Select Committee on Procedure Second Report


Does the 1972 System Need to be Changed?

37. The great majority of respondents to our questionnaire—86%—supported replacing the 1972 arrangements with the obvious alternative, a ballot-based system.[7] This was reflected in the written and oral evidence we received, and we see no reason to doubt that it reflects the views of the House as a whole. The Shadow Leader of the House, the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, the Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, the Parliamentary Leader (Westminster) of the Scottish National Party, and the two former Speakers, Lord Weatherill and Lady Boothroyd, all told us that they supported a change to a ballot-based system.[8] The Leader of the House did not express a positive view one way or another but emphasised that this was a matter for the free decision of the House.[9] The Father of the House and the spokesman of the Ulster Unionist Party did not support a change to the existing arrangements.[10]

38. Some Members expressed themselves strongly about the perceived defects of the 1972 rules and how they operated on 23 October 2000.[11] The chief argument advanced against the 1972 system was that the order in which Members are called by the Father of the House may help to determine the outcome, or at least may be perceived so to do;[12] that this imposes an unfair burden on the Father of the House;[13] and that Members accordingly have to make tactical decisions as to whether to vote for candidates higher up the 'list' who are not their first choice, in case a candidate is elected before a vote is taken on their first choice.[14] Other criticisms of the 1972 arrangements were that they are unnecessarily complex,[15] and that the process is unduly time-consuming.[16]

39. A claim made by several witnesses was that the 1972 arrangements worked reasonably well in the context for which they were designed, that of an election involving at most two candidates, but that they broke down under the pressure of multiple candidatures.[17] However, it was widely acknowledged that over a period of decades there has been a shift in the attitude taken by the House collectively which makes it increasingly unlikely that elections can be confined to a small number of candidates. The assumption which underlay the 1972 Procedure Committee report was that the 'usual channels' would operate to winnow out candidates with limited support, and to present the House with a choice of, if not a single candidate, then at most two. The attitude which prevailed thirty years ago is well illustrated by a comment made to the 1971 inquiry by the then Chairman of the PLP, Mr Douglas Houghton. He said, "I do not think the House can, unaided, find its own Speaker, and I think it must recognise that it must have some help and support from the leaders of the parties".[18] This attitude of 'benevolent paternalism' is one that now appears to command no support within the House: none of our witnesses considered that the 'usual channels' should have any formal role to play in the choice of a Speaker.[19] The Clerk of the House commented that there has been a long-term trend towards freeing the election of the Speaker "from the constraints of government or party direction".[20] Indeed, in the elections of each of the three most recent Speakers, indications of support from members of the Government of the day for particular candidates seem to have had a positively counter-productive effect.

40. Mr Tam Dalyell argued that even when a smaller number of candidates took part, the 1972 system still had grave defects. He cited the contested election of 1992. In that election the then Father of the House had called a proposer of Mr Peter Brooke first, followed by a proposer of Miss Boothroyd. Once the amendment in support of the latter had been carried, the election was effectively over. Mr Dalyell claimed, however, that the Father of the House had made a mistaken assessment of the strengths of the potential Conservative candidates, and that there were at least two such candidates who might have secured more votes than Mr Brooke, but the system had not allowed this to be put to the test.[21]

41. Several Members, while supporting change, rejected some of the criticisms of the current arrangements: one Member, for instance, described the process on 23 October as "well run and clear".[22] Others argued that the status quo was in fact defensible. The Chairman of Ways and Means, Sir Alan Haselhurst, argued that the circumstances of the recent election might not be replicated, and counselled against preparing "for the next war ... based on what happened in the last". He also pointed out, as did others, that the scale of Mr Martin's victory was such that the result of the election would almost certainly have been the same whatever electoral system had been adopted.[23] Mr David Maclean went further: "the system worked perfectly and was not a shambles contrary to media opinion".[24] Mr Phil Woolas argued that the system "ensures that all candidates have a fair hearing ... no system of election is perfect and if it ain't broke don't fix it".[25]

42. There was widespread agreement that the length of time taken to elect a Speaker on 23 October, which had been unfavourably commented on in the media, was not in itself a weakness in the system, given the significance of the decision being made and the need to get it right. Mr David Maclean commented, "Are we saying that one whole day every 10 years is too long to take to elect a Speaker?"[26] Mr Tony Benn, while criticising the amount of time taken by divisions, said that "the Speaker is an enormously important appointment, and if the House decides to spend a day on the Speaker, compared to some of the things we spend a day on, I cannot imagine a better choice of time".[27] Mr Peter Bradley said, "if our deliberations are serious and worthwhile it does not really matter that they take five or six hours".[28] Lady Boothroyd told us, "I do not think it matters that, once every eight years or so, the House spends a whole day electing its Speaker".[29]

43. The Chairman of the Procedure Committee when it previously considered this matter, Sir Peter Emery, accepted that there was a problem with the present system, in that the first candidate to achieve a majority on an amendment had effectively won the election, even though other candidates whose names had not yet been put before the House might have achieved a bigger majority; but Sir Peter argued that this defect could be redressed whilst retaining the overall framework of the existing system.[30] He sent us a proposal for a standing order change to provide that, once an amendment were carried, amendments to substitute further names in the main motion as amended could still be taken, with this process continuing until all candidates had had their names put before the House.[31]

44. Having carefully considered all these arguments for and against the existing arrangements, we have come to the following conclusions:—

      (i)  No special veneration is due to the existing rules on grounds of antiquity or tradition. Contrary to the assumption made by many Members and others, the existing, complex electoral system is of recent origin. It is only 28 years old, and replaced a system which was procedurally simpler (though one which had its own serious drawbacks). The election on 23 October 2000 was in fact only the second time on which a contest had been held under the 1972 rules.

      (ii)  Not all the criticisms made of the existing system are justified. In particular, we do not consider that the length of time taken to elect a Speaker ought to be an over-riding factor. The decision is a sufficiently important one to merit the House devoting a whole sitting day to it, when this is found to be necessary.

      (iii)  The 1972 system is based on the assumption that the Government of the day and the 'usual channels' will operate behind the scenes in order to present the House with a single candidate, or at most a choice between two or three. Since at least 1983 it has become clear that this assumption is no longer correct. It is clear that the House is no longer willing to entrust the choice of candidates to the party machines. This means that (except in the special circumstances of the start of a Parliament when the sitting Speaker has been returned to the House) multi-candidate elections are likely to become the norm.

      (iv)  Where there are more than two candidates, the 1972 system is fundamentally flawed. The order in which candidates are called may indeed help to determine the outcome. This weakness of the system was in fact disguised in the recent election because of the strength of support for Mr Martin (which made the Father of the House's decision to call his name first a relatively easy one), and because none of his challengers was able to command a majority of those voting, which meant that all challengers were able to have their support tested in a division. These are circumstances which may very well not recur. In a contest with no clear front-runner, a future presiding Member may well miscalculate the potential support for the various candidates, and the House may end up with a Speaker who has less support than some of his challengers whose names could not be put before the House. We note Mr Dalyell's claim that such circumstances may in fact already have arisen, in the 1992 election.

      (v)  Sir Peter Emery's thoughtful attempt to deal with this central weakness of the 1972 system, without scrapping that system altogether, merits careful consideration. Sir Peter's proposal certainly tackles part of the problem, in that it would allow all challengers to the 'front-runner' to have their support tested in a division. However, the order in which names were put before the House would remain of crucial importance, because if a series of amendments were to be carried, in each case substituting a new name in the original motion, it is the last amendment to be carried which would prevail, and would determine the content of the main motion, as amended, on which the final question would be put—and this would be so even if earlier successful amendments had been carried with greater majorities. The House at this point would be confronted with a choice between electing as Speaker a Member who had just been shown to have less support than one or more of his competitors, or of voting down the main motion as amended and starting the contest afresh. Both options would be undesirable. In addition, the Father of the House would continue to have to make an invidious choice as to who was the front-runner; and the proceedings would remain unduly complex, with a great incentive to Members to vote tactically. With regret, therefore, we cannot accept Sir Peter's proposal.

      (vi)  For the above reasons we accept the view of the great majority of our witnesses, and recommend that the 1972 system for electing the Speaker be replaced by a ballot-based system.

Our Proposal

45. In the following paragraphs we put forward an integrated proposal for a new system based on a ballot, setting out step by step how it would work.

Presiding Member and administrative arrangements

46. We propose no change to the existing arrangements as to who should be the presiding Member during the election of Speaker. Those arrangements, set out in Standing Order No. 1, are as follows: (1) if the outgoing Speaker is still in post, he or she should occupy the Chair; (2) in the event of an outgoing Speaker still in post being unavoidably absent, e.g. through illness, or if there is no Speaker (owing to death, acceptance of office under the Crown, or following a Dissolution) then "the Chair shall be taken by that Member, present in the House and not being a Minister of the Crown, who has served for the longest period continuously as a Member of this House"—in other words, if he or she is present, the 'Father of the House'.

47. We recommend that the Clerk of the House should supervise the conduct of the ballot, and should be responsible for the detailed administrative arrangements. The Clerk should act under the authority of the presiding Member.


48. One of the attractions of a ballot is that it will do away with many of the problems raised by multiple candidacies. Nevertheless, we think it desirable that as far as possible the House should be given a clear choice between a reasonably limited number of serious candidates with cross-party support. For this reason we recommend that there should be a minimum threshold of eligibility to enter the contest. Each candidate's nomination should receive the support of 12 other Members, of whom at least three should not be members of his or her party. The Clerk of the House should verify that candidates are eligible to stand according to these criteria. In order to discourage 'trophy-hunting' of names, and the competitive compilation of long lists of names, we recommend that no more than 12 supporters' names be submitted with the nomination, and that the names of candidates' supporters should not be publicly revealed.

'Campaigning': manifestoes, hustings and speeches

49. Any kind of overt campaigning for the post of Speaker has traditionally been strongly discouraged. This reflected the view that the Speakership was a post which Members did not actively seek. As we have seen, in recent centuries at least this has been something of a polite fiction. Nevertheless, as recently as 1972 the Procedure Committee re-affirmed the view that "canvassing and lobbying, especially of new Members, at the beginning of a Parliament, ... would be undesirable".[32] In the most recent election it became clear that this convention had been significantly eroded: several candidates issued written 'manifestoes', and an informal hustings meeting was held on the morning of the election in one of the House's committee rooms, which was attended by a number of candidates.

50. Several of our witnesses commented that they had found the hustings meeting helpful.[33] They also noted that newly elected Members of the House at the start of a Parliament would stand in particular need of information about the merits of candidates whom they could not be expected to know personally.[34] Other witnesses expressed grave doubts, particularly about the desirability of manifestoes. It was pointed out that the Speaker is the impartial servant of the House, and is not in a position to deliver on detailed policy commitments given during the course of an election campaign; it is his or her job to work within the Standing Orders agreed by the House and other decisions taken by the House or its committees.[35] The Chairman of Ways and Means set out this objection in detail:

    "I disapprove of the idea of a hustings. It seems to me that this can only introduce an element of competitiveness, if not immediately then over time, which could lead candidates into statements and undertakings which could compromise their independence in the Chair if chosen. It must be remembered that whilst the Speaker has some power of initiative, all matters of procedure are questions for Members as a whole to determine. The Speaker's duty is to uphold impartially the decisions of the House whose servant he/she is. Much the same arguments apply to a manifesto, which is the written equivalent of a hustings speech."[36]

51. To this argument the supporters of manifestoes replied that it would be helpful to Members for each candidate to indicate at least in broad terms, as Mr Peter Bradley put it, "the principles which would guide their tenure of the office"—for instance in relation to modernisation of the House.[37]

52. We believe that in a multi-candidate election some degree of campaigning is inevitable and, indeed, healthy, but that this should be constrained within strict limits. We do not consider that a long, formal campaign would be of benefit to the House, or likely to enhance its reputation with the public; nor indeed would such a campaign be feasible at the start of a Parliament, given the need of the House to elect a Speaker before it can proceed to other business. We propose that all the formal proceedings in relation to the election should take place within a single sitting day; this in itself will serve to reduce the scope for active campaigning. We see no formal role within the new procedure for manifestoes or hustings, but equally we do not recommend that they be formally prohibited.

53. We emphasise that we would deprecate unduly strident campaigning, and that campaigning involving the expenditure of money would be wholly inappropriate. If it becomes apparent that any such campaigning is taking place, our successors in future Parliaments will have the option of recommending the imposition of formal restrictions on campaigning; but we hope that the good sense of candidates and the House at large will prevail and that this will not prove necessary.

54. We acknowledge that many of the Members who attended the informal hustings last October found it a useful occasion, and we accept that there is a particular need for new Members at the start of a Parliament to receive information about the candidates. However, we believe that the right place for information to be conveyed is in the Chamber of the House.[38] We therefore recommend that, at a suitable interval after nominations have closed, each candidate should have the opportunity to address the House in support of his or her candidature. This should immediately precede the holding of the ballot. The order in which candidates speak should be determined by a draw conducted by the Clerk of the House. We do not recommend that proposers and seconders be heard on this occasion; the formal need for proposal is obviated by having written nominations, and we note the views of a majority of our witnesses that proposers' and seconders' speeches during the recent election, though in some cases entertaining, consumed much time without materially influencing the subsequent voting.[39]

The ballot: secret or open?

55. The most difficult decision in relation to a ballot is whether it should be secret or open. There are strong arguments on both sides of the question. The most powerful argument in support of secrecy is that it would protect those voting from any form of improper pressure, whether from the party leaderships or supporters of particular candidates. Several witnesses claimed that pressure had been brought to bear even in the most recent election—although it was added that such pressure might have proved counter-productive.[40] A secret ballot would have the added benefit that the new Speaker would have no knowledge of who had voted for or against him or her in the ballot, and would therefore be free from even the suspicion of bias in subsequently calling Members to speak in debate. The Clerk of the House told us that there was a concern that "a vote cast against a Speaker is remembered", although he added that he did not know whether this was "paranoia" or had a foundation in fact.[41] The former Speaker, Lord Weatherill, said that "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 ... the Speaker should not know who has voted for him or her".[42] Lady Boothroyd told us that in order to avoid any such suspicion, she did not look at the voting list for her election until a year had passed.[43]

56. The use of a secret ballot to elect a presiding officer is widespread amongst other parliaments and assemblies: the House of Representatives in Australia, the House of Commons in Canada, the National Assembly in South Africa, the national parliaments of France and Italy, the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales all use secret ballots for this purpose.[44]

57. The major argument in favour of an open ballot is that as a matter of principle the electorate is entitled to know how Members of Parliament have voted on this, as on all other decisions which are made by the House. Mr Tony Benn stated that:

    "Where we vote, as in a general election, on our own behalf, it is proper that it should be private, but where we vote in our representative capacity, namely, as Member of Parliament, I think our constituents are entitled to know."[45]

58. Several witnesses also argued that allowing a secret ballot for the Speakership would set a bad precedent, leading to pressure for secrecy in other divisions on sensitive subjects. Mr David Maclean argued:

    "Once we start on the secret ballot route for Speaker we are on a slippery slope to demanding secret ballots for a range of other things; and the day will come, we will be able to say to our constituents, 'Well I can't tell you how I voted on the Embryology Bill; it's a secret, you know.' It maybe seems far-fetched at the moment, but we can be heading on that route."[46]

The Clerk of the House commented that "if you are going to go for a secret ballot, ... I think you have to explain what is so special about this decision ... which makes it distinct from any other decision the House takes".[47]

59. Of those Members who responded to our questionnaire, a clear majority supported a secret ballot: 63% were in favour and 24% were opposed (the remainder were agnostic or opposed to having a ballot at all). In oral evidence, the Shadow Leader of the House, the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee, the former Speaker, Lord Weatherill, Mr Peter Bradley and Mr Alan Keen told us they supported a secret ballot,[48] but the Father of the House, the Chair of the PLP, the former Speaker, Lady Boothroyd, Mr Tony Benn and Mr David Maclean supported an open ballot.[49]

60. We have considered carefully the arguments for and against a secret ballot. On balance, we are persuaded that the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. We note that over many years the House has regarded the election of its Speaker as an occasion quite apart from the usual run of parliamentary events, requiring special and unusual procedures. We do not believe there is any danger of setting a precedent which would be carried over into other areas of parliamentary activity. We also note the long-developing tradition that this pre-eminently is a matter for the House and not for the Government or the party leaderships, and believe that the institution of a secret ballot would represent a desirable culmination of that tradition. Finally, we note that major parliaments elsewhere in the world, both within and without the Westminster tradition, have regarded this procedure as appropriate to the election of their presiding officers. For these reasons we recommend that the ballot be secret.

61. We hope that the House will accept our recommendation. However, we are conscious that this is an issue on which there are strong views in the House on both sides of the argument. Although we have sampled the opinion of Members through our questionnaire and by taking evidence, we are not confident that we know what the majority view in the House is. We therefore recommend that the question of whether the ballot be secret or open should be the subject of a specific and separate decision by the House.

7   See Annex 1. Back

8   QQ 114, 130, 83, 85, 89, 169 and 165. Back

9   Q 143. Back

10   QQ 167, 88. Back

11   See, for instance, Ev. p. 2; Q 56; questionnaire response from David Tredinnick MP; Q85. Back

12   QQ 2, 6, 82, 88, 114. Back

13   QQ 6, 55. Back

14   QQ 55, 89. Back

15   Ev. p. 2. Back

16   Q42; questionnaire responses from Tess Kingham MP and Tom Levitt MP. Back

17   Q 143. Back

18   HC (1971-72) 111, Q 141. Back

19   See QQ 20, 35, 61, 91, 120, 131, 142-43 and 169. Back

20   Ev. p. 61. Back

21   Q 56. Back

22   Questionnaire response from Jane Griffiths MP. Back

23   Questionnaire response from Sir Alan Haselhurst MP. Back

24   Ev. p. 15. Back

25   Questionnaire response from Phil Woolas MP. Back

26   Ev. p. 15. Back

27   Q 9. Back

28   Q 10. Back

29   Q 165. Back

30   QQ 4, 12-13. Back

31   Ev. p. 71. Back

32   HC (1971-72) 111, para 20. Back

33   Ev. p. 2; questionnaire responses from, inter alia, Sir Patrick Cormack MP, Jane Griffiths MP, Tony Worthington MP. Back

34   Q 127. Back

35   Ev. p. 16; questionnaire responses from Richard Ottaway MP. Back

36   Questionnaire response from Sir Alan Haselhurst MP. Back

37   Q 19; see also Q 24. Back

38   See QQ 77, 83. Back

39   See QQ 24, 67, 73, 74, 76, 85 and 89. Back

40   Q 14, 85. Back

41   Q 210. Back

42   Q 171. Back

43   Ibid. Back

44   See Annex 1. Back

45   Q 9. Back

46   Q 64. Back

47   Q 210. Back

48   QQ 114, 133, 85, 169, 10 and 14. Back

49   QQ 170, 83, 170, 9, 64. Back

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