Examination of Witness (Questions 142
TUESDAY 23 JANUARY 2001
142. We now welcome the President of the Council
and the Leader of the House of Commons to give evidence to us.
We are very grateful to you for accepting the idiosyncrasies of
what can happen in Parliament and the delay which has resulted
because of divisions on the floor of the House of Commons. It
is very important to us that you as Leader of the House should
come and give your views about the way that Parliament elects
its Speaker. You are aware of course that the current system was
set up in 1972, that it was reviewed again by the Procedure Committee
under the Chairmanship of my predecessor, Sir Peter Emery, who
on that occasion did not recommend any change on the grounds thatand
I quote from that report"there is in our view no better
system and many worse". I refer to paragraph 22. May I ask
what you, as a very important person in Parliament, with really
two areas of responsibility, but one particularly important to
us, that is the House of Commons itself, consider to be the strengths
and weaknesses of the existing method of electing a Speaker? Do
you personally, or perhaps I should say do the Government and
perhaps you could answer on behalf of both, wish to see a change
in the system? If so, what system would you support and which
system would you prefer? Do the Government, the Labour Party,
have a collective view on this? No doubt you will be aware of
some of the answers which were given by the Chairman of the Parliamentary
Labour Party earlier this afternoon.
(Mrs Beckett) No, I am not, as a matter of fact. I
have read some of the earlier evidence given to you by others
but I am not aware of the evidence given by Mr Soley. Perhaps
I should say at the outset, that I am here as a long-serving Member
of the House who happens to hold the post as Leader of the House.
I am not giving evidence on behalf of the Government. The Government
has not taken a view on the matter, nor indeed did the Government
take a view during the recent election. It is perhaps important
to put that on the record, because, contrary to so much of what
we hear in the House these days, of course it is quite clear from
the record of the hearings in 1972 that this was not at all the
case in those days. Indeed I was riveted to see, and a little
stunned, the then Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, a very
distinguished and honoured Member, Douglas Houghton, who was very
highly esteemed in the House, actually told the Committee that
he did not think the House unaided could find its own Speaker
and that it had to recognise it must have some help and support
from the leaders of the parties. Indeed all the tenor of the evidence
then given on behalf of the Labour Party by the then Opposition
Chief Whip, our Chief Whip, and by the Chairman of the Parliamentary
Labour Party, was that it was for the Government and particularly
for the Leader of the House to be charged with the responsibility
of finding a suitable candidate and putting him or herthough
they had not thought of it being a herbefore the House.
It is wise for me to enter a caveat immediately and say that I
do not see that as my role.
143. I am glad you have responded to my provocation.
(Mrs Beckett) It is certainly an eye opener and a
cautionary indication to those of us who assume that the history
of the House has all been one way and that it is the Government
who controls the House more than it did in the past. The second
thing you asked me was about the strengths and the weaknesses.
I think what this particular past election has shown and of course
what comes through very strongly from reading the evidence of
1972, was that the expectation was that on the whole a suitable
candidate, or at worst a couple of candidates if there was not
complete agreement, would be found, that it was the role of the
House authorities, in particular of the Government of the day,
to find those people and to find someone acceptable to the House
and that the House should then, on the nomination of an independent
Member, make its choice or indeed endorse that choice as the case
may be. That was the whole assumption and background. The expectation
was that it was for the parties to weed out the other potential
nominees and to ensure that a clear and simple choice was available
to the House. What is very clear is that the system we have had
and used works in those circumstances. It clearly does display
some weaknesses when faced with a plethora of candidates. That
is where the question does arise as to whether there should be
some mechanism to reduce numbers in some way. I also notice, because
we had the opportunity of hearing at the Modernisation Committee
recently from representatives from the Canadian Parliament, that
they do not have any process of nomination and seconding. My impression
is from the evidence they gave us that one of the reasons for
that was to remove an incentive to be a candidate because of that
process of nomination and seconding. They saw that as a means
of keeping down numbers and indeed they have a thresholdI
think five per cent of votesbelow which somebody is automatically
removed from what is then an exhaustive ballot procedure. It has
demonstrated, certainly the House as a whole felt, that the procedure
was perhaps more time consuming that Members had anticipated or
necessarily wished and we might consider some mechanism to reduce
that. If we were to see any changes, I regard this very much as
a House matter. I regard it as a matter for this Committee freely
and in an unfettered way to put forward their views and for the
House then to come to a conclusion on them. My reaction to some
of the evidence you have had? I take the reverse view of that
which is clearly the view in the Canadian Parliament whereI
do not know whether all Members are aware of thisnot only
do they have an exhaustive ballot but the result of the ballot
is not declared in any way. So there is no opportunity to judge
that X or Y may be building up support and may perhaps be a candidate
who is going to gain strength. All that happens is that somebody's
name disappears from the ballot and the next ballot is announced
to be between particular names. No-one ever knows how the pattern
of voting is changing. I presume that the thinking in the Canadian
Parliament is that that gives you some particular degree of purity
in the system. For myself, I should like to know where my judgement
should lie between the people who are emerging as being the strongest
contenders and I should have thought that would be the view generally
in the House. If we are to have a weeding out process, there is
clearly something to be said for an exhaustive ballot. I should
certainly prefer that to an alternative ballot. If what is intended
by an alternative ballot is that you all vote at one process and
then the votes are counted without any opportunity to reflect
the way that ballot is going, I think it is important that the
House has a Speaker with whom the House as a whole is content
and anything we can do to facilitate that is in itself important.
I would only make one other general observation and that is that
in many of these electoral matters, it is very easy to get hooked
on process or on outcome and what we might actually be wise to
do is try to weigh both of those things. Certainly I sometimes
get the impression, reading through the evidence you have been
given, that not only are some hooked on process, but almost that
the process in itself has to be pure. If you have, say, a process
of exhaustive ballot, that has to be handled in a particular way
and there is no room for a variation on the theme, it seems to
me we ought to be trying to get that balance right between having
a sound process, but also being confident that process will give
us an outcome with which the House will be content.
144. There have obviously been questionnaires
and you will have had informal conversations with colleagues.
My concern, and this is why I want to probe the balance of your
view on secret or open ballot, is that one of the things we all
have to be confident of, including whoever is the successful candidate,
is that it was a process which was actually totally free and fair,
that not just the "usual channels", because, as I have
been heavy to say, they were the least intimidating of all those
who were out currying favour over the process, and according to
Tam Dalyell this is an historic thing over which he gave evidence,
but also to make Members feel safe in their own mind, even if
it is a self-induced paranoia, that there is no fear after the
election that there might be any retribution for not voting for
the incumbent candidate, which, regardless of whether there are
historical situations where that has occurred, it is actually
a real fear in Members' minds. Would not having a secret ballot
be a way of getting over that allegation both for those inside
the House and outside the House? We have seen allegations bandied
in the media that the "usual channels" tried to do this
and X was doing Y. It would get rid of all that. Do you have a
(Mrs Beckett) It is a very interesting question and
it is one of the most difficult before us. In generality and as
a matter of principle I do take the view that what we do as Members
should be public, should be known, and it would be somewhat of
a dangerous departure. Equally, however, I entirely take your
point and I have heard from others, that Speakers of whom I do
not have any direct experience have from time to time been thought
to display a preference. That obviously is wholly undesirable
for the House as a whole and I find myself genuinely torn. In
general and in principle, I absolutely think that Members should
be prepared to take their decisions in public and stand by those
decisions. If they are not prepared to do that, then why are they
here. Equally, I can understand that concern which has been expressed.
One of the things which was evident in some of the conversations
and discussions was that some Members were concerned about hurting
the feelings of others. I cannot recall who it was. Someone who
gave evidence to youit might have been Tam Dalyellsaid
they had supported a particular colleague, not particularly because
they thought that colleague was likely to be the Speaker but because
they did not want their feelings to be hurt and did not think
it would make any difference to the outcome. All of that does
make it more difficult. The only thing which has occurred to me,
which you may feel is a coward's way out, but might get you as
well as me off the hook, is that of course if the Committee thought
that this was a change the House ought to consider, I suppose
it would be open to you to recommend that be a choice given to
145. May I come in at this stage with a leading
question? Will you give an undertaking to this Committee at this
evidence-taking session that you will find time for a debate on
this subject when our report is complete and a debate which will
take place before dissolution of this Parliament.
(Mrs Beckett) You put me in a difficulty, as you are
well aware, for two reasons: one of them is because no Leader
of the House ever is keen to give assurances about debates and
particularly you put me in a difficulty because I know no more
than you when the dissolution is likely to be. All I can therefore
in all honour say to you is that obviously I cannot give you a
complete guarantee and a complete commitment. What I can certainly
say to you is that I am extremely mindful of the fact that the
House has taken a great interest in this issue, has been anxious
to have it considered expeditiously, and should it be that your
Committee comes to decisions and recommendations which do advocate
change in the procedures, because there are of course some who
do not believe it should be changed, but if you do advocate change,
particularly substantial change, and wish to have that put before
the House before a dissolution and before a future election, then
what I can certainly say to you is that I will take that very
seriously indeed. I cannot go further than that, as you will appreciate.
Chairman: I would not expect you, Leader of
the House, to go any further than that.
Sir Paul Beresford
146. Would you not agree that in the House as
it is now, every Member virtually has been through the debacle
and recognises the difficulties so it would be much more appropriate
for this House rather than a new post-election House, an element
of which would not have seen the election debacle, to make the
decision and hopefully therefore put the new procedures, if new
procedures are suggested, into place prior to the election.
(Mrs Beckett) That is a very powerful point and one
which certainly reinforces the Chairman's concerns. You will appreciate
that my only anxieties are practical.
Sir Paul Beresford: I was hoping you were going
to tell us when the election was, but I realise that was a little
Chairman: You may come from deep down there
in the South Pacific, but you are not going to move the Leader
of the House on that question!
147. May I just raise two points? One is referring
back to the days of Douglas Houghton and the 1972 Procedure Committee
report which said that the vote should not be on the basis of
a secret ballot because each Member's vote was as a consequence
of their being a Member of Parliament. Do you have a view on whether
the vote for a Speaker should be classed as a parliamentary vote
and should therefore be recorded in Hansard as other votes are?
You might have heard me put the other point to other witnesses.
Do you have a view on whether the sitting Speaker or a Speaker
re-elected at a General Election should be subject to a trigger
mechanism? In other words a vote whether to accept that Speaker
rather than going to a full ballot procedure immediately after
(Mrs Beckett) On the issue of whether or not it is
a parliamentary vote: clearly, was very much the judgement of
those who discussed these matters in 1972. Then of course from
memory they were against the process of having a ballot at all.
It is not just a matter of whether it is a declared ballot, they
were against that whole process and they were totally in favour
of the thing being basically sorted out and endorsed by the House
or a rather restricted choice being made among people who were
already judged to be acceptable as potential Speakers. We are
in very, very different circumstances and I do not think, with
respect to Mr Houghton as he was then, that we should be bound
by the judgement he made then. We are entitled to make a judgement
afresh for our own times. It is a powerful argument that it is
a parliamentary vote. Equally, however, as you will know, it is
in effect to some extent, although I know it is within the parties,
still somewhat of a parliamentary matter when for example in opposition
we elect a Shadow Cabinet. That is on the basis of a secret ballot.
I am not quite sure what procedures you have in the Conservative
Party or the Liberal Democrats.
148. It is my understanding that the Leader
of the Conservative Party selects the Shadow Cabinet, as of course
the Leader as Prime Minister selects the Cabinet when in Government.
I have never been in receipt of any telephone calls, so I am not
sure exactly how it is undertaken.
(Mrs Beckett) Indeed as the Whip's Office selects
members of select committees, but we shall not go into that today.
149. I think it is because my name comes towards
the end of the alphabet that so far I have received no call.
(Mrs Beckett) I have always understood that was a
disadvantage and indeed when I changed my name when I married,
one of the arguments which led me to take that view was that it
was further up the ballot paper. That was my husband's advice.
150. You have never looked back since.
(Mrs Beckett) The trigger mechanism. I find myself
unwilling to envisage the House going through a whole procedure
to no really useful purpose when everyone is satisfied with the
Speaker who is in post. Equally, however, I should be concerned
if we had nothing, lest there was a view that the Speaker in post
had become for some reason unacceptable and this was the opportunity
for people to trigger a new selection when the Speaker had not
chosen to retire.
151. Does that not throw up to an extent a difficult
constitutional issue because, for instance, Michael Martin will
be standing at the election as the Speaker seeking re-election.
(Mrs Beckett) It does not throw up a difficult constitutional
issue. The issue it throws up is a matter for the parties. It
has been known for the election of the Speaker as a Member of
Parliament to be contested. It is a convention rather than a constitutional
convention that the Speaker is not opposed.
152. The reason I ask that is obviously more
often than notand I cannot think of an occasion when it
was not the casethe main party in opposition or in Government
does not contest
(Mrs Beckett) More often than not but I am not sure
that it has not happened within living memory.
153. Therefore to an extent people may see themselves
(Mrs Beckett) Yes.
154. You follow the point I am making.
(Mrs Beckett) I follow the point entirely. I certainly
would not argue, as Paul Tyler just did, that we ought potentially
to go through the whole panoply with one candidate. Equally, basically
as we do now, to say that the Speaker will take the Chair or whatever,
something along those lines, gives us enough of a get-out if there
is a real problem.
155. What is your view on the question of whether
the Speakership should alternate between the main two parties?
(Mrs Beckett) Although, I re-emphasise, I am not speaking
on behalf of the Government, I have held the view for 20 years
that the Speakership should alternate. I do not propose to resile
from it now. It came up some 20 years or so ago because the Prime
Minister of the day appeared to be envisaging not alternating
at a point when the Speakership, had we continued the alternation,
would have passed to the Labour Party. I felt very passionately
and strongly that that was wrong. I continue to hold, and indeed
to advocate the view that the Speakership ought to alternate.
I made my views known to any of my party colleagues, without any
discredit to their qualities, as individuals or MPs, who consulted
me about my own intentions, that I would not be proposing to vote
for a candidate from our party.
156. Do you think it would not necessarily be
a compromise of your view, but a view which may give support,
for candidates to have support in terms of their nominations from
across parties? One of the considerations we will be giving is
to whether within the procedures any candidate should have more
than one party support. Would you be in favour of that?
(Mrs Beckett) It is obviously something which tends
to go along with the traditions of the House. People would generally
think that there was something to be said for it. Whether we should
make it a condition is another question.
157. In terms of the qualification, having had
the 12 candidates and the drawn out procedure, we are looking
at the idea of the ballot. The other question is about the self-selection.
Currently we have a nominator and seconder. A suggestion has been
made that you possibly get rid of that process and what you have
is maybe a threshold, say ten people, no more, so it is not exclusive
but it just gives an indication that there is some support for
somebody to go further and that the compromise of the ten people,
or the way it is constructed, could have, to be eligible, one
person from another party, so it is not all one party as an eligibility
factor. Would you agree in principle that there should be a threshold
which perhaps saves some people from themselves?
(Mrs Beckett) I have mixed feelings about it. In one
sense it should be open to any Member to allow their name to go
forward if there are other Members who support them. At the moment
we basically only seek a nominator and a seconder. I think there
should be something; I would not be attracted to the idea of complete
self-nomination or to the assumption that is there in Canada that
any member almost is a potential candidate. It ought to be more
of an assessment than that of what the potential wish of the House
is likely to be. The notion of a threshold is an interesting one.
My understanding of the Canadian process is that that is a threshold
of a percentage of numbers of Members of the House rather than
a single number. That certainly would reduce the numbers if the
thinking were that people who were not major contenders ought
to be whittled down in number in some way. It is for the House
whether or not we wish to make such a restriction. It is right
that we should have a nomination and a seconder. It is a question
as to whether or not everybody should speak. I should be a little
wary of seeing too harsh a threshold because what could conceivably
happen is that people are put forward who, for whatever reason,
people have not especially thought of in the early stages of selection
of a Speaker, but who, as they look round at the alternatives,
came to seem an increasingly attractive prospect or someone unforeseen.
I am very mindful of a number of occasions in my life in which
an unlikely candidate has suddenly appeared and people have said
"Good heavens. Why didn't we think of them before?".
I should be reluctant to see too rigid an Anne-Robinson threshold.
Sir Paul Beresford
158. You questioned whether everybody should
speak. If I go back to 1992, as a new arriver in this House it
was a great advantage for us, not knowing Betty Boothroyd or in
fact anybody, to hear them speak and to hear the support.
(Mrs Beckett) I take that very seriously and I think
it is a different position in a new Parliament. Indeed I wonder
whether there is one ideal system or whether if the feeling of
the Committee or of the House is that we want to whittle the thing
down to a smaller number of candidates, any one of whom might
well stand a good chance of becoming the Speaker, then maybe there
is scope for some kind of ballot to get us to that point and then
more of the full procedure. I am very mindful of the fact that
where we are in this Parliament is very different. There is an
argument, and I know that was the view of Speaker Boothroyd, that
one of the reasons for going during a Parliament was precisely
because it was better for a Parliament with experience of the
candidates to take the decision. Of course, for whatever reason,
that may not always work out.
159. Two rather different questions. Do you
see that there is any wish in the House, do you have any wish
personally, to see changes to the ceremonial surrounding the election
of the Speaker?
(Mrs Beckett) When you say ceremonial, do you mean
the nomination and seconding and all that?