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Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): It has been an afternoon for farewell speeches, some perhaps more voluntary than others. It is therefore a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill), who is defending a majority of 2,770, and who may discover in a few days' or weeks' time that he, too, made a farewell speech this afternoon. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said that the debate lacked edge, and I am trying to provide it.
On a more serious note, I concur with the point of the hon. Member for Upminster that the subject of our debate has become more important to Back Benchers over the past 30 years. That is a sign of hope in the institution. The Liaison Committee report on "Shifting the Balance" and the Procedure Committee's report on electing a Speaker are signs of a change in Back Benchers' attitude towards how much they will take from the Executive.
People look back to a golden age, but let us consider what happened in the 1960s and 1970s, which some hon. Members experienced in this place, when the usual channels sorted things out. The procedures used in 1972 exemplified the way in which the House was run in those days. I therefore congratulate the Procedure Committee on the report and support the broad thrust of its recommendations.
I should perhaps apologise to the Parliamentary Secretary. We held a debate a few weeks ago about the timetable. At some ungodly hour, I said that the time allowed for today's debate was insufficient. It appears that the hon. Gentleman will be proved right and I will be proved wrong. That may have something to do with the scheduling of a debate on free-vote business on a Thursday afternoon, but it is up to hon. Members who care about this place to attend and speak up for it. There is no more important decision in this institution than the election of a Speaker.
I take slight issue with my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) about secret ballots at various stages in the cycle of electing a Speaker. There is a difference between the election of a new Speaker, the re-election of a sitting Speaker and a censure motion on a sitting Speaker. I want to use myself as an example.
I rose when the Father of the House sought to put the question on electing our current Speaker. I believed that there should be a Division. I felt strongly that as far as possible every candidate should be subjected to the same test under the rules that pertained then. I wanted to apply the test that I applied to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to every other candidate, to the right hon. Member for Glasgow, Springburn. Ultimately, I could not do that
It has been stated with certainty in the report and the debate that the current Speaker would have been elected under different arrangements. That is wrong; such an assumption should be tested. We cannot know what would have happened if your name, Mr. Deputy Speaker, had appeared not in the first amendment but in the main motion, and if the current Speaker's name had appeared in an amendment rather than the motion. We shall never know because hon. Members made different judgments according to the candidates lower down the list whom they supported. I welcome the report's recommendations on the voting procedure because it is now palpably fair.
Our main consideration is whether we should hold a secret or an open ballot. I strongly believe that it should be secret. As I rose at the crucial moment and triggered the vote on that occasion, I suppose that I should be most paranoid about influence from the Chair. I want to put it clearly on the record that I have been treated fairly by the Speaker. I do not believe that he has over-corrected and called me more often than he should, or that he has called me less often than he should. As hon. Members have said, one would expect those who hold the office of Speaker to be blind to the opinions of hon. Members about their candidacy. However, we cannot know whether that is the case.
I cannot know whether being called last on several occasions to ask questions about a statement is a reflection of my lack of seniority in the House or of the occupant of the Chair's bias against me. On several other occasions, I have been called extremely early to ask questions on statements. That is simply part of the cut and thrust in the House, and I do not believe that I have been discriminated against.
A secret ballot is preferable also because of the influence of the usual channels. It has been reported to me that a Labour Member, who was elected in 1997, was overheard having a conversation with a Whip on the election of the Speaker. The hon. Member asked for guidance and the Whip reportedly said, "Well, it's a free vote; we can vote for anybody as long as it's not Gwyneth." Such influence is unwelcome, but it exists.
On the point about setting a precedent and establishing a secret ballot for the first time, I agree with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) that the election of Speaker is an issue for the House of Commons. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said that we should be accountable to our electorate in this matter. I disagree. Hon. Members should be able to exercise their
Mr. Blunt: I do not say that it is no business of theirs. We must make a judgment, and I believe that it is important that I am able to make the most important decision on House of Commons business free from influence.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton: Will my hon. Friend invite the House to consider carefully the fact that Australia, Canada, South Africa, France, Italy, the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales hold secret ballots when electing their Presiding Officers? The Committee took evidence from other Commonwealth countries and other democracies.
Mr. Blunt: My hon. Friend makes the point perfectly. When people examine the case carefully and have the opportunity to restructure systems, they will favour secret ballots. Decisions about the chairmanship of an assembly are for its members. This is the one occasion on which I believe that there should be a secret ballot. There is a distinction between this and other occasions, such as those on which the Speaker is to be re-elected, or on which there is a vote of censure against the Speaker.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): My hon. Friend argues for a secret ballot. If he were to get his way, and one of his constituents were to write to him after the election of a Speaker and ask him which way he had voted, would he tell them? If so, why is he arguing for a secret ballot?
Mr. Blunt: The answer is no, I would not tell them. I would tell them that this was a secret ballot and that I had exercised my judgment as to a matter concerning the House. The reason why it should be secret is precisely that I would not then be accountable for it to the electorate.
In the end, this is a question of judgment. Other hon. Members will come to a different judgment, saying that we should not break with precedent and that we have to be accountable for absolutely everything that we do. I believe that, in this one respect, we owe it to ourselves to be able to take the power to ourselves to make this decision free from the influence from the usual channels, and without being influenced by what the consequences might be for the future occupants of the Chair. That is why I hope that the amendment in the name of the Minister, which would delete the word "secret", will not be carried.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I was prompted to rise to my feet by the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). He said that when the House was at its clubbiest, it was at its worst, as if every speech that we make must drip with
I want to pick up on the point made by the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) about the influence of the Whips. He said that he had heard one of the Whips say to a Member who came into the House in the new intake, "It's a free vote, but don't vote for Gwyneth." The Whips have an influence, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton, as a member of the Liaison Committee, put his name to a report that made it perfectly clear that hon. Members were kept off Select Committees because of their views. That must, therefore, be my right hon. Friend's view.