Select Committee on Procedure Second Report


The Procedure Committee has agreed to the following Report:—



1. On 23 October 2000 the House elected Mr Michael Martin as its Speaker, in succession to Miss Betty Boothroyd. Twelve Members of the House put themselves forward as candidates and the electoral process attracted considerable media attention. There was much disquiet expressed both inside and outside the House about the supposed shortcomings of the current process.

2. In view of this disquiet, we decided to conduct a fundamental review of the mechanism by which the House chooses its Speaker. We took the view that it was important that the House should be given an opportunity to decide on any proposed new system before the end of this Parliament, which meant in effect before a possible Dissolution in Spring 2001.

3. We have accordingly carried out a brief but, we hope, thorough inquiry. We conclude that some, though not all, of the criticisms of the present system of electing a Speaker are justified. We believe it is right to make a change, and to put before the House proposals for an alternative system. We also wish to put on record, however, our belief that the outcome of the election on 23 October 2000 would have been the same regardless of the particular electoral system employed.

4. We have attempted not to lose sight of the fact that in the choice of Speaker, the outcome matters more than the details of the process. Our recommendations will be judged not merely by whether they enable the will of the House to be more effectively ascertained, but also by whether they assist the House to choose persons who will uphold the high traditions of the Speakership; in particular the paramount tradition of complete and transparent political impartiality. Our proposals are designed to achieve both of these ends.

Conduct of the Inquiry

5. In the comparatively short time available we have done our best to canvass opinion within the House as widely as possible. The Chairman of the Committee wrote on 9 November to all Members of the House enclosing a brief questionnaire, to which 130 replies have been received. A statistical breakdown of these replies is appended to the report.[9]

6. We received written evidence from the Clerk of the House and from the Electoral Reform Society.[10]

7. On 12 December 2000 we took oral evidence from a panel of backbenchers comprising Mr Tony Benn MP, Mr Peter Bradley MP, Mr Tam Dalyell MP, Sir Peter Emery MP, Mr Alan Keen MP, Mr David Maclean MP and Sir George Young MP. We also issued invitations to each of the political parties represented in the House (other than those consisting of a single Member), inviting them to send a representative to give oral evidence. On 23 January 2001 we took evidence from Mr Clive Soley MP, Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party (but speaking in a personal capacity rather than for the PLP), Sir Archie Hamilton MP, Chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, Mr William Ross MP of the Ulster Unionist Party and Mr Alasdair Morgan MP, Westminster Parliamentary Leader of the Scottish National Party. On the same date we took evidence from the Rt Hon Margaret Beckett MP, Leader of the House and President of the Council (speaking in a personal capacity rather than for the Government), Mrs Angela Browning MP, Shadow Leader of the House, and Mr Paul Tyler MP, Liberal Democrat Chief Whip. On 30 January we took evidence from the Father of the House, the Rt Hon Sir Edward Heath MP, together with the two living former Speakers, the Rt Hon Lord Weatherill and the Rt Hon Baroness Boothroyd of Sandwell. Finally, on 31 January we took evidence from the Clerk of the House of Commons, Mr William McKay.

8. We have made inquiries as to practice overseas, in Commonwealth parliaments and those of major European Union countries, and in the United States Congress, as well as in the devolved institutions of the United Kingdom. We append a short paper summarising other parliaments' and assemblies' practice in electing their presiding officers.[11] We are most grateful to the relevant authorities, overseas and within the UK, who have provided us with information. We also append a short note summarising procedure for electing the chairs of party backbench committees at Westminster.[12]

The Early Practice of the House

9. The Speakership is an ancient office. The appointment of a spokesman by those assembled in Parliament predates the first summoning of the Commons to Parliament: Peter de Montfort is recorded as having been 'prolocutor' (i.e. speaker) of the 'Mad' Parliament which met at Oxford in 1258.[13] When the Commons began to meet as a separate House in the early fourteenth century, the need for some form of presiding officer and reporter of the Commons' views to the Crown would soon have been felt. The traditional list of Speakers begins with Sir Thomas Hungerford in 1377 and continues almost without a break to the present day.[14]

10. Practically nothing is known about the way in which the House chose its Speaker during the first centuries of its existence. In the early fifteenth century a series of Speakers vigorously asserted and sought to extend the privileges of the Commons. Little is known about their mode of election, though on at least one occasion a Speaker who seems to have proved unacceptable to the House was rapidly replaced by another in order to placate the House.[15]

11. From the sixteenth century more information becomes available. In this period the Speaker was invariably a royal nominee, although in outward form the choice rested with the House.[16] In 1553, for example, the Duke of Northumberland, acting as Protector to Edward VI, wrote to the Lord Chamberlain seven weeks before the actual election, saying that it was time the King chose the Speaker of the House, so that "he might have secret warning thereof, as always it hath been used" in order to prepare himself for the occasion.[17] Edward Coke, who was elected Speaker in 1593, wrote in his Institutes that "the use is ... that the King doth name a discreet and learned man whom the Commons elect".[18] Speakers in this period were very much seen as the King's, or Queen's, men; a tendency reinforced by the fact that the Speakership did not usually mark the culmination of a career, as it now does, but was a stepping stone for an ambitious lawyer towards high judicial office which itself lay in the gift of the Crown.[19]

12. Although the right of nomination to the Chair effectively lay with the Crown, some thought was given, in the interests of 'managing' the House, to picking a candidate whom the Commons found broadly acceptable. It was not usual for Privy Councillors to be nominated: an anonymous Member writing in the early 1580s stated that "in some heads there may be a jealousy that a Councillor, being specially sworn to her Majesty's service, is not a person so congruent with the liberties of the House as another".[20] The theoretical right of the Commons to choose another candidate was not forgotten. In 1566, for example, there occurred the first contested election on record, which the 'official' candidate only narrowly won (by 82 votes against 70).[21] In the first Parliament of James I, in 1604, the names of alternative candidates were "muttered", although there seems to have been no formal division and "the general voice" supported the official candidate.[22] The House's suspicion of candidates seen as too closely associated with the government of the day is a recurring feature of Speakership elections across the centuries.

13. In the 1604 case the Journal records that the Clerk of the House put the question on the official candidature. The custom whereby the Clerk took the Chair during the election of Speaker, although as a non-Member he lacked a voice in the House, was thus established early. At this stage it was still the custom to put the question even if only one candidate was before the House.

14. The political struggles of the seventeenth century placed increasing pressure on Speakers to act as the servants of the House rather than of the Crown. This reached an apogee with Speaker Lenthall's famous defiance of Charles I in 1642, and with that Speaker's subsequent role as formal head of state during the short-lived English Republic. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 Speakers resumed a more traditional role and were again nominees of the Crown. The first contested election for the post since Elizabethan times took place in 1678: so many years had elapsed that the House was uncertain how to proceed and precedents had to be hunted out.[23]

15. After the Revolution of 1688, contested elections briefly became the norm: five were held in the decade after 1695. This sudden spate of contested elections was a reflection of the rise of political parties, with each party desiring to have its man in the Chair. The election of 1695 was the first on which two questions are known to have been put to the House: the question that Thomas Littleton (the Whig nominee supported by the Court) take the Chair having been defeated by 179 votes to 146, a second question, that Paul Foley (the choice of the Tory majority in the House) take the Chair was agreed to nemine contradicente.[24] (In all previous contested elections on record, the initial motion had been agreed to and therefore no further motion was needed.)

16. The election in 1698 produced an unusual example of public campaigning by one of the candidates, in the form of an anonymous pamphlet, Considerations upon the Choice of a Speaker, which, without naming the rival candidate, attacks him for holding a government post. The pamphlet comments, "every Man who has at any time sat in the House of Commons, must be sensible, that the Choice of a Speaker is a matter of the greatest importance with relation to the Freedom of that House: and if Liberty be there destroy'd in the Root, it cannot survive in the Branches." The pamphlet argued that a first step towards arbitrary government would be the attempt by Ministers "by Places, Bribes and Pensions, to take off the Speaker, well knowing that the Freedom of that House depends in a great measure upon their Speaker, as our Laws and Rights depend upon that House". The pamphlet concludes that "it must be ... prodigious Folly [if] a Lord of the Treasury, be chosen Speaker of this House of Commons".[25]

The Practice of the House from circa 1700 to 1972

17. By about 1700 the procedure surrounding the election of Speaker had become fixed, and was to continue unaltered until 1972.[26] The Clerk of the House presided, the Chair being empty and the Mace beneath the Table. The Clerk, by rising and pointing, called a Member to propose that another Member "do take the Chair of this House as Speaker", this motion being seconded. If no alternative candidate was put before the House, the Member proposed was called to the Chair without any question being put (as we have seen, this was a change from earlier practice). If another Member was proposed, a similar motion was put in respect of him and both candidates addressed the House. A debate could then ensue, in which the Clerk acted as presiding officer. At the end of the debate he would put the question, that the Member first proposed do take the Chair, and a division would ensue. When the House had reached its decision, either unanimously or following a division, the Member elected made a short speech submitting himself to the House. He was then taken from his seat by his proposer and seconder and conducted to the Chair, making, by ancient custom, a show of resistance. The Mace was placed on the Table and Mr Speaker-Elect was congratulated by leading Members.

18. After the contested election of 1705 there followed another long period, lasting until 1770, in which no contests were held. This was in part due to the 33-year Speakership of the much-respected Arthur Onslow, who first established the doctrine of the impartiality of the Chair (a doctrine imperfectly upheld by his immediate successors, and not firmly rooted till the Speakership of Shaw-Lefevre nearly a century later).

19. Between 1770 and 1835 six contested elections took place. In two of these, a sitting Speaker was displaced. In 1780, following a General Election, the Whig Sir Fletcher Norton was rejected in favour of a Tory, Charles Cornwall. Likewise, in 1835, Speaker Manners-Sutton was rejected by the House, despite having been Speaker for 18 years and the victor in two previous contested elections. This was the last occasion on which a Speaker returned at a General Election has been rejected by the House. The reasons for the rejection were again political: the large Whig majority in the House wished to install a Speaker who, unlike the Tory Manners-Sutton, was "steadily attached to the principles of reform".[27] The contest was a controversial one and a number of Whigs voted for Manners-Sutton, who lost by only 10 votes. The historian of the Speakership, Philip Laundy, comments that lessons were learned from this experience:

    "The supplanting of Manners-Sutton ... led to the recognition of two vital principles on which the modern speakership is based: that a Speaker, once elected, should cease to have any connection with a political party; and that he should be entitled to look forward to a continuity of office guaranteed by all parties."[28]

20. A further contested election was held in 1839, at which the Whigs secured the election of their candidate, Shaw-Lefevre. When the Tories returned to power two years later, they acquiesced in the re-election of Shaw-Lefevre. The Tory leader Sir Robert Peel argued that it would be wrong for a "person elected to the Chair, who had conscientiously and ably performed his duties, [to] be displaced because his political opinions were not consonant to those of the majority of the House".[29]

21. Thereafter contested elections become rare until very recent times. The Victorian period was marked by a succession of great Speakers (Shaw-Lefevre, Denison, Brand and Peel), each of whom occupied the Chair for many years. The initiative in finding a suitable candidate for Speaker was in each case clearly seen to be a matter for the Government. For instance, the first intimation John Denison received that he was to be offered the Speakership came in the form of a letter from the Prime Minister which read as follows: "My dear Denison, We wish to be allowed to propose you for the Speakership of the House of Commons. Will you agree? Yours sincerely, Palmerston".[30]

22. No further contested election took place until 1895. In that year Speaker Peel resigned, and the Conservative Opposition attempted to secure a Speaker from their own benches after a run of five Liberal Speakers. In the event they failed to prevent the election of Speaker Gully, and were content for him to remain as Speaker after the Conservative victory in the 1895 General Election.

23. A period of 56 years then elapsed before the next contested election, in 1951. During this time the House elected four Speakers in 18 uncontested elections. It may be noted that twice during these years, in 1906 and 1945, the House re-elected sitting Speakers despite landslide majorities for a party other than that to which the Speaker had belonged. In 1951 the contested election arose from a misunderstanding between the Conservative and Labour parties as to which candidate should be put before the House.[31]

24. No further contested elections took place until 1971. However, during these years unease was growing within the House about the system of election of Speakers, and in particular about lack of consultation by the Government with the Opposition and with backbenchers. In 1959, whilst not actually opposing the election of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Gaitskell, expressed "strong dissatisfaction with and disapproval of the methods by which in practice this election has been conducted".[32] The Opposition were concerned both about lack of consultation and about the fact that Sir Harry was a former Minister, having been Solicitor-General in the previous government.[33]

25. This sense of unease reached a head in 1971. Following the retirement of Speaker King, John Selwyn Lloyd was elected Speaker on division. An alternative candidate (Sir Geoffrey de Freitas) was proposed and seconded, against his own wishes and without notice to him, in order to make a protest against the lack of consultation with backbenchers.

The 1972 Reforms and thereafter

26. As a result of the criticisms expressed in 1971, the Procedure Committee conducted an inquiry into the election of a Speaker.[34] Although prompted initially by the complaint about lack of consultation, the Committee also considered more purely procedural matters. The procedure according to ancient usage, as set out in paragraph 17 above, remained in force at this time. "Lack of procedure" might be an apter description, as in many respects the election of a Speaker took place in a procedural limbo. The Standing Orders were deemed not to apply to proceedings;[35] the presiding officer could not speak, deal with points of order, or accept a dilatory motion; if only one candidate was proposed, a motion was made which would be agreed to without the question being put; if more than one candidate was proposed, the House would debate two substantive motions simultaneously. All these practices, however time-honoured in respect of the particular occasion, were contrary to the House's normal way of conducting business.

27. The Committee received much evidence critical of these traditional practices, and concluded, in a report published in January 1972, that it was necessary to make significant changes. One proposal they considered but rejected was that of election by secret ballot. This they opposed on the grounds that "it would be wrong to depart from the general principle that Members should be publicly accountable for the votes they cast in their capacities as Members of Parliament"; and because they thought it likely that a ballot would lead to canvassing and lobbying, which they believed would be undesirable.[36]

28. The Committee's principal recommendations were as follows:—

      (i)  The presiding officer at the election of a Speaker should no longer be the Clerk but a Member. If the Speaker announces his retirement in mid-session, he should if possible occupy the Chair until his successor is elected. On all other occasions the Chair should be taken by the backbench Member with the longest unbroken period of service who is present in the House (usually "the Father of the House").

      (ii)  If a single candidate is proposed, the question should be put.

      (iii)  Motions for the election of further candidates should be moved in the form of amendments to the original motion. (That is, a motion would be made and the question proposed, that a Member do take the Chair as Speaker; if an amendment was proposed, to leave out the name first put forward and insert another, the House would decide upon this amendment; as soon as this, or a subsequent, amendment was agreed to, the House would decide on the main question as amended; if no amendment was agreed to, the House would decide on the main question in its original form.)

      (iv)  Proceedings should be subject to certain provisions of the Standing Orders, and the presiding Member should be granted some of the usual powers of the Chair, for instance in respect of dilatory motions.

      (v)  In other respects proceedings should follow the procedure established by ancient usage.[37]

27. These recommendations were adopted by the House, on 8 August 1972, and embodied in Standing Order No. 1 (Election of the Speaker), which has not been subsequently amended and remains the basis of Speakership elections.

28. One point should be noted about the rationale underlying the 1972 changes. The rule that proposal of further candidates be made by way of amendment to the original motion has the effect that the House must take a decision on those candidates before it considers the candidate first proposed. The Committee hoped that this would serve to demonstrate the lack of support for minor candidates and thus enable a unanimous decision to be taken on the candidate with the widest support: "if this question [on the second candidate] were negatived by a large majority, the unanimous election of the first, or of another candidate, might thereby be secured, a result which Your Committee believe to be highly desirable".[38] Secondly, the assumption underlying this and other recommendations continued to be that a 'vetting' of suitable candidates would take place behind the scenes by the Government in consultation with the Opposition and others, with a view to putting a sole candidate, or at most two, before the House. It is clear that the 1972 reforms were not intended to deal with a situation in which a multiplicity of candidates stood for election.

29. The new arrangements made in 1972 were not put to the test for 20 years, the elections of Speaker Thomas in 1976 and Speaker Weatherill in 1983 being unopposed. The latter election is interesting as an example of how—as has happened many times in the history of the Speakership—the actual political dynamics of a situation may be concealed behind a formally unanimous result. Prior to the election it was known that the then Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, favoured the election of Sir Humphrey Atkins, a former Conservative Chief Whip and cabinet minister who had resigned his post at the Foreign Office in the aftermath of the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands the previous year. However, it rapidly became apparent that the Conservative backbenches were not willing to support a candidate with such close and recent links with government. Sir Humphrey accordingly did not contest the election, and indeed was Mr Weatherill's proposer. A striking feature of this case is the assertion of independence by the backbenches: even a Prime Minister at the height of her influence within her party, and who had just been returned to power with a majority of 144, was unable to secure the election of her preferred candidate for the Chair.

30. In 1992 the first formally contested election under the 1972 rules took place. The name of Mr Peter Brooke was first proposed to the House; an amendment substituting the name of Miss Betty Boothroyd was agreed to on division, by 372 votes to 238, and the main question was agreed to unanimously. One of the reasons for the defeat of Mr Brooke was undoubtedly that he was seen as having too close links with government, having been a Secretary of State in the previous Parliament. Madam Speaker Boothroyd was re-elected in 1997.

31. In 1996 the Procedure Committee reviewed the arrangements for election of a Speaker, as part of a short inquiry into proceedings at the start of a Parliament.[1] The Committee commented that at the time of the 1992 election "there was some feeling ... that discord within the Government side of the House had prevented the emergence of a candidate on that side who might have enjoyed greater support [than Peter Brooke], but that the system of election did not allow that to be put to the test". The Committee said that it had "little sympathy with that view; the onus is plainly on the parties concerned to agree on their favoured candidate and failure to do so cannot be attributed to procedural obstacles".[2] The Committee thus restated the traditional view that it was a matter for the major parties, separately or together, to agree on a "favoured candidate". The Committee concluded that although the 1972 system had some "inherent weaknesses", in particular "the burden laid on the Father of the House to decide who is to catch his eye to move the first candidate", nonetheless "there is in our view no better system and many worse", and they therefore recommended no change to existing arrangements.[3]

32. On 12 July 2000 Madam Speaker Boothroyd announced her intention of resigning, both as Speaker and as a Member, "immediately before the House returns from the summer recess".[4] During the period following Madam Speaker's announcement, concern was expressed as to whether the existing election arrangements would deliver a fair outcome in the event of a considerable number of candidates allowing their names to be put forward. Some Members attempted to persuade Madam Speaker to delay her resignation, in order to allow the House to consider a change to the election arrangements; but without success. The House accordingly met on 23 October, being the first day after the summer adjournment, to elect a new Speaker, with Sir Edward Heath as Father of the House in the Chair.

33. Sir Edward began by making a short announcement. He told the House that under Standing Order No. 1, it was necessary to proceed forthwith to the choice of a Speaker, and added that:

    "the Standing Order therefore means that all I can preside over is the election of a Speaker by the means laid down in the Standing Order. Although that procedure may sound complex, it is exactly the same as that adopted by the House in deciding on any motion to which amendments are offered. First, the motion is moved. If there are amendments, they are then moved and decided on. Once an amendment has been carried, the main question, as amended, is put to the House for decision. If no amendment is carried and no more are forthcoming, the main question is put for decision."[5]

34. It immediately became apparent that there was much unhappiness within the House about proceeding to an election under these rules. Points of order were heard for nearly half an hour. One senior backbencher, Mr Tony Benn, sought to move a motion amending Standing Order No. 1, to allow the House to proceed to an election based upon a ballot, followed by a run-off vote between the two candidates highest placed in the ballot. Sir Edward declined to accept Mr Benn's motion. He said that the Standing Order gave him no discretion but to proceed forthwith with an election under the existing rules. In order to assist the House, he announced the order in which he proposed to call the proposers of the 12 candidates who were standing. The election then proceeded. Sir Edward first called Mr Peter Snape to move that Mr Michael J. Martin do take the Chair of this House as Speaker. Eleven other names were put forward by way of amendments to this motion, and each was successively voted down. There being no further amendments, Sir Edward put the question on the original motion, and Mr Martin was elected Speaker on division, by 370 votes to 8. The whole proceedings had taken some seven hours.

35. We have no doubt that Sir Edward Heath acted correctly in declining to accept Mr Benn's proposed motion. Standing Order No. 1 grants the Father of the House during a Speakership election some of the usual powers of the Speaker.[6] It is clear—both from the wording of the Standing Order itself and from the recommendations by the Procedure Committee in 1972 which it implements—that these powers are conferred solely in order to assist the Chair in conducting the election of a new Speaker according to the provisions of the Standing Order. It would be a perverse construction of that Order to suppose that it entitled the Chair or the House to proceed with a debate on setting aside the other provisions of the Order, or indeed with any other business.

36. Nevertheless, we understand the sense of frustration felt by many Members that the timing of the election last October did not allow the House at that time to conduct a debate on the rules governing the Speakership election. It is in order to allow the House to conduct that debate, and to do so on a well-informed basis, that we have carried out the present inquiry. We have sought to answer two questions. Is there a case for replacing the 1972 system of election? And if so, with what alternative system should it be replaced?

9   See p. xxvi below. Copies of the replies themselves have been placed in the House of Commons Library. Back

10   Printed below at pp. 58-63 and 71-76. Back

11   Printed below at p. xxviii. Back

12   Printed below at p. xxxv. Back

13   Philip Laundy, The Office of Speaker (1964), p. 137. Back

14   The identity of the Speaker in some of Richard II's Parliaments is not certainly known: see Laundy, pp. 140-41. Back

15   Speakers Stourton and Dorewood, in 1413; see Laundy, p. 147. Back

16   Michael A. R. Graves, Elizabethan Parliaments 1559-1601, second edition (1996), p. 86. Back

17   J. E. Neale, The Elizabethan House of Commons (1949), p. 354. Back

18   Ibid., p. 354. Back

19   As may be seen in the case of Coke himself, who was elected Speaker at the comparatively early age of 41, held the post for only two months, and went on to become a celebrated Attorney General and Chief Justice. Back

20   Neale, p. 356. Back

21   Commons Journal (CJ) (1547-1628) 73. Back

22   CJ, (1547-1628) 141. Back

23   See Laundy, p. 240. Back

24   Ibid., p. 252; CJ (1693-97) 271-72. Back

25   Considerations upon the Choice of a Speaker of the House of Commons in the Approaching Session (1698), pp. 3, 8. Back

26   See Procedure Committee, First Report of 1971-72, Election of a Speaker (HC 111), para 14. Back

27   Laundy, p. 299; ev. p. 58. Back

28   Laundy, p. 301. Back

29   Ev. p. 58. Back

30   Laundy, p. 306. Back

31   Ev. p. 59. Back

32   HC Deb (1959-60), vol. 612, col. 6 (cited in ev. p. 59). Back

33   Laundy, p. 20. Back

34   See Procedure Committee, First Report of 1971-72, Election of a Speaker (HC 111). Back

35   See HC (1971-72) 111, para 14. Back

36   Ibid., paras 19-20. Back

37   Ibid., para 28. Back

38   Ibid., para 25. Back

1   Procedure Committee, First Report of 1995-96, Proceedings at the Start of a Parliament (HC 386). Back

2   Ibid., para 19. Back

3   Ibid., para 22. Back

4   HC Deb (1999-2000), vol. 353, col. 869. Back

5   Ibid., vol. 355, col. 1. Back

6   Paragraph (4) of the S.O. provides that he "shall enjoy all those powers which may be exercised by the Speaker during proceedings under paragraph (2)"; the latter paragraph provides that the outgoing Speaker, where appropriate, "shall continue to take the Chair and shall perform the duties and exercise the authority of Speaker until a new Speaker has been chosen". Back

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