Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence


A Voice for the Commons: Renewing the Role of the Speaker



  The role of Speaker in the House of Commons is not as inviolate as might occasionally be implied by the comments of conservative-minded parliamentarians and observers. In fact, the history of Parliament demonstrates a considerable legacy of change in the manner in which successive Speakers have interpreted the responsibilities of their role. Whether in early incarnations as Parlour ("mouth"), Prolocutor ("chairman") or Procurator ("agent"), or as The Speaker with whom we are relatively familiar, the manner in which the presiding officer of the Commons has undertaken to communicate with the Sovereign/Executive, and carry out his or her wider duties, has been defined by the character of the incumbent, the mood and political will of Parliament and, equally importantly, the wider political climate.

  Interestingly, it is not widely recalled that, in 1919, the constitutional precedence of the Speaker over other MPs was superseded by that of the precedence of Lord President of the Council—an office which in recent times has been held concurrently with that of Leader of the House (a Government appointment). There is, therefore, relatively modern precedent for establishing statutory changes to the roles and responsibilities of the Speaker.

The Need for Change?

  The early history of the role places the Speaker firmly at the centre of the constant struggle between Parliament and the Monarch for de facto legislative and fiscal supremacy. This finds a modern translation in the concerns of many MPs and academics: in Britain today the Legislature is increasingly subservient to the legislative intentions of the Executive. Essentially, whenever the majority party in the Commons is tightly whipped, and when the Government is drawn from the majority party, there is little or no democratic check on the power of the Executive. Ironically, it is often only the unelected House of Lords that has been able to force Executives of various political hues to reconsider their proposals.

  The pressures of contemporary political organisation highlighted the inadequacies of Parliament's traditional constitutional mechanisms most recently during the election of Speaker Martin on 23 October 2000. With respect to the crucial issue of the process of election, the debate of 23 October revealed a considerable appetite for reform. MPs of very different political allegiances, including the Father of the House who presided over that election, concluded that reform of some form was required[1].

  However, historical precedent suggests that the role of the Speaker is a crucial consideration in any effort to rebalance power between the Legislative and Executive. If Parliament is to put in place mechanisms to improve the scrutiny of Government legislation, and generally act to protect the interests of ordinary people, it must consider seriously the services it expects from its Speaker: wider reform of the role of Speaker is almost certainly necessary.

End Game: A Modern Speaker

  The object of any reforms should be to ensure that the Speaker is best able to fulfil those responsibilities vital to a healthy, vibrant and relevant Parliament and, at the same time, recognise that governments must be able to govern in a stable and democratic way. Erskine May presents a clear definition of the broad responsibilities of the Speaker.

    "The Speaker of the House of Commons is the representative of the House itself in its powers, proceedings and dignity. The Speaker's functions fall into two main categories. On the one hand the Speaker is the spokesman or representative of the House in its relations with the Crown, the House of Lords and other authorities and persons outside Parliament. On the other hand the Speaker presides over the debates of the House of Commons and enforces the observance of all rules for preserving order in proceedings."[2]

  Reforms should reinforce all these responsibilities, promoting the Speaker as the representative of the House of Commons. Reforms should also, however, acknowledge that the locus of the political power is now with the Executive in Parliament and must, therefore, seek to promote the Speaker as a clear and authoritative voice in the Commons' dealings, as part of the Legislature, with the Executive.

Managing Reform

  There are several potential ways in which reform of the role of Speaker could be accomplished.

  It is entirely possible that an incumbent might act outside of the usual parliamentary channels (perhaps, for example, through the media) with a view to influencing both the public's view and parliamentarians' views of the role of Speaker—and the role of Speaker, in the wider debate on the modernisation of Parliament. This may or may not be helpful, but does not provide Parliament itself with a suitable vehicle for reform.

  More formally, the Speaker might establish a Conference on reform of the office of Speaker (from time to time the Speaker has been invited by the Prime Minister to establish Conferences on Electoral Law). However, the proceedings of Speaker's Conferences, have not, in the past, been a matter for the record. A Speaker's Conference would also lack the power of a Select Committee investigation and, more seriously, place the Speaker in the invidious position of reporting on his or her own responsibilities.

  Were this simply a matter of examining a single matter of procedure, it might be appropriate to ask the Select Committee on Procedure to undertake a stand-alone investigation into the role of the Speaker. However, as formal procedure forms only a part of a much wider debate, it makes considerably more sense for the Modernisation Committee to adopt this as an investigation of the highest priority, acknowledging the implications that examination of the responsibilities of the Speaker have for wider reform. As part of this investigation, the Select Committee on Procedure should be invited to undertake a joint investigation of the single issue of the election of the Speaker, the conclusions of that investigation to pay careful attention to the wider issues relating to the Speaker's role and responsibilities.


NB:  The items below do not constitute an exhaustive list of possible avenues of investigation, but rather represent a selection of those issues of most concern to Liberal Democrats.

Election of Speaker

  As the most recent and controversial manifestation of the weaknesses of Parliament's procedures, the manner in which The Speaker is elected is an urgent matter for inquiry. It is no reflection on the calibre of the successful candidate to report widespread anxiety about the election process.

  The least harmful interpretation of the events of the 23 October is that they made the House of Commons look inadequate and irrelevant. A more worrying interpretation is that the separation of powers has been further confused by a powerful majority party's decision to back a Speaker from within their own ranks when clearly there was no possibility of expressing a unanimity of view under the current electoral arrangements. Some parliamentarians have expressed concern that this could, in theory, pave the way for the party politicisation the role of Speaker in a way previously unknown to British politics.

  The clear recommendation of the Liberal Democrats is that the Speaker should be elected by the process of Alternative Vote. This is the only option that eliminates blocking votes and ensures that a Speaker is selected who, as well as commanding majority support, is attuned to the political wishes of the Commons. Thus, the Procedure Committee should be commissioned to investigate the means by which Alternative Vote could be implemented speedily, effectively and without devaluing either the office of Speaker or the role of MPs (as independent members of Parliament) in deciding who should act as their representative. As well as being debated on the floor of the House, the Procedure Committee's early report should be considered by the Select Committee on Modernisation as part of its inquiry into the wider role of the Speaker.

  Following election, current practise requires the Speaker-elect to attend on the Lords Commissioners to receive confirmation from the Lord Chancellor of the Monarch's approval of the Speaker's appointment. It would be pertinent, as part of any inquiry into the role of the Speaker, to review the constitutional, legislative and symbolic implications of alternative arrangements that make clear that the Speaker is elected and appointed by the House of Commons to be its voice in its dealings with the Executive.

  There is also a residual concern which has been expressed by some parliamentarians that the Speaker's constituency appears to be democratically disenfranchised following the incumbent's elevation to office. Election inevitably places certain operational constraints upon the Speaker. Furthermore, some argue that the convention that a Speaker is, usually, unchallenged at a General Election is an anachronism in a twenty first century democracy. Whilst the Liberal Democrats do not commit to a position in this debate, an early inquiry into the constitutional and democratic implications of alternative arrangements (for example, a by-election subsequent to the Speaker-elect's elevation to office) must surely be timely.

Representing the Interests of Members of Parliament (Government Business)

  Much of the recent concern over the influence of the Executive on the Legislature is related to the ability of the Government to set the timetable for its own Business.

  The Leader of the House of Commons[3], a Government Member, is primarily responsible to the Prime Minister for arranging the government's business in the House. Informal discussions take place between the "usual channels", on an unreported, informal, but institutionalised basis at the moment. Members of Parliament outside of the Executive or the Leadership of Opposition parties have no real ability to influence the timetabling of legislation. The recent recommendation of the Modernisation Committee of an informal cross-party mechanism to discuss appropriate scrutiny arrangements for legislation, after the Queen's speech, has yet to be approved and implemented.

  The effect is that, not only does the Government dictate what can be debated (with the exception of Opposition Supply Days and those debates reserved for Select Committee Reports), but it also determines the terms on which the debate is conducted (whether it is guillotined or not, whether it is programmed or not), when the debate takes place and how long that debate lasts.

  Liberal Democrats believe it is crucial to redress this considerable imbalance of power in favour of the House of Commons. A permanent and formal business Committee chaired by the Speaker, consisting of the Leader of the House and his or her Shadows from the two largest opposition parties, as well as other non-payroll MPs, and tasked with timetabling the Government's legislative programme, would establish a considerable limit on the power of the Executive to dictate the Business of the House.

  Symbolically, the Modernisation Committee might also consider the Order in Council of 31 May 1919 that established the rank of Lord President of the Council above that of the Speaker and take a view as to whether or not the Speaker should be restored to the pre-1919 position of precedence of all commoners.

  The Modernisation Committee might also consider whether or not provision should be made in the Record of Votes and Proceedings for a special note, from the Speaker, as to why closure of a debate was deemed to be in the interest of the House.

Representing the Interests of Members of Parliament (Modernisation)

  The Speaker should have a clearly defined role in reviewing the practices of the House and recommending reform to both the Procedure and Modernisation Committees. To this end it is very reassuring that Speaker Martin has pledged not to stand in the way of reform. However, always remembering that the Speaker is the servant of the House, the Speaker could still be more proactive in matters of procedural reform.

  It should, therefore, be possible for the Speaker to constitute, from time to time, an elected Advisory Committee of MPs. Consisting of non-payroll and non-Business Committee Members of Parliament, and chaired by either the Speaker or the Chairman of Ways and Means, the Speaker's Advisory Committee could be tasked to advise on the operation of changes to practice introduced by the Government of the day (such alterations to the format of Prime Minister's Question). In addition, the Speaker's Advisory Committee could make non-binding, but formal, proposals and recommendations to the Modernisation Committee, or the Procedure Committee, on areas it considers need detailed investigation.

Representing the Interests of Members of Parliament (Administration of the House)

  The Speaker has a considerable role as, effectively, the "Minister of the House of Commons". There are numerous administrative responsibilities detailed under statute, relating to the process and conduct of elections, and the general order of the House, that are properly assumed by the Speaker. The Speaker also assumes considerable responsibilities after dissolution and during prorogation which, though not all defined under statute, are clearly important duties that only the Speaker could properly exercise. However, in addition to all of this, the Speaker is also (by statute) a member of the House of Commons Commission.

  By convention, the Speaker is Chairman of the Commission, the body responsible for oversight of the very substantial budgets voted to the House each year, as well as the policy framework within which the budgets are spent. The Commission's job is extremely complicated and demanding, the scope of its responsibilities clearly laid out in paragraph 4.3 of 1999's Braithwaite Report:

    "Under the House of Commons (Administration) Act 1978, the Commission is responsible for appointing staff in the House Departments, and determining the numbers of staff, pay and other terms and conditions of service. It is required to keep complementing, grading and pay "broadly in line" with those in the Home Civil Service . . . It is also required to keep pensions and similar benefits in line with the provisions of the Principal Civil Service Pension Scheme. The Commission lays before the House the Estimates for the House of Commons service, and appoints the Accounting Officer. It may reorganise House Departments and their functions, it has extensive powers of delegation, both to the Speaker and to the Accounting Officer or any Head of a House Department. It determines its own procedure."[4]

  At a time when fiscal accountability is a matter of high public and political concern, it places an intolerably high burden of responsibility upon the Speaker if he or she is tasked with chairing the Commission. More importantly, when serious disputes arise over costs or organisation (as indeed they are likely to at some point on some issue), such close identification with the decisions of the Commission risks undermining the authority of the Speaker in the more public role of Chair of the House. Instead, the Chair of the House of Commons Commission should be elected directly by the Commons, on a free vote, with the Speaker assuming an advisory role.


  Reviewing and renewing the role of the Speaker in the manner outlined above is fundamentally consistent with the Liberal Democrat analysis that there is a need for a greater separation of powers within the British Constitution. It also begins to address the very real concern of politicians, the public and commentators that what happens in the House of Commons is, to a large extent seen to be irrelevant to the lives that people lead.

  If Liberal Democrat proposals were adopted, the Leader of the House would remain a legitimate voice, articulating those reforms deemed possible in the view of the Government and communicating the Government's preferred timetable to the House. The Government's majority in the Commons would ensure that, in normal circumstances, they were responsible for the final decision on issues of policy and legislation.

  However, a Speaker whose powers and responsibilities accounted for the political discipline of the Executive in the Legislature, and were strengthened to enable them to advocate the interests of MPs more effectively, would go some way towards preventing the Executive from riding roughshod over the interests and concerns of the House of Commons. A Speaker with renewed and obvious authority might serve to embolden backbench members of the majority party to support, on occasion, the interest of the Commons against the interest of the Executive.

  This should be considered carefully as the support of the Executive would be crucial to securing reform—be that reform of the role of the Speaker or wider parliamentary reform. However, to give the Legislature the capability of confronting the Executive when serious differences of interest or opinion arise can only help make the House of Commons more relevant to those it is elected to serve: the public.

1   See contributions from Tony Benn, Sir Edward Heath, Peter Snape, Paul Tyler and Andrew Tyrie in Hansard, 23 October 2000. Back

2   Erskine May, Twenty Second Edition, page 188. Back

3   Peculiarly, the Leader of the House is also tasked with expressing the sentiments of the House on formal occasions when the Prime Minister is absent. The Modernisation Committee should address the consistency of this responsibility, bearing in mind that the Speaker is elected as the representative of the House and that in this age Prime Ministers have deputies. Back

4   Page 24 Review of Management and Services: Report to the House of Commons Commission, Braithwaite, Michael, Stationery Office, 1999. Back

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