Select Committee on Procedure Second Report

Qualifications for the post of Deputy Speaker


16. There was broad agreement among all we consulted about the qualities expected of a Deputy Speaker. Principal among these is the ability swiftly to command the respect of the whole House. This rests on a number of other, more tangible qualities: a demonstrable knowledge of procedure and its application, as well as wider experience of the House and the way it works; together with an ability to chair the most challenging debates with demonstrable fairness and authority. As we shall see, an essential requirement is that a Deputy Speaker should be a good team player, able to work well with his or her fellow Deputies in a team headed by the Speaker. An appetite for hard work, unremitting punctuality, and a sense of humour and proportion are also highly desirable. Finally, the team as whole should reflect, at least to some degree, party balance within the House, and if possible gender balance. In the remainder of this report we consider the question of how the House can best contrive to secure the appointment of Members who meet these demanding criteria.


17. A successful Deputy Speaker requires not only innate qualities of character but a specific set of skills. These include procedural knowledge—how to put questions, deal with amendments, interpret programme orders and so on—and also the subtler skills of dealing with Members fairly, sensitively and effectively. The best training in these skills within the House of Commons is undoubtedly that provided by service on the Chairmen's Panel. The Panel consists of the Chairman of Ways and Means, the two other Deputy Speakers, and not fewer than ten other Members nominated by the Speaker. Members of the Panel chair Standing Committees on bills and on delegated and European legislation, as well as the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Grand Committees and the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs. In some circumstances they may also act as temporary chairmen when the House is in Committee; and four of the chairmen (described as additional Deputy Speakers) are appointed by the House, together with the Deputy Speakers, to chair debates in Westminster Hall.

18. Of the 52 Members who have served as Deputy Speaker since 1900, 24 had previously served on the Chairmen's Panel. Since 1945, 34 Members have served as Deputy Speakers: 20 of them had previously served on the Panel.[12] On at least two occasions objections have been raised to the appointment as Deputy Speakers of Members who have not had prior experience of the Panel, although on both these occasions the Government made it clear that it did not believe itself bound to look exclusively to the Panel for nominees.[13]

19. Some Deputy Speakers have followed other paths to the Chair. Mr Bernard (now Lord) Weatherill was a Deputy Chief Whip on the Government side before becoming Chairman of Ways and Means in 1983. The present First Deputy Chairman (Sylvia Heal MP) was a Parliamentary Private Secretary before her appointment. Fifteen of the Deputy Speakers appointed since 1900 had previously served in Government, seven of whom had served in a Whips' Office.[14]

20. We accept that there should be no set career path leading to a Deputy Speakership. In particular, it would be foolish to rule out the possibility that former Ministers, seeking new careers within the House after a spell on the back benches, might make good Deputy Speakers; indeed, their experience in government may equip them well for dealing with the Treasury Bench (although we would vigorously resist any suggestion that a Deputy Speakership should be a kind of consolation prize to be handed out by the Government to former Ministers). As a general rule, however, we believe that service on the Chairmen's Panel provides the best training in the skills needed to take the Chair of the House as Deputy Speaker, as well as affording an opportunity for other Members to assess the extent to which individual candidates for a Deputy Speakership have mastered those skills. We therefore recommend that when a vacancy arises for a Deputy Speaker, first consideration should be given to senior members of the Chairmen's Panel who are willing to serve.

21. Concerns were expressed to us that the pool of experience available to the House in the chairing of public business may be diminishing. The House relies heavily on the willingness of Members to undertake the challenging and sometimes arduous duties of acting as chairmen of standing committees and as Deputy Speakers. The view has often been expressed, both inside and outside the House, that career structures within the House should be developed and promoted as an alternative to Ministerial office.[15] We echo this sentiment, and believe that a perception that service on the Chairmen's Panel will confer some justifiable advantage in terms of eligibility to become a Deputy Speaker is likely to act as a healthy incentive to suitably qualified Members to volunteer for membership of the Panel.


22. One of the most important qualities a Deputy Speaker must display is a capacity for teamwork. The three Deputy Speakers are required to work as a close-knit team with the Speaker of the day. On a normal sitting day the occupancy of the Chair is decided according to an informal rota drawn up by the Secretary to the Chairman of Ways and Means on the basis of the weekly business statement. The Speaker's many official engagements are fitted in around the time he or she spends in the Chair. He or she therefore needs to be able to rely absolutely on the punctuality and commitment of the three other occupants of the Chair.

23. The Speaker and deputies operate as a unit: all three deputies are present at the Speaker's mid-day meetings to discuss the day's business, and they work in close liaison throughout the sitting day. Deputy Speakers have final authority over all points of order arising when in the Chair, and there is no appeal from their decisions to the Speaker.[16] The decisions taken, and the rulings made, by Deputy Speakers while in the Chair must be consistent. It is therefore important that the Speaker should have every confidence in their abilities, their judgment, and their capacity to command respect across the House.

24. It would be undesirable for the Speaker to have to work closely with a Member who did not enjoy his or her full confidence. It is generally understood that, once the 'usual channels' have made a provisional decision on the names to be put forward for Deputy Speakerships, those names are notified to the Speaker before being put to the House. It is open to the Speaker to invite party managers to think again if one or more of the names suggested is unacceptable. We believe that this provision is appropriate and necessary. The House, having chosen its Speaker, must allow the Speaker some informal say in the composition of the team of deputies.


25. Objection has occasionally been raised to the appointment of Deputy Speakers on the grounds of the party affiliation of the proposed appointee. In 1943, under the wartime coalition Government, an independent Member objected to the appointment of a Labour Deputy Chairman on the grounds of his party, and because of an alleged lack of consultation.[17] In 1962, following the resignation of the Conservative Sir Gordon Touche as Chairman of Ways and Means, it was proposed that the then Deputy Chairman, Sir William Anstruther-Gray, a Conservative, should be appointed Chairman and that Sir Robert Grimston, another Conservative, should fill the vacancy in Speaker Hylton-Foster's team. The motion was objected to, and a motion that Grimston's name be left out was divided upon. Speaking in the debate, the Labour Member Mr Sydney Silverman remarked:

    "It is not unknown in our tradition for at least one of the three officers who discharge the function of the Chair to belong to an Opposition party. This has happened frequently in the past, and it would not have been an inappropriate thing to have happened on this occasion."[18]

26. The addition of a third Deputy Speaker in 1971 had the happy consequence of evening out the party balance in the Speaker's team. Since that innovation, the appointments have been managed in order to provide that one Deputy Speaker is drawn from the side of the House from which the Speaker has come, and two are drawn from the opposing benches. Sir Alan Haselhurst pointed out that in a House with a very small Government majority, or in the case of a hung Parliament, the 'pairing' of the Speaker and Deputy Speakers from the Government and Opposition benches would be highly significant in terms of the overall arithmetic. He also believed that the pairing arrangements made it easier for Deputy Speakers to explain to their constituents their reasons for not voting in the House.[19]

27. Deputy Speakers have usually been drawn from the ranks either of the Government party or the main Opposition party, not from the smaller parties. There are post-war precedents to the contrary: in 1965 Mr Roderic Bowen MP, a Liberal, was appointed First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means. Since the additional post was created in 1971, however, there have been no Deputy Speakers from the smaller parties. Of course, members of smaller parties tend to have more party responsibilities and portfolios, which acts as a disincentive to their seeking the Chair.

28. The overall balance between Government and Opposition which has characterised the operation of the system since 1971 will not be automatically maintained. The House's future choice of a Speaker, either at the start of a Parliament or during a session, might result in an imbalance in the team. In the recent past most Speakers elected during a Parliament have previously been Deputy Speakers, so that any imbalance has been immediately redressed by a counterbalancing appointment to fill the vacancy. Nevertheless, it is entirely possible that the House might in future choose a Speaker from one party at a time when two of the three sitting Deputy Speakers were also members of that party. In such circumstances it would be unfair to expect a sitting Deputy Speaker to resign merely to re-balance the team.

29. Nonetheless, in general we think it is helpful to the House for two members of the team comprising the Speaker and Deputy Speakers to be drawn from the Government benches and two from the Opposition. It reinforces the confidence which all sides of the House have in the impartiality of the Chair. The principle of balance between the Government and Opposition benches in the Speaker's team is one which we strongly endorse.


30. The first woman to be appointed Deputy Speaker was Miss Betty Harvie Anderson in 1970. Since then four women have served as Deputy Speakers.[20] The most famous female occupant of the Chair was of course Miss Betty (now Baroness) Boothroyd, who served as Second Deputy Chairman from 1987 and then as Speaker from 1992 to 2000. The appointment of Sylvia Heal MP to the vacant Deputy Speakership in November 2000 demonstrated a willingness on the part of the 'usual channels' to reflect the overall gender balance in the House. We welcome the steps taken to ensure that appointments to Deputy Speakerships reflect the gender balance within the House; and we recommend that this convention be maintained, as far as reasonably possible, in future appointments.

12   Updated from 1996 figures cited by Matthew Seward, Unsung Heroes? Deputy Speakers in the House of Commons (Centre for Legislative Studies, University of Hull, 1997), p. 14. Back

13   The objections were to the appointment of Sir Robert Grimston in 1962 and Mr Harry Gourlay in 1968. Back

14   Seward, Unsung Heroes?, p. 17. Back

15   For instance, in the recent reports of the Modernisation and Liaison Committees on reform of the Select Committee system: First Report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, Session 2001-02, Select Committees, HC 224, para. 41; Second Report of the Liaison Committee, Session 2001-02, Select Committees: Modernisation Proposals, HC 692, para. 27. Back

16   Erskine May, 22nd edition (1997), p. 195. Back

17   Mr Austin Hopkinson objected to the appointment of Major Milner: HC Deb, 20 January 1943, vol. 386 cols. 252-64, also Ev 5. Back

18   HC Deb, 29 January 1962, vol. 652 col. 713. Back

19   Appendix 1, Ev 2. See also the table of Speakers and Deputy Speakers since 1970, provided by the Clerk of the House: Appendix 2, Ev 6. Back

20   Betty Harvie Anderson (1970-1973: resigned); Betty Boothroyd (1987-92: elected Speaker); Dame Janet Fookes (1992-97: not re-elected to the House); Sylvia Heal (2000-). Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 22 April 2002