Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 55 - 59)




  55. I apologise to Mr Tam Dalyell and Mr David Maclean and Sir George Young for keeping you, but I think you are aware of what went on and the reason for us running a little late. We are obviously going to cover quite a lot of the ground that we have already covered again, but it is still very important that all the questions that we posed to our first series of witnesses are also, as it were, covered again in this session; perhaps because there are only three of you, we will get through it a little bit quicker. But can I thank you very much indeed for coming. Can I say that we are genuinely wanting to achieve a procedure for the election of the Speaker which will be overwhelmingly acceptable to the House. There was considerable concern and criticism on the last occasion; we want to try to produce a system which will be fully acceptable and bring the House of Commons up to date not only for itself but for the people outside as well. Can I put the first question from the Chair. A strong argument against the present system, which, as you all know, was set up in 1972, is that the decision as to the order in which the names are put before the House, a decision which may help to determine the ultimate result of the election, is left entirely to the presiding Member, namely, the Father of the House. Do you accept the argument that in a multi-candidate election the current procedure is unsatisfactory: Sir George Young?
  (Sir George Young) Yes, I do, and I so indicated in the short evidence that I gave. I think it puts an enormous burden on the Father of the House, because I think the order does matter. It also poses problems for colleagues, in that they have to make tactical decisions. If their preferred candidate is some way down the list, they have the option of either voting for their second or third candidates and perhaps therefore never reaching their own preferred one, or not backing their second or third one and having somebody that they did not really want in-between. And so, while I think the present system is alright for a small number of candidates, quite frankly, I do not think it is fit for the purpose, if you get a field of the size to which you, Mr Winterton, and I contributed two months ago.

  56. Thank you. Mr Tam Dalyell?
  (Mr Dalyell) It is profoundly unsatisfactory. I know, Chairman, you have a distaste for history, but I think we have to go back to the election at which Betty Boothroyd was elected. The fact of the matter is that Peter Brooke was not the strongest candidate against her, and two very strong candidates, the late Sir Giles Shaw, whose memorial service some of us attended this very morning, and Terry Higgins, would, in the judgement of many, have, rightly or wrongly, got more votes than Brooke did; they never had an opportunity. That is unsatisfactory.

  57. Thank you very much indeed. I think that that is very direct comments. David Maclean?
  (Mr Maclean) Similarly direct, Mr Chairman, I disagree profoundly with my colleagues on either side. I think, if we analyse the votes in the last election, it would not have made any difference to the end results; it may have made marginal differences to some of the in-between results, if the names were placed in a different order. I think Tony Benn, in some ways, gave the game away, and contradicted some of his earlier evidence when, at the end, he said, "Ted Heath performed the job remarkably well and remarkably quickly. He had expected a 48-hour marathon; we got through it by 9.15." And I do not think, Mr Winterton, that if the names were proposed in a different order, or alphabetically, or in any other different system, that would have any different result. So, in those circumstances, if we do not think there will be a different result, and I am convinced there would not have been, then I would not argue for a change in the system.

  58. That leads me on to my second question, which perhaps can be directed to you, Mr Maclean, because the 1972 system has been criticised for being what is described as unduly time-consuming; however, in the evidence that you have given, you say, and I quote: "Are we saying that one whole day every 10 years is too long to take to elect a Speaker?" Therefore, I pose the question, to all our three witnesses, is the potential length of the current procedures a factor which we should take into account at all?
  (Mr Maclean) It is a factor we should take into account, Mr Winterton, but let me be more precise, because I was in error when I said once every ten years, it is slightly less than that. Since 1895, that is over the last 105 years, over the whole of the last century, we have had 13 different Speakers, including the elections for Speaker, including Speaker Martin. Sorry, we have had 13 different Speakers; of course, many of those elections were unopposed when they came back for a second or third term. Since 1950, we have had eight Speakers; in that sense, we have had an election once every six years. The burden on a Parliament of holding an election for a Speaker is not a great burden. If those colleagues who were giving evidence before us are right, I think it was Tony Benn himself who said he thinks it highly unlikely there would be an election in the next Parliament against Speaker Martin, if he wishes to stand again, so that would go through probably on the nod for a few seconds; but the election we had a few weeks ago, taking from 2.30 to 9.15, is not unduly long, if that process happens once every eight years, which is the case. At the end of the day, I think Parliament got it right, Parliament confirmed Speaker Martin's Speakership by 308 votes to 8, an overwhelming result in his favour, that has put a stamp of authority on his position, and I do not think the House of Commons was reduced to a shambles because of it. The media did not like it, but that is a different matter.

  59. Thank you. Sir George Young?
  (Sir George Young) I think the question is, were those seven hours productively used. I am not sure the speeches made a lot of difference, or indeed any difference, and I think it is a good question, whether you need a proposer, a seconder and a provisional acceptance speech from all the candidates. I think it might be possible to achieve the objective in a shorter space of time, particularly if the Committee decided to go for some of the options which reduced the field, before the final candidates went before the House. But just to pick up a point that Mr Maclean made, it is perfectly possible, in a multi-horse field, for there to be three candidates who are acceptable to the House, and I voted for more than one candidate, because I felt that more than one candidate would have been a good Speaker. The way we do it at the moment, the first candidate who wins then becomes the Speaker, although there may be candidates further down the field that would have got a bigger majority. And if we are moving away from the traditional system of two or three candidates towards a field with more candidates in it, I think we do have to look at the system, and not ask did the system cope in the past but is this a system which is robust in the future, if more people are going to put their names forward.

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