Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



Mr Efford

  20. Coming back to the central point of Mr Stunell's question, which is, are we beyond the stage where the `usual channels' can operate effectively in this, and my supplementary is, should we exclude the `usual channels', that is that should this become an election of back-bench Members of Parliament only?
  (Mr Benn) You could not exclude Ministers; you cannot have a two-standard House. After all, Ministers are also subject to the Speaker, and therefore have rights. But I think you have to differentiate, dare I say so, in answer to an earlier question, between what is called a campaign, where a candidate says, "Vote for me," and a Prime Minister who says, "Vote for him," there is a bit of a difference, because of the patronage associated with the Prime Minister. And the best Speakers are the ones the Prime Minister has never wanted; in fact, Mr Speaker Weatherill was not wanted by Mrs Thatcher and he was a brilliant Speaker. Madam Speaker Betty Boothroyd was not wanted by the Prime Minister; and I dare say, well, I gather, the present Speaker was not wanted. So they are going to be the best Speakers, because you want people who got there on the basis of what the House wanted and not on the basis of what the leadership wanted. And, the `usual channels'—I once described them as the most polluted waterways in Europe—I think the `usual channels' should have no place in the election of the Speaker, I think it should be explicitly Members of Parliament, as Members of Parliament, including Ministers as Members of Parliament, because we are all Members of the legislature.
  (Sir Peter Emery) I do not believe the `usual channels' ought to play a part. I agree entirely with Tony Benn when he says that the moment the Prime Minister makes it clear that he wants a particular candidate, or she wants a particular candidate, it is nearly sudden death, and that is a fairly good matter. Can I just comment that I am sorry Tony's research did not come quite up to date, because the report of the Procedure Committee recommended that the very first thing the House of Commons did was elect a Speaker, not to go down the corridor to be given permission to elect a Speaker, we should do so on our own, and we did no more than go down to the House to report, not to have approbation of the Speaker but to report whom we had elected to the Chair, full stop, that was it. Now those recommendations were put forward, and the House has never picked them up and never supported them.
  (Mr Benn) I did not know that.

  Chairman: I am grateful for that, Sir Peter.

  Mrs Fitzsimons: I think, although Tony makes a very honest, historical point across the piece about the historic involvement of the `usual channels', I think we must bring ourselves honestly up to date, and coming back to this whole thing about how it was run this time. Would you all agree that the truth is that actually this has got nothing to do, in terms of the debate, about whether it is closed or open and the issue of the `usual channels', it is because the power of the Speaker to pass over the individual Member is immense, and it is to do with your relationship with whoever is the successful candidate that is the worrying issue. Because we presume that, all as good Members, we therefore, after elected, would operate with good grace, but we also know that there are fears. And would you all agree that, therefore, the debate about open and closed has got nothing to do with the `usual channels', it has got everything to do with actually safeguarding a Member of Parliament, in terms of allowing them to choose freely the candidate they wish, without fear of favour or punitive actions of whoever the successful candidate is after the election?


  21. A very quick answer please from all our witnesses?
  (Mr Benn) I do not accept that. I did once make an even greater mistake, I moved a motion of censure on the Speaker and after that it was a bit difficult to be called. But I think you have to trust a Speaker, once elected, to treat all Members equally, and I have never known a Speaker who has ever shown prejudice of the kind that you imply might occur.
  (Mr Bradley) I am not sure that that was my experience in the first three years. I am not talking about personal prejudice, but there were principles which guided Betty Boothroyd in the Chamber, there will be principles that guide the current Speaker; that is why I want to know what they are in advance of the vote. I can judge whether they have got the personal qualities required for the Chair from previous experience. But, ultimately, I want a secret ballot, precisely for the reasons that Lorna Fitzsimons has spelled out.
  (Sir Peter Emery) I am delighted to find myself again in agreement with the Right Honourable gentleman for Chesterfield. But I do think there is one point, and that is, we do not want manifestos which are putting forward the personal ambitions of people to be Speaker, what we want is the person who is most able, who has got the best qualities, the necessary qualities, and the very variable qualities to be Speaker, above the personal ambitions of individual Members of Parliament.
  (Mr Keen) I just felt that asking for a manifesto was likely to draw from potential Speakers a list of issues which they were not able to deliver in any case, and a lot of us do not understand the procedures in this place as well as maybe we should, or maybe it is better we do not know too much about it. But, I think, asking for a manifesto is not the same as asking for a manifesto from a policy-making body, I think that is the difference.

Mr Darvill

  22. Can we take this a little bit further, on the basis that there is a considerable amount of support for some sort of ballot amongst Members in the House. And, assuming that, rightly or wrongly, this Committee were to recommend a ballot, what would your views be on whether or not there should be a run-off after the initial ballot, and, if so, whether this itself should be a ballot or should be held according to the existing rules, by division of the Chamber, following speeches? In other words, having, for example, an Alternative Vote system to select the first two or three candidates and then moving to a system similar to what we have at the moment?
  (Mr Benn) I did, in a proposal I made on 23 October, make that very point, that if you had a ballot then you would have a run-off between the two. Because I think the election of the Speaker is such that if you have two people the solemnity of a division on that matter, in line with practice, I agree, would have advantages. But, of course, if you had an Alternative Vote you would not have to have it, because then you would have an obvious winner and a run-off. But I think there might be a case for a division on the question of two leading candidates after the ballot had occurred.
  (Mr Bradley) I think what is important is that the Speaker, when elected, does have authority, as well as credibility, and for which reason I think that he, or she, should have at least 50 per cent of the votes of those who cast those votes. Incidentally, that was the reason why, although I did not vote for the current Speaker throughout the proceedings, I did on the final substantive motion, because I felt that it was right and proper to do that, and obviously others felt the same way, to give authority to the Speaker, the authority that he will need. So, whatever means, whether it is a head-to-head election between the top two candidates, as Tony Benn's amendment sought to suggest, or whether it is the AV system, I am fairly open-minded, but I do think it is important that the Speaker has the authority, and is seen to have the authority, of the House when he, or she, takes the Chair.
  (Sir Peter Emery) There needs to be a substantive motion at the very end that the House elects the Speaker, and it can be seen that the Speaker has the support of a substantive motion of the House.
  (Mr Keen) I believe that; I agree with the last point. Maybe we could have solved the problem partially by having to have a certain number of nominations in order to qualify to go into the ballot in the first place, because 12 was rather a lot. I am mainly in agreement with Sir Peter Emery.

  23. There was some criticism in certain quarters about the movers and the seconders and the necessity for those speeches; what are your views on that? If we were to go to a basis of having an initial ballot and then a run-off, are you in favour of maintaining the existing system where there is a mover and a seconder before the candidate, he, or she, speaks?
  (Mr Keen) There is something very nice about having a mover and a seconder; maybe we should get to the point where you need a certain number of nominations in order to be one of the final candidates, and then before the ballot there could be a mover and a seconder, that would be one solution to it. Maybe I am being too old-fashioned, wanting to hang on to that system. I am a little bit of a traditionalist, in a way. So I think maybe a straightforward ballot would be more open; because, after all, the Members of Parliament know all the potential Speakers pretty well. Some candidates had a great advantage, the present Speaker had a great advantage in that he was a Deputy Speaker, so that we all had a chance to assess how good and competent in the job he was. Other people did not have the advantage of the same amount of being able to convince people by their just doing their own jobs, Chairmen of Committees, they have not got the same exposure to us all as Deputy Speakers have. Being a Speaker or a Deputy Speaker is almost completely the opposite from being a backbencher or a Minister, in that, and this is why there is some argument about manifestos, the Speaker and Deputy Speaker should be just the opposite from policy-makers, and I think we should understand that, when we are talking about what we are talking about today.


  24. So are all our witnesses in favour of proposers and seconders, and would they perhaps then comment, and very quickly sort of aye or nay, whether they should be from different parties, the proposer from one party, a seconder from another, or does it matter whether they are both representatives of the same party; have our witnesses any views on that?
  (Mr Benn) I found the speeches, moving and seconding, were a bit unnecessary. As Alan said, we do know each other very well, particularly when the Speaker is elected in the middle of a Parliament, which is always desirable, so the House knows all the candidates; and I think if it was known that somebody had been nominated by, might even publish a list of nominations, and then hear the candidates. Because on this question of the manifesto I feel very, very strongly. Of course, you do not want people to say, "I'm marvellous, and I'll be kind to everyone," but there are really important questions about the conduct of the executive, the choice of Select Committees, the Chairmen of Select Committees, the Crown prerogatives in the House of Commons, where it is perfectly proper for a candidate to say, "If you elect me, I will intend to make rulings that have the following effect." And, as anyone knows, a Speaker's rulings cannot be challenged, other than motions of censure against the Speaker, which never succeed. So I think we are talking about an opportunity to strengthen the legislature, which we should not lose, and for that purpose you really do not need to hear one Member saying how much they admire a candidate. I think, if the names of those nominating are published on the Order Paper, that is enough, and then you listen to the candidates, it becomes a hustings in the House, then you vote and then you have a Speaker; and I think there would be a certain clarity about that which would increase enormously the interest. Because people outside do care about whether the House of Commons has a role, sometimes they wonder whether it has one at all, and, I think, if there were candidates coming forward, saying, "I intend, if you elect me, to make rulings that have this effect," it would be a very important political event, with no party political implications of any sort or kind.
  (Sir Peter Emery) I disagree absolutely with Tony. If you have an election of a Speaker at the start of a Parliament, and let us say there had been an election of a new Speaker at the start of this Parliament, there would have been something like over 200 new Members of Parliament who had no knowledge of what people had been in the Chair, how they behave, and everything else. And I think it is absolutely essential, in that instance, before they would be voting, that there should be a proposer and a seconder and a speech made on the floor of the House supporting the candidate. You ask a second question, should nomination be from two parties? I think that rests entirely on the person being nominated; if he wishes to have maybe two not of his party at all, that is entirely up to him, so that that should be his view, but it is essential, it seems to me, to ensure that speeches should be made so that there can be no doubt. And I believe, lastly, that Tony is not absolutely right, the rulings of the Speaker have to conform with Standing Orders; he cannot begin running, at will, against what the Standing Orders of the House set down, and, indeed, that is what Points of Order frequently are about, so that they are not always too often just political points. But the idea that the Speaker, by himself, can begin modernising the whole of the procedure of the House just is not true.

  25. He would be usurping this Committee.
  (Mr Bradley) Can I just dissent slightly from what has been said. Firstly, the Speaker, to a large extent, determines the character of the House for quite an extended period of time, in Betty Boothroyd's case eight years, and that is why it is right to ask the candidates for Speaker before election to set out the principles which will guide them and seek approbation from their electorate. And that introduces a notion that perhaps has not been referred to, and that is that the Speaker ought to be more accountable to the House than has been the case in the past. It follows that if a candidate for Speaker is required, or asked, or requested, to set out their guiding principles then those who elect that Speaker will want to see those commitments kept during the tenure of office. That is an important notion, it seems to me, that has not been covered adequately to date. But, as for the proposers and seconders, frankly, I thought their speeches contributed more than anything else to the waste of time that we had on 23 October. They were less like references for high office than obituaries on misspent political careers, to be honest. They did not, in my view, add to the sum of human knowledge. They would not have assisted new Members.
  (Sir Peter Emery) Is that what you thought, Chairman?
  (Mr Bradley) With some notable exceptions. They would not have helped, frankly, new Members. They were pretty bland. In fact, one nominator or seconder probably could have made the same speech in favour of any of the candidates. I did not really feel that they helped.

  Chairman: I am not going to answer Sir Peter's question, but I was perfectly happy.

Mr Beith

  26. So was I, and time is pressing; so I just want to clarify two points. One is that it appeared to me that three, if not four, of the witnesses all felt that it was necessary that a Speaker should command the widest possible support in the House, and that, therefore, a voting system should allow that to be established, either by run-off ballots, or by the Alternative Vote system, which has the added benefit that if your first choice does not win then you are still able to influence the final outcome and do not get the least-desired Speaker. Am I right in that assumption, that, all four people, one simple majority ballot was not sufficient for this decision?
  (Sir Peter Emery) Mr Beith, you are brilliant; you are putting words into my mouth. I never mentioned an alternative ballot, I am against an alternative ballot, I think it is the wrong way of balloting, and I would not want us to presume, from what you have suggested, that I was supporting that.

  27. In that case, would you want to have run-off ballots; if there were more than two candidates, that is?
  (Sir Peter Emery) No, with more than two candidates then the system of taking one off at the bottom, or two off at the bottom, and having another ballot is the only way that I would be willing to proceed; but I am not happy about that.

  28. I have no desire to influence the witnesses, but at least three Members appeared to be fairly relaxed as to which method is used, but that one or other method should be used to ensure that the Speaker can command wide support in the House. I think that is a reasonable conclusion. And the fourth would contemplate one, if not both, of these methods?
  (Mr Keen) I know Mr Beith is speaking for the Committee and not for a political party, but I am very suspicious. But, can I say that, as Secretary of the First Past the Post group for parliamentary elections, there is one type of election that is the best for one sort of organisation, and a different one for another one; and I agree that there should be run-off ballots of some sort, so we do get the Speaker that is the best for everybody.
  (Mr Benn) Could I just comment on Mr Beith's question. Parliamentary candidates in the Labour Party are selected by a process of Exhaustive Ballot, and the Leader of the Labour Party by Exhaustive Ballot, and where you are picking a person I think that is right but I do not take the view that this necessarily has application across the field. The purpose in the end is to get a consensus around the candidate the House wants, and, I think, at the very, very end, if somebody said, as I have known happen at meetings, "Let's make it unanimous," the whole House, after having heard the candidates, and knowing who was the most popular, would want to make it unanimous, because we do want the new Speaker to enjoy the support of the whole House, and if that can be made explicit in some way that would be very welcome.

  29. And a second point was simply that the issue of Deputy Speakers was raised by Alan earlier, and he pointed to the importance of the post; given that that post is currently nominated through the `usual channels' and a motion tabled in the name of the executive, is there a feeling amongst witnesses that that system should be changed; it is something the Committee has received some evidence on?
  (Mr Keen) I think that should be an election also; and if I can spend just a couple of seconds repeating something I said somewhere else, that I feel really strongly that the Deputy Speaker and the Speaker should come through the education of being Chairmen of Committees, and all sorts, rather than people coming from outside, and I did say this at one point, that somebody suggested to me that did I not think about going on to the Speaker's Panel, I said, "I'd rather saw my leg off with a rusty saw." But I did say that, on the day of the election of the Speaker, if somebody said to me, "Would you like to be Speaker?" and they took me and showed me the apartments and the coach, I think I may have changed my mind. People are laughing, but that is a very important issue, in that I do not think that the Speaker should be somebody who suddenly does emerge from somewhere, who has had no experience of chairing meetings.
  (Mr Bradley) I think it is a very quaint idea that you have to drag the Speaker to the Chair, behind which is a cheque for £110,000 and the luxury apartments. I must agree with Alan.
  (Sir Peter Emery) But if you were going to be beheaded, maybe you would not envy him.

  Chairman: This is not a history lesson; we are looking to the future.

Mr Efford

  30. Just a supplementary to the voting system. Do you feel that the election of Speaker should focus around the Chamber; and, if it is an Exhaustive Ballot, where candidates drop out with each round, how do you envisage that being organised around and about the Chamber in one session?
  (Mr Benn) The division lobbies would become polling stations; you would have the ballot paper and you would post them in the lobbies, and the Clerk would be the Returning Officer. It is a perfectly straightforward thing to organise. But the advantage of the ballot would be only one vote, in effect.


  31. So what you are saying to the Committee, Mr Benn, is that the proposals that you put forward prior to the 23 October are relevant, i.e. that there should be a ballot, I am not sure whether it was going to be open or whether it was going to be secret, I think it was going to be open, but the figures would be read out and the top two would then have a run-off in a vote, as a division, in the normal way, in the House?
  (Mr Benn) Yes.

Mr Efford

  32. What sort of time delay do you think should be allowed for the election of Speaker, if, during this session of Parliament, for instance, there is a change of Speaker? If we are to have a nominating process, for instance, and a ballot paper, that inevitably will lead to some delay; do you agree with that? And in the event of a sudden change of Speaker, what delay do you think that will entail, in organising a ballot?
  (Mr Benn) Harry Hylton-Foster fell down dead in the street, in August or September 1965, and you just simply had to elect a Speaker; it happened that the House was in recess at the time. I do not know who was the last Speaker who died in office, other than him; but you have to be ready, and if that were to happen then the House would have to find some way of going on, in the interim. I do not know whether the Committee would like to give some attention to that. I see no reason, frankly, why it should not be understood that the Deputy Speaker would carry on until—but this thing could all be organised quite quickly, and there are Members who would be ready to come forward, I would imagine, at fairly short notice, judging by the number who emerged when there was a bit of notice.

Mr Stunell

  33. We have hinted really at what restrictions, if any, there should be for entering the ballot in the first place. Is it your view that there should be a minimum number of supporters, or seconders, as a qualifying limit to get into the contest, at all?
  (Mr Bradley) In my evidence, I suggested that perhaps the support of ten other Members might be appropriate; notwithstanding the principle that I expressed earlier, that everyone ought to have the opportunity to put himself, or herself, forward as a candidate. I think that we do need to distinguish, in terms of the holding of efficient elections, between those whose candidature is a serious proposition and those who perhaps cannot command the support of a basic minimum number of their colleagues. If they cannot do that, really they are not going to impress many in the actual ballot.


  34. Is that the view of the other witnesses?
  (Sir Peter Emery) If you are going to have a nominating factor, I think ten is absolutely ineffective; surely, there is no Member who could not get ten friends to support a signature, I may not be able to but I think most people would. I think, if you are going to go that route then make it a barrier, make it 50 names; that would begin sorting out the wheat from the chaff, and I think that might ensure that you did only have two or three candidates coming forward.

  35. But would that then enable, as Mr Keen said earlier, influence to be brought to bear by the `usual channels'?
  (Sir Peter Emery) I think the idea, Mr Winterton, and you have been here a long time, to believe that influence will be stopped from the `usual channels', in any way that the `usual channels' wish to make it, is not actually living in the real world. The `usual channels' will use influence, will bring it to bear, where they think it is necessary, and however much your Committee, or any other Committee, says we ought not to have it, it will still exist.

  36. But some of us, Sir Peter, would like to minimise that influence?
  (Sir Peter Emery) Fine.
  (Mr Benn) The bright lights at Number Ten, on occasion, seem less exciting than the warning lights from the constituency; and, as we move into this period of a Parliament, I think there are more Members worried about the flashing red lights in their own constituency than the welcoming light at Number Ten. But quite what the alternative pressure is on a back-bench Member when it comes to elect a Speaker, alternative to pressure, because, clearly, if a Prime Minister is known to want somebody, and an ambitious Member thinks, "Well, if I vote for somebody else, I might lose my chance in a reshuffle," you simply have to leave it to people themselves; if Members cannot make up their own mind then it is up to them. You simply have to trust people to have their own capacity to reach a judgement; you cannot worry about it. But there always will be pressure from Number Ten and from the Opposition, because leaders do not want strong Speakers, put quite crudely.

Mr Stunell

  37. So, just to come back to the point about a threshold, is it your view, for instance, Mr Benn, that there should be a threshold of nominators for somebody to come into the ballot?
  (Mr Benn) After all, the principle that you nominate and second, which is the one we have always followed, you have never asked for more than two nominations, so far, I think I am right in saying. I think that is reasonable; but if you want to put a ten or 50 it does not greatly matter, but some indication of support. But I do not want to hear the arguments for them from the nominators and seconders, I just want to hear the candidates, when it comes to the debate.

  38. But Sir Peter has suggested that perhaps 50, or some barrier which would be really substantial, in eliminating minority candidates; would you support that?
  (Mr Benn) I say to the House, I think all the candidates who stood on October 23, in my opinion, would have made first-rate Speakers. I had to make a choice, like everybody, but I do not think anybody who stood, or would want to stand, would put themselves forward if they did not have the interest and the qualities required, and that is why I found the process of sort of knocking people out one by one, like Big Brother, really quite revolting, actually. And, even if you had had a number of nominations, all of the candidates on 23 October would easily have got 50, or more; so I do not know that it is very, very relevant.
  (Mr Bradley) Can I just say that I think 50 is too high a threshold. I think the balance has got to be struck between a threshold that gives some assurance that the candidate is credible, on the one hand, but also allows them the opportunity to convince their electors, through their manifestos or appearance on the hustings. I think, if you have to leap a hurdle of 50, that it almost prejudges the election and prevents minority candidates from making a real pitch and perhaps coming from behind.

  Chairman: This really leads on to the next question, from Mr Darvill.

Mr Darvill

  39. It is really to get back to the question of the manifesto and the hustings. Mr Benn and Mr Bradley have both made convincing cases for a manifesto and hustings, but there is also another side to it, which is that the Speaker is an impartial servant of the House. And are there not dangers, if we go down that route, to a certain extent, that there could be a conflict, for example, if Members decided to change the Standing Orders in a way which was different from the manifesto of the Speaker, the Speaker might make a commitment? But, as this House evolved, through a Procedure Committee, on other ways, Members can mould the House as they wish, to give effect to whatever the issue is of the day. Is there not a danger, if we go down that road to manifestos, of there being a conflict?
  (Mr Benn) I think the point that was made earlier, if you are asking me, that the Procedure Committee has a central role in Standing Orders, and all the rest, I served on it once and I know its importance, and it is also true that, by crude rulings, a Speaker cannot change the whole thing, Sir Peter is quite right about that. But I think a Speaker who said, and had I been a candidate, which I was not, I would have wanted to say, "Look, if you elect me as the Speaker, I must tell you, there are certain things that, in my judgement, the House needs to do, to stop, for example, the abuse of the media in issues of Parliament," a point on which the present Speaker has said something, and so did Betty Boothroyd. "I must tell you, in my opinion, the role of the executive and the front-benches in trying to pick Select Committees and their Chairmen is absolutely wrong, and I think if this country is to go to war the Crown prerogatives really have to be looked at, in terms of our responsibilities." Now it would be for the House to decide to endorse those, not only in electing the Speaker but also in making the necessary changes in the Standing Orders, and so on. But I do think it is a very political appointment, the Speaker, but not a party political appointment.

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