Speaker to chair the proceedings of the House of Commons then you ought to elect the Deputies who do the same job. As for ceremony, if it is meaningful I am quite attracted to ceremony, but, as I said earlier, I do think it is strange, dragging somebody, kicking and screaming, to a job for which they have proposed their own candidature and are going to be adequately rewarded. So I do think it should be relevant, and if it is not relevant we should dispense with it. The last point, I just wanted to raise with you, if there is to be an automatic election, with every new Parliament, of the Speaker, it seems to me also to follow that that Speakers would have to submit themselves to Parliamentary election in a way that has not happened in recent years; and if they did so they would have to resume their party politics. I am saying, if there is a chance that the current Speaker may not be the Speaker in the next Parliament, he ought to give up the privilege of fighting uncontested his own constituency in a general election. If he does that then he has to stand and in so doing resume his party political identity.
  (Mr Benn) No Speaker has ever sat in the House after having been Speaker, and we did change the rule, did we not, so the Speaker continues until the new Parliament, I think, is not that it? I think in the old days the Speaker disappeared with the dissolution.
  (Mr Bradley) But the point I am making is, the Speaker should not face an election and then be forced from the Chair.
  (Mr Benn) No, I take your point. Put crudely, if Michael Martin thought he was going to be beaten he had better be the Labour candidate the next time round, that is what you are saying.

  50. Of course, Speaker Boothroyd was opposed but not by the official parties; but she was opposed and had to contest an election with a green rosette.
  (Mr Bradley) But that was on the assumption that she would continue in the Chair after the election. If the assumption is that you cannot presume that you will still be the Speaker in the new Parliament, it seems that you should give up your right to enter an election without contesting it.
  (Mr Benn) People think having the Speaker as your local MP is a disadvantage; quite the opposite. As a Minister, if I got a letter from the Speaker about a constituent, my God, I got onto it in five minutes. So, having the Speaker as your MP, as Mr or Ms Speaker, is a very, very strong advantage.

  51. I shall use that quotation in my constituency, Mr Benn. I am very grateful for that opinion. Mr Keen?
  (Mr Keen) On the election of Deputy Speakers, I think they should be elected, and I think, to use a proper analogy again, there are players and referees; and I think that the Speakers and Chairpersons of Committees are the referees and they should come through the system, and the Speaker eventually should come from that group of people, not the Speaker being made as a reward for some other services. Can I say, on the point we have been talking about, it would confuse the electorate quite a bit, I think, if, having elected one person as Speaker of the House of Commons, they find that a few weeks later that person was no longer Speaker, and they would have then maybe preferred to elect somebody because of a political party.

Mr Efford

  52. There is just one point they did not respond to, Mr Benn has, and Sir Peter Emery, but Mr Keen and Mr Bradley have not, and that is on the approbation of the House of Lords being sought on our selection of Speaker. And I just wonder if you could clarify whether you feel that we should report who we have elected as our Speaker to the House of Lords, or whether you feel the current system is adequate, that we have to seek the approval of the House of Lords?
  (Mr Bradley) No, I think it is absolutely nothing to do with them; it is our business and not theirs.
  (Mr Keen) I would not even tell them that we had elected a Speaker.

  53. I just wanted to confirm that you were unanimous on that?
  (Mr Benn) They discover we have got a new Speaker, because, as you know, the House of Commons makes former Speakers into Peers. The only elected Member of the House of Lords is the former Speaker. We pass a motion, a humble address, praying that Her Majesty will confer a signal mark of Royal Favour on Betty Boothroyd, or Jack Weatherill. Now why we should have to ask the Queen to make him or her Peers is another matter. Why do we not have a simple resolution declaring that so-and-so is to be a Peer. Because I wrote to Betty recently and said she is the only elected Member of the House of Lords, she and Jack, and I think there is a certain ultimate humiliation, we have to ask the Queen to put them in the Lords; why do we have to ask, why do we not just do it ourselves? But that is wider than your remit today.

Chairman

  54. That is slightly wider; but can I thank our four witnesses very much indeed, Mr Tony Benn, Mr Peter Bradley, Sir Peter Emery and Mr Alan Keen. We have overrun by nearly 25 minutes, but it has been worthwhile, and I am very grateful to all four of them for their frankness and for the value of their evidence. Thank you very much indeed.
  (Sir Peter Emery) Thank you for treating us so kindly.

  Chairman: Thank you.


 
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