Select Committee on Procedure Second Report


Letter from the Chairman of Ways and Means to the Chairman of the Committee

  Thank you for your letter of 9 November inviting comment from me to assist your inquiry into the way in which the Chairman of Ways and Means and other Deputy Speakers are chosen.

  The first thing to say is that I know next to nothing about the circumstances of my own appointment in 1997. On the day following the Speakers' re-election, I was approached by the Opposition Deputy Chief Whip and was asked if I would be ready to accept nomination. It was not until the day before the State Opening that the Opposition chief Whip was in touch to say that I would definitely be named in the Leader of the House's motion on the following day. Two hours after the approval of the motion, I was in the Chair for the first time, I assume that my nomination was the outcome of discussion through the usual channels the purpose of which would be to test whether a potential nominee would be acceptable across the House. It could be contended that at the start of a new Parliament, especially one in which there is a high intake of new members, the whips are in as good a position as anyone to understand the nature of the duties involved (the Chairman has particular responsibilities over and above the other deputies) and how the team (Speaker plus deputies) can be best balanced.

  Whilst such a process is by no means open the question to be determined is whether the House has been ill-served by it. There is very little evidence of manifest discontent in the names chosen over the past several years. In any case the method of election in no way governs how a Deputy Speaker performs in practice. However, if there is initial antipathy to a name, it should be remembered that the Leader of the House's motion is both debatable and subject to division. So there is a long-stop in place now should a nomination attract immediate opposition. The last occasion of significant controversy was in 1968-69 when Members expressed some opposition to, but in the end did not divide against, a proposal to appoint Mr Harry Gourlay as a Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means on the grounds that he had just come from being a Government Whip. No similar objection was raised when Bernard Weatherill moved from Government Deputy Chief Whip to the post of Chairman of Ways and Means.

  The closed process is obviously not impenetrable. In 1997, according to newspaper reports, there was an objection in Labour Party circles to a name which was apparently being canvassed for one of the Deputy Speakerships. If these reports are to be believed, another name was preferred by the time the Leader of the House moved the motion. This suggests that the soundings taken by the whips are not simply incestuous.

  It is perhaps the enhanced perception that the post of Chairman or Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means might be a stepping stone to the Speakership which gives a new significance to the appointment to these posts. However, it should be stressed that any recent pattern in this regard does not constrain the House in any way when choosing a new Speaker in future. Yet, if the Speaker is to be chosen by secret ballot, I can understand the parallel argument that this process might also extend to the Deputy Speaker. There are, I suggest, some grounds for hesitation in supposing that such an extension is entirely appropriate:

    (a)  a ballot process for three separate, but interrelated posts would be extremely cumbersome and long-winded. It could not begin until the election of the Speaker was completed, because unsuccessful candidates for the Speakership might reasonably wish to be considered for election to the deputy posts;

    (b)  an entirely open election would not necessarily produce the present Government/Opposition balance between the occupants of the Chair. This balance is important in maintaining the perception of the impartiality of the Chair and could also be of intense political significance in a hung Parliament or a House with only a small Government majority. I might add from a personal point-of-view that this effective pairing of the occupants of the Chair is very helpful to a Deputy Speaker in explaining to his constituents why he is unable to vote;

    (c)  a ballot process could take no account of the wishes of the Speaker. The Speaker and the Deputies have to function as a close and cohesive team, often under considerable pressure. It is natural that the Speaker should wish to be consulted about the appointment of those with whom he is going to have to work on a daily basis to ensure that there is the necessary degree of trust and mutual compatibility; and

    (d)  should we depart from the present arrangements some mechanism would have to be devised to ensure that the Speaker was supported in his duties in the Chair while the election process was continuing.

  If your Committee, despite these considerations, feels that the operation of the House would benefit from some change in the system for electing Deputy Speakers. I offer the following thoughts:

    (i)  Motions for the appointment of Deputy Speakers might be moved without notice only on the first day of a new Parliament where deputies from the previous Parliament are being re-appointed. It is after all the case that Standing Order No 1A(1) gives a similarly free run to a sitting Speaker. Your committee might bear in mind that a return to political life on the back benches is not easy in our House for someone who has been cocooned in the neutrality of the Chair;

    (ii)  by contrast a motion to appoint a Member to a Deputy Speakership for the first time should require notice—perhaps, on the precedent of Select Committee membership, a minimum of two days notice (S.O. No. 121(2) refers); and

    (iii)  on the occasions (rare) when no Deputy Speaker from the previous Parliament is available for re-appointment on the first day of a new Parliament, a Member could be appointed on a strictly temporary basis to assist the Speaker pending the tabling of a notice of motion for the appointment of permanent deputies.

The Rt Hon Sir Alan Haselhurst

22 November 2001

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