2010 elections for positions in the House - Procedure Committee Contents

2  Election of the Speaker


4.  The election of the Speaker following a General Election is carried out in one of two ways. First, if a Member who held the office at the end of the previous Parliament is returned to the House and is willing to resume office, then the House is asked to decide whether that Member take the Chair, without any other candidates being considered. Second, where the previous Speaker is not returned or does not wish to stand, an open election is held with all would-be candidates able to stand and the question is decided by secret ballot.

5.  This latter process is also that followed when a Speaker resigns or a vacancy is otherwise created in the middle of a Parliament. It was used for the first time in June 2009 and was examined by our predecessors in its First Report of Session 2009-10 (HC 341).

Experience in 2010

6.  In 2010 John Bercow was re-elected unopposed. If the decision of the Presiding Member had been questioned after he had put the Question "That Mr Bercow do take the Chair", the House would have moved to a division with the names of participants recorded. In the event that the motion "That Mr Bercow do take the Chair" had then been defeated, the House would have gone on to follow the procedure for electing a new Speaker by secret ballot.

7.  When it examined the procedure for the election of the Speaker, our predecessor Committee concluded that the system for selecting a new incumbent had proved satisfactory and that only a few minor changes were needed. Their report and proposals for improvements had not been considered by the House by the time of dissolution. There are therefore a number of outstanding issues from the previous report which we draw to the attention of the House for its consideration in relation to both the election of a new Speaker and the re-election of a previous one.

A new Speaker: issues arising from the previous report


8.  Standing Order No. 1B (Election of the Speaker by secret ballot) provides that the names of those sponsoring the candidates for Speaker should not be published. The previous Committee recommended that this should be changed to increase transparency and to help inform the decisions of Members as to which candidates to support. We agree that this would be desirable and note that it would bring the arrangements for publication of sponsors for the Speaker's election in line with those for the elections to other posts within the House. We recommend that Standing Order No. 1B be amended to allow for the publication of the names of sponsors.


9.   The number of sponsors required by Standing Order No. 1B is not fewer than twelve nor more than 15. Our predecessor Committee recommended that this be replaced with a requirement for a fixed 15 signatures, with no range on either side. Since the report was published, standing orders have been agreed for the other whole House elections which vary in their requirements for the number of sponsors. For example, each candidate for Deputy Speaker must be supported by between six and 10 signatures, whilst 15 Members or 10 per cent of the Members of the same party for smaller parties are required for each candidate for a select committee chair. The experience of operating these elections led Commons officials to suggest in evidence to us that a fixed limit was unsatisfactory because it could lead to a candidature's being disallowed if just one of the supporting signatures proved to be invalid.[2] Either a range, or an explicit provision that more than a minimum number of signatures could be submitted but that only the minimum number of valid signatures would be printed, would be preferable. We accept this advice, but in order that candidates be discouraged from trophy-hunting, we consider that only the printed signatures should be given the status of sponsors and any excess should be disregarded. We recommend that Standing Order No. 1B be amended to provide that a minimum of 15 signatures be required for a nomination to be valid and that signatures in excess of this number may be collected but not printed and will be disregarded as sponsors if not needed to validate the nomination and neither published nor counted.


10.  A further issue to which the previous Committee gave serious consideration is whether it was desirable to require that a certain number of sponsors for a candidate came from his or her own party. At present, at least three sponsors need to be from parties other than a candidate's own in order to demonstrate cross-party support but there is no equivalent provision to demonstrate support from a candidate's own side of the House. The Committee concluded that publication of the names of sponsors would make clear the level of support a candidate had within their own party, thus making unnecessary any further stipulation on numbers.

11.  We have reviewed this question in the light of the experience of devising systems for the other whole House elections held for the first time in 2010. Each case is different because the rules have been designed to reflect the part played by party membership in selecting candidates for each role. In the case of the Deputy Speakers, for example, there is no requirement for candidates to demonstrate support from any side of the House. This reflects the conclusion reached by our predecessors that such a rule was unnecessary "since the publication of the sponsors will reveal from where a candidate draws his support and, unlike the Speaker, the Deputy Speakers will each be elected partly because of their party allegiance."[3] For the elections to chairs of select committees, only candidates from a specified party are eligible for a particular post and so rules were introduced to ensure that each candidate had the backing of their own party, preventing the majority party from imposing particular candidates against the wishes of the minority parties. Finally, candidates for the chair of the backbench business committee (a post open to all Members of the House) require twenty sponsors, ten from each side of the House, whilst candidates to be members of that committee, where constraints dictate the number of available places to each party, need provide only 12 to 15 signatures, regardless of party.

12.  It is difficult to make direct comparison between the election of the Speaker and any of these other elections. The closest parallel might be the chair of the backbench business committee which, like the Speakership, is not prescribed by party affiliation, but we note that the party to which the chair of the backbench business committee belongs does have an effect on the number of posts available to each party on the committee itself, as the overall committee is expected to reflect the party proportions in the House. This, as we will discuss later, excludes minority parties. This is not the case with the current arrangements for the Speaker nor for the Deputy Speakers, where the rules governing their election (designed to provide a balance across the panel of Speaker and Deputies) refer not to parties but to sides of the House specifically in order to avoid such exclusion. We think it is right to ensure that the Speakership, the highest post in the Commons, is open to all Members, regardless of the size of party to which they belong. Like our predecessors, we consider that open publication of the names of sponsors would serve the purpose of transparency without erecting further obstacles to the candidature of any Member. We therefore do not recommend any change to the nomination rules for the election of the Speaker as far as demonstration of party support is concerned.


13.  In 2009 the order in which candidates addressed the House was decided by lot drawn by the Presiding Member on the morning of the election. The results were notified to the candidates before the list was published at noon. This was a change from the previous system where only an informal notification of the order of speeches was given by the Presiding Member at the start of proceedings. In 2009 the candidates were also given informal guidance that past precedent suggested that about six minutes would be an appropriate length for a speech. The previous Committee's report recommended that the process followed for notifying candidates of the order of speeches and the guidelines adopted on length of speeches in June 2009 should be used in the future and that the guidance should be published. We endorse this recommendation.


14.  Our predecessors recommended that neither the names of those participating in each round of voting nor those voting for each candidate should be published. This was partly in order to preserve the secrecy of the ballot and partly a matter of practicality since the list could only show those who had entered the lobby and not those who had cast a vote. Rules for the other elections to House posts agreed since that Report similarly make no provision for the publication of the names of participants in the ballots. We agree that this approach is correct and conclude that the names of those participating in the ballot should not be published.


15.  Standing Order No. 1B provides 30 minutes for voting in each round of balloting. In 2009 this proved too long and was reduced on the discretion of the Presiding Member for the last round of voting. The previous report recommended formalising in the standing orders a reduction of the time to 20 minutes. We believe that this would be a sensible change and we recommend that the Standing Order be amended accordingly.


16.  An unexpected issue which was raised in the course of the previous inquiry was the use of prayer cards to reserve seats in the Chamber on the day of the election. Prayers are not read when the House meets to elect a Speaker, meaning that prayer cards cannot be issued, although candidates were informally allowed to make use of them in 2009. The previous report recommended that prayers should be read in the usual way on the day of an election. We have re-considered this conclusion. Although we understand the reasoning of the previous Committee with regard to instilling a due sense of decorum, we believe that it would be simpler if pink cards were to be used on such occasions as is the custom for Members attending committees at the time of prayers. We recommend that pink cards be used without prayers to reserve seats in the Chamber on any day on which the House meets to elect a Speaker.

Re-election of the Speaker after a General Election

17.  The procedure for re-electing a returning Speaker differs from that for electing a new one in requiring the House first to decide whether to re-elect the former incumbent and only if this question is negatived permitting the field to be opened to other candidates. Our predecessor Committee recognised possible objections to this procedure but concluded that radical change should be considered only in the context of a review of the role of Speaker which the Committee recommended should take place during this Parliament. As an interim step, our predecessor Committee's report also recommended that the House should be given the opportunity before the last General Election to decide on the narrower question of whether to retain the open division procedure for determining the result where the question on re-electing a returning Speaker was challenged from the Floor.

18.  This issue has resurfaced in our current inquiry with one Member suggesting that re-election should be by secret ballot with a transferable vote.[4] We have therefore reconsidered the arguments for and against a secret ballot or indeed a full election, allowing all would-be candidates to stand, regardless of whether a Speaker is returned to the House at a General Election. Our predecessor Committee's report set these out in some detail:

70. We have considered three options. These are: the current procedure as set out in Standing Order No. 1A; a similar procedure but with the decision on the Question made by secret ballot rather than an open division; or, an open election under provisions similar to those in Standing Order No. 1B.

Current procedure

71. The current procedure of a motion moved that the former Speaker do take the Chair, decided if necessary by a division, has the advantages of familiarity and speed. Importantly, it also offers the incumbent some protection against political machinations since the question is framed as a vote of confidence in the former Speaker. The presumption in favour of the re-election of the Speaker to his post also lies behind the conventions regarding his or her return to the House after a General Election unopposed by the main parties, although this could also be seen as a recognition of the distance placed between Speaker and party in the preceding Parliament and the impact of that on his or her electoral chances. Finally, the procedure allows for dissent without encouraging it, providing a trigger ballot for a challenge by a candidate who would enjoy greater support.

72. The disadvantages of the current procedure are naturally enough inherent in the advantages. The same procedure which protects the Speaker against the mis-use of power by a newly elected majority party also means that the new House has first to reject one candidate before it can choose its own Speaker in an open election. The House is not offered the opportunity to weigh the former Speaker against other candidates but only against him or herself. The open division for deciding the question can be seen as a deterrent to the House expressing its views honestly, which discourages not only challenges but also a strong declaration of support for the incumbent and acts against any feeling by new members of the House that they have chosen their own Speaker.

Confirmation with secret ballot

73. The current procedure but with the question decided by a secret ballot has the same advantages as above, but moving to a secret ballot from an open recorded division as a means of deciding the question may remove some of the impregnability of the incumbent in making easier for Members to register a protest vote without fear of the impact that would have on their chance to be called to speak in the future. It also has the significant advantage of consistency with the procedure for electing a Speaker at other times.

74. To set against this is the disadvantage that enabling some degree of protest without a full election may well leave the Speaker wounded but still in post, which would not assist him or her in his attempts to bolster the House against the Executive. A secret ballot on a straight yes or no question may also seem unnecessarily unwieldy.

Full election

75. A full election, allowing Members to choose between all would-be candidates, offers the new Parliament a fresh start with the House choosing its own Speaker. The incumbent may well have an advantage but this would not be procedurally entrenched and by moving from a vote of confidence to an open election, any former Speaker winning the ballot would gain a fresh mandate and endorsement from the House, regardless of the actual numbers voting for and against him.

76. On the other hand, such a procedure would of course lack the advantages of the current one. In particular, it would risk a more frequent turnover of Speakers with the result that the House would lose the benefit of continuity in the Chair. It may also weaken the position of the Speaker who would feel more vulnerable to change and perhaps less able to stand up to the Government.

19.  We believe that our predecessor Committee reached the right conclusions on this issue. Like them, we are persuaded that a more general review of the role and powers of the Speaker is necessary to inform decisions on a radical change to the procedure which might see a candidate returned to the House after standing in a constituency as the "The Speaker seeking re-election" take part in an open election alongside all would-be candidates. Such a review could conceivably include the question of the Speaker's seat, outlined below (see paragraphs 20 to 24). We also reaffirm our predecessor Committee's recommendation that the House be given an opportunity to decide on the narrow question of whether the re-election of the Speaker, where challenged, should be decided by secret ballot or open division. We make no recommendation as to what the outcome of this decision should be but we recognise that there was some concern amongst Members on this point in 2010 and we believe that it is right that that the House itself should debate the issue and decide between the arguments as set out above. We recommend that the House be invited to decide whether on the first day of a new Parliament, where the Presiding Member's decision on the question that a former Speaker take the Chair is challenged, the question should be decided by secret ballot or by open division.

The Speaker's Seat

20.  We have been asked by the Speaker to consider the question of whether there should be a Speaker's seat in a General Election to replace the current situation whereby the Speaker stands as a non-aligned candidate in a normal parliamentary constituency. This issue was raised with the Speaker during the General Election in May 2010 and, although not directly connected to the re-election of the returning Speaker to his Commons post, it has obvious relevance to the presumptions which might lie behind that re-election.

21.  The concept of a Speaker's seat (sometimes referred to as St Stephen's seat) envisages that any Member once elected by the House to the Speakership would cease to represent a normal parliamentary constituency, resulting in a by-election, and would be automatically returned at the next General Election, if he or she so chose, to stand in the Speakership election. The advantages of this proposal are that the constituents of the new Speaker would be able to choose a new representative who could speak on their behalf in the Commons which their former Member, now the Speaker, could not, and that they would not be disenfranchised in a General Election where the major parties accepted the convention that the Speaker seeking re-election stands unopposed. It would therefore keep the Speaker out of political controversy at the time of an election while at the same time ensuring that his or her former constituents were able to express their view by voting in a normal ballot for candidates from across the political spectrum. If the Speaker lost his office, whether by resignation or defeat in the Commons, he would cease to be a member of the House.

22.  The proposal has been examined before, not least in 1938 when a select committee was appointed "to consider what steps, if any, should be taken to ensure that, having due regard to the constitutional rights of the electors, the Speaker, during his continuance in office, shall not be required to take part in a contested Parliamentary election".[5] That Committee concluded that:

To attempt to deprive a constituency of the right to choose as its member one who is considered most representative of the popular will would be a serious infringement of democratic principles. To alter the status of the Speaker so that he ceased to be returned to the House of Commons by the same electoral methods as other members or as a representative of a parliamentary constituency, would be equally repugnant to the custom and tradition of the House. To advocate that a Speaker should modify, even in his own defence, the established attitude towards political controversy would be to reverse the whole trend of our parliamentary evolution. Such are Your Committee's conclusions. No scheme or proposal within their purview offers more than a partial solution, and each introduces new elements which, in Your Committee's considered judgment, would be less acceptable than the ills they seek to cure.[6]

23.  Two further attempts in the Commons, by means of Private Members' bills in April 1963 and January 1982, ended in defeat. The winning argument is each case was that it was wrong in principle to create a new category of membership of the House, especially one that introduced indirect election, and that it would reduce the accountability of the Speaker to the Commons. In 1976 Mr Speaker Lloyd referred to the question in his farewell address to the House, stating that "I firmly believe that the Speaker should be elected for a constituency, as are other hon. Members, so as to keep personally in touch with the hopes and fears and the personal and individual needs of many thousands of ordinary men and women, meeting them face to face from time to time and to know the problems of the area which he represents".[7] On the other hand, another more recent holder of the post, Speaker Boothroyd, has expressed support for the idea that the Speaker should be "an ex officio Member of the House without constituency responsibilities".[8]

  1. In the context of this report, we have not conducted a full inquiry into the proposal for a special Speaker's seat, which would in any case require primary legislation. From our review of the arguments and the history of the idea, we are firmly persuaded that the advantages of the change are outweighed by the disadvantages. There are great benefits to the House and to the Speaker in the Speaker's retaining responsibility for a normal constituency and being thereby fully aware of the issues currently causing concern to constituents. The access that the Speaker, like Ministers who are also unable to speak out in debates, gains to the Government in order to raise matters relating to his or her constituents compensates in no small measure for the lack of a constituency voice on the floor of the House. We are also concerned that the proposal would remove the important democratic check on the re-appointment of a Speaker by either the public or the House and would create a new separate, distinctive and privileged category of Member to the detriment of the House. Finally, we recognise that the existence of a Speaker's seat could lead to worse consequences for a returning Speaker, if not re-elected by the House, than at present since there could be no possibility of a return to the backbenches in such circumstances and the traditional honour of a seat in the Lords could cease to be available in the foreseeable future. For all these reasons, we do not support the concept of a St Stephen's seat for the Speaker.

2   Ev 5 Back

3   HC 341, Session 2009-10, para 47 Back

4   Ev 2 Back

5   Select Committee on Parliamentary Elections (the Speaker's Seat), HC 98 (1938-39). Back

6   Para 60 Back

7   HC Debates, 3 February 1976, vol 904, c1140 Back

8   Betty Boothroyd, The Autobiography (Century, 2001) p244 Back

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Prepared 31 October 2011