Examination of Witnesses (Questions 164
TUESDAY 30 JANUARY 2001
DL AND RT
164. Can I welcome our three very distinguished
witnesses this afternoon who are intending, I hope, to help us
with our inquiry into the procedure governing the election of
Speaker. The three witnesses are very relevant to our inquiry;
we have Lord Weatherill, who was elected Speaker in 1983: we have
Lady Boothroyd, who has only recently given up and was elected
Speaker in 1992; and we have the Father of the House, Sir Edward
Heath, who entered the house in 1950, has completed fifty years,
and has presided over the election of both the last two Speakers.
We welcome you all. We are undertaking this inquiry because of
representations made to us by the House itself. Members were very
concerned that the existing procedures may be inappropriate at
this time. Can I ask the first question from the Chair: do you
all agree that the current method of electing Speaker is no longer
satisfactory and, if that is your view, could you give the Committee
the reasons for holding that view? Sir Edward, bearing in mind
that you presided over the election of the Speaker in both 1992
and 1997, I know as a Committee we would be very interested to
hear whether you support the current system or whether you think
it is no longer relevant and satisfactory and, if so, why.
(Sir Edward Heath) Yes, I do, and I have
given a lot of thought to this, both before the last election,
after it was clear there had to be one, and since it was held
as a result of the protests which were made at the time. Firstly,
if I may say so, I do not think that situation is likely to arise
againcertainly not in the near futureand, as members
of Parliament read what happened, I think probably not for a long
time, and it was the first time we had had anything like twelve
candidates. My view is that, when it comes to the point of the
actual election of the Speaker, all that can happen is that the
Father of the House, as it now is, who takes the Chair, can carry
on the election on the existing pro formanothing elseand
that is very clear and very strict. Of course, I discussed all
of this with the clerks to the House on a number of occasions,
as the ex-Speaker knows, and went over it very thoroughly, and
on the morning of the election we spent an hour or more on it,
and of that I am absolutely clear. If people want a different
arrangement, then it has to be made away from an actual election
and it has to be made with a full and thorough discussion in the
House. People ask "Why did you not even attempt to get it?".
It was quite clear from the Opposition shouting to the proposal
as well as the supporters who had had their meeting, that one
could not have possibly got to any solution under hours of debate,
and who was going to conduct the debate? It is not the job of
the Father of the House. One has, therefore, to be clear about
this. On the spot it has to be done in the way which is then set
out. Now, how do you set it out? I have given thought to this.
It was quite clear that the 80 or 100 members who wanted to have
a debate on the day had one purpose in mind: they wanted to discuss
with the potential candidates how they were going to act as Speaker
and were they going to do what they wanted. They were very largely
members of this Parliament for the first time and they wanted
to change a whole lotwell, all well and good, but that
is not the time to do it. They thought it was and Tony Benn thought
he could find a solution. He knew perfectly well he had not and
that is why, as soon as I said after half an hour, "We will
now get down to it", everything stopped and there were no
protests of any kind. I think one has to be quite clear, therefore,
about this: that the way you can do it is by what is already laid
down and, if they want the Speaker to do something else, the House
has to debate it, have motions in the usual wayit may take
hours, days, weeksand then get it settled. Now, there was
the opportunity, because Madam Speaker announced she was not going
to stand again some time before the summer recess, if people wanted,
to put down a motion in the House to change the procedure and
persuade the Leader of the House to give the time for debate and
then we would have been acting under a different situation. That
was perfectly possible but nobody seized the opportunity. To be
perfectly frank it was not a burning question and it was not in
people's minds to do that so, as I understand it, she was not
approached on this. On the day, people said to me, "Can you
not persuade the Speaker to stay on and then she can preside over
a debate in which the method of her election is going to be changed?".
I was able to ascertain, through perfectly normal approved channels,
that Madam Speaker was not prepared to stay on, so that put an
end to that proposition, and what we had to do was to go ahead
with the existing rules and then, if as we now see, people want
to change them, it is up to them to persuade the House of Commons
to change them. It is, of course, the longest time we have ever
spent on the election of a Speaker; halfway through it was very
embarrassing for me but we had to get over that, and we finally
had seven hours, I think, on the total debate, but everybody at
the end said to me, without exceptionall the candidates"Well,
that did go perfectly fairly, we all had our chance, and some
of us did not win", but the interesting case I thought was
that delightful member from our side of the House who made a brilliant,
delightful speech, very amusing and wittybut that is not
the job of a Speaker. The job of the Speaker is to maintain order
in the House and not to produce very witty speeches, so in that
way I think he was in the wrong category. Then I am afraid my
party's side of the House thought that it ought to be their turn.
Well, we have only had turns in Speakers for a very short time
and for most of my time in the House it was, in fact, always a
Tory Speaker. If one looks back, that goes to pre-war days and
they carried right on through, and then, when we got a very narrow
balance in the House, they did begin to alternate. Well, that
is understandable but I have had to say to some people that, you
know, it really is not rational in politics to think that a party
which has been in opposition for eighteen years and then gets
power should have a Speaker for eight years and then have to shut
up in order that a party with only a handful of members in the
House of Commons gets another Speaker. Quite frankly, I much regret
that my own party did not support the new Speaker and did not
vote for him. That, I think, was most unpolitical and unparliamentary
and I greatly regret it. Those are my preliminary thoughts, though
I have given quite a lot of time to thinking them.
165. Lady Boothroyd, do you think that the current
method is no longer satisfactory and what are your reasons?
(Lady Boothroyd) Briefly, yes, it is no longer satisfactory
because the House must charge itself with looking to the future
in the event of there being more than two or three candidates.
The present situation could cope with two or three but we have
to look to the future. Let me say, before I get to the future,
that I do think it worked well on 23 October. It was cumbersome,
tedious and boring, but members of Parliament knew what they were
about and everybody got a fair chance. The media did not like
it because it was not sexy enough for themit was totally
boring for thembut that does not matter because we do not
act in this House to please the media, but it worked for us as
long as it was. Now it has to be changed because there may be
more than two or three candidates and I think this Committee must
look at the various methods of voting, of balloting in that case.
You have all had papers put before you and we all know about the
exhaustive system and the alternative system; these are quite
good systems to examine but there are swings and roundabouts in
both of them. The exhaustive system takes much longer to do, as
you knowI am not teaching my grandmother to suck eggs;
you have looked at this. It does allow candidates who realise
they are not going to be successful during the course of that
ballot to withdraw and therefore make it rather shorter, but I
do not think it matters that, once every eight years or so, the
House spends a whole day electing its Speaker. It is a most important
job. The alternative system has pluses in that everybody gets
a fair chance and the one candidate will get more than 50 per
cent of the vote. So I think there has to be an alternative way
of doing that. Now, you will ask other questions about whether
that ballot should be secret or not but, for the moment, I think
I have answered your question in that yes, you have to look at
other systems for balloting.
(Lord Weatherill) I watched the election of the Speaker
on television and, like it or not, that is what is going to happen
in days to come. The public outside, whom we represent here, saw
it on television so I think we have to take account of television.
I do have to say that I do not think that the election of the
Speaker, despite what Sir Edward has said, brought very great
credit on Parliament. Also, I think the way in which he was elected
really did not help the new Speaker so I would be definitely in
for a change, taking into account the fact that we have got television
to stay, and I think there should be a new procedure. I think
probably a secret ballot would be the best way of doing itand
there are various ways of achieving thatwhen the Speaker
emerges as the best man or woman for the job, irrespective of
the party concerned. Having said that, there is a good case I
think for looking for a balance between the parties in who occupies
the Chair. I really do think that it is probably time that the
minority parties had some opportunity to have a Speaker in the
Chair. It is a long time. I think Speaker Whitley was the last
Liberal we had in the Chair and, fair enough, I think they should
have a chance.
166. Before I pass the questioning to Nigel
Griffiths, can I come back to Sir Edward? I am not sure I gleaned
from what you said whether or not you believe in the current system
or you would like to see it changed, like Lady Boothroyd and Lord
(Sir Edward Heath) What I was saying was really twofold:
first, I do not believe you can change it on the vote. If you
want to make changes that all has to be done beforehand and seen
167. But, Sir Edward, this is exactly what we
are trying to do now. We are, as the Procedure Committee of the
House, really at the request of the House, undertaking an inquiry.
Do you think that, bearing in mind that we are coming up towards
the end of a Parliament but hopefully our report will be considered
by the House before the end of this Parliament and the decision
taken, that we should look for a new system?
(Sir Edward Heath) I do not, no.
168. Baroness Boothroyd, should there be speeches
(Lady Boothroyd) I am totally opposed to manifestos
and hustings. A manifesto supposes and implies that the Speaker
has powers and that he is spelling them out in his manifesto so
that members can look at them and say, "How are you going
to implement that?". The Speaker has not the powers that,
maybe, a number of members think he has, and I want to go through
one or two of them. Of course, the Speaker's all-important power
is that of calling members to speak in general debate and at supplementary
questions where the Speaker must be totally fair in not only calling
minority parties but also calling minorities within the major
parties, because they are all coalitions within themselves. That
is crucial; it is an enormous power and authority that the Speaker
has. He also has the power to select private notice questions
or not; to select amendments, of course, but very little else,
really. The power lies with you; it lies with the House of Commons;
it lies with the members. The Speaker is the servant of the House.
The Speaker can do nothing unless you give that Speaker authority.
Now, if you change the Standing Orders and give the Speaker authority
to do what he wants, then you can demand a manifesto from him
to say, "What have you done about it, and what are you going
to do?", but you are the people with the authority and you
give the Speaker that authority and with that authority he can
do anything he wants but without it he cannot. So I do not want
you to run away with the idea that the Speaker has all the power
and authority in the world. He has not; it is this House that
has it, and I think this House guards it very jealously, and so
(Sir Edward Heath) If I could follow that up, I have
heard the Speaker say many times before that her job was to implement
fairly the Orders of the House, and that summarises it all. She
said it in her acceptance speeches when she was elected, and that
is right. What the people who wanted a different system were after
was to find out what they were going to say and do to help them,
and that is not what the Speaker is about. Those 80 or 100 who
asked for the interviews beforehand wanted somebody who would
say, "Yes, of course I understand your enormous interest
in so-and-so, my leanings go that way as well and, yes, I will
support you in that from the Chair". That is not what it
is about in the least but that is what they were after, and you
cannot move in that way because it is undermining the whole position
of the Speaker. If you take the American system, that is quite
different. The chairman of each House is of a particular party
and is there to look after the interests of the party. That is
not our system, and we are seeing it now in Washington being used
in an unusual way.
169. So you are opposed to the hustings, which
is the individual appearing before a large number of members of
Parliament, and any written statement or manifesto?
(Sir Edward Heath) I am absolutely opposed because
it cannot affect the Speaker because the Speaker, when elected,
is there to carry out the Standing Orders of the House and, if
the House wants something different, they have to change the Standing
(Lady Boothroyd) Hear hear!
(Lord Weatherill) I agree that there should be a secret
ballot. My concern would be that we do not go back to the old
days where the Speakership was a carve-up between the usual channels
and I think we want to keep the whips well out of this. We all
know each other in the community of the House of Commons; we all
know our colleagues on all sides of the House; and I do not think,
for reasons already stated, we need a hustings or anything of
that kind. The best person for the job I think will emerge, but
I would like to see it done by secret ballot.
Sir Paul Beresford
170. Could we just chase that along? Lady Boothroyd,
would you like to comment on the question of the secret ballot?
(Lady Boothroyd) Certainly. I have given a lot of
thought to whether the ballot should be secret or open and I have
to tell you that I started by believing that yes, perhaps this
is a different and unique occasion when it should be secret, and
I gave it a good deal more thought and all my reasons were there
for thinking it should be secretthe whips; also the communities
within that geographical area of where the Speaker is coming from.
There may be colleagues who do not want to vote for him; they
might have problems within their communities and constituency
partiesI thought of all of that, and this is why I thought
that, in the first instance, a secret ballot would be better.
But this House does not have secret ballots. It is hostile and
foreign for us to have secret ballots hereunless it is
within the party caucuses. Of course they do. We are all grown
up; we can all justify what we dowe have to justify what
we doand I think it is better to be open about it. I am
always worried too that, once you start a secret ballot on something
like this, in some years' time when I have turned my toes up there
will be other issues of consciencecapital punishment, abortionwhere
they will say, "This is a conscience issue; we must have
a secret ballot". No. This House is big enough, old enough
and strong enough to have an open ballot and for every member
to justify the way they vote, but I would not be horrified if
this Committee recommended a secret ballot because I understand
the reasons for it.
(Sir Edward Heath) It seems very odd that, at a time
when everyone is talking about an open society and a free society
and free votes, we now for the first time in 800 years demand
a secret ballot.
171. I think what we all want to do is to hold
the office in the greatest respect both in the eyes of those in
the House and outside, and although we know that your election,
Lady Boothroyd, was the first election where the old historic
ways and the usual channels did not work, there have been lots
of allegations via the media about what has happened in the current
election. If the best way of safeguarding both us as individual
members and whoever is the lucky incumbent from any allegation
or favour, et cetera, is to err on the side of a secret ballot,
would you think that would be acceptable?
(Lady Boothroyd) I would understand it, certainly.
I have to tell you that, on my election in 1992, I never looked
at the Hansard record of who voted for me and who did not until
exactly one year later. I gave myself a birthday and I looked
at it then.
(Lord Weatherill) In defence of the secret ballot,
I often used to say in my time that if you take 680 small businessmen
and you take out 100or, in big business, the governmentthe
rest of them would do almost anything to sell their wares and
there is always a feeling, I suppose, that if the Speaker does
not call you it is because you did not vote for him or her, or
whatever. After all, we have a secret ballot for general elections;
why not for a Speaker? It is time-honoured and I think that is
the best method. The Speaker should not know who has voted for
him or her.
172. Should there be a formal involvement of
the parties in the selection of Speaker and the usual channels,
as they are usually referred to, and do you think that there has
been a change of mood in the House and that members of Parliament
are not as willing as perhaps they have been in the past to entrust
the selection of Speaker to the usual channels?
(Lord Weatherill) If I may go first on this, I remember
as a new whip what a heavy heart I had delivering Selwyn Lloydwho
turned out to be a good Speaker, I have to saywhen, if
there had been a choice, I think John Boyd-Carpenter would have
been Speaker, so I think we want to keep the whips out of this.
This is a matter for back benchers; it is their choice and it
should be in their hands.
(Lady Boothroyd) This is certainly a matter for the
House of Commons and not for the whips or any formal involvement
whatsoever. I do not really recall before 1992 but when I was
elected in 1992 I guess that the Conservative whips were organised
in some waythey failed miserably and it may be that when
they get involved they do fail. I know very well they send merry
messages around as to who to vote for, and their flock did not
do that because seventy broke away, so I guess they said to their
whips "Buzz off!", and this is how I got elected. I
think the House now, since that time, wants nothing to do with
the whips. The House and individual members will decide themselves
how they are going to behaveirrespective of usual channels
173. Sir Edward?
(Sir Edward Heath) As a former chief whip, I can speak
from that point of view and I always told my people "Keep
your hands off everybody; let them decide what they want themselves",
and if you try to do it as chief whip you always get the opposite
(Lady Boothroyd) Exactly! It happened.
(Lord Weatherill) Sir Edward, that is news to me!
(Sir Edward Heath) In fact, I rather disagree with
what Lord Weatherill was saying because the plain fact was the
party would not vote for John Boyd-Carpenter. I told John that
I would be perfectly happy if he was elected but no, they did
not want him; they had Selwyn instead and that was their decision.
174. I think it is worth putting on the record
that we agree that, since Baroness Boothroyd's election in 1992,
the old ways that have been documented for the past 700 years
are not any more in existence.
(Lord Weatherill) That is absolutely right.
175. What is your view on the question of whether
the Speakership should alternate between the two main parties?
We have already received in this inquiry evidence from leading
members of the House that they would favour that alternation.
What are your views?
(Lady Boothroyd) I do not favour it swinging from
one side to the other. I have always believed that it should be
the best person in the House, the most acceptable person. It is
rather hard, I suppose, on a party if it always happens that,
at every election, every few years, it goes to one party but this
House is more important than a particular political party and,
therefore, I would always want it to go to whoever I thought was
the better candidate, irrespective of where they came from.
(Lord Weatherill) I absolutely agree that it should
be the best person for the job. Nevertheless, in terms of equity
and given the fact that the third party, the Liberals, have not
had a Speaker since the 1800s, I think the House might in its
wisdom, one day, decide that it would be right, fair and proper,
to have a Liberal in the Chair.
176. If he or she was the best person, or irrespective
(Lord Weatherill) The best person for the job, yes.
People who put themselves forward to be Speaker are of a high
calibre anywayor should be, and the House in its wisdom
will choose, but these are on-balance decisions and all I am saying
is that, if you have two or three candidates of a high calibre,
and one of them happened to be a Liberal, on balance I think it
would be fair that he or she should take the Chair.
177. We have talked about the process and I
wondered if I could push you a bit further, particularly Lord
Weatherill and Sir Edward Heath, on what method, in terms of the
exhaustive ballot or alternative vote method, you would prefer
but also to bring in the form. It was a long day; there was a
lot of ceremony between the House of Lords and the Commons; a
lot of people watching on television might have thought it was
particularly old-fashioned. What do you think about that?
(Lady Boothroyd) It was not shown on television; only
on the Parliamentary channel because it was thought to be so boring,
so I cannot answer you!
178. A lot of people watch the channel now.
(Lord Weatherill) There were excerpts of it on the
News. It did not look good.
(Lady Boothroyd) It was just excerpts.
(Lord Weatherill) It did not look good.
(Lady Boothroyd) I have answered your earlier question
179. Sir Edward, would you like to add anything?
(Sir Edward Heath) I am not quite sure what the point
Mr Lammy: My question concerned the process
of the two systems, but also the form. It is quite a ceremonial