Select Committee on Procedure Fourth Report

4 Powers of the Speaker

Emergency recall of the House

56. The Crown has had the power to recall Parliament during an adjournment or prorogation since the end of the 18th century.[71] Power to recall the House of Commons during an adjournment was given to the Speaker by individual orders on an occasional basis from the summer of 1920 onwards, and by sessional orders from 1939 to 1946. These were converted into a standing order (now No. 13) in 1947. Between 1920 and 1931,[72] the order was phrased in such a way as to give the Speaker the initiative, but to act after consulting the Government. From Summer 1932 onwards, the orders assumed their present form, under which the Speaker can recall the House only at the Government's request.[73]

57. Following the experience in the summer recess of 2002, when pressure for a recall to debate the situation in Iraq grew until the Government requested the Speaker to recall Parliament for 24 September,[74] there have been calls for the Speaker to be given the power to recall the House independently of the Government.[75]

58. Difficulties could arise in the use of this power. The Government could be unco-operative if Ministers would prefer a recall not to take place; even if the principle were accepted, the Speaker might recall the House on an occasion when the relevant minister (eg the Foreign Secretary) were out of the country. These difficulties could be overcome by negotiations between the Speaker and the Government, as are of course also possible under the present system. The Government pointed out that (on the assumption that the House continues to hold sittings in September,[76] rather than adjourn from July until October), recalls in summer will become rarer.[77] The principle is, however, whether in an emergency the ultimate decision on a recall should rest with the Government or with the Speaker. We believe that the decision should rest with the Speaker.

59. The question then arises as to whether the Speaker should have unfettered discretion on a recall, or should be required to act if a certain number of Members write requesting one.[78] Even if there were a requirement for a party balance as well as a numerical threshold, it is not difficult to imagine occasions when party political manoeuvrings might take place to bring about, or prevent, a recall. And in most recesses Members have made calls for recalls, with varying degrees of justification.[79] We would expect the Speaker to bear in mind the number and source of representations made to him requesting a recall, but we do not think details should be specified in a standing order. As at present, the Deputy Speakers should have the same powers as the Speaker when the latter is unable to act.

Business during a recall

60. The Speaker's only power during a recall is to fix the date and time of the first sitting. The contents of the Order of Business is determined by the Government, and they are also responsible for tabling any sittings or business motions controlling the number and length of sittings. A sittings motion is normally required to provide for the House to rise after the desired number of sittings and adjourn to the original date planned for the end of the recess (or another date); this type of motion is decided without debate.[80]

61. On 24 September 2002, the Government's sittings motion provided for only one day, but the Speaker recalled the House for 11.30 am rather than 2.30 pm, allowing 10½ rather than 7½ hours for the debate, which had to conclude at 10 pm, the time then specified by Standing Order No. 9 for Tuesdays. This extra time meant that 53 Members were able to speak, but we understand that many more were unsuccessful. The previous recall was on 3 April, following the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and the House rose after a debate of nearly two hours on a motion for an address of condolence. Several Members expressed the view that there should also have been a debate on developments in the Middle East at that time.[81] While not agreeing that the Speaker should have the power to determine the length of a recall, the Leader of the House said that the level of demand to speak should be borne in mind in the future.[82]

62. We have considered whether the Speaker should, exceptionally, be empowered to specify the business of the House during an emergency recall. We do not believe that this would be appropriate, as it could draw him into matters of party controversy. However, we do believe that the Government's sittings motion specifying the number of days on which the House sits after the recall has taken place should be debatable unless it is tabled with the approval of the Speaker.

71   The Meeting of Parliament Acts 1797 and 1799 confer the power on the Crown to recall Parliament during a prorogation and an adjournment respectively; Parliament is also recalled automatically if the reserve forces are called out, if a state of emergency has been declared (as in 1926), or if the reigning Sovereign dies or abdicates. Back

72   Orders of this type were passed in 1920, 1921, 1922, 1924 (the House was recalled in September) and 1931. Back

73   The current wording is: "Whenever the House stands adjourned and it is represented to the Speaker by Her Majesty's Ministers that the public interest requires that the House should meet at a time earlier than that to which the House is adjourned, the Speaker, if he is satisfied that the public interest does so require, may give notice that, being so satisfied, he appoints a time for the House to meet …". Back

74   The notice of recall was issued on 16 September. Back

75   A motion in the name of Mr Graham Allen to this effect has appeared on the Remaining Orders of the Day on many days during the current session. It proposes to replace paragraph (1) of SO No 13 with the words "If the Speaker is of the opinion that the public interest requires that the House should meet at a time earlier than that to which it stands adjourned, the House shall meet at such time as the Speaker shall appoint". See also Ev 16 para 3 and Qq 90-4 (Hansard Society); Ev 55 (Mr Dalyell). Back

76   The House sat on 8-11 and 15-18 September 2003. The Leader of the House has announced proposals for sittings on 7-9 and 13-16 September 2004 (HC Deb, 23 October 2003, c 789). Back

77   Ev 118 para 19 Back

78   This possibility was mentioned by Sir George Young (Q 30), Mr Forth (Ev 102; Qq 426-31), Julia Drown (Ev 134). Back

79   The Government told us that it "would be resistant to any change which … led to recalls in circumstances which did not merit it" (Ev 118 para 19). Back

80   SO No 25 (Periodic adjournments) Back

81   HC Deb, 3 April 2002, c 805, 824 Back

82   Q 488 Back

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