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2.10 pm

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): It is a pleasure and an honour to add my tribute to those hon. Members from all parts of the House on behalf of the Scottish National party. In this place and elsewhere you have constantly been a fair Speaker to the Scottish and Welsh, and all the Northern Irish parties in this House. Given your background in a previous political existence, as a Scottish Labour Member of Parliament, some observers opined that it would be difficult for us to have a collegial relationship during your speakership, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Your record shows your fairness towards the SNP from the Chair, which includes the selection of an excellent Speaker’s malt from the Speyside region of my constituency.

Over recent years, there has been some appalling metropolitan media snobbery about your background. The SNP totally deprecates the grotesque anti-Scottish, anti-Glasgow, anti-working class caricature invoked by some London-based newspapers.

Like many hon. Members, from all parts of the House, I have had the good fortune to attend events hosted by you for visiting dignitaries, including Scottish Church leaders, and your famous Burns nights, which included your playing of the pipes. You have always been a model of good hospitality, an excellent host and a source of advice to me and my SNP colleagues, and other Members.

We are also grateful for your initiative in bringing together all the parties in the House urgently to deal with allowances and expenses. Now that you have started a genuinely all-party approach, we stand ready to play our part in the process, which you have initiated.

You and a number of other Members have invoked Robert Burns. I, too, would like to finish with some words from him:

“A Man’s A Man For A’ That” is the appropriate verse to capture your life achievements, your attachment to social justice and your respect to all, regardless of rank or status. We wish you and Mary all the best in the future.

2.13 pm

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South) (Lab): In paying tribute to you, Mr. Speaker, I want to tell a story. I have not told it in public before, but it helps to illustrate your thoughtfulness and kindness, and may go some way towards explaining your popularity among the Back
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Benchers, which was never understood by many outside this place, and certainly not by many in the Press Gallery. The story dates from before when you became the Speaker, when you were the Deputy Speaker and, as such, the Chairman of Ways and Means. Today I have the chance to put it on the record. Without your help, I do not think that my progress into this House would have been as smooth and easy as it was.

I do not know whether you remember our first meeting, Mr. Speaker. It was in February 1997, at a conference in Scotland. I have to admit that when you approached me and introduced yourself, I was not sure who you were—I was vaguely aware that you were one of the Glasgow Labour MPs. As someone from the north-east of Scotland, I have to admit that my knowledge of the personalities of Glasgow Labour politics was somewhat hazy to say the least. Anyway, you obviously recognised me as a candidate in a potentially winnable seat, and this is where I have to give you credit. You realised that having someone who permanently uses a wheelchair elected to this House might require just the odd bit of adaptation and forward planning. As a result, you asked me to write to you in your capacity as Chairman of Ways and Means once Parliament had prorogued for the election and there was no longer a sitting Member for Aberdeen, South with some suggestions of what I might require.

There was a slight problem: I had no idea what I might require. I had visited this place only once before, and I did not really appreciate what the job of being an MP would entail. I had no idea how accessible this place would be, although everybody told me that it would be totally inaccessible. When people asked me, “How’re you going to manage if you get elected?” I would always reply, “Well, that’s not my problem. I’ll be an hon. Member like everyone else, and it’ll be up to the House authorities to solve that.” However, the House authorities had to have some reasonable expectations and some guidance on what I might need. So, plucking something out of the air, I decided that it would be best for me to have an office that was near the Chamber, near an accessible toilet and big enough for a wheelchair to get around.

And so it came to pass. When I arrived in the House as a newly elected MP on 6 May 1997, you had done your work. While my colleagues were being given the keys to their lockers in the corridor, I was given the keys to an office. I am still in that office now, and I am not giving it up. It is near the Chamber and it is certainly big enough for my wheelchair. I have to say that it is the best office that any Back Bencher has in this place. I thank you from my heart, Mr. Speaker. Because of your kind thoughts and thinking ahead, not only do I have a great office, but I have realised that sometimes being in a wheelchair is not always a disadvantage.

That one story illustrates your foresight and thoughtfulness. You realised that action had to be taken. It is because of those qualities that you have made it possible for me to survive in this place, in what is an incredibly difficult environment for any disabled person to enter.

When I was appointed to the Chairmen’s Panel, nobody thought the extra challenges of trying to get me on to the various daises in Westminster Hall and the Committee Rooms would be a problem, or least you certainly did not think so, Mr. Speaker. Again, a solution was found. I know that your leadership has made it
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more likely that people with disabilities will be elected to this place in future, because I know that it is important to you. It was thanks to your intervention that addressing the under-representation of disabled people in Parliament was added to the remit of the Speaker’s Conference, of which I am proud to be vice-chair.

I hope that that goes some way to showing the respect in which you are held and why many of us on the Back Benches will miss you. I wish both you and Mary good luck in your retirement.

2.18 pm

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Much has already been said about your dignity, warmth and courtesy in this House and about your commitment to this House, Mr. Speaker. I pay tribute to you, Sir, for your expert, careful and confidential advice to hon. Members outside this Chamber, in privately helping them to deal with the important political and personal problems that they inevitably face from time to time, both here and in their constituencies. You did that for me when I was resisting the diversion of public funds to my then constituency office, which was the start of my problems with the Conservative party, which ended up with my becoming an independent in the House. Your dignity, kindness and understanding led me consistently to support you and the office of the Speaker, which I think is the duty of every hon. Member. I sincerely wish you and Mary a wonderful, happy and healthy retirement—a retirement that you richly deserve and which you have earned by your dignity.

2.19 pm

Kali Mountford (Colne Valley) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Speaker—thank you, dear friend. I particularly wanted to be here today. Having been here from the beginning—with some difficulty, I might add—I wanted to see this particular part of your career all the way through to the end.

I wanted to be here because, right at the beginning of this part of your career, many people said that you were not the best Speaker for this House. If they have been listening carefully today, they will have heard why we all beg to differ. Having heard what everyone else has said, perhaps I should sit down, because everything has been said. But I am a politician, and I want to put my two penn’orth in.

My two penn’orth goes a bit like this. When I first came here, you were a Deputy Speaker. Your kindness and friendship towards all of us endeared you to us greatly, and, when Speaker Boothroyd said that she was standing down, I knew straight away that you were my first and automatic choice to be Speaker. I knew automatically that the warmth that you had shown to us while you were a Deputy Speaker would transfer into the post that you now hold.

Later, you asked me to be a member of the Advisory Panel on Members’ Allowances, and you showed the wisdom that you have shown throughout in regard to what that job became. The House should remember that that wisdom entailed an openness that people perhaps did not see when they were writing their stories. You invited every Member of this House into your chambers. Some of their suggestions were novel, ranging from a proposal to abolish all allowances to the idea of
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examining the minutiae of every allowance and accounting for every penny. In the end, our panel came up with suggestions that we gave to the Members Estimate Committee, some of which were accepted, some of which were not. It has been suggested today that we have ended up with a reasonable set of proposals.

We might now say that all that is history, but throughout that process, you never said anything publicly. That is the mark of you, the man—a man I admire greatly. Sometimes, I became frustrated with you, my dear friend, because you never once said anything to defend yourself. I would say, “Oh, come on! Say something!”, but you would always say, “No, Kali, this is about the House. The House is the star of this show.” It was never you, Mr. Speaker, and I admire you for that so much. You never allowed anyone to try to understand you—only the House.

Here we are now, standing in judgment over you, and I hope that everyone will say that you have not been found wanting. We should all admire you very much for the work that you have done for the House. I will never find you wanting. You are indeed a great man, and a great and true friend.

2.23 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford), and I wish her well personally for the future.

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour for me to be able to say a few words in tribute to you today. You made some important remarks to the House earlier, and I hope that the House will accept them with humility. The overriding task for us all is now to strengthen the reputation of the House so that our democracy can go from strength to strength. That is what makes this country the great country that it is.

Part of that democracy involves having a press that is among the most rigorously inquisitorial in the world. That is fine when it is fair and accurate, but much of the comment that has been written about you has been unfair and inaccurate. Many people outside this place see only what you do in the Chair of this Chamber, but, as Speaker of this House, you have to undertake an immense task. You have to look after all 646 Members and—as if that were not a big enough job in itself, given the individuals and personalities in this place—you also look after the many thousands of staff employed in the two Houses, as well as overseeing the many Committees, the running of the House and the finances of the House.

A huge part of your job that perhaps not many people see is the enormous amount of entertaining that you undertake in Speaker’s House: lunches in, lunches out, evenings in, evenings out, dinners in and dinners out. You always undertake that part of your job with huge kindness and humility, and that is greatly appreciated by the many dignitaries who visit this place.

I would like to leave the House with just one anecdote about your kindness. The year before last, you were kind enough to invite my 78-year-old father to the state opening of Parliament reception that you held. With fear, I asked you whether you would be prepared to have your photograph taken with him, in memory of your succeeding to the office of his uncle—my great
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uncle—a former Speaker of this House. You readily agreed. When it was time to leave, however, you were busy talking to some very important people. My father said, “Leave him. He’s busy”, but you turned to me and said, “Ah, Geoffrey! How about that photograph?” After having talked to all those people at that reception, you remembered that one single detail. That is a mark of your kindness and your complete selflessness.

You have served this country and this House with complete selflessness, never having regard to your own interests. May I thank you for the work that you have done in this House, and wish you a long and happy retirement? In the modern jargon, I hope that you will now be able to spend some quality time with your wife, Mary, and your son.

2.26 pm

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): Thank you for this opportunity to pay tribute to you as Speaker of the House of Commons, and thank you for the courtesy that you have shown me in the Chamber. Much reference has rightly been made to the hospitality and kindness that you have shown to people in Speaker’s House, and I can bear witness to that. One of my fondest memories will always be of the opportunity that you gave me to propose the toast to the immortal memory at your Burns supper.

You are the sixth Speaker I have known. The first, when I was elected in 1970, was Dr. Horace King. You have been impartial and fair to all Members of the House of Commons, from all parties. When problems have arisen, you have shown common sense and judgment. I thank you for your service and I wish you and your family well for many years to come.

2.27 pm

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a pleasure for me to follow the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), whose pithy and gracious tribute will be appreciated in all parts of the House.

Mr. Speaker, Sir, we did not get off to the best possible start. I was one of the handful of Members of this House who voted against your election. Far from holding that against me, however, you proceeded to treat me with a decency and fairness for which I shall always be grateful. In addition, I am especially appreciative of the fact that, four years ago, just after the general election, you allowed me to join your panel of Committee Chairmen, which I have found to be a hugely rewarding experience.

As was observed earlier by the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), almost from day one, when you took the Chair, you were subjected to relentless snobbery and distain from a section of the tabloid press that seemed to think that the election of the son of a merchant seaman represented some kind of constitutional outrage. Sir, that was always far more of a reflection on the tabloid press that it ever was on you. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] In thanking you for your unfailing personal kindness to me, to other Members throughout the House and to thousands of people beyond it, I wish you and Mary a long, happy and peaceful retirement.

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2.29 pm

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): I appear to be the last person to speak. I thank you very much for calling me, as I had forgotten to put my name down to speak in this debate. It was only when I was sitting here at the beginning of the tributes that I wondered whether I would have the nerve to stand up and ask to speak, having gone against all the protocol that we are meant to observe. However, I could not let this afternoon pass without making a few personal comments of my own.

I am glad that many hon. Members today have addressed head-on the issue of snobbery and the comments that have been made not only by the tabloid press but by Members of this House from time to time. I am glad that those issues have been addressed head-on, and that we have talked about expenses and the missed opportunity last year. I am pleased that you tackled that subject in your opening remarks.

In questioning candidates at the Speaker’s hustings earlier this week, I commented that a substantial part of your success in winning the speakership and that big battle we had last time was that among the Speaker’s team, you had gone out of your way to be helpful, kind and welcoming to new Members, particularly the great influx we had in 1997. That is not, of course, to suggest that it was a political ploy, although I would not dream of suggesting that you are not a good politician, but your approach came very naturally out of your kindness and desire to help us. That sentiment is shared across the parties, as I noted during the hustings when Members of different political parties passed comments to me about your kindness across the board. That has been greatly appreciated by us all.

I personally think it is a shame that Speakers feel that they have to retreat from the Tea Rooms and the like once elected. I hope that that will not necessarily be the case in future, because that is a good way for the Speaker to dispense advice, assistance and encouragement. You have been able to do that through invitations to your house and as we have seen you around and about the Chamber.

Others have talked about your start in the trade union movement as a sheet metalworker. My personal connection with you, Mr. Speaker, is that we both worked for the same union, the National Union of Public Employees. You were a full-time official, working with low-paid public service workers, and you campaigned at that time for a minimum wage. Although you have had to be strictly politically neutral in the Chair, I am sure that it gave you great pleasure when we were able to pass that legislation for which you had campaigned in your earlier life.

I had not realised how many of us had been on the panel to select your whisky. When I went on it, I found that another Derbyshire Member, the Opposition Chief Whip was involved, so I thought that you were saying something about our county and our enjoyment of a wee dram. My slight beef is that we were given only a limited selection from which to choose; otherwise, we could easily have stayed there for another hour or two to make sure that we made the absolutely perfect choice for you. I and clearly many other hon. Members have greatly appreciated the honour of being allowed to choose for you.

Another position that I hold, somehow, slightly to my amusement, arose when someone came up one day
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and asked me whether I would like to sit on the Speaker’s works of art committee. I knew nothing about it and I do not know how I was chosen. It was slightly disappointing when, having chosen our selection of Christmas cards and sent them to you, we found that some other ones had got through or that you had not gone along with our first choice. You have always been very welcoming and supportive. I am thinking particularly of the exhibition to celebrate the anniversary of the suffragettes, which you were very encouraging about, saying that MPs should take their constituents to look at the history of how people, particularly women, struggled for the vote. You knew that this was part of our great history of seeking democracy.

That brings me back to the major point about your high regard for the House, for Back Benchers and for our democratic processes. The greatest tribute we can pay to you and your work, Mr. Speaker, over your years as Speaker is by resolving our current problems and restoring the House and this part of our democratic system to the respect that it should have. If we can earn that respect on your behalf, I believe that it will be a tribute to the work you have done.

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