Examination of Witness (Questions 208
WEDNESDAY 31 JANUARY 2001
MR W R MCKAY
208. Can I welcome to the Procedure Committee
the Clerk of the House, Mr William McKay, and apologise to you,
first of all, for keeping you waiting. Part of our progress this
afternoon has been interrupted by a division on the floor of the
House and I have to say we have been undertaking some formal discussion
and a number of issues took rather longer than we expected. Can
I thank you very much, Mr McKay, for coming to give evidence to
us as part of the inquiries that we are carrying out into the
procedures governing the election of a Speaker. The historical
situation I do not need to explain to youyou could obviously
give me greater chapter and verse than I would be aware ofbut
can I ask you, in your view, what the strengths and weaknesses
are of the present system of electing the Speaker of the House
of Commons, and would we be right to conclude that, in your view,
the current system is no longer suited to present circumstances?
(Mr McKay) Mr Chairman, thank you. May
I preface what I am going to say with one single observation on
my paper, which is to emphasise the depth of the House's understanding
of the office of Speaker. It goes back a long way. The office
and the nature of the office are intimately connected with the
method of election, obviously through canvassing and so on, and
so changes in the method of election are worth consideration by
the Committee and by the House in light of that potential knock-on
effect on the nature of the office. That was what I wanted to
say first. You asked, Mr Chairman, about the strengths and weaknesses
of the present system: I think it would be generally agreed that
the weakness is that the system could not cope with the multiplicity
of candidates. A system which had never had to cope with anything
more really than two possibilitiesand maybe three more
in the backgroundwas asked to handle thirteen. While it
did so, I suspect there were two views in the House as to how
acceptable that was whereas, over previous years as you can see
from my paper, unease with the method of election was building
up but only slowly. What was new, therefore, and different about
the election last year was, I am sure, above all, the number of
candidates and the weakness was the inability to deal with that
except by taking time between 2.30 pm and 9.30 pm. The only other
comment I might make in that area is that it is very much, as
I think other witnesses have said, a matter for the decision of
Members, whether in the Committee or in the House, how much importance
you give to the time spent in doing this.
209. Do you think that a day's debate on the
floor of the House is excessive to deal with the election?
(Mr McKay) I really think it is for Members to say
how important they think it is. I do not myself see the House
ever taking longer than it took on 23 OctoberI do not think
sobut the Canadians did it in four hours on Monday. Their
House is half the size of ours; I do not know how many candidates
there initially were but I suspect about half of ours. It is a
judgment. Was four hours too long? Was seven hours too long? Members
will have to make up their minds and adjust the election proceedings
210. I would be interested in the Clerk's view
about whether or not a ballot should be secret or open. This is
obviously going to be one of the most important considerations
we have to make and a lot of other matters tend to flow both into
that and from it. I think the Committee would appreciate the Clerk's
expert and detached view on that to add to our deliberations.
(Mr McKay) All I could do would be to sum up, I think,
the broad arguments on both sides. On the side of a secret ballot
is the concern that I knowI read in the evidence and I
know in any caseis felt by some members of the House, that
a vote cast against a Speaker is remembered. Whether this is paranoia,
which it may be, or whether it ever had any foundation I do not
know, but I can see how the concern arises and that would certainly
point in the direction of a secret ballot. If you are going to
go for a secret ballot, however, I think you have explain what
is so special about this decision, leaving aside the personal
relationships, which makes it distinct from any other decision
the House takes. I do not think it is for me to answer that question.
I see my responsibilities extending only to arranging whatever
you and the House want to do. These are the arguments, it seems
to mesecrecy or openness. It is a choice, and it is a choice
incidentally that I discovered only recently that the House of
Representatives in Washington once made in perhaps an opposite
direction. The Jeffersonian House voted by secret ballot and as
long as ago as 1839 they said, "No, we are going to move
to a roll call". Obviously these choices come up at random
points in the history of any legislature and you just have to
solve them, it seems to me, the way you feel.
211. I think the deliberations in Committee
have suggested that what makes the election of the Speaker distinctive
is that it is a matter for the House itself very largely and,
since we are electing a Speaker to be absolutely impartial and
to deal with matters in that way, on that basis it may be sufficiently
unique to justify having a secret ballot as opposed to an open
one. That is added to by the feeling amongst many members that,
in order to make sure it was proof against improper influence
by the whips or any other influences, a secret ballot is the only
guaranteed way of doing that, and I would have thought just from
my one experience that it is highly unlikely that a large number
of voters take a very direct interest in the election of Speaker
which I suspect they would see as largely and properly a matter
for the House and for its members. One can, therefore, make a
case for saying that the election of Speaker is sufficiently unique
to justify a completely different treatment from that which has
been traditionally followed in the House.
(Mr McKay) Yes, I am sure you can make that case and,
indeed, it is a case which has been made and accepted in legislatures
outside the Anglo Saxon tradition from the French revolution onwards:
that where you are making a personal selection for some office
you do it in private, by secret ballot.
212. We had evidence from Baroness Boothroyd
yesterday in favour of an open ballot but, in supporting that
point, she indicated that this would be a slippery slopein
other words, members may in the future on, say, moral issues or
others be pressed to have a secret ballot and this is one reason
why we should resist the secret ballot on this occasion. What
do you think?
(Mr McKay) It depends on your view of the unique character
which Mr Forth was advancing for this decision. The only consideration
I can put forward at this point is that I am not aware that any
of the legislatures that have got a rule of secret ballot for
nominations have been subject to the slippery slope. That is not
to say that the House of Commons might not be different in this
respectas in many others.
213. Can I move to a completely different point
concerning the logistics of what might be implied, and obviously
you are in a very expert position to give us advice on that. After
a general election, what would you see as being the logical minimum
timetable we could follow to get the new Speaker in post?
(Mr McKay) The problem is that the date of the meeting
of the new Parliament is fixed by the dissolution proclamation
so, if the general election results were completed on the Friday,
there would be no choicethe House would usually be summoned
to the following Wednesday. That is the first practical problem.
The second practical problem is obviously how can you allow for
negotiations, the developing of support, just talking between
Members to establish the strength of candidacies? Can you do that
in the excited days between a general election and the summoning
of the House when maybewho knowseveryone's interest
is on No 10 Downing Street and the formation of a government?
I think after giving it a lot of consideration, if you think you
can compress everything from the making of the nominations to
the voting to the final result into one day then you can come
back on the Wednesday. If however you are going to look for quite
a lot of timesay half a daybefore the nominations
close and then, say, another half day between the closing of the
nominations and the voting, then you really are into a two-day
processwhich has its logistical problems, obviously, but
it can be done.
214. What is the reality of what happens on
that Wednesday? My memory of that is that we are not talking of
(Mr McKay) You are electing a Speaker, that is all.
215. But is there any procedural or legal reason
why that should not be adjourned for a couple of days while we
get our breath back, if it turns out we need to?
(Mr McKay) But who is in the Chair?
216. Who is in the Chair for the election of
the Speaker? The Father of the House.
(Mr McKay) Yes, but he is only in the Chair for that
purposethe election of the Speaker. You would have to adjust
the Standing Orderit could be doneto make this possible.
217. I am not suggesting we should but just
in terms of the practicalities here it would be competent for
us to have a Standing Order which gave the Chairmanship to the
Father of the House, as at present, but gave him an additional
item of business if required, and he would be able to adjourn
the House for a period of X?
(Mr McKay) Yes, especially if you set out in the Standing
Order the broad framework of the electoral proceedings.
218. On that same point, are we not in a similar
situation after general elections as we were in at the end of
the recess, when Betty Boothroyd resigned effectively at the end
of the previous session, although she just went formally the day
before, and we return for a new session of Parliament and under
a new system where we have to have nominations, say countersigned
by a dozen people? There is still that time lag, is there not,
in which to assemble, for somebody to gather nominations and to
hand them in? If we know the result of the election on the Friday,
is it not possible that people could gather nominations in the
intervening period given that only experienced members are really
going to know what is going on around the election of the Speaker
and, therefore, we could arrive with nominations on the first
day and deal with it on that day, or is it that we have that one
day that we come back for members to gather their nominations
and then they have to be in and we deal with that business the
(Mr McKay) As an official I do not know the answer
to that. I do not know what it is like to be a Member between
an election and the meeting of a new Parliament. I do not know
how many Members are here. Obviously the neatest way of doing
it would be, as you say, to rely on the Members who are experienced
to get the nomination system going, and then perhaps before the
voting to allow the candidatesbut only the candidatesto
address the House maybe with a ten-minute speech limit which would
help the new Members to make some kind of judgment, and then vote.
That way you could probably encompass the whole exercise in that
one day and start swearing Members thereafter. In the case of
a resignation or a death in mid-session, if that is the problem
you are meeting, will you not have an added pressure of a government
saying, "Get it done in one day, we do not want to lose any
more business time"?
219. Could I ask a procedural question? If there
has been a general election and there is a Speakership vacancy,
is it competent for members to vote in a successor under the current
proceedings before they have been sworn in? Presumably it has
(Mr McKay) Yes.