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9.20 pm

Mr. Speaker-Elect (standing on the upper step): Order. I understand that the Speaker-Elect normally makes some formal remarks before taking the throne. It has been a long day and I do not want to keep hon. Members, but the House owes a debt of gratitude to the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), the Father of the House. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."] I hope that the House will allow me to say that my thoughts are with my wife Mary, my son Paul, my daughter Mary and my grandson Ryan. Family is important to me and I will endeavour to see that families are included in the proceedings of the House. [Hon. Members: "Hear, hear."]

Before I assume the Chair as Speaker-Elect, I thank the House once again for its confidence in me. I pray that I shall prove worthy of that confidence and that all of us will maintain the high tradition of this place. I also ask hon. Members for their prayers.

9.21 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): It is my pleasure to be the first Member of Parliament to offer you congratulations on your election, Mr. Speaker-Elect. Much has been made of your origins in hardship and difficulty, and your upbringing in Scotland in poverty which, no doubt, will give you a special insight into the position of many people. However, I want to lay stress not on your origins but on your qualities, integrity and worldly wisdom.

A moment or two ago, Mr. Speaker-Elect, you said that no Labour leader had ever offered you a Government or Front-Bench job. On behalf of this Labour leader, may I

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say that I realise what a great oversight that was? I know that you feel a sense of joy and pride for your constituents in Glasgow, Springburn. Back in the 1980s, when you and I sat on Committees together, you told me what a tough training ground in politics Glasgow was, especially for speeches. When you made a good speech in Glasgow, people did not applaud--they just let you live.

You follow a long line of people who have recently fulfilled the office with great distinction, not least Betty Boothroyd, who was a superb Speaker and enjoyed a fantastic reputation in the House and the whole country. You know--as we all do--that that will be a hard act to follow. You are the 156th occupant of the Chair. As we have just seen, the House follows the tradition that people become Speaker only with great reluctance. That is not surprising, given that a number of your predecessors died in battle or were beheaded. However, the post has possible advantages, as I believe that one Speaker was canonised.

On behalf of the House, may I offer my congratulations to the other Members who were candidates in the election for Speaker? I listened to their outstanding speeches. It is a tribute to the strength of the House that there were so many able and fitting candidates from both sides. Of course, I pay tribute to the Father of the House who did as we expected and handled our proceedings with great tact, skill and efficiency.

Today, there are enormous pressures on Speakers. In years gone by, Mr. Speaker-Elect, your predecessors had their words and judgments recorded in Hansard. However, since our proceedings have begun to be broadcast, Speakers have become familiar figures, nationally and, indeed, internationally. I know that your predecessor received regular correspondence from the United States, from people who were avid watchers of Prime Minister's Question Time--there is no accounting for taste. You can take comfort from the fact that, although such letters are frequently critical of the two main combatants, they are unfailingly complimentary about the Speaker and, no doubt, will continue to be so.

The context of your job, Mr. Speaker-Elect, is changing; not just because of the 24-hour scrutiny by the media, but because of our new devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I hope the House will forgive me if I say that this is the first time that the House has met since the tragic death of our colleague and friend Donald Dewar. It is right that we acknowledge not just the tremendous contribution that he made to the new Parliament in Scotland, but the contribution that he made here in this House for 26 years. He was a parliamentarian of extraordinary distinction and he was one of your fellow Members of Parliament in Glasgow. He will be sorely missed.

Your election today is the clearest reflection of the respect that this House has for you. It is based on your genuine popularity, the affection that is felt in all parts of the Commons, and on your inherent sense of fairness. During your time as Deputy Speaker--a post you filled with distinction--you have occupied the Chair with good humour and a style of gentle persuasion that has been a most effective way of exercising your authority.

I can say also with some confidence that, some time during the first 18 months of your occupancy of the Chair--I am not sure when--we shall have a newly elected House of Commons, and there will be some new faces for you to identify; although, I hope, not too many.

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Today has been an extremely important day both for the House of Commons and for our democracy. We do not elect a new Speaker very often. The job, for all its hazards, has historically rather more job security than either that of Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition. It is a job which traditionally people have filled until the day comes when they decide that they want to retire.

This House has shown its great confidence in you, in that, from an unprecedentedly wide range of candidates, you have been chosen to occupy the highest office that this House, by election, can bestow. I offer you again my warmest congratulations and every good wish for the future.

9.27 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): I, too, wish to offer you my congratulations on your election and your great achievement today, Mr. Speaker-Elect. No matter how many right hon. and hon. Members voted for you or against you, you are now Speaker of the whole House of Commons.

I, too, should like to echo the words of thanks of the Prime Minister to my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), as Father of the House, for the unflappable--not to say completely immovable--way in which he has conducted proceedings today.

Nevertheless, the large number of candidates on this occasion has raised a legitimate question about the procedures used for this purpose; a question that I believe that the House should consider during your speakership. Fears were expressed that the procedures today would be a shambles. I do not think that they have been a shambles--although it will not always be the case that the losing of 39 votes is completely irrelevant to the outcome--but the system used may not have been ideal.

Having listened to every speech made in the debate today, I believe, along with the Prime Minister, that the House of Commons can be proud of the diversity, abilities and integrity of all of the candidates who have participated today, and none of them should regret having done so.

Your position is far more than ceremonial, Mr. Speaker-Elect, as you know. The Speaker is at the same time the servant and the master of the House. You are now the custodian of our rules, our privileges and our traditions. You will need to use your keen sense of the House and to be able to judge the occasion. You must discard, as you well know, your former affiliations and become the independent champion of the rights of Back Benchers and of all parties in the House.

We are all well aware of the concern that has been expressed today by most of the candidates, their proposers and seconders that the Commons is no longer the place that it was. Many of us will look to you, as Speaker, to follow the example set by your predecessor in resisting all attempts to bypass, marginalise or downgrade the House of Commons. We look to you robustly to defend the position of the House of Commons at the centre of our national life as the independent democratic forum of the British nation.

I have long experience of your chairmanship in Committee, Mr. Speaker-Elect. Indeed, when I was a junior Minister, I debated a Bill for many months with the

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late Donald Dewar, who was a charming, thorough and utterly forensic opponent. Your experience of such chairmanship is immense. I recall that it was characterised by fairness, generosity, patience and calm. You will now need those qualities in abundance. Your qualities of patience and calmness will be sorely tested, but the challenge of maintaining them in the face of every provocation is now before you. The challenge of championing the rights of the House of Commons when they are so often under threat is now before you. The challenge of maintaining the impartial conduct of our proceedings is now before you. As you rise to those challenges, Mr. Speaker-Elect, we wish you very well.

9.30 pm

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West): May I entirely associate my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Liberal Democrat party with the sincere and warm expression of congratulations to you, Mr. Speaker-Elect, on this historic night for you and, as you said, for your family? In particular, I associate those remarks with my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell). Following this election, they will respect you and your integrity as I know, from the reactions to the proposers and seconders, the House respects each of them. I pay great tribute to both of them, too.

I also associate myself entirely with the tributes paid to the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath). At one point in the first half hour of the election, as the points of order flowed on, I thought that he might break the deadlock by offering himself as a compromise candidate. He chose not to do so.

As has been acknowledged, for many of us in the House--not least for a Glaswegian like yourself, Mr. Speaker-Elect--the last few days have been a tale of two cities. So many of us last week paid tribute to a Scot and a Glaswegian--through and through, like you--who had assumed one of the great offices in the land. Now he is gone. This week, here is another Glaswegian who has assumed one of the great offices in the land. It is a reflective and ironic moment for many of us, not least yourself.

To say something personal, if I may indulge in one thought further, the first time that our new Speaker and I met was on the opposite sides of a picket line at Lochaber high school in Fort William when I was about 15 years old. The cleaners at the school had gone on strike and the NUPE regional representative had come to pay a state visit. We were on opposite sides of the picket line for a most curious reason. The school was closed because the cleaners were on strike and those of us who were pupils were delighted and were supporting them from the other side of the picket line. It is a happy memory.

The debate on the election of a new Speaker has been fascinating, with so many good speeches and so many worthy candidates. You have a full in-tray, Mr. Speaker- Elect, with suggestions for change, modernisation and progress in our proceedings and procedures. All of us who know you know that you will take that seriously.

Finally, I enter one specific plea, which you would expect from the Liberal Democrat Benches. I mentioned Donald Dewar and what he set up and then presided over in Edinburgh. He recognised the multi-faith, multi-faceted

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nature of politics in our country. It is important that in its practices and procedures this Chamber recognises that too. We wish you well; all good luck.

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