A Voice for the Commons: Renewing the
Role of the Speaker
BACKGROUND AND WAY FORWARD
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
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MPs was superseded by that of the precedence of Lord President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 Councilan 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.
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
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
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
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 Speakerand
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
Representing the Interests of Members of Parliament
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,
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
Representing the Interests of Members of Parliament
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."
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
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 reformbe
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
Erskine May, Twenty Second Edition, page 188. Back
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
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