Examination of witnesses (Questions 55
TUESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2000
and SIR GEORGE
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.