Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mr. Grieve: Would the hon. Gentleman have a different view if, in addition to the secret ballot, we had the Canadian system in which there is no announcement of the votes cast in the ballots? That removes tactical voting in the next round because people are simply told that the last person has dropped off the list.

Mr. Winnick: It is the principle of a secret ballot in the House of Commons to which I am opposed. If there are enough troops, I shall press my amendment to a vote and let us see how far we get.

I do not accept that pressure is put on Members to vote. Paragraph 55 explains that such pressure has often proved counter-productive. I am glad to hear it. If Members are subject to pressure when there is a free vote, then it is likely that the wrong people have been elected here. It is the principle that matters. All our votes need to be duly recorded even when we vote on an internal matter that is of little concern to constituents. Perhaps other hon. Members have received letters about what happened last October, but I have not. I want everything to be above board. Our votes on major and minor issues are recorded. That should be the case for all our actions, including the election of the Speaker.

My last point concerns the remarks of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). I hope that this will not be seen as in any way disrespectful to Her Majesty, but I find it distasteful and odd that in this day and age we require consent for the election of the Speaker. In many respects, it contradicts all that we say about 1642. I hope also that I will not be misunderstood when I say that I would be much happier if Black Rod, when he comes here, used the word "request", instead of "command", because that would demonstrate the authority of this

22 Mar 2001 : Column 517

House. I am concerned about other matters, although I know, Mr. Speaker, that you would not want me to stray from the subject of the debate. In this day and age, it is not necessary for someone to come here with a stick to give us a message from the Queen. Earlier today, you announced measures to which Her Majesty had given her Royal Assent, and there is no reason why you could not inform the House that a message had been duly received from the Queen.

Whichever party is in office, it is always keen to say that the country should modernise and restrictive practices should be stopped, but so many of our own restrictive practices continue. I know that some people say that it is not necessary to object to them, but they give an impression of the way in which we conduct our business. I refer to pantomime performances, such as my colleague coming in with a stick. At one time, the Whip concerned had to walk backwards and wear morning dress.

If we are to modernise--if one likes that term--the method for electing a Speaker, we should not be afraid, at the beginning of the 21st century, to bring our practices up to date so that those who look on do not say, "That's odd. What has it got to do with the way in which business should be conducted?" This is a serious place and we should conduct ourselves in a serious manner.

2.32 pm

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and I have been here together for many years. Indeed, we started together at the Oxford Union way back just after the war, and the fact that we are both leaving at the next election brings back certain memories. I can think of no Member during that time who has won for himself as wide a reputation outside the House as he has done, and I pay tribute to him for the way in which he has achieved that. Much of the time, I disagree with him--I did so way back at Oxford and I do so even today. None the less, the reputation that he has been able to obtain deserves immense applause from hon. Members of all parties.

I will return to the right hon. Gentleman and the fact that he has stirred up this matter unnecessarily, but first I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, which I had the pleasure of chairing for 14 years. He has produced a thorough report, as we would expect of him, and made specific recommendations, most of which I disagree with.

As for the role of the Speaker, once a man or woman has been brought to the big Chair as Speaker of the House, they have the right to expect to be able to continue in that role irrespective of a general election, unless they commit some unforgivable nonsense. The Speaker can stand for re-election in their constituency, which they usually do as Speaker, and they are not normally properly opposed. It would be wrong if they could then arrive back in the House to find themselves knocked out of the Speaker's Chair, perhaps for no other reason than politics. What would happen then? Would that person sit on the Back Benches? That would be quite impossible. Presumably, they would have to go immediately to the House of Lords, but they may well not want to do that. That person will have given a great part of their life to being Speaker, and

22 Mar 2001 : Column 518

they have the right to expect the House to allow them to continue in office unless, as I said, they have made a remarkable error or committed a semi-criminal offence.

As Labour Members have said, the role of the Speaker has changed and continues to change. When the right hon. Member for Chesterfield and I first came to the House, the Speaker was like a High Court judge. One did not speak to him or see him socially. No one was ever invited to Speaker's House, and his role had no social aspect. The person who changed all that was Lord Thomas of Tonypandy, formerly George Thomas. He said that he could retain the respect of the House while being friendly with Members of Parliament on social occasions in Speaker's House, and he proved that that was true. The role of the Speaker in entertaining members of the Inter- Parliamentary Union, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and visiting delegations enhances the role of the House itself. That should be encouraged, and I believe, Mr. Speaker, that you are moving in that direction most admirably.

Finally, I turn to an aspect of the Speaker's role which will become more important. It is becoming more difficult to hold the Executive to account in the House. In the past three or four years, developments have moved against the House, and that process needs to be stopped. We have to ensure that the power of Parliament is moved from No. 10 Downing street back into the Chamber. We will have to rely on the Speaker in different ways to try to ensure that that is brought about. You have the power, Mr. Speaker, to direct the Executive in certain ways and to ensure that the House is not done down or put to one side. We will have to rely on the person sitting in the big Chair to help the House to perform its role. The next Parliament will have to consider that matter most carefully.

On the proposals themselves, the idea that there is a general opinion among Members of Parliament that the current method of electing a Speaker is wrong was brought about by the excellent publicity that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield was able to obtain for the motion that he tabled and the lack of understanding of many of the newer Members who had never gone through the process of electing a Speaker. That had not happened for two Parliaments, so their incomprehension is hardly surprising. There was also a lack of understanding about the opaqueness that could exist in other systems, whereas the present system is absolutely open and could not be thought to be more democratic.

Every candidate has a supporter and a seconder who make a speech in their favour and the candidates themselves can make a speech. The House then votes on the candidates. How much more democratic can one get? To sweep that away for a system that is not proven is very strange indeed.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: I believe that my right hon. Friend is inadvertently misleading the House. In fact, the old system--the system that we currently have--could result in a number of candidates for the office of Speaker not having an opportunity to speak as individuals and be heard by the House, and their proposers and seconders not having an opportunity to put their name forward. Uniquely, on the occasion of the last election of a Speaker, through the skill of our right hon. Friend the

22 Mar 2001 : Column 519

Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), every candidate had that opportunity, but that has not been the case in the past.

Sir Peter Emery: My hon. Friend makes a procedural point. As he knows, I put to his Committee certain suggestions for simple alterations to the Standing Orders governing the proceedings of the House. If, under the old system, an amendment to the original motion is carried, that becomes a substantive motion and must be put to the House immediately, so that no further amendments can be made to the already amended motion. However, it is the simplest thing in the world to take the amended motion not as a substantive motion, but as an ordinary motion to which further amendment can be made. The resulting system could not be more democratic or more open.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): Under our current system, a different test is applied to each candidate, depending where he or she appears in the order. That is why I think that the conclusion drawn by the Procedure Committee is a good one.

Sir Peter Emery: I have heard that argument and read it in the Committee report, but I see no proof that it is right. I see no reason why someone who wanted my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield to be Speaker could not have voted for another candidate and then returned to vote for my hon. Friend when his turn came. There is no proof that the order altered the result, as people have argued it did. Lady Boothroyd was not the first nominee, but the second; her name was carried and no one wished to stand against her, with the result that her name was carried unanimously from then on.

It is proposed that we change our system and adopt a voting structure whereby the House will make a decision using a method that we have never used before. I am concerned that if we go down that road there is a risk that in future, in respect of other amendments, we shall be tempted to drift towards the use of a similar system--a poll, rather than a vote--which would do great damage to the rules and procedures of the House. I am sorry that the Committee has decided to cast away the system that resulted in the election of the man whom the House wanted. No one disagrees with that statement. When we have a system that is so transparent and democratic, I am dubious about making change merely for its own sake.

I certainly oppose any vote being kept secret. The moment we have secret votes, a terrifying scenario arises wherein Members tell every candidate that he or she has their support. We have all seen that happen in Committees or heard it from people who have stood for office. They say, "I counted heads and was certain of the majority that I needed to get elected--but I didn't get elected! Isn't that strange?" In fact, the moment a secret vote is in the offing, people cease to be directly honest and are friendly to all the candidates, and when the results of a secret vote are made known, no one knows who has been telling the truth and who has not.

I am massively in favour of retaining the open vote. Every vote in the House of Commons is open. No vote is secret. Why should we adopt a secret ballot for the election of the Speaker? It is right that Members should be able to stand and say which candidate they support--on the most recent occasion, the candidates included my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield, my right hon.

22 Mar 2001 : Column 520

Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), and the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin), who was eventually elected to the office of Speaker. The process should be as open to public gaze as every other aspect of the House's business.


Next Section

IndexHome Page