Select Committee on Procedure Second Report


Memorandum from the Clerk of the House



  1.  The Committee of Ways and Means, a Committee of the whole House, appointed a permanent chairman in the later seventeenth century. The same Member took the Chair in Committee of Supply, the other permanent Committee of the whole House. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, however, there was no connection between the holder of that office and the upper Chair in the House. If the Speaker could not be present, the Clerk put a question for the adjournment.[30] If the Speaker were likely to be absent for some time, the theory—often explained, never tested—was that the House elected another Speaker who, when his predecessor recovered, resigned, so implying that there would be another election to reinstate the first.[31]

  2.  In 1853, following a report by a select committee, the House agreed that in the "unavoidable absence" of the Speaker, the Chairman of Ways and Means should take the Chair in the House on a day to day basis.[32]

  3.  Doubts then arose about how far such a simple formula could stretch. The Chairman of Ways and Means, acting under this resolution, had presided over a proceeding in which two Members took the oath, and there was concern that the oaths might not be valid. A further select committee was appointed, and reported in favour of a Standing Order. A Standing Order was duly made in July 1855, which conferred on the Chairman all the duties and authority of the Speaker in relation to proceedings of the House.[33] The Deputy Speaker Act 1855[34] went further and conferred on the Deputy Speaker, performing the duties and exercising the authority of the Speaker in accordance with orders of the House, the full power of a Speaker, in and out of the House, including powers under statute.

  4.  Subsequent developments moved slowly in the direction of reducing the degree of formality surrounding the taking of the upper Chair by a Deputy Speaker.

  5.  The need formally to announce the "unavoidable absence" of the Speaker before the Chairman could take the upper Chair was retained until 1888. In that year the Standing Order was amended to permit the Chairman to take the Chair "when requested to do so by Mr Speaker, without any formal communication to the House".[35]

  6.  In 1902, as part (though not an uncontentious part) of the Balfour procedural reforms and in response to the weight of private bill work falling on the Chairman, the Standing Order was amended to provide for the appointment of a Deputy Chairman.[36] In 1906, both the Deputy Chairman and the Chairman were empowered to take the upper Chair on an informal request from the Speaker.[37]

  7.  The provisions regarding the assumption of full powers by the Chairman or Deputy Chairman—those not devolved on the Deputy Speaker following a simple request to take the upper Chair—evolved in a complex way, but broadly in parallel with those already mentioned.[38]

  8.  In 1971, a Second Deputy Chairman was appointed, in response to an observation made by the then Speaker to a Procedure Committee that the burden of work both in the Chair and in private legislation had greatly increased.[39]


  9.  Until 1910, the Chairman of Ways and Means was elected in the Committee of Supply or Ways and Means at the beginning of the Parliament. The election had however to be unopposed, and if it was not, the Speaker resumed the Chair and the appointment was made in the House. This curious procedure was used in 1883 as regards the election of the Chairman, and 1902 in connection with the (first) election of a Deputy Chairman.[40] After 1910, the appointments were made, as in later years was the appointment of the Second Deputy Chairman, on the floor of the House.[41] It is not known whether there was any particular reason for the change, other than that the new procedure was obviously more straightforward.

  10.  In every case since 1900, the Member who made the motion for the election of the Chairman and Deputy Chairmen was a senior member of the government—the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Leader of the House, First Secretary of State, Foreign Secretary, Secretary of State for the Dominions or the Lord Privy Seal. Since 1979, the mover has invariably been the Leader of the House. No notice of the motion has ever been required, though in 1883 the House was informally given the name of a Member who was to be proposed the following day.

  11.  A number of contested elections may be of interest. In the debate on the election of the first Deputy Chairman in 1902, which is referred to in paragraph 9 above, the Member who initially raised objection took the view that it was undesirable for any of the occupants of the Chair to be elected on a government motion. Moreover, he objected to the government's refusal to say in advance who was to be nominated, contrasting the circumstances with those of 1883 (see paragraph 10 above). The government response pointed to the many instances of such elections where 1883-style notice was not given: and the election was agreed without a division.[42]

  12.  In 1921, there was an attempt to return the election to the Committee (in this case of Supply). It was opposed, the Speaker returned to the Chair, and proceedings went on in the House (see paragraph 9).[43] Again, the allegation was made that the government was ignoring the wishes of the House in putting forward a particular name. They had compounded their error, in the eyes of their critics, by announcing in the newspapers who the candidate would be. The Leader of the House replied robustly: "it has not been customary to consult the convenience of the Opposition in the recommendation for this appointment."—though he admitted with regret that the statement had indeed been inadvertently made to the press.[44]

  13.  In 1924, the motion was made in the usual way for the appointment of a Chairman and Deputy Chairman. The Baldwin government did not have a majority in the House, and the election of the Chairman and Deputy was the first opportunity the Opposition had to challenge them. The Prime Minister, obviously conscious of the peculiarity of the situation, argued that if the government fell, both Deputies—who were Conservatives—would resign. The Opposition demurred at this arrangement, and indicated that, with regret, they wished to divide the House. The government then withdrew the motion.[45] The government was subsequently defeated on an amendment to the Address, and the new government nominated two Deputies—one Labour and the other Liberal—shortly thereafter.[46]

  14.  In 1943, the previous question was moved, though it was later withdrawn and the original question nominating a Chairman and Deputy Chairman was then agreed to.[47] Again, there had been a leak to the press of one of the names to be put before the House, and an independent Member objected that neither he nor one of the major parties had been consulted. The senior government member participating in the debate (Mr Attlee) said that: "these appointments are always made on the nomination of the government . . . these are motions without notice . . . and it has not been the custom in the past that these names should be submitted to party meetings". A senior Member of the House said that, despite protests that soundings should be taken, he did not think that had been done for a century. Mr Aneurin Bevan added: "The House is being consulted at the present time. The House does not exist upstairs in private committee. The House is here". The Foreign Secretary (Mr Eden) had looked up the precedents, "and there is absolutely no precedent for notice being given or consultation beforehand."[48]

  15.  The only division on such a motion in modern times was in 1962, when an amendment to leave out the name of one of the nominees (moved by Dr Horace King) was defeated by 180 votes to 52.[49] In the debate, concern was discreetly expressed that the nominee for the Deputy Chairmanship had no experience of the Chairmen's Panel, and was of the same political party as the Speaker and the Chairman. These events had a sequel in 1968, with Mr Speaker King in the Chair. The Motion to appoint a new Chairman and Deputy Chairman at the beginning of a session (the Chairman having resigned) was divided, at the request of a Member. The Chairman was appointed without debate, but on the motion to appoint the Deputy the point was made—echoing that of 1962—that the nominee had not been a member of the Panel. The Leader of the House (Mr Peart) paid tribute to the Panel, but remarked that: "those who have the responsibility of making proposals to the House must not feel limited in their consideration to [the] Panel".[50]


  16.  Having three Deputy Speakers in addition to the Speaker may have indirect consequences for the method of election of the Deputies. Present methods of nomination make it relatively easy to arrange a party balance, as the following Table with details since the creation of the post of Second Deputy shows:


YearGovernment Speaker's party of originChairmen's party of
1970ConservativeLab (King), then Con
2 Con, 1 Lab
1974(I)LabourCon (Lloyd) 1 Con, 1 Lab[51]
1974(II)LabourCon (Lloyd) then Lab
2 Lab, 1 Con then
2 Con, 1 Lab
1979ConservativeLab (Thomas) 2 Con, 1 Lab
1983ConservativeCon (Weatherill) 2 Lab, 1 Con
1987ConservativeCon (Weatherill) 2 Lab, 1 Con
1992ConservativeLab (Boothroyd) 2 Con, 1 Lab
1997LabourLab (Boothroyd then
2 Con, 1 Lab


  17.  A Chairman of Ways and Means and Deputy Chairmen are normally appointed in a new Parliament on the day the House meets to hear the Gracious Speech, just before the debate on the Speech begins. As a result, no formal notice of the motion can be given. At the same time, if the election were deferred to the following day, in order to permit notice to be given on the day of the Speech, the Speaker would then have no deputies and could not be informally replaced in the Chair for the entire day.[52]

  18.  Members may elect a Speaker before they take the oath; no other business is permissible at that time. It follows that any procedure to elect Chairmen at the beginning of a new Parliament would have to take place after the election of the Speaker, probably with an appreciable interval to accommodate the situation in which a new Speaker was elected who had been one of the Deputies. This seems to rule out a ballot on the lines of that now prescribed for the Speakership. In any event, the Committee will wish to weigh the advantages of a ballot against the potential disturbance of the political balance mentioned in paragraph 16.

  19.  None of these objections can be levelled against the election of a Chairman of Deputy in mid-session: methods such as a ballot would be much easier to deploy in those circumstances. But it is for the consideration of the Committee again whether that degree of elaboration of a very simple procedure is a price worth paying to improve a system which, though not without occasional problems, has not really caused much difficulty over many years.

W R McKay

30 November 2001

30   The absence of the Speaker had been remarkably infrequent in earlier years. It has been calculated that from 1603 to 1660, the Speaker was absent on nine occasions, five of them a matter of hours: from 1660 to 1688, on two occasions: from 1699 to 1760, six: and from 1760 to 1853 nine, all short. In every case the House had got over the difficulty by adjourning. Back

31   There had in fact been Deputy Speakers at the end of the interregnum, but these precedents seem to have been shunned in subsequent years. Back

32   CJ (1852-54) 766. For the earliest example of the Chairman taking the upper Chair, see ibid (1854-55) 210. The House had just come out of the Committee of Ways and Means, and so the substitution was particularly natural. Initially, the Speaker supplied medical certificates to the House saying why he was prevented from attending the House-eg that he had "sprained his leg in mounting his horse" (ibid 261). Back

33   CJ (1854-55) 401. Back

34   18 and 19 Vict c 84. Back

35   CJ (1888) 64. Previously, in 1865 and 1881, the Speaker had resumed the Chair before the end of a sitting at which his unavoidable absence had been announced (ibid (1865-67) 234, 261, 331, 339); ibid (1881) 50). In the latter case, his unavoidable absence was announced; he returned; but subsequently left the Chair; and his absence was announced again. Back

36   ibid (1902) 59. Back

37   ibid (1906) 113. Back

38   Some of these powers, such as the selection of amendments, are not available to a Deputy Speaker in the upper Chair following an informal request. Others include the statutory powers enjoyed by the Speaker. See ibid (1902) 59; ibid (1909) 337-38; ibid (1932-33) 333. In 1971, the Standing Order was adjusted to make clear that the absence of both the Speaker and the Chairman were necessary before the Deputy Chairman could exercise the authority of the Speaker. Back

39   ibid (1971-72) 29-30. The House had occasionally felt the need for an extra Chairman in previous sessions. Such appointments were made in 1928 (ibid (1928-29) 57) and 1946 (ibid (1945-46) 392). In 1947, a former Chairman of Ways and Means was appointed to exercise the powers of Deputy Chairman, including those as Deputy Speaker, in the absence through illness of the holder of the office (ibid (1947-48) 67). Similar arrangements were made in 1957 (ibid (1956-57) 225), 1964 (ibid (1964-65) 41) and 1972 (ibid (1971-72) 500). For Lord Maybray-King's remarks, see Procedure Committee, Second Report, (HC (1970-71) 538) paragraph 38. Back

40   CJ (1883) 63; ibid (1902) 65. The first instance of its operation was 1675 (ibid (1667-87) 386). Between then and its abandonment early last century, it seems to have been resorted to only a handful of times. Back

41   Except in 1921 when for some reason there was an attempt to make the nomination in Committee which, since it was opposed, had to be effected in the House, (ibid (1921) 117). Back

42   Parl Deb (1902) fourth series, vol 103 cc 56-69. Back

43   CJ (1921) 117. Back

44   HC Deb (1921) fifth series vol 141, c 431. Back

45   ibid (1924) vol 169, cc 49-56. Back

46   CJ (1924) 17, 35, 55. Back

47   ibid (1942-43) 31. Back

48   HC Deb (1942-43) fifth series vol 386, cc 252-64. Back

49   CJ (1961-62) 85. Back

50   HC Deb (1968-69) fifth series vol 772, cc 4-6. Back

51   No Second Deputy was appointed in this short Parliament. Back

52   Ways round this might be envisaged, such as the election of Members to take the Chair pro tem until Chairmen could be elected: but this risks an unduly complex solution to a simple problem. Back

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