Select Committee on Procedure Second Report


The Electoral System

62. The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) submitted a helpful and lucid memorandum which sets out the pros and cons of various possible voting systems which might be used to elect the Speaker. We print this memorandum with the minutes of evidence,[50] and shall not attempt to replicate here the detailed discussion of individual systems set out by the ERS.

63. We accept the conclusion of the ERS that the two most suitable systems for our purposes are the Alternative Vote (AV) system and the Exhaustive Ballot. Under the AV system, voters rank candidates in an order of preference, putting '1' next to their first choice, '2' next to their second, and so on. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the first-choice votes, he or she is elected. If no candidate does so, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated and their votes redistributed according to the second preferences. The process of elimination and redistribution continues until one candidate receives more than half the votes or only two candidates remain.

64. Under the Exhaustive Ballot system, voters place an 'X' next to the candidate of their choice. If a candidate receives more than 50% of the votes, he or she is elected. If no candidate does so, the candidate with fewest votes, as in AV, is eliminated. However, unlike in AV, the House would then vote again on the reduced slate of candidates, and would continue doing so until one candidate receives more than half the votes or only two candidates remain.

65. The ERS set out four criteria for assessing the fairness of a Speakership electoral system:

      (i)  the winning candidate should have the support of more than 50% of those voting;

      (ii)  Members should be able to vote for the candidate of their choice without fear of their vote being wasted;

      (iii)  all candidates should be treated equally; and

      (iv)  the procedure should be transparent and efficient.[51]

66. The ERS conclude that both AV and the Exhaustive Ballot satisfy these criteria. The Exhaustive Ballot has the advantage over AV that Members can amend their preferences in each round after the results of the previous round are known. In addition, candidates have the opportunity to withdraw at any stage, thus speeding up the process. The ERS sums up a particular advantage of the Exhaustive Ballot:

    "In an AV election with 12 candidates, many MPs may not cast all of their preferences and thus the number of voters could reduce as the election progresses. This could mean that the final winner of the election will not have had the support of 50%+ of the total number of MPs. With the Exhaustive Ballot MPs will at least be aware of which candidates are still in the contest and be able to cast their vote in the next round (assuming that they have preferences)—thus making it far more likely that in the final round of the election the winning candidate will have 50%+ support of all MPs.[52]

67. The Exhaustive Ballot procedure is that adopted by many other parliaments and assemblies, including 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 Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales.[53]

68. The disadvantage of the Exhaustive Ballot by comparison with AV is that the need to hold a series of separate ballots will protract proceedings, and will do so to an extent which is unforeseeable because it will be dependent on the number of candidates and how many of those candidates withdraw during the process. As an illustration of how the Exhaustive Ballot works in practice, voting in the Speakership election held in the Canadian House of Commons on 29 January 2001, using the Exhaustive Ballot procedure, took just under four and a half hours, for a House of 301 Members; five ballots were held in this time. Under the Canadian system both the candidate polling the lowest number of votes and any candidates polling less than 5% of the total votes cast in the first ballot are eliminated. On 29 January this had the effect of reducing the number of candidates from 31 in the first ballot to 6 in the second.

69. As we have stated above,[54] we do not believe that the likely duration of the process should be an all-important factor in determining the choice of electoral system. We consider that the benefits brought by the Exhaustive Ballot are sufficiently great as to outweigh the inconvenience in terms of time brought by the need to have multiple ballots. We therefore prefer the Exhaustive Ballot to AV and recommend that it be the system adopted. In order to reduce the overall time taken, however, we also recommend that, as in Canada, candidates polling less than 5% of the total votes cast should be eliminated after the first ballot.

Should there be a run-off?

70. It has been suggested that the electoral process should consist of two stages, with a run-off according to the existing rules taking place between the two candidates who come highest in the ballot.[55] While this proposal has superficial attractions, in that it might seem to offer a judicious blend of old and new, we were not persuaded that it should be adopted. The Exhaustive Ballot itself produces a clear winner. It is difficult to see what useful purpose a further contest between the two top candidates in the ballot would achieve. The likeliest outcome is that there would be a 'rallying round' the winner of the ballot, at the possible expense of a humiliatingly small vote for the runner-up. If by any chance the runner-up were to win the run-off vote, by overturning the ballot result this would inevitably cast doubt on the overall legitimacy of the election. Furthermore, it would not be logical for a secret ballot to be followed by an open division: either all Members' decisions on this matter should be secret or all should be open. We therefore reject the idea of a run-off.

71. Instead we believe that following the announcement of the result of the ballot, a motion should be made, that the winner of the ballot do take the Chair of this House as Speaker, and the presiding Member should put the question on this forthwith. The standing order should provide that this motion is unamendable. It could be agreed nemine contradicente, or the House could divide on it. If by any chance the question were negatived—a very unlikely possibility—the election process would start afresh (as indeed it would under the existing arrangements if the main question or the main question as amended were to be negatived). Assuming the question to be agreed to, the Speaker-Elect would be taken to the Chair and congratulatory speeches would be made, as at present.

Timing and other arrangements

72. For the reasons we have set out in paragraph 52 above, we do not believe that a long 'campaign' is either feasible or desirable. It should be possible to carry out the whole electoral process, from nomination to final election, in the course of a single sitting day.

73. We recommend that the following timetable should apply. Nominations in writing should be received by the Clerk of the House by not later than 9.30 am on the day fixed for the election. A list of candidates will be available in the Vote Office by 10 am. Ballot papers will be prepared during the course of the morning and will be available from the Table Office (the candidates' names being listed in alphabetical order). The House will meet at 2.30 pm to hear speeches by candidates. When all candidates have spoken, the presiding Member will suspend the sitting to allow the first ballot to be held. Voting will taken place in the division lobbies during a period of half an hour. It would be appropriate for this to be supervised by clerks. After the counting of votes is completed, the House will re-assemble and the results, including the numbers voting for each candidate, will be announced by the presiding Member. Further ballots will take place as necessary in the same way until an overall winner has emerged. The motion that the overall winner of the ballot do take the Chair will then be moved, and remaining proceedings will take place as at present. If the House decides to adopt the secret ballot procedure, we recommend that ballot papers be kept in the secure custody of the Clerk of the House for a period of one month after the election and then be destroyed.

74. Although we are confident that the above timings are feasible, we recommend that the presiding Member should have power to authorise variations in the timing if it appears that practical considerations render this necessary.

Special Circumstances at the Start of a Parliament

75. We propose a variation on the above scheme in the special circumstances of the start of a Parliament when a sitting Speaker has been returned to the House. In our view it would be highly undesirable in these circumstances for a multi-candidate ballot to take place automatically. As we have seen, since the middle of the nineteenth century there has been a strong presumption that a Speaker once elected by the House is not subsequently challenged. If it were to become accepted that a change in the composition of the House following a General Election were as a matter of course to lead to a change in the occupancy of the Chair, we believe there are grave dangers that the office itself would be destabilised and in danger of becoming politicised. Equally, however, we believe it is important that the House should not be denied the right to change its Speaker, however unlikely it may be that that right will be exercised.

76. We therefore propose that there should be no automatic ballot at the start of a Parliament in the circumstances where a sitting Speaker seeking re-election to the Chair has been returned to the House. Instead a single unamendable motion should be moved, and the question put by the presiding Member, that that person do take the Chair of this House as Speaker. It would be open to the House, in extremis, to negative that motion. If this were done, the normal ballot procedure would be triggered. However, the strong presumption would remain that, as has happened in every such case since 1835, the sitting Speaker would be confirmed in office.

Custom and Ceremonial

77. Two of the traditional customs which take place following the election of a Speaker were criticised by some of our witnesses. The first was the tradition whereby the Speaker-Elect is 'dragged' to the Chair by his or her two leading supporters. Mr Peter Bradley commented, "I do think it is strange, dragging somebody, kicking and screaming, to a job for which they have proposed their own candidature and are going to be adequately rewarded".[56] Lady Boothroyd, on the other hand, strongly defended the custom:

    "It is a very fine tradition. It means a great deal in this country. You know the history of it, of course, and why it is done? 'No, no, not me' because 'Off with your head'—nine Speakers lost their lives. So you fight like billy-o to get there and at the eleventh hour you say you are very shy about it. It is part of the tradition here and I would not object to that at all."[57]

78. The element of fiction in a Speaker's display of unwillingness appears to have been present for several centuries: as long ago as 1679, when Speaker Seymour was re-elected to the Chair, a contemporary recorded that "he hung back and acted his unwillingness very well".[58] The little ritual could be held to give a graphic demonstration of the fact that a Speaker's position, at the interface between the Executive and the House, can still be an uncomfortable one, and that a Speaker will still need to display courage in standing up for the rights of the House. But this is not a matter on which we think the Procedure Committee or the House need to rule. It should be a matter for each Speaker-Elect and their supporters as to whether they wish to continue to observe the tradition.

79. Criticism was also made of the ceremony which takes place in the House of Lords after the election of a Speaker, at which the Speaker-Elect receives the 'royal approbation'. It was argued that this gives a misleading impression that the Commons need to seek the approval of the Lords for their choice as Speaker.

80. In this ceremony the Commons are not in fact seeking the approval of the Lords—which has never been either sought or needed—but that of the Queen as head of state. As it has not been the custom in recent centuries for the sovereign to attend in person for this purpose, the Queen's approbation is given on her behalf by a Royal Commission under the Great Seal, in the presence of the Lords. All three elements of Parliament—the Crown, the Lords and the Commons—are thus present, either in person or through their representatives, this being one of the few occasions in which Parliament meets as a single body (the others being Prorogation, at which the Queen is also represented by a Royal Commission, and the State Opening). Strictly speaking, on these occasions the Lords Chamber becomes the 'Parliament Chamber'.

81. At the start of a Parliament there is a significant addition to the ceremony, in that the Speaker-Elect demands from the sovereign a recognition of the privileges of the Commons, including that of freedom of speech in debate. The Speaker subsequently reports to the House:

    "That he had in its name and on its behalf by humble Petition to Her Majesty made claim to all its ancient and undoubted Rights and Privileges, particularly to freedom of speech in debate, freedom from arrest, freedom of access to Her Majesty whenever occasion may require, and that the most favourable construction should be placed upon all its proceedings; which he said Her Majesty, by Her said Commissioners, had been pleased to allow and confirm to it in as ample a manner as they have ever been granted or confirmed by Her Majesty or any of Her Majesty's Royal Predecessors."[59]

82. It is not clear to what extent the legal basis on which parliamentary privilege rests is dependent on the formal grant of privileges at the start of each Parliament. To abolish the ceremony in which the privileges are granted might run some risk of opening privileges to legal challenge. The Clerk of the House told us that:

    "Some ... privileges are embodied in statute but an awful lot are not. Although the courts have recognised them, in the world in which we live one is anxious to be as careful as possible not to give people who may have a go at the House or at any Member an opportunity to do so by arguing, 'Your privileges have been confirmed since the days of Elizabeth, but they were not confirmed in this Parliament so they do not exist except in statute."[60]

    The Clerk of the House pointed out that the situation would be different were all privileges to be set on a statutory basis, in a new Parliamentary Privileges Act, as was recommended by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in its report published in 1999.[61]

83. We are concerned that the ceremony of granting the royal approbation in its present form may lend itself to a misunderstanding that the House is dependent on the approval of the Lords to its choice of Speaker. As a more substantive point, it could also be argued that it is unfortunate that the royal approbation itself is required. This is of course a pure formality, and has long been so; only once in the long history of the Speakership has the royal approval been refused, and that was more than three centuries ago.[62]

84. We note the objection raised by the Clerk of the House in relation to the legal basis of parliamentary privilege. This clearly must be taken seriously. The best way of circumventing this difficulty would be for the Joint Committee's recommendation to be accepted and for the rights and immunities of Parliament to be set out in a modern statute. We therefore strongly urge the Government to accept the Joint Committee's recommendation and to bring forward a Parliamentary Privileges Bill early in the next Parliament. When such a statute is enacted, our successors in the next Parliament will be able to take a view on whether the current ceremonial following the election of a Speaker should be retained.

85. We make a further recommendation, which does not require any enactment. This is that consideration should be given by the relevant authorities to altering the wording of the ceremony, to reflect the reality that the Commons make a free and unfettered choice of their own Speaker, not subject to approval by the head of state. We believe that it would be possible, without disrespect to Her Majesty, to make clear that what is taking place is the Commons informing the Crown and the Lords, as the other constituent parts of Parliament, that they have elected a Speaker. In place of the royal approbation, therefore, royal acknowledgement could be given that the Commons have exercised their right and chosen their Speaker.

Future Inquiries

86. Had time allowed we would have wished to consider a number of connected matters as a follow-up to the present inquiry: for instance, the role and functions of the Speaker, and the role and appointment of Deputy Speakers. We hope that our successor Committee in the next Parliament will undertake such inquiries.


87. The election of a Speaker is one of the most important decisions taken by the House. It has become clear that the system of election introduced in 1972 is no longer satisfactory as a means of making this decision. Our proposed alternative system is a fairer and simpler mechanism for enabling the will of the House to be expressed. We believe that, using this system, the House will continue to elect Speakers who will maintain the high traditions of their office, in particular those of complete political impartiality and devotion to the service of the House.

50   Ev pp. 71-76. Back

51   Ibid., para 2. Back

52   Ibid., para 4.2. Back

53   See Annex 1. Back

54   Para 44 (ii) above. Back

55   QQ 22, 65. Back

56   Q 49. Back

57   Q 180. Back

58   Laundy, p. 241. Back

59   E.g., CJ (1987-88) 2. Back

60   Q 261. Back

61   Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, Session 1998-99, Report (HL Paper 43-I, HC 214-I), paras 376-85. Back

62   See Erskine May's Parliamentary Practice, 22nd edition, p. 239, note 2. Back

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