Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 60 - 81)



  60. Thank you. Mr Tam Dalyell?
  (Mr Dalyell) Chairman, your question is about timing, and I assume the position of a person who wants a secret ballot. Now if there is a secret ballot the traditional selection conference system, familiar in the Labour Party, and familiar, as I understand it, in the Conservative Party too, could be quickly and expeditiously conducted, with the lowest in the poll on the secret ballot falling out, and then the procedure that we are all familiar with. There is no problem with time in that.

  Chairman: Thank you.

Mr Efford

  61. The 1972 system is based on the assumption that the `usual channels' will operate behind the scenes and arrive at one or, at most, two candidates deemed to be acceptable to the House. Do you think that this system is no longer appropriate, and should there be any formal involvement by the political parties in the choice of a Speaker?
  (Mr Dalyell) I believe it is a House of Commons matter, and not a matter at all for the political parties; but, of course, de facto, it becomes a matter for the political parties if the ballot is registered. If it is secret, that is another ball game.
  (Mr Maclean) Yes, of course, it is a matter for the House, but in a political world one cannot ignore the fact that political parties and Whips may have a view. I do not think the Whips, on any party, were able to operate in the last election because there were more candidates; in some ways, it prevented the Whips' Offices from actually having much to say. And I think, in this highly open, as well, media world, if the Whips went up to certain candidates and said, "Look, old boy," or "old girl", "we've taken soundings; we don't think you're going to get many votes, perhaps you should back down," some candidates may have taken umbrage at that, it would have been in the media the next day, leaked by someone or other, and it would have tarnished the Whips' reputation, or the Government's reputation, and the Opposition's reputation. I think the Whips had to adopt a hands-off attitude, in this case, because there were more colleagues. Now that is not a fault of the system, it is not a fault of the Whips; if anything, if I may say so, delicately, it is a fault of all the colleagues who stood, and perhaps did not use their own judgement and back down early enough in the proceedings.
  (Mr Dalyell) I am a cynic, and I believe that these voting figures, to take examples, are, in fact, meaningless, because the truth your Procedure Committee has to face up to is that many people voted for those whom they did not want because of pressures. As your previous witnesses said, it is make-believe to think that the Whips and the `usual channels' in our system do not have very effective pressures; the only way of resisting those pressures is that it should be a secret ballot.
  (Sir George Young) I think I agree with what Mr Efford was implying, that this is an area where the House is very rightly jealous of its freedom, and I think it is a very difficult area for the Whips to operate in, and I think it is possible for Whips' interest to be counter-productive. So I am cautious about expecting the `usual channels' to reduce the field to one or two, I think it is very difficult for them to do, and I think that an initiative in that direction could, as has been said earlier, be counter-productive.


  62. Although, let us be fair, we heard in the earlier evidence that there was some effort to do that by the Conservative Whips, I understand, advising candidates to speak to the Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party to get an assessment of their support.
  (Mr Dalyell) I think I have to be very candid. Normally I am fastidious about not speaking about party meetings, but I think it has to be recorded that Joe Ashton did ask, and I followed up with a very precise question on this, whether it was true that the Conservative Chief Whip had gone to the Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party and asked, "Which Conservative candidate is most acceptable to you people?" Now that question was never answered, because Jean Corston, not Clive Soley, was in the Chair, she is a very truthful lady and she said she did not know. Now I am sure that she was speaking in good faith; but there is no doubt that is what happened.

Mrs Lorna Fitzsimons

  63. Can I ask all three of you, and it was the same question that I asked the other witnesses, is there is a danger that, because of history, etc., we are getting overexcited about the `usual channels', when actually the candidate that had the biggest clout, and therefore is currently Speaker, actually came from the non-'usual channels', and the fact that most back-bench Members are actually more fearful of the elected Speaker and their patronage, or lack of patronage, rather than anything to do in the Speaker's elections with the `usual channels'?
  (Mr Dalyell) It is a very shrewd question. The answer is that, in candour, the supposition behind your question is accurate.

Mr Forth

  64. Since a lot of our deliberations will revolve around the very simple proposition as to whether or not there should be a balloting process in the more traditional sense, rather than divisions of the House, and, linked with that, whether the balloting process should be secret or open, I think it would be very helpful to us, I think Tam has already made his view clear, but it would be helpful if we could have from our witnesses their views on balloting and/or open or secret?
  (Mr Maclean) I would be utterly opposed to a secret ballot on this. I do not think we have any right, as Members of Parliament, to hide behind a secret ballot on the person we select for Speaker of the House of Commons, and I cannot distinguish between a secret ballot for Speaker and a secret ballot for other things we may then vote on. And I think once we start on the secret ballot route for Speaker we are on a slippery slope to demanding secret ballots for a range of other things; and the day will come, we will be able to say to our constituents, "Well I can't tell you how I voted on the Embryology Bill; it's a secret, you know." It maybe seems far-fetched at the moment, but we can be heading on that route. As for having a ballot itself, I would also oppose, I may say, the Wedgie-Benn system, not just because I think it would take longer, and I also agree with Sir George, in his earlier comments, we could shorten things on the day by cutting the number of speeches, of proposer and seconder and the candidate himself, or herself, we could shorten the process that way; but I would not move on to a ballot paper system, because I think it would encourage even more candidates to come forward, a lot more would come forward because they will easily drop out at the bottom if they have got ten votes, 30 votes, 40 votes, 50 votes. The thing about the present system is it forces the candidates, such as yourself, Mr Winterton, to force their heads above the parapet, to stand up in the Commons and to take the consequences, that you might only get 30 votes, 80 votes, 100 votes, 150, you may get a very good vote, but not enough. I would quite like a little secret ballot system and I would stand for Speaker and I would encourage dozens of my colleagues; we can all put on our CV, "I was a candidate for Speaker of the House of Commons." And I would not suffer the humiliation of having a result read out in front of the Chair, potential humiliation, and I think that is a potent device to stop more of our fringe candidates, or colleagues, who think they may make a very good Speaker.


  65. Could we just get Sir George's brief reply to this, then Lorna wants to come in briefly. Can I say to our witnesses, some time after six o'clock we are likely to lose our quorum, and I want to try to get through as many questions as possible. So Sir George, then Tam Dalyell, and then Lorna.
  (Sir George Young) I do not agree with Mr Maclean. I think, if you have a secret ballot, there is still the opportunity to be humiliated, because while the ballot is secret the result is not, so there would still be the potential for humiliation, at the end of the process that Mr Maclean has just described. I personally favour a two-tier system, where there are a large number of candidates, with a preliminary ballot, and I am relatively relaxed whether it is secret or open, but I think it is important that the final stage should be the one that we have at the moment, with the Speaker being elected in the traditional way, putting himself before the House, making a speech, and then an open division, and I agree with Mr Maclean on that. I think the final decision as to who is Speaker should be in the traditional way, with the names being published.

  66. So you are really supporting the proposal that Mr Benn put forward before 23 October?
  (Sir George Young) Yes; except, with Mr Benn's proposal, he would not have saved any time, as I understand it, because you would have had all the speeches and then you would have had the ballot. I personally would do it the other way round. I would have the ballot and then have the speeches with the top two or three candidates; otherwise you do not save any time at all, if you adopt Mr Benn's proposals.

  67. Do you think that we should save time? As you heard our previous witnesses say, spending perhaps one day in eight years appointing and electing the most important position in the House of Commons, is that a bad way to spend seven hours?
  (Sir George Young) It depends whether you think the speeches made any difference, and I am not persuaded that they did.

  68. I would hope, from the Chair, that speeches do make a difference, otherwise why have debate?
  (Mr Dalyell) It may be impertinent, but could I introduce a practical point, in the light of what David Maclean has said. If I am Father of the House, because this depends on the electors, but in certain circumstances I could be Father of the House, I must tell this Committee that I will do what you decide, other than one thing, that I will absolutely refuse to do, and that is to wag my finger in the direction of an individual candidate as Ted Heath had to; it brought the House of Commons into demeaning disrepute, and I refuse to be party of it. Now, I just repeat, of course, I will do what this Committee decides, other than that.

Mrs Lorna Fitzsimons

  69. I just want to follow up something that David Maclean said, and maybe not necessarily get his response but Sir George's and Mr Dalyell's, which is the secret ballot thing, going back to the point I made earlier; the idea that people are scared of their electorate is not the issue, I would contend, the people are scared of whoever the successful person is, if they have not voted for them. And there are several instances, historically, one of which Tony Benn himself recounted from his own personal history, about when you actually challenge the wrath, or etc., there are several punitive measures with which the incumbent can actually choose to blight the life of a Member. And, therefore, the whole idea of a secret ballot is not to hide from one's constituents, it is actually to make sure that the patronage is absolutely fair, to whoever the final candidate is, in terms of the Speaker. But the second point is, is it not true that each division takes roughly 20 minutes, and therefore if you were going in to a division just actually to do a ballot, which would be therefore a list, you would save hours, given the hours we spent on the 12 candidates just in the division lobby?
  (Sir George Young) The answer to the second question is yes. On the first question, I was just looking at the letter that I sent to the Committee, I think a preliminary ballot could well be by secret ballot, but the final one should be as it takes place at the moment. But I am not sure that any Speaker, once elected Speaker, would victimise whoever had not voted for him, or her. I can think of no example. I honestly do not think that any Speaker would behave like that. The job of the Speaker, once elected, would be to unify, and, if anything, one could argue, be more conciliatory to those who had not voted for him, or her.
  (Mr Dalyell) Can I put a tangential issue to Lorna Fitzsimons' probing question. There is also the question of personal embarrassment, and last time I am afraid I had a gut reaction, that I was damned if I was going to see friends of mine, on both parties, humiliated by smallish votes; and regardless of one's views on the present Speaker, or not, I thought it was, you know, there are such things as human relations. And in those circumstances, because we are an internal body, and one has to have personal relations, I think those personal relations might include the non-humiliation of good parliamentary colleagues.
  (Mr Maclean) I would add, whilst it is nice to be nice to parliamentary colleagues, if some are so courageous, or so stupid, that they stand for Speakership and attract only a few votes then they must suffer the consequences. And I think part of the problem we have seen on this occasion, Mr Winterton, is not that the `usual channels' had failed but that colleagues' judgement itself had failed, they should have taken their own soundings and withdrawn before they got to the stage of getting only 30 votes, on one occasion; without criticising any particular colleague. I also agree entirely with Sir George, I cannot see any Speaker, in my 17 years here I do not think I have even experienced any Speaker victimising people on any side who have not voted for him, or her. It does not matter then, you do not have to, once you are the Speaker; they are great enough men and women, in any case, not to do that, and there is no political, tactical or sheer advantage to them. I did not vote for Michael Martin. I am hoping to reap the benefits, he will be nice to me.
  (Mr Dalyell) David Maclean says he has been here 17 years. I have been here 38 years, and there was certainly one Speaker who did victimise people, Dr Horace King.

Mr Darvill

  70. Gentlemen, can I wrap up two or three points in the same question, in view of the Chairman's restrictions on time; it is really about the ballots. If we do go on to recommend some form of ballot, and I think Sir George has already given his views on this, whether, after an initial ballot, you believe that there should be divisions according to the existing system, in other words, we have an initial ballot and then two or three of the top candidates then go into the existing system, and if we do have a ballot, what form of ballot you would prefer? For example, the Electoral Reform Society, who have given evidence to us, have rejected the First Past the Post, they support an Alternative Vote system, or an Exhaustive Ballot system. I would like to know what your views are on that. And, if a ballot system is used, what your views are on the period of nomination or the number of nominees that a particular candidate would require; in other words, do you think there should be a threshold?
  (Mr Dalyell) May I reply to Mr Darvill? Personally, I would exclude the need for nominees at all. I do not think that that is either necessary or maybe desirable, because that also raises embarrassments and party political issues.
  (Mr Maclean) I dislike the suggestion that there should be a ballot to eliminate the also-rans, and then we are left with two or three at the top. If one were going down that route, I would want to see a slate of perhaps four or five at the top. I dislike the system, but I accept your premise that, hypothetically, if we had that, what would we have; on a ballot, I would go for a simple First Past the Post system. The Electoral Reform Society have their own, long-established axe to grind on the electoral system, we know that; but they would have no justification for adopting a fancy balloting system, or a proportional representation system for the first stage and then going on to moving a motion and amendment for the second stage. I think we then get ourselves in a mix of electoral systems, and it would be difficult to justify either one of them. And as for nominees, I would keep nominees, I would not put any threshold on it, but I think it is embarrassing for a colleague to have to nominate oneself, I would say.


  71. So basically you are saying, a proposer and seconder, that is enough?
  (Mr Maclean) That is enough.

  72. Thank you. Sir George Young?
  (Sir George Young) I would have one vote on the preliminary ballot, I would not have an Alternative Vote. I think, if the preliminary round is a ballot, the argument for having lots of people to second you and propose you disappears, because you are not wasting a lot of time and energy, I think you could get through with the present system. And then, with colleagues having just one vote on the initial ballot, obviously, it is up to the Committee to recommend, then the top two or three would go through and then we would vote in the conventional way.

Mr Darvill

  73. Just one final point on that. If we go to that, would you prefer the existing system of having proposers and seconders speak during the debate on that particular motion, as we do now, in fact?
  (Sir George Young) I think my proposer and my seconder made high quality speeches, and I am very grateful to them both, but I am not sure, at the end of the day, it swung any votes.

  74. So if we were to recommend that going through that system we did not have the need for a proposer and a seconder to speak in the debate, you would be happy with that recommendation?
  (Mr Dalyell) My direct answer to Mr Darvill is that proposing and seconding are superfluous.


  75. You do not think that it showed, in many cases, that there was cross-party support for particular candidates, the fact that one might have come from the Government side, another from the Opposition side; do you not think that that shows cross-party support for a candidate?
  (Mr Dalyell) I actually seconded a Conservative candidate, with whom I have had a lot of associations in a different context, because I thought precisely that if we were going to have proposing and seconding it was highly desirable that there should have been a seconder from an alternative party; and I believe that the Speaker would have been greatly strengthened had he been seconded by someone from either the Conservative Party or the Liberal Party.

  76. But would you not say, Mr Dalyell, that what I think virtually all our witnesses have said is profoundly depressing, that things that are said in the House of Commons have not the slightest impact on the outcome? I have to ask the question, why do we debate?
  (Mr Maclean) That does not mean that we should not do it, Mr Winterton. You make the good point that a speech in favour and seconding, a proposer and seconder, can identify cross-party support. If we are in the scenario that we are down to, as Sir George said, two or three candidates through, then we should not then be in the business of saying, "Let's save even more time by going straight to a vote." That is an argument we can make for not bothering listening to Second Reading debates; let us hear the Home Secretary, let us hear Ann Widdecombe, straight to the vote. We do not have to save that much time, Mr Winterton. I do not think it changed anything. The speeches did not influence anyone. I do not think any of us were sitting on the fence, no more than we were sitting on the fence at the hustings, the speeches confirmed our prejudices already established; they were good speeches, worth listening to, but at the end of the day it did not change the votes one iota, I suspect. But that does not mean we should not do it, and the House of Commons, in the election of a Speaker, should have the decency and the courtesy to propose it and second it.

  77. That has led me straight into a question that I want to put, and I think it is very important to this Committee. Is there a case for written manifestos from those that are standing, and a case for the hustings, to which you have just referred? But, having said that, is there not a danger that this will encourage candidates to make promises and to set out policies on matters which are not really for the Speaker as the impartial servant of the House?
  (Mr Dalyell) The proper place for the hustings is the Chamber of the House of Commons, and each person who puts themselves forward can speak for ten minutes or a quarter of an hour, saying how they see the job of Speaker, how they would conduct themselves, and that is the proper way to do it, and taking time for interruptions, in the Chamber of the House, all above board. That is the proper way to do it. If I am allowed to revert to your previous question, I have spent a good deal of time on the streets of Anniesland and Falkirk; do not think that what is said and done in the House of Commons is not of great interest to a lot of people. You would be surprised about how many watch us. The depressing part is Prime Minister's Questions, and the inability of the Speaker to bring the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to the point of asking questions, rather than having a clowning session each week that demeans Parliament.
  (Sir George Young) In my very brief written evidence, I explained why I was against the hustings and against written manifestos, it is set out. If I could spend just ten seconds answering your question, is it not deeply depressing, it makes no difference what people say. I think one of the reasons that Speaker Boothroyd went at the end of the Parliament was so that most of the House should know most of the candidates, and also this is not like a normal debate, where there are arguments going from side to side, so it is not like the House of Commons in its normal session, listening to arguments, it is judging people. And, against that background, I do not think it is that surprising that what actually happened on the day did not influence the judgements people have come to over the lifetime of the Parliament; so I do not think it is necessarily—

  78. Did you say judgement, or decision?
  (Sir George Young) They have a judgement which leads them to a decision. I think it would be surprising if, after three or four years, an eight-minute speech from one of the candidates dramatically changed the perception that the colleagues had of that particular candidate so that their vote moved.
  (Mr Maclean) These are the two most important questions so far, Mr Winterton, if I may say so. On the hustings, I partly agree with Tam, in that the hustings should be in the Chamber of the House of Commons, but not on the day of the election; the hustings should be in the House of Commons for the year, five years, ten years, 15, 20 years previously that we had known the colleagues. We do not need hustings meetings in a little committee room upstairs to get to know what the candidates are like, we have watched them, we have watched them as Deputy Speakers, or as former Ministers, or making speeches from the back-benches, working on Fridays, chairing Select Committees, we have seen that, Mr Winterton. And therefore I would suggest that hustings meetings are quite demeaning and they cannot offer us anything we should not already have seen, if we had been attending the Chamber, serving on Select Committees, serving on Standing Committees, we see them. As far as manifestos are concerned, I am utterly opposed to those as well, because, if I may say, listening to Tony Benn in the last session, I loved what he said; he wanted a Speaker to reclaim power for Parliament, to tell the Government where to get off, to sort out Europe, to make sure we do not go to war without the House of Commons being totally behind it. I would love the House of Commons to have those powers, but I think Tony was imagining that a Speaker somehow could reclaim that, and if we changed the way we elected the Speaker we could reclaim those powers from the executive; a Speaker cannot do that, and making promises in the manifesto that a Speaker cannot deliver on is nonsense. All the manifestos I saw from the candidates were well written, they were worthy, but they were meaningless verbiage; the candidates could not deliver the big stuff which Tony Benn may have wanted, Tam may have wanted, I may have wanted. And some colleagues are talking as if the Speaker is like an elected mayor, with democratic authority. If we want to change the House of Commons and give the Speaker real power, it is a totally different ball game, but at the moment, where the Speaker is the servant of the House, that means the Speaker does as the House of Commons tells him, or her, to do, collectively; then having a manifesto promising one thing, when the Speaker must do as the House of Commons promises, is nonsense and ludicrous, and I think it demeans the office of Speaker, at the moment.
  (Mr Dalyell) We cannot expect the Speaker to do, quote, unquote, as David Maclean put it, the big things. There is one thing we can expect of the Speaker, and that is, he makes Ministers and questioners stick to the point and not ramble and not gossip in the House of Commons; that is what brings us into disrepute. And I look, in a Speaker, for two things, independence of the executive and a ferocity in making Members, whoever we are, stick to the point.

Mr Efford

  79. I would say, following up that point, just briefly, that we have heard from other Members and we have heard in evidence earlier on that some Members want the opportunity to be able to ask questions of the candidates because they have an influence over issues like modernisation of the House; now that is offered by a hustings meeting, that is not offered by the procedure that takes place in the Chamber of the House of Commons. So would you care to comment on that?
  (Mr Dalyell) I strongly agree with Mr Efford in the chance of putting key questions; why cannot those questions be done, in interruption, in the Chamber of the House? My final point is this. If I may say to the Committee, without being, I hope, bumptious about it, I understand that you are having Mr McKay, the Clerk, as your witness, in January; would you put the question to Mr McKay as to what the powers are, and are not, of the Member who happens to be Father of the House, he will explain it in his own words. But I make this plea to you, please, please, please, do not ask me to do something, if I am Father of the House, which I refuse to do. I will carry out whatever you decide, other than one thing, and that one thing is the wagging of the finger.
  (Mr Maclean) To answer your question, and perhaps later, outside the Committee, I may ask Tam what he means by the wagging of the finger and the goings on—
  (Mr Dalyell) Deciding the sequence.
  (Mr Maclean) And the goings on I was not particularly aware of.
  (Mr Dalyell) I asked the question of Ted Heath, on what criteria, on what basis, did he choose the sequence, and he famously replied, as only he can, "Well, my discretion;" he said. If I were a mimic, I would do it much better, but I am not a mimic. But I think he will remember the television clip of the Father of the House replying to that question. The sequence is all-important.
  (Mr Maclean) To answer directly Mr Efford's question, where I was slightly disappointed in the hustings was that all candidates felt they had to use the phrase, "I am concerned about family-friendly hours," and making all the right noises which are some of the current buzz words. With respect to all the candidates who stood, their answer could have been, "If you want family-friendly hours, you, the House of Commons, the majority side, the Government side, change them, and I, the Speaker, will have to obey them." It is not up to the Speaker to produce those changes; the Speaker may have views, the Speaker is the servant of the House. All of us, collectively, particularly the majority party, can change any of the rules of the House as we wish; the Speaker did not have to promise anything about guillotining all Bills at ten o'clock, it is going to happen in this session. Those changes have gone through because the majority of the House of Commons, led by the Leader, and the majority party have proposed it, the majority have done it; the Speaker's views on that are irrelevant. But I have a feeling that many of our candidates in the hustings, from all sides, felt they had to make these semi-promises, or mutter the right noises, in order to get elected; that, I think, is unfortunate, because they are, in some ways, diminishing themselves, diminishing slightly the status of the office of Speaker, they are making promises they cannot deliver on. The House can do what it likes, change any rules it likes, the House can do that, it does not need the Speaker to take a lead or to try to stop it.


  80. Thank you very much. Is there any other matter, anything that any of our witnesses would like to say?
  (Mr Dalyell) Just simply, come to a conclusion quickly, before any dissolution is announced.

  81. We have that intention, Mr Dalyell. We hope to finish taking evidence and produce a draft report by the end of February; so, hopefully, there will be an opportunity for the House to debate the report and to reach a decision before the dissolution of this Parliament.
  (Mr Maclean) Perhaps you need an inquiry into the role of the Father of the House, after the next election.

  Chairman: We may look at these powers in the role of the Speaker. But can I thank Sir George Young, Mr David Maclean and Mr Tam Dalyell very much for coming. Sorry it has been slightly rushed, but, unfortunately, colleagues on the Committee have to get away to other duties; but your evidence has been very helpful, and I thank you all. Thank you.

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